Friday, 21 August 2015

The Best of the Huntress: America vs The Justice Society #4 Review

Title: America vs The Justice Society #4
Story: D-Day for Degaton
Characters: Huntress (Helena Wayne), Robin (Dick Grayson), Power Girl (Kara Zor-L), Per Degaton, The Justice Society
Creators: Roy Thomas (writer), Howard Bender (artist)
Publication Date: February 1985
Available In: Print | Digital
Trigger Warning: Suicide

Summary: Chapter 04 picks up right where the last chapter left off, namely with Per Degaton going off on a tangent about how the Wizard blew the one chance the Justice Society had at being disgraced at a congressional hearing. He especially feels that the only way the Justice Society will see their ultimate defeat is if he takes matters into his own hands, and decides to pay John O'Fallon a visit. It is then revealed that O'Fallon had been secretly funding Per Degaton's activities over the last couple of years.

Back at the congressional hearing, the Justice Society heroes continue to detail their earlier exploits, up until their disbanding in 1951 when Senator O'Fallon (John O'Fallon's father) asked them to reveal their identities at a separate congressional hearing. During the twelve years the Justice Society heroes were working solo, they discovered the existence of Earth-1 and the Justice League when that world's Flash (Barry Allen) accidentally ended up on Earth-2 when he unknowingly tapped into Earth-2's vibrational plane. Following a case where the two Flashes (Jay Garrick and Barry Allen) teamed up to save the Justice Society heroes from Vandal Savage (an old foe of Alan Scott), both the Justice Society and Justice League heroes decided to start a tradition of meeting once a year to combat threats to both of their worlds. They kept their word and every year the two teams met and did exactly that. It is through this recounting of events that the fate of the second Black Canary, Dinah Laurel Lance (daughter of the original Dinah Drake) was revealed has having migrated to Earth-1 where she joined that world's Justice League.

Following Jay's revelation of the Earth-1 Justice League, Senator Hopkins asks why the Justice Society has never mentioned them before, especially the other world's Flash. It is at this moment that Power Girl smashes her way into the courtroom to give her testimony, having tired of the highly publicised shit show that's been transpiring over the last few days. Power Girl promises Superman not to hurt anyone on the committee and begins to share her own experiences fighting alongside the Justice Society. She recounts how she arrived on Earth from the doomed planet of Krypton, and how her public debut coincided with Robin's return to the Justice Society and the resurfacing of the Star-Spangled Kid. She also recounts her first mission with the Justice Society involving the Brainwave and Per Degaton, whom they successfully defeated.

Shortly after Power Girl's first mission with the Justice Society, the team encountered the second Psycho-Pirate who first used his powers to manipulate Alan Scott into becoming Public Enemy #1, and later used his powers to manipulate Commissioner Bruce Wayne into arresting the Justice Society. Power Girl was injured during the second altercation, and at the time, she was made to believe that the manipulated Alan Scott's actions prompted Commissioner Wayne to become distrustful of the Justice Society. Power Girl then challenges the committee to consider that if there was any validity to the accusations made against Justice Society by a former member (in this case, Batman), would she or the Huntress have resigned their places in Infinity Inc to rejoin them, especially with the Huntress being the daughter of the deceased Batman?

Senator Hopkins enquires about the absence of the Huntress and why no one on the committee has been able to locate her for a testimony. Power Girl confirms that nothing would've kept the Huntress away 'if she didn't have extremely urgent business to attend to in another capacity.' Power Girl makes eye contact with the troubled Helena Wayne as she says this, and Helena is herself struggling with her decision to out her father as Batman, knowing the serious repercussions it will have on her father's reputation. Power Girl then details the Huntress' earlier missions with the Justice Society involving the Strike Force, Rose and Thorn, and even her first encounter with the more villainous Huntress, Paula Brooks. She then gets to the mission that led to the demise of both Bruce Wayne and the Batman in the hands of Bill Jenson and a sorcerer known as Fredric Vaux.

The Flash takes over from Power Girl, and addresses the death of Mister Terrific (Terry Sloane) in the hands of the Spirit King, and even the stopping of a poison capsule that was meant to destroy Gotham City. He then discusses their more recent mistake of rejecting JSA membership to the Infinity Inc heroes, leading up to where they ended up now: in court. After giving their last testimony, the audience members cheer on the Justice Society, but Senator Hopkins reminds everyone the hearings have not concluded just because their testimonies have. Congresswoman Valdez suggests a recess to discuss whether or not to progress with the court hearings, and Congressman Phillips agrees to it.

