Monday, March 2, 2015

Guest Review - Justice League of America 195-197

Doug: Today the Bronze Age Babies are most pleased to bring our readers an Arc of Triumph...? guest review, featuring the events of Justice League of America #s 195-197, by M.S. Wilson.

M.S. Wilson: Welcome to my review of Justice League of America #195-197, which features a new version of the Secret Society of Super-Villains. This is one of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups that ran in Justice League in the Silver and Bronze ages, and it’s one of my favorites. I read this when I was nine and I loved how the bad guys seemed to be winning through the first two issues, but the heroes turned things around (with a little help) in the third. These comics were also my first introduction to some of the Earth-2 villains; I was familiar with the JSA members from previous team-ups and the All-Star Comics revival, but some of these villains (Monocle, Mist, Rag Doll) were new to me.

Justice League of America #195 (October 1981)
"Targets on Two Worlds!"
Gerry Conway-George Perez/John Beatty (cover by Perez

M.S. Wilson: The story begins in JLA #195, with over half of this issue dealing with the “recruitment” process, showing the gathering of two sets of villains, one on each Earth. We start on Earth-2 with the Monocle, now retired from villainy. This scene actually addresses the old question about why super-villains don’t turn their talents toward legitimate ends instead of crime; apparently the Monocle has used his knowledge of laser optics to build a successful company and make a lot of money. But I guess being rich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as we see him complaining (aloud, even though he’s alone) that he’s bored and feeling nostalgic for his life of crime. Conveniently, a mysterious figure has a great way to relieve his boredom ... get back into crime!

The recruitment drive continues on Earth-1, with Signalman escaping from a hospital. The coincidences really pile up here, as Signalman escapes by climbing down the big neon sign outside, shorting out letters as he goes; luckily for him, the name of the hospital is St. Ignatius Loyola, so he’s able to spell SIGNAL. Anyway, he’s picked up by Killer Frost, who seems to be in charge of recruiting on Earth-1, and invited to join the Secret Society. The scene shifts back and forth between the two Earths as we see more bad guys join the team. On Earth-2, Psycho Pirate breaks out of jail (why is he kept in a regular cell, where anyone can see him? Shouldn’t he be kept behind some kind of opaque barrier?). On Earth-1, Cheetah almost gets assaulted by three guys (they said they only wanted a kiss, but the art makes their intentions pretty clear), but she slices them up before joining Killer Frost. Back on Earth-2, Rag Doll robs a bank (after mailing himself to the manager in a box!), and gets help with his escape from Psycho Pirate and Monocle, as well as the mysterious figure who’s been assembling the Earth-2 villains. He’s shown to have a hairy paw... now who could that be?

On Earth-1, Killer Frost and friends talk Floronic Man into joining them (and he gets an angst-ridden speech about how he’s no longer human but not fully vegetable-matter either, so he feels like a freak). On Earth-2, the Mist kills a couple of his old gang members in revenge for letting him go to jail alone. He is asked to join the Secret Society immediately afterward, by a large, furry, apelike... actually, I’m not sure why they’re drawing out the mystery of the new Society’s leader; it’s revealed in this same issue. I guess Gerry just wanted it to seem more dramatic. Anyway, back on Earth-1, the four villains go to a secret base and meet Brainwave, who’s using his illusion powers to look young and buff instead of his usual short, bald, wrinkly self. They travel through a dimensional transporter to Earth-2 (remember when it used to be difficult to transport between the Earths?) and meet the leader of this little conspiracy, who turns out to be ... the Ultra-Humanite! Since Signalman doesn’t know who that is, Mist helpfully recounts to him (and us) Ultra’s history: his longstanding enmity with the Earth-2 Superman, his ability to switch his consciousness into other bodies, and the fact that his latest mind-switch was into the body of a gigantic albino ape; Irwin Donenfeld would be proud! The newly furry Ultra-Humanite explains that each of the super-villains he’s chosen has a counterpart, a favorite enemy, and if these ten particular superheroes are sent to Limbo, it’ll cause a cosmic imbalance, eliminating ALL superheroes from either Earth-1 or Earth-2. The villains, figuring they have a 50/50 chance of ridding their world of all its superheroes, agree to Ultra’s plan.

