Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the legendary Justice Society of America.
The JSA first sat around a conference table in 1940. Just two years after Superman debuted, National Publications and All-American Publications agreed to have their characters appear together in a series titled All-Star Comics. Eventually, these two publishers merged to create the modern day DC Comics, but for now they were just sister companies.
The first two issues of the All-Star Comics was just an anthology comic which collected individual tales of these two publishers’ superheroes. The third issue of the series mostly followed suit with this format but with an important new feature. In the third issue, a framework for these stories was presented. Now, these superheroes met together and discussed their stories with each other. They called themselves the Justice Society of America and while their first issue together was low on teamwork, it managed to get fans talking.
It was the very first time a group of individual heroes had given themselves a team name.
Realizing that they’d hit gold, National and All-American changed All-Star Comics from being a quarterly publication to a bimonthly publication. They also allowed the heroes to adventure together, not just sit and around talk about previous solo stories for an entire issue. Over time, most of the heroes owned by these publishers made their way into the JSA, including heavy hitters Superman and Batman, though the pair only joined for a single issue. Wonder Woman was added to the team, which helped with diversity, but she was immediately made the group’s secretary because it was the 1940s and what are you gonna do?
All-Star Comics was quietly cancelled in 1951 when superhero comics sales went in the tank. Only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman comics survived the changeover when comics started focusing on westerns, horror, crime, and other topics.
Future continuity would claim that the JSA went into retirement in 1951 because they had been called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. While testifying before Congress, the group was asked to reveal their secret identities so that they could be cleared as Communists. Hawkman, the JSA’s chairman, refused and told the committee that they were retiring effective immediately. With that, the JSA teleported away thanks to Dr. Fate’s magic.
The JSA remained out of the public eye for years.
Nearly a decade later, near the beginning of the Silver Age, the Justice League of America debuted. Editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox thought that the JSA concept was a great one so, in 1960, they brought together some of the current heroes in DC’s roster. Thinking that ‘Society’ was old fashioned, the name ‘League’ was added to this group.
Due to the many continuity errors that developed between the original Golden Age superhero tales and the relaunched Silver Age tales, it was decided that these stories had existed on worlds separated by being on different vibrational planes. The current tales of Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and the rest were on Earth-1 while the tales of heroes like Alan Scott and Jay Garrick were set on Earth-2. In the very first Crisis in DC history, the JSA came out of a twelve year retirement to meet their younger allies.
This team-up was so well received that the JLA/JSA crossover became an annual event. Readers eagerly awaited it every year.
That’s how the status quo remained for decades. The JSA was just off in its own little world with very little influence from the regular DCU. The JSA slowly began to change up its membership when All-Star Comics was relaunched in 1976. It was during this series that characters like Power Girl and a grown up Dick Grayson Robin were introduced. With fresh blood added to the mix, things were looking up for the Justice Society.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths changed everything. This Crisis was devised as a way to clean up the DCU’s continuity. To that end, the multiverse was destroyed. Now, there was no Earth-1 and Earth-2. There was just Earth. Fearing that the JSA made things a bit confusing for readers, the editors at DC decided to send the JSA away forever. The Justice Society learned that Hitler’s occult machinations during World War II had brought about the Norse concept of Ragnarok. Ragnarok was the literal end of the world thanks to ancient gods battling with one another. The Spectre and Dr. Fate managed to plop the JSA down in the middle of this larger-than-life fight in order to subdue the problem and save the world.
Even though the JSA defeated their enemy, it turned out that this battle was a neverending one. Each time the fight ended, it reset itself back to the beginning again. The JSA found themselves battling the same foes until the end of time. Only a handful of members like Power Girl, Dr. Fate, and the Star-Spangled Kid were able to leave Limbo before they were stuck alongside their comrades.
That should have been the end of the story. However, a 1991 miniseries changed everything. With very little fanfare, a comic called Justice Society of America hit store shelves. Written by Len Strazewski, who was given this title as an afterthought by DC until his next substantial project started, this miniseries told the tale of a forgotten JSA adventure from 1950. Only five members of the JSA appeared in this 8-issue long story, but their opponent of Vandal Savage sporting one of Starman’s Gravity Rods was a memorable one.
Response to this miniseries was very strong. Even more importantly, sales were strong. Sales were so strong, in fact, that DC decided to bring the JSA out of Limbo. The next year, during a fairly awful miniseries titled Armageddon: Inferno, a character named Waverider was able to find stand-ins for the JSA in their Ragnarok battle and he brought the old-timers back to Earth. Luckily, Limbo had kept everyone looking a bit younger than the calendar claimed.
