With the CW DC television series embarking on a giant CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS crossover this season, I’ve been getting a lot of CRISIS-related questions lately. Which makes it the perfect time for a refresher course…
“What’s the difference between the Justice League and the Justice Society? Who came first?”
“If Superman and Batman were around in the 1940s, how come they never age?”
“Why are there two Flashes and Green Lanterns?”
“I hear everyone talking about the Crisis? What was the Crisis?”
These may all seem like different questions, but believe it or not, they all have the same answer. However, it is an exceedingly long answer, so buckle in for a two-parter here at Comics 101, as we tackle the question of DC Comics continuity in the Golden and Silver Ages, how it fit together, how it sometimes didn’t, and the solution that finally worked a little too well…
As we covered previously in these pages, National Comics ran rampant over the other comics publishers in the early 1940s with their all-star lineup of superhero characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and many others. Realizing a good thing when they saw it, the folks at National decided to maximize their mystery-man dollar in 1940, in the pages of ALL-STAR COMICS #3, with the debut of the Justice Society of America. Editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox not only invented the concept of the superhero team, but also the very concept of the crossover of separately published characters in popular literature. Nowadays, these things happen everywhere: ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, FREDDY VS. JASON, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, in books, movies, television shows, you name it. But it happened first in comic books. And it happened first with the Justice Society.
Who was in the Justice Society?
The charter membership of the Justice Society consisted of the Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkman, the Sandman, the Spectre, Dr. Fate, the Atom and Hourman, along with comedy relief Johnny Thunder and his magical Thunderbolt. By the way, some of the names may sound familiar, but these aren’t the familiar characters you may know from SUPERFRIENDS; these are the originals. Green Lantern still has his power ring, the Flash runs fast and Hawkman’s got the wings, but the origins, costumes and details are all quite different. As for the unfamiliar names, my personal favorite was the Hourman.
From the looks of him, Hourman wasn’t much different than the rest of the cape-and-cowl set that was overrunning the comics of the day. Hourman was really Rex Tyler, a mild-mannered chemist who had devised the secret formula of Miraclo. When trouble beckoned, Rex would pop a Miraclo pill and gain lightning-fast reflexes and the strength of 50 men – and here’s the catch – but only for 60 minutes. Think about it: he’s the only superhero who advertises his Achilles’ heel right up front in his name! Superman didn’t call himself “Kryptonite Man,” Rex. If any criminals are paying attention at all, they oughtta realize that if they can just mind the clock and pace themselves, they’ll have this guy sewed up. Luckily for Rex, no one ever did.
Superman and Batman were honorary members of the Justice Society who appeared once or twice, but not at all on a regular basis. The JSA’s membership was fluid, thanks to an unusual rule in the charter: once a member received his own solo comic magazine, he had to leave the team. (The fact that they seemed to realize that they were comic-book characters was never dwelled on: a metaphysical dilemma best left alone.) Therefore, when climbing sales meant that Flash and Green Lantern received their own magazines (ALL-FLASH and GREEN LANTERN, in addition to their monthly spots in FLASH COMICS and ALL-AMERICAN COMICS), two slots opened up, which were quickly filled by Dr. Mid-Nite and Starman. Other members who later joined up included Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Wildcat and Mr. Terrific.
The Justice Society lasted for 57 issues in ALL-STAR COMICS, providing not only some of the best action comics of the period, but also some of the finest comics of the era, period. Although the series was by definition a little formulaic, with the team unfailingly meeting up at the beginning of each issue, meeting up with adversity in individual chapters, then reuniting to achieve victory in the final chapter, the stories had a surprising degree of social consciousness, championing such issues as democracy, charity, tolerance and brotherhood. In a time when vicious, racist caricatures of Japanese and Germans were commonplace in wartime comics, the Justice Society’s more enlightened approach stood out.
Like all good things, in 1951 the Justice Society came to an end, a victim of changing tastes. Superheroes were no longer the hottest thing on the market. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman remained in publication, but the rest of National’s superhero line fell away, replaced by romance, Westerns and a number of other genres. It seemed the day of the superhero was done.
For about five years, anyway.
DC Comics (formerly National) editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another shot in 1956, with the revival of the Flash in the pages of SHOWCASE #4. Writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino kept the name and the concept (“The Fastest Man Alive!”), and started from scratch with everything else. An all-new origin, a new secret identity, and best of all, a modern, streamlined new costume and art style from Infantino, which forever set the standard for the illustration of “super-speed” characters in comics.
The all-new Flash was a hit right away, and was soon back in his own magazine. Not long after, Schwartz set his sights on reviving the Green Lantern much as he did the Flash. Writer Gardner Fox and artist Gil Kane introduced the all-new Green Lantern in SHOWCASE #22, with a harder, sci-fi feel and a cooler, less outlandish costume. Just like the Flash, Green Lantern was a runaway hit, and the series was given its own magazine in 1960.
Now that Flash and Green Lantern were back, and since Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman had never went away, editor Julius Schwartz saw the writing on the wall: it was time for the Justice Society to return. Just as before, Schwartz was not shy about making changes. Feeling that “Society” sounded too high-falutin’, Schwartz opted to change the feature’s name to “Justice League of America,” thinking that young readers used to hearing about football leagues would find the name more familiar. In the February 1960 issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD, the all-new Justice League of America made its debut. Writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky teamed up Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman with DC’s new science-fiction hero the Martian Manhunter, and the readers showed up in droves. Within eight months, the Justice League had their own magazine, and superheroes were back in a big way.
