Sunday, January 24, 2010

All Star Comics #2

Well, we're just one issue away from the first full-on adventure of the Justice Society of America. This second issue of All-Star Comics in the meantime, though, serves up more small doses of what was at the time, the company's most popular characters.

In fact, as part of this "great experiment" of putting multiple heroes in one book, the publishers note in this issues opening letter that 500 copies of the issue were sent free to the readers who answered last issues survey of what should be added and what features should be left out.

So, the readers have spoken. And it's goodbye to strips like "Biff Bronson" and "Gary Concord - Ultra-Man," and hello to new features: "The Green Lantern" and "Johnny Thunder."

Like the previous issue, we have no full-out JSA Adventure to discuss, so I'll once again walk through the series of shorts that we're treated to in this outing from Fall 1940.

Just like last issue, we find Hawkman hovering about some undisclosed area - this time in the middle of suburbia. He happens upon a crime scene where a woman appears to have drowned (her face all blue) in the middle of her home, a knife made of glass lying near her, and the words Yum-Chac written on a note. Consulting his books, Carter Hall finds that there's an Aztec rain god named Yum-Chac.

Good thing the killer needed a reminder note of who he was worshipping, otherwise Carter would still be flapping up around the house.

Consulting a friend who is a "specialist" on the Aztecs, Carter finds the man and his sister being held by a pair of evil Aztecs, monologue-ing about killing the sister as a ritual to Yum-Chac. Hawkman traces follows these killers as they make their way to Mexico with their new female sacrifice.

And I mean, literally follows them, flying above their boat all the way from the U.S. to Mexico. Yet, Hawkman seems to go unnoticed by Nyola, the killer Aztec, even when she spots him from the boat:

In Mexico, Hawkman gets some help from the Mexican police - and all this man is missing is a sombrero:

And the plot to throw this girl into an ancient mystic pit is soon thwarted. Even as she's thrown into the pit, Hawkman swoops down and saves her, as the Mexican Police take on those nasty Aztec Indians. Their leader, Nyola, wishing not to be arrested, throws herself into a sacred pool, drowning.

And in one last panel, the entire reason for this story is summed up as follows:

Yeah, it just doesn't seem worth the effort of kidnapping, murder, and cross-country traveling just because you didn't like a book. Those crazy Aztecs.

A mob of "monster-men" are causing havoc and destruction at city's across the region, catching the attention of Alan Scott. Alan, the original Green Lantern, learns that one of these brutes was shot and killed by police during a riot, and steals the body from the morgue to examine.

Over the next several nights, a hobo is seen wandering the streets of the city - a city years later, we'd learn is, a pre-Batman Gotham City. The hobo is kidnapped and brought back to an an old building where other homeless people are being used in experiments, transforming into hulking, mindless brutes. It's all the work of a man named Baron Von Zorn. And his goal? Sabotage. The brutes destroy U.S. factories until the country's morale is weakened.

But, the Baron probably does a better job of explaining his plan:

Perhaps the writers hadn't quite delved into just how powerful Alan Scott and the Green Lantern ring was at this point. The Baron, having no weapons other than a few thugs, has GL held captive and attempts to inject him with the monster-serum. While at first, we're led to believe it's worked, as soon as the Baron and his men leave, we discover Alan was faking it - we learn the ring makes his skin impenetrable to the hypodermic needle.

Alan, as the Green Lantern, follows the Baron and his men and stops them from injecting U.S. Officials and Statesmen with the serum - I'm guessing for more morale weakening.

Alan takes down the Baron's monster-army with a handy-dandy antidote he created at the beginning of the case.

Somewhere in between his broadcasting career, Alan Scott also had time for med school?! Who needs a power ring?!

The Baron is put away, and Alan Scott seems content to sit in his study being a good American, as seen by this end panel:

The art here by Martin Nodell is incredibly crude, even by Golden Age standards. Taking a look at any of Sheldon Moldoff's Hawkman can show you just how beautiful comic art could be even during it's Golden Age.

Bill Finger's story is very reminiscent of a similar story he told earlier that year in Spring 1940's Batman #1, where Bruce Wayne fought a series of monster-men created by Dr. Hugo Strange.

