Tuesday, January 1, 2013

All-Star Comics #17 - "The Brain Wave Goes Berzerk"

While cover dated for June-July of 1943, as was often the case with comic books (and still is today), the dates on the cover served more as a notice to newsstands as to how long that particular issue should remain on the stand.

With that said, lets estimate this as actually coming out a few months prior. That would mean the Allied forces of World War II were working on squeezing the Germans out of Tunisia at the time, Japanese aircraft were bombing Darwin, Australia, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was addressing a joint session of the United States Congress.

While the tone of what was going on in the world was present amid heroes, villains, and citizens, this 1943 tale stays on American soil, keeping the heroes battling for safety on the home front.

They do so against their first-ever recurring villain, The Brain Wave. As I've mentioned before, up to this point, the Justice Society fought spies, saboteurs and crime syndicates in every issue. The Brain Wave's appearance two issues prior marked what has now become expected of any super-hero team, super villains to challenge their heroic abilities.

This adventure starts out with what just feels like one of the most mundane crimes of the century, as blurted out by Wonder Woman in the very first panel.

the crime of the century?

This one just really makes me chuckle, but it emphasizes just how much the 1940s era of the Justice Society was like a club or social group. I once belonged to an organization that had been in existence since the 1920s, and being as they were very big on keeping up their routines and procedures the same way as they had since their inception, I could totally see someone running into a meeting with that much urgency and screaming "the past minutes have been stolen!"

It turns out the minutes have been stolen by Henry King, the criminal known as "The Brain Wave" as a way to read up on the heroes that left him to his death several months prior. While it appeared Brain Wave had fallen to his death from the tower of his hideout, he, in a very Harold Lloyd-esque manner, snagged his robe on a wooden beam, saving his life. Naturally, like any super-villain, he's out for revenge, and in this case, well, he explains it best...

Just throw science out the window and go with it, folks.

It works, and before long, Brain Wave has managed to shrink the JSA members (except for Wonder Woman who ran home to make sure she didn't leave the minutes there) to eight inches. He then places each of the heroes inside little bird cages, and puts them on display in his hideout. Rather than killing them right off the bat, though, Brain Wave sends out his minions to each pull off a different crime, one that he is sure will be pulled off with the JSA under his nose. What he doesn't count on, though, is Hawkman calling about an army of birds to carry the cages away, the Justice Society intent on stopping this series of crimes, even at only eight inches tall.

Hawkman's adventure is first up and he finds himself falling into the hands of a young boy, who is playing outside when he comes across the now pint-sized hero. Immediately recognizing him as Hawkman, but mistaking him for a toy, the by takes the winged warrior home. It turns out to be a good move because, the boy's father is rich, you see, and like some twisted Babes in Toyland, some of the boy's other toys seemingly come to life in an effort to rob the family. Those other toys, it turns out, are henchmen of Brain Wave and upon enlarging themselves to regular size, find that even a tiny Hawkman is a force to be reckoned with. Defeating the terrible toymen, Hawkman is then quickly swept up by Johnny Thunder's Thunderbolt and whisked away to parts unknown.
You have to read this with an Irish brogue. There is no other way. Begorah!

The Sandman, meanwhile, has been deposited by the birds into a forest with trees covered in dollar bills. As if that weren't weird enough, Sandman discovers each of the bills has instructions of some sort written on them. It appears this is the way Brain Wave communicates some of his plans to a particular group of lackeys who will be attempting to rob a jewelry store this evening. Well, even a pint-sized Sandman is a force to be reckoned with. The miniature hero commandeers a vehicle and follows the crooks, where he puts an end to their heist, just before being swept up by the Thunderbolt as well.

Universal power but can't enlarge himself.
Oh, Spectre. I will never understand how you are the "vengeful hand of God," an all-powerful supernatural being, yet too often are susceptible to the machinations of earthly supervillains and their devices. In this case, Spectre, who has time after time again, changed his size to massive proportions at will and flown to the ends of the universe on a whim, has somehow been affected by Brain Wave's device and also shrunken down to eight inches tall. It does not stop him, though, from stopping a crime before being swept up by the Thunderbolt like the other JSAers. Honestly, nothing quite exciting here.

