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The All Star Squadron Chronicles Part III
Hail, Hail, Now The Gang's Really All Here!
by Roy Thomas
From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #12
WRITER/EDITOR'S NOTE: We're baaaack! Due to the wealth of contributions with which Alter Ego has been happily deluged in recent months, it's been four issues-the larger part of a year-since we presented Part II of this ongoing series, which detailed how in late 1980, in developing the World War II-era title I had conceived for my new employer, DC Comics, I chose the Golden Age heroes who would be most strongly featured in the initial issues. Onward.
I. Editors And Enigmas
Things were proceeding apace. Several aspects of All-Star Squadron were already fairly well established in my mind. Among other things, I already knew:
That my first story arc (not that I used that term then, or like it much now) would commence on Saturday, December 6, 1941-the night before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled America into World War II;
That it would open with most of the then-active Justice Society of America-plus honorary members Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman-being captured by time-tossed super-villains masterminded by Per Degaton, so that less-developed DC stars could shine in their place;
That Hawkman, Dr. Mid-Nite, and The Atom would evade Degaton's net and join forces with several other heroes who had never been JSAers, to form the nucleus of the Squadron.
Also that, just as in 1975 I had had British Prime Minister Winston Churchill give both name and mission to The Invaders over at Marvel, this time I wanted the group to be assembled and christened by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.
Around this time, DC finally got around to assigning an editor to All-Star Squadron.
Len Wein and I had first met not too long after I became an assistant editor at Marvel in the mid-1960s... and I'm dead certain that, whenever it happened, I met Marv Wolfman that same day. These two longtime friends were involved in various fan activities together; even their early writing assignments at DC soon afterward would be done in tandem.
By 1974, as editor-in-chief, I had lured both Len and Marv over to Marvel as full-time associate editors-of the color and black-&-white comics, respectively, though Marv was basically de facto editor of the latter. I've been told that being my associate editor back then didn't look like a job with a lot of room for career advancement, since most people figured I'd stay at Marvel, like, forever. Still, in point of fact, after little more than two years at the helm I opted out for a writing-and-editing contract-at which point Len suddenly found himself editor- in-chief of Marvel's color comics, with Marv at last inheriting the black-&-whites officially. Health considerations, however, led Len to step down after half a year or so, and by the time I made the move to DC in late 1980 he was firmly ensconced there as full editor of several titles.
Quite logically, the projected All-Star Squadron was added to Len's pile. Since DC didn't allow "writer/editors" at that stage (nor did Marvel, any longer, which is partly why I'd left), I was pleased when I learned Len would edit the book-although both Dick Giordano and I remember dimly that at one stage Dick, then a "line editor" like Len, was slated to handle All- Star and Len my planned sword-and-sorcery series. Len, however, has no recollection of ever being told he would edit the title that eventually became Arak, Son of Thunder.
All three of us agree, however, that the switch in assignments made more sense, since Len had been a self-confessed "big fan" of the Justice Society ever since the JLA-JSA team-ups began in 1963, and was already editing Justice League of America-so why not its new 1940s counterpart? For his part, Dick, as he reiterated over lunch last spring in New York City, was far more enthusiastic about heroic fantasy in general than about super-heroes in particular.
When I spoke with Len by phone last October, he confirmed another thing I suspected out loud back in A/E V3#8: Neither publisher Jenette Kahn nor editorial director Joe Orlando nor anybody else ever breathed so much as a word to him concerning the verbal promise that had been made to me before I signed a three-year writing-only contract with DC-namely that, though house editors would be assigned to both new mags I would create, their direction, storyline, and dialogue would be basically in my purview, and that the editors would merely be there to "help" me, end-quote. Len swears that no one ever so much as hinted to him of such a hands-tying agreement, and I've no reason to doubt his memory. I had long suspected as much.
