[4 May 2007]
As is frequently mentioned, DC Comics started the superhero craze way back in 1935 with Superman. The comic house’s other two megastars, Batman and Wonder Woman, appeared soon thereafter. It is not surprising then that DC, with its core characters approaching or surpassing their seventieth anniversary, has long been concerned with its history and legacy. Yet on the other hand, there is a type of stasis that occurs in a comic universe where characters do not age. We’re given the impression that Batman has had a vast career (including more Robins than many people have children), yet he seems to have aged no more than ten years in his many years of published superhero service. The economic and even cultural reasons for this age freeze are obvious (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns not withstanding, people generally don’t want to see an old Batman), but it does pose problems for comic creators who wish to show evolution in a comic universe. How do you show the passing of time and the development of a new generation when characters essentially never age?
One team that has had a tradition of dealing with the passing of time and generations is the Justice Society of America. As the very first team of the superheroes, originally appearing in the 1940s, the JSA has a long (and convoluted) history, both within the DC universe and as a published title. After the Silver Age versions of the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) were developed, it was explained that the original Flash (Jay Garrick) and Green Lantern (Alan Scott) were heroes on a parallel dimension planet called Earth-2 (until all of the Earths were essentially combined in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths). Placing the JSA on Earth-2 allowed DC to keep both versions of the heroes going and there eventually developed an annual inter-title, inter-dimensional crossover between Earth-1’s Justice League of America and Earth-2’s Justice Society of America. That older versions of the Flash and Green Lantern existed emphasized that there was some chronology within the DC universe. We are rarely given superheroes’ year of birth, but there is an acknowledgement that Alan Scott is older than Hal Jordan. Through the Silver and Modern Ages, the Justice Society has seen members die and be replaced much more frequently than most super-teams. There has also been a history within the JSA of heroes having children, and to some degree, those children (or other relations) carrying on the legacy of the original hero.
It is this last point that Geoff Johns chooses as his emphasis in his first arc on the new Justice Society of America title from DC. He uses the opportunity of a new series to slightly recontextualize the Justice Society. Whereas the JSA had once been considered the old-school, “Greatest Generation” version of the Justice League, Johns emphasizes that the JSA is now about carrying on the legacy of the old JSA with a new generation of heroes. The word legacy is important to consider here primarily because much of the first arc, called “The Next Age”, deals with the notion of picking up the mantle of the previous generation, either enthusiastically or reluctantly. Johns even goes so far as to use the word within his short under-title explanation of the JSA: “Now, fighting alongside the surviving original members, a new generation of heroes has been born, promising to uphold the legacy their predecessors created and inspire other heroes across the world.” The three original surviving members of the JSA—the Garrick-Flash, the Scott-Lantern, and former boxer Wildcat—have taken on the duty of re-starting the JSA to train a new generation of heroes, many of whom are new versions of heroes of the same or similar name.
Johns, who was a writer on the previous incarnation of the JSA (matter-of-factly titled JSA), juggles a whole roster of heroes and characters, some of whom receive focus, some do not. This necessitates juggling storylines, which Johns orchestrates rather well over the first arc. So we jump between Damage, the son of old JSAer Atom (the wrestler with the shorts and cape, not the Ray Palmer shrinking Atom); Cyclone, the granddaughter of Ma Hunkel (the original non-robot Red Tornado); Tom Grant, the unknown son of Wildcat who possesses superhuman cat powers even though his father does not (which, yes, makes absolutely no sense); and Nathan Heywood, the amputee grandson of the original Commander Steel. Each struggles with a different element of being superhero progeny.
At the same time, Johns employs the flipside of the JSA legacy as his central conflict of the first arc, as someone is trying to off the descendents of JSAers before they become heroes (i.e. when they’re children). It’s an interesting conceit that has probably not been utilized more often in comics because, as mentioned earlier, the JSA is one of the few series that emphasizes hero generations, and, as such, is one of the few teams where many members have families. This conspiracy against the JSA family results in the death of lesser-known Mr. America (himself a grandson of a hero) as well as some nameless people at a Heywood picnic. The conflict is ultimately less impressive than the setup and its result—that it forces the JSA to unite quickly as a “family”.
There are other compelling elements that Johns et al play with in the first arc, most notably the appearance of an insanse Starman. Is he Star Boy from the future Legion of Superheroes, or is he a character from the non-continuity “Elseworlds” classic Kingdom Come? Or, somehow, both? Justice Society is so successful out of the gate because it indulges the hardcore fans with tidbits like this (or the way the series begins with a flashback to “World War III”, which has since been revealed by DC to be the conclusion of 52). Yet there is enough deft exposition and character work that most intelligent readers can enjoy the books even without a PhDC.
It remains to be seen if Johns’ reach exceeds his grasp regarding the size of the JSA. The first issue features a typically stunning Alex Ross cover (all of the first four issues feature Ross covers) with all the members of the JSA seated around the meeting table – all seventeen members! Johns seems to have a feel for these characters and is doing his best to cultivate a compelling identity for the JSA other than “DC’s other team of superheroes”. The role of family, whether blood relatives or not, and the importance of passing on tradition is now the foundation of the new Justice Society. In comic universes where characters hardly age and rarely retire, it’s an interesting to see a super-team that features new generations of familiar (and familial) heroes.