Since 1986, I’ve written ten different comic series and 47 novels. Stuck between Death Hawk and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a nine-issue run of The Justice Machine.
Created by Mike Gustovich, The Justice Machine debuted from Noble Comics in 1981 at the very dawn of the independently-published comic era. The first issue featured an iconic cover by John Byrne and Mike Gustovich.
Several well-known creators contributed to the series during its five-issue run—Terry Austin, John Byrne and Bill Reinhold and Bill Willingham among others…including Jack Kirby.
These artists and others put together a limited edition portfolio/sketchbook featuring their takes on the characters. The portfolio is now a highly sought-after collector’s item.
Although that early incarnation of The Justice Machine is barely remembered now, it holds a degree of historical significance because the title is recognized as being the very first independently-published super-team comic.
In 1983, the even more short-lived Texas Comics published The Justice Machine Annual #1 which featured a crossover with the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Bill Willingham’s Elementals made their first appearance as a back-up feature. The title characters were bizarrely absent from both the front and back covers of the publication that bore their name.
A couple of years later, The Machine resurfaced in The Justice Machine Source Book for the Heroes Unlimited role-playing game, making them the first comic book super-team to cross over into the burgeoning gaming market.
The Machine next reappeared in 1986 when Comico published a Justice Machine mini-series guest-starring the Elementals. The limited series brought the Machine to the attention of a much larger comic reading audience. The storyline told how the heroes stopped a powerful foe named Darkforce and his horde of extra-dimensional demons.
After that, The Justice Machine became one of Comico’s flagship titles, lasting a respectable 29 issues and an annual. The Machine relocated to Earth and an experimental island colony called New Atlantis. The stories were grim, gritty and often very violent. One of the many intriguing storylines introduced during the Comico run was that the current Justice Machine was the latest incarnation of a long line of Justice Machines.
The reader was shown in over a period of issues past adventures with Challenger how he and Blazer’s mother were engaged in a short affair which resulted in Blazer’s birth—although neither Challenger nor Blazer were aware of their relationship until the ninth issue.
Another storyline involved Demon’s addiction to a performance-enhancing drug called “Edge”. His craving for the drug led him to attack his own teammates. Defeated by Challenger, Demon fled New Atlantis but returned in time to help the Machine during the Earth/Georwell war.
Innovation licensed the Machine in 1989, reintroducing them in the three-issue The New Justice Machine mini-series. That’s where artist Darryl Banks and I came in. As I recollect, Adam Hughes (with whom I had collaborated on Death Hawk) recommended me to the then-Innovation editor.
At the time, Darryl was laboring away on Cyberpunk, one of the first fully-painted comic books and I was reaching the end of two-year stint as the main writer of Adventure Publcations. Neither one of us had worked professionally on a super-hero team before, although I had created one for Adventure Publications right before the company went belly-up.
Just for the sake of providing a footnote in comics history, I’ll add this—Malibu/Eternity picked up the Adventure banner as an imprint in 1988. In the never-produced super-team book I developed, I used public domain characters from the old Centaur Comics company as the core group of heroes. A few years later, Malibu came out with a super-team title called The Protectors…featuring public domain characters from the old Centaur Comics company as the core group of heroes.
I was familiar with the Justice Machine even from the Noble Comics days but I won’t say I was a fan. I was also aware of their long Comico run so I didn’t come onto the book as a complete novice in the ways and mannerisms of the Machine.
However, when I researched the series, reading all of the back issues I could find, I concluded that the Justice Machine had become needlessly complicated—a situation not too startling inasmuch as several writers had worked on the book during its time with Comico and each one tried to put their own individual stamp on it.
Although the writing was technically very good, I felt the character interactions had become entangled with too many soap-opera elements and convoluted subplots that didn’t seem to serve either the basic concept or the characters. Some storylines were gratuitously dark.
Not to mention—both Darryl and I really disliked the Justice Machine’s original costumes. He and I agreed to upgrade them as soon as we could, but first we needed to give the Machine a restart.
