Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me. Today, we see how early issues of the Justice League deal with Superman being too powerful!
You see, when the Justice League of America debuted, the idea was to spotlight the lesser characters – the newer heroes who were not as established as Batman and Superman (Martian Manhunter, Flash and Green Lantern) and the older heroes who never quite got as famous as Batman and Superman (Wonder Woman and Aquaman). However, they still needed to have Batman and Superman on the team, to give the book the attention that it deserved for having DC’s greatest heroes on the team. So how do you reconcile the need to have Superman on the team with the need to NOT have Superman involved very often? That was the challenge that Gardner Fox had to deal with every other month for years until DC relaxed their standards and Superman and Batman suddenly were featured just as prominently as everyone else in the League.
But we’ll take a look at how Fox (who was working with artists Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs for this run – with Joe Giella lending a hand in the first two Justice League stories,as well) kept Superman from outshining the “main” cast of the series (Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter – plus later Green Arrow and Atom). We’ll start with the three-issue “try-out” that the Justice League received in Brave and the Bold #28-30 and then the first 25 issues of Justice League of America. Roughly four years’ worth of stories.
In the very first Justice League of America story, Superman is busy punching meteors while the rest of the League takes on Starro. This is one of the more straightforward attempts to write Superman out of the story.
In the next issue, there is a big deal made when Superman doesn’t show up when the Justice League signal went out. Eventually, Batman leaves the team, as well, to find out where Superman was (nicely writing Batman out of the story, as well). It turns out that Superman was time-traveling so that he missed out on the signal. Batman found him in time (how, I dunno) and they showed up to save the day at the end of the story.
In the final try-out issue, the League all splits up and are captured one by one by Professor T.O. Morrow who adds their powers to Amazo. Batman and Superman just never get found. It’s really kind of hilarious. But Morrow notes that they’ll be ready if Superman ever shows up (“I can give superpowers to my android, but, hey, I won’t bother getting the MOST POWERFUL SUPERHERO AROUND”).
In the first issue of their ongoing series, Superman fell victim to Despero’s mental powers, just like the rest of the League.
Later, when they were each transported to different worlds, Superman landed on a world where he was stuck with a Kryptonite boulder.
Wonder Woman, though, got rid of it. Superman, though, appeared more in this issue than any other Justice League adventure so far.
In the second issue, the League deals with magic, which, as Superman so commonly liked to tell us in these early issues, was one of his two weaknesses. Shockingly, then, the League kept running into those two things.
In fact, later in the issue, Superman runs into a wizard with a throne made out of Kryptonite!
Luckily, some enchanted winds blew Superman into the wizard and knocked him out!
In the next issue, Kanjar Ro took Superman out of commission for most of the issue with a Kryptonite booby trap.
In the next issue, which added Green Arrow to the team, Superman was knocked out by some handy kryptonite.
The next issue saw the rest of the League believing that Green Arrow was a traitor (this was the Silver Age, so superheroes believed the worst about their friends and colleagues at the slightest provocation) and since Batman, Superman and Snapper weren’t around for the missions in question, they worked as the jury for Green Arrow.
This first appearance of Amos Fortune wrote Superman off super easily. He was just not around period.
The next issue is a fascinating example of Superman getting written out of the stories. He, Batman and Martian Manhunter go off on one mission while the rest of the League deal with the main story of the issue.
When they return from their mission (which was not shown), they get sent on ANOTHER mission, which was intentionally a wild goose chase designed by the Flash for one of those complicated Silver Age type reasons that never quite make total sense.
Once again, Fox takes the easy way out and just has Superman absent for the mission. This, though, is actually dealing far straighter than Fox does with some future missions where Superman is listed on the roll call despite not really being involved in the story.
The origin of the Justice League is a perfect example of how the League handled Batman and Superman in the early days of the League. So, seven different alien creatures end up on Earth. We see the main five members of the League fight against them by working together. Meanwhile, Batman and Superman are off on their own fighting their two aliens separately from the rest of the League. Plus, of course, there is Kryptonite to prevent Superman from just taking out everyone’s alien by himself. By the way, as an aside, Fox noted that this story took place three years before the Justice League’s first shown mission. That, of course, did not make sense since Hal Jordan was not around three years before Brave and the Bold #28. Years later, Steve Englehart will come up with a story to explain the incongruity of the statement.
In the next issue, the League takes on Felix Faust, who, of course, uses magic, which is one of Superman’s only weaknesses.
Things get even worse for Superman later in the story, when he runs afoul of a magical horn.
I prefer these types of stories to the ones where Superman just doesn’t show up. However, they obviously take more work.
