Strength in Numbers, Part IV: A Life-and-Death-and-Life-and-Death Situation

Previously: We continue to explore the history and membership of DC Comics’ original super-team, the Justice Society of America. When we left off, the JSA had just lost their 1970s solo series, and looked to be relegated to permanent JLA guest-star status. However, someone was about to come along to change that…

After a lengthy career at Marvel Comics in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, writer Roy Thomas must have been excited to make the move to DC Comics in 1981. Despite an amazingly successful career at Marvel, writing practically every book the company published (including landmark runs on AVENGERS, X-MEN and CONAN THE BARBARIAN), as well as a two-year stint as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Thomas’ heart had always lay with another: the Justice Society of America. As one of the very first fans-turned-professionals, Thomas and his fellow comic-book fan Jerry Bails had self-published their own fanzine, ALTER EGO, as teenagers, and both Thomas and Bails shared a powerful love for the Justice Society. Now, Thomas was finally coming to work for DC, and the JSA would soon be his.

Kind of.

Rather than jump right into a brand-new, modern-day Justice Society series, Thomas combined his two lifelong interests, comics and history, with a new series set in World War II that would make extensive use of what Thomas would come to call “retroactive continuity.” That is, Thomas would tell new adventures of not just the Justice Society, but practically all of DC Comics’s WWII-era heroes, while not invalidating the comics that were actually published in those years, instead spinning his tales before, after, in between and sometimes during those original Golden Age stories. It’s an ambitious trick to pull off, and Thomas accomplishes it remarkably well, starting with the first issue of his new series, ALL-STAR SQUADRON, written and conceived by him and drawn by Rich Buckler and Jerry Ordway.


ALL-STAR SQUADRON worked around an appealing premise: In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt organizes all of the United States’ super-heroes (or “mystery men,” as they were referred to in the series) as a kind of homeland guard corps, protecting America from attacks by the Axis powers, as well as working to uncover saboteurs and other intelligence plots against the U.S. This helped solve the central narrative dilemma of a book like this: why wouldn’t the superheroes just fly to Berlin and end the war in a week? (Also helping to explain that was a neat little plot wrinkle, that Adolf Hitler possessed the Spear of Destiny, a magical relic that would convert any hero particularly susceptible to magic to the cause of the Third Reich the moment they stepped into Axis-held territory. Since all of the most powerful characters, such as Superman, Green Lantern, Dr. Fate and the Spectre, were either magic-based or established as being susceptible, it kept Berlin, Rome and Tokyo free of unwanted Allied guests.)


Thomas made use of an enormous cast in ALL-STAR SQUADRON, basically every superhero DC published in the 1940s (all of whom were established as living on Earth-Two). While the Justice Society members appeared often as guest-stars, both individually and as a team, Thomas used a mix of characters old and new as his core team, including JSA members Hawkman and the Atom, classic characters like Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle and Robotman, and new creations like a female version of the Quality hero Firebrand.

The success of the ALL-STAR SQUADRON series allowed Thomas to branch out to a second series set on modern-day Earth-Two, this one with an even more direct connection to the Justice Society. March 1984 saw the publication of the first issue of INFINITY, INC., a brand-new super-hero team made up of the children, godchildren and proteges of the JSA.


Written by Thomas and drawn by Jerry Ordway, INFINITY, INC., started off with a time-honored tradition in comics, the old “good guys fight due to a misunderstanding” routine. Here, the Justice Society’s emergency meeting is interrupted by a group of young’uns demanding membership, who happen to all be related to the JSA in some form or fashion.


Introduced here are the Silver Scarab, son of Hawkman and Hawkgirl; Fury, Wonder Woman’s daughter; Northwind, the half-human, half-birdman godson of Hawkman and Hawkgirl; Nuklon, the Atom’s “nephew”; and Obsidian and Jade, the heretofore unknown (even by him) son and daughter of the Green Lantern. When the kids’ membership request is refused (despite the votes of younger JSAers Robin, the Huntress, Power Girl and the Star-Spangled Kid), the youngsters leave in a huff, just before the JSA receive another, even more unwelcome visitor: their old enemy Brain Wave.


Brain Wave was working with another JSA opponent, the Ultra-Humanite, a scientific genius best known for frequently transplanting his brain into different bodies. Together, the two villains manage to expose the JSA to the Stream of Ruthlessness, that mystical river which turns men’s souls to evil, which the JSA first encountered way back in ALL-STAR COMICS #36 in 1947. Now, the JSA’s children find themselves forced to fight their parents and mentors, with much higher stakes than in their earlier playful skirmish.


Thomas shows his mastery of both comic-book history and characterization here, in finding what each member cared most about, and how, if given to evil, that desire would manifest itself. For example, Superman’s love and protectiveness toward his home of Metropolis is perverted into his cruel conquest of the city and isolation of it from the rest of the world, a reign that his cousin Power Girl finds herself determined to stop. An even better example can be found in Robin, who finds himself at odds with the Huntress, who risks life and limb to prevent her deluded “brother” from murdering an aged and senile Boss Zucco, the gangster who murdered his parents, now deteriorating in a prison sickbed.


