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, spotlighting a sense of family tradition instead of mere brawls and mayhem.
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.
After a few years languishing in the archives, recent events have once again restored the JSA to continuity. While fans await the team’s return to a regular role in DC’s publishing line, we revisit that era and remember why the JSA was such a vital part of the DC Universe.
[Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.]
The JSA franchise embodied the concept of legacy, which, for much of the post-Crisis era gave DC an identity distinct from its competitors. The bedrock of the modern JSA was the senior citizen 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.
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. Recent changes restoring that concept have been warmly received by long-time fans.
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 repatriated characters and ideas from Vertigo to the DCU, pulling down barriers that allowed more mature concepts to enrich DC’s main line. Erstwhile Infinity Inc. members (and Justice Society offspring) Hector and Lyta Hall had been key parts of Neil Gaiman’s landmark Sandman series. 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 it could, to some extent, interact in a meaningful way with its edgier younger sibling.
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. More effectively, 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. The book’s approach to the subject was subtle and demonstrated its 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 brutal, pro-active squad. The group invaded Adam’s Middle Eastern homeland, dispatched its ruthless 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 in especially dark territory, sparking consequences that weren’t easily resolved.
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 was a crowd-pleasing nod to tradition. 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 identity 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 customers on their side; Tigress and Roulette especially developed into significant threats in the JSA rogues gallery.
Flash: Super Boy Scout
Jay Garrick was the DCU’s original super-fast hero; 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 others with a withering “Don’t you think she’s a bit young for you?” It was a manifestation of his belief that heroes should be role models.
Jay was always reminding the younger heroes to display good manners, frequently rebuking Jakeem Thunder for his penchant for swearing. He rarely drank, though 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. While Jay might have come off as old-fashioned to some, in an era awash in “grimdark” characters, where the protagonists were often not especially distinguishable from the villains, a hero embodying the concepts of positivity and goodness was itself a radical statement.
The Hawkman Revolving Door
Hawkman was not only a founding member of the JSA, he had been 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 often set him at odds with 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.
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 and used them as vehicles for in-depth character exploration.
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. 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 segued into a role as the team’s den mother. Along the way, the franchise worked in nods to New Year’s Eve, Independence Day and Valentine’s Day.
These stories, admittedly, were not vital junctures in the franchise’s larger plot structure. But as affecting character moments 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. Star Girl had a more relatable situation on her hands, slowly embracing her supportive step-dad, the armored hero S.T.R.I.P.E., while occasionally dealing with issues related to the deadbeat birth father who’d abandoned her.
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 as the new Dr. Fate. After the infamously prickly relationship between the duo in the past, the franchise depicted them trying to make the most of their 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, the rough-and-tumble Wildcat learned he had a previously unknown adult son…who also happened to be a were-cat and a pacifist. Wildcat drafted him for the family business and even shared his codename with him.
Liberty Belle had a parental double shot. 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 the prior generation.
The JSA franchise had its feet in the past, but its eyes on the future. It was training the next generation of heroes, while characters like Mr. Terrific and Dr. Midnite pushed forward concepts of superhero science. The team did a fair amount of time traveling, bringing together characters from different generations that illustrated how far DC’s characters had come while pointing to where they were going.
In short, the DC line is more compelling when the JSA is a part of it. Their return is as welcome as it is necessary.