Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Batman's Crisis of Confidence: Justice League of America 170

Justice League of America #170 (Sept. 1979)
"While a World Lies Burning!"
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artists: Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin

Karen: When you think of Batman, I'm sure many words come to mind: capable, resourceful, confident. He's not someone who seems lacking in self-esteem. Which is why I find this issue of Justice League so dog-gone interesting. Because here, in this pre-Dark Knight book, we are presented with a Batman who *shudder* doubts himself! Our splash page shows the caped crusader staring at monitor screens showing the world on fire and declaring, "What can I do, without super-powers? Lord, I've never felt so helpless..."

Karen: Yeah, that's a hard one to comprehend. Batman, helpless? Unlikely. Even worse, admitting to feeling helpless? Never! So one might ask, was this a contrived behavior from the dark knight detective, or have we, in recent years, come to view Batman as so utterly invincible and arrogant that this scene seems ridiculous? Was Batman more, well, normal back in the 70s? Since I wasn't a regular reader of DC titles then, it's hard for me to say. But Batman, as presented in this story, sure seems very human. Disturbingly so.

Karen: The first two pages of this issue show our troubled Batman trying to figure out how to save Earth; next we switch scenes to our planet, specifically the United Nations building in New York where the Justice League is on trial for holding a hero called Ultraa against his will. Ultraa is called to the stand but suddenly attacks his lawyer, who turns out to be some sort of weird alien colony creature that plans to take over the planet.

Karen: The creature claims to have already killed Superman -"he lies dead beneath the sea" - and he knocks out Flash. Ultraa and Red Tornado pursue the creat
ure, while Green Lantern takes Flash to the hospital, and Wonder Woman goes to find Superman. I thought it odd to see Diana was still using her invisible jet.

Karen: The aliens are apparently causing the planet to heat up. Batman has figured this out, and puts on a space suit and heads off on a space cycle for some mysterious destination. Meanwhile, we have a montage of all the other Leaguers working to put out fires, but as Batman says, they are fighting the symptoms, not the disease itself.

Karen: Wonder Woman finds Superman in the Atlantic. She recovers him, and at first she fears the worst. But he's still alive, although in bad shape. He has figured out what the aliens are doing to the oceans. I found it odd that Wonder Woman called Superman 'Kal'. Was he real
ly into his Kryptonian heritage back then or what?

Karen: Meanwhile, our self-doubting Batman has reached a mysterious asteroid orbiting Earth. it turns out it is re
ally the aliens' spaceship. As he enters the spaceship, Batman thinks, "The computer gave me strict instructions on what to do here. Now if I can just find the propulsion units..." Wait a minute. The computer told him what to do? This just doesn't sound right.

Karen: Meanwhile, Wonder Woman, Red Tornado, and Green Lantern regroup. WW explains that the aliens are stealing hydrogen from Earth, using electrolysis on the oceans, which is why the fires broke out, from excess oxygen. Okaayy...now it has been many ye
ars since my last chemistry or astronomy class, but I seem to recall that hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Surely aliens with craft capable of crossing interstellar space could find easier ways to get hydrogen. But it's not a science lesson, I know. What's more disturbing is that GL just off-handedly remarks that his ring can reverse the electrolysis process and starts blasting the ocean! He causes a massive explosion. The trio discover Ultraa and the ruins of the alien base. GL has apparently accidentally wiped out the aliens, but no one seems to care much.

Karen: Suddenly there is a bright explosion in the sky above. Red Tornado gets a call from Batman, who has sent the alien ship hurtling out into space, but his space cycle is busted and he needs a lift. Wonder Woman
says, "All the while we were working down here, he was centering on the core of the problem up there! That man is simply astonishing!" "What would we do without the Batman?" Red Tornado says.

Karen: It's a pretty simple story, not one that really holds up under close examination. The a
rt is great -Dillin is always who I think of when I think JLA. But this whole issue with Batman not feeling good enough to deal with the problem -and having him use the computer to tell him what to do -just feels so wrong. I know he wasn't always the arrogant demi-god he is today, but I still have a hard time seeing him doubt himself so. I wish I had some follow up issues to see if this idea was continued, or if it was simply a throw away.


J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for posting this,never saw this story before.

I'm a little surprised that Conway,one of the best Bronze Age writers wrote this issue. Is this the same Batman from the Englehart/Rogers/Austin stories? He didn't seem to lack confidence. Batman here could be compared to Spider-man in that Marvel Two-In-One/Avengers Annual Cross-over that featured Thanos and Adam Warlock. In that story, Spider-man talks about feeling useless in such a battle against a demigod like Thanos.

Maybe it's Conway's subtle way of commenting on Silver Age Batman stories. How many times have you heard a fan use the phrase "Batman In Outer Space" as shorthand for saying "Batman sucked in the 1950s and '60s"?

Dougie said...

The cover tells us that Batman- out of all of those colourful and super-powered characters- is going to save the day. I don't know if it was a conscious decision, of course, but this story was preceded, I'm sure, a few months earlier by non-powered Black Lightning's refusal of membership. Then, some months later, Green Arrow quits. So, my theory is that perhaps this story was meant to validate Batman's place in the JLA, despite the fact that he doesn't have super-powers; his cerebral qualities give him an edge over Jeff or Ollie. After all, I can't imagine a League without Bruce.
And I always picture Dillin's JLA first, followed by Perez and then Big Mike.

Anonymous said...

This wasn't one of my favorite issues of JLA. I only missed a few issues from mid 71 to 83. At the time, I thought they were attempting to be more like Marvel, but they missed the boat on this one with Batman. Totally against character.


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