This month, we have a new topic:
What Was I Thinking
For over a year, whenever a JLA Casebook columnist wasn't able to do a piece, I'd promise to review my favorite Justice League Task Force story. I wanted everyone to know what a great story they'd probably overlooked. But fate and deadlines would step in and I wouldn't find the time to do it.
This month, the issue is almost done and I'm waiting for one piece to come in, so I found the time to grab J.L.T.F. issues 10-12 and re-read them. Boy, oh boy, was I excited to finally tell you about this moving, wonderful story. Only one problem: It's not that good.
What was I thinking? Well, I know what was going through my mind. Any story that features my hero Elongated Man in a serious, credible role gets instant brownie points. Apparently so much so that the overall quality of the writing didn't make much of a dent in my head.
Thinking along the same lines, I'm forced to recall another longtime favorite JLA story which, upon reflection a decade later, had some serious flaws. I'll discuss both of them this month not to berate the writers, but to pass on some hard-earned comic book criticism. Skewering these comics hurts like taking my cats to the vet for shots; I hate to cause pain to something I love, but it's for the best.
"The Purification Plague" in Justice League Task Force #s 10, 11 and 12 is a disturbing tale about racism, prejudice and genocide in the heartland of America. It raises bothersome questions about what kind of people can belong to hate groups and why people believe in the Nazi message to this day.
It is also a hackneyed, forced, contrived and ridiculous story, now that I re-read it.
The plot: We see an F.B.I. undercover agent running for his life through the American Midwest, when he runs into the Aryan Brigade. They announce their names (in very forced expository dialogue): Iron Cross, Heatmonger, Blind Faith, Whiplash and Golden Eagle. They are the enforcers for the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group operating out of Nebraska. The Aryan Brigade kill the spy, which leads the F.B.I. to involve the Justice League's special task force. The F.B.I. fears that the Aryan Nation is creating a designer plague virus.
In the first year, the Justice League Task Force was originally conceived as a special ops branch of the Justice League. The J.L.T.F. would be composed of any Justice League members past or present and any other superhero associates who may be right for the mission. (After this arc, the J.L.T.F. would be re-formed as a sort of Justice League In Training, without the rotating membership.) For this mission, the chosen heroes are Elongated Man, Black Canary, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, Gypsy and J'onn J'onzz (the two mainstays of the J.L.T.F.) and one other.
Needing a biochemist, J'onn tries to enlist Rex Tyler, the Golden Age Hourman. Rex demurs, stating that he needs to spend time with his son. But when Rex hears that they are infiltrating Nazis flying the swastika on American soil, he agrees to go.
The team prepares for their infiltration. Elongated Man is given a prescription bottle which contains a condensed form of his gingo elixir. Hourman states that he doesn't need Miraclo pills anymore, as he has internalized his powers. Now, he can use his powers for an hour, but then can't use them again for a full day.
J'onn captures one of the supremacists and then poses as him, leading the other five of them into the camp under false names. No sooner have they gotten in than one of the Aryans approaches Peter Cannon and calls him by name!
Peter and his friends talk with the man, Steve Mahler, who use to be a professer at Columbia when Peter was there as a visiting prof. Steve talks of the hard times he's endured and his conversion to the belief that inferior races are ruining America. While this is happening, Rex Tyler sees a little girl playing with her dolly (a black dolly with a noose around his neck), oblivious of a tree that is about to fall on her. Activating his powers, he uses his superspeed to save the girl in the blink of an eye and return unnoticed. Word that a "strong wind" saved the girl alerts the Aryan Brigade that metahumans may have infiltrated the camp.
Underground, in a large military complex, the Aryan leader badgers his scientists to finish a missile which will carry their plague virus into the atmosphere. The plague will kill every non-Aryan on Earth. The leader retires to his quarters, where it is revealed that he's not only a State Senator with presidential aspirations but also a man with severe mental problems brought on by abuse from a strict, racist father.
Back at Justice League H.Q., the receptionist is surprised to see a man enter who is identified as an old JLA villain. T.O. Morrow, looking scruffy and carrying a big book full of notes about all future events, including his own death, wants to warn the League of impending danger. He is turned away, and agrees that that is what the book told him would happen.
The Leaguers discuss their feelings toward racial hatred. J'onn is no longers surprised at humanity's ability to persecute others. Rex doesn't understand how these Americans can worship a symbol which American soldiers died to keep from their shores. Ralph is most disturbed that they are only miles from where he grew up, and these people don't look any different from the inhabitants of his home town. Gypsy reveals that she's descended from actual gypsies [note: Gypsy used to be so whitebread that her parents were named Ward and June; when J.L.T.F. began, she not only looked like a supermodel but she suddenly changed ethnicity with no explanation] and talks of how her people have been historically mistreated. Their camp is attacked by the Aryan Brigade, who take them captive except for the non-powered Rex, who slips away.
