DC Comics actually published two issues of Justice League of America in September, 1966: the subject of this post, issue #49, which was released on September 13, according to the Library of Congress Copyright Office’s filing records (accessed, per usual, via the amazing web site Mike’s Amazing World); and issue #48, released a little less than two weeks earlier, on September 1. That might seem odd, considering that JLA was only being published nine times a year at this point, but the extra November-dated issue was actually a reprint collection — an “80-Page Giant” featuring three of the premier super-team’s earliest adventures.
This was, in fact, DC’s second such JLA collection. I’d just missed getting the first one, which had come out in the late summer of 1965, right before I picked up my own first issue of the series (#40, also one of the very first comics I ever bought) — so this was my initial glimpse at the team’s early days. And it was striking that, in spite of the reprinted stories all having been produced by the same core creative team of writer Gardner Fox and penciller Mike Sekowsky, under the supervision of editor Julius Schwartz (a fact I may not actually have been aware of at the time, since the book didn’t include any creator credits), they were noticeably different from the current run of Justice League stories in a couple of key ways.
For one thing, the stories’ general format found the heroes gathered together at the beginning of the adventure to be confronted by the main menace, then splitting into smaller units to combat subordinate threats, or gather tools needed against the enemy, before coming back together for the finale. This format was a carryover from All-Star Comics, the home of the JLA’s “Golden Age” predecessors, the Justice Society of America, which had actually begun in 1940 as an anthology title featuring DC’s superheroes in individual adventures. This format had been pretty well set aside by 1966, by which time Fox and his collaborators were generally featuring a different selection of members from the team’s roster of ten and having them appear more-or-less together throughout the story.
Another difference in the old stories was the downplaying of the roles of DC’s two biggest stars, Superman and Batman — an approach that probably seems remarkably counter-intuitive to most of today’s comics readers. This, apparently, was due to a directive Schwartz had received from the editors of those heroes’ own comics, Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff, respectively, who feared that sales of their books could suffer if the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader were prominently featured in JLA. Therefore, in the earliest of the three stories reprinted in issue #48 (“Challenge of the Weapons Master!”, from The Brave and the Bold #29), Batman appears in the first chapter, then ducks out quickly to go search for Superman, who hasn’t responded to the League’s emergency signal; he returns in the story’s final pages with his World’s Finest partner in tow, just in time for the Metropolis Marvel to help save the day.
Superman and Batman play larger roles in the other two reprinted tales (JLA #2‘s “Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers!” and issue #3‘s “Slave Ship of Space!”) — but even here, they weren’t allowed to appear on the covers for those stories, as the reproductions inset into #48’s own cover show. It’s obviously a far cry from the new cover’s Mike Sekowsky-Murphy Anderson illustration, in which Batman appears front and center and is more than twice the size of any of the other six heroes (though it’s worth noting, I think, that Superman is the next biggest).
As Julius Schwartz told the story in his autobiography, Man of Two Worlds, things eventually changed when sales of JLA began to slip a little, and he asked the “publisher” (presumably Executive Vice-President Irwin Donenfeld) whether he could start using Superman and Batman on the covers.
“Why haven’t you used them all along?” he demanded.
“Because Mort and Jack didn’t want me to,” I replied.
“You go in and tell those sonuvabitches that Superman and Batman belong to DC Comics and not to Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff!” he bellowed loudly.
And so, Superman and Batman began to be featured on the covers, as well as fully participating in the stories.
(In Weisinger and Schiff’s defense, it should be noted that they were following a tradition extending back to the 1940s, and the Justice Society of America’s series in All-Star Comics. Although identified as “honorary members” in the team’s first published adventure in All-Star Comics #3, DC’s two flagship heroes never actually appeared in a JSA adventure, with the exception of one story in the 36th issue, published in 1947, which identified them as “guest stars”.)
By issue #49, things had changed to the extent that Supes and Bats had not only become fully functioning members of the Justice League, but could together comprise an entire half of all the heroes on hand for an adventure — for, in a move as unusual in this era of JLA as it had been in the previous one, “Threat of the True-or-False Sorcerer!” featured only four Justice League members. (Five, if you count “honorary member”/mascot Snapper Carr — which I’m not. But more about him later.)
