JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA
Reprinted form The Amazing World of DC Comics #16 (Dec. 1977)
©1977 DC Comics
By Paul Levitz
One of the universal constants of comics is that time stands still. Little Orphan Annie never becomes Daddy Warbucks' replacement at the head of his vast corporation, the Katzenjammer Kids never take over for the Inspector, and Batman never retires to make way for Robin. It's one of those golden rules that makes comics unique, and allows readers to be lost in the unreality. It's unthinkable to break it.
Or at least it used to be.
These days the ground rules have changed a bit. Beginning with the sixties, it began permissible to have your characters grow, develop, and even … gasp … age. In fact, a few writers started to consider growth and development a necessary part of writing good comics.
All of which is by way of prologue to the statement that a part of the reason for All-Star COMICS' continued existence is the fact that the heroes chronicled therein age before the readers' eyes. Or at least I think that's part of the reason … with the uncountable audiences that comics attract there's no way to be sure.
It began with Julie Schwartz and Gardner Fox, of course. When they revived the Justice Society of America in 1963, they indicated that the team had been out of business for over a decade. And that meant that several of the members had entered into middle age.
Then the JSA series was revived on a regular basis, some twelve years later, and writer/editor Gerry Conway tried to make use of the fait accompli. He introduced some younger heroes, and tried to set up a level of conflict based on a heroic generation gap. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Readers were already wildly enthusiastic by the time I took over as the series' regular writer, some four and a half issues later, and the same complexities that made me write the book with a scorecard at my side were the very elements that thrilled them. Clearly, if I wanted to keep that up, I had to get the characters straight in my own head.
Each of the JSAers is a tremendously complex creature, you see. Their individual series were among the best of the forties, and the total number of tales they've appeared is almost beyond reckoning … and certainly beyond reading. At least in the limited time I had available. So I had to capsulize each one's background. When that was done, I discovered a common denominator—each of their character bits was related to what the passing years had done to them. I felt like I had just adapted Passages to comic book form.
Take Green Lantern, for example. He started out as an engineer, building bridges. Then he discovered the magic lantern and started on his way to fame and fortune. Within a couple of years he was a radio star, and by the time he was into middle age he was the President of Gotham Broadcasting. He never married, because during the peak of his super-hero career he was too busy being a man about town.
When his crisis came, it totalled him.
Here's a 57 year old man, who has put his whole life into two things: a company and a non-profit career as a super-hero. He has no family, and his only close friend is off on another planet (everybody does remember Doiby Dickles, don't they?). His company goes kaput, naturally he isn't far behind. Paralleling what happened to GL is The Flash, in sort of a "might have been" situation. Flash is a little younger—maybe 55 years old—he continued with his career in science. No matter how fascinating the super-heroics got, he still put a portion of his life on the bedrock of his own talents. The Keystone Research Lab was founded about the time he got married, just after he hung up his winged boots in the fifties. There's a solid confidence to this man that few JSAers can match.
The third active JSAer from that generation of heroes is Hawkman, and age has treated him as kindly as it has The Flash. As Carter Hall he and his wife run a small private museum, and in their costumed identities they back each other up as well. But take Shiera away from him, and he collapes. They function perfectly as a team, but have grown together so much they can't function apart. Chronologically, he weighs in at 57 years … but the fact that he's a reincarnated Egyptian prince makes for some confusion, as well as an upcoming interesting storyline.
The rest of the original team is retired these days. Sandman has been inactive since the JLA/JSA adventure "Creature In The Velvet Cage", brooding about what do to cure Sandy. Here too age is a factor. Sandman was one of the first super-heroes, since he started his career in the "masked man" tradition of the thirties. Without any super-powers or similar superstamina, Wes Dodds wouldn't be too much use in a fight today.
Hourman recently returned to action, but couldn't keep up with the changes since he was last active. He's in his sixties now, and although the Miraclo pills are strong enough to keep him super heroic, they can't give him the patience to deal with the inevitable bickering that modern individuality causes. He also has a secure home life to retreat to. Although he married late in life, his marriage and his work in the chemicals industry give him a life beyond the JSA.
The Atom started his career as a college student, so he's only about 53 today by my reckoning … which still is a bit old to be running around if your only super-power is your strength. But it's certainly young enough to leave plenty of possibilities open, and if current plans materialize, they'll all be explored.
Batman's life history has been pretty thoroughly recounted in the last year, through the Huntress origin and his conflict with the JSA. His aging process clearly sparked both of these. His marriage to Selina Kyle, the birth of Helena, his gradual turn towards public service, Selina's death, his rejection of the Batman identity, and his new job as Police Commissioner after Gordon' s departure all form a clear time line. And all indicate that he has been held together the whole time by his decision to turn from a life entirely built around being Batman, to one where Bruce Wayne is the dominant figure. So now, at age 60, he's gone through a lot of changes but has weathered them all.
Superman is a different case. In certain sense, he's the only one who was born to be a hero, and as such can never really retire. But just as he has adopted other conventions of life on Earth (when on Terra …), he has retired to the background to allow his younger cousin the spotlight. By our reckoning he's about the same age as Batman, but there’s no real way of knowing how a superman will age.
That leaves two of the originals, and both of them fall outside the usual process of aging. For that reason, their age wasn't the key to pegging their personalities—but their antiquity was.
The Spectre is a ghost, of course, the spirit of Jim Corrigan living on in what is really Corrigan's lifeless body. While this doesn't really affect the age of either (Corrigan was about 25 when the murder took place, so he's about 62 now), but the fact that The Spectre is dead places him beyond the whole aging process—beyond growth. He's the absolute quantity of justice untempered by mercy, and since he's dead he can't progress to the higher state of justice with mercy.
