Monday, June 30, 2014

All-Star Comics #26 - "Vampires of the Void" or "The Mystery of the Metal Menace"

Creatures of living metal! Invasions of saucer men from outer space! It's all here in the 26th issue of All-Star Comics as the Justice Society tries to stop an alien invasion!

The cover of this book may claim "The Mystery of the Metal Menace," but once inside, we find that the story is actually titled "Vampires of the Void" and comes to us from the Fall of 1945.

It's the monthly meeting of the Justice Society and Hawkman is a bit bothered that someone hasn't shown up. That someone is a scientist whom Hawkman heard speak at a lecture and is convinced that Earth is set for an all-out invasion.

According to this scientist's theories, Hawkman explains, a ship is headed to earth from the planet and Jupiter and carrying on board, multiple inhabitants of the planet, all made of living metal and measuring 4 inches tall. It's the ship itself that concerns Hawkman, who states the metal absorbs anything it comes into contact with.

It was 1945, so scientists had yet to actually get into space and explore the planet itself as they later would with robotic spacecrafts like the early Pioneer and Voyager missions.

With what we know now, Jupiter is made up mostly of hydrogen, with a quarter of its mass being helium. It is thought to also have a rocky core of heavier elements, but Jupiter lacks a well-defined solid surface.

As radio news flashes become fast and furious, the Justice Society spread out to different parts of the globe to prevent this alien invasion.

Hawkman intervenes after a slew of four-inch robots attack a silver mine in search of 'food.' As they consume more and more silver, their metal bodies not only begin to grow, but they take on the characteristics of that mineral. Causing destruction wherever they tread, they throw even Hawkman for a loop as he tries to stop them.

The metal invaders become even deadlier when they walk through some power lines, causing their entire being to become electrically-charged, as Hawkman explains to these policeman:

Giant metal robots, surging with deadly electrical touches, making their way to cities and towns. What could possibly be done? Why, head to the bank, of course!

"Can I cash my paycheck while I'm here?"

Hawkman uses the copper pennies to thwart the electrically-charged robots, by throwing them at the robots and causing a short-circuit upon contact.

We also get this little chemistry lesson and wonderful, over-the-top intro.
Those metal monsters are now making their way into the subway systems, eating the metal that makes the tracks and pipelines running underneath the city. It runs them afoul of that Mighty Mite of a hero, The Atom. 

I'm done. Best piece of dialogue the entire issue.
The Atom does his best, but both he and the police force quickly become outnumbered and outmatched as the alien metal beasts continue to destroy, eat, and grow in strength and size. 

"I can't...outrun...them. Mustn't...stop." "Atom, long distance call for you!" "Oh, well if it's long distance, that's another story. Hello?"

The robots must have given up chasing The Atom because by the time he gets off the phone, there seems to be no sense of urgency at all. In fact, once he’s done with his call, he then goes out looking for the monsters, finding them in a jewelry store and wondering the same thing the reader does – what in the world would alien beings made of metal want with ill-gotten goods like jewelry?

We don’t get an answer because The Atom barges in and engages the beings in battle until the police show up with some “chemical mix” the Atom requested of them. The hero sprays the metal marauders with it and they slowly turn color to red and stop dead in their tracks. 

Why? We’ll let The Atom explain in this built-in chemistry lesson.

Green Lantern is on his way to a metals factory to talk with a researcher, when he finds the man almost put to death by one of the ever-growing mechanical monsters from outer space. GL saves the man and they pursue the creatures to downtown.

Those fiends! That was their plan - economic depression of a small town!
Notice anything odd about the first panel above? Green Lantern is for no explicable reason, holding onto Starman's cosmic rod.

In some instances, as Roy Thomas explains in his book, The All-Star Companion, art had been completed for this story but had to be quickly changed due to the team's new roster. That's why in this Green Lantern chapter, formerly Starman's segment of the story, you actually see him holding Starman's trademark cosmic rod in some panels, an obvious oversight by whomever had to quickly re-do the artwork after Green Lantern replaced Starman due to rights issues between the All-American Comic Company and DC Comics.

The metal monsters continue to create havoc as they eat metal across the land, which include telephone cables, leaving towns like Smithville helpless. Until Dr. MidNite arrives on the scene, of course.

Use this one next time someone asks 'when did you get here?'

The good doctor has a plan, though.How do you foil metal beings who seem unstoppable as the gobble-up the metals of Earth?

Meanwhile, an ancient, rare, gold necklace is on display at the Metropolis Museum and is the next thing on the menu for these rampaging metal beings when The Flash enters the museum and throws a fury of super-speed punches that do little to no harm. What The Flash does manage to accomplish, though, is knocking the metal aliens off their feet, causing the necklace to fly into the air and around the neck of one of the metal marauders.

