Comics/Graphic Novels

That Time Harlan Ellison Fought the Justice League

Harlan Ellison is one of the most influential figures in science fiction. He wrote hundreds upon hundred of short stories, screenplays, comics, and more, including the acclaimed Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and won numerous awards during his life. He was also volatile and controversial, as much of a personality as any of his fictional characters, and his behavior was often appalling.

And in 1971, he fought the Justice League.

I’ve read literally thousands of comics, so when I say that Justice League of America #89 (May 1971) by Mike Friedrich and Dick Dillon is one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, that’s saying something. And when I dug into the background of this comic, it got even weirder. Let’s take a look!

The cover of Justice League of America #89. Superman and Batman stand on a table, but their faces are empty white spaces. In the foreground, the Flash points at the reader with one hand while gesturing to Superman and Batman with the other. The rest of the League stands behind the table.

Flash: "Reader - this is a story about you! It's your turn to be either Superman or Batman!"
Burst: "The most unusual JLA story ever - where you are hero - and villain!"
To coin (ha!) a phrase: If I had a nickel for every famous comic book cover with Barry Allen yelling at me, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t much money, but it’s weird that it happened twice.

Right off the bat, things are strange, as the Flash hollers at the reader that it’s their (our?) turn to be Superman or Batman, because this story is about us! SPOILER: This is not true unless you are Harlan Ellison. THIS COMIC IS WEIRD.

The story proper begins with a Justice League meeting disbanding and the members dispersing to go about their civilian lives, which is abruptly interrupted by…Mike Friedrich, the writer of this comic:

A panel from JLA #89. Mike Friedrich, a young white man, sits at a typewriter and looks at the reader.

Friedrich: "Like pounding cold California sea-waves splashing over an indefensible swimmer, the man and story about to unfold are pressuring me to tell this tale... Why, you ask? Read on..."
I hope you like purple prose, folks…

Now, in the late ’60s and through the ’70s, it actually wasn’t uncommon for both DC and Marvel comics to feature creators as characters, often in a wackily self-deprecating way. There’s a whole Justice League arc where our heroes get stranded on “Earth-Prime,” AKA our world, where they are famous comic book characters, and they need the help of the staff at DC to get home. It’s…embarrassingly self-indulgent, but it was a familiar trope.

This, though? The writer staring into your eyes and telling you in ludicrously purple prose that he had to write this story? That’s new, and honestly kind of unsettling.

Enter Black Canary…and “Harlequin Ellis,” who is extremely obviously meant to be Harlan Ellison. In fact, Ellison had already sort of used the name Harlequin for himself in his famous short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” in which the titular Harlequin can be interpreted as an autobiographical figure. This is one of many Easter eggs referencing Ellison’s work that are sprinkled throughout the issue.

Anyway, “Harlequin” is immediately positioned the same way he will be throughout the story: as simultaneously conspicuously cool in a sunglasses-wearing, jet-setting kind of way, and also as a total douchebag.

Three panels fro JLA #89.

Panel 1: Black Canary stands in the foreground, with a white coat on over her costume. Harlequin Ellis walks past her wearing sunglasses, a brown jacket, and green tie and pants.

Narration Box: "As you wait, turn your head and meet Harlequin Ellis...small-town Ohio boy in the big-time. He writes for television and he's paid well - very well! He's wearing his name like a neon sign tonight, for he's the flashy clown, the smiling swinger, every grin of his shining teeth broadcasting 'I'm with it!'"

Panel 2: Harlequin turns to ogle Black Canary.

Narration Box: "Turning your head back, the corner of your eye sees why Ellis was dubbed by a leading movie mag, 'the most eligible bachelor in Hollywood!' You can also tell that this sleek arrogant tiger is on the prowl..."

Panel 3: Harlequin approaches Black Canary, adjusting his tie.

Narration Box: "And tonight he's stalking you, Dinah Drake Lance...alas the Black Canary!"
Harlequin (thinking): "Well, well! Check out this action, Ellie-baby!"
What an absolute toolbox.

Harlequin talks Black Canary into getting a cup of coffee and she tells him that she’s still grieving her dead husband, Larry Lance. Harlequin understands, he says, because “three times have I lost a wife.” If he meant he’d been widowed three times, I’d be thinking this guy is definitely a serial killer, but based on Ellison’s real life he’s referring to the first three of his four divorces, which is hilarious. “Yeah, your husband’s violent death is exactly like three women dumping me, one after only seven weeks.” What a guy!

But Green Arrow has arrived, and he’s not pleased to see another man making time with his lady. He threatens to beat Harlequin up and Black Canary begs him not to, apparently forgetting that she has a black belt in judo and could stop this. It’s all very sexist and extremely tiresome.

Harlequin storms home, where he sits down at his typewriter and bursts into tears. Suddenly, Green Arrow and Black Canary are teleported to Mexico!

Four panels from JLA #89.

Panel 1: A narration box reading "The barrier between the real and the unreal begins to break down..."

