It was 1956. At an editorial conference at National, over what the kids might want to read next, some unidentified voice suggested they may be ready for superheroes again, and suggested reviving The Flash. Julius Schwarz, editor of the newly-created Showcase, National’s official vehicle for introducing new concepts, agreed to do so, on condition he could start afresh with a new character: Jay Garrick had been ‘done’, he was ‘boring’.
Schwarz was given the go-ahead. He lined up his best artist, Carmine Infantino, to pencil, and enlisted Robert Kanigher to write an origin. Police Scientist Barry Allen, working late in his laboratory, is knocked down by a cabinet felled when lightning struck the lab. He receives a bath of an unpredictable mixture of electrified chemicals. The next day, he realises he has the power of super-speed, just like his old comic book favourite, The Flash. With a radically different costume, he sets out to fight crime.
The new Flash was an instant hit, although it would take four try-outs over three years before hesitant management would be convinced to grant him his own series, starting with issue 105, picking up the old numbering.
Schwarz would go on to helm a similarly popular new version of Green Lantern and, subsequently, less commercially successful new versions of Hawkman and The Atom. Before these two, however, Schwarz was instructed to bring back the Justice Society.
He did not exactly do that. He put together a superhero team, including his new Flash and Green Lantern as well as the Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (albeit with Weisinger’s influence restricting the use of the first). But Schwarz had never liked the name Society for a superhero team: too soft, too social. He wanted something bigger, stronger, something in the kids’ minds, like all the Football and Baseball Leagues in the news. So the revived team would instead be the Justice League of America, who have been National/DC’s premier team ever since.
They were also crucial to comic book history in an unexpected way: according to the official story, Jack Leibowitz played golf with rival publisher Martin Goodman, and boasted that the JLA was their best seller. Goodman returned to the office and instructed his editor Stan Lee that they had to put out a team book. Lee conceived of the Fantastic Four, and the rest was Marvel Comics.
In the meantime, a growing number of readers wanted to know about the Golden age versions of these new heroes: older fans with a nostalgic hankering, younger fans curious to see what older brothers were talking about, or just intrigued by the fact there was another Flash out there: what was he like?
There was an obvious story in this, and Schwarz turned to Gardner Fox to write this for Flash 123 (even though Flash was John Broome’s book). Their explanation was the familiar SF trope of parallel worlds: Barry’s Earth and Jay’s Earth occupied the same position in space but vibrated at different rates, rendering them invisible and intangible to each other. When Barry accidentally tuned in to the vibrations of Jay’s Earth, he found himself in Keystone City, and meeting an older Mr Garrick, in retirement, greying at the temples, but still fit, active – and able to get into his costume when three of his old villains posed a threat.
The story was a massive success, and a sequel, in which Jay visited Barry’s Earth and helped him against his villains, was immediately scheduled for Flash 129. This time, Schwarz and Fox teased their audience with the Justice Society. The issue began with a flashback, as Jay remembered his last outing before Barry’s visit, namely All-Star 57. The audience loved it and wanted more so, for the third team-up, back on Jay’s Earth in Flash 136, the story was built around the disappearance of each of Jay’s old JSA comrades. The villain was Vandal Savage, newly released from prison after sixteen years following his part in the first Injustice Society caper in All-Star 37. Savage wanted revenge, and intended to capture and imprison the heroes responsible for eternity. With Barry’s assistance, his plans were defeated, the JSA released, and Wonder Woman suggested that, to avoid things like this happening in future, the JSA should get together again every now and then. Permanent Chairman Hawkman called an immediate meeting.
This wasn’t just a teaser to the fans: Flash 136 was cover-dated 1963, and the JSA were teaming up with their counterparts of the JLA in issues 22/23 of their title, cover-dated August/September: far too soon to be a response to audience demand roused up in Flash.
The two-part story established a few new ground-rules. The Justice League were on Earth-1, the Justice Society on Earth-2. The revived team had new by-laws (presumably their Constitution). Henceforth, everyone who had been a member of the JSA was a member, and that went for Wonder Woman and Mr. Terrific too. The team would have a rotating line-up of seven, chosen by lot. The choice this time fell upon the four who had already had successors, Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern and The Atom, plus two other founder members, Dr Fate and Hourman, and the JSA’s last recruit Black Canary, who had never worked with the latter two before, not that you would have had any idea of that from the story. And, despite Hawkman having already laid claim to the permanent Chairmanship in Flash 136, it’s Dr Fate, of all people, who conducted the JSA’s meeting.
But whilst the idea of seven active members went out the following year, the notion of rotating membership, just like the Justice League, was a permanent development.
Certainly the initial meeting between the two teams was immensely popular, and was sequeled in 1964. By the time the team-up was repeated, the following year, it was a tradition, and it continued for 23 years, ending only when the DC Multiverse, or parallel world system, was swept away.
Gardner Fox wrote the first half dozen team-ups (his last team-up was, fittingly, his last JLA story), and he rang the changes every year. In 1963, the teams faced-off against an alliance of villains from each Earth, cooperating with each other. In 1964, Fox introduced Earth-3, where the heroes were all villains, challenging both League and Society in turn to see who was strongest.