Having consumed large amount of gold, turning their own metal being into gold, the invaders make their way through more items in the museum. The police and guards think the only solution may be to dynamite the metal beings. A man of science, though, The Flash has another idea.

Jay Garrick. Ever the academic.

With little regard for the human race, the beings give small consideration to the super-speed powers that Jay Garrick possesses as the Flash - a mistake that costs them dearly as The Flash quickly bends and molds the soft gold bodies of the invaders into twisted piles of gold.

Before joining up with the rest of the Justice Society, The Flash makes sure to return the gold necklace to the museum collection.

Oh, and did I mention that this entire chapter is told from the point of view of...wait for it...the necklace! Yes, the gold necklace actually is the narrator of this entire segment.

Johnny Thunder, meanwhile finds himself in the cold land of the Great North. And apparently, in 1945, people in the Great North talked like this:

Johnny uncovers the spaceship (purportedly which brought the metal beings to Earth, but it's never really stated, so we'll just take that leap) and finds that it eats not only metal, but anything, including Johnny's boot and a hill of snow. The ship, much like the metal beings plaguing the Earth earlier, gets bigger the more that it consumes. Calling upon his magic Thunderbolt, Johnny wishes for the JSA to come and help and in an instant, they're transported on scene.

Fearing that tossing it into space may just send the threat to another civilization, the JSA decides to destroy it, with Green Lantern using his ring to transport acid that eats away at the giant ship.

When the Justice Society returns to their headquarters, they find the scientist that Hawkman spoke of at the beginning of the story waiting for them. He waits, not only to speak with the JSA, but to destroy them - his body taking on all the metallic characteristics of the robots from throughout the entire affair. He uses that power to take on the entire might of the JSA, but much like they overpowered the robots, they make quick work of him.

The JSA soon learn that he summoned the robots to Earth, telling them where they could find large deposits of metal to eat if they, in turn, robbed for him and told him how to gain the characteristics of the metal like they did. Revenge was his motive, sick of being jeered at for discoveries that many found to be laughable and crazy.

Although defeated, the Justice Society takes pity on the man and decide that after he serves his time in jail, they will help set him up with a laboratory to further his experiments. Wow, talk about turning the other cheek!

An interesting story of alien robots taking on different strengths based on the metal, and in typical old-school comic fashion, we get a little lesson in each chapter about the properties of each metal. It can be hard, however, to get through the art in some of these chapters. As always, Joe Kubert's art is fantastic in the Hawkman chapter, but the rest of the book does suffer tend to suffer from lackluster illustrations.

The art in All-Star is starting to really deteriorate and it's a sign of the time period we're currently in for the book's history. Many artist came and went through the pages of this series, be it for employment reasons or because of the war. Many consider this to be a low period on JSA art, and I'd have to agree with them.

Monday, March 24, 2014

All-Star Comics #25 - "The Mystery of the Forgotten Crime"

The title page bills this "The Mystery of the Forgotten Crime" while the cover loses a few words and refers to it merely as "The Forgotten Crime."

It's written by Gardner Fox. 

The cover date for All Star Comics #25 is June 1945, which means this likely hit newsstands sometime in the Spring of '45. At that time, Hitler was celebrating his 56th birthday in the bunker in Berlin; with reports that he is in an unhealthy state, nervous, and depressed. Soon, he marries Eva Braun in that bunker and commits suicide. FDR died suddenly and Harry S. Truman moves up to become President of the United States. Germany surrenders and the war carries on with Japan until that Summer.

In All-Star Comics, the Justice Society's adventures accentuate not the war overseas anymore, but mysteries, crimes and super-villains back on U.S. soil. The world is changing, and with it, so are the fictional heroes of the WWII era.

The Justice Society enters their meeting room to find a dying man lying on the floor. Recently hit by an automobile, he says he had not memory, even of who he was, for years, until being hit by the car. Now, he says he still doesn't recall his identity but does know that a man named Rob Victor is innocent of the 20 year old murder of District Attorney Timothy Kimball.

I should note that while Wonder Woman appears on the cover of this issue, she only appears here, in the very first chapter of the story, holding a cold compress to the head of this mystery man who has shown up in the JSA headquarters. She does not even make an appearance for the story's resolution. Sadly, the mightiest member of the team, once again, is stuck playing nurse.

Jay's Friday nights before marriage.

Using items found on the man's person, the JSA set out to uncover the truth about this two-decade old crime.

With a silver belt buckle as his only clue, Hawkman tracks down its manufacturer, ‘one of the finest jewelers in the city,’ in the hopes of learning more. The jeweler tells Hawkman to investigate the person who bought him from him, by heading to the old Kimball estate, alerting some mysterious person or persons by phone that Hawkman is on his way.

There, the winged warrior is quickly ambushed by some thugs who intend to take him to a chemical plant and drop him in a vat of acid. He overcomes the men quite easily and begins looking around the estate where he finds the Kimball’s housekeeper, now old and frail. She informs Hawkman that the Rob Victor and Tim Kimball were both in love with the same woman. One night at a dinner party, Victor became quite drunk. 

