That Sweet Silver Age Goodness

I recently bought Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, reprinting the first 20 adventures of the JLA, from 1960 to 1962. I already had a reprint of The Brave & the Bold #28 (the JLA’s very first adventure together) from a few years back, as well as a few other reprints from that era, and I decided it was time to expand my collection a bit.

I recently bought Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, reprinting the first 20 adventures of the JLA, from 1960 to 1962. I already had a reprint of The Brave & the Bold #28 (the JLA’s very first adventure together) from a few years back, as well as a few other reprints from that era, and I decided it was time to expand my collection a bit. I enjoy the occasional dip into the Silver Age, though I know full well this isn’t any kind of great storytelling. There’s very little substance here unless you like old-time cheese for its own sake (which I confess I do) or for its historical interest (which, again, I do). Let’s go through the DC Silver Age checklist, shall we?

  • Formulaic plotlines? Check. All of these stories except Mystery in Space #75 (whose main character was Adam Strange, and in which the JLA only guest-starred) followed the same basic structure, that had been well used since the days of the Justice Society: First, the good guys get wind of a new villain. Second, said villain either has hirelings or sets up doomsday devices around the globe, or forces the League to go on various missions for him, or whatever; either way, the League splits up into three teams, each of which does its job. There will be arbitrary twists and convenient challenges, mostly revolving around Green Lantern facing something yellow (because as we all know, his power ring is ineffective against anything coloured yellow), and cliffhangers with absurdly contrived resolutions. Finally, they all get back together for the dénouement (that’s French for “when we finish off the bad guys.” Gawd, I miss The Tick).
  • Painfully expository dialog? Check. “Xotar is starting to fade away!” Why, thank you, Aquaman, I’m sure I would never have noticed the transparent giant killer robot on my own. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on these comics; their target market for those comics were children and teenagers, who I guess needed to (e.g.) be reminded that J’onn J’onzz is a Martian (apparently every couple of pages), or have the heroes say “I can use my super-speed to catch the last and most deadly bullet of all—the one which would have finished off Green Lantern!” “To think that a short time ago we were fighting one another, Flash—and now you’ve saved my life!” Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for “show, don’t tell.” Will Eisner’s Spirit comic strip (just to name one) packed more story in eight pages than any of the JLA comics did in 24, without needing to constantly remind the reader who was doing what and why, ad nauseam.
  • No character development? Check. The superheroes talk the same way (except for the occasional “Great Neptune!” or “Merciful Minerva!”), act the same way, and are in fact completely interchangeable except for their respective powers and gimmicks. And from what little I’ve seen, they didn’t get much more depth in their individual comics.
  • Silly science? Check. The winner here would have to be Doctor Light, appearing in “The Last Case of the Justice League” (JLA #12). His shtick is the manipulation of light to create force fields, lightning, teleportation and various other improbable effects. His “scientific” explanation for all this?

    When the electrons of an atom are stimulated, they emit radiations[sic]! Electrons on the outer orbits of an atom emit visible radiation–“light”! The inner electrons emit invisible X-rays! The nucleus of an atom emits gamma-rays! But so much for technical details–

  • Random educational stuff? Check. On the other hand, outside of the plot-convenient technobabble, writer Gardner Fox was keen on scientific facts and trivia. A little too much, though. At least a couple of times per issue he’d put in litte footnotes like “By swallowing air into a special sac beneath its throat, the puffer fish becomes inflated like a football–whereupon it rises to the surface and floats upside down.” or “Few people realize that the Panama Canal runs northwest and southeast rather than due east and west.” Was that just a Gardner Fox thing, or was it more common in superhero comicdom? This was an age of science, and also the early days of the Comics Code Authority, after all, and maybe writers put in Useful and Educational Material to convince parents it wasn’t just a lot of silly (and vaguely homoerotic) adventure leading to juvenile delinquence.
  • Aquaman is useless? Check. Okay, yes, his telepathic control of sea animals is useful for intelligence-gathering, and allows him to effectively act even when restrained. But honestly, what else is he good for? His ability to breathe underwater is (to me) more than balanced out by the fact that he needs regular contact with water to survive. Plus, he’s not especially strong, tough, or fast. In JLA #13 (“Riddle of the Robot Justice League”) he was the only one not fighting a robot replica of himself, instead being stuck coaching from the sidelines in a little kiddy pool. And, he’s the only one in the League who can’t go into the field by himself. Superman, J’onn J’onzz and Green Lantern can fly under their own power. Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Arrow have their own planes. Flash can run even over water and Atom can shrink himself to ride electrical signals. Every single time they go out on missions poor Aquaman has to hitch a ride with somebody else.
  • But is it fun? Check. This stuff is like cotton candy: thin, somewhat flavourful, not good for you but harmless in moderation. As I keep telling myself when I tune in to Totally Spies, there is a time and place for silly fluff.

My interest in Silver Age comics (DC only) dates from around 2001–2002. At the time I wasn’t following any series: The Books of Magic had ended in 2000, and no other Vertigo title really grabbed my interest. At some point I decided to check out some older titles, get a sense of the medium’s history. I picked up some horror and sci-fi comics (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, The Witching Hour, Weird Science and a few others) from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, plus some old superhero titles. Chief among them is the 3-part Crisis on Multiple Earths compilation, relating DC’s slide into an increasingly complicated multiverse, from 1966 to 1972: Earth-2 (actually introduced in 1961, in Flash #121), then Earth-3, Earth-A, Earth-X… with every chapter the stakes got higher and the team-ups got bigger. And the seeds were already being planted in the JLA’s early adventures: even then the heroes seemed to be getting more and more powerful, though succumbing to their respective Achilles’ heels when the plots demanded it; they travelled through time (“By racing at super-speed, clockwise with the rotation of the Earth, I can run out of the present and into the future!” Yes, Superman and Flash could and did do this) and explored distant planets and parallel universes on a couple of occasions.

And… that’s when it becomes less fun. Though I now understand the background behind the Crisis on Infinite Earths, I have absolutely no desire to read it. Mainstream superhero comics of the 70’s and 80’s, with some exceptions, just aren’t that interesting to me. Little of the depth of more modern stuff, but not different enough to be interesting to the little historian in me, and with none of the cheerful fluffy innocence of the 50’s and 60’s. Next time I’m in the mood for old, I know what I’m sticking to.