GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

The JUSTICE SOCIETY of AMERICA (JSA) - page 2

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cover by Brian BollandJustice Society, vol. 1 2006 (SC TPB) 224 pages

Written by Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway. Pencils by Ric Estrada, Keith Giffen, Wally Wood, Joe Staton. Inks by Wally Wood, Bob Layton.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: All-Star Comics #58-67, DC Special #29 (1976-1977), with covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

The Justice Society of America is seen as the progenitor of the super hero team. Originally created in the 1940s, it teamed up many of DC Comics' existing characters in the comic All-Star Comics. But with the advent of the so-called "Silver Age", the Justice Society was replaced by the Justice League, and DC's 1940s characters were relegated to an alternate world -- Earth 2 -- only making occasional guest appearances in the regular DC titles. But they proved popular guest appearances, leading eventually to a revival of All-Star Comics telling then-contemporary adventures of the now middle-aged earth 2 heroes.

Though fondly recalled, these 1970s stories presumably weren't that successful, as the series didn't last too long (although, I believe its axing came at a time of massive restructuring at DC, when many titles were cancelled across the board, meaning, sales might not have been that bad, just it was in the wrong place at the wrong time). And though it was no longer considered "in" continuity in the wake of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths which eliminated the concept of parallel earths (though that may all be changing with DC's more recent "reality shaking" epics), the series clearly had an influence, with new characters first introduced in this series -- such as Power Girl and the Huntress -- being retained, albeit in altered forms. And, of course, the notion of the middle aged (and older) JSA members still fighting crime continues to this day in various JSA and Justice Society titles.

Anyhoo... the advantage to the 1970s revival having only run for a limited number of issues is that, now, DC can collect the complete run in two TPBs.

This first volume collects the first 10 issues of the revived All-Star Comics, plus the 34 page retroactive tale telling the hitherto "untold" origin of the 1940s-era Justice Society.

Clearly there was some behind the scenes dithering at DC about how the revived series should originally be sold -- or perhaps simply concerns about whether, with an existing Justice League comic, did they also want a Justice Society comic? Because though it stars the Justice Society, and the name was featured on the cover (albeit in small letters), initially the gimmick is that the older JSA members team up with some younger heroes to form an amalgamated group, the All-Star Super Squad. But the name is barely used inside the comics and, eventually, the All-Star Super Squad name is dropped even from the covers, replaced by the big, bold "Justice Society" name.

The Justice Society is comprised primarily of Green Lantern, the Flash, Dr. Fate, Hawkman and Wildcat joined by younger heroes -- the now adult Robin, working as a solo hero now that the earth 2 Batman has retired, the Star-Spangled Kid, a Golden Age hero who, through a time paradox chronicled in an earlier JLA/JSA team up, is still youthful, and now borrowing Starman's power rod, and the series' first original character -- the earth 2 Supergirl, Power Girl. Of course, because Earth 2 has its own history and heroes, Dr. Mid-Nite and Hourman and others crop up for a few issues here and there (and Robin actually makes only sporadic appearances). Most notably among recurring heroes is the Earth 2 Superman, defiantly grey haired and middle aged. The result is, just with the membership alone, the series never gets stale.

Now, I'll admit, it's hard for me to be objective reviewing this, 'cause, as a kid, I kind of dug the JSA -- most of my Justice League comics were the annual JLA/JSA team up stories, and I actually had read some of the issues collected here.

Gerry Conway kicks off the stories, though Paul Levitz eventually takes over, and sure, these aren't necessarily brilliant adventures, or insightful treatise on the Human Condition...but they're an enjoyable run. The opening two-part tale is no more than okay, a kind of simple, workmanlike super hero tale. But after that, the series starts to find better footing. And though I'm not sure there was as much of a difference in house styles between Marvel and DC as fans like to claim, I suppose there was a kind of Marvel feel to this DC series, with a slight soap opera-y feel and an emphasis on the interpersonal dynamics (admittedly, often bickering). In fact, by featuring this large cast of characters, there's almost a kind of freeflowing stream of consciousness to the adventures, with so much going on, heroes coming and going, and sub-plots introduced, that various adventures and threats overlap with each other, so that it's often hard to say where one menace ends and another begins (though there's enough closure that most main plots don't last more than two issues). There can also be a density to the telling, so much going on it's hard to believe it was all squeezed into 17 pages! And there's a fair amount of variety, as menaces range from super beings out to conquer the world, appearances from the JSA's pre-existing rogues gallery, to a memorable tale involving time travel and an alien cityscape.

