Saturday, February 16, 2008

Satellite Era Spotlight: Justice League of America Annual #1

Justice League of America Annual #1 (1983), by Paul Levitz, Len Wein, Rick Hoberg and Dick Giordano

Twenty-two thousand and three hundred miles above the Earth, a handful of Justice Leaguers are in pitched battle against massive, armored aliens that seem to each be as powerful as Superman. While Ralph "Elongated Man" Dibny struggles to hold one, it's fist punches a hole in the JLA Satellite's plasteel walls, and

But it turns out it was all just a dream!


Hmm, and it turns out I was wrong about Ralph’s favorite ice cream. But who could have guessed guacamole ice cream? I didn't even know such a thing existed...

Sue offers to talk about his nightmare with him, but Ralph laughs it off and she rolls over to go back to sleep. He stares out his bedroom window, thinking dark thoughts, and worrying that maybe some day someone will get hurt because of his choice to become The Elongated Man. Ha! Like that would ever happen!

Then we cut to...

Hey, when the credit box on the first page referred to Wein as "wordsmith," it wasn't kidding! Man, this is some nice narration. It almost sounds like a poem...

Elsewhere, in a room
Without number
In a place
Without name
A shadowy figure sits before a
Massive Materioptikon
His gloved fingers flying across
The control board as if playing
Some perverted calliope
But his is not a happy song

But who is this shadowy figure? Hobbers' panels slowly tease out his idenity. Why, it's...


Alright, alright, Doctor Destiny.

Special guest star Commissioner Gordon notices that Destiny escaped from his cell at Arkham Asylum, leaving an illusion of himself in his cot. Gordon can't reach Batman, who is busy invading Markovia in the pages of the then-just launched Batman and The Outsiders (The Showcase Presents volume of which is totally worth $16.99). So Gordon turns to the League, apparently inviting them all down to his kitchen for a meeting.

No, I guess that's actually the Justice League's meeting room. Hoberg just draws it like a kitchen. Anyway, after Gordon tells them about Destiny, the League decides that they'll split up into teams to search for the villain.

Firestorm, The Atom, Hawkman and Hawkgirl head to a psych-lab at Ivy University, using a Thanagarian cerebrumeter to follow a trail of unusually high concentrated delta-waves.

Using his molecular restructuring powes, Firestorm creates a revolving door in the wall of the building, and a mustachioed scientist immediately shows off his deductive skills:

“Sorry, I didn’t recognize you at first. The hawk-shaped helmet, the giant hawk-wings and the symbol of a hawk on your chest confused me. I thought you might be Batman and Batwoman.”

Destiny's not there, but when he sees that the League is, he uses the Materioptikon to summon green monsters from the dreams of slumbering test subjects to attack his foes.

What, you didn’t believe me this was from 1983?

Fresh out of quips with short shelf-lives, Firestorm manages to awaken the students whose dreams are generating their foes, thus ending the battle.

The Leaguers then show off what good teammates they all are, by all speaking one fourth of the same sentence

Now that's teamwork!

Meanwhile, the all-blonde squad of Aquaman, Black Canary and Green Arrow journey to a Greenwich Village art fair, because several of the artists participating have disappeared.

Note that when alone, the nearest civilians a good twenty feet away, these three Leaguers, all of whom know each other’s secret identities, even the two of them who are living together, don’ use their eal names. Even their nicknames are based on their codenames: "Arrow," "Archer," "Pretty Bird."

Now, one of ex-Justice League of America writer Brad Metlzer’s most obvious and annoying affectations was to always have the heroes calling each other by their first name, whether or not the character's knew each other's real names, or if there were villians around, or if they were out in public, or if no one reading the damn comic knew the characters' first names (See "The Lightning Saga;" surely fewer readers are on a first-name basis with the fantasy Legion of Super-Heroes that Meltzer and Geoff Johns created for the story than people reading the book, right?)

But what's the source of Meltzer's weird habit? Obviously the so-called Satellite Era has had a huge influence on Meltzer; these are the characters he likes most, the stories he references the most and all of the mistakes and continuity gaffes he made tended to come about from him trying to honor this Pre-Crisis (on Infinite Earths) continuity rather than the Post-Crisis continuity (It could even be argued that the sole reason DC rejiggered their continuity in Infinite Crisis was to realign it with Meltzer's vision of how it should be).

But here we have a Satellite Era comic, and the characters aren't calling each other Ollie and Arthur and Dinah.

Back to the story, the Blonde Batallion's investigation goes a lot like that of Firestorm's team. Destiny's not there but he's watching, and uses the Materioptikon to summon something for them to fight, which they do.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman and The Flash race to Gotham City to search for Destiny, where they meet a surprise guest star...

Aw, come on, Wonder Woman! I was just complimenting you guys on your restraint and discretion regarding your real names, and there you are blurting John’s full name out in public!