The stage had been set, via this "failure to communicate," for some real problems if Len (or Dick) and I ever found ourselves at loggerheads on the direction, plots, or dialogue of either title. Fortunately, they and I were nearly always "on the same page," as they say. "I wouldn't have dreamed of interfering with whatever you wanted to do with the book," Len told me recently. While I, in turn, respected Len's expertise, especially as a prospective sounding- board, even if I understandably felt that it was merely my duty to advise him of what I was going to write, not to ask for his consent or accept his creative input. This had nothing to do with Len, of course; I'd have felt the same whether the editor of the two new titles was he, Marv, Dick, Gerry Conway, Julie Schwartz, or anybody else.
Naturally, I realize now (and did then) that, in the event of "creative differences" with my editor, I wouldn't have had a legal leg to stand on, since, as Sam Goldwyn was reputedly fond of saying, "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's written on"-and neither are oral amendments to a written one. But hey-anyone who knows me knows that would hardly have stopped me from raising serious Cain over being misled, however inadvertently. After all, it was over a less defensible misrepresentation that I was leaving Marvel-but that's another story.
II. "The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not In Our Stars..."
Anyway, I threw myself into All-Star Squadron and Bloodwolf (the mag that at the last moment we would all decide, I think wisely, to retitle Arak, Son of Thunder.)
For the former I pored over my bound collection of All-Star Comics and re-read numerous vintage DC and Quality comics, both actual and on microfilm. At Marvel I had played fairly fast and loose with 1940s continuity in The Invaders, since Timely comics had never possessed the internal consistency and character history that DC and Fawcett had. However, I had definitely decided that I wanted to keep the heroes of the All-Star Squadron consistent with what they had been in the wartime mags, though hopefully with added character development, in keeping with the way I'd written X-Men, Avengers, Defenders, F.F., Invaders, et al.
Since the Golden Age super-doers had been mostly two-dimensional at best, and I wanted to make them three-dimensional (or more nearly so), I decided I would find, or else develop, character traits within them on which I could build.
To that end, I even drew up astrological charts for the major heroes!
Not that I'm a believer in astrology. Far from it. In making these one-sheet "charts," I paid no attention whatever to any arbitrary "birthdays" for any of the JSAers, as had been given on a DC calendar. I simply wanted to make one hero a bit of a Scorpio, another would possess more of the aspects of a Virgo-that sort of thing. But, rather than come up with an astrological list of traits and then shoehorn an All-Star into it, I did it the other way around.
I knew, for instance, that I wanted Hawkman to be the group's original chairman, just as he had become of the JSA-though admittedly there only after both Flash and Green Lantern had been "kicked upstairs" into their own titles. I forget under what astrological sign I found the "leadership" qualities I was looking for for the Winged Wonder, but once I matched sign and hero, I kept the traits of that sign which I wanted and discarded any others.
Before many issues had elapsed, as it happened, I would cease to refer to these charts, even in passing, but I had enjoyed making them up so much that I didn't toss them out until only a few years ago-not long before Jon B. Cooke invited me to revive Alter Ego in the pages of Comic Book Artist, as I recall. Oh well... they were hardly major cultural artifacts.
The reason I discarded some of the less desirable characters traits related to a hero's particular astrological sign (though I believe I did utilize "indecisiveness" and one or two others from time to time, now that I stop and think about it) is that, realism to the contrary notwithstanding, I didn't want any pre-existing DC/Quality heroes to suddenly develop the proverbial "feet of clay."
The comic book super-heroes of the WWII era were heroes, as far as I was/am concerned. Throughout the new series, that "given" would lead me to walk a tightrope between trying to humanize some of the longest-established characters in comics and, at the same time, keeping them above all heroic. I never wanted them to be just guys who happened to have super- powers but were otherwise just regular joes, because that's not how they were conceived. I admire, in varying degrees, the Watchmen-influenced series that came along during the '80s and since, but I wasn't interested in writing super-heroes who were sadistic or psychotic or even too neurotic-
III. On Politically (If Not Aerodynamically) Correct Super-heroes
Dealing with race in All-Star Squadron, I knew from the outset, would be one of the trickiest aspects of the book.
