RETRO REVIEW: Justice Machine Annual #1 (Summer 1983)

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Or – “A Retro Review First!”

I’ve done a lot of reviews in the past 7 years with Major Spoilers, many of them have been notable for reasons big and small.  Some were awful, some sublime, and others were simply inexplicable, but this is the first time, to my memory, that we have reviewed THE ENTIRE OUTPUT of a publishing house in one swell foop.  Add in the earliest work by one of the most respected creators of the day AND a first appearance of some characters near and dear to the hearts of many collectors, and we’ve got ourselves a winner.  Ladies, gentlemen and various and sundry monstrous monsters, your Major Spoilers (Retro) review awaits!

JMAnnual1CoverJUSTICE MACHINE ANNUAL #1
Writer: Bill Loeb/Bill Willingham
Penciler: Bill Reinhold/Bill Willingham
Inker: Jeff Dee; Bill Anderson/Bill Anderson
Colorist: Keith Wilson/Bill Anderson
Letterer: G. Ward/Keith Wilson
Editor: Michael Wolff
Publisher: Texas Comics
Cover Price: $2.95
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5.00

Previously, in Justice Machine:  On the planet Georwell, a group of superheroes served as the enforcement arm of their totalitarian government.  The Justice Machine (Challenger, Diviner, Blazer, Titan, Demon and Talisman) eventually made their way to Earth, taking up with a mysterious genius on his private island of New Haven, and trying to make a go of it as Terran super-guys.  None of this makes any difference at the beginning of this issue, however, as we see three agents of New Haven infiltrating a strange base from the ocean, taking out a group of armed guards with one clear goal: Espionage.

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Illinois Nazis?  I hate those guys!  Fans of RPG’s of the era may recognize the art of Jeff Dee, one of my favorite artists of the 80s independent scene, and one of the early D&D artists to boot.  Make a note of that, there may be a test later.  (This series, while set thirty years in OUR past, was still about 20 years too late for this whole Nazi subplot, I might add.)  The girl in the silver bodysuit is none other that Iron Maiden, aka Rusty, a mercenary best known from her role in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics of the late 1960s, and it is she who realizes that the stronghold has been breached, causing a full-scale Chinese fire drill…

JMannual12What’s with the robot there?  Your guess is as good as mine, as this is the only comic that Texas Comics ever published, and the revival of the Justice Machine under Comico a couple of years later rebooted their history (with, it should be noted, better writing.)  Back at New Haven, things are tense, as the Justice Machine and their benefactor Hammet Dash (Oh, yes…  They went there.) await news from the field…

JMannual13Dash immediately freaks the freak out about the presence of the Iron Maiden, and immediately gets on the horn to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. headquarters to try to get more intel on the mysterious woman in foil.  (Why he is concerned is not entirely clear, something that is entirely on the writer of this issue.  I’m a bit surprised by this, actually, as the writer is Bill Loebs of ‘Journey’ and Wally West ‘Flash’ fame.)  While the Justice Machine regroups, the Illinois Nazis prepare for their next offensive…

JMannual14The leader of the Illnois Super-Nazis (I call him Fritz Von Walla) swears that he will use his genetically altered Ubermenschen to attack and finally destroy The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves, a.k.a. T.H.U.N.D.E.R.  ‘Course, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. has a few ideas of their own, not to mention some super-types of their own…

JMannual15This issue came out at a time when it was believed that, due to improper copyrighting by original publisher Tower Comics, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were in the public domain, a situation which has been proven not to be the case.  What this means is that the two super-teams in play here are now owned by different entities, making it unlikely, if not damn-near impossible for this book to ever be reprinted by anybody.  Both the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and the Justice Machine are called into action to deal with the menace of the Illinois Super-Nazis, a situation which allows us to see the legendary rivalry between Challenger (think Captain America) and The Demon (think a brash young Hawkeye with a chip on his shoulder and no bow and arrows.)

JMannual16Of course, no matter how much Demon and Challenger fight about who is faster, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Lightning is just that much faster.  In a neat twist, the Justice Machine’s Blazer also meets one of the super-agents, though her interaction is a bit less fighty-fighty, with perhaps a hint of flirtation from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan

JMannual17At the same time, the most obnoxious superhero of all time, Talisman (who, by the way, may be my favorite member of the Justice Machine) ends up in the middle of a fight including Dynamo and Lightning, with some fun interaction between regular schlub Dynamo and consummate jerk Talisman…

JMannual18The two teams come together at the United Nations building, as the Illinois Super-Rocket-Nazis attack en masse, and their leader makes a dramatic entrance…

JMannual19Von Geist looks an awful lot like Werner Klemperer, doesn’t he?  Still, he has the moxie to back up his demands, as his Illinois Armored Super-Rocket Nazis make short work of the Justice Machine and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.  With all the heroes fallen, who will save the day from the monocled megalomaniac?

JMannual110How ’bout a villain?  After all, Rusty’ isn’t bad, she’s just drawn that way…  Thanks to her distraction (and a bit of quick thinking from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad member Weed Wylie) the heroes triumph and go their separate ways with the promise of more crossovers in the future, and some ominous ruminations on Demon…

JMannual111It’s kind of a run-of-the-mill story, notable mostly because of the unauthorized appearance of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. in its pages, but the second tale in this issue is notable for other reasons.  We begin on a small island “somewhere in the world,” as a shadowy man calls his lieutentant, the sonorously named Shapeshifter, in for a debriefing…

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“…The Elementals!”  This, then, is clearly Nacht Island, the shadowy man is the mysterious Saker, and Shapeshifter has been using her abilities to gather deep background on the strange new heroes.

JMannual113I do love Bill Willingham’s art, especially at this point in his career, where everyone is weirdly bony but fascinating to look at.  Vortex’s flying pose looks a little bit spastic as well, though not nearly as goofy as Fathom’s very disco mini-dress of power…

JMannual114Mind you, I’m hardly a fashion expert, but if your skin is sea-green, powder-blue and gold is a very unflattering color palette to play with.  Of course, Shapeshifter’s assessment of the new super-team involved more than just surveillance, as she also engages the team in combat, ambushing and dropping Vortex during his morning flight, then attacking Fathom and Morningstar before they even understand what is happening…

JMannual115Turning fire against water, Shapeshifter then attacks Monolith and chucks him into the ocean.  In retrospect, this is a very odd superhero first appearance, as the heroes are quickly beaten down by a single opponent, but having read the rest of the Elementals issues that Willingham wrote, it’s a very fitting one…

JMannual116Shapeshifter’s attacks leave 3 of the 4 Elementals down for the count, but she quickly finds herself overwhelmed by the wrath of Morningstar…

JMannual117The issue ends with the promise of a Texas Comics Elementals #1, featuring a story entitled ‘Death Duel With The Destroyers’, a story that first appeared as a module for ‘Villains & Vigilantes’, another RPG featuring art by a young Jeff Dee.  The Elementals ongoing series appeared from Comico in 1984, along with the aforementioned relaunch of the Justice Machine, and eventually became one of the most well-regarded series of the era.  Both properties have changed hands multiple times since ’83, and neither has really gained much traction since the 1990s.  Justice Machine Annual #1 is a strange mix of brilliant and banal, a nexus of properties and concepts that ends up being likable in spite of any flaws, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  And, now that I think about it, isn’t it about time for an Elementals revival?

Rating: ★★★½☆

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