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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

All-Star Comics #21 - "The Man Who Relived His Life"

This issue is dated for Summer of 1944.

At that time in the real world, D-Day was beginning June 6 with more than 150,000 Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy in France and pushing inland.

That summer, in July, Franklin D. Roosevelt will announce that he is running for an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States.

And the Olympics, scheduled to be held in London this year would never come to pass until 1948, cancelled in 44' due to the ongoing war.

In the world of the JSA, however...

Professor Everson, one of the scientists from the Time Trust that sent the JSA into the future for the bomb defense formula has now called upon the mystery men again to help him. It seems since their last adventure in time, the scientist has been working on a formula to cure an undisclosed disease, "...a disease that annually costs thousands of lives."

The scientist has narrowed his formula to two versions, one that he's pretty sure is the Real McCoy and the other which would surely be fatal to whomever drinks it.

It's sort of like the holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Unfortunately, his lab assistant, a reformed criminal, chooses unwisely and sips the mixture that means a slow death. When the scientist discovers the man, dying and repentant of his sinful life, he calls upon the Justice Society to help set things right.

Just how does one do that? Apparently it involves sending each member of the JSA (minus the Atom and the Spectre) into the past to stop the man from ever committing the regretful acts in the first place. The JSA, apparently with no crime to tackle this week, band together to alter the timestream and this man's life so that he can die with a guilt-free conscious.

"Quickly! Hop into this tanning bed and I'll send you back in time!"

Of course, you would think stopping those actions from happening would mean the man would never be regretful in the first place, thus have no need of the JSA going back in time, etc, etc. But, as with many a JSA tale, you just have to throw logic out the window and go with it.

First Stop - 1904, when, as the narrative caption at the start of the chapter tells us, "Teddy Roosevelt is President...and is wielding his 'big stick.' The Wright Brothers have just succeeded in making the airplane fly...

This is very similar to an earlier device that writer Gardner Fox used in All-Star Comics #9, where a description of each country that a Justice Society member visited on their mission was described in the narrative captions at the start of each chapter, along with what that region is known for economically and in terms of resources.

Future Lab Assistant Joe Fitch is just a young bank teller who gets caught up with the wrong crowd, invited to stop by the club of Sapphire Slim, a gambler. Joe, not having many friends in Brooklyn, decides to check it out, just watching at first, but quickly getting caught up in the addictive game, losing more than just his shirt. In fact, with several thousand dollars owed to Sapphire Slim, Joe is in it deep. So, when Sapphire 'suggest' that Joe simply pass along the combination to the vault at the bank he works at, Joe is stuck. However, a suggestion from the time traveling Hawkman convinces Joe to go along with the robbery just long enough to catch Slim and his men. Together, Joe and Hawkman bring the criminals down inside the bank, and rather than receive a reward, 1904 Joe asks that the reward money be sent to Slim's wife so she can support herself in Jail.

Then, suddenly, in 1944, a mail carrier shows up with a letter than had been sitting around the post office for a while.

I can almost hear the Back to the Future music playing lightly in the background...

Next stop on the time travel agenda - 1906, as "San Francisco seethes with activities, as fortunes are made and lost over night in this town which is still 'wild and wooly.' Women are wearing bustles and men are wearing gaily colored vests and heavy gold watch chains."

Joe Fitch has moved out west and is taking on work in another bank, courtesy of his experience, but it's falling in love with a young showgirl named Lily D'Arcy that will be his undoing. While Lily seems to like Joe, the theatre owner (and politician), "Big Mike" McCullum has his eyes on Lily too.

When Lily, out of fear that Big Mike will harm Joe unless she does otherwise, Lily breaks off her relationship with Joe to marry Big Mike. Angry and bitter, Joe pulls out a Dillinger, ready to march into the theatre and kill Big Mike. It also makes matters worse that Big Mike's political rival is filling Joe's head with thoughts of standing up to Big Mike. Fortunately for Joe and his future, The Sandman has landed in 1906 and tries to talk some sense  into Joe. It's no use though, and Joe heads out to the theatre, only to be pounced on in the balcony by a Sandman, desperate to keep Joe from ruining his life.

