When “Brotherhood” goes awry – Justice League of America #57
Of the many well-intentioned comics that take on an augmented stiltedness with every passing year, the Justice League “Brotherhood” issue just might take the cake. Yes, comic books can at time surprise with mature, affecting stories dealing with heartrending issues. But often they say absolutely nothing while trying to be really profound — and end up being profoundly lame. Enter the above cover, in which superheroes benevolently place their hands on a ludicrously diverse, multi-racial, oddly tiny supporting cast. Because we all know that non-whites are like children, desperately in need of unsolicited paternal guidance, preferably from those of Aryan — or Aryanish — stock.
Aren’t they so cute? They think they’re people!
Exhibit A, friends.
Once upon a time there was something called “National Brotherhood Week,” sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was just what it sounds like: a toothless kumbaya to raise awareness of how people are people, we’re all the same, blah blah blah. Worthy sentiments all, but the efficacy of a week of good feeling is dubious at best. (It’s no Great American Smokeout, put it that way.) It started in the 1940s and lasted all the way to the 1980s, probably more out of inertia than anything else. The sixties were smack dab in the middle of that span, at the apex of Peace/Love/Dope, and it was then that Brotherhood Week found its way into DC’s great team book, Justice League of America. And oh, what a story it spawned.
Scripted by Gardner Fox, with art by Mike Sekwosky and Sid Greene, the impetus for all the forced good feeling is that insufferable mortal hanger-on: Snapper Carr. He’s writing a term paper, and hooks the Justice League’s B-squad into helping him do research:
Yes, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had the good sense to hightail it out of there before this nonsense. Their receding backs are all we get here of the DC big guns in this comic. Alas.
Flash, Green Arrow, and Hawkman split up to investigate the kooky non-whites that Snapper finds most fascinating. Flash draws the “Negro.” (It’s so jarring to see that outdated word in the effervescent milieu of DC’s Silver Age. SO jarring.) Joel, the young man in question, had foiled a robbery and been given a low-level job in his burg’s garment district. But when he tries to stop another theft and ruins some of his boss’s product, he gets canned, which cues the angry lament you’d expect:
Fear not: He helps the Flash catch the robbers, and the Flash promises to use his connections, through his “friend” Barry Allen, to help get Joel a job as a policeman. One down. And this one wasn’t all that bad.
Oh, but wait.
Green Arrow draws the Native American in the American Southwest, a young Apache named Jerry. He heads there in his Arrowcar, which is emblazoned with NASCAR-like advertising for, of all things, the crappy DC Teen Beat mag:
Arrow rescues Jerry from angry rail workers, who think that he’s stolen goods from one of the cars. Arrow takes him along to help him track down the real thieves, and it’s then that Jerry spills out his high school dropout tale of woe. Just FYI, the term “my fellow Redskins” is used at one point — no idea what bearing this has on the unending hullabaloo over the Washington NFL team’s name. Just putting it out there.
Anyway, Jerry’s Apache heritage comes in quite handy on the hunt:
So basically Jerry is Green Arrow’s dog or something. How liberating. He goes on to throw a mean punch when the fighting starts — all that’s missing is a war whoop. Again: liberating. Might as well have him open a casino at story’s end.
Meanwhile, Hawkman (with Snapper in tow — Carter got the short straw) heads toward the subcontinent (the other Indians), where he finds an incipient war between rival clans, battling over their respective food supplies: game and grain. A do-gooder American (Brit? Canadian?) has helped one group plant new crops, but this bit of philanthropy has had deadly consequences, upsetting the delicate balance. Jealousies, factional rivalries, the whole nine yards. Never fear, though — Hawkman uses primitive superstition to put an end to the escalating tensions, masquerading as a winged deity and peremptorily declaring a cessation of hostilities:
Does the Justice League have a Prime Directive? Should they? Shouldn’t they?
One supposes that we’re all supposed to be wiser now. Maybe. No matter what, the heroes have at least gotten Snapper some good material for his term paper. And it falls to him to utter a teeth-grindingly awful sentiment in the last poorly cropped panel:
Last week we looked at a preposterous yet fun Silver Age Batman book, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum as this contemporary. It embraced fully the medium’s zeitgeist, while this comic tried to go in another direction. But the superhero comic genre hadn’t yet evolved to the point where it could tackle weighty issues with any sort of competence. It was a trivial era, and trying to be serious only trivialized things that shouldn’t have been treated that way. Granted, comics have done a lot worse than this one — a lot worse — and the failures here are of execution, not intention. But failures they are. Franklin Delano Bluth is less of a blunt tool.
The release of the new film 12 Years a Slave (based on a book of the same name), has elicited much commentary on how it’s a searing testament to America’s troubled racial past, but one scrubbed of the usual layers of white guilt. That’s probably something at the core of this comic: it’s a frilly, well-intentioned book crafted by white men whose guilt likely lurked in the subconscious. Take that for what it’s worth.
(Justice League of America #57 has been reprinted in Showcase Presents: Justice League of America #3.)