Behind the Scenes with The Justice Society of America – Part 3: The War Years

JSA Golden Age

Alex Ross’s take on the cover of All-Star 3

And then the War came to America, or at least that part of America that appeared in All-Star Comics. Thanks to Mayer’s practice of keeping three issues in hand, it was about six months later than for the real America, which would intrude in other ways on the comics before long, with patriotic paper restrictions causing All-Star to revert to quarterly publication for the duration.
And the JSA embraced the War gloriously, by disbanding in the opening chapter of issue 11. Being true, red-blooded American patriots, the members wanted to enlist in the Army and fight the Japs. (I apologise for the use of such a term, which is offensive to us in this much later era, but must be accepted as an accurate reflection of the mood of the times and the comics it produced).
All but three of the eight active members went into the Army: the exceptions were Dr Mid-Nite who, being blind, went into the Medical Corps, the Spectre who, being dead, couldn’t pass the physical and Johnny Thunder, who went into the Navy instead, though the Navy soon had cause to regret it.
Naturally, the boys breezed through Basic Training and were posted to different units in the Pacific Theatre, where they outshone their fellow recruits and, equally naturally, found themselves in situations where their costumed alter egos had to appear to win the day. Unfortunately, real life was radically different from this story of success after success, and by issues end the JSA had been recalled to a meeting with the General Chiefs of Staff. There they were asked to reform and operate on the Home Front, as the Justice Battalion, under which name they would continue for the next three, war-oriented issues.
But with only seven members in military action, one way or another, there was a gap. So Hawkman’s chapter features his girlfriend Sheira (Hawkgirl) Saunders flying to the West Coast to join him and finding herself rooming with Army Nurse Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince. And Wonder Woman filled in for the Spectre. Indeed, another write-in poll was printed in All-Star 11, asking the readers to vote on admitting Wonder Woman – a girl! – into the JSA.
Wonder Woman was not, however, destined to be a formal JSA member. She had had a more immediate effect than any character before, and All-American were hurrying to give her a solo title, which disqualified her from membership. But she had also won the readers’ vote so, at the end of All-Star 12, which featured the Justice battalion going up against the legendary Japanese Black Dragon Society (whose machinations had manipulated Japan into the War), the Amazon turns up at the end to be inducted… as Team Secretary.
We laugh now, especially as in sheer superpower, Wonder Woman out-ranked all but one of her new colleagues, but it was again the product of the times.
And Wonder Woman was into the action immediately, filling in for a Dr Fate who was on urgent business, in a fantastic (in every sense) adventure in which Hitler, afraid of the JSA, has them gassed, kidnapped and fired into space in a series of rockets that spread them out among every other planet in the Solar System, including the newly-discovered Pluto. Yes, even the ghostly Spectre, who doesn’t actually breathe, was overcome by sleeping gas (since Dr Fate was the one who was vulnerable to an attack on his lungs, some have suggested that it was originally he who featured in the story, but was swapped out for the more popular Avenging Ghost).
The War theme continued for a fourth issue as the Justice Battalion set out on another mission of mercy, this time bringing food to starving patriots in the European nations currently under the Nazi heel. As the food is in the form of dehydrated pellets that, at the touch of water, turn into steaming hot roast turkey dinners with all the trimmings, the story has its decidedly comical side, though not to any of the real life starving patriots. Still, the naivete was the product of a good heart.
But it was the last war-themed story for some time. It appeared that the kids did not really want to be continually reminded of the War, and perhaps of the reality their fathers might be facing in far-off countries, especially in view of the ease with which the JSA always triumphed. So, except in Johnny Thunder still running around in Navy Whites, the Justice Battalion aspect faded away and the Justice Society of America returned to the more properly fantastic business of fighting crime.