Big Mike dies that night, but not at Joe's hand, at the hand of his political rival. However, the only one who knows this is Sandman, and Joe flees the theatre and the state in a mad dash, thinking he just killed Big Mike. The only option, Sandman estimates, is to return to 1944 and tell Joe what happened.

The story apparently makes the rounds from Sandman's lips to Joe's ears and the ears of some media outlets because, without much explanation, an elderly Lily reads the newspaper to find a story clearing Joe's name all these years later for Big Mike's murder. Feeling she was always right about old Joe, she sets out to find him.

Starman finds himself in 1914, where "the entire world is about to plunge into the fiery holocaust of the first World War..."  and Joe Fitch, still running from his past, has turned up in Mexico, helping Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries.Villa has charged Joe with blowing up the Horseshoe Saloon, whose owner is believed to be spying on Villa and his men.

While Starman does his best, he can't quite convince Joe not to go through with dynamiting the site. Starman even thought he took measures to make sure the dynamite sticks Joe was using would be inoperable, only to find the saloon still blown to smithereens. Hearing the voices of those dying in the saloon, Joe makes a run for it. Discovering that it was not Joe, but a pair of vindictive drunks who had been tossed out of the saloon a one time too many who actually blew the place up, Starman brings the two to justice. He unfortunately finds no sign of Joe to let him know he did not actually cause the explosion that killed all those people. In fact, Starman's plan DID work and the dynamite Joe tried to use was filled with nothing more than sand.

Finally! I'm just glad to see SOMEONE finally make reference to what these guys are wearing.

As World War I, or The Great War, is in full swing, Joe Fitch finds himself on the battlefield, suffering from a form of shell-shock that sends him reeling whenever there are explosions on the field. It sends him into a panic, still haunted by the saloon. While a lot of these Golden Age comics can sometimes come off as simplistic, and in certain instances, rightfully so, as this story moves along, so does its pathos, and Joe's haunted past comes through in a very sad way. Like an angel out of the darkness, though, Dr. MidNite appears through the timestream and onto the battlefield to help.

Joe tries to get re-assigned due to his debilitating issues with the sounds of explosions, but is told it is impossible, as a large advancement is being made soon and every man available will be needed. When the Germans open up their field guns, it seems like poor Joe may end up insane from fear:

Joining Joe on the battlefield (how does that happen with no one noticing or questioning?), Dr. MidNite points out a grenade that is about to injure a fellow officer, unless Joe puts his fears aside and does something. In that moment, Joe somehow gains complete control over himself, intercepting the grenade and sending it back to the enemy lines.

And with that, the future suddenly changes. That army lieutenant who previously was wheelchair-bound in an army hospital, suddenly gets up and walks, his condition up to this point described as nothing more than shell-shock, that he could walk all along. As the caption reminds the reader, though, we know better.

This Dr. MidNite chapter is my favorite of the entire tale so far, and that's saying something in a Golden Age tale that's turned out to be truly impressive all around.

Fast forward to 1924, when Calvin Coolidge is President of the United States, Jack Dempsey is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and Prohibition is in full swing, leading to speakeasies, rum-runners and organized crime.

It's here that Joe Fitch finds himself working for a crime boss who is setting Joe up for a big fall. It seems there is a reporter named Nason who knows too much about this crime boss and his real-life activities versus the society image he likes to portray. By getting the reporter and Joe together, the crime boss hopes Joe will take the fall when the reporter winds up dead. It turns out, though, that the reporter knows quite a bit about Joe's background as well. Still fearing that he killed all those people in the past, Joe goes into a panic, and might have killed the reporter too, if it weren't for the intervention of Dr. Fate, once again forsaking his mysticism roots for a good one-two punch and in some great art by the legendary Joe Kubert.

In 1932, Joe finds himself doing dirty work for a crooked politician running for mayor. With the intervention of a time-traveling Johnny Thunder, though, Joe is convinced to let an honest man win the election; a man who, as we move through time, becomes a Senator in Washington, fighting against corruption.

As the Justice Society begin to make their way back through the timestream and to the present of 1944, they stand around Joe's bedside, letting him know the good he did in his life. As they bring him up to speed, Joe already feels the changes within him as his life takes on new shape due to the interference of the time traveling Justice Society.