The J.L.T.F. awakens to find themselves imprisoned in the underground fortress, shackled and standing on an electrified floor. The leader tells them his plan in great detail, tells them that they'll be dead before the missile goes off and then for no apparent reason whatsoever doesn't kill them but leaves them under guard while he goes off to check on the preparations. Hourman, still hours away from the time that he can use his powers again, sneaks into the elevator to the underground fortress. He causes a commotion which distracts the guards long enough for Thunderbolt to use his telekinesis to free them from their shackles (though I've no idea why a shapechanging alien and a man made of taffy couldn't get out of their cuffs on their own).
The J.L.T.F. fights the Aryan Brigade while the Leader fires the missile. As it prepares to blast off, Elongated Man tries to grab it and pull it off course (way to go, Ralph!), but it is too hot to hold. J'onn takes off after the missile and pushes it out of the atmosphere, where the virus releases harmlessly.
The Leader makes a break for the elevator with a vial of the virus. Released locally, it will take longer to spread but will still do the job. Hourman, the only hero able to slip behind the Aryan Brigade unnoticed, dashes into the elevator and fights the Leader. Hourman stops the elevator, and in the scuffle the vial is shattered! The Leader suddenly stops and yanks his hood away, surprised to see a rash is already forming on his skin; apparently, the father who taught him racism did not tell him that their bloodline wasn't 100% "pure"! Rex Tyler, fortunately for him, is Caucasian; he survives, but has to stay quarantined.
What I liked: There are a lot of things to like about this storyline. The overall message about racism and why people might become racists is intriguing, and isn't really a message seen in any Justice League story that I can remember. Setting the story in the American Heartland instead of the South gives it more credibility as a story for our modern era, as stories about prejudice still existing in the South are about as challenging as stating that there are tomatoes in Italy.
Of course, I like any story where Elongated Man gets a bit of the spotlight. But the character who really shines in this arc is Hourman. As he died in Zero Hour only a few months later, this is really the last Hourman story. Here he is shown as heroic, broad-shouldered and brave, but he is also feeling his years and regretting much of his life. His confidence is shaken, both due to the ineffectiveness of his powers and his aging body. Seeing Hourman's ire at these Nazi-worshipping Americans is a very effective part of this story.
Although I'm not too keen on the designs for some of these Aryan Brigade members, I like Whiplash (who has whip-like tentacles for arms) just because Ralph Dibny could use an interesting opponent like him.
What I disliked: Where to start? Well, the expository dialogue throughout gets on my nerves. Not only that there is so much of it, but that so much of it is bad and so much of it is forced. All through this arc, you find yourself asking, "Who talks like that in real life?" While there is some nice character development in issue #11, the first and third parts of this story are mostly devoted to people talking endlessly about what's going on.
Speaking of which, the entire opening of issue #12 is devoted to that most cliched situation: the bad guy ranting endlessly about his plans to the captured superheroes who have no reason for being kept alive. Dr. Evil would be proud. I know this is a typical comic book moment, but the stupidity of it is exacerbated by the fact that the Leader vows to kill the superheroes in a little while when there's no reason to not do so immediately!
I do have to ask why a character is called Heatmonger. It's a play on hate-monger, right? Well, do you know of any racists who proudly call themselves hate-mongers? Racists usually justify their actions as being those of patriots or the master race or God's favorites, etc.; they don't think of themselves as being driven by hate.
The artwork on this story is at times a bit odd, and the musculature of the heroes is often exaggerated. Lanky Ralph Dibny and senior citizen Hourman both have rippling chest musles. The mandatory giant member of the villains, Iron Cross, looks like a tank with a teeny head. J'onn has hairy arms.
The BIG problem with this arc is that many of the more ridiculous elements such as the Aryan Brigade (whose powers and backgrounds aren't explained) and the missile and the underground complex, all of which are FAR more than a small group of trailer court racists and a measly state senator could possibly afford, are explained away as being from an unnamed benefactor. See, this and the T.O. Morrow scene and a denouement at the end of issue #12 are all leading up to the "Judgment Day" arc which ran through the Justice League titles in 1994. The Aryan Brigade are actually members of the Cadre run by the Overmaster, villain of Judgment Day.
"The Supremacy Factor" in JLA #224 has always been one of my favorite stories. Written by the legendary Kurt Busiek back before his name was legendary, with some rich artwork throughout and a great cover (both by Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano), it introduces an intriguing villain and has a lot of fun with the concept. This was so good that it was most of a decade before I realized the fundamental flaws in the story.
The Plot: Superman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow meet at a Star City seafood restaurant in their civilian IDs. Dinah Lance (Black Canary) is on her way back from a bank robbery to join them when she sees a mugging in a nearby alley.
