For those who came in late: Last week, we began our discussion of DC Comics’ JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA, the first and original super-hero team in comics. When we left off, we were discussing the JSA’s unique humanitarian approach to war propaganda, unusual for comics of the period. However, that wasn’t the only kind of story being told in the pages of ALL-STAR COMICS…
ALL-STAR COMICS #15 (February-March 1943) introduced the first real Justice Society supervillain, Brain Wave, a lightbulb-headed midget with Coke-bottle glasses and mental powers of illusion. The truly strange thing about the adventure isn’t the villain, but a bizarre subplot in which Wonder Woman deduces the location of Brain Wave through letters sent by the other JSA members, and summons all the girlfriends of the JSA members, gives them duplicate costumes and leads them all in an attack on Brain Wave.
This makes no sense. Sure, Hawkgirl’s inclusion is logical if unexpected, but the rest of these girls don’t even know their boyfriends are superheroes, yet here’s Wonder Woman giving away the JSA’s secrets and dressing the girls up in tights and capes, including a woman I assume is Clarice Winston, the ex-fiancee of the Spectre, Jim Corrigan, before he was murdered and brought back to life as the spirit of vengeance. Yet there she sits, in chalk-white tights and a green hood. Unbelievable. We may have discovered why the JSA kept Wonder Woman as merely a secretary for so long.
Naturally, the Justice Society Girlfriend Corps is swiftly captured by Brain Wave, and it’s up to the JSA to save the girls, which they do, while Brain Wave stumbles to what appears to be a grisly death. There’s no sign of how the JSAers are supposed to salvage their secret identities, and unsurprisingly, the incident is never mentioned again (with the exception of a fond attempt to make the story make sense some fifty-odd years later in the pages of James Robinson’s wonderful series STARMAN, but that’s a story for another column).
The war effort/high adventure story pattern continued with the next issue, with the JSA tackling the issue of intolerance, showing how Americans of all colors, creeds and genders were working together to help defeat the Axis.
However, it was right back to the superheroics in ALL-STAR COMICS #17, with the return of the Brain Wave, whose fall from grace wound up to be not so permanent after all. Good thing he was wearing that long robe…
Here Brain Wave captured the JSA by shrinking them down to a mere six inches tall, and after escaping with the help of Hawkman’s feathered friends, the JSAers have to stop Brain Wave’s crime spree while still trapped at their tiny stature.
The next recurring JSA villain didn’t show up until ALL-STAR COMICS #23, with the introduction of the Psycho-Pirate. Unlike his later incarnation as a criminal who could actually control people’s emotions, here the Psycho-Pirate is merely a criminal mastermind who plots his schemes around emotional themes. Somewhat less interesting. As for the Psycho-Pirate himself, he’s no better, revealed as just a typesetter with a big bushy mustache and a problem with mood swings:
JUSTICE SOCIETY membership saw a one-issue surge with the publication of issue #24, when Wildcat and Mr. Terrific are enlisted in a special mission, to convince one American soldier that the war in Europe is a just cause, in “This Is Our Enemy!”
The two new members appeared here in ALL-STAR COMICS and were gone again in the next issue, with Wildcat appearing only once more later that year. Who are they?
Bill Finger and Irwin Hasen’s Wildcat, a prizefighter who turned to crimefighting to clear his name after being framed for murder, was featured regularly in SENSATION COMICS. Mr. Terrific, a creation of Chuck Reizenstein and Hal Sharp that also appeared in SENSATION COMICS, is a little harder to explain. Mr. Terrific is really Terry Sloane, a prodigy born with absolutely perfect intelligence, recall, reflexes and physical prowess. In fact, everything came so easy for him that he was positively bored senseless by life itself, and was about to kill himself out of depression until accidentally becoming involved with a woman whose brother was caught up in a gang of criminals.
Using his abilities to put the boy back on the right track gave Sloane’s life the meaning it had lacked, and he decided to devote himself to his new calling, creating the “Mr. Terrific” identity for himself, including the costume which bore his motto: “Fair Play.” (Which is an odd slogan, in perspective. Unlike most people who have to work and train and study to get where they are, Terry Sloane never had to, since he was just born with it, which is, when you think about it, hardly fair.)