There's an energy to the storytelling that keeps things clipping along briskly. Admittedly, there's a lot of promise that goes unresolved. For all that there's a "soap opera" feel, a lot of hints of personal angst kind of crop up...then get dropped just as quickly. There are scenes hinting the Star-Spangled Kid has a crush on Power Girl...but they never lead anywhere. Perhaps the most consistent such thread here involves Green Lantern, who faces personal bankruptcy...but it builds to a climax that doesn't occur until vol. 2! To be frank, there's a kind of tenuous logic at play a lot of time. There are so many characters coming and going, that it easily keeps your interest from page to page -- even as it might not hold up looking back. In one sequence, Dr. Fate is gravely wounded, and projects an image of an ankh -- this leads Flash and Green Lantern, inferring a clue, to race to Egypt in hopes of finding a cure for Fate. While in Egypt, they encounter the super hero The Shining Knight, which provides a segue into the next adventure...but it has nothing to do with Fate, so the whole ankh thing basically turns out to be a red herring. And then, though the Shining Knight acts as a catalyst, dragging the characters into the next story -- he actually pretty much disappears from the plot itself, as if Levitz, or the artist, forgot he was even there!

This laissez-faire attitude to story can result in characters simply knowing things...'cause the story needs them too. Sure, having Dr. Fate have insight into a crisis can be forgiven, 'cause he is a sorcerer, tuned into higher realms. But in the series' opening adventure, Power Girl explains her insight into what's happening by saying: "Let's simply say...a lady with powers likes mine gets around." -- not much of an explanation.

An advantage to this collection -- and the whole "parallel earths" concept -- is that the adventures exist in their own reality. Oh, there are certainly plenty of references to past adventures, since the JSA had been around as guest stars for the last few years, and old time foes crop up, but there's still a sort of self-containedness to it all that's appealing -- and makes it easier to read decades later.

The art is handled by various artists at first. Ric Estrada for the first couple of issues, with, to be honest, only workmanlike results. Then Keith Giffen provides dynamic and eclectic lay outs for 4 issues, giving this "retro" series a decidedly modern edginess. And Wally Wood pencils two issue -- but the catch is, Wood inks them all, providing a uniform look to the first eight issues, Wood being one of those imposing inkers who kind of dominates the penciller -- you're more likely to recognize Wood's style than the penciller he's inking. And Wood is a well regarded talent, bringing a kind of elegant classicism to the art. A Golden Age artist himself, Wood's style -- though more accomplished and detailed than many of the Golden Age artists -- nonetheless provides a kind of appealing retro feel to this revival of 1940s heroes (his Superman, inparticular, is supposed to have a deliberate Joe Shuster feel). As such, there's an atmosphere, and a visual panache to much of these issues that definitely helps sell the tales, with the Giffen/Wood combo being the best. Joe Staton assumes the art chores (teamed with inker Bob Layton), and though I'm often a Staton fan, the shift in art style to the looser, less disciplined Staton hurts the series a bit...though Staton, who remained with the series for the rest of its run, certainly made the series his own.

Actually the contrast in styles also brings up another point.

As originally drawn, Power Girl was initially given a rather, uh, impressive bust line (most assigning credit/blame to Wood -- her breasts big when Wood inked...and even bigger when he pencilled as well!) and, sure, there was a kind of cheesecake fun to that -- particularly as, stereotypes aside, comics back then tended not to be that sexploitive. But even then there was a certain restraint to it all -- and very quickly her cleavage emphasizing costume was redesigned, supposedly at the insistence of DC's female then-publisher, Jeanette Kahn. However, when Staton assumed the art chores, though still curvaceous, Power Girl was drawn no more exaggerated than any other heroine.

But...over the years, modern comics creators have kind of used the early Wood design as a license to expand her bosom, sometimes to ridiculous levels, despite the fact that, as Staton drew most of the JSA run, in most of this era, her dimensions weren't so unusual. I just was thinking about this realizing just how uninhibited and, frankly, uncontrolled modern comics creators have become, and how even modern mainstream comics will feature exploitive, cheesecake art that makes Wood's Power Girl look positively puritanical -- this despite the fact that modern comics are supposedly aiming to be more respectable and sophisticated, when they actually seem more like adolescent male fantasies than ever before!

Anyway...

