The Trial of Atom-Smasher and the winding down of JSA volume 1 (JSA #76)

I was trying to keep up with the Baron’s Justice Society thread, but a long break at Christmas away from my comics and/or a keyboard made me fall behind, and then I found it very hard to work up the enthusiasm to get back into the Johnsian Sturm und Drang again. These comics get harder and harder to enjoy as far as I'm concerned.  Johns is a skilled comics artificer, and there's a lot here I should enjoy, in theory at least, but his blind spots and sometimes blatantly irresponsible approach just keep accumulating and detract from the enjoyment for me.

 

Given that I spent so much time looking at where these comics intersected with the times they were produced for and within (context, baby, context!) I did want to say something about issue 76, which served as a postscript to all the interventions and adventuring in the Middle East that our team did over the course of the run.

 

Although there were complaints in the Baron’s thread about it, I have to say that I admired how Johns kept returning to Kahndaq to develop the subject a little further each time.  Unfortunately, whether due to the time pressures he was under, or some kind of lack of insight on his part, there were a lot of blind spots on display regarding what the US was doing over this period.  It was a subject I was very glad to see being addressed, and I think the loading on of meaningful metaphors that we saw in the comics I examined in my JSA columns showed that superhero comics could potentially be a good vehicle for such explorations. There was also a quagmire of ambiguity that his storytelling fell into when vigilante actions by individual superheroes were being conflated with actions and policies by actual nations in the real world, and some kind of non-existent equivalency was being set up, instead of being broken down more rigorously.

 

On the plus side, it was amazing to see that things set up around issue 15 or so, with the hijacking of the airplane with Atom-Smasher's mother on board , were played out right up to this issue 76 under discussion.  At around the 40-50,000 sales mark, JSA wasn't such a great seller (although not a bad one either), but it's good that DC supported consistency and a devoted audience to that extent, allowing Johns the space to tell such a longform story, and allowing the creators to tell the story they wanted.  That Johns was evidently successfully beating a path to the corporate boardroom at this time, did no harm to JSA's good stewardship either.  We all know of so many good comics runs that would have been so much better if only they'd been supported like this and allowed to develop at their own pace with the strands reaching their natural conclusions.  It’s also amazing to see that a huge years-long arc, starting with a plane hijack story published long before 9/11, should then play out as an allegory for the War on Terror, amongst other things

 

Sometimes I bemoan how Big Two stories start to sprawl over lots of issues and series, when they could do with being more concise, focused and well-crafted, not to mention accessible to a wider readership. However, a good comics longform story offers its own pleasures too, when done well and there is someone with a plan at the helm, as here.

 

Anyway, to get back to issue 76 and the wrap-up of the Kahndaq stories, it does pay lipservice to the idea that those with the power to affect change have to act within the constraints of the law.  Atom-Smasher does the right thing in handing himself over to the forces of law and justice after, in the words of the Baron, "murderin’ all those people”. This is a very good thing, as superhero comics are built on ideas of vigilantism, and the notion that having power itself is reason enough to use it.  That's a dangerous, almost fascistic starting point, and comics have to question it wherever possible, if it can't be got rid of completely.

 

Alas! It looks very like most of the JSA don't agree with Atom-Smasher, nor does Johns either, in his heart of hearts.  The arguments on going the lawful route sound very half-hearted in the characters mouths, and we get a lot the mealy-mouthed objections and arguments for preferential treatment from characters we are evidently supposed to respect.  They are essentially arguing from privilege again.  The law should be different for people like themselves, they seem to be saying; people in an elite long-respected superteam, who mean well.  This is a very dangerous argument, as I've said before, and something that immediately runs into trouble as soon as you apply it to the real world.  If we can't apply what Johns is arguing to the real world that we live in, then we have to wonder what the point of the whole series is?

 

I'd like to discuss it further, but it sems its not a discusion that is much encouraged these days.  One of the problems with comics of the modern era is how the writers and companies try to insist that their stories are actually about something, especially when they think they are making some kind of ‘progressive’ point, such as a new Muslim hero appearing, or a gay couple getting married, but when dodgy philosophies (usually rightwing reactionary attitudes, at that) become apparent, the creators immediately run behind the defence of "it's only a comic".  I've seen this quite a few times in interviews or exchanges with fans who call them on it.

