Deck Log Entry # 93 Persistence of Villain: the Silver-Age JLA's Most Stubborn Foes (Part 3)

In winding up my look at the Silver-Age Justice League’s most persistent foes, we turn to one villain who tried to destroy the League the hard way. Or the smart way, depending on how you look at it.

Doctor Light, “that luminous wizard”, has experienced his ups and downs as a credible super-villain. By the early 1980’s, under the handling of later writers, Dr. Light had been transformed into a pompous incompetent, only a real threat if he accidentally did something right. To a whole generation of comics fans, he was a running joke. Then, in 2004, mystery novelist Brad Meltzer wrote Identity Crisis, a mini-series which not only provided an in-continuity explanation for Dr. Light’s slide into ineptitude, but restored him as a villain whose enormity of crime was genuinely calculated.

Meltzer’s plot returned the character to his roots because ruthless was certainly the way Dr. Light was depicted the first time he tried to destroy the Justice League, in a tale forebodingly titled “The Last Case of the Justice League”, from JLA # 12 (Jun., 1962).

It opened the way many early League stories did, with Snapper Carr. In this case, the JLA’s honorary member is about to land the certain first-prize winner in a fishing competition. Suddenly, his emergency signal starts buzzing like an angry hornet. Snap drops his pole, hops in his roadster, and “makes tracks” for the Secret Sanctuary. As the youngster rushes into the meeting room, he is waylaid by Dr. Light, making his first appearance on stage.

As with many of the JLA’s Silver-Age foes, Dr. Light’s powers were based on, shall we say, creative scientific principles supplied by writer Gardner Fox. In this case, as Light bragged to Snapper Carr, all the other physicists had it wrong and only he had uncovered the real nature of light. Something to do with the stimulation of the electrons in orbit around atoms, and by controlling which electrons were affected and how, the villain was able to induce light rays with unusual properties.

Dr. Light worked years in his laboratory, creating a number of light-based devices. He decided the next logical step, of course, was to take over the world. Realising that the Justice League of America stood between him and world domination, Light initiated a plan to destroy the super-heroes.

The boastful criminal informs the JLA’s honorary member that he succeeded in eliminating those champions of justice quite handily. Snapper denies it. Not only did he finish them off, Light insists, he’s going to publish a record of it, like any good scientist. He compels Snapper to make a handwritten account of the events.

Dr. Light’s scheme began with Aquaman. Poor Aquaman. To many modern comics fans, the Sea King is the Rodney Dangerfield of super-heroes---he swims underwater and talks to fish. Big deal. Unfortunately, this situation doesn’t do much to dispel that perception.

Light determined to make Aquaman his initial target because he “alone of all the Justice League members has no dual identity and so will be easy to track down!” I would argue that a super-hero who patrols the oceans, comprising three-quarters of the Earth’s area, might not be so easy to bump into. But who am I to argue with a criminal mastermind? Dr. Light finds him right off. Following a “difficult struggle”---Fox’s script mentions that in the same defensive attitude used whenever the Batman was wailing the tar out of the Joker, yet would get staggered by a single punch, which the text would describe as “maniacal”---Dr. Light captures the Marine Marvel and subjects him to special lamps which compel him to reveal the Justice League’s secrets.

Then the villain forces Aquaman to activate his emergency signaler, summoning his fellow members. Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, J’onn J’onzz, Green Arrow, and the Flash arrive almost immediately, and Light petrifies them with a special light-projector. Gardner Fox makes a little in-joke at the way Superman and Batman had routinely been sidelined in the earlier JLA cases by having the script show Light waiting anxiously for their arrival. But the World’s Finest Team finally responds and the villain zaps them with the projector, too. “For awhile, I was afraid you two were tied up on a case, as you so often are,” Light remarks, “and wouldn’t show up here!”

With all eight regular members of the Justice League frozen in place, Dr. Light trains another weapon on them. This device, which emits waves that travel faster than conventional light, creates pathways to “sidereal worlds”. Instantly, the League members vanish, individually transported to sidereal worlds calculated to doom them.

