It is always a happy day when guest columnist Dean Compton graces the pages of Longbox Graveyard! This time, Dean reveals his deep affection for a series he and I both admire — Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron. I previously wrote about Thomas’ reverence for the past through his creation of this book; now, Dean takes a deep dive into what made this series so special for him. Welcome back, Dean!
When I was a very young man, nothing was as exciting to me as this set of 1965 World Book encyclopedias that we had in the house. One of, if not the first, things I ever read was the machine gun article in the World Book. I read anything and everything in each one of them, but my favorite article had to be the one on World War II. I loved everything about it. I loved the sections on how the 1930’s led up to the war, the rise of totalitarianism, the rationing of goods in the US, but the thing I loved most was the section with the maps detailing the expansion and then retraction of the German and Japanese empires. Speaking of, how awesome and wrong is the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” as a name for their empire? I mean, obviously this empire was awful for everyone it conquered and oppressed, but that is a bad ass name. The fact that the name completely belies the negative impact of the Fascist Japanese Empire somehow makes it sound even cooler.
I promise, though, this isn’t an article about how great the Japanese Empire was. I’m an ardent antifascist, and therein lay my utter fascination with the Second World War. Many wars are useless and only fought to line the pockets of the elite. World War II certainly is not bereft of profit incentives, but this was truly a war against the fascist countries of that era that needed to be fought, lest their reach envelop the planet.
So when I walked into the flea market when I was in 2nd grade and saw All-Star Squadron comics in longbox after glorious longbox, I was immediately enchanted by the notion that these masked men were the heroes of World War II. I tried to get a few, but I was not allowed to have comics that day for some reason, and those heroes were forgotten until 1992 …
is Sandman trying to put that monster to sleep? How will that work? Also, why is Flash running away?
I fell in love with the Justice Society of America the instant I learned of them. When I first laid eyes on them, I was confused and excited. Not unlike the first time I first time I kissed a girl, but there was decidedly less Justice Society involved with that.
I knew who Green Lantern and Flash were, and I could tell that these guys were similar, but they couldn’t be Green Lantern and Flash could they?
Indeed, they could be. I was astonished and excited as the entire history of the DC Universe lay before me. I wanted to know more and more, and I soaked up information via all sorts of paradigms. I used cards, I asked my friends, and I bugged our local morning DJ, Ben Johnson, who I had somehow struck up a friendship with, about it. He had revealed he was a huge comic book fan, and he was always willing to answer a question or two when he had the time.
(He really went out of his way to help sate my curiosity, and I think that those of us entranced by the allure of the comic book could learn a great deal from Ben, as that is how you make fans. Too often, we become annoyed at those who know less than us instead of taking questions as a sign of interest. Let’s try and make, not break, fans.)
Now that that public service announcement is over, I reckon we can get back to All-Star Squadron. Ben told me of the JSA and the All-Star Squadron after I saw the above comic and because of memories of the WWII comics I had seen at the flea market. He explained how the DC Universe had once been a multiverse, and in this multiverse the heroes of the Justice Society of America lived on Earth-2. They had their glory days in WWII, and they had aged, while the heroes of Earth-1 were the heroes that I knew.
So since they came first, why did the Justice Society and the Earth-2 gang simply allow themselves to be Earth-2? Why wasn’t there a huge rumble over this? Maybe someone knows, but I do know that we have crossovers now for much less of a reason. Who would not have wanted to see an all-out fight between the JSA and the JLA? Some jerky hater, that’s who. I would never accept just being second best, so I am unsure why the GOLDEN AGE SUPERMAN did.
One day after talking with Ben extensively about the JSA, I sauntered into the flea market, and I was greeted by a 25-CENT BOX of All-Star Squadron! Chock full! Is there any set of syllables more heavenly to comic book fans than 25-CENT BOX? What if you found this fantastic Rich Buckler cover in one? Would you be even more jealous of me than you already are?
the Idea that The Atom is deciding Superman’s fate in a team is hilarious. “Gee, I dunno if he cuts it” said the short guy in really good shape about a veritable God.
