Despite the fact that most of them were published in summer, Thanksgiving is always a good time to reminisce about the annual meetings of the Justice League and Justice Society. Back in the day, these meetings were special because, by definition, they were built around the idea of an “alternate” DC history. Readers could compare and contrast two demonstrably different versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and Atom; and even get a glimpse at what Superman, Batman and/or Robin, and Wonder Woman would look like decades down the road. In the 1970s, when the Justice Society gained a younger generation, characters like Power Girl and the Huntress played well off their Earth-1 “relatives.” This reinforced further the notion that the two teams were branches of the same family tree. Such sentiment is certainly Thanksgiving-y, regardless of the season; and the fact that these stories were annual traditions didn’t hurt either. Still, just as the fourth Thursday afternoon in November can easily find one doped up on poultry and zoned out on football, sometimes simply being with family isn’t enough.
Accordingly, I tend to favor the JLA/JSA team-ups of the ’70s and early ’80s, when our combined heroes often met a third group of venerable DC characters.* 1972’s centenary celebration (JLA #s 100-02) reintroduced readers to the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and 1973’s two-parter involved the “Freedom Fighters,” formerly of Quality Comics, battling aging Nazis on Earth-X. In 1976 the third group included the Marvel Family and assorted Fawcett heroes and villains; in 1977 it was “Crisis In The 30th Century!” with the Legion of Super-Heroes; and in 1980 an epic Fourth World three-parter introduced George Perez to JLA. Even relatively esoteric third-groups like 1978’s collection of historical figures (which included Jonah Hex and Enemy Ace) and 1981’s D-list Secret Society (Signalman! Monocle! Rag Doll! The Cheetah no one remembers!) were fun in context.
And to be sure, not all of the JLA/JSA pairings were memorable. 1971’s two-parter featured a new Neal-Adams-designed costume for Robin, who guest-starred alongside his older Earth-2 counterpart; but other than that it was a hash of generation-gap talk, some extraterrestrials, and Solomon Grundy. The 1974 team-up also concerned a former kid sidekick, the Sandman’s ward Sandy, who had been transformed into a monster. It took only a single issue for the combined JLA and JSA to bring the Golden Boy back to normal; and the series never did a single-issue JLA/JSA team-up again. The 1975 two-parter was, quite simply, a mess: Earth-Prime’s own Cary Bates gains unspeakable power and becomes a villain, killing the JSA along the way. Don’t worry, though; the Spectre put in a good word with God to get the JSAers back. (If only DC had learned from this not to cultivate villains from Earth-Prime….) Finally, the 1983 two-parter was more a continuity patch than a story, revealing how Black Canary could look so young despite her apparent Golden Age origins.
Naturally, the turning point for the JLA/JSA team-ups was 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, itself a twelve-issue homage to the annual tradition. By this time there were regular visits to Earth-2, via All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc.. In 1982, Justice League had crossed over with All-Star in an ambitious five-issue story involving four Earths (including Earth-3 and Earth-Prime), four super-teams (including the All-Stars and the Earth-3 Crime Syndicate), World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly, in 1985 JLA (which by this time was featuring the Detroit League) crossed over with Infinity, Inc., but this time the story was a more modest fight-then-team-up affair which clearly wasn’t meant to compete with the larger Crisis. Ironically, despite its prominence in the year-long event, the Justice Society itself went away for several years after Crisis. Although the JSA later had its own short-lived series (1992-93) and got some reasonable exposure through James Robinson’s Starman, the Zero Hour crossover had killed or otherwise changed most of its original members and it didn’t team up with the JLA again until 1998.
“Crisis Times Five,” serialized in JLA #s 28-31 (April-July 1999), was enjoyable on its own terms, but it highlighted the differences between the old Multiversal team-ups and the single-timeline status quo. The Justice League was at the height of its overstuffed-roster “pantheon” period, with most of the fourteen-odd members participating at some point in these four issues. Accordingly, the Leaguers outnumbered the few remaining Justice Socialites: Sentinel/Green Lantern, the Flash, Wildcat, and Hippolyta. To bolster the JSA’s ranks (the Spectre spent most of the story immobilized), Captain Marvel was deemed part of the team and J.J. Thunder joined.
Don’t get me wrong — these things don’t make “CX5” a bad JLA/JSA team-up by any means. Taking the villains (warring imps and a corrupted ex-Leaguer) from the two teams’ respective histories is very much in the spirit of earlier stories. However, instead of the JLA and JSA each equally representing the apex of a particular superheroic tradition, the JSAers were clearly the “old guard.” Considering that the storyline introduced J.J. as a new generation of Socialite, and also that the ongoing JSA series would feature a lot of pre-existing legacy characters not seen here, that was probably intentional.
See, at least in terms of the Silver Age Multiverse, the Justice Society was the Justice League’s parallel-Earth counterpart. That redefined the JSA in relation to the JLA, effectively making them supporting characters in Justice League (when they didn’t have their own feature, that is); but at the same time it made them equal to the JLA. You didn’t need to wonder why there was a Justice Society along with a Justice League, because the two weren’t in any kind of turf competition. On the singular post-Crisis DC-Earth, however, the Justice Society was somewhere between being a novelty and being outright superfluous. After all, when the JSA returned from six years stuck (literally) in Limbo, there were two monthly Justice League books plus Justice League Quarterly. The early-’90s Justice Society book was fairly charming for all of its ten issues (thanks in part to artist Mike Parobeck), but it never let you forget just how old these guys were.