Later in the evening, she and others heard a gunshot and ran into the library to find Rob Victor with a smoking gun in his hand above the dead body of Tim Kimball. The belt buckle, she says, was a gift from she to the late Tim and she has stayed on the estate to care for it and his descendants, following his death. With that, Hawkman is off.

Green Lantern, meanwhile, tracks down the lead-reporter for the murder trial all those years ago, showing him the next clue - a wallet that says "To Boots, From Doe." The reporter tells GL that 'Doe' is really Doris Black, the woman both Tim Kimball and Rob Victor loved.  The woman is still very much alive and tells Green Lantern the tale of what happened that night - that the men had fought over her, later in the evening a gunshot was heard, and Doris and the others saw Rob Victor with the smoking gun in hand.

The plot thickens...
She explains to GL that Rob wasn't quite clear of what happened, between the chaos and his drinking that night, but assumed he had committed the murder. However, in a bit of a macabre move, Rob puts Kimball's body on a boat, covers it in gasoline, sets it into the water and lights it on fire to dispose of the body.

The charred remnants of the body were found and Rob Victor was sent to jail for the crime. However, it's only after a visit to the warden that Green Lantern learns Rob Victor did not actually die in prison, but had escaped, and the rumor of his death was spread to cover the previous warden's incompetence.

The Atom is off to find Jabez Smith, the Kimballs' butler. Smith moved out to the middle of nowhere shortly after the murder it seems. The Atom's visit is interrupted by an attack by two goons who don't want the mighty mite making contact with the butler, apparently.

Who is this hooded man? The Atom's PR guy? "He's sensational!"

The Butler tells the Atom that the D.A. who was handling the case admitted that the gun belonged to Timothy Kimball's cousin, who knew the layout of the house inside and out. The Butler also lets the Atom in on the fact that there was only one bullet in the gun. The Butler tells the Atom that the District Attorney disappeared shortly after that fact came to light years ago.

Before the Atom can find out why that fact would matter, a hooded figure reaches in from the window and takes the gun, overpowering the Atom in the process.

Dr. MidNite investigates Tim Kimball's cousin, Hengast Kimball, whom he feels is the person who would have benefited the most from Kimball's death. That man, the head of oil companies, lives in a penthouse where MidNite lurks until spotting the masked figure that fought the Atom earlier. With pistol in hand, he's taking aim at Kimball's cousin until MidNite interferes. A fight ensues on the rooftop until MidNite is overpowered and the masked individual gets away.

MidNite also runs afoul of some bodyguards there to protect Kimball's cousin, who claims he didn't hear the scuffle with the masked man and tells MidNite that he blames himself for the events of that fateful night 20 years ago. He says that knowing Tim was heartbroken over Doris, he providing him would much alcohol to get through the night.

Sure. I mean, what could have wrong with this scenario?

Once again, no one saw the murder, but only heard the gunshots before running into the library to find Tim Kimball over the body of Rob Victor. So, when Dr. MidNite asks if there was any doubt, the cousin simply tells him...

No. Nothing suspicious about this man at all...

Poor Johnny Thunder just can't catch a break. Even when he does nothing but step off a trolley, he finds himself in trouble. This time, its two thugs who intentionally bump into Johnny, knock him down into puddles, then accuse him of insulting them. They take him to an empty lot to pay him back and, by tying him up, gagging him, and setting some explosives.

However, it's the mysterious masked man that has been following the JSA throughout this case that comes to Johnny's rescue, telling him he is also investigating the case and insists that Rob Victor did not kill Tim Kimball.

Of all the Justice Society members, why would this masked fellow choose to share vital information with possibly the most thick-headed JSA member? Probably because he knew he could get away whatever follows. Case in point, this delightful exchange:

The masked man corners the Kimball family and tells Johnny that they were all accomplices to Hengast Kimball, Tim's cousin, who hired the thugs to take care of the JSA as they investigated the case. The masked man also claims that it is Hengast who killed the District Attorney investigating the murder, with the D.A's body recently found following the masked man's battle with The Atom.

In over his head, Johnny calls upon his magic Thunderbolt to bring the rest of the Justice Society to him for help. The JSA compare notes of what they've found so far, but it still adds up to not much. However, The Flash decides to follow up on a lead - Big Hunk Adams, the gang czar whose thugs have been attacking the JSA up to this point.

In the chaos of this meeting, the masked man has disappeared.

The Flash checks in (or crashes in) on Big Hunk's gambling joint only to find out that Big Hunk Adams and his men were all hired for $100,000 (according to inflation calculators, that's about $1.2 million today) by Hengast Kimball to take care of the Justice Society and agree to testify to that to the authorities.  

