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Old School: How Should DC Rebirth the Justice Society of America?

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
Old School: How Should DC Rebirth the Justice Society of America?

As comics’ first superhero team, the Justice Society of America is perhaps the most influential group in superhero comics’ history. Introduced in Winter 1940-41’s “All-Star Comics” issue #3, the JSA brought together characters from different genres and (technically) different publishers, thereby introducing readers to heroes they might not otherwise have seen. Without the Justice Society, comics might not have had the Justice League or Teen Titans, to say nothing of the Fantastic Four, Avengers or Defenders.

Even so, from the Silver Age forward, the Justice Society was often overshadowed by its successors. Let’s put it this way: if a reader learned about the JSA from their annual appearances in “Justice League,” or about individual members from their guest-shots in “Flash” or “Green Lantern,” naturally they might have seen the Golden Age’s best and brightest merely as adjuncts to the heroes of Earth-One. Although “Crisis On Infinite Earths” integrated those Golden Age adventures into the history of the singular DC-Earth, the JSA itself was retired soon afterwards, with subsequent revamps justifying its existence.

Now, however, DC’s “Rebirth” initiative has all but promised the return of the Justice Society. Between Wally West reaching out to an elderly Johnny Thunder, and the “Justice League vs. Suicide Squad” crossover mentioning a “lost Society,” the JSA is poised for yet another revamp — and this time, DC has more options. Today we’ll examine how best the publisher might treat comics’ original super-group.

THE PLAYING FIELD

The JSA of 1999

Detail from the cover of “JSA” #1 by Alan Davis

For purposes of this post we’re going to assume that DC will bring back the classic Justice Society — namely, characters who have been around since their Golden Age introductions, and who have those Golden Age (and subsequent) adventures as their backstories. Since 2012 DC’s “Earth 2” and “Worlds’ Finest” books have featured modern versions of Golden Age and Earth-Two characters, but with the imminent end of “Earth 2: Society” we are guessing that those versions will take a collective back seat to the classics.

Accordingly, there are two things even a casual superhero reader knows about the classic JSA: at this point they’re senior citizens; and depending on how DC is treating its cosmos there’s a good chance they’re on a parallel Earth. In the Golden Age, when these characters were in their prime and there was no real thought of a Multiverse, none of that mattered. However, from 1961 through 1985 the JSA and their colleagues were on Earth-Two, separated from the rest of the Multiverse by vibrational frequencies (which, admittedly, were pretty easy to traverse once you knew how). As mentioned above, “Crisis” put the JSA on Earth-DC from the end of 1985 through 2011; while “Flashpoint” reassigned them (sort of) to a new Earth-2. There was another Earth-2 flirtation around 2006, but we’ll get to that.

While the classic Justice Society has been a big part of DC’s publishing history generally, it’s been at its peak in three different periods. First, of course, was the original Golden Age run in “All-Star Comics” issues #3-57 (Winter 1940-41 to February-March 1951).

Next, after spending most of the Silver Age teaming up with the Justice League, DC revived “All-Star Comics” in 1976. From then until 1989, the JSA pretty much appeared either in its own feature or in a spinoff. This included issues #58-74 of “All-Star” (January-February 1976 to September-October 1978); “Adventure Comics” issues #461-66 (January-February 1979 to November-December 1979); and the 61 issues of “All Star Squadron” (September 1981-March 1987). “All Star Squadron” then begat the present-day “Infinity Inc.” (53 issues, March 1984-August 1988) and the sequel series “Young All-Stars” (31 issues, June 1987-November 1989); as well as the four-issue “America Vs. The Justice Society” miniseries (January-April 1985).

Perhaps most familiar to today’s readers, the third period started in 1999 and covered “JSA” (87 issues, August 1999-September 2006) and its successor “Justice Society of America” (54 issues, February 2007-October 2011). We might call this the “Geoff Johns era,” since he wrote the bulk of both series. However, it’s worth noting that “JSA’s” early issues were co-written by James Robinson, whose “Starman” (1994-2001) also helped bring the JSA back into the spotlight. This version of the JSA took advantage of DC’s legacy structure, with current incarnations of Starman, Star-Spangled Kid, Black Canary, Atom-Smasher and Doctor Mid-Nite.

EARTH-2 AGAIN?

