Sunday, September 28, 2014

Retro Review: All Star Comics #3

The DC Universe Begins
One of the most pivotal early events in superhero comics was the debut of the Justice Society in All Star Comics #3. This not only introduced an important staple of comics, the superhero team, but it also helped define the medium in revolutionary ways that current readers may not appreciate because the changes it ushered in have become so pervasive. It is informative to note how the title All Star transformed from issue #1 through #4 and onward, and how creative and influential All Star #3 was.


From the debut of the comic book medium through early 1939, comic books contained many short features, unrelated to one another in plot and theme, ranging from one panel to a few pages. It was taken for granted that each feature in an issue inhabited its own fictional world, the same way that we may take for granted that two novels written by two different authors inhabit two different fictional worlds unless it is specifically brought to our attention that the novels share a single fictional world. Comic book features might continue in subsequent issues of the same title, but there was no single fictional world shared by any two features until 1940 when Marvel Mystery Comics #8 brought the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner together in a crossover story. But before and besides that story, we might presume that a stack of ten comic books told us of not one, nor two, nor merely ten fictional worlds, but potentially dozens. All of these title characters – clowns, cowboys, tough guys, warlords, and mystics – lived in their own world with their own cast of subordinate characters, and they all shared a title with numerous other features.

Until Superman. About a year after the runaway success of the Superman feature in the title Action Comics, the title Superman (I use italics carefully to distinguish the title from the character) was launched to exploit the character’s popularity by giving readers a single title full of Superman stories. What is important to note here is not the creative significance – there was none; Superman stories in Superman read just like those in Action – but the marketing significance. This was a move to play up the commercial aspects of a popular character in order to drive more sales. And it worked. Superman now had a second title, so his dedicated fans could follow him in two titles.

A commercial strategy

This idea was too good (that is, too profitable) to apply only in the case of Superman. All American and National publication companies looked for other features popular enough to merit a second venue. The idea of Superman was copied to the most popular character from Detective Comics, and so in early 1940 the title Batman was launched, less than a year after the Caped Crusader had debuted in Detective #27. But even before this, the idea of giving popular features a second venue sprang out of 1939’s New York World’s Fair Comics, a one-shot issue that rapidly evolved into World’s Finest Comics. This title, which many years later hosted a monthly team-up feature starring Superman and Batman, began as an anthology of features which had, for the most part, proven their popularity in another title first. It was a sort of dream team of features, giving Superman his third title and many other characters, including Batman, their second. (And note that the title’s wording is not a reference to Superman and Batman being the world’s greatest heroes, but is telling the readers that its features were the world’s best features… while retaining the wording of the now-long-since-complete World’s Fair.) Like Superman, it was a strong commercial strategy, and DC soon sought to exploit it further by creating another best-of title.

All Star Comics

Enter All Star Comics. DC now examined its lineup for another set of features popular enough to merit a second title, searching among the features that already appeared in Adventure Comics, Flash Comics, All American Comics, and More Fun Comics. The first two issues included appearances of a tough guy named Biff Bronson, a U.S. military team named Red, White, and Blue, and a costumed hero named Ultra-Man, whose adventures were set in the year 2240 AD. The balance of those first two issues’ stories, however, featured characters who would go on to be known as the Justice Society, but as of All Star #2, they still inhabited their own fictional worlds. It wasn’t that the Flash operated on “Earth Two” in a different city than Green Lantern, Batman, etc. It was that they all operated in their own separate worlds. Aside from the Human Torch–Submariner crossover in Marvel Mystery Comics, every feature was set in its own fictional world.

The editors of All Star had, at this point, a challenge. They wanted to select the features popular enough to merit being in the All Star lineup, but they had no specific information as to which features were popular. Editorial ads in All Star asked readers to send in letters telling them which features they liked best, and these letter campaigns were used to help determine the lineup. Based on these letters and/or their intuitions, the editors tuned the lineup from issue to issue, and a few common characteristics began to emerge. The features in All Star #3, for the most part, had a lot of characteristics in common with Superman and Batman. Most of them wore flashy costumes. Most of them had catchy action names that was distinct from their secret identity. Most of them fought evildoers.

