Last year’s post on the JLA-JSA team-ups (or “crossovers,” if you will) proved to be one of the most popular in the short history of this blog. That post, of course, covered all the team-ups I got to experience firsthand as a comics fan as they were published. A few months after this post, I started considering the possibility of doing another one this year that would rank all of the original JLA-JSA team-ups, from best to worst. (Because who doesn’t enjoy arguing about a totally subjective list?) It was my hope to get this done before the end of summer (because all those classic JLA-JSA stories were summer events), but life got in the way. So here we are, with Labor Day in the rearview mirror, but it’s still pretty warm out… maybe we can temporarily resurrect the summertime with this offering.
This post took a good deal of work. I went back and re-read all of the team-ups and, while I was at it, taking copious notes, I also started adding up some numbers.
Predictably enough, the character that appeared most often in the crossovers was Superman (the Earth-1 variety, of the JLA), who was a full participant 17 times (18 appearances if you choose to include cameos). For the record, the Golden Age, Earth-2 Superman of the JSA appeared 5 times (6 counting cameos).
The next two characters with the most appearances are the Earth-1 Flash and Earth-1 Green Lantern, with 15 apiece. If you count cameos, however, GL takes over second place by himself with 18; Flash would have 17. Then there’s Earth-1 Batman with 14 full appearances; 17 counting cameos. Curiously, Earth-2 Batman only made one full appearance participating in the actual team-up (in the Earth-S storyline in 1976). Beyond this, he’s only got a one-panel cameo in the 1970 crossover… which is rather funny for reasons I’ll get to later.
Doctor Fate is next, leading all JSAers with 15 appearances as a full participant in the team-up. (Fate only made one cameo appearance, so his number would be 16 if you want to count that.) I should warn everyone right now that Dr. Fate is my favorite Golden Ager and any team-up with him in it gets bonus points. My other faves are Green Lantern, Hourman, Spectre, Flash, Wildcat, Atom, and Mr. Terrific. I mean, I really love all of ‘em, but these would be my favorites. I also developed a great fondness for Golden Age Superman once they started writing him as a more distinct character of his own.
Anyway, after Fate, there’s the Golden Age Flash (12 full/14 with cameos), GA Green Lantern (11/12), GA Hawkman (10), Hourman (9/10), Dr. Mid-Nite (9), Starman (8/9), and Johnny Thunder (8). Black Canary made 5 appearances as a JSAer; 11 overall (14 with cameos). Mr. Terrific, Sandman, Wildcat, and Spectre have only had 4 full appearances each—the Earth-2 version of Robin actually beats all these guys with 5 appearances. GA Atom has only been involved with 3 (4 counting cameos), which feels like a criminally low number to me.
Back on the JLA side, after Supes, GL, Flash, and Bats, we have Green Arrow (10/12), Hawkman (11), and the Atom (7/9). Interestingly, the Earth-1 Wonder Woman has only been a full participant 6 times, while GA Wonder Woman has been in 10.
The villains in these stories tend to be one-offs, but there are several instances of bad guys reappearing. The champ is the Icicle, with 4 appearances (’63, ’75, ‘80, and ’83), followed by the Wizard, Fiddler, and the Shade with 3 each. Solomon Grundy, Blockbuster, the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, and the evil Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 have all appeared twice. The Earth-1 half of the Crime Champions (Chronos, Felix Faust, and Dr. Alchemy) have also appeared twice—exactly twenty years apart, in fact, in 1963 and 1983.
On the creative side, the writer of the most crossovers is Gerry Conway with 7. Right behind him is Gardner Fox with 6; then Len Wein with 3, followed by Denny O’Neil with 2. (Roy Thomas also participated in writing two storylines but was not the main JLA writer for either.) The artist on the most crossovers, by far, is Dick Dillin, who worked on a whopping 13 of them (though he only got to do one issue of his thirteenth assignment before passing away, leaving George Pérez to pencil the other two issues), followed by Mike Sekowsky with 5.
One more weird stat: Covers featuring crystal balls and/or characters coming out of clouds at the top, kinda like spirits at a séance: at least 6; possibly 8 if you want to count the covers of JLA #208 & 231.
