Welcome back. In my last post I took a look at the Justice Society of America miniseries published by DC Comics in 1991. That limited series was unexpectedly successful, and it led DC to bring the JSA back into current continuity, and to give them an ongoing title.
The Justice Society had previously been exiled to Limbo where they were destined to spend all of eternity fighting to prevent Ragnarök. The four-issue miniseries Armageddon: Inferno written by John Ostrander published in 1992 concluded with the demonic servants of the villainous Abraxis taking the JSA’s place in Limbo, enabling the heroes to at last return to Earth.
The ongoing Justice Society of America series launched in August 1992. Len Strazewski, who had written the miniseries, and Mike Parobeck, one of the pencilers on it, both returned to chronicle the JSA’s modern-day adventures, along with editor Brian Augustyn. They were joined by inker Mike Machlan, letterer Bob Pinaha and colorist Glenn Whitmore.
The JSA were very much the odd men out of mainstream superhero comic books in the early 1990s. Even though their time in Limbo had partially restored their youth & vitality, they were still much older than nearly all of DC’s other characters. The JSA had been the greatest heroes of the 1940s but now, nearly half a century later, they found themselves wondering what role, if any, they had to play in protecting the world from crime & tyranny.
In the first issue the JSA’s triumphant public return is violently interrupted by a giant monster sent by one of their old enemies. They are unable to stop the rampaging behemoth, and it falls to Superman to defeat the creature. To add insult to injury, Superman finds himself thinking how underwhelming his foe is:
“What a sorry excuse for a monster! Compared to some of the dangers I’ve faced, this is kid stuff!”
Obviously Superman doesn’t voice those thoughts to the JSA, heroes who he himself regards as an inspiration for his own battles against evil. Nevertheless, the dispirited JSA cannot help feeling like a fifth wheel.
As the series progresses, Strazewski depicts the various members of the team struggling to adapt to their new circumstances. He does a good job showing the different ways each of the crime fighters react, from Green Lantern and Flash enthusiastic belief that there is still a role for the team to play, to Wildcat’s skepticism and the Atom’s depression, with Hawkman & Hawkgirl deciding to quit the superhero biz entirely to return to their first love, archeology.
Unlike most comic book heroes at DC who were set in a “sliding timeline” where everything always happened within the past 10 or 15 years, the JSA have always had their origins rooted in the 1940s. As such they’ve been some of the few characters to have aged in real time. When they were revived in All-Star Comics in the second half of the 1970s writers Gerry Conway and Paul Levitz were first to lean into the idea of the Justice Society as an intergenerational team. Strazewski continues that theme in this series.
We see Wally West, the young modern day Flash, seeking advice & guidance from Jay Garrick, the original Flash. Jesse Quick, the daughter of 1940s crime fighters Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle, joins the JSA, with the team serving as her mentors. Johnny Thunderbolt adopts a teenage ward Kiku who discovers she has a rapport with Johnny’s mystic Thunderbolt genie.
I have to admit, back in 1992 I found the circumstances of the Justice Society somewhat difficult to identify with. I was only 16 years old, in high school, and the JSA were pretty much the same age as my grandparents. Three decades later in 2023, well, I’m now middle aged, I’ve got more than a few gray hairs, my joints are starting to ache, and I’ve got advertisements for AARP showing up on my Facebook timeline! So, yeah, I definitely find these guys somewhat more relatable!
The first five issues of Justice Society of America involve the team uncovering the machinations of their long-time adversary the Ultra-Humanite, a body-hopping mad scientist who now controls his own multinational corporation which he uses as a cover to conduct his experiments in genetic engineering. It’s a good, solid setup for the series.
The next two storylines do feel a bit rushed, though. In #6 and #7 the JSA go to Bahdnesia, the tropical island home of the mystic Thunderbolt, to investigate the disappearance of the native population. Then, in #8 to #10, the alien sorcerer Kulak, another old foe of the team, utilizes television broadcasts to hypnotize the entire world and turn it against the team.
I definitely think both of those stories could have used an extra issue. Unfortunately the series was canceled with issue #10. I’m guessing there was probably enough advance notice that enabled Strazewski to truncate the storylines he already had planned. Well, even if they both do end somewhat abruptly, at least they were told in some form or another.
There’s also what appears to be an odd continuity mistake in issue #10, a flashback to the team’s last encounter with Kulak featuring Doctor Mid-Nite, Black Canary, Flash and Green Lantern, with a footnote refers readers to All-Star Comics #2, published in 1940. I was wondering how that could be possible, since the JSA’s first appearance was in All-Star #3, and they didn’t actually work together on a case until issue #4. I looked on the DC Database and according to that “The Curse of Kulak” in All-Star #2 was a solo story featuring the Spectre. And the team fought against Kulak in All-Star Squadron #28, which took place in 1942.
I fielded the question on the Justice Society of America group on FB, and the general consensus was that this was supposed to be a previously-unrevealed JSA adventure, probably set in the late 1940s, and that someone incorrectly added a footnote to All-Star #2.
