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.

No comments:

Post a Comment