You’d be hard pressed to find anyone with even a passing knowledge of DC Comics who doesn’t feel at least a little familiar with the Justice League of America. They are, after all, one of the most iconic and widely recognized super hero teams of all time. Their similarly named ancestor, the Justice Society of America, however, does not share the same notoriety.
In fact, there’s a decent chance this season of #DCTV might be the first time that some of you have heard of the JSA at all.
Don’t worry. If that’s the case, you are far from alone.
So, why is that? What, if anything, is the difference between the two teams? Why is the Justice League a household name, while the Justice Society is much more obscure?
To really answer that question, we’re going to have take a look back—way, way back—to the 1940s and the era known as the Golden Age of comics.
The Birth of the Justice Society
The JSA’s first appearance came in 1940 in the pages of ALL-STAR COMICS #3, making them the very first official super hero team to exist. The initial lineup included Doctor Fate, Hour-Man, the Spectre, the Sandman, the Atom, the Flash, Hawkman and Green Lantern.
Now, if you’re a comics reader or a #DCTV fan, there’s a very good chance you recognize some of the names in that list, but there’s an equally good chance that you’re thinking of someone very different behind the mask. For example, this Atom was a man named Al Pratt whose powers were based in his super strength and endurance rather than his ability to change size, while this Green Lantern was a man named Alan Scott who received his powers from a magical railway lantern instead of a corps of intergalactic police.
In the 1940s, the super hero genre as we know it had existed for less than a decade. Creators were making up the rules as they went along. The concept of things like character continuity and shared universes were still vaguely defined at best. So, as you can imagine, the idea of multiple characters from multiple unique books existing in some sort team with one another wasn’t just revolutionary, it was practically unheard of.
The introduction of the JSA into the super hero world started a snowball effect that rippled through the earliest form of what would eventually become known as the DC Universe. Suddenly completely unrelated heroes could share panels with one another. Over the next several years, heroes entered and exited the team, becoming “honorary” JSA members. Everyone from Batman to Black Canary was eventually included among the JSA’s honorary rotating roster.
However, by 1951, a shifting narrative focus and more solidified sense of super hero genre conventions, not to mention a merging and restructuring of publishers behind the scenes, put an end to All-Star Comics with issue #57. It was at this point that the Justice Society, and most of its core members, faded into obscurity.
At least, for a while.
Enter the Justice League
By the early 60s, the kinks and the snags of the super hero genre were being readily ironed out, and in that process, things were being streamlined both on the page and behind the scenes. It was high time for a new, updated super hero team to come into the mix.
In 1960, that new team was formed in the DC Universe in the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28. They called themselves the Justice League of America and their roster included the very familiar likes of Aquaman, Batman, Superman, Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and the Flash.
This chunk of time was the heart of a period known in comics’ history as the Silver Age. It was during this time that characters like Flash and Green Lantern were reimagined into versions we easily recognize today. Alan Scott gave way to Hal Jordan and his familiar cosmic police force, the Green Lantern Corps and their will-powered rings. Jay Garrick gave way to Barry Allen, who became the Flash after being struck by lightning rather than by inhaling “heavy water” vapors, and so on. Popular, but highly dated characters with vague, contradictory or nonsensical origins and power sets were reshaped and reborn anew all across the board.
Wait, so the JLA Replaced the JSA?
Well, sort of.
As you might imagine, fans of the JSA and of the “original” incarnations of the now updated super heroes were not quite satisfied with their favorite characters suddenly and abruptly fading into the void to never be heard from again. And on top of that, the fact that some characters had been completely changed (like, say, the Flash) while others remained the same (like Batman) represented a pretty big narrative hurdle for creative teams.
The solution? Create a “multiverse” to reintroduce some of the original versions of newly reinvented characters.