The issue’s cover, which, like #48’s, was pencilled by Sekowsky and inked by Anderson, is a little unusual for its time — at or just past the peak of “Batmania” — in that the figure of Batman, though definitely the focal point of the illustration, isn’t proportionately larger than that of Superman. Considering that Batman would loom larger than all other Justice Leaguers on the several covers immediately following this one, it seems less likely that the artists were trying to be a little less Bat-centric here than that the cover concept simply needed to have the Man of Tomorrow rendered the same size as the Masked Manhunter for it to work, and editor Schwartz just ran with it. (Plus, Batman is depicted charging forward and punching the demon, while Superman is taking a punch and falling backwards, so there’s that.) Notably, the third hero on the cover, Green Lantern, is drawn significantly smaller than the World’s Finest headliners, and the fourth JLAer featured in the story, the Flash, doesn’t get to appear at all.
On the first story page past the splash, we meet our story’s villain, the sorcerer Felix Faust, in his current, incarcerated circumstances. Faust had first shown up to bedevil the League in 1962’s issue #10, then had returned months later as one of the cross-dimensional team of villains that battled the JLA and the JSA in their first annual team-up, in 1963. This was his first appearance since the conclusion of that adventure in JLA #22:
The two Fausts first try to settle the matter physically, but soon come to their senses (more or less), and turn to the more promising avenue of magic to try to resolve the matter of which Felix is the real one:
In this sequence, with the mentions of the Kabbalah and Abaddon, we have the first of many references in the story to authentic legendary figures and occult beliefs from scripter Fox, whose erudition on such matters (or, perhaps more likely, his ready access to a a shelfful of really interesting reference books) is on view here every bit as much as in the Spectre story we discussed in our earlier post about Showcase #64.
Having received the demon Abaddon’s warning, the two Fausts aren’t sure how to proceed — each is convinced that the other is the magical duplicate, but each also realizes that one of them has to be wrong. How to solve this dilemma? Why, by calling on the folks who put them in jail in the first place, how else?
I’m not sure why Fox (or Schwartz) decided to limit the number of heroes appearing in this story to four. I do know that, around this same time, my younger self developed the idea that these particular four — Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern — were the top four members of the Justice League. Superman and Batman were the top two, for obvious reasons (and despite Batmania, I believe I always gave some slight primacy to Superman, whom I’d encountered first, and whose very name graced the DC logo of the time, after all) — but in my nine-year-old mind, the Scarlet Speedster and the Emerald Gladiator were right behind them
Why did I think this? Well, this very story may have had something to do with it, since I’m not certain my idea of a “Big Four” preceded my reading it — on the other hand, the idea could have come first, and even if it didn’t, I was obviously already primed to anoint this quartet as the JLA’s A-Team by the time issue #49 came out. It couldn’t have been just the fact that the Flash and GL had their own books — so did all the Leaguers at that time, with the exception of Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter. Hawkman and Atom hadn’t been among the League’s original seven members, of course, which might have led me to exclude them from the top tier. So what about Wonder Woman and Aquaman? Well, I’m afraid it’s probable that Wonder Woman being a girl had something to do with her not making my cut (I’m sorry, but I was a nine-year-old boy, living in the Bible Belt in 1966; I did get better, I promise), and as for Aquaman — well, he talked to fish. I know I probably wasn’t being fair to either of these classic characters; and the main reason for that may well have been simply that their books weren’t edited by Julius Schwartz, and the Flash’s and Green Lantern’s were. I don’t think I even knew Schwartz’s name at the time, but when I look back now at all the titles I purchased in the first year or so of my comics buying, most of them were books he edited. I knew what I liked.
But returning to our story… Obviously, the four Justice Leaguers have little reason to trust any Felix Faust, whether he’s the genuine article or not, but they wisely decide not to gamble the fate of the universe on the notion that his (their) story is false. That still leaves the question of how to deduce which of the two identical sorcerers is the real one:
Sure, JLA, why not? Go fight some random threats the villains will conjure up on the fly, and while you’re fighting, maybe you’ll stumble onto something.
Since no one has a better idea, this is indeed what they decide to do. Our heroes split into two teams (recalling the format of the JLA’s earliest adventures) — and since we can already see Superman and Batman as partners in every issue of World’s Finest, and Flash and Green Lantern guest star in each others’ books semi-regularly, as well, Fox wisely avoids those pairings. Instead, Batman and Green Lantern form one team, while Superman and the Flash make up the second. We stick with the latter team at first, as one of the Fausts dispatches them to a distant location:
If you hadn’t quite grasped the overall tone of this story before the beginning of Supes’ battle with the troll, you’ll surely have done so before it ends. Sure, the fate of the universe may be at stake, but that’s no reason we can’t have a little fun. Or, as our jolly green troll would put it, “I ban hit you!”