The JLA meets the JSA in 1963's "JLA" #21

Detail from the cover of “Justice League of America” #21, by Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson

Naturally, the first option deals with the Justice Society’s literal place in the larger DC cosmos. Again, in the Golden Age the JSA had DC’s embryonic shared universe all to itself. However, following the landmark “Flash of Two Worlds” (February 1961’s “Flash” issue #123) and the JSA’s reunion in “Vengeance of the Immortal Villain” (June 1963’s “Flash” issue #137), the JSA and its collective Golden Age backstory were assigned to Earth-Two.

This separated the Golden Age characters physically from their Silver Age counterparts, which allowed the Golden Age stories to happen pretty much in real time on Earth-Two; and also allowed the characters to age accordingly. Once the Golden Agers started interacting with Earth-One, though, those events had to be reconciled with Earth-One’s elastic timeline. Thus, when “Flash of Two Worlds” was first published, Jay Garrick was in his early 40s and had been retired for 10 years; but if “FO2W” took place in (let’s say) 2006, Jay would be in his late 80s and would have been retired for 55 years.

Regardless, letting the JSA have Earth-2 all to itself means that a) Earth-2 can have its own Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.; and b) Superman can still be the first superhero on both Earth-Two and the main DC-Earth. For hypothetical new readers that may be a very minor distinction; but if Earth-2 has its own Trinity then it doesn’t have to alter any original Golden Age stories, and it allows Earth-2 to have Trinity-based legacy heroes. The old Earth-Two had Power Girl, the Helena Wayne Huntress and Wonder Woman’s daughter Fury; but after “Crisis,” all three needed some tinkering in order to fit in.

Moreover, if only the Golden Agers are on Earth-2, there’s now room for at least one more generation of legacy heroes. Assuming most of the Golden Agers were born in the late 1910s and early 1920s, they’d be about 100 years old by now. Maybe some of them are grandparents; maybe some have passed away; maybe some (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate) are still powerful enough to come out of retirement when the end of the world is nigh. The point is, a new Earth-2 can be built on Golden Age stories and still be distinct enough — through these new generations — from both the main DC-Earth and its pre-“Crisis” predecessor.

Of course, any new Earth-2 must also distinguish itself from the Multiverse’s existing Golden Age-infused Earths, namely Earth-21 (Darwyn Cooke’s “New Frontier”) and Earth-38 (John Byrne’s “Generations” miniseries); as well as other alternative legacies like those of Earth-12 (“Batman Beyond”), Earth-16 (“Multiversity: The Just”) and Earth-22 (“Kingdom Come”).

That said, in the past ten years DC has tried a new Earth-2 a couple of times, as part of its new(ish) 52-part Multiverse. The first attempt appeared towards the end of Geoff Johns’ “Justice Society” tenure and looked a lot like an updated pre-“Crisis” Earth-Two, complete with a “Justice Society Infinity” team. The second, of course, is the array of “Earth 2” series which started in the New 52 and are represented currently by the aforementioned “Earth 2: Society.” Featuring a present-day reimagining of Jay Garrick, Alan Scott and company, the various series lived mostly under the constant threat of Apokoliptian invasion; which gave it a certain air of doom even apart from the threat of real-world cancellation. In both cases the takeaway seems to be that new versions of Earth-2 aren’t necessarily cure-alls.

LEGACY AND LONGEVITY

The modern-day JSA

The modern-day Justice Society of America, by Alex Ross

Indeed, if “Rebirth’s” overarching theme is “legacy,” then surely DC wants to reintegrate the Golden Age stories into the main DC-Earth timeline. Clearly this would be familiar to a lot of DC’s existing readership, since it was the way things were just a few years ago.

Still, that sort of restoration cuts both ways. While there is a strong sense of the apologetic about “Rebirth,” nothing says it has to roll back all of the New 52’s changes. One senses that even the previous versions of Superman, Lois Lane and Wally West — all of whom come from a timeline built on the JSA’s Golden Age — will be tweaked further before “Rebirth” is done.

Thus, as tempting as re-integration might be, a couple of factors argue against it. Remember, the classic JSA’s history is fixed rather firmly to the 1940s. Essentially they’re an entire generation of Captain Americas and Namors, active during World War II (ish) and “retired” until a floating point in time “several years ago.” That floating point is where Earth-DC’s elastic timeline first intersects with the JSA’s unyielding collective backstory. In the Silver and Bronze Ages, it wasn’t as big of a problem, because at most the JSA’s retirement only lasted a couple of decades. That was plenty of time for Batman and Catwoman to get married (in the early ’50s), conceive a daughter (Helena Wayne) and watch her grow into an attorney (and potential crimefighter, of course) in her indeterminate 20s.

