I discussed writer & editor Roy Thomas’ great fondness for the Golden Age of comic books when I took a look at The Invaders miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 1993. That four-issue series brought back the World War II era team of superheroes whose adventures Thomas had previously chronicled in the mid to late 1970s.
As much as Thomas liked the original Timely / Marvel superheroes from the 1940s, he has an even greater fondness for the Justice Society of America, the original superhero team, who were published by DC Comics in the pages of All-Star Comics from 1940 to 1950. In fact, Thomas was born on November 22, 1940, the very same day that All-Star Comics #3, the debut of the JSA, went on sale. Perhaps he was destined to become one of the JSA’s biggest fans. Whatever the case, some of the earliest comic books Thomas read were the All-Star Comics issues featuring the JSA which were published in the second half of the 1940s, and they made a huge impression on him.
It had long been Thomas’ ambition to write the JSA, but working at Marvel for the first decade and a half of his career he never had the opportunity. A dispute with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter led Thomas to seek work with DC and beginning in 1981 he wrote & edited several titles for them. Among these was All-Star Squadron, a series set on the parallel reality of Earth-Two during World War II that featured not just the JSA but nearly every single costumed crime fighter from that era.
By the late 1980s Thomas was back at Marvel. I didn’t begin following comic books regularly until that time, and so I unfortunately missed all of the books Thomas did for DC, instead becoming a fan of his via his new work for Marvel. I also spent most of the 1990s searching through the back issue bins at comic shops and comic cons to assemble a complete run of The Invaders.
I’m surprised it took me this long to seek out Thomas’ work on All-Star Squadron and its two spin-offs, Infinity Inc. and Young All-Stars. There’s a thrift store in my neighborhood that regularly has comic books for sale for a dollar each, and I’ve discovered some great stuff there. Well last November I came across a few issues of All-Star Squadron at that store. I really enjoyed them, and that really whetted my appetite for the series. Since then I’ve been working on assembling a complete run of the series. I acquired the early issues on eBay, but for the later ones I’m trying to see how many I can find the old-fashioned way. It’s a fun challenge.
The series actually made its debut in a special 16-page insert included in Justice League of America #193, cover-dated August 1981, which led directly into the first issue of All-Star Squadron a month later.
I commute to work on the subway, and my trip is usually about 45 minutes each way. After I acquired the first few issues of All-Star Squadron, I brought them with me to read, and I just barely managed to finish the first issue in the time it took to get from Queens to Midtown Manhattan. Thomas wrote very dense, verbose scripts for this series! Look at all that text!
Seriously, I really lament the trend of decompressed storytelling at both DC and Marvel, especially as individual issues continue to have increasingly-higher cover prices. I definitely miss comic books like this where you more than got your money’s worth. I don’t think I’d mind comics costing so much nowadays if we still got this sort of value.
The initial All-Star Squadron storyline takes place on December 7, 1941, with Imperial Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor serving as the backdrop. Per Degaton, the time traveling fascist, intends to utilize the chaos of that “day of infamy” in order to alter history and conquer the world.
I have to admit, I found it an odd decision for Thomas to launch the series with this story. Due to the JSA not encountering Degaton for the “first” time until 1947, all of the characters end up forgetting almost everything that takes place in the first three issues. That’s such a weird way to kick off your series!
Thomas endeavored to have the history of Earth-Two remain as close as possible to our own real world. As such, he detailed why, following Pearl Harbor, the JSA and the rest of the newly-formed Squadron didn’t simply use their fantastic abilities to quickly win the war. Certainly when you have a series set in a world where Superman, Wonder Woman, the Spectre and Doctor Fate exist, you’re going to need to address that!
The explanation Thomas devised was that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan acquired the Spear of Destiny and the Holy Grail, respectively, and the mystical energies of those two artifacts prevented the All-Stars from entering any territory occupied by the Axis powers. That meant they were forced to operate in the Western hemisphere and other unconquered countries, where they would only be able to prevent the Axis from advancing any further. Obviously still a formidable task, especially as the Naxis are revealed to have their own super-powered agents, but one that meant that, just as in actual history, the war in Europe and Asia would have to be won by ordinary men & women on the battlefield.
Issues five and six see a contingent of the All-Stars travel to Mexico to prevent a Nazi-backed coup that would install a fascist puppet government controlled by the Third Reich. This is then followed by a three issue arc in which the armored Baron Blitzkreig infiltrates the United States to stage an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill during a summit meeting in Washington DC. This later story enables Thomas to utilize a number of pages of artwork from the unpublished sixth issue of Steel, the World War II series created by writer Gerry Conway that was abruptly canceled four years earlier during the infamous DC Implosion.
All-Star Squadron #10-12 (June to August 1982) are, with the benefit of time, quite interesting. A group of well-intentioned scientists fakes an alien invasion in an attempt to bring an end to World War II and unite the world. Yes, it’s the same basic concept that Alan Moore would famously utilize five years later in Watchmen. It’s also the plot to The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear” broadcast in September 1963, as well as “The Last War on Earth” in Weird Science #5 published by EC Comics in January 1951. And I’m sure there are few other examples of the trope out there. In Thomas’ version for All-Star Squadron, though, the scheme is subverted by Hawkman’s immortal arch enemy Hath-Set, who wants to rule the world himself.
