The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-51-X

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being tested in the early 1990s DC Comics produced a line of glorious hardback compilations spotlighting star characters and celebrating standout stories from the company’s illustrious and varied history decade by decade. They even branched out into themed collections which shaped the output of the industry to this day.

The Greatest Stories collections were revived this century as smaller paperback editions (with mostly differing content) and stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s Greatest Superheroes. However for sheer physical satisfaction the older, larger books are by far the better product. Some of them made it to softcover trade paperback editions, but if you can afford it, the big hard ones are the jobs to go for…

From the moment a kid first sees his second superhero the only thing he/she wants is to see how the new costumed marvel stacks up against the first. From the earliest days of the industry (and according to Julie Schwartz’s fascinating introduction here, it was the same with the pulps and dime novels that preceded them) we’ve wanted our idols to meet, associate, battle together – and if you follow the Timely/Marvel model, that means against each other – far more than we want to see them trounce their archenemy one more time…

The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told gathers together a stunning variety of classic tales and a few less famous but still worthy aggregations of heroes, but cleverly kicks off with a union of bad-guys in the Wayne Boring illustrated tale ‘The Terrible Trio!’ (Superman #88, March 1954) as the Man of Steel’s wiliest foes, Lex Luthor, Toyman and the Prankster joined forces to outwit and destroy him, whilst World’s Finest Comics #82 (May-June 1956) saw Batman and Robin join the Man of Tomorrow in a time-travelling romp to 17th century France as ‘The Three Super-Musketeers!’, helping embattled D’Artagnan solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.

A lot of these stories are regrettably uncredited, but nobody could miss the stunning artwork of Dick Sprang here, and subsequent research has since revealed writer Edmond Hamilton and inker Stan Kaye were also involved in crafting this terrific yarn.

Kid heroes prevailed when Superman was murdered and the Boy Wonder travelled back in time to enlist the victim’s younger self in ‘Superboy Meets Robin’ (Adventure Comics #253, October 1953) illustrated by Al Plastino, whilst two of that title’s venerable back-up stars almost collided in an experimental crossover from issue #267 (December 1959).

At this time Adventure starred Superboy and featured Aquaman and Green Arrow as supporting features. ‘The Manhunt on Land’, with art from Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris, saw villainous Shark Norton trade territories with Green Arrow’s foe The Wizard. Both parts were written by Robert Bernstein, and the two heroes and their sidekicks worked the same case with Aquaman fighting on dry land whilst the Emerald Archer pursued his enemy beneath the waves in his own strip; ‘The Underwater Archers’, illustrated by the excellent Lee Elias.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was one of the “Baby Boomer” crowd who grew up with Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new. And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with obvious deference…

It all began, naturally enough, in The Flash, flagship title of the Silver Age Revolution. After ushering in the triumphant return of the costumed superhero, the Scarlet Speedster, with Fox and Broome at the reins, set an unbelievably high standard for metahuman adventure in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

Fox didn’t write many Flash scripts at this time, but those few he did were all dynamite. None more so than the full-length epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever. ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, illustrated by Infantino and Joe Giella) introduced alternate Earths to the continuity which resulted in the multiversal structure of the DCU, Crisis on Infinite Earths and all succeeding cosmos-shaking crossover sagas since. And of course where DC led, others followed…

During a benefit gig Flash (police scientist Barry Allen) accidentally slips into another dimension where he finds the comic-book champion he based his own superhero identity upon actually exists. Every adventure he’d avidly absorbed as an eager child was grim reality to Jay Garrick and his mystery-men comrades on the controversially named Earth-2. Locating his idol Barry convinces the elder to come out of retirement just as three Golden Age villains, Shade, Thinker and the Fiddler make their own wicked comeback… Thus is history made and above all else, ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ is still a magical tale that can electrify today’s reader.

The story generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so after a few more trans-dimensional test runs the ultimate team-up was delivered to slavering fans. ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ (Justice League of America #21, August 1963) and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (#22) combine to become one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most important tales in American comics. When ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ introduced the concept of Infinite Earths and multiple heroes to the public, pressure had begun almost instantly to bring back the actual heroes of the “Golden Age”. Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, though, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet put readers off. If they could see us now…

The story by Fox, Mike Sekowsky Bernard Sachs finds a coalition of assorted villains from each Earth plundering at will and trapping the mighty Justice League in their own HQ. Temporarily helpless the heroes contrive a desperate plan to combine forces with the champions of a bygone era and the result is pure comicbook majesty. It’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this saga. I was a drooling kid in short trousers when I first read it and the thrills haven’t diminished with this umpty-first re-reading. This is what superhero comics are all about!

The wonderment continues here with a science fiction hero team-up from Mystery in Space #90, which had been the home of star-spanning Adam Strange since issue #53 and with #87 Schwartz moved Hawkman and Hawkgirl into the back-up slot, and even granted them occasional cover-privileges before they graduated to their own title. These were brief, engaging action pieces but issue #90 (March 1964) was a full-length mystery thriller pairing the Winged Wonders and Earth’s interplanetary expatriate in a spectacular End-of the-World(s) epic.

‘Planets in Peril!’ written by Fox, illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, found our fragile globe instantly transported to the Alpha-Centauri system and heading for a fatal collision with the constantly-under-threat world of Rann at the behest of a scientific madman who eventually proved no match for the high-flying, rocket-powered trio.

Before settling into a comfortable pattern as a Batman team-up title, Brave and the Bold had been a high-adventure anthology, a try-out book like Showcase and a floating team title, pairing disparate heroes together for one-off  adventures. One of the very best of these was ‘The Challenge of the Expanding World’ (#53, April-May 1964) in which the Atom and Flash strove valiantly to free a sub-atomic civilisation from a mad dictator and simultaneously battled to keep that miniature planet from explosively enlarging into our own.