Finally, we see the stars of the book, the JLA and JSA, at one of their annual reunions. There are a few character bits, and some of the heroes express surprise that nothing has happened to disrupt this year’s meeting. After everyone has left (I find it fascinating that the JLA Satellite exists only on Earth-1, but can beam the JSA back to Earth-2; was this ever explained? Maybe Dr. Fate had something to do with it), Black Canary is left alone on monitor duty. The Mist exploits a security bug in the transporter and sneaks aboard the Satellite to attack BC. He beats her by turning himself intangible, which is a new power for him (he could previously turn transparent, but was still solid.) On Earth-2, Monocle takes out Hawkman with a remote-controlled monocle. And back on Earth-1, Cheetah attacks Wonder Woman near the Washington Monument and really pounds her. Apparently Cheetah blames Wonder Woman for (supposedly) leaving her to drown in WW #275, and she’s a little miffed about it... or maybe a little psychotic. So the bad guys have successfully taken down three of the ten superheroes that they’re gunning for. At the end of this issue we see Ultra-Humanite gloating to himself, and we find out that it isn’t a toss up as to which Earth will lose it’s superheroes ... it’s definitely Earth-2, and Ulty knew that all along. The leader of a group of super-criminals has his own agenda? I’m shocked!

Justice League of America #196 (November 1981)
"Countdown to Crisis!"
Gerry Conway-George Perez/Romeo Tanghal (cover by Perez and Dick Giordano)

In JLA #196, the villains continue taking down the superheroes of two Earths one by one. Psycho Pirate beats Hourman; of course, Hourman is smart enough not to look directly at Psycho Pirate, so PP needs a little help from one of Ultra-Humanite’s devices, a psycho prism. It reflects PP’s sleepy-face all over the room, so Hourman can’t avoid seeing it, and promptly goes night-night. Signalman uses flashing lights to turn a crowd against Batman (although the post-Crisis Batman might have just pounded them all into submission.) Rag Doll gets Flash (Jay Garrick) with an explosive, while Floronic Man takes out Atom (Ray Palmer) with some soporific pollen. Brainwave takes down Johnny Thunder (and his T-Bolt) by luring him to a clothing store (where Johnny almost updates his look!) Firestorm is beaten by his own overconfidence when Killer Frost brings the ceiling down on his head. Finally, Ultra-Humanite lures Superman (of Earth-2) to a zoo, where he surprises Supes by shooting Green Kryptonite spray from a device on his chest. At the end of this issue, the beaten heroes are put in a centrifuge and sent to Limbo. The first time I read this, I was surprised that the villains’ plan actually worked; I couldn’t wait to see how the heroes got out of this mess. 

Justice League of America #197 (December 1981)
"Crisis in Limbo"
Gerry Conway-George Perez/Keith Pollard/Romeo Tanghal (cover by Perez and Mike DeCarlo)

And get out of that mess they did, of course, in JLA #197. As this issue begins, the superheroes are sent to Limbo and the plan actually works; Earth-2 starts to twist and deform around them before “snapping back” to normal. The Earth-1 villains realize immediately that Ultra-Humanite knew banishing the heroes would eliminate all the remaining superheroes from Earth-2 only; he’d let them think there was an equal chance to affect Earth-1 because he’d needed their cooperation. But before they can do anything, they’re transported back to Earth-1, and when they try to return, the transporter device blows up. Killer Frost shows some leadership by slapping down Signalman and Floronic Man, and coming up with a plan to get back to Earth-2 to get revenge against Ultra-Humanite for using them (her strength here is undercut somewhat when she reveals her main motive for villainy is “I want power! Power to punish men for spurning me!” Yes, she’s a super-villain because she can’t get a boyfriend. One step forward, two steps back.). Anyway, they go to Coast City and capture Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)... rather easily, I have to say. They also seem to know a lot about the Satellite transporters, including their locations in various cities. You’d think the JLA might change the locations regularly to avoid something like that. Anyway, they use the unconscious Green Lantern to beam to the Satellite, where they take down Elongated Man (also rather easily, it must be said.)

Back on Earth-2, the villains are enjoying a world with no superheroes (I’m wondering if eliminating the superheroes from Earth-2 also got rid of other super-villains? We don’t see any others here... and what about non-powered heroes like Robin or Huntress? Apparently they were eliminated too? I guess it doesn’t pay to examine these things too closely.). Monocle and Rag Doll are having fun messing with the cops, Psycho Pirate and Mist rob a “collector’s convention”. There’s no mention of comics, but there is a shout-out to Star Trek fanzines; the villains steal jewels, which apparently are exhibited at conventions on Earth-2. Brainwave uses his powers to... basically rape an actress? That’s the implication, anyway. And Ultra-Humanite decides to take over the United Nations... no thinking small for him!