Panel 2: Green Arrow and Black Canary leave the diner as two hippies enter.

Green Arrow: "C'mon, Pretty Bird, let's get a move on - we're late for the JLA meeting!"
Hippie #1: "Dig the cat and the chick - are they wearing far-out clothes!"

Panel 3: Another narration box reads "Abruptly- as in Harlequin Ellis's current story, Green Arrow and Black Canary find themselves outside a small down south of the border!..."

Panel 4: A startled Green Arrow and Black Canary find themselves outside of a small wooden shop with the partially seen name of "Recue-" The panel border is jagged to imply a dream state.

Green Arrow: "Wha-?! How'd we get here?"
Harlan Ellison can just do that, I guess.

It’s unclear why the Mexico bit is in here at all, because the next thing we see is Harlequin imagining himself as Superman — and suddenly he is Superman! He flies down and scoops up a bewildered and very much not in Mexico Black Canary, who asks him where the League is.

Why, they’re…trapped in a cave by a giant cyborg while Aquaman dies from lack of water, of course:

Four panels from JLA #89.

Panel 1: Harlequin looks down at a circular inset which shows the JLA in a cave. Aquaman lies dying on the ground, while Green Arrow shouts at Green Lantern, Flash, Batman, and Hawkman, who stand motionless.

Narration Box: "To be confronted with the vision your sight beholds - "
Green Arrow: "His hour time-limit is up! He needs water! Green Lantern - use your power ring to save him! Flash - carry him to the sea at super-speed!"

Panel 2: Closeup of Green Arrow.

Green Arrow: "Why are you all standing there like dummies? Do something! Don't you understand? Aquaman - is - going - to - die!"

Panel 3: Closeup of Harlequin straining.

Narration Box: "To realize your true nature - to recognize your responsibility..."

Panel 4: Harlequin-as-Superman flies Black Canary over mountains.

Harlequin-Superman: "Great Scott! They're trapped in a cave! Aquaman is dying! It's my fault! I put them there!"
Black Canary (thinking): "Superman's fault - ? What does he mean?"
Black Canary: "Why can't we help them?"
What.

Harlequin-Superman begrudgingly fights the cyborg, but it’s too late — Aquaman is dead! Shocked and despairing, Harlequin tries to explain to Black Canary that he only killed her friend because he loves her so much from telling her about his three divorces for five minutes, but the dream suddenly dissolves, leaving Green Arrow and Black Canary thoroughly confused (but Aquaman presumably fine, elsewhere).

Two panels from JLA #89.

Panel 1: A closeup of Harlequin crying.

Narration Box: "To realize you are someone else - someone with a great need..."

Panel 2: Harlequin-Superman reaches pleadingly for a confused Black Canary, while an equally confused Green Arrow puts a protective hand on her shoulder.

Harlequin-Superman: "Canary, you must understand...I'm shattered...like a glass goblet...one that must be put together again! Please...I want you...I need you!"
Black Canary: "But, Superman...I...I can't...I don't understand..."
“Shattered…like a glass goblet…” is another Easter egg, referencing Ellison’s 1968 short story “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin.”

Harlequin, however, has not learned his lesson. He storms off to a nightclub, “throb[bing] with the pain-fire of rejected love.” Woof. This time, he imagines himself as Batman, with Green Arrow and Black Canary threatened by what the story calls a minotaur but is clearly a centaur with bonus horns:

One panel from JLA $89.

Harlequin-Batman and Black Canary perch on rocks, looking down into a pit where an enormous centaur with horns threatens Green Arrow. Harlequin's head is a little inset in the upper left-hand corner. Both regular Harlequin and Harlequin-Batman are smiling.

Narration Box: "To smile coldly from a shadowy perch over a horrifying spectacle below..."
Green Arrow: " - it's happened again! This time I'm trapped with a minotaur!"
Black Canary: "Green Arrow - quickly - do something - before it kills you!"
Black Canary, of course, can do nothing to help, because it’s not like she has all of the martial arts prowess Batman does plus a superpower. Oh wait.

Green Arrow is injured by the minocentaur, but it’s not until Black Canary imperils herself that Harlequin bothers to help, saving them both and revealing his true identity:

Three panels from JLA #89.

Panel 1: Harlequin-Batman tentatively approaches Black Canary as she tends to a wounded Green Arrow, who is lying on the ground. Harlequin's distressed face floats above the scene.

Narration Box: "To know the greatest test is yet to come, as you realize you are more than the Batman..."
Harlequin-Batman: "Black Canary - you all right - ?"
Black Canary: "That look - ! You're not the Batman!"
Harlequin-Batman: "No, I am not! You know who I am, Black Canary - and why I am here!"

Panel 2: Harlequin-Batman lifts his cowl to reveal Harlequin's sunglasses-wearing face and a sheepish smile. The floating head of Harlequin sports the same expression. Green Arrow and Black Canary look startled and annoyed.

Green Arrow: "- YOU?!"
Black Canary: "Oh, no! Not again - ! What can I do - ?"

