From a fan engagement point of view, there was probably no more galvanizing comic book at the start of the Silver Age of Comics than JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Fans–particular Dr. Jerry Bails, who pretty much founded super hero fandom with his associate Roy Thomas–had campaigned to get a new, updated version of the Justice Society of America back in print following the debut of the new Flash and Green Lantern. The eventual end product was a bit more divisive, thanks to the artwork of Mike Sekowsky on the series. Mike was a workhorse and a speed demon, and one of the few artists in editor Julie Schwartz’s stable who could be called upon to draw a series with so many lead characters. But Sekowsky’s grasp of anatomy was, let us say, individualistic, and his work wasn’t quite so polished as that of Carmine Infantino or Gil Kane or even Murphy Anderson who was often called on to do the covers to JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was perhaps the “purest” of the DC Silver Age super hero titles, in that writer Gardner Fox didn’t have a whole lot of room to waste on characterization, needing as he did to contrive a situation that would challenge his enormous extended cast every issue and give them each something interesting to do. It was popular to say that, in an issue of JLA, if you showed an image of the team’s Secret Sanctuary and had three balloons pointing towards it, you would never be able to determine which hero had said what, so similar was everything that they each expressed. And this was true, but this wasn’t as huge a deficit as it might seem, at least not at the time. Nobody in the field was really spending a lot of effort on characterization (at least until the Marvel heroes made the scene) and Fox’s grasp of coming up with interesting foes for the overpowered group, and interesting puzzles for them to solve, was strong.

This particular story seems tailor-made to spotlight the Atom. The Mighty Mite had been the second recruit to join the team, following Green Arrow’s induction. But given his size, he didn’t often have a whole lot to contribute to the average adventure. So a microscopic story was right in his wheelhouse, and it also generated the interesting cover image in which the Atom towers over his fellow Leaguers, unaware of their presence or situation. So this issue opens with the League suddenly finding itself shrunk to miniaturized size, and entering a subatomic universe as a result. All except the Atom, who uses his own size-changing powers to go after his abducted colleagues.

The team finds itself on the microscopic world of Starzl, where they’ve been drawn by a trio of super-powered protectors, who have a problem that only the League can help them solve: they’re all androids created to defend the people of this micro-world. But the Ultrazone Radiation that animates and empowers them is also having the side effect of shortening the lifespans of every being they come into contact with, including the people they are sworn to protect. Unable to destroy themselves, their hope is that the Justice league can destroy them, so that they will no longer pose a threat to the citizenry.

As each of the Protectors has an area of specialty, Land, Sea and Air, the League divides itself up into teams, in order to tackle each android in its respective sphere. But the Protectors are also programmed to defend themselves, and are mighty enough that the League cannot overcome them. And indeed, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter wind up trapped in a cage whose bars are too strong for any of them to bend to escape. In an uncharacteristic bit of business, before each Leaguer in turn tries to liberate their fellows, somebody else on the team expressed doubt that they will be able to do what Superman could not. It’s the antithesis of the League’s typical methodology of teamwork and support–but it seems to be true. As the powerless Batman steps up for his chance, he urges everyone else to remain absolutely silent. But clearly, he can’t be strong enough to bend a metal that Superman, Wonder Woman and J’onn J’onzz couldn’t, right?

The JLA MAIL ROOM letters page includes notes from both future writer and editor Roy Thomas, mentioned earlier, as well as one-day BBC Radio personality Paul Gambaccini.

Lo and behold, the Masked manhunter is able to accomplish what none of his fellow heroes have proven able to do: liberate the JLA trio from their cell. What’s more, this proves Batman’s hypothesis: on this world of Starzl, anything that is spoken instantly becomes true. So the Leaguers, in expressing their doubt about each hero’s ability to bend the bars, caused it to become a fact. What’s more, this gives the team the information that they need in order to triumph over the Protectors. While they themselves can’t defeat the androids, having been told how indestructible they are, all that’s required is somebody who hasn’t heard these words yet. Somebody like the League’s honorary member Snapper Carr, who was left behind in their Secret Sanctuary when the team was reduced in size.

So the League reduces Snapper down into Starzl, and Green Lantern uses his Power Ring to make it so that Snapper cannot hear the words of the three Protectors. Then, with the League running interference and stopping dangers aimed in his direction, Snapper is able to kayo each of the three androids in succession, With this accomplished, Green Lantern can then dispose of the Ultrazone in the core of Starzl’s sun, and also eliminate the strange factor in the Starzl atmosphere that makes anything uttered a reality. To prove it, Superman goes and bends the bars of the cage that had previously held him prisoner, the mental block against doing so now having been undone. And so it is Snapper Carr, along with Batman, who is the real hero of this adventure, though the Atom did help a bunch.

4 thoughts on “WC: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #18

  1. The way Batman gets out of that cage knocked me out so hard when I was nine that I’ve never forgotten it and spend a lot of time trying to recreate that same sort of moment in my own work–the clue in plain sight.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a cool moment. I also like Superman insisting on proving he can do it after all.
      Trivia note, Starzl was named after a pulp author, RF Starzl, who wrote his own story about a subatomic universe.


  2. Tom, I really loved those MARVEL VAULT one-shots that were being published ten years ago. I was just wondering if Marvel still had a lot of unseen stories waiting to see the light of day?
    Also, with all the love being shown certain eras of HULK and SPIDER-MAN at the moment with these all new limited series, would there be any chance Busiek and Olliffe might team up again for another shot at UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN? Still love that book a lot.


  3. Gardner Fox was exemplary at figuring out ways to let non-powered Batman save the day. This one’s good but an even better one is the Zatanna adventure in which he dopes out the true motives of the mystic maiden’s attackers and makes possible the liberation of the heroine and her reunion with her lost daddy. (Okay, it’s a magical duplicate of the real Batman who does the deed, but it counts.) In the middle sixties Fox loosened up, as did most of DC, and allowed some humor, as when Zatanna tells Real Batman that they’ve met before and he staunchly denies it.


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