After all, America was at war, and roughly half its enemies were of a non-Caucasian race. Neither Stan Lee nor I had ever had any qualms in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos about calling German soldiers "krauts" or the like-though I'm even of German descent on all sides-but racial epithets like "Japs" and unfavorable use of the term "yellow" were out. Even "Nips," a far weaker epithet derived from "Nippon," the Japanese name for their nation, would raise hackles, as I'd discovered when writing Invaders a few years earlier-hackles I was interested neither in raising nor in soothing.
Yes, I would portray what I generally called the "Imperial Japanese" as the enemy-but because they were aggressively imperialistic, not because they were Japanese. I cringe today when I read, in 1942's All-Star Comics #12, The Atom calling a Japanese-American a "Yankee Jap," although the Mighty Mite meant it as a compliment! I deplore many aspects of "political correctness," both current and even more so retroactive, and consider it overtly stupid to waste time decrying such name-calling in a comic or movie of WWII vintage-even stupider to alter such a phrase in a reprint and thus to falsify history-but I preferred to fudge the matter in All-Star Squadron, even though it would make the dialogue a bit less realistic. (Truth to tell, DC would probably have vetoed at least the use of the word "Japs," however I felt about it; but that's neither here nor there, because company policy played no part in my decision and I never discussed the matter with anyone.)
Racial caricatures were out, too. Most fans have seen comics covers from the war years that sport fang-toothed Japanese soldiers or super-villains frothing at the mouth, and generally looking less like another race than like another species. Nor would the more "friendly" type of caricature-... la Chop-Chop on this issue's Blackhawk cover-be acceptable, any more than would an African-American who resembled Steamboat in the early "Captain Marvel" or Whitey in Young Allies.
In fact, from the outset, I intended to introduce at some early stage a few so-called "minority" super-heroes.
This, I'll admit, I did spend some time cogitating about, partly because by 1980 I already loathed many aspects of what would later become infamous as "political correctness." After all, we're talking 1941 here, not the early '80s, let alone today. There were few African-Americans in positions of authority-and, more to the point for All-Star Squadron, no dark-skinned super- heroes at all in the comics of DC, Quality, or whoever! In fact, the phrase "African-American," though it probably existed, was unknown to most of US society-and use of the term "black" would have been considered highly derogatory at that time. I decided to use the word of preference from the period: "Negroes." If anyone, whether a reader (of any race) or DC's higher management, protested, I was prepared to dig in my heels on that one... though, happily, I never had to.
I knew that in one sense I myself would be falsifying history by adding non-Caucasian super- heroes to the Squadron-but only in one sense. After all, in the real world there were no super- heroes of any race, color, or creed; so why not assume that a "Negro" or a nisei or anyone else could just as easily find a mystic lantern or have his/her brain encased in a robot body or be given a super-speed formula? Though I hadn't yet fleshed out the concept, the character who would debut two years later in All-Star Squadron #23 as Amazing-Man was already half- formed in the back of my mind-as was at least the germ of Tsunami, the Japanese-American "super-villainess" who was destined to take a bow in #33. After all, two years earlier I had introduced a young African-American called The Human Top in The Invaders, alongside a nisei known as Golden Girl.
Another problem I intended to deal with was the dearth of super-heroines (or female super- heroes, as some prefer to call them) in comics from DC and Quality, which basically represented my All-Star "gene pool."
As related previously, I had already backdated Liberty Belle's origin to give the Squadron a female presence when Wonder Woman was captured by Degaton, and planned to make use of Hawkgirl and Quality's Phantom Lady. But the very first "Squadron" story would also introduce Danette Reilly, her first name that of my soon-to-be wife (legally changed since to Dann). Danette, a vulcanologist, would be the sister of Rod Reilly, who as Firebrand had been the cover feature of the earliest Police Comics. The convenience of Hawaiian volcanoes for Danette to be investigating at the time of Pearl Harbor would be all the coincidence needed in a comic book for her to gain fire-oriented super-powers and become a female Firebrand who would look a lot better in Rod's filmy blouse than he ever did.
