It took almost 40 years, but the Justice Society of America, DC Comics’ premier super-hero team, finally got an origin story.
Which begs the question:
What took so long?
Even the good folks at DC Comics had to be scratching their heads.
When the team debuted in “All Star Comics” No. 3 in 1940, the band was fully formed, sort of. They might as well have been drinking buddies gathering to swap stories – which is just what our heroes did.
The team didn’t go into action united against a common threat until the next issue.
But despite a run in “All Star Comics” that lasted until 1951, the various writers never revealed the team’s origin. Even when the Justice Society was revived in the 1960s for annual team-ups with its Silver Age successor, the Justice League of America, the team’s beginnings were never explored.
That changed, finally, in 1977. Writer Paul Levitz and artists Joe Staton and Bob Layton revealed “The Most Sensational Secret of World War Two” in “The Untold Origin of the Justice Society of America,” DC Special, No. 29, cover date August-September 1977.
This issue screamed Must-Have-Now in the smoke shop where I purchased my comics. A double-sized comic devoted exclusively to the Justice Society and pulling back the curtain on the greatest mystery in comics?
Where’s that 60 cents?
But first we have to talk about that cover.
(Did you know? You can click on the cover for a full-sized image. Also, check out my ever-expanding JSA cover gallery.)
A Neal Adams illustration of the Golden Age Gods is a piece of heaven. But this one has some odd perspectives.
For one, the team is scampering across the page from left to right.
Hitler is the most prominent figure on the cover, directly facing the reader.
Superman seems to be saving him from a Nazi missile, which is assuredly not the case.
Also: The Atom is punching a horse.
Punching. A. Horse.
Suddenly I’m imagining a lost “Super-Team Family” issue in which the Atom goes to war against the Legion of Super-Pets. Watch out, Streaky! Beware, Beppo!
Perhaps this was Adams’ cheeky aside to the 1974 hit “Blazing Saddles”?
Back to this timeless tale:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, freshly elected to his third term as president in 1940, receives intel that Hitler plans on invading England.
He pledged to the voters that he would keep the country out of the war, but he believes America’s Mystery Men might be able to help.
He brings together Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern. The trio attack a Nazi hideout in Dover, but are overpowered by the “Murder Machine,” a robot Nazi.
The whole story plays like a game of tag, with Dr. Fate bringing in new heroes every time another set is apprehended.
He pulls Hourman along overseas to rescue the heroes from Hitler himself, wielding the Spear of Destiny, a mystical artifact that gets no good explanation in this tale.
When they fail, Fate’s mystic tendrils reach all the way from Berlin to America to snatch Hawkman, Sandman and the Atom and carry them across the ocean.
At the rate this story is going, only the Red Bee is going to be left to guard the nation.
And then we have the Spectre.
When the JSA was formed, the company aimed to give more exposure to up-and-coming heroes who didn’t have their own books. (And once they won their own books, the heroes – the Flash and Green Lantern – dropped to honorary status in the team, a very meta move.)
So while the Spectre’s presence is understandable from a business sense, from a creative point of view, it throws the team completely out of whack.
In one corner, you have a pint-sized hero with muscles and a man who fires sleeping gas; in the other, you have the Right Hand of God.
The Spectre grows to enormous size, to the point where the Nazis and their fleet might as well be toys in his bathtub.
One has to wonder why the Spectre didn’t appeal to God to end the war, or for the right to rain vengeance on Hitler.
Of course, more troubling than the question would have been the answer.
Superman makes an impressive entrance, and our heroes converge on Washington just in time to prevent one of Hitler’s mystical valkyries from spearing Roosevelt.
A grateful president suggests, “Here you stand, the greatest heroes our great nation has ever known – it’s a shame you can’t stay together that way – you’d make a snappy army regiment.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Superman replies smugly.
Fate and Spectre object: They all are needed together to fight the dark days ahead.
Hawkman suggests they form a “special super-battalion.”
Superman replies, “No…Not a battalion – we’re not part of any army. We fight only in the cause of justice … and that’ll give us our name…”
Only no one says the name.
We close the story on a pin-up of our founding members and the Justice Society logo.
While this story still retains its charms, it is not Levitz’s finest work. He was still honing his writing and wouldn’t perfect the art of a good story until his second run on “The Legion of Super-Heroes.”
To my knowledge, this story has been reprinted twice, in the 100-page digest “The Best of DC,” No. 21, cover date February 1982, and in Justice Society Volume One, a 2006 trade paperback that also collects some of the 1970s revival of “All-Star Comics.”
Roy Thomas notes in one of the prose pieces to the recent “Justice Society of America: A Celebration of 75 Years” that the origin tale was considered for placement in the book, but space was too limited.
As we plod along in DC’s post-“Flashpoint” universe, the story’s coda seems poignantly ironic:
“Never the End!”