The Justice Society of America Vs the War on Terror (JSA #41-42)

Or

 

The Interpretation of Art

 

Or

 

The Art of Interpretation

 

So begins a fascinating set of interconnected storylines that DC published in JSA, between December 2002 and September 2003. JSA was a comics series that gave us the latest incarnation of the Justice Society of America, a World War Two team of heroes that reformed in 1999. This new team consisted of a mix of old stalwarts, who, thanks to the magic of comics, were still around and fighting fit, and an assortment of more recent heroes who were following in the footsteps of various World War Two (Golden Age) heroes.

 

Elsewhere on this board, there’s a thread devoted to discussing as many of the JSA’s appearances from its 70 year history as was allowed by DC’s reprint policies and the Baron's back issue collection. When we came to the slick new comics series JSA, which was written by Geoff Johns and David S Goyer, and ran from August of 1999 until September of 2006, I couldn’t help but remark that the comic fell down badly in terms of reflecting anything of the readers lives or their world in its pages. There was a lot of old villains coming back to life, heroes being reincarnated and old superhero plots from 80s and 90s comics that weren’t that good in the first place being revisited. All very fascinating if your thing is the minutae of the parallel universe that Batman and Superman live in, but hardly very engaging for the casual reader. This was especially disappointing as JSA had originally sold itself as a successor to Grant Morrison’s JLA, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and James Robinson’s critically acclaimed Starman: three comic series that broke new ground in bringing aspects of the real world and popular culture into superhero comics and thereby making them more accessible to the non-fanboy crowd.

 

As it happened, this super-team, which embodied American ideals of justice and patriotism during the war against the Axis powers, had reformed just in time for the beginning of another global conflict – the so-called 'War on Terror'. As much as JSA began by staking out its territory as purely superhero stories for superhero fans, it would have been difficult for any comicbook with those beginnings in the Second World War, featuring a team called the Justice Society of America, to ignore what was going on beyond its own pages in the opening years of the 21st Century. So it was that the issues we are about to look at did tackle some of the problems and dilemmas that the US and the world wrestled with at that time.

 

We’ll be looking at JSA #41 – 50, which comprised 3 consecutive, but interlinked storylines that ran from December 2002 to September 2003. This was a highly significant era historically, as it covers a period from shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan up to the months following the invasion of Iraq.

 

The reason I began looking at these comics so closely is that I noticed that the main villain in issue 41 went by the name of Black Barax. He arrives in 2002 from the future, and attacks a group of people with a fleet of futuristic unmanned attack craft, not unlike the drone aircraft wielded by ‘the present incumbent’.

 

As the Baron wisely commented on his JSA thread regarding these bizarre parallels with our own times: “Sometimes people become prophets by accident”.

 

Once I put my facetious sniggering at DC’s unwitting, Politically Incorrect accidental prophecising to one side, however, I realised that there was a ton of real political commentary in the two issues in which Black Barax appears, and it does indeed amount to a sideways look at the actions of a 21st Century American President, although not the present one, who wasn’t even a US Senator when this comic was produced.

 

Here's the basic plot: Hourman, a member of the JSA gifted with limited foresight of the future, predicts an attack at a science laboratory in one hour. Thus the team is waiting for the villainous Black Barax when he arrives in his ‘Time-cube’. Barax, a towering cyborg conqueror from the future, declares that he is there to stop the scientists from making a breakthrough which will go on to be used to develop time-travel.

 

"The secret of the tachyon is destined to be discovered elsewhere. Elsewhen," is the only explanation he gives for his attack.

 

After much mayhem, Captain Marvel uses his command of the lightning to short circuit Barax's time-cube and sends the would-be time conqueror vanishing off into the past, cube and all.

 

Threat averted for now. End of issue 41.

 

In issue 42, team members Mr Terrific (leader of the Justice Society, and the fifth smartest man in the world, no less) and Hawkgirl (a girl who can fly like a hawk...) follow the cube back in time, in order to rescue Captain Marvel, who was also trapped in it.

 

Most of issue 42 takes place in the 1940s, where our heroes team up with the Golden Age Mr Terrific to face down Barax and foil his plans. They are aided by a very obscure super-team of that era called the Freedom Fighters, who are led by Uncle Sam (yes, the top-hatted guy off the recruitment posters,… who wants YOU!)

