Justice Machine: Yesterday's Dystopian Superheroes

Sometimes I reflect on the geek-tinged fragments of my childhood and adolescence and wonder how pieces of it ever came into my life. Sure, I had the grocery store spinner rack gateway -- a throwback to a time 20 years before, because my small town had not yet heard of the Direct Market, or its nefarious/glorious ways -- and I had the occasional hour-long trips to a mall that had a small hobby shop near the entrance, where I came across such fondly-remembered gems as "Lone Wolves" and "Eternity, Inc." and "Revolt on Antares, but when I look back at where some of this stuff came from, I honestly can't remember the details of its acquisition. I just know that, once upon a time, it meant everything to me.

Like "The Justice Machine."

Mike Gustovich's "The Justice Machine" was an obsession of mine for a summer, maybe longer, and now it's barely even remembered by most.

"The Justice Machine," if you are one of the millions who has never heard of it, is a superhero team created by writer/artist (but mostly inker) Mike Gustovich, in the early 1980s. He self-published five issues of a series by that name from 1981-1983, then gave up various levels of control (sometime participating in the creation of the comics involving his team, sometimes not), to see the property bounce to little-known Texas Comics for one issue, then to Comico for a miniseries, followed by an extended run, then to Innovation before hopping over to Millenium Publications, and now, it's supposedly in the hands of Moonstone, though I haven't seen or heard of any actual issues coming out from that company.

When I try to piece it all back together, and figure out how, in a town with a population of 2,000, nowhere near a major metropolitan center, I came across "The Justice Machine," all I can figure -- and what seems to make the most sense -- is that some of the Comico comics were distributed on the newsstand, and I picked up the first issue of "The Justice Machine featuring the Elementals" from the Dalton General Store, which was in walking distance from my grandfather's house. I would have been 13 when that issue came out, so the timing sounds about right, but I also remember reading that comic in a car at one point. Did I read it on the way home from my grandfather's in the back seat of our family's AMC Eagle? Or maybe I brought it with me on a vacation later that year? I don't know. But I know that I loved that single issue about a superhero team I had never seen, on a collision course with another superhero team I had never seen, after fighting aliens and robots on a space station.

I've written about some other formative comics from my youth before, but "The Justice Machine featuring the Elementals" #1 would be in my All-Time Early-Influential Top Ten.

Written by then-"Elementals" writer/artist Bill Willingham (who has gone on to much greater fame with his "Fables" series from Vertigo) and penciled and inked by Mike Gustovich -- the first issue of what was, in retrospect, meant to be an introduction to Gustovich's characters before they launched their own ongoing with Comico -- was as good as anything I'd ever read in comics before.

(I hadn't yet read many comics.)

Looking at it now, I can see why adolescent me would have fallen for it. The opening page is a straight-up "Star Wars" riff, with troops running down a futuristic hallway, setting up their laser cannons at a threat coming from off panel. But we get no Stormtrooper blasts or Darth Vader entrances from this Willingham/Gustovich joint. Instead, we get a giant fist punching through the wall behind them, and a question from one of the gunners: "What is it? What is it?"

"What it is," shouts the fifteen-foot-tall superhero known as Titan, "is the Justice Machine!"


The superheroes kick some space-infantry butt, and though I wouldn't have thought about it at the time, the implication is that these superheroes, the title characters, are beating up what amount to the pals of Luke and Han and Leia. These ain't your daddy's superheroes, kids! (Of course, if you are under 30, they are your daddy's superheroes, but only if your daddy was lucky enough to find them back in the day.)

What's also pretty great about this first issue of the "Justice Machine/Elementals" miniseries (and though its clunky and goofy and overdramatic by a factor of ten, it is still charming), is that there's almost no backstory provided for the title characters. Willingham gets right into the action and barely lets up.

In the original Gustovich-self-published issues of "Justice Machine" (under the Noble Comics banner), the team operated on the planet Georwell, a none-to-subtle nod to the writer of "1984," and they were initially a kind of government-sponsored superteam. Almost immediately, they became enemies of the state, and the dystopian sci-fi backdrop became an interesting twist on the usual superhero trappings. The Noble Comics issues (only five of them, remember, and they were scripted by a young William Messner-Loebs) led the team to a hidden rebel sanctuary called "New Haven" where they found themselves teaming up with old enemies against the oppressive state (and other sundry badness that arose).

The Comico miniseries features the same lead characters, with the same personalities as the Noble Comics issues -- Challenger, the laser-gun slinging leader; Diviner, the sorceress; Blazer, the flying fireblaster; Titan, the colossus; Demon, the swashbuckling martial artist; and Talisman, the pre-John Constantine man of mystery and magic -- but Willingham doesn't provide a synopsis or any exposition about what happened to them in the previous issues. It is, in effect, a complete reboot, but with Willingham playing on the events of the past by inverting the roles in the new story.