As for the story itself, it’s an odd little piece of propaganda, in which the Conscience of Man (who looks an awful lot like the Blue Fairy from Disney’s PINOCCHIO, if you ask me) takes the JSA members on a trip back through time to accompany an American (who’s unconvinced that the war with Germany is the right thing to do) though a history of German expansionism and conquest. Just in case readers didn’t get the point, at the end the JSA members sum up the situation with a “Formula for a Lasting Peace”:
Another consequence of the story is the return of Flash and Green Lantern as full-time members, replacing Starman and the Spectre. Along with the earlier departure of Dr. Fate, most of the ultra-powerful members were now gone, leaving a core team of Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite and Johnny Thunder, a more human, fallible roster that would remain more and less in place for the remainder of the series’ run, with one small change that we’ll discuss in due time.
Another notable JSA “issue story” came in ALL-STAR COMICS #27, with “A Place in the World,” in which the Justice Society tackles the acceptance of the handicapped by each taking on a handicapped youth as an assistant for their latest adventure. In typical Justice Society fashion, after the JSAers and their assistants (including a blind boy, a one-armed boy, a deaf boy and a kid with a neurological disorder who’s in retrospect rather uncharitably described as spastic) solve their cases, they create a new pledge for their Junior Justice Society members to follow:
Brain Wave reared his ugly and remarkably large head again in ALL-STAR COMICS #30, “Dreams of Madness,” this time posing as a beneficent scientist so as to trap the Justice Society in his “Dream Inducer,” allowing him to drive them insane through their dreams.
The device works like a charm, with Hawkman becoming convinced he’s a thermometer, the Atom thinking he’s a sponge, and so on. As usual, the JSA’s ace in the hole was Johnny Thunder, whose thinking was normally so out of whack that the crazy dreams don’t do a thing for him, and he commands his Thunderbolt to find a way to revert the others to sanity. The T-Bolt’s solution? Electricity, and plenty of it. Luckily, it works, and the Brain Wave and his goons are swiftly dispensed with.
In a move unprecedented in the series, ALL-STAR COMICS #33 featured the Justice Society teaming up against one of its members’ trademark villains, namely the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy from the pages of GREEN LANTERN. In an issue darker in tone and mood than the usual JSA stories (particularly Irwin Hasen’s art on the climactic JSA chapter), the JSAers split up to track down Grundy, whom they believe has kidnapped Green Lantern, and in fact, after various solo encounters with the creature, the team shows up just as Grundy’s hands are closing around Lantern’s throat with deadly force.
Through sheer strength of numbers, the JSA manages to subdue Grundy, and Hawkman comes up with a novel solution: get Grundy off the planet entirely, as Green Lantern does with the help of his power ring, depositing Grundy forever (or so they thought) on the moon.
The Solomon Grundy appearance in 1947 kicked off a stellar bunch of JSA stories in ALL-STAR COMICS, starting the next issue with “The Wiles of the Wizard,” which introduced another recurring JSA opponent, the Wizard, a master hypnotist and illusionist who challenges the JSA to stop a series of crimes he’s plotted, all with the intent of proving that the Justice Society are really con artists and thieves, instead of the crimefighters they claim to be.
When the JSA defeats his plots and prove their honesty, the bewildered Wizard, who never expected them to be honest, disappears.
The next issue was even better, with “The Day that Dropped Out of Time,” from ALL-STAR COMICS #35.
With a clever script by writer John Broome, the story introduced Per Degaton, a would-be world conqueror who stole a time machine from the scientist for whom he was working as a lowly lab assistant, then went back in time and prevented the invention of all modern weapons, except for the ones he’d managed to save for himself in specially prepared caves that were immune to his muddying up the timestream. It’s a darned good plan, as far as world conquerors go, until Green Lantern and the Justice League manage to travel back in time to the pivotal battle in 331 B.C. and assist Alexander the Great (yes, Alexander the Great) in his battle against Per Degaton and his modern army. The JSA succeeds, and manages to repair the timestream to the point that even Per Degaton no longer remembers his near-complete conquest of the world.
“5 Drowned Men” from issue #36 is notable for several reasons: first off, it boasts the only other appearance of Superman and Batman as active members in a Justice Society case.
Secondly, and unusually for the series, the lion’s share of the art was by a single artist, Irwin Hasen, whose clean, cartoony style fit the book perfectly. The script, which involves a stream somewhere in the Southwest called Koehaha, or “The Stream of Ruthlessness,” follows the Justice Society as they pursue five men who supposedly drowned in the “cursed” stream, and as a result went on crime sprees, in pursuit of their basest desires. While the story itself is pretty solid, the real question goes unanswered: what if the JSA members were subjected to the stream of Koehaha? Well, that’s a story that would have to wait about 35 years. More on that later…
Another comics first came in ALL-STAR #37, with the first appearance of “The Injustice Society of the World!”, the JSA’s opposite number.
