Grandfather’s Heroes: the JSA in the early Nineties


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The Justice Society of America disappeared for the first time at the end of 1950, when All-Star Comics was transformed into All-Star Western. Wonder Woman carried on in her own title, as she had already done for the past eighteen months or so, but the other members of the team simply vanished, never to be seen again.
Comic book characters did that in those days. Once a series was dropped, that was it for good. A character ran their course, they were abandoned. Nobody would ever want to see them again.
Things were very different when the Justice Society disappeared for the second time. This happened in 1986, in The Last Days of the Justice Society Special, written by Roy Thomas. This time they were also to disappear forever, not as a natural consequence of the way the comic book industry worked, but because, as just one of many details to be altered by, in or through Crisis on Infinite Earths, they were to be gotten rid of.
The DC Multiverse was dead. A new, simplified Universe had replaced it, a Universe in which things like parallel worlds and different versions of heroes with the same name were to be eliminated. On both counts, the Justice Society had to go. Not even Roy Thomas could save them. The best he could do was the one halfway decent thing in a send-off that was cheap, nasty, dull and ugly on all levels. He gave the JSA a comic book death.
Not death, but eternity in Limbo, merged for some godforsaken reason, and in inept manner, with the Teutonic Gods fighting Gotterdammerung. It would have been called Valhalla if Marvel hadn’t sewn up the Norse Gods through Thor. If the wind changed, if the Powers That Be relented, the JSA could be brought back.
And brought back they were, indirectly due to a scheduling problem.
In 1990, DC had licenced the use of another bunch of superheroes, this time from Archie Comics: the Fly, the Comet, the Web etc. These were to form the basis of the !mpact Comics line, a kind of entry-level superhero line sharing is own universe, providing lighter, simpler stories for younger readers before they ‘graduated’ to the mainstream DC titles. The line was to be jointly edited by Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn, who had gathered together a group of freelance artists to draw all the comics. But things took longer than anticipated, which should have been anticipated because they always take longer than anticipated. The line wasn’t ready to go ahead. The artists didn’t have anything to draw. If they didn’t have anything to draw they earned no income. Something had to be done before they all broke up and drifted away onto other commissions. Gold and Augustyn agreed that what was needed was a stop gap, a make-work project to which all the artists could contribute. They agreed to go home and come up with something. The next day, both arrived, inspired by the perfect idea. It was the same one. The Justice Society of America.
The outcome was an eight issue limited series that debuted in 1991. It had to observe certain limitations. Firstly, it was not allowed to bring the JSA back. Therefore it had to be set in a period of their past. It would have a single writer in Len Strazewski and provide two issues worth of work for each of four artists. The decision was taken to set the story in 1950, being a period of the JSA’s history that had had little or no latterday attention, which was free to be exploited. And, to reflect the Justice Society’s own history, the whole series was designed along a pre-determined format.
It would feature four of the JSA’s current members – The Flash, Black Canary, Green Lantern and Hawkman – plus a retired member in his civilian capacity, Ted Knight, once Starman. Each of the quartet would get a solo issue, drawn one by one into the same menace. This would be followed by two duo issues, Green Lantern and Black Canary teamed up, followed by The Flash and Hawkman. The final two issues would see the team working together, with Starman coming out of retirement to save the day in the last issue.
It all sounds horribly schematic, but in fact it worked wonderfully well, a contrived but deliberate structure for what was, after all, an unimportant comic. It wasn’t going to change anything. It would not disturb the past nor influence the future. Instead, it would be that rarest of all things in 1991, a good, rousing superhero story told for pleasure, whose only intent was for people to enjoy it. And boy, did we ever!
It was an imaginative story that fit both the John Broome stories of that end of All-Star‘s run and felt natural to the times. Essentially, Vandal Savage sought to rule the world by removing electricity and power from it and returning it to Egyptian times. This he did by drawing down ‘living constellations’ via the New Mexico Observatory headed by the retired Ted Knight, defeating and injuring Knight in the process. The JSA get involved one by one, two by two and eventually en masse, their example inspiring Knight to get past his crushed state and save the day with the first use of his Cosmic, as opposed to Gravity Rod.
There was an ominous twist to the end with Starman, back in costume, ready to rejoin the JSA, just as announcements were being made about the US Government forming a Committee to investigate Un-American Affairs – the retrospective explanation for the Society’s original retirement.
What made the series so enjoyable, for me and many others, was the refreshingly different dynamic shown by the team. Though the roots went back a long time, to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the early Marvel era, the post-Crisis period had seen every team dynamic merge and become indistinguishable. Everybody bickered. They had differences. They snapped and sniped at each other. At least one team member hated all the others.
It might have been realistic, true to human nature, but it was deadly dull, and it made distinguishing between teams without looking at the costumes very difficult. Not so the Justice Society of America. It was something of a throwback, but a very pleasing one, to see them acting as a team without having to be exhorted to do so in the face of danger. The JSA were that bit older, more mature, experienced. They were professional, they trusted each other, they liked each other. Strazewski had a feel for the friendship they enjoyed. The Flash was bright, optimistic, cheerful. Hawkman brooding and intense. Green Lantern used to the command of power. And Black Canary, the only woman, the only member without powers, was treated as an equal without having to fight for acceptance, whilst the subject of mild flirting that was always respectable, never demeaning, but which didn’t get in the way of her wanting to be independent.
It was good fun, it was relaxing. You could see what the little offhand comments hinted at, that these people were friends as well as team-mates. It was so different.
This mini-series – the first ever in which the team appeared under their own name – was a make-work project, intended to be nothing more than that. Everybody who worked on it had great fun. The audience that bought it enjoyed it to the full. We’d missed the JSA. And a buzz was created. The sales were decent enough, the clamour for more was promising. There was a market for the Justice Society. But in the present day they didn’t exist. They were in Limbo, and not just in Limbo but fighting an eternal fight that, if ever lost, or abandoned, would lead to the end of the world.
But these are comic books. Roy Thomas had left this situation so that the team could come back if/when attitudes changed. And the prospect of a commercially successful series was certainly an attitude changer. But not to everyone.

