Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Unearthed: JSA - All-Stars#1

In earlier reviews of All-Star Comics#62 and All-Star Squadron#48, I briefly recounted my early fascination with the super heroes of DC's "Earth-Two" continuity, the heroes of the 1940s. Unfortunately, Earth-Two was phased out of the comics during my childhood and in the following years it seemed as though DC were ashamed of their 1940s heroes. It wasn't until the 1990s - and largely because of the success of James Robinson's Starman - that the 1940s heroes were given a renewed focus and prominence at DC, notably when James Robinson and David S. Goyer launched the new Justice Society of America comic JSA in 1999. Gradually, the series fell under the control of writer Geoff Johns and was retitled Justice Society of America in 2007; Johns left the series in 2009, passing the torch to writer Bill Willingham.

When Robinson & Goyer first launched the series it bore a decently large cast: 11 super heroes. The series hovered around that number for most of its run, usually expanding the cast's numbers rather than replacing their members. When Johns relaunched the series in 2007, the cast included 18 super heroes! Personally, I had drifted away during the Johns years because I found the cast was much too large. I didn't have a good "feel" for many of the characters (and it was still about a dozen at the time) and wished the cast could be pared down to something more tightly focused.

Strangely, the decision to expand the JSA's number of titles and split up the cast was made after Johns left the series. In 2010, Willingham's frequent collaborator Matthew Sturges was given the honour of launching JSA: All-Stars, with the cast of Justice Society of America split more-or-less in half. However, by this time the JSA numbered about 23 people because Willingham had been adding his own characters to the mix.

I found a few issues of JSA: All-Stars in a bargain bin and felt it would be interesting to look them over. Since the series has been cancelled and the JSA themselves removed from DC's current continuity, I don't think I'll be stepping on too many toes. Let's get up and running.

"The All-Stars" by Matthew Sturges & Freddie Williams II.

We start with JSA: All-Stars#1 and its cover. "The Society Divided!" it blares. All ten members of the cast are depicted (plus a winged monkey; what's that about?) but not in a helpful manner. The nine are posed in such a way that less than half of their bodies are visible. Thus, we have nine obscure heroes being obscured on their own cover. Well, you can't expect the cover to properly introduce the characters; we'll leave that to the interior!

Somewhere in a darkened room, a military-like figure addresses what are presumably his troops. Behind him is a screen displaying all ten of the heroes on the cover, the monkey and a 12th obscured figure (either an 11th cast member or an excuse to arrange the pictures 3x4). This military leader helpfully narrates who our heroes are: "During the days of World War II a group of costumed mystery men gathered together to form the first and greatest super-hero team of all time. The Justice Society of America. They fought the Nazis during World War II, helping win the war for the Allies against all manner of Axis threats. Eventually the original lineup all retired, or died in the line of duty. Years later, however, they came out of retirement, with a new mission -- training a whole new generation of heroes." He also mentions how the JSA have recently split into two teams; he tells his men they're going to kill the newly-formed JSA team "with one notable exception." At this, we see an army of soldiers wearing futuristic armour marching on New York City, flanked by tanks; soldiers and tanks bear the Communist hammer & sickle. A text box helpfully tells us they're the Novyj Soviet and are "firing at will and decrying the evils of capitalism." Relaying information through sequential art? None of that, please. One wonders how so many tanks could ride upon New York; I mean, how did they arrive on the island? The text claims they crawled "from the East River." So, waterproof tanks? Flotilla transports?

Anyway, our ten heroes have already arrived to battle the Novyj Soviet. A set of headshots across the bottom of a two-page spread helpfully tell us who they are:

  1. Power Girl Superman's cousin from Earth-2.
  2. Magog Given godlike powers by an old god called Gog.
  3. Hourman Fighting crime one hour at a time.
  4. Stargirl Star-spangled wielder of cosmic energy.
  5. Damage Explosive in more ways than one.
  6. Cyclone Witch of the winds.
  7. Wildcat Powerhouse panther.
  8. Judomaster You can't hit her, but she can hit you.
  9. Citizen Steel Raw power encased in metal.
  10. King Chimera Master of illusion.

