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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

The JUSTICE SOCIETY of AMERICA (JSA) - page 1

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  See also the various "Crisis on Multiple Earths" Collections reviewed in the JLA section


coverAmerica vs. The Justice Society 2015 (SC TPB) 148 pages

Written by Roy Thomas (co-plotter Dann Thomas). Pencils by Rafael Kayanan, Mike Hernandez, Howard Bender. Inks/embellishments by Alfredo Alcala.
Colours: Carl Gafford. Letters: Cody.

Reprinting the 1985 mini-series

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug. 2015

Published by DC Comics

I've mentioned before that I kind of have a nostalgic affection for the JSA -- that teaming of 1940s-era heroes that have periodically been revived over the years (at least, that's how I think of them -- the team's enjoyed more recent revivals featuring a lot of new, younger additions to the team). But maybe that creates an undue expectation on my part, because it seems like I'm forever coming upon JSA mini-series and specials...that never really satiate my hunger.

But in the case of America vs. The Justice Society -- it doesn't even come close. Although it does raise a question as to what the editorial thinking is that leads to some old comics being reprinted as a TPB and others not. What was the impetus that led to DC re-releasing this three decade old story today?

This was first published back when The Justice Society existed on a world parallel to the main DC universe -- earth 2, where aging Golden Age heroes (like the original Flash and Hawkman as well as characters like Dr. Mid-Nite and Wildcat) continued to fight crime alongside a newer generation including The Huntress and Power Girl. And given this was just on the cusp of DC re-booting its entire line with The Crisis on Infinite Earths it's possible it was intended as an epic swan song.

The premise is that a diary purporting to belong to the Earth 2 Batman -- who had been killed off a few years before (in a story reprinted in The Justice Society, vol. 2 ~ reviewed on the next page) -- levels the accusation that, decades before, the WW II-era JSA were secretly agents of the Nazis. Faced with this charge of treason, the JSA are called to testify before a Congressional Hearing.

Now it sounds like a potentially interesting idea, rife with the potential for character angst and sinister conspiracies.

Unfortunately what instead ensues is basically just a four issue recap of the entire published history of the JSA as the various team members briefly testify to past exploits -- more like an illustrated checklist of old adventures, or a variation on those once popular comics like Who's Who in the DC Universe or Marvel Saga. And maybe that's all it was intended to be and all readers wanted it to be.

But it ain't much of a story.

Writer Roy Thomas (here working with a co-plotter, his wife Dann) is an important figure in the evolution of comics. Not least because he was one of the first of the new blood writers who came along in the 1960s, in many ways acting as Stan Lee's heir apparent at Marvel, and over the years writing for almost every major character at both Marvel and DC. I'm not sure Thomas can claim to have created many heroes, but he helped define some, churned out some seminal sagas, and some of the villains he created still get trotted out to this day. He was also long one of comicdoms premiere nostalgist, with an unbridled passion for continuity, drawing upon, tying together, and otherwise recycling old stories. He also was a primary adapter in comics -- responsible for hundreds of comics (like Conan, Tarzan, Elric, etc.) in which he adapted prose stories.

My point being, Thomas is a talented, respectable writer -- but those last two characteristics (an obsessive love for continuity, and an affinity for simply adapting others' words) could trip him up, particularly later in his career. And that's what's happened here.

I could well believe that he and Dann came up with what sounded like a great premise -- but when it came time to actually put pen to paper, were stumped what to do with it. So the premise, the framing story, is basically a lot of nothing, of vague undeveloped ideas and themes, and just plain implausibility to the point where it's almost not even worth nitpicking. Like that there's absolutely nothing in Batman's diary that would count as "evidence" since it mainly seems to be his suppositions and suspicions rather than anything he actually saw with his own eyes. (Not to mention the whole problem that in a fantasy world of robots, mad scientists, and other worldly beings, the absolute assumption that the diary is unarguably authentic seems a stretch). They set up the idea that the Batman's old ward, Dick Grayson (a.k.a. Robin), reluctantly joins the side investigating the JSA (while the Batman's daughter, Helena Wayne a.k.a. The Huntress, acts as the JSA's lawyer) without Dick's involvement ever becoming relevant to the plot.

