Friday, October 27, 2006

Everyone has something to bring to the table: Justice League of America #144

Today we're going to look at a comic I haven't had for years and read a bazillion times, although it very much feels like I have. Not in a bad way, though. My wife had a presentation at a, well, giant-ass yard sale thing; and I visited her and wandered around a bit. Not a lot of comics, a little surprisingly. Overpriced 90's issues, a couple Fantastic Four and a Mystery in Space that were too rich for me, and a little pile of old Brave and the Bold for fifty cents a pop, including this gem: Justice League of America #144, "The Origin of the Justice League--Minus One!" Written by Steve Englehart, pencils by Dick Dillin, inks by Frank McLaughlin. From the cover, or perhaps because of the dates involved within, or the guest-stars, I had thought this was an older issue until I noticed the Spalding basketball ad on the back.

The story begins with Green Arrow slamming shut a logbook of the Justice League with a very audible slam, then storming in on Green Lantern and Superman playing cards. Why everyone's hanging out on the satellite is anyone's guess, but GA is fuming that the origin of the JLA was a lie. He asks Hal when he became Green Lantern, and Hal says September 1959, the first of many hard dates in this issue. Check out the footnote:

"Comic heroes have their own ways to stop the clock and avoid aging!" Like spa treatments, steroids, deals with Satan and/or Bat-Mite...

Ollie calls them on it, although I suppose Supes and Hal could've just said, "No, the JLA formed November 1959, three years give or take. Now do you mind? I've got gin!" That wouldn't be the most exciting issue ever, though; so they go to tell GA the real story. By putting in a videotaped message from the Martian Manhunter, J'onn J'onzz. Probably should've just had Ollie watch this at his orientation, guys.

J'onn explains that the story really begins with his arrival on earth in 1955, transported from Mars by Dr. Erdel's robot-brain. Even though he was abducted, J'onn is cool about it, even though Dr. Erdel has a heart attack and dies right there. Trapped, J'onn takes a human form, finds a job as a police detective, and watches an assload of TV. Wait, that's New Frontier. Instead, J'onn finds the people of earth prosperous but paranoid, about war, martians, comics, sex, etc.

He continues to fight weird crime invisibly and work on the 'robot brain' with--is that a bevel? I think I see why you weren't having a lot of luck, J'onn, trying to fix the computer with wood shop tools. As he considers going public as a hero, Commander Blanx and his white Martians arrive in his lab. (Here, it was weird for me to see both J'onn and the white Martians look pretty much like humans, since I grew up on the Giffen/DeMatteis issues, when J'onn was occasionally seen in his real, 'Gumby' form.) As J'onn explains on the tape, before J'onn was brought to earth, Blanx had conquered the green Martians, exiled J'onn, and probably kicked some Martian puppies.

Blanx had apparently happened across J'onn teleport-beam experiments, reverse engineered them, and teleported himself and his men to get J'onn. Before they can, J'onn opens up fire--on tap!

Traditionally, we have gas, then a pilot light; but Dr. Erdel was a busy man and didn't have time for any extra steps. While it weakens him as well, J'onn is able to escape. The lab is totaled, and the white Martians have fled back to Mars, and J'onn realizes he's not in any big hurry to get his ass to Mars anymore. (The wife and daughter he lost are relatively recent additions to J'onn's origin, and not mentioned in this story.)

The next day, as Detective Jones enjoys a nice cup of coffee, the white Martians are spotted "running riot through the south side of town!" I swear, how come every time you hear about a riot, it's always the White Martians, never the green? Oh...yeah. J'onn goes and kicks white ass pretty handily, until the Flash shows up. Going invisible by reflex, Flash assumes the worst and clocks J'onn at super-speed. Being a DC Comic, though, it's ok for J'onn to talk this out:

See, that would never, ever fly at Marvel: you meet, you fight. I've been reading Marvel for like 30 years, and can think of maybe one exception, once. If you plan on being a Marvel superhero, you plan on Spidey, Captain America, and/or the Hulk punching you in the face at least once.

A bystander almost takes a shot at J'onn, but is stopped by the Flash. (Did people in the 50's routinely keep rifles in their apartments?) J'onn disappears after the escaping white Martians, and Flash is left fielding questions about what he's going to do about this alien invasion. It's supposed to be a sign of the times, with people paranoid and hateful; but it would work a little better if this wasn't at least the twentieth alien invasion in recent memory. Seriously, wasn't Batman fighting alien invasions back then? As the people start to panic, Flash announces that he will bring Superman in on it. Yeah, why not bring in another alien to stop the invasion?