As it turned out, Liberty Belle, Hawkgirl, and Firebrand filled the distaff bill quite adequately for the All-Star Squadron. (More on this in a later installment.)
IV. Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Bone Of Contention
To me, the first even slightly sour note in these preliminary days was having no part in choosing, or even okaying in advance, the artistic team on the magazine.
This, as outlined earlier, happened partly because of the different sets of understandings which Len (as editor) and I (as writer/creator of the series) had, as a result of being given two opposing mandates by the powers-that-were. Having been told I would have considerable say in the magazine, I naturally wanted a hand in choosing the artists, and felt that was inherent in previous discussions-while Len, uninformed of such conversations, naturally felt that, as the title's editor, such decisions were for him to make, with me needing only to be informed after the fact. In the case of penciler Rich Buckler, Len assumed (correctly) that I would agree totally with his choice; and in the case of inker Jerry Ordway, he was simply giving out an assignment which it was his to give.
(Things went a bit more along what I assumed were the agreed-upon lines with the sword-and- sorcery title, where I recall editor Dick Giordano conferring with me in advance concerning the possibility of teaming Ernie Col¢n as penciler and Tony DeZuniga as inker. I was very enthusiastic about the Col¢n-DeZuniga team. After all, part of the reason they were being considered was my pairing them months earlier in The Savage Sword of Conan; and Tony had been one of John Buscema's most popular embellishers in that Marvel b-&-w mag.)
So precisely how did Rich Buckler come to pencil the first few issues of All-Star Squadron, and newcomer Jerry Ordway to ink them?
Rich recalls Len as simply offering him the book, and he says he enthusiastically accepted. Besides liking vintage heroes and period stories himself, Rich and I had previously collaborated on several series at Marvel, most notably The Avengers and Fantastic Four, and had always enjoyed working together. Together we had brought the 1940s stalwarts Miss America and The Whizzer into modern continuity in Giant-Size Avengers #1 (Aug. 1974). Rich had even penciled part of one issue of The Invaders (#5, to be precise).
Len, for his part, doesn't recall precisely how Rich became the penciler of choice-but penciler of choice he certainly was. Len's choice-but one in which I happily concurred.
Inking, though-that was something a wee bit different.
Len decided that a (previously) fan-artist named Jerry Ordway would ink All-Star Squadron: "Jerry had been looking for pro work for some time, and I felt he was ready. I thought his tight style would pull together Rich's pencils, and that they'd make a nice team."
"I was very concerned when Len told me that some new guy would be inking the book," Rich says. "Here I was pouring my heart and soul into the pencils, and now I wasn't sure what they'd come out looking like."
My own reaction was not dissimilar, as stated above. But both Rich and I decided, separately, to withhold judgment. Let's see what this new kid on the block could do.
Len recalls that Jerry, for his part, wouldn't have minded doing full art chores on the mag from the start, since he was looking for penciling work as well as inking; but that wasn't in the cards just yet. Still, all things come to him who waits... and Jerry Ordway was destined, as things would turn out, to provide the only real artistic continuity for the series' first three years! As Rich Buckler said recently, Jerry, far more than himself or any later penciler, is identified as the artist most people think of when (and if) they think of All-Star Squadron.
So, finally, all the elements were in place-and I sat down to write the plot for a 16-page Special All-Star Squadron Preview which would be inserted into an issue of Justice League of America, to introduce the readers of one popular group title to DC's newest super-hero combo.
"Okay, Axis, here we come!"
Er, I mean-"All-Stars Assemble!"
Well, you know what I mean.
Rich, Jerry, Len, and I would have our work cut out for us.
Next: The All-Star Preview In JLA #193- Under A Microscope! (See? We told you it would take a long time just to get to All-Star Squadron #1!)
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