Meanwhile, the Earth-1 baddies have used the JLA transporter to go to Limbo (which it can do, apparently) and rescue the heroes. That’s right, the heroes only survive this because they’re rescued by the bad guys; let that sink in for a minute... the only reason these heroes win is because of the villains’ sour grapes. Killer Frost even says: “If we can’t have a world without heroes, neither can anyone else!” Who’d have thought pettiness could come in handy? Of course, the heroes immediately pound their rescuers (there’s gratitude for ya!) and head for Earth-2 to set things right. They somehow take the whirling centrifuge with them (or maybe it stays in Limbo and just creates a vortex, I’m not sure) and toss all the bad guys into the dimensional vortex, banishing them to Limbo. Earth-2 reality goes back to normal (without all the weird visual effects, which Superman mentions in passing) and the villains are all banished to Limbo, where they have a few things to discuss with Ultra-Humanite. Apparently banishing these ten villains has no effect on the cosmos, nor do the superheroes seem to care overly much.

I liked this arc when I was a kid and still do, although some of the plot holes are more obvious to me now. The villains seem much more competent here than in the usual comics story; in fact, they technically win here. If not for the Earth-1 villains rescuing the heroes from Limbo, Earth-2 would’ve been hero-less and taken over by bad guys. That sort of role-reversal blew me away as a kid. One thing that always bothered me was how the villains defeated the heroes so handily in the first two issues, but were soundly trounced in only a few pages at the conclusion. The way the villains paired off against their “usual” foes was a little strange too (although in Limbo they mixed things up a bit more.) In hindsight, this arc would’ve been perfect for an “Acts of Vengeance” type story, with the villains taking on heroes they weren’t normally used to fighting. But overall, I love this story; it introduced me to some new villains, the story is different from the usual fare, and the art is great. There’s even a cool centerfold in #195 featuring the JLA on one side and the JSA on the other ... what’s not to love?


dbutler16 said...

This is one of those arc that has stuck in my mind, probably more so due to the George Perez art than anything else. Still, this is a ton of fun with so many heroes and villains and, I just fell in love with the Ultra-Humanite here. How can you not love a super-intelligent, evil, talking gorilla. It was a bitter disappointment when he took another body. Also, I was only 12 at the time so I didn't notice the plot holes back then, though, like M.S. Wilson, I did notice them more as I re-read this last year. Also like M.S. Wilson, this was an introduction to several DC supervillains for me. All in all, a great arc, and one that I'll return to in time.

Edo Bosnar said...

First of all, I have to say: great review, Mike W. (at least, I hope I'm rightfully assuming that "M.S. Wilson" is in fact the pseudonym for frequent commenter Mike W.).

Second, what a great choice of issues to review. I absolutely loved this three-parter, despite some of the pretty glaring plot-holes you mentioned - your advice to not examine things too closely is apposite. All you have to do is savor the lovely art, dig into the story and enjoy the ride.
And I'm so glad you included a scan of that page featuring the annual JLA/JSA get-together. Then and now, I just love all of the interactions between the heroes: the 'family reunion' between Earth-1 Batman and Huntress and Earth-2 Robin, Black Canary observing how nice it is to see her former Earth-2 team-mates, and Firestorm's unsuccessful attempt at flirting with Powergirl. And then there's Johnny Thunder's T-bolt floating around and munching a sandwich - brilliant.

I think this is my favorite of the JLA/JSA meet-ups - with the previous one, featuring the New Gods, coming in a close second. Otherwise, I have to say that Conway's run on JLA is my personal favorite period in that title, especially that stretch from about issue #s 170 to 200.

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Martinex 1 said...

Thanks to M.S, Wilson for the review. I have to say I never read these issues, but if I had seen those covers (particularly the first two) on the rack, I would have bought them. I really like the Ultra Humanite particularly as depicted here. Like M.S., I do think it is funny that the Killer Frost's motivation was so singular and personal. I wonder how they might depict that on the current Flash TV show, as she is a main character (up to this point unchanged and unpowered).

As M.S indicates occurred in this story the resolution was short and sweet. I also find that many times in this era, the final battles are short whereas the lead up and initial conflicts are long and dramatic. I wonder if that was a pacing issue with editors and writers as they tried to keep stories in 2 or 3 issue arcs. Or was it just how they intended it; the heroes had time to think and regroup and the villains did not stand a chance. I don't know. But like you said, "Don't think too hard about it."

Redartz said...

Very nice, detailed review; M.S.! I've never read this arc, as I didn't follow the Justice League at the time (sure missed out on some fine artwork). What a huge cast of characters; Conway seems to have done fine with it, and of course crowds are bread and butter to Mr. Perez...

Dr. Oyola said...

Woo-Hoo! First guest review!

Great job, Mr. Wilson. I, too, was unfamiliar with this arc, but it does have a classic feel to it based on your description.

Man, I really know next to nothing about DC comic characters. Some of the villain names are familiar, but I know next to nothing about them. Ultra-Humanite? Killer Frost? (was she a Flash villain?) Signalman? Who knew?

