JSA Re-read Part 1

This is the first entry in a new weekly — hopefully — series I am writing about the Geoff Johns/David Goyer (later just Johns, who is the writer of focus here) JSA, which is hands down my favorite comic series. This series is the reason I went from someone who liked superhero movies and had read some X-Men comics long, long ago to a someone who actually buys and reads comic books. JSA is not a book that would normally be considered a good series for new readers. It is the reason I am never convinced that that continuity is the reason comic sales are in a prolonged funk. (I’d finger general awareness and physical accessibility.) JSA is not just a book with some reliance on continuity, it is a book steeped in it; it revels in it. JSA is about history, it is a book looking back at and remembering the past. That the JSA was dropped, at least temporarily, in the re-launch makes sense. The series focuses on the legacy of a world with superheroes and DC seems intent on jettisoning that, for better or worse. Without history, there is no Justice Society.

Despite the title’s reliance on history, JSA was still a new reader friendly series. Each arc, if not each issue, is comprehensible to people who have never read the book before. That is impressive especially with the fact that most recognizable character in the series is probably Hawkman. Maybe Captain Marvel or Black Canary, I’m not sure which one is best known. C-list characters at best no matter how you look at it. Much of this is thanks to the writing team. While he is certainly never subtle, Johns (I’ll credit him since he has done this on more books than this. Goyer certainly contributed as well) has a knack for distilling characters down to a core idea that drives all their stories. Not that the characters are one note; it gives them a central, relatable theme. As he does this for each of the numerous characters, he also does it for the team as a whole. And the theme of JSA is legacy. They are a team built on remembering the past, on how that past affects the future. They are about carrying on an ideal and a specific legacy; it is about the importance and dangers of following in the footsteps of parents/mentors/teachers.

Before we got to the run proper, there are the first 5 issues of the series to deal with. Because while Goyer was on to start the book, his co-writer is James Robinson for the first arc rather than Geoff Johns. Robinson was at the time closing in on the end of his wonderful Starman series and was at the time a superstar. Since Goyer was co-writing, I am going to cover it. It is part of the run; it sets up much of what comes later, even though it isn’t Johns work. That being said, I am not going to give it quite the same level of focus that I do the later issues. So let’s begin with JSA issues 1-5

JSA 1-5 Justice Be Done.

I’m reading this in the collected edition that includes JSA Secret Files 1, but it is wholly unnecessary so I am ignoring it. If there are any changes to the rest of the issues then I don’t know about them, this is the only form I’ve ever known the issues in.

Issue 1

Issue 1 starts with a mysterious dark figure chasing a younger one through a sewer filled with the bodies of defeated heroes. The prey is Kid Eternity, who can call forth heroes real and fictional by saying “eternity.” The predator is not named, but he is clearly disinterested in his overpowered foe. He has to kill him, but he is not emotional or even slightly concerned about doing it. We will soon learn why he had to be killed.

Then we switch to the dream of Sandy the Golden Boy, with an appearance by Sandman’s Dream, where he sees his mentor the Golden Age Sandman turn into sand and crumble. He wakes to a phone call telling him of Sandman‘s, named Wesley Dodds, death. For the first year or so Sandy, or Sand as he prefers, is THE central character of the series. He is where we start and where the return of the Justice Society starts.

The next page is a two-page spread at the funeral and the reason I don’t really consider this opening arc a full part of the run. These first 5 issues might almost be called Starman and the JSA. Jack Knight, Starman, is literally James Robinson’s pet character. He cannot appear without Robinson’s permission. Honestly, I have no problem with it. There need to be more characters that have their story told and have the story end. Not with the characters death, but just an ending. And having Jack here to kick start this series was probably a good business move. He was in the middle of a critically loved run, a popular character starring in his own title. He was the in for then DC readers. Unfortunately, since no one except Robinson gets to write him and Robinson would leave after 5 issues, he gets tons of page time here that doesn’t ever amount to anything.

