Given a free hand, I would remove every comic Roy Thomas ever wrote featuring the Justice Society of America from continuity. I have no doubt whatsoever about his love for the characters of his childhood, and every doubt under the sun about his ability to write a decent story about them.
For some time now I’ve been obtaining DVD runs of old comics not merely from eBay but from a Scotland-based collector who has provided thousands upon thousands of comics for me to read, enjoy and comment upon, as you’ve been reading. All things must come to an end and, just as I’ve finally reached the end with modern comics, the well of old comics has dried up. Though there are still thousands I could request, I’ve finally come to the end of what I want.
As a final request, I gave way to my private indulgence, my lifelong favourites, the Justice Society of America. If the series I’ve acquired were up to the standard I want, I would not have needed to buy them. Only a handful of the series I requested are comics I read and never kept. And I deliberately excluded Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron and Young All-Stars. Not even completeness could tempt me.
That didn’t stop A from supplying more series than I’d actually requested, as a generous final gesture for which I am grateful. But he did include one mini-series written by Roy Thomas, the 1982 four-issue America vs the Justice Society. I can’t exactly describe it as an absolute nadir in Thomas’ JSA writings, but that’s solely because that title belongs indisputably to his Last Days of the Justice Society of America Special, though the difference is but a hair’s breadth.
So I’ve read it again. And as a public duty, I wish to eviscerate it all over again, in case any of you should discover its availability on Amazon since 2015 and be tempted to spend good money on it.
I reviewed the series once before, in 1986, for the then-prominent fanzine Arkensword, issue 21. I’ve re-read my review and whilst I wouldn’t ever want to reprint it, I was at least pleased to see that I hit every point and didn’t overlook anything way back then.
To give the series it’s context, it appeared pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the JSA were still the heroes of Earth-2, though having emerged just before the Second World War, and indeed owing their origin (first told in 1977 by Paul Levitz) to a secret mission prior to America’s entry to the War. The JSA members are all chronologically in their sixties but physically approximately twenty years younger due to being bathed by chronal energy in a retrospective All-Star Squadron Annual, by Thomas. The adult Robin, Power Girl and The Huntress are members, the original Star-Spangled Kid an honorary member but also the leader and funder of Infinity Inc., comprised of the sons, daughters and godsons of various JSAers. The Earth-2 Batman and Mr Terrific are dead, The Spectre and Black Canary on Earth-1. Now read on.
The mini-series consisted of four issues but in practical terms five: issue 1 is double-length and breaks down into two chapters, complete with their own splash pages and chapter titles, so either it was originally written for five issues or Thomas overwrote so much, it had to be tinkered about with.
The purpose of the story is for Thomas to tell the complete history of the JSA, with the primary emphasis on the stories in All Star Comics 3 – 57, but incorporating additions by Levitz and especially himself. By itself, a laudable aim, and one that could have been perfectly interesting, especially in an era where access to the original stories was limited to those both rich and lucky. Thomas, however, felt it necessary to load that history down with a comic book adventure. He was inspired as to how to do this by the then current Hitler Diaries, would that he hadn’t been.
So: the JSA, who have been stalwarts of the Law and Justice for forty years, are suddenly accused of having been Nazi sympathisers and Agents during the Second World War, traitors to America by sabotage and having covered this up ever since. As a premise it’s completely unbelievable, but these accusations are lent credence by their source, the late Batman. Yes, Batman left behind his Diaries, which expose the JSA as lifelong traitors to America, proto- and every other kind of Fascists, who only ever attacked the Japanese during the War.
That the Diaries are indeed genuinely those of Bruce Wayne/Batman is verified by Superman so far as the JSA are concerned. How they are verified as such by anyone else is just the first of the plotholes Thomas doesn’t deign to explain.
To develop his story, Thomas adopts the format of a courtroom drama. It’s not an actual trial, just a Congressional Hearing, attended voluntarily by the surviving JSAers of the Forties, to examine the claims and determine if there is sufficient substance for actual charges to be laid. Fortunately for Thomas, the JSA’s ranks include two heroes who are both lawyers in their civilian life, neither of whom are tarred by the accusations and who happen to have the closest relations with the late Batman/Bruce Wayne: Richard (Robin) Grayson and Helena (Huntress) Wayne, ward and daughter respectively.
And Robin is so impressed by and in awe of his late friend and mentor that he serves as Legal Counsel for the Committee, whilst The Huntress is so committed to the JSA’s innocence that she serves as Legal Counsel for the ‘accused’.
That’s not the whole context, not quite. In addition to the question of why the Batman is lying like this, there are naturally undercurrents. There’s a mystery figure behind all this (of course there is, where would we be without a mystery figure behind all this?). There’s a man who hates the JSA and is determined to pillory them: this is John O’Fallon, editor and proprietor of a big Washington newspaper, who’s ripping off J. Jonah Jameson. Mr O’Fallon is the son of former Senator Kieron O’Fallon. Senator O’Fallon is Thomas’ retcon to get the notorious Joe McCarthy off the hook. In the original Paul Levitz story explaining why the JSA retired in 1950, he used an unnamed figure who was clearly meant to be McCarthy, but Thomas decided to have him killed off on Earth-2 and a fictional figure substituted, either to avoid possible defamation issues or because Thomas has always been a lot less liberal than he let on. Senator O’Fallon went on to die in a house fire and his son believes the JSA murdered him.
