Comic Book Review – JSA by Geoff Johns Part Six

JSA by Geoff Johns Part 6
Review JSA #59 – 72
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Sean Phillips, Don Kramer, Tom Mandrake, Jerry Ordway, and Dave Gibbons

By May 2004, the plans for DC Comics’ 20th-anniversary celebration of Crisis on Infinite Earths were well underway. For the 10th anniversary, the company released Zero Hour: A Crisis in Time, a book which, as a kid, I loved because I bought every issue as it came out on the grocery store stands. Unfortunately, having re-read and reviewed it a few years ago, Zero Hour doesn’t hold up. I also re-read Infinite Crisis around that time, and it holds up better. There are great moments, but it’s sparse as a cohesive story. Geoff Johns was the primary writer of Infinite Crisis and led the team around it all. He’s aware that JSA is going to be wrapped up by 2006 for a reboot, so the stories at this point are focusing on a character or two and delivering some really satisfying conclusions to their arcs. Before that, though, Johns gives us a teasing episode told from the perspective of Per Degaton.

Per Degaton was a classic Golden Age villain whose whole schtick was focused on time travel. He became obsessed with using the time travel technology he helped develop to become the ruler of the Earth. As a result, he became a more confusing character when he appeared in the latter part of the 20th century because it took some time to figure out from what point in his timeline he came. Degaton is close to DC Comics’ version of Kang the Conqueror, but he hasn’t been developed as much though Johns is currently using him as the central antagonist in his current Justice Society maxi-series.

Degaton appears to be going on a non-linear tour of the lives of the JSA members, sometimes directly confronting them and others simply watching from a distance. He witnesses Captain Marvel resign from the JSA after The Flash voices concern about the Captain’s relationship with Stargirl. The Flash is unaware that the hero is Billy Batson, a peer to Stargirl. It’s a really interesting idea to explore and I think Johns handled it well. There were ways it could have been creepy, but Billy’s desire to keep his identity secret prevented The Flash from fully understanding what was happening.

Overall this issue is a bunch of foreshadowing about what is to come. Degaton taunts Hawkgirl with the knowledge that she and Hawkman will soon die horribly. Green Lantern reassures Hawkgirl that Degaton is just a fascist trying to unnerve them. Hector Hall (Dr. Fate) has been reunited with his bride, Lyta Trevor (Fury), and they are talking about their future while Degaton comments to himself that all they will know soon are endings. Hourman (Rex Tyler) works with Mr. Terrific and Dr. Ray “The Atom” Palmer to find a way to save his injured son Rick who is trapped in a pocket dimension and fatally wounded. Finally, Degaton watches Stargirl sob as Billy Batson says goodbye and comforts himself that he can spend eternity watching his enemies suffer over and over again. 

Then we begin a series of three to four-issue arcs that focus on two or three characters and are part of Johns’ send-off for this iteration of the team. Issues 60-62 comprise “Redemption Lost,” a story that serves two purposes, one of which is to retcon something Johns did in another story. Back in Judgment Day, the dead-at-the-time Hal Jordan was granted a new life as the host of The Spectre, the embodiment of God’s vengeance. Around this time, Johns had pitched his Green Lantern reboot which had Hal front and center so that needed to be set up. 

Johns does an excellent job of still making this a JSA story by bringing back the obscure villain Spirit King. This villain was a thief killed by an energy blast that managed to bring himself back as a phantom. He was responsible for the death of the original Mr. Terrific but appears to have been dispatched by the original Spectre. Dr. Mid-Nite has been dealing with a series of murders in his home base of Portsmouth, and the JSA shows up to help. This provides the opportunity to contrast Mid-Nite and the modern-day Mr. Terrific. Mid-Nite is a moderately devout Catholic, while Terrific is a staunch atheist. However, they aren’t antagonistic toward each other.