Although Superman seems to have gained the upper hand, the troll quickly recovers. However, moments later, just after the two crash through the roof of a delivery truck…
Speaking of the Flash — he’s got his own emerald-hued entity out of Northern European legend to contend with:
Though the four-fisted leprechaun lands the first punches, the Flash soon takes the offensive:
Fox again puts his reference shelf to good use, as he introduces a German kobold, a Persian peri, an Arabian djinn, and a Greek cacodemon. This infernal foursome sends Flash sprawling on the ground, but he quickly rebounds, with a fistful of flowers in each hand (yes, of course that’s important):
Our two heroes believe they’ve come upon the solution to the crisis, and Fox will eventually tell us what they’ve discovered — but not until after he’s put also Batman and Green Lantern to the test, in the tale’s next chapter:
As I indicated in my post about JLA #46 a few months back, I’m a big fan of Sid Greene’s inks over Mike Sekowsky’s pencils. It might be said that Greene’s slick, polished approach was somewhat at odds with Sekowsky’s rougher, sketchier style — that, as Carmine Infantino once said of Murphy Anderson’s inks over his pencils, the penciler was going for one look, and the inker was going for another. But, as Infantino also said about that particular collaboration — “it worked!”* Just as the combination of Sekowsky and Greene “worked” — for me, at any rate. In regards to the current story, I feel that the greater verisimilitude provided by Greene’s finishes enhances the humor of Sekowsky’s character designs and facial expressions in a way that a more “faithful” inker wouldn’t have. The story would still have been funny, I’m sure, but it wouldn’t have been quite as funny.
Yes, the Sekowsky-Greene collaboration worked — except, of course, when it didn’t, as in the second panel of the diptych shown above. Sekowsky had a tendency to draw chunky figures, a kind of exaggeration which could come off as simply an aspect of his personal style when his work was finished by a less detailed inker like Bernard Sachs — however, under the more polished embellishments of Greene the effect could border on the grotesque, resulting in such illustrations as the one above — where Batman seems to have been caught in the middle of transforming into Sekowsky’s “Bat-Hulk” creature from Brave and the Bold #68.
But hey, no comic is perfect, right? So, let’s return to our story, where Green Lantern finds himself mildly bedeviled by a small group of sylphs, until he at last resorts to the time-honored tradition of sexist superheroes everywhere:
It seems at first that the Greek god of the north wind may pose a greater challenge to GL:
“Clumsy clod” or not, the Emerald Gladiator seems to have stumbled upon the same answer as Superman and Flash did previously. But meanwhile, how is our great-girthed Gotham Guardian faring against those wily Greek tree nymphs, the dryads?
The mysterious horned god of the Celts seems more than a match for Batman, until the Caped Crusader manages to maneuver him near a field of goldenrods:
Finally, scripter Fox has let us readers in on what the Justice Leaguers have all individually figured out:
It does seem like everything’s about to be resolved, but just like the Gershwins wrote, it ain’t necessarily so. We’ve still got one chapter left in our story:
The panel just above is my favorite of the issue. Has anyone ever rendered a more sheepish-looking set of superheroes? (The best part has to be the upturned eyebrows on Batman’s mask. How does that work?)
(The bug-eyed stare Superman turns on Snapper is priceless, don’t you think?)
Somehow, I have managed to write six complete posts about Justice League of America without ever once mentioning the team’s honorary member/mascot, Lucas “Snapper” Carr. How is that possible? Well, I haven’t actually written posts about every issue of JLA I bought back in the day, and one that I opted to pass on earlier this year — #43, featuring the debut of the Royal Flush Gang — was the only one in which Snapper played a substantial role. It’s not like I have anything against the guy, really — in spite of how things would turn out for him about three years after this issue. (I didn’t even buy JLA #77 off the stands in 1969, so my memories of poor Snapper’s fall from grace are all after-the-fact.) Anyway, in September, 1966, the hip-talkin’, fun-lovin’, hot rod-drivin’ teenager was still entirely in the League’s good graces (not that that meant he still couldn’t get on their nerves sometimes):
Yep, better hurry, guys. The universe could still ‘splode, after all.
It’s a good thing that the previously ornery false Fausts became completely docile as soon as they learned they weren’t real, isn’t it? Oh, well, I guess they realized there were only two pages left to wrap this one up.
And thus, indeed, it does end — this goofy gem of a story, starring the JLA’s “core four” (and if my nine-year-old self didn’t already think of them that way before he started reading this story, he definitely did by its end). Between it and the 80-Page Giant package of reprints that preceded it by two weeks, September, 1966 was definitely a good month to be a Justice League of America fan.