In the following issue, the Faust stuff was followed up by the League having trouble with the Demons Three. They, of course, use magic, which is a problem for Superman.
Later, Superman gets written out of the story even more dramatically.
Very cool depiction of the events by Sekowksy, by the way.
The following issue of the series introduced Doctor Light and he fights the League by first transporting the members of the League to different planets, with each planet designed to hurt the League in some specific fashion. For instance, Superman ends up on a red son planet.
Later, Doctor Light takes Superman out with Kryptonite light…
Man, Doctor Light was a lot more badass in his first appearance than he ever would be after this issue.
This is probably the first issue where Superman actually WASN’T technically written out of the adventure, as the concept of the issue is that the League fight against robots with their same powers, which gave Fox an easy way to keep Superman around without having to make up a reason to get him out of the story. It is worth noting, though, that in the end, Superman is too much for his robot, as all robots wear down eventually, but Superman never does (which is why it is so tough to write stories about him as part of a team).
This is by far the biggest cop out of all of the issues listed so far. Superman is listed as being part of the roll call, but he just swoops in at the end of the issue, to say, “Hey guys, what did I miss while I was in the Phantom Zone?” I bet Superman was checking stuff out from the Phantom Zone and just waited until the adventure was over so that he could avoid having to help.
This one was another instance where Superman mostly was able to hang out with the rest of the League, as Fox just came up with a foe that was powerful enough to tackle the Man of Steel, as well.
This is a weird one. First off, Superman is forced to dance, despite it not being involved with magic or kryptonite.
Then, he was actually tired out by the dancing!!
However, the Atom realized that it was not music that was making them dance, but some sort of telepathic signal. Anyhow, the bad guy then seems to be able to counter Superman with some handy dandy kryptonite…
But in reality, since the Atom has warned everyone ahead of time, Superman has been painted with lead (huh?) and thus is able to keep going despite the presence of the kryptonite.
The next issue, the League takes on the Tornado Tyrant, and he’s able to knock Superman out with kryptonite early in the fight….
And then magic later in the fight. I don’t know if that’s really how Wonder Woman’s magic lasso EVER worked, but hey, I guess Fox was figuring that no one really knew for sure HOW it worked, so he could use it in this fashion.
This was one of the most convoluted ones. The League are shrunk down and are captured on a special world, a world where everything that you are told becomes the truth. So Superman can’t break through some bars because people said, “Wow, even Superman can’t break these bars.” However, since no one told Batman he couldn’t break through the bars, he WAS able to break through them. Then, suddenly, Fox needs to write Superman out of the story so he says, “Oh, wait, by the way, the shrinking ray had Kryptonite in it. I guess Superman has to leave for the rest of the story!”
In this odd little tale, the League are attacked by evil duplicates of themselves. Superman’s duplicate stops him with kryptonite early in the issue.
Then, later, with magic, as well. Fox really liked to lean on magic and kryptonite.
The League’s adventure against the mighty Android X is another example where Superman really DIDN’T get written out of the story. They just pitted him against a powerful being to keep him occupied but, in the end, Superman really does end up saving the day by defeating the powerful being. This is one of the rare instances where Fox just said, “Eh, fine, Superman can just save the day this time.”
We’re now up to the first crossover between the Justice League and the Justice Society of America. In the first part of the story, Doctor Alchmey (who is one of the Earth-1 villains who has teamed up with the Earth-2 villains to give our heroes some real trouble) created some kryptonite to mess with Superman.
Later, the Wizard used magic to take Superman down, as well. So Superman really didn’t do much in that first issue.
The second part of the crossover had one of the more clever ways of removing Superman from the action. The villainous Chronos found a way to screw Aquaman over unless Superman voluntarily exposes himself to kryptonite. Very clever stuff.
Superman and Batman are just out of the way for this issue. Luckily, they at least sent telegrams!
Superman and Batman and Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter are away in this issue. I’ll have an article coming up in the near future about the whole Green Arrow/Martian Manhunter situation of the time. It was kind of weird.
Finally, this issue really doesn’t apply. I should have just stopped at 24 issues, because Superman is a full participant in #25. He is involved unlike any other issue of JLA before. The whole team isn’t around, and yet Superman is one of the heroes who IS involved. That’s the first time that that has happened in the series to this point. Of course, kryptonite still had to be involved in the story, because, well, come on, kryptonite always has to show up (it also establishes that Hal Jordan should be able to hold his own very well against Superman since he can just create kryptonite).
That’s it for this installment! If there are any other interesting pieces of comic book history that you’d like to see me write about, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!