The art in this Flash chapter is probably the low-point of the entire issue. It's credited to  Joe Gallagher and Martin Naydall. Gallagher's work in the Atom chapter and on the cover work fine, but the style somehow fails to work on a character like The Flash, I'm afraid. The style tends to look much more like Naydall than Gallagher, causing me to wonder how much of a hand Gallagher actually had in this chapter. Naydall did a bit of work on Jay Garrick's Flash series in that 1945-1946 time period. While his work is not bad, it just does not seem to be the fit for a character of super-speed like the Flash.

Possible letterer or writer error?
So far, Hengast has been the cousin,
not the brother.

Suddenly, the Justice Society has gathered all of the players into one room, where they talk out the entire case just like the ending of one of the Thin Man movies. There is no mention whatsoever as to how they rounded everyone (including the masked man) up for this. They just are there.

What is discovered is that Hengast Kimball (once again referred to as cousin, making me think the page in the Flash chapter WAS some type of error), shot his cousin, Tim while hiding out in a secret fireplace entrance all those years ago. Hengast made sure Rob Victor, who was upset over the love of his life, Doris, had plenty to drink so he wouldn't remember what happened and think himself the killer. Hengast went back through the secret entrance, joined the other party guests as they ran to the library to react to the sound of a gunshot.

Adding to the confusion of these revelations is the masked man - who is really Rob Victor, alive and older. Rob escaped from prison and has been living a life in hiding. Wait. It gets more convoluted. The man who entered JSA headquarters and couldn't remember who he was, only that Rob Victor was innocent - is none other than Tim Kimball!

His memory flowing back to him, Tim says Hengast shot him and he passed out but was not dead. He woke up on a boat that was on fire, but there was also a vagabond on that boat trying to rob him. Tim fought the vagabond off and fell in the water, and it is believed it was the vagabond's burnt body that was discovered and thought to be Tim for all these years.

You said it, Hawkman.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

All-Star Comics #24 - "This is Our Enemy!"

While All-Star Comics #24 is cover dated as the "Spring Issue" of 1945, some research shows that it was on newsstands in mid-February of that year. Of note on the cover is the fact that there is no "DC" logo, instead replaced with the logo for "All-American Comics."It seems a real-life split between DC (aka National Comics) and All-American left several issues beginning with this #24 to be published solely by All-American. That meant that former DC properties were not available for use and changes had to be made to the team roster.

That would account for why Starman is suddenly no longer a part of the team, nor is The Spectre. Instead, we have characters from All-American's stable of heroes joining the team, Wildcat and Mr. Terrific. This issue also marks the return of The Flash and Green Lantern, who had previously left the team to focus on their own solo adventures.

Mr. Terrific makes his only appearance as a JSA member in these pages. Wildcat will make just one more.

The story itself is heavily drenched in American war propaganda, and according to comics historian (and beloved writer) Roy Thomas, the story for this issue had originally been planned as "Dreams of Madness," a tale that will come to light later on in All-Star Comics #30. As it started to become evident that the war would be ending sooner rather than later, that meant "This is Our Enemy," a story that relied so much on the backdrop of WWII and fighting Germany needed to get out as soon as possible or not at all.

It involves a young man named Dick Amber, who is friends with Carter Hall, otherwise known as Hawkman. Dick has been drafted into the U.S. Services, but while he admits he loves the country he lives in, he does not believe in the U.S.'s involvement in the war. For this reason, Hawkman invites him to the Justice Society meeting, where they hope to convince Dick of the necessity of warring with Germany.

As the JSA sits around looking for a way to make their case to Dick as to why he should support the war, the Conscience of Man (remember her?) is once again awakened in her other-dimensional realm and takes an interest in this situation.

Hey everyone! Remember me?
She sends Dick and the members of the JSA along with him, through time, to experience life as a member of the German people throughout various times in history. The point, of all of this, is to 'prove' to this young man that the Germans have always been a war-hungry and monstrous people and that is why he should be in favor of going to war.

When the JSA accomplish this, the Conscience of Man fades away, and Dick Amber is more than ready to go to war.

We won't quibble over the atrocities and horrors that occurred in World War II. Those are evident.

There are moments when the JSA specifically mentions Hitler and his desires, which certainly works for the story at hand. However, as the tale runs its course, young Dick Amber is made to see that Germans, in general, have always been either war-hungry, blood-thirsty, backstabbing, or ready and willing to follow orders at the drop of a hat. It's just odd reading. I will say, though, that it's sort of disconcerting to see characters that would become such tried-and true heroes in the comics universe such as Alan Scott, The Atom, etc, trying to convince a young man that he is wrong for not wanting war and then using the entire tale to tell that man (and the young readers) how foul, vicious, bloodthirsty and war mongering an entire race is. It's a product of its times, of course, but I think you would be very hard-pressed to find something like that today.

