Justice Society of America

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All Star Comics #37 © 1947 DC Comics. (Cover art by Irwin Hasen.)

Justice Society of America

(pop culture)

It’s a rare superhero team that can be said to have created a whole genre, but the Justice Society of America (JSA) did just that in the pages of All Star Comics. Simply put, they were the first superteam in comics history—the first time that superheroes banded together to fight a common foe. The team’s origin has its roots in the confusing development of DC Comics or, to be more precise, in the creation of its sister company, All-American Publications. In 1939, DC owner Harry Donenfeld joined forces with industry pioneer Max (M. C.) Gaines to form an offshoot called All-American, which would have its own editorial base (led by chief editor Sheldon Mayer) and its own characters. Within two years of the company’s creation its self-titled publication All-American Comics had amassed a formidable roster of heroes, including the Flash, Hawkman, Johnny Thunder, Green Lantern, the Atom, and Dr. Mid-Nite.

All Star Comics was one of many Golden Age (1938–1954) anthology comics stuffed to the gills with superheroes, but with its third issue (Winter 1940) the decision was made to put them all together into a team. Mayer and writer Gardner Fox combined their own All-American heroes with some of DC’s characters, notably Dr. Fate, Hourman, Sandman, and the Spectre, and the Justice Society of America was born. For its first few years, the strip featured individual adventures of the various heroes (often drawn by their regular creative teams), usually pitted against a common foe, culminating in the group all meeting up in the last few pages. With a length of up to fifty-eight pages, the tales had an epic quality that captivated readers, despite the occasionally crude artwork. The momentum of World War II only increased the comic’s excitement as the team took on the Axis hordes and even went so far as to join the army (where they were also occasionally known as the Freedom Battalion).

Early on, management decided to showcase those heroes without their own comics, which is why Batman and Superman were notable absentees. And, as Flash and Green Lantern gained their own titles, they were eased out, as was Hourman (to make way for DC’s big hope of 1942, Starman). Issue #8 saw the first appearance anywhere of All-American’s biggest star, Wonder Woman, who was inducted into the group a few issues later, although she mostly had to make do with being the team secretary until issue #39! In late 1944, the comic witnessed a bigger upheaval when All-American owner Gaines split from DC over a row with DC owner Harry Donenfeld (who had given half of his share of All-American to DC’s accountant, Jack Liebowitz). Consequently, DC regulars the Spectre and Starman were booted out (joining recent evictees Sandman and Dr. Fate, who had just seen their own solo series canceled). A year later, Gaines sold out his share in the company to Donenfeld, and All-American was formally merged with DC. Surprisingly, however, the Justice Society remained wholly made up of All-American heroes to its end.

Following the successful debut of the Justice Society, DC launched a second superhero team, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, also known as the Law’s Legionnaires. Created by writer Mort Weisinger and legendary artist Mort Meskin, the Seven Soldiers team first appeared in Leading Comics #1 (Winter 1941). The team included the Crimson Avenger, the Green Arrow and his kid sidekick Speedy, the Shining Knight, the Star-Spangled Kid and his sidekick Stripesy, and the Vigilante.

By the mid-1940s, All Star Comics was at its peak, with the return of the Flash and Green Lantern, improved art from such young talents as Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Kubert, and scripts from Fox, Robert Kanigher, and John Broome. The JSA had also amassed a formidable array of foes, including the Wizard, the Brain Wave, Degaton, Vandal Savage, the Psycho Pirate, and the Injustice Society; they would all serve as the team’s principle enemies for decades to come. Wildcat and Mr. Terrific (both from the pages of Sensation Comics) made fleeting appearances in 1945, but it was the Black Canary (introduced to the team three years later, in issue #38) who was to be the last significant new member. DC canceled almost all its superhero books in 1949, but All Star Comics hung on for a few years longer as the last refuge for All-American’s once-cherished superheroes. Their final appearance came in issue #57 in 1951, and with the following issue the comic was retitled All-Star Western, signaling the end of an era.