Although this is a collection of an on-going series and, as such, plot threads are left dangling (to be resolved in vol. 2) this collection, nonetheless doesn't end on a cliff hanger per se, with the primary stories resolving by the end. Also rounding out the collection is the memorable World War II-era tale, by Levitz/Staton/Layton of the original, Golden Age heroes that's an enjoyable adventure, well illustrated.

I can't say it's high art, but this collection is a fun, engaging collection, with a nice mix of adventure, hi-jinks and human angst.

Cover price: $19.99 CDN./ $14.99 USA.


cover by Brian BollandJustice Society, vol. 2 2007 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

Written by Paul Levitz. Pencils by Joe Staton. Inks by Bob Layton, Joe Staton, Dave Hunt, Joe Giella.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: All-Star Comics #68-74 (plus covers) and the JSA stories from Adventure Comics #461-466 (1977-1979)

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

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

This is the second and final volume collecting the fondly remembered (but short lived) 1970s adventures of the Justice Society, back when DC had those characters living on the parallel world of earth 2, and where the team membership included some middle aged Golden Age heroes, newer additions like Power Girl and the Huntress, and characters soon to be written our of continuity, such as the Golden Age Superman and Batman.

Though the series may've been at its best in the first volume, benefiting from the elegant classical art of Wally Wood, and where the large pantheon of heroes made for some nicely busy plotting and sub-plotting (perhaps an influence of original scripter Gerry Conway) I still enjoyed this collection. As I mentioned in my review of volume one, I'm not unbiased, having long had a fondness for the Justice Society of this era. And again, I won't pretend this is flawless, or even that sophisticated. But it's an enjoyable run. The large cast of characters that Levitz has to draw upon -- the whole of the earth 2 heroes -- means the cast is constantly in flux, as characters come and go, join up for an adventure or two, then disappear. Levitz prunes a few characters that, clearly, he lacked interest in...and, ironically, often their swan songs are the best uses of the characters, so that he dumps them just when you feel he's finally making them interesting! One could argue that Levitz maybe never fully clicked with the gig (though I'm sure he enjoyed doing it, later even writing a solo Huntress series), which might be why he plays around with the membership, and why he has trouble settling on definite personalities, sometimes with a character expressing contradictory attitudes in different issues! And the plots are rarely more sophisticated than a one-dimensional bad guy plotting some comic book crime.

This collection begins continuing some plot threads from the previous volume, so it can seem a bit confusing, such as having the retired Batman, now Gotham City Police Commissioner Bruce Wayne, pursuing a single-minded vendetta against the JSA. But most of it's self-contained enough that you don't really need to have read volume one to follow things. In fact, most plots don't really last more than a couple of issues.

One of the appeals of these "earth 2" adventures is that they were isolated from the mainstream (earth 1) DC Universe, which should make them easier to read in isolation. Of course, they still have their own backstories to draw upon (with arch foes) as these characters had been around for decades. And there are also a few times where there are references to concurrent events, including guest appearances in the Justice League of America, and at one point Power Girl wanders off and we're told that her story continue elsewhere (she received a three issue trial series in the pages of Showcase) -- of course, in this day and age of TPB collections, modern readers can still pick up those tales (the JLA/JSA team ups are collected in various Crisis on Multiple Earths collections, and the Power Girl Showcase issues were included in a Power Girl TPB). Not that you really need to read the stories, as they have little impact on the actual plots here (Power Girl is back in an issue or two), but they do explain a few oblique references.

One of the best stories is perhaps the most notorious -- the killing off of the earth 2 Bruce Wayne. But it works reasonably well as a story and drama, and dealing with the emotional repercussions for the other heroes. And there's an effective tell-it-in-one tale of the JSAers literally racing the clock to find a poison set to detonate at a certain time. Also of note is the final adventure in the series in which we learn why the JSA disbanded in the 1950s -- it's an interesting, arguably daring tale in that it deals with the infamous, real life House UnAmerican Activities Committee, proving that comics could deal with "political" subject matter long before the modern generation of comics writers likes to pretend they did.

Joe Staton is the artist for this entire run of stories, paired with different inkers -- Bob Layton brings a firmer, more realist line work to Staton's cartoony pencils, which is effective, yet when Staton inks himself, there's a raw energy that's equally effective. Perhaps the only mismatch is a pairing with Joe Giella for a couple of issues that doesn't really work. As much as I maybe preferred the Wood influenced earlier issues, Staton made the characters his own, and perhaps because he has such a distinctive style, it avoids demanding too much comparison between the two.