During the dismissal, the Justice Society heroes have a mini conference with their attorney, Helena Wayne, while a troubled Dick Grayson silently departs the crowd knowing that neither Helena nor the Justice Society are going to want to speak to him. Outside, Dick starts to think about the potential motivations Bruce may have had for putting together the diary that led to the hearings. Just waiting for him outside is a man he phone earlier, Dr. Nichols, who was the last man to see Bruce alive as Batman.

Dick wants to talk to Dr. Nichols about the circumstances that may have led to the creation of the diary and see if he could piece together what Bruce was really after. Dr. Nichols begins to detail a meeting with the Time Trust in which each of the individual members agreed to test each other's time travel theories by travelling to their 100th birthday and discuss their findings. Dr. Nichols confirms that both Doctors Everson and Stanley passed away, but it was never known what happened to Professor Zee who vanished in 1947. At best, he left behind a note admitting his 'failures' and 'opting for a secluded life in the South Pacific,' but nothing more was known of him since then. The last Dr. Nichols heard of the Time Trust was when Commissioner Bruce Wayne told him in 1979 that he was seeing Per Degaton off to jail, and on a whim the psychiatrist decided to accompany him. The thing that stood out to Nichols about Per Degaton is that he was nothing more than Professor Zee's assistant and not an actual member of the Time Trust. As such it was odd to hear him say he 'didn't want to join the Hundred-Year Club in prison' at the time that he was paroled by Bruce. It was also at around that same time that Batman appeared to him with the diary to give to Clark Kent upon his own death. At this moment, Dick starts to realise what's really going on and asks Dr. Nichols' chauffeur to take him to a specific address in Washington DC.

On the way to the location Dick specified (which turns out to be Professor Zee's old, abandoned lab) , he enquires Dr. Nichols if any members of the time trust was having a 100th birthday that day, and Dr. Nichols confirms that it is the birthday of Professor Zee, the missing member of the Time Trust. Dick's suspicions are quickly confirmed when he gets to his destination and discovers Per Degaton waiting for his former boss to arrive. Thinking he has nothing to lose, Per Degaton decides to tell Dick what really happened the night Professor Zee disappeared. Having realised he had--three times--tried to alter the past to suit his own needs (and each time he got foiled by the Justice Society), Per Degaton decided to alter his plans.

Per Degaton waited for Professor Zee to perfect his time machine and on the day he decided to travel to his 100th birthday to test his time travel theory, Per Degaton decided to murder his own boss. He forced Professor Zee to write a fake note at gun point (the one admitting his 'failures') and shot him once he did what he wanted. However, instead of dying right then and there, Professor Zee instead fell into his time machine, accidentally activated it, and sent him off to his future destination. This forced Per Degaton to wait 38 years, and bided his time by joining the Injustice Society. Dick then asks if he knows anything about the sabotaging of the Bomb Defence Formula in 1941, and Per Degaton admits he was the one who sabotaged it, effectively ending a 44 year mystery. He then discusses the friendship he struck with fellow Injustice Society member, Brainwave, leading up to the events of Power Girl's first case with the Justice Society. When he was imprisoned yet again, Per Degaton thinks he had tricked Bruce Wayne into releasing him, but in reality, Bruce had always known what he was going to do and planned ahead, leading to his writing of his diary.

As Dick is piecing together in his mind how Bruce came to find out about the Time Trust and what Per Degaton was ultimately planning to do, the villain admits that Bruce's diary nearly derailed his plans by having the Justice Society go over their entire history in a highly publicised court hearing as a way of clearing themselves in the larger eyes of the law. He also gathered that eventually someone on the committee would ask all of the right questions about Per Degaton (like whether or not his boss really did lead a secluded life after 1947, or if he was murdered) and that the US government would eventually come for him. He thinks, for a second, that he has dodged a bullet, but it turns out both the Justice Society heroes and the members of the committee had figured it all out just as Bruce had intended. Just as Professor Zee's time machine materialises to reveal the murdered Professor Zee, the Justice Society shows up at the lab with the committee as witnesses to the crime that's about to be committed. Seeing that he's been cornered and can't power the time machine in time to make his escape, Per Degaton decides to take his own life rather than go back to prison.

