I would say that DC Comics’ output a few years before their big sloppy reboot was largely very good, at least in regards to their mid and small titles. At the time, DC seemed to be going out of their way to sabotage their top of the line titles. Batman had Grant Morrison’s epic run, it was largely spared, but Justice League got caught in crossover hell and Teen Titans was mostly a farm team for crossover cannon fodder. Superman and Wonder Woman were fine until DC sacrificed them to the fumbling hands of J. Michael Straczynski, who turned in some terrible crap until, presumably embarrassed by what he’d done, he slinked away and handed them to competent writers. I can’t even begin to understand what they were trying to do with the Flash for most of this time. Let’s just say that the top of the line from DC was not at its best. But the rest of their books were largely really good. From 2007 to 2011, they put out a ton of good comics, like Power Girl, Secret Six, Booster Gold, Manhunter, Batgirl and JSA All-Stars. Of course, most of these titles really didn’t sell well, so I can’t blame DC for shaking things up, but I really miss quality books like those. JSA All-Stars may be the one I miss the most, since most of its cast were among the babies tossed out with the bathwater.
JSA All-Stars grew out of the Geoff Johns’ Justice Society of America. When the title was re-launched, changing the title from JSA to the spelled out version, Johns took a more expansive view of the title, putting the focus on the Society part of the title and expanding the team. Most of those new recruits also tied into the expansive follow up to Kingdom Come that the title was doing. A few issues after Thy Kingdom Come ended Johns left title, bringing in Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, most notable for their work on Fables and Jack of Fables. Shortly thereafter, the massive team split in two, leaving most of the old characters with Willingham in the main book and Sturges taking the new ones over to JSA All-Stars.
The book only ran 18 issues, all written by Matthew Sturges and, with the exception of two issue bit in the middle, drawn by Freddie Williams II, but they were some excellent issues. The team starts out as a boot camp of sorts, with Power Girl, Magog and Hourman ostensibly training the younger heroes (Stargirl, Damage, Cyclone, Judomaster, King Chimera, Wildcat and Citizen Steel) on how to do their job. That is how it started anyway; the team went through some shake-ups pretty quick. To begin with, though Magog is the Cable that started this title down its X-Force path, he leaves the team after three issues because he is a giant douche bag. He was not missed. It was kind of odd for the character who incited the split was not really a part of the team that formed. For the most part though, JSA All-Stars told big adventure stories that are just a blast to read.
The first page of the series is of a robotic Soviet army marching through New York City. In the first arc the team fights those communist robots, two separate supervillain teams and the King of Tears, a Lovecraftian horror from another reality. It starts on a high note. That first arc also sorts out the team and nails the personal relationships that will develop in the series. There are burgeoning romances between Damage and Judomaster as well as King Chimera and Cyclone. The team adds longtime JSAers Sand and Atom Smasher and couple of new characters. Sarcastic AI Roxy is not exactly original, her general character, that of an annoyed robotic personality that barely tolerates the humans around, has been done before. Still, she is a fun addition. Anna Fortune, a time traveling steampunk wizard, is something new. One of the good thing about working with a lot of new, mostly unknown characters is that the writer has a lot of free reign to do as he pleases with the cast and Sturges takes advantage of it, really building on the limited personalities that a lot of these characters had shown previously.
After they defeat the King of Tears, there is a surprisingly touching follow-up to giant crossover Blackest Night, during which Damage is killed. His girlfriend, Judomaster, has to give the eulogy and it has some nice moments for her and King Chimera, who is generally kind of aloof. After that, it moves to the next big arc, which starts with an investigation of some murders in the old stomping grounds of Infinty Inc., the team that several of these characters (Atom Smasher, Power Girl, Hourman) were members of. That leads them to a South American rainforest, where the team fights monkeys riding jaguars and tries to prevent the resurrection of some Incan Gods. They fail, of course, and end up having a big knock down drag out fight in the middle of Los Angeles. This is the best arc of the series, issues 8-11. While most of the JSA is about embracing and celebrating the past, this arc is about learning to let go. The Gods have to let go of the power they once had, and the ex-Infintors have to let go of a team that doesn’t exist anymore and some of the characters just have to put their personal pasts behind them. It is just some really good comic booking.
There is a two issue art fill in at this point by Howard Porter. Porter is not my favorite artist, but his work is generally better than what is on display in these two issues. The story here is a lot of fun, though. Cyclone, injured in the last arc, has lost her powers and must stay home while the rest of the team has an adventure in space. Sturges gives the reader just enough of a glimpse into the space adventure to make it seem really cool, while the arc is really about Cyclone figuring out her powers and life. It is kind of a cheat that most of the team has the greatest space adventure ever, at least judging by the brief snippets shown, while the book is about the mundane, at least by supehero standards, problem of Cyclone’s clones. In the next arc they fight the Puzzlemen, indestructible monster that can only be defeated by playing a certain piece of music that Bach composed to destroy them in the 1720s. In the last two issues they deal with The Prince, who may be a superhero from another reality or may be a crazy person.
JSA All-Stars is just an excellent book. It has some really great high adventure stuff and some genuinely excellent character work. The only real downside is that is it only 18 issues, and that two of them had pretty terrible art. But the rest is so good. Maybe its cast is not the best superhero team, though it does have a handful of standouts. The ex-JSAers Power Girl, Stargirl and Atom Smasher at least have a lot of the Johns/Goyer JSA to look back on for other great stories. And though there isn’t enough time to really build up the new characters, what was starting to develop with Cyclone, King Chimera and Anna Fortune was really great. It was simply a fun superhero book. I believe there are two or three collected editions floating around, take a look sometime.
One last thing, through issues 2-11 there is a back-up story by Jen Van Meter and Trevor Moore starring married JSA members Hourman and Liberty Bell. They travel to Europe to find an ancient Greek artifact that may have magical healing powers and end up in a race with Injustice Society members Tigress and Icicle, who are also a couple. It both lets the reader get to know the heroes better and develops the villains into people rather than just bad guys. The whole thing feels very Indiana Jones, with the heroes working with and against the villains and the whole time being kind of unsure of what is really going on. I’m thinking the early parts of The Last Crusade. I also like that Tigress and Icicle, despite being admittedly villains, are actually on the up and up. They are trying to get the same staff as the heroes by the same means, though how they came by the cash they came to pay for it is probably better left uninvestigated. Much like the main story, it is far from essential reading, but it is still a really entertaining story.