Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The fox of justice: Three yarns by Gardner F. Fox

Gardner Fox wrote the first comic book I ever read, Justice League of America #30. He is without question, one of my favorite all-time comics writers and in hindsight wrote some of the more interesting women of the Silver Age. Not all of his stories were good, but the same can be said of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Write enough stuff — and Fox wrote a lot of comics (plus swashbucklers, SF and fantasy) — and some of it’s bound to be sub-par.

I’ve been working on a post about comics’ swing to relevance and real-world issues at the end of the 1960s. That put me in mind of a couple of slightly earlier Fox stories from Justice League of America. As the saying goes, comics have always been political; these two stories show how to do it right, and how to fail miserably.

#40 (by Fox and Mike Sekowsky), “Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island,” is the one that does it right. By fusing science and mysticism, one Andrew Helm creates a Corticonscience machine that compels people to listen to their conscience. Once he switches it on, the Vietnamese make peace with each other. Supervillains turn themselves in. Helm happily watches this in astral form, then realizes his body has expired while he was out of it. Without him to operate the machine its effects turn ugly: nuclear war breaks out, dictatorship breaks out and the JLA becomes so apathetic and mellow they refuse to act. Don’t worry, they get over it.

(In an aside, as Helm is an old man living alone the possibility of him dying and bringing down the same catastrophe seems high. Apparently he was one of those mad scientists who doesn’t think things through).

The League averts nuclear war. Now all they have to do is find Helm’s invisible base and break through the impenetrable force-field. Fortunately, they’re the Justice League. Once inside, however, they confront the monsters on the cover and find themselves overwhelmed. Hawkman figures out they’re bogeymen (bogeythings?) materialized from their own minds by the malfunctioning Corticonscience machine, not that they know the name yet. Or ever: while they shut down the machine they can only guess at what Helm was trying to do.

This has some daft scenes, like juvenile delinquents running wild on the subway but it has several striking ones. Helm references denying black Americans the vote as one of the things his machine will fix. That’s a lot more in-your-face than having the Hate-Monger or the Sons of the Serpent stirring up racial hatred.

#40 also works as a JLA story. In the early scenes we have Flash taking on Mirror Master and the Shark while Batman battles a Penguin/Captain Cold team-up. Both fights end when the Corticonscience machine pacifies the villains but before that they give us the action I expect in a JLA adventure.

I do not get that from “Man, Thy Name is — Brother,” in JLA #57 (by the same creative team). Working on a college paper about universal brotherhood, Snapper Carr tells his super-buddies about three tragic cases. Black kid Joel Harper can’t get a job because of racism. Apache youth Jerry Nimo suffers from racism and has been falsely accused of robbery. Philanthropist Harvey Young’s work in India has fallen apart due to tribal warfare, leaving him convinced there’s no point in trying.

As you can tell from the cover, Green Arrow, Flash and Hawkman each tackle one of the problem cases. Flash and GA convince their charges that if you just work hard and have faith in yourself, you can overcome racism and succeed. Hawkman poses as a magical being to convince the tribes to make peace, thereby giving the philanthropist new hope. Snapper has an upbeat ending to his paper.

This is the same sentiment we got in “Case of the Disabled Justice League.” Racism and discrimination aren’t systemic or something to fix, they’re just an obstacle a hard-working kid can overcome if they try. No big deal, no need for protests or changing the laws. The Hawkman segment is worse. Rather than find some way to end the feud honestly (I admit, judging by the rest of the story, it wouldn’t have been a good solution) Hawkman tricks the superstitious natives; they’re nothing but props to provide Young with a dark night of the soul, then a dawn.

Beyond that, the story was not a good fit for Justice League of America. The three adventures are at the level of the human-interest backup stories in editor Julius Schwartz’s solo superhero books (e.g., Flash, Hawkman) only here they’re the lead feature. Battling undistinguished, ordinary hoods, even on solo missions, isn’t worthy of the Justice League.

To end on an upnote, Detective Comics #377, “The Riddler’s Prison-Puzzle Problem” (Gardner Fox, Frank Springer) is the kind of fun, light story we rarely see in comics any more. No deep significance, no lasting effects, just Batman and Robin against the Riddler and his latest angle.

The Silver Age Bat-books introduced the idea that rather than a crime gimmick, the Riddler has a psychological compulsion to give Batman riddles. In his previous appearance, the Riddler tried curing himself with psychoanalysis; he failed. This time his approach is more practical, sending his riddles in ways that prevent Batman seeing them. For instance, he traps the Dynamic Duo in a cell, then spells out his riddle outside the cell on children’s blocks, facing away from the heroes. They can break out of the cell easy-peasy but Riddler’s set things up so that will scatter the blocks, destroying the riddle. Batman working around this and Nigma’s other tricks makes for an entertaining yarn.

#SFWApro. Covers by Sekowsky, Carmine Infantino and Irv Novick.


  1. Le Messor

    I’ve been reading the Gardner Fox Justice League in omnibus format recently.
    I find he has a lot of interesting ideas, but the application is usually clumsy and simplistic.
    I thought the conscience-machine story was a surprisingly good take on it (though I thought it’d be funny if he turned the machine on and then his conscience immediately demanded he turn it off again); and the way it went into overload and everybody started rioting seemed… what?

    The Brotherhood one felt like it was an editorial interference story. ‘We’re celebrating the UN’s Brotherhood day, write a story’.

    1. It does have that feel. But as I’ll be discussing Wednesday and next week (and probably a while after that), “relevant” stories about serious issues are becoming a bigger thing in comics than ever before. So expect more and worse.

      1. Le Messor

        I’m on my second read-through of first 75 issues. I look forward to seeing which ones you pick on and what you have to say about them.

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