Sunday, July 8, 2012

All-Star Comics #15 - "The Man Who Created Images"

Cover dated February-March of 1943, the battle of Stalingrad will come to an end, gasoline and shoe rationing will go into effect, and U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower will be selected to command the U.S. forces in Europe while this book sits on newsstands.

Wonder Woman shows up to the monthly Justice Society meeting, only to find that she's the only one in attendance. Apparently, her duties as Secretary (because why would the JSA want to let the most powerful member do anything but?) includes getting the mail, because she finds letters from each member, dictating why they can't make it to the meeting.

So what does Wonder Woman do?

She gathers the girlfriends of each of the JSA members, tells them what's going on, and dresses them up like their boyfriends' costumed identities to launch a rescue.

Because, come on, doing so without the costumes would just be plain silly.

While your sewing abilities are impressive, Wonder Woman, it still begs the question as to why you were making women's versions of JSA costumes in your spare time.
Let's also not forget that most of these women were supposed to be unaware of their beau's nighttime activities, so way to let the cat out of the bag, Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, the reader learns of the predicament of each JSA member through the letters sent to Wonder Woman. For Hawkman, he was out on the town with girlfriend Shiera when someone is shot dead. Following the underworld gunmen, Hawkman learns that an evil force, known only as The Brain Wave, has even the seediest of gangsters running and scared and doing his bidding.

The same goes for Dr. MidNite, who is brought in under the guise of his everyday identity of Dr. Charles McNider, to treat a sculptor who is convinced that his works of art are coming to life and talking to him. His wife and drunken stooge of a son are looking to have him committed so they can inherit his fortune, but Dr. MidNite proves that the family is in cahoots with gangsters to get that money and get it to this mysterious Brain Wave, who seems to have power and thrall over even the hardest of criminals.

Johnny Thunder (who is dressed in his sailor suit for the first time since we saw all the JSA members enlist under their civilian identities) is raising questions about "The Morrison Museum,' which keeps itself private most of the time, but opens its exhibits to the public four times a year to qualify as a "public museum." In a bit of thinking that I found ahead of itself for a children's comic, the museum has this weird schedule so its owner, Mr. Morrison can qualify as a public museum and not have to pay the taxes a private one would. Also, it's because he uses the museum the rest of the year as a clearing house for stolen items.

With the help of his magic Thunderbolt, Johnny gets a peek at the museum, where he does battle with historic statues that have been brought to life, and even Mr. Morrison himself, who would have shot Johnny dead if not for the Thunderbolt's interference. That's when Johnny learns the real mind behind this scheme is the man known only as "The Brain Wave."

Al Pratt is at a baseball game when he notices that star player Johnny Spartan appears to be throwing the game. Apparently, sporting events require the intervening of super heroes, because Al changes into The Atom and heads into the locker room to have a talk with Johnny.

It seems that Johnny's crooked manager, and a network of criminals is behind the scheme, with Johnny being mentally crippled from making the hits during the game. A little snooping around the manager and his cronies, and The Atom learns it's also the work of The Brain Wave, and heads to Sharktooth Bay (the alleged hideout of this criminal) to find out more.

The Sandman usually is found haunting the dreams of criminals deep in the night, but this time, he appears to be shaking down both the rich (both criminal and legit) in their bedrooms. However, something is not quite right when The Sandman appears before millionaire Wesley Dodds telling him to fork over protection money.

When he overhears another wealthy socialite (albeit a well-known crooked one) complaining of The Sandman's shakedown, Wes and his sidekick, Sandy, stand watch as money is left at a drop off site for "The Sandman." Two suited gangsters show up to grab the bag of cash, but when the heroes pounce, the number of crooks suddenly multiplies, and the two are facing an army of criminals. After a few minutes of battling, the army suddenly disappears, and the heroes learn it was all a mental illusion, distracting them from seeing the real criminals taking the money. Some inquiries across the underworld, and Sandman has the man at the top who's behind this scheme - The Brain Wave.

Starman also finds himself in the middle of a very bizarre case as he comes across a man who is convinced that little elfin creatures are following him around trying to drive him insane - more specifically, driving him to the point of killing his wife. He is unable to sleep, to think, and is convinced he probably IS going crazy - until Starman sees the little creatures and realizes the man is right!

Creepy little runt, isn't he?
The victim tells Starman of a deranged man he's known since childhood named Henry King, who, as they grew older, began showing signs of strange mental abilities, including creating apparitions out of nothing. As the two men grew older, King became insanely jealous of the man's relationship with a woman named Lucy, now the man's wife. On their wedding day, King actually tries to scare Lucy off by warning her that her beau to be will murder her one day - a foreshadowing that it seems King is intent on bringing about.

