The Justice Society of America was the original comic book superhero team.
Dating back to the early 1940s, it pioneered the team book concept. The characters mostly went dormant after the Golden Age waned, but made a comeback in the Silver Age. DC made several attempts to launch them into new adventures over the years. And at various points put the pioneering “mystery men” on the shelf.
By the late ’90s, DC came up with a formula that worked. The JSA series, and its Justice Society of America continuation, embodied the concept of legacy in the DC Universe. It made for an effective companion and counterpoint to JLA, more a family than an army.
Creators including Geoff Johns, David Goyer, James Robinson, Steve Sadowski, Michael Bair, Leonard Kirk, Don Kramer, Paul Levitz, Jerry Ordway and Dale Eaglesham, among many others, made key contributions to the franchise over its successful run of a dozen or so years, before The New 52 wiped it off the board.
With DC’s “Rebirth” era primed to restore the JSA, in some form, to the main DC Earth (in addition to the revisionist spin on the concept that’s been on display in Earth 2 for the past few years), it’s a good time to revisit that era and remember why the JSA was such a vital part of the DC Universe.
The JSA franchise embodied the concept of legacy, which, for much of the post-Crisis era, really gave DC an identity distinct from its competitors. The bedrock of the modern JSA was the trio of Flash/Jay Garrick, Green Lantern/Alan Scott and Wildcat/Ted Grant. After the first couple years, DC brought back Hawkman/Carter Hall, albeit resurrected as a young man, unlike his senior citizen pals.
The JSA mixed those veteran mentors with a variety of younger characters carrying on traditions of heroes that went back to the group’s earliest days. New versions of Doctor Midnite, Mr. Terrific, Hawk Girl and the Star-Spangled Kid, as well as former sidekick Sandy Hawkins and accidental inheritor Jakeem Thunder, either were new or hadn’t been developed much before JSA spotlighted them. Not only did they become core members of the team, they grew into crucial components of the larger DCU. Other legacies, like Power Girl, Atom-Smasher (the former Nuklon), Starman (son of the original), Doctor Fate (in the form of Hawkman’s resurrected son Hector Hall), Hourman (son of the original), Damage (son of the Golden Age Atom) and Liberty Belle (daughter of the original Liberty Belle and Johnny Quick) also came aboard in prominent roles.
That generational mix and the idea that the JSA was an actual society, an organization as devoted to training, mentoring and “making better good guys” as it was to fighting crime, were key to the book’s success. The cast was large and constantly shifting, but always built on that idea of the original heroes of the DCU mixing with and developing the new guard.
Legacy was an aspect of the DCU that many fans missed desperately when The New 52 truncated the heroic timeline to only a few years. A restoration of some form of the original JSA to the DCU can only enhance the impact of the line.
At the time that JSA debuted in the late ’90s, DC had observed a fairly strict embargo between its main DCU and its “mature readers” Vertigo lines. There had been a handful of characters, like Animal Man and the Doom Patrol, that managed to skirt that border, but usually once a character went to Vertigo, he or she wasn’t used in the DCU.
JSA was the forum where characters and ideas from Vertigo started repatriating to the DCU in earnest. Erstwhile Infinity Inc. members (and Justice Society offspring) Hector and Lyta Hall had been key parts of Neil Gaiman’s landmark Sandman series. Their son Daniel became the new Dream in that epic’s final arc. Their return to the DCU, with Hector especially playing a large role in JSA, was significant and events from Sandman drove their JSA plots (cameos from Dream included). Other characters and ideas that had been Vertigo property (like Kid Eternity and Scarab) made their way into JSA, demonstrating that DC’s main line had grown up enough since the advent of Vertigo a decade earlier that the two lines could, to some extent, interact in a meaningful way.
A Question of Faith
The consideration of religious faith, or the inability to have it, was an ongoing part of the franchise’s fabric. Angels, spirits, ghosts, resurrections, demons and other supernatural beings were par for the course. JSA devised an interesting vehicle for an ongoing consideration of belief vs. non-belief in the duo of Mr. Terrific and Dr. Midnite.