That is not to say there is nothing important on this page. While the top half is a look at team, this books starts with, the bottom half is the opening salvo of the theme. Ted Grant, Wildcat– who helpfully identifies himself — talks with Jack about how the first generation of heroes is starting to fall away. The cemetery is called Valhalla, where heroes go when they die. Ted here is resigned to the fact that eventually, most likely sooner rather than later, he and the rest of his colleagues will be interred there. Also, he mentions that no one showed up for the funeral of Madame Fatal, a little known cross-dressing Golden Age hero, but how did he know that unless he was there. While Wildcat tries to put up a front of being aloof and uncaring, no one cares more than he does.

This all highlights one of the most important things about the Justice Society. Usually the only ages for superheroes are prime of life adult or teenager, but in the JSA frequently more than half the team is 50 plus years old. They are the geriatric Justice League. Jack and Ted then evaluate the rest of the team based on how close they are to death or when their namesakes died. It isn’t a subtle introduction to the team, but it is an effective one.

Since they aren’t exactly household names, I guess I’d better identify everybody. We have Starman and Wildcat. Then there is Jay Garrick, the golden age Flash, whose powers are the same as the other Flash and Alan Scott, the golden age Green Lantern though he is currently going by Sentinel. His powers are mystical rather than science fiction based, but they work basically the same as the newer Green Lantern. Ted, Jay and Allan are the core of the JSA. They are the only old guys who are permanent fixtures on the team. While I don’t think any of them actually lead the team during the run, they are clearly in charge.

They also introduce Johnny Thunder, a man with a genie, Hippolyta, Wonder Woman’s mother and sometimes the Golden Age Wonder Woman, Hourman, a robot with human memories and time powers, and Black Canary, a martial artist. None of these characters are long in the book. Black Canary lasts the longest, but she is mostly a side character after this first arc. Hourman also plays a big role in a couple of arcs. The leaves Atom Smasher Albert Rothstein and Stargirl, arguable the central characters of the whole book. He is big and grows bigger and she has a gravity belt and can shoot stars out of her fingers. Atom Smasher is the kid that grew up idolizing the JSA and finally gets a chance to join and Stargirl is a spoiled teenager who grows into a hero.

After Jack asks a probing question to Alan about his kids, we cut to a page of one of them, Todd, talking ominously with an invisible man named Ian. Readers who know the history of the JSA might guess who this Ian is, but that information is unnecessary to understanding the scene. Alan says he’s lost touch with Todd, and then we see this guy called Todd by a waitress. Not subtle, but effective at telling us who this is.

Then arrives the plot. Flash sees a vision of Kent Nelson, identified on the next page as the previous Dr. Fate. Then another dying superhero, A Man called Fate, teleports into the cemetery claiming that Wesley Dodds was murdered before dying himself. What these two and Kid Eternity have in common is that they are all parts of the Dr. Fate mythos, which was fractured with the many deaths of the holder of that title. This storyline is about the return of an actual Dr. Fate and washing away the poorly conceived ‘90’s revamps.

Then the mummy men attack. This is still primarily a superhero action comic, and here is the action. Nicely drawn action, but there is little to latch on to here. There is some banter between the team as they easily take down this mob of mummies. After they take them down, another unknown hero arrives with promises of information.

Issue 2

This issue will be quicker to cover with less set up hack through. Stargirl is made to wait outside while the rest of the team hears about what is going on from the Scarab, the hero who arrived at the end of last issue. Other than dropping a couple hints about future stories, like a mention of the King of Tears incident, his whole speech boils down to one of three newborns is destined to be the new Dr. Fate and the JSA must find him before their foes do. The point is hammered home here:

So the team splits into three groups of three, each one searching for a baby, while Stargirl is stuck at home with the Scarab, who wastes no time telling the ghost of Kent Nelson that he is hiding something from them and teleporting somewhere. Being the precocious young adventurer she is Stargirl follows him.