It reminds me of those good conversation scenes from classic Star Trek or The Next Generation, where the characters contemplated big, philosophical ideas. Spirit King reveals he is back from Hell and has brought a horde of the dead back with him, unleashing these zombies on Portsmouth. Paralleling the circumstances of the original Mr. Terrific’s death, Spirit King possesses the body of The Flash, taunting him with how he will make him kill his own friends. Then The Spectre/Hal Jordan shows up, and there’s some back and forth about how justified this herald of God is in eternally damning people rather than allowing for rehabilitation. Thus, Jordan & The Spectre establish a rift between them that eventually gets resolved in Green Lantern: Rebirth

In the continuing trend of resolving specific character’s arcs, we have “Waking the Sandman,” which seeks to fix what happened to Sanderson Hawkins in the Princes of Darkness storyline. One night, an earthquake shakes the JSA brownstone, and the letters “J-S-A” are carved into the street. Again, Johns does some excellent storytelling here, taking the convoluted history of characters named “Sandman” in the DC Universe and weaving them together to tell a beautiful story. Dr. Fate & Fury receive a message from the scrying mirror in the Tower of Fate from an obscured figure that notifies them of the need to help an old friend, Sand. Meanwhile, Cave Carson and his crew are helping some of the JSA drill down into the ground to search for the lost Sand. Fate & Fury show up with their old Infinity Inc teammate Brainwave Jr. and explain that their friend is split. His body is merged with the Earth, but his mind is in the realm of dreams. 

Brainwave Jr, The Flash, Fury, Stargirl, and Hawkgirl are put into a mystic sleep where they save Sand’s consciousness while the spelunkers focus on the body. In the dream realm, they are shocked to find Sand in a strange orange & yellow costume and calling himself Sandman. This is a reference to the extremely short-lived attempt by Jack Kirby in the 1970s to reboot the name as a new character, a sort of protector of the Dream Realm who fought nightmares. One team fights dreams while the other deals with the dangers beneath the crust of the Earth. Eventually, Sanderson is fully restored and is back. There is some excellent character work with Power Girl as she reflects on her time with Infinity Inc, a “children of the JSA” team around the 1980s. It’s tied to Brainwave Jr being part of Black Adam’s team during the Black Reign arc, and some JSA-ers are unsure if they could trust him. 

The next two-parter is one of my favorites as it focuses on one of my favorite B-tier heroes, Hourman. During Black Reign, the present-day Hourman (Rick Tyler) was severely wounded and teleported to a pocket universe. This was a place set up for him by the android Hourman of the distant future. Rick never got to say goodbye to his dad, Rex Tyler, who died with many other original JSA members while fighting Extant during Zero Hour. In this pocket world, Rick has sixty minutes he can mete out in whatever fashion he pleases to spend time with his dad. Throughout this JSA series, Rick often visited his dad when he needed advice. This last time, Rick used it because as long as he was in this side universe, he couldn’t die from his wounds. Now Rex, who is supposed to die when that time is up, has been living in the present day and revealed himself to his wife, who’d grieved his death years prior. But Rex is purely focused on saving his son. 

Rex had been working in the background with Dr. Mid-Nite and Mr. Terrific to figure out a way back and settled on sending a T-sphere into the timestream in the hopes that the android Hourman would find it. He does and brings them all along, plus The Flash is a fun flying Viking ship that can time travel. Dr. Mid-Nite is a surgeon by trade, so he can clean and close Rick’s wound with android Hourman speeding up time locally around Rick to completely heal it, but this leaves only 47 seconds left in the pocket world for Rick & Rex. The lab begins to dissolve, and Rex explains that this is it; this is the moment he returns to the battle with Extant and dies holding back the villain. Rick won’t stand it and jumps into the timestream, declaring he will die instead of his dad. 

The rest of the band of heroes jump in the time-traveling ship to try and stop Rick not realizing they’ve opened a door that Per Degaton was waiting for. More on that in a bit. A beautiful sacrifice is made by the android Hourman, which makes this his last appearance (well, before DC rebooted things with the New 52), and it is such a spectacular send-off. It’s the sort of impossible thing that makes you love comics as a kid, a sense of unity between these heroes, many of whom had known each other for around sixty years. It wraps up the Hourman subplot threaded throughout the previous issues and is a genuinely happy ending at a time when those weren’t very common in comic books. 