Made up of JSA villains the Wizard, Brain Wave, and Per Degaton, as well as GREEN LANTERN villains the Gambler and Vandal Savage and Flash villain the Thinker, the Injustice Society made a big splash, setting off five different jailbreaks across the country to recruit troops for their criminal army, declaring martial law and seizing control of a small but sizeable portion of the American Midwest. Even more audacious, the Injustice Society manages to take over the nation’s capitol, and after capturing the JSA, puts them on trial, accusing them of being “ringleaders in the plot against evil.” However, a surprise verdict turns the tables on the Injustice Society, allowing the JSA to win out and regain control of the country.
As if that wasn’t epic enough, the very next issue set the JSA against an even greater collaboration of villainy in “History’s Crime Wave!”, which pitted the Justice Society against the greatest villains in history: Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Nero, Goliath, Cesare Borgia and Captain Kidd. Although the historical haters naturally turned out to be impostors (all the disguises of one man, an insane guard at a wax museum), they did manage to do what no other JSA foe could accomplish: the murder of the Justice Society. In one gruesome scene after another, we see Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite, Hawkman and Johnny Thunder all perish, in what look to be pretty permanent and sometimes grisly deaths.
It’s only through the quick actions of Wonder Woman and prospective new member Black Canary that the JSAers are whisked to Paradise Island in time to be resurrected by the amazing Amazon Purple Healing Ray.
Black Canary, by the way, was a creation of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino in the pages of FLASH COMICS. The Canary was the daughter of a police detective who was rejected from the police academy for being a woman, and adopted the guise of the Black Canary as a way to fight crime on her own terms. Black Canary started out as a supporting character in Johnny Thunder’s strip, but quickly took it over, and not long after supplanted him in the Justice Society as well.
The Justice Society returned to their socially conscious roots in ALL-STAR #40, with “The Plight of a Nation!”, in which the JSA faced the growing (?) problem of juvenile delinquency. After being alerted of the problem by one of their Junior Justice Society members (the no-good little snitch), the Justice Society sets out to close down the Crimson Claw Gang. You can recognize the Crimson Claw gangbangers by the snazzy claw logo sewn on their purple sweaters. Only the really tough gangs wear sweaters…
In figuring out how to defeat the Crimson Claw Gang, the JSA consult their local social worker, who explains the core causes of delinquency, according to late-’40s thinking: malnutrition, mental defect and lack of religion foremost among them, apparently. However, the social worker is willing to assign at least part of the blame to society:
Finally, the Justice Society breaks up the Claw gang by forcing them to look into the future, thanks to Wonder Woman’s Magic Sphere, where they see themselves (the entire gang, mind you) sent to the electric chair. Man. That’s a tough judge.
The next issue featured the second and final appearance of the Injustice Society in “The Case of the Patriotic Crimes.”
This time made up of returning member the Wizard, FLASH villain the Fiddler, Wildcat’s frequent opponent the Huntress, and Green Lantern foes the Icicle and Sportsmaster, the new Injustice Society doesn’t have quite as lofty goals as the original nation-conquering incarnation.
Here, the members are mostly looking to one-up the other with spectacular thefts, such as the Washington Monument, Old Ironsides, the Liberty Bell and Plymouth Rock. It’s not clear what they were going to do with that stuff, especially since there was no eBay in 1948. Despite having their memories wiped by the Injustice Society’s mind-eraser machine, the JSA regains its wits and puts the Injustice Society away with the help of the Harlequin, Green Lantern’s frequent antagonist and would-be girlfriend, and the Black Canary, who is finally sworn in as a full member of the Justice Society.
The Justice Society lasted 16 more issues after that, until their final appearance in ALL-STAR COMICS #57 in March 1951. There was no grand finale for the father of all superhero teams, either: with the next issue, the title was unceremoniously changed to ALL-STAR WESTERN, and readers expecting their regular dose of superhero action were instead treated to the adventures of the Trigger Twins and similar fightin’ cowpokes. Hardly a fitting end for such an auspicious series, but not to worry: the Justice Society of America would not be gone for long…