 

As it turns out, Black Barax was counting on the Freedom Fighters to appear, as he wants to capture one of them; a chap who goes by the name of the Human Bomb. (Yes, he’s a man blessed with the power to make himself explode!) Barax wants to harness the energy this exploding individual is capable of releasing, in order to recharge his time-cube war machine and continue his attack plan.

 

In any case, his plan is foiled when the original Mr Terrific dramatically threatens to shoot himself in the head, telling Barax that he knows the futuristic despot is a direct descendant of his, and that Barax’ very existence would be snuffed out if Mr Terrific died at this point. (This scenario is known to science fiction enthusiasts and philosophy freshmen as ‘the Grandfather Paradox’.)

 

Barax swallows the gambit and triggers his 'exit strategy' - a "Time Tether" that pulls him back to his own century. Although Barax makes the traditional departing vow to return one day, he never again troubled the Justice Society of America. My own precognitive abilities tells me that he’ll be very quietly forgotten in the years ahead, for some reason.

 

So far, so gloriously, wonderfully, imaginatively daft. Just the kind of fantastic sequence of improbable and virtually impossible events that we superhero fans love.

 

However, a reader might be inclined to ask what it all means. Certainly my problem with most of the 40 issues of JSA that preceded these particular comics is that they don’t have much meaning beyond the thrill of super-folk inflicting injury on each other.

 

… Except it turns out there is something rather interesting going on underneath the surface.

 

Look again at Barax’s rationale for attacking the science lab in the less advanced era of history.

He wants to pre-emptively stop them from possessing technology which will put them on a par with himself, or which he apparently believes will be used to his disadvantage. When his attack is foiled the first time, he immediately tries to get his hands on an important energy resource of this era – the Human Bomb. This has parallels with the Bush presidency’s given reasons for attacking Iraq – that they had weapons of mass destruction, which would be turned on the West if they became fully operational. (In the real world, we were originally told about Saddam’s plans to make nuclear weapons, but as this became less plausible, it segued into the claim that he was manufacturing Weapons of Mass Destruction, which as a label, conflated nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the mind of the public. The war would be fought, we were told, because the US, like Barax, wanted to decide when and how its enemies would acquire technology that may eventually be a threat.)

 

And then there was the suspicion that many objectors to the war had at the time: that the whole thing was about the US getting control of Iraq’s oil supplies. ‘No war for oil’, as one political commentator daubed on the Dublin footpath I used to walk down every day back in 2002. The almost comical speed with which Barax changes his plans from preventing technological advances to seizing local energy resources raised an eyebrow with me the second time I read this story.

 

 

So on some level, the story is equating Black Barax’ attack with the American-led invasion of Iraq. It looks like the story is, perhaps unconsciously, giving expression to some of the anxieties and misgivings that many of us in the West had at that time about the whole venture. Once you start thinking along those lines, a whole slew of other elements of the story begin to come into focus.

 

The original Mr Terrific ultimately vanquishes Barax back to his own time with his suicide gambit. Muslim terrorists up to that point had often shown themselves to be capable of deliberately giving their own lives to their cause, and this was a major feature of the public perception of them. This had begun in the early 80s with a series of highly publicised suicide attacks on targets in the Middle East, and the September 11th attacks on the US, carried out by 19 Islamic Jihadists, had only happened a year or so before these comics were written. As it is, JSA issue 42 seems to be saying that any foe so passionate and committed that they are prepared to take their own life as part of a battle strategy has to be taken extremely seriously.

 

 

Perhaps I’m making too much of the small detail of the Golden Age Mr Terrific’s tactics? Well, consider too, that the writers of this adventure were committed to only reusing characters and concepts from earlier comics, and had an uncountable number of wacky plot contrivances from the thousands of previous DC comics to choose from. Yet, of the wealth of wonderful ideas to draw on, they chose to have Mr Terrific and Black Barax fighting over a powerful character called … the Human Bomb! The repeated use of phrases and symbolism very pertinent to the ‘War on Terror’ show that the issue of war in the Middle East was definitely uppermost in the minds of the writers of this story, and to some extent they wanted their story to be ‘about’ that issue. The question is, what do they end up saying about that topic?

