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.

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