What had happened, quite subtly, by the time of All Star #3, was that the superhero genre had been defined without anybody really planning it with an order from on-high. Instead, the readers, by explicitly and implicitly voting for their favorite characters, had selected a lineup for All Star that looked a bit like a team. This wasn’t Stan Lee and Jack Kirby staring at their storyboards and drafting a team by concept. This was a disconnected process involving many creators, many editors, two initially-separate publishing companies, and untold readers shaping the lineup of All Star Comics, and then editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox had an inspiration.

All Star Comics #3

Whereas All Star #2 and all comic books before it, besides Superman, contained many separate features given a few pages each, All Star #3 had a framing story, placing the starring characters into a rather pedestrian dinner banquet, during which, each character told the others of a previous action story. The solo stories, besides Johnny Thunder’s, are illustrated and several pages each, almost exactly like the solo features seen in All Star #1 and #2, and in all of the other comic magazines before them. The difference is the framing story that occupies 3 pages at the beginning of the issue, 1 page in the middle, 2 pages at the end, and 1 to 4 panels at each transition when one hero’s story has ended and the next is about to begin. Therefore, there is a framing story of about 7 pages which is, arguably, the beginning of shared continuity in DC comics. The events in that story are as follows:

• Johnny Thunder sees comic books for sale and wishes that he could attend the meeting of the Justice Society that is about to begin.
• That wish and several others are granted, giving him a disruptive presence at the Justice Society meeting.
• It is explained that Superman, Batman, and Robin cannot attend because they are particularly busy while the Justice Society meets.
• Johnny Thunder proposes that each of the heroes in attendence tells a story about one of his past adventures.
• In the middle of the nine stories, the Red Tornado crashes the meeting, then leaves because her pants are torn.
• A message from the FBI arrives. Flash runs to Washington to learn more. He returns with a request for the whole Justice Society to go to Washington to receive an assignment. This becomes the basis of a shared story in All Star #4.

The nine stories that make up 90% of the issue are themselves unremarkable. It’s the 10% of the issue that makes up the framing story that changed comics by creating a shared universe for what had previously been twelve separate features. However, continuity established in All Star #3 is different in many ways from DC continuity as it has come to be known:

1) Action scenes are solo, just as in previous comics. Shared scenes are conversation-only. This remained true for most issues of All Star.
2) Shared scenes have a distinctly humorous and childlike tone, aimed at child readers, like Johnny Thunder's solo features and completely unlike Spectre or Hawkman stories.
3) Continuity did not extend to solo features. Justice Society stories were ignored by, and contradicted by, other features until the Sixties.
4) Fourth wall narration, especially in All Star #3.

Indeed, the characters thrown together in the Justice Society just barely make sense as a unit. How do the Spectre, a grim avenging angel with almost limitless powers, and the Atom, a college sophomore with a weightlifter's body and a knack for running into crime fit into the same team? They don't. Johnny Thunder, despite the awesome powers at his disposal, was purely a joke character, stumbling in and out of misadventures because he was unaware how his thunderbolt worked. These continuities don't fit together, so it made sense that nobody took them very seriously as a shared fictional universe. Later in the series' run, when the characters were placed into action stories together, the tone became simplistic and campy, and not long afterwards, the entire line of characters went out of publication. It wasn't until the Seventies, with considerable reimagining of the original material, that the JSA became a lineup of characters that fit into a shared universe in the modern sense. The Golden Age Justice Society was entertainment with very little consistency in plot, continuity, or characterization. It was written for kids and provided a decade of entertainment for kids.

Because Justice Society membership was a commercial consideration to give popular characters more exposure, the Justice Society – after only 3 issues – had a "rule" that whenever a character gained their own solo title, they would become only an honorary member of the Society. This removed the Flash and Green Lantern from the lineup, just as Superman and Batman made only rare and cameo appearances, because characters with other titles didn't need the extra exposure of a place in All Star. This sort of consideration followed Superman and Batman, twenty years later, to the Justice League, with those two characters often missing adventures for the actual reason that those characters already had enough exposure in other titles.

