The Top Five
An explanation before we get to my Top 5. These stories were lay-ups as far as deciding they belong at the top of this list, but putting them in order was a challenge. Firstly, they’re all great stories. Three of them also happen to have great historical significance and probably belong here even if that was all they had going for them. The other two are rousing stories, beautifully executed, with tremendous sentimental value for yours truly. Now originally, I was going to put sentiment aside and have the latter two stories fill out the bottom of the top five; then figure out the proper order of the more historically significant three at the top. Then I flip-flopped, as I realized this is a personal blog and subjectivity is a more than legitimate consideration here. And subjectively speaking, the two stories atop this list are the ones I love the most by far.
Justice League of America #100-102 (1972)
“The Unknown Soldier of Victory!”
“The Hand That Shook the World!”
“And One of Us Must Die!”
By Len Wein and Dick Dillin
The first time we get a third team roped into the proceedings and the first three-parter. Looking back, the team-up formula was getting to be… well, formulaic. The addition of a third team freshened up the whole dynamic considerably, becoming a new formula in itself—one that would be returned to again and again, to (mostly) great effect in the years that followed. Len Wein gets full credit for this.
Additionally, of all the battle royales on the list, this one might be (and no, I haven’t done the math, but it seems a safe bet) the biggest and grandest of all, at least on the hero side. And appropriately so, as this does kick off with the 100th anniversary issue of Justice League of America. It’s got every then-current JLA member involved, plus cameos from every former member, plus full participation from past guest stars Metamorpho and Zatanna. On the JSA side, only Superman, Flash, Hawkman, and Atom sit this one out entirely (and Batman, if you want to count him, though Robin had effectively taken his place in the JSA at this point). AND… we also have the Seven Soldiers of Victory.
Continuity-Headache Corner: The Seven Soldiers of Victory include Green Arrow and Speedy, giving Earth-2 counterparts to the Earth-1 Green Arrow and Speedy. Much like with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, there is no difference between the two Green Arrows and Speedys. As far as I know, nothing was ever done afterward with the E-2 versions of these heroes and they never appeared again in any modern-day adventures. (They did have cameos in All-Star Squadron in later years, at least.)
Returning to our story: Keeping to the longstanding comic book tradition of the heroes breaking up into smaller groups, they do that here as the JLA & JSA go looking for the Seven Soldiers in “time’s infinite corridors” in an attempt to stop the Iron Hand from crushing Earth-2 in his celestial mitt. Fate, Atom, and Elongated Man find the Crimson Avenger in Aztec Mexico; Superman, Sandman, and Metamorpho free the Shining Knight from Genghis Khan; Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Mid-Nite discover Green Arrow posing as Robin Hood; Batman, Starman, and Hourman find Stripesy in ancient Egypt; Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Johnny Thunder locate the Vigilante in America’s Old West; Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Wildcat recover the Star-Spangled Kid in the Stone Age; while the Flash, Zatanna, and Red Tornado rescue Speedy in Ancient Greece. Amidst all the time-hopping there’s some good character work done, such as the dynamic between the Canary and her two wannabe beaus, Green Arrow and Johnny Thunder; as well as the Sandman playfully leaving his classic note behind for an unconscious Genghis Khan.
Spoiler alert: In his successful effort to save Earth-2, Red Tornado dies at the end—for the first time. He’ll be brought back and killed off again about a dozen more times, but this was the first, so… history! In fact, Reddy will be back in time for the next installment of the crossover (and play a big role in it—see entry #7 for the deets). It’s less than a year and only five issues later, so if you blink, you might not even notice he died.
Of all the wild, roller-coaster installments (I’m looking at you 1976 & 1977), this one might be the craziest and most enjoyable. Plus it’s the first of its kind, so major bonus points for pioneering. For these reasons, I feel it’s clearly deserving of a spot in the top five.
Justice League of America #29-30 (1964)
“Crisis on Earth-Three!”
“The Most Dangerous Earth of All!”
By Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky
A great tale, introducing Earth-3 and the Crime Syndicate of America, which would be significant enough by itself, but I think this might be the first-ever, parallel-evil-universe story. We know it pre-dates “Mirror, Mirror” of Star Trek by more than three years (though granted, “Mirror, Mirror” will always get credit for groundbreaking the evil-double-with-a-goatee trope), but might there be another sci-fi work that came before that introduced this concept? If not, the historical and literary significance of this storyline increases a hundredfold.