This astounding thriller from Bob Haney and the incredible Alex Toth was followed in the next B&B issue by the origin of the Teen Titans and that event is repeated here. ‘The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ (#54, June-July 1964) by Haney, Bruno Premiani and Charles Paris united sidekicks Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in a desperate battle against a modern wizard-come-Pied Piper who had stolen the teen-agers of American everytown Hatton Corners. The young heroes had met in the town by chance when students invited them to mediate in a long-running dispute with the town adults, but didn’t even have a team name until their second appearance.

By the end of the 1960s America was a bubbling cauldron of social turmoil and experimentation. Everything was challenged and with issue #76 of Green Lantern, Denny O’Neil and comics iconoclast Neal Adams completely redefined contemporary superhero strips with relevancy-driven stories that transformed moribund establishment super-cops into questing champions and explorers of the revolution. ‘No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!’ (O’Neil, Adams & Frank Giacoica, April 1970) is a landmark in the medium, utterly re-positioning the very concept of the costumed crusader as ardent liberal Green Arrow challenges GL’s cosy worldview as the heroes discover true villainy can wear business suits, harm people just because of skin colour and happily poison its own nest for short term gain…

Of course the fact that the story is a brilliant crime-thriller with science-fiction overtones beautifully illustrated doesn’t hurt either…

The Fabulous World of Krypton was a long-running back-up feature in Superman during the 1970s, revealing intriguing glimpses from the history of that lost world. One of the very best is ‘The Greatest Green Lantern of All’ (#257, October, 1972 by Elliot Maggin, Dick Dillin & Dick Giordano) detailing the tragic failure of avian GL Tomar-Re, dispatched to prevent the planet’s detonation and how the Guardians of the Universe had planned to use that world’s greatest bloodline…

Brave and the Bold produced a plethora of tempestuous team-ups starring Batman and his many associates, and at first glance ‘Paperchase’ (#178, September 1981) by Alan Brennert & Jim Aparo from the dying days of the title might seem an odd choice, but don’t be fooled. This pell-mell pairing of Dark Knight and the Creeper in pursuit of an uncanny serial killer is tension-packed, turbo-charged thriller of intoxicating quality.

The narrative section of this collaborative chronicle concludes with the greatest and most influential comics writer of the 1980s, combining his signature character with DC guiding icon for a moody, melancholy masterpiece of horror-tinged melodrama. From DC Comics Presents #85 (September 1985) comes ‘The Jungle Line’ by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch & Al Williamson wherein Superman contracts a fatal disease from a Kryptonian spore and plagued by intermittent powerlessness, oncoming madness and inevitable death, deserts his loved ones and drives slowly south to die in isolation.

Mercifully in the dark green swamps he is found by the world’s plant elemental the Swamp Thing…

The book is edited by Mike Gold, Brian Augustyn & Robert Greenberger, with panoramic and comprehensive endpaper illustrations from Carmine Infantino (who blue-printed the Silver Age of Comicbooks) and text features ‘The Ghosts of Frank and Dick Merriwell’, ‘That Old Time Magic’ and a captivating end-note article ‘Just Imagine, Your Favourite Heroes…’. However for fans of all ages possibly the most beguiling feature in this volume is the tantalising cover reproduction section: team-ups that didn’t make it into this selection, filling in all the half-page breaks which advertised new comics in the originals. I defy any nostalgia-soaked fan not to start muttering “got; got; need it; Mother threw it away…”

This unbelievably enchanting collection is a pure package of superhero magnificence: fun-filled, action-packed and utterly addictive.
© 1954-1985, 1989 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Justice Society Volume 2

By Paul Levitz, Joe Staton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1194-3

This second of twin volumes gathering the 1970s revival of the fabled Justice Society of America collects issues #68-74 of All-Star Comics plus the series’ continuation and conclusion from giant anthology title Adventure Comics #461-466.

Set on the parallel world of Earth-2 the veteran team was leavened with a smattering of teen heroes combined into a contentious, generation-gap fuelled “Super Squad” – although by the start of this book that rather naff sub-title has been quietly dropped and the assembled multi-generational team are all JSA-ers. .

Those youngsters included a grown up Robin, Sylvester Pemberton, the Star-Spangled Kid (a teen superhero from the 1940s who had been lost in time for decades) and a busty young nymphet who quickly became the feisty favourite of a generation of growing boys: Kara Zor-L – Power Girl.

By issue #68 (October, 1977) the curvy Kryptonian was clearly the star of the show and as ‘Divided We Stand!’ by Paul Levitz, Joe Staton & Bob Layton, concluded a long-running scheme by the villainous Psycho-Pirate to discredit and destroy the JSA she was well on the way to her first solo outing in Showcase #97-98 (reprinted in Power Girl). Meanwhile Green Lantern resumed a maniacal rampage through Gotham City and Police Commissioner Bruce Wayne took steps to bring the seemingly out-of control team to book.

In #69’s ‘United We Fall!’ Commissioner Wayne bought in his own team of retired JSA-ers to arrest the “rogue” heroes, resulting in a classic fanboy dream duel as Dr. Fate, Wildcat, Hawkman, Flash, GL and Star Spangled Kid battled the one-time Batman, Robin, Hourman, Starman, Dr. Midnight and Wonder Woman. It was a colourful catastrophe in waiting until Power Girl and Superman intervened to reveal the true cause of all the madness. And in the background, a new character was about to make a landmark debut…

With order (temporarily) restored ‘A Parting of the Ways!’ focussed on Wildcat and Star Spangled Kid as the off-duty heroes stumbled upon a high-tech gang of super-thieves called the Strike Force. The robbers initially proved too much for the pair and even new star The Huntress, but with a pair of startling revelations in ‘The Deadliest Game in Town!’ the trio finally triumphed. In the aftermath the Kid resigned and the daughter of Batman and Catwoman (alternate Earth, remember?) replaced him.

