Sometimes it’s easy to forget that comics, like everything else, don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything that comic-book readers think of as conventions, as benchmarks, even as cliches of the genre, had to appear somewhere first. Even something as basic as, say, the team-up.
Before 1941, despite the fact that the newsstands were positively overflowing with the cape-and-mask set, superheroes just didn’t team up. Never met, never hung out, didn’t even refer to each other. After 1941, though, things were very different, and not just in comics, either. The notion of separately created fictional characters meeting up in a “shared universe” has spread from its comic book origins to the worlds of prose, television and film.
So what happened in 1941? Five words, kids: the Justice Society of America.
Better get comfortable, as I believe it’s time for one of our longer hauls, as we explore the membership, history, deaths and rebirths of the original superhero team (and my personal favorite), the JSA.
The inception of the Justice Society has its roots in the same motivation as most other commercial fiction: profit. By 1941, the superhero business was booming, so much so that many characters were expanding past their original homes in magazines like ACTION and DETECTIVE. To be precise, to meet the demand for new Superman and Batman stories, the two characters were given their own solo magazines, in addition to their original locations. For other characters that weren’t quite popular enough to warrant an entire book all their own, but still had a rabid following looking for more appearances, All-American Comics (National Comics’ sister company, and one-half of what would eventually become DC Comics) created ALL-STAR COMICS, an anthology book that featured in its first two issues such characters as Hawkman, Flash, Green Lantern, the Spectre and a few others of the publisher’s first-string heroes, as well as less popular ones like Biff Bronson (love that name) and Red, White and Blue.
It was with ALL-STAR COMICS #3 that the revolutionary leap was made: if we’re going to have these characters in the same book, why not have them meet, and interact with each other?
Whose idea was it? Unfortunately, the exact answer has been lost to the sands of time, with the truth probably following somewhere within the following three names: All-American publisher M.C. Gaines, ALL-STAR COMICS editor Sheldon Mayer and ALL-STAR COMICS writer Gardner Fox. However, the rationale behind the team’s membership is much less of a mystery, as the charter membership consists of All-American’s most popular characters. To be precise:
The Atom: the pint-sized pugilist created by Bill O’Connor and Ben Flinton, as appearing in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS
The Sandman: Gardner Fox and Bert Christman’s pulp-style mystery man from ADVENTURE COMICS
The Spectre: Jerry Siegel and Bernard Bailey’s ghostly avenger, as seen in MORE FUN COMICS
The Flash: Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert’s super-speedster from the pages of FLASH COMICS
Hawkman: Another of Gardner Fox’s creations, also from the pages of FLASH COMICS
Dr. Fate: Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman’s mystical sorcerer from MORE FUN COMICS
Green Lantern: Martin Nodell’s magic-ring-bearing crusader from ALL-AMERICAN COMICS
Hourman: Ken Fitch and Bernard Bailey’s strongman, a miracle of modern science thanks to his invention of Miraclo, a chemical formula that gave him superhuman strength and speed for 60 minutes, as seen in ADVENTURE COMICS
Along with official mascot Johnny Thunder (a hapless goof who stumbles through adventures with the help of his magic Thunderbolt) from FLASH COMICS, this was the roster as of the team’s first appearance in ALL-STAR COMICS #3.
It’s almost as though the concept of the team-up had to settle in, because the first meeting of the Justice Society was little more than that, a meeting, as Johnny Thunder, upset at his exclusion from the newly publicized gathering, crashes the party with the help of his magic Thunderbolt, which at this point was still carrying out his wishes invisibly. As Johnny wishes he could attend the meeting, soon all the members are magically drawn to him, and he winds up invited along to the hotel where the Justice Society was planning to have dinner. At the dinner, Johnny recommends that each member tell a story about a recent adventure, and that’s pretty much the extent of the issue, as each member recounts a 7-page tale.
Interestingly, membership for Superman and Batman is only implied, as the Flash makes a passing comment that someone has to look after things while the rest of them are at the meeting. There is one more prospective member who makes an appearance, the Red Tornado, a.k.a. Ma Hunkel, from the “Scribbly” strip in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS.