 

There is also an interesting subtext in the Atom-Smasher arguments, but we've seen it more overtly in previous issues, where the older Golden Age heroes are at a loss as to how to play things.  There is an implied critique of their insistence on playing the game by the old-fashioned values that their generation brought to the world with such quaint devices as the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. 

 

It looks like neither Johns nor DC are very interested in controlling the (often rightwing and reactionary) messages that their comics are parlaying - we've seen that numerous times in previous issues - so these comics do have a value in presenting us with the widely-held prejudices and presumptions that were extant :-) at the time they were produced.

 

I've just finished reading a book that covers the last few decades of US history in detail, called The Unwinding. (It was really great and everyone should read it, but that is by the by).  It was written by a chap called George Packer, and here is a very relevant line from a New Yorker article he wrote quite close to the late-2005 publication date of JSA #76:

 

At the time of the [9/11] attacks, few educated Americans born after 1950 had any direct experience of war or persecution or cataclysmic failure. After 9/11, this gap in the résumés of intellectuals gave them both a sense of inadequacy—an outbreak of envy for the Greatest Generation—and a compensatory tendency to inflate the drama of the war on terror and their own role in it.

 

It’s just funny to see that envy and comparison of our generation with the ‘Greatest Generation’ being acted out in these comics.  Johns tries to make that very case that the WWII superheroes didn’t have to deal with the moral complexity and hard (not to mention rightwing and reactionary) choices that the Warriors on Terror of the Noughties had to.

 

Anyway, sorry if this has been going over old ground.  The pointlessness of this post is compounded by the fact that the Baron’s discussion has moved on, well past this point, but it was just niggling at me that I've been wanting to bring some closure to my thoughts on this strand of Johns long-form tale since the Baron’s discussion of JSA vol 1 drew to a close.  JSA volume 1 is an exceptional comics series in many ways, for all my problems with it, and I felt like I wanted to try to do it ...er... justice. I found it fascinating that Johns was virtually pleading with us to consider his tale in the context of its times and perhaps give him brownie points for his earnest attempts to grapple with the issues of the day (I certainly would), but there was very little discussion of that angle in the Baron’s thread. 

 

Ah well, thanks for letting me get it all off my chest!  Now back to discussing how comics of 10 years ago relate solely to comics of 30, 50 or 70 years ago…

(And look out for a couple of further pathetically late posts from me on some subsequent JSA comics that I did go to the bother and expense of buying back in the day, but wasn't able to dig out in time to follow the Baron's discussion, lo! these many weeks ago ... )

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Interesting stuff, Figs. I always enjoy what you write. You see things that I don't, and that makes you a good person to have around!

...but there was very little discussion of that angle in the Baron's thread.

 

 

I'm just not a deep thinker like you are, Figs! ;)

Hey Figs, a nice overview article to bring the themes and analysis home.

Atom-Smasher does the right thing in handing himself over to the forces of law and justice after, in the words of the Baron, "murderin’ all those people”. 

I've been getting back into 52 in preparation to start posting again and one of the things that smacked me in the upcoming issues is Atom Smasher following the "government" blindly and joining up with the Suicide Squad.  The Squad's actions really precipitate the war with Kahndaq.  So, the story continues... :)

This is a very good thing, as superhero comics are built on ideas of vigilantism, and the notion that having power itself is reason enough to use it.  That's a dangerous, almost fascistic starting point, and comics have to question it wherever possible, if it can't be got rid of completely.

A recent storyline in Astro City involved people with powers that just use them as part of their everyday careers; no vigilantism involved.  An interesting idea for a story here or there, but one, that if used to any great extent, would probably remove a lot of the excitement from the stories. 

...but there was very little discussion of that angle in the Baron's thread.

 

I'm just not a deep thinker like you are, Figs! ;)

 

I wasn't really blaming anyone.  We come to these comics for different things, and we come to discussion boards for different things.  I just find comics written in a certain mode to be a good window through which to view attitudes and viewpoints that aren't normally discussed so readily.

