Don’t worry, kids—Santa’s fine. This cover would have definitely freaked me out if I’d seen it as a child though.
It’s a Christmas tale that doesn’t exactly get off to a very Christmas-y start, from Justice League of America #110 (Apr. 1974), brought to us by Len Wein, Dick Dillin, and Dick Giordano, plus “special thanks to Green Lantern fan Duffy Vohland.”
First off, that’s not the real Santa, obviously, but some amateur performer (I assume) working a charity event for orphans alongside Superman and Batman. It’s weird because Wein gives us almost no context for any of this, other than Supes referring to him as “Santa Simpson” on the title splash, after he’s been killed in an explosion. Then we get a note with a riddle left in Santa Simpson’s hand, along with a key. You probably don’t need to be the world’s greatest detective to deduce that the league’s old enemy the Key is behind this one.
So the call goes out to the other leaguers, with Green Arrow, Black Canary, Red Tornado, and Green Lantern answering… only it’s not Hal Jordan but John Stewart, who is meeting the rest of the JLA for the first time here. Hal Jordan slipped on a bar of soap in the bathtub, you see, and knocked himself out. Seriously. Why the switch? I dunno, it feels kinda random.
Anyway, the team needs to find the lock this key fits in order to prevent a city block from blowing up. Batman realizes the riddle in the note points to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and they’re off. Without the Flash present, Red Tornado is the fastest leaguer, so with a little help from Stewart’s power ring, he finds the lock that matches the key on the door of a “crumbling” building on a condemned street. As one might expect, the building is full of death traps, courtesy of the aforementioned villain, the Key.
One by one, the leaguers fall victim to these traps and seemingly perish, with several of the traps being Christmas themed, like giant Christmas ornaments and life-sized, tin-soldier toys. Just when it looks like all is lost, the heroes show up alive and well, courtesy of the kindness of a passing stranger.
The Phantom Stranger.
Naturally, the Key throws a tantrum over his brilliant plan being spoiled, and decides to blow up the city block anyway right before he makes his escape. The heroes are forced to bum rush the block’s residents to safety, after which Stewart uses his ring to confine the damage of the blast, sparing the rest of the city from the shockwaves. Then he repairs all the destroyed buildings so that they’re in like-new shape—one heck of a holiday present for the impoverished residents that live there.
Meanwhile, Batman observes that the Phantom Stranger has pulled his standard Lone Ranger routine and disappeared before anyone could thank him.
In the epilogue, Black Canary gifts Red Tornado with a new costume, giving the robotic hero a lesson in giving and the Christmas Spirit.
Green Arrow plays Scrooge at first, but gets into the holiday spirit by the end of the page. An entertaining (if not exactly deep) Christmas tale from the dawn of the Bronze Age.
Why, Wherefore, and Other Trivia
Somewhere out there is an interview with Len Wein where he talks about this story, but I’ll be darned if I can find it. I’d like to know why they swapped out Jordan for Stewart here, and how/why they came up with such a mundane excuse for it. (Slipping in the bathtub on a bar of soap? Really?) At first blush you’d think maybe the Hal Jordan GL was getting overexposed between the JLA and his own title and that this was the reason for the switch, but his title (technically shared with Green Arrow at the time) was cancelled with issue #89 (May 1972), nearly two years prior to this issue of JLA, and wouldn’t be revived until more than two years later with issue #90 (Aug. 1976). Maybe Wein felt the African-American Stewart fit better with the theme of urban renewal that was addressed here…? Who knows?
Whatever the case, Stewart was the first African-American superhero to work with the league, though I’m unsure if he could be called an “official” member of the JLA here. For context, Black Panther had been a full member of the Avengers for about six years over at Marvel by this time. DC was way behind the curve, obviously. Note that they still have white-guy Hal as Green Lantern on the cover.
Other historical fun facts: This issue was the JLA’s first 100-Page Super Spectacular, DC’s failed experiment in tweaking the standard comic format. It’s also the first issue to reference the Super Friends TV show on the cover—“Here Come TV’s Super Friends!” 1973–74 was the show’s debut season and this declaration would remain on the JLA masthead through issue #116 (Mar. 1975).
In the final analysis there’s nothing great here, but it’s still a sweet and fun little holiday story from an era when this was still enough for most comic readers. Happy Holidays to everyone out there—looking forward to providing more curmudgeonly content for you in 2020!