Thomas ties a bow on the first year of All-Star Squadron with issue #13. “One Day, During War…” is set a month after Pearl Harbor, in mid-January 1942. The various All-Stars are afforded a brief pause in the ongoing hostilities of the war to take stock of all that has happened to them recently. It’s a very well-done character piece. When I met Thomas at Big Apple Comic Con a few months ago this was one of the issues I got autographed by him.
Thomas also utilizes this story to address the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment that erupted following Pearl Harbor, which led to the shameful interment of over one hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese ancestry. That is one of the qualities of All-Star Squadron that I appreciated, namely that while Thomas does utilize somewhat idealized depictions of real-life figures such as FDR and Churchill, he also did not shy away from the morally complex areas of the era.
Although various members of the JSA appear throughout the run of All-Star Squadron, Thomas very quickly placed the focus on much lesser-known Golden Age superheroes such as Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hawkgirl, Robotman and the Shining Knight. He also soon incorporated Conway’s character Commander Steel into the cast, as well as introducing Danette Reilly, a female version of the ultra-obscure 1940s costumed crime fighter Firebrand. With her red hair and that first name, Firebrand was undoubtedly based on Thomas’ wife & writing partner Dann (formerly Danette) Thomas.
Thomas sought to place his own All-Star Squadron stories as smoothly as possible in-between the original JSA adventures. All-Star Comics had been published on a quarterly schedule for much of the 1940s, and that gave Thomas plenty of space in which to insert his new stories. Nevertheless, having the primary focus on Johnny Quick, Shining Knight, Robotman et al enabled Thomas to really develop those characters, and to plot out their story arcs, in a way that was not possible for the JSA members who had well-established histories to take into account. I also get the feeling that Thomas very much enjoyed developing the relationship between Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle, playing them off one another and giving them a real sexual tension.
One other note on these stories: While reading through the early issues of All-Star Squadron it suddenly occurred to me that those comic books are now as old as some of the issues of All-Star Comics were at the time when Roy Thomas was referencing them in his stories. Yeah, it sort of blows my mind that we are now as far away from the 1980s and the 1980s were from the 1940s.
The initial art team on All-Star Squadron was penciler Rich Bucker, inker / embellisher Jerry Ordway, letterer John Costanza and colorist Carl Gafford. Buckler had already been working regularly for a decade at this point, having established himself at Marvel both on the flagship series Fantastic Four and his own creation the cyborg anti-hero Deathlok in Astonishing Tales. Buckler was definitely an artistic chameleon. His penciling on All-Star Squadron is very much reminiscent of Neal Adams’ style.
Ordway, in contrast to Buckler, was very new to comics, and All-Star Squadron was his first ongoing assignment. It’s interesting to look at the evolution of Ordway’s style. His inks on the JLA #193 preview and the first issue of All-Star Squadron are very muted (part of that is probably due to several of Buckler’s penciled pages from the first issue getting lost in the mail, requiring Ordway to ink photocopies of them on vellum).
By the second issue, though, you can really see Ordway’s characteristic style & flourishes beginning to appear. Ordway was often required to bring Buckler’s pencils “on model” by making certain the clothing, vehicles, buildings, historical figures and other real-world elements were all accurate for the early 1940s.
Adrian Gonzales becomes the new regular penciler with issue #6, and Ordway remained on as inker. The two made a very effective art team. Initially I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Buckler departing the series so early in its run, especially as offhand I was unfamiliar with Gonzales’ work. But I found myself appreciating the collaboration of Gonzales & Ordway even more than I had the issues by Buckler & Ordway.
The unpublished Steel #6 had been penciled by the very underrated Don Heck and inked by Frank Chiaramonte. To be honest, I’ve never been overly fond of Chiaramonte’s work, and as such I’m glad the Heck pages were re-inked by Ordway when they were incorporated into All-Star Squadron #8-9. The combination of Heck’s solid, effective storytelling and Odway’s very polished, slick inking worked very well indeed.
Mike DeCarlo guest inked All-Star Squadron #13 over Gonzales’ pencils. The result is finished art rather different than when Ordway provided inks. But it suited the quieter, character-driven nature of that particular issue.
Finally, looking at the covers, a few of them were penciled by Buckler and inked by Dick Gordano, another solid collaboration. Veteran artist Joe Kubert illustrated the covers for #2 and #7-13. Some of Kubert’s earliest work was drawing the Seven Soldiers of Victory, a team that included the Shining Knight, in the early 1940s. A few years later he regularly worked on the Hawkman chapters of the JSA stories in All-Star Comics. Given Kubert’s historic connections to those two Golden Age heroes, Thomas was undoubtedly happy to have him contribute to this series.
Kubert’s covers with their raw, shadowy inking definitely stand in contrast to the slick finishes Ordway was providing on the interior art, but I nevertheless liked them. He contributed several striking images.
As I continue in my quest to put together a complete run of All-Star Squadron — 67 monthly issues and 3 annuals, for those who are counting — perhaps I’ll take other looks back at this great series.