All-Star Comics #72 reintroduced a couple of classic Golden Age villainesses in ‘A Thorn by Any Other Name’ as the floral psychopath returned to poison Wildcat, leaving Helena Wayne to battle the original Huntress for the cure and the rights to the name…

The concluding ‘Be it Ever So Deadly’ (with Joe Giella taking over the in inkers role) saw the entire team in action as Huntress battled Huntress whilst Thorn and the Sportsmaster did their deadly best to destroy the heroes and their loved ones. Simultaneously in Egypt Hawkman and Dr. Fate stumbled upon a deadly ancient menace to all of reality…

The late 1970s was a perilous period for comics with drastically dwindling sales. Many titles were abruptly cancelled in a “DC Implosion” and All-Star Comics was one of the casualties. Issue #74 was the last and pitted the entire team against a mystic Armageddon perpetrated by the nigh-omnipotent Master Summoner who orchestrated a ‘World on the Edge of Ending’ before once more the Justice Society triumphed.

Although their book was gone the series continued in the massive 68 page anthology title Adventure Comics, beginning in #461 with the blockbuster tale intended for the anniversary 75th issue. Drawn and inked by Staton, ‘Only Legends Live Forever’ detailed the last case of Batman as the Dark Knight came out of retirement to battle a seeming nonentity who had mysteriously acquired god-like power.

Divided into two chapters, #462 delivered the shocking conclusion ‘The Legend Lives Again!’ whilst ‘The Night of the Soul Thief!’ saw Huntress, Robin and the assembled JSA deliver righteous justice to the mysterious mastermind who had truly orchestrated the death of the World’s Greatest Detective.

Adventure #464 provided an intriguing insight into aging warrior Wildcat as with ‘To Everything There is a Season…’ he embraced his own mortality and began a new career as a teacher of heroes, whilst ‘Countdown to Disaster!’ (inked by Dave Hunt) saw Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Power Girl, Huntress and Dr. Fate hunt a doomsday device lost in the teeming masses of Gotham. It would be last modern solo outing of the team for decades.

But not the last in this volume: that honour falls to another Levitz & Staton landmark history lesson wherein they revealed why the team vanished at beginning of the 1950s. From Adventure #466 ‘The Defeat of the Justice Society!’ showed how the American Government betrayed their greatest champions during the McCarthy Witch-hunts provoking them into withdrawing from public, heroic life for over a decade – that is until the costumed stalwarts of Earth-1 started the whole Fights ‘n’ Tights scene all over again…

Although perhaps a little dated now, these exuberant, rapid-paced and imaginative yarns perfectly blend the naive charm of Golden Age derring-do with cynical yet hopeful modern sensibilities that will always hold out hope for hero to save the day. Fun, furious and ferociously fun, this is stuff non mystery-man maven can do without.
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 2006 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Justice Society Volume 1

By Gerry Conway, Paul Levitz, Wally Wood, Joe Staton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0970-4

In the turbulent 1970s many old publishing ideas were finally laid to rest. The belief that characters could be “over-exposed” was one of the most long-lasting, garnered from years of experience in an industry that lived or died on that fractional portion of pennies derived each month from the pocket money and allowances of children which wasn’t spent on candy, toys or movies.

By the end of the 1960s comicbook costs and prices were inexorably rising and a proportion of titles – especially the newly revived horror stories – were consciously being produced for older readerships. Nearly a decade of organised fan publications and letter writing crusades had finally convinced publishing bean-counters what editors already knew: grown-ups avidly read comics too; they would happily spend more than kids and they wanted more, more, more of what they loved.

Explicitly: If one appearance per month was popular, extras, specials and second series would be more so. By the time Marvel Wunderkind Gerry Conway was ready to leave Marvel, DC was willing to expand its variegated line-up with some oft-requested fan-favourite characters. Paramount among these was the Justice Society of America, the first comicbook super-team and a perennial gem whose annual guest-appearances in the Justice League of America had become an inescapable and beloved summer tradition.

Thus in 1976 along with Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Secret Society of Super-Villains, Freedom Fighters, Kobra, Blitzkrieg and many others Conway signalled his DC tenure by reviving All Star Comics with number #58 (the original title had transformed overnight into All Star Western with that number running for a further decade as the home of such cowboy crusaders as Strong Bow, the Trigger Twins, Johnny Thunder and Super-Chief.

Set on the parallel world of Earth-2 and in keeping with the editorial sense of keeping the series relevant to young readers too, Conway reintroduced the veteran team and leavened it with a smattering of teen heroes, combined into a contentious, generation-gap fuelled “Super Squad”.

The youngsters included Robin (already a JSA member since the mid 1960s – see Showcase Presents the Justice League of America volume 3), Sylvester Pemberton, The Star-Spangled Kid (in actuality a teen superhero from the 1940s who had spent decades lost in time) and a busty young nymphet who quickly became the feisty favourite of a generation of growing boys: Kara Zor-L AKA Power Girl.

This first of twin volumes gathers all the 1970s tales into a fine showcase of different, ever-changing times and includes All-Star Comics 58-67 plus the seminal DC Special #29 which, after almost four decades, finally gave the JSA an origin…

After a three-page recap by Paul Levitz, Joe Staton & Bob Layton, outlining the history and mechanics of the alternate Earths, the first tale found newly-adopted Star-Spangled Kid chafing at his time-lost plight and revelling in his new powers (he had been given a cosmic power device by retired veteran Starman) in Seattle when a crisis propelled him and elder heroes Flash, Dr. Mid-Nite, Wildcat, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Dr. Fate into a three-pronged calamity devastating that city, Cape Town and Peking (which you youngsters now know as Beijing) with man-made natural disasters.

The veterans split up but were overwhelmed, giving the new kids a chance to shine in ‘All Star Super-Squad’. With the abrasive, impatient Power Girl in the vanguard the entire team is soon on the trail of old foe Degaton and his mind-bending ally in the concluding ‘Brainwave Blows Up!’ by Conway, Ric Estrada and Wally Wood.

