As much as one could argue that super-heroes were a new genre of fiction, or that Superman was a ground-breaking character, the greatest innovation of DC Comics in this era, the one that would come to affect all other forms of fiction, occurred in All-Star Comics 3, when the Justice Society of America debuted.
Never before in fiction had characters who were featured in their own stories come together to act as a group. The closest precedent would be the Knights of the Round Table. The cover of All-Star 3 seems directly inspired by them. But while Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival and others were all members of this "team," they did not head out and perform deeds as a group. Not yet at least.
Now, to be fair, in their first outing, the Justice Society does not head out to fight crime as a group either. In fact, all they do together is eat dinner, and go around the table sharing stories.
The first two issues of the comic had been a simple anthology, bringing together popular characters from other DC books. With issue 3, the Justice Society was introduced more or less a framing sequence to link the various tales.
Gardner Fox wrote all the Justice Society stories in this era, but quite a number of artists worked on these issues. Throughout this period, the heroes would gather (usually) only for the first and last chapter, and have individual adventures for the bulk of the tale. In most cases, these solo chapters were drawn by the same artists who drew the hero's own strip.
The membership was formed by taking two heroes from four of DC's ongoing anthology books: Dr. Fate and the Spectre from More Fun Comics, Sandman and Hourman from Adventure Comics, Green Lantern and the Atom from All-American Comics, and the Flash and Hawkman from Flash Comics. Action Comics and Detective Comics were left out, as the biggest heroes from those books were already being featured in their own solo comics, Superman and Batman.
Two other heroes were featured in the first meeting, Johnny Thunder and the Red Tornado. Both were played for comedy. Johnny was more or less the mascot of the group, while the Red Tornado made only a one page cameo, tearing her costume on the way in, and quickly leaving. While Johnny would shortly become a member in full standing, the brief cameo was the one and only appearance of the original Red Tornado with the Justice Society for many decades to come.
Whether by accident or design, the romantic interests of all the heroes have small roles in this first issue, but the book does lack any major villains.
Oom, who faces the Spectre in one of the really stand-out stories, does return many years later, in the pages of All-Star Squadron.
The issue concludes with a set-up for All-Star 4, as the Flash visits with J. Edgar Hoover, who wants to meet with the Justice Society.
So in issue 4 the Justice Society get their first case, hunting down fifth columnist spies, under the command of Fritz Klaver. It is this issue that really creates the format that the stories would follow, as each hero goes off to fight a battle in the larger war.
Johnny Thunder, not yet a proper member, wishes the whole team together for the climax, and this will happen again and again. In fact, Johnny and his Thunderbolt would frequently be the big heroes in the final chapter, although this never seemed to gain him any real status.
The original line-up of the Justice Society would change pretty quickly. It stayed intact for issue 5, in which the team dealt with the underlings of a mysterious mob boss, Mr. X.
All-Star 5 also saw Shiera put on Hawkman's costume for the first time. She does not use the name Hawkgirl in this story, nor does she really do much in the outfit, other than get shot.
It would be a little longer before she would begin her career as a costumed hero, in Hawkman's own series. Still, Shiera clearly felt that a woman's role was not to be hovering on the sidelines, but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself with that comment.
Issue 5 also sees the Spectre use his Ring of Life, the only time it appears in a JSA story.
Mr. X made an unexpected enemy, but not one likely to return.
With issue 6 the line-up changed as the Flash got booted up to his own book. Following the logic that Superman and Batman were too busy to participate in Justice Society adventures because they had their own books, when the Flash gained All-Flash, he resigned his chairmanship of the Justice Society and became an honourary member.
The chairmanship seemed to go to the most "popular" member. After the Flash resigned, Green Lantern took up the mantle for a couple of issues, until he, too, got his own book. It then passed to Hawkman, who held the position for the remainder of the run.
Johnny Thunder took the Flash's spot, in an issue in which the Justice Society spend their time hazing the new member, only incidentally stopping crimes along the way.
Issue 7 has the only story in which Green Lantern chooses the team's goal, to raise a million dollars for war orphans. His sidekick, Doiby Dickles, makes his first appearance in the book, as do Superman and Batman, brought by the Thunderbolt to round out the needed funds. You'd have thought they could have just asked Bruce Wayne for the whole amount.