 

I loved George Orwell's essays where he examined various aspects of English society by looking at their popular entertainments.  They are always worth a read:

 

The Art of Donald McGill

The Decline of the English Murder

I've been getting back into 52 in preparation to start posting again and one of the things that smacked me in the upcoming issues is Atom Smasher following the "government" blindly and joining up with the Suicide Squad.  The Squad's actions really precipitate the war with Kahndaq.  So, the story continues... :)
Yes.  The OCD in me would love to have seen links to the 52 discussion from the appropriate point in the JSA discussion, as a few threads are carried forward into 52 and then resumed 'One Year Later' (Or one year earlier when you thnk abnout it :-P )  The very first pages of the reconstituted Justice Society of America comic are a flashback to the World War III storyline that ended 52.
The Dr Fate part of Ralph's story also takes up where JSA leaves off, with the helmet being ownerless.
On the one hand, it annoys me when continuity becomes the whole point of superhero comics, but on the other, there are pleasures in tracing the same characters and themes and storylines through very different comics over the years.  There is a satisfaction when it is done well, and the whole tapestry is managed carefully, so that past events are respected whilst new developments are set up as naturally and organically as possible.  From where I sit, 52 looks like the last hurrah of DC doing it well before the descent into editorial panic-inspired chaos that preceded the Flashpoint reboot.

This is a very good thing, as superhero comics are built on ideas of vigilantism, and the notion that having power itself is reason enough to use it.  That's a dangerous, almost fascistic starting point, and comics have to question it wherever possible, if it can't be got rid of completely.

 

A recent storyline in Astro City involved people with powers that just use them as part of their everyday careers; no vigilantism involved.  An interesting idea for a story here or there, but one, that if used to any great extent, would probably remove a lot of the excitement from the stories.


No, superhero comics would cease to exist as a recogniseable genre if the dodgy ideas of use of force and vigilantism were questioned too strongly, or repudiated altogether.  It's just that they are such dodgy foundations to build stories on that they have to be questioned a little now and again, and some acknowledgement made that that way lies fascism, and that never ends well.

And we don't have to look far to see the kind of approach that I am advocating.  On the face of it, that is exactly what Johns is doing with Atom-Smasher's storyline.  He explores the idea of taking justice into your own hands and foregoing any legal steps or framework to do so, and over a commendably long sustained series of storylines too.

The whole Atom-Smasher storyline really exists in the shadow of Alan Moores' Marvelman/Miracleman.  That too explored how a superhero with the ability to enact change decides to use that ability.  And there's Black Adam, in the role of KId Marvelman/Johnny Bates, too.  As our Captain showed there's a direct line between Black Adam and Johnny Bates.  Johns is kind of bringing it all home here, himself. "One of us" gone bad.  Because it is part of DC's ongoing line, the great scheme has to be contained in a foreign country. 

On the face of it, Johns does all the right things, with Atom-Smasher handing himself in and subjecting himself to the same law the rest of us schlubs have to follow.  On the face of it, this whole Atom-Smasher storyline shows how you can have all the revenge plotlines and vigilante power fantasies you want in superhero comics, but there is a responsibility to show that society as we enjoy it is incompatible with vigilantism.

Thinking some more about it, though, it 's clear that Johns only does this because it's what superheroes in the comics he's grown up reading would do.  I don't think Johns truly understands how a civilised society depends on the rule of law to prevent the powerful doing whatever they please in the name of 'Justice' or 'Revenge' or whatever.   The framework of laws and civil and legal rights that we have (and that superheroes generally ignore or work around) were developed to ensure that the weak had some protections when the powerful decided pick on them.  Further, they are there to ensure that those we invest with power over us, such as the police and the politicians, don't abuse that power. Johns displayed his lack of interest in where our civil and legal rights come from, or their fundamental importance to society, in his Batman Earth One OGN, where Commissioner Gordan decides that he can throw away the rulebook in order to tackle criminality in Gotham.  (Remember how Wildcat's admissions of perverting justice were similarly also shrugged off?)

The main point I wanted to make about JSA #76 was the undercurrent of approval for Atom-Smasher's actions that run through it, and the sense of disgust that there should be any system of stays or restraint on powerful people who wanted to act outside the law.  Unflattering portrayals of the dumb mob protesting against out-of-control heroes (as well they may) was a very familiar sight in comics of the last decade or so, so it's not just Johns who has this blind spot.