(Actually, does John have a secret identity? I remember he made a big deal about not wanting to wear a mask, so maybe he's always been out? Short of one issue in the GL/GA trades, the one in which he first gets his power ring, this is the earliest story featuring him I’ve read, I think.)

Now, why is Flash so unhappy to see him? Why does Barry Allen hate black people?

John makes with some exposition (and refers to his costume as "cockamamie") before conjuring up a gigantic, glowing, green blood hound to sniff out delta-wave radiation.

Is the dog just for show, and the ring's detecting the delta waves? Or did GL use the ring to create a delta-wave detector and put it in the dog's nose or...?

Anyway, I like the fact that Wonder Woman's all, "This should get us upstairs unnoticed," and then they float up the shaft in a glowing green bubble attached to a giant, glowing green blood hound.

Anyway, you know what happens by this point, right? Destiny's not there, but he's watching, summons some dream foes for the Leaguer to fight, and they fight them off.

Meanwhile, Zatanna uses her magic to find Doctor Destiny, thus proving the last 20 pages or so a huge waste of everyone's time. First she and the League leftovers of Elongated Man and Red Tornado magic to the dream realm for their own version of the same scene we've already seen three times.

Then she summons the League, and they splash page their way forward.

I really like the top half of this panel, and the way all the fliers have their own flying style. Particularly John. He really looks like he’s being propelled through the sky by a force, instead of adopthing the gegneric Superman flying pose, and in fact, he isn’t really posing at all, just flying. Heck, that’s how I’d fly if I could fly. Good job, Hoberg!

And where are they splash-paging off, too? Why, to this familiar setting:

Oh wow, no way! It's the Kirby-created Sandman! The one that came long after Wesley Dodds, but long before Morpheus of The Endless! I honestly did not see that coming. With The Sandman and hsi servants Brute and Glob captured, Destiny controls the realm and all the nightmares and dream monsters within it, which he sics on the League.

They beat back the bad guys, however, and are closing in on their nemesis, when he decides to fight dirty, and thorw sand in their eyes

And not just any sand, but "The Sandman's somnolent sand," which puts them asleep. Ralph's the last one to go down, but he's able to stretch a finger to the eject button on The Sandman's tube, shooting him into the Dream-Stream. Doctor Destiny's all like, "Ha, who cares if I lose The Sandman; I've got the whole Justice League!" So he puts them all in glass collector's cases and gloats.

The Sandman uses his newfound freedom to journey to Earth and wake up a napping Clark Kent, who ripss off his suit to become Superman, and, in short order, they're in the Dream Dimension, kicking ass and opening glass cases:

With Destiny successfully defied, the League and their new ally retire to the Satellite for a post-mortem of the adventure. And then Firestorm pops the question:

Now, I'm sure it didn't occur to Levitz and Wein when they were writing this scene, and it may not even look like it now at first glance, but this is actually a momentous moment in comics history right here. The JLA is asking The Sandman to join their team here and, no exaggeration, which way Levitz and Wein decide to have him answer this question would have had a gigantic impact on the medium's creative and commercial growth.

To back up for a second, I should note there’s no real reason for The Sandman to say no here. He fits in perfectly well, even more so than Elongated Man or Firestorm or Red Tornado, in terms of Justice League worthiness. He's an iconic character and household name kind of hero of hero (Like Uncle Sam, he's a DC-owned superhero whose name alone makes him as familiar as Batman or Superman, even if he's not as popular as a comic book character).

While he's not Kirby's most inspired creation, not even his most inspired DC creation, he's not a bad character. Hes costume's decent and seems to fit in among the rest of the Leaguers, his powers are interesting and unique and, like the vast majority of the heroes on the League at the time, he works far better on a tea than he would alone. His book didn't last very long, but, like Elongated Man or Green Arrow or Zatanna or Red Tornado, eve if he couldn't support a book of his own, he could certainly help support a team book.

Long sory short, Levitz and Wein could have easily made him say yes and join the Justice League.

Now, imagine if he did. Imagine if he becomes a character like Elongated Man, Red Tornado, Firestorm or Zatanna, a member of the League's B-team who is forever associated with the team. That means he’s not in limbo and half-forgotten for the remainder of the '80s, and then, come 1989, maybe he’s joining on the JLI instead of lending his name and an element or two to Neil Gaiman’s dramatic reimagining of him in The Sandman.

Then what? Hard to say for sure, but, at the very least, there's no Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, one of, if not the, best American comic books produced (I once read an article that that said it wasn't just one of the best comics of the latter half of the 20th century, but it was one of the best works of fiction of that period, and I’m inclined to agree).

But the quality of Gaiman's Sandman series aside, it undoubtedly had a huge impact on our pop culture, and a hard to over-estimate one on comics.