Now, I said that Thomas adopts the format of a courtroom drama, but the better word would be ‘borrows’. Borrows because he hasn’t the least intention of following the strictures of a courtroom drama. That’s why it’s a Congressional Hearing not a trial, because you could not get away with the least bit of this shit in a Trial, whereas even before Thomas makes the point of establishing that special informal rules have been agreed, he doesn’t intend to follow any rules at all, because even in a real Congressional Hearing, you could not get away with the least bit of this shit.
Because in essence, what is going to happen is that the JSA, in no particular order, with no particular logic, are going to stand up and talk, whilst those who aren’t talking backchat and grumble at being accused in the first place. As Legal Counsel, Helena Wayne will occasionally say something that, miraculously, sounds like genuine legal advice, but otherwise will make little or no attempt to stop her clients from displaying an open contempt for the Hearing.
As for Legal Counsel to the Committee, Richard Grayson, he will sit there and say nothing whatsoever, legal, pertinent or otherwise. From time to time he’ll bicker outside with Helena, and accuse her of having some oedipal grievance against her father (and she doesn’t even deck him once) but basically he’d better be doing this pro bono because he ain’t worth shit as a Counsel.
Before I go further, may I digress slightly. There’s usually no point in commenting on the art in a Roy Thomas comic, but I do have to draw attention to it. There are actually three pencillers across the four issues: Rafael Kayanan on issue 1, Mike Hernandez on issue 2 and Howard Bender on issue 3, which is unusual in itself, but all four issues are inked by Alfredo Alacala, who I take it to be the primary cause of the series’ appearance. Remember that I said that at this point, the JSA are supposed to be 60ish but have aged slowly into only their 40s? Not one of them looks it. They are lined and wrinkled, Wonder Woman’s hair is half-grey, they look far too old to be active superheroes. Even Richard Grayson looks too haggard to be active. It looks ugly as well as being in direct contradiction of the JSA’s then-continuity.
Back to the plot, such as it is. I have accused Thomas of choosing a format he has no respect for. Worse still, he is completely contemptuous of it. This is not a trial but he keeps insisting it is and then pissing all over anything trial-like. Do the JSA present any evidence? No, but then neither do the Committee, apart from the damned book. The Spectre pops in to threaten to destroy Earth-2 for its temerity. The Wizard gives surprise and ‘damning’ testimony, the value of which being demonstrated by his belief that his full name, William Asmodus Zard, spells out ‘Wizard’, not that anyone picks up on this.
It’s all hearsay and unsupported evidence, and the actual writing is abysmal, the dialogue being nothing that any human being could actually speak. The only editor who would pass writing like this is Roy Thomas, who edits the series, making you wonder if Jim Shooter didn’t have some justification apart from power-madness for refusing to renew his Writer/Editorship back at Marvel.
Ultimately, because nothing remotely real applies to this series, the JSA are acquitted. No, they’re not because it wasn’t a trial, but yes, they’re acquitted, they said ‘we did all these good things, even the ones you don’t believe for a second because they were too fantastic to be credible’ and the public, not to mention the uninfluenced majority on the committee said ‘Yay, good guys!’ and that was that.
Well, no. We’ve still got to have the rationale for this farrago (rationale? Hah hah hah hah hah!) Why did Batman lie? To cause the JSA to re-examine its history in full. Why? To get them to remember that time-travelling flop Per Degaton? Why? Because he’s tried to conquer the world again except that instead of Professor Zee’s Time Machine taking him into the Past, it’s taken the fatally-wounded Zee into the future, namely today, and now the JSA can stop Degaton again, which will cause him to commit suicide. Why didn’t Batman just point this all out to the JSA? Now that’s a question.
Here is where we need context again. Midway through Paul Levitz’s run as JSA writer in the late-Seventies All-Star Comics revival, he had Batman, or rather Police Commissioner Bruce Wayne, turn against the Justice Society. Roy Thomas uses this as his justification for Batman going through this whole elaborate charade. It’s ironic that Thomas, the great continuity maven, chose this foundation since Levitz very clearly established that Wayne’s paranoia towards the JSA was based solely – and I repeat solely – on having his emotions controlled by the Psycho-Pirate.
So, in order to fit this in, Thomas does a retcon. Not his usual, All-Star Squadron retcon, of adding connective material to fill in gaps, but a direct overturning of existing continuity that is less that five years old, which he also uses to re-write Levitz’s story of Batman’s death. Sure, it was a crappy death story, but Thomas doesn’t remove any of the crappy bits. Instead, he has Batman dying of cancer, which turned his mind against the JSA so that, even though he’s still killed by two utter one-appearance no-marks, he was going to die anyway, and that makes it better.
Don’t ask me how.
No, from start to finish and on every page, this story is a bust, and it has given me great pleasure to descend upon it with knives and teeth and claws and shredding implements. Which is only fair because I didn’t get any other pleasure out of it, not in 1982 or now.