About two years ago, a couple of months following the debut of this blog, I wrote a post about the first issue of Justice League of America I ever bought (#40), a comic book I credited with making a significant contribution to my personal moral development. As I said at the time, I thought that that particular issue, though missing the mark in some ways (and simply feeling dated in others), still held up pretty well as an earnest endorsement of individual ethical responsibility, informed by an awareness and appreciation of the common humanity we all share. Since that time, I’ve been looking forward to re-reading and re-appraising Justice League of America #57, an issue with a similar theme, produced by the same writer, penciller, and editor as #40 (Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, and Julius Schwartz, respectively) — and expecting that it would hold up just as well.
Now that the time has come, however, I regret that I have to say that the book doesn’t hold up quite as well as its predecessor — at least, it doesn’t for this reader. Which is not to say that it’s wholly without merit, or that it’s not worth a visit (or re-visit), fifty years after its original publication.
Some of the issue’s problems from a contemporary perspective become evident as soon as one considers the story’s title: “Man, Thy Name Is — Brother!” In 1967, that phrase was immediately understood as an expression of the idea that all people share the same human nature; that we’re all essentially the same “under the skin”; that what we share in common is more fundamentally more important than our differences of ethnicity, religion, and so on. If you’d asked the average U.S. citizen of the time whether the “brotherhood of man” included women, I believe they would have probably answered “of course” (and might even have thought the question rather odd). In 2017, however, the phrase’s automatic linguistic exclusion of 50% of the world’s population immediately marks it as antiquated, and renders it practically unusable in any context save an ironic one.
It’s a problem underscored and compounded by the cover*, which features six characters, every one of them male. To make matters worse, the three men of color are dominated by the giant-size figures of Green Arrow, Flash, and Hawkman — three white guys, whose relationship to the other men is undoubtedly meant to appear supportive, but could easily be interpreted as condescending. It’s not a great look, especially when combined with the cover’s incorporation of the emblem of the United Nations — an organization that at the time of publication was headed by the Burmese diplomat U Thant. Finally, it hardly helps matters that the obviously Native American character is dressed like he just stepped out of one of DC’s 1800s-set Western comics. (Luckily, his counterpart within the story itself is garbed more realistically.)
But let’s move on now from the cover to the book’s splash page, which forthrightly lays out the story’s intended message before the action even gets underway:
A note about the “roll call” — over the years, the format of Justice League of America had shifted from one in which every member appeared in every story without fail to one in which a more arbitrary selection of characters were featured in any given adventure. Still, this is the first JLA tale to feature only three of the team’s heroes, and it’s interesting that on this splash page (if not on the cover) “honorary member” Snapper Carr gets more-or-less equal billing with his costumed pals.
Though, in fact, we do get at least a glimpse of three of the other Justice Leaguers as we turn from the splash to the first real “story” page — if only from the back, as they exit a just-adjourned JLA meeting:
The setup for the story, as laid out in the panels above, signals a significant difference between this tale and its predecessor in JLA #40. In that earlier issue, the team had a worldwide crisis to contend with, as a machine meant to increase the power of conscience in humanity went haywire and created havoc all over the globe. Here, however, the situations our heroes will be called on to deal with are much more down-to-earth. Still, there’s no reason why a simple “human interest” story can’t work. It’s all going to depend on the execution, right?
Flash and Hawkman join Green Arrow in offering to help Snapper with his project, and soon they’re off — Flash, to visit “young Negro” Joel Harper in Metropole City; Green Arrow, to the American Southwest to have a chat with “Apache boy” Jerry Nimo; and Hawkman, with Snapper in tow, to India to check up on Harvey Young, a rich white guy (wait, what?):
Um… I appreciate the sentiment, guys, but I’m not so sure the Justice League is quite the shining example of “brotherhood in action” you all seem to think it is — considering the fact that, in spite of its membership including three extraterrestrials, an Atlantean, and an Amazon, nine out of its ten members are white people (and the tenth, the green-skinned Martian Manhunter, can and does regularly pass as a white guy in his secret identity of Detective John Jones). Not to mention that only one of the ten members is female (unless, of course, you literally do mean “brotherhood”).
The story shows us right away that young Mr. Harper is a good guy, not to mention a brave one. Still, his action seems likely to get him killed — though, luckily for him, fate (and venerable comic book storytelling convention) intercedes:
A group of armed robbers doesn’t seem like much of a match for the Scarlet Speedster, and indeed, they’re not — until this happens:
Temporarily blinded, Flash nevertheless manages to save both Joel and himself from being cut down by the criminals’ gunfire, though he’s unable to prevent their escape:
Note that the unjust firing of Joel by his boss is the first incidence of actual prejudice in the story — until now, one has had to assume that the only reason that Snapper flagged the original news story about Joel as representing a “brotherhood problem” was that Joel is black (and, one may infer, that it seemed unusual to Snapper that a “young Negro” would choose a steady job as a reward over a one-time cash payout). Note, also, that at first Flash dismisses Joel’s assessment of his termination as being racially-based; though, when Joel insists he’s correct, Flash doesn’t press the point. Instead, he tells Joel that it doesn’t really matter: “Everybody has ups and downs in life!” It’s a point of view that the story will espouse several more times before its conclusion — that external forces, such as racism, shouldn’t be able to keep anyone down, as long as they believe in themselves and do their best.