The first two teams, Sentinel, Sand and Hippolyta in Tibet and Starman, Black Canary and Flash in Venice, encounter more mummy men, the Sons of Anubis for those who care, before finding out that neither of the children they were sent for is the one. It is had to pick much out of this, since Hippolyta and Starman are gone after this story. They aren’t building future stories with those two. The Venice fight especially focuses on Starman. It works for this story, but again, it doesn’t help build anything for the rest of the run.

Wildcat, Hourman and Atom Smasher do find baby Fate, but he is quickly taken by new Hawkgirl. The usual superhero misunderstanding ensues, but to the books credit it is quickly resolved, though Wildcat is still going to be a dick to the new Hawkgirl. Not just because Wildcat is a dick, but also because he is the one who cares the most about the legacy of the JSA and to have someone he doesn’t know suddenly show up calling herself Hawkgirl doesn’t sit right with him. Then the big bad of the arc shows up to steal the baby. It is the eternal sorcerer Mordru, long time enemy of the JLA, JSA and Legion of Superheroes.

Issue 3

We pick right where the previous issue left off, with Mordru standing triumphant over a beaten portion of the JSA. While he gloats, the rest of the team arrives (on Pegasi made of green fire no less) and saves the others but they are unable to stop Mordru from escaping with the baby.

This arc is on to full-action mode now as we switch to Scarab, followed secretly by Stargirl, in Dr. Fate’s tower, as he waits for the JSA to arrive with the baby. He is quickly defeated by Mordru, who then unveils his plan to kill the baby as it inherits Fate’s mantle and take it for himself. He is temporarily stopped by Stargirl.

If there is one thing this issue does right, it is having the JSA make entrances in style. In my first read, I would never have guessed that they would top the green fire Pegasus entrance, but exploding into Fate’s Tower on a time-traveling Viking ship covered clock absolutely one-ups it.

Then fight scene. Mordru makes quick work of the JSA, echoing both his takedown of the team earlier in the issue and his defeat of the Scarab. Also like his defeat of the Scarab, his is robbed of victory by Stargirl, who at the behest of Dr. Fate’s amulet plants the source of Fate’s powers on the baby’s chest allowing him to turn into Dr. Fate.

Issue 4

Now aided by the new Dr. Fate it is time for round 2. And more fight scenes. Drawn wonderfully by Stephen Sadowski, but still just a fight scene. It does get across that this is a desperate situation. Even the most powerful of the JSA, like Sentinel, are powerless against Mordru’s magic. Only Dr. Fate can stand against him. Soon it comes down to them and even Dr. Fate is seemingly defeated. Then he reveals his secret:

The new Dr. Fate is also another reborn hero: Hector Hall. The writers do not expect the reader to know who this is. Luckily, they have new heroes who do not know who he is either, so one of the older characters can explain it to them as well as the reader. His return, and the story of his life which also sets the stage for the return of Hawkman, prompts Sand to call for the reformation of the JSA. Notice that the first one to second this is the one most eager for their return. It is Wildcat. As I said before, this team means more to him than it does to anyone else.

Sand is immediately named chairman of the reformed team, but before they are done congratulating him he turn to actual sand and disappears.

Issue 5

This is a comedown issue after the high drama of the last one. Sand has to deal with the fact that he is turning into a literal sandman. Then he fights with lackey level villain Geomancer and really figures out his powers.

There are other points of interest. We see the start on construction of the JSA brownstone, their base of operations for a long time. We see Tylerco, the company started by the original Hourman Rex Tyler. There we also meet Mr. Terrific for the first time in this series. While he doesn’t join just then, he will eventually be one of the biggest parts of the team. We also get a vague reference to a vague threat, the council, which never really amounts to much in the main series.

The issue ends with a return to Todd, Sentinel’s son, who takes revenge on his abusive stepfather, a direct lead-in to the next story.

Covering this before I take on the Geoff Johns stuff is necessary in that it really sets the stage for the story to come. This first arc set the stakes high, and each subsequent arc must then raise them. Unlike Morrison’s untouchable JLA run, JSA bridges the mega-stories with down to earth character issues, though it never quite nails the high concept high stakes problems like JLA does.

Next week: Issues 6-7.

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