Successfully scratched itches, part 2: Justice Machine

So, I’m finding that Greg Hatcher’s whole concept of scratching very old itches really has legs for posts. And the recent down-time due to the pandemic-imposed social distancing has given me some time to catch up on a bunch of reading.

So here’s the story: back when I was about 13 years old, in 1981 and 1982, I’d entered a pretty heady new phase in my readership and appreciation of comics. In the summer of 1981, I discovered my first comic book shop in Salem, OR (something I touched on in this post a while back). Not long afterward, I found out about another comic book shop in Salem, right at the edge of the downtown area – as I recall, I kind of stumbled onto it, as it was close to the office of my new optometrist. I was walking back to some department store where I was supposed to meet my mom, saw a bunch of comic books in a storefront display window and walked right in without giving it a second thought. It was a literally a mom and pop place: run and, I’m assuming, owned by a couple who were probably in their early thirties at the time, with their baby in a playpen behind the counter.

Anyway, while there, something caught my eye on their display racks: a non-Marvel/DC superhero comic I hadn’t seen at the other place, with an odd yet (to the early teen me) oh-so-cool title, Justice Machine. It was issue #4. I asked to see it, flipped through it, and was immediately intrigued. I asked if they had any of the earlier issues – they did, but only #3 (which, like the first two issues, had a slightly larger, magazine-type format). After flipping through that one as well, I knew I had to have them (and as I recall, I ended up not getting anything else, since they set me back $4.50 and I only had 5 bucks on me).

I think the cover to issue #3 is what really sold it for me…

Later that day, after reading them I was completely enthralled. It all seemed, well, so incredibly cool to me. Yes, it had colorful costumed heroes, which was inside my comfort zone, but the stories were kind of dark and gritty and the heroes seemed to be outlaws, with some shady players and organizations trying to capture and/or kill them – a concept that was sort of similar to my favorite series at the time, the X-men.

Just for some background: the Justice Machine is a team of super-beings from an alternate Earth called Georwell, which is a far more technologically advanced world and on the surface seems to be a tranquil utopia, kind of like the future Earth depicted in, say, Star Trek or the Legion of Super Heroes. And on that world, the Justice Machine is, initially, an elite law enforcement team.

Top row, l to r: Challenger, the leader, a sort of Captain America analog; Blazer, who can shoot flames and fly; Titan, who can increase his size and mass; bottom row, l to r: Diviner, who has paranormal powers, including the ability to access digital technology with her mind (she’s also Challenger’s ex-wife); Talisman, who can apparently create good and bad luck (i.e., alter probabilities); and Demon, an acrobat and expert in all martial arts.

However, all is not copacetic on Georwell, as the world is run by a rather ruthless authoritarian government that keeps the people in line with an all-encompassing police apparatus and pervasive propaganda – the homage/hat-tip to George Orwell was not lost on the 13 year-old me, as I had read Animal Farm not long before that, and was getting ready to read 1984. In the first two issues, which I didn’t have at the time, the Justice Machine had to flee to our Earth via a dimensional portal because they were accused of fomenting rebellion (they were actually framed, though). Even so, the members of the Justice Machine come to the realization that they were perhaps on the wrong side all along.

On Earth, they come into contact with a secret organization, partly led and staffed by renegades from Georwell, who have a giant high-tech complex beneath New York called New Haven. They seem to be dedicated to protecting Earth from all manner of threats – including agents from Georwell.

By the way, issue #4 (like #5) is also a double, flip-over book, with the other side featuring a character called Cobalt Blue – a genetically modified soldier serving a galactic empire in the far future who ends up on present-day (i.e., early 1980s) Earth. The set-up is kind of similar to Justice Machine, as Cobalt Blue is initially trying to deal with a rebellion and then has to confront the fact that he may be serving the wrong master.

C’mon. What 13 year-old wouldn’t find this cool?

I read and re-read those two issues of Justice Machine, but never managed to read anything else. I never got back to that comic book shop for whatever reason, but I’d always been curious about the other issues and the ongoing story.

So many years later (about two years ago, in fact), I finally managed to put together the entire, original five-issue run of Justice Machine published under the Noble Comics imprint, and then recently I finally scratched an almost 40 year-old itch.

The issues I never had before (and yep, the cover art on the first issue is by John Byrne)

Was it worth the wait? Eh, kind of.

The underlying concept for both the Justice Machine (and Cobalt Blue for that matter) is really strong, but sometimes the execution left something to be desired. Reading it as an adult, I can more easily spot all of the weaknesses of the original series, both in terms of storytelling and art.

Even though I still found it all quite cool…

The Justice Machine was the baby of Mike Gustovich, perhaps best known as an inker who did a lot of work for Marvel and DC, but also Comico, Eclipse and First, in the 1980s and 1990s. He was really committed to putting the book out, but apparently encountered a lot of problems, which included maintaining a bimonthly publishing schedule – as detailed in some of the text pieces in the various issues.

