JSA by Geoff Johns Part 5
Reviewing JSA #46-58 & Hawkman #23-25
Written by Geoff Johns & David Goyer (#46-51)
Art by Sal Velluto, Leonard Kirk, Keith Champagne, Don Kramer, Wade von Grawbadger, and Rags Morales
I just got impatient. It has been 2 ½ years since JSA by Geoff Johns Book Four was published. After I decided to do this series, I read that DC was publishing Book 5 in March, but I simply didn’t want to wait an indeterminate amount of time for the rest of JSA to be reprinted. Watching that atrocious Black Adam movie made me realize I missed the JSA of the 2000s, so I figured out a way to split the remaining issues into three clusters and read through them. One of my biggest takeaways was how the JSA was unlike anything else at DC Comics. The Justice League are big movie blockbusters (or they should be when written correctly), while the JSA is much closer to Claremont’s X-Men, a story about a diverse family of superheroes, they have their own lives, and these personal elements often intersect with the team’s adventures. I even found myself getting teary-eyed a couple times reading these issues because Johns finds a way to make the most obscure DC superheroes extremely human & so their losses hurt, or when we have to say goodbye, it is bittersweet.
The first arc in this cluster of issues is Princes of Darkness, David Goyer’s farewell bow after kickstarting the series with James Robinson four years earlier. Goyer was an essential element in reintroducing this team to modern audiences. Before JSA, there had been a series of mini-series, some taking place in the Golden Age and some in the present day but none of the writers seemed to know how to capture what made the Justice Society so enjoyable, legacy. Throughout this run, Robinson, Goyer, and Johns emphasized the generations of heroes that began in the 1930s and are continuing into the present day. The JSA roster was a mix of the old guard (The Flash, Green Lantern, Wildcat, Hawkman), adult sidekicks (Sand, Power Girl), adult children (Atom-Smasher, Doctor Fate, Black Canary, Hawkgirl, Hourman), and new characters picking up old mantles (Doctor Mid-Nite, Mr. Terrific, Jakeem Thunder, Stargirl). The team’s roster was also very malleable, accommodating long-term guest appearances that suited the story arcs.
Princes of Darkness also did something Johns had mastered at the time: tying together elements of DC Universe lore that seemed only tangentially connected. In this story, the evil wizard Mordru returns from exile in JSA’s first arc. Mordru was originally a villain for the futuristic teen team of the Legion of Superheroes, but here we’re meeting him long before those stories happen. He’s managed to manipulate Green Lantern’s son Obsidian into allowing his shadow powers to overtake his fragile psyche and has weaponized the man against the JSA. Mordru has also stolen the Helm of Fate and trapped its bearer at the time, Hector Hall, within the pocket universe where the dead former bearers all live. So much DC history is incorporated into these plot elements and handled smoothly so that a new reader won’t get lost. However, if you are a longtime fan, many disparate threads are being pulled together in a way that makes a lot of sense.
You also have Alex Montez, the curator of the JSA museum & brother of deceased member Wildcat (Yolanda Montez), working behind the JSA’s back to do something he thinks will help. He’s contacted Dr. Bruce Gordon, the man who both was and now fights the evil god Eclipso. Monetz has tattooed himself with protective runes against Eclipso’s power and wields the Heart of Darkness crystal to use Eclipso’s power for “good.” Of course, if you are a longtime reader, you’d know this couldn’t last long, but that’s another story to anticipate. A new reader will be pleasantly surprised when Montez’s plan goes south later in the series.
In the background, the terrorist cult of Kobra is using the chaos caused by Mordru to launch attacks on multiple countries, stretching the team even thinner. You have Stargirl and Captain Marvel trapped in the Shadowlands, where she becomes the first team member to learn the hero is a boy her age named Billy Batson. Air Wave and The Flash race worldwide, taking out Kobra terrorist cells while Sand pushes his earth elemental powers to the limit, losing touch with his humanity and merging with the planet. It turns out this was a trick by Mordru, who uses this disruption in Earth’s magnetic field to create a permanent eclipse, empowering himself and his shadowy allies. The Freedom Fighters, another legacy team, shows up in the final stretch to help. The big finale has Doctor Fate detailing what is to come for Mordru, how he will become the punching bag for a future team (The Legion) inspired by the heroes of this era, and that he is doomed to fail. And while all this is going on, Johns & Goyer are laying the groundwork for the Black Reign story arc to come near the end of the year.
