So far, we’ve taken a look at super-villains who had the brains and the power, but fell woefully short in the strategy department. Guys like the Lord of Time and Headmaster Mind, who left holes in their plans big enough for the entire JLA to charge through. And then there were fellows like Pete Ricketts and Joe Parry, who suffered from terminal stupidity. When luck dropped nearly invincible power into their laps, they showed themselves to be so inept that it was almost an embarrassment that it took the JLA to defeat them.
So what does that say about the villain who stands in the number-one spot, the very worst of this line-up of losers?
Before I reveal the JLA foe whose performance places him as the lamest of the lame, let’s look at the factors which earned him that dubious distinction.
■ A genuinely menacing villain possesses the raw power, either innately or in the weapons at his disposal, to potentially overcome and eliminate the Justice League.
The Lord of Time, and even Pete Ricketts and Joe Parry, could claim this. The others on the list had, at least, a good enough gimmick to have given a single JLA member a tough time. Not so for the Number One spot-holder.
■ A true JLA foe is playing for high stakes. We’re talking fate of the Earth, or the universe itself, in the balance. At the least, there’s the threat of crime on a major scale.
Of all the villainy attempted by this list of losers, the crime attempted by the baddie I’ve rated as Number One was the most mundane---a routine matter for the police department, not the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes.
■ An evil-doer challenging the Justice League is willing, even eager, to destroy the super-heroes.
For all their other failings, the other villains who made the list were more than ready to do this. But not the Number One. Oh, no---he wanted no part of the JLA and only fought when he was cornered. That made him smarter than, say, Johnny Marbles. But it hardly fills the reader with a sense of dread when the bad guy spends most of the issue trying not to get found.
It boiled down to this: of the elements that a threat should have to justify the involvement of the Justice League of America---or even only five or six of the members, per Fox’s later formula---this particular criminal lacked them all. Ace, the Bat-Hound could have caught this guy.
And, so, the countdown ends with . . . .
1. “Bullets” Jameson (JLA # 62 [May, 1968])
Like many of Gardner Fox’s scripts, “Panic from a Blackmail Box” is intricately plotted. In this case, Fox weaves several different motives into one tight knot. It’s smartly done, but younger readers of the day probably had a difficult time keeping the threads straight.
It begins with a splash-page flashback to 1945 and a man in a motorboat. A sudden, violent squall overturns the craft, plunging the man into the cold depths of Lake Michamaw. He clutches a metal box, refusing to let go of it, even as it drags him to a watery death. Twenty-three years later, a fisherman’s hook snags the handle of the box and brings it to the surface.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we learn that two men residing in Lakeside City suddenly have had their lives upended. One, Harold Loomis, wealthy C.E.O. of the Loomis Electronics Corporation, discovers that he is actually the son of Leo Locke, a notorious gangster killed twenty-five years earlier. The other man is noted archæologist Homer Gridley, whose earliest historical discoveries have been uncovered as frauds, committed by Gridley himself to establish his reputation.
Both men receive the news from reporters for the Lakeside City Tribune. The newsmen show Loomis and Gridley photocopies of documents which unmistakably establish the truth.
Things get worse for Harold Loomis, in particular. A few days after the Tribune publishes both stories, the morning mail brings Loomis an unsigned message---a red bullet! Loomis has checked up on Leo Locke, the man he now knows was his father. A quarter of a century ago, the Mob had put out a contract on Locke and his family. They got to Locke’s wife and Locke himself died in an accident.
The Mob had been unaware that Locke had had a son---until the Lakeside City Tribune published the story about Harold Loomis. The scarlet slug is a message to Loomis that the contract is still open. Determined to get revenge on the informer who sent the damning evidence to the newspaper, Harold Loomis reaches into his desk drawer for a gun.
On the other side of town, Harold Gridley, bitter over the ruin of his career, has the same goal. He reaches for a pistol as well.
That night, as Tribune editor Marley Thorne walks home, someone fires at shot at him from the shadows of a near-by alley. The attacker is startled when he sees a second gunman also take a shot at Thorne. Both slugs narrowly miss their target and the terrified editor flees for his life.
Right about now, a reader might have been wondering what all of this had to do with the Justice League of America. He was about to find out.
Thorne, it develops, is the brother-in-law of Barry (the Flash) Allen. Barry and his wife, Iris, are visiting the newsman, who excitedly blurts out the details of his brush with death.
