Thursday, January 7, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #6: April 1991

Discovering the Distinguished Competition

Justice Society of America #1
Writer: Len Strazewski
Artist: Rick Burchett
Colorist: Tom Ziuko


Though the 1989 Batman movie got me interested in comics, I didn’t actually gravitate toward Batman or DC Comics initially. It was Marvel that first captured my attention and my heart.

In fact, I don’t think I even bought any DC Comics until the January 1991 Robin miniseries, and that was just a fluke in my buying habits. I was a Marvel guy all the way until the summer of 1991,when my dad bought me a box of random comics at a garage sale. Included were Action Comics 553 and 554 by Gil Kane and Marv Wolfman, and the Charlton Blue Beetle by Steve Ditko. These glimpses into other superhero universes made me want more.

It wasn’t long after that I came across issue #5 of the Justice Society of America miniseries at Jewel/Osco. The cover featured Hawkman and the Flash, and it intrigued me. I soon bought up the first four issues and then the subsequent three as they came out. Little did I know at the time that I’d picked the perfect series to introduce myself to the DC Universe, because the Justice Society are a team comprised of the very first DC heroes. The Flash featured in that issue that caught my eye was not the red-suited guy with a mask, but a maskless guy with a metal hat like Mercury. It’s the first DC comic I remember getting really excited about. 

The Justice Society – a teaming of heroes from both DC and All-American Publications, had debuted in 1940, and enjoyed an 11-year run. The team consisted of Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Black Canary, Starman, the Atom, and a host of others. When DC got heavy back into the superhero game in 1956, they reinvented some of these heroes –Atom, Flash, Green Lantern – in new identities and forms similar to the ones we know well today. Others (Batman, Superman) had continued on unchanged, while still others remained in obscurity.

The Justice Society characters made a return in the 1960s as residents of “Earth-2” and began semi-regularly teaming up with the Justice League of America. Their solo adventures began anew in 1976, when DC made the exceedingly rare choice to pick up a title with the same numbering it had left off on in 1951. The new series lasted for a couple of years.

In 1981 Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler (the same team responsible for my first comic book) took the reins and introduced the All-Star Squadron. This book featured the Justice Society’s adventures during World War II, and also involved Quality Comics characters such as the Ray, Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, and Doll Man. Thomas also introduced a modern team – Infinity Inc. – comprised of the children of many of the original Justice Society members. Both series, however, came to a close with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, which effectively erased Earth-2 from continuity. The characters were literally sent into limbo in a one-off special called The Last Days of the Justice Society. A 1988 Secret Origins issue made an attempt to situate their origin in the newly revised DC continuity, so the characters weren’t erased, just shelved.

They probably would have stayed on that shelf if not for Impact Comics. The DC offshoot line based on the Archie Comics Red Circle superheroes was set to launch in 1991 with five books, but some legal red tape held things up. That left the books’ creative teams with a gap wherein they were under contract but wouldn’t be getting paid. To solve this, editors Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn proposed a miniseries that would keep the artists busy until Impact could officially get going. Writer Len Strazewski pitched a Justice Society book set in the 1950s, and they were off to the races.

So the eight-issue miniseries features work by all five artists who were committed to Impact (we’ll hear more about that line of books in another essay soon): Rick Burchett, Grant Miehm, Mike Parobeck, and Tom Artis, with Tom Lyle on covers. Why a Marvel junkie with a thing for Rob Liefeld was drawn to a throwback book starring World War II era superheroes, I still can’t rightly say. But those artists were a big part of it, especially Parobeck. And perhaps it was exactly because the book was so different from everything else I was seeing; the characters were so exotic looking, with costumes that had not changed in any significant way since their inceptions. I couldn’t help but be curious. And when I actually started reading, I found Strazewski’s story to be solid, with snappy dialogue, and some fun twists. 

I wasn’t the only one hooked in, and the miniseries did well enough that DC decided to bring back the Justice Society into modern DC continuity with the 1992 Armageddon: Inferno miniseries. And from there they were given their own title, Justice Society of America, by Strazewski, Parobeck and inker Mike Machlan. The book reintroduced the heroes as a team of sixty-somethings wondering for about their role in a world that has moved on from them. The members dealt with greying and thinning hair, pulled hamstrings, and old enemies out for revenge. Strazewiski cleverly had the characters deal with corporate overreach, colonialism, and apartheid, all modern forms of the fascism they’d battled in their heyday. He also built up the team issue-by-issue, while setting up younger successors for the heroes to mentor and train.

Though the premise was very different from the original 8-issue miniseries, the creative team’s approach was similar, and that made it anachronistic even though it was set in modern times. The combination of Parobeck’s bold and cartoony art with a cast comprised of AARP members was meant the series was 100% out of step with what was popular at the time. Letter-writer Mike Fritsch put it best in issue #5 of the series (December 1992); “This title really contrasts the difference between the original hero team and the latest foil-die-cut-multiple-hologram-trading-card-scratch-and-sniff-disproportional-pinup-brand-X-team.”

Flying in the face of what’s popular is admirable, but the big-wigs don't typically like it. Despite decent sales, editor Mike Carlin cancelled Justice Society of America after a criminally short run of 10 issues. Teenage Paul was outraged at this injustice, but it taught me two valuable lessons about being a comic book fan: 1) Don’t get too attached to any particular series, and 2) Quality doesn’t equal sales. Come to think of it, those lessons are applicable to a lot more than comic books. 

But on the positive side, Strazewski’s 18 issues of Justice Society of America made me into a lifelong fan of the team, and it provided and invaluable pathway into the DC Universe.

There’s more to tell about the team of Strazewski and Parobeck, but we’re a handful of essays away from that. The Justice Society, meanwhile, would have to settle for being supporting players in other books – Flash, Green Lantern, Starman, etc. – for a few years before their next chance at a starring role. More on that later, too.

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