In the ensuing years, the JSA became the focus for much of comic fandom and was the subject of numerous fanzine articles. When DC started reviving its long-lost heroes in the late 1950s, the team was the inspiration behind the Justice League of America, who in turn inspired Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four. Soon, the clamor for the JSA inspired Julius Schwartz (the JSA’s final editor, and then-current editor of the Justice League) to reintroduce the Society in a two-part team-up with the League in 1963. Schwartz and writer Fox rationalized the JSA’s reappearance by establishing that they were in fact from a parallel planet—called Earth-Two—which was apparently where all the 1940s and early 1950s DC/All-American adventures had actually taken place.

The Justice League story proved to be so popular that Schwartz decided to make the team-up an annual event, which was to last until 1985. The Justice Society members featured in the team-ups hailed from various periods of the strip, seemingly chosen at random. Previously little-seen characters, such as Wildcat, Superman (the Earth-Two version), Hourman, and Mr. Terrific became regulars, and the Earth-Two Robin was introduced to the team. These crossovers sparked interest in the individual heroes, leading to more guest appearances in such comics as The Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, and The Brave and the Bold, while the Spectre was given his own, short-lived title (the first of many Spectre series). Finally, the groundswell of affection for the team culminated in All-Star Comics being revived in 1976 with issue #58 (ignoring the many issues of All-Star Western), twenty-five years after their last Golden Age adventure.

However, the new All-Star was no mere exercise in nostalgia. Writer Gerry Conway introduced a new group of younger heroes: the Star-Spangled Kid, Robin, and a new superheroine, Superman’s feisty and flirtatious cousin, Powergirl. This new group called themselves the Super Squad. The intergenerational conflict between the aging JSA and the Super Squad enlivened a well-crafted comic, with the grizzled ex-boxer Wildcat (something of a bit player in the 1940s) emerging as a star at last. In its later years, the Justice Society had become a rare showcase for powerful female characters; both Wonder Woman and Black Canary took prominent roles. Similarly, the new AllStar featured strong women: In addition to Powergirl, the comic also starred the much darker Huntress (introduced in issue #69), a.k.a. Helena Wayne, later revealed to be the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. The Huntress went on to her own backup in Wonder Woman and Batman Family, as well as numerous Batman titles, a couple of her own series in the 1990s, and a starring role in the Birds of Prey title. Unfortunately, she could not inspire the public to buy All-Star Comics, and it was canceled with issue #74, while the JSA briefly moved over to the pages of Adventure Comics, where the Earth-Two Batman was killed off. Undeterred by this setback, DC still had faith in the team and, over the next two decades, no fewer than ten Justice Society-inspired titles were launched.

Of the many fans who clamored for the team’s revival in the early 1960s, Roy Thomas (then editor of the legendary fanzine Alter Ego) was one of the most vocal. In the years that followed, he rose to become the editor-in-chief and one of the top writers at Marvel Comics, but by 1981 he was looking to make his mark at DC, and his first project involved his beloved Justice Society, albeit somewhat tangentially. All-Star Squadron was set at the dawn of World War II. Its title team included not only the Justice society members, but also virtually every early 1940s superhero from DC, All-American, and rival company Quality Comics. Over its six-year existence, its focus was on those Golden Age stars passed over by All-Star Comics. The team contained old DC heroes Johnny Quick, Robotman, Liberty Belle, the Tarantula, and the Shining Knight, plus a new female version of the Quality Comics hero Firebrand, and one new creation, Amazing Man—the first African American hero set in that era. Much as he had done with Marvel’s Invaders, Thomas wove ancient strands of comic book continuity with historical events and military set pieces to fine effect.

The success of these Earth-Two heroes inspired Thomas to revive their contemporary adventures and, possibly inspired by the Super Squad, he created Infinity Inc., together with artist Jerry Ordway. Infinity Inc. characters were the offspring of various superheroes who had been rejected by the “grown-up” JSA. They had banded together to prove their elders and betters wrong. The team consisted of Fury (daughter of Wonder Woman), the Silver Scarab and Northwind (son and godson respectively of Hawkman), Nuklon (godson of the Atom), Jade and Obsidian (Green Lantern’s children), and Brainwave Junior, along with disaffected younger JSA-ers Power Girl, Huntress, and Star Spangled Kid. Slick, modern, and fast-moving, the comic was a fine companion to the All-Star Squadron, and later introduced new incarnations of Hourman, Dr. Mid-Nite, and Wildcat. However, all was not well in the DC boardroom.

