As I’ve previously observed, sometimes in comics the story of what happens behind the page is as interesting as the brightly coloured adventures that take place one them. I’ve long since been a fan of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team, and the story of how they came into being, and what influenced their fortunes, is in many respects more absorbing than even the best of their fantastic adventures.
So I figured I’d write about it.
The JSA’s story starts in 1940, in All-Star Comics 3, published by All-American Comics. But to properly understand that beginning, it’s necessary to go back to the very start of comics as we now understand them. Fortunately, that doesn’t involve going back very far.
The American comic book was invented when a handful of people, among them Charlie Gaines, came to the more or less simultaneous realisation that you could print comics art half-sized and fold it into a cheap, colourful pamphlet. In an era where most printers functioned as money-laundering facilities for the Prohibition gangs, anything that kept the presses working longer and harder was welcome.
Originally, such comics reprinted existing newspaper strips under licence, their cheapness exemplified by the possibly apocryphal but completely believable story that one editor refused to allow his staff to waste time sorting an adventure serial into chronological order because the readers wouldn’t know the difference. But gradually new, hopeful publishers started to offer original material, created by young, raw, enthusiastic writers and artists, boys who were too young, raw and, in some cases, untalented to make it in the world of strips.
One such was former Cavalry officer, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who established a small stable of very successful titles as National Comics, including Fun/More Fun Comics and Detective Comics. The first issue of this latter title, long thought to have been the very first comic book to present wholly original material, included two-fisted detective Slam Bradley, from the Cleveland partnership of teenagers Jerry Seigel (writer) and Joe Schuster (artist).
Wheeler-Nicholson’s comics were printed by Donenfeld Brothers printers, helmed by the effervescent, diminutive salesman Harry Donenfeld who, it is strongly rumoured, had connections with Prohibition mobsters. Donenfeld had long been involved in both publishing and distribution, constantly sailing close to the wind with ‘spicy’ pulps that attracted the attention of New York’s authorities. Donenfeld needed something lucrative that wouldn’t appear on the DA’s radar, and here was the impractical Major, sitting on a money-maker. Donenfeld, and his accountant Jack Leibowitz, was expert at manipulating his publisher-clients into severe cash-flow problems and either taking their business in lieu of printers bills or, if they proved stubborn, forcing them into bankruptcy court and snapping up their assets for the proverbial song.
So Wheeler-Nicholson disappeared and Donenfeld took over his little publishing stable.
This consisted of Adventure Comics, Detective, More Fun and a commitment to put a fourth title on the news-stands. The new title was incomplete: ten more pages were needed before it could go to the printer, and the deadline was less than a fortnight away. It was a moment of history.
Editor Vin Sullivan knew that the reliable Seigel/Schuster team had a character they’d been unsuccessfully hawking, which had already been turned down at National as being too crude and juvenile. But it existed, and could fill a space. He cabled an offer to buy the feature if Seigel and Schuster could get ten pages of art and story delivered to him in New York within ten days.
The feature was in existence, but it was laid out in newspaper strip format. The boys got their friends to help cut and paste the art into comic-book form, with transitional panels drawn where necessary. Then they sent it off, with a cover, within the deadline. And Action Comics came out on time, with its classic cover of a blue and red clad man lifting a car above his head: Superman was born.
Seigel and Schuster contracted to exclusively produce Superman’s adventures for the next ten years. Their story is a salutary one, but not part of this story. They’d come up with one of the most successful and influential characters in ‘literary’ history. Nobody realised, at first, just how popular the Man of Steel was until sales figures came in on the first half dozen issues of Action: issues with Superman on the cover massively outsold those without: the Man of Steel took up permanent residence.
Meanwhile, ambitious artist Bob Kane (with the considerable but officially unacknowledged assistance of writer Bill Finger) came up with his own fantastic long-underwear character, this time a man without any superhuman powers. Batman débuted in Detective 27 and was just as big a hit as Superman before him.
