Sometimes our favorite comics are our favorites for straightforward reasons.  Sometimes, though, the reasons get complicated…  and so do the comics!  Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of All-Star Comics #36 awaits!

ALL-STAR COMICS #36

Writer: Gardner Fox (plot)/Sheldon Mayer (plot)/Julius Schwartz/Robert Kanigher (?)
Penciler: Irwin Hasen/Lee Elias/Joe Kubert/Frank Harry
Inker: Irwin Hasen/Lee Elias/Joe Kubert/Frank Harry
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Sheldon Mayer
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5000.00

Previously in All-Star Comics: Though considered founding members of the Justice Society Of America, both Superman and Batman rarely appeared within the pages of All Star Comics, as each had two monthly showcase titles for their adventures.  (In the earliest days of All Star and the JSA, there was an additional wrinkle in that Max Gaines’ All-American Publishing owned Flash, Green Lantern and other characters, while Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s National Allied Publications owned Superman and Batman was under the purview of Nicholson’s other venture, Detective Comics.  Their books shared trade dress and All Star Comics featured characters from all three companies, but before 1946, our favorite characters of “DC Comics” didn’t all belong to the same corporate entity.  By the time this book was out, though, National had merged with Detective and absorbed All-American, leaving the combined entity as National Comics Publications, which is more or less modern DC Comics.)  Most Justice Society stories start in the JSA headquarters, with the heroes around a table recounting their latest adventure.  This one begins differently…

The legends and lore surrounding this issue are fascinating, for a couple of reason.  A great deal of what we know about the early days of comics is hearsay, but writer Gardner Fox kept detailed notes of his business transactions, allowing us to know what stories he sold to National/All-American/DC.  Among those notes are sales for a handful of tales that never saw print.  One of those, ‘The Will of William Wilson’ has been almost completely found, thanks to the editorial tendency to give away bits of original art to fans and sightseers at the DC offices, but another story, “Men Of Magnifica’ is more elusive.  Little is known about the story,  and most of the principal creators had passed away by the time historians like Roy Thomas really started digging into the mystery, but some believe that script became this issue.  Of course, it’s not the only anomaly to be found in these pages.  But in any case, after hearing the scary tale of Koehaha, the Stream of Ruthlessness, our five camping protagonists lay down to get some rest…

Turns out, that was a bad idea.  Ed Findley, Mat Matney, Saul Philpotts, Archie Erdner and and Ben Stanley are overwhelmed by the water, seemingly drowning in its legendary liquidity, leaving only Calvin Stymes among the living. Cut to Gotham City and an emergency meeting of the Justice Society of America!

Well, the Justice Society of America minus two members, as Al “Atom” Pratt is injured and Johnny “Johnny Thunder” Thunder has a cold.  The JSAers are stunned at the audacity of Johnny putting an ad in the paper requesting that Superman fill in for him, when suddenly…

It must be noted here that, nearly a decade into the shared universe concept, this page features the first-ever meeting between Superman and Wonder Woman, as his previous appearance came the issue before her debut with the team.  The presence of Bruce Wayne here also indicates that the Caped Crusader knows All Pratt’s secret identity, as he quickly suits up as Batman to fill in for the lost Mighty Mite.  Wonder Woman reveals the reason for the emergency tête-à-tête as the JSA has received an anonymous letter indicating that a recent string of fantastic crimes is the work of five reputable men…

The team breaks up to follow the leads of all six men who may or may not be from Magnifica but probably are unless they’re not, with Batman taking the first chapter!

Interestingly, the caption refers to him as The Mighty Batman, not an adjective usually associated with Mr. Wayne’s alter ego.  This has led to a belief that this chapter was actually written to star The Atom, who was occasionally billed as “mighty” and who had a similar punchinnaface technique.  The story doesn’t feature a single Batarang, little detective work and sports a Caped Crusader who severs a rope with a convenient knife rather than any gadgets from his arsenal, giving a little bit of credence to this theory.  Regardless, B-Atom-man makes short work of the first Drowned Man…

Likewise, The Flash is able to overcome Mat Matwell in his nefarious guise as Mr. X…

Though the writer himself denied it, historian Jerry Bails has posited that this chapter was rewritten by Bob Kanigher, whose stories often featured skiing as a motif and whose plotting was sometimes remarkably similar to that on display in Flash’s adventure.  It’s not proof that this issue was reconfigured by Schwartz and Kanigher from Fox’s lost ‘Magnifica’ script, but it is an unexplained oddity.  Flash ends up saving Matwell from assassination by a mysterious stuttering man, leading us to Hawkman’s encounter with Erdner…

The Hawk nearly takes a bullet from Erdner, only to be saved by a group of strangers, sent by a stuttering man to help him take in the villain.  Dr. Mid-Nite’s battle with Philpotts is up next…

He is likewise saved by a mysterious man with a speech impediment, and like his partners, rushes back to JSA headquarters after a mental radio broadcast from Wonder Woman, with his drowned man in tow.  Then, the Man of Steel takes center stage against The Wrecker…

Much hay has been made of his use in these pages, with Superman’s tremendous powers making for a possible stand-in for Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt, rebuilding an entire skyscraper in seconds.  This is Golden Age Superman we’re talking about here, so his super-speed and computer brain make it not feel entirely out-of-place, but it’s the kind of thing that makes one wonder if magic wasn’t the original impetus for such a sequence.  Supes also received the mental radio transmission and heads back to JSA headquarters where all five ruthless drowned men have been gathered, with Green Lantern telling the story of his search for the sixth…

Back in college, Calvin Stymes had apparently poisoned a dog (!!) and was pranked in return by his five cohorts, giving him such a shock that his hair turned white and he developed a permanent stutter that scuttled his prospective law career.  Gathering them to douse in the waters of Koehaha was the first part of his plan, but he escaped GL’s grasp before he could reveal the second…

Knowing that his old classmates would return to the stream, Stymes mins the riverbank with explosives, only to watch in horror as the JSA saves his victims…  and the cave he’s hiding in suddenly collapses from the shockwave, proving to be the end of Calvin Stymes.

The assembled JSA assess the real story of why the stream is what it is (I *knew* free radicals were bad, no matter what my Pom Wonderful bottle wants me to believe) and cap it for good, so that it will never run again.

‘Course, it does, but that’s another story (and the first adventure of Infinity, Inc.), leaving us with the strange hybrid creature that is this issue.  Was the college that Stymes and friends attended originally called ‘Magnifica’?  Were the Superman and Batman chapters retro-actively altered to feature the World’s Finest team instead of Atom and Johnny Thunder?  Did Kanigher help Julie Schwartz rework an unused Gardner Fox script?  There’s evidence to be found for all of these suppositions, but the memories of the players involved (albeit decades later) differed on the matter, and so, comic book fans are freed to dissect and argue the whys and wherefores.  For our purposes, this is a neat little issue, featuring National/DC’s top guys along with All-American’s stalwarts, presaging the coming days of shared universes and Leagues of Justice, leaving All- Star Comics #36 with a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Even if you don’t care about the detective work of who wrote what, who drew which and whether or not this is the lost Fox tale, it’s fun to see Superman and Batman in action as active JSA members…

 

(Today’s Retro Review would not have been possible without Roy Thomas’ excellent scholarly work on the All Star Days, ‘The All-Star Companion’, all four volumes of which I highly recommend to all comic types interested in the stories behind the stories we love.)

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Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture! And a nice red uniform.

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