The Justice Society of America (JSA) is a DC Comics super-team.
Well, an All-American Publications super-team, since it appeared in 1940. DC officially didn’t exist yet.
It was the first super-hero team in US books. Previously, the characters existed in separate features, like newspaper strips do. But now they worked together.
Which meant that they shared a universe with their respective villains and supporting cast characters. And thus, what would become the DC Universe was born.
With this in place, narrative logic gradually shifted from short, disposable stories to a sweeping and continuous saga with, as the phrase goes, a cast of thousands.
(There are precedents for genre shared universes, though. Historian Jess Nevins points at the Wild West Weekly pulp magazines as a possible inspiration for super-hero universes).
The JSA featured most of the core DC heroes of the 1940s. However :
- The big stars with their own book(s) were but honorary members. They seldom appeared in JSA adventures.
- The core members were in the tier just below – the headliners in anthology books.
During the 1950s, most of the DC Universe had to be stowed away for political reasons.
But at the end of the decade — the “Silver Age of comics” — it was reinvented. And most of the lead characters were reinventions of JSA members.
The JSA often returned to prominence after that. For instance :
- During the 1960s they co-headlined the Earth-1/ Earth-2 crossover stories.
- An important chunk of major writer Roy Thomas’ work for DC was to push the 1940s JSA stories and their legacy back into the public’s mind.
- During the 1985+ big continuity crises, JSA members often played a specific role acknowledging their seminal, elder statesmen-of-super-heroes nature.
- Starting in 1999, a new JSA series made a strong push to explore those Society members who were still active, and their legacies and successors. This series was very popular during the early 2000s.
This here series of articles focuses on the JSA as it was published during the 1940s.
Well, from Winter 1940 to March of 1951 (cover dates), the last issue of the Golden Age.
*No* material made after 1951 is used there. Which, incidentally, makes things dramatically easier to follow.
It’s also useful for the three people who’d like an original version of the JSA in their game/fanfic world that uses the 1940s material as a seed.
If all this stuff about All-American Comics, the Silver and Golden Age, crises, etc. is new to you, you prolly should first read our primer about the ages of DC Comics.
Our 1940s JSA material is presented as a series of mid-sized articles. It is way clearer — and less repetitive — than fewer but longer articles.
The sequence goes :
- Part #1 – 1940-1942.
- Part #2 – 1943-1948.
- Part #3 – 1948-1951.
- In-between days – the JSA between 1951 and 1985.
“Justice Society · of · America” is what’s written on their mantle emblem.
In 1942, enlisted Society members became the Justice Battalion of America. But they reverted to being the JSA near the end of the year.
Originally, the Society is simply a club for selected super-heroes to socialise and informally share information.
It soon becomes a major crime-fighting force, and slowly extends that to the usual super-heroic roles.
During a few months in 1942, it serves as an extension of the US Armed Forces. “For America And Democracy”, as the cover went. But that soon recedes.
The Society responds to situations it is informed of by its members, law enforcement, the US Army, or other parties.
They usually split up to cover more ground and investigate more leads. So most of the work is done by solo heroes working in parallel. This is in no small part because they routinely outmatch their opposition – multiple heroes would be overkill.
Extent of operations:
Society members were primarily active on the North-Eastern coast of the US. But their adventures would often take them to other countries, planets, dimensionsOther realms of existence that are not our universe., etc..
Bases of Operations:
A meeting room in an unspecified hotel, in an unspecified major US city.
This is later replaced by a permanent meeting room, about which little is known.
The wealthier members presumably pitch in, but the Society doesn’t need a significant budget at this point.
- Various mobs.
- Mister X (1941 mob mastermind).
- Doctor Elba.
- Axis forces and fifth columnists.
- Doktor Gootsden.
- The Brain Wave.
The FBI knows of the Society and their meetings. They thus can send them requests for help while they are assembled, via messenger.
The 1940s Society were fervid fans of the Chief of the FBI. This man is presented as a great champion of freedom, which might be why his face is always hidden in the art. Since casting Hoover in this role would have been a huge stretch, even back then.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly support the Society, especially in 1942.
An informal social club. Almost all founding members of the Society could be considered upper-middle-class or upper-class, and so their meetings resembled a gentlemen’s club of that era.