 

We seem to have a story that is, perhaps unwittingly, worrying over the projected invasion of Iraq and giving voice to various anxieties concerning it. There is the subconscious question over who the villain in the scenario might be. The actions of the villain in this story parallel those of the US in the run up to the invasion. Black Adam, a member of the JSA, explicitly states that Barax is engaged in a ‘pre-emptive strike’, a phrase very familiar from the political and military discussions at the beginning of the 'War on Terror'. This phrase equates Black Barax’s motivations with the ‘Bush Doctrine’, as popularly understood. Then the motives of the war, both those officially stated, and as supposed by many, seem to be questioned. Actually, looking at Barax’s first appearance again, his motivations and background are extremely sketchy. Possibly his declaration of the reasons he is launching his attack may not reflect his true motives, and may just be for the benefit of his concerned peers on the United Time-travelling Powers Council of Leaders or some such body. Finally, the text seems to be asking whether the upcoming conflict itself might turn out to be much messier and morally murky than was generally being discussed, involving suicide attacks and Human Bombs (and the effect those tactics would have on the relationship between the invaders and the civilian population). Consider too, that the super-team that pops up to fight the villainous invader in JSA issue 42 were called the Freedom Fighters.

 

One man’s terrorist , as they say…

 

 

So we have, in coded form, all the misgivings and forebodings about a war in Iraq which had seemed more and more inevitable to onlookers as the months counted down to March 2003, when it would begin. History would decide whether the anxieties expressed in these comics were grounded or not. The comics can be read as a catalogue of the main arguments against the war as espoused by millions of people worldwide at the time, and which motivated them to take part in some of the largest anti-war protests the world has ever seen.

 

Interpretation of these comics is a funny business. Once you start allowing that perhaps they are saying something that their creators didn’t want or mean to say directly, the runaway message just won’t stay down. Just now, I’ve noticed that Hourman is heading into the deep end of the swimming pool when he is hit by the premonition of Barax’s attack. (Even the JSA’s fore-warning and preparations for the attack underline the subject of pre-emptive war.) That Uncle Sam is a character off old army recruitment posters is another significant point.

 

The extent to which all this is deliberate on the part of the creators or not, is a very intriguing question. I'm not sure many corporately produced entertainments of this era questioned the march to war in the way these comics seem to do. On the other hand, JSA co-writer David S Goyer did contribute to The Dark Knight movie, which brought us a similarly coded discussion on the ethics of NSA total survellience several years before it became front page news.

 

Look again at the sequence of panels at the top of the post here. Jaded comics readers of 2002 would have interpreted the young lady’s comments as humorous exasperation at the seemingly endless series of threats that superfolk have to fight month after month, each one having to be bigger and more terrible than the last, in order to retain the readers' interest. However, viewed in the light of all the anxieties expressed in these particular comics about the war which America was about to embark on, the word ‘again’ has an entirely different meaning. The last all-out, major conflict that America had fought in the name of spreading its values around the world had been in Vietnam, and that wasn’t pretty, with tens of thousands of US casualties, great social upheaval and division in the West, and millions of Vietnamese killed or displaced from their country. That the US was about to embark on another, prolonged, morally murky, Vietnam-type quagmire was the essence of people’s fears for the future. In that context, Courtney’s flippant, one-word question, which kicks the whole adventure off, is perhaps the most chilling statement on the choices then facing the US, as presented in JSA issues 41 and 42.

 

 

[This is the first of 3 posts on JSA #41-51.  Next installment here.]

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The question of how much the parallels to the real world were intentional is an interesting one, I agree. I think it's fair to say that comic book creators trend liberal (with somebody like Bill Willingham a major exception). The focus on old comic book tropes in this series would argue against such a topical focus, but I think you make a good case. Geoff Johns made his debut at a time when I was quickly losing interest in superheroes, so I never even considered reading this at the time (I did enjoy his early run on The Flash, though).

If they did all this deliberately and consciously, it is an extremely skillful manipulation of imagery and symbolism, and an almost poetic harnessing of already existing childish pulp heroes for the purpose of exploring an urgent contemporary issue in an adult way through the language of superhero comics. The amount of meaning loaded and compacted into this seemingly simple two-part tale is on a par with anything Alan Moore ever did in his superhero work.

 

I have to confess, though, that I'm not sure it is deliberate.  I just can't decide.  I tried to analyse what the story was actually saying, in the context of its times, rather than what the authors' intent might have been.

 

If you asked them, most comics creators would probably tell you that they are liberals, but when you examine the messages of some of their work, you get a different story.  For instance Dan Slott probably describes himself as a liberal, but he happily wrote a story starring Spider-man (a hero particularly beloved of small children) which justified torture on Cheney and Rumsfeld's terms.  Superhero stories are fundamentally reactionary, it seems to me.  Essentially, these are stories about people who use violence to maintain the status quo.

