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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...

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Most Justice Society stories fail to take advantage of their own epic potential. Perhaps it's because of the quasi-anthology structure of the series, which in early years stuck close to the short-story format that had proven so profitable for DC Comics. The adventures tended to follow either "strong continuity" or "weak continuity" patterns. In the latter, the heroes had some non-physical conundrum to solve-- say, the problem of juvenile delinquency-- and in the process of seeming to solve the problem, the heroes would involve themselves in the affairs of ordinary people. In the former type, the heroes had to achieve a particular physical goal, usually to frustrate the goals of particular villains. However, in its early days the Justice Society, being a concatenation of separate features, didn't precisely distinguish itself in the creation of new villains. Three exceptions introduced within the feature proper were the mad scientist Brain Wave (issue #15), the time-traveling evildoer Degaton (issue #35), and the Wizard (issue #34, Fox's last script for the title). In 1947, though, Robert Kanigher and various artists brought into being the memorable Injustice Society of America, composed of the three previously named villains, one Flash villain (The Thinker), and two villains from Green Lantern (Vandal Savage and the Gambler).

Other comics-features had played around with the idea of pitting heroes, whether in solo features or in groups, against teams of villains, so the basic idea of the Injustice Society was nothing new in 1947. What makes this story a "mythcomic," though, is Kanigher's attention to making the villain-group a formidable reflection of the good-guy group.

Much of the time, the JSA heroes won their battles a little too easily, partly because so many of their foes were just ordinary thugs and swindlers. I've argued elsewhere that one has to respect the gumption of commonplace crooks in challenging do-gooders who had godlike powers, but it still didn't usually give rise to many memorable battles.

Kanigher, though, seems to understand the potential appeal of a group that expouses an ethic of evil opposed to that of the heroes' belief in good. Note the way he begins the story by having a radio celebrity, an avowed admirer of the Justice Society, turn on them suddenly.

The attacker is just a robot created by the villains, who have also launched a widespread assault on the U.S. on two fronts: (1) having robots infiltrate important governmental positions, and (2) turning loose huge hordes of crooks from prisons. The Injustice Society has done this not just for the purpose of conquering America, but also in order to lure their old foes into assorted traps.

For a refreshing change-- the villains very nearly manage to do everything they set out to do. These aren't bumbling stooges, but experienced fighters who have already taken the measure of the heroes and know many of their weaknesses. There are a few reversals: the Atom, instead of being trapped by his designated foe, infiltrates the evildoers' HQ and manages to kick a little butt. Yet he's taken down by the very villain assigned to defeat him-- the Gambler, if you're curious. In Green Lantern's conflict with the Brain Wave, the hero appears to die-- and while his "death" probably didn't fool too many of the older readers, it's true that without his sudden return-from-death at the story's end, the rest of the heroes would have been toast.

There's even a moment where the captured heroes think that they've won free of their prison, and charge forth to fight their foes-- only to arrive in a phony courtroom, where the Thinker presides as judge and the rest of the Injusticers are the jury. The villains cow the heroes with a ray-weapon and hold a trial, condemning the justice-lovers for having opposed crime and evil-- until of course Green Lantern shows up and saves everyone's hash.

To be sure, many of Fox's stories had antic moments, in which the staid superheroes found themselves plunged into nonsensical situations slightly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. Indeed, in Fox's last story, the Wizard is introduced as a master black magician who doesn't believe that the heroes really have good aims: he thinks they're pretending to be heroes to launch some profitable scam. But Fox didn't generally maintain the Carrollian sense of anarchic logic, and Kanigher does, at least more than previous stories had.

Even though Kanigher gives his devils their due by emphasizing their pure ethic of evil, his depictions aren't perfect. The Wizard is the logical leader, but there's no indication that he controls magic powers, and Degaton, who forgot all of his attempts at being a super-villain at the end of ALL-STAR #35, is simply back in the villain game with no explanation, and with no reference to his time-travel specialty. (Perhaps the Degaton who joined the Society came from some future time-frame?) Brain Wave and Vandal Savage are treated somewhat like lackeys, but Kanigher does at least have some knowledge of the other two fiends, for he correctly portrays the Thinker as a crafty planner and the Gambler as a showman (using throwing-knives, he pins the Atom's clothes to a nearby wall, carnival-style).

While not as sophisticated as many of the stories I've analyzed as mythcomics, I hold that this is one of the few times a Golden Age comics-author really allowed himself to "sympathize with the devils," even if said devils had to be returned to the hoosegow in the end-- with the Wizard given a particularly humbling, and rather corny, comeuppance.

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