When the Elementals arrive -- via some cross-dimensional magic -- for example, they are branded as traitors to the state, in an almost mirror image of the way the Justice Machine had been accused half a decade earlier in a bunch of comics I had never read at the time.

I didn't know any of this, actually, because I only had the first issue of the miniseries for years. I never knew that the Elementals were imprisoned and had to break free. I never knew whether or not they teamed up with the Justice Machine or fought them to the death (but I was probably wise enough to expect the former). I never knew how they defeated Darkforce, the leader of the violent rebel forces. For a visual image of Darkforce, by the way, think a blue/green Iron Man with a metal Mohawk and you'll get the idea.

All I knew was that the glimpses of superheroic action and dystopian rhetoric -- Darkforce, in his big splash page moment in "Justice Machine/Elementals" #1 declares, "Georwell is a repressed police-state and you, its chief enforcers" -- showed an exhilarating series that seemed to have something on its mind, even if it was simplistically portrayed in the end. But I hadn't seen the end, and I was left with the heroes shouting to the other heroes, "You're under arrest, by order of the Justice Machine!"

Even the name is super-evocative, right? Not the Justice League or the Justice Pals. The Justice Machine. Impersonal, efficient, merciless, yet on behalf of justice. Gustovich was tapping into something deep when he originally crafted the concept.

But though I never read the other three issues of the miniseries until later (and I know this because they all have back-issue markings on the inside, so I must have picked them up once I discovered the Direct Market in my mid-teens), I did get the Comico ongoing as soon it launched a few months after the mini ended. And -- and this is the part that really makes me scratch my head and helped to prompt my opening paragraph this week -- I also stumbled across something even more exotic at the time: "The Justice Machine Sourcebook," by Keven Siembieda.

That role-playing game sourcebook, published in 1985, well before Comico's relaunch, was an early entry in the Palladium Books line, part of the "Heroes Unlimited" game. If you've never read a Palladium role-playing book (particularly the early editions), they are dense and obsessive. The rules are complex and difficult to piece together.

The typesetting on "The Justice Machine Sourcebook" looks pasted from a dot-matrix printer, and though Gustovich's characters are all over the cover, his name is nowhere to be found on the outside of the book. He is credited on the inside, for "stories, concepts, and characters," but this is strongly presented as a project by Keven Siembieda (still publisher of Palladium, best known for their "Rifts" series).

I loved that book. It wasn't the first role-playing sourcebook I owned, but it was one of the first, and I'm sure I bought it before I even had the "Heroes Unlimited" rules upon which it was based. I had no way to actually play it, or even decipher what some of the stats meant, but it was a resource I constantly returned to, as my love for "Justice Machine" only grew as Comico launched the ongoing (with veteran Tony Isabella providing the scripts).

I have no idea how I would have come across it. An early Palladium book about an obscure superhero team? There's no way any story within 50 miles of my house would have sold such a thing. But somehow I found it, and though it retold histories of characters that had been wiped clean in the Comico reboot, I was fascinated by it. I'm sure that it only made my love for Gustovich's characters and concepts (and artwork) all the stronger.

Challenger, Diviner, Blazer, Titan, Demon and Talisman. They were my crew, pawns of a societal construct they didn't understand. Unaware fascists upholding the order while wearing superhero garb. The Comico series only hinted at the complexities beneath the surface of the slugfests, but I loved it all the same.

And "The Justice Society Sourcebook" described facets of their erased past lives, lost stories from old comics I could only imagine.

On a nostalgia spree a few weeks ago, I tracked down the Noble Comics "Justice Machine" issues and read them for the first time. They're raw, hideously colored and still completely amazing. I felt like I had read them a dozen times before, though, of course I'd never seen those issues in my life.

But I'd seen the images and the excerpts from the Palladium book so many times, and read the summaries in the tiny Times New Roman font, that the Noble Comics issues felt like going home. Going home to a crazy, odd-shaped, garish parallel world, but still surprisingly comforting.

Oh, and it turns out, the inker of those first few Noble Comics issue? Kevin Siembieda. And before the series crashes to a halt when Noble Comics runs out of money, there's a house ad for "The Coming of the Mechanoids! A new science fiction role playing game from Palladium Books." Things seem to have worked out for young Kevin.

Someday I need to tell you about my favorite "Justice Machine" issue, though. Not by Bill Willingham or William Messner-Loebs, or Tony Isabella. But by "Strikeforce: Morituri" creator Peter B. Gillis. He knew how to mix action and pathos, and "The Justice Machine" was always a great vehicle for that.

Maybe when Moonstone gets around to putting out some new issues, you can see for yourself. Though Mike Gustovich apparently sold the rights to the series long ago and has had nothing to do with any recent incarnations, so maybe you're better off sticking with Comico, or Noble and the tiny, absurdly-comprehensive text from our friends at 1985's Palladium.

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