The following year, Johnny Thunder made his comeback, causing havoc as usual and allowing his Thunderbolt to be controlled by his evil Earth-1 counterpart, who changed history to eliminate the JLA. Both the JSA and a sextet of Thunder’s gang masqueraded as the JLA at different times, and in the end the story got so convoluted it had to be ended by a magical ‘never-happened. In 1966, Fox mixed the two teams for the first time, as heroes, villains and ordinary folk found themselves being switched from one Earth to the other, whilst in 1967 the action was set on Earth-2 with the JSA coming up against an unbeatable menace and forced to call in four JLAers facing an identical menace on Earth-1. It ended with a series of mini-battles between heroes possessed by evil and the rest of the two teams, before Johnny Thunder saved the day with a handful of awful jokes (seriously, he did). That story also included the first membership change for the JSA in almost two decades, as an adult Earth-2 Robin was awarded membership as an explicit replacement for the semi-retired Batman.
Fox had come very close to writing a JSA-only adventure that year, but in 1968 he went the full distance. The two teams were both matched against the same foe, but never met: the JSA fought in issue 63, the JLA in 64, and the only character common to both stories was a new, android, Red Tornado, who was Fox’s final gift to the DC Universe, created by the villain to disrupt the JSA from within. But the Tornado was no criminal and ensured his creator’s downfall, for which he was rewarded with JSA membership.
It was almost the end of Fox’s career at DC, an era when many of the original writers, who had sustained the company for thirty years, found themselves moved out, replaced by younger, less expensive fans, who had grown up on comics, and who were much less concerned with the precarious life of the freelancer, facing retirement without health or pension benefits.
Fox was replaced by Denny O’Neill, a former journalist with a mandate to shake-up and modernise the JLA. Of necessity, this meant a new approach to the annual JSA team-up, and by extension to the JSA itself. The Golden Agers had been brought back as older heroes, their years in comic book limbo added to their ages as characters. Athletic men and women, especially those with powers, in their early to middle-40s were perfectly plausible when it was expected they would appear in a couple of stories then fade away again. By the end of the Sixties, their longevity was a little more precarious. O’Neill therefore posited that Earth-2’s vibration rate actually slowed its history down, by about twenty years, so that the the JLA’s 1969 was the JSA’s 1949, and the heroes were physically contemporaries. This enabled Black Canary to swap Earths in 1969 and transfer to the JLA.
And this theory was maintained, silently, until 1976. By then, National had finally decided to revive the JSA in their own series, bringing back All-Star from issue 58. At first, the JSA worked, awkwardly, with the Super-Squad, a trio of teenagers, comprising Robin, the time-transplanted Forties hero the Star-Spangled Kid and the newly-created Power Girl, the Earth-2 Superman’s cousin. Within a year the Super-Squad would be absorbed into the JSA itself, and new writer Paul Levitz would have taken the team back to its true age, with complex, detailed biographies for the veterans, who were now recognised as being in their Fifties.
The revived All-Star lasted until issue 74 before falling victim to the infamous ‘DC Implosion’, the cancellation of the lower-selling half of National’s (now renamed DC Comics) line, though the series continued for another year in Adventure – still going strong after 460 issues.
This period also saw Levitz write the first ever origin for the JSA – a convoluted wartime affair that was, frankly, ridiculous and historically demeaning to Britain – and the run in Adventure ended with the never-before disclosed reason for the JSA’s retirement in 1951 – a tighter, much more historically-viable story in which the team fall foul of Joseph McCarthy, and retire rather than reveal their identities to a Congress that suspects them of being Communist sympathisers.
It wasn’t long, however, before a version of the JSA was back. Roy Thomas, recently arrived from Marvel after fifteen years, devised, wrote and edited All-Star Squadron, a series set in 1942, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbour, featuring all the Golden Age characters to whom DC had rights, in one large team, formed to protect America’s home front during the War. Thomas’s main enthusiasm, unfortunately, was for retro-filling holes in continuity, making the stories conform (to a degree) with the events of the War, and the events of the comics of the time, and adding detail at every conceivable point.
With the series intended to progress at a month of the war for every year of All-Star Squadron, there was a lot to get through, much of it the correcting and harmonising of forty year old comics that few had read and fewer had been concerned about, except for Thomas. Thanks to their enlistment in All-Star 11 onwards, the JSA were rarely available, but they were there as a background at all times.
As a counterweight Thomas devised the contemporary series Infinity Inc, starring a new generation of heroes who were the children of the JSA.
But Earth-2’s days were numbered. The maxi-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was in preparation, scheduled to appear throughout 1985, the 50th anniversary year of Major Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson starting National Comics. By its end, there was one Earth, and there had never been any more. The JSA were no longer the heroes of another Earth, but of another generation. And to avoid confusion between multiple heroes with identical names, which after all was the start of this whole event, Thomas was required to write a final case for the JSA, packing them off (with the exception of the handful of characters DC still wanted) forever.
It was a rotten story, Thomas’s loathing of its necessity no doubt contributing. But it was a death of the best comics kind: with a backdoor open to bring the JSA back when DC changed their mind. And you do not get rid of the JSA easily.
Next: Appendix 2 – the post-Crisis eras