Just a few months later, a new volume of Justice Society of America was launched. During this series, the JSA casually interacted with the other denizens of the DCU. Guy Gardner, Superman, and Wally West all made guest appearances in this book but it was the original JSAers who were the stars.
This series, like the miniseries from a year earlier, was written by Len Strazewski. The pencils on the book were by Mike Parobeck, a young artist who I mentioned back in the article on Animated DCU Tie-Ins. Parobeck’s clean lines were a sight to behold and one of the big reasons that a tween like me loved this book. Plus, all of the heroes looked like they were having a good time and that was really attractive to me.
A large claim-to-fame that this series has is that it was where Jesse Quick, daughter of the Golden Age hero Johnny Quick, was introduced. Over the coming decades, Jesse would be a major supporting character in Wally West’s Flash series and would become the character known as Liberty Belle.
Sadly, this series lasted only ten issues. In a June, 1998 interview, Strazewski claimed that the series wasn’t cancelled due to sales. He claimed that it was actually cancelled because Mike Carlin, then the editor of the very popular Superman line of books and major decision maker at DC, didn’t like the book. Carlin was said to feel that the JSA made DC look old while other contemporary comics companies, like Image, were selling books to the next generation of readers. It couldn’t have helped that in Justice Society of America (Vol. 2)’s first issue, Wesley Dodds, the Sandman, suffered a stroke. That’s not exactly a problem with which many young people could relate.
Those ten issues are still among my favorite comics due in no small part to Parobeck’s art. I love it to this day.
The following year, more evidence was added to the idea that Mike Carlin disliked the JSA. During the pages of Zero Hour, a crossover event that Mike Carlin edited, the JSA was decimated in mere pages by the villain Extant. During the melee, Extant killed several heroes and aged others. The protection against time that Limbo had given the group was stripped away.
Luckily, future writers ignored just how much this story aged certain characters. When Ted Knight and Jay Garrick next appeared, they looked much better than they did here.
Thanks to the wholesale slaughter of the JSA, the group was gone for half a decade. Other heroes took the spot of many of their dead namesakes but few of them stuck. Jack Knight, son of Ted Knight, had a very popular run as Starman but other characters, like a gentleman known as just Fate, weren’t so lucky. In 1999, DC decided to bring back the JSA in the style of the recently relaunched JLA. But first, a series of one-shots told a tale of the original Justice Society during their heyday.
These one-shots may be best remembered for their inclusion of a scene where Dr. Mid-Nite’s owl is given superpowers by Hourman’s drugs and proceeds to fly straight through a villain’s chest. It happened and it was wonderful.
The month after this story wrapped up, JSA launched. Though it was mostly full of the offspring and sidekicks of the original Justice Society, it still boasted the original members Green Lantern, Flash, Wildcat, and Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyta. That last addition was a fancy bit of retconning by John Byrne who had Queen Hippolyta travel back to World War II during his run on Wonder Woman. She was said to be the one wearing the red, white, and blue costume during those early adventures and not Diana. That left the modern Wonder Woman’s reintroduction in 1987 intact.
JSA continued for the next several years, where it eventually saw the addition of many more heroes to its ranks. The heart of the JSA, the thing that made this group special, was that it was both a family and a superteam, which is more than any incarnation of the JLA can claim.
Shortly after Infinite Crisis, the series got rebooted with a new title, new numbering, and a slightly new cast. Among the members of the team was Jesse Quick, now calling herself Liberty Belle. She and the original Hourman’s son were married and made for a lovely couple. The series quickly got ensnared by a massive storyline dealing with an alternate future depicted in the Kingdom Come miniseries, but it still remained a great read.
Sadly, the series flagged a bit near the end of its run. While I can’t fault editors, writers, and artists for attempting something new, especially with heroes who have been around since the late 1930s, it was a questionable decision to change Green Lantern’s costume into one that looked like a real lantern.
Shortly before the New 52, Justice Society of America and its spin-off title JSA All-Stars were cancelled. When the New 52 launched, none of the original JSA members were anywhere to be found. Now it seems that the JSA will be showing up over in the pages of Earth 2. While I’m happy that they’ll be back soon, I’m a little less excited about seeing more of Jay Garrick’s new costume. Time will tell if this is the same JSA who have been fighting villains since 1940 or if they’ll be back in name only. In either case, the Justice Society of America’s crazy, 70 year long story is opening a new chapter soon and I, for one, am interesting in finding out more about it.
Jeff Reid wonders what the original JSA thought about having the Spectre on their team. He must have creeped them all out. Anyway, follow Jeff on Twitter.