When Lily, his love from the Saloon days of 38 years prior, arrives at the hospital, she insists upon a bedside wedding so that she and Joe can finally be wed. As he takes his last breaths, Joe Fitch dies a happy man, knowing he did good with his life, even if it took him decades to correct the mistakes he made. As Hawkman reminds us, everyone makes mistakes, but it's realizing it that is the first step to being a good person.

When you get over some of the pseudo-science involved (and when it comes to comics, you SHOULD just let your imagination go), this was a truly heartfelt story about redemption. Whether it resonated with the young folks reading comics in 1944, I'm not sure, but it certainly ranks up there as one of the better Golden Age stories I've read, and definitely a contender for top ten material when it comes to original JSA stories.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All-Star Comics #20 - "A Movie that Changed a Man's Life"

In the world at the time this issue had hit the stands - Britain's Royal Air Force has suffered major losses during an air raid on Nuremberg, the United Negro College Fund is formed in the United States and the Armed Forces were prepping for what would in just a few months become known as D-Day.

A lot of people look at these old Golden Age tales as lame or corny, but when I read these, I see a burst of creative absurdity hidden beneath the pages. It's as though writers Gardner Fox and Sheldon Mayer just through anything they ever knew out the window and let their imaginations run amok....and I love it.

This particular story, from the Spring 1944 issue of All-Star Comics is no exception to that category. I really think it ranks up there as one of the weirdest adventures of the Justice Society I've read yet.

A noted businessman, Jason L. Rogers, has put an ad in the paper soliciting the help of the Justice Society. They respond by inviting him to their latest meaning to explain his plight, which is that he is being plagued by a criminal known only as "The Monster," robbing banks, dynamiting factories, and more.

The Monster isn't the only problem plaguing Mr. Rogers, though. In his younger days, Rogers had a hobby of photography, and enjoyed splicing together home films. However, after showing the home films to his wife, she suddenly collapsed and died. When he showed the films at his club, he lost all his friends. Life became so bad that Rogers was forced to move to a new city and begin a new life, but was plagued by The Monster, who began plaguing Rogers in his old town and continues to do so today.

When you see the ring, seven days later, you die...

The Monster wreaks havoc wherever he goes. Sometimes it's extortion, threatening to blow up a dam and kill thousands. Other times it's a bit more gruesome and intricate, such as causing a noted surgeon to lose his license, thus making him desperate and susceptible to crime. Together they kidnap wealthy men, disfiguring them and then charging a hefty fee to put them back to normal. 

I'm sure I get the same reaction when I make comic book pitches.

Oddly enough, the only member of the Justice Society who seems to stand a chance against The Monster is Johnny Thunder, or more precisely, Johnny's magical Thunderbolt. Whereas most of the stories in this issue deal with The Monster temporarily taking out the hero, or distracting them long enough to make a getaway, this chapter actually has The Monster getting a severe smackdown from the genie-like Thunderbolt and heading for the hills as fast as he can.

When the JSA reconvenes with Jason Rogers, they admit a sense of defeat. While they may have stopped the Monster's machinations, they've yet to bring in the villain himself. Seemingly unconcerned about the matter, Rogers once again brings up his home movie that seems to result in the loss of his friends and loved ones. When he tries to show the JSA, the film appears blank, causing Rogers to excuse himself to try a chemical treatment in his darkroom.

However, Rogers does not return from the dark room for an hour, rousing the suspicion of the heroes...eventually.

"Hey, this guy who's commissioned us to solve these mysteries has disappeared for an hour. Should we be worried? Nah, let's have some more punch."

When the Justice Society finally realizes that they might want to check out the dark room, they find Rogers gone but none other than the Monster there in his place. One by one, the villain takes out the surprised mystery men, explaining along the way that Rogers had stolen his body. Before he can explain more, The Monster pulls out a small ray gun that is quickly turned on himself.

You can almost here the instrumental 'dun dun dunnn'

As the Monster lie dying, the JSA decide now is a good time to look at the film that Rogers was treating. What they find are images of Rogers transforming into the Monster. It turns out the two shared one body, something, as always, Dr. MidNite condescendingly explains.

Know it all.