Drawing on Joel’s keen eye for fashion, Flash is able to identify the shop at which one of the crooks bought his snazzy sports jacket, and then, thanks to the shop’s exemplary record-keeping, track the bandits to their hideout. By that time, our hero’s eyesight has returned, and he no longer needs Joel to serve as a guide — still, he takes the young man along to witness the case’s wrap-up:
Of course, Joel is still out of a job. One might expect that, at this point in the story, Flash will use this opportunity to teach the clothing store manager, Mr. Nostrand, the error of his racist ways — but our hero has other ideas. He tells Joel that he doesn’t need “that push-boy job”, after all…
Um… great, I guess? Assuming that Joel’s prior “studyin’ up on men’s clothes and fashions” was based purely on economic motives, and didn’t reflect any genuine professional interest in the fashion industry, I suppose that this turn of events represents a good outcome for him. Of course, this young black man’s “confidence and ambition”, essential as it is, can’t get him where he wants to go all on his own — he needs a little extra boost, in the form of the helping hand of a white benefactor. Is there a “white savior” idea at play here, even unconsciously?
Okay — maybe I’m reading too much into this. As Joel says in the panel above, his relationship with the Flash has been to the mutual benefit of each: “I helped you — you’re helping me!” Setting aside all questions of prejudice and privilege, we do all need each other’s aid to get by in this world. So, perhaps we should give scripter Fox and his collaborators the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. Let’s move on to see how our next hero, Green Arrow, manages his “brotherhood problem”:
(Earlier in the issue, Green Arrow noted that he needed to travel to the Southwest anyway, to pick up a new Arrowcar. I wonder if he ever found out who tagged his brand new wheels with a promotional message for DC’s new Teen Beat magazine?)
Here’s the story’s second incidence of overt racial discrimination, as demonstrated by the railroad workers in their dialogue and overall attitude. But Green Arrow doesn’t directly confront his fellow white guys over their racism — instead, he offers the “‘Pache youngster”, Jerry Nimo, the opportunity (if you can really call it that) to prove his innocence:
There’s an intriguing detail introduced here, with Jerry noting that as an Apache he’s experienced discrimination from his Navajo and Hop peers — fellow Native Americans — that’s as bad as that he’s received at the hands of his white classmates, if not worse. One wonders if this is a social phenomenon that Fox had encountered in his research for this story, or just in his routine following of the news of the day. In any case, it’s an interesting idea that adds a bit of complexity to the story’s themes.
But back to our story: Though, as Jerry acknowledges to GA, they can’t follow the getaway car’s tire tracks once the trail leads onto asphalt, they have another option — the car’s leaky transmission has left a trail of oil droppings that they can follow. Which just goes to show how Jerry, as an Apache, must automatically be an expert tracker:
Once GA turns onto the unpaved side road, however, he and Jerry discover that a desert wind has blown sand over the oil droppings — so, when they come to a fork in the road, it seems their pursuit of the train robbers has been stymied once again. Not to worry, though — after all, Jerry’s an Apache:
Right. What better way to “prove yourself a real person” (in Green Arrow’s words) than to get down on your hands and knees and sniff the ground like a dog?
Jerry’s keen Native American nose gets the job done, of course, and soon the Arrowcar arrives at the hideout, whose locked door GA immediately takes out with an “explosi-arrow”:
Looks like GA’s got those crooks right where he wants them, thanks to those chain arrows. So — why not squander his advantage by going to the time and trouble to set up a completely unnecessary trick shot?
What does the soot-ball arrow do? Well, it covers the crooks in darkness for around three seconds or so, but its main utility is to stain their skin “to make it easy to identify them if they get away”. Which sure comes in handy as the bad guys finish extracting themselves from the chain-arrows and, rather than attempting to escape, begin to pummel the non-super-powered costumed bowman with their fists.
It’s no wonder that Green Arrow needs Jerry’s physical assistance to finish off the train robbers. Luckily, young Mr. Nimo is an expert in the martial art of judo — not a skill stereotypically associated with the Apache, of course, but one which, as Jerry notes, he’s “borrowed from the white man — who in turn borrowed it from the yellow skins!”
And that’s the last we see of Jerry Nimo. As with the previous sequence featuring Flash and Joel Harper, if either Jerry or GA ever do return to confront the white racists over their unjust ways, we don’t see it happen on panel.
