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The Year's Most Startling Story!
The Murder of Santa Claus, 1973!

The Justice Society's War Against Street Gangs!

The World's Greatest Heroes Team up with Zatanna the Magician!

Yes, that's the Jolly Old Fat Man flat in the snow, surrounded by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a host of other DC superheroes. The cover also boasts a concerned Justice Society facing down a kid in a jughead beanie. The kid wields a board with a spike in it, but that's not what has the '40s super-doers concerned. It's the shadow cast by the boy: the fedora-wearing, gun-toting gangster who, without guidance, he'll one day become. Finally, we have a picture of Zatanna, in her chorus girl outfit, accompanied by four of the world's greatest heroes, engaged in mortal combat with the World's Largest Candle.

Comics used to look like this. Comics used to read like this.

This "Super Spectacular" features three stories, though arguably not enough plot logic for one. No mind. We have DC's greatest heroes, some vile villains, social commentary, a father-daughter reunion, and lots of histrionic ads, clearly aimed at children rather than aging fanboys. A bonus crossword puzzle tests the reader's knowledge of the Justice League, while a two-page poster displays every member of the Justice Society.

It's 1973, and this is a comic book.

We begin with a Christmas tale: "The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus!" Batman and Superman meet with a costumed Claus. All plan to take part in a benefit for some orphans. A sudden explosion rocks the building. The Man of Steel protects DC's most famous orphan, but the actor playing Santa is not so lucky. He dies, and our men in tights find a mysterious key and a taunting letter beside his body. The challenge: find the door this key opens or a city block will be destroyed.

Now, Batman is supposed to be the world's greatest detective, and Superman should be able to spot and trace whomever left these clues. However, this is a Justice League comic, so the World's Finest team signal their fellow heroes, several of whom interrupt their festive celebrations to join in the game. Some remain out of reach: the Atom explores the Palmerverse, the Flash visits the in-laws in the future, Elongated Man goofs off with his wife, and Aquaman presides over an Atlantean "sacred Festival of Lights." Others arrive promptly, a color guard of sorts: Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Red Tornado. The Green Lantern receives the summons, but fails to respond. Hal Jordan is taking a shower and in his haste the trained pilot and world-saving hero slips on the soap and knocks himself unconscious. His power ring zooms off to "a certain urban ghetto" where it locates John Stewart, Jordan's alternate. He has only been around a couple years at this point, and DC still isn't certain how to handle him. Here, he speaks bad 70s blaxploitation-speak and argues with Green Arrow.

Without any clear plan, the assembled heroes walk en masse into an obvious trap. What's more, the trap succeeds as, one by one, the World's Greatest Heroes apparently die to save the others. The trap's architect views this all on his monitor screen and laughs evilly. For he is that most diabolical of villains: the Key.

The Key?

No, seriously. This obscure Lex Luthor wannabee has recently learned that the "psycho-chemicals" which he injects are killing him. Due to his imminent death, he has been paroled (a fact of which the Justice League remains curiously unaware). Like all criminal masterminds, he has access to a budget of several trillion dollars and a team of willing minions. He wants to fulfill his final Holiday wish: to outlive the Justice League by killing them all!

In fact, this one irate human nearly accomplishes what legions of überpowered villains could not: defeat the Justice League. Only the intervention of the Phantom Stranger saves their spandex-clad butts. Outside of the Super Friends cartoon, the League has rarely seemed so incompetent.

Our heroes don't even save the city block. Fortunately, they are able to evacuate everyone before the explosion. Then, in seconds, John Stewart uses the power ring to reconstruct an entire devastated neighbourhood "minus the roaches, rats, collapsing ceilings and such." His actions raise the questions of why someone that powerful (a) devotes his time to being a vigilante and (b) could possibly have been threatened by the Key's traps.

The story ends with a metahuman Christmas Party, where the Red Tornado learns the true meaning of Christmas and receives a new outfit, one which he has worn ever since.

The orphans of the story's introduction are never mentioned again. We can only hope they have a Merry Christmas.

The story, by Len Wein, moves quickly-- an improvement over today's ponderous plotlines-- but it also bears the signs of having been written a little too quickly. The artwork, meanwhile, is competent but not spectacular. We're looking at mainstream comics as they were done in '73.

The League aren't the only ones who can be threatened by also-rans. The second story, reprinted from the 40s, shows the old Justice Society taking on a gang of almost-realistic crooks with a comic-book name, the Red Claw Gang. While the adults pose the greatest threat, the heroes express greater concern for their imitators, a youth gang whose "heroes are the big-shot criminals of the district." Much of the commentary on slum culture and gang violence comes directly from progressive analyses from decades before, but some of it sounds familiar even today. We see kids who find gangsters appealing because they have achieved worldy success. We learn of court officials who do not understand the real problems and laws that fail to consider how teen violence affects the community. We hear of conflicts rooted in "racial and religious hatred and frustration." The analysis is naive, but not entirely disconnected from reality.

The Society takes action against both gangs. As they're facing non-super-powered beings, it becomes necessary for them to develop glass jaws when the plot demands it. At one point, a minor thug handily knocks out Green Lantern-- a man who from his first appearance has been able to handle himself without the ring. The JSA members do, however, demonstrate more planning than their successors in the first story. They investigate the problem in small groups, and show some awareness that a team should have an overall strategy.

The heroes also acknowledge that poor conditions can breed crime, and attempt to implement some long-term solutions. They form a Young Justice Society to teach the slum urchins social responsibility and to give them an outlet for their frustrations. Readers may be taken aback by a scene where the Junior Justice Society wallop the tar out of the Red Claw Gang with their superior fighting technique and organized teamwork, but these actions make sense in context.

In the end, that fight wins the admiration of the young toughs. Then Wonder Woman steps in and shows the boys where their current lifestyle will lead. Literally. She has a magic movie projector that can provide a glimpse into a possible future.

So suddenly, Wonder Woman has a device that can show the future? That should have been handy in her future stories-- if writers had remembered it existed. The Golden Age of Comics, however, seldom concerned itself with continuity. No matter. She dusts the projector off and shows the boys that they will all be executed within a decade for serious crimes if they don't start to behave.

Slap-dash plotting aside, the story features something sorely lacking from contemporary superhero comics: heroes interacting with ordinary humans and battling plausible criminals. Granted, the Red Claw Gang has a comic-book name and some pretty far-fetched tricks, but essentially, they're a mid-century criminal gang. Their younger imitators, likewise, are your basic juvenile delinquents. There's something interesting about seeing comic-book heroes engaging plausible social problems, at least occasionally. In the current world of comix, such stories are not unheard of, but they often disappear amidst complex shared-universe shenanigans and earth-threatening super-villainy.

The issue ends with a terribly convoluted story-- titled, curiously, "Zero Hour"-- in which Zatanna the Magician, who will later become a problematic member of the Justice League, finds her long-lost father, Golden Age hero Zatarra. The story also has a slapped-together feel. It resembles videogames not yet developed with its oddball monsters, alternate dimensions, and strange twists. The characters speak in stilted, barely-differentiated dialogue, often announcing who they are to people who already know them. A twenty-first century comic book would have better characterization. It would devote whole issues to the minutia of Zatanna's childhood. It would try to ring all the pathos possible from a reunion of two people who dress like casino entertainers. Its flaws would be different from those of the early '70s. A recent comic would overdevelop the tale, likely straining beyond what it could sustain.

Somewhere between the two approaches, I expect, would be my idea of how a superhero comic-book should read. However, Justice League of America #110 stands as a pretty good example of a kind of comic from a particular place and time.

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