The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!
It’s hard to talk about superhero comics without veering into nostalgia, seeing as how we’re often talking about concepts or characters created in a different century when the world was a very different place. The thing is, there’s just so many things cape books did in those days that just plain made more sense – like trying out concepts in books like BRAVE AND THE BOLD or in the back-ups of SUPERMAN. If those concepts proved popular, they’d be given their own title. I know nothing about how the comics industry works, and I don’t pretend to – but surely this makes more sense than launching a comic about Morbius the Living Vampire, doomed to cancellation after the inevitable handful of months? In hindsight, it seems obvious that all of DC’s most popular characters fighting crime together would be a hit with readers, but even they were given the B&B treatment – this issue being their last appearance in the title before, three months later, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 would hit the stands.
And did they ever know how to make an exit! ‘The Case of the Stolen Super-powers!’ begins unforgettably, with each member of the JLA working privately on their own case when they find their superpowers have left them. The Flash plummets from a building he’d been running along vertically, while the Green Lantern nearly causes the death of dozens of train passengers. In fact, despite DC’s reputation as being rather stuffy and conservative, Gardner Fox sneaks in some pretty funny sight gags – Martian Manhunter finds himself with a mouth full of fog in an attempt to clear the rod for a rushing ambulance when his superpowers leave him.
The Flash calls on the Justice League, in a frankly unforgettable panel by Mike Sekowsky in which these amazing heroes from around the world appear in all manner of fantastic flight, from Batplane to invisible jet to defying gravity. It really is an awe-striking image, even after all of these years, and it boggles the mind to imagine seeing all of your favourite heroes together for the first time in 1955. Now it’s time for some Silver Age zaniness – the JLA can only assume their missing powers have to do with some criminal’s hunger for immortality, and soon they’ve split up to multiple corners of the globe to guard a host of the world’s oldest living things – from the oldest turtle to the oldest owl to the oldest man.
Here we’re introduced to Amazo, the first appearance for the Frankenstein of superheroes, a synthetic man who has the incredible powers of the entire league. With the JLA split up, he makes easy work of each member on their own, or with a single partner to help them. In fact, this was almost always Fox’s structure in the early JUSTICE LEAGUE stories – the team would split or pair up, meet their threat one by one, and come together in the end. Though obviously repetitive, it worked. Not that I’m saying modern comics writers should go back to this factory-line style of production (stories being treated as almost interchangeable, just some pop frivolity for the kids) but I do think modern writers could learn from a more structured approach. As Tucker Stone more or less said in response to Grant Morrison’s optimistic belief that superhero comics have, as a whole, improved by leaps and bound, they’ve really just found a new kind of bad – modern comics, Stone argues, read like bad TV scripts.
Next comes the sort of inventive whimsy that you could only see in 1955, specifically from the mad, mad mind of Gardner Fox. The Flash finds himself trapped in a bubble of Green Lantern energy (thanks to Amazo’s stolen powers), imprisoned in an aviary floating through the sky. To escape, Barry Allen picks yellow feathers from each bird with a golden hue, from cuckoo to cockatoo to bowerbird. You see, the GL power ring still had a crucial weakness at the time – the colour yellow, before this sort of deliciously bizarre idea would be deemed ‘too silly’ for superhero comics. The Flash creates for himself a strange avian costume, able to escape free as a…well, you know.
The members of the JLA really do seemed doomed, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like Fox could find a way to not have them end up that way. A nonsensical ending has Hal Jordan lining his lungs with chlorine, “a yellow gas”, and is thus able to avoid the power of Amazo’s green energy ring. I do miss the delightful wonder of Silver Age comics, but when you consider the less than satisfactory or illogical plots, Grant Morrison may well be right about today’s comics overall improvement in quality. Still, BRAVE AND THE BOLD #30 is a lot of fun, with plenty of wondrous and exciting superhero ideas. That business with the Flash really is out of this world insane, and Amazo and Professor Ivo proved to be enduring creations, life-long villains for the JLA. It’s also a reminder that things weren’t quite as brilliant in the past as we sometimes remember – the ending of AGE OF ULTRON #10 may be proving controversial, but at least it made some sort of sense.