Kieth Giffen replaced Estrada in issue #60 for the introduction of psychotic super-arsonist ‘Vulcan: Son of Fire!’ as age divide began to chafe and Power Girl began to tick off and re-educate the stuffy, paternalistic JSA elders. In ‘Hellfire and Holocaust’ the flaming fury mortally wounded Dr. Fate before his own defeat, and a new mystic menace was uncovered.

Conway’s last issue as scripter was #62’s ‘When Fall the Mighty’ as antediluvian sorcerer Zanadu attacked, whilst the criminal Injustice Gang opened their latest attack using mind-control to turn friend against friend…

The cast expanded with the return of Hourman and Power Girl’s Kryptonian mentor, but even they were insufficient to prevent ‘The Death of Doctor Fate’ (written by Paul Levitz and fully illustrated by the inimitable Wally Wood). Attacked on all sides, the team splintered: Wildcat, Hawkman and the Kryptonians tackling the assembled super-villains, Flash and Green Lantern searching Egypt for a cure to Fate’s condition and Hourman, Mid-Nite and Star-Spangled Kid desperately attempting to keep their fallen comrade alive.

They fail and Zanadu attacked again, almost adding Fate’s defenders to his tally until the sorcerer’s very presence called him back from beyond the grave…

With the crisis averted Superman prepared to leave but was quickly embroiled in a manic time-travel assassination plot (Levitz & Wood) that dragged the team and guest-star Shining Knight from an embattled Camelot in ‘Yesterday Begins Today!’ to the far-flung future and ‘The Master Plan of Vandal Savage’ a breathtaking spectacle of drama and excitement that signalled Wood’s departure from the series.

Joe Staton & Bob Layton had the unenviable task of filling his artistic shoes, beginning with #66 as ‘Injustice Strikes Twice!’ with the reunited team, sans Superman, falling prey to an ambush from their arch-enemies, whilst the emotion-warping Psycho-Pirate began to twist Green Lantern into a maniac menace determined to crush Corporate America leading to the return of Earth-2’s Bruce Wayne, who had eschewed his masked persona to become Gotham’s Police Commissioner.

The Injustice Society had monstrous allies and in ‘Attack of the Underlord!’ a subterranean race nearly ended the tea forever. Meanwhile Wayne laid plans to close down the JSA before their increasingly destructive exploits demolished his beloved city…

The modern adventures pause here and this first colourful chronicle closes with the aforementioned classified case from DC Special #29 (September 1977). ‘The Untold Origin of the Justice Society’ by Levitz, Staton & Layton, reveals how in 1940 Adolf Hitler acquired the mystical Spear of Destiny and summoned mythical Teutonic Valkyries to aid in the imminent invasion of Britain.

Alerted to the threat, American President Roosevelt, hampered by his country’s neutrality, asks a select band of masked mystery-men to lend their aid privately. In a cataclysmic escalation the struggle ranged from the heart of Europe, throughout the British Isles and even to the Oval office of the White House before ten bold costumed heroes finally – if only temporarily – stopped the Nazis evil plans…

These classic tales from a simpler time are a glorious example of traditional superhero storytelling at its finest: engaging, exciting and perfectly illustrated. No Fights ‘n’ Tights fan can afford to miss these marvellous sagas.

© 1976, 1977, 2006 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

JLA volume 5: Justice for All

By Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Howard Porter & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-110-6

By the time of the fifth collection featuring the breathtaking adventures of the World’s Greatest Superheroes, a pattern for gargantuan epics and mind-boggling conceptual endeavours had been well established and re-originators Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, whilst patiently laying the complex groundwork for a “Big Finish” saga were increasingly sharing creator credits with the cream of the comics-making premier division.

This book, collecting issues #24-33 of the monthly comic-book, also includes contributions from writers Mark Waid, Mark Millar & Devin Grayson and art by Mark Pajarillo, John Dell, Walden Wong & Marlo Alquiza, but begins with Morrison and Porter (with Dell on inks) in cracking form, introducing a brand-new super-team in ‘Executive Action’ as the American military, in the form of General Wade Eiling, announced its own metahuman unit “The Ultramarine Corps”.

The four-person squad was officially tasked with pre-emptively defending America from paranormal threats, but as the JLA (and long-term DC fans) were aware Eiling had a long history of covert, “black-bag” and just plain illegal operations and remained duly suspicious. When the Corps stole the artificial body of major League foe Shaggy Man everyone concerned knew it was bad news but even they were unprepared for ‘Scorched Earth’ wherein Eiling set his Ultramarines and the beleaguered US army against the heroes.

Meanwhile New God members of the JLA were preparing for the imminent cosmic threat they had enlisted to confront (and which would finally materialise in the next volume) whilst Batman, Huntress and Plastic Man infiltrated the General’s base to discover his real motives…

The spectacular revelatory conclusion came in ‘Our Army At War’ (with art by Pajarillo & Wong) as Eiling’s plans were disclosed and the truth about the Ultramarines was uncovered. The net result was the disillusioned super-soldiers setting up their own operation independent of any national influence and beginning to gather like-minded costumed champions for a First-Strike force. They would soon return…

Time-travelling future-robot Hourman replaced the Martian Manhunter for a while and Mark Millar, Pajarillo, Wong & Marlo Alquiza crafted ‘The Bigger They Come…’ a delightfully retrospective yarn which saw size-changing physicist Ray Palmer return to service as the Atom when power-stealing super-android Amazo was accidentally reactivated.