Aquaman is transported to a desert world with no water. The Martian Manhunter lands on a planet of fiery geysers. The Flash finds his super-speed useless on a world which disrupts his sense of balance. Wonder Woman is banished to a world which interferes with her brain’s ability to transmit signals to her body. The planet on which the Green Arrow lands is a giant magnet for wood and thus he cannot use his bow or shafts. And the Green Lantern, of course, is trapped on a world where everything, even the air, is coloured yellow.

For Superman, Dr. Light chose as his world of imprisonment, a planet under a red sun, and for Batman, a land in which the laws of science do not apply.

Even as he writes down the details of Dr. Light’s account, Snapper activates his own signalling device. As the minutes tick by with no response from the super-heroes, he realises that the villainous master of light must be telling the truth. Once the document is completed, Dr. Light freezes Snapper in his chair and leaves him to die of thirst and hunger in the Secret Sanctuary.

Fortunately for the ol’ Snapster, things were not as hopeless as Dr. Light had calculated. Before answering the emergency signal, Superman and Batman employed one of their more common gambits, one they had used before and would be used, again (with almost always a reference to this adventure when it popped up). Because of this, the Man of Steel is not held captive on his sidereal world. He rescues J’onn J’onzz before the martian can succumb to the flaming geysers. In turn, the two of them free the remaining members from their alien death traps.

Returning to the Secret Sanctuary, the heroes release Snapper Carr from his paralysis. But things are only warming up. There is still the matter of apprehending Dr. Light. Based on hints the master criminal dropped during his recitation to Snapper, the JLA deduces three possible locations to seek him out.

Dividing into three sub-teams, the Leaguers race to the sites---and surprisingly, each JLA team finds Dr. Light there. Though surprised at the resurrection of the heroes, Dr. Light puts up a furious battle, using deadlier weapons this time, against each team of heroes. In fact, he manages to disintegrate Green Lantern in mid-air. Nevertheless, the good guys prevail in every case, and haul their prisoner back to the Secret Sanctuary. There, they ponder the enigma of three Dr. Lights.

It doesn’t stay a mystery long, thanks to the villain’s arrogance. The three Dr. Lights captured by the Justice League are only mirages of the real super-criminal, constructed from solid light. Even as they speak, the genuine Dr. Light is in his secret headquarters, about to pull the switch on a device which will blanket the world in special light impulses, overcoming everyone on Earth.

“They’re fading out!” exclaims J’onn J’onzz. “And there’s no time to seek out the real Doctor Light and stop him!”

Nevertheless, the adventure ends with the world not being overcome and Dr. Light in jail. How’s that? Well, let’s just say that Green Lantern wasn’t as dead as everyone thought, and you can put the rest of it together.

Like Doctor Destiny and Amos Fortune, Dr. Light just didn’t do his time, patent a couple of his inventions, make a pile of dough, and then spend the rest of his life relaxing on some beach, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them. No, he was pretty hacked off at the Justice Leaguers and spent his prison days formulating a new and improved plan for killing them.

As soon as he had one, he escaped. Dr. Light had managed to alter the bulb from the lamp in his prison cell so that it would emit the faster-than-light rays which enabled passage to sidereal worlds. In front of the prison guards, he walks through the wall of his cell into an alien landscape. Before anyone can pursue him, the altered lamp bulb burns out.

The first wrinkle in Dr. Light’s new scheme develops because the same day he escapes, lady lawyer Jean Loring is presenting the warden with a court order directing the release of another prisoner. Accompanying Jean is her boyfriend, Ray Palmer, a research scientist and, secretly, the super-hero known as the Atom. They are both on hand when word of Dr. Light’s escape is reported. This leads to the events of “Lockup in the Lethal Lightbulb”, from the Atom # 8 (Aug.-Sep., 1963).

The warden is aware of Palmer’s reputation for using his scientific skills to help the Ivy Town police, and Ray agrees to help. Taking the modified light bulb back to his university lab, he discovers that a tiny part of the bulb’s charred filament is undamaged, enough to fashion from it a tiny light bulb. Palmer does so, and when he turns it on, it works! A passage to the sidereal world of Dr. Light’s escape opens---too small to permit a full-sized man to enter, but not too small for the six-inch Atom.