There seems to be a pattern forming with a lot of these characters, especially ones that share writers. Despite the dawning of the "specialty hero" (i.e. super-speed, lantern ring, etc), many of these characters still have not found any uniquer footing and are very much modeled after either Superman or Batman in their approach to crimefighting.

I'm amazed at how much I have enjoyed the Golden Age stories of The Spectre so far. As someone who really just saw him as a supporting, yet omnipresent force in the DC Universe, it's really been an interesting and fun read to see the original adventures. They have turned out to be my favorites so far in these All Star issues.

In this particular case, Detective Jim Corrigan meets with a hospitalized prison guard who was attacked at the museum by the presence of "Kulak, High Priest of Brztal." It seems Kulak's tomb was disturbed, and according to ancient scroll in the exhibit, Kulak will destroy any civilization that disturbs his resting place. With that said, the Spectre leaves Jim Corrigan's body, setting out to save the earth.

It's very interesting that writer Jerry Siegel doesn't gloss over the issue of The Spectre leaving Jim Corrigan's body on earth. In fact, it seems to cause consternation among his boss, when, as the Spectre moves about the supernatural world, the lifeless body of Corrigan does not respond.

While their battle ensues, Kulak drowns the earth in complete darkness and let's loose "The Whispering Death," which causes the primal emotion of hate to run rampant throughout civilization - causing panic, murder, riots, and abuse that pre-dates Grant Morrison's anti-life equation earth riots in Final Crisis by some 70+ years.

Keeping The Spectre out of the fisticuffs realm he sometimes tends to falter to in these early stories, he and Kulak have a fanciful fight that moves everywhere from the heavens, to outer space, and on the rings of other planets. The fight continues as earth crumbles. It all comes screeching to a halt, though, when Kulak, reciting an incantation to destroy the Spectre for good, is interrupted by a well placed fist to the jaw. Okay, so The Spectre's magic-over-fisticuffs standard didn't last this whole outing.

The spell interrupted, Kulak is consumed by the evil forces he was summoning, and the earth is saved.

04/05/10 UPDATE: I had totally forgotten, but after re-reading the short-lived but exceptional 1992 Justice Society of America revival series, I remembered that Kulak did re-surface again in the 90s to face a now aged JSA. When consumed by his evil forces in the 40s, he says that he was thrown through time, emerging in the ancient past - a past ruled by Vandal Savage. He was defeated and "laid to rest," only to be discovered in the 1990s by archaeologists Carter and Shiera Hall. Kulak used his power, combined with modern day mass-media to turn the world on the JSA and look at them as fascists. Together, they were able to overcome him and send him back to another realm once again.

All in all, a good story, kept from getting too long in the tooth by staying within an 8 page length. Siegel seems to have quickly found the pacing and realm of The Spectre, which is that of the supernatural. Bernard Baily's art, once again the perfect companion to Siegel's eerie writing.


When a bank vault is robbed and the guards killed from within, Wesley Dodds responds to the scene (oddly enough in his everyday identity and not as The Sandman). He takes with him a professor-friend who Wesley was having dinner with earlier in the evening. The professor has apparently "contributed to medical knowledge once more" with the aid of his unseen brother.

A burn mark at the crime scene catches the professor's attention and sends Wesley into action. Wesley suspects the professor knew more about what made the mark than he let on and investigates as The Sandman.

Before he heads back to the crime scene, Sandman is working on some chemical mixture, but based on the previous panels, we have no idea why or what he is testing.

Breaking into the home of his professor friend, Sandman finds the man dead and a butler the only one in the home. As Sandman interrogates the butler, a "yellow blotched hand" drops a glowing sphere into the room, causing Sandman to go weak and nearly die. Sandman sprays the orb with his gas gun, and then seems to succumb to the orb's rays.

A man with a face made of what looks like hardened mud enters, and rather than take the opportunity of the downed hero in front of him, decides he's got more important things to do:

Our faceless villain heads to the U.S. Treasury, where his glowing orb takes down guards, leading the way for robbery. Meanwhile, at the professor's home, the police have arrived, and attempt to take off the gas mask of the seemingly deceased Sandman. However, the detective quickly finds that it's not actually Sandman. This begs the question as to if Wesley Dodds carries a spare Sandman dummy in his car at all times, or did he go home, make the dummy, then return to the crime scene to plant it.

This is where things get VERY confusing. A dummy was at the professor's house, and the last we saw our villain, he was robbing the U.S. Treasury.