All-Star 8 brings two new members into the group. Dr. Mid-Nite takes Green Lantern's spot, while Starman fills the position vacated by Hourman.
Hourman was granted a leave of absence, with no explanation. No other member ever wound up on an indefinite leave. Considering the character's drug addiction based powers, it's not hard to assume that this was the cause of his departure, and indeed, an All-Star Squadron annual would later confirm this.
The story pits the team against Dr. Elba, a mad scientist who has created a formula that drives people insane. It makes the most of Dr. Mid-Nite's medical skills, as he devises a cure for the formula, but it's Burnley's art on Starman that is really impressive.
Hawkgirl is also featured in this story, in the Hawkman chapter, having become his regular partner. Once again she almost gets killed, though by now she is clearly getting used to it.
The next couple of issues, while preceding the US involvement in World War 2, reflect the coming conflict. J. Edgar Hoover appears again in issue 9, sending the Justice Society members to various locations in South and Central America to fend off Nazi incursions.
Issue 10 is more of a science-fiction tale, as the Time Trust sends the Society members into the future with a Time Ray, in order to gain future technology with which to develop a bomb defense ray. Although the members of this group are not specified or named, later continuity would round up a number of scientists from other issues who worked on time travel to fill out this group. This issue also sees Sandman adopt his purple and gold outfit, leaving the classic gas mask costume behind.
All-Star 11 is the first issue written after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the Justice Society members enter the war with a vengeance.
They all enlist, with the exception of the Spectre, who, being dead an all, is not likely to pass the physical.
Wonder Woman makes her first appearance alongside the team in this issue, though she actually debuted in issue 8, but not in the JSA story.
As with the other heroes, Wonder Woman is far more aggressive and violent in this issue than in her usual stories. One of the more disturbing elements about this issue is the blood lust that the various Society members display, as well as the way the Japanese are caricatured and demonized.
While this is certainly understandable, in the wake of the attack on Hawaii, Burnely does stand above the others in his portrayal of the Japanese, who look like actual Asians, rather than like insulting cartoons.
Dr. Fate now has his half-helmet, reflecting the downgrading of his powers that was taking place in his own run.
The story concludes with the Justice Society being renamed the Justice Battalion, a title that would be used a couple more times, but fall by the wayside. The more permanent change would be the inclusion of Wonder Woman on the team, her membership proposed by Dr. Fate.
Issue 12 would continue the focus on World War 2, as the team is sent after the Black Dragon Society, an actual Japanese organization.
I confess I do not know enough about the history of Japan to know if there is any accuracy in the statement that they "started" the Russo-Japanese war, but one can easily see how the earlier "yellow peril" stories of Dr. Fu Manchu and the like blended with the current fury over the attack on Pearl Harbour.
While Wonder Woman does appear in this story, and is even given a place of prominence on the cover, she sits out the action in this tale, and many others from this era, despite being far more powerful than most of the other Society members.
The Atom had already faced a member of the Black Dragon Society in his own series, and perhaps because of this, his chapter is the one to feature a Japanese American, insisting that the bulk of his fellow immigrants are loyal Americans. At a time when fear of these very visible minorities would lead to their incarceration in camps, this was a very progressive and level-headed scene.
Johnny Thunder is the one to find the leader of the Black Dragons, almost getting killed for his efforts. But as frequently happened, the Thunderbolt rounded up the rest of the Society, bringing them to his rescue.
Two other issues from this era would deal directly with the war, issues 14 and 16. In All-Star 14, the various Society members head to Europe to distribute food to those in occupied countries. Dr. Fate's chapter even shows a German concentration camp.
But it's the Sandman chapter that really stands out in this issue, being drawn by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.
This chapter also has Sandy, the Golden Boy working alongside Sandman as they head to Greece. While Sandy was not a member of the Society as such, at least he got to go on the mission, unlike Wonder Woman. Why wasn't she sent to Greece?
All-Star 16 is a war centred issue, but dealing with the home front. The story has German agents infiltrating the US to spread dissent by provoking racial and economic problems.
It allows the Justice Society members to fight without the level of violence that the other war stories tended towards.
Whether or not such a thing actually occurred, the overall message of the is admirable, about the equality of all people.