Looking at the creator credits now, it seems like the various issues have a patchwork quality, with Gustovich variously writing, co-writing/plotting, penciling, inking and/or lettering the stories, with help from William Messner-Loebs (at the time known as William F. Loebs), who partially inked and, I’m assuming, co-plotted the first issue, Charlie Wallace, who also partially inked the first issue and penciled and co-plotted the third issue, Bill Reinhold, who co-plotted and penciled the fourth and fifth issues, Deb Bauer, who did background inks in issue #4, Sam Delarosa, who provided an inking and lettering assist also in issue #4, and “Rusty Clunker” doing inks in issue #2 and coloring in issue #3. Even so, in the first three issues at least, the art looks pretty consistent.

The two Cobalt Blue stories in issues 4 and 5 involved a similar mix of creators: the first part of the first story in #4 was apparently done a few years earlier (written by Kevin Hyde with art by Gustovich), with a few new pages – apparently drawn by, but not credited to, Bill Reinhold – added on at the end. The second story in issue #5 was written by Gustovich, penciled by Reinhold, and inked by Gustovich, Bob Layton and Jeff Dee. Too many cooks.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading these after all these years: they gave me a nice rush of nostalgia first and foremost, but the stories are pretty solid – they just didn’t knock my socks off now, like they did back in 1982. Of course, now they’ve sort of sharpened my interest in the the far more successful run of Justice Machine published by Comico in the late 1980s (with Tony Isabella and Len Wein doing some of the writing!) – but it’s doubtful I’ll ever go through the trouble of tracking all of those issues down…

4 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    I remember picking up the annual because it introduced The Elementals.

    I don’t remember much of the Justice Machine part, but when Comico started publishing Justice Machine, I started reading them mostly because of the JM/Elementals crossover.

  2. Comic book stores did not become a thing in my town in time for me to buy any of the original run except the THUNDER Agents crossover. I liked what I read though and wish it had gone longer.
    Tried the revival series but it lacked whatever spark the original had that captured my interest.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I discovered Justice Machine in Jeff Rovin’s Encyclopedia of Super-Heroes, where the cover of issue #2 was reproduced. Rovin spoke poorly of it and I never saw any of the Noble issues; but, not too long after, the Comico series was starting up, with the Justice Machine/Elementals mini-series. I saw the second issue after returning from my summer midshipman training cruise and flipped through it; but didn’t buy it. Move forward to after I was commissioned and stationed in Charleston, SC, a local shop that also covered gaming stuff had the Justice Machine Sourcebook, for the Heroes Unlimited game, that Palladium (Kevin Siembieda’s company) put out. I had bought the HU book as reference material for creating my own characters and picked up the JM book. That got me hooked on the property. Another local had the Noble stuff and I found the Texas Comics annual (with the THUNDER Agents and the debut of the Elementals) at a show. I read all of those and got all of the Comico issues and read them.

    Comico, with seasoned writer Tony Isabella, really centered in on the key concepts, tweaked them a little and ran with it and created a really great series. The JM/Elementals mini sets up Georwell and the dark underside that the JM ignore and lead to them departing Georwell. It then continues their adventures on Earth, dealing with other members of the JM (it was a much bigger organization that just the core team) and elements within the New Atlantis facility (as New Haven was renamed). It dealt with Demon’s increasing dependence on the drug that augmented his abilities, as well as the parentage of Blazer. Gustovich did the art and was able to spend more time on it, which improved it. However, he was a better inker than penciller.

    I followed it to Innovation; but, those issues and the crossover with the Hero Alliance were not that good. By the end, they had brought back Isabella, which helped, but Gustovich them sold the whole thing to Mark Ellis, who started yet another new series, with no ties to the past (the Innovation stuff followed the Comico continuity, but took it into a new environment and supporting characters). They only did one or two issues before cancelling it, until many years later.

    The Comico stuff is worth reading; I don’t really recommend much of the stuff after that.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    ps the Heroes Unlimited Sourcebook was the RPG book with the Steranko cover, plus art from Gustovich, Siembieda and Peter Laird (of TMNT fame and wealth).

    The comic shop where I found them was called The Green Dragon (I believe it still exists) and they had a really eclectic mix of comics, RPG materials (lots of great sourcebooks for things like The Prisoner, The Horseclans fantasy series, The Man From UNCLE and others, related to GURPS and other RPGs), sci-fi and fantasy novels, fantasy sculptures, New Age books and ephemera, martial arts equipment and other oddities. The owners were essentially hippies who sold what interested them. They played Celtic music, had a bumper sticker on their car that said “Smile, Cthulhu Loathes You!” and their hours sign for the shop said “From Moonday to Satyrday”. Great place, where I bought the Prince Valiant reprints, from Fantagraphics, the Corto Maltese collections (from NBM) Esiner GNs, Pepe Moreno and other European material from Catalan and NBM, the Epic Moebius albums and first ran across the Wild Cards book series, edited by George RR Martin. (there were just 3 of them, then). Really helped expand my horizons with the indies, including my first issue of Don Lomax’s excellent Vietnam Journal (way better than The Nam, in my estimation) and the Monster Society of Evil hardcover limited edition collection (I don’t have it anymore and I had a pretty low number, too!). I picked up so much cool stuff there.

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