As I say, it's barely even worth nitpicking the plot, the lack of genuine characterization, the absence of real twists and surprises, or logic, because it's really just an excuse to recap the entire of the JSA's history. Except this isn't the Thomases and the artists re-telling and re-staging the stories for modern readers (as Thomas would later do with, for instance, The Saga of the Original Human Torch, to slightly better effect), but literally to just briefly touch on them. The recaps don't really satisfy as stories for themselves, yet neither is enough detail given that it can even be said to pique one's interest in tracking down any particular adventure.

Thomas doesn't use the mini-series to do any retconning (reinterpreting old adventures using hindsight), add a new spin or interpretation, or even to tie up loose ends (a few times its acknowledged that certain villains escaped and were never apprehended in old stories, or certain plot threads left unresolved, without this series bothering to deal with them). Given the premise Thomas could have maybe retold some old stories from the point of view of the accusations (seeing an alternate interpretation of events with the JSA as villains) but doesn't.

It really is just page after page of getting a summary of old adventures -- I emphasize this because even though I had heard that about this mini-series, I assumed that was an exaggeration. But it really isn't.

As I say, Thomas is no stranger to doing this -- but usually he balanced it with a proper, engaging story. In comics like the old All-Star Squadron Thomas certainly indulged in a few pages of characters recapping origins and retelling old adventures, but as part of the story, not as a substitution for same.

The art, too, is a disappointment. Oh, certainly Alfredo Alcala's lush finishes over a variety of pencillers adds an attractiveness, and a visual consistency. And some artists are better than others (I liked Hernandez's work). And to be fair I'm really not sure what an artist could be expected to do with what amounts to endless panels of talking heads (crammed with dense word balloons) and action panels mostly devoid of any real narrative context.

Now I'll confess that when I was younger I would sometimes read articles or books about old comics that would kind of summarize a series of adventures, or an era, and I'd enjoy it, precisely for its glimpse of stories unknown to me. So maybe that's the appeal this series would have. But I can't help thinking even as a kid I would have felt there was a difference between reading a few paragrahs like that and 150 or so pages!

Cover price: $__


cover by Paul SmithJSA: The Golden Age 1995/2005 (SC TPB) 208 pages

Written by James Robinson. Art by Paul Smith
Colours: Richard Ory. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Archie Goodwin.

Reprinting: the four issue prestige format mini-series (1993-1994)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: intro by Howard Chaykin; covers.

Published by DC Comics

This was released in 1995 just as "The Golden Age," then re-released in 2005 as "JSA: The Golden Age."

There are two primary types of DC Comics' "Elseworlds" stories (that is, stories not adhering to "accepted" continuity). The stories that completely re-imagine the concepts (what if Superman was raised in medieval Europe?). And the less common type: stories that begin within the parameters of DC's Universe...then diverge, such as Kingdom Come or Batman: The Dark Knight. In the latter category is The Golden Age.

Set immediately following World War II, the characters and situations are basically part of established 1940s DC reality...except the story goes off in a new, potentially earth-shattering direction. The characters are taken from real golden age comics, or later retro series like The All-Star Squadron. Although some of the more familiar heroes, like the Golden Age Flash, or Dr. Mid-Nite, are shunted to a few panels in the background in favour of other, less famous characters (which can be problematic: the series wants to play on our nostalgia...even as some of these characters are unfamiliar). Following the end of the war, many super heroes have chosen to hang up their cowls, like Johnny Quick who's resumed being journalist Johnny Chambers, others, like Starman, are suffering from emotional burn-out. The Americommando, though, is riding his heroic past into political life as he becomes a right wing demagogue, advocating war with the U.S.S.R. and initiating his own program to create the ultimate American super man.

Writer James Robinson's intention, like with so many writers in the last decade and some, is to put a slightly gritty, edgy spin on simple, old fashioned super heroes -- tossing in the idea that Hourman is almost addicted to his powers, or Starman is in a sanitorium, struggling with the guilt over his involvement in the development of the Atom bomb. And by rooting things in the period, with House Un-American Activities Commission anti-communist witch hunts and the like, Robinson sets out to write a politically tinged epic.

It's sub-titled, "A Different Look at a Different Era". Unfortunately, what emerges is more "A Concept in Search of a Story". I can't decide if, at two hundred pages, Robinson needed more space to fully explore his concepts (similar epics like The Watchmen and Squadron Supreme ran closer to 350 pages) or whether Robinson doesn't have enough to fill up the pages he has.