As a comic fan, the idea of an evil JLA would be cool enough, but the entire history of Earth-3 is fascinating to an almost hypnotic degree. We’re talking about a world where Abraham Lincoln assassinated President John Wilkes Booth; colonial England won its independence from the United States in the Revolution; and Columbus discovered Europe! For our comic-book purposes, however, the most fascinating thing about Earth-3 are the analogues they offer for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern in the persons of Ultraman, Owl-Man, Superwoman, Johnny Quick, and Power Ring, respectively.
…Honestly, I’m not sure which alternate-reality trope I love more: evil-parallel-Earths or just plain Nazi-Earths.
It’s a fairly straightforward fight, with the JLA facing their analogues on their home ground (Earth-1) and winning before the bad guys turn the tables and win on their home ground (Earth-3) with the utterance of the magic word, “Volthoom!” The villains then pull the same stunt with the JSA on Earth-2, only this time they use a different trick to get them back to Earth-3 (as the Leaguers wised up the JSA to the “Volthoom” gimmick). The Crime Syndicate and Justice League then have a fair fight on neutral ground (Earth-2), with the League coming out on top.
My only complaint here is that they never took the next logical step: An Earth-4 with evil analogues of the JSA! (Just kidding… actually no, I’m not kidding, this would have been awesome.)
Justice League of America #21-22 (1963)
“Crisis on Earth-One!”
“Crisis on Earth-Two!”
By Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky
When compiling lists like this, the first work that started it all is usually way up there, if not at the very top. This list is no exception, as the premiere installment of the JLA-JSA crossover is not only a great story, but it gets mucho bonus points for making every other story on the list possible. (In fact, as I type this, I’m beginning to think I should have made this installment number one!)
Prior to this, the Golden & Silver Age Flashes had already teamed up a couple times in the pages of The Flash, with the most recent one, #137 (June 1963), reintroducing the JSA. Two months later we got this, a glorious triumph. As great as the Flash team-ups were, this was all that times ten.
It all starts with the Crime Champions: three Earth-1 villains (Felix Faust, Chronos, Dr. Alchemy) teaming with three Earth-2 villains (Wizard, the Fiddler, and the Icicle). Nothing too complicated here, as the bad guys want to rob some money and challenge the do-gooders from their respective Earths to try and stop them. When the JLA receives the challenge, they break down into smaller groups and choose teammates with the enthusiasm of kids on the playground organizing a kickball game. On the JSA side, there’s a bit more nostalgia, as the Golden Agers are putting on their superhero boots for the first time in a dozen years.
I had a wild imagination as a kid and indulged in a lot of daydreaming. One of my biggest recurring fantasies was to be a superhero—sometimes an established one like Superman or Spider-Man; other times a wholly original character brewed up in my own head. In any case, whenever I fantasized about being a superhero it was a joyous thing. I always saw myself as happy and proud—like both the JLA and JSA here. More than anything else though, I thought it would be FUN. It would be fun to fly; fun to move at super speed; fun to lift a car over my head, shoot webs from my wrists, lasers from my eyes.
And when I fantasized about being on a superteam like the Justice League or the Avengers, I always imagined my superhero teammates would be like my best friends; that we would be a family of a sort—again, like both teams are here.
The menace they face isn’t Earth shattering, nor does it need to be. It’s just supervillains robbing banks and such, which, at one time, made the whole world of superhero comics go ‘round. These are the things that are most sorely missed in superhero comics today: joy and simplicity.
So after the villains outsmart the heroes and make off with the loot, readers discover that the two groups are working together and have already taken the Flashes out of the equation (trapping them in spheres that counter their super-speed). Since the E-1 villains are unknown on E-2 and vice versa, the plan is for each group to enjoy spending their loot on the opposite Earth. But the E-2 villains get bored on E-1 and decide to challenge the JLA—while disguised as their E-1 partners, Faust, Chronos, and Alchemy.
Again, the JLA is outfoxed (due in part to being unaware of whom they’re truly fighting) and left magically trapped inside their own headquarters. After finding no other means of escape, Batman suggests fighting magic with magic by using a crystal ball to try and contact the Flash. When they do, he lets them know they’ve been fighting villains from another world, which leads the Martian Manhunter to ask if there is some way out of this. “Yes!” Flash proclaims. “Use the crystal ball to summon the Justice Society to Earth-One! They won’t be bound by the magic that hampers you!”
At these words, my heart begins to pound double-time and my blood races. It’s happening… the Silver Age is about to meet the Golden Age… the Justice League is coming face to face with their forebears, the JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA!! It’s the JLA and the JSA, together again for the very first time!
Use the crystal ball to summon the Justice Society!
