The Justice Society of America was the very first team of comic book superheroes, making their debut in All-Star Comics #3, published in November 1940 by All-American Publications, one of the two companies that later merged to form DC Comics.
For its first two issues All-Star Comics had been, like nearly every other title published by the nascent American comic book industry, an anthology series, in this case featuring several of All-American’s superheroes. It was with issue #3 that writer Gardner Fox and editor Sheldon Mayer devised the idea of having All-American’s costumed crime fighters joining to form a team. In that first story the Justice Society of America only appeared in a framing sequence drawn by artist E. E. Hibbard as the members recounted various solo exploits. But with the very next issue the members of the JSA were shown working together on a single case.
The JSA featured in All-Star Comics thru to issue #57, released in December 1950, a ten year long run. At that point the superhero genre was very much in decline, and with the next issue the series was re-titled All Star Western.
A decade later, during the superhero revival of the Silver Age, the JSA returned, with Gardner Fox and editor Julius Schwartz revealing that they dwelled on “Earth Two” in a parallel reality, with the popular revamped heroes of the Justice League of America situated on “Earth One.” Between 1963 and 1985 the JSA and JLA met up in annual team-ups. The JSA eventually starred in a revival of All-Star Comics, and then appeared in the World War II era series All-Star Squadron along with the various other DC heroes from the early 1940s.
I was born in 1976, and I didn’t begin following comic books regularly until the late 1980s. By that time Crisis on Infinite Earths had resulted in the elimination of all of DC’s alternate realities. This ended up playing havoc with a number of characters’ histories, including the JSA, creating all sorts of continuity problems.
By the time I was reading DC Comics the JSA were in limbo, both figuratively and literally, having completely vanished from DC’s books. The in-story explanation for this had been depicted in 1986 in the Last Days of the Justice Society special written by Roy & Dann Thomas and drawn by Dave Ross & Mike Gustovich. To prevent Ragnarök from destroying the whole of reality, the JSA had been spirited off to a mystical dimension where they would have to fight against a cosmic evil for all eternity.
Long story short (too late!) my first exposure to the JSA was in 1991 when DC Comics published an eight issue Justice Society of America limited series, bringing the team back into print for the first time in five years. In the present day the team was still trapped in the realm of the Norse gods, but in this miniseries set in 1950 several members of the JSA were pitted against one of their deadliest foes, the immortal conqueror Vandal Savage.
“Vengeance from the Stars” was written by Len Strazewski, penciled by Rick Burchett, Grant Miehm, Mike Parobeck & Tom Artis, inked by Burchett, Miehm & Frank McLaughlin, lettered by Janice Chiang, colored by Tom Ziuko & Robbie Busch, and edited by Brian Augustyn & Mike Gold, with cover artwork drawn by Tom Lyle. Gold wrote a text piece for the first issue that explained the history of the JSA, an invaluable source of info for a young reader such as myself in those pre-Wikipedia times.
Interestingly, this miniseries came about because DC’s plans to publish Impact Comics, a reboot of the Archie Comics superheroes, met with delays. Justice Society of America was done to give work to Strazewski and several of the artists who had committed to working on the Impact books and who now found themselves in a holding pattern. Considering its origins, this miniseries turned out to be a remarkably good read.
The heroes featured in “Vengeance from the Stars” are the original Golden Age versions of the Flash, Black Canary, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Starman. In addition to Vandal Savage, the team faces the lumbering undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy, Savage’s gangster henchmen, and an awesomely powerful trio of living constellations.
I have to confess, back in 1991 I found the structure of this miniseries somewhat odd and off-putting. The first four issues are solo adventures of the Flash, Black Canary, Green Lantern and Hawkman. Issues five and six had team-ups of the Flash & Hawkman and Black Canary & Green Lantern respectively. The final two issues at last had all four heroes at last working together, with Starman, who had been Savage’s prisoner for the previous six issues, joining the fray.
Having subsequently read a number of JSA stories from the 1940s via reprints, looking at this miniseries in 2023 I now understand that Strazewski, Augustyn & Gold were emulating the structure of the All-Star Comics stories. In those original JSA tales the team would, after learning of a particular adversary or mystery in the first few pages, split off and have solo chapters, each drawn by a different artist, before teaming up at the end of the issue for a final battle with the bad guys.
