A couple of weeks ago Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vol. 4 came out, and it's a rather significant one, as it includes the official beginning of the so-called Satellite Era of the Justice League (JLoA #78, the one where they get a satellite), and the first 130 pages or so of that era of the team's history.
If you care about this sort of thing (and I do!), it's pretty interesting reading, as, from our current viewpoint, you can see the book and the team changing right before your eyes. In this particular volume, we see Snapper Carr get phased out, we see Wonder Woman quitting the League to go through her short-lived, power-less, costume-less martial arts phase, we see Martian Manhunter head off to space to deal with Martian drama, we see Black Canary move to Earth-1, we see Green Arrow grow out his goatee and the formation of his current prickly and political personality (and the emergence of the special relationships he has with Black Canary and Hal Jordan) and we see Batman gradually getting grimmer and less jokey.
You can lay most of these changes at the feet of Denny O'Neil, who writes most of these stories, as well as the other books that JLoA wass reflecting the changes in (Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Batman).
By the time we reach the last issue collected in this volume, from 1970, Justice League of America seems pretty far removed from its Silver Age roots, and O'Neil is quite obviously grappling with questions like "How can I make these seven characters somehow different from one another beyond the fact that they have superpowers?" and "How can I make this comic book more realistic?"
It's all the more remarkable considering where the volume starts, with Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene's JLoA #61, "Operation: Jail the Justice League!", a doozy of a story from 1968 which is fairly typical of the Justice League as originally conceived.
Here, enjoy this terrifying cover:
There's some body-swapping between the heroes and their villains in this issue, which is why the cover is full of these horrifying half-and-half heads. Please note Green Arrow in the upper right-hand corner. His villain is apparently...Ronald Reagan...?
After a title page showing the villains all behind bars protesting that they are, in actuality, the Justice League, the action gets started as it so often does in Justice League comics—with a thrill-packed meeting of the Justice League!
They're all sitting extremely close together around their extremely small meeting table, and Superman announces, "All present but Green Arrow--Who shall be assumed tied up on an urgent case of his own..."
And then in strolls Green Arrow to announce that he's quitting the Justice League. His fellow members are all stunned, and he spends a half-dozen panels that he is indeed quitting, and he has a very good reason for doing so, but he can't tell them what it is, and if they try to discover the reason, they will be met with disaster.
Batman and Martian Manhunter, the detectives of the group, seem skeptical, and merely arch their eyebrows at the announcement. Superman, The Flash and Wonder Woman can only stand there in slack-jawed surprise. And Hal Jordan's mind races with a single thought: "I can't think of anything to say."
The League devotes the rest of their hour-long meeting—thankfully conveyed in just three panels—discussing the Green Arrow situation agreeing to respect Green Arrow's wishes. Although, secretly, all nine of them have the exact same plan, which they all coincidentally act upon simultaneously:
Yes, they all decide the best course of action would be to disguise themselves as Green Arrow, that way whatever trouble Green Arrow quit over will befall them, and thus reveal itself. Good thing they all have Green Arrow costumes handy!
Aquaman doesn't seem to be going far enough with his Green Lantern impersonation though:
If someone is after Green Arrow, surely they're not going to start looking for him floating around the high seas on the back of a giant sea turtle, are they?
One Leaguer is even worse at pretending to be Green Arrow than Aquaman though, and that's Wonder Woman, whose breasts give her away, and makes them narrator uncomfortable:
That night, Batman pulls out of the Batcave in a Batmobile modified to resemble the Arrow Car, and immediately runs into the Penguin. He tries to stop the criminal with a gas arrow, but a propeller in the tip of the Penguin's umbrella merely blows "that noxious nuisance" away. So Batman, still dressed as Green Arrow, decides to try his fists instead. And gets his ass kicked.
To be fair to Batman, who could have expected that a boxing glove could have been concealed in the tiny tip of the Penguin's umbrella? But still, that bottom panel's gotta be pretty embarrassing for our hero, doesn't it? (Please note: I resisted the temptation to make a joke about the fact that The Penguin says he's "turned on" in the first panel. Aren't you proud of my maturity?)
When the bogus bowman retorts "Your caper's laying an egg, Penguin" and lands a few punches, the villain begins to think maybe this GA is really Batman, but he's got another trick to rely on.
And that's that—Batman is down for the count. Man, the last sound any crimefighter wants to hear before losing consciousness is "BOINNNG!" but there you have it—Batman was felled by The Penguins spring-loaded trick top hat (Fun fact: That's how Abraham Lincoln won his final debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858).