This sounds like a lot, but if you had been reading the series consistently to this point, there isn’t anything too overwhelming. The only place you might get tripped up is the tie-in of Hawk & Dove, which feels out of nowhere. However, I didn’t feel it diminished the core narrative. The artwork is standard for comics of the early/mid-2000s, so it is perfectly competent but nothing that will blow you away. What I loved most was how a relationship like Green Lantern and his children, Jade & Obsidian, is taken to a new depth. He didn’t know he had children until they were teenagers, which has been an awkward dynamic. It is very emotionally satisfying to see the three of them come to a new understanding and learn to see each other as a family.
Between these big stories, Johns did an excellent job writing smaller one-offs or two-parters that never felt like killing time. In this two-issue story, Johns brings back the second Crimson Avenger. The first was one of DC’s original “mystery men,” obviously inspired by The Shadow, but the person carrying on his legacy is quite different from him. Jill Carlyle first appeared during Johns’ Stars and STRIPE series as part of a revival of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. She comes into possession of the original Avenger’s Colt pistols. They have become mystic artifacts that compel Carlyle to exact holy vengeance on evil-doers. Power Girl and Wildcat are tracking down Kobra members only to be interrupted by the Crimson Avenger, whose magical bullets wound the heroes. It was previously established that Wildcat has been granted nine lives, so he revives himself after dying from the wounds. He and Power Girl go on to outsmart the magic behind the Avenger’s crusade causing her to teleport far away.
Also, in these stories, Johns brings in Jesse Chambers, the daughter of Johnny Quick & Liberty Belle. She’s popped up in a Justice Society mini from the early 1990s, been used as a supporting character in Mark Waid’s run on The Flash, and, just before this time, was a member of Devin Grayson’s Titans team. So having her with the JSA felt like a perfect fit, and she starts to rekindle a teenage crush with her peer Rick Tyler, the current Hourman. These two will become the premier couple of the JSA, a fantastic culmination of many small stories told over a decade.
That sort of character growth made me think about Claremont’s X-Men or Wolfman & Perez’s Titans as I read this. In the Justice League, you don’t see those characters grow in a meaningful way because they have their solo titles where their main stories are being told. You can’t read about the JSA members in any other books, so everything that happens to them is crucial and pushes them forward. Nowhere else can you follow the development of Jesse & Rick’s relationship; there isn’t a solo Mr. Terrific book to pick up (at least at this point); at most, you have Hawkman to follow that character’s contemporary adventures.
In the grand tradition of the old JLA/JSA team-ups of the Silver Age, Johns has the JLA come to the brownstone for Thanksgiving dinner. Naturally, there’s a worry about the team being attacked as they are all in one place, coming from Batman. He’s warranted. That very thing happens in the one-shot graphic novel JLA/JSA: Virtue & Vice. However, things are far more controlled this time, allowing some downtime and letting the characters interact without fighting villains. Two baddies show up and quickly realize they are in over their head in a moment that plays as humor. One of my favorite moments in this issue is the heart-to-heart between Black Canary and Doctor Mid-Nite. In the pages of JSA, there had been a potential romance hinted at between the two. However, when Canary’s formerly deceased lover Green Arrow came back from the dead, it was clear that DC wanted the two reunited. Instead of simply ignoring what was, there’s a scene between her and Mid-Nite where they must admit that what could have been between them just won’t be. It wounds Mid-Nite, but he isn’t going to stand in the way of her happiness.
This is followed by a Christmas-themed issue with the JSA old guard teaming up with Santa Claus?! It’s eventually revealed to be Ma Hunkel, the Golden Age Red Tornado. Back in the Golden Age, there wasn’t all this grim grittiness to comics, so humorous, light-hearted heroes were perfectly acceptable. Abigail Hunkel was a plump New York housewife who bought her own grocery store. She gets approached by racketeers threatening to destroy her establishment, and Hunkel won’t take that treatment. The gangsters get their butts handed to them, and the woman gets inspired by her children talking about Green Lantern being a costumed hero. She puts together a colorful costume, wears a pot with eye holes on her head, and takes the name The Red Tornado. Her son and nephew eventually became her costumed sidekicks, The Cyclone Kids.
