The JSA in 1968, drawn by Murphy Anderson
All-Star 4 was the first full Justice Society of America adventure, and it established the formula by which, with a few variations, the teams stories would be conducted for several years: until All-Star 38 in 1947, in fact.
The JSA convene in Washington, at the headquarters of the FBI, whose famous Chief (neither named nor, conspicuously, pictured in the story – someone had their brains on right) instructs them that America is troubled by German Bundists – Fifth Columnists – who are acting on behalf of the Dictator Nations in trying to lead America away from Democracy and Freedom. The JSA are asked to intervene in eight specific areas. So each member takes off on a solo mission that is part of the whole, each member defeats their localised outbreak of subversion, each member discovers that the Bundists they have captured report to one Fritz Klaver, of Toledo, Ohio (based on a real-life German leader). And each member arrives at Klaver’s hideout at the same time, at the start of the final chapter, in which the villain is quickly overwhelmed by the JSA’s collective might.
So it was. Every issue, be it quarterly or bi-monthly, the JSA would find itself up against some menace, peril or criminal whose machinations would arrange itself into eight parts, conveniently matching exactly the number of JSA members (when paper restrictions forced a reduction in the team to six members, crime and evil became correspondingly less divided).
But All-Star hadn’t been created solely to make money by itself. It was conceived as a marketing exercise. All-Star 4 asked readers to write in and nominate their choice of which JSA member deserved their own solo title. The following issue, The Flash was confirmed as winner, and the beneficiary of his own series: since there already was a Flash Comics, the next postal vote was over a suitable title, which was won by All-Flash Quarterly (the qualification would be dropped when the comic was promoted to bi-monthly status). As The Flash was the JSA Chairman, and his successor as Chairman lasted only a single issue before following him into his own title, it suggests that All-American had a pretty good idea to begin with of the relative popularity of their characters.
Thus, in All-Star 6, in a curious pre-echo of metafiction, the Flash steps down to become an Honorary Member, a status now retrospectively conferred on Superman and Batman. No explanation is given, other than that the Scarlet Speedster had been awarded his own title. This meant a new member was required who, according to the rules, had to come from Flash Comics: Johnny Thunder, who by this time had at least worked out what magic words summoned his Thunderbolt (though he still usually called the ‘Bolt up by accident) put himself forward, and the JSA were still juvenile enough to put him through a very college-style initiation ceremony before accepting him.
Which meant that, at an early stage, the JSA equipped itself with a comic relief that it really didn’t need, which was a neat foreshadowing of the fate of many of its characters later in the Forties.
They also found themselves sufficiently popular to be elevated to bi-monthly publication with issue 6. And there was another write-in vote for the next member to be elevated to honorary status via his own title.
The new Chairman was revealed in issue 7 to be Green Lantern. Simultaneously it was also proclaimed that Green Lantern had won the latest write-in vote and would be getting his own title, AND that Hour-man had requested and been granted leave of absence, to be replaced by his Adventure Comics compeer, Starman.
Before looking at this rapid-fire change in more detail, it’s worth considering the actual story told in All-Star 7. Contrary to the universal experience of later periods, the comic book heroes of the Forties did not spend all their time fighting costumed villains (the JSA’s first recurring foe, the Brain Wave, would not appear until All-Star 15, and he would be a bald, skinny scientist in a green smock). Though America was not yet part of the Second World War, and editor Mayer’s practice of working three in hand (i.e., having three full issues written, drawn, lettered and coloured at any time: no deadline terrors for him!) meant that All-Star would not even acknowledge America’s entry into the war until issue 11, issue 7 returned to the subject indirectly referenced in issue 4, the European War: the first of several issues over the coming months, prepared when America was still neutral.
Given that, almost without exception, the writers, artists, editors and publishers at National/Detective and All-American, indeed most other comic book companies, were Jewish, a preoccupation with a War that involved the persecution of their people is hardly surprising. It made for stories that, at this distance, give a fascinating insight into America’s preoccupation with a War that was not supposed to touch their shores.