The use of the Human Bomb is interesting. On one level, the Human Bomb is there because he was a member of the Freedom Fighters, and he was a member of the Freedom Fighters mostly because he was one of the Quality heroes that DC had bought the rights to and had introduced to DC fans through the medium of a JLA/JSA team-up back in the early 1970's. However, while the concept of the Freedom Fighters as a team only goes back to that point, the Human Bomb as a character goes back to the 1940's, and it's interesting to think about what a characters called "The Human Bomb" might have meant to an audience in the 1940's as compared to what it would mean to audiences today. (It's also interesitng to note that there's stil a "Human Bomb" even in the "New 52" era, and the last I saw him, he seemed to be being set up to join yet another iteration of the "Freedom Fighters". 

As an aside, I can't help feeling that alot of all this is tied up in the dichotomy in the American self-image: It's a big part of our national mythology that we started out as a colony fighting for its freedom from the Big Empire of the day, and yet we ended up as the Big Empire's de facto heir.

I am genuinely interested in what others think regarding whether this is all deliberate and conscious or not.  Anyone? Anyone? Philip? Mr Silver Age? Anyone? Bueller?

It's tough to say without being able to directly quiz the author - and even then, he might not be sure himself, or be willing to say so out loud if he did, for fear of repercussions with DC if they were displeased.

If I may be forgiven for beating my favorite dead horse, I'm put in mind of the two Pertwee Era Peladon stories - one was about a miner's strike right around the the time of a miner's strike in Britain and the other was about a planet deciding whether or not to join the Galactic Federation right around the time Britain was deciding whether or not to join the Common Market.  On the extras for the DVDs, Barry Letts and Terrance DIcks both swore right, left and center that they weren't deliberately commenting on current events. Quite possibly they were sincere, but I always wondered if they were being disingenuous for fear of stirring up Auntie Beeb.

To put it another way, I think you've made you case very well - you've certainly given me alot of food for thought. It's obvious that you're reading these on a different level than I am, which is all to the good, I like stuff that makes me think in ways I don't usually, it's good for the brain. 

I was trying to distinguish our two styles, the best I could come up with was this:

The Baron:  "What the hell was that all about?"

 

Figserello:  "What the hell was that all about?"

The Baron said:

The use of the Human Bomb is interesting. On one level, the Human Bomb is there because he was a member of the Freedom Fighters, and he was a member of the Freedom Fighters mostly because he was one of the Quality heroes that DC had bought the rights to and had introduced to DC fans through the medium of a JLA/JSA team-up back in the early 1970's. However, while the concept of the Freedom Fighters as a team only goes back to that point, the Human Bomb as a character goes back to the 1940's, and it's interesting to think about what a characters called "The Human Bomb" might have meant to an audience in the 1940's as compared to what it would mean to audiences today. (It's also interesitng to note that there's stil a "Human Bomb" even in the "New 52" era, and the last I saw him, he seemed to be being set up to join yet another iteration of the "Freedom Fighters". 

Although a team called the Freedom Fighters in the midst of all this does serve my argument somewhat, their name in this context isn't as fitting as it was in that JSA/JLA team-up they first appeared in, where they were continuing the fight in a Nazi-dominated America in a parallel world.  Even setting them in that context was a nod to that dichotomy you talk about, as there's always that tension between America seeing itself as a country that opposed Empires, or one that embodies one.

 

As an aside, I can't help feeling that alot of all this is tied up in the dichotomy in the American self-image: It's a big part of our national mythology that we started out as a colony fighting for its freedom from the Big Empire of the day, and yet we ended up as the Big Empire's de facto heir.

 

Strong truth!

I am genuinely interested in what others think regarding whether this is all deliberate and conscious or not.  Anyone? Anyone? Philip? Mr Silver Age? Anyone? Bueller?

Going just on the basis of Johns' other work, based on both themes and "subtlety", I'm inclined to think this is not a deliberate exploration/statement.

Great column, Figs. (Just got around to reading it!) 

I'm thinking it doesn't have to be one or the other -- deliberate or subconscious. The Black Adam statement, for example, seems deliberate -- and the context of pre-emptive strikes was unavoidable at the time. But then, the use of Mr. Terrific's potential suicide -- the grandfather paradox -- seems to draw equally from the idea of a suicide bomber and Slaone's own, in-continuity past. (Like Michael Holt, he was contemplating suicide before finding a new purpose in his costumed identity.) The Freedom Fighters, similarly, are there for the taking -- it's weird to have the Human Bomb and Uncle Sam on the same team -- and maybe Johns reached for them because of their thematic implications, or maybe he reached for them because he loves old, semi-forgotten characters... and then, maybe the theme presented itself, and he decided to take a ride with it. Maybe he never saw it at all, and it was just the zeitgeist working through him -- although I'm inclined to doubt that last possibility. 