The founding members of the Society knew each other’s real names (with the possible exception of Jim Corrigan’s), and used it in conversation. They also generally knew about each other’s occupations, romantic interests/fiancées/wives, etc..
Sidekicks do not appear to be official members or even associates. And the Society’s secretary doesn’t normally participate in the field – she just holds records of the meetings.
During the first chronicled meeting, the roster was :
- Johnny Thunder also attended, and could loosely be considered a member at that point.
- The Red Tornado (Abigail “Ma” Hunkel) also visited that one time, and could even more loosely be considered a member.
- Honorary members Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne) are specifically stated as not attending so there are heroes active during Society meetings.
- Robin (Dick Grayson) is mentioned alongside Batman, but as a minor and sidekick he’s not an honorary member.
- The Chief of the FBI is made an associate member of the Society in 1941.
- During the Summer of 1941, the Flash has to step down as an active member. He remains an honorary member.
- His spot is taken by Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt, who become full members.
- Later in 1941, Green Lantern is replaced by Dr. Mid-Nite (Dr. Charles McNider)…
- … and the Hourman is replaced by the Starman (Ted Knight).
- In 1942, Wonder Woman (Diana Prince) joins the Justice Battalion… as a secretary. Early on she doesn’t even get listed in the roll calls.
- In late 1942, Sandy the Golden Boy (Sandy Hawkins) is active on Society cases along with the Sandman. But as a minor, he’s not counted as a member.
- The Flash was the chairman from mid-1940 to mid-1941.
- Green Lantern was the second chairman, for a few months in 1941.
- Hawkman was the third chairman.
Prospective members must be known heroes, and there must be a vacant spot.
The Society normally has eight members. Not seven, which would have a near-mystical significance – but this wasn’t known back then.
When Wonder Woman was secretary there sort of were nine members. But she didn’t normally join missions.
New members must also prove themselves by succeeding during the first mission they join. But this is a mostly perfunctory step.
As the Justice Battalion, they were under the command of the US Army’s Chief of Staff. Back then that was Gen. Marshall, though the man we see in the book doesn’t resemble him.
Originally none – they just rented a hotel meeting room.
A more permanent meeting facility then appears, but its characteristics and even location are unrevealed. Bookshelves, some office equipment, and basic scientific equipment (such as a microscope) are gradually added. But it remains a meeting area, not a “base”.
While Hawkman is the chairman, trained falcons are sometimes used as fast messengers between Society members. Hawkman taught all Society members bird language to allow for that.
Some 1940 music in the US… normally I’d go with bebop, but the JSA was too White for that.
So that mostly leaves us with big band music, I reckon.
Oh, let’s just go with Sinatra. He’s a good cultural match for the JSA’s stature.
When the Society debuted in late 1940, Frank Sinatra still was with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. One contemporary hit was “Our Love Affair”.
Normally, writeups.org article are about 98% about in-universe (“diegetic”) material. The characters, their lives, their world.
For the JSA article we’re gonna be closer to 90% about diegetic material. It’s not a comic book history article either, but we need to consider :
- The impact the book had on super-heroes storytelling conventions, and the DC Universe.
- Those issues that were more about propaganda and public service announcements than the in-universe stories.
- Its odd relationship with then-contemporary events. Sometimes the focus is entirely on WW2, sometimes it doesn’t seem to be taking place.
Birth of justice
By ASC #4, the book becomes bimonthly. So it is possible that the Society had their meetings every two months.
But I’d instead assume a monthly meeting. It feels more organic, and leaves room for flashbacks, untold tales, retconsMaking changes to a character or story after the fact., etc..
When did the Society start ?
When first seen (All-Star Comics #3 (ASC #3)), the Justice Society had already been meeting for a while. Johnny Thunder learned about it in the comics, law enforcement knew how to reach them during their meetings, etc..
ASC #3 was the Winter issue, covering late 1940 and early 1941. Since at this point there was one issue every three months. It was in the newsstands in November of 1940.
So a reasonable guess is that the Society was created in September, 1940.
Another approach is to consider that the Pearl Harbour attack (December, 1941) is mentioned in an issue cover-dated June, 1942. Which presumably was for sale in late April, 1942.
(Cover dates for Golden AgeSuper-hero comics from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. comics “lagged” behind their actual release dates so points of sale wouldn’t remove the issues from the rack too quickly.)
Therefore, there’s a four-month lag between real-world dates and stuff being chronicled. Which you could seize to state that the Society was actually founded in May, 1940.