The Tiny Titan enters the alien world, but before he can do much more than catch his breath, he is suddenly swept up by gale-force winds and carried to an ominous hilltop stronghold. A gust hurls him through a barred window, and into the clutches of Dr. Light.

Light’s battle with the Justice League had taken place before the Atom had become a member, but the Tiny Titan had heard about that case in one of the after-meeting JLA bull sessions. He’s been told what Dr. Light is capable of.

However, it’s one thing to hear about it; it’s another to experience it first-hand. The Atom puts up a pretty good fight, but frankly, Dr. Light has him beaten from the get-go. The Mighty Mite’s size-changing tricks are no match for the villain’s deadly light-based gimmicks. The Lord of Luminescence snares the Atom and disables his size-and-weight controls.

Light decides to use the Atom as a test case for his new method for destroying the Justice League. He imprisons the Tiny Titan in a light bulb filled with a gas which will, in five hours, reduce him to a gaseous mass. Then, in true criminal-mastermind tradition, he attends other business, leaving behind the hero in his death-trap.

That other business, as it turns out, is to return to Earth and lure the remaining JLA members into similar traps he has set. Dr. Light bathes the nearest large city with a distortion beam, turning the streets into a cubist arrangement, like something from one of Picasso’s nightmares. Cars crash. People walk into walls and tumble down staircases. Despite the chaos and destruction, the Justice League fails to respond. The perplexed super-villain tries again, attacking another city with vibratory light beams, causing the ground to swell and buildings to shake apart.

This is Dr. Light at his most bloodthirsty. Although the script doesn’t make a specific point of it, the magnitude of the disasters, as depicted in the art, could only have resulted in many deaths and scores of injuries. From auto collisions, falls, and collapsing masonry.

Despite dozens of urgent radio and television broadcasts, there is still no sign of the Justice League. In a rare, for DC, nod to inter-title continuity, Dr. Light’s rampage occurs at the same time the League is occupied on a mission in space (“Drones of the Queen Bee”, JLA # 23), and Fox’s script makes mention of that.

The malevolent criminal can only wring his hands in frustration. It’s about to get worse for him, though. The Atom has managed to free himself from the lethal light bulb and has returned to Earth using the pathway created by Dr. Light. Knowing he’ll lose a face-to-face confrontation with the super-villain, instead, the Tiny Titan kayos him with a sucker punch from behind. The day is saved.

But not for long. A year later, the evil master of light resurfaces in “Wizard of the Light-Wave Weapons”, from Green Lantern # 33 (Dec., 1964). Taking stock of his last two failures, Dr. Light decides to change tactics.

“When I first set out to oppose the Justice League of America, I took them all on at one time---and failed,” he declares. “My overall ambition still remains the same, but now I’m going to tackle the Justice League members one by one . . . .”

His first target is the Green Lantern, whom he lures into action by draping Coast City in an Aurora Borealis-like curtain of electrically charged light. When the Emerald Crusader arrives to dispel the eerie light-shower, the super-villain, with blood in his eye, ambushes him. It’s power beam versus light beam, and about a tight a match as it gets. When a beam of solid light from his lightolater knocks GL cold and sends him off the roof of a skyscraper, the arrogant Dr. Light chalks it up as his first JLA kill.

It’s never that simple, and Green Lantern survives to take on the evil Prince of Photons again, for round two. This time, Dr. Light attempts to take advantage of the power ring’s inability to affect the colour yellow (no doubt described in the monthly super-villains’ newsletter). But, to Light’s astonishment, it appears GL’s ring works just fine against his foe’s yellow constructs. He is so astounded, in fact, that he gets nailed flat-footed by the Emerald Gladiator.

(Now, I’m no dummy---I have a few initials after my name---but I’ve read over and over Green Lantern’s explanation to his buddy Pieface as to how he was able to make his ring work against Dr. Light’s yellow light-warrior, and I still can’t follow it. Even more puzzling is why GL never used the same trick the other 999 times he came up against a yellow enemy.)