The storyline came to an exciting close in INFINITY, INC #10 (under an excellent Jerry Ordway cover that nicely paid tribute to the classic cover from ALL-STAR COMICS #37), in which the Infinitors manage to defeat both the JSA and the Ultra-Humanite, with the help of a reformed Brain Wave and his son, Brainwave Jr., who shut down Ultra-Humanite’s mental powers, trapping him in his gorilla body, and destroy the last remnants of the Stream of Ruthlessness.


While Power Girl and the Huntress remain with the Justice Society, the Star-Spangled Kid agrees to lead the young superheroes (including Brainwave Jr.) in their own team, which would be based out of Los Angeles, California.

With ALL-STAR SQUADRON running smoothly and INFINITY, INC. now off to a strong start, the time was right for Roy Thomas to embark upon his most ambitious JSA-related project, a 4-issue miniseries that would summarize and firmly establish the complete history of the Justice Society of America.


AMERICA VS. THE JUSTICE SOCIETY (January 1985) is probably Thomas’ most accomplished work with the characters, as he manages to retell practically every JSA story ever published, while still crafting a suspenseful and satisfying mystery. The story opens with a front-page shocker from the Daily Planet, revealing the existence of a diary written by Batman before he died, in which he accuses the Justice Society of being Nazi spies under the command of Adolf Hitler.


Soon the Justice Society are taken into custody, pending a Congressional investigation, with the team’s younger members remaining unaccused.


While the JSA go willingly under arrest (since no military force on the planet could forcibly take the JSA anywhere), the heart of the team itself is divided when the Congressional hearings begin: while the Justice Society retains Helena Wayne as their attorney (secretly JSA member the Huntress, Batman’s daughter), the Congressional committee investigating the treason charges enlists their own attorney, Richard Grayson, a.k.a. JSA member Robin. (Grayson was hired due to his parental ties to Bruce Wayne, who, in his last days as Gotham police commissioner, had publicly railed against the Justice Society, having given up his own Batman identity after the death of his wife Selina Kyle.)


The pieces now in place, Thomas gives us a first-rate courtroom drama, as Helena Wayne defends the Justice Society against these heinous charges by having the JSA recount their complete history, allowing for numerous guest stars and surprise witnesses, including the Spectre, Power Girl and even the surprise witness for the prosecution, longtime JSA enemy the Wizard, all while a conflicted Dick Grayson struggles with his own conscience in siding with the memory of his “father” over his loyalty to his friends and teammates.


The story structure also gives Thomas a great opportunity for character moments for some of the less popular JSA members, as they recount their personal triumphs, defeats and failings before the committee.


As the hearings progress, it becomes clearer and clearer that one of the committee members has a personal agenda, and while public opinion and the other committee members begin to side with the JSA, Dick Grayson finally decides to do a little investigating of his own on the Batman diary, and eventually discovers that the diary, while authentic, was actually Bruce Wayne’s subconscious way to warn his estranged friends in the JSA about the return of Per Degaton, whom he’d paroled while entrenched in his irrational vendetta against the Justice Society in the ’70s. The JSA shows up just as Degaton is about to kill Dick Grayson, and, knowing he’s beaten, the ancient Degaton takes the coward’s way out, committing suicide.


AMERICA VS. THE JUSTICE SOCIETY is Roy Thomas’s best moment with the Justice Society characters. It’s a good thing it happened when it did, because 1985 would also signal the beginning of the end for Thomas’ tour of duty with the JSA characters, in the coming of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. As we’ve discussed quite a few times in these pages, DC’s CRISIS 12-issue miniseries revised and reordered the DC Universe, eliminating the “parallel Earths” concept. As a result, Earth-Two, where Roy Thomas had devoted most of his efforts since coming to DC Comics, was no more, its characters incorporated into the new, unified timeline. Accordingly, JSA members Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and the Huntress (as well as All-Star Squadron members Green Arrow, Speedy and Aquaman) no longer existed, creating large gaps in the JSA’s history, some of which have only in recent years been remedied. INFINITY, INC. felt the impact as well, as founding member Fury could no longer be Wonder Woman’s daughter, since Wonder Woman, according to the new timeline, didn’t appear until the 1980s. Somehow Power Girl managed to escape oblivion on a technicality, despite her connections to Superman, although numerous new origins and backstories have been assigned her, none of which seems to satisfy anyone. While Thomas struggled to patch all the holes in his now-leaky continuity, another decision was made, one that would seem to put an end to the JSA permanently.


Thinking that the demise of Earth-Two made the JSA heroes somehow redundant, the decision was made by DC higher-ups to put them out to pasture, in the one-shot special LAST DAYS OF THE JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA, by Thomas and artist Dave Ross.