When that mist parts and the legendary heroes of the Justice Society appear, I swear to God, I can hear the horns of the Super Friends theme blaring in my brain at max volume. It’s world’s greatest heroes, the “cosmic legends of the universe,” the most powerful forces of good ever assembled!!!
After some happy salutations, they’re off to confront their enemies, divided into smaller groups. Except for the Green Lanterns, that is, because they’re off to the dimensional no-man’s land between the two Earths where the Flashes are imprisoned.
And once more, in my mind I’m hearing this narration in Ted Knight’s voice. I’m a kid again.
On a dual assignment in the misty borderlands between the two Earths, the two Green Lanterns race to free the imprisoned Flashes…
Whether we’re talking the Golden or Silver Ages, Flash and Green Lantern have always seemed a natural pair, like peanut butter and jelly. Seeing them work together just feels so right it makes my heart happy. So here, with TWO Green Lanterns off to rescue TWO Flashes, my heart is absolutely delirious.
Of course, the heroes beat the bad guys but end up sucked into another magical trap… which they escape, thanks to teamwork, and then whup the villains once and for all in a beautiful two-page spread.
The creators must have had a great time working on this, because by the end the characters (all smiles of course) are dropping hints as to when they might have to team up again. I wonder when the decision was made that this would become an annual thing? Or was it ever formally decided at all? In any event, long before they got back any sales figures, they knew they were going to bring the JSA back again at some point.
As I mentioned in last year’s blogpost, the Justice League animated series two-parter from its first season, “Legends,” was largely an adaptation of/homage to this story (with a couple of twists thrown in).
This is just a classic tale, an all timer, and a beautiful thing to bear witness to.
Justice League of America #195-197 (1981)
“Targets on Two Worlds!”
“Countdown to Crisis!”
“Crisis in Limbo!”
By Gerry Conway, George Pérez, and Keith Pollard
I can’t even tell you how many times I flip-flopped on my top two entries here. A few days ago, this was number one. A week ago, it was number two. The week before that, it was number one.
You get the picture.
As I recounted a year ago, this is a great, fun, classic superhero story. A big part of what makes it great are the villains—and kudos to Conway, as there is some great character work on the villainous side of the aisle. (In fact, we don’t see any superheroes at all until the eighteenth page of the first issue!) Monocle, for example, is bored and longs for the excitement of a return to crime. He’s doesn’t even need the money, as he has plenty, but as Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) put it in The Color of Money: “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” In this case, it’s money stolen that the Monocle finds sweet. Too sweet to resist.
As the other villains are introduced, we find them equally compelling. For the Psycho Pirate, much as he enjoys stealing, it’s controlling people with his powers that clearly gets him off. Rag Doll is a vicious crook and almost completely amoral. Cheetah is an irreparably damaged person. Killer Frost is absolutely consumed and defined by her hatred of men. Plant Master is a sad and hopeless figure, having given up all hope of ever reclaiming his humanity.
And at the top of the bad-guy pyramid we have the Ultra-Humanite, likely the first true supervillain in comics (depending on how one defines “supervillain”). A genius, an egomaniac, a schemer, a backstabber, and of course, ruthless. Also of historical note: This was Ultra’s debut in his ape body.
The heroes are heroes, and once again the camaraderie within and between the two teams here is reassuring and heartwarming. The first issue of the storyline (#195) offers a glimpse of one of their friendlier social meetings. Most of them have known each other quite a while at this point, they share the same goals, and they genuinely like each other. In these respects, they are the exact opposites of the villains and this is what will prove the difference between victory and defeat for the two groups.
Like the original team-up just reviewed last entry, this one isn’t that complicated nor does it need to be. Humanite has a plan to eliminate the heroes, which appears to succeed at first, but is ultimately undone when the villains betray each other.
The individual match-ups of heroes and villains are all great. They’re not all big names, but most of these bad guys here have deep history with the heroes they’re matched up against (particularly so with the Golden Agers). Firestorm is the baby, having premiered in his own strip just three years prior, but Killer Frost was still one of his earliest arch-foes, debuting in Firestorm #3 (Jun. 1978). Hourman and Psycho-Pirate (this version) go back to Showcase #56 (May 1965), while Black Canary and the Mist first battled around the same time in The Brave and the Bold #61 (Sept.-Oct. 1965). The Silver Age Atom and Plant-Master first fought in Atom #1 (Jul. 1962), and Signalman first appeared in Batman #112 (Dec. 1957).