Well, on the following page, Sandman (minus his gas mask) is working in a lab that is said to belong to the villain. It could be that he's still in the house where he left the dummy. But he is interrupted in his investigation when the villain returns to the lab and a fight ensues between the two. His identity compromised by the faceless man seeing him with his mask off, there is little Wesley Dodds can do, especially when the villain leaves the glowing orb in the lab with our hero.

Wesley, however, tips a pot of "sulpher-lead" from the lab table onto the orb, which, apparently did the trick, because it nullified the orb's "radium rays" and any weakening effect on Wesley. Now, I'm no scientist, but something doesn't add up here.

Recovered, Sandman captures the villain, and chips away the hardened material around his face to uncover...wait for it...the twin brother of the professor, who is ALSO a genius. Go figure.

In one desperate attempt at revenge, the evil brother reaches for a nearby gun. He is tackled by Sandman in one grisly self-defense move that certainly keeps his secret identity a secret. Much like his soon to be JSA partner, Spectre, Sandman seems completely un-fazed by the grisly end he brought to his foe:

I've done my best to explain the plot of this one, but even I had some trouble with it. There was not much flow or consistency to the plot, which jumped from point A to S to G then back to B at what at times seems completely random. The art by Creig Flessel certainly holds up, but Gardner Fox's story leaves a lot to be desired on this one.

You know, I'm finding some of these no-super hero strips of the era a bit more fun than the traditional super-powered fare. If anything, for the Depression-era environment in which many of these human protagonists find themselves, as well as the almost propaganda-ish method of promoting America and its services.

I wonder how many kids ended up wanting to be be a marine, naval officer, or Army officer after growing up reading the adventures of Red, White and Blue?

Here, we find Red Dugan, the trio's core, bored on the street with companion Doris West - who, in the previous issue worked with the boys to stop a sabotage plot. We've been given no explanation in either of these two issues what Doris' connection is - whether she is in the services as well, or just Red's girlfriend. She seems quite capable, as proven by her prowess in last issue's adventure.

However, when Red and Doris check out a fire/explosion scene in the city, Red seems to have little use for Doris, who wants to inspect the inside alongside him:

Now, it also begs the question of how many off duty marines involve themselves into fire and crime investigations, but perhaps Red was just that bored.

As Red and the Fire Chief investigate, they find that the explosion was caused by gas tanks inside what was thought to be an abandoned building. They also find the body of a street cleaner (they can tell from his badge).

This all gets overshadowed, however, at another attempt to show Doris as nothing more than a pest of a woman who can't hold her own in tough situations:

We learn that this was all part of a larger scheme by a mobster and his professor partner (the 1940s seemed to be littered with rogue professors and scientists, leading one to assume the pay must have been downright terrible for these professions) were hiding materials in that building for their big scheme - using the special gas, they distribute it through the government's "G2 Headquarters" and the next day, nothing but blank pieces of paper are found in the building's records.

Rather than inspect the papers, some bureaucrat in the building has this bright idea:

Well, that turns out to be the worst possible thing. You see, the mobster and professor killed that street cleaner to get his garbage truck, and posing as cleaners, take all those blank papers. The gas, it seems, temporarily erased all the contents on the papers int he building. The criminals, collecting the papers, would then have litters of government secrets.

That is, until Red and the gang catch on to the gaseous smell (the same one they whiffed at that first fire where the gas tanks exploded) and follow the criminals to their hideout, where a fight ensues.

With the day saved, the heroes come to a very important lessen - that heroism can often be found downwind:


Johnny Thunder takes over as one of the new features of All-Star this issue, knocking Biff Bronson's feature out of the magazine completely. Johnny debuted just earlier in the year (January 1940), and has quickly established himself as an even more kiddie-friendly hero than other soon to be JSA'ers.

Johnny finds out that his girlfriend's father can't get a crew of gangsters and ruffians to vacate some buildings and properties he just purchased. When the mobsters give the old man a hard time, Daisy tells Johnny to man-up and go show those gangsters who's boss.

Knowing Johnny's simple-minded, "gee-whiz" ways, it's sort of amazing to see girls falling for him - let alone maintain a steady girlfriend in Daisy Darling. But, maybe Daisy just likes a guy who's a pushover, because it doesn't take much convincing for Johnny to head on out to confront the gangsters.