If I recall correctly Atom Smasher was in jail at the end of this storyline when Amanda Waller showed up to recruit him.

No, superhero comics would cease to exist as a recogniseable genre if the dodgy ideas of use of force and vigilantism were questioned too strongly, or repudiated altogether.  It's just that they are such dodgy foundations to build stories on that they have to be questioned a little now and again, and some acknowledgement made that that way lies fascism, and that never ends well.

While the use of force is part and parcel of virtually all super heroes, I'm not as convinced that vigilantism is quite so intrinsic.  It seems a significant portion of heroes these days function as government agents and/or have government oversight.  Throw in all the teams that seem to function as "special" forces for the armed services and I think you could make a pretty good case that vigilantism is not only not required but that today's comics, in general, are starting to take a small step away from it.  (Even some of the vocabulary is changing, as we tend to have less Crises and more Wars.)  At the big 2, super heroes are embracing the system and vice versa.

Part of the problem of that is how often the system is portrayed as ignoring its own laws.

I think it's important that we remember the cultural milieu in which super-heroes evolved in the late 30's and early 40's. It's not something that's talked about so much now, but up until the war started (at least), fascism was not the universally-reviled thing that it is now. If you look into it, there was a certain amount of sneaking (and some not-so-sneaking) admiration for what was perceived as the way the fascists had "turned things around" in Europe. Certainly their "dynamism" impressed alot of people. I remember someone here (The Skipper, maybe?) talking about how the Blackhawks, even though they were "good guys" used alot of the trappings of fascism - particularly their snazzy black uniforms, which weren't a whole world away from the sort of thing the SS woere.

  In a time of desperation order can look attractive.  But I've never seen the heroes as oppressive in the normal comic book world, but I've seen the US and other governments portrayed badly almost all of the time.

Border Mutt said:

While the use of force is part and parcel of virtually all super heroes, I'm not as convinced that vigilantism is quite so intrinsic. It seems a significant portion of heroes these days function as government agents and/or have government oversight. Throw in all the teams that seem to function as "special" forces for the armed services and I think you could make a pretty good case that vigilantism is not only not required but that today's comics, in general, are starting to take a small step away from it. (Even some of the vocabulary is changing, as we tend to have less Crises and more Wars.) At the big 2, super heroes are embracing the system and vice versa.

I take issue with the term vigilante regarding most superheroes. The Punisher is definitely a vigilante, as he acts as the policeman, judge, jury, and literally executioner. Apprehending a criminal (a citizen's arrest) is not automatically vigilantism. If the alleged criminal is turned over to legal authority and then gores through the normal legal process it is not vigilantism. If you set up an extra-legal prison in the Negative Zone, or execute the person it is vigilantism.

From merriam-webster.com:

vig·i·lan·te
noun \ˌvi-jə-ˈlan-tē\ : a person who is not a police officer but who tries to catch and punish criminals

Full Definition of VIGILANTE: a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice

I think "and punish" creates the distinction between a citizen's arrest and vigilantism. 

Interestingly, it goes on to say that the word derives from the Spanish word for watchman.

Also in the 1930s, there seemed to be a "shoot on sight" mentality in the Government for such people as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, et al.

Fantastic points all round!

 

While the use of force is part and parcel of virtually all super heroes, I'm not as convinced that vigilantism is quite so intrinsic.  It seems a significant portion of heroes these days function as government agents and/or have government oversight.  Throw in all the teams that seem to function as "special" forces for the armed services and I think you could make a pretty good case that vigilantism is not only not required but that today's comics, in general, are starting to take a small step away from it.  (Even some of the vocabulary is changing, as we tend to have less Crises and more Wars.)  At the big 2, super heroes are embracing the system and vice versa.

 

Now that is a whole other can of worms!  My short answer is that with this 'solution', the government looked into the abyss and the abyss looked back into them.  In other words, in trying to make the actions of the superheroes more legitimate by connecting them to the government, they made the government less legitimate by associating it with the actions of these largely unregulated and poorly overseen loose cannons: an elite group actually, who don't seem to have to answer for any of their mistakes or miscalculations or moral lapses.