Thomas got to indulge himself with one more wartime adventure featuring the old, pre-Crisis JSA lineup, then segued into the result of that battle, as Hitler used the Spear of Destiny to bring about Armageddon, resulting in the end of the world in 1945, which then caught up with the JSAers in 1986. To prevent the end of the world, Dr. Fate transported the JSA to the otherworldly realm of Asgard, where the Justice Society would forever battle in the place of the Norse gods, preventing the end of the world by dying in fierce combat with Surtur and his forces over and over and being forever reborn.


LAST DAYS is another strong effort from Roy Thomas, moving and even a touch poetic, but still horribly morose, as we get to see most of the JSA members die at least twice in its pages, and know that they’ve got countless more deaths coming to them. Hurrah.


Fully expecting the JSA to be gone for good, Thomas and artist Todd McFarlane even devoted a full issue of INFINITY, INC. to a JSA memorial, as the Infinitors go about the chore of informing the Justice Society’s friends and family of their departure from this world.


Even with the JSA issue tabled, Thomas was never able to really recover from the loss of the Earth-Two concept, and the creative quality of both ALL-STAR SQUADRON and INFINITY, INC. suffered greatly. DC decisionmakers seemed to agree, and despite decent continued sales, both series were cancelled by 1989. DC Comics, it would seem, was no longer in the Justice Society business.

However, it takes more than that to put away the JSA. Acceding to reader demands, the Justice Society was pulled out of limbo in the 1992 series ARMAGEDDON: INFERNO, and by August made their triumphant return to their own series in JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA #1.


The new ongoing monthly by writer Len Strazewski and artist Mike Parobeck, focused primarily on the adjustments of a now senior-citizen JSA in returning to a world that had gone on without them. This, I think, was its downfall. While the characters’ ages naturally need to be addressed, far too much emphasis was given to dialogue of a “back in my day” and “remember when…” nature, and that was from the more youthful members like Flash and Green Lantern. Even worse was the series’ characterization of the Atom, who had become a whining, nagging crank, almost as if Dana Carvey’s old SNL character Grumpy Old Man had become a superhero.


The attempt to stress the characters’ unique perspective as senior citizens is understandable, but without another voice to counterbalance it, it quickly became tedious. An attempt was made to vitalize the series by introducing Jesse Quick, the speedster daughter of All-Star Squadron member (and new JSA member) Johnny Quick, but it didn’t help much, as the character was used primarily as a venue for hero-worship of the elder Justice Society members.


(Jesse was later used to excellent effect by Mark Waid in his FLASH run.) The series also dwelled a little too much on death and mortality, between Wes Dodds’ (a.k.a. the Sandman) slow convalescence from a stroke, Hourman’s coping with his son’s chemotherapy and the near-constant bellyaching of the Atom about being too old for superheroing. The series only ran for 10 issues, and despite its weaknesses is still well worth picking up, especially for the wonderful art by the great Mike Parobeck, who died far too early from complications of diabetes in 1996.

After a another year and a half, DC editors were out for blood once more, this time ending the Justice Society in the most ignominious manner yet, in the unreadable muddle of a miniseries known as ZERO HOUR. The comic was written and drawn by Dan Jurgens, who’s normally capable of producing far more coherent and enjoyable work than this.


Ostensibly intended to further refine the timeline and continuity of the DC Universe, the series revolved around the time-travelling supervillain known as Extant (previously the superhero Hawk from the 1960s series HAWK AND THE DOVE, believe it or not) and his efforts to destroy the very timestream itself. When it becomes clear that there’s bad business afoot involving time travel, the Justice Society gathers and heads into the fray alongside the time-traveler Waverider, who delivers them right into Extant’s hands.


Extant murders the Atom outright with an energy blast, then undoes the effect of several different life-extending magic spells and mystical bouts of radiation the team had been exposed to over the years, returning them all to their natural ages, which would be about the mid-70s or so.


Just to top things off, he ages Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite all the way to death.


The team is left decrepit, defeated and humiliated, with the team’s two surviving founders, Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, broken and willing to walk away from the fight.


Do the Justice Society get a noble death? A heroic death? Nope. They’re just led to the slaughter for cheap narrative purposes, to make Extant, a second-rate villain character with a derivative costume and a horrible name, seem like more of a badass. Is it even effective? Not remotely.


Worse, it wasn’t even intended to give a lasting boost to the Extant character, since he’s not even the miniseries’ major villain. As it turns out, Extant himself was merely a catspaw for an even more powerful cosmic villain, Hal Jordan, the fallen Green Lantern now calling himself Parallax, who planned to destroy the entire universe so he could re-create it.

As a company, DC’s opinion of the Justice Society around this time can be summed up in a single panel from ZERO HOUR, as Parallax grinds Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring beneath his foot.


It’s a pretty shameful display. It would be different if all this happened in the service of a great story, but I tried to re-read it before writing this, and I’m telling you, this thing is a train wreck. In the wake of all this, even I thought the Justice Society of America had breathed its last gasp on the comic page.

And man, was I pleased to be wrong.

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