Flash goes to Metropolis, and climbs the tallest building there, which Superman must watch like a hawk: Superman had been "patrolling the eastern seaboard" with Batman and Robin in tow. B & R hadn't even bothered to bring the Batplane, Batcopter, or Batmobile, they just let Superman fly them around. It's weird and awkward: like when you go to visit a friend and there's already two other guys there, that you don't really know, spend all their time together, and have their own in-jokes. Batman even suggests maybe calling in Aquaman and Green Arrow, but Flash says they've got enough guys for now. They head back for Middleton, this time with Superman carrying the Flash, Batman and Robin! As they leave, a creepy looking man pushes aside some small children, to make a call to Roy Raymond, TV Detective.

J'onn is trying to find the White Martians before Flash and everyone find him instead, and does spot three, who promptly trap him. Twenty minutes later, Superman and all arrive; and Roy Raymond's already there: he says after the tip, he and his staff had been right behind in the company jet. The SR-71 company jet, that they keep airborne at all times, by all indications: if Metropolis is around the Chicago area, and Middleton approximately Denver, if I remember my DC faux-geography...twenty minutes my hindquarters. It'd take longer to the airport then that, even circa 1959.

Raymond breaks the story, which brings in more backup: the Blackhawks! The Challengers of the Unknown! Plastic Man! The old cowboy, not the Punisher-clone, Vigilante! Plastic Man! The original, non-Doom Patrol, Robotman! Congo Bill and Congorilla! Rex, the Wonder Dog! Aquaman and Wonder Woman, who look like they arrived together! Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, just by virtue of knowing Superman and being nosy!

I wonder how they know that's Rex, the Wonder Dog, and not Sam, the shoe-eating stray. It's not like Rex told them, right? Maybe he brought a note...or his tags, duh. I like Rex, though: this retelling of his origin still makes me smile.

I know I probably seem mocking, but this page is what I love about the DC Universe: even with a guy that could move the entire planet into the next galaxy, and another guy that could kick everyone in the western hemisphere in the groin faster than I could type it; they still have a guy that talks to fish and a wonder dog on the case, just in case they need 'em. You know, if the day can't be saved by a superstrong amazon, a kickass robot, or a small army of men in jumpsuits and leather; you might think a guy who transfers his mind to a gorilla and the press corps might be intimidated, but they totally aren't.

At this point, Green Arrow wonders why he and Speedy didn't get in on this. He remembers that they were on Starfish Island...and I just spit coffee up all over my monitor. Great Rao, I hope that's not a metaphor for anything.

Since this is Brave and the Bold-vintage Batman, he's totally down for a team-up with anyone...suggestive. The heroes split into teams...really unbalanced teams. Don't play Heroclix with Batman, he'll give you Andre and Congo Bill, while taking Superman, Wonder Woman, and Rex the Wonder Dog.

The Blackhawks, plus Olsen and Plastic Man, patrol until they scan "an exceptional energy source--toopowerful for earth machines!" How a bunch of WWII vets can scan for that, I can't say. Ask a vet. Approaching a lonely cabin, they are pinned down by machine gun fire, which Plas points out isn't very Martian. As they storm the cabin, with Plastic Man coming down the chimney, they find it empty. Even invisibly, the Martians couldn't have got past them. Jimmy pipes up: "Gosh, you had 'em and you lost 'em! What're you going to tell the others?"

I have the feeling a lot of kids reading this comic when it came out cheered out loud at the newsstand on that one. The Blackhawks and Plas bag out the rest of the story, presumably to get drunk. Oh, come on, you don't need Howard Chaykin to tell you those guys drink. And the Blackhawks hate Wing? Short Round? Chop-Chop? The Asian kid in the pajamas. No cool leather uniform for you! Well, they hate him less than Jimmy, who is probably left on the mountainside, to try to make his way home in the dark...from several states away.

And the mysterious inhabitants of the cabin? Rip Hunter and sidekick Jeff, who thought the Blackhawks were "some military group, I'd guess--who got wind of our discovery somehow, and came to steal it!" They escape in Rip's time machine to the Civil War, just as confused as everyone else. Why clone Thor? Why?

Elsewhere...let's say Montana: it's got mountains, trees, campers. Why not? A motley team with the Challengers, Vigilante, Robotman, Congo Bill, and Lois Lane get a sighting of a Martian from some campers. The Martian flew and fired a ray at the campers, then took off. The men take off chasing him, but Lois intuits that whatever this is, it's probably not a Martian (if it was, it would have gone invisibly) and that it keeps coming back to a specific spot, so she waits for it.

Congo Bill puts his mind in Congorilla, and locks up his body; apparently without telling anyone what he's doing. He grabs the flier, who takes off. As everyone converges on it, the flier shakes Congorilla, who lands on Lois.