The main event of this volume is a JLA/JSA team-up ‘Crisis Times Five’ (by Morrison, Porter & Dell). The thunderbolt Genie of Johnny Thunder returned with a new master and reality was grievously assaulted by unnatural disasters and magical monsters. Somehow, Triumph, an old friend and foe of the League, was at the heart of it all but promptly found himself trapped in a true Devil’s Bargain…

In ‘World Turned Upside Down…’ with reason on the run the assembled champions of League and Society battled rampant magical chaos, retrofitting a little more secret history as the assorted sprites, Djinn and pixies of the Silver Age DC Universe were revealed to be something far more sinister, and ‘Worlds Beyond’ saw those Genies reduced to civil war; concluding with ‘Gods & Monsters’ as a vast army of united heroes saved reality in the nick of time and space…

‘Inside Job’ (Waid and Devin Grayson with art by Pajarillo & Wong) is deeply embedded in company continuity, set during the Batman: No Man’s Land publishing event and referencing one of the League’s first cases (for which see JLA: Year One) as genetic supremacists Locus returned to make quake-devastated Gotham City their private Petri-dish and releasing a mutagenic terror-virus that not even the JLA could combat…

The book ends with Waid, Pajarillo & Wong’s ‘Altered Egos’ as Batman led a plainclothes mission to discover who – or what – was masquerading as Bruce Wayne: an unexpectedly violent mission which resulted in the return of the League’s most dangerous opponents…

Although Justice For All is as compelling and engrossing as the preceding four volumes the inevitable slippage into company history and continuity means that some tales here might well confuse or even bewilder newer readers; but for all that the action, wit, imagination and sheer fun of these stories should still provide immense enjoyment for devotees of Costumed Dramas and Fight ‘n’ Tights fiction.- and after all, isn’t that inconvenience exactly what footnotes, search-engines and back-issue comics shops are for?

Compelling, challenging and never afraid of looking back fondly or laughing at itself, the new JLA was an all-out effort to be Thrilling, Smart and Fun. For a brief moment in the team’s long and chequered career these were the “World’s Greatest Superheroes” and increasingly ambitious epics, broken up by short, sharp single-issue sorties reminded everybody of the fact. This is the kind of joyous frolic that nobody should ever outgrow and these are graphic novels to be read and re-read forever…

© 1998, 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA volume 10: Black Vengeance

By Geoff Johns, Don Kramer & Keith Champagne (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-256-8

New, Extended Review

The addictive super-hero soap opera (originally published as JSA #66-75 of the monthly magazine) stepped into high gear as the younger stalwarts of the team once more went time-travelling: this time back to the immediate post-war years to thwart a plot to prevent the Justice Society from ever coming out of retirement, after the House un-American Activities Commission and Senator Joe McCarthy forced them to disappear in 1951.

But before that engaging time-paradox romp got underway attention returned briefly to the once-rogue state of Kahndaq (see JSA: Black Reign) wherein ‘Prologue’ by Geoff Johns, Don Kramer & Keith Champagne showed the size-changing Atom Smasher having doubts about the efficacy and ethics of the way the newly liberated country was progressing under Black Adam’s reign. Suddenly, he is summoned by mysterious, autocratic Time Master Rip Hunter to save hid erstwhile Justice Society comrades…

Illustrated by Dave Gibbons and James Hodgkins, the scene shifted to 1951 where Fascistic time-meddler Per Degaton was once more attempting to bend reality to his will…

‘Making History’ (art by Kramer & Champagne) revisits a seminal 1979 JSA tale by Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, originally published in Adventure Comics #466 and collected in the second volume of Justice Society (coming soon to this blog) which revealed the reason that the team retired was due to witch-hunts and political pressure from the US government’s House Un-American Activities Commission. Rather than reveal their secret identities the team simply ceased to operate, only coming out of retirement once the oppressive climate abated. Now Degaton was twisting events to ensure his hated enemies never returned…

Hunter’s attempts to stop him have convinced the murderous mastermind to eradicate the 21st century team and all their friends and families before they can journey to 1951 and interfere…

‘Guardian Angels’ and ‘High Societies’ found the hastily assembled rescue team encountering unexpected problems as they worked to counter the Time Nazi, especially for  Mr. Terrific, a brilliant African-American who couldn’t even ride in the same vehicles as his time-transplanted white companions.

A scene depicting how the Ku Klux Klan responded to a black man who wasn’t afraid of them and subsequently got the kicking of their vile lives is a delightfully gratuitous and vicarious joy that still warms my old liberal heart and absolutely stole the show before the timely assistance of two generations of Hourman in ‘Past Mistakes’ turned the tide and the forces of good finally, magnificently triumphed in ‘JSA/JSA: Conclusion’.

The controversial and contentious Kahndaq saga is then resolved with the eponymous three-parter ‘Black Vengeance’ (drawn by Kramer, Leonard Kirk and Stephen Sadowski with inks from Champagne & Michael Bair) as the morally bereft Atom Smasher, once more with the JSA, surrenders himself to a higher justice just as Eclipso and the Spectre begin their combined assault on magic (which formed the basis of the Infinite Crisis prequel series Day of Vengeance: you don’t need to read them to enjoy or understand this story, but it is recommended…) resulting in a devastating conflict that destroys the body and soul of the country and its inhabitants…

This volume is a little disjointed in places as it serves to clear up long running plot-lines whilst asking a few more pertinent questions about US imperialism as seen from the perspective of the citizens of the fictional middle-Eastern nation which was regularly reduced to rubble and collateral damage statistics whenever super-powers and Superpowers came into play.

Despite the prevalent political overtones, this is still primarily a simple hero-fest for fans of the genre, and delivers high-quality escapism for the faithful, although the uninitiated might find the implicit back-story a tad hard to grasp. At this time the entire DC line was gearing up for major changes beyond their Infinite Crisis publishing event and the narrative throat-clearing here allowed everybody concerned a few final dalliances with the World’s First Super-Team before the Big Boom got lowered (and for those last two excellent escapades check out the final two volumes of this graphic novel sequence JSA: Mixed Signals and JSA: Ghost Stories).