“Scribbly” was a humor strip that featured the Red Tornado as a supporting character as a kind of neighborhood crimefighter, and her appearance here is much in that vein, as Ma Hunkel tears her longjohns on the way in and has to swiftly depart. Cameo aside, most don’t consider Ma a charter member of the JSA, despite her appearance here.
The next appearance of the Justice Society in ALL-STAR COMICS #4 took this formula to the next logical step, as the JSA is summoned to FBI headquarters in Washington D.C., and is given a mission, to close down a network of saboteurs working to attack the U.S. from within.
Each JSA member is given an envelope containing their orders, and the members go their separate ways to carry out their missions. Each member’s mission, when completed, leads to a man named Fritz Klaver in Toledo, and soon the JSA members converge on Klaver and close down his spy network, with Johnny Thunder even using the power of his Thunderbolt to transport the entire house, spies, evidence and all, to Washington, D.C. This, then, would be the formula for Justice Society stories for years to come: the team meets up or is otherwise collectively informed of a threat, goes their separate ways to investigate the matter, then reunites at story’s end to finish off the threat.
It’s a solid structure, so JSA writer Gardner Fox would use it again and again, allowing for new solo adventures of these popular characters by their own signature artists, while still giving excited readers something they’d never seen before: their favorite heroes teaming up.
The first membership change for the JSA came in ALL-STAR COMICS #6. As discussed here previously, whenever a character became popular enough to get his own solo magazine, in addition to his original anthology appearance, he would be named an honorary member of the JSA and removed from active membership, with a new member coming in to take his place. In this case, it was the Flash who had earned his own magazine and was leaving the team, with mascot Johnny Thunder initiated as a full member to take his place.
The team decided to have a little fun with Johnny upon his initiation, sending him on what they thought would be a wild goose chase of a mission, which instead, in typical Johnny Thunder fashion, left the newest member in way over his head, requiring the assistance of his fellow members to get him out of it.
ALL-STAR #7 is notable primarily for the only appearances of Superman and Batman as JSA members, as the new JSA chairman, Green Lantern, challenges the members to each raise $100,000 for relief to war orphans in Europe and Asia. Johnny Thunder boasts that he can raise $300,000, making it an even million, but when he fails to come through, he falls back on his magic Thunderbolt, who conjures up honorary JSA members Superman, Batman and the Flash, each of whom pony up the necessary 100Gs to make Green Lantern’s intended goal.
But the roster changes aren’t done yet. With the very next issue, ALL-STAR COMICS #8 reveals that Green Lantern has also been granted honorary status (having been given his own magazine, the aptly named GREEN LANTERN), and has left active membership in the JSA.
Also gone is Hourman, who most decidedly had not been given his own magazine. Instead, the Man of the Hour is rather ignominiously booted from the team, with only a note that “a leave of absence is hereby granted to the Hourman.” No respect, I tells you. This left two open spaces to be filled: the first was taken by Gardner Fox and Jack Burnley’s Starman from ADVENTURE COMICS, a rich playboy-type who fights evil with the help of a cosmic rod that allows him to fly and fire off bursts of energy.
Starman is already in place as a member as issue #8 begins, his induction apparently having taken place off-panel. The second empty spot is filled by Dr. Mid-Nite, a creation of Chuck Reizenstein and Stan Asch appearing in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS. The good doctor was the first blind superhero in comics, having lost his sight in an explosion, only to discover that he could see perfectly in total darkness, prompting him to invent his infra-goggles, which enabled him to see in daylight, and his blackout bombs, which would blind his enemies while he continued to see perfectly.
Doc Mid-Nite used his new abilities first to put away the mobsters that blinded him, then continued to fight crime in his new guise.
Anyway, Dr. Mid-Nite approached the Justice Society for help in tracking down the mysterious Professor Elba, who has created a formula that drives men insane, while granting them apelike strength. The members have various success in tracking down the mad doctor, but as usual, it’s Johnny Thunder who closes the case by blundering into the mastermind, Elba himself, and is about to become his latest victim when he enlists his Thunderbolt (now visible, you’ll note) to fetch the rest of the JSA.