Why was Superman always so worried that Lois would get hurt or killed if they got married? The woman had a gorilla fall on her, and walked it off two panels later.

Unknown to the gathered heroes, the flier was Adam Strange. Who I guess isn't above firing warning shots at campers.

There's a little explanation on why the Zeta-beam hit in the Northern hemisphere involving a Sputnik, which is charming if dated and unbelievable.

Finally, the A-listers, plus Roy Raymond, Rex, and Aquaman (I kid!) get a summons to Cape Canaveral, where they meet Hal Jordan, test pilot and observer for an upcoming satellite launch. Hal shows Wonder Woman his chest within two panels of meeting, but I honestly can't say that seems unnatural. She's a busy woman, so cut to the chase.

At the rocket, Rex sniffs out the Martians, and Superman flushes them out with heat vision. The Martians luck out though: after they become visible, Superman stops the heat vision, which had been weakening them. The Martians are thus able to give a good fight to Superman and Wonder Woman, and Aquaman is getting faint from lack of water. Man, the writers used to flog that point, didn't they? Flash runs and brings back in his wake a ton of seawater. No, seriously: it's a wave that breaks near the top of the rocket. How it didn't tip the rocket, drown everyone, and wreck a ton of electronics, I don't know. Maybe Aquaman absorbs it Spongebob-style, as reinvigorated, he punches out a Martian.

Made visible by the water, Batman and Robin see an unconscious J'onn chained to the rocket. No, I don't know how he was invisible and unconscious at the same time either. To prove he's a good guy, J'onn tells them the Martians' secret weakness, fire. Open flame. Not necessarily heat. But, Superman defeats the Martians with his heat vision off-panel. Maybe he set them on fire, in which case I'm sorry we missed it. Superman's mandate now includes deportation, as he's going to take all the Martians back to Mars. J'onn says he wants to stay, since "The Mars I loved is gone!" He says more, but bolds every other word, and I don't wanna type it.

Superman admits he can understand that, but Flash points out with all the hysteria, any Martian that appeared now would be burned at the stake, as it were. The others put it together:

Hal, and in a surprisingly big move, Roy Raymond both swear secrecy. (Rex however, would for years tell anyone who would listen about the Martians. Unfortunately, the only ones that listened were other dogs, and the occasional homeless person.) Several months later, the Justice League of America would have their first official case, and they would claim that was when they first formed. (At the time, J'onn didn't know Hal was GL, since he hadn't been at the time!) The team always celebrated the original anniversary, though.

Green Arrow acts like he should be mad about being fooled, but is touched that the team would do that for J'onn.

Is it my imagination, or did Ollie cry a lot in those JLA issues? I know he's supposed to be a sensitive old leftie, but there's a very real possibility that Ollie just overemoted, to appear sensitive, so he could continue bagging Black Canary. Probably not real tears, either. GA probably had a Glycerin Arrow. Unless he uses a sad memory, like his puppy dying or Batman snubbing his invite to the Arrowcave BBQ.

The reason this story seemed familiar to me, was that Grant Morrison would of course bring back the White Martians in his first JLA arc, and the conglomeration of heroes seems a lot like wait and Kitson's JLA: Year One. By the way, DC, I'm still cheesed that Year One doesn't seem to be in continuity anymore: it's a great story, working from the ruling at the time that Wonder Woman didn't appear right away in the DCU and wasn't a founder of the Justice League. Black Canary was a great replacement, and a little secret? I like her better.

Also, I mentioned New Frontier earlier, and this issue kind of hints at a time before a Justice League, when soldiers, men of science, and daredevils did the heavy lifting that would later be shouldered by superheroes. Strictly speaking, New Frontier is out of continuity too, but who cares? Part of the fun of this type of story is taking all the toys out of the box, and working out a situation where they all get to play. Something for everyone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to play with some toys right now...

Bonus!This issue also features "100 issues ago," a two page summary of "The Plague that struck the Justice League!" By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowksy and Frank Giacoia. Luckily for me, it ties into an issue I actually have, and a Metamorpho cameo! Plus, the summary includes a version of a much-scanned panel:

Robin, what have I done to you!

I love this feature, and would love to see these little summaries in other books, but that would involve keeping the numbering so a book hits a hundred. Hint, hint.


SallyP said...

Utterly magnificent. The bit where the Blackhawks dump Jimmy Olsen into the trash can, is so perfect. And of course Hal would rip his shirt off for Wonder Woman within ten seconds of meeting her. That's just how Hal rolls.

Randy Jackson said...

I would've enjoyed this immensely as a kid. Hell, I would love something like this now.

Actually, I may have had that comic...