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.