Now it’s on to India, to join Hawkman and Snapper Carr as they confront the third and last of the story’s “brotherhood problems”:
With the help of Snapper (who lands on a tree branch, which subsequently breaks just in time to block a couple of spears), the Winged Wonder overcome the native Indians and free their two captives. The Indians peacefully surrender, stating that the white men will be allowed to live; after all, they have bigger fish to fry:
(In case you’re inclined to stop reading here for a minute and go Google the Uttars and the Basas, I’ll save you the trouble. Both tribes appear to be essentially fictional, though the Ghagra [or Ghaghara] River near which they’re said to live is real enough, and indeed flows through Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India.)
It’s hard to argue with Hawkman’s and Snapper’s sentiments here — especially the part about the need to “respect each others’ customs and beliefs”.
So it’s a little disappointing when, on the next couple of pages, our heroes exploit the Uttars’ belief in their gods to manipulate them into seeking peace with the Basas:
Regardless of what one thinks of the JLAers’ methods, however, they work — on the Uttars, anyway. The Basas, on the other hand, remain a problem:
More manipulation, of course — but peace is achieved, at least. However, if either the cover or the splash page’s inclusion of an Indian man alongside Joel Harper and Jerry Nimo has led you to think that an Indian would eventually become the focus of this chapter of our story, the segment’s conclusion will finally disabuse you of that notion. Not only does no member of the Basas or Uttars ever get so much as an individual name, but the ultimate resolution of the story is that the wealthy white savior, er, philanthropist, Harvey Young, re-dedicates himself to the cause of helping the poor native people he’s chosen to serve.
With that, the story’s virtually over. There’s barely enough time (or page space) remaining to bring all four Justice Leaguers back to their HQ for a quick, two-panel wrap-up:
Man, Snapper sure says “man” a lot in that last panel, doesn’t he? But I guess that makes a certain kind of sense — given not only that the story is entitled “Man, Thy Name Is — Brother!”, but also that there are no female characters in the story.
S’truth. I know I haven’t reproduced every panel of the story here, but trust me. Wonder Woman appears in the first panel (though she’s only seen from the back). There’s a woman on the street in the panel that introduces Joel Harper. There are three veiled women in the background of one panel of the scene in the Uttar Village. (All three of those panels are reproduced above, by the way.) And that’s it. No named female characters, no women or girls with a speaking role. None, nada, zilch.
So, maybe it’s a coincidence that a tale extolling the concept of “brotherhood” finds little to no room for any “sisters”. Or — maybe Gardner Fox had just a little bit of a blind spot.**
And there you have it, friends — Justice League of America #57, in all its glory, and with all its flaws.
I realize some readers may think I’ve been overly harsh with this comic book. I don’t think I have, but I do want to make it clear that my reading of it today is very different than my original reading, fifty years ago. Today, it’s pretty easy to point out the story’s errors and omissions, and to decry its overall failure to recognize and confront the reality of systemic racism and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. The idea that prejudice can be overcome, and everything will turn out OK, if one just “grits his teeth” and “grins and bears it” (to borrow a couple of Green Arrow’s pithy phrases) seems woefully inadequate in our times, the era of Black Lives Matter.
But way back in September, 1967, in my segregated hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, the simple message that “people all over the world — no matter their religion or the color of their skin — are all pretty much alike” (paraphrasing Snapper Carr, this time) was one my ten-year-old white middle-class Southern Baptist self needed to hear, and to hear as often as possible. I’m grateful that I heard it from the four-color heroes of my comic books — both then, and for many years to come.
*I hasten to point out here that my criticism of the cover’s thematic content shouldn’t be taken as a critique of the work on artistic grounds. Technically, it’s a fine piece of work — one in a series of great covers that penciller Carmine Infantino and inker Murphy Anderson turned out in 1967, as their longtime collaboration neared its end. Even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the artists’ most outstanding and iconic covers of that year — for my money, those would be Batman #194, Superman #199, and Flash #174 — it’s entirely worthy of standing on the slopes just below.
**It’s difficult to say how much of the plot of this JLA story — or indeed, any story Gardner Fox wrote for editor Julius Schwartz in the Sixties — should be credited to Fox, and how much to Schwartz, since the latter routinely engaged in plotting sessions with his writers. Asked about both this issue and JLA #40 some years later (in an interview published in Amazing Heroes #113 [March 15, 1987]), Fox opined that the basic ideas for both issues came from him, not Schwartz, but admitted he didn’t really remember for sure. In any case, as editor, Schwartz would have had to approve all the elements of the story, regardless of who came up with what. Maybe it would be safest to assume that both men had something of a blind spot as far as women were concerned. In this, of course, they were hardly atypical examples of American manhood in 1967.