It should be noted that a feature referenced another feature one time before this: Ma Hunkel decided to become the Red Tornado after being told by kids about the Green Lantern. That appeared a couple of months before All Star #3, but because the kids were aware of Green Lantern's secret identity, they were referring to Green Lantern as a comic book character they read about, not a superhero in their own world. Over a year later, Wildcat was also inspired to become a costumed hero because kids told him about Green Lantern, but in that case, also, the kids were referring to a comic book. An early Batman story referred to Superman as a fictional character in their world. A single DC continuity that was shared across all of the major solo titles would not appear until the Sixties. Not until 1977 would the Justice Society get its first origin story, a classic by Paul Levitz in DC Special #29. It is perhaps less apt to say that All Star #3 brought a shared universe into being than that it planted the seed of a shared DC Universe. Many years and many changes later, that seed had grown into something greater. When we consider the billions of dollars of revenues that the genre has generated and the deep societal role that the superhero genre has grown into, we can look back at All Star Comics #3 as a place where this tremendous thing started to grow.


  1. Rikdad -- Fine analysis as always. I recall reading All-Star #3 in an oversized collectors' edition about four decades ago. At the time, it felt like a cornucopia of content because of the nine stories with various levels of drama and art featuring heroes about which I knew very little. The framing story "worked" in my younger mind because it helped introduce me to these characters and to the concept of the Justice Society.

    Having read all the Golden Age All-Star stories by now thanks to the Archives, I agree with you that the universe was inconsistent and the heroes strangely thrown together. Yet Gardner Fox kept a sense of wonder about the whole enterprise for quite a few issues. Indeed, the goofy Johnny Thunder was a useful plot device to help resolve many of the earlier stories.

    By 1944, the formula was wearing thin and the quality of the art dimmed as artists went off to war or otherwise left. Many of the stories between roughly All-Star 20 and 32 are pedestrian at best. But then the editors (and Fox and subsequent writers) fostered a great flurry of quality by a.) improving the villains b.) changing the story structure and c.) hiring better artists. Stories with Grundy and Per Degaton and the Injustice Society and a place called Fairyland are among the better Golden Age stories you'll ever see.

    The Justice Society itself shrunk to a more cohesive group, and Johnny and the humor element went by the wayside, by 1948. The last few years are competently rendered but tended to reflect where comics were headed then -- a Western-themed issue and lots of sci-fi.

    You are correct that All-Star #3 was a happy accident, driven by readers' early 1940s collective decision that superheroes trumped pulp heroes, detectives and magicians. Sitting here now, I'm simply pleased that such an odd comic could have come into existence and still seem so rich nearly 75 years later.

    Thanks again for the retro review.

  2. ManWithTenEyes,

    I agree that the quality dropped off with time. For some features, it was never there to begin with: I would say that Hourman was effectively "fired" from the Justice Society because his feature was poorly written.

    The first Justice Society story I ever read was a Golden Age story reprinted in a Seventies JLA issue. When I more recently read most of the original Justice Society stories, I realized how carefully cherry picked that selection was: Many of the 1940-1951 stories were terrible, but that one, the Patriotic Crimes story from All Star #41 (1948) was one of the best, and as the second story featuring the Injustice Society, it may be one of the ones you refer to. As you mention, the Per Degaton story was also very good. Another strong issue was #36, with the only full-feature appearances of Superman and Batman alongside the JSA. However, the run got weaker at the end, with a hyper-formulaic structure so that not only was each issue quite similar to other issues, but also each were divided into similar parts. It's sad as one reads through to the end to recall that most of the genre was dying out when these stories were published, but their poor quality explains, in my opinion, why that happened.

    "Happy accident" is an apt summation. The Justice Society, like the discovery of x-rays or penicillin, was the result of a deliberate effort, but accidentally proved to be something vastly greater than the effort intended. I find the single panel that launched the DC Universe to be extraordinarily lacking in fanfare, as was a panel in #36 that showed Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman together for the first time. With modern sensibilities, these events would have merited a 4-page fold-out with exclamation points adorning every narrative sentence. The casual nature with which major events were introduced in All Star is one striking aspect of what comics were back then.

  3. Yes. As so many interviews with Golden Age artists state, none of the creators then ever imagined people would be collecting their work decades later. As a result, there is a subtle integrity to their work. The now-overhyped phrase, "Nothing will ever be the same!" was simply not part of their lexicon.