Thursday, February 4, 2010

All-Star Comics #3 - The first JSA meeting

This is it. The first time a group of heroes were brought together under one magazine, setting the stage for generations of fictional heroes to come.

So what happens in this first tale of the Justice Society of America? What do the world's greatest heroes of the Golden Age tackle first - a super-villain? Saboteurs? Gangsters?


They have dinner.

The story has Johnny Thunder, jealous that he wasn't invited to what is apparently a publicly known first meeting of the JSA, he uses his magic thunderbolt to whisk him off to the meeting, where the greatest heroes sit down for grub.

What we have is essentially the same framework as the previous two issues of All-Star Comics, tied together with a general framing device - in this case, the heroes having dinner.

At Johnny's behest, the heroes go around the table throughout the meal, telling of one of their more strange or fun adventures. This then allows each individual hero to have a solo tale weaved within this JSA meeting framework, illustrated by their usual artist.

The Flash tells a tale of helping an undersea scavenger find gold treasure and fight off a group of sea criminals. While the JSA is now an organized group, the individual members still seem to be more "mystery men" then celebrated heroes. One of the criminals at sea even remarks not only about who Flash is, but why he's wearing such a bizarre outfit.

Aside from the criminals, Flash also has this man-eating shark to deal with. Sea life was never left more confused...or the reader, for that matter.

The story reigns are handed over to Hawkman, who tells of an adventure of "flaming men" (who are not anything like what we'd expect by today's use of the term) who rise from a volcano in Krakatao. Carter Hall accompanies Shiera Sanders to Krakatao where she is doing research on the long dormant but now live volcano. Shiera will, as time goes on in Hawkman's history, become Carter's wife. Here, she is described simply as his "helpmate." Ah, the innocence of old comics.

Although I can't say much for innocence when you see what a peeping tom Hawkwman is, watching Shiera while she sleeps:

The next day, Hawkman and Shiera (not quite Hawkgirl at this stage) don what they refer to as "asbestos suits" and head into the center of the volcano.

Old heroes don't die...they just get asbestos poisoning:

Two duo are soon captured by the "flaming men" and brought forth before their leader, a tribal man who seems to be far more advanced than any native:

Hawkman is tossed into the volcano to perish...and none of the villains tend to think letting go of a man with wings might be a bad idea. Needless to say, once they toss Hawkman into the volcano, he swoops right back out, and socks it to the villains, destroying the "force generator," which blows out half of the volcano. The villains deceased, Hawkman flies Shiera to safety.

The story is quickly tagged with a speedy explanation that the tribal man was really a renegade scientist who wanted to use the volcano's power to make himself a world power.

Yeah, I don't quite see it either.

Johnny Thunder, amazed by that story as well (no one seemed to realize what a suck-up Johnny was) then asks The Spectre to wow them with a tale.

This, I find humorous just in the fact that The Spectre, for all intents and purposes, IS A DEAD MAN!! Talking to The Spectre is like talking to a re-animated corpse. He even makes it a point in the story to say that he does not need to eat for nourishment, and therefore won't partake in the dinner portion of the JSA meeting. Yet, this dead corpse is more than willing to sit down and entertain Johnny with a story. I'm amazed.

Spectre's story is not as good as his previous outings in the last two issues of All Star Comics. A serious of grisly murders with no explanation leads Detective Jim Corrigan to investigate. He does, and discovers a giant statue that has come to life at night and gone on a mindless killing spree with no pattern, no theme. Just a bloodlust.

When the creature attacks Jim Corrigan on the street, trying to destroy him, Corrigan quickly dematerializes into The Spectre, and a mystical battle between the two ensue. It turns out this statue is "Oom," from "the dark side of the moon" -cue the Pink Floyd anytime.

According to Oom, he wandered the Earth years and years ago, and satiated with his killing back then, went into hibernation. Now he's awake and wants nothing more than to kill again. Scoffing at The Spectre's demand that he leave Earth, Oom challenges Spectre to find the Redmoon Stone of Yzgartyl. Whoever finds it first can banish the other from Earth forever. Spectre races towards this other dimension of Yzgartyl, and Oom uses any interdimensional cronies he can to stop the Spectre.

Oom actually is the one who succeeds in getting to the stone first, but The Spectre steals it away by making it red hot in Ooms hands - a trick Superman will later use with his heat vision time and time again. The Spectre's method of strategy to even get to the "hot stone" idea is humorous.

It's bad enough that this omnipotent being is taking the time to entertain - of all people - Johnny Thunder - with a story, but to think he's going to stop this centuries old inter-dimensional monster with a hot-foot. He's a golem, not a bowry boy. Sheesh.