A shaky moment in an otherwise superlative series, but this is still a book well worth pursuing and a saga worth reading over and over again.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA volume 8: Black Reign

By Geoff Johns, Morales, Kramer, Bair & Champagne (DC Comics)

ISBN 1-84023-984-0

New, Extended Review

All periodical fiction (even television shows) walk a tricky tightrope when they try to inject a semblance of contemporary relevance into their narratives, weighing popular cachet and increased interest against potential controversy, accusations of “cashing in” and especially the risk that by the time of release the cause célèbre has faded from public consciousness.

There’s even the ever-present threat of lawsuits such as in the infamous, never, ever to be reprinted ‘Cursed Earth’ episodes of 2000AD wherein the creators of Judge Dredd aroused the litigious ire of the world’s two largest fast-food empires with what we all thought was a funny, fabulous piece of satire…

Here however, damning the consequences, superheroes once more got all geo-political in the eighth compilation of the excellent, award-winning JSA (collecting issues #56-58 as well as Hawkman #23-25) wherein a breakaway branch of current and ex-members invaded an oddly allegorical (lawyers, politicians and media-moguls read comics too remember?) Middle-Eastern country to depose a monstrous and tyrannical dictator and liberate his oppressed subjects.

This naturally leads to the right-thinking defenders of the status quo and champions of democracy having to go in and stop their erstwhile comrades since these actions contravene the long-cherished, unspoken principle of super-hero ideology that Good Guys don’t mess with political injustice and issues. The flagrant and wilful abuse of this principle is, of course, the guiding concept behind the hugely enjoyable series The Authority and even Justice League Elite

The action begins in the eponymous ‘Black Reign’ illustrated by Don Kramer & Keith Champagne, as magical superman Black Adam leads a team of like-minded heroes (Atom Smasher, Brainwave, super-assassin Nemesis, a new Eclipso and mutated human hawk Northwind) in a bloody campaign to liberate the rogue state of Kahndaq – the middle-Eastern land Adam ruled five millennia ago and one currently suffering under a military dictatorship.

Once the regime-change has been accomplished however the real problems – and calamitous bloodletting – begin…

When originally released the tale alternated with Hawkman’s own comicbook, and the second chapter, with art by Rags Morales & Michael Bair, saw the Winged Wonder pressgang his own teammates into going after the renegade liberators, even seizing the role of chairman from a bewildered Mr. Terrific, but forces beyond mortal ken were also aligned against the JSA, and with Dr. Fate distracted one of their number sustained a fatal wound.

As the death-toll escalated a sinister old foe was discovered, but to the astonishment of the JSA, had been nothing more than a contributory factor to a much more ancient and human problem: men will fight for the stupidest reasons…

With the heroes ultimately forced to see themselves through victim’s eyes and in unaccustomed roles, every troubled stalwart was compelled to thoroughly reconsider his/her/its position…

Even with a little time and distance it’s impossible to escape the rather heavy-handed political allusions to America’s dubious foreign policy adventures, but by fictionalising such commentary do creators run the risk of also trivialising it? Brutal and deeply jarring, ‘Black Reign’ is a bold but heavy-handed tale from America’s “War on Terror” era which, whilst still being a massive soul-searching punch-up, culminating in a portentously inconclusive stalemate, genuinely attempted to address political issues and involve an audience notoriously ambivalent to real-world issues.

I have diametrically changed my opinion on the book since I first reviewed it six years ago. Perhaps that’s a relevant message for the real world and comic fans alike. Moreover, if all actually you want is an exceptional graphic novel to read, there’s probably nothing better than this stirring saga. After all, it’s only a comic, right?

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hawkman Volume 1: Endless Flight

By Geoff Johns, James Robinson, Rags Morales & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84023-714-6

Although perhaps one of DC’s most long-lived and certainly their most visually iconic character, the various iterations of Hawkman have always struggled to find enough of an audience to sustain a solo title. From his beginnings as the second feature in Flash Comics, Winged Wonder Carter Hall has struggled through assorted excellent but always short-lived reconfigurations. From ancient hero to the re-imagined Thanagarian space-cop and post-Crisis on Infinite Earths freedom fighter (both named Katar Hol – see Showcase presents Hawkman volumes 1-2 and Hawkworld respectively) to the seemingly desperate but highly readable bundling together of all the past versions into the reincarnating immortal berserker-warrior of today, without ever really making it to the big time. Where’s a big-time movie producer/fan when you need one?

Hawkman premiered as the second feature in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940), created by Gardner Fox and Dennis Neville, although the most celebrated artists to have drawn this Winged Wonder are Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Kubert, whilst a young Robert Kanigher was justly proud of his later run as writer.

Carter Hall was a playboy archaeologist until he uncovered a crystal knife that unlocked his memories. He realised that once he was Prince Khufu of ancient Egypt and that he and his lover Chay-Ara had been murdered by High Priest Hath-Set. Moreover with his returned memories came the knowledge that both lover and killer were also nearby and aware…

Using the restored knowledge of his past life Hall fashioned a costume and flying harness, becoming a crime-fighting phenomenon. Soon the equally reincarnated Shiera Sanders was fighting and flying beside him as Hawkgirl. Together these ancient “Mystery-Men” battled modern crime and tyranny with weapons of the past.

Fading away at the end of the Golden Age (Hawkman’s last appearance was in All Star Comics #57, 1951 as leader of the Justice Society of America) they were revived nine years later as Katar Hol and Shayera Thal of Thanagar by Julie Schwartz’s crack creative team Gardner Fox and Joe Kubert – a more space-aged interpretation which survived until 1985’s Crisis, and their long career, numerous revamps and retcons ended during the 1994 Zero Hour crisis.

When a new Hawkgirl was created as part of a revived Justice Society comicbook, older fans knew it was only a matter of time before the Pinioned Paladin rejoined her, which he did in the superb JSA: the Return of Hawkman.

Which is where Endless Flight takes off: reprinting issues #1-6 of the comicbook that spun-off from that epic extravaganza, plus the one-shot Hawkman Secret Files. The new series begins with the reborn, reunited heroes settling into a comfortably familiar setting as museum curators in the Louisiana City of St. Roch – a venue with as great story potential as it was during the Silver Age when Katar Hol had a similar job in Midway City.