The Top 23
So I’ve decided to approach this list like one of those classic radio “American Top 40” countdowns I remember so fondly from my youth. For those unfamiliar with the AT40, this means I’ll be counting down from worst to first, Casey Kasem style:
Thus we begin with number twenty-three.
Justice League of America #123-124 (1975)
“Where on Earth Am I?”
“Avenging Ghosts of the Justice Society!”
By Cary Bates, Elliot S! Maggin, and Dick Dillin
When I got started on this project, I had a fairly firm idea what would be in the top five or six (though not necessarily in what order) and was also dead sure which one would be #23. The rest may have been up for grabs, but I certainly knew which one of these stories I liked the least.
The big problem for me here is that the tale features writers Elliot Maggin and Cary Bates as characters. Now anytime a writer inserts himself or herself into their own fictional work, it’s self-indulgent (to some degree or other) at best, and out-of-control egotism at worst. I would prefer most writers simply avoid doing this altogether, but will concede that there are times when it can work (or at least not offend my sensibilities completely).
For example: Grant Morrison ended his run on Animal Man by appearing in the final issue he wrote (#26)—but then, breaking the fourth wall was the primary experiment of his two years on the title from the very beginning, pretty much. In 2014, I also covered Steve Gerber’s attempt at this with Man-Thing. When Steve did it though, it was partially a device to wrap up the series sooner than expected, and partially a reflection on his long tenure writing the character. (In other words, Gerber’s artistic choices here had more to do with the title ending than flexing his ego.) And of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby appeared in some Silver Age stories, but this was never more than a page or two (or a panel or two) and was always done tongue in cheek, for laughs.
But with these two issues of Justice League, Bates and Maggin are major characters driving the plot—the story is more about them than any of the characters we pay to see. This is the biggest weakness of the tale, clearly, but not the only one. We’ve also got plotholes. A whole bunch of ‘em.
It starts with Cary Bates getting transported from Earth-Prime to Earth-2 after taking a jog on the Flash’s cosmic treadmill… except it’s not like anyone can hop on the treadmill and break dimensional barriers; you have to be able to run at or near lightspeed, like the Flash, in order to do this. (Julie Schwartz later speculates that the Flash may have left some “residual super-speed energy” on the treadmill, but come on, this is a total cheat.) Maggin then follows and lands on Earth-1. Why did they end up on different Earths? I dunno. ‘Cause the plot demanded it, I guess. Then Bates somehow gets vast mind-over-matter superpowers, seemingly as a side effect of his transdimensional journey. Maggin does not however; he just remains his regular ol’ self. Why is this? Again, the plot required it.
Oh yeah, and Bates has also turned evil. Later, the Wizard confesses to being responsible for this, but yet again, the “how” is never quite clear. Maybe this same magic is what gave Bates his powers, too…? But then, the Wizard would have had to know Bates would be traveling across the dimensions to Earth-2 before it happened, right? And how would he know that, exactly? And if the Wizard were capable of granting such powers, why wouldn’t he just grant them to himself?
But wait, there’s more! Bates uses his newfound powers to somehow get the JSAers to pose as the Injustice Society and fight the JLA. When this happens, the JLAers wind up killing the JSAers. Apparently everyone on the JLA side, after years of cherishing the sanctity of human life, all wind up accidentally using lethal force at the same time. Or maybe Bates made them do it? Or maybe Bates actually murdered the characters and just tricked the JLA into thinking they did? I dunno—once again, it’s never made clear. In any case, it’s a mess.
So how did the JSAers eventually return from the dead? Well, the Spectre shows up and convinces God to restore them all to life in a near-literal deus ex machina. (Spectre never actually uses the word “God,” just the pronouns “He” and “Him,” but there’s no mistaking the meaning.) Now the deus ex machina is not always a cheap cop-out, necessarily, but it comes off as such here.
The JSA line-up is also kinda weak in this installment. They’ve got Hourman and Wildcat, but none of the other characters really grab me. These team-ups need one or two of the big three (Fate, GL, Flash), if not all three, to really get the blood pumping. Though granted, this story was so weak I don’t think that even a Dr. Fate appearance could have salvaged it—the JSAers here barely got to put any of their personalities on display anyway and felt more like set pieces than characters.
