Who Are the All-Star Squadron?

Who's This? Every Golden Age (Earth-2) hero roped into a single unit and series by FDR during the war.
The facts: Roy Thomas loved the Golden Age of comics and had had some success with a WWII-era comic at Marvel in The Invaders. Moving to DC, one of his pet projects was doing the same with DC's impressive stable of Golden Age characters. All-Star Squadron was a way to do that without limiting the cast to members of the JSA or Seven Soldiers of Victory. Roosevelt effectively deputized every active hero after Pearl Harbor and they were all considered de facto members. Roy added some new creations to give the team more diversity (face it, the Golden Age was a white boy's club for the most part) and dug up and polished a lot of lesser lights. The series lasted 67 issues and 3 Annuals (plus a preview in JLA #193), from cover date of September 1981 (preview the month before) to March 1987, almost all written by Roy Thomas. After Crisis, Earth-2 was gone and it threw the book into disarray, at least from Roy Thomas' perspective, and it never really recovered, not even when it rebooted as Young All-Stars for an additional 31 issues and one Annual.
How you could have heard of them: Though the modern era has brought back the JSA several times, DC does not seem interested in telling further adventures set in the Golden Age itself, and thus All-Star Squadron as an I.P. has failed to return. A lot of its stars or their legacies have enjoyed roles in other series (like Jesse Quick following in Johnny and Liberty Belle's footsteps), but the Squadron? No. As the story goes, Gerry Conway originated the name for his junior JSA members in the 70s All-Star Comics revival, but it was changed to Super-Squad presumably because DC was skittish about a book that could be abbreviated to ASS. Didn't stop Roy Thomas five years later, but is it a problem now? Anyway, best I can do is point you to a Showcase Presents collection that goes up to issue #18, and Ralph Dibny apparently just mentioned the team in the CW Crisis event.
Example story: All-Star Squadron #24 (August 1983) by Roy Thomas, Jerry Ordway, and Mike Machlan
Why this one? Because it was my first issue of All-Star ever. I was a kid of 12 just getting into American comics in a big way, picking up random books that looked interesting... and it completely mystified and confounded me! I didn't know about Earth-2, nor why Batman's car had a face on it, who were these people and why didn't they conform to what I knew of the DC Universe?! I would not pick up another issue until Dr. Fate's secret origin in #47, but would end up collecting most of the series in back-issue bins all through college. I freaking love it now. All that to say, I wanted to go back and read one "typical issue" and see how it plays out of context just as I'd experienced it first time around. (Not to worry, we'll be living in ASS for three entries, so we'll be getting more examples; that's just how the Who's Who crumbles.)

"The Man Who'll Know Too Much!" starts with a Bob Kane riff, and you'll find both story and art in All-Star Squadron is often filled with references, in both story and art.
Roy Thomas shows his handle on the Golden Age almost right away, and also his nerdy impulse to make it all fit together. Not only is All-Star Squadron (naturally) filled with mystery men of the era, but their supporting casts are here too. The Tarantula has his maid Olga, Johnny Quick hangs with his buddy Tubby Watts, and the Ultra-Humanite wants the guy who put Dr. Robert Crane's brain into Robotman, Chuck Grayson to give HIM Robotman's body because he is quite specifically at this point in the body of actress Dolores Winters, as per the comics of the time! But wait, did I say Chuck GRAYSON? Correct, Roy feels the need to make him Robin's cousin. Because ALL THE PIECES MATTER, OK?!
Roy's impressive knowledge of the era isn't just limited to the four-color page either. We see Abbot and Costello, Clark Gable, and most importantly, the SS Normandie, an impounded French liner that was to be converted into an American aircraft carrier to use in the war effort, and which exploded quite accidentally in New York harbor. The comic makes this part of the Ultra-Humanite's schemes, but it is an actual historical event. I went off to read about it on Wikipedia before getting to the letters page where, as usual, Roy showed his research. So if you didn't know at the time, you would be dazzled by the details after reading the issue. There were always these yellow boxes cropping up at the back of the comic (and its companion, Secret Origins), though usually more about the costumed characters. Still, an unusual page from World War II history wasn't amiss. I learned a lot from ASS' letters pages.

But Roy Thomas wasn't only about fannish devotion to history. He had to create his own characters to ensure a bit of diversity (the female firebrand, Amazing-Man), included WWII-era characters created AFTER the Golden Age (like Commander Steel), and wasn't above letting the series stellar artist Jerry Ordway redesign a character, even if it meant an injection of modernity in among the more classic costumes. Case in point, the Tarantula who, in this issue, got a very cool costume to replace his really very shitty one. I mean, why would a guy basing his shtick on the tarantula dress in yellow and purple, and wear a cape?
The comic obviously agrees with me, piling on the indignities by making the suit less than functional in addition to being an eyesore. An eyesore, Roy makes sure to point out, worn by another hero, Sandman! At this point in history, Wesley Dodd has given up the cooler gas mask and fedora outfit for a very similar costume (sans cape), and I say this with all due respect to Jack Kirby who put him in it. Well, Tarantula certainly wins the fashion wars, as you can see from the cover.

And yes, that's Brainstorm Jr. he's fighting. Junior's VERY FIRST appearance. Roy Thomas is teasing Infinity Inc. here, and they'll soon show up in the book to sell their own title, which would be direct sales only so I never saw it at my local newsstand. So I ask you: Is it any wonder 12-year-old Siskoid who'd only really started collecting American comics the year before was hella confused by this comic?!

Folks, settle in, we're gonna be here a while.

What's Next? Where they live.

3 comments:

RB said...

I hope DC decides to give the All Star Squadron another chance

Russell Burbage said...

I always liked the revamped Tarantula. And I enjoyed the All Star Squadron as long as the art was good. Roy Thomas definitely did NOT have a way with dialogue.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing clumsier than Roy Thomas expository dialogue.

 

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