 

We could talk about this all day actually.  The militarisation of superheroes is THE big change that has come over superhero comicbooks in the last 10 years.  As with so many aspects of modern comics that make me uncomfortable, you can see them taking shape here in this very transitional series of JSA.

 

As Mark S. helpfully put it above:  If I recall correctly Atom Smasher was in jail at the end of this storyline when Amanda Waller showed up to recruit him.

 

So what should be some kind of punishment, instead becomes a recruitment into a paramilitary arm of the government that doesn't have to worry too much about the legality of its actions, so long as it's done in the name of 'national security'.

 

I can see that the 'licencing' of the heroes to work for the defence forces/government is a way out of the problem of vigilantism that superhero comics present.  However, the writers then sleepwalked into uncritically portraying an elite group who can solve things much easier with force and by ignoring any rules that might constrain them.  This is compounded by the frequent representations of the crowds of people that naturally would protest against this state of affairs as misled dummies and liberal trouble-making hand-wringers.  (Again, it's there in JSA #76.  What a helpful text.)

 

I think it was in Fear Itself that we had the President trying to contact Captain America to ask him what to do next.  Just who was democratically elected in that scenario?  Who answers to who? 

 

This elitist, anti-democratic subtext is just all over the comics of the last decade and more.  Mark S is 100% right when he says that we are repeatedly asked to swallow that these guys don't have to answer for any of their failings and mis-steps and moral lapses.  (And the get-out-of-jail-free card that criminals can play of "I'm a hero now...")  It isn't just a little something that we occasionally have to overlook in order to continue enjoying the chin-punching, alien-blasting adventures of our childhood heroes.  Their position above any of the rules and regulations that govern us poor slobs is what these stories, in aggregate, are about, and perhaps the very reason that they are enjoyed by their by now very specialised audience.

 

And I have to wonder why superhero comics have become so mesmerised by the military, and such boosters of miltiary ideals, in the last decade, when the US has become very disillusioned with the military.  The USA withdrew very reluctantly from both Afghanistan and Iraq without accomplishing much in that time.  The public hasn't evidenced much pride in what they got up to 'over there' and have more or less completely withdrawn any interest in military activities, or the consequences on the young recruits of their service.  Why did worship of the military survive in this one little enclave of popular culture? 

 

Which brings us to the Baron's very insightful and relevant point about the origins of superheroes and what they owe to the sneaking (and not so sneaking) regard that people had for militaristic, quasi-fascistic solutions back in the 30s and 40s.  It looks to me like the last decade has brought all that back home in superhero comics.  Military solutions, paramilitary organisations and the cutting of corners by a few 'Strong Men' are practically fetishised every month in the Big Two's comics.

 

(Mussolini identified Fascism with Corporatism, so it's not surprising that we don't have to look far for corporations in the equation either...)

 

Great points about Vigilantism, Richard.  Yes, the likes of Spider-man tying up the villains for the police was one way around the troubling implications of what superheroes are about.  It's something anyway.  I'm happy to live with a compromise like that in order that we can see these guys doing their stuff year after year.  In the real world, Spider-man would be continuously endangering the public with his non-licenced 'justice-doing' and the public would be well within its rights to expect him to be shut down. 

 

And then there are all the deals with people like the Punisher and Wolverine that the rest of the superheroes make.  How is Captain America different to either if he works with them habitually?  That's a form of approval.  How does Cap stand for some ideal, when these are the people he's in bed with?

 

Your watchman reference makes me think about the crowds protesting against the 'Mystery Men' in that series.  When I first read it, I found the protestors to have come in from left field somewhat.  What were they doing in a superhero comic, having such a central role in shutting the heroes down?  I hadn't seen their like much before in superhero comics, except in X-Men comics maybe, and those guys were just bigots.

 

But as ever, Moore completely forsaw where comics were going and was there decades before anyone else saw there might be a problem.  One of the many reasons it's a classic.

 

I take issue with the term vigilante regarding most superheroes. [...] If you set up an extra-legal prison in the Negative Zone, or execute the person it is vigilantism.

 

Considering that the latter kind of activities have become more and more common in comics, with blind eyes and selective amnesia being turned on them by supposedly more scrupulous heroes (de facto aiding and betting, as the JSA did with Wildcat), modern superheroes generally are much more like vigilantes than heretofore, by your own definitions.

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