Ultimately, no, this isn't high art or ground breaking material...but it's briskly paced and eminently readable, with just enough character quirks and conflicts to provide a human sheen to the high flying heroics.

Cover price: $17.99 CDN./ $14.99 USA


coverThe Justice Society Returns 2003 (SC TPB) 256 pgs.

Written by James Robinson, David Goyer, and various. Art by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The nine issue mini-series comprised of All-Star Comics #1, 2, Adventure Comics #1, National Comics #1, Sensation Comics #1, All-Ammerican Comics #1, Smash Comics #1, Star-Spangled Comics #1, Thrilling Comics #1 (1999)

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

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

The Justice Society Returns blended the idea of a mini-series (a finite number of issues telling a story) with the look of those "event" crossover series comics companies like so much. By that I mean that it has the look of a crossover story, in that the story begins in All-Star Comics #1, continues into a series of individually titled middle issues (Sensation Comics #1, Smash Comics #1, etc.) before concluding in All-Star Comics #2 -- all published in a single month. But the inbetween issues are not part of any on-going series, they are just issues of this mini-series. DC's done the same for The Kingdom and The Silver Age. Of course, that means it might be hard to track down the various issues in the back issue bins (will a store file them all under "J" -- for Justice Society Returns -- or under their individual titles?). Adding to the confusion, all the titles were lifted from real, 1940s comics -- in other words, there already was an All-Star #1, a Thrilling #1, etc.

The story was intended to help kick off yet another, modern-era JSA series, though it had little connection to it as this story is set during the Golden Age of the original Justice Society of America -- namely World War II. The story has Hourman encountering Nazi spies using black magic to conjure a demon, but they accidentally conjure Stalker, instead -- an immensely powerful being determined to end war by the surest way possible...ending all life. After an initial fight with the JSA, Stalker sends some flunkies to various parts of the world. The JSA divides into smaller groups and set out to tackle the various flunkies in the one-shot issues. Missions successful, they reunite in All-Star #2 for the final showdown with Stalker.

The long and the short of it is that the Justice Society Returns isn't great, but is reasonably entertaining. I liked it (but then, I've always dug the JSA). It's one of those things I enjoyed more the second time through, once I was prepared for its shortcomings. And, of course, because the in-between issues tell relatively self-contained stories, if you can't find all the issues, it still might be worth picking up.

The basic premise is O.K. -- certainly a grand enough threat. But the plotting is often little more than workman-like. In the one-shot issues, too often the plots are pretty basic: a couple of the JSA members arrive at their destination, encounter Stalker's disciple, fight, win. Period. The characterization is often thin, or of the heavy handed, explaining-characterization-rather-than-demonstrating it school that has become accepted as "sophisticated" writing by modern comics writers and their fans. They give us paragraph after paragraph explaining a character, but rarely do they demonstrate characterization by something as understated as, for instance, having Hawkman say to his wife, Hawkgirl, "be careful"! Still, there are some stand out good issues, and most are O.K. reads (though some are unexpectedly grisly at times).

The first issue, as illustrated by Michael Lark, is sumptuously atmospheric and sets the stage well, even if the plot is a bit thin. Of the inbetween issues, my favourites include the Hourman/Dr. Mid-Nite team up in Smash which manages to mix character, humour and adventure, all nicely drawn; the Sandman/Star Spangled Kid team up in Star Spangled Comics (which becomes more a team up focusing on their sidekicks, Sandy and Stripesy) with delightfully detailed art that kind of put me in mind of Norman Rockwell drawing a super hero comic; and the Hawkman/Wildcat team up in Thrilling Comics -- probably the most shallow, character-wise, but as an action-thriller story, one of the better ones. And writer Chuck Dixon even throws in some dialogue that demonstrate character in an unobtrusive way in contrast to some of the other, more heavy-handed attempts at characterization employed by some other writers which never really lets the characters live and breathe.

But the climax in All-Star #2 is kind of weak -- just a big action sequence where, with too many characters, few really shine.

Along the way, in addition to the regular JSA heroes, other Golden Age characters are thrown in and dusted off...though some just to be killed off cavalierly. Stalker, himself, was a 1970s hero, here re-cast as the villain.