Early on, the tone of JSA adventures is fairly whimsical. The audience is children and (a bit later) soldiers, so the adventures are somewhat goofy power fantasies.
The comics are still largely framed as “the funnies” at this point. And some features, such as Johnny Thunder, are closer to gag strips and funny anecdotes.
Things start shifting with ASC #8 and #9. The book acknowledges that there’s a world war going on, and that mechanically shifts the tone toward more serious adventures. Plus war propaganda.
Soon, writer Gardner Fox performs some of his signature moves. Which involve :
- Injecting sci-fi themes. It *was* the so-called “Golden Age of American sci-fi” , though the themes that Mr. Fox uses are often closer to 1930s sci-fi pulpsCheap, often lurid novels in the US during the 1920s and 1930s..
- Injecting scientific elements (real or imagined).
The Society’s active roster at any given point was mostly determined by the popularity of the characters at National and All-American.
Members had to be :
- Popular enough that they wouldn’t be dead weight for All-Star Comics.
- Not so popular that they didn’t need promotion.
ASC was mostly intended as a sampler/showcase title to encourage readers to pick more books up, featuring their favourite heroes.
Another factor is that some editors, such as Mort Weisinger (Superman titles editor) and Jack Schiff (Batman titles editor), were a tad possessive. They disliked sharing their toys with another editor.
The Society as a framing device
For their first appearance, the Society was thus but a framing device linking individual features. Each member talked about a past case of theirs, and each such segment was done by different artists.
So it still was an anthology book. Not a team book in the modern sense – say, the Avengers.
By the second issue, the framing device has gotten thicker. The Society is tasked by the FBI to fight against an humongous, all-pervasive pro-Axis fifth column throughout the USA.
(The impassioned, paranoid description of this fictional fifth column is reminiscent of the first Red Scare , circa 1919. Ironically, the Justice Society had to stop publication during the second Red Scare, which relied on comparable rhetorics.)
The stories are still mostly made of segments drawn by different artists, each starring one or two Society members. But they are now doing separate parts of the same mission, and the entire team meets to brief then debrief.
So it’s halfway between a collection of individual features and a modern team book.
Okay, let’s (mostly) go back to our normal fare – the in-universe elements.
Late 1940 saw a series of FBI-sanctioned actions against rabble-rousers, propagandists, saboteurs and other seducers of the innocent.
Most of them are “greyshirts” – essentially the German-American Bund.
Once the Society revealed to Americans that the Nazi propaganda they were interested in was *foreign*, these good citizens all turned against the speakers.
Secret underworld genius Mister X has multiple mobs coordinate to eliminate the Society, using his plans and information.
All the attempts fail, but the Society cannot make any progress in discovering who X is.
However, the silly and mousy-looking X surrenders to the police on his own. His criminal income sources have been ruined by the Society’s actions, and he now knows he won’t be able to eliminate the heroes.
The Flash has to leave the Society, and that goofball Johnny Thunder offers to replace him. The Society has a laugh by sending him after an harmless old man who loves pretending that he’s a deadly killer.
But Johnny keeps stumbling upon actual criminals, and Society members intervene to stop those.
The Society eventually accepts Johnny as a member, as they realise his “magic hour of power” is an actual superhuman ability.
Chairman Green Lantern convinces the society to raise a million dollars to help war orphans in the UK and China.
Through crime-fighting, odd adventures and strokes of luck, the Society succeeds within days.
Doctor Mid-Nite has been clashing with mob leader Dr. Elba. Elba is injecting witnesses and victims with a solution that includes a simian virus, making them go mad.
Mid-Nite enlists the help of the Society, whose own crime-fighting efforts have been stymied by madness induced in stoolies, victims and witnesses.
Using the vaccine found by Mid-Nite, the Society cures Elba’s victims and eventually stops him.
The following two stories were published in 1942. But they were created before the Pearl Harbour attack.
So it’s simpler to consider that they occurred in 1941.
The FBI sends Society members throughout Latin America to stop Nazi spies there.
A scientist working on defence projects has also invented a time travel ray. The Society travels 500 years in the future to ask for tech that can defend against air raids.
In the year 2442, the Society are major historical heroes… but unfortunately, most everyone assumes that the time travellers are insane impostors. Or space alien spies.