Well, regardless, Oom drops the stone, and when The Spectre retrieves it and brings it back to Earth, Oom goes back into hibernation as a statue outside a building. And to make sure he stays that way, Spectre, removes Ooms spirit from the stone, placing it into the Red Moon Stone, which he then tosses into outer space.

Oom did return, briefly, during the inter-dimensional event known as Dc's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." In an "All-Star Squadron" tie-in to Crisis, Oom, along with some other villains, were under the leadership of the Venusian worm, Mr. Mind, who was forming his first "Monster Society of Evil" in 1942. The Society clashed with the Squadron, and was defeated, with Mr. Mind being sent to what was then known as "Earth S," where he would form the most notable version of the Monster Society in a classic arc from the original, Golden Age Shazam years.

However, following Crisis and the wiping out of a lot of multiple Earth stories, I'm not quite sure Oom's return would still exist in modern day continuity.

Back at the JSA dinner, Hourman now has his turn to tell of one of his adventures.

Based on his previous two outings in All-Star, this tale actually is a cut above the rest for Hourman. The head of the chemical company wants Rex Tyler to take his niece to a masquerade ball at the Durant Estate, where the famed Durant Diamonds are going to be on display. And what does Rex decide to go as for the costume party?

You guessed it - Hourman.

However, don't write this off as cheesy just yet. This is actually the focus of a really good short super-hero outing. It's not the first time Rex will have gone to a costume party in his full regalia.

Some 70+ years later in DC/Vertigo's Sandman Mystery Theatre, the first Golden Age meeting of Wesley Dodds and Rex Tyler will finally be told, as the two fight a crime together at a costume party where Rex goes dressed in the Hourman costume...for the first time.

However, Rex is not the only one who's gone dressed as Hourman, as he quickly discovers a band of crooks who have something up their sleeve, all dressed as the man of the hour, however, with much deadlier intentions.

The crooks make off with the diamonds despite Rex's attempts to fight them all off, and is left behind as the sole suspect, Mr. Durant himself, ready to shoot at him. Rex quickly escapes, much to the horror of his date, insistent to prove his innocence. He finds the crooks not far form the house, on a boat, crossing a river to a small island. With his Miraclo supposedly in full effect, Hourman swims his way out to the island, where the criminals are looking over their diamond loot.

But apparently, Miraclo may give super strength, but not super stealth, as Rex does a terrible job at spying on these crooks.

Now, according to Rex's own narration, "Before I could duck, a bullet struck me in the temple." It must not have hurt too badly, because it only knocked Rex unconscious, and when he awakens, finds himself locked up in a room of the crooks' hideout.

Making a ruckus, one of the criminals comes in to shut Hourman up, only to be taken by surprise. The other crooks soon follow suit, but one by one, Hourman takes them out, including their leader, Mr. Durant.

In a nice little twist - especially among typical bang em' up stories of the 40s - that Durant needed money, the gems were phonies, and he figured he could collect the insurance money after they were stolen.

All in all, a good, quick little story, one of the best of the issue so far.

Dinner is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of none other than The Red Tornado! Now, this is not the Red Tornado that current day comics fans have come to know - an android with super powers. No, no. This is the Original Red Tornado - ol' Ma Hunkel, who used to, in her makeshift costume and kitchen pot helmet, protect her neighborhood from crime.

Well, it seems in this one page interlude, Red Tornado did not get an invite and had sneak through the fire escape. After some jabbing from the rest of the heroes - Hourman calls her "The Red Tomato," and Johnny offers to take her cape, The Red Tornado makes a hasty exit, with her cape covering up most of her body. When the heroes wonder why the quick entrance and just as quick exit, The Flash discovers The Red Tornado's embarrassing predicament:

Isn't it nice to know the guys who were protecting your neighborhood, and your country during the Golden Age were running around laughing at a poor old woman left pantsless at their party?

The Sandman takes his turn next, giving his fellow heroes and the readers a quick recap of his non-super-powered status, which delivers the proper exposition for the reader, but makes Wesley Dodds seem a bit insecure among his fellow heroes:

In his tale, Wesley and his companion, Dian Belmont are driving along when they come across a giant man struggling out of the woods. The man falls over, dead, and the papers soon declare that human bones were found in piles of flesh int he woods. A disturbing occurrence by any nature, and Wesley decides to investigate.

It's good to see that unlike the heroes who jumped onto the sidekick craze of the 1940s (even fellow JSA-er Hourman and his Minute-Men, for example), Sandman has yet to to try and cash in. Like the pulp heroes that inspired him, Sandman has just his female accomplice, Dian Belmont at his side - something that will become the backbone of the Sandman Mystery Theatre revival of the character some 70+ years later.