Johnny confronts the gangsters in a series of fights and environments, where, as always, he is rescued from these over-his-head situations by his magical thunderbolt.

A brief DC background note for those who don't know: Johnny Thunder (at this time) unknowingly has power over a mystical Bahdnesian Thunderbolt, that acts as a genie whenever Johnny says the phrase "Cei-U," granting any of Johnny's requests. Not knowing this as the source of his power, Johnny believes he just has great powers on his own, often leading him to get in over his head. He is usually saved when he inadvertently says the phrase "Say, you...something something" and his wishes are then granted for an hour.

Johnny's Thunderbolt, in time, will start to take on a more human appearance, even interacting and teasing Johnny. In these early stories, however, the thunderbolt is depicted as just a red bolt of lightning, granting Johnny's requests - in this issue, saving him from numerous falls, knocking down buildings, and levitating criminals.

When this "voodoo" scares the criminals into leaving town and leaving Mr. Darling's properties alone, Johnny comes off as a hero to both Darling and his daughter, Daisy.

Rex Tyler is at it again - but there's a change between this and last issue. Hourman now employs the help of a band of youngsters known as his "Minute-Men of America," that assist in his exploits. Apparently if Bruce Wayne did it, everyone in 1940s America figured it was okay to endanger children by the handful.

Rex Tyler, meek chemist, is listening to his boss complain that his brother-in-law is being suckered by a fake mystic who claims to communicate with the dead. This "Dr. Morte" (stating the obvious - morte means death in French) convinces the boss' brother-in-law that his wife is speaking from beyond the grave and would like him to bring her jewels and money to the cemetery so she can see them. Apparently, his wife is quite vain and he's used to this.

Just for the record - around this same time, Batman was busy fighting his own Dr. Death in the pages of Detective Comics.

Rex rounds up his Minute-Men boys and they head out to foil the plans of this fake seance artist. The boys try to keep the man from entering the cemetery to see his wife, and do a pretty poor job of it. The minute he arrives, he tells them to go away and they do.

Meanwhile, Hourman follows Dr. Morte to a mausoleum where he sees the not so good Doctor speaking through a speaker system to the grave up above. Exposing the fraud, the man learns that his wife has not been communicating with him, and Hourman has saved the day.

Visiting a friend at the daily newspaper, Jay Garrick finds that the entire building is deserted. Jay super-speeds into his Flash costume and then decides that the city just can't get by without the paper's morning edition, and takes on the responsibility of putting the entire paper together by himself, learning a valuable lesson in the process:

After the paper makes its way to doorsteps, a mob boss who has the entire newspaper staff sequestered in his basement, sends some hirelings to find out how the paper was published. Flash, vibrating too quick to be seen by the eye (a trick that he and successors Barry Allen and Wally West will use in decades to come), makes the criminals believe a ghost is in the building, and sends them packing. They get to the entrance of their hideout and are rounded up at super-speed one by one and brought to the police.

Meanwhile, the mob boss tries to persuade the newspapers publisher to sign the paper over to him or else, he'll shoot his daughter.

The publisher's daughter also just happens to be good friends with Joan Allen, Flash's girlfriend. When Flash returns to the hideout, he stops the signing, and rounds up the mob boss, before making his way off for a night with Joan. She's got a thing for guys in helmets.

And Flash makes sure not to leave without a shameless plug for his own book:

E.E. Hubbard's art becomes a cornerstone for the look of the Golden Age Flash adventures and is pretty standard for the series. Gardner Fox's story pits Jay against mobs and corruption, also a mainstay of Jay's early adventures in the red.

A pretty straightforward crime adventure, with the typical Fox-ian "i'll have fun with these criminals using my powers before I cart them to jail" mentality that became a definition of many JSA-ers in those early days, and made you wonder just how any criminal would have taken them seriously if they were playing jokes all the time.

Overall, Issue #2 of All-Star Comics gets us introduced to many characters that will be the foundation of the JSA beginning next issue. Some stories, even by today's standards stick out as memorable - The Spectre being the most notable.

Still, others remain typical, simple, superhero romps for the time, aimed at a little kid audience - The Flash, Hourman, Johnny Thunder. And some, well, some just seem absurd - Green Lantern and Sandman sticking out.

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