Armageddon inferno 4

I’ll explain that cryptic remark in due course but, for now, let’s look at the broader picture. The mini-series had appeared in 1991, in parallel with but unconnected to DC’s crossover series Armageddon 2001. I shalln’t explain that in detail, save to say that for that series a new character was created, Waverider, formerly Matthew Ryder, who came back sixty years in time to prevent a superhero turning bad and becoming an Earth-wide dictator in Ryder’s era. His passage back through time transformed him into an energy creature, able to read people’s futures.
The series had intended Captain Atom to be the villainous Monarch but the news broke very early so, in order to preserve the ‘surprise’ ending, DC had to twist things round to make Hawk the villain, and since Captain Atom was always going to disappear at that point, he ended up attacking Monarch and causing the two to vanish completely.
This ending spawned a hasty sequel, a four issue mini-series, Armageddon: The Alien Agenda, which needn’t concern us here. But here was the vehicle. Here was Waverider. Thus a second, much less directly related sequel mini-series was spawned: Armageddon: Inferno.
I say spawned deliberately. The series was one of the worst comics I have ever read, poorly written, lacking in originality or purpose, a rambling, repetitive mish-mash of characters from different eras rammed together as mini-teams with no thought as to logic or intelligibility. As for the art, it was horrendous, scrappy, badly-drawn, would-be bombastic. The whole series looked like it had been drawn overnight. And given the genuine talents who contributed to this, which included Denny O’Neill, John Ostrander, Arthur Adams, Dick Giordano and Walt Simonson, it is all the more surprising that something so thirteenth rate should be produced.
As a superhero story, involving a threat to the entirety of the Universe, it stunk. There was no point to it, nothing to say that anyone connected to the series had a desperate urge to tell this story. And given the inept story-telling and abysmal art, there was nothing to suggest that anyone took any pride in the work they turned out.
But the series had a point and it was the only thing about the series that was any good, which was that it got the Justice Society out of Limbo, without destroying the world in the process. It left some stupid, pointless, created-as-cannon-fodder opponents to carry on the fight with Surtur in their place in a situation that has been wiped from collective memory, and thankfully so. The word to use was ‘cheap’, and it was in every respect.