Johns shows us that Hunkel is still a deeply involved member of her community, ensuring everyone is safe even in her old age. The JSA see her as a needed antidote to the rough time they’ve been through and offers Hunkel the job as the new JSA brownstone caretaker now that Alex is gone. She takes the job and sees to Dr. Mid-Nite’s cold, making Power Girl a cup of tea after a long day and helping Stargirl find her missing belt. I love this wholesomeness, and I hope Johns finds a way to include it in his current revival of the JSA.
The trend in comics these days is chasing the tone & style of the Marvel movies. It makes sense, they are trendy, and it could draw new readers in (though sales show rarely). I love the addition of Ma Hunkel to the series and the very different dynamic she brings. Not all superheroes are recognized as such because they fight big bad guys. Hunkel is a hero because of her compassion & empathy. She loves everyone and finds joy in caring for others. The JSA recognized its time they took care of her too.
This collection of issues is book-ended with Black Reign, the story that partially inspired the awful Black Adam movie. The actual comics are far more interesting, with nuanced character development presenting a genuinely complex situation. Black Adam had spent a period as a member of the JSA earlier in the run but had a falling out over his violent methods. Atom-Smasher went with him because he also believed the JSA weren’t solving problems, just delaying them. This character is Albert Rothstein, the adopted son of the Golden Age Atom. Early in the JSA run, Albert’s mother is killed when Kobra hijacks a commercial airplane. Albert cannot stand this and is given the option, by the New Gods character Metron, to alter the timeline. He can swap out his mother for Extant, the villain responsible for killing almost every member of the original JSA. Albert goes along, which brings condemnation from his team members. He leaves and joins up with Black Adam.
When Black Reign began, Black Adam formed his own group. Other members include Northwind (Hawkman’s estranged godson), Brainwave Jr (the son of a long-dead JSA villain), Nemesis (an Israeli superheroine), and Eclipso (Alex Montez “in control of” the shadowy god). They have been wiping out Kobra cells worldwide and now set their sights on Khandaq, Adam’s homeland. The country has been taken over by a dictator whom Adam sics his team on. The man is killed publicly, and Adam establishes himself as the king of Khandaq, claiming he will bring equality to the people. It’s easy to be on Adam’s side as he uncovers a warehouse full of child slaves being made to labor for the dictator’s benefit. Hawkman muscles Mr. Terrific out as chairman of the JSA, claiming that only he can lead the team against a deadly foe like Black Adam. That, of course, doesn’t sit well with much of the group.
This is an incredibly thrilling story arc in which Black Adam fumbled. Without the rich history of the JSA and particularly the conflict within Atom-Smasher, it just couldn’t live up to Johns’ narrative. The best bits are Albert’s internal struggle about what is right. He sees the harm done to Khandaq and the innocent people there and cannot abide it. However, Adam’s methods are brutal to a degree of sadism. We also have side conflicts built on DC history: Doctor Fate & Northwind are both sons of Hawkman, but only one has been remembered, Hawkman & Mr. Terrific’s power struggle, Nabu taking over Hector Hall’s body as he agrees with Adam’s methods, and one of my favorite moments when Rick Tyler is gravely wounded and switches places with his dad Rex Tyler, the original Hourman, who has been kept in stasis. That last one leads to one of the most emotionally satisfying & beautiful arcs, but more on that in the next part.
So many stories get resolved in Black Reign, characters die, and we see Atom-Smasher resign himself to believing he’s undeserving to serve beside his friends in the JSA, letting himself fall into Black Adam’s grasp (for now). Of all the characters Johns worked on in this book, his characterization of Albert Rothstein is one of my all-time favorites. He feels like a fully realized character, struggling with the power he’s had since he was born & how to wield that power with responsibility. The moral conundrums put forth here are challenging to reconcile, and that’s good. Should there be groups of superhero vigilantes acting out of their own interests and imposing their will on non-powered civilians? It’s a question worth exploring; it’s a questioning of the Rand-ian objectivism that certain people are more worthy than others.
I love this comic book series and look forward to the upcoming parts of this review series. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about the remainder of the JSA series, and somewhere down the line, I wanted to re-read and review The Justice Society of America, Johns’ follow-up, and the last time he wrote the book until the current maxi-series being published. I hope my excitement about this book will be contagious to at least one other person who will pick up the collections and discover just how great a run this one was.