Then something weird happens. The defeated Batman-dressed-like-Green Arrow transforms into The Penguin, while the victorious Penguin transforms into Batman-dressed-like-Green Arrow! So when the Gotham police arrive, they pick up Batman (who now looks like The Penguin), while the Penguin (who now looks like Batman-disguised-as-Green Arrow) goes free. Got all that? I hope so. I had to read the sequence like three times to figure out what was going on exactly.
Meanwhile, "in a city somewhere on the Atlantic Coast," the narrator isn't sure where, The Martian Manhunter (also disguised as Green Arrow), sees Dr. Light using one of his light gimmicks to rape an armored car.
J'onn bungles the bow bit by shattering it with his incredible Martian strength, so decides to go hand-to-hand against the fiendish rapist. It doesn't go well for him though. First, Dr. Light rapes his eyes with a distortion beam, imprisons him in spiral-light bonds, and draws him near fire, which completely rapes J'onn of his powers. As before, when the battle ends, the disguised hero takes on the form of the villain, while the villain takes on the form of Green Arrow.
The other heroes all experience similar events:
In Star City, Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen reads the newspaper to learn that seven of his fellow Leaguers have all been captured in the forms of their own foes. Since The Atom is the only one left un-shape-changed and un-captured, GA heads to Ivy Town.
There, Jason Woodrue, who hasn't yet become a tree man but is basically just a middle-aged dude who carries a bunch of potted plants around with him to commit crimes with, is in pitched battle with a six-inch tall Green Arrow, who is actually The Atom poorly disguised (The six-inch height is a dead giveaway that you're not really GA, Atom).
Woodrue wins the day with a variety of plants, ultimately capturing The Atom in the vines of a liana plant and then just punching the shit out of him. But! Oliver Queen, wearing a jacket and tie, lurks up behind him, and stuns Woodrue after the predictable transformation takes place. Queen flips a switch on a device Woodrue was carrying, and the various heroes all resume their normal shapes. Then he sets off his emergency signal, and everyone convenes at the Secret Sanctuary where Oliver Queen and unconscious Dr. Destiny are waiting for them, and we get to The Explanation.
This was a little hard to follow too. Apparently, Doctor Destiny had escaped from prison and used his Materioptikon, which can later matter, to give GA his likeness while he took on GA's. While GA-as-Destiny was in jail, the transformation wore off, and Green Arrow was released from prison. He went to the Justice League meeting expecting to see a second Green Arrow, which he knew would really be Dr. Destiny in disguise, but sine there wasn't another GA, that meant Destiny could have been disguised as one of the others.
Does that make sense?
Again, this took me a few readings to follow.
Anyway, Destiny wakes up, and reveals he has an ace up his sleeve! He had planned on his plan being foiled, and therefore put the real villains into a trance, so that, should he be captured, they would wake up and materialize at the Secret Sanctuary to kick the League's ass.
And here they come!
Man, just look at these guys! They are just cold prancing into battle, and they look pretty damn happy to be about to throw down with the Justice League, despite the fact that, you know, Superman, Martian Manhunter and The Flash could kill them all single-handedly in the space of a second or two if they wanted. When the four-foot tall guy in a tuxedo and monocle with the cigarette holder is the most bad-ass dude in your gang, you might not really be ready to fight the Justice League...
But you've really got to admire their positive attitudes. See Jason Woodrue there? Right behind Captain Boomerang? All he's got with him is a house plant, and he's holding it aloft like it's going to decide this fight.
That wonderful panel if followed what may just be the greatest page in JLA history. Check this out:
Each villain lines up in front of their enemy and attacks simultaneously, while explaining exactly what they're doing. Note Woodrue's flawless battle plan in the bottom of the panel: He's just going to go ahead and throw that potted plant across the room at The Atom. And Green Arrow, Wonder Woman and Snapper Carr? They're just kind of in an "other" category together, having to share Dr. Destiny as an opponent.
As beautiful as this page is, it's followed by an even better image, a big, huge, two-page spread in which the Leaguers totally scatter and change opponents, and just wreck the villains. Unfortunately, I couldn't scan it, due to the size of the book, but trust me, it rules. "And because actions speak louder than words, we're dispensing with dialogue!", says the narration, above the various Leaguers smiling like maniacs while that knock out villains.
There's a few more panels of the League mopping up, like this one where Superman punches poor way over-matched Captain Boomerang so damn hard he knocks the boomerang-pattern off his costume...
...and then they literally pile the villains in the corner to continue with The Explanation.
And that's how "Operation: Jail the Justice League!" went down.
Now hurry up with Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vol. 5, DC...