Now, if this were an issue of The Flash, Barry would have told Thorne that he was going down to the drug store for some ice cream, then once out the door, he would have changed into the Fastest Man Alive, and wrapped up this case before the letter column.
But since it’s an issue of Justice League of America, instead Barry simply studies recent issues of the Tribune. Then, the next day, after the conclusion of an uneventful regular meeting of the Justice League, the Flash chats it up with the members who haven’t gone home, yet. He suspects Harold Loomis and Homer Gridley of having something to do with the attack on his brother-in-law.
The Scarlet Speedster and the other lingerers---the Atom, the Batman, Green Lantern, and Hawkman---are about to break up when their police-band radio reports that a gang called the Pyrotekniks has just robbed a Lakeside City Bank. Batman and the Atom and Hawkman take interest because the same gang has also hit their respective cities, as well.
They decide to accompany the Flash back to Lakeside City. Green Lantern figures, “Oh, what the hell,” and goes along with them.
In Lakeside City, while the other Justice Leaguers go over the details of the Pyrotekniks’ bank hold-up, the Flash consults with Marley Thorne. The Crimson Comet asks to see the metal box that contained the information indicting Harold Loomis and Homer Gridley. That’s when Thorne discovers that the box has been stolen from his office safe.
Before the Flash can ask, “Hey, Batman, what do you make of this?”, word comes that the Pyrotekniks are in the middle of a jewel heist. The JLA rushes off to intercept the criminal gang.
The Pyrotekniks are well named. The crooks hit the approaching heroes with multi-colour blasts from their peculiar side-arms. The discharges have a strobe-light effect and disorient the JLAers briefly. Their worst effect is to render Green Lantern unconscious.
Not that the other four Leaguers have any real problem with the gang. The pyrotechnic blasts jolt Our Heroes’ minds and bodies a bit, but nothing they can’t shake off. Still, it’s a bit off-putting (and shows that Gardner Fox was padding the story) when the Justice League---who had readily dealt with such fearsome menaces as the Demons Three, Starro the Conqueror, and the Crime Syndicate---take a whole five pages to take out a half-dozen ordinary crooks carrying tricked-out flashguns.
Still, it sets us up for the big surprise. The leader of the Pyrotekniks is---Leo Locke!
You may have noticed, gang, that we’ve nearly reached the end of the first half of the adventure, and there hasn’t been a glimmer of Bullets Jameson in the picture, yet.
Patience, friends. We’re about to get to him. Well, a mention of him, at least. You see, Bullets Jameson wasn’t the kind of villain to take the spotlight in a major criminal production. He’s just a simple mobster trying to do his job the best he knows how. In fact, Bullets would have been just as happy if the Justice League had gone home and forgotten his name.
Behind bars, the very-much-alive Leo Locke ties together several of the dangling ends for the JLAers.
“Twenty-five years ago, I tried to take over this territory from Bullets Jameson and his Bulleteers gang by ratting on them to the police! They escaped the trap---and put a death-curse on me and my family! Although they got my wife, I managed to sneak away with my son---whom I left at the doorstep of the rich Loomis family, figuring that since they had no kids, they might adopt him!”
Locke goes on to explain that he staged his own death in an accident. Then, he formed his own gang, which eventually became the Pyrotekniks. He and his minions were ready to wipe out the Bulleteers and take over their territory, like he had planned years ago. Until Locke and his men were caught by the Justice League.
Our Heroes are curious as to why the hardened gangster is so talkative. It’s because Locke needs their help.
Not too long ago, Locke was fishing in Lake Michamaw and his line snagged a metal box. Inside the box were documents dated 1945, obtained by a private investigator. These were the records that named Harold Loomis’ true father and exposed Homer Gridley’s first successes as fraudulent. (Here, Gardner Fox’s frequent reliance on convenient coïncidence appears.)
Locke was the one who sent the documents to the Lakeside City Tribune. He couldn’t have cared less about Homer Gridley, but he deliberately exposed his own son’s identity in order to draw Bullets Jameson to Lakeside City---where Locke and his Pyrotekniks could kill him!
