FOOD FOR STARVING PATRIOTS
Superman appeared in 1938. Batman followed in 1939. By 1940, zillions of primary-colored wannabes burst out of dozens of comic titles. Few had equivalent emotion-packed, symbolic origin stories – there were only so many archetypes to appropriate – and emerged from sheer opportunism. If the public liked X, give them more X, as close as the copyright laws would allow. If they didn't like X, it disappeared and was replaced by more almost X. Harry Donenfeld, who owned the distributing company that peddled what we today call DC Comics, once was quoted as yelling, "If a title's not selling, I just fire the editor and get a new one – that's how this business works." Everybody knew this was largely true, so the smarter editors dreamed up gimmicks to make their characters sell, sell, sell.
By that criterion, nobody was smarter than Sheldon "Shelly" Mayer. At the age of 23, he had nearly ten years of experience in comic books, comic strips, and animation. He was the unsung genius who saw the potential in a failed submission about a ridiculous figure named Superman and brought it to his boss, Maxwell Charles "Charlie" Gaines, who got all the credit when he brought it to Harry Donenfeld. Charlie Gaines took over DC, and Mayer became editor for a company called All-American Publications, technically a separate company until 1948, but part of Gaines' empire. All-American introduced now famous characters like the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, and Hawkman along with not-famous characters like Hop Harrigan, Mr. Terrific, and the Gay Ghost. To give these just-introduced unknowns a boost, Mayer had the brilliant idea of featuring them all in one place, titled All-Star Comics. Or maybe Gardner Fox did: accounts vary. Unlike the teen-age high school dropouts that populated the déclassé comic book world, Fox was an educated adult, an actual practicing lawyer until the Depression drove him into this new world. Imagine how bad law had to be in 1937 if the $5-10 a page for comics seemed like a good deal. Fox had to compensate by being insanely prolific. He's credited with more than 4000 individual comic stories. Along the way he created the Flash, Sandman, Doctor Fate, and Hawkman. He was the automatic choice to write adventures featuring all of them and anyone else that Mayer wanted to promote.
The first issue, Summer 1940, asked readers to vote on which heroes they'd like to see stay. As with all readers' votes in those days, the outcome was ignored and the editors made their own choices. By the third issue, Winter 1940, the winners were featured as The Justice Society of America (JSA). The four now-famous ones above were joined by Doctor Fate, Hourman, Sandman, the Spectre, and comic relief Johnny Thunder. Superman and Batman, who needed no sales help, were made honorary members. So were any members who graduated to having their own name-in-the-title comic. That meant Green Lantern and the Flash were replaced by Doctor Midnite to make a regular core of eight, a critical number that worked with the odd structure of the comic. Each story filled the entire 56 pages of an issue. After a short scene setting with the whole group, each hero took off for a separate 6-page adventure drawn by their regular artist and written by Gardner F. Fox before returning for a two-page closer. (One page was given over to a print story about Hop Harrigan to satisfy postal regulations and get magazine rate mailing privileges.) Adding a ninth member threw everything out of whack. Either the sections had to be unbalanced or one of the core got omitted.
That's exactly what happened because of Wonder Woman. In her Diana Prince secret identity she was an Army nurse, giving her a head-start when all the boys joined the Army (except for Navy-bound Johnny Thunder) in issue #11, written just after Pearl Harbor. (The Spectre got left out because he was a ghost, making the physical problematic.) Diana joined them to go overseas and beat up Japs and Nazis in that adventure as a "guest star." Gaines and Mayer would have had her stay –she was a huge hit and the government wanted propaganda about women in the services – but they also knew that her own title would appear shortly. So they compromised in what must have seemed to them to be a great solution to their dilemma. In issue #12, Wonder Woman was announced as the JSA's secretary. Much has been made of this in recent years as an example of the pervasive sexism in comics and in the broader society. All of that is true, and to make feminists of all sexes grind their teeth today a panel in that issue is captioned "A wistful look enters the lovely eyes of Wonder Woman," above her saying "Good luck, boys –and I wish I could be going with you!" Damning, but not conclusive. In the very next issue, the Justice Society is "Shanghaied Into Space!" – each to a separate planet – and Woman Wonder has one of the adventures, on, naturally, Venus. Apparently, the real problem was that she couldn't be seen fighting Nazis in Europe or the public might start asking why other woman couldn't enter combat. Sexist most of the personnel at DC might have been, still, an all-Suffragette company wouldn't have been able to overcome this. In fact, by their lights they granted Wonder Woman a unique and special honor at the end of the book. Even though she's now only a honorary member, the Justice Society ask her to stay on as secretary, meaning that she would appear in every opening and close from then on. Wonder Woman may have suffered from a glass ceiling but she was at that ceiling, high above the floor crowded with the ordinary women.