Therefore, once Zero Hour and ’90s sensibilities had their ways with the Golden Agers, it was no wonder that the JSA needed to be repositioned. Today, after ten years’ worth of its own ongoing series, the Justice Society has established its own place in the DC superhero landscape, and it’s apparently vital enough to warrant a second ongoing … but that still doesn’t make it equal to the Justice League in that Silver Age Multiverse way. This is not to say there can’t be good stories involving the modern JLA and JSA, just that there’s no going back to the Earth-1/Earth-2 dynamic. Accordingly, to evoke that classic JLA/JSA atmosphere, you have to find another true counterpart for the Justice League, like the Legion of Super-Heroes, DC One Million‘s Justice Legion A, or the Avengers.
Indeed, the DC 2000 miniseries** turned DC One Million‘s high concept on its ear. Instead of a benevolent Justice Legion A coming back to 1998 to honor their idols, the Justice Society of 1941 sought to prevent the Justice League’s hellish year-2000 future from happening. I know I have talked about this miniseries before, but that’s because it is a lot of fun, even with “rock & roll scares the oldsters” jokes. For example, the Spectre traps the JLA in an extradimensional bubble about as easily as you might open a Coke can. However, Batman figures that if he can “rattle” the Spectre by sharing some of his emotions, it might give the rest of the team a chance to escape. Superman then volunteers to take Batman’s place, noting that the Spectre will be “focused on [Batman] and won’t let [him] escape.” The implication is that Superman’s emotions would be just as powerful, and the Man of Steel’s powers might give him more of an edge.
Nothing doing. “You?” Batman asks. “Superman, your consciousness couldn’t threaten a kitten.”
Ha ha! Ahem. More to the point, the main threat of DC 2000 ends up being the JSA itself, as the Golden Agers use end-of-the-century technology (supplied by T.O. Morrow) to establish an unstoppable army of super-soldiers, each with a combination of super-powers. Thus, the JSA not only defeats the JLA in the past, its successors (the army, not the legacy heroes who are also defeated) usurp the League’s preeminent role in the present. Obviously the original JSA has only the best of intentions — including the inflexibly reactionary Spectre, who gets some of the best lines*** and has a nice little character arc to boot — so the real challenge is not defeating Morrow and the JS-Army, but convincing the Golden Agers that the JLA’s future isn’t really so bad. That’s a plot which serves both teams well and treats each as their world’s greatest heroes.
A different kind of mutual respect was on display in 2002’s JLA/JSA: Virtue & Vice graphic novel, which (providentially for this post) established a new tradition of joint Thanksgiving meetings. Here, the JLA reveres the JSA’s pioneering history and the JSA admires the JLA’s elite status. It’s upset temporarily by the manipulations of Despero, Johnny Sorrow, and the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, but before everything is set straight, various combinations of Leaguers and Socialites visit locales unique to each team. In tone and structure it’s quite faithful to the classic team-ups, even without parallel Earths. This is not exactly unexpected from writers David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns.
Likewise, Johns and co-writer Brad Meltzer filled the most recent JLA/JSA team-up, 2007’s “The Lightning Saga,” with references to past adventures. These included the aforementioned 1977 JLA/JSA/Legion team-up, the New Teen Titans mystery “Who Killed Trident?”, Triplicate Girl’s death, and Crisis On Infinite Earths. Unfortunately, Johns and Meltzer seem so preoccupied with those memories, and with setting up future storylines, that there’s not much left at the story’s center. The Justice League and Justice Society aren’t really dealing with threats to creation as they know it, they’re solving character-specific mysteries (who is Starman? How does Superman know the Legion? What’s in the lightning rods?). It is not a story about the JLA, JSA, or Legion; it’s a story which merely involves them. I hate to be so dismissive of “The Lightning Saga,” because its heart is in the right place, but ultimately it’s 1974’s Sandy-Monster story blown up into five issues across two titles.
And really, the Justice Society probably doesn’t need the JLA to be successful anymore. The JSA has had its own title for over ten years now, and by the time the James Robinson/Mark Bagley Justice League gets its act together there will be four JSA-related books on the stands. Because the Justice Society doesn’t have to deal with the logistics of coordination like the JLA does, its creative teams are free to focus on individual characters. In this way JSA always reminded me of Avengers, which over time got good at building up the B-listers when the solo stars were absent. Almost by definition, the Justice Society is a team of B-listers (or at least A-minus-listers), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good.
Still, that doesn’t translate especially well into a high-concept widescreen adventure one might expect from a JLA/JSA team-up, and that’s why I’m not counting on the annual tradition being revived anytime soon. It’s ironic, too, considering that before too long there may be two ongoing Justice League titles to complement the two JSA books — and those JLA titles may well be written by JSA architects James Robinson and Geoff Johns. If anyone can find entertaining ways to put these teams together, you’d think they could.
However, the more I think about it, the more I value a certain distance between the two teams. After all, if you see your relatives every week, getting together with them for the holidays is not as big a deal. For twenty-odd years, the Justice League and Justice Society were separated by the laws of comic-book physics, so their meetings were special occasions. Although it’s been a while since their last official team-up, sharing the same universe has brought the JLA and JSA closer, and they show up in each other’s books without much fanfare. Their differences now are mostly in their mission statements.
Therefore, if DC wants to revive this annual tradition, it should emphasize those differences. Not everything on Thanksgiving should lull me to sleep.
* [Actually, re-reading the 1984 “Commander” two-parter, I got the feeling that writer Kurt Busiek was auditioning the Champion family for a possible future storyline. Not sure they ever appeared anyplace else, though; not even in The Power Company.]
** [Why this hasn’t yet been reprinted, I don’t know. Maybe it’s too small for its own trade paperback?]
*** [One word: “informatio-scope.”]
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