It takes Light a few years to rear his evil head, again. Part of it spent, no doubt, in figuring out a new way to escape from prison, and the rest, to invent his photonikron---a device which bent light around its subject in such a manner that could change his appearance at will. It could even make a person appear as an animal or insect, or an inanimate object, such as a lamp or ashtray. The appearance is illusionary, but appears real, even to the touch. Armed with this, Dr. Light takes on his next target---the Flash---in “Here Lies the Flash---Dead and Unburied”, from The Flash # 171 (Jun., 1967).

Assuming the guise of “the Green Ghost”, Dr. Light commits a series of robberies in Central City. As he expected, this draws the attention of the Flash, who interrupts “the Ghost’s” next theft but is confounded when the crook vanishes before his very eyes. (Actually, Dr. Light has used his photonikron to change his appearance to that of a spider, ignored by the Scarlet Speedster.)

When the spoils of one of the Green Ghost robberies, a selection of rare gems, is found lying on the floor of the Flash Museum, the report brings the Crimson Comet to the scene. Actually, the jewels are Dr. Light himself, disguised by his photonikron. The Flash is caught off guard when the “pile of gems” suddenly launches a light-wave barrage. He recovers in time to evade the attack, only to fall to a “double-ambush”, when Dr. Light changes his appearance to that of Dexter Myles, custodian of the museum. “Myles” hits the Flash with a barrage of electric light, and the super-hero falls lifeless.

As a final indignity, Light uses his device to change the appearance of the Flash's body to that of a slab of concrete. Then he instals the "slab" into a sidewalk on one of Central City's main streets, where the Scarlet Speedster's disguised corpse will be stepped upon by hundreds of passers-by daily.

Once again, Dr. Light has been premature in scratching a super-hero's name from his hit list. The Flash was not dead, but comatose. Eventually, his consciousness returns, and after some public consternation over what is apparently an animated concrete slab, the Fastest Man Alive regains his normal appearance, mostly due to his often-forgotten secondary power of complete control over his body's molecules. In short order, it's then lights-out for Dr. Light.

The Prince of Photon's last Silver-Age go-round with the Justice League again occurs in the pages of its own magazine. However, this time, Dr. Light is actually an unknowing pawn of the real villain, Dr. Destiny. I gave the full run-down on "Operation: Jail the Justice League", from JLA # 61 (Mar., 1968), two entries ago. Light's part in it occurs when he sets his sights on his next chosen JLA victim, the Martian Manhunter. Instead, Dr. Destiny puts his fellow super-villain into a "dreaming sleep" and impersonates Light for the attack on J'onn J'onzz, whom for purposes germane to the plot is disguised as the Green Arrow. (Please don't make me go through all of that, again.)

The genuine Dr. Light doesn't appear on stage until the last act, when Destiny's main scheme has been foiled and he has to resort to Plan B, which is to bring Light and six more super-villains to the Secret Sanctuary, where they can whup up on the Justice Leaguers. It's not the Lord of Luminesence's finest hour---he gets stunned by a left hook from Hawkman, then taken out for good when the Atom clouts him in the jaw with his own light-weapon.

It was quite a comedown for Dr. Light, from formidable master villain to impotent underling. Now that I think about it, this is probably when his image started slipping. As the Silver Age passed into the Bronze Age, Dr.Light would take more stabs at killing the Justice Leaguers, both individually and as a group. But he never had the same aura of menace and readers no longer looked upon him as an "A-list" villain, and by the 1980's, he was about as threatening as a "Special Guest Villain" on Batman. It would take twenty years, and Brad Meltzer, before Dr. Light became a true figure of evil, again.

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Comment by Martin Gray on November 20, 2009 at 8:05am
Great piece. It was sad that Light became the buffoon, more so when you consider that no crap Dr Light would have meant there was no 'need' to make him 'badass' and one aspect of the vile Identity Crisis would be gone.
Comment by Captain Comics on November 19, 2009 at 11:28am
I thought Meltzer's explanation for Dr. Light's decline was one of the better bits in Identity Crisis. Of course he's dead now, but that's probably not a permanent impediment.
Comment by The Baron on November 18, 2009 at 4:45pm
Interesting stuff, Commander. Dr. Light had already begun to slide down into the mid-card by the time I started reading comics, so it's interesting to hear the story of the days when he was a head-liner who would take on the League all by himself.


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