Coming up Next, the JSA solves the mystery of "The Forgotten Crime"...

Friday, November 15, 2013

All-Star Comics #23 - "The Plunder of the Psycho-Pirate"

Dated for the Winter of 1944, the cover of this issue by artist Joe Gallagher shows the current incarnation of the Justice Society - Hawkman, Dr. Mid-Nite, Johnny Thunder, Starman, The Atom and The Spectre, all being manipulated by the hands of an unseen villain known only as The Psycho-Pirate. It's a terrific interpretation of the story within, as the heroes find themselves being emotionally manipulated by the criminal mastermind.

In the real world at this time, FDR won an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States and Hitler exits from his wartime headquarters in East Prussia and heads to Berlin, where he will soon step forth in a bunker from which he will not return.

For the wartime superheroes, The Justice Society, they're maintaining peace and order on the home front and have been called to the offices of Courier newspaper publisher, Mr. Morgan, after the paper received a challenge from a criminal calling himself The Psycho-Pirate. The villain is supposedly behind a series of crime sprees that play off of human emotions, and now, the mysterious criminal is publicly challenging the Justice Society to stop him - no doubt a trap to eliminate them, the heroes deduce.

With the help of Mr. Morgan and his longtime confidant and Linotype at the paper, Charles Halstead, the heroes set out to take down the emotional villain, minus Wonder Woman, who appears on the team roster at the beginning of the story, but makes no appearance in the actual tale.

Hawkman has been challenged to stop a crime using the emotion of love and in this case, it's the love that a father has for his daughter. The father, a wealthy tycoon, doesn't like the slick-talking man his daughter has been going around town with, and it turns out, for good reason. The slick-talker is just a smooth criminal who steals the woman's purse for his lackeys to show the father as 'proof' that his daughter's been kidnapped. While she's out on the dance floor with this scoundrel, his associates are trying to collect a ransom for her from her father. The Psycho-Pirate has taken precautions for this plan, and had the smooth-talker and his men kidnap Hawkman's girlfriend, Shiera Saunders, to keep him too busy to foil the plot (once again using love, both against Hawkman and the father, as the villain's weapon). Luckily, Hawkman escapes a death trap with Shiera just in time to stop the father from handing over the ransom. By the time the daughter comes home from her date, the criminal mess is cleaned up and one of the villain's schemes thwarted.

Hey now!
Hate is the emotional weapon of choice used against Starman, who must stop the running of a hate-clinic, where men pay to take out their aggression and hate against their enemies in duels to the death. When two rival businessman see the other speaking ill of them in the newspaper, both are separately approached to take part in this clinic. Starman sees the real scheme at work - the villain behind the hate-clinic, The Psycho-Pirate, makes off with the fees paid by clients like the rival businessman, and will feel no repercussion because one client will be dead and the other to blame and not likely to tell the truth about it.

A small town is in trouble until Dr. Mid-Nite steps in. Playing upon the fears of the townspeople, The Psycho-Pirate has threatened to release a deadly plague onto the population unless the town pays a hefty ransom. Some people in the town claim to have already started catching the disease - a show of the villain's might. At one point, fear even traps Dr. Mid-Nite, who after taking down one of the Psycho-Pirate's minions making sure no one leaves town, goes into a fear-stricken panic that he may have been contaminated with the diseased germs. Discovering the chemical plant that the criminals have taken over to create and spread the disease, Dr. Mid-Nite makes fast work of them, only to discover that the Psycho-Pirate truly was playing with fear, as the test tubes supposedly carrying the disease are inert and merely harmless colored water. Building fear through the use of actors pretending to have the disease, The Psycho-Pirate was playing the town's bluff.

Conceit is, appropriately, Johnny Thunder's burden. It seems two safe-designers are so confidant that their work is burglar proof, that when they receive a phone call from the lighting company saying they can't get into their own safe, the duo head right over to open it for them and laugh at their own brilliance. However, their arrogance gets the best of them, as The Psycho-Pirate planned on, and allows the criminals who were posing as the lighting company to waltz right into the vault. Johnny Thunder attempts to stop the criminals, but is distracted by how in awe they are of his might as a Justice Society member. So distracted by his conceit and arrogance, Johnny is easily thrown into the vault before he can call upon his magical thunderbolt to help him. Once the safe-designers and Johnny gloomily realize how their conceit has gotten them into this mess, Johnny owns up and says the magic words that bring his Thunderbolt to them, freeing them and nabbing the criminals.

You would never think that The Spectre, as a spirit, would be susceptible to emotional tugging and that may be why writers Gardner Fox and Sheldon Mayer made his chapter more about the greed being used on the victims. Two collectors both own one of a two-piece art collection. When a mysterious man (employed by the Psycho-Pirate) offers each of them to get them the other art piece and complete their collection (for a fee), their greed gets the best of them. The man then tells each collector that he was almost caught stealing the other art piece and that he'll rat them out as paying him to do so, unless they each give him THEIR piece. This leaves both collectors with none and the man working for the Psycho-Pirate with both - until The Spectre puts a stop to it, of course.