Starting in THE FLASH #123, published in September of 1961 (just one year after the JLA’s formation), it would be established that the Justice Society, and all of its members, existed happily in a separate universe called Earth-2. On Earth-2, Jay Garrick, rather than Barry Allen became the Flash. Alan Scott still acted as Green Lantern, and so on. Here, the Justice Society had never disappeared, but rather continued to act as the Earth’s protectors. Meanwhile, the “main” line of comics being published took place in a universe called Earth-1, where the new and updated incarnations of characters in the current Justice League lived.
The Multiverse carried on in this way, with the Justice Society and Justice League existing as two simultaneous but separate entities for nearly 20 years.
But How Did the JLA and JSA Come to Exist in the Same Universe?
Two different, but similar teams featuring many different, but similar heroes set on two different, but similar worlds. It makes a certain amount of sense, and if you’re a fan of the Flash TV show, you’ve essentially seen this brought to life on the small screen.
But as with all things in comics, things didn’t stay so simple.
In 1985, DC published the massive crossover event CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Crisis folded the Multiverse back into one single Earth and one single line of continuity. In doing so, it slotted elements of the once disparate multiple Earths into one cohesive universe like pieces of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle.
As a result, the JSA was migrated over from Earth-2 to the newly singular Post-Crisis Earth. That meant the team, including it’s somewhat contradictory members like Flash and Green Lantern, all existed on the same Earth right beside their JLA counterparts. Two super teams sharing one Earth.
So What's the Difference?
Despite their deeply intertwined origins, the modern incarnations of the JLA and JSA are genuinely quite unique from one another. Sure, they’re both still teams of super heroes and they share the basic functionality and purpose that all super hero teams share, but that’s where the similarities end.
Batman himself offered up this explanation in the first issue of 2007’s JSA comic:
The Justice League exists as a team of the best-of-the-best—trained heroes who are brought in at the very top of their game. The Justice Society, however, works as a collective of mentors and trainees spanning across generations and experience levels.
During their time existing on Earth-2, and after their transition to the Post-Crisis Earth, many of the original members of the JSA were aged up to reflect the passage of time and the modern setting of the current DC Universe—something made necessary by the many JSA members who had origin stories that tied deeply to World War II.
The process of aging characters up also opened the door for many JSA heroes to have similarly super-powered families—grandparents who were in their primes during the ‘40s and ‘50s passed some of their powers, special weapons or mantles down to their children, grandchildren, or close family friends.
This means that the JSA’s roster is not only very large, but full of characters that may feel a little obscure. These were, after all, heroes, or the relatives of heroes, who dropped off the map for a good ten years or so.
Alright, What About Now?
Now, what was old is, relatively, new again. In 2011, DC rebooted their entire universe in what’s known as The New 52. This new universe started with the formation of the world’s very first super team—the Justice League. The Justice Society was no more. But elements of it still existed.
For starters, The New 52 brought a new incarnation of Earth-2, and with it, new versions of many of the original JSA members. These heroes never truly migrated to Earth-1 and, save for a handful of crossover events, remained a largely separate entity within the DC Universe.
We’re now in a new era in the DC Universe—the Rebirth Era. We have yet to see the JSA make a comeback in the post-Rebirth world, but DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1 offered up some teases as to the future of the team—namely, a look at an aged version of Johnny Thunder, one of the JSA’s Golden Age members. Apparently, Johnny has been living in a retirement home, missing the living thunderbolt he once famously summoned with the magic words “cei-u!” to grant his wishes.
Whether or not Johnny will be reunited with his thunderbolt and the rest of the Justice Society remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the JSA has made a triumphant return from obscurity.
In the meantime, a live action version of the Justice Society of America can be found on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. This incarnation of the team is unique from the comics with a lineup consisting of Hourman, Obsidian, Dr. Mid-Nite, Commander Steel, Stargirl, and Vixen. In a remixed version of their Golden Age origins, this JSA operates as a secret super-powered team under the US Government during World War II. Look for them to make their debut in tonight’s episode.