The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?
— P. F. Sloan, “Eve of Destruction”, 1964
Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret
— Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler and Robin Moore, “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, 1966
By October, 1966, United States military forces had been operating in Vietnam for over a decade, though mostly in an advisory role for much of that time. Beginning in 1961, however, President John F. Kennedy had greatly increased the number of American troops stationed in the region; and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had used the authority of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed in August, 1964, to escalate the U.S.’s military role in the conflict between North and South Vietnam. The deployment of 3,500 Marines in March, 1965, effectively began the American ground war there. By December of that year, the number of U.S. troops had been increased to 200,000.
There were protests against American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict even before the ground war got underway, with the first recorded draft card burning occurring in May, 1964. In March, 1965, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali caused an uproar when he announced he would refuse to be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Protest music also had some impact, with “Eve of Destruction” (excerpted above) going to #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart for singer Barry McGuire in September, 1965. And in comic books, the October, 1965, publication of the anti-Vietnam War story “Landscape” (written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Joe Orlando) in the second issue of Warren Publishing‘s black-and-white anthology title Blazing Combat reportedly led to the book’s being effectively banned from Army PXs as well as other distribution problems.
But such expressions of dissent were outliers in the fall of 1966. The biggest pop hit of that year was SSG Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (also excerpted above), which not only went to #1 on the Billboard chart, but stayed in that position for four weeks. By and large, the American public still supported the Vietnam War as 1966 drew near its close; and the heroic image of the American fighting man in that war was perhaps most popularly embodied by the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers called the Green Berets — who, in addition to Sadler’s hit song, were also featured in a best-selling book by his co-songwriter Robin Moore (which was in its turn later adapted into a 1968 film starring John Wayne), and a newspaper comic strip, Tales of the Green Beret, with scripts by Moore and art by DC Comics’ Joe Kubert.
So it’s hardly surprising that the 50th issue of Justice League of America, originally published on October 25, 1966, features a tale with a heroic Green Beret at its center. Not that the cover of the issue gives any indication of this topical theme — rather, the Mike Sekowsky – Murphy Anderson composition continues the series’ ongoing cover emphasis on DC’s TV-starring sensation, Batman, and even raises the “Batmania” quotient by heralding a special guest appearance by Robin, the Boy Wonder (who, naturally, features more prominently on the cover than the other two bona fide [but non-Batty] Justice Leaguers, Flash and Green Arrow). The closest thing to a reference to any real-life, contemporary armed conflict is the blurb comparing the weaponry of the story’s villain, the Lord of Time, to “our atomic bombs”.
Turning to the first page, the splash panel gives us readers a little more information, along with two additional JLAers (Aquaman and Wonder Woman), and a previously unknown character interposing himself between the villain and our heroes — a rather military-looking figure, who just happens to be wearing a green beret:
The very next page gives this mysterious character a name, and gives his headgear a clear context:
That first panel’s depiction of Sgt. Eddie Brent mowing down a line of Viet Cong fighters may be a little raw for many if not most modern sensibilities, even if not excessively violent by the standards of Sixties war comics. The following panels, however, showing how Brent’s solitary defensive stand is all that’s allowing his wounded comrades to escape to safety, frames his actions in such a way that I expect most contemporary American readers would ultimately characterize his behavior as valiant.
Having introduced this key character, and established his heroism, writer Gardner Fox shifts the scene to a more familiar locale for JLA stories, namely Gotham City:
Unfortunately for Dick Grayson’s pal Joey Brent, it begins to (metaphorically) rain on his brother’s parade before the war hero’s train has even pulled into the station:
Not only does Joey not believe it, but neither does his friend Dick — nor does Dick’s guardian Bruce Wayne, who’s also there among the crowd come to welcome Sgt. Brent home. Before long, Bruce and Dick have changed into their secret identities of Batman and Robin and are on the wayward Eddie’s trail, using handheld “Bat-tectors” to trace Eddie’s footsteps from the Gotham City bridge to an abandoned house a mile away. They hope to take the Green Beret by surprise with a two-pronged attack:
But despite Eddie’s hostile behavior, we readers soon learn that our renegade soldier is not acting of his own volition:
(Unfortunately, a successful visual depiction of Eddie’s interior “agony”, as concealed behind an exterior mask of “mirth”, seems to be somewhat beyond the grasp of penciller Sekowsky and inker Sid Greene — on the other hand, scripter Fox’s use of the term “grotesque” is pretty much on point, if not necessarily in the way he meant it.)