Terrific and Midnite emerged as the crux of the JSA’s brain trust in this era. The two developed a strong friendship based on their shared intellectual acumen. But they starkly contrasted in Terrific’s avowed atheism and Midnite’s devout Catholicism. The duo discussed their differing views on many occasions and the book’s writers always showed a lot of respect to both positions. Moreover, the two friends never tried to “convert” the other, though their mutual influence was evident over time. Believer Midnite eventually expressed skepticism of certain spiritual phenomena, while Terrific at times labeled his incapacity for religious faith as an intellectual blind spot.
In a nod to realism, the question was never resolved. Both men maintained their basic positions, even as their mutual respect cracked a window into the other’s worldview. It was subtle and demonstrated nice depth of characterization.
The Black Adam saga was one of JSA’s best stories. Playing out over several years, the one-time Captain Marvel archenemy wanted to reclaim his ancient heroic role and aligned with the JSA, becoming a provisional member. But his more aggressive personality chafed with the team’s gentler approach.
In a development that would see Black Adam develop into one of the biggest threats in the DCU, he broke off from the team, co-opting Atom-Smasher and several other JSA associates, to form his own team of brutal, pro-active anti-heroes. The group invaded Adam’s Middle Eastern homeland, dispatched its brutal dictatorship and set themselves up as the country’s protectors. Clashes with the JSA were inevitable and the conflicting ideologies at the heart of the conflict were interesting both in their own right and as a meditation on the changing nature of superhero comics. Atom-Smasher would be particularly affected by Black Adam, as the hero who’d once been the most positive member of Infinity Inc. found himself going down some really dark roads.
JSA highlighted a strong roster of female heroes from the outset. Amazon queen Hippolyta was retroactively inserted into the team’s World War II history, re-establishing a Wonder Woman for the group’s early days. Her brief return to action with her male counterparts in the present added depth to the proceedings. Fan favorite Black Canary joined the team, honoring her mother’s stint in the Golden Age incarnation. Young heroines Hawkgirl and Star Girl made strong impressions, growing into fan favorites. Later additions like the forceful Power Girl and legacy heroines Liberty Belle, Cyclone, Lightning and Judomaster helped diversify the franchise. The female characters weren’t merely along for the ride, they often drove the action and drama. Hawkgirl, especially, was an early focal point, struggling with a host of issues that made her relatable and fascinating in equal measure.
In addition to the regulars, other strong female characters like Dove, Fury, Nemesis and Crimson Avenger popped up in memorable guest roles. And the villains had a few tough dames on their side; Tigress and Roulette especially developed into significant threats in the JSA rogues gallery.
Flash: Super Boy Scout
Jay Garrick may have been the DCU’s original super-fast hero. But this era of the JSA showed that his true gift might have been how super-upstanding he was. Jay effectively kept teenaged heroine Star Girl in the Virgin Vault, deterring would-be Romeos such as Atom-Smasher, Captain Marvel and a hapless probie from the local firehouse with a withering “Don’t you think she’s a bit young for you?” As long as “Uncle Jay” was on duty, Star Girl’s virtue was never in any danger.
In addition, Jay was always reminding the younger heroes to display good manners, frequently rebuking Jakeem Thunder for his penchant for swearing. And he rarely drank, but not because his super-fast metabolism meant that booze had no effect on him. He just didn’t care for the taste. While it was never specified that Jay sorted his recyclables and rescued strays, readers can assume that happened off-panel.
The Hawkman Revolving Door
Hawkman was not only a founding member of the JSA, he was the team’s leader for decades. After yet another resurrection brought him back to the group, he seemed to either quit or be asked to leave on a fairly regular basis. The resurrected Hawkman was certainly more militant than he’d ever been before and his bent toward violence was a concern for his teammates. Sometimes he felt held back. Often his friends felt he’d crossed a line that made them uncomfortable. Or maybe, after seven decades, they’d just grown tired of his comprehensive rejection of shirts.
