Vandal Savage Wars on the JSA – and Wally Wood Saves Us All

With one mighty leap, the Golden Age Superman shatters a castle wall.
With one mighty leap, the Golden Age Superman shatters a castle wall in “All-Star Comics” No. 64.

A strong creator can make you rethink everything you thought about a character – and even an art medium.

Until “All Star Comics” Nos. 64 and 65 hit the drug stores in late 1976, I had never given much thought to artwork.

Now that must sound insane considering we’re talking about comic books, a form dependent on art expression. But I was – and am – a reader who places a premium on the story, the plot, the characters. A comic today can have the most dynamic, muscular art today, but if the story is dumb, I will feel as if I wasted my money.

The Justice Society battles the forces of Vandal Savage in "All-Star Comics" No. 64.
The Justice Society battles the forces of Vandal Savage in “All-Star Comics” No. 64.

As a young reader, I wasn’t less forgiving, I was downright oblivious.

The artwork was just there. It served its purpose, to move the story along. Neal Adams, Carmen Infantino, John Romita, meh, whatever. Made no difference to me. I didn’t follow artists. I followed writers. (At an early age, I became obsessed with Marvel’s Steve Englehart, but that’s a post for another day.)

“All Star Comics” No. 64 (cover date February 1977) was an eye-opener, a lesson and the start of a lifelong appreciation.

In “Yesterday Begins Today,” written by Paul Levitz, the Shining Knight enlists the Justice Society’s aid in battling Roman soldiers attacking Camelot in 6th century Britain. The time-travel trip turns out to be a trap; the Roman soldiers are robots created by Vandal Savage to capture the Golden Age Superman, to drain his life-force so Vandal can remain immortal.

The story, which concludes in “All-Star Comics” No. 65 (cover date April 1977),“The Master Plan of Vandal Savage,” has not held up well over the years. The Shining Knight is last seen charging into battle with the JSA in No. 64 and is then never mentioned again. Maybe Sir Justin got lost on the way back to the castle?

The Golden Age Superman has limitations - which makes him more fascinating than his counterpart.
The Golden Age Superman has limitations – which makes him more fascinating than his counterpart.

Savage manages to subdue the entire team – Superman, Power Girl, Hawkman, the Star-Spangled Kid and the Flash – but leaves the unconscious Flash behind. Odd, since Vandal holds Jay Garrick partly responsible for his ebbing life-force. Vandal’s weird omission plays no part in the story. Vandal’s mysterious escape at the conclusion is less dramatic set-up and more a whimper to close the story. Young Levitz could have used a strong editor on this one.

Vandal Savage takes on the JSA in "All-Star Comics" No. 65.
Vandal Savage takes on the JSA in “All-Star Comics” No. 65.

But the art.

Oh, let’s talk about the art. Wally Wood crafted those gorgeous, glorious covers and the interior art. His work is distinct and unique and downright timeless. It could work as easily in the original “All Star Comics” run in the ’40s as well as today. Even I knew I was taking in something extraordinary.

His depiction of the Golden Age Superman is so striking, it turned this reader into a lifelong fan – of the hero and the artist. Wood’s vast list of credits stretch everywhere from EC Comics to Marvel, where he established Daredevil’s trademark look.

“All-Star Comics” No. 65 was Wood’s last issue on the series, alas. Beset by health problems, he committed suicide just a few years later, in 1981. He was 54. He left a legacy of great works that continue to awe and inspire.

This issue also marks the end of the Super Squad as a rebranding gimmick. The following issue would burst with a full-blown logo for the Justice Society on the “All Star” covers.

You can find these issues in the DC Comics app, and in “Justice Society Volume One” and “Showcase Presents: All-Star Comics.” This is a worthy two-parter to revisit, especially with Vandal Savage making his entrance into the DC Comics television universe this week on a special crossover on CW’s “The Flash” and “Arrow” that also introduces Hawkman and Hawkgirl. With Red Tornado whirring about on CBS’ “Supergirl” this week, the Justice Society is more relevant, more valuable as a commercial and artistic property than ever – if only DC Comics would see that.

The Flash races through time - another glorious Wally Wood illustration.
The Flash races through time – another glorious Wally Wood illustration.

6 thoughts on “Vandal Savage Wars on the JSA – and Wally Wood Saves Us All

  1. I’ve been making my way through Arrow season one mostly so I can get to the various JLA cameos in the subsequent seasons. Great news about Hawkman who has thus far not made it to the big or small screen.

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    1. Keith, I would also recommend the “Smallville” season nine two-parter “Absolute Justice” – Michael Shanks played Hawkman there. The episodes also introduced Dr. Fate and Stargirl and ended with the trio looking to re-form the JSA. Geoff Johns wrote the episodes. Shanks/Hawkman came back for a couple more episodes in season 10. Well worth a view.

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  2. Larry Guidry

    Also another thing that left me wondering about these issues, they changed their costumes to “middle ages” attire then once in Camelot, there are in their regular costumes. I wished they kept them in armor until the end of the story line! And who were those mysterious shadow men???

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    1. Good points, Larry! The two-parter is so riddled with holes, I think everyone was taking a nap at deadline time. As far as the mystery men, they are never seen or heard from again. But they served their purpose: They ended the story.

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