Part Two opens with the Justice Leaguers discovering that neither Harold Loomis nor Homer Gridley have been seen for days. Hawkman throws together a Thanagarian gizmo which enables him to track Loomis’ unique “body radiations”. They pick up Loomis’ trail at the Tribune safe from which the metal box had been stolen and follow it to a cave in near-by Lakeside Mountain.
Here, the JLAers find Loomis and Homer Gridley, working out their next move. What Our Heroes don’t know is that a couple of the Bulleteer mobsmen have also found the cave. The crooks drive off to inform Bullets Jameson of Loomis’ hiding place.
Fortunately, the Batman intuits that, if the Justice League could find Loomis, then so could Bullets Jameson. The super-heroes scour the region just outside the cave and find the footprints and tyre tracks left by Jameson’s men. With the help of Green Lantern’s power ring, the JLAers follow the tracks down a country road that leads to an abandoned stone fort---the hide-out of Bullets Jameson!
Jameson has no desire to tangle with the JLA; he knows he’s not in their---er---league. He and his five underlings huddle in the heart of the fortress, hoping that the death traps Jameson installed for protection will stop the approaching super-heroes.
They don’t, of course. In fact, the only casualty suffered by the Leaguers occurs after they penetrate the central chamber---when a gimmicked ceiling tile conks Green Lantern on the noggin, knocking him cold. Here, on page 19, Bullets Jameson makes his first appearance on stage. With no place to run, their backs against the wall, he and his gang draw their guns, hoping that slugs will stop the advancing Justice Leaguers.
The Bulleteers scarcely make a show of it. It only takes eight panels for the four JLAers still on their feet to put them down for the count.
The story would be over---except for the fact that Jameson had the foresight to booby-trap the room where he kept his stolen loot. A low-level explosive device triggers, blasting Batman, Hawkman, the Atom, and the Flash into unconsciousness.
Jameson and his boys grab their guns and prepare to pump hot lead into the fallen super-heroes. Before they can do so, Harold Loomis and Homer Gridley interrupt with their own weapons drawn. The odds are six-to-two against Loomis and Gridley, but their guns are both aimed at Bullets. No matter what happens, Gridley points out, Jameson won’t make it out of there alive.
While Jameson considers his options, Green Lantern, unnoticed, recovers from his bump on the head. The Emerald Gladiator then ends the Mexican standoff by melting all of the guns with a burst from his power ring.
That brings us to page 23 and the usual smiles-all-around JLA ending.
It’s probably occurred to you that Gardner Fox wrote a corker of a mystery. I agree; he did. He even employed one of Lester Dent’s favourite plot devices in his Doc Savage novels, of having two criminal outfits working against each other.
Yes, it’s a great case---for Perry Mason or Rip Kirby or Joe Mannix. But as a Justice League adventure, it’s underwhelming. It lacks the Earth-shattering threat or overarching evil that one expects to be present in a case that requires several super-heroes banding together to defeat. There’s no cosmic drama here. It’s a crime novel, with the Justice League jammed in place of the usual detective hero.
And that’s why Bullets Jameson is the lamest of all the JLA’s Silver-Age foes.
It’s not that he was ludicrous, even slightly---like Nameless Nutt or Headmaster Mind. Nor was he stupid, like Johnny Marbles.
No super-powers. No highly advanced intellect. No laboratory full of death-dealing creations. He didn’t even have a super-weapon fall into his lap, like Pete Ricketts and Joe Parry. All he had was a gun.
The Earth certainly wasn’t in any danger from Jameson. World-domination wasn’t on his to-do list. He wasn’t even building a massive criminal empire; he was having a hard enough time just holding on to his Lakeside City territory. Bullets was a run-of-the–mill gangster, going about doing typical crook business. Commissioner Gordon wouldn’t even light off the Bat-signal for that.
Pitting the Justice League of America against Bullets Jameson was like calling out a S.W.A.T. team to tackle a litterbug.
In a letter to the JLA Mail Room appearing in JLA # 65 (Sep., 1968), David Lewin, of Lomita, California, commented on “Panic from a Blackmail Box”. In criticising the lacklustre threat posed by Bullets Jameson and his Bulleteers, he said it best:
“I just hope that the next issue doesn’t find the JLA overpowering little Johnny who forged his parents’ signature to his report card.”
Unfortunately for Bullets Jameson and his standing as the most unworthy Silver-Age JLA foe, Gardner Fox never wrote a story about little Johnny.