Justice League of America #44 was the first comic book I ever got through the mail. It came in a brown paper wrapper. And it was folded in two, lengthwise.
Which, of course, would significantly lessen its future value as a collectible, but my eight-year-old self hardly cared about that. After all, I was the kid who cut the logo off the cover of Superman #181 and cut up a story page in The Brave and the Bold #64 for the subscription coupon on the back — said subscription coupon being the very reason why I was now receiving my first issue of JLA through the mail, just a few months after I’d mailed the coupon in, accompanied by a single dollar bill. (One dollar for 10 issues! I saved a whole 2 cents per comic book.)
I don’t have any specific recollection of the day the comic arrived at my house, but I was probably giddy with excitement. I doubt that the book’s folded state fazed me for more than a couple of minutes. You could mash out a crease pretty quickly, after all. (Though you could never, ever completely remove all evidence of it; and in fact, the crease in this very comic is still visible to the naked eye, 50 years later:
Right down the middle. See it?)
Now, I’m sure you’re just as eager to dive into the book’s contents as I was that day back in 1966, but before we do, let’s take one more close look at the full cover. (Go ahead, scroll back up to the top of the article. I’ll wait.) Note that although the giant figures of Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern are all rendered at about the same size, Batman gets a little additional emphasis by being foregrounded against the other two, as well as being the only character on the cover with any dialogue. The effect is subtle, but I tend to consider this cover the first example of Batman’s new television notoriety affecting his presentation in JLA. (Within only a couple more issues, however, subtlety would be thrown out the window, and the “Batmania” effect would become pronounced to the point of absurdity.)
But moving on… “The Plague That Struck the Justice League” was another tale from the regular creative team of writer Gardner Fox and penciller Mike Sekowsky, with inks provided by Frank Giacoia. It was also a direct sequel to JLA #42’s “Metamorpho Says — No!”, which I blogged about back in December. As you may remember, in that tale the League’s membership committee, consisting of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Atom, offered membership to the new superhero Metamorpho, who turned them down — while, at the same time, an immensely powerful alien entity called the Unimaginable tried to force his way onto the team’s roster, ultimately leading the membership committee (and Metamorpho) into deep space, where they entered the Unimaginable’s essentially nonmaterial “body” as energy beings and (to all appearances) destroyed him from within.
Now, however, all of the JLA members involved in that adventure (with the exception of Superman, whose Kryptonian physiology renders him immune) find themselves struck with a “plague” that causes them to double in size. Realizing that the one thing connecting them is their recent experience with the Unimaginable, the heroes return to the alien being’s home planet in search of answers. Of course, while there they’re attacked by a number of bizarre aliens who had previously served the Unimaginable (but whom they’d somehow avoided meeting on their first visit). Several pages of gratuitous action later, the Leaguers have triumphed over their foes but are no wiser about how to reverse the effects of their contact with the Unimaginable. Luckily, they then meet the one alien on the planet who’s not a bad guy — Doctor Bendorion, “the greatest medical man in the galaxy”, who tells them that the Unimaginable had kept him prisoner there to provide care for his underlings. Dr. Bendorion is confident he can help the giant-sized heroes, but first, he has some additional details to share about the nature of their condition, which translates into several pieces of very bad news:
(In 1966, everyone knew that Batman didn’t have a steady girlfriend, so Robin was the most logical choice to be his “touched person” — but it still seems a little awkward, doesn’t it?)
Returning to Earth with the good doctor, the five Leaguers fill in the rest of the team about the situation. An anxious Metamorpho turns up for a couple of panels, but once Dr. Bendorion quickly explains that he’s not in any danger due to some special deal about his atoms (long story), he’s out of there. At this point, we’re given a nice reminder that we are, after all, reading a mid-1960s comic book:
(Lucky Batman. Earlier in the story, Atom’s costume changed size when he did, and Green Lantern power-ringed up some instant alterations for his own uniform — but Flash was forced to sew a number of spare outfits together when he first shot up in size, without any female assistance whatsoever. Oh, the horror!)
Then, while Doc Bendorion is busily working to create an antidote, word comes that Seacoast City is being overrun by gangs of super-powered criminals. The plagued Leaguers can’t risk spreading their contagion, so the other half of the team — Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and the Martian Manhunter — spring into action. Unfortunately, they all find themselves stymied by the mysterious powers of the crooks, until GA hits on the idea of switching up their weaponry. And, what do you know:
(It’s not at all clear why this is successful — why, for example, Green Arrow’s shafts suddenly become effective when used by Hawkman, when before the crooks could easily repel them. The thing is, though, in Sixties DC comics this kind of gambit always works — so I won’t quibble. Besides, look at the fun our heroes are having!)
We’re not out of the woods yet, however, because even as this group of heroes celebrates their victory, another disaster is in the offing: the Aurora Borealis has inexplicably begun moving southward along the eastern seaboard, threatening Gotham City with destructive lightning. (Yes, that Aurora Borealis.) This time, it’s the plague-infected JLAers and Superman who respond to the emergency, as Dr. Bendorion avers that he has made so much progress on the cure that they are no longer a threat to others.
The heroes quickly send those menacing Northern Lights back where they came from, but when they rejoin their teammates back at their Secret Sanctuary, they get a nasty surprise: Doctor Bendorion is really the Unimaginable, who had taken over the real doc’s body after his earlier defeat by the League — and the “cure-ray” device he’s just finished working on is in fact a death-ray machine that will kill everyone on Earth unless the League accepts him as a member. As you can imagine, the answer is still a very firm “no” — but, not to worry, for Batman has already deduced that Bendorion was a phony by virtue of his use of the Earth term “hours”, as well as his knowledge that the Aurora Borealis must travel south to reach Gotham City, which proves he must have been to Earth before. (Um, OK.) Batman tipped off the Flash while they were fighting the Northern Lights, and the Flash sped back to disconnect the ray machine without the doctor knowing. So, when the Unimaginable presses the button, nothing happens. Superman knocks the alien out, while announcing that the League will put him in an “escape-proof container”, where he’ll presumably remain forever. (We never see this container, but I can’t help imagining it as a giant piece of Tupperware.)
But what about the plague, you ask? No worries there, either — the true cure for the affected heroes turns out to be nothing more or less than absolute rest. By the last panel, our heroes are all back to normal, with Flash and Batman’s costumes now comically baggy. (We never hear any more about their “contamination” of their girlfriends and Robin, so we have to assume either that the rest cure works on them by proxy, or that Unimaginable was lying about that all along.)
All in all, I can’t say that Justice League of America #44 was the most memorable issue of its era. The plot was pretty thin, honestly, with the mandatory action sequences coming across as obvious filler. Still, I’d say the book was worth what I paid for it — especially with that 2¢ subscription discount.
Returning to the topic of subscriptions — while I no longer personally subscribe to any comics by mail, I now work for an urban public library system, which I’m pleased to say subscribes to a variety of titles for our Central Library and its branches. I am therefore in a position to report that neither DC Comics nor its competitors still mail copies folded lengthwise; rather, they come flat in a plastic wrapper with a cardboard backing, like many other magazines. (The change to “flat-mailing” came about in or around January, 1976, at least at Marvel Comics, as documented by former Marvel staffer Scott Edelman.)
I still wouldn’t recommend this method of acquisition to any serious collector, but at least modern subscribers don’t have to flatten out their comics any more before trying to read them. Meanwhile, we old geezer collectors will continue to hang on to our ill-treated subscription copies of long ago, and share them with our younger compatriots in venues like this, just so that comics fandom may continue to always…
Remember the Crease!