BHOC: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #144

Now this was and is a favorite comic book of mine. This issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA arrived in the mail via subscription. I’d been seeing ads for it for a week or two in other books, so I was primed for it. And it did not disappoint. It was one of two comics released that year (DC SPECIAL #29 was the other) that revealed the secret origins of DC’s top two teams: the Justice League and the Justice Society. This Dick Dillin cover, while rife with figures that are a bit stiff and lifeless, communicates the scale of what was to follow.

This story represents writer Steve Englehart importing the Marvel style of storytelling–and specifically, the Roy Thomas style of Marvel storytelling–whole-hog to DC. The story turns on an obscure fact of comic book dating, and then brings together every major recurring character who would have been in publication on or around the time period in which the story was set, in an orgy of retroactive continuity. The double-sized length allows everything to be packed in without straining, and Englehart is also able to wring some genuine emotions out of the situations.

The story opens with Green Arrow, poring over the JLA’s case files, having noticed a discrepancy. Back in JLA #9, he had attended the third anniversary of the League’s founding. (Editor Julie Schwartz includes a hand-waving editorial note essentially saying that they’re using real-world dating for all of this, but that comic book characters have some way of avoiding the ravages of time). And yet, three years before that adventure, Hal Jordan hadn’t been introduced as Green lantern yet. So the origin of the JLA that he’s always been told is a lie. Reservedly, Superman and Green Lantern cue up an old video report from founding member J’onn J’onzz that will explain everything to GA.

J’onn recaps his origin for the viewer: he’d been drawn against his will to Earth by the robot brain of the now-dead scientist Dr. Erdel, and trapped there in the mid-1950s–a time of paranoia and conformity. This was probably the first time I encountered such a viewpoint concerning the Happy Days era. J’onn set to work trying to contact his people so that he could return home, in the meantime adopting the human identity of Detective John Jones, policeman. But eventually, his efforts to contact Mars bore fruit. Unfortunately, the martian he got was Commander Blanx, another old villain from the past. John escapes from Blanx and his fellow white martians by opening the valve on the fire tap in his laboratory–this made no sense to me as a kid and even less to me now. Why would you have fire on tap in the same manner as water or air? I’m guessing that artist Dick Dillin misinterpreted an instruction here.

Shortly thereafter, Blanx and his men start to stir up trouble as a way of drawing out J’onn, and he fulfills their expectations. But also drawn to the scene of these martian sightings is the new hero, The Flash. Flash doesn’t know his white martians from his green ones, and so he winds up fouling things up for J’onn. He does manage to stop the hyped-up bystanders from taking potshots at the martians, though. But the citizens of Middletown don’t really trust Flash any more than they do the martians–paranoia has swept up the community. As a way of calming things down, the Flash announces that he’s going to contact somebody to take over this investigation that everybody can trust: Superman.

Racing off to Metropolis, Flash manages to attract the attention not only of Superman but his World’s Finest buddies Superman and Batman. As he explains to the Man of Steel what’s going on, a bystander overhears their conversation and phones in a tip to Roy Raymond, TV Detective (and star of his own DC back-up series in this period). Roy senses a good yarn in this, and puts out the call nationwide–such that when Flash and the World’s Finest heroes get back to Middletown, there’s a mob of other characters waiting for them–pretty much everybody else who was in print at around this time and who now belonged to the DC stable.

At this point, Green Arrow interrupts the playback to work out where he was during this time and why he wasn’t summoned. Turns out he was on the island where he’d first become Green Arrow (yes, the same island that forms the backbone of the backstory of the ARROW television series) and out of contact. Anyway, the army of characters splits into three groups to follow up on martian sightings, with the first group, made up of the Blackhawks, Plastic Man and Jimmy Olsen instead coning into conflict with Rip Hunter right at the point where Rip was perfecting his Time Sphere.

The second grouping–comprised of the Challengers of the Unknown, Robotman, Congo Bill and Congorilla, the Vigilante and Lois Lane find not a martian but rather spaceman Adam Strange, who teleports away from them via zeta-beam to the planet Rann, leaving them all hands-empty. The third group, comprised of the heroes who will soon becomes the JLA along with Robin, Roy Raymond himself and Rex the Wonder Dog, follow a lead to Cape Canaveral, where they meet test pilot Hal Jordan, who was injured in a skirmish with the martians. They’re intending to hijack the new booster rocket that Ferris Aircraft has built for the military and which is being tested here.

The White Martians have tied J’onn to the nosecone, so while the other heroes battle them, Batman and Robin free J’onn, who tells them of the Martian’s weakness to fire–and so Superman’s heat vision puts an end to the struggle. The Man of Steel offers to fly J’onn back to Mars along with the criminals, but he now chooses to stay, But with anti-Martian paranoia at a fever pitch, it will be six months or so before he can reveal himself to the world. And when he does so, it will be with the backing of the others, who will form a team. Roy and Hal promise to keep these matters quiet for the duration–and none of them realizes that Hal will soon coincidentally be among their number as Green Lantern.

The JLA MAIL ROOM in this issue includes two names of notes. It’s led off with a long missive from Fred Hembeck, then a would-be cartoonist who not long after this would begin to produce a regular strip for DC’s weekly Daily Planet news page. Similarly, comics historian Peter Sanderson is also represented with a letter in this column–it’s no great surprise, as Englehart was especially popular with the hardcore fans of this era, so everybody was excited at the prospect of him bringing to JLA the same strengths he’d showcased on AVENGERS for a number of years.

And finally, the book closes out with another installment of a favorite feature: 100 Issues Ago in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, this time examining an issue that’s gained some notoriety on the internet in the years since, for that bottom panel, reproduced above, and what it inadvertently implies about Batman’s relationship with Robin. This all went right past me as a kid, of course.

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