BHOC: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #156

I dutifully picked up this next issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, one of my favorite titles when I was even younger than I was at its time of release. But since the departure of writer Steve Englehart, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was going through something of a slump–new author Gerry Conway was crafting solid stories, but not really memorable ones. And indeed, I couldn’t remember anything about this issue before cracking it open again. Conway would write the series for a good long time, and his tenure had its ups and downs. But here, at the start, it was mainly a down period. It’s also got a weak, heavy-handed cover–a lot of the DC books at this time had cover printing that was, at best, suspect. Here, the crispness of every line is muddied. The piece itself isn’t anything to write home about, not one of Rich Buckler’s best. And Frank Giacoia’s typical crisp inking is mucked up by the reproduction. But the biggest sin, I think, is in the coloring. Having that same purple be the background of the piece and the inside of the energy surrounding the Fiend with Five Faces doesn’t work in making an impact. It’s all a bit of a misfire.

I don’t know with any certainty that this is what led to editor Julie Schwartz being taken off the series a few more issues down the line, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Julie had helped to conceptualize JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, and he had been editing it since it was introduced in 1960. Given the rise of interest in the rival Marvel approach, I could see people thinking that maybe the book would perform better in the hands of a more modern editor more steeped in the Marvel tradition.

The pacing of this issue can best be described as leisurely, as though Conway realized that he had more pages than he needed to get his plot across, and so indulged himself with a bunch of character work. The story opens with a beaten-up Aquaman making his way to one of the JLA’s teleporters, trying to reach the satellite headquarters and warn his fellow heroes about a menace he’s uncovered. Once he makes it there, the call goes out, and we see first Black Canary and then the Atom respond–this gives Conway a few panels to advance the running subplot about the Atom’s impending marriage to lawyer and future murderer Jean Loring. We then cut to Flash and green lantern, who get the signal while investigating the strange spread of vegetation in the Pacific Northwest. They’re attacked and quickly clobbered by a gent calling himself Tane.

In the meantime, the rest of the League has convened and Aquaman gets down to cases. He tells his fellows how he was drawn into a mystery when he came across hordes of sea creatures fleeing in blind panic from a particular area. Investigating further, the Sea King found an ancient Greek-style temple, manned by the statue-like form of the Fiend with Five Faces. The Fiend blasted Aquaman, hitting him so hard that he spend the next two weeks on the injured list, and has only now been able to make his way to the rest of the JLA for assistance. This all seems pretty par for the course, and nothing bad has gone down over that two-week period, so the League isn’t especially concerned. But the sudden and mysterious arrival of the Phantom Stranger, the League’s quasi-member who only turned up in times of great mystic peril, puts a different spin on things.

The League is then summoned by a General, who indicates to them that his own forces and those of other Warsaw Pact nations are running amok, battling one another. The JLA splits up into teams, with one crew going to seek out the temple Aquaman saw while the other heads out to try to put a stop to the fighting. At the battlefield, the League observes that there are two beings, each one directing the activities of one side of the conflict, and so they split forces to engage. But these godly beings are all-powerful, and the heroes are overwhelmed. During the conflict, one of the pseudo-gods, Rongo the Jester, reveals that he and his fellows were ancient deities whose time had passed, and who had combined themselves into a single five-faced entity to survive a cataclysm which buried them for 70,000 years. Their high-god Tangora wanted them to move with care when they were eventually revived, but when they did re-emerge recently, the other four, starved for activity after their long sleep, imprisoned Tangora and proceeded to head out to have fun with the mortals.

But the League isn’t finished. Superman and Black Canary are able to turn the tables on the two deities directing the battle and momentarily vanquish them. Flash and Green Lantern, despite having been captured, are also able to gain the upper hand on Tane, immobilizing him. Most crucially, the Phantom Stranger, Red Tornado and Batman are able to overcome the watery demon guarding the comatose Tangora and free him. From there, it’s all mop-up, as Tangora summons the other four back to him (including Mauri, the Love Goddess, who didn’t seem to have been doing anything untoward) and he combines them yet again into the Fiend with Five Faces, sinking their temple back into the Earth.

Finally, everybody gathers back at the satellite HQ (except fort the Phantom Stranger, who has of course departed when nobody was looking) to help the Atom decide whether he should reveal his costumed identity to his intended bride jean Loring. I don’t really see how there can be any question here, but super heroes tended to worry about this kind of thing for many, many years. And here, no decision is reached–largely because this is all a lead-in to next month’s wedding of the Atom. So, yeah, a bunch of things happened in this story, but nothing much happened–even looking at it again, not anything that is likely to stick to my ribs and be remembered once this piece is posted. The fiend with Five Faces was a pretty colorless antagonist, and the League themselves didn’t do a whole lot in terms of vanquishing the thing.

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