The same goes for Dr. Fate, whose sorcerer abilities seem to have been forgotten by the writers once again in favor of putting him in the same trouble as any other hero. Comic historians claim that Fate (and I'm guessing the Spectre) had their other-worldly, supernatural and magical elements toned down (or in some cases wiped out) during this period in order to avoid being seen as promoting black magic and the macabre. Here, Dr. Fate does little more than any other interchangeable hero by foiling a bank robbery.

Brain Wave must have really been pretty loose with talking about every detail of his plans in front of the miniaturized JSA, because it seems each member picked up specifically where, when and what this plethora of schemes were happening.
how much spent printing newspapers for this scheme?!

Dr. MidNite gets dropped off (man these birds listen well to these tiny beings in a cage) at a wealthy person's house just at the same time a rough looking figure is stealing the man's newspaper and swapping out for a fake.

The scheme here is planting fake newspapers with stories about people being threatened by a particular gang and how police advise victims to pay up to the gang.

Naturally, MidNite exposes the scheme for what it is, foiling the Brain Wave once again before begin snatched up by the Thunderbolt.

It's hard not to wonder how much time and money was spent on equipment, materials, and manpower to create complete fake newspapers, with fully-written articles within. Brain Wave probably spent as much on publishing as they were stealing from these folks to begin with. Not to mention the money spent on this next scheme.

Brain Wave even spent money on a circus
Tiny Starman goes to the circus. Or at least he tries. The scheme Starman has stumbled onto has the Brain Wave's men bringing a circus to town, and in this Depression-era, what better way to draw people form their homes and businesses than with a free day at the circus. With most of the population abandoning the town, it's ripe for the picking, and the Brain Wave's lackeys give it their best shot, only to be stopped by the miniature man of the stars.

The Atom gets dropped off in Keystone City (which will become the future home of Jay Garrick, The Flash) where he finds men purposely getting injured in a variety of ways, whether it be throwing themselves in front of a bus or off of ladders. It all seems quite bizarre, until The tiny Atom finds out all the men brought to the hospital are criminals. It is all part of Brain Wave's scheme to rob the hospital of radium inside the safe. His men already past security and inside, they pick up firearms that were planted earlier and get to work. But, the Atom gets to work too, and used to being smaller than his average foe, puts a stop to the scheme, even at eight inches tall.  Of course, he too, ends up scooped up by the Thunderbolt in an effort to aid Johnny Thunder.

A majority of the JSA's missions had to do with robberies or break-ins. It's sort of surprising that it's goofball Johnny Thunder's mission that is the darkest and most dire. The Brain Wave has a lackey who has been training for months to learn the attributes, inflection and life of one Senator Graves, as well as taking on his appearance. Now, the Brain Wave plans on substituting the Senator with his double and take over the Senator's wealth, power and influence. What to do with the Senator? The men plan to drown him in his own bath tub!! Like I say, a little dark for a Johnny Thunder adventure.

crime does not pay...enough to afford pants.
Miniature Johnny seems even less effectual than normal with his diminutive size, even being placed in an icebox by the criminals at one point. It seems hopeless, until Johnny realizes he has the power of the magic Thunderbolt on his side, and saying those magic words (Cei U!) returns to normal size, summons the rest of the JSA, and puts an end to the kidnapping/death/impersonation plot.

As the JSA marches onward to Shark Tooth Bay to bring the Brain Wave to justice, the criminal mastermind doesn't plan on coming along easily, and actually wants the JSA to come, as he has lined the outside of his compound with explosives, ready to detonate.

However, the sudden appearance of the genie-like Thunderbolt inside the Brain Wave's headquarters throws the evil genius for a stammering loop, sending him into a tizzy and frantically setting off the detonator.

Little does Brain Wave suspect, however, that Thunderbolt moved all the explosives under the tower at Shark Tooth Bay, sending the criminal's hideout (and supposedly the genius himself) up into a blast of fiery debris.

The story itself was nothing groundbreaking. The Justice Society has certainly been through adventures with a little more depth, but lets not forget the audience this was aimed at - young children under the age of 14 back in the 1940s. "Too absurd" wasn't really in the vernacular, and some of Gardner Fox's scripts certainly pushed that to the limit.

As I've mentioned earlier, though, the issue is significant in and of itself in comic lore for having the first recurring villain for the Justice Society (who were, themselves history's first team of super heroes), even if that villain was a bald man in a robe and slippers.