The answer would indeed astound me, as while the JSA plays a prominent role, they aren’t necessarily the stars of All-Star Squadron. Roy Thomas, the greatest writer of Golden Age characters who didn’t write them in the Golden Age, took this chance to shine a light on a few of the lesser known superheroes of the Second World War, and I thank him for it. This series is good, and his love and reverence for the characters always shines through, even in the waning issues of the series where it was basically eviscerated by Crisis on Infinite Earths, when post-Crisis continuity altered the DC Universe drastically. Now Thomas would no longer be allowed to play with Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, and more. This changed almost the entire framework upon which the All-Star Squadron was built, and so it quietly faded away, with the last few issues being origin stories of the group.
But Bloody Hell, I am getting ahead of myself! You don’t even know who is in the group that disbanded yet! Well, wait no longer!
TAKE THAT, NEWSPAPER!!!
Look at that lineup! Johnny Quick! Robotman! Firebrand! Shining Knight! Liberty Belle! Hawkgirl! And The Atom returns for this mission here! The Squadron would serve on the home front for the war, because the JSA disbanded and enlisted. Of course, JSA guys are always hanging around, getting special permission from FDR, who along with Churchill, makes copious appearances in the book, to assist when their special abilities as superheroes (or Mystery Men, as they were called at this time) are needed more than their skills as soldiers in the armed forces. Other folks would filter in and out of the All-Star Squadron, and over time, it seemed that any character even loosely associated with the DC Universe circa WWII would meander their way into the book. It would take me awhile to find that out, though, because …
There was a large gap in issues available at the flea market. I was almost always trying to piece together the collection the same way someone tries to piece together a document they accidentally shredded: painstakingly, tediously, and annoyingly. I’d get a # 7 here, a #46 here, but it was always difficult to put together runs. I do recall lots of issues jumping out at me, though, like one featuring Robotman on trial. Not much more exciting than the meeting of a Robot with a human brain and the US JUSTICE SYSTEM!
guilty of being a robot? A monster? The law sure was different in the 40’s.
My favorite surprise though had to be the introduction of Infinity Inc., a superhero team comprised of the progeny of the Justice Society of America! They went back in time to help the JSA and the All-Star Squadron after they had been completely overwhelmed by the machinations of the Ultra-Humanite (a very underrated super-villain if you ask me, and since you are reading this you sort of did), who was assisted by his (some unwilling) henchmen, Deathbolt, Cyclotron, and Amazing Man! If you don’t believe me, scope this ragtag team tossed together to save the day after heavyweights like the Golden Age Superman were taken down!
how long did they have to practice to get that in unison?
The work on this is amazing. If you think of this as a baseball lineup, it may not be murderer’s row, but it has to be one of the more formidable lineups. Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler (Deathlok creator), Jerry Ordway, and Todd McFarlane all had great runs, and watching Jerry Ordway grow in particular is very fun to me. The talent gets a bit sparser later in the run, but it never gets lackluster. The work is always solid, and you never know what is going to happen.
This was almost a primer for neophyte comics fans like I was. There was always a sense of history and (good) continuity in All-Star Squadron. Thomas was excellent at simultaneously showing and telling the history of the JSA/Squadron, and he also excelled at demonstrating why said history was important. Of course, he also managed to drop in little forgotten nuggets here and yon among the way, like when he taught a 14-year-old young man who the Seven Soldiers of Victory were …
if your team doesn’t have a cowboy, how can it possibly be as cool as the Seven Soldiers of Victory? I’m looking at you, every other superhero team except The Avengers.
The Seven Soldiers of Victory touched my heart, and to this day, Green Arrow, the leader of the team, remains my second favorite superhero. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch the episode “Patriot Act” from Justice League Unlimited. It features the Seven Soldiers, and it does a great job displaying just what makes them so courageous.