This came in the form of that aforementioned first super villain, the Brain Wave, whose brain is so powerful that it can create mental images that have weight and force outside their creator’s capacious cranium. It’s a truly bizarre story: Wonder Woman takes a central role, receiving, as secretary, letters of apology from each member who, whilst too busy to break off from the urgent case they’re pursuing, have found time to write and post a missive in accordance with the JSA’s bureaucratic requirement to note a reason for absence from a properly scheduled meeting. What’s more, Wonder Woman, who can immediately see that all the members are chasing after the same villain unknowingly, decides that the way to counter this threat is to dress up all the hero’s girlfriends – including the ones who don’t know their boyfriend’s secret identity – in carefully adapted versions of the hero’s costume and, without superpowers or experience, and in a taxi, set out to the villain’s lair. Where, for some unaccountable reason they are immediately captured, and have to be rescued by the boys. I make no further comment.
Whether it had any relationship to her bizarre approach to decision making, Wonder Woman found herself restricted solely to secretarial roles until All-Star 38. What this meant in practice was that she would be named in the roll-call, make a token appearance, frequently as little as a single panel, and never appear again for the rest of each issue.
By now, the war was taking its toll upon All-Star. It had already been cut back to four issues a year. Able-bodied writers and artists had been drafted to the War, and those who remained behind to continue making comics were the less-talented, making the stories look and sound stupider. And the continuing paper restrictions would very soon see the size of the comic book reduced for the first time, from 64 pages to 56.
Worse still, this was rapidly followed by a further cut, to 48 pages.
For a series like All-Star, carrying eight active characters, this was a serious problem, especially as Mayer had three full issues to hand, now suddenly too long to fit in a 56 page comic.
For two issues, Mayer made the stories printable by cutting pages out of each character’s solo chapter, but whilst this would suffice at 56 pages, once the further reduction to 48 pages came in, this was untenable. It was therefore decided to reduce the JSA from 8 to 6 active members, plus ever-present secretary Wonder Woman. The unlucky heroes were Sandman and Dr Fate (who, given that his solo series was shortly to be cancelled, would have been out before long anyway).
They were still there in the first and last chapters of All-Star 20, but a little touching-up of dialogue sent them direct from one to the other, protecting the victim of the story, whilst the other six fought the enemy: their two chapters were abandoned. But, inexplicably, they were back in the action, for a final time, in the following issue, with The Atom and The Spectre chosen to sit things out.
There is no satisfying explanation for this editorial uncertainty, especially as there is evidence to show that Sandman’s solo chapter was originally prepared for another character – probably The Atom – with Sandman figures drawn by a different artist pasted into the published art. Maybe, as theorised by one industry figure, Detective demanded that their characters be restored. If so, their insistence only lasted one issue. But perhaps that ties into the next part of this series.
All-Star 21 is a stand-out issue for being one of the better, and cleverer JSA adventures of the era. True, the logic underpinning the story is very shaky, but the adventure is a fascinating, superbly realised event. A scientist friend of the JSA develops two formulas, one a marvellous cure-all, the other a fatal poison, but doesn’t know which. His handyman, Joe Fitch, who has a criminal past, takes one of the potions, turning himself into a human guinea-pig whose death will be no loss to anyone. Naturally, he takes the poison. In his dying hours, to ease Joe’s mind, the JSA go into different eras of his past, seeking to intervene and prevent the crimes he committed. Each, in their separate way, succeeds, though in such a way that Joe, believing his own guilt, stumbles on to the next stage of his life. But at the end, his conscience has been cleaned, his guilt relieved and his old  sweetheart turns up to marry him on his deathbed, as Joe dies clean.
It’s an effective and truly moving story, and writer Fox fills each era with a potted introduction that imparts genuine knowledge of the times in which each hero finds himself.
But whatever led to All-American giving Fate and Sandman last chances, they were gone for good next issue, in which the Spirit of Conscience – looking uncannily like Disney’s Blue Fairy – takes the JSA back into time again, this time to teach them lessons about prejudice. Next up was an entertaining issue about a criminal called the Psycho-Pirate, who based his crimes upon emotions. Like The Brain Wave, he would return at a later date, and like the Brain Wave he was an unimpressive figure, a Linotype printer, short, skinny, bald on top and with a massive walrus moustache. But he still caused trouble for Hawkman, the Atom, the Spectre, Starman, Dr Mid-Nite and Johnny Thunder. And probably caused Wonder Woman a hangnail from typing up the reports.
The next issue, everything changed.

Part 4 – The All-American break

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