And here's where we begin to sense this comic is not meant as a "fresh start" or "jumping-on point." The book assumes you already know these people and need only the barest reminder of their identities. Some of the descriptions give you some idea of their powers, but others are baffling as to what they thought worthy of inclusion; like mentioning Earth-2, as though that doesn't just raise more questions than it answers. And why is it important to know Magog's powers are from "an old god called Gog." Seriously, is this relevant? Is Gog going to appear in this issue so we should know in advance about their relationship? And Hourman's description tells you jack-all about his powers.

In the action shot, several of the heroes are being borne into battle on miniature cyclones, evidently created by Cyclone herself, which gives you some idea of her power. Citizen Steel, though, seems more like a plastic action figure than a man "encased in metal." I also notice Stargirl riding sidesaddle on her cosmic rod; how does one maintain balance on such a slim piece of metal? Couldn't her cosmic rod really use a bicycle seat? Wildcat's all-black fur unfortunately causes him to blend in with the all-black enemy soldiers.

Magog yells orders to teams he calls "red, blue and gold." Wildcat has no idea which team he's supposedly on but Damage advises him to be on the "hitting bad guys team." It's here I notice while Damage is "explosive" according to his introduction box, he actually seems to be brawling with his enemies as though he were superhumanly strong. What's his deal?

Stargirl is angry because the Novyj Soviet won't attack her "either;" so, this has happened before... four pages in and you're already being punished for not following the other JSA book; at least we can piece together she's the "exception" from the opening narration. Each hero gets a chance to fight the bad guys, King Chimera defeating some by making them hallucinate their guns are made of spiders. Suddenly, Magog hits a soldier in the head and discovers its an android. Wait, just one panel earlier King Chimera made them see illusions. You can alter the perceptions of androids? Realizing the soldiers aren't alive, Power Girl orders the team "no holding back." This irritates Magog, who reminds her "I'm the battlefield commander, not you!" As Power Girl attacks a tank, she finds Citizen Steel already working on it, confused because he thought she was on "blue team," indicating Steel may be the only person who actually understood Magog's initial orders. Cyclone flings about a half dozen of the androids through the air, while Stargirl sees a soldier, um, doing something. "Hey! What's that one doing?" Stargirl asks. He seems to be pressing a button. This makes all of the heroes tense up, uncertain what to do as the androids each press their buttons. Power Girl tells them to "get back," while Magog orders, "Keep fighting!" Suddenly, the androids explode; Magog finally agrees they should back away from the villains, but he wants Power Girl to capture one of the androids' belts. Oh, apparently these buttons are located on the androids' belts.

Cyclone lies on the ground before an android, crying out to Power Girl to save her. Wha--? Just one page earlier she defeated half a dozen of these guys by smashing them into a wall! Before that, she was flying! Between those two maneuvers, she should be able to save her own neck! Anyway, Power Girl grabs the bomb off the android and flies into the sky, where it explodes without harming anyone, merely tearing her left sleeve and glove. However, over the next few pages the colourist doesn't seem to know which parts of Power Girl's costume were torn as he switches between "sleeve torn, glove destroyed" and "sleeve and glove torn." It looks like the artist intended the latter.

With the Novyj Soviet defeated, reporters move in wanting to know about what's going on. One asks if the JSA have disbanded. Um, these ten people are members of the JSA and clearing working together. I do not think "disbanded" means what you think it means. There's a funny moment as one reporter says to Magog, "Your leadership skills have been called into question in the past." Magog answers, "I'm not hearing a question." Ha! It's funny because his poor leadership almost got the team killed by exploding robots! Goofy ol' Magog. Another wants to know if Hourman is getting divorced because his wife, Liberty Belle is on the other JSA team. He denies this, observing "most couples don't work at the same office." Power Girl promises they'll have a press conference to explain everything soon. Great! This is a perfect opportunity to expound on what makes this JSA book different from the other and why the two teams have moved apart.