Therefore, when Power Girl and the Huntress debuted in the mid-1970s, and Infinity Inc. came along in the early ’80s, it was entirely reasonable that they, as second-generation superheroes, were born and raised in the nebulous period of the JSA’s retirement. Today, however, it’s more complicated. Unless all the relevant Golden Agers either go into actual suspended animation, Cap-style, or are naturally long-lived, Namor-style, it becomes less and less plausible for them to produce a second generation of 20- and 30-something super-people. Such a generation would have to be born in the ’80s and ’90s, when the Golden Agers were in their 60s and 70s. For that matter, subsequent generations will “age” the JSA as surely as the various Robins “aged” Batman in the pre-“Flashpoint” timeline. (Damian Wayne alone accounts for 10 years’ worth of Batman’s timeline.) The JSA’s next creative team may have to make them grandparents just to get the gestational math to work.

That, in turn, brings up the second re-integration concern. “Crisis On Infinite Earths” didn’t incorporate every Golden Age adventure wholesale into the new DC-Earth timeline, because it had to get rid of all of the Golden Age duplicates. On the pre-“Crisis” Earth-Two, Superman was the first superhero. He debuted in 1938, followed by (in no particular order) Batman, the Crimson Avenger, the Flash, Hawkman, etc. However, on the post-“Crisis” DC-Earth, Superman and Batman debuted “seven years ago,” leaving fans to speculate about just who was first; and which stories were still valid without the duplicative heroes.

In simpler terms, “Crisis” blew a Trinity-sized hole in DC-Earth’s Golden Age history, which meant literally rewriting that history in the pages of series like “Secret Origins” and “Young All-Stars.” Re-integrating the JSA and their descendants isn’t as simple as it might seem, and it might not get any easier unless DC does some similar tinkering.

GOLDEN YEARS

The classic Justice Society, by Jerry Ordway

The classic Justice Society of America by Jerry Ordway, from 1985’s “Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe”

Unless DC is planning another radical reinvention of the Justice Society — something it shows no signs of doing — it must choose whether to turn back the clock six years to the pre-“Flashpoint” era; or 32 years to the pre-“Crisis” era. Neither is a perfect solution, which may explain the JSA’s periodic relaunches. DC retired the team in 1986, brought them back in 1992, retired them again in 1994, brought them back again in 1998, and used “Flashpoint” to retire the classic team in 2011.

The main problem is that the Silver Age turned the JSA (and the rest of the Golden Age) into something between an appendix and an alternative history. On one hand, Earth-Two preserved the Golden Age as perfectly as it could, which was great for fans of those comics. On the other hand, that preservation turned Earth-Two into the cosmic equivalent of an historic home, with strict guidelines about additions and updates.

Put bluntly, the Justice Society might have been first, but it’s been second to the Justice League for over fifty years; and that’s not going to change. To be sure, the Justice League must abide by its own set of unwritten rules, which are designed to keep it forever young and relatively unchanged — and which don’t apply to the Justice Society. That’s the JSA’s advantage: For decades, allowing its members to age, reproduce and die has made the group a model for the superhero line’s legacy structure.

In that respect the best solution may be to give the JSA and its peers their own Earth again, but with the provision that time passes differently on the new Earth-2. Once again the comics could reflect the JSA aging in real time, while the main DC-Earth characters enjoyed their own elastic timeline. If Barry Allen only visited Jay Garrick once a year in the real world, a year would pass for Jay while Barry might only age a month or so. Such a solution would give Earth-2 a Brigadoon-esque quality, making its interactions with DC-Earth that much more precious.

It would also reinforce the fact that Earth-2 is, and always has been, special. The Justice Society of America represents not just DC’s Golden Age, but a big chunk of the Golden Age generally. When Marvel brought back Captain America, Namor and the original Human Torch, it pounded on them to make them fit better with the Marvel Age of Comics. By contrast, when DC brought back Jay Garrick and friends, it was as if they’d just been on an extended vacation.

The heroes of the Justice Society are a lot older now, and have had far more adventures since the Silver Age than they ever did in the Golden Age. Nevertheless, DC owes them that special treatment for the roles they played in the publisher’s success. When DC brings back the Justice Society, it should take care to make their new home a comfortable and sustainable one.

How would you like the Justice Society to return? Let us know in the comments!

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