Roy Thomas also looked at the racial inequality of the era, sometimes with more success than others. He did a great job introducing us to the African-American Amazing Man, who I instantly loved, and who was a decent influence on me. I grew up in a small Arkansas town that was 97% white, so I had very little interaction with folks of African-American descent. Luckily, though, I was surrounded by racists who made up things about black people so I could have NO IDEA what reality was like. Thanks! On a genuinely lucky level though, I was able to see some culture that refuted such notions. One place was here, and another place was the great Milestone imprint. I am sure I would have seen past that bigotry sooner rather than later, but comics helped me see past it that much sooner.
Roy Thomas also used real world events in the All-Star Squadron in relation to race. For instance, they did a whole storyline about the Detroit Race Riots that occurred during WWII, which is an event glossed over in our history.
wow, that whip isn’t overkill or anything
And as you see, here is where the mistakes lie. The attempt to not be racist almost has more racist overtones as we see a guy in a KKK mask whipping a black man. I get what we are going for here, but it is a little off-putting. However, a little off-putting is nothing compared to how Japanese villains were treated.
the villains look like castoffs from the 80’s cartoon, Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos
Sumo the Samurai? COME ON MAN! That was unacceptable then and now. Roy just put two things together that happen to be Japanese terms. Why not, “Fuji the Ninja”? or, “Rice the Shogun”? This was just awful. Also awful was a subplot where Firebrand becomes racist against Japanese people because her brother (the original Firebrand) was seriously hurt at Pearl Harbor. She then carries resentment toward Japan until talking to her brother, who tells her that he was saved at Pearl Harbor … by a Japanese-American! I wish hackneyed would describe that properly. Conversely though, Roy Thomas does a good job with Tsunami, whose parents and family are being shipped off to internment camps. It was a different time, and even though I don’t feel like he always made contact on racial issues, I appreciate Roy Thomas here at least stepping to the plate.
I also appreciate the appearance of Captain Marvel, the one true Captain Marvel, (little jab there Paul!). If you haven’t seen my piece on him right here at Longbox Graveyard, take a look here. I am a huge Captain Marvel fan, and I first got to see a possessed Captain Marvel going toe to toe with the Golden Age Superman right here in the pages of All-Star Squadron. I think it is the only time in my life I have ever rooted for anyone even tangentially associated with Nazis; that’s how much I wanted the World’s Mightiest Mortal to defeat Superman.
I look at that zeppelin in the background and I seriously wish we still flew in those
I think most All-Star Squadron and JSA fans think the best moment of the series, though, was the massive roll call that took place in issue #31. Nearly every WWII Mystery Man was there. I recall getting my hands on this issue and just swooning. There was so much history on these pages and just so much fun. I wanted to go back to WWII and somehow be a part of this gathering that never actually existed. These pages also reflect Roy Thomas’s love for this era and these characters. I don’t think he leaves any out except for in-story reasons, including both the Quality Comics and DC Comics versions of Manhunter, two different characters who were created by two different companies in 40’s at the same time, and he also manages to start easing the idea of the multiverse affecting Earth-2 in long lasting ways here, as several of the folks at this meeting would leave Earth-2 to go to Earth-X to fight on a world where the Nazis won the Second World War! They also tangled with Baron Blitzkrieg there, who is one of the most awesome looking villains of all time.
I wish I knew what side of WWII that guy was on
No article on All-Star Squadron would be complete without a look at what many folks believe to be the finest issue in All-Star Squadron history! All-Star Squadron #20 featured the villain Brainwave. Using his vast mental might, he enslaved the JSA and was killing them mentally. He made them believe that they were pitted against scenarios where they failed, and if he got them all to believe …they’d die. Of course, one member of the JSA just had too much willpower to give up …
The cover is haunting, yes, but so is what occurs inside. They all face their fears and fail, but none fail so horrifically as Green Lantern. He becomes so enraged that he massacres the entire Japanese population.
Green Lantern has caused a holocaust, and nearly allows himself to succumb, but the other JSAers and members of the All-Star squadron are able to reach out to him and encourage him not to give up. And once Green Lantern finds his willpower, it’s like Uma Thurman when she was stuck in the coffin in Kill Bill Vol. 2 — there will be no stopping him, regardless of what must break!