The Atom probably has the roughest go of most of the heroes, who is being played like a fiddle through the emotion of despair. Mr. Morgan is delivered a mountain of bad news from his friend, Charlie Halstead - the bank is foreclosing on the paper, the newsboys have gone on strike and his wife is divorcing him. As if things couldn't get any worse, a newsflash on the radio informs Mr. Morgan and the Atom that Justice Society has been captured by the Psycho-Pirate. Morgan collapses on his office couch and The Atom sets out to try and free his friends.

Halstead gives the Atom a note left at the paper by the Psycho-Pirate detailing where he has the JSA held captive. When The Atom arrives at the location - a cave on the outskirts of town - he finds his friends and colleagues walled up behind bars in a makeshift cell with no hope left. One by one, the JSA members tell The Atom that the Psycho-Pirate was too much for them and they've given up the fight. The Atom gives up as well, thinking that if the entire might of the JSA wasn't enough, what good is his pint-sized strength. With no will left to fight, The Atom is quickly captured as well and is about to be gutted, when he finally snaps out of it. He's a Justice Society member and he'll go down fighting, no matter what, he realizes! As he fights his way through the Psycho-Pirate's minions, he learns that the JSA has not been captured at all, and were merely hired henchmen/actors to play the parts and fool the tiny hero. He turns to finally see the man behind it all - The Psycho-Pirate - a face all too familiar to him, but kept in shadows by artist Joe Gallagher. The realization comes too late, as The Atom is shot in the arm and injured, tries to make his way back to the paper and warn the others.

The wounded Atom struggles to get back to the paper and only makes it so far as the newspaper's roof before collapsing to the ground. However, he uses what little strength he has left to shout down the vent the real identity of the Psycho-Pirate - the man who was in the room with he and publisher Rex Morgan for most of the adventure, the man who orchestrated the series of emotional-preying crimes, and the man who is in the room with the Justice Society at that very moment - Linotyper Charles Halstead!!

Revealed for the villain he truly his, Charles Halstead, mild-mannered Linotyper turns out to be jealous of the successful life of Rex Morgan and wanted to use everything in his power to ruin it. As a mere Linotyper, he had no power in the corporate world, so he relied on his knowledge of psychology and emotions to drive Morgan, and the Justice Society for their interference, down. Old Charlie even shows a bit of a bi-polar nature himself, running the gamut of emotions once he is captured.

This issue's art chores are mainly handled by Joe Gallagher, with Stan Aschmeier handling Starman, Dr. Mid-Nite and Johnny Thunder and Sheldon Moldoff handling Hawkman. Moldoff's work is the finest among this trio, but the other two hold their own. I tend to sway back and forth when it comes to Aschmeier's art. Sometimes his simple style and use of darks and shadows can really give his stories a nice stylistic approach. Other times, it just seems very rushed (which, considering the time, I'm sure he was). Johnny Thunder probably suffers the most in the art realm this time around.

As for the story itself, it gets a thumbs up from me. There are, of course, some silly elements that require overlooking (The Atom couldn't tell that the JSA held in a cage were actors and not the guys he works closely with?), but overall, it's was a pretty fun read, even today. Keep in mind that the JSA still has not really run afoul of too many super-villains at this point, making them more of a rarity in comics in 1944, with the exception of Batman and his villains, perhaps. With the exception of The Brain Wave, the one appearance of the King Bee, and The Monster, the JSA has mainly been fighting bank robbers and war saboteurs.

With that in mind, The Psycho-Pirate makes a welcome addition to the JSA's rogues gallery, even if he is just a middle-aged to older man in a vest. Gardner Fox and Sheldon Mayer make him a legitimate threat. Let's give credit where credit is due - Charles Halstead did manage to take on the entire Justice Society and almost bring down a newspaper publisher with nothing more than some well thought out psychology schemes. He gets an "A" in the villain rankings from me.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

All-Star Comics #22 - "A Cure for the World"

Remember that a cover date is usually some months after a comic book or magazine actually hit the newsstands, so in this case, All-Star Comics #22 likely was out in the summertime but continued on the stands through the Fall.

During August of that summer, a tip from, a Dutch informer leads the Gestapo to a sealed-off area in an Amsterdam warehouse, where they find Jewish diarist Anne Frank, her family, and others in hiding. All would eventually die in the Holocaust except for Otto Frank, Anne's father. That month, Polish insurgents would liberate a German labor camp in Warsaw, freeing 348 Jewish prisoners.

When Fall of 1944 did arrive, the Nazis would end the Warsaw Uprising in October, while on the home front, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet would make its debut on the radio airwaves.