The reconstituted Hawkman now has knowledge of all his past lives: many millennia when and where he and his princess fought evil together as bird-themed champions, dying over and over at the hands of an equally renewed Hath-Set. Most importantly, Kendra Saunders, the new Hawkgirl differs from all previous incarnations. This time Shiera was not born again, but possessed the body of a grand-niece when that tragic girl committed suicide. Although Carter Hall still loves his immortal inamorata his companion of a million battles is no longer quite so secure or sure of her feelings…

‘First Impressions’ by Geoff Johns, James Robinson, Rags Morales & Michael Bair drops the couple straight into a high-flying adventure as their oldest foe orchestrates an opening attack just as a new friend goes missing in India. ‘Into the Sky’ further explores new lives and ancient civilisations as the Hawks travel to the subcontinent in a leftover Thanagarian space-cruiser and encounter old enemies Shadow-Thief and Copperhead stealing artifacts from a lost – and trans-dimensional – city.

‘Lost in the Battlelands’ sees the Feathered Furies striving against ancient Vedic warriors to save enslaved, intelligent, six-limbed elephant men, an epic struggle that concludes in a savage war of liberation in ‘Beasts of Burden’.

Meanwhile back home in St. Roch, millionaire Kristopher Roderic is laying sinister long-term plans and a superlative archer is committing murders in the street…

‘Hidden Past and Hidden Future’, by Johns, Patrick Gleason & Christian Alamy, reveals Shadow-Thief’s connection to Roderick whilst retelling the ancient tragedy of Prince Khufu, his betrothed Chay-Ara and their betrayal by the Priest Hath-Set, before ‘Slings and Arrows’ (Johns, Robinson, Morales & Bair) finds Hawkman butting heads with old “Frenemy” Green Arrow, a cunning two-part thriller that features bad-guy bowman The Spider (fans of James Robinson’s superb Starman run will be delighted to see him again) attempting to frame the Emerald Archer and set up the Hawks to kill him…

Grim, gripping and often brutal, these opening tales of a noble savage taking back what once was his are some of the very best adventures of the Winged Wonders and hint at even greater things to come. A must-read for older fans of costumed melodramas, they are still a powerful, beautiful and compelling example of what great creators and fresh ideas can achieve with even the oldest raw material.

Don’t delay any longer. Hunt this book down now…

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA volume 7: Princes of Darkness

New Extended Review

By Geoff Johns, David Goyer & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-035-2

As a kid in the 1960s I used to love any appearance of the Justice Society of America, DC’s pioneering and popular crime-busting characters from the 1940s. They seemed full of a resonance that was equal parts Mystery and History. They belonged to the mythical land of “Before I Was Born” and their rare guest-shots always filled me with wonder and joy.

A few years ago they were permanently revived and I found very little to complain of. As superhero sagas go the stories and art were entertaining enough, often even outstanding, but with this compilation (collecting issues #46–55), I finally found myself agreeing with those wise editorial heads of my well-spent youth who felt that less was more and that over-exposure was a real and ever-present danger.

That’s not to say that these tales are in any way less than they need to be nor that the full-on, goodies-vs.-baddies extravaganzas are boring or tired. The problem is much more insidious and, I regret, more to do with me than the material. It finally became clear with this extended, spectacular struggle of valiant heroes against Darkness-wielding villains who black out the entire Earth and let evil reign free that the JSA were back for good.

But they were no longer quite so “special”.

Following on from the cliffhanger revelations of JSA: Savage Times the shadowy saga, written as ever, by David Goyer and Geoff Johns, with art from Sal Velluto, Leonard Kirk, Don Kramer, Bob Almond, Keith Champagne, & Wade von Grawbadger, opens with ‘Into the Valley’ and a blistering attack by the Chaos Lord Mordru, acting in concert with the conflicted ex-JSA-er Obsidian and the demonic spirit of rage, Eclipso.

Apparently dead, the sprit of Hector Hall, the latest Doctor Fate, travels to a distant realm for some sage advice in ‘Eclipse’ whilst on Earth, utter soul-drinking blackness has blanketed the globe unleashing the worst aspects of human nature. ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Army of Darkness’ see Fate delve deeper into a potential solution whilst on the physical plane all of the World’s heroes – and some villains – are slowly being destroyed by the irresistible wave of Night.

A turning point comes in ‘The Last Light’ as a valiant sacrifice turns one of the dark masters from foe to friend, resulting in stupendous battles and an earth-shattering climax as the heroes save the day in ‘Princes of Darkness Coda: Justice Eternity’ – with which scripter Goyer moves on to fresh pastures.

After all that angsty spectacle and shiny triumph, the team catches a collective breath in ‘Brand New Day’ with a few new members and general recuperation, unaware the Atom Smasher and Black Adam have covertly crossed a moral line which will come back to haunt them all whilst the new heroic Eclipso feels himself drawn to do likewise. The main action of the piece comes in the form of a return for haunted huntress Crimson Avenger; a woman driven by possessed handguns to execute murderers who have escaped justice. To everyone’s astonishment her latest target is veteran hero Wildcat and nothing in the universe can stop or sway her…

The tale concludes in ‘Blinded’ as the relentless Avenger and Wildcat find a unique way to satisfy the curse of her relentless pistols, whilst Black Adam continues to recruit disenchanted heroes for a new kind of super-team, and the book ends on a satisfyingly welcome lighter note with a brace of seasonal tales, beginning with a lovely, lighthearted Thanksgiving bash starring both Justice League and Society.