Want to hear something good about this story? Alright. The line-up for the Injustice Society is pretty solid. In addition to the standards like the Wizard and the Shade, we’ve got Sportsmaster and Huntress, plus the Gambler making his first comic appearance in almost thirty years, which was cool.
And that’s about all I got.
I realize they were mostly going for humor here, but it really doesn’t work. It just comes off as goofy and cornball and silly. This was just a bad job—at #23, it literally doesn’t get any worse than this.
Justice League of America #219-220 (1983)
“Crisis in the Thunderbolt Dimension!”
“The Doppelganger Gambit”
By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Chuck Patton
As recounted last year, this issue came out in my comics-buying lifetime, so I covered it pretty well then. The hearts of the writers (Thomas and Conway) were in the right place, as far as what they were trying to do, but the effort turns out feeling pretty creepy and yucky and weird.
They were trying to correct a growing problem with this story, the problem being Black Canary’s age. As time went on, most of the JSA were being portrayed as older and older, which meant Black Canary should have been getting fairly long in the tooth as well, since she started out as a member of the JSA before switching teams (and Earths), but she would no longer fit with the JLA if they did this; to say nothing of how it might impact the character’s romantic relationship with Green Arrow (as “cougars” weren’t a thing in those days).
Basically, it’s revealed that the Black Canary shanghaied the physical body of her own daughter in order to continue living as a younger version of herself. So she’s actually the biological daughter of Larry Lance but remembers him as her husband/lover. Which, y’know, ick. I’m sure the writers didn’t plan for it to shake out this way when they started, but that’s what we end up with.
Something good about this story: Reuniting the Crime Champions twenty years later. Also, bringing back the evil Johnny Thunder (in a boss, new supervillain costume). The Chuck Patton art is pretty good too. Actually, almost everything else about this storyline is really good, it’s just that the central conceit is far too icky, and its attempt at re-sorting the continuity just leaves said continuity an even bigger mess than before.
Justice League of America #113 (1974)
“The Creature in the Velvet Cage!”
By Len Wein, Dick Dillin, and Dick Giordano
These bottom three are the only stories I’d call bad—or perhaps more generously, let’s say they just didn’t work. At all. This particular tale started with one very bad idea and then never recovered.
A little background, for anyone out there unaware: The character moving most of the plot here is the Sandman, one of the earliest comic book superheroes, getting his start in Adventure Comics in 1939 as a guy in a suit, hat, and gas mask. (The gas mask was his disguise, for all intents and purposes.) Then in late 1941 the character was redesigned by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and became a more traditional superhero, wearing yellow and purple tights, and given a young sidekick named Sandy, the “Golden Boy.” This lasted for a few more years before the character disappeared (along with most of the superheroes of the Golden Age). Then, when the Sandman finally reappeared as part of the JLA-JSA team-up in 1966, he had reverted back to the “gas mask” look and there was no Sandy to be found (and there was no explanation offered for this reversion).
Writer Len Wein—clearly a big Sandman fan, as the character appeared in every JSA team-up Wein wrote—thought there might be story potential in explaining why the character reverted back to his classic look. The story he came up with, however, was not a very good one.
Wein’s explanation was that the Sandman had accidentally turned Sandy into a monstrous creature due to a science experiment gone awry. His guilt over this led to his abandoning the yellow-and-purple tights and reassuming the gas mask look. Meanwhile, he kept Sandy in an induced comatose state while trying to find a cure for him. For three decades, basically. And for those thirty years, he never told anyone else about it, nor did he ask any of his fellow superheroes for help. And as this story reveals, the whole thing was completely unnecessary, as Sandy had quickly regained all his faculties shortly after his monstrous transformation, which Sandman had failed to realize. I guess the idea was to go for pathos here, but really, all that’s accomplished is that the Sandman comes off as a cowardly scumbag in addition to being an idiot. Since Wein is clearly big on the Sandman, I’m baffled as to why he’d piss all over the character like this.
This is also they only installment of the team-up limited to just a one-issue story, which is another strike against it. (Then again, with a story this ill conceived, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.)
Something good about this installment: The Horned Owl Gang, who get mopped up by the heroes on the opening splash. They were visually interesting and since we’re not told anything about them, I was left intrigued as to their origin/background. The Dillin/Giordano art team also did some fine work with this one.
…Alright, so out with the bad, and in with the (semi- to very) good!