Panel 3: All three figures fade out of the cave.

Narration Box: "And be the Batman no longer!"
Ollie and Dinah are so tired of being in this story.

When this dream dissolves, Green Arrow’s injury remains. Fed up, Black Canary goes to confront Harlequin. Somehow she knows exactly how to find him, presumably by following the sounds of the Who cover band:

Two panels from JLA #89.

Panel 1: A narration box reading "Your eyes meet and his lips do not move...both the music says it all..."

Panel 2: Harlequin and Black Canary stare at each other. Behind them, an audience watches a singer perform.

Singer: "See me...! Feel me...! Touch me...! Heal me...!"
Among his many other accolades, Harlan Ellison was also a pinball wizard.

Black Canary tells Harlequin that he needs to grow up, but if he needs help, he can come to her. Dinah, honey, that’s very sweet of you, but please get a restraining order against this dude. And maybe break up with Green Arrow too?

Anyway, they part as friends, Harlequin walks off into the night, Black Canary rejoins Green Arrow…and the story ends with the weirdest final panel I have ever seen in a comic:

One panel from JLA #89. The disembodied head of Friedrich smiles at us and says the following across multiple speech balloons:

Freidrich: "Many are the things a writer is forced to do by the crash-pounding of his creative soul. This story was one of them."
Friedrich: "For in writing of this man, Harlequin Ellis, I am facing the eternal mirror...for who is it that actually creates our heroes' ever-recurring menaces to their lives, testing ever fibre of their being to the limi?"
Friedrich: "Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Aquaman are just as real to me as to Harlequin Ellis - I believe in them! I must! When Superman bursts through a monstrous boulder, it is I who flex my muscles!"
Friedrich: "When the Batman looks with vengeance on someone he hates, it is I who hate! When Aquaman dies from water-thirst, when Green Arrow faces a charging minotaur, when Black Canary looks into the eyes of another human being and sees his soul, it is I!"
Friedrich: "And...when Harlequin Ellis cries over the lack of returned love, it is I!"
Friedrich: "Many are the things a writer is forced to do by the crash-pounding of his creative soul. This story was one of them; for there is no escape from the soul-shatter of the nova-awareness that I, in so many ways, am...Harlequin Ellis!"

In the bottom right-hand corner is the following dedication: "To H.E., that you might understand, brother... Mike Friedrich"
I’m. I’m just.

You see, reader, you are Superman and Batman and Black Canary, but also Harlequin Ellis, but also Mike Friedrich is the Justice League and Harlequin Ellis, so I guess you are also Mike Friedrich? And also Harlequin Ellis is Harlan Ellison. I’m not sure I want to be the walking embodiment of toxic masculinity as well as the blatant hero worship of said toxicity, but I guess I don’t have a choice!

But it’s that plaintive dedication that really piqued my curiosity: “To H.E., that you might understand, brother…” Dedications are incredibly rare in comics — I can think of maybe two others off the top of my head. I assumed it meant that Friedrich and Ellison were friends, but it was unusual enough that I googled it.

Turns out, they were barely acquaintances! They had met once, at a convention four years ago when Friedrich was 18 and had just started writing for DC, and Ellison had totally dismissed him. Meaning that this whole issue is actually just extremely bizarre fanmail.

And it was mail. According to this impressively comprehensive blog post from Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books, to which I am deeply indebted for this whole article, Friedrich attempted to send Ellison a copy of the script, but he was short on postage so Ellison sent it back rather than pay the difference, which is hilarious. Friedrich persevered with a few more stamps, and, according to Friedrich, Ellison finally read it, loved it, and became his bestest friend forever, which was the whole point of writing the story in the first place. In fact, Ellison liked it so much he asked to have Harlequin’s name changed to “Harlan Ellison”! (Editor Julius Schwartz wisely demurred.)

I am just boggled over this. Like, this appears to have been Friedrich’s plan:

  1. Get an A-list gig like the Justice League at the tender age of 21.
  2. Use it to write about my favorite author meeting the League, except he’s portrayed as an immature, murderous narcissist.
  3. Conclude with a breathlessly pretentious monologue delivered directly by me and an uncomfortably intimate dedication to someone I don’t even know.
  4. Mail to said favorite author.
  5. Now we are best friends, hooray!

And it worked! Do you think his next step was sending it to Roger Daltrey? Is that why the Tommy lyrics are in there?

This issue is truly a standalone — the events in it are never mentioned again, “Harlequin Ellis” never returns (though Harlan Ellison would coincidentally plot not one but two Marvel comics in the exact same month this JLA issue was published, The Avengers #88 and The Incredible Hulk #140), and I’ve never encountered another comic that does anything remotely like this, which is probably for the best. But hey, it’s memorable!

In conclusion, I must echo Mike Friedrich when I say that “many are the things a writer is forced to do by the crash-pounding of his creative soul!” My creative soul forced me to tell you about this comic, because it is bonkers. You’re welcome.

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