Justice League of America #123: Where on Earth Am I?

If I might be allowed to start with some heresy, while Marvel may sell itself as “the world outside your window,” it’s actually DC’s comics that offer the important life lessons you can actually use. Villains? They’re a cowardly, superstitious lot! Orphans? They will grow up to accomplish great things sans parental love and influence! And, as Justice League of America #123 (1975) teaches us, comic book creators are egocentric assholes who might just kill us all.

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By Graeme McMillan

The wonderfully-named “Where On Earth Am I?” isn’t just a parable about the destructive nature of writers, though; it’s also the first part of that year’s annual Justice League/Justice Society team-up, in which the heroes of two different Earths got together to deal with that year’s big trouble. And this time, the big bad just so happens to be writer Cary Bates, who co-writes the issue and is therefore likely responsible for his opening line of dialogue: “Boasting is unbecoming the future Master Super-Villain of Three Earths!”

Yes, that’s right; three Earths. It’s not just Earth-One (Home of the Justice League) and Earth-Two (Home of the Justice Society) that feature in this story; there’s also Earth-Prime, which is, as the story helpfully explains, “a place you think of as the real world.” It’s a fun conceit that first appeared in 1968’s The Flash #179, and would eventually become very complicated indeed. (By 1985, our real world was apparently destroyed in the Crisis on Infinite Earths series, after producing its own Superboy, who’d return 20 years later, revealed to be a spoiled trollish fanboy with superpowers; don’t ask, but apparently we’re living in the Matrix after all).

Indeed, the issue opens on Earth-Prime, where fans got to see how their comics were made, and had their fond illusions immediately shattered. “You always telling me you’re such a genius, Bates— have you got a Justice League plot yet?” demands gesticulating editor Julie Schwartz, who introduces himself by saying “How many times do I have to tell you… B.O. Schwartz is what they call me — it stands for Be Original! When either of you has an original idea, it’ll be time for me to retire!” Yes, it really was a different era in the 1970s; before the internet, comic book writers had to turn to their editors to be trolled and ridiculed.

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Yet desperation seems to breed… if not inspiration, then at least activity: Bates and co-writer Elliot S! Maggin rebuild the Cosmic Treadmill that Schwartz keeps in his office — a gift from the Flash, because of course — and end up accidentally turning it on, sending Bates to Earth-Two, where he somehow gets superpowers and aids a couple of robbers make a getaway by… transforming their getaway car into a plane somehow. “did that… with sheer mental energy! Makes me feel great!” he thinks as he runs away from the scene of the crime. “Hey… I could get to like life on Earth-Two enough to stay! I’m a genuine, card-carrying super-villain!”

You might be asking, why? Why is he a super-villain? Where did the powers come from? Why is he okay with suddenly becoming a fictional character? How did all of this happen in just five pages? The answer, dear readers, is simple: Shut up and keep reading. Because the next couple of pages show Maggin also use the Cosmic Treadmill, assisted by surly editor Schwartz — “How am I going to concentrate on a cover with those two kids gone who-knows-where —?” he ponders after Maggin also disappears — only to reappear on Earth-One, where he’s saved from certain drowning death by a passing Aquaman, and quickly ferried to the JLA Satellite. 

Thankfully, Maggin hasn’t also turned evil, nor inexplicably gained superpowers. Instead, he has to convince a collection of unconvinced superheroes about what’s going on in the worst — which is to say, the best — manner possible. “You better talk fast, bonzo!” growls Green Arrow. “If this is some half-baked story —”

Maggin’s response? “No- No, no! It’s completely baked — I mean…”

Things only get better as the conversation continues. “If this dude were making any sense, he’d talk just like me!” Green Arrow says at one point, only for Maggin to magsplain, “I do talk like you! I mean you talk like me! I write your line modeled after my own speech patterns!” If it wasn’t for the Flash showing up to calm things down by randomly unmasking the JLA and saying, essentially, “Guys, chill, I’ve met this guy’s editor, he’s probably legit,” then things probably wouldn’t have ended well.

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Meanwhile, back on Earth-Two, Evil Cary Bates has gotten himself a super villain costume and decided on an absolutely ridiculous plan to take on the Justice Society of America: He’s going to hide in some Botanical Gardens or other and use overgrown plants to attack the team. To the surprise of everyone who knows (a) that the Justice Society are superheroes or (b) how plants normally work, this plan actually bears (poisonous) fruit: the team is overwhelmed by some gas that seems to come from some mysterious and ill-defined flowers, and collapse at the feet of the excited Bates, who exclaims, “Somebody once told me adventure writers are just closet felons deep inside… Must’ve been right!” Who knew that reading someone else’s therapy could be quite so entertaining?

Things speed towards a conclusion as the Justice League, having realized that Cary Bates isn’t on Earth-One, is probably on Earth-Two. (There are multiple — at this point, technically infinite — Earths out there, but as Batman helpfully explains, “the temporal matrices linking our world to Earth-Two are at their closest point of the year!” Plus, you know, there’s only four pages left in the issue.) As the team decides to visit the second-best Earth of them all, the comic cuts back to that world, where the Injustice Society of America hang around a firepit for some reason while a pair of fists explains that the Wizard has magically cast a spell that turned Cary Bates into a criminal when he was between worlds. How did he get his super powers? Shhhhhh. Stop asking questions and instead marvel at a super team line-up that includes such impressive names as “The Sportsmaster” and “The Gambler”!

As the JLA and Elliot S! Maggin show up in an aircraft carrier on Earth-Two, they’re immediately attacked by the Injustice Society, who get soundly thrashed by the League, while Maggin looks on, frowning. “I feel about as useful in this mess… as a butcher at a vegetarian convention!” he thinks, raising the question of whether they actually had vegetarian conventions in the 1970s.

But, wait! Things aren’t as they seem — as the League recovers from the battle, they realize two important things: Firstly, the Injustice Society are all dead, somehow. (I mean, you’d think the League would realize they had something do with it, having literally just been punching them a lot, but apparently not.) Secondly, the Injustice Society isn’t the Injustice Society at all — it’s actually the Justice Society in disguise!

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“Talk about freaking plot twists!” exclaims a shocked Maggin, underselling the fact that the Justice League has apparently just killed six superheroes by accident. The issue ends with Evil Cary Bates taking responsibility for the mischief behind the scenes (“Who, Batman?… Why none other than that little old plot-twister — Me!”), leaving multiple cliff-hangers to bring readers back next month: Would the Justice League get away with murder? Was Cary Bates having some kind of breakdown or mid-life crisis in co-writing this story? Are the Justice Society really dead? They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and superhero comics are all the worse for that. 

To be continued!

Justice League of America #123: “Where on Earth Am I?”
Writers: Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Frank McLaughin
Letterer: Uncredited
Colorist: Uncredited
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Graeme McMillan is a writer for the Hollywood Reporter, Wired and Playboy, as well as being one half of the Wait, What? podcast. He can be found on twitter here.

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