We turn now to "upstate New York" at the Star-K Ranch, "temporary headquarters." Cyclone seems to carry the team back there on her own; it seems to me it would be pretty easy to find the JSA's base when all ten of them can be seen flying in formation across the sky. As they enter the ranch, Magog complains about no one following his battle plan and Power Girl giving orders. Cyclone also greets her pet flying monkey, "Frankie." At this point I have to note Cyclone is a "witch of the winds," wearing red & white striped stockings, has a pet flying monkey and makes cyclones; so, why is she a walking Wizard of Oz joke? Did it begin with the codename and just get out of control?

In the team's meeting room they find Hourman's father, the original Hourman, now retired. It's nice to see an authentic 1940s JSAer to give this book his blessing. It's the equivalent of George Takei opening a new mall. The old Hourman has helped install the team's electrical equipment and says "Roxanne" is ready for testing. This interests Wildcat, who hopes "she's hot." At some point between panels, Wildcat became human and put on clothes. Or perhaps his clothing appears and disappears when he transforms?

Anyway, the team starts to debrief the earlier battle; they still have one intact android to examine and Magog notes since they wouldn't attack Stargirl, they must be connected to "the villains who destroyed the brownstone." Please bring those of us not reading Justice Society of America up to speed, I'm beggin' ya! The old Hourman helps examine the android and pronounces it an sophisticated "crash dummy." Power Girl notes she couldn't examine them with x-ray vision and thinks they have cloaking technology; Hourman finds no such thing. Power Girl thinks the attack was targeted at them: "Someone could have followed our movements and attacked when we were the closest team on hand." Come to think of it, why were the JSA in Manhattan when their base is upstate New York? King Chimera suggests their foes are collecting intelligence for a "real" attack. Magog ends the debriefing and tells the team they'll be training together in the morning "And this time, I expect everyone to pay attention."

However, the others don't seem too interested in sleeping, as later we find Damage, Judomaster, Cyclone, Hourman, Stargirl, Citizen Steel & Wildcat sitting up in a living room, discussing what they should call their JSA team. Citizen Steel is in full costume and Damage wears his mask, but otherwise they're in civilian garb. It's here I notice Wildcat's human form has the same hairstyle as King Chimera. I'm only able to guess this is Wildcat because he's wearing a t-shirt instead of a suit. Suggestions fly such as "Infinity, Inc.," which was Hourman's old team (he doesn't want them to use it) or "Super Squad," the team Power Girl was part of in 70s Justice Society stories. Judomaster finally speaks up and suggests G-Force, allowing her and Hourman to bond over their mutual love of Gatchaman. Less inspired suggestions include "Justice Society Elite" and "Justice Society of Awesomeness." Stargirl wanders away during the discussion and is followed outside by Power Girl, who wants to know why she left (even though Power Girl wasn't present for the discussion). Stargirl admits she misses the old JSA base, the brownstone (destroyed, as mentioned earlier) and their teammates; she's also flustered because they haven't heard from Atom Smasher (a former JSAer) and she can't understand why their enemies won't attack her. She asks why Power Girl wanted her to join the team, which is the first real indication that Power Girl is possibly the team leader (I guess she provides team leadership and Magog is tactical leader?). Power Girl feels the other team members look up to her because of her experience and attitude, even though Stargirl is certain she's the youngest member. Power Girl invites Stargirl to follow her and flies into the sky, flying as high as they're able and take in the sight of the world below them (I guess Stargirl's cosmic rod provides oxygen/warmth for her to accomplish this?).