There is a brief interlude crossing over with the controversial Identity Crisis event. Even if you didn’t like that story, this is a good issue as it focuses on Dr. Mid-Nite and his autopsy of the murder victim who kicked that arc off. I really enjoyed Pieter Cross’s character this time, and the DC Universe lost a lot when so many of these JSA-ers were just wiped off the board when New 52 rolled out. We don’t have a lot of medical doctors as superheroes in comics, and just having someone with that perspective made for interesting, unique stories. I also like how Power Girl’s time with Justice League Europe is acknowledged here as well as her profoundly complicated history with Superman. That was setting up a brief story that opened up the JSA Classified ongoing series, which I may get to re-reading and reviewing one of these days. 

The final story of this group of issues is one of the best in Johns’ portfolio, JSA/JSA. In the pre-Crisis days, you’d have an annual crossover between the Justice League and Earth-2’s Justice Society. In that same tradition, Johns sets up an epic battle where some of the younger members of the modern JSA are recruited by the time-traveling Rip Hunter to go back to the early 1950s, where Per Degaton is about to alter the timeline in his favor. During World War II, these masked mystery men had been symbols of American pride, but now, as Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt for communists has overtaken the country, these same heroes have targets on their backs. Why won’t they take off their masks, the House on Un-American Activities committee members wonder aloud. As previously established in an older story, Green Lantern teleports the members away during a hearing when they declare that they must keep their identities secret for the safety of their loved ones.

Degaton is in a race against Rip Hunter, trying to stop the hero from gathering allies while implementing his destructive plan in the 1950s. Stargirl watches her entire family get murdered by Degaton’s forces by erasing them from the timeline. Hunter saves her and Dr. Mid-Nite, Mr. Terrific, Jakeem Thunder, Hourman, Sand, and Atom-Smasher. When they arrive in the past, each hero seeks out another they are connected to through legacy to convince them they must prepare and fight against Degaton. Stargirl discovers Dr. Ted Knight, the original Starman, has checked himself into a sanitarium, having found his senses to be dulled during the day but heightened at night. Mr. Terrific seeks out his inspiration, Terry Sloane, but because the hero is Black, he discovers segregation hinders him at every turn. 

Atom-Smasher reconnects with his godfather, Al Pratt, the original Atom, only to discover the man he admired had struck a deal with the feds to rat on his teammates. The Golden Age JSA’s mascot Johnny Thunder is heartbroken about the team’s dissolution, but Jakeem Thunder shows up to explain how they will come back in the future and that even Johnny’s legacy is being carried on. Sand, of course, is reunited with the Golden Age Sandman, for whom he was the sidekick. Dr. Mid-Nite introduces himself to his inspiration, Charles McNider, the original Dr. Mid-Nite, both blind physicians. Rick Tyler finds out his dad, the original Hourman, is already hunting Degaton in this period and seems to know something is up. 

There are lots of juicy plot complications. I particularly enjoyed a sequence where Mr. Terrific accidentally stumbles across a meeting of the KKK in the woods and single-handedly beats the shit out of them all. The plan is eventually revealed that Degaton will assassinate President Truman and frame the JSA for the act, thus wiping out the existence of freely operating superheroes in the present day. We get an epic battle on the White House lawn as the two JSA teams combine and take on Degaton’s time-traveling stormtroopers.

There’s even a Chekov’s Gun situation that uses an object introduced by the android Hourman to aid in defeating Degaton, which is pretty clever and never feels contrived. But, of course, the good guys win, and on their way back to the present, they pass through 1985, where Rip Hunter notes something had gone wrong in the timestream (that’s, of course, when the original Crisis took place). Power Girl is briefly fragmented into multiple versions of herself and then restored. Everyone is confused. The ending is a beautiful little ouroboros where the story’s final page mirrors the opening page of issue 59, having Degaton going completely full circle. 

Once again, Johns knew how to write these characters so well. Because there wasn’t an intense emphasis on them as one of the pillars of the DC Universe like Batman or Superman, the stories were allowed to be more interesting with more significant consequences. Johns really nails the sense of family & legacy here. He causes things from the past that old fans might be familiar with to matter more and connects them to characters in unexpected but completely natural ways. In many ways, the JSA/JSA could end this series. As we’ll see next week. The last year’s worth of stories serves more as tie-ins to Infinite Crisis and filler before Johns launched his big reboot. 


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