Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Starfish, snail mail and the Silver Age Justice League

The starfish, of course, appeared on the cover of the Justice League’s debut. The first time I read “Starro the Conqueror” it was a reprint in an 80-page Giant. I knew it was their first story — the Giant included a complete list of JLA stories to date — but it wasn’t their origin and so it didn’t feel noticeably different from any of their later stories.

A couple of weeks back, though, I read the story again as part of chronologically rereading the Silver Age. Seeing the story in that context I appreciate what a good job Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky did introducing “the world’s greatest heroes.”

We open with Aquaman getting a warning from “Peter the Puffer Fish” that a giant alien starfish has arrived on Earth and turned three ordinary starfish into clones of itself. Aquaman triggers his JLA signal device to alert his teammates. Cut to Flash canceling out a tornado; Superman destroying a meteor storm; Batman in the Batmobile, on a case; Wonder Woman ending a date with Steve Trevor early; and Hal Jordan and John Jones ditching their day jobs to assume their costumed identities.

This makes an effective and necessary introduction, given that a lot of readers probably didn’t know the characters. Okay, Superman they’d probably all heard of — he’d had the George Reeves TV show and a half-dozen Superman family comics on the stand — and maybe Batman, but beyond that? Wonder Woman wasn’t in the same sales bracket. J’Onn and Aquaman had backup strips; if you didn’t buy Adventure Comics or Detective Comics you might not know they existed. Flash had been the star of his own book for around six issues. Green Lantern had only appeared in three Showcase tryout issues, though his own series was on the way.

The opening scenes establish who they are, and also lay out the ground rules for the JLA. Most importantly, that members don’t have to show up every time their signal goes off, which let Julius Schwartz keep Batman and Superman out of the action in the early years. When they come together we get to see their Secret Sanctuary: books, computers, a lab, a comfy couch and parking for Wonder Woman’s jet.

Then we get to the main action. Aquaman stays behind at the Sanctuary until the finish but the others go out, find Starro’s three front men (er, front echinoderms) and defeat them. Anyone who didn’t know the characters coud see what they were like in battle; I doubt it’s coincidence that Flash and GL, from Schwartz-edited books, get the two solo chapters while Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman team up. Then Aquaman joins the others for the big showdown with Starro Prime. Fortunately “Snapper” Carr having mowed the lawn that day shows them how to beat the starfish and becomes an honorary member (DC higher-ups wanted a knockoff of 77 Sunset Strip‘s Kookie in the book). Not a classic story, but a solid debut.

The snail mail — what we used to call just “mail” — played a minor recurring role once the Justice League got their own book. As they couldn’t always count on a puffer fish alerting them to danger, Fox had to find other ways to launch an adventure. Sometimes individual members brought in problems they’d been working on. Sometimes Snapper’s transistor radio would alert them to a crime in progress. Sometimes the villain targeted them. And sometimes they got mail.

No question, the monitoring system in the JLA’s later Satellite Sanctuary was a lot more efficient, as was putting someone on regular monitor duty (the Avengers did that years before the JLA, though as Jarvis shows here, they were pretty lax about it in practice). But letters were a way for people who’d otherwise fall through the cracks to get help when they needed it.

In Justice League of America #6, for instance, half of the team respond to a museum director’s request to catch an invisible thief. It’s the kind of minor crime a monitoring system probably wouldn’t bother to register. The other half don’t tackle a crime at all. Instead they help a young woman find a fortune that will enable her to keep her grandparents in their home (both these cases play into the main story arc). No amount of monitoring police bands or scanning the world from space is going to spot a situation like that (Dr. Fate’s crystal ball, maybe). In the Silver Age, that was a big part of what made DC’s heroes more than just cops in costumes: they helped people who weren’t threatened by crime or injustice at all, just by life and luck. 

In #8, a scientist’s letter helped Snapper save the JLA from a death trap by organized crime. In #16, fan Jerry Thomas contacted the League to say he’d figured out a surefire way to destroy them, and hoped they could prove him wrong. In #19 and 27, the bad guys used letters to trap the League in different ways. And then in #45, which I mentioned in a previous post, the letters arrived late and the League took on a pair of two-year-old cold cases.

It’s little stuff like the letters that keeps me in love with the Silver Age.

#SFWApro. Images (top to bottom) by Murphy Anderson, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska and Anderson again.


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