Without The Sandman, what would become of Neil Gaiman’s career? Would he have simply taken over Swamp Thing after Alan Moore left? Would he have turned Books of Magic or Black Orchid into a sufficeintly Big Thing to replace The Sandman? Does he find success elsewhere?

What about all the superstar artists that came out of iThe Sandman, finding much bigger and more appreciative audiences than they had before working on it?

What about Vertigo, foundation of which was certainly laid by Moore, Grant Morrison and others, but the spine of which has long been Gaiman's little Sandman universe. It was his Death The High Cost of Living that was the first official Vertigo book. WithoutThe Sandman, is there a Vertigo? (At the very least, there wouldn't be that or the Death book and other Endless and Dreaming related spin-offs, and probably not Sandman Mystery Theater or The Books of Magic or Lucifer and all those The Sandman Presents books.

Without Vertigo, think of all the creators who might not have found their way into U.S. pop comics, or at least not in the same way or at the same level of popularity that they ultimately did—Morrison, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar...

Without The Sandman and Vertigo, does the graphic novel revolution ever get here? Does it just come a little bit later, or does it take a different form entirely? Is it pushed along by manga, and Western companies are rushing to reach this new bookstore audience at the beginning of the aughts?

Talk about a nightmare world! A world where The Sandman joined the Justice League is a world where The Sandman was never published, a world where Vertigo may never have existed, where graphic novels never became the prominent format ath athey are now and AAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!

Whew! It was all just a dream. The Kirby Sandman turned the offer of Justice League membership down, and thus entered limbo to be transformed into Gaiman's Sandman at the end of the decade.

It’s a good thing that when The Sandman said that his condition of only being able to leave the Dream-Dimension for an hour at a time would make joining the team impractical, nobody was like, "Oh, that's cool. Aquaman had the same problem with being out of water, and he founded the team, and has been with us for years now."


Anonymous said...

Or, Morpheus just wouldn't be part of the mainstream DCU. Gaiman would still write him, but he never wakes J'onn up in the middle of the night or his loot, and Dr. Destiny's role is filled in by some yahoo.

Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, won't have his cool retcon where he's actually carrying around a piece of the Lord of Dreams's soul inside him though.

Jacob T. Levy said...

But those were important building blocks of the series, and allowed it to get launched. With Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Black Orchid, Doom Patrol, and Animal Man all underway already, I suspect the impetus was pretty strong for a weird book on the edges of continuity rather than out of continuity.

Other than Wasteland, did DC publish *any* out-of-continuity books between Watchmen and the birth of the Vertigo imprint?

Great, enetertaining post about an issue I'd never read-- and I like that Destiny and the Kirby Sandman had some interaction at some point before Gaiman. (Actually, by Gaiman's time the Kirby Sandman was dead, replaced in the role by Hector Hall. So I guess I' just glad that Dr. Destiny and the Kirby Sandman *ever* interacted.)

SallyP said...

Whew! I'm awfully glad that Sandman turned the JLA down. Why this may have been one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th Century!

Also, the "All-Blonde Squad" made me giggle with glee.

Jacob T. Levy said...

and... the sheer raw fighting edge of the Bronze Age Green Arrow? Sorry; not buying it. Even as depicted at the time, Ralph often made pretty effective contributions, whereas GA got into fights with Hawkman and complained about how out-of-touch the League was a lot.

Unknown said...

DC published Breathtaker before Vertigo, a mature readers miniseries by Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel. And I think I've seen ads in some of that era's issues (I have the full run of Morrison's Doom Patrol and Peter Milligan's Shade the Changing Man) for similar stuff, but I can't think of any right now.

Caleb said...

Or, Morpheus just wouldn't be part of the mainstream DCU...

Oh, yeah, the series started as a DCU series and then rapidly had less and less to do with the DCU. And I'm sure Gaiman could have told a similar story without all the ties to it, but it just seemed so tied to DC properties.

I'm not sure of where his initial inspiration came from—if Karen Berger said, "What about these old Sandman comics? Think you can do anything with them?" or not—but Matthew the Raven, the first story arc, Lyta Hall, Cain, Abel, Eve, that awesome Prez much of it seemed to use the detrius of the DC character vaults to build from.

It was really a lighting-in-a-bottle kinda book, I think, and I wonder if changing any factors too much would have meant that lightning never got captured, you know?

Other than Wasteland, did DC publish *any* out-of-continuity books between Watchmen and the birth of the Vertigo imprint?

I wasn't reading back then, but I want to say they did (based mostly on ads I've seen). What about the likes of, let's see, Skreemer, The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Psychos (or was it just Psycho?), Camelot 3000...that's all I can suggest. I haven't read any of 'em either, so they're just guesses based on not seeing Superman in any of the house ads for 'em...