As the first major JSA story in a few years, it never quite manages to be THE definitive JSA adventure one might hope for. The very gimmick of breaking the story up into mini-adventures means that, as an overall "epic", the plot is pretty simple. As noted, despite some worthy attempts at character, too much of it is of an aloof, heavy handed approach that means the characters aren't always allowed to shine -- as people, or as super heroes (for instance, no use is made of the fact that Green Lantern's ring is powerless against wood) and some of the Society's most identifiable figures (Dr. Fate, the Spectre) are knocked out of action at the beginning, which seems like a curious artistic decision. As well, there are a few spots, especially toward the end, which smack a little too much of either tying the story into past continuity, or in foreshadowing future ones, at the expense of narrative coherence in this mini-series (such as some bewildering stuff with the Atom, or even how Stalker is ultimately defeated).

Comparing this mammoth 9 issue series to the first three issues of the early 1980s series All-Star Squadron (which I cover in my They Ain't TPBs...but should be section), I'd argue that Roy Thomas crafted a more complex plot, and worked in more character moments, in his far fewer pages than did this assemblage of current hot writers.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The Justice Society Returns, but I kind of hoped it would be better.

One final thought. In the 1970s, Marvel did a World War II super hero comic called The Invaders in which modern sensibilities were brought to war-time adventures (dealing unflinchingly with internment camps in the US, etc.) and in which the American heroes were teamed, as equals, with British counterparts. Here, years later, the impression presented by these writers is that the U.S. basically waged the war on its own, most issues ignoring the fact that there was an alliance of nations against the Axis powers. Hmmm.

Here's a look at the individual issues:

All-Star #1 - James Robinson/David Goyer/Michael Lark - Double-sized first issue is hauntingly atmospheric and entertaining, but a bit thin of plot and character (save Hourman).

Star-Spangled - Geoff Johns/Chris Weston - Sandman & Sandy and The Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy team up in New York against a giant villain who's turning the entire city into a crazed, homicidal mob. A lot of fun: fast paced and, set in a civilian milieu, it really evokes its period in costumes and sets more than any other issue.

All-American - Ron Marz/Eduadro Barreto - Green Lantern and Johnny Thunder protect FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Told from another character's P.O.V., it means GL really isn't anything, personality-wise, and Johnny is heavily "analyzed", but in that slightly aloof, arms-length way.

Adventure Comics - Robinson/Goyer/Peter Snejbjerg - Atom and Starman at Los Alamos. I wasn't too big on the art, and, again, the story hits us over the head with its theme of the second string hero (Atom) proving his mettle.

Smash - Tom Peyer/Stephen Sadowski - Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite at a secret military base. All around, the best stand alone issue as far as the combo of story, art, character, mood, etc.

National - Mark Waid/Aaron Lopresti - Flash and Mr. Terrific in Dresden. Told from the Flash's P.O.V. as he analyses Mr. Terrific, which means that both characters, I guess, are explored. One of the more overtly political, in tackling the hot topic issue of the Allies bombing German civilians (even if it never really takes a side). Ultimately, one of the better ones -- certainly trying to be one of the smartter ones.

Sensation - Robinson/Goyer/Benefiel - Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman in the Pacific ocean. One could question whether it was sexist to stick the only two heroines in the same story, or then to tell the story from the P.O.V. of a third -- male -- character (who constantly drools over the women). Despite one of the few attempts to give character to the villain, this just struck me as one of the weaker (though still not bad). Mind you, I don't really like DC Comics current version of their Golden Age Wonder Woman. Benefiel's art is good, but he's going for a cheesecake look which, on one hand, could be seen as sexist...and is also annoying because he doesn't quite pull it off!

Thrilling - Chuck Dixon/Russ Heath - Hawkman and Wildcat...plus Manhunter and Tigress (formerly the original Huntress, I think) in Africa. As an action suspense story, probably the best, in that the story unfolds, and the setting is atmospheric. Though there are some continuity problems (Dixon's villain needed weeks to set up his plan, but all the other stories seemed to be taking place just a day or two after All-Star #1). Dixon is the least pretentious when it comes to character which, ironically, means he does a better job than some of making his people seem like, well, people. But it is kind of shallow, and Dixon throws himself into his period a little too eagerly, with the characters using slurs and machine guns against their Nazi foes. Drawn by old timer Heath in a unsplashy, but appealing way.

All-Star #2 - Robinson/Goyer/William Rosado - Double-sized showdown with Stalker in Antarctica. Not really very memorable, though not terrible, with competent but unspectacular art from Rosado.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.95 USA


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