The only thing missing here is the prologue which shows the team together before they all split off for their individual missions. In the lettercol in issue #3 Gold explains the reasoning:
“I always wondered why the superheroes would get together first and then just happen to encounter a menace worth of their combined might. Because this is a miniseries, Len could introduce the heroes one at a time as each encountered the menace.”
While I certainly understand Gold’s reasoning, I do wonder if he miscalculated. Several of the readers’ letters published wondered when the JSA would be working together as a team, and expressed a certain disappointment that the early issues were solo adventures. I myself only bought the first four issues when they were published, and I did not get the second half of the miniseries until a year or so later as back issues, and part of the reason for this was that I really wanted to see the JSA members working as a team.
It makes me wonder if having a first issue which had the team together for a few pages, as was done back in the 1940s, would have ameliorated the concerns of myself and other readers. Perhaps it would have, as Gold argued, been a bit contrived. But at the same time it would have given the audience a taste of the entire team before everyone went off on their side quests, sating our appetite for team action until everyone got back together for the climactic battle.
What’s called “writing for the trade” was really not much of a thing back in 1991, but this miniseries now feels like a very early example of it. I think it works better as a “graphic novel” than as individual comic books released across a span of eight months. When read in a single sitting it actually does feel like an extra-large issue of All-Star Comics, and it also made the wait for team action much more tolerable.
That criticism aside, Strazewski did write an enjoyable story. Looking at it for the first time in three decades, I found it to be a really fun, exciting tale. I’m glad that Augustyn & Gold put this project together.
I also had a much greater appreciation for the work of the various artists this time around. I was only 15 years old when the miniseries was released. Back then I really did not pay all that much attention to such things as layouts & storytelling, to mood, atmosphere & pacing. Now, however, it really strikes me at what a superb job Burchett, Miehm, Parobeck and Artis all did on this miniseries.
One of the stand-out aspects of the miniseries was the Black Canary solo chapter in the second issue. Miehm did absolutely fantastic work showing Canary’s athleticism in her battle with Savage’s goon squad and the brutish Solomon Grundy. As I commented in a previous blog post, I feel Miehm was one of the more underrated comic book artists of the 1990s, and my re-read of this miniseries gave me even more of an appreciation for his work.
I was also struck by the two issues that Tom Artis penciled. I bought & read all of the Impact Comics titles in the early 1990s, and I remember that I was somewhat underwhelmed by Artis’ work on The Web. I now wonder if that had to do with Bill Wray’s inking. On Justice Society of America Artis’ pencils are inked by the incredible Frank McLaughlin, and the collaboration between the two looks amazing. McLaughlin’s slick line really enhances Artis’ penciling, which resulted in me paying much more attention to the storytelling he utilized on his two issues.
Speaking of inking, it’s interesting to contrast Miehm’s inks over his own pencils on issue #2 to Burchett inking him on #7 and #8. It’s another good example of just how much of an impact an inker can have on the look of the finished artwork.
Also, I did feel Tom Ziuko’s coloring on the first six issues was more effective than Robbie Busch’s work on the final two.
Janice Chiang has always been one of my favorite letterers, and so I was happy to discover she had worked on this miniseries. It’s another one of those things I didn’t pay enough attention to back in the early 1990s. This time, though, Chiang’s lettering immediately leaped out at me.
An interesting fact is that, even though the JSA had been around for half a century at this point, they’d never actually had a comic book featuring their name. Yes, there’d been a four issue miniseries America vs. the Justice Society in 1985, and the Last Days of the Justice Society special a year later. But this miniseries was the first comic book to actually be titled Justice Society of America. Strange but true.
On a more serious note, looking at this miniseries in 2023, it’s depressing to realize how many of the creators involved in it are no longer with us, some of them having died fairly young. Mike Parobeck, Tom Artis, Tom Lyle, Frank McLaughlin and Bryan Augustin have all sadly passed away in the intervening years. I hope that the other creators who worked on this project will still be around for many more years to come.
This miniseries was finally reprinted in a hardcover edition titled The Demise of Justice in 2021. I do question the wisdom of DC releasing it as a hardcover, because a less expensive trade paperback would undoubtedly have sold much better. Still, it’s nice that this is back in print in some form or another.
Next time I’ll be taking a look at the excellent but short-lived Justice Society of America ongoing series which came out in 1992.