Martinex1 said...

I think Killer Frost was originally a Firestorm villain. At least that is where I originally saw her; she appeared in his brief first series and then again throughout his second. I always assumed she was mainly his villain, but I may be wrong as I am not a DC expert. In the Flash TV show, she is on the Star Labs team and was Ronnie Raymond's fiancée before he became Firestorm. It is actually kind of cool to see Firestorm in live action.

Dr. Oyola said...

Wait! What?

Caitlin Snow is gonna be bad guy! Say it ain't so! :/

J.A. Morris said...

Nice review from MS, good stuff.

I've never been a big DC fan, but this was one of my favorite stories of the 80s. This was my introduction to the Ultra-humanite, so I'll always think of him as a super-intelligent white gorilla!

For those who like Bronze Age Reprints, you can find 195-197 in this tpb:

Anonymous said...

Oh no, Edo's discovered my secret identity! When Doug and Karen mentioned guest reviews, this was one of the first things that came to mind. I loved it when I was a kid, and it holds up pretty well, overall.

Killer Frost was a Firestorm fact, I think there were two Killer Frosts; the second one was a psychiatrist (I think) who sort of patterned herself after the original, to an insane Single White Female kinda thing. I hope Caitlin doesn't end up like that on the TV show!

Thanks for all the comments on my review!

Mike W(ilson)

Doug said...

Congrats to Mike W. for a successful inaugural journey aboard the BAB Guest Post train! Thanks for today's musings, Mike!

Karen and I are excited to tell everyone that we have several more posts in the queue that have been authored by you -- the readers! Edo Bosnar will bring a discussion on Steranko your way this Thursday. Next week and on through the month of March we'll see contributions from Martinex1, Edo some more, and Dr. Oyola! And for me, what's great about some of these posts is the variety they bring to the BAB. As an example, one of the most revered creators of any age is Carl Barks. Edo's going to rectify his omission from this space.

Tomorrow -- it's back to the spinner rack for our irregularly scheduled conversation on all things Richie Rich!


Garett said...

Nice review Mike! I read this arc as a kid and picked it up again recently. Haven't had the chance to reread it yet, but now I'm going to!

Edo Bosnar said...

Ooops, sorry for uncovering your identity, Mike. Now you're going to have to wear those disguise glasses (you know, with the big nose and mustache) every time you leave home. ;)

And yes, Killer Frost is (or was) a Firestorm foe. Her real name was Crystal Frost, and I think she used to be in love with Prof. Stein (one half of the original Firestorm). I can't remember if they actually had a relationship, or if she was just pining after him, but she went a bit off the deep end he either didn't return her affection or broke up with her. Don't know anything about the second Killer Frost, as I had stopped reading Firestorm before that.

As for Richie Rich - oh, yeah. Bring it on!

Anonymous said...

Great review!
It's just a fun, goofy comic arc, with some really great Perez art.
Perfect reading material for a warm summer afternoon in a lawn chair with some lemonade. Actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea.
If summer ever gets here...

Graham said...

Very nice review. I always enjoyed the JLA/JSA team-ups. The Perez/Beatty artwork was a highlight for this one....I always wished that Perez did more JLA issues, but was happy with what I got. I can remember opening up each issue, which usually had a great cover by Perez or Brian Bolland or Rich Buckler and hoping it had Perez artwork on the inside and being disappointed if it wasn't.

JLA/JSA was always one of the highlights of the summer (which tells you how little else there was to do in my neck of the woods back in the day). :)

Dr. Oyola said...

By the by: One of my all-time favorite comic stories is a Richie Rich included a dream world with dragons and purple gold. I would give. . .well, a lot. . .to get a copy of it again.

Humanbelly said...

Sooooooo Bronze Age JLA can clearly move to the front of my "What can I collect NOW?" agenda--! Well done, Mike W, you've breathed some fresh life into this jaded, old fan. . . !


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks again for all the kind words, and thanks to Doug and Karen for letting me ramble on in their space. I hope I can contribute again sometime (as soon as I figure out what to write about!)

Mike Wilson

medellin 7 said...

Way to go Mike! Nicely done. Never read this arc but Perez was one of the reasons i read teen titans back in the day (treason!) maybe its time to lay down a few hard sheckles for another good read by the master draftsman!

Karen said...

Wow, I remember these issues! This sort of crosses over into the "This cover made me buy this book" category for me, because the George Perez covers were so awesome! I probably haven't read the books in decades, but Mike W's review brought much of it back to me. Those JLA-JSA cross-overs were just the best. I wasn't even a regular JLA reader but I made an effort each summer to grab the book for those events. Thanks Mike for the memories! I may have to dig these out.

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