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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Figserello said:

...... 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.

This unfortunately sounds like the set-up that was arranged for the Blackwater mercenaries. They were exempted from military prosecution and Iraqi prosecution. Since any crimes they committed happened in Iraq they couldn't be prosecuted in the U.S. This probably made them the only people on the planet that could do anything they wanted with no fear of prosecution.

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?

Looking at these fictional versions of the military and clandestine services, I think it's fair to say they are not the same as the real thing. War should always be the last resort because war is messy, horrible and imperfect, even with the best of intentions. As for what they "got up to over there" , I'm pretty sure the allies in The Good War killed plenty of women and children when they bombed the #$&*@ out of Germany and Japan. War has ALWAYS been like this, which is why no one should go to war lightly.

I don't agree with your conclusion that the U.S. public no longer supports the military. I think this was the case in Vietnam because it was the first TV war. People who had only seen war in idealized movies were shocked by what they saw in their living rooms. I don't think actual war veterans were surprised by what they saw. Then later in the war when TV showed soldiers smoking dope the public conflated all this with "losing" the war, while we won most of the battles. We were then seen as doped-up baby killers. The military just goes where the civilian leadership sends it. When the civilian leadership says come home, they come home. At least today when support for a war declines it doesn't automatically translate into a decline of support for the people doing the fighting. The reason there is little interest in the general public is that most people don't have "skin in the game", with an all-volunteer military. As a group, my friends and relatives include almost no military veterans, and have almost no children in the military.

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.

The crowds in Watchmen were demanding that the mystery men go away because the police had gone on strike for that purpose. This was a pretty unbelievable situation but we bought it in the context of the story.

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