Writing is mysterious work. If we knew where an idea would lead when we began, there's less reason to actually set it down on paper. 

I can see a sort of path of least resistance towards where they ended up, Rob.  The 40s setting also fits into the times, as callbacks to the Second World War were a big part of the response to 9-11.  Although we are not told if Barax' encounter with the Freedom Fighters happened during WWII or after it.

 

As the Baron indicates, the writers were breaking new ground in actually showing the Freedom Fighters as a team during the Forties, as the weren't seen together until the 1970s Len Wein JLA  story set on the alternative Earth (Earth X).  SO Johns and Goyer are doing a little more than just replicating how these characters had been used before.

 

I worry that they are throwing stuff like 'pre-emptive strikes' and desert wars into their stories just for the buzz of recognition that readers would have for elements from the news headlines.  It's like a childish appropriation of the macho swaggering going on in the run up to an actual war.  The problems occur for me when it seems they aren't really paying attention to what they are doing with those indicators that they are discussing a real situation.  Dressing W up as a technologically over-endowed despot did indeed play to my own prejudices, but then of course I wasn't impressed by the dozy way they approached the media presentation of the upcoming war as a 'Cakewalk'.  It's strange to me that I can't praise them for the one and rebuke them for the other in a grown-up fashion, or indeed, that someone more rightwing than me can't do vice-versa.  Somehow the writers aren't responsible for these messages they've put out there?  That's a strange stance to take...

 

The writers want the benefit of the macho posturing and realworld callbacks, but don't want to tackle the actual issues that real people were facing, or deal with them in the mature way that we know superhero comics are capable of, in the right hands.

 

I do get what you are saying, insofar as a work of art can be too 'cold' and without mysteries if it is overly schematised or polemical.  Still, think about Moore's Adam Strange issues of Swamp Thing.  He knew what he wanted to say, he knew where to aim his post-colonialist barbs, and he knew how precislely to use longstanding DC properties as symbols without changing them very much, and yet his story still abounds in mysteries and strangeness.

 

Society has strange unhealthy attitudes running through it, and unquestioning gung-ho support for ruinous wars is one of those.  Any writer not examining their own work and guarding against those unhealthy attiudes coming through, isn't really doing their work responsibly.  (See the oddball messages we get with sexually objectified rape victim Dove when she appears, for another kind of sicko attitude that writers have to consciously guard against.)

 

Yay, the sacred mysteries of writing, but Boo those icky messages seeping through!

Dove's a rape survivor? Sigh. I had no idea. Or maybe I did, and forgot, but Dawn Granger never made much of an impression on me. (Never read the series she debuted in, so she's always been a guest star for me, and a fairly unwelcome one at that, since Hawk is sure to be tagging along.)

I'm not saying Johns & Goyer aren't responsible for what they put on the page; I'm just saying they're not always in control of it, reaching for some ideas more out of instinct than precision. (A zookeeper who lets an angry lion out of its cage is responsible for what the lion does once he's out. Doesn't mean he's in control of it.)

The Freedom Fighters weren't a group in the 40s, as the Baron says, but they had subsequently been used together in the WWII setting -- Roy Thomas grouped them together for one of the final really high points of All-Star Squadron, as Uncle Sam gather the group to cross dimensions and defend the America Earth X from an Axis invasion force (after having failed with an earlier group of heroes). So Johns and Goyer aren't really adding that much in that regard. 

My gut feeling is the Johns and Goyer were aiming a little higher than usual with this story, but weren't otherwise working harder than usual -- not on Alan Moore's level, certainly. But then again, pre-emptive strikes, desert wars, etc., were all around us in those days, and not every fish notices the water through which it swims. It's been a decade since I've read these, though -- when I was swimming in the same water -- so I can't offer any real judgement on it either way.

I haven'd had a chance to read your latest column, so I can't comment on that quite yet, either. I'll get to it more quickly than I got to this one, though! 

Rob said:

My gut feeling is the Johns and Goyer were aiming a little higher than usual with this story, but weren't otherwise working harder than usual -- not on Alan Moore's level, certainly.

Thank goodness for that. He would have brought in Miss Haviisham, Winston Smith and Piggy and had them all boinkng or something.

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