Justice_Society_of_America_Vol_2_10

So the JSA were back, in the present day, and available to start their own, open-ended series, once more under their own name. Strazewski was to continue writing it, with Mike Parobeck, one of the contributors to the mini-series, as permanent artist, inked mostly by Mike Machlan. It was greeted with enthusiasm and eagerness, though not in all quarters. It lasted ten issues, the cancellation being announced as early as issue 7.
There are two stories here, one on the page, the other off it. That told on the page is the simpler to relate.
I’m bound to say that the second series wasn’t as good, enjoyable though it was. Parobeck was a very popular artist with a clean, open look, but far too cartoony for my liking. His work was perfect for the Batman Adventures comics based on the Animated Series, and his death just short of his 31st birthday, through mishandling of his insulin regime a tragedy, but for the JSA his style was too simple, detracting from the reality of a series that was in continuity with the DC universe.
Strazewski’s writing was as entertaining as ever, but in writing an ongoing series, he never got to achieve the focus of the mini-series, moving from arc to arc. In addition to that, this was a very different Justice Society, no longer in their professional prime but now much older. Chronologically, the team were in their early seventies though, with the residue of their magical rejuvenation in Limbo, allied to their excellent condition, they were more sixty-but-fit-as-fifty.
And Strazewski recognised and played upon the JSA’s differing reactions to their status as elder figures, heroes of a bygone era suddenly plunked down in a new age, concerned as to who and what they should be, both as Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, Al Pratt and Ted Grant and as The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom and Wildcat.
I liked it. By this time I’d been into superhero comics for nearly thirty years and whilst I still enjoyed the display-of-powers side of it, I no longer wanted it to dominate what I read, and I wanted more. I wanted my series to be about people, not just what they did, and Justice Society of America gave me that in a form I wasn’t reading anywhere else.
Like anyone else, Strazewski dealt with the JSA’s past: the re-appearance of the Ultra-Humanite, what had happened to Bahdnesia, and the reappearance of Kulak, who had not been seen since All-Star Comics 2, pre-Justice Society. And he kept his eye on the present too, bringing Wally West in to guest-star, introducing Kiku, the last Bahdnesian and a potential successor to Johnny Thunder since she too could command the Thunderbolt (and made better sense at it!)
Most of all, he introduced a lasting character in Jesse Quick, Johnny Quick’s daughter, who shared the powers of both her father and her mother, Liberty Belle. Jesse has lasted into the Rebirth era, though not without multiple changes.
But all was not well, and it is here that the much less easy to tell story of what was going on behind the pages becomes significant and we have two incompatible conclusions to choose amongst.
To begin with, let’s remind ourselves of another aspect of the context of the comics scene of 1992, which is Image Comics. Image was formed as an umbrella publishing venture for the separate studios and operations of its six founding partners, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Rob Lieman, Mark Silversti and Jim Valentino, with Whilce Portacio joining shortly after. These artists had primarily broken away from Marvel Comics to create a more favourable and creator-dominated company. That’s a whole story in itself and one I’m not qualified to tell, but Image had an immediate effect on the industry, claiming a substantial market share and at least once forcing DC back into third place.
Each of the Image founders created their own titles, in their own, then-extremely-popular dynamic. They were the new and modern guys, defining the era. A saying grew up, that Image gave you your heroes and Marvel your father’s heroes. And that made DC, with the Justice Society of America, the purveyors of your grandfather’s heroes.