The rise of the Americommando and his development of a sinister super group dedicated to promoting a particular brand of "Americana" isn't really that complex, or developed that shrewdly...yet it's the chief plot. The rest of the story is concerned with exploring various superheroes -- and there are a lot of them -- and their emotional, post-hero lives. But Robinson tends to explain characterization in dense, text captions, rather than developing them through subtle scenes, and he kind of reiterates the same scenes, over again. There isn't a lot of character development, per se. At one point one character describes another as being "dependent and vulnerable"...yet I'm not sure you'd infer that from the scenes themselves!

I don't need action and adventure to be drawn into a super hero saga, but I do need characters I can believe in and care about, and niggling, interesting little scenes that help move the story along. Compareable superhero sagas (The Watchmen, etc.) are popular precisely because they're sufficiently complicated they demand re-readings to pick up on nuances and clues...but The Golden Age doesn't demand that kind of scrutiny.

As well, like most modern comicbook sagas, this isn't really aimed at the casual reader. A degree of pre-existing knowledge of these characters is helpful (even as Robinson plays fast and loose with their established personas, like in a passing reference implying Mr. Terrific -- the Champion of Fair Play -- is a corrupt business man! Or having Robotman be all ruthless and psychotic!) In fact, re-reading it, there's even a question as to how much of an "Elseworlds" story it is supposed to be. Some characters die, or are reinterpreted, but many of the ideas are built upon concepts, even plot threads, that were part of canon, and I think some ideas may've been introduced here that later became accepted as continuity.

But Robinson doesn't always create distinctive personalities for his people. The captions are a mix of Voice of God narration, internal thoughts of the various characters, even radio announcer voice overs...yet, despite the use of different colours and lettering styles, I often found it hard to tell when Robinson was switching from one point of view to another.

Robinson does an O.K. job with some of the characters of developing them from their established personas...even in a negative direction, such as the Atom and Johnny Thunder signing on with the Americommando both, we infer, because of their pre-established insecurities. But Johnny Chambers (Johnny Quick), acting very much the focal character in the series, doesn't really evoke the brash character who raced through the pages of the All-Star Squadron. Of course, that's part of Robinson's point, to portray many of these characters as older and jaded, eager to give up their crime fighting lives. But maybe that would've worked better if the story had been set ten or twenty years later, not just a couple of years later. It's crucial to the story that these heroes have retired, to the point where even when a crisis seems imminent, many are reluctant to get involved...yet the why is, surprisingly, vague.

Even the socio-political stuff isn't as well utilized as I'd hoped. Perhaps Robinson (and DC) may feel the evils of the HUAC witch hunts are so obvious, it hardly needs to be delved into in detail. Alan Scott (Green Lantern), a broadcast president, finds his employees targeted by HUAC, to the point where one staff writer kills himself...but it might've been better drama to have introduced the writer as a supporting character in a scene or two, so that he becomes a person, not just a plot point.

There's a sense that we're skirting around a far more interesting story...particularly when the climax mutes much of a socio-political statement, the villainy stemming more from the world of super-villains than the halls of political discourse.

Paul Smith's art is decent enough. I've often liked his work, and here, while still maintaining decent face and figure work, he seems to embellish his style by evoking some of the better Golden Age artists. At times it's reminiscent of the early work of, for instance, Alex Toth, but with more modern realism...although lacking Toth's skillful use of shadow and composition. However Smith's faces can be a little generic so that it's often hard to tell who's who. The biggest stumbling block, visually, is Richard Ory's colours, which are too dark by far. Maybe it was meant to instill an ominous tone in an erstwhile cheery, four colour world, but some panels are so dark, it's hard to make out what's supposed to be happening!

Unfortunately, in the ranks of profound superhero epics like The Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, Kingdom Come, and The Dark Knight Returns, the Golden Age is definitely a lesser entry. Even compared to earlier, "simpler" sagas like The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War, it seems wanting. The plot is thin, on story and action...while the character stuff is repetative and too pat, handed to us in statements and monologues, more than threaded through scenes and actions. The final chapter starts out the best, when the focus (finally) shifts to the heroes planning to do something, and there is some genuine tension and suspense...until it degenerates into a lengthy -- no, really lengthy -- fight scene, where the villains are too pulpy and cartoony for what initially seemed like it was supposed to be a serious epic.

There was talk of a follow-up mini-series -- The Silver Age -- but it never materialized (though there was a later, unrelated mini-series called the Silver Age).

Cover price: $31.50 CDN./ $19.95 USA.


coverJSA: Strange Adventures 2008 (SC TPB) 208 pages

Writer: Kevin J. Anderson. Pencils/breakdowns: Barry Kitson. Inks/finishes: Gary Erskine.
Colours/letters: ...