What Sandman recalls, coincidentally enough, is a doctor who was doing experimental work on the pituitary gland. So, in order to find this doctor, Sandman forsakes the phone book and instead breaks into a hospital. And by breaking in, I mean running through the front door. Yeah, that won't arouse suspicion.

Sandman and Dian track down this evil Dr. Faversham, where giants of all kinds roam the grounds - including a giant rat and mouse. Wesley orders Dian to stay in the car, while he investigates. Inside, Sandman finds the evil doctor, along with one of his test subjects, still alive, who fills Sandman in on the criminal deeds afoot.

The Doctor soon discovers the Sandman, but as the hero describes it, he is saved by dumb luck:

It's amazing how many of these Golden Age legends of heroism survived to live on for the next generations, only by dumb luck when it came to being shot at!

Once the doctor is subdued, Sandman and Dian are on their way, and Sandman gives her (and the reader) a summing of the scheme afoot:

Insurance fraud seemed to be very big with these Golden Age criminals, didn't it?

Next up, is Dr. Fate, who starts off by reminding everyone why he's such a Debbie Downer at parties:

His wife, Inza, looking for a lamp in an antique shop, ends up deciding upon a small odd looking box, after being influenced by the spirit of an Egyptian Priestess. The store owner claims no knowledge of the box and lets her take it free of charge, and once opened at home, Inza is greeted by a dust that leaves her unconscious.

Dreaming of the priestess while she's out of it, Inza awakens and heads straight for Fate's tower in Salem - a headquarters that still exists in the comics today, all these years later. Fate explains that someone is killing Inza from inside her mind, and something must be done to stop it.

Fate and Inza are attacked by the undead, a giant octopus, three witches, and evil unicorns before reaching the villainous sorcerer behind Inza's bad dreams.

For a character with as much mystical power as Dr. Fate has, he seems to be quite conservative in using it. While even fighting a sorcerer whose declared objective is to defeat Fate and become invincible, Fate resorts on nothing more than fisticuffs:

The sorcerer's neck broken, Fate describes him as a menace who will plague them no more.

Evil sorcerer's, priestesses, magic, zombies, and of all things, what has Johnny Thunder the most terrified of that story? Yep, the Octopus. Any wonder Johnny was left their mascot?

Speaking of Johnny Thunder, it's his turn for a story, but unlike his colleagues, his is told in standard, story-form instead of a comic. With Johnny's entire story told in prose, there are not oddball panels to highlight, no art to critique. I'll cut to the chase and give the summary of the story.

Johnny shows up at the house of Daisy Darling, his on-again/off-again girlfriend, only to find that she's making time with some well-dressed guy named "Eggland." Johnny says the magic word "Say you..." and Eggland is soon covered in poison ivy. Chased out of the house by Daisy for what he's done, Johnny wanders the streets trying to figure out how to win her back. Johnny sees a mannequin being transported by two men, and, in one of the oddest romantic gestures I've ever read, decides he should buy the mannequin and practice "saying sweet things to Daisy" with it. Johnny just went from goof to creep in about five seconds with no layover.

The men moving the mannequin refuse to sell, and a magic word later, Johnny turns the two men into literal "wind bags" - balloons, in fact, that shoot off through the air.

Has anyone stopped to wonder how much harm Johnny tends to do to people with these careless wishes of his? The magic of the thunderbolt is never undone by the story's end. In this case, he's just, essentially killed two men by turning them into balloons.

But I digress.

The two men gone, a real-life woman breaks out of the mannequin. It turns out, she was being kidnapped and is the daughter of a very wealthy man. The man asks Johnny to become her bodyguard, and the daughter is left smitten with Johnny. This new relationship blossoms until one day, the daughter AND Johnny are both kidnapped. The perpetrator is none other than Daisy's new boyfriend, Eggland, who plans on holding the girl for ransom. Johnny, already with an ax to grind, turns Eggland into a snake and then runs to get the police. However, by the time the police arrive, the snake is the least of anyone's worries, as Daisy has somehow gotten to the scene before anyone else, and given a beating to Johnny's new girl out of jealousy.

But, as is the way in most Golden Age tales, harassment charges seem to be a no-go, and Johnny and Daisy end on a chuckle.

After a brief interruption by Hop Harrigan, asking readers to join his All-American Flying Club for a 10 cent shipping charge, we move into the tale of The Atom. Not to be confused with the current-day Atom whose power is to shrink to small sizes, the original Atom has no superpowers, and is simply called The Atom due to his diminutive size.

After a reminder from the hero that he is, in reality, "Al Pratt, a sophomore at Calvin College," we move into his tale.

By the way, does anyone else note that as a sophomore in college, that would have put The Atom at around age 19-20?! That might very well have made him the youngest JSA member. I mean, think about it - Flash was a research scientist, Sandman a millionaire businessman, Green Lantern a broadcaster - these were all guys who had some pretty adult jobs. A college student who fought crime on the side of his studies was a bit different among their ranks.

