Justice Society nyet! Justice Society si!

One of the perennial mysteries of pop culture is how certain characters tank or succeed in different incarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of quality — Version A just wasn’t up to Version B. Other times it’s harder to be sure exactly what ensures success or guarantees failure. So let’s look at comics original super-team, the Justice Society of America.

This Golden Age gathering of DC heroes was a smash hit up to the end of the Golden Age. In the Silver Age, the characters began making regular guest appearances in Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America and The Atom (Flash, GL and Atom all had Golden Age counterparts). In the Bronze Age, DC revived the team in its own series, then introduced a next generation on Earth-2, Infinity Incorporated, a book that included regular appearances by the team’s parents (Infinity author Roy Thomas also wrote a series set in the Golden Age, All-Star Squadron, using the JSA and others).

And then Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, erasing Earth Two in favor of a retconned history where the JSA and JLA were on the same Earth in different eras and the Justice Society’s continuity was now massively mucked up (much to Thomas’ dismay). On top of which, according to Infinity penciler Jerry Ordway, there was a sense in DC editorial that the JSA were old hat, your grandfather’s heroes, unsuited to a cool, cutting edge company. So Thomas wrote a story that consigned them to a netherworld, eternally battling demons at great cost to save the world.

After they finally escaped in Armageddon: Inferno, they got their own series again in 1992. Written by Len Strazewski, it lasted ten issues. Then the powers that be had the team decimated in the Zero Hour crossover event. Some were killed, some lost their magically extended youth. But a few years later, the JSA resurfaced in a new series, and this time it stuck around all the way to the New 52 reboot. So why did one work and the other not?

Quite possible it was a difference in style. The 1992 series by Len Strazewski is the only one that really played with the idea of the JSA as seniors. Still active, still capable (Strazewski, a business reporter, said he was inspired by interviewing old labor activists talking about fighting to unionize back in the 1930s) but definitely older (the book did introduce a next generation — Jesse Quick debuted here). The tone in some ways feels almost gentle — not that there aren’t threats and action scenes, but it’s neither grim-and-gritty nor balls-to-the-walls action. And I don’t mean that as an insult — it took some getting used to but it worked for me.

The 1999 JSA has a lot of the same elements. Both series drew on the team’s long history. The second series also introduced a next generation. But in contrast to Strazewski’s work, the James Robinson/David Goyer (later joined by Geoff Johns) stories tended to the epic. In the first year alone they faced the sorcerer-god Mordru, a former superhero turned god of darkness and then launched an arc in which the villain Extant reboots Earth-Only into a new world of his own devising. Now that I think about it, it’s remarkable what a high level of apocalypse they kept fighting (I’m rereading the run now. I may have more to say about this aspect when I’m done).

And they were also younger. The team had a larger youth cohort (Starman, Stargirl, Hawkwoman, Atom-Smasher) and the JSA were never written as showing signs of age. Wildcat, despite having no powers, had gone from the crotchety geezer of Strazewski’s run to being as fit as in his youth (I believe his magically getting nine lives in an off-screen adventure figured into that). And that was apparently the dealmaker: Strazewski said in an interview that DC’s top dog, Mike Carlin, didn’t want DC publishing senior superheroes, so he axed the book.

The later book obviously avoided going down that path.

#SFWApro. Art by Murphy Anderson, Alan Davis and Mike Parobeck, all rights remain with current holders.

 

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