JSA Strange Adventures

I saw this graphic novel on the shelf of my local comic shop and pointed it out to my wife. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the first superhero team in comics, the Justice Society of America, who first appeared around World War II. What’s more, this comic was penned by Kevin J. Anderson, a writer I’ve long enjoyed and one I’ve had the privilege of working with. Not only that, but one of the truly legendary science fiction writers, Jack Williamson, both wrote the introduction and plays a starring role in the story. I was pleased when the graphic novel turned up as one of this year’s birthday presents.

The graphic novel collects comics originally released in 2004-2005. It tells the story of Lord Dynamo, an intellect with amazing powers and an army cyborgs at his command, who promises to end World War II and bring peace and prosperity if only Green Lantern will give up his power ring and Starman will give up his Gravity Rod. The Justice Society, of course, doesn’t believe things can be solved this easily and works to uncover the truth behind Lord Dynamo’s plans. In the meantime, Justice Society member Johnny Thunder, whose sole power is summoning a genie called Thunderbolt, wants to be a science fiction writer. Because the public is clamoring for Justice Society tales, famed editor Hugo Gernsback teams Johnny up with Jack Williamson.

The art in the graphic novel is beautiful. Barry Kitson and Gary Erskine did a great job of bringing the Justice Society to life on the page. Anderson’s story feels like the classic Justice Society stories that appeared way back in All-Star Stories comics during World War II. I was especially amused to see Jack Williamson ponder a trip to one of my frequent college haunts, the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, for a green chile cheeseburger, though it would be out of the way given Williamson’s road trip from New York to Portales!

I’ve been fortunate to know Kevin J. Anderson for several years now. Our stories appear together in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. The photo above shows Kevin and I together at the signing event for the book in Denver, Colorado. Kevin is also the publisher of Maximum Velocity, the anthology that collects eighteen exciting science fiction stories about everything from pirates to ghosts to battles in space.

I was also fortunate to have met Jack Williamson in person. He was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908, but his family moved to rural New Mexico when he was young. He sold his first story to Hugo Gernsback in 1928. In the 1930’s, teenaged Isaac Asimov was one of his fans. He served in World War II as a weather forecaster, then in the 1950s he earned degrees in English from Eastern New Mexico University. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for his writing, was inducted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement plus a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jack Williamson a few times at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He liked the fact that I encouraged new writers through the magazine I edited at the time, Tales of the Talisman, and told me I was doing a good job.

The graphic novel of JSA Strange Adventures appears to have limited availability, but the individual issues are still in print and they’re available digitally at Amazon and Comixology. If you want to check out Maximum Velocity, which includes short fiction I’ve both written and edited and which is published by Kevin J. Anderson, you can learn more by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/Maximum-Velocity.html

Vintage Justice

Reading is an essential part of any writer’s life. However, sometimes, I really do feel pressed for time to read. When that happens, my attention often goes to comic books. The best comics tell really good, tight stories and are presented with artwork I really admire. Lately, I’ve been spending time exploring the adventures of the Justice Society of America.

For those not familiar with the JSA, they were the original comic book super hero team, invented during World War II. The lineup included original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with heroes I’ve spoken about before like Sandman. Other members familiar to modern readers of DC comics include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, and Hawkman. Thanks to digital comics, it’s fairly easy to find their early adventures. In those stories, the Justice Society largely stays in the United States and roots out Nazi sympathizers and other criminals who want to undermine the war effort. Each hero usually receives their own assignment and we follow that hero’s story for a few pages, then move on to the story of another hero. At the end, they would come together to wrap up the case.

DC Comics has brought back the JSA in various forms over the years. Most recently at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer presented a JSA composed of elder heroes training a new generation. These stories are a lot of fun and we get to see children and grandchildren of those original heroes. Still, my favorite stories are those actually told in the original time period. I think there’s a lot of room for these kinds of stories, especially after I read the excellent run of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I was excited recently to find the graphic novel JSA: The Liberty Files originally published in 2004, that imagined early members of the society taking a more active role in the war effort.

JSA: The Liberty Files is one of DC’s so-called Elseworld stories. They ask what if the heroes existed in a different time and place than they did in the main continuity of the universe. Of course, continuity in comic books is relative since many heroes rarely seem to age beyond their thirties! The first story in The Liberty Files imagines Batman teaming up with Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite to track down a real Nazi Super-Man. Hourman is scientist Rex Tyler who developed a pill that gives him super powers for just one hour a day. Dr. Mid-Nite is Dr. Charles McNider, a doctor who can’t see well in regular light but has excellent night vision. Both Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite were early members of the classic JSA.

In the second story, Batman, Hourman, and a more familiar Superman along with some other JSA members must determine who is killing American agents in Berlin. I like the dark, realistic artwork in these stories. I think they allow for a little more exploration of the characters, though I was a little disappointed to see Batman and Superman take the limelight away from the lesser known JSA members. There were also some points where I felt the JSA members could have avoided disaster if they’d been a little smarter. And really, the best superheroes do rely more on their intellect and how they apply their powers than relying on the powers themselves.

I know there are a few other modern JSA stories told in vintage style available and I do plan to look those up in the coming months. I find these appealing in much the way I enjoy steampunk and other retro-futuristic stories. In many ways, a steampunk world is like a good superhero world. It’s one where heroes use their intellect to apply science or magic to solve a problem. Like an “Elseworlds” story, steampunk is an alternate universe that asks what would have happened if different conditions were met than those which happened in the world as we know it.

You can explore my Clockwork Legion Steampunk World by reading the following books, maybe you’ll find your next favorite “superhero.”

Star Wars and Battle of the Planets

By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.

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As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.

Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.

Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.

Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.

Gatchaman-Crowds

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.



Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.