Monday, January 23, 2012

When Men Were Superheroes and Women Were Secretaries

All-Star Comics Archives Volume 2; written by Gardner F. Fox and Sheldon Mayer; illustrated by Jack Burnley, Bernard Baily, Sheldon Moldoff and others (1941-42; collected 1992): In the 1940's, the Justice Society of America was what would later be DC Comics's first group of superheroes, created in part to boost interest in the lesser-known characters of the infant DC superhero community (Superman and Batman were honourary members who didn't really participate in the adventures, while other characters that included the Flash and Green Lantern would also become honourary members once they became popular enough, though both those heroes would eventually return to active status as the superhero boom of the early 1940's started to bust at the end of World War Two).

The first few appearances of the JSA involved members meeting to tell stories about recent cases. Quickly, though, All-Star Comics would showcase the evolution of the superhero group, with members first doing solo duty in individual stories oriented around a common quest and then members actually fighting together against a common foe.

The main JSA members at work here include Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, the Atom, the Flash, the Spectre, and Green Lantern. We also get the first 'bonus' insert story in superhero history, as Wonder Woman gets introduced in a solo story in one issue. Eventually, the JSA would deign to make her their recording secretary, a skill I'm pretty sure life as an Amazon didn't prepare her for.

In this second archive edition, the stories are firmly in the second mode, with the heroes teaming up at the end for the sake of closure. Gardner Fox and editor Shelly Mayer were inventing a sub-generic form on the fly, with no real antecedents unless you want to get goofy and claim Jason and the Argonauts as the first superhero group. Wartime concerns form the motivation for the cases in this book, as the heroes seek to raise money for European war orphans, bust saboteur rings, and secure America from aerial attack with a super-secret 'bomb shield.'

This last quest -- and the last story in the book -- sees Fox finally start to write stories with a certain amount of fanciful 'oomph' to them. The JSA gets dispatched singly through a time-portal in order to retrieve plans for the bomb shield from several hundred years in the future. This allows Fox to finally play with exotic locales (cities in the sky and beneath the sea) and a certain amount of humble-pie for the JSA members, who discover that the average man of the future can mop up the floor with all but the most powerful of them.

Comic-book art in the 1940's could often be pretty awful (the page rates of the time didn't exactly make for a rewarding work situation), though the craftsmanship of the artists would increase as the months flew by. Jack Burnley, a longtime 'ghost' on the Superman comics, draws the Starman episodes here with skill and a certain degree of professional slickness, while Bernard Baily on the Spectre remains one of the more idiosyncratic artists of the early Golden Age. Recommended for superhero fans.

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