As he exhales his last breaths, The Monster begins to transform back to Jason Rogers, who now feels at peace with his soon to be extinguished existence, taking solace in the fact that The Monster will no longer plague the world.

Now, one might wonder how a group of heroes like the JSA might feel about this man, whose life was tragically shared with a villain he could not defeat, dying in their arms...they're not as compassionate as you might think.

"This man is dying in front of us! Meeting adjourned!"

I can't summarize this issue without making note of the one-page Green Lantern story / public service announcement that promotes the conservation of paper during wartime. I'm not quite sure if it's the charm of the period-problem of war rationing, or the effort to try and understand what was being said through Doiby Dickles thick accent, but it's just one of those things that serves as a nice, nostalgic reminder of what was going on in the world when these stories came out.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American Government asked citizens to collect and salvage a myriad of items that could be used toward the war effort. It wasn't just paper. That list also included types of metal that could be used for aircraft production, rubber (since Southeast Asia had been a major supplier of the substance before the war), silk stockings, and cooking fat, which could be used as the base material for soap, candles, paints, artificial rubber, synthetic resin and much more. Not to mention, glycerin in fat was a key ingredient in explosives.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

All Star Comics #19 - "Crimes Set to Music"

Winter of 1943. World War II is still going strong. Before the year is out, FDR, Churchill and Stalin will meet at the Tehran Conference and heavy bombing raids will continue in Germany as the war drags on. In the world of the Justice Society of America, however, the war has taken a back-burner as the fight continues on the home front against gangsters, law breakers and the forces of evil.

Before we turn the page and delve into the actual adventure, you've got to admire this cover by Joe Gallagher. The stark black background with only the spotlight illuminating the Justice Society members as they sit around a piano being played by Wonder Woman.

The black background certainly makes the colorful costumes of the Justice Society members pop, and if I was a kid passing the newsstand in 1943, I think it would definitely catch my eye. It's also an interesting choice to have Hawkman visible in an almost silhouette form, as he does not appear in the bulk of the story. One wonders why he wasn't just left out, or if his odd, almost spiritual-inclusion was at the behest of editorial for kids who were used to seeing all of the JSAers on a cover each month.

Hawkman - a better teacher than Rosetta Stone
As Ted Knight dons his Starman costume, a hawk suddenly flies into his window, carrying a note. Unraveling the rolled-up piece of paper, Starman discovers the note to be nothing more than a musical note - a G-Sharp. Curious, he follows the hawk to find out what's behind the message, and soon discovers that other members of the Justice Society are doing the same.

It all leads them to an old, run-down house where Wonder Woman has already arrived. She explains that she checked her note for fingerprints and found them to be from Hawkman. As if the 'talking hawk' hadn't already given that away. This leads the entire team to jump to the conclusion that Hawkman has been kidnapped or in trouble.

The building just happens to have a working piano, so Wonder Woman decides to play all of the musical notes on each message to the JSA members. The musical interlude turns up hidden messages, tied to the inside of the piano. Each message contains a riddle/clue of sorts that the individual Justice Society members take to decipher in the hopes of locating their teammate, Hawkman.

Starman saves a man (and his violin) who is the target of thieves who want to steal his priceless Stradivarius. Johnny Thunder must foil the kidnapping of a man named Charles Norris. He'd be much more successful if he didn't run his mouth on the public bus, telling what turns out to be the kidnappers that he, Johnny Thunder, is a member of the Justice Society and on his way to Norris' house to stop the plot. How do these men overcome Johnny? They distract challenging him to balance a bucket of bees on a broom.

Yes. Balancing a bucket of bees on a broom. Those masterminds!!

Eventually, with the help of his magic Thunderbolt, Johnny rescues Mr. Norris, but not before Thunderbolt lets out a little resentment for having to work for such a dumbbell.

And the next day, Thunderbolt files a union grievance.
Dr. Fate is tasked with stopping some hired goons from stealing a famous singer's voice via a special gas pumped into the man's home. While the gas does its job, Dr Fate makes the man go through with a public performance anyway, lip-synching to a recording of his own voice. It fools the criminals into thinking they failed to remove the man's voice. So, they try again, only to find Dr. Fate waiting.