Here is where the accounts diverge. Why was Justice Society of America cancelled? The first, and always more probable explanation is that sales were not sufficient, and that was more or less what was given in the final issue: it was put as being able to use the creators on something better worth their time, which is a lot less unequivocal than it might be. Some people have insisted that the book was selling badly, but others have contended that, whilst not selling massively, the book was still well above the cancellation cut-off line.
Len Strazewski has always been adamant about the reason for the cancellation, from the outset. He claims it was political. Which is where Grandfather’s Heroes comes into it.
In 1992, Mike Carlin was a powerful figure at DC Comics. Since leaving Marvel in 1986 (supposedly fired by Jim Shooter for sticking to opinions the Editor-in-Chief didn’t agree with), Carlin had been Group Editor of the Superman titles. He had organised these into a virtual weekly comic, four titles coming out in successive weeks, each with a different writer/artist team, working on an ongoing storyline that ran through each title. This obviously required strong editorial control, and that was Carlin’s method. He was no less sure of himself and that what he thought was right than Shooter.
And according to Strazewski, Carlin hated the JSA. Carlin thought them completely wrong for DC, Grandfather’s heroes, giving the company an image that it did not want to have and should not promote. Carlin was allegedly opposed to the series, the Justice Society, being published at all, even if it was making a profit for DC.
According to Strazewski, that is why the series was cancelled. Carlin was engaged in supervising the legendary ‘Death of Superman’ sequence, creating awesome sales, attracting world-wide attention (I remember the Guardian reporting on it the week the actual Death comic was published, with charming naivete assuming that it really was Superman’s Death, and last ever appearance). Carlin had a hell of a lot of influence, and Strazewski accused him of using it to get his title cancelled. Not for sales, not for lack of quality, but because Mike Carlin didn’t think DC should be publishing it.
Which story is true? Is the reality a mixture of both versions? I don’t know. I present the competing versions. As a matter of personal prejudice, I incline to Strazewski’s accusations. There is no evidence for them, but they are consistent within the period, and, let’s face it, conspiracy theories are always more exciting than plain old ‘it didn’t sell’.
But I’d like to bring in a coda from outside this time period, to throw a light, however circumstantial, upon the argument. In 1985, one of the intentions and effects of Crisis on Infinite Earths was to eliminate the Justice Society of America. Two years after all this took place, DC made their first second attempt at a continuity-clearing series, Zero Hour: Crisis in Time. Once again, the Universe was destroyed and then re-started, allowing for reboots. Once again, the Justice Society was to be eliminated. Only this time it was more determined: more vicious, more brutal, more final.
The JSA were decimated. All their immunities to the effects of ageing were stripped away. The Atom, Hourman and Doctor Mid-nite died. The Sandman and Wildcat suffered heart attacks. Kent and Inza Nelson were separated from Dr Fate. Hawkman ceased to be a separate entity. Everybody was aged to the point where they could no longer function as superheroes. There was no doubt about it, this time DC were going to get rid of the JSA, once and for all, and no arguments. We’re not going to be publishing Grandfather’s heroes any more.
Ironically, it was one of the new series that was spun out of Zero Hour that overturned that determination. James Robinson wrote a new Starman series, blending legacy into his very popular run. Under Archie Goodwin’s editorship, the series was free to use not just Ted Knight but every other Starman there’d been, attracting interest to the point where DC rescinded its own ruling and brought back the Justice Society of America, as a multi-generational team. But that’s a story for another occasion.

Was Strazewski right? Does the determination to render the Justice Society unusable after Zero Hour support his contention? It certainly doesn’t divert us away from it. I’d like to know the truth but I doubt I ever will. The Strazewski version, if admitted to, would be highly embarrassing so if the sales argument was a convenient lie, the Company are highly unlikely to go back on it now, especially with Mike Carlin still at DC, according to Wikipedia.

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