Or – “The Genesis Of My Love Of Huge Teams Of Obscure Heroes..”
I’m sure it’s no surprise that I love super-team stories, the bigger the better. I am, after all, a long-time devotee of the Legion of Super-Heroes, after all. But my affection for big teams didn’t originate with the LSH. Indeed, I really didn’t get into that team until the roughly 1990 or so. Half a decade earlier, Golden Age virtuoso Roy Thomas made the Legion’s usual 18 to 24 members look like nothing, and in so doing really helped to start me down a path that would eventually lead me to Major Spoilers…
ALL-STAR SQUADRON #31
Scripter: Roy Thomas
Penciler: Rick Hoberg
Inker: Mike Machlan
Colorist: Gene D’Angelo
Letterer: John Costanza; David Cody Weiss
Editor: Roy Thomas
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 75 cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5.00
Previously in All-Star Squadron: The second World War went a bit differently in the DC Universe, as Adolf Hitler had to deal with the likes of Superman and Green Lantern as well as the armies of the Allies. In this reality, though, Hitler possessed the Spear of Destiny, keeping the most powerful superhumans out of Europe for the majority of the war. However, it’s not as though there weren’t sufficient problems on the home front for the heroes to handle, and Superman was hardly alone by 1942. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the heroes of the United States all banded together under the orders of President Franklin Roosevelt as an “All-Star Squadron” (they apparently didn’t have acronyms yet) of super-types. This is the story of the first time the full roster of the All-Stars met as a single unit, and yes, it turns out to be a pretty bad idea. We open on the dark streets of
Central City New York…
The first time I read this issue, I wondered how The Spirit ended up in a DC Comic book. (Years later, in the wake of First Wave, that’s kind of ironic, in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word.) But, as the story quickly explains, this isn’t Denny Colt, but instead Dave Clark, the man known as Midnight. And he’s not just running for his health, he’s trying desperately to get ahead of a squadron of Nazis with machine guns, carrying a mysterious cargo towards the headquarters of the All-Star Squadron. A few hundred feet up, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are likewise on their way to the Squadron meeting, when they suddenly find two more flying types coming up on them fast. The Hawks prepare for a battle, but instead get their first eyeful of a couple of their costumed colleagues: The Ray and The Black Condor.
Roy Thomas is a writer who doesn’t always get respect for his work, but little moments like that are truly delightful, and make the All-Star Squadron a wonderful read (at least until the original Crisis devastated both his cast and the raison d’être of Earth-2 itself.
Oh, I might have forgotten that part: This story takes place on Earth-2, the designation given for the world where Superman and Batman fought alongside the JSA in the trenches of Dubya Dubya Two. Roy’s original concept for this book was an attempt to unify all of DC’s Golden Age heroes, as well as those absorbed from Quality Comics (and later, Charlton Comics, as well.) As the Hawks, Ray and the Condor arrive at headquarters, Thomas does what he does best: cameo appearances that quickly encapsulate for you what a character is about.
Rick Hoberg’s art is fascinating throughout the issue, delivering an old-school Joe Shuster Superman leaping around (as seen in panel three), a Jerry Robinson-style Batman, and cameos by virtually all the characters in the world. The four-page roll call sequence is simply breathtaking, using tiny moments of dialogue along with amazingly-rendered body language to show us the meeting of more than FORTY* mystery men in one room.
Special notice must be given to Vigilante’s old-school cowboy lean, The Star-Spangled Kid & Stripesy’s 40’s hipster slang, Flash’s casual resting pose, the Superman/Plastic Man interaction… This is how you inject character into even the shortest appearance, and the best bit of the issue comes with the interactions between the two Manhunters (both Quality Comics and DC Comics had a Manhunter character active during the 40’s.) The blue-suited Manhunter (top row, between the Human Bomb and The Vigilante) is giving the blue-faced Manhunter (bottom right) a glare of pure hatred, while his counterpart pointedly ignores him, game face on. Once the business of the roll call is handled, the team views a message from their founder/Commander-In-Chief…
…a message interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Sam! Aside from reviving guys like Sam (one of the Golden Age’s greatest creations) I think that the most lasting contribution that All-Star Squadron has given us is the term “retcon,” short for retroactive continuity. Roy Thomas was an avid reader of the Golden Age comics in his childhood, and as an adult writer, he took great pains to validate and explain every aspect (no matter how silly or unbelievable) of those tales of his youth. Indeed, the first thirty issues of All-Star were often an exercise in explaining who did what, when, and why later tales did make sense, after all. Case in point, the fact that, when DC purchased the Quality characters in the 1970’s, they placed them on an alternate world, called Earth-X. How, then, to explain the presence of Quality heroes (Black Condor, Firebrand, The Human Bomb, The Jester, Manhunter II, Midnight, Phantom Lady, Plastic Man, The Ray, The Red Bee, and late-comer Uncle Sam all originated there) in previous issues of All-Star Squadron? Well, we already have a perfectly workable alternate Earth out there, right?
Interestingly, the previously recruited heroes, with the exception of Hourman himself, are also Quality-derived heroes, and this storyline also explains Hourman’s strange disappearance from the Justice Society titles during the 1940’s. (In real life, the character simply fell out of favor, but things are never that simple IN the comics.) The All-Stars, already divided on the matter of fighting the Axis or protecting the homefront, are now faced with another dilemma: Should they accompany Uncle Sam and take on the prospect of fighting ANOTHER World War?
The debate is tabled by the arrival of Midnight, having chased his way all the way across the city to the Perisphere in Flushing Meadow, where the Squadron’s first meeting has been taking place. What is in Midnight’s mysterious parcel?
It’s the DOLL MAN! Those familiar with the lineup of the Freedom Fighters (DC’s 1970’s name for the revived version of Quality’s most popular heroes) should see that Dolly is the last member of that team, which should give you some idea where this story is expecting to end up. Indeed, later issues will finally fix the Earth-2/Earth-X conundrum, just in time for the Crisis to render the whole thing moot. From my perspective, though, you have to love Roy’s approach to this series, the desire to further delve into and explain existing stories of comics history rather than hand-wave away things that you now find embarassing or silly. Thomas remains the master of “How did that even work?”, and this issue works as a well-told story as well as an attempt to reconcile two chains of historical events. All-Star Squadron #31 was one of the books that showed me a whole lost world of hero history (there’s an interesting turn of phrase, somebody should use that), and looks pretty cool doing it, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.*This issue’s heroes, in rough order of appearance: Midnight, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Black Condor; The Ray; Liberty Belle, Robotman, Commander Steel, The Human Bomb, The Red Bee, The Crimson Avenger, Batman, Vigilante, Sandman, Wildcat, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Tarantula, Johnny Quick, The Spectre, The Guardian, Superman, Green Lantern, Phantom Lady, Green Arrow, Firebrand, Doctor Mid-Nite, Dr. Fate, Robin, Speedy, TNT, Dyna-Mite, Sandy The Golden Boy, The Star-Spangled Kid, Stripesy, The Atom, Manhunter I, Starman, Manhunter II, The Jester, Sargon The Sorcerer, Zatara, The Whip, The Air-Wave, Johnny Thunder, Plastic Man, Mr. America, Wing, Mr. Terrific, Uncle Sam, and Doll Man, with flashbacks featuring The Red Torpedo, Magno the Magnetic Man, Miss America, Neon The Unknown, The Invisible Hood and Hourman, as well as cameos by the Shining Knight, Aquaman, Amazing-Man, and The Blackhawks.