Eddie soon renders both Batman and Robin unconscious through deft use of his propeller weapon, which can make objects fly through the air. At this point, the true architect of all this ruckus shows up to gloat (and to give Fox the opportunity to deliver a big dollop of exposition):
As noted above, the Lord of Time had last appeared in JLA #11; his first appearance, however, had been in the issue immediately preceding that one, the first half of a two-part story in which the villain shared the role of antagonist with several other villains, including Felix Faust. As you can see from the covers reproduced here, the Lord of Time didn’t even manage to make the cover of either chapter of his first exploit against the Justice League.
JLA #10 was published in January, 1962, which means that the introduction of the Lord of Time predates that of Marvel Comics’ strikingly similar character, Kang the Conqueror, by well over a year. (For the record, Kang debuted in Fantastic Four #19, in his original guise of Pharaoh Rama-Tut). I think it’s worth considering why DC’s time-traveler-from-the-future-with-advanced-weaponry didn’t achieve nearly as much prominence as Marvel’s later version of that concept did.
Actually, the very next panel of the story currently under review offers a pretty clear indication of the answer:
Yes, while Kang was motivated by a thirst for conquest, the Lord of Time was primarily interested in loot! Like another chronologically-oriented and extremely powerful DC villain, the Time Commander — whom we discussed at length in our last post — the Lord of Time seemed to mostly squander his potential with relatively petty pursuits, at least in the Sixties. It’s a tendency that DC’s comics had in general through most of the Silver Age, in which characters with tremendous abilities to manipulate space, time, matter, energy, or what-have-you didn’t seem to have much ambition beyond robbing banks.
Having chosen Sgt. Eddie Brent for his proxy, and then having tested both his mental control over the Green Beret and the latter’s mettle by way of the train robbery and the defeat of the Dynamic Duo, the Lord of Time proceeds to outfit Eddie with additional arms from the future, as well as with a new uniform based on his own (although he does let Eddie keep his beret):
Once the Lord of Time and his unwilling associate have left the crime scene, the Dynamic Duo recovers consciousness. Batman reveals he’s secretly tape recorded everything that Eddie and his companion said while he and Robin were knocked out. And so, at last, nine pages into the story, our two heroes realize that they aren’t starring in an issue of Batman or Detective after all:
Robin’s arguments seem reasonable enough to justify his continued role in the story, and so we are soon gratified by the first-ever meeting between those two swingin’ teen sensations, Robin the Boy Wonder and Snapper Carr the Boy Mascot:
Thanks to Batman’s tape recording, the Justice Leaguers know that the Lord of Time has charged Eddie with stealing the gears from the time lock in the Gotham City Bank’s vault, as well as an “unaging fossil” in the South State Museum — objects which will somehow allow the villain to regain the ability to use his weapons on his own (don’t worry about it, kids — it’s science!). The heroes split into two teams, naturally, with Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman heading for the bank, while Aquaman, Flash, and Green Arrow make for the museum.
We’re going to skip over most of the next ten pages, as the action of the two teams’ consecutive battles against Sgt. Brent isn’t all that engaging, frankly. Suffice it to say that Eddie’s military skills, combined with the Time Lord’s weaponry, are sufficient to triumph over the Leaguers — although several of the heroes do notice an odd “sparking” associated with the Green Beret’s use of the futuristic technology, as demonstrated in the sequence below:
Once the defeated heroes reunite, they deduce that the weapons from the future must give off some kind of radiation which should be detectable and trackable. Batman and Flash quickly whip up a detection device, and the JLA members and Robin are soon on Eddie’s trail. Meanwhile, however…
As we’ve already seen in the story’s splash panel, Eddie is prepared to sacrifice his life to save the Justice Leaguers and Boy Wonder, though things don’t work out quite as he expects:
(A few months later, the letters column of JLA #53 included a missive from one Neil Telafor complaining that in ganging up six-on-one against the Lord of Time, the heroes were not honoring the rules of fair play. For my part, however, I’m fairly certain my nine-year-old self thought this scene was pretty cool.)