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (2004-2005)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: intro by Jack Williamson.

Published by DC Comics

Strange Adventures is one of the occasional "retro" adventures DC likes to publish involving its original Golden Age heroes, the Justice Society of America (I think the previous one was 1999's Justice Society Returns). Set during the 1940s, this has the heroes taking on a megalomaniac with a flying airship and an army of robots and cyborgs. The other "hook" is that it's written by science fiction novelist Kevin J. Anderson -- not a total stranger to writing comics, but not a frequent contributor either. And the art is by popular, realist artist Barry Kitson.

And despite what I perceived as mainly negative reviews, I wanted to like this -- but honestly, it's not very good at all.

I'm not that familiar with Anderson-the-novelist (I've read stuff by him, but nothing that sticks in my mind) but the dialogue is pretty bad. I don't know if that's just him, or whether he's deliberately "writing down" to his perceived comic book audience, or whether -- to be fair -- he's going for a tongue-in-cheek style that just doesn't quite click. I mean, with characters saying things like "gee" and "golly", you can assume Anderson is deliberately trying to evoke an old comics flavour. But I've read other things where a writer walks the line between tongue-in-cheek homage and serious drama...and succeeds better. And in that vein, Anderson doesn't really evoke his period well. References are made to World War II, but you don't really feel it the way Roy Thomas could make you feel it in his old All-Star Squadron series.

There are some occasional cute quips, particularly involving Wildcat and the Atom, but mostly the dialogue is clunky and clumsy. What's more, it's married to a paper thin plot. Given this was six, over-sized issues (30 pages per issue), it's not exactly rife with twists and turns and sub-plots. Most of the action scenes just repeat themselves as one or more of the JSA get into a fight with the airship and its robotic defenders, then the airship escapes, then a similar fight ensues next issue. Some of the members go off on a mission (in an issue which seemed like the story was finally getting its sea legs and improving), but a character later remarks how they might as well have stayed home for all that they affected events! There could be an interesting side plot, as the villain -- Lord Dynamo -- offers the world the fruits of his genius, if they defer to him and turn over a couple of the heroes' weapons, which could lead to some interesting debates of right and wrong, and whether certain sacrifices are worth the benefit. But it never emerges as a provocative debate, with Dynamo never portrayed as anything more than a one note villain.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the series is a secondary plot in which Johnny Thunder, here a wanna be writer, hooks up with the real life SF writer Jack Williamson. One almost wonders if that was Anderson's motive for writing it -- not because he had much interest in the JSA, but because he was allowed to use Williamson as a major character. But it just seems awkward. Williamson isn't exactly a household name and, at least as portrayed here, doesn't really seem like he was an intriguing figure in his own right (ie: James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, really had worked for the British Secret Service). Presumably Anderson was just a big Williamson fan. As well, using Johnny Thunder as such a pivotal player could be interesting (given he's not usually front and centre in JSA stories), but Johnny was often played as comic relief...here he just comes across as, um, developmentally handicapped! And like the action scenes, the Thunder-Williamson stuff is just repetitious.

And the rest of the JSA don't emerge as much of anything. Anderson does do an interesting idea of pairing up like characters (when often storytelling posits opposites attract), so the team's two pugilists, Wildcat and Atom, pal around, and Green Lantern and Starman tend to hang out. But again, for such a long story...there's little use of characters or personality, with most of the JSA members just there to fill up the backgrounds -- with Anderson even throwing in extraneous characters that weren't regular members, such as Dr. Occult and The Star-Spangled Kid (but both had appeared in the Justice Society Returns, so maybe that was what Anderson had used as his primer). And it's hard to credit a dirigible and few robot henchman are such a threat to a team of some 17 members, including sorcerers and the embodiment of God's wrath!

Barry Kitson's art would normally be seen as a selling point. Admittedly, though I like his clean, realist faces and figures, his art can be a bit stiff, his composition unspectacular. But still, it's better than average. Unfortunately, he more provides layouts, with Gary Erskine doing the finishes, resulting in art that is less than you might anticipate with Kitson's name in the credits.

As much as I'm a casual fan of the traditional JSA, and as much as I wanted to like this given how few projects feature them, even after a second reading I have to say this is pretty missable, suffering from bad dialogue, thin plotting, and little characterization. Maybe squeezed into a one-shot special, it could've been a fun romp, but at 180 pages...?


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