But now as promised, the greatest moment in All-Star Squadron history …
no snarky joke here … too in awe …
The series went downhill from here. The artists, while not bad, just were never in the league of Buckler, Ordway, or McFarlane. That’s no knock on them; very few artists are that good. And no matter who was drawing the book, this book could not have survived the paradigm shift that was Crisis on Infinite Earths. Without being able to be secluded with its own variants of the DC powerhouses, All-Star Squadron faded out after the Crisis. It did give some of the best moments of the Crisis that did not occur in the main series, such as this cover, which is my favorite of the entire run.
Robotman’s look of horror at the idea of Superman fighting the Monster Society of Evil alone makes him look like a creepy Drama Mask robot
There are probably better covers, but this is my favorite. This is also one of the last times we’d see the Golden Age Superman until 2005 when that aberration known as Infinite Crisis did its best to destroy everything everyone ever loved about comics; of course, in comparison to Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis looks like Fantastic Four #1-100.
Paul and I talked about All-Star Squadron before, and he mentioned that it had a real Silver Age vibe. After re-reading all of this, I must agree. Roy Thomas, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, kept a Silver Age book going all the way into the mid 1980’s with this one. While the Silver Age itself was long gone by the time even the first issue of All-Star Squadron saw print, I think one could make a fairly strong argument that it was the last Silver Age book that existed. While the Silver Age was long dead, All-Star Squadron continued, like the light we see here on Earth from stars that have gone out years prior. Thanks to Roy Thomas, the star that was Earth-2 provided light for us all to enjoy just a little longer.
thanks for not going gently into that good night gentlemen
Thanks for reading! Join me for my LIVE radio shows on www.vocnation.com. Compton After Dark is a show focusing on wrestling, politics, comics, and more every Sunday night from 11:30-130 EDT. I’m also on at Midnight on Thursdays with Her Dork World, His Dork World, where Emily Scott and I tackle gender dynamics in dork culture. Don’t forget to scope out my 90’s comics blog at www.theunspokendecade.com. I am sure that I will be around here with more Bronze Age stuff too. I’m planning to take a look at The Rampaging Hulk for Longbox Graveyard soon! Try and contain your excitement!
NEXT MONTH: #136 Six Signature Superhero Sound Effects!
Welcome to Super-Blog Team-Up!
Today, my esteemed fellow bloggers and I are looking at “retcons” in comics — those moments of “retroactive continuity” that seek to clean up or reinvigorate the creaky comics continuity that sometimes encumbers our favorite characters. Over time, “retcon” has become a pejorative term, applied to creators backing away from some previous change, or altering a character’s core values after-the-fact. At worst, “retconning” yields to “rebooting,” where stakeholders wave the white flag, wipe everything away, and pledge that this time they’ll get it right!
Attached as we are to our comics and our continuity, and concerned that vast swaths of our collections might suddenly “no longer count,” comics fans are justifiably touchy about retcons. We will delight in a clever reinvention of a beloved character — a “new take” that doesn’t do violence to the past so much as it sees the character through a new, more contemporary lens — but we prefer that the past remain unchanged. If Godzilla invaded New York while wearing a trench coat, or Doctor Doom teamed up with Henry Kissinger, then we might like those moments forgotten, but we don’t want them overturned or rationalized away as part of some complicated retcon. Just let leave those ghosts alone.
But there was a time when retconning was held in high esteem. The term was even considered a compliment!
I’m referring to the work of the patron saint of comic book retcons — Roy Thomas. In particular, I’m referring to his work on DC’s “Earth 2” characters in the 1980s.
By the time Roy Thomas arrived at DC Comics in 1981, he was ideally prepared for the job of sorting out the history of Earth 2. After all, the Justice Society of America were Thomas’ favorite heroes, and if Thomas hadn’t quit DC after a brief and unpleasant tenure in 1965, he might have spent his first years in the comics business writing about Hourman and the Star-Spangled Kid instead of helping build the foundations of the Marvel Universe.