With that information in hand, Starman heads out after this mysterious Henry King, who, one can deduce is the mysterious "Brain Wave" that has the underworld squirming.

The Spectre's situation is incredibly similar to his colleagues. He comes across some crimes that involve invisible henchmen and learns that it is the work of a man named "The Brain Wave" who is offering his services to the underworld for a cut, and scaring most of them in the process.

Dr. Fate's adventures is told through the eyes of an ex-con who's now gone legit, but whose old cronies are trying to persuade him to get back in the underworld game. You see, "Fan" Gregory is no longer a racketeer. He's served his time, and even has a job at the bank where his sister is secretary, and that's exactly why his old colleagues want him in on a new act, to provide them with whatever his sister may know about the bank's vaults and securities. "Fan" won't play ball, though, and when he tells Dr. Fate of the scenario, the mystical Doctor is ready for the crooks, who go through with the plan anyway. Not surprising, these criminals are also working with "The Brain Wave," and set Dr. Fate on a path to Shark Tooth Bay.

In a castle on Shark Tooth Bay, sits the robed man known as The Brain Wave as he recounts what brought him to this moment. As a young child, it seems Henry King (while down at the ol' watering hole), realized that he had the ability, when he concentrated enough, to create images from his thoughts, creating an army of playmates for his childhood. As he got older, his abilities grew, until finally, power corrupted, and King decided he wanted money, lots of money.

The girlfriends of the JSA members have arrived, and are greeted by their boyfriends, all in costume, and taken prisoner. It's not really the Justice Society, though, merely thought images created by Brain Wave to take the women captive.

This brings up some timeline flaws. The story started out with Wonder Woman getting letters from each of the Justice Society members that they wouldn't make the meeting. She then calls all the girlfriends, gets them in costume, and heads out to Shark Tooth Bay. During that time, we're recounted through the letters of the predicament each of the men got themselves into before heading out to Shark Tooth Bay. Yet, the women all arrived at Shark Tooth Bay before the men did.

Either those guys are either slower than molasses when the Flash isn't with them, or that is one super-efficient postal service that got the letters to Wonder Woman with enough time to get the girls and head out before the man (after mailing the letters) made it to Brain Wave's hideout.

Okay, okay. I'll let it go. Just suspend logic and we'll be okay for the rest of the trip.

The JSA members soon arrive, however, just as The Brain Wave anticipated. The minute they come crashing through his wall, the villain spells out their dilemma.

 They obviously weren't too concerned with the girlfriends. "If you come at me, they'll die!" "Go get em', guys!"

Well, maybe they were confident that Wonder Woman would come to this realization and break the women free.

Of course, like many comics of the day, the actual battle was short-lived, with Brain Wave tripping (that's what he gets for making his costume a green baggy robe) and falling over the ledge of the castle to the depths below. No one looks for a body, though, which can pretty much ensure that Brain Wave will return.

This tale is pretty significant. Most notably, it's actually the first appearance of a super-villain for the JSA, who were accustomed to fighting gangsters in suits and Nazis for most of their short existence at this point.

Sure, Batman had a colorful rogues gallery by this time (Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had all made their way through Gotham City at this point), but other than The Dark Knight, true super-villains were few and far between.

Brain Wave was the first of a handful of villains from the Golden Age who only decades later would be remembered as 'the rogues gallery of the Justice Society.' At the time, they were lucky to have two appearances against the JSA before being banished to comic limbo until the 60s or 70s.

James Robinson, 57 years later, in the summer of 2000, will visit this tale in his series "Starman," detailing the life of Jack Knight, son to original JSA member (and original Starman), Ted Knight. In it, Ted recalls the adventure to his son, and with some minor, modern-day tweaks, Robinson removes Dr. Mid-Nite and The Atom's counterparts from the story.

Sure, the ladies still get captured...

However, with some retroactive alterations to the tale, the girls free THEMSELVES, rather than waiting for the men to save them.

Robinson also does a nice job, in just one narrative sentence of explaining away how the girls, after this story, seemed to no longer know their boyfriend's secret identities.

Seeing these pages of the modern-retelling just reinforces my desire to see DC Comics do some sort of "retro" title, where a modern day writer and artist team could tell Golden Age-based stories with the JSA in the 40s and 50s, but with modern day sensibilities. What an amazing title that could be. Alas, to dream.

As for the original 1943 story, there is an awful amount of 'moodiness' throughout this tale. Having the hardened gangsters of the underworld, who would usually be the villains of the piece, running scared of someone more evil and frightening, certainly sets up a dark tone. Add to that, numerous scenes that take place in the dark of night as the heroes find themselves getting tangled into the Brain Wave's web, and you've got a nice, dark, solid Golden Age adventure.

Compared to many other Justice Society tales of the day, this one is a stand out, in all the good ways.