On the other hand, Doctor Fate is ageless. He's the immortal persona of the guardian of order and life, who possesses the shell of Kent Nelson in order to function among men. The two are separate beings, even to the point of having separate speech patterns, and the strain on Nelson of having such an ethereal guest is awesome. And made all the worse by the fact that the spirit is ageless, and keeps Kent Nelson far more youthful than otherwise possible.
Kent Nelson is really hitting 60, but no one would take him for a day over 40—and Fate's power even extends to lnza Nelson, keeping her youthful as well. The fact that their marriage can hold up, and the two not go through breakdowns is a tribute both to their strength and to the benevolence of Fate's spirit.
But inherent conflicts are what make the character interesting.
Curiously though, the original JSAers have held up better than the second group. Johnny Thunder, being after all an ordinary man, rarely attends even the formal meetings of the team anymore. He's finding it a little hard to be the spritely spirit of the team in his fifth decade.
Starman returned to action recently after having been laid up with a broken leg during the early part of the new All-Star run. But Ted Knight's mind is literally in the stars, and the astronomy that was once his hobby is now a full-time occupation. He's happy with the improvements the Star Spangled Kid has made in the Cosmic Rod, and the JSA has nothing to offer him now. He's one of those people who comfortably settles into a rut with age.
Dr. Mid-Nite finds it much harder to quit. He's never let handicaps beat him (and age is at worst a handicap), and he doesn’t intend to be stopped by his sixtieth birthday, either. He came back for a tour of duty not long ago, and although the incident of Doctor Fate's "death" depressed him enough to make him leave again, he's still ready to jump back into action if the need arises. In the meantime, he's doing more medical innovating.
Wonder Woman also fits in the ageless category. Although she gave up her immortality when she left Paradise Island, she doesn't age at the same pace as ordinary mortals. Right now she's happy to be involved with Military Intelligence, but that's only a phase in her extraordinarily long life. Eventually she's sure to rejoin the team … if any of the others are still around by then.
The next group of JSAers are a few years younger, having joined the team after the war. Wildcat is the only active member of this generation, and he's just hitting 50 as these words are written. That's not an old man by any measure, but it is an age of reexamination—and all the more so for a man who has lived by violence.
Ted Grant isn't sure where his life is going, and that's what makes him a worthwhile character. Within the next year, he'll be looking for a life of his own for the first time. And that's a tough job at that age.
Mister Terrific was faced with a similar problem, but he had kept up something of a private life as Terry Sloane, playboy. He solved his problem by giving up the Mister Terrific identity, and turning back to his private life.
Only one other character joined the JSA during the Golden Age, and that was Black Canary. In her case, I'll accept the premise that it's a woman's privilege not to tell her age … especially not to someone who doesn’t even write her adventures.
Pardon me. I forgot someone. Remember the original Red Tornado, Ma Hunkle? Well, as far as the current All-Star run, I suggest you do exactly what I have done—forget her.
That leaves us with the second era heroes. In a certain sense, they're the most vital element. Without their counterpoint to the old team, there would be no conflict and no characterization.
Star Spangled Kid actually spans the gap between the two teams in one sense, since he began his career in 1940. But since he spent the three decades in between in limbo (see JUSTICE LEAGUE #100 if you don't believe me), he still feels and acts like an 18 year old. He's out of reach of his family, friends, and everything he grew up with. Sylvester Pemberton has been dead to the world all these years, and only the Star Spangled Kid survives-forcing him to find all his life within the JSA. That's what draws him irresistibly towards Power Girl, even though he's just as incapable of understanding her as Wildcat is.
Robin bridges that selfsame gap in another way. He also began his career years ago, as a very young child, and being a super-hero is all he could be expected to know. However, he lucked out. A few years after he began working with Batman, Bruce married Selina—and that solid upbringing made him devote a portion of his energies towards the solving the world’s problems on another level. So now he's a diplomat, 35, and only gets involved with the JSA when they cross paths.
Power Girl has her own age related problems. Although she's 18, her last real memories are of her infancy on Krypton. She spent most of the intervening years in a time-warping starship (see SHOWCASE #97-99 for details), and was brought up in an imaginary universe created and run by the sentient starship. And if that kind of an upbringing wouldn't make an individual reject outside help, I don't know what would. That problem lingers on in her relationship with the other JSAers.
The new Red Tornado is also a second era member, but now that he's switched over to the Justice League I'll cop a plea on him as well.
That leaves only the Huntress, and her story has been well developed in recent months, so I won't run through it again. But contrast it with Power Girl's in your own mind, and I think you'll be able to see the source of some of our up coming conflicts.
Hmm … I just noticed that I've been going on for several pages about why the aging process is important to All-Star without ever addressing what started out to be the topic of this article: how to gauge the age of the All-Stars.
The beginning step is to construct a time line of reality-slightly different from our own, since Earth Two is involved, but similar enough that readers can track it easily. And in the case of the JSA members, World War Two is the most relevant landmark.
The team divides on rather simple grounds: those active long before the war, those who began their careers during the war, and those came into the super-hero racket afterwards. This automatically puts their ages within certain brackets, since World War Two on Earth Two was virtually identical to the one we experienced-except for the multitude of super-heroic interventions.
Then the question of what the heroes were doing in their private lives enters into it. Dr. Charles McNider was already a physician, so obviously he was a good deal older than college student Al Pratt. These are the prime facts that you have to work from—thereafter it's all interpretive.
Now that you see how simple it is, you can see why I didn't spend an entire article on the subject. It's much more fascinating to use the facts to delve into the characters’ heads, and make them into more realistic people. Try it with your favorite characters and see.