Then the grudges start to go way, waaaay back. Hawkman originally jailed the Monocle in Flash Comics #64 (Apr.-May 1945). Wonder Woman first fought this version of the Cheetah in Wonder Woman #274 (Dec. 1980), but her feud with the original, classic Cheetah goes all the way back to Wonder Woman #6 (Sept. 1943). Johnny Thunder first fought Brainwave as a member of the JSA in the villain’s first appearance in All-Star Comics #15 (Mar. 1943). The Flash-Rag Doll feud was born in Flash Comics #36 (Dec. 1942).
Then there’s the granddaddy of ‘em all, Superman and the Ultra-Humanite, the first superhero and supervillain to ever clash, which took place all the way back in the thirties (hoo hah!), specifically in Action Comics #13 (Jun. 1939). It was a true stroke of brilliance roping in the Golden Age Superman for this one and matching him against his first super-foe.
And like the story at the top of this countdown, this one is perfect balance of Silver and Bronze Age flavors. There’s darkness here, but the story doesn’t wallow in it. In the end, we close it out on a happy note, with the bad guys vanquished and even some humorous touches along the way.
One of my favorite exchanges of dialogue occurs near the very end, after the heroes have swapped places with the villains in limbo, and Superman observes, “Reality is readjusted more smoothly this time than when we left.”
“Maybe the world just doesn’t miss its supervillains, Superman,” Hawkman responds.
Hourman: “I don’t.”
It’s a great, reassuring moment. If only evil could be so thoroughly vanquished in the real world.
Justice League of America #183-185 (1980)
“Crisis on New Genesis!” (or “Where Have All the New Gods Gone?”)
By Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin, and George Pérez
These top two are both great stories. A case could be made that the previous entry was the better, pure team-up, at least as far as mixing more characters from both teams, and thus should have been number one. (This is one of the factors that had me wrestling so hard with a final decision.) Ultimately, I went with what I felt was the superior story. And believe me, it ain’t by much, as they’re both truly great, but I feel this one is the better tale, even if it wins by just an eyelash.
This feels like the most epic storyline of all the installments and the one with the highest stakes. Now I realize we’ve had other stories where the earth(s) have been threatened with destruction, but the threat here feels more dangerous, more truly possible. A big part of this is because the villain behind it all is Darkseid, of course, but this one’s got more going for it than just him. It’s the presence of all the Apokolips villains, as well as the classic heroes of New Genesis, that help make this installment sing.
And I can see the argument that this makes it a less-than-fair fight with these rankings, since this storyline gets to tap the deep, rich, vast, reservoir of creative genius that is Kirby’s Fourth World. I almost knocked this one down a couple pegs in considering this, but you know what? All’s fair in love and comics. These characters were available to other writers in other years and they weren’t used—why penalize this creative team for having the good sense and taste to feature the New Gods in their home setting?
(Which gets me to thinking… how amazing would it have been to see the New Gods appear in an earlier installment of the crossover? What if this happened while Kirby was still at DC, circa ’73, ’74, and the King got to write and draw the story, when he was still near the height of his artistic powers? Imagine if Kirby got to give his New Gods series a proper wrap-up in such a tale—how f#cking awesome would that have been? My God, this makes so much sense, how is it that no one at DC came up with this idea at the time?? HOW DID THIS NOT HAPPEN???)
So even though the entire top five are all close in quality, I gotta call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I see this one as the best. Much like I’m compelled to watch The Godfather whenever I see it channel surfing, anytime I start reading this storyline I always seem to wind up reading the whole thing from beginning to end; I just can’t put it down.
As long as I brought it up, what exactly are the strikes against this one as a team-up? Well, there are only four JLAers and JSAers apiece, which is a bit on the low side. Of these, we’ve got all-timers Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern on the JLA side—which is good—but on the JSA side we have Dr. Fate (which, hallelujah, of course), Golden Age Wonder Woman (meh), and two relative newbies, Huntress and Power Girl. Now I like Huntress and PG, but they’re not exactly what you’d call your classic JSAers. (Oh yeah, and the fourth JLAer is Firestorm. Again, I like him, but he’s another relatively-new kid on the block.)
But this is minor quibbling. Fact is, even though I would have liked to see more classic JSAers take on Darkseid, the characters chosen here work beautifully and play their roles to perfection. After some introductions, they devise a strategy and break up into four groups of three: Batman, Huntress, and Mr. Miracle go scout the imperial palace; Superman, Wonder Woman, and Big Barda are off to the orphanage of Granny Goodness; Lantern, Fate, and Oberon are headed to the shock troop barracks; while Firestorm, Power Girl, and Orion investigate an apparent construction project. Metron stays behind to coordinate.
This is the first time Firestorm meets Power Girl, and the two had a fun, semi-romantic vibe together—so much so that Conway would revisit this pairing every year for the next three installments. Teaming these two relative kids with the hot-tempered Orion was a recipe for trouble and sure enough, they found it.