This era of the JSA truly developed the idea of the superheroes of the DCU as a community. The JSA had ties to many of the other heroes active in the DCU, through family bonds, mentorships, friendships and other past associations. That helped position the JSA centrally among a shared universe of characters.
The team was front and center in any number of high profile DC events and its members were frequently called on for support, consultation or other assistance from heroes around the DC globe. This concept of the JSA as the “keeper of the community spirit” really enhanced the interconnectedness of DC’s line and made it feel like a true shared world where characters had strong, resonant ties. The New 52 could often feel very compartmentalized without that basic source of interconnection embodied by the Justice Society.
Many big team series don’t really have the time to address holidays. While solo books might recognize one here or there as a change of pace, an interesting aspect of the JSA franchise was how often it commemorated real world holidays, often providing fascinating glimpses of its characters in the process.
Halloween was a no-brainer, with Star Girl and Jakeem Thunder facing off with a crazed Solomon Grundy. Jakeem and Hourman took the spotlight for a Father’s Day issue that was an emotional highlight of the run, each young hero grappling with issues related to his dad. The JSA and JLA came together for a Thanksgiving celebration that emphasized the importance of the heroic community. And a heartwarming Christmas story brought back Ma Hunkle, the original Red Tornado, who was finally able to reunite with her family and friends after decades in witness protection. Along the way, the franchise worked in nods to New Year’s Eve, Independence Day and Valentine’s Day.
These stories might not have been vital junctures in the franchise’s larger plot structure. But as moments of sterling character exploration, they added a lot to the depth of the cast and the sense of community at the heart of the series.
Hourman and Jakeem weren’t the only ones dealing with some significant paternal issues. At times, it was almost like a daytime talk show at JSA HQ, so busy were various members wrestling with father-related problems.
For the first few years, Green Lantern confronted his paternal failings when his schizophrenic son Obsidian went off the deep end and temporarily went to the dark side. Obsidian eventually got his head together and even became a JSA member, but his sexual orientation created more issues for father and son.
Star Girl had a more conventional situation on her hands, dealing with her deadbeat dad, a small time hood who abandoned her at birth. Now part of a blended family, Star Girl at first resented her step-father, once the heroic “sidekick” Stripesy, who became the armored hero S.T.R.I.P.E. to enable his step-daughter to get into the hero biz with proper back-up. Over the course of several years, Star Girl came to embrace her step-dad as the real father in her life.
When Hawkman came back from the dead yet again, he was shocked to learn that his son Hector, the former Silver Scarab, had also undergone a resurrection and was the new Dr. Fate. After the infamously prickly relationship between the duo in the past, they made more of an effort to get along when given a second chance.
Other characters were seen struggling to live up to the mantles of their predecessors. Sandy Hawkins first went by Sand, before finally embracing the Sandman name, along with the legacy of his mentor and surrogate father. Atom-Smasher ditched his old “Nuklon” persona to better honor his godfather, the original Atom. But that impulse led the character down some difficult paths and set up a tense dynamic with Damage, the son that the deceased Atom never knew he had. Meanwhile, Wildcat, who’d had one son kidnapped and murdered when he was a young child, learned he had a full grown son he never knew existed. Who also happened to be a were-cat and a pacifist. Wildcat drafted him for the family business and insisted he also be called Wildcat.
Liberty Belle had a parental two-fer. Not only was she working on a strained relationship with her mother, the original Liberty Belle, she still struggled with issues related to her deceased father, Johnny Quick. Which led her to bounce back and forth between being Liberty Belle and Jesse Quick, depending on which parent’s issues she was grappling with at the time.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a series built around the concept of legacy should depict so many of its characters struggling with baggage related to parents (actual or honorary).
As rooted as it was in the past, the JSA franchise had its eyes on the future. Developing a new generation of heroes was the team’s mission.
As DC moves forward into the “Rebirth” era, restoring the Justice Society to its main continuity can only strengthen the line. Honoring its past can help the DCU build a brighter, stronger future.