As the Atom tells it, he was collecting specimens for his geology class when he overheard "The Brooklyn Murder Trust" hatching a plan to knock over an armored car. The crooks explain that the armored car on this route carries nothing - it's a decoy while the real loot is in a canvas covered truck.

With a man lying in the road, the canvas-covered truck stops, and the crooks make their move, stealing the guards' uniforms and driving off with the truck to continue with their "plan." The Atom, watching from above, tries to leap into the fray, but slips on the truck's canvas top, and falls into some rocks below.

I actually dug this part, because it was one of the few times in the Golden Age that you saw a hero stumbling through the early parts of their career. For all intents and purposes, these were these guys' earliest adventures, yet they seemed like old pros already. here, The Atom genuinely seems like a young guy just trying to do his best and making mistakes here and there. I give writer Gardner Fox credit(if it is Fox...the writers and artists go uncredited here) for this little characterization.

While The Atom is out of it, we move to "one of the gold caches of the U.S. government." The canvas-covered truck now makes its way in, past the guards, with the criminals hidden away inside dressed as guards.

And if I was a betting man, I'd say someone was getting fired. Would you want this guy guarding the government's gold supply?

Over powering the guards, the crooks make off with a million or so in gold, but it is while en route back to their boss that The Atom awakens and catches up to them, leaping into the speeding truck, and fighting with the crooks within, all the way to their hideout. Once at the criminals' own hiding area, The Atom makes his presence known, going after each and every one of them.

You know, The Atom may not have been one of the most well-known heroes then or now, but you've got to admire his pluck.

Well, before the final tale can be told, a telegram boy - who looks suspiciously like Alfalfa from Little Rascals - shows up for a message for the JSA - leading many to wonder if they just forgot to lock the front door?

Oh, and thanks to this Telegram Boy, Johnny Thunder gets a lesson in both sarcasm and humility:

The telegram is from the FBI in Washington, who is interested in the JSA's help. The Flash speeds down to Washington to see what it's all about, while Green Lantern tells his tale.

The Green Lantern tells of a time when his city was overrun with crime and the people, feeling the police commissioner is incompetent, are rallying for a new one - a man named Lacy. The press is tipped off one night that the Commissioner is on the take, and show up on the scene just in time to see the Commissioner take what turns out to be an envelope of money from a stranger. The commissioner protests he's been setup, but it gives those rallying more ammunition. So, Lacy is instated as the new Commissioner while an investigation takes place. And once Lacy is Commissioner, the crime wave mysteriously stops.

Something bother The Green Lantern, though, and he visits Paul Pryer, a noted newspaper columnist, and asks him to help with a plan to expose the real crooks. The next day, Pryer's column says that he'll expose the truth about the commissioner's frame up on his syndicated radio show. When some criminals (shaded in darkness so the reader can't see their identity) get wind of this, they decide it's time to silence Pryer for whatever he knows.

When he's attacked at his home Pryer is protected by Green Lantern, quickly subdueing the thugs and finding out the address of the man behind it all. On scene, it turns out to be none other than Lacy himself, who was organizing the crime wave so that he could speak out against it and get the Police Commissioner appointment himself and then have control over response to crimes. Despite Lacy and his henchman's efforts, they are no match for the Green Lantern, and with a failed attack on Pryer's life during the radio broadcast, Green Lantern gets Lacy to confess to his plot over the air, clearing the real Police Commissioner's name.

His tale done, we return to the JSA dinner, where Johnny Thunder once again can't take a hint as Alan Scott gives him the blatant brush off:

The Flash returns, and it seems the government wants the JSA's help.

So, there it is...the first meeting of the famed Justice Society of America. While officially now a team, the only thing they tackled was indigestion from dinner. We'll have to wait to actually seem them in action as a full-fledged team at some later date.

The writing was par for the course for Golden Age superheroics, with none of the stories really sticking out as stellar this time around. Any of these stories could have easily appeared in another solo collection of All-Star like the past couple of issues, with only the additional pages of the "JSA Dinner" tying them into any semblance of a group tale.

As for the art, it varies. Each of the stories was drawn by, I believe, one of the characters' regular artist. So, Hawkman's artist drew his story, Flash drew his, etc, etc. They are uncredited here, so I am unsure of exactly who drew what in this particular issue. The art for the likes of Hawkman stands out among the rest, while the art for Green Lantern, the Atom, and even the Sandman this time around, tend to fall to the back of the pack just for its crude nature, even by Golden Age standards.

A lengthy read, to be sure, but we'll see what awaits in the next issue...