The powers-that-be had been wary about the sheer volume of past history that their heroes were carrying, and felt that their whole line needed to be simplified and updated. In the wake of the creation of the Earth-Two concept, several other alternative universes had sprung up, including Earth-X for the heroes bought from Quality Comics, Earth-S for Captain Marvel, and even Earth Prime for our own world. DC decided that they all had to go, and in the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries the various worlds were merged, and numerous comics were given “year-one” relaunches. But if the (heroic) world began in 1985, where did that leave the old Justice Society with their Golden Age counterparts of Wonder Woman, Superman, et al.? Thomas countered this confusion with yet another wartime comic— the Young All-Stars—starring stand-ins for the now unusable old stars. However, this did not quite catch on. By 1989, the last of the JSA-inspired comics was canceled, killed by the confusion created in the wake of the series that was meant to end confusion.

The early 1990s saw a few tentative steps toward reviving the Justice Society, first in 1991 with a nostalgic 1950s-era miniseries, followed a year later by a last, present-day outing for the original team. (Incidentally, both series were titled Justice Society of America, the only time they appeared in a comic with that name.) That second series unflinchingly, lovingly, and wittily starred a team of now elderly heroes. However, this was not what DC wanted to see, and the comic lasted a mere ten issues. In the 1994 miniseries Zero Hour (another failed attempt at simplification), numerous group members were either killed off altogether (Dr. Mid-Nite, Hawkman, and the Atom) or aged to doddering infirmity.

Salvation came in the form of British writer James Robinson, who had made a splash with his 1993 miniseries The Golden Age (an imaginary story set in the 1940s). He rekindled interest in the old team, in 1999, with a series called The Justice Society Returns. This was followed immediately by a regular series simply called JSA, which began unpromisingly with the death (of old age, for once) of yet another team member, the Sandman, but went on to become not only a success but also a worthy tribute to the venerable group. Original members the Flash, Green Lantern (renamed Sentinel), and Wildcat were joined by new incarnations of Dr. Fate, the Spectre, Dr. Mid-Nite, et al., along with Infinity Inc. alumni Brainwave and Nuklon (now known as Atom Smasher) and a female Star Spangled Kid (step-daughter of Stripesy, the original Kid’s sidekick).

DC launched a new Justice Society of America series, initially written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Dale Eaglesham, with covers magnificently painted by Alex Ross, which ran from 2006 to 2011. This time the emphasis was on longtime JSA members, the original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern and Wildcat, training new young superheroes. A short-lived companion series, JSA All-Stars, ran from 2009 to 2011, featuring characters such as Power Girl and Stargirl. (Previously, in 2005, writer Grant Morrison had introduced a new version of the Seven Soldiers. This team included the Bulleteer, the Frankenstein monster, Klarion the Witch-boy [created by Jack Kirby], the Manhattan Guardian, the third Mister Miracle [Shilo Norman], and the magician Zatanna.)

The Justice Society guest starred in “Absolute Justice,” a two-part story written by Geoff Johns in the live action television series Smallville in 2010. Members who appeared included Doctor Fate, Hawkman, Stargirl, and the Star-Spangled Kid, with others appearing in their civilian identities in cameos. The Justice Society also guest starred in “The Golden Age of Justice!,” a 2010 episode of the animated TV series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The roster included Black Canary I and II, Doctor Mid-Nite, the Flash, Hawkman, Hourman, and Wildcat.

The old heroes (such as the Flash, Wildcat, and Hawkman) may have been simplistic by contemporary standards, but they personified an uncomplicated, heroic, essentially moral sense of the world—quite refreshing in the twenty-first century. In its various incarnations, the JSA and its offshoots have proved to be remarkably resistant to the periodic waves of “relevance” and nastiness that have afflicted the comics world from time to time. In some respects, the group represents DC’s past (and that of comics in general), and as much as the company may try to kill off the characters, or in some way expunge the ponderous baggage of their long history (more than sixty years and counting), somehow they keep on coming back, and enriching new generations of readers. —DAR & PS