With only two pages to get things going, Fox starts the action in the middle of a scene, confusing any reader who hadn't taken time to read the caption under the picture on the splash page. Finally, though, Fox gets to the point in the last panel on page 2. Hawkman holds up a "small capsule" and tells the astounded group, "Believe it or not... This is a turkey dinner!"
Even more astoundingly, Johnny Thunder walks over to the microscope that all conference rooms have lying around and puts the pill on a slide. He sees a whole turkey, flanked by vegetables. Yes, these food pills are not concentrated food: they are miniaturized food! Have to hand it to Fox. This is original. I don't know of another writer who has ever made food pills out of tiny whole foods. It's a remarkable example of why the best comic book writers understood how to take advantage of the stories in a visual medium. Like cartoon animators, they worked with a malleable world that could turn off the laws of physics whenever necessary. A visual image outweighed any amount of dialog and often negated it. The splash page image of Hawkman carrying a cornucopia spilling food conveyed the gist of the tale far more quickly than the huge mass of explanatory text underneath it in an endless caption.
The understanding that Europeans were already starving in Nazi-occupied countries was an unusual theme for comic books. Usually Nazis were generic evil-doers. The very specific set of countries that the JSA members visit also shows a wider range of theaters of war than in issue #11, where the fighting takes place in unnamed places in the Pacific. These specifics suggest that the story had a real-world origin. Most good comic writers kept a file of clippings on hand for ideas and Fox was known to be a fanatic researcher. A poke through The New York Times archives produces an article that fits this story to a T.
Belgium, check. Czechoslovakia, check. France, Greece, the Netherlands (Holland), Norway, and Poland, check. Only Yugoslavia and Serbia get short-changed because Doctor Fate is sent to Germany so that artist Howard Sherman can caricature Adolph Hitler. Fox writes him as a fool as well. Hitler sees his "fate" in a gypsy's tea leaves, which are far less enigmatic than usual: they spell out D-O-C-T-O-R F-A-T-E.
The individual adventures are stock and repetitive. The superheroes - whose main power was punching people, although a couple also flew - encounter heroic but starving ethnic caricatures, beat up clumsy and stupid Nazis with fists, puns, and quips, and treat the resistance to meals of chicken, turkey, and steak. Concentration camps are mentioned several times, although they house mainly political prisoners who serve as forced laborers. The word Jew is never seen, in any form. The resulting mix of lighthearted kid-friendly bang pow and real-world torture and misery is hard to reconcile today, even in a pop cult world of quipping Avengers and Guardians saving the universe. The closer parallel might be Hot Shots, Part Deux, the Charlie Sheen Rambo parody that uses Sadaam Hussein as the villain. Superhero comics might have been aimed at kids, but the slapstick violence made them one with their culture and a favorite of GI's.
The problem with food pills as a plot contrivance is that people must eat every day. Hawkman acknowledges this when he says that he'll need to make enough capsules to feed millions, far more than any of them could possibly carry. Worse, the capsules require a liquid solution to make them grow, even bulkier and more difficult to transport than the pills themselves. Continuing air drops are the only answer, and Fox recognizes that and has the individual members promise them in several of the episodes. The logic of the answer obviates the need for any of the JSA to get involved at all. Since that would remove 48 action-filled pages, Fox simply ignores his own set-up. The adventures and the images of the American superheroes literally punching Nazis have an imperative outside logic.
And so does the ending, featuring as usual a gag about Johnny Thunder, a well-intentioned idiot always blundering his way to victory (with the last minute help of his magic genie, Thunderbolt). Johnny was so busy savings others that he forget to give himself any food. Back home he gobbles dozens of the pills and washes them down with a beaker of secret solution. With real-world physics he would literally explode from the inside as the turkeys expanded, an old comic trope about food pills that date back to A Hundred Years Hence and The New Food. Instead we get a moral that would please every parent: don't "bolt" down your food or else you'll get a tummy ache. Dead Nazis and good manners: the perfect comic for the 1942 reader.