With a cover date of Fall 1944, this issue of All-Star Comics proudly splashes on its front cover "A Cure for the World," featuring a rather minimal Justice Society (note membership has lost Sandman as of this issue but not gained any new member in his stead) running with the American flag, with the spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln looking onward.

It immediately begs the question, "a cure for what?" In the past we've seen the JSA travel through space and time to change a man's past and to get a secret bomb defense formula for the USA's war efforts. Here, though, the cure is for something being found in many a child and adult in the U.S. and the world - bigotry and prejudice.

It all begins when Dr. MidNite is on his way to the monthly JSA meeting and stumbles across a child being beaten up by his peers. When he breaks up the fight and inquires upon the bullies as to why they would harm their fellow child, they respond that it's because the boy goes to a different church than they. Dr. MidNite reminds the kids of another, real-life bully that didn't like differences.

MidNite then brings the young lad to the JSA meeting with him, where the heroes hear what happened and take a deeper concern about what is going on in the mindset of Americans. The numbers of the team have already gone down with The Sandman leaving the team, but even Wonder Woman is absent from this meeting and adventure with no explanation (even though she's featured prominently on the cover - ironic since the story is about everyone being equal).

And while Starman may think there's nothing they can do, the story takes a supernatural turn. In another dimension, far from ours, a spiritual force of some kind is taking a keen interest in this possible loss of hope when it comes to fellowship among men, and sets a course for Earth to stop it.

The being appears before the JSA, promising enlightenment for their battle against the cultural mindset of prejudice, but tells them the knowledge on how to do so must first be earned. She puts forth a challenge - sending each member of the Justice Society into the past where they will keep their physical form but have no knowledge of themselves. Left to their own instinctual devices, they must each overcome a situation throughout history of prejudice. If even one fails, the knowledge remains hidden to mankind.

Like the heroes they are, they agree and in the blink of an eye are each sent hurtling backward through time to prove they are, in their hearts and core, better, kinder and more compassionate beings.

How'd ya like to be this kid?

Hawkman is first on the agenda, rocketed back to prehistoric times. Here, he finds himself with no knowledge of his identity or powers, but yet takes on an attacking bear, winning over the adoration of members of a local tribe. Originally, the cavemen mistook Hawkman for a bird and were ready to kill him. Now, seeing his prowess, they ask him to join the tribe and take him back to a cave where he meets an early artist, who has used dyes to pain an animal on the cave wall. It frightens many of the others, who do not understand the concept of a drawing and the real thing, and thus 

The fear among these cave-people is so great, that the young artist is almost killed by others in the tribe, if not for the intervention of Hawkman. (Understanding, even in his prehistoric form that the others would have killed him, thinking he was a bird and would kill this man who just made an image.) When the artist shows Hawkman where he first discovered the giant creature he was drawing, Hawkman realizes the animals are making their way toward the tribe and would trample them if not warned.

Giving a heads up to the tribesman, the people are saved, with the credit going to the young artist, now embraced by his fellow people and given a chance to show them that while not a hunter, he has his own skills to bring to the group. Suddenly, with his mission completed, Hawkman is teleported back to his proper time of 1944.

Starman finds himself dropped into 460 B.C. in the form of a Greek soldier whose armies are set to be defeated by invading Persians. Starman, with no knowledge of his normal life, suggests the Greeks train their slaves to fight, thus expanding their numbers in the fight against the Persians. He is thought mad by his peers, but after tireless training sessions, Starman's effort pay off and the Greeks win their battle.

Dimwitted Johnny Thunder is dropped in Medieval England in the form of a poor shepherd boy, harassed by what appear to be some type of royal guardsmen or knights. They flog Johnny and burn down the buildings in his village. Beaten but not defeated, even a Johnny Thunder without a memory still seems to have an always-get-back-up spirit that sends him marching to the castle to give the Baron in charge a piece of his mind.

When he finally gets an audience with the baron, though, Johnny finds himself tongue-tied and wishing he could just make the ruler laugh to ease the tension. Even through space and time, Johnny Thunder still controls his genie-like Thunderbolt, who grants the wish and makes the Baron roar with laughter and joy. Thinking Johnny is just hysterical (so obviously there's magic at work), the Baron brings Johnny on as his court jester. When Jester Johnny enters a jousting competition to prove his village's people are worth saving, he proves a force to be reckoned with (although unbeknownst to even Johnny, all the work is being done by his magical Thunderbolt).

However, it is enough for young Johnny to win the hand of the Baron's daughter. Johnny finds her absolutely ravishing...until her veil is removed, that is.

Veils - the medieval version of photoshopping.

Thank goodness for Johnny his mission is now accomplished and he is hurtled back through time and out of that pickle!