Instead, Thomas remained at Marvel for fifteen years, where he developed skills that would serve him well as a master of the (right kind) of retcon. First, Thomas was an unapologetic fan of comics, and an historian of the same — his editorship of the long-running fanzine, Alter Ego, predated his comics career, and continues to this day. That obsession gave Thomas an encyclopedic knowledge of old plots and characters, which he mined for his own work, breathing new life into forgotten and faded heroes.
To this appreciation of characters with minimal or fractured histories, Thomas added a fascination with imaginary histories, as exemplified by his long run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian with Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema. Working from the fan-created essay “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career,” Thomas sketched out a long-range plan for Conan’s adventures, and then wrote within those self-imposed guidelines, seeking to expand on Robert E. Howard’s original work while not violating the same. The classic Thomas/Buscema collaboration on Conan would end when Thomas left Marvel in 1981, but Marvel’s loss would be DC’s gain when Thomas signed a three-year contract with DC.
And waiting for Thomas at DC were his original loves — the Justice Society of America!
That the Justice Society was still around at all owed to the unanticipated side-effects of a wild outburst of creativity twenty years earlier. “The Flash of Two Worlds,” from Flash #123 was a seminal comic story, bringing together Barry Allen, the modern Flash, with his Golden Age counterpart, Jay Garrick. Robert Kanigher had played with DC history from the very first issue of Flash’s reintroduction in Showcase #4, showing Barry Allen getting the idea for his secret identity by reading a Golden Age Flash comic, but “Flash Of Two Worlds” made that meta-history personal. Now, not only did those Golden Age Flash stories “really happen,” they were still happening — in a parallel dimension quickly come to be known as “Earth 2,” where the original Golden Age versions of characters like Flash and Green Lantern were still running around in air raid helmets and opera capes.
It was a brilliant conceit. Sure, it was confusing to have two Flashes, and two Green Lanterns, while some characters lived only in one world, and still others were born on one world, and moved to the other! But few complained when the Justice League and the Justice Society started hooking up for annual co-adventures, which became a window onto Earth-2 for the fans, and by extension a means of revisiting and remembering DC’s genuinely golden Golden Age history of the 1940s. In a single stroke, DC doubled their superhero character library and gained something that Marvel could not claim, at least on such a scale — namely, a history that predated 1961! So popular were the Earth-2 Justice Society characters that DC began publishing new adventures in the 1970s, with Power Girl debuting with the team, and the Justice Society itself finally getting an origin story in 1977’s DC Special #29 … almost forty years after the team’s first appearance.
And that’s how Roy Thomas found the shop when he arrived at DC in 1981, and engineered the very first retcon.
Don’t believe me? No less unimpeachable an authority than the mighty Wikipedia attributes the first publication of the term “retroactive continuity” to the letters page of 1983’s All-Star Squadron #18. It is a term that Thomas seemed to embrace, recognizing, as it did, his singular devotion to comics history even as he crafted new tales set in the “past.”
All-Star Squadron was the flagship book of Thomas’ retcon work at DC. As he had done with Marvel’s Invaders, Thomas used World War II as the backdrop for the superhero tales of All-Star Squadron, and along the way sought to apply a new coat of paint to the imaginary history of the Golden Age Justice Society. Like the imaginary history he’d observed with Conan, Thomas considered the stories published in the Golden Age as the true but incomplete history of the Justice Society, and set out to tell new stories set in the same era.
Thomas’ All-Star Squadron were called together by President Roosevelt on the eve of World War II, and would include not only members of the Justice Society, but also wartime-era Quality Comics characters that had been acquired by DC, like Plastic Man, or then-modern characters like Gerry Conway’s World War II hero, Steel, the Indestructible Man, who had debuted in 1978. For sixty-seven issues, Thomas would weave his alternate superhero history of World War II, indulging his love of obscure heroes and historical events, telling two-fisted comic book war stories, and also looking with a modern eye at the era’s foibles — for example introducing Amazing Man as a black superhero, and Tsunami as a Japanese hero, helping frame stories examining racism in original comics from the war era.