Sometime after the ambulance arrives to take out the dead bodies, Dick meets with Helena (now in her Huntress costume) to ask about why Bruce had written that diary as if he knew he was going to die. Helena reveals that Bruce did know he was dying of cancer and that he would've been dead within a year even if Fredric Vaux and Bill Jenson hadn't taken his life. Helena also reveals that her father made her promise not to let anyone (not even Dick) know of his ill health and also believes that his cancer also caused his hostility toward the Justice Society, even without the Psycho-Pirate's involvement. Dick and Helena share a tearful embrace with Dick feeling ashamed that he had betrayed the trust of the Justice Society. Helena, however, comforts him with her understanding of how hard it was for him to think of her father as anyone but a flawed human being. She also states that the only thing that matters now is that the truth came out 'in the nick of time.'

Review: Wow! So, everything that the last three chapters were building towards in this miniseries gets brought together in the second half of the fourth chapter, and I have to say it's one hell of a ride! When all of the pieces finally start to come together, and you finally learn why Bruce went through all that trouble just to capture one criminal, you can't help but feel a deep satisfaction as a reader to see the big pay off handled in a way that actually makes sense and ends big! It's hard enough as it is to pull off a complex narrative of this magnitude, and the fact that Roy Thomas successfully builds and ties every mystery together through careful execution and attention to detail really does speak to mastery of complex storytelling. I definitely found myself tipping my hat off to Thomas for wrapping things up in a rather spectacular way, especially considering how rare this is to see in DC Comics narratives these days.

Another of the comic's biggest strength is Thomas' superb writing of the characters themselves. As stated in the previous reviews, one of the things that Thomas does really well with this narrative is his life-like portrayal of the Justice Society characters and even villains. The conflicts these characters deal with are met with real human emotion and are not entirely 'out of this world.' There is a nice a balance between the more fantastical conflicts of the superhero narrative and the more life-like conflicts that challenge the individual characters.

One of the best examples of this balance is the fact that the Justice Society characters are met with the reality that their cases are going to be hard to prove to a sceptical court committee that doesn't regularly experience things like time travel and travel between parallel universes. Another example of this is the conflict between Dick Grayson and Helena Wayne, both of whom are heirs of Bruce Wayne. They're both met with the reality that any outing of Bruce Wayne as the Batman will not only destroy his reputation, but will also out them both as Robin and Huntress, effectively forfeiting their positions as legal counsels in a highly public court hearing. Helena Wayne in particular would've been compromised since she was legally representing the very team she was a member of as a costumed vigilante. Her taking part in this court hearing under those circumstances was a pretty big risk in itself. Throw in the fact that the person she was arguing against in court was Dick Grayson (someone she sees as her brother), and things only got more intense.

While Per Degaton has many of the characteristics of a cartoon villain (wants to take over the world, wants to destroy the heroes who stand in his way, obsesses over how he will accomplish both goals), Thomas still manages to present him as a more complex and even sympathetic character. Despite living up to many of the clichés that exist for villains in this genre, Per Degaton's background actually presents a realistic motivation for pursuing a life of villainy. He was an ambitious man with a strong desire to be something more in the world, and actually wanted to accomplish something important that would land him a place in history. His problem was he had little opportunities to fulfil those dreams, and the closest he ever got to reaching those goals was becoming an assistant to a reputable scientist who was working on a major ground-breaking project: unlocking the secrets of time travel. When the opportunity arose to fulfil his goals, he took it, only to end up back to where he started (repeatedly) due to interventions by both the Justice Society and Justice League. When he realised he would never accomplish his goal (especially not after being exposed to US members of Congress), he opted to take his own life, preferring death to a lifetime of failure. That was a pretty mature theme to explore in a comic that was still written with children in mind. I honestly found myself wondering how a child would've responded to seeing a suicide depicted on panel, especially with no trigger warning of sorts.

As a whole, this miniseries is a great exploration of the history and legacy of the Justice Society, and is even a great point of reference for fans who want to learn more about who these characters are, where they come from, who their villains are, what their major story arcs have been, and stuff like that, but are unable to track down their earlier narratives because of their scarcity. Despite being a superhero comic that is fronted by characters who are superheroes, America vs the Justice Society is not a conventional superhero story. It's not a traditional narrative where a villain shows up, they do something spectacular that harms people, and the Justice Society heroes get together to stop them from doing something catastrophic. Those elements are still present in this comic, but are more subdued in favour of presenting the narrative more along the lines of a crime drama. There are times when, as a reader, you can feel overwhelmed by the thorough reexamination of past Justice Society narratives, but at the same time it can entice a reader to track down some of those earlier comics and see how these characters evolved and changed over a period of time.

★★★★★

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