Now that the superheroes had returned to DC, some of the longtime readers began to lobby for the return of the originals as well. This, however, was problematic once you stopped to think about it. How do you reconcile a Flash that was active during World War II with a modern Flash of the 1960s, especially if both were known associates of a still-young Superman and Batman? Complicating the problem was the fact that the new Flash was seen enjoying an issue of the original Flash comic book in his first appearance. Flash writer Gardner Fox, who was the creative force behind both the original Justice Society and the new Justice League, had it all worked out.
In FLASH #123, “Flash of Two Worlds!”, Fox revealed his master plan. The modern Flash, Barry Allen, while performing at a charity benefit, accidentally altered his vibrational frequency, and found himself on a world that looked identical to his own, but with striking differences. Most significant, his childhood hero from comic books, the original Flash Jay Garrick, was very real, now retired and in his forties. The two Flashes realized that they resided on parallel Earths. On Earth-One lived Barry Allen and the modern Justice League, while Jay Garrick and the retired Justice Society, including parallel but older duplicates of Superman and Batman, lived on Earth-Two. How did Barry Allen read about the original Flash in the comics? Well, according to Barry, FLASH comic-book writer Gardner Fox claimed the stories came to him in dreams, so “obviously, when Fox was asleep, his mind was ‘tuned in’ on [Jay Garrick’s] vibratory Earth.” Obviously.
Readers, some of whom never knew there had ever been another Flash, demanded to see more of these alternate versions of their favorite heroes. Gardner Fox obliged in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #21, in “Crisis on Earth-One!” in which the Justice League finally met with the Justice Society of America, freshly out of retirement, to face a conglomeration of enemies from both Earths.
So there you have it. Parallel Earths. The original 1940s Justice Society lives on Earth-Two. The Justice League lives on Earth-One. Simple, right? The problem was, the idea was so simple, and so satisfying, and since the readers kept demanding their yearly visit from the Justice Society, the powers that be at DC couldn’t resist adding to the concept. After all, if two Earths are good, then three are better.
That’s right, before long the JSA and JSA had to contend with yet another Earth: Earth-Three, the home of the Crime Syndicate. On Earth-Three, history tended to run in the reverse, with Columbus discovering Europe, Colonial England winning the Revolutionary War, and President John Wilkes Booth assassinated by actor Abe Lincoln. Accordingly, there was no Justice League; in its place was the Crime Syndicate: Ultra-Man, an evil Superman lookalike who gained a new superpower with each exposure to Kryptonite; Owlman, a sinister Batman-like villain with a belt full of crime gimmicks and a super-evolved brain; Superwoman, a sinister analogue to Wonder Woman,; Johnny Quick, a fiendish duplicate of the Flash; and Power Ring, who – well, you get the idea. (Earth-Three’s sole superhero, by the way, was a fellow by the name of Luthor. We’ll get back to him next week.)
Okay, then, it’s still pretty easy to follow. Earth-One is the Justice League, Earth-Two is the Justice Society, and Earth-Three is the Crime Syndicate. Piece of cake.
However, DC was not content to leave well enough alone. Having purchased Quality Comics’ stable of comic-book characters, DC needed to put them somewhere. Enter Earth-X. On Earth-X, World War II had never ended, and the United States was still barely holding out against a Nazi Germany that had dominated the rest of the globe. At the behest of Uncle Sam, the Justice League traveled to Earth-X to help him and the rest of the Freedom Fighters (Phantom Lady, Black Condor, the Ray, Doll Man, Firebrand and the Human Bomb) put away the Nazis once and for all.
A few years after that, DC purchased the Captain Marvel family of characters from Fawcett, and Earth-S (S for Shazam, naturally) was introduced. On Earth-S lived Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, Dr. Sivana, Mr. Tawny and all the other characters affiliated with the original Captain Marvel comics.
When DC purchased the Charlton “action heroes” from the defunct Charlton comics, well, they couldn’t have them running around on Earth-One, now, could they? The Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Nightshade and Judomaster were soon revealed to be living on Earth-4.
Even the Earth on which we, the readers in the real world, lived was occasionally visited by the Justice League and company, and it was dubbed Earth-Prime. By the early 1980s, what was once a single DC Universe had now become the DC Multiverse, with at least 7 known parallel Earths, and presumably countless more waiting to be discovered. Some readers (and comics professionals) felt the whole thing horribly convoluted and needlessly complex, while others embraced the notion of the Multiverse, and the wide variety of story possibilities it allowed.
You can count me firmly in the latter camp. One of the first Justice League comics I ever read was a JLA/JSA team-up, and I was instantly hooked. It didn’t seem that tough to comprehend to me, and I was only seven. The young heroes lived on Earth-One, and the old heroes lived on Earth-Two. What was appealing about the Earth-Two characters was that they could change in ways that the mainstream DC superheroes never could: Superman got married, while Batman went a little nuts after his wife died (none other than Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman) and eventually became the rabidly anti-superhero Police Commissioner of Gotham City. The characters were allowed to mature, to raise families, and even to die: real, permanent deaths, unlike the cliffhanger-style “just-kidding” deaths comics readers had grown accustomed to. Rather than being confused by the parallel Earths as a young reader, I was fascinated, and picked up all the Earth-2 appearances I could find.
However, by 1985, there were some people who didn’t agree. One of them was DC Publisher Jenette Kahn, and soon everything would change. Meet me here next week to find out how.