The Atom materializes in 17th Century America, described in the very first panel of the chapter as having  "fear and hatred run rampant, for these are the days of the notorious Salem witch-hunts in Colonial.  America..." Knowing himself only as 17th Century citizen 'Nathaniel Pratt,' The Atom is taken in by relatives who fill his ear with all the troubles the village has been having as of late with so-called 'witches.'

I said it would snow at some point last winter. And it did. I'm a wizard. Who knew?

Nathaniel has emergency business to attend to in the town and must cross the woods to get there. He comes across an old woman, known as Mother Rathlow, caught under a branch and injured. Carrying her home, The Atom (or Nathaniel Pratt, as it were in this time period), learns that she knows a lot about herbs and healing, something that has left her inaccurately labeled a witch.

In the village, Nathaniel finds many residents up in arms and ready to prove the old woman as a witch, even if it means her death. Sure that he will have little influence as Nathaniel Pratt, the pint-sized hero pulls out the 'strange clothes' he arrived in and uses them as a disguise as he fights off the crowd to save the old woman.
Don't you hate when Congress and the Senate can't get along?
His mission accomplished and the old woman en route to Virginia to stay with a son in an area more tolerant of people who are different, The Atom disappears into a sphere of light.

Dr. MidNite is dropped in 1793, amid the French Revolution, and in the difficult spot of being the physician to nobles. That doesn't sit too well with his common-class peers, and when tensions start to rise and the blame for France's trouble are placed upon those noble families, our hero does his best to convince those around him that it is only through working together that life can become better.
In other words, 'can't we all just get along?'

When words don't seem to work, the blind physician takes to the streets with some action, stopping a mob-murder attempt on one of the nobility. He knows that he can't do so as the doctor, and so, much like The Atom, decides to put on the 'strange clothes' he arrived in to disguise his identity. With that, Dr. MidNite, 1940s super-hero, comes to life in 1790s France, sending wallops to the chins of revolutionaries and saving the lives of noblemen. As the two sides begin to realize that they can work together, Dr. MidNite, like his peers upon having completed his mission, is thrown forward through the time stream back to 1944.

It could just be the mood I'm in as I write this, but for some reason, I enjoy the introduction to the Spectre chapter of this adventure:

"It is the year 1815. The steamboat has been invented. Lewis and Clark have opened the northwest passage - America begins to take its place among the great nations of the world. The Spectre finds himself in an atmosphere of rapid change and growth, but cannot help observing that while necessity is the mother of invention ignorance and intolerance are often its destroyer."

Gardner Fox was notorious for the research he did for the many comic stories he wrote over the years (the same for Bill Finger). It's just little touches like these narrative boxes that open each chapter that really illustrate that.

So the Spectre is in the 1800s, and while he doesn't know who he is, immediately realizes, yes, he is a spirit. I don't know how that works, but whatever, we'll go with it. What's more, he's been dropped into town right as an angry mob heads down the street to take care of an inventor whose machine can help ease the work men are currently doing on factory machines. Fearful of losing their jobs, a mob mentality forms and they're ready to do away with the invention AND the inventor.

Next, you're gonna' wanta' give our jobs to immigrants! Smash it for Murica'!

The intervening Spectre puts not only the feat of god into these misguided tough guys, but a few keenly planted punches as well. Then, as any man who sees a hooded ghost before him would do, the inventor says thank you and sits down to have a chat about ignorance among the townsfolk.

Listen to me. I'm a ghost, dammit.

Having proven themselves truly honorable and upstanding souls, the Justice Society have all been transported back to 1944 and their brownstone headquarters. There, the young lad whose near-beating sparked this entire adventure awaits, along with the mysterious spirit who sent the JSA through time on their test. They seem to remember all that happened.

Wonder Woman finally makes an appearance to deliver her one and only line of the story.

The spirit reveals herself as "the conscience of man" and promises the heroes a reward for passing the tests of compassion and tolerance they endured. That reward, she claims, is the solution to the problems they faced in the past and mankind faces in the present. That solution, she explains, is understanding.

I think there's a lot of people who like to hide behind 'patriotism' that may want to think about this one.

A good issue all around, with themes that sort of surprised me. I guess I never expected a 1944 comic to get into such societal and cultural issues as intolerance, but was glad to see it. More proof that this era is not as idealized and romanticized as we (myself included) would like to believe from movies, literature and, of course, comics.

Aside from Sheldon Moldoff's Hawkman chapter, this issue really belongs to artists Stan Aschmeier and Joe Gallagher. Aschmeier handled the Starman, Johnny Thunder and Dr. MidNite chapters and does a fine job capturing the mood and look of each respective era the characters are thrown into. I know I had been rough on him in early issues of All-Star, but by this point in the run, I feel like he has already truly grown, adding mood and depth to his work. Joe Gallagher handles the remainder of the art chores, including the chapters that have the JSA together as a team, and handles them aptly. His work is simple, but not so simple that it's a turn off from a reader standpoint.