With the approval of Mike Gustovich, we set about streamlining the title and scaling away some of the barnacles that had accrued during its history. We did our best to make The Justice Machine as viable and popular as it had been when Comico first published them.
The setting of New Atlantis struck me as limited, even a little claustrophobic. I didn’t see much dramatic potential in taking the Machine from the restrictive world of Georwell and sticking them in an environment on Earth that was even worse. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of running around dimly-lit metal-walled corridors and yelling at one another—sort of like a precursor to Battlestar Galactica.
The very first thing I decided to do was to remove the Justice Machine from New Atlantis and place them in the “real” world, where they could interact with society. Putting them on the campus of a small private law university provided far more possibilities for stories than an isolated island colony. So, to that end I determined to blow up New Atlantis real good in the very first story and then move on.
Also, during the time I wrote the series I came to the slow realization I really liked working on it. I enjoyed the fact that the Machine was basically a family much like the Fantastic Four, one of my favorite comic series of all time. None of the characters were uber-powerful, either.
And of course, working with the brilliant Darryl Banks was a definite plus. We expanded the abilities of a couple of the characters, such as Diviner and Blazer and had fun with Challenger’s age.
Although critical response to The New Justice Machine mini-series and subsequently the regular series published by Innovation was very positive, due to a peculiar set of circumstances (that all boiled down to juvenile office politics and self-destructive jealousies), neither Darryl nor myself were given the opportunity to fully achieve our goals.
Darryl and I subsequently moved over to Millennium Publications, a company founded and co-owned by my wife Melissa, myself and a third partner. Although Darryl and I collaborated on such critically acclaimed series as The Wild Wild West and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, we never forgot our stint on The Justice Machine. Both of us shared the nagging sensation that we had left a task unfinished…that we only barely begun our revitalization efforts.
About a year after we left the book, Mike Gustovich phoned to inform me that Innovation’s license on the Justice Machine was about to expire and he was casting about for a different deal. However, the deal he had in mind really was different—instead of licensing the series out to publishers as he had done in the past, Mike wanted to sell all rights to the characters and the concepts. He felt that I had the deepest understanding and appreciation of both so he gave me first right of refusal.
The price was right, my enthusiasm high and a deal was quickly struck. Within a week of that phone call, I was the sole owner of The Justice Machine and I began plotting a new series to be published by Millennium.
When Darryl and I sat down to discuss a new direction for the Machine, we were slightly tempted to trash everything that had gone before and start anew. But the origin and background of the characters was still fairly unique to comics. Also, to change everything for the sake of staking out new territory seemed unfair to long-time fans.
Besides the approach we had created for the book under the Innovation banner had never realized its full potential. We agreed to pick up essentially where we left off, placing the action a little under a year beyond Innovation issue #4 and ignore the three issues (and a one-shot that featured a pointless and barely comprehensible crossover with Innovation’s other super-group, the Hero Alliance) that had followed my departure.
(For you continuity-conscious out there: Innovation issues #5 through 7 as well as the Hero Alliance crossover have been consigned to the “never happened” category.)
Darryl and I also came up with a plot that would reintroduce some of the Justice Machine’s supporting cast in new guises but also finally explain why a planet in another dimension would have the silly name of “Georwell.”
We updated the Machine’s setting, Darryl designed even sleeker and slicker costumes and we introduced a new member, Chain, who had first appeared in the Innovation mini-series as Krista Klay.
We also created a new persona for the perennially irritating Talisman—he became a clergyman, taking the name of Father Michael.
We came up a super-powered group of “opposite numbers” to square off against the Machine, called “Department Z” They were intended to be rotating cast of adversaries working for the Machine’s arch-foe, Zarren.
But unfortunately, only two issues of the Millennium version of the Justice Machine were produced before the comics market crashed and self-immolated. Comic publishers went out of business by the score and comic shops went out of business by the hundreds. Darryl moved over to DC and a memorable, decade-long stint on Green Lantern.