Once again, the not so magic Dr. Fate.
These three tales (Starman, Johnny Thunder, and Dr. Fate) are all drawn by Stan Aschmeier, who usually is the key artist on Johnny Thunder and Dr. MidNite in these JSA tales. As a side note, Aschmeier co-created Dr. MidNite with writer Charles Reisenstein.

The Atom saves a girl who's been marked for death, blamed for the murder of her father. Following the note in the piano supposedly form the Hawkman, The Atom tries to clear the young woman's name before she is given the electric chair. With her fingerprints on the gun found at the crime scene, it seems an uphill battle, until The Atom discovers a piece of art in the family home - a plaster cast of Claire Murray's hands. The Atom notices that he can even see the fingerprints on the mold, and sets out to see the artist who created them. Learning that the original mold was stolen, The Atom tracks down the thief and discovers the truth.

The Sandman and Sandy make a daring rescue, saving a talented pianist who is the target of a brutal attack. A large razor placed above his piano through a skylight is set to fall and literally, chop off his fingers!! Honestly, pretty dark stuff...

Then it's off for Sandman and Sandy as they learn someone has been paying all these thugs to take out these musicians or target their families.

A piano composer named is putting the finishing touches on his opus when he is kidnapped! Dr MidNite, following the note given to him at the beginning of the tale, attempts to thwart the kidnapping, to no avail, and is knocked unconscious. Before the composer is taken away, however, he pleads with the thugs to allow him to write the last notes of his symphony, and they oblige. When Dr. MidNite awakens, he finds that those last few notes of the composition, left on the piano, are actually clues - "Pizzicato Mano Sinistra Marcato Contra Ponti-Cello"

It sort of has all the logic of an Adam West/Riddler episode of Batman, doesn't it?

As the doctor follows the clues and begins his hunt, the criminals have brought the brilliant composer to a disbarred surgeon, who is being paid to perform an operation on the genius musician.

I don't know if your premium will cover this, but...

Dr. MidNite arrives just in time to take down this twisted medical man and, disguising himself in the surgical scrubs, takes out the rest of the lackeys and rescues the composer before heading out to join his fellow Justice Society members in the hunt for who is behind this rash of crimes against musical talent.

The Spectre saves a musician who uses bells as his instrument of choice after someone takes advantage of the superstitious "curse" surrounding the history of the bells and tries to make the musician think he's haunted. The real-life ghost (is that contradictory?), The Spectre, puts a quick end to it, and once he learns who is behind these targeted assaults, he joins his other JSAers to put a stop to it.

It all is the work of a music-mad man named Hec Bauer, who in his boyhood, was friends with all the other musicians who had been targeted for crippling, assault, etc. You see, each of the young men had dreams of becoming the next Mozart or Beethoven. All of them succeeded in the music world, with the exception of Hec, who, due to his lower financial status, was forced to stay home and work instead of going off to gain higher education. Determined throughout, he withdrew all his savings and went to the big city eventually, but finds that there really is no overnight success story in New York.

After years of failings, even when his former and now famous friends try out one of his symphonies (which fizzles), and Hec Bauer is seen as no-good in the music world. Now, you would think that might be enough anger building in Hec to warrant his revenge, but he apparently does not have it in him until walking home one day and getting a bump on the head at a construction site. It is from that moment on that he plans out his revenge. He's become so obsessed that...

Apparently, that house has been on the market a long time...

Yup. It turns out those notes weren't from Hawkman, but were from Bauer himself, as this mad maestro had dumb luck on his side and overpowered Hawkman during one of his early attempts at revenge and has kept him prisoner ever since, until the JSA arrives, that is.

An interesting tale, yes, but certainly not one of Gardner Fox's best. Hawkman being overpowered, held prisoner in a cell where there just so happens to be ink and leaves where he writes musical notes based on what keys in the old piano Bauer said he hid his revenge notes in, all just seems a bit convoluted, even for Golden Age JSA standards.

The art, however, is good almost all-around. Even Stan Aschmeier seems to have really stepped up his game compared to some of his earlier All-Star work, and it really shows, especially in The Atom's chapter. However, even though his cover was eye-catching, the JSA group chapter illustrated by Joe Gallagher were a little lacking this time around.