Four punks are circling a trench-coated man and threatening him with knives, pipes and nunchucks, but the man seems unconcerned. Black Canary draws close, but is surprised to see the man fend off all four attackers with some of the best martial arts moves she's ever seen. As the cloaked man (wearing a costume under his coat) prepares to kill one of the muggers, Black Canary intervenes. The man outwits her at her own tricks and when she cuts loose with her canary cry, he is unaffected!
[NOTE: Over on Birds of Prey writer Chuck Dixon's message board, there has been some discussion as to whether Black Canary has a natural immunity to her own canary cry. As Paragon seems to replicate her immunity to her cry, I'd hold this issue up as evidence that she does.]
Wincing at her cry, Clark Kent tells the others that Black Canary is in trouble and they dash out of the restaurant. Superman throws himself at her attacker. The man then turns and casually knocks Superman into orbit, then dashes away at superspeed. The only evidence is part of the trenchcoat, which was in Superman's hand, that contains a pocket full of notes.
Up at the JLA satellite, Firestorm recognizes the notes as being transubstantive RNA coding. One scientist has made great advances in that field: a three-time Nobel Prize winner living near Star City. Firestorm, Green Arrow and Black Canary proceed to investigate quietly.
They find the scientist's home, which doesn't have any doors or windows. Suddenly, a hole appears in the side of the building and the man, calling himself Paragon, appears in all his bad costumed glory. He announces that he is their superior, as he has the mental and physical abilities of anyone within a close range only more so! He proceeds to use Firestorm's powers and his own baritone canary cry to subdue them.
Captured and contained within his lab, Paragon reveals that he is building a device which will eliminate the inferior people of the world about 90% of the world's population. Using Firestorm's powers to create parts from nothingness and feeding off of Green Arrow's engineering and Firestorm's physics knowledge, he can complete the device in only a few hours instead of the three months originally planned.
Suddenly, Paragon feels a tremendous energy rush and turns to see Superman and Wonder Woman ripping the roof off the building! With power that trounces theirs, Paragon throws himself at the JLA and begins battling Superman, Wonder Woman, Red Tornado and Green Lantern.
Finally, Black Canary realizes a way to defeat him and has Red Tornado and Green Lantern hit him hard, as their abilities can't be duplicated. Superman and Wonder Woman get in their punches at super speed and then get out of range fast. They pummel Paragon constantly, keeping him off balance, until Black Canary gets in the last kick and knocks him unconscious.
Firestorm asks, "Now that we've got this guy how are we going to keep him in jail?"
What I liked: Oh, this story is so fantastic! Kurt Busiek's writing was strong even then especially when compared to the dialogue in the Purification Plague. There are several cute interchanges between the characters, and there's a surprising amount of action in this story.
What's cool is that even the parts which are similar to Purification Plague are done better. We again have the villain keeping the heroes captive and explaining his plans but here it works. He has a reason (he needs the heroes alive and nearby in order to feed off of their abilities) and a motive (his amazing ego) for doing so.
Paragon has a horrid costume, but he's a character I'd like to see return someday. His abilities and motivations are interesting, and far better than the average supervillain.
Chuck Patton's artwork makes this story one I can savor again and again. If you don't own JLA #224, I'd highly recommend finding a copy!
What I disliked: Well, "disliked" may be the wrong word. I LOVE this story to this day. However, there are a few flaws.
That final question by Firestorm was always funny to me. I thought it was such a good question. Then, one day in my early 20s, it hit me that Paragon could be contained in any normal jail cell with an armed guard of average intelligence. If you just keep superheroes away from him, he's not much of a threat. Indeed, had the JLA simply pulled back and sent in their android member to handle Paragon, he'd have been defeated without difficulty.
Although this may be overthinking a superhero comic, I must ask what Paragon's motivations are for becoming a costumed villain. Why is he wearing a hideous costume under his trenchcoat in the first place? If it's a matter of "looking for trouble", why put important papers in the pocket of your disguise? If he's really trying to not be noticed, why wear a costume underneath?
And I'm curious as to what that big gun-like weapon was going to do. How would it determine the "inferior" elements of the world? What precisely was the process going to be? "Purification Plague" had some pretty decent (though horrific) science behind it: the Aryan Nation virus would kill anyone who didn't have the Aryan gene tags. I don't think Paragon is a racist; he's a jerk who despises everybody equally. So, if Paragon's weapon is multicultural and will remove those who are considered inferior by other standards, how will that be determined? What, is it going to make us all take I.Q. tests before it kills us? If so, will minority groups be able to appeal Paragon's weapons judgment as being culturally biased? Could we possibly keep the gun and just lower the standards so that only Yahoo Serious, Carrot Top and Paulie Shore are affected? Just wondering.
I hope you all enjoyed this little article of potshots at stories I like. Despite the criticisms, I hope you will check them out sometime. They aren't THAT bad!
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All scanned artwork is DC Comics
This article is © 2000 by Michael Hutchison.
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