The following morning ("day one"), Power Girl & Magog face down the other eight members and promise to begin their training sessions there on the ranch, using a training course. In one two-panel sequence ("day two"), Magog checks to see if Hourman is using his Miraclo (no explanation of what Miraclo is to the newcomers). Check those panels out: it's as though the figures were assembled on photoshop; Magog aside, they remain in the same poses, just placed slightly differently against the background. In the first panel, Damage is so close to Hourman it must be impossible to get push-ups done! Hourman mentions he's one of the "instructors," whatever that means. On "day three," Magog throws a tree at Citizen Steel; Damage is nearly hit by it and destroys the tree with an energy blast. Ah-ha! His "explosive" powers are finally on display! On "day four," Wildcat has to fight Stargirl over a river while in his human form; Magog seems to push Wildcat into the river to teach him a lesson, mentioning his "old man" has survived without powers (obliquely referencing Wildcat's father Ted Grant, the original Wildcat).

On "day five," King Chimera & Damage operate on an obstacle course together. Damage goads Chimera saying, "I guess your amazing intellect isn't good for everything, is it?" Chimera reacts by casting an illusion to throw Damage off his game (it's just barely obvious he created an illusion - it doesn't look like the illusions he cast earlier). This makes Damage angry, so he punches Chimera, earning him some harsh language from Judomaster & Cyclone. King Chimera is so upset, he speaks one of Damage's word balloons for him. Good work, editors!

Cyclone goes to see if King Chimera is all right while he douses himself with water. She has an odd reaction to see his face dripping with water and offers a towel. It's not clear, but I think the suggestion is Cyclone finds King Chimera attractive. We return to New York City as Sand sits up in his apartment, trying to keep himself awake because he's unable to cope with the dreams he has. It isn't explained here, but Sand is another member of the JSA; it doesn't really matter since it's obviously a subplot which future issues will address.

"One week later" (I guess two weeks since the opening scene?), the JSA hold their press conference at the former site of the brownstone, which is being rebuilt as a museum. Damage doesn't seem visible amongst the team, but I guess he's hiding in the background because he appears a moment later. Power Girl explains the JSA have not disbanded: "The only reason the other guys aren't here is that they're out fighting the bad guys." She lets Magog explain how this JSA team is different from the other: "We've created a new unit within the J.S.A. A new way of doing what we do. Our goal is to take ourselves to the next level -- to finely hone our individual abilities, and to push ourselves to be the most effective fighters we can possibly be. We train as smart and as hard as possible -- to ensure that we're in peak physical condition -- and as mentally prepared as possible to ensure that we always get our man, and always come home safe. To sum up: the J.S.A. has always worked to make better heroes. This is superhero college. And it's the Ivy League. We're going to make those heroes better. Any questions?" Oh! Please pick me! I have questions!

  1. How is "making heroes better" different from what the other team does?
  2. Why are there two J.S.A. teams? How do you liaise with each other?
  3. Can you explain the leadership structure of your team? Who's in charge of what?
  4. I hear some of your members are "instructors." Could you explain what this means and identify which members have this title?
  5. For two pages of exposition, couldn't you address the questions new readers have about the premise, rather than filling it with mindless blather?

Sadly, this is just the invitation for the villains to attack. It's the same group as before, only now humans instead of androids (and no Soviet regalia; what was up with that?). Their leader is Arthur Pemberton, who's quickly identified as nephew to the original Star-Spangled Kid. So, why is this super hero's nephew evil? Anyone? He has a "mundane staff" which he uses to sap Magog's strength, but Power Girl smashes the weapon. However, another of Arthur's people fires a gun which releases "neutron star matter." It seems as though the artist wants to convey Power Girl being flung against the ground by a powerful force, but... examine the above panel for yourself. Does the angle look right to you? It looks to me like the energy is striking the ground immediately behind her.

Stargirl is suddenly attacked by Arthur who declares "your free pass is hereby revoked." As Cyclone attacks one villain she identifies themselves as "the All-Stars," which is probably where the earlier discussion about a team name was meant to lead. Arthur tells his soldiers to teleport away, but Power Girl thinks their teleportation belts are the same as the bomb belts from before; she tears the belt off one soldier and shields the explosion with her body, which (conveniently) tears up her costume in a revealing fashion. Power Girl realizes Arthur did this to keep his people from being capture (one wonders why his soldiers didn't pick up on this after seeing what happened to the androids in their very public attack).

