Sunday, December 16, 2007

My Christmas Wish: More Comics Like This

I've been spending some of my free time lately re-reading much of Gerry Conway's run on Justice League of America, especially the period where George Perez and Rich Buckler were the primary artists, and I've decided that these issues could function as textbook examples of how superhero team books should be written.

In particular, Justice League of America 195-197, which contain the annual JLA/JSA team-up for 1981, written by Gerry Conway, with art by George Perez (and an assist by Keith Pollard in the final issue).

I appreciate that each row of heroes is presented in alphabetical order. However, I do wish that the villains had invested in Microsoft Paint or a similar program for x-ing out the heroes faces. It seems a waste to have Killer Frost do it with ice.

Ultra-Humanite, having played a little too much Halo, is about to rub in his victory over Superman with some celebratory teabagging.

This is one of the best of all these team-ups, and it's the second to last time that they would turn out to be any good. In 1982, the JLA and JSA would team up for a massive 5-part crossover with All-Star Squadron, which was, all in all, an awesome story (despite some dicey Don Heck art in the JLA issues). Following that, the quality of these crossovers declined precipitously, with the 83 crossover doing a hatchet job on revamping Black Canary's origin, and the last two being entirely unmemorable (though the final one took place during the Crisis and crossed over with Infinity Inc.).

On the surface, this story presents a fairly common plot, one that can even be seen in the current issues of Justice League of America: a team of supervillains manages to capture a group of heroes, who must then find a way to escape and defeat the villains. Here, the new version of The Secret Society of Super-Villains is formed by the Ultra-Humanite, an Earth-2 super-genius who regularly transplants his brain from one body to another. In this iteration, he has transplanted his brain into a giant, mutated white gorilla, which pretty much makes him the greatest super-villain of all time.

As for the Humanite's plan, one should not think about it too carefully: he wants to exile 10 heroes--5 from Earth-1 and 5 from Earth-2--to limbo. The absence of these particular heroes--from Earth-1, Atom, Batman, Black Canary, Firestorm, and Wonder Woman; and from Earth-2, Flash, Hawkman, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, and Superman--from their respective universes will cause some kind of cosmic re-alignment that will remove all heroes from Earth-2. In order to get the help of Earth-1 villains in this plan, UH lies to them by claiming that there is a 50-50 chance that all heroes will disappear from either Earth-1 or Earth-2.

In fact, it's to Conway's credit that he doesn't linger too long on this plan--it's merely a kind of Macguffin to move the plot forward. As it's constructed, however, Conway's plot is virtually perfect, dividing neatly into three acts (though the three acts don't directly conform to the three issues). First, we get the formation of the Secret Society, with each of the 10 villains getting a 1-2 page story just before they are recruited. Next, the villains enact their plan and successfully exile the heroes to limbo, with a couple of pages devoted to each villain's surprise attack (Some of these are quite clever. One that has long stood out in my memory: Brainwave ambushes Johnny Thunder by luring him in to a fake haberdashery with the promise of a free suit.). Finally, the heroes escape and defeat the villains. Such a basic plot structure could be used in virtually infinite combinations, and it's difficult to screw up (though the current JLA story does manage to accomplish that). The plot is, in fact, quite episodic before it arrives at its climax, but the final result is that the heroes succeed as a team where they failed as individuals, which also makes for a strong message.

Also a strong message: the fuck-yeah moment at the end when Batman says to the assembled villains, "Please--don't come quietly!"

What this story also provides is a strong sense of nostalgia that was often well-handled in these JLA/JSA team-ups. The Society itself contains an eclectic range of villains, including The Mist, Signalman, the Monocle, Rag Doll, Killer Frost, the Cheetah, Brainwave, Psycho-Pirate, and Plant Master (aka the Floronic Man) in addition to the Ultra-Humanite, each chosen as the adversary of a corresponding hero. Several of the Earth-2 villains--The Mist, Monocle, Rag Doll, and Brainwave--had made very few appearances since the Golden Age, and they piqued my 12-year-old curiosity. (Astute readers will note that there are actually 6 villains from Earth-2 and 4 from Earth-1. The Mist was picked as the enemy of Black Canary, who had teamed up with Starman to fight the bad buy while she was still a member of the Justice Society.). I also liked the inclusion of Hourman and Johnny Thunder, two Justice Society members who did not regularly appear in these team-ups.

On a side note: I had a big jones for these team-ups when I was a kid, and the main attraction was seeing heroes and villains from the Golden Age that would be entirely new to me. In fact, I would actually feel let down if the annual team-up had too many heroes repeated from previous years (Power Girl, for example, was one that I felt was overused). This particular concern inspired me to write my first letter to a comic following the 1982 JLA/JSA team-up, and the letter was subsequently published in Justice League of America 214. That, however, is the subject of another blog entry.

Overall, this story is pure entertainment, and I hope the collections of JLA/JSA team-ups get around to reprinting this one. Aside from writer Gerry Conway's ability to use a fairly conventional plot to his advantage, the art by George Perez is also fantastic. He's inked in the first part by John Beatty, and in the final two parts by Romeo Tanghal, who was also his inker on The New Teen Titans. This story also appears at the time when DC kicked their prices up to 60 cents an issue, but then also raised their page limits from 22 to 27. As the editorial page in 195 points out, that gives DC 6 more pages per issue than Marvel, even though Marvel had not raised their prices. Since Perez was drawing Justice League and Teen Titans at the same time, that meant he was cranking out 54 pages per month, a pace he was not able to keep up for long.

Final note: the cover scans for these issues come from my own collection, and, unfortunately, these issues are severely water damaged. While in grad school, my studio apartment had a leaky roof, which I discovered when I found the J-box in my comic collection completely soaked. I had, at the time, a near-complete run of Justice League. but issues following 100 were not kept in protective bags, and thus were seriously damaged. I've worked on replacing some of the issues over the years, but I haven't gotten around to replacing these.

1 comment:

gorjus said...

Oh, I gotta look these up! I'm a big fan of the team-up, especially of the Earth 1/2 Thanksgiving conceit. Haven't read these but will be digging them up shortly!