Then there’s Batman, who has a rep as an escape artist, together with Mr. Miracle, whose whole gimmick is elaborate escapes. The two had teamed up several times in the pages of The Brave and the Bold by this point and had some chemistry. As the daughter of the Earth-2 Batman, Huntress also fit this teaming. Batman (and Huntress, for that matter) might have seemed out of place on Apokolips otherwise, but the presence of Mr. Miracle, combined with the nature of their mission (basically reconnaissance, spying, and sabotage), made it all fit like the proverbial glove.
Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, and Oberon make the weakest team as far as character interaction, but perhaps the most powerful in terms of ass kicking. Once they discover and free Highfather, their ass-kicking potential increases all the more. (Plus Fate bonus points, as the good doctor frees Highfather with ease after Green Lantern struggles to do so.)
Superman, Wonder Woman (of Earth-2), and Barda have the most emotional mission, as they attempt to free the children from the orphanage of Granny Goodness. Along the way, they encounter an Apokolips-born-and-bred orphan named Crimson, who could make the most cynical comics reader misty-eyed.
Damn, this story has heart. Truckloads of it, as you can see.
The original Wonder Woman then mixing it up with Granny Goodness is a match-up that has some juice—but when Granny falls into the clutches of Barda at the end, that’s the juiciest possible resolution of all (as noted in my review last year).
Then, of course, we have Darkseid.
Having returned from the dead has not mellowed the Lord of Apokolips in the least—as the three members of the Injustice Society present (Fiddler, Shade, and the Icicle) discover to their dismay. He punishes his three former lackeys for the temerity of imprisoning his son, Orion, which he sees as a personal “dishonor.” Then when one of his soldiers subsequently asks if he should free Orion, Darkseid answers, “Don’t be absurd. I was angry that those fools had beaten him, not that he’d been beaten. That scum is no son of mine.”
This is some serious evil. Darkseid’s merest whim is of greater importance to him than any of the lives of those that serve him; to say nothing of the fact that the life of his own blood son has no value for him whatsoever.
Darkseid’s plan is quite the doozy, too. He wants to teleport Apokolips into the Earth-2 universe (displacing and destroying Earth-2 in the process) because he believes there will be no gods, old or new, to oppose him there. But Highfather observes that he is “sadly deluded,” as “wherever there are men, there are gods.” Some deep philosophical waters being touched upon here.
Then we have the art on this storyline, two-thirds of which was handled expertly by George Pérez. I’m sure you’ve noticed, in fact, that my top two picks both feature art by Pérez. And if I were making a list grading these stories on the art alone, my top two would remain unchanged. But this is strictly coincidence, as the art was not a major factor in putting this list together. Believe me, had Pérez drawn the 1975 installment, I still would have ranked it last.
Art alone cannot and does not make a great comic book. The initial offerings from Image Comics in the early 90s taught us this, if nothing else. The story is what’s most important, and the foundation of any story is in the writing. And these top two were just wonderfully written.
Having said that, the art is magnificent here. And it’s a lot more than just drawing pretty pictures (though Lord knows, Pérez certainly does give us that), it’s the craftsmanship and the storytelling. Every page could be held up as an example of Pérez’s genius, but let’s just look at how he handles the wordless reaction panel. As Dick Dillin did the first issue of the storyline, we’ll use him for the purpose of comparison—here’s a wordless reaction panel of Dillin’s from JLA #183:
And here’s Pérez with that classic Barda panel:
…Also consider similar panels featuring Crimson, above.
Dillin’s work is okay, but Pérez reaches up from the page, grabs your heart and squeezes hard. It’s just perfect; I can’t imagine anyone doing it better. And this is not meant to disparage the talents of Dick Dillin, he was a wonderful artist—he just wasn’t George Pérez.
The only flaw of this story is that it ended too soon and a bit abruptly. (The ending feels a bit rushed, and Darkseid ends up killed again after having just been resurrected earlier in the same issue.) I would have loved to see a fourth issue with a big punch-up between Darkseid and all the heroes—heck, as long as I’m fantasizing, bring in the full roster of both teams for the finale! And throw in the Teen Titans and the Metal Men while you’re at it!
Still in all, this is a great story. The best of all, in my view.
…And there you have it, the greatest JLA-JSA team-ups of all time. The annual JLA-JSA crossover was a grand tradition and a wonderful thing to look forward to every summer. I miss it terribly, but I’m grateful it was around for my childhood.
This post was a lot of work but it was a labor of love; hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to share your thoughts below.