When I did my write-up of the Justice Society of America miniseries I didn’t comment on Mike Parobeck’s penciling, because I knew I’d be discussing it extensively here.
Parobeck had this really fun, colorful, cartoony style. After the 1991 miniseries he and Strazewski worked together on DC’s Impact Comics imprint, on a revamp of the Archie Comics superhero the Fly. I really enjoyed their work together on The Fly. Unfortunately the Impact line only lasted about a year and a half. I was disappointed at the cancellation of those titles. Parobeck also penciled an enjoyable Elongated Man miniseries in early 1992.
I’m glad that Strazewski and Parobeck had the opportunity to work together again so soon on the ongoing Justice Society of America series. Much like The Fly, I wish that had lasted longer.
Parobeck’s style was regrettably looked upon as “simplistic” or “silly” by too many readers in the early 1990s, as the hyper-detailed work of the Image Comics founders and those they inspired was ascendent in mainstream superheroes. That was a huge shame, because Parobeck’s work was just such a joy to behold. He had some dynamic storytelling abilities, and his covers were exciting and well-designed. It was definitely a pleasure to re-examine his work during my re-read of this series.
Parobeck did finally gain some much-overdue recognition when he became the regular penciler of The Batman Adventures with issue #7 in April 1993. That series was set in the continuity of the hit Batman: The Animated Series. It was specifically targeted to an all-ages audience, and readers were expecting an “animated” style, so Parobeck’s work was very warmly received.
Tragically, Parobeck passed away in July 1996 at the much, much too young age of 30. It’s been subsequently observed that he was ahead of his time, his work presaging the highly-popular “cartoony” styles of artists such as Mike Wieringo and Humberto Ramos.
There is one scene in Justice Society of America, though, where I was sort of left squirming. In issue #10 Kulak is molesting a hypnotized Hawkgirl with his tongue. That just feels so wrong when rendered in Parobeck’s cartoony style, and I really wish Strazewski hadn’t included it in his plot.
Like, ewww, dude! Geeze, what do you think this is, a Chris Claremont comic book or something? 🙂
AHEM! Moving along…
The main inker on Justice Society of America is Mike Machlan, another creator who had a prior connection to the Justice Society. Machlan had previously worked on several issues of All-Star Squadron, and he had co-created the spin-off series Infinity Inc. with Roy Thomas & Jerry Ordway which featured the sons & daughters of the JSA in the present day.
Machlan does a really good job inking Parobeck. I feel they made an excellent match. Machlan is another good, solid, underrated artist. Regrettably there seem to be all too many of those working in the comic book industry, never receiving the recognition they probably should have earned for their work. It’s certainly a shame.
I do want to briefly comment about the sudden cancellation of Justice League of America. There’s been some debate over the years as to the reasons. Officially, the reason cited by assistant editor Ruben Diaz in the lettercol of #7 was that, after the first issue did very well, sales then fell “substantially” on subsequent issues.
However, it’s been alleged that the series was actually selling well, and that other factors were at work. In a 1998 interview Strazewski had this to say about the cancellation:
“It was a capricious decision made personally by Mike Carlin because he didn’t like Mike’s artwork or my writing and believed that senior citizen super-heroes was not what DC should be publishing. He made his opinion clear to me several times after the cancellation. As a result, I think it would be nigh onto impossible that I will work at DC again.”
To the best of my knowledge Mike Carlin has never publicly commented on Strazewski’s allegations. Neither had Brian Augustyn, the actual editor of the series, who regrettably passed away last year.
Speaking only from my perspective as a reader, in general I’ve found Carlin to be a highly qualified editor. He was in charge of the Superman family of books when they had basically become a weekly series produced by four separate creative teams, something that must have been a logistical nightmare to maintain the schedule for, but one that he kept running smoothly for several years. Carlin also edited The Power of Shazam, which as I’ve blogged about in the past is one of my all-time favorite comic book series.
It does seem, though, that the cancellation gave someone at DC the idea that the JSA were passé. A year later in the 1994 crossover Zero Hour several members of the team were brutally, senselessly killed off, something myself and other readers found very disappointing.
But just as I feel Mike Parobeck’s artwork was ahead of its time, so to do I think the revival of the Justice Society was, as well. In 1999 writers James Robinson & David S. Goyer launched an ongoing JSA series, once which really developed the intergenerational aspect of the team. Strazewski & Parobeck’s creation Jesse Quick would become a prominent member of this incarnation of the team. JSA was very successful, and since then, the occasional absence due to DC’s periodic cosmic reboots aside, the original team of superheroes have never gone away.
So, while Justice Society of America may not have been a success in the early 1990s, it did set the stage for the team’s latter triumphs.
Unfortunately, DC has never reprinted the Strazewski & Parobeck series. I recommend searching out the back issues. They’re pretty affordable and easy to find.