All-Star 7 began with the new Chairman recounting his visit to war-torn Europe, witnessing its devastation, and proposing that the JSA should set out to raise $1,000,000 for the relief of orphans (significantly, only in the democratic countries). After an intervening issue was devoted to introducing two new members, issue 9 would take the team South of the Border, putting down dictator penetration into the friendly, democratic South American republics that respect how America has always been willing to keep its distance and allow them to live as they choose, without intervention or coercion (this sentiment is expressed directly by the JSA’s Mexican contact, at which point the irony piles up in such lumps that a lorry is required to haul it away).
And in issue 10, the JSA take a trip into the future to recover the eight essential parts of a fool-proof Bomb Defence Formula that will protect American cities against aerial attack (and maybe plant a dangerous and thankfully unworkable idea into the head of Ronald Reagan forty years later).
But let’s go back to issue 8 and the simultaneous introduction of two new members. Green Lantern’s stand down was, of course, due to the scheduled publication of Green Lantern 1: he was replaced as Chairman by Hawkman, who would go on to hold the post permanently, and in the end be the only member to appear in every issue of All-Star. However, for decades fans assumed that Hour-man’s ‘leave of absence’ was due to his series failing and being cancelled. But whilst Hour-man was one of the earliest superheroes to be cancelled, this did not take place until over eighteen months earlier: there was a completely different, and ultimately ironic reason for this change in personnel.
Starman was the creation of Artist Jack Burnley, one of the best comic book artists of the Forties, and a committee of National’s editors. Astronomer, socialite and pretend hypochondriac Ted Knight discovered a source of cosmic energy emanating from the stars and built a golden sceptre-sized device known as a Gravity Rod, enabling him to fly, and project force-beams and shields of heat and light. In short, it was Green Lantern’s magic Power Ring with a scientific basis instead. National thought Starman was the goods, a winner on a par with Superman and Batman, and they wanted him promoted immediately, en route to that inevitable solo title. If Starman was to be bundled into the JSA, one of the other Adventure features had to step down. As Sandman was the more popular character, the Man of the Hour drew the short straw.
But two new members won their spurs in All-Star 8, and the other, from All-American, was Dr Mid-Nite. In real life he was surgeon and anti-crime crusader Charles McNider, who’d been blinded by a bomb thrown when McNider was treating a witness against the Mob: McNider then discovered that he had perfect vision in the dark, which he relied upon as Dr Mid-Nite.
There’s an unexpected irony in their joint first appearance that foreshadows the respective longevities of the characters. Though Starman starts the issue as an admitted member, he says and contributes virtually nothing outside his solo chapter, whilst Dr Mid-nite, who is nothing but a guest until the final page, plays a full and active role in the story and can’t stop talking. Mid-Nite would remain a member until the JSA’s final case in All-Star 57, whilst Starman would vanish from the series after All-Star 23.
So All-Star was fulfilling its purpose quite admirably, not to mention the bonus of cross-promoting its four ‘feeder’ titles. Undoubtedly there were Flash-fans who followed their favourite from Flash to All-Star, discovered Green Lantern, and followed him back to All-American. Multiply that by all the other combinations possible among the eleven members who appeared in this first run, and that’s a lot of cross-promotion.
But, though veterans recall discussions about a Hawkman solo title, there would be no more spin-offs, and changes of line-up would take place for more underground reasons. All-Star recognised there was a War out there: very soon America would be in it, and the whole course of the series would be changed.
Meanwhile, there’s one final thing to mention about All-Star 8. It contained a bonus 10 page story, débuting a new character, trailing All-American’s next anthology title, Sensation Comics, out the following month. This new character, created by psychologist William Moulton Marsden and artist Harry Peters, was to be the success National/Detective expected of Starman, and gain a solo series faster than anyone before her. Enter Wonder Woman.
Part 3 – the War Years – All-Star 11 – 23