As soon as the Time Lord falls, Eddie turns himself in to the JLA, prepared to face justice for his crimes; but our heroes refuse to arrest him, of course, instead acclaiming him as a hero for his willingness to sacrifice himself for them. Eddie somewhat sheepishly admits that he’d actually hoped the “special defense mechanism” the Lord of Time had equipped him with would deflect the deadly blast, and turn it back against the villain, though he’d also realized that if his “protective coating” had already worn off, the beam would kill him. (If you’re wondering why neither of these things happened, so am I; unfortunately, Fox never bothers to tell us.)
All that’s left to do is to get Sgt. Eddie Brent back in his Army uniform, and off to Washington, D.C. in time to accept his Medal of Honor from the President — which he does, in a panel which takes up the entire last page of the story:
It is perhaps an indication of how seriously the story’s creators, including editor Julius Schwartz, took this fictional representation of the honoring of a Vietnam War hero that not only does the scene rate a full-page splash panel, but that all the Justice Leaguers, even those who didn’t play an active role in the story, turn out for the occasion.
In the months and years to come, such a tableau would become a rarer sight in American comics, as opposition to the nation’s military involvement in Vietnam steadily increased. That doesn’t mean that the comics followed the tide of popular opinion in lock step, as may be inferred from the fact that although in February, 1969 polls indicated that only 39% of the American public approved of the war, the very next month found DC publishing Superman #216, in which the Man of Steel actually went to Vietnam and joined the war effort — something he’d never done before, not even during the “Good War”, World War II. It was a long and twisting road that DC Comics traveled, all the way from Captain Phil Hunter‘s heroic quest to rescue his brother from the clutches of the Viet Cong in Our Fighting Forces #99 (April, 1966), to Sgt. Rock‘s confrontation with the horror of the My Lai Massacre (transposed to a World War II setting) in Our Army at War #233 (June, 1971).
This blog will likely find itself happening upon that twisting road again from time to time over the next few years, as our fixed 50-years=ago point of reference inexorably moves forward into 1967, 1968, and beyond. But in the meantime, if you’re really interested in the topic of how comics in the 1960s reflected (and occasionally illuminated) the times in which they were made, you could do worse than to check out Brave and Bold, a new comics blog from Joshua Lowe that focuses on comic books and history, with a special emphasis on the Cold War era.
And now for something completely different, or, at least, indisputably more trivial: a few brief notes on the post-JLA #50 career of the Lord of Time.
Though defeated and imprisoned once more by the Justice League at the close of the story presently under review, the Time Lord would, of course, eventually escape to further bedevil the team, as well as other DC heroes. Over the years, he would pick up another name — Epoch — and would grow in ambition as well, finally realizing that his abilities could bring him dominion over the world in addition to simple riches From a creative standpoint, the zenith of his career would come over two decades after his JLA #10 debut, at the hands of writer Grant Morrison. (As you may remember from the last post, Morrison performed a similar service for Epoch’s fellow time-based underachiever, the Time Commander, in a 1989 issue of Animal Man.) Morrison’s script for JLA/WildC.A.T.S. (1997) gave us a Lord of Time who was powerful and menacing enough to seem a viable threat for not one, but two world-beating super-teams:
Almost as interesting as Morrison’s fulfillment of the Lord of Time’s villainous potential in this story, however, is another story that was never actually told. In 1979, DC and Marvel announced plans to publish the first-ever crossover between their two premier super-teams, the Justice League of America and the Avengers, a story that would feature as the heroes’ antagonists none other than Epoch, Lord of Time, and his near-counterpart, Kang the Conqueror. (According to some reports, the story’s plot would reveal that Kang, who had taken on a number of different identities over the years — including Immortus and the Scarlet Centurion, in addition to the aforementioned Rama-Tut — was in fact also Epoch himself, in a divergent reality.)
Due to editorial disagreements between Marvel and DC however, this story was never completed or published. When a crossover between JLA and the Avengers finally was published, in 2003 and 2004, it featured an entirely different plot. However, the artist who’d been attached to the original project, George Perez, was also the illustrator for the later, successful attempt; and he managed to work in a one-panel tribute to the lost storyline in the form of a briefly-glimpsed alternate timeline:
(I gotta say, I’d still like to read that story one of these days.)
I’ll close by noting that Epoch made a number of other, more substantial appearances following JLA/WildC.A.T.S., as well — though he hasn’t been seen since DC rebooted its universe post-“Flashpoint”. Will we eventually see him in the current, “Rebirth”-branded continuity? Only time will tell. (Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.)