Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Who Watches The All-Star Squadron?

A while back I picked up Showcase Presents:  All-Star Squadron Vol. 1, and, having finally slogged my way through Showcase Presents:  Young Love Vol. 1,* I recently got started on reading it.
For those of you (Scott) who have actually read my recent posts about the multiverse, All-Star Squadron was a comic that hinged on the concept of the multiverse, being set on DC’s Earth 2.
ASS – when the team was formed and named, someone actually hinted at the unfortunate initials – was an attempt at retroactively flushing out some of the continuity of the Golden Age.  Retroactive continuity – or retcon – was something of a specialty for writer Roy Thomas, who had, prior to moving to DC, established a lot of retcons over at Marvel, incorporating stories from the Atlas and Timely eras – the two companies that formed Marvel Comics – into the Marvel Age, and creating new stories set in now-shared past.
Thomas also had a strong interest in World War II – one of his retcons at Marvel was the creation of the team known as The Invaders, a WWII-era super-team of which Captain America was a member –and so he combined his two interests in the form of ASS.
ASS told the story of the WWII-era heroes of Earth 2, including the big names, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, but also lesser-known characters such as The Sandman, The Tarantula, Liberty Belle, and Johnny Quick.
The premise of ASS was that at the onset of WWII, President Roosevelt reached out to the members of the Justice Society of America asking them to expand their ranks and seek out additional “Mystery Men,” as super heroes were known at the time, to form a sort of super-militia to help protect America from foreign and domestic threats of both mundane and super varieties.
This newly-formed All-Star Squadron soon grew to include virtually every costumed hero in the States, and it took the place of the JSA, which had itself disbanded for the duration of the war, as several members of the team, not content to simply keep America’s shores safe, opted to volunteer for military service in their non-costumed identities.
In any case, when it was still being published, I read ASS on a semi-regular basis – the lack of a proper comic shop made reading anything on truly regular basis a challenge for me as a kid – but there were a lot of issue that I missed, and most of the issues I had have been lost to the ages, which is why I picked up this collected volume.
I’ve already read most of the stories contained in this initial volume, though it’s been many years, and my memory is fuzzy.  The fuzziness of my memory explains why an element of one of the storylines is just now, as I re-read it decades later, jumping out at me and making me say, “Huh.”
And here we have to jump around a bit, and this next bit may constitute a spoiler for a world-famous, critically-acclaimed comic book from 26 years ago, so consider yourself warned.
One of the key plot points of Watchmen – the comic; the movie changed this plotline considerably – centers around a scheme to trick the world into stepping back from the brink of war.  The trick is to make the nations of the world believe that there is a larger threat to the entire world, one that requires the cooperation of all nations, and the setting aside of ideological differences to defend against.
This involves – and elements of this are threaded throughout each issue of the comic – a group of scientists and artists working in secrecy to construct an utterly convincing artificial alien being.  Those working on it had, over the course of years, simply vanished without a trace, walking away from their jobs, their friends, and their families without saying a word.
Those involved believe they’re working for an overly paranoid film company that is preparing to make a science fiction movie of truly epic proportions, but the whole thing is all part of the secret plot of former super hero Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias, who, as the World’s Smartest Man, has determined that the escalation of the Cold War is inevitable, and that actions must be taken to not only save the world by tricking everyone into getting along.
Those involved in the creation of the monster have no idea that their efforts will be used to kill half the population of New York City and convince the world that this monster that killed half of New York may have been the first of many, and that to prepare for that contingency, we all have to work together to keep our world safe from horrible monsters from another dimension.
Here’s where I re-read an issue of ASS and say, “Huh.”
As WWII is truly underway, given the entry of the US into combat, a strange craft begins appearing in the sky all around the world, wreaking havoc in its wake, emitting strange rays that cause airplane and tank engines to fail.  The craft seems to be unconcerned about taking sides, as its rays are directed at Axis and Allies alike.
Finally, the craft appears over the White House, where Winston Churchill is visiting FDR, and a strange, alien being emerges from it, a strange being who is able to swat aside the combined attack of the All-Star Squadron with a mere furrow of his brow.
This being, Akhet, claims to represent an alliance of worlds who have decided to claim Earth as its own, and have therefore decreed that this little global conflict has to end so that the “Binary Brotherhood” can peacefully start running the place.

All-Star Squadron 011 - 01
My name is Akhet, Smasher of Stars, look on my works, ye All-Stars, and despair

As it turns out, Akhet is merely an android built, along with his strange, eye-shaped craft, by a secret conclave of scientists and artists, most of whom have been quietly dropping off the face of Earth 2 for nearly a decade.
It turns out that their leader had, in the 1920s, devised a method of predicting the future, and had seen the terrible war that was coming.  To prevent it, he gathered like-minded people to create a hoax that would save the entire world by uniting it against a common foe.
Sound familiar?
It’s worth noting that while Watchmen was released in 1986, this issue of ASS was released in 1982.
I’m not suggesting that Moore lifted the idea from ASS – I think it more likely that he pulled it out of his own ass, so to speak – as there are a number of differences between the two similar schemes.  In fact, there was an episode of The Outer Limits with a similar idea, which Moore didn’t learn about until after he’d written Watchmen.  Once he did become aware of that fact, he managed to add a winking acknowledgement to the episode in the final issue, which served as a nice coda.
Beyond that, Watchmen has a lot more going for it than the mere events that transpire in the story, so even if it were a total rip-off of ASS, it’s still superior to it – and pretty much every other comic ever – in every way conceivable.  That’s not an insult to ASS, which, my joking use of its initials aside, was a fine, if unremarkable, comic in and of itself.
Still, the coincidence did elicit the aforementioned “Huh” from me, especially when it occurred to me that ASS and Watchmen had one other thing in common besides this plot point:  their editor.
Len Wein was the editor of both ASS and Watchmen.

*Distressingly, one issue collected in the volume contained a bottom-of-the-page house ad for another romance comic being published by DC at the time.  I have this nagging fear that DC will collect that in Showcase Presents form as well, and I’ll have no choice but to buy it.


Merlin T Wizard said...

I also wonder if the similarity in plot lines wasn't more of a shared codification of a collective subconscious fear during the height of the cold war.

Jon-Paul Maki said...

Hmm, I suppose it's possible that in that era, particularly during the Cold War, the notion of the need for a unifying force in the form of a common foe may have been part of the general zeitgeist.

It makes a certain amount of sense - I know that there were plenty of times during which it seemed like nothing short of a shared threat could serve as common ground.

In a way, I suppose that the looming specter of Mutually Assured Destruction actually did serve that purpose. So we actually were united - however uneasily - against a common foe: ourselves. The whole "We have met the Enemy and he is us" thing...

Merlin T Wizard said...

Exactly what I was thinking. I imagine that if you had some way of summarizing all of the plots of the works of fiction during that time period, some very clear patterns would emerge.