Suddenly, everyone wanted mystery men (as the superheroes were originally termed). Charlie Gaines, who was National’s chief salesman at that time, wanted to set up his own company. With capital from Donenfeld, who became a 50/50 partner, Gaines leased offices of his own and established All-American Comics. The two companies, though legally separate, operated jointly. The Superman DC logo appeared on A-A’s titles, the companies cross-advertised each other’s lines, and Jack Leibowitz, at Donenfeld’s insistence, was accountant to both companies. Gaines loathed Leibowitz, but Donenfeld held the purse-strings: not only did he want a ‘spy-in-the-cab’, but he wanted to secure Leibowitz against setting up in his own right.
(There is another story, this one definitely apocryphal, but only in degree, that Victor Fox, junior accountant at National, took one look at the sales figures for Action 1, went out at lunch to rent offices, and had set up his own comics company in the afternoon.)
Superman and Batman were selling so well that National, or Detective as it was now becoming known, collected their early stories into reprinted solo comics, aimed at the kids who hadn’t been quick enough to get in at the beginning. When these sold massively, they were continued with original material.
At A-A, Gaines looked at this thoughtfully. He was convinced that he too had characters that could carry titles by themselves. All that was needed was a little more exposure. So he ordered up All-Star Comics, an anthology that would feature characters with series elsewhere, chosen by the readers for popularity. All-Star even featured characters from National/Detective, with the blessing (or might it have been at the insistence?) of Donenfeld.
Two quarterly issues went well, and All-Star 3 was in preparation, when Gaines had an inspiration. This line-up would include The Flash (research chemist Jay Garrick who ran at superspeed due to a lab accident with hard water) and The Hawkman (socialite/archaeologist Carter Hall, a reincarnated Egyptian Prince who took to the sky with anti-gravity wings), both from Flash Comics, plus The Green Lantern (radio announcer Alan Scott, wielder of the magic Power Ring that gave him Power over Metals) and The Atom (College student Al Pratt, who was short but packed a big punch), both from All-American Comics.
These four were characters published by A-A, and they were joined by four more heroes from National’s stables: Dr Fate (archaeologist Kent Nelson, gothic wielder of magic) and The Spectre (the ghost of murdered Police Detective Jim Corrigan, a being of supernatural might) from More Fun, and The Sandman (socialite Wesley Dodds who put crooks to sleep with his gas-gun) and The Hour-Man (meek chemist Rex ‘Tick-Tock’ Tyler who invented the Miraclo Pill to give him superpowers for an hour at a time) from Adventure.
It’s an obvious idea in retrospect, but no-one had thought of it until then: Gaines reasoned that if the kids would buy a comic with all their favourite heroes in it, they’d be even more excited to buy it if the heroes were all teamed up together. And the Justice Society of America, the first ever superhero team – the first ever story in which two or more heroes from different series met each other – was born.
The one problem was that it was far too late to organise a JSA adventure for All-Star 3. Gaines wasn’t prepared to accept a delay of three months until issue 4, so Editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox came up with a brilliant bridging notion. The Justice Society of America – and no-one has ever laid claim to be the inventor of that title – descended on a swanky Gotham Hotel to celebrate their first official meeting… by having dinner. Comic relief character Johnny Thunder, another Flash Comics alumnus, would gatecrash the affair, mishandle his magic Thunderbolt into making the food vanish and pay his way by suggesting the heroes relate their most recent adventures. Thus, with pages added to enable one hero to hand over to another, the solo stories were melded into a long and enjoyable tale.
Among the additional pages was a cameo drawn by Mayer himself, featuring his own creation, The Red Tornado, a supporting character is his series Scribbly – the adventures of a Boy Cartoonist. The Red Tornado, the first ever superhero parody, was brawny housewife Ma Hunkel, who thus pre-dated Wonder Woman as the first costumed heroine.
Of more significance was the request, halfway through, from the chief of the FBI for a JSA representative to meet him in Washington. This was, of course, a case for The Flash, who returned in time for the end of the issue, with the news that the FBI wanted the JSA to meet them, next week, for a mission.
That week would elapse three months later, in All-Star 4.
Next: Part 2 – Fulfilling the Mission