All-Star 13 touches on the war, but is more of a science-fiction adventure.
The Justice Society members fall into the hands of Gootsden, a Nazi scientist, in this tale. Dr. Fate is absent, which allows Wonder Woman to take an active part in this adventure.
The Society members get put into rockets and shot into space, where they each land on one of the planets in our solar system, having completely non war-related adventures before heading back to Earth.
In most of the Justice Society stories so far, the Spectre rarely faced anyone who approached his power level. This basically had the result that the Spectre didn't get to demonstrate anything close to his full range of abilities. But in this issue, being off in a purely science-fiction tale, he really got to shine.
The Wonder Woman chapter would have a direct influence on her own series.
She winds up on the planet Venus, ruled by women under Queen Desira, but under threat by males lead by Solaris.
Wonder Woman helps Desira maintain her throne and dominance, and is rewarded by a kiss on her earrings, which will allow her to remain in contact with Desira. Desira and the situation on Venus would return in Wonder Woman's own series.
She also gets "rewarded" by the Justice Society, though it's hard to see her being offered the position of secretary as anything other than an insult now.
The only recurring foe the Justice Society faced in this era (aside from the Nazis) was Brainwave, who debuted in issue 15.
We even get an extended origin for Henry King, who we see as a young boy, slowly developing mental powers that enable him to create realistic images.
He has, as usual, a number of underlings working for him, who are using his illusionary creations in their crimes.
Wonder Woman decides to involve the various girlfriends of the Justice Society members in this case, as well as Johnny Thunder's ward, Peachy Pet. While Hawkgirl is an obvious choice to bring in, Wonder Woman does not seem at all concerned to be putting the other women, who have no experience at fighting crime, into danger.
Not that they get to do very much, other than get captured.
Brainwave returns in issue 17, now with a machine that shrinks the Justice Society members. He cages them, but they escape and have their own adventures in miniature size.
It's actually an improvement on his first story, if only because the tiny Society members make for some entertaining visuals.
This is also the first of two consecutive issues to feature a spider sequence. Makes me think Fox might have had arachnophobia.
While Brainwave appears to die at the end of this story, he was far too good a
villain to get rid of, and returns later in the run.
All-Star 18 introduces the King Bee, whose minions have insect related abilities.
It's a fun story, but the various underlings of King Bee are a bit more interesting than the villain himself.
Dr. Mid-Nite gets the spider chapter in this story. As I said, two in a row.
There is some weird perspective in the culminating chapter. The Spectre almost scares me the way he seems to be lunging ahead of the rest of the team. King Bee would return decades later in the first story of the All-Star Squadron.
The All-Star Squadron tale that brought back King Bee also saw the return of the Monster, who the Society faced in All-Star 20.
The Monster was clearly based on the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as the villain has a split personality, and his good side is unaware of the existence of the evil one, who is out to destroy the life of Jason Rogers, his alter-ego.
This was also the first story to have members sit out, a result of a reduction in the page count. Sandman and Dr. Fate do not take part in this adventure.
The last issue to feature the full line-up had been All-Star 19, the "Crimes Set to Music." This story played around a bit with the normal format, as Hawkman has gone missing, but the JSA find clues that he has left them, attached to piano keys.
It's all a bit convoluted, but the core of the story is a good one, as the frustrated Maestro seeks vengeance against a number of his childhood friends, who grew up to be successful musicians.
As tends to be the case, Simon and Kirby's Sandman story winds up shining brighter than any other chapter in this story.
And while this Maestro never appears again, the Justice League would face a couple of different musical villains pattered on him.
The final story in this period, All-Star 21, sees the team head back in time to help a dying, regretful man change the bad decisions he had made in his life.
While the Atom and the Spectre sit this one out, it is the final Justice Society story from the original run to include Sandman and Dr. Fate.
Joe Kubert does the art on the Dr. Fate chapter. While Dr. Fate's own series was shortly to end, the clear reason for the character being dropped, the reasons for dropping Sandman are less obvious. His strip would continue to run for a few more years, even though Simon and Kirby had left the series.
The Justice Society of America continue in the Late Golden Age.
Justice Society of America: All-Star Comics 3 - 21 (Winter 1940 - Summer 1944)