‘Virtue, Vice & Pumpkin Pie’ is a splendid and jolly change of pace after all the high-octane testosterone which readily displays Geoff John’s comedic flair whilst ‘Be Good for Goodness’ Sake’ finds the surviving WWII heroes (Green Lantern, Wildcat, Hawkman and the Flash) bringing a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye (comic fans being the most soft and sentimental creatures in the universe) with a Christmas present for a long-lost member, not seen since the early days of the Golden Age…

These are characters that everyone in the industry seems to venerate, and I would be churlish to deny new readers and fans a chance to discover them too, but anticipation, delayed gratification and keen imagination once made every appearance of the JSA a source of raging joy to me and a million other kids. It’s such a shame today’s readers can’t experience that unbeatable buzz too. At least the stories are high quality. It would be utterly unbearable if the team were over-exposed and sucked too…

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA volume 6: Savage Times

By Geoff Johns, David Goyer, Leonard Kirk & Keith Champagne (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84023-984-0
New Extended Review

When they’re producing what their confirmed readership wants, today’s mainstream comics publishers seem to be on comfortably solid ground, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh in my judgements when they seemingly go berserk with multi-part, braided mega-crossovers. The tale collected as Savage Times is top notch, well crafted, standard comic book fare, but I just can’t escape the nagging worry that by only regurgitating the past – no matter how well – ultimately you’re only diminishing the business and the medium.

This volume gathers together issues #39-45 of the monthly JSA title, and as costumed capers go, it is a saga packed with action, excitement, soap opera tension , humour and that heady mix of continuity in-filling we fan-boys adore…

The drama begins with two stand-alone tales ‘Power Crush’ by Goyer, Johns, Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy, starring the unfeasibly pneumatic and feisty Power Girl as she deals in characteristically direct manner with a metahuman stalker obsessed with her prodigious physical charms, before moving into far more sinister territory with ‘…Do No Harm’ (by Leonard Kirk & Keith Champagne who also illustrated the rest of this book) as Star-Spangled Kid and Captain Marvel must use extreme care to rescue an entire school from a sadistic telepathic suicide bomber, whilst Doctor Mid-Nite struggles to keep the monster’s geriatric master alive on the operating table…

The main event begins in the ‘Unborn Hour’ as a time-travelling villain accidentally shifts some of the Justice Society back to 1944 and a climactic meeting with the first Mister Terrific. In ‘Paradox Play’ the malfunctioning time vehicle sends Captain Marvel to ancient Egypt, and after defeating the chronal marauder, Hawkgirl and Terrific’s modern successor follow the world’s mightiest mortal into a spectacular confrontation with the immortal conqueror Vandal Savage and an elemental metamorph determined to lay waste the Black Lands.

Meanwhile the new Doctor Fate is in another dimension seeking answers to the mystery of his comatose wife…

‘Yesterday’s War’ unites the modern heroes with Egypt’s champions Nabu, Prince Khufu, Chay-Ara (Hawkgirl’s own earlier incarnation) and Black Adam – who is both hero and villain in the JSA’s own time – but as the war goes against the beleaguered defenders Marvel and Adam are dispatched to the Land of the Dead to seek godly aid in ‘The Tears of Ra’, wherein the Black Marvel’s tragic history is poignantly revealed…

With Savage defeated and history restored, the book closes on a treble cliffhanger in ‘Princes of Darkness Prologue: Peacemakers’ as Doctor Fate returns to discover the true nature of the woman he believed to be his long-lost wife, the genocidal terrorist Kobra smugly escapes his long-deserved fate and the Society’s most powerful foe reveals how he has manipulated the team from the start…

It’s always unsatisfying to reach the end of a book but not the story, so even though this is a class superhero act it is hard to not feel a bit resentful, even though the next volume promises everything a fan could wish for.

At least the thing has already been published. Maybe you shouldn’t wait for my impending follow-up graphic novel review but just get this book and JSA: Princes of Darkness right away…
© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA volume 5: Stealing Thunder

By Geoff Johns, David Goyer & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-667-5

The groundbreaking reinvention of the World’s first super-team continued apace with these compelling thrillers which originally appeared in JSA #32-38, beginning with a chilling peek into the life of the new Crimson Avenger: a haunted woman compelled to hunt down murderers by her own magic guns. Her irresistible compulsion has brought her to her next target – one of the Society’s greatest heroes…

‘Death Duty’ is illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg who also provided the pictures for the ‘Stealing Thunder Prologue’ wherein octogenarian hero Johnny Thunder, miraculously cured of senile dementia, reclaimed his magical Thunderbolt genie from his successor Jakeem. Unfortunately it’s all a macabre plot constructed by the body-hopping Ultra-Humanite…

The epic begins in ‘Wish Fulfillment’ (with art by Keith Giffen & Al Milgrom, Leonard Kirk & Keith Champagne), as, an unspecified time later, silicon superhero Sand awakens to discover that the Ultra-Humanite has usurped the power of the Thunderbolt and taken control of Earth. Those superbeings not directly mind-controlled and used as storm troopers are all stored in a giant body-bank.

Escaping with homicidal foe the Icicle in tow, Sand accidentally makes contact with the last free minds on the planet: Jakeem, Crimson Avenger, Power Girl, Hourman and Captain Marvel…

Kirk and Champagne continue in ‘Troublestruck’, ‘Lightning Storm’ and ‘Time-Bound’ as the desperate rebels risk everything to liberate the enslaved electric genie whilst being pursued by an murderous armada of their oldest friends before the tragic, spectacular finale returns the World to its original state in ‘Crossing Over’.

This volume ends with one of those touching “after the Apocalypse” tales: quiet, reflective and focusing on the heirs of lost heroes as Jakeem and the second Hourman contemplate their legacies and new responsibilities on ‘Father’s Day’, movingly illustrated by Stephen Sadowski and Andrew Pepoy.

By this time a fully realised superhero soap opera, Geoff Johns and the soon to depart David Goyer had made the Justice Society of America a stunning mix of old and new by blending cosmic action and human scaled drama with a memorable cast of characters. These tales are among the very best “fights and tights” adventures in contemporary comics, and should be on every old fan and potential convert’s “must-have” list.

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.