(By the way, sharp-eyed readers will notice the slight change in Dr. Fate’s headgear that took place around this time, with a half-helmet replacing his earlier, and much cooler, full-head number.) With Elba no longer a threat, the JSA decides to induct Dr. Mid-Nite as their newest member. (And even make his pet owl Hooty their official mascot. Not that that’s particularly important: I just like typing “Hooty.”)
The JSA took a step into world affairs in their next issue, with the members being sent to various South American countries on a covert mission for the U.S. government, then ventured into science fiction with issue #10, in which the JSAers use a time machine to head into the future in an attempt to bring back a high-tech defense against enemy bombers for the war effort. Here we see the Sandman’s first appearance in his new yellow-and-purple tights-and-cape ensemble, a look that was never as cool as the original fedora-and-gas mask look.
The war effort took even more of an emphasis in issue #11, in which the JSA members decide to enlist in the military to fight the war in the frontlines, rather than on the homefront and the occasional special mission from the FBI.
Accordingly, Carter Hall, Wes Dodds, Kent Nelson, Al Pratt and Ted Knight (otherwise known as Hawkman, Sandman, Dr. Fate, the Atom and Starman) all enlist in the army, while Johnny Thunder joins the Navy. Dr. Charles McNider (a.k.a. Dr. Mid-Nite) is commissioned to serve in the Army Medical Corps, despite his disability, and the Spectre — well, the Spectre’s dead, so he ain’t signing up for jack. The ultimate way to beat the draft.
Despite themselves, the JSA members all wind up drawn into action in their superhero identities while on duty, including Hawkman, who, while visiting his longtime girlfriend Shiera Saunders, who has also enlisted and is serving as an army nurse, runs into Diana Prince and lets slip that the JSA has somehow found out that she’s really Wonder Woman. By the issue’s end, the JSA’s military commanders have discovered the various superheroes in their midst, and have begun arguing amongst themselves over whose outfit has the most effective super-soldier.
In response, the commanding officer of the U.S. forces in the Pacific pulls the JSAers from the units and reforms them into the new Justice Battalion (including new member Wonder Woman). The JSA was back together again, as if anyone really had any doubt.
The next issue featured more wartime adventures, as the newly commissioned Justice Battalion tackles the Black Dragon Society, a Japanese spy ring working within the United States, planning to steal all of America’s weapon technology. This issue also began a tradition of Wonder Woman sitting on the sidelines acting as “secretary.” JSA writer Gardner Fox seemed to realize that a balance of stories would best serve the series, and alternated war themes with fantasy and adventure, as seen in ALL-STAR COMICS #13, “Shanghaied into Space!”
Here, the JSA members are surprised by a Nazi plot, draining all the air from their headquarters until they pass out. Rather than doing the practical thing and just killing them, the Nazis act in classic Bond-villain style, loading their unconscious bodies into rockets and firing them off into space, with each rocket sending a JSA member to a different planet. Hawkman has an adventure on Saturn, Sandman on Uranus, and so on. (Naturally, Wonder Woman winds up on Venus, where the beautiful female inhabitants are being oppressed by giant manly Meteor Men. Even though Gardner Fox is credited as writer, you can’t tell me WONDER WOMAN creator William Marston didn’t have a hand in this…) Naturally, the JSA returns to Earth, and even sends a little message to their “travel agent”:
The JSA was right back to the war effort the next month, but again, rather than a jingoistic punch’em up, they concentrated on humanitarian aid with “Food for Starving Patriots!” in which the team embarks on a mission to deliver concentrated dehydrated food to European civilians suffering under Nazi occupation.
This was often the approach the JSA would take to their war stories, reinforcing such concepts of charity and sacrifice as opposed to merely showing superheroes clobbering buck-toothed caricatures. Even the JSA fan club, the “Junior Justice Society of America,” promoted such ideals, asking its members to “keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different, because we are rich or poor; employer or worker; native or foreign-born; Gentile or Jew; protestant or Catholic.”
Good advice even 71 years later. Who’d have thought we’d still need to be reminded?