Society members therefore use stealth, persuasion and subterfuge to procure the air defence formulas. These are used to build a force field machine that can stop bombs.
Pearl Harbour was attacked in December, 1941. The active Society members all enlisted – except for the Spectre. Dead people cannot serve, see.
Most members often switched to their costumed identity while in battle.
Hawkgirl (Shiera Sanders) also enlisted, as a nurse. In that capacity she served in the Philippines alongside Diana Prince (Wonder Woman).
Wonder Woman also joined the Society, but as an auxiliary rather than as an operative.
(In the previous issue we see her easily repelling a major Japanese invasion in the Philippines. But nope, she only gets to be secretary.)
The Justice Battalion
Serving individually and in uniform lasted for about two months. The Army then grouped the JSAers as an autonomous unit, the Justice Battalion.
(In the story, this is goofily presented as a means to avoid infighting among military commanders as to which unit gets to deploy their favourite Society member.)
The Battalion took orders from the Chief of Staff, much like when they occasionally worked with the FBI. Their meetings were nigh-identical to those they held as the Society.
They also were back to being primarily active stateside, foiling major attacks by fifth columnists.
Though Johnny Thunder was a Navy man, he was detached to the Justice Battalion. And though Jim Corrigan couldn’t enlist, the Spectre could work as part of the Battalion.
The Battalion clashes with the secret Black Dragon Society. The BDS is presented as the real power behind Imperial Japan.
The first major clash occurs after Black Dragon operatives steal multiple, major American military inventions.
(The Black Dragon Society may have been a US propaganda talking point, since it’s found in multiple comics stories of that time. Say, in Captain Nippon’s origin.)
(Also, obvs, the depiction of the Japanese is racist AF. But one notes that a patriotic Japanese-American dude helps the wary JBA, even though Executive Order 9066 had likely been signed at this point).
After all inventions are repossessed, Axis forces attempt to get rid of the JBA. The Battalion has been a major thorn in their side, and the Fascists still have no idea how to fight them.
Indeed, there has been no superhuman or super-tech Axis deployment so far, aside from the stolen American inventions.
The bizarre plan, masterminded by an engineer apparently named Dr. Gootsden, involves :
- Suddenly pumping the air out of the Battalion’s meeting room, making all members pass out.
- Loading them onto one-person rockets, which are then shot into space.
But each rocket ends up on a different planet of the Solar System. And all are inhabited by different pulps-style space aliens, who all support democracy and therefore ally with the Americans.
After individual JSAers help them solve local troubles, each alien culture provides them with some alien science secrets to fight the war back on Earth.
(The population on each Solar System planet was repeatedly reinvented in Golden Age DC Comics tales. Though with the JSA we have the beginnings of a shared universe, it’s still not “sticky”. For instance, the somewhat-Barsoom-like Saturn that Hawkman visits in this story has nothing in common with the Saturn that Eviless is from.)
By this issue, the “Justice Battalion of America” name quietly vanishes. The team is back to being the Justice Society of America.
The JSA has stocks of food, shrunk to microscopic size – presumably using those alien technologies. They each go to an European country to resupply partisans.
Of course, they also help those partisans fight Nazi occupiers.
Once the deliveries and acts of resistance are done, drop spots are determined. So that RAF night flights can parachute ensmallened food capsules to partisans every month.
Wonder Woman is the only one to attend the next meeting. All the others are pursuing urgent leads about a fantastic criminal mastermind.
Reviewing their messages, Diana realises that they’re all after the same man – the Brain Wave. See the Brain Wave’s character profile for more.
Thinking that the men have already been captured, Wonder Woman leads a rescue attempt. She enlists the girlfriends of the JSAers, wearing versions of their boyfriends’ costume – plus Peachy Pet.
The attempt is ill-timed but the JSAers turn the tide, and the Brain Wave seemingly falls to his death.
(*Technically*, this is the first time Inza Cramer appears as Doctor Fate. And *technically*, Doris Lee could be considered the first Stargirl).
In the next chapter, we start with the events of 1943. In the meanwhile, don’t forget to drink a big glass of water – for America and democracy !
Source of Character: At this point, only the All-Stars Comics published from 1940 to 1942 though, yes, ASC #15 has a 1943 cover date.
Helper(s): Darci, Ethan Roe, Peachy Pet.
Writeup completed on the 17th of July, 2022.