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.