By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & various (DC Comics)
After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero – for which read the launch of Superman in 1938 – the most significant event in the industry’s progress was the combination of individual sales-points into a group. Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was proven – a number of popular characters could multiply readership by combining forces. Plus of course, a whole bunch of superheroes is a lot cooler than just one – or even one and a sidekick.
And so the Justice Society of America is rightly revered as a true landmark in the development of comic books, and, when Julius Schwartz revived the superhero genre in the late 1950s, the key moment would come with the inevitable teaming of the reconfigured mystery men.
That moment came with issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold, a classical adventure title that had recently become a try-out magazine like Showcase. Just before Christmas 1959 the ads began running. “Just Imagine! The mightiest heroes of our time… have banded together as the Justice League of America to stamp out the forces of evil wherever and whenever they appear!”
Released with a March 1960 cover-date, that first tale was written by the indefatigable Gardner Fox and illustrated by the quirky and understated Mike Sekowsky with inks by Bernard Sachs, Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson. ‘Starro the Conqueror’ saw Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars defeat a marauding alien starfish whilst Superman and Batman stood by (in those naive days editors feared that their top characters could be “over-exposed” and consequently lose popularity). They also picked up a typical American kid as mascot. Snapper Carr would prove a focus of fan controversy for decades to come.
Confident of his material and the superhero genre’s fresh appeal Schwartz had two more thrillers ready for the following issues. B&B #29 saw the team defeat a marauder from the future in ‘The Challenge of the Weapons Master’ (inks by Sachs and Giella) and #30 saw their first mad-scientist arch-villain in the form of Professor Ivo and his super android Amazo. ‘The Case of the Stolen Super Powers’ by Fox, Sekowsky and Sachs ended their tryout run. Three months later the new bi-monthly title debuted.
Perhaps somewhat sedate by histrionic modern standards, the JLA was revolutionary in a comics marketplace where less than 10% of all sales featured costumed adventurers. Not only public imagination was struck by hero teams either. Stan Lee was given a copy of Justice League by his boss and told to do something similar for the tottering comics company he ran – and look what came of that!
‘The World of No Return’ introduced trans-dimensional tyrant Despero to bedevil the World’s Greatest Heroes, but once again the plucky Snapper Carr was the key to defeating the villain and saving the day. The second issue, ‘Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers’, presented an astounding conundrum. The villains of Magic-Land transposed the location of their dimension with Earth’s, causing the Laws of Science to be replaced with the Lore of Mysticism. The true mettle of our heroes (and by this time Superman and Batman were allowed a more active part in the proceedings) was shown when they had to use ingenuity rather than their powers to defeat their foes.
Issue #3 introduced the despicable Kanjar Ro who attempted to turn the team into his personal army in ‘The Slave Ship of Space’, and with the next episode the first of many new members joined the team. Green Arrow saved the day in the science-fiction thriller ‘Doom of the Star Diamond’, but was almost kicked out in #5 as the insidious Doctor Destiny inadvertently framed him ‘When Gravity Went Wild!’
‘The Wheel of Misfortune’ introduced the pernicious and persistent master of wild science Professor Amos Fortune, and #7 was another alien plot centred on an amusement park and more specifically ‘The Cosmic Fun-House!’. ‘For Sale – the Justice League!’ was a sharp crime caper where a cheap hood finds a mind control weapon that enslaves the team and once again simple Snapper Carr has to save the day.
Issue #9 is a well-known and oft-recounted tale, and the start of a spectacular run of nigh-perfect super-hero adventures. ‘The Origin of the Justice League’ recounts the circumstances of the team’s birth, an alien invasion saga that still resonates with today’s readership, and it’s followed by the series’ first continued story. ‘The Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust’ finds the World’s Greatest Superheroes battling an invader from the future when they’re spellbound by sorcerer Faust. This magician has awoken three antediluvian demons and sold them the Earth in exchange for 100 years of unlimited power. Although they defeat Faust the team have no idea that the demons are loose…
In the next instalment ‘One Hour to Doomsday’ the JLA pursue and capture The Lord of Time, but are trapped a century from their home-era by the awakened and re-empowered Demons. This level of plot complexity hadn’t been seen in comics since the closure of EC Comics, and never before in a superhero tale. It was a profound acknowledgement by the creators that the readership was no longer simply little kids – if indeed it ever had been.
These cheap compendiums are a dedicated fan’s delight. As well as superb artwork presented in pristine black and white lines, there’s enough page count to add sidebar tales that affect continuity but which originally appeared outside the canonical source. The next adventure of the JLA appeared in the pages of Mystery in Space #75 (May 1962), as the team guest-starred in a full-length thriller starring Adam Strange. Strange was an Earth archaeologist who was regularly teleported to a planet circling Alpha Centauri, where his wits and ingenuity saved the citizens of Rann from all sorts of interplanetary threats.
In ‘The Planet that came to a Standstill!’ Kanjar Ro attempted to conquer Strange’s adopted home and the gallant hero had to enlist the aid of the JLA, before once again saving the day himself. This classic team-up was written by Fox, and illustrated by the wonderful Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson.
Arch-villain Doctor Light, attempted a pre-emptive strike on the team in #12, but ‘The Last Case of the Justice League’ proved to be anything but, and with the next issue the heroes saved the entire universe by solving ‘The Riddle of the Robot Justice League’. ‘The Menace of the “Atom” Bomb’ in issue #14 was a clever way of introducing newest member The Atom whilst showing a new side to an old villain and issue #15’s ‘Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens’ added some fresh texture to the formulaic plot of extra-dimensional invaders out for our destruction.
This book ends with the challenging, intellectual poser ‘The Cavern of Deadly Spheres’, a change-of-pace tale with a narrative technique that just couldn’t be used on today’s oh-so-sophisticated audience, but still has the power to grip a reader.
These inexpensive collections are an absolute gift for modern fans that desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic. Of all the various reprint editions and formats available for classic material, these monochrome tomes are my very favourite.
© 1960-1963, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.