Comics Ate My Brain

December 13, 2008

Making the world safe for Justice Society

Filed under: justice society — Tom Bondurant @ 4:44 pm
”There will always be a Justice Society of America book in the DC Universe,” according to its lame-duck writer, Geoff Johns.

Let’s start there.

On one level, it’s somewhat sad to think that National/DC went years, even decades, without a steady source for new adventures of its original superhero team. But for the Justice Society of America, there might not have been a Justice League; but for the Justice League, there might not have been a Fantastic Four; and so on. No Marvel, no Image, no Charlton or First or Dark Horse, Jack Kirby stuck doing monster stories and romance comics — the mind cannot conceive it!

However, the bittersweet fact is that the Justice League, like the rest of the Silver Age reinventions, supplanted the Justice Society so completely that the Golden Agers had to reposition themselves in relation to their successors. Today the JSA serves an “inspirational” function, which seems like a more important thematic justification for the group (and, by extension, the series) than the jurisdictional niche which has been carved out for it. The older folks are teaching the up-and-comers how to be good successors.

Here is as good a place as any for the obligatory disclosure that I stopped reading JSA back in 2005, at the end of the Per Degaton/1950s storyline. Apart from a few issues here and there, I haven’t read it regularly since then. Honestly, I think you have to share Geoff Johns’ particular DC tastes in order to get the most out of his Justice Society work; and mine must be just different enough.

Johns’ first issue of JSA was #6 (January 2000), appropriately enough featuring Black Adam. (Johns’ run will end with a story called “Black Adam Ruined My Birthday,” which by itself sounds pretty fun.) For the first four years or so, his co-writer was David Goyer, who left after issue #51 (October 2003). Accordingly, I suppose we can only call the book “Geoff Johns’ JSA” from that point forward. To my mind its creation belongs in no small part to James Robinson’s Starman work, because Robinson had been exploring the original Justice Socialites through Jack Knight. Furthermore, JSA’s “reunion of names” seemed at the time to borrow heavily from Grant Morrison’s high-concept for JLA; which of course had been running for a few years to great success. (Indeed, anyone looking at the two books’ logos would surely notice the similarities.)

Regardless, from the late summer of 2003, give or take some co-contributors (Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Brad Meltzer, arguably the 52 crew), it’s been Johns’ show — much like Birds Of Prey had become associated strongly with Gail Simone. I am inclined to argue that because Johns has become so identified with Justice Society, and because the JSA isn’t an indispensable part of DC’s dramatic infrastructure, the book could stand to be cancelled upon his departure.

(Gasp!)

I mean, why not? Neil Gaiman and James Robinson got to bring Sandman and Starman to respectable closes (although certain supporting characters continued to live on, even in unrelated series like Trinity). When Johns left The Flash, it was all but over; although clearly Infinite Crisis had something to do with that book’s eventual cancellation (… and here comes Johns again, arguably causing Wally’s book to go away again…). Likewise, when Johns leaves Green Lantern, the book will remain. Flash and GL are two of DC’s “foundational” titles — but Justice Society is not. Despite Johns’ declarations, I suspect that it never will be.

That said, though, DC has published monthly adventures of the Justice Society in some form or another for the better part of the past thirty-odd years. Starting with the revived All Star Comics in late 1975, the JSA later jumped to a feature in the bimonthly Adventure Comics. That lasted about a year (1978-79), after which the characters were title-less until the debut of All-Star Squadron in the summer of 1981. ASSq lasted about five years, and was succeeded by Young All-Stars, which lasted about another two. This period also saw the launch (1984) and cancellation (1988) of Infinity Inc.. The Justice Society itself had been “banished to limbo” in 1986, but returned in 1992, headlined its own series (Justice Society of America vol. 1) for ten issues, and then had most of its original members killed in 1994’s Zero Hour. Aside from a 1940s-oriented miniseries and a similar fifth-week event, the JSA didn’t see much else in the way of significant action before 1999’s “Crisis Times Five” arc in JLA. That led to the new JSA series, and here we are.

Obviously the turning point was Crisis On Infinite Earths, which took away the JSA’s status as its world’s No. 1 super-team. (Ironically, as I’ve said many times before, in Crisis the JSA pretty much assumed the traditional leadership role of the JLA, which was in its “Detroit phase.”) Since then, DC has shown, both in 1986 and 1994, its willingness to close the book on the team and (some of) its members. That’s something DC hasn’t done with, say, the Teen Titans or the Legion of Super-Heroes. It has relaunched, revamped, and outright rebooted the latter teams, but it hasn’t outright ended them as it has the JSA.

Therefore, I agree that Johns (and his creative collaborators, including previously-unmentioned artists Stephen Sadowski, Michael Bair, Leonard Kirk, Don Kramer, and Jerry Ordway) have successfully repositioned Justice Society in a world in which it was no longer required. Nevertheless, the question then becomes whether Johns has contributed so much to Justice Society that it should not continue without him.

Of course, this argument is largely academic. DC would be nuts to cancel Justice Society … wouldn’t it? Johns has made the book a consistently reliable source of income, both as a monthly periodical and in collected form. Surely Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard, or whoever DC pulls off the bench to write and/or draw the title will be able to do just as well.

… Yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. The new writer will undoubtedly proclaim his or her love for Johns’ run while at the same time making it clear that this will not be a mere retread of Johns’ work. Geoff laid a great foundation, and we’re going to build on that to take the JSA to new and exciting places! It’s an excellent place for new readers to climb aboard — you won’t want to miss this!

What, too cynical? Maybe I’ve just been reading too many puff-piece interviews. It just seems to me that if this is truly “Geoff Johns’ JSA,” then it should end with Johns’ departure. The Justice Society itself doesn’t have to disband — it can show up all over the DC map, as needed — but maybe the next writer (and artist) would be served better if there were at least an hiatus between them and the Johns Era. The upcoming creative team will be compared to Johns and his collaborators anyway; why invite those comparisons the month after Johns et al. leave?

Again, to me it’s not like Johns is leaving a “foundational” title like Flash or Green Lantern. It’s more like Gail Simone leaving Birds Of Prey, or even Johns’ own departure from Teen Titans. I submit that DC needs to publish its foundational titles in order to maintain the identity of its superhero line. However, DC only needs to publish Justice Society as long as it can bring in an acceptable number of sales. DC clearly doesn’t want Justice Society to go through a succession of ill-fitting writers like the post-Johns Teen Titans did.

In other words, Johns hasn’t turned Justice Society into a “foundational” title. Instead, he’s established that Justice Society’s revised premise can be sustained over the long term. This accomplishment is not insignificant. It takes a special kind of hair-splitting axe to clear a space for what is, to children of the Silver and Bronze Ages, another version of the Justice League. If DC has found the right person to carry on what has evidently become something very personal to Geoff Johns, that’s fine. I can’t help but think, though, that Johns’ work should be followed by a break. It would both honor Johns’ departure and allow the next Justice Society creative team some time to figure out its own approach.

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1 Comment »

  1. “Of course, this argument is largely academic. DC would be nuts to cancel Justice Society … wouldn’t it? Johns has made the book a consistently reliable source of income, both as a monthly periodical and in collected form. Surely Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard, or whoever DC pulls off the bench to write and/or draw the title will be able to do just as well.”Give it to John Rogers.

    Comment by GC — December 16, 2008 @ 3:04 pm


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