Comic of the Month
When Roy Thomas left Marvel comics for DC in 1981 he had many years of writing successful comic series behind him, perhaps most notably The Avengers and Conan. No surprise, then, that his first new series at DC were the Conan-like Arak, Son of Thunder and a superhero team book – All Star Squadron. All Star Squadron, however, had more in common with another team book Thomas had written at Marvel, The Invaders, as both are set during World War Two. All Star Squadron not only allowed Thomas to write about the Justice Society of America (the original superhero team) but many other silver age characters that had long been forgotten. (We can see this slightly obsessive tendency in the way that comics from the 1940s are footnoted throughout the series).
The premise is simple: as World War Two begins (for America that is) a group of superheroes band together to fight the Axis Powers (and you won’t get far with this unless you quickly acquaint yourself with phrases like ‘Axis Powers’). The flaw in this retelling of history is obvious: surely a group of superheroes would swiftly bring the war to an end and thus make the historical period in which the book is set redundant? Luckily Japan is soon discovered to have a supernatural barrier that turns superheroes into villains if they get too close (although this doesn’t prevent many heroes, generally the well-known ones from the Justice Society, from enlisting in the services – why use super powers when you can fight like a man?). Of course, superhero comics in general, and nostalgic ones in particular, are not where we go to find verisimilitude. Here is Hawkman’s own explanation of his origin:
“In my laboratory I realised for the first time that an unseen hand had been guiding the experiments I’d been making there, even my creation of crude hawk-mask, which I’d seen in an earlier dream, and then felt compelled to fashion in reality. Then there was the strange belt I’d made of an element I’d recently discovered – or perhaps remembered from Khufu’s lost knowledge – and christened ‘ninth metal’ for reasons that escape me.”
If you’re prepared to put logic to one side, however, this series is great fun – largely because you sense Thomas is having fun. He puts together a cast of forgotten heroes – The Shining Knight, Robotman, Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hawkgirl (and rebrands Firebrand to balance the sexes) – and makes them all individuals, just as he did with The Avengers. Hawkman and The Atom from the Justice Society also make frequent appearances, and Steel joins the group in issue 8. Mix in some history (Pearl Harbour, Winston Churchill) and some pulp villains (largely Nazis and mad scientists) and you’ve got all you need for light-hearted adventure.
The art on the first five issues is by the excellent Rich Buckler, who is then replaced by Adrian Gonzales, an artist I could not recall at all despite having bought the original comics. He drew very few superhero comics – I think only this and a some issues of World’s Finest – but is perfectly efficient beneath the inks of Jerry Ordway, who to a large extent gave the book its look and (I think) went on to pencil it himself later. The first Showcase volume prints issues 1 -18 and the first Annual – all in black and white, of course, on cheap paper. (But comics at that time were printed on cheap paper and the colour wasn’t up to much either). the only disappointment is that it only includes the All Star Squadron issues of a team-up with The Justice League thereby not only missing out three episodes but the conclusion of the story. Marvel are much better at including these extra issues: this sometimes means an issue is reprinted twice but that’s preferable to not having it at all. That said, while far from being a classic, this remains one of my favourite comics.