The Justice Society
(1991 - eight issues, DC Comics)
Writer: Len Strazewski. Art: Rich Burchett, Grant Miehm, Mike Parobeck, Tom Artis. Inkers: various.
In the topsy-turvy continuity of comic book heroes, this mini-series (titled inside: "Beware the Savage Skies") presumably reflected a shifting editorial mindset.
The Justice Society, DC's seminal super hero team from the 1940s, had found themselves regarded as a 5th wheel in the wake of The Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which DC had merged all its disparate parallel earths into one timeline. The JSA was considered extraneous and the one-shot, The Last Days of the Justice Society, was supposed to remove the characters from the board (according to one report, writer Roy Thomas -- a long time JSA fan -- had been asked to kill them off; he didn't, relegating them instead to cosmic limbo which, as it turns out, proved an auspicious move, since they could be brought back).
A few years after that, clearly someone at DC thought there was still commercial potential in the JSA after all -- hence this 1991 mini-series. Though it wasn't meant to reinstate them, being instead a "retro" flashback story set in the early 1950s.
And I seem destined to constantly be disappointed by "classic-era" JSA stories!
You see, I kind of had a long standing affection for the JSA -- for whatever reason. Maybe their costumes were a little more idiosyncratic (being designed in the 1940s), maybe they built up a mystique in my mind as a kid since I first only encountered them in occasional cameos, or saw them in ads. Many of the JLA comics I picked up were the annual JLA/JSA team ups, and I enjoyed the 1970s revival of the team in their own series and some of The All-Star Squadron. So I'm always keen for a JSA story featuring a classic, vintage version of the team. And I'd read good things about this series.
But just as JSA: Strange Adventures and even JSA: The Golden Age left me underwhelmed, so to does this.
Not at first. It's meant to be light, and fun, and breezy. It clips along, full of colourful action. The premise is that a mysterious villain unleashes a plan to destroy Americas's energy supply, requiring the various JSA members to combat it, first in solo adventures, then as a team.
But it's also wafer thin. Maybe it's just me, but when someone presents an 8 issue saga, I tend to think "epic" -- not a plot that could comfortably be squeezed into a single double-sized special!
I suspect writer Len Strazewski deliberately wanted to model the plot after classic 1940s JSA comics wherein the story is broken up into short, mini-chapters involving the solo members, before resolving in a climactic team battle. But those solo chapters were often just 5 pages (albeit, often with more panels than is common today), whereas here it's whole issues. And those older chapters often involved different aspects of the villainy, whereas here it's all pretty much the same, each story involving the characters battling giant energy beings. That doesn't mean there isn't some variation (an issue involving the characters in a crop duster flying through clouds was sort of neat) but it's basically just the same fights issue after issue. And it's an oddly restricted version of the team: just The Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary, and Hawkman, with Starman sort of floating about the peripheries. A weirdly limited roster and further adding to the repetition.
The plot is rudimentary, lacking sub-plots, or twists or turns, or some Machiavellian scheme the develops and unfolds over its 200 pages. As mentioned, Starman is in the story peripherally, a prisoner/slave of the villain -- but it's not entirely clear why/how he was cowed into such servitude, and like everything else, his "plot" feels repetitive and stretched out. Nor does this series entirely milk its period milieu as much as you might expect for a comic set in an historical era. I suppose because the emphasis is mainly on costumed heroes battling space monsters, there's little time for kitchen sink minutia.
It's actually kind of goofy. That may be intentional -- an homage to an Old School gee whiz super hero comic. And I can appreciate that, even applaud it, but this just seems to go too far. The energy beings are modelled after the constellations (Andromeda, Sagittarius, etc.) except they actually are supposed to be the star patterns come to earth! The fact that star clusters are actually giant suns, light years separate, and only form patterns because astronomers pretend they do seems irrelevant to the story. For that matter, the villain's plan seems to be to regress civilization by wiping out electricity and power in the U.S. -- but we aren't supposed to ask why that would affect the rest of the world? Even the technical logic seems lazy: such as how the villain's henchmen, the ubiquitous JSA villain, Solomon Grundy, seems able to travel from one place to another faster than the giant energy beings!
I'm also not sure what we're supposed to guess about the villainous mastermind's identity. He first appears in shadow, as though meant as a mystery. Then he's just drawn fully, but still not named for a few more issues. Had it started out meant to be a surprise, but then someone figured fans would guess who it was early, so why bother hiding him?
The series is meant to be light and fun, and that's nice at first. But even it becomes a bit too much -- crossing from fun to silly (including a climax involving the energy beings morphing into dopplegangers of 1950s TV personalities). Strazewski tends to write all the heroes the same, uttering the same kind of wisecracks, so that there isn't much to distinguish the personalities. It isn't that the quips can't be cute, but they do undermine any tension or suspense. Other times the dialogue is okay, but occasionally stiff and clunky ("I don't feel very well. But I won't let my Justice Society partner down now," thinks Hawkman).
Funnily, a memorable incident is when Black Canary makes an off-the-cuff remark criticizing guns. And it's only memorable because it led to a right wing reader writing an angry letter a few issues later decrying liberalism and how the comic was going to lose readers for such politicizing! (Wonder if he wrote equally angry letters criticizing the Punisher's more right wing politics?)
The art chores are handled by a variety of rotating artists, although all working within a sufficiently similar style so that there's not a jarring change. It's an unsplashy style (not necessarily any stylish story-boarding), the figures regularly proportioned and a bit blocky. Probably my favourite is Burchett and my least favourite was Artis who seems to affect a slightly over muscled looked that seems overly modern for the series. Miehm has a vaguely Joe Staton-esque look, appropriate given Staton drew some of the 1970s series.
As I say: I had been looking forward to tracking this down -- particularly as there are only a handful of such JSA "events." And at first, it's not bad, if slight and frothy. But as the issues trundle by, and it becomes clear there is no more to the plot than the basic, and issue after issue is just another battle with glowing space beings, I'll admit I got a bit bored. Strangely though, it reminds of later JSA revivals, such as Strange Adventure (also with a lot of repetitious action over a simple plot).
Still, the series must have done well enough that Strazewski was tapped to write a follow-up series, now firmly set in modern times (though it ran barely a year).