I was a devoted fan of All-Star Squadron through the 1980s, and harbor fond memories of the series. It was delightful to discover the heroes of DC’s past. I particularly enjoyed it when Thomas created a story around some mad bit of trivia, such as the secret origin of the Tarantula from issue #18. The impetus behind that particular story was described on the issue’s letter page, and illuminates everything that was wonderful about All-Star Squadron — and to Thomas’ approach to “retconning.”
All-Star Squadron spawned a spin-off series — Infinity, Inc., detailing the adventures of a new generation of Justice Society-related heroes in the then-contemporary 1980s of Earth-2 — as well the America vs. The Justice Society mini-series, which is a dense read as a comic, but an amazing bit of comics scholarship, examining the history of the Justice Society in detail, and fitting that history into the framework that Thomas and other creators had established in their post-Golden Age Justice Society stories.
Why Thomas’ retconning succeeded, where so many others have failed, comes down to a couple factors. For one, Thomas didn’t throw things away if they failed to fit his narrative — if anything, he made things harder on himself by trying to honor every last bit of history and trivia from the Golden Age. Thomas wasn’t a “retconner” (as we’ve come to understand the term) so much as he was a curator … or a gardner, trimming back the weeds and bringing out the colors in a long-neglected garden. Second, I suspect Thomas pretty much had his own way in writing these books. The obscure nature of so many of these heroes must have afforded Thomas the opportunity to take chances, and corporate concern over the handling of precious assets like the “real” Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman would have been muted.
Unfortunately, most of Thomas’ efforts would come to ruin with 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC’s ambitious “reboot” of their comics universe. One of the goals of Crisis was to clean up DC’s continuity — with its conflicting origins and multiple versions of iconic characters — and that goal was effectively a shaped charge aimed at the heart of Thomas’ work with Earth-2. Neither All-Star Squadron nor Infinity Inc. long survived the ultimate retcon of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Thomas kept his story going for awhile, telling the tale of DC’s reconfigured World War II era with Young All-Stars, but the magic was gone, and the series was cancelled after thirty-one issues.
In the decades to come, DC would return to Earth-2 — and Earth-2 is a well-received portion of DC’s publication slate right now — but for me, the unique and funky majesty of the wildly inconsistent Earth-2 that Roy Thomas honored in his work has been lost to the ages. Even the best intentions can have unintended consequences. I remember being excited for Crisis on Infinite Earths, and welcoming DC’s attempt to straighten out their continuity, but looking back on it all these years later, I see Crisis only for its worst excesses — for replacing Thomas’ scholarly “retconing” with “rebooting,” and for opening the door to the endless wrangling that has characterized post-Crisis DC stories, with worlds and histories again altered and overturned in pursuit of boosted circulation and a too-late desire to address the mistakes of the past. The peculiar magic that was DC’s Earth-2 has not been so easily reclaimed.
Fortunately, the original revamp of Earth-2 is still easy to enjoy, owing to the affordable prices of books like All-Star Squadron and Infinity Incorporated on the back-issue market. When next you tire of editorial fiat undoing the worlds, characters, and stories you think of as your own, I invite you to visit the 1940s through the lens of these unique 1980s comics, and to return to an era when comics weren’t afraid to be a little crazy and even cheerfully goofy … and when “retcon” promised new possibilities for forgotten heroes, rather than the peremptory negation of the heartfelt efforts of creators that had come before.
Special thanks for Mr. Roy Thomas for graciously reviewing a pre-publication draft of this article!
For more Super-Blog Team-Up “retcon” retrospectives, be sure to check out these affiliated blogs!
Superhero Satellite: RETCON: Crisis on Continuity Earths
Fantastiverse: Age of the Retcon: Bucky 4.0 – The Winter Soldier
Silver Age Sensations: The Red, White, and Blue Silver Age Avenger!
Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern: Secret Origins – Revision or Retcon?
Chasing Amazing: Brand New Day and the Retcon of Harry Osborn
Between The Pages: Good Cowboys Always Shoot First
Bronze Age Babies: Was The Vision Really Carrying A Torch?
Superior Spider-Talk: Peter Parker: Child of Radioactivity or Mysticism?