"When a World Dies Screaming!"

Writer: Gerry Conway. Pencils: Rich Buckler, Paris Cullens. Inks: Romeo Tanghal.

Justice League of America #210-212 (1982-1983)

Sometimes the format of a comic book story can be part of its appeal. Fine, you say...but what's so special about the format of a three issue story? Well, the thing is: apparently that wasn't how the story was intended to be published. This was presented as a retro tale (from the JLA's "Casebook") featuring pretty much the quintessential/classic Silver Age/Bronze Age line up (at a time when the current JLA was without Batman and Green Lantern) and that's because it had actually been prepared a few years earlier. Nor was it intended to be serialized, but rather published as an epic, one-shot, treasury sized special. See, for a time DC didn't put out any "annuals", and even anniversary issues were rarely extra-length, but they did put out the occasional treasury-sized special, or (as part of the DC Special series) regular-dimensioned 60-some page spectaculars, where the gimmick was usually to tell stand alone epics featuring their characters.

Even today, it's rare to get such a lengthy tale told between a single cover, let alone ones that aren't just part of a larger arc or crossover story.

So even though this was published as three regular issues, I couldn't help but read it with the same giddy fun I would have if I'd come upon it as an epic, self-contained one shot. Admittedly, whether the story was completed a few years earlier, or whether it was only half-completed and the creators reunited to finish it when it finally was slotted for these issues, I dunno -- the first issue is broken up into chapters (as you might expect for a giant one-shot) the later issues aren't. Still...the feel is there.

And sure, it's kind of goofy and silly, and scientifically suspect. But read in that vein (I mean, this is the JLA, right? A team defined by big, colourful set pieces more than human drama) it's a grandly epic, engrossingly audacious saga with the JLA literally having to save the world -- all self-contained, with nary a footnote or asterix, the villainy all unique to this tale.

The premise is that a sub-molecular "X" element crucial to human existence is breaking down. Because the X element bonds with all other molecules, its loss precipitates a variety of crises (a lack of combustion in one area of the world, flooding in another, etc.) Sure, it's not wholly logical, writer Gerry Conway just coming up with a blanket explanation to justify a bunch of otherwise unrelated crises the Leaguers must combat individually.

But things get complicated when an alien race shows up, offering a treatment to restore earth's X element. Though the Leaguers are suspicious of the convenient timing, earth has no choice but to accept -- even when, amid the various inconsequential items the aliens ask for in payment, they include a single, nebbishy earthman. But turns out there's a secret agenda at work, and the Leaguers are right back to saving the world.

It's fun simply for its grandiose audacity, Conway clearly intending it as an epic's epic -- involving the League in combating various environmental crises across the globe, then battling a sentient villainy, the story taking them from every corner of the globe, out into deep space and alien worlds. Instead of simply laying everything out in the first chapter and the rest being just the fighting, Conway peppers some twists and turns throughout to keep the plotting interesting, from the mystery as to why the aliens want the nobody earthman to other things I won't comment on ('cause that would defeat my point about saying there are a few twists and turns). It's attractively drawn by Rich Buckler, one of a handful of '70s artists clearly inspired by Neal Adams in style and composition. Granted, the length of the story maybe proved a bit much for him, as the final issue is a bit more uneven (Paris Cullen contributes a few pages). Conway even throws in a minor "human drama" aspect, periodically cutting to a human couple, largely unrelated to the JLA, trying to survive the crisis.

Sure, it's a bit goofy. And there are some plot lapses. At one point Superman battles an alien almost as strong as he, and remarks that he must come from a similar planet to Superman's native Krypton -- but the other aliens, from the same planet, don't seem that strong, and when Superman goes to the aliens' planet, it doesn't seem to affect his powers, as it surely should if it was like Krypton. Similarly, the Leaguers act suspicious that an alien world, perpetually covered in clouds, would've developed space travel -- yet I don't believe that's ever followed up upon. Nor is it clear why Hawkman and Hawkgirl are seen at the beginning -- then just kind of disappear from the story (other characters even remarking they could use his scientific expertise at one point, this being in the days when Hawkman was a smarty, unlike recent reinterpretations of the character). I guess since it's a global crisis, we can assume the two hawks were just off battling it somewhere else.

But if you shut off your brain and sit back for the ride, as a simple, old fashioned page turner, "When a World Dies Screaming!" is an enjoyable romp, featuring the "classic" League -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Atom (Ray Palmer), Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Green Arrow (Ollie Queen), Black Canary, Aquaman, Elongated Man, Red Tornado, and in smaller parts, Hawkman & Hawkgirl and The Phantom Stranger -- in an adventure of world shaking and galaxy spanning dimensions, all neatly told and wrapped up in 70 pages. And, honestly, if you're harkening for bombastic, but classically archetypal JLA adventure, it's probably a better hit than later things like JLA: Liberty and Justice and the maxi-series Justice (their painted hues notwithstanding)!