The scene shifts to the White Star Cinema, which references the Sorrow and the Pity, probably referring to Stargirl's white star and the identity of our mystery villain. Two of Arthur's men tell the JSA's enemy Johnny Sorrow they've captured Stargirl for him, but their price just went up to $2 million. Johnny declares he wants Stargirl because he's in love with her and removes his mask, which causes both to die. And here the story ends.

This is a mess; I don't think it's asking too much of a first issue to suppose they could explain their premise and introduce their cast, but this book repeatedly assumes you're already one of the converted, you just wanted to read the same comic twice per month. The artwork is usually functional, but takes many shortcuts and relies on photoshop for backgrounds and special effects, depriving the book of what little plausibility it could muster.

Let's take a moment to consider each of the nine cast members:

  1. Magog: He seems to be a cyborg, carries some sort of spear which fires energy blasts and has a pistol sidearm. He behaves as though he's the leader but is always arguing with Power Girl. None of the JSA seem to like him, respect him, or follow his orders, with the exception of Citizen Steel. He seems to be a military hierarchy man with no idea how to function in a democratic environment.
  2. Power Girl: She's very strong and invulnerable with the power to fly. She constantly undermines Magog's position and might also be the team leader. She pulled some strings to have Stargirl on this team and overall seems to be a natural leader, the opposite of Magog.
  3. Hourman: I know he has powers, but this comic never explains or demonstrates what they might be. He's married to a member of the other JSA team and his father used to be Hourman, but is now retired. More than the others, the JSA seems to be his "family business." He has a low-key, warm personality.
  4. Damage: He has "explosive" powers which seem to generate energy blasts; possibly superhuman strength? He always wears his mask. He appears to be friends with Wildcat and the two like to share snarky observations about Magog.
  5. Wildcat: He's a panther-man (man-panther?) and son of the other Wildcat. He can transform back into human form, although we don't see it on-panel. He's seemingly friends with Damage and enjoys trading jokes about Magog with him.
  6. Stargirl: She has a staff which fires "cosmic energy." She's also somehow able to shoot star-shaped energy bursts. She doesn't like being a member of this JSA team, particularly because of Magog's presence, but despite being a teenager, she's supposedly someone the others look up to.
  7. Cyclone: She's a walking Wizard of Oz in-joke, I think. She can generate miniature cyclones which carry her teammates into battle and fling about her opponents. Otherwise, we know nothing about her.
  8. Citizen Steel: His body seems to be organic steel and he wears his costume all the time; he's the one person who follows Magog's orders. That's all we learn.
  9. King Chimera: He can cast illusions and seems to be a little egotistical.
  10. Judomaster: She had exactly two lines of dialogue: "Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman?" and "Grant! That was... not necessary." From these, we can ascertain she likes Gatchaman and can speak English. What a compelling character! We learned the same things about Hourman, plus a lot more.

As someone with a decent background in the JSA, I'm mystified by some of these characters' inclusion. Power Girl has been a member since the 70s and is a good Superman stand-in; Hourman, Wildcat & Damage are the sons of classic members Hourman, Wildcat & the Atom. Stargirl bears the legacies of classic member Starman and 70s member Star-Spangled Kid. But the rest? Judomaster and Steel are legacy hero versions of All-Star Squadron members, not JSAers. The original King Chimera had nothing to do with the JSA. Cyclone is related to the original Red Tornado, who happened to attend the JSA's first meeting and has been linked to them ever since (how convenient that the non-powered Red Tornado would have a relative with superhuman tornado powers). These four are just barely connected to the JSA, while Magog has no connection at all. Further, the JSA don't seem to like him, even though he's in a position of authority. Why does he want to be a leader in the JSA, as opposed to some team of his own design? Why does he have the same facial scars and cybernetic parts as Cable? Why couldn't he have Cable's sense of humour?

I believe a first issue should give readers an idea of what to expect on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, this insular, navel-gazing exercise is representative of what's to come.

Tomorrow: JSA: All-Stars#2!

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