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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, October 16, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE PLAGUE THAT STRUCK THE JUSTICE LEAGUE" (JUSTICE LEAGUE #44, 1966)



By some chance I seem to have fallen into a pattern of dealing with comic-book "contagions" of one kind or another, since my last three analyses have dealt with one kind of sickness or another, in stories respectively from LOVE AND ROCKETS, BINKY BROWN, and AQUAMAN. In the comic under consideration now, four members of the Justice League-- the Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and the Atom (not shown on this cover) contract an alien disease that makes them grow to giant-size and threatens them with, as Batman says, an eventual "king-size death."

Before getting into the question of why this is an inconsummate tale, I have to note that one panel in the story has received more attention in the past ten years than perhaps any other JLA story of the period.



Yes, ha ha yuk yuk. I'll concede that this unintentional parallelism-- in which three of the heroes worry about their wives or girlfriends while Batman worries about Robin-- is a little bit funny. At least it's not placing a straight-jacket of "queer theory" upon Batman stories as a whole, as was the case with an essay I critiqued here.

Anyway, I must admit that there's a good reason that even fans of Silver Age DC comics don't reference this story much: it shows a paucity of the imagination that writer Gardner Fox tended to bring to the Justice League. Of course Fox wrote comic books pretty regularly from the late 1930s into the early 1970s, and so he, like anyone else, produced a lot of merely functional stories. Fox was probably at his best in devising weird threats whose nature his heroes-- whether Earth-bound like Batman or transmundane like Adam Strange-- had to figure out in order to beat said threat. He wasn't IMO nearly as good with DC's company-wide schtick of "heroes undergo weird transformations." JLA editor Julius Schwartz showed a penchant for this trope in most of the titles he edited, and I'd like to think that maybe this goofy idea-- four DC heroes become afflicted with gigantism-- might have been Schwartz's idea. The cover-image, showing three of the four bursting through their costumes, was surely meant to be arresting to readers. Instead, it merely looks stupid, and I seem to remember thinking much the same as a juvenile reader of the comic.

"Plague" is a follow-up to JUSTICE LEAGUE #42. This was no great prize of a story either, but it did have a certain wonky charm. Just as the Justice League approaches Metamorpho with the offer of membership-- which the newbie hero rejects out of hand-- an alien who calls himself "the Unimaginable" jumps up and demands that the Justice Leaguers unanimously vote him into membership. The alien has no specific reason for wanting to join the League; Fox is merely indulging in a vague parallelism-- hero unexpectedly doesn't want to join the hero-group, villain unexpectedly does want to join and jealously attacks both Metamorpho and the League. At the end of the adventure all of the heroes defeat the Unimaginable-- whose outer form is never seen, like one of Lovecraft's more arcane monster-gods-- by entering the alien's bloodstream and irritating him until he flees.

"Plague" is the follow-up to that tale, and the only other Silver Age appearance of the Unimaginable-- who perhaps should've been named "the Unmemorable," given how rarely later raconteurs chose to revive him. Having been within the alien's bloodstream has infected four of the heroes from the previous story with gigantism. While searching for clues about their condition, the heroes stumble across a red-skinned alien with the very Earth-y sounding name of "Doctor Bendorion." (This inspires Green Lantern-- whom Fox must have decided to make a repository of all bad puns-- to refer to the red guy as "Bendorion Casey.")

The heroes take Bendorion to Earth because he claims he can synthesize a cure for their fatal condition, as well as the infection that the heroes have passed on to their loved ones. But while the alien physician labors, weird phenomena-- thieves with strange super-powers, a rogue aurora borealis-- break forth, forcing all available heroes to battle them. After these Herculean labors are done, the Leaguers return to their redoubt-- and learn that Bendorion's body has been inhabited by the Unimaginable since they met him. The alien still wants to be a member of the League that almost destroyed him, and not only will he withhold a cure if the heroes don't obey, he'll also destroy all of Earth. However, the heroes have seen through his disguise, and defeat the villain-- having learned also that they don't even need a cure; all they had to do was to rest-- and then they can revert back to normality, and normal-sized costumes. Presumably Robin and the womenfolk are apprised of the rest-cure as well.

In my critique of a 1950s WONDER WOMAN tale here, I said:

Though the plot abounds with improbabilities and happy coincidences, I don't attack it as a null-myth for those deficiencies. What makes "Comets" an inconsummate story is that unlike the best juvenile SF from DC's writers, it fails to create a *sustained* sense of wonder.
Without question Gardner Fox' was far more accomplished in bringing forth the sense of wonder than was Robert Kanigher. But "Plague" is not one of Fox's best stories: here he's just moving the symbolic furniture around, without any sense of artful design.

Happily, Fox wrote better JLA stories, some of which will in future make the mythcomics list.

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