Melissa and I left the comics field entirely (except for a brief detour as editor and art director of a deservedly short-lived comics publisher called Firstlight), but we retained ownership of properties such as The Miskatonic Project, Noseferatu: Plague of Terror, Death Hawk, Star Rangers, Ninja Elite and of course, The Justice Machine.
By the mid-90s, Comico, Millennium and Innovation were all casualties of the industry-wide crash. I turned my attention to building a career as a novelist and over the next 15 years, I gave very little thought to the comics properties we owned, even though occasional inquiries came my way about reviving the Justice Machine.
Then in 2007, Melissa and I were contracted to write The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels for Adams Media. Some of the art we selected for the book featured the Justice Machine.
Around the same time, I was queried by someone interested in reviving the Justice Machine for an RPG. Shortly thereafter, the publisher of Dynamite Entertainment also expressed interest in either buying the Machine or licensing the rights.
Nothing came of either inquiry, but it seemed like events were pushing us to reintroduce the Justice Machine in some form or another. We decided a compilation volume was the best way to go.
Through our own Millennial Concepts imprint and working with Gary Reed’s Transfuzion, we released The New Justice Machine: High Gear Edition Volume One. Sales were good and the critical response was very encouraging.
So the question begged to be asked–and answered–”Why not new Justice Machine stories?”
According to most comics field analysts, readership turns over every three years. By those calculations there are five generations of readers who are unfamiliar with the Justice Machine characters and concepts—not to mention how a number of themes in the series predated those that were dealt with in Watchmen and even on Heroes.
So here we are, well over 20 years after I wrote my first Justice Machine script. I had no idea back then that a couple of years hence I would end up owning the property or 19 years after I penned my last Justice Machine story, I would be writing an all- new graphic novel about those characters.
The new graphic novel is loosely connected to the last issue of the Millennium series. The prologue takes place 18 years ago and ends with the disappearance of the Justice Machine. The first chapter picks up 18 years later, with the return of the Machine and what they find is horrifying—they finally learn the truth about Georwell and their own role in creating it.
The Justice Machine: Object of Power offers readers the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a unique super-hero universe…one that has an established history but also one that they don’t have to memorize 60 years worth of past continuity to understand.
I’m taking the attitude that the return of the Justice Machine is tantamount to a situation where the Fantastic Four had mysteriously and suddenly disappeared for years…not just in comic book years but in real-time years, as well.
Then just as suddenly– BOOM! –they’re back and not only are they struggling to come to terms with a new world in crisis, but the world is struggling to come to terms with them.
The Justice Machine: Object of Power is tough, mature and action-packed.
It is definitely a new approach and it is unlike any past incarnation. The characters are the same, but the conflicts are more intense and the stakes higher. The beautiful cover by the brilliant Jeff Slemons perfectly captures the tone, as well as being something of a homage to the original John Byrne cover.
With the revival of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and John Byrne’s Next Men, this is the perfect time for a retooled Justice Machine to regain their position as one of comics premier super-teams.
The release of The New Justice Machine: High Gear Edition, Volume Two will bring new and old readers up to date…
As well as treat everyone to beautifully enhanced Darryl Banks color artwork.
The Justice Machine: Object of Power also features new costumes–much more like uniforms–with unifying, functional elements such as the scales of justice within a gear-wheel insignia created so long ago by Darryl.
Depending on a certain variables, there are plans to publish a series of “Classic Justice Machine” trade paperback collections and if the market conditions are right, even more new material.
I certainly hope the conditions are right…I love creating and crafting new stories about the Justice Machine.
As it was over 20 years ago, there’s no way to tell what the future will hold for the Justice Machine.
As Arthur Penn said, “Life is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Mark (James Axler) Ellis is the author of 50 books and is the creator of Death Hawk, Star Rangers, The Miskatonic Project and the best-selling Outlanders SF series.
His latest novel is The Spur: Loki’s Rock now on sale, through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and most other bookstores.
Autographed copies of Cryptozoica can be ordered here: http://cryptozoica.com/
Art on this page is by: John Byrne, Jack Kirby, Mike Gustovich, Bill Reinhold, Darryl Banks, Eddy Newell and David Enebral