Book review: Justice Society of America: The Demise of Justice

‘Demise’ is an odd word, one of those flat-sounding ones that drain the drama from a sentence, like ‘dismay’. ‘The Death of Justice’, that’s exciting. ‘The End of Justice’, that would grab me. But ‘The Demise of Justice’? It’s a tad dull!

Still, I’ve been waiting for this collection for years, as it brings together the eight-issue Justice Society of America mini-series from 1991, whose in-issue title was Vengeance From the Stars. That doesn’t get to be the headliner for this handsome hardback because as well as the mini-series, it contains two bonus ‘last’ stories of the JSA – the final adventure of their original Golden Age run, and a 1979 story detailing the run-in with the government that led to comics’ first super-team going into retirement. Vengeance From the Stars ends where that tale’s Fifties-set events begin, so it all makes sense.

Vengeance From the Stars was put on the publishing slate because DC had a stable of young creators ready to start up the Impact Comics line, but with final agreements not yet in, they needed some freelance work. Editors Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn came up with the idea of a JSA story set in the Fifties, so as not to step on the toes of Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron series, and here it is.

The structure echoes the original 64pp issues of All Star Comics, but it’s unusual as spread out among individual issues; the first four issues feature adventures of individual members, the next two have team-ups, and the final pair have all four featured heroes – Flash, Black Canary, Green Lantern and Hawkman, together, joined by Starman, who has spent most of the series as prisoner and pawn of the big villain.

That’s Vandal Savage, who’s trying to gain ultimate power by gaining control of ‘the fires that drive this age’ – electricity, atomic energy, and radio & television… That last one seems a bit wacky, but Len Strazewski plots a hugely entertaining tale that puts the heroes against Savage’s lackeys – in order of threat, that’s ordinary hoods, Solomon Grundy and… living constellations. The writer choreographs the action superbly, and gives us some cracking period dialogue; sadly, that also means period attitudes – Hawkman and the Flash come across as terrible sexists. Strazewski does, though, manage to point out the awful attitudes towards Native Americans via Hawkman’s good-natured new pal Will Wildeagle.

Hawkman’s is one of my two favourite chapters, in large part due to the pencils of the late Tom Artis, which are chunky, clear and good-natured. I never took to his work on Impact’s The WEB series, but his visuals with veteran JLA inker Frank McLaughlin are lovely.

My other favourite is Black Canary’s sequence, which as well as cracking art by Grant Miehm has terrific pastiche dialogue for the JSA’s resident vamp.

Art by Grant Miehm

One penciller who made a massive impression with his pair of issues was Mike Parobeck – another talent gone far too soon – who went on to draw the present day-set series which followed. Here, with Rick Burchett on inks, he handles the Green Lantern and Flash/Hawkman chapters with huge style – the pages, full of clean-cut heroes and Art Deco backgrounds, radiate hearty heroics and movie serial melodrama.

Art by Mike Parobeck and Rich Burchett

The Flash chapter features the solo art of Burchett, a quality cartoonist whose ability to adapt means he can capture the series sensibility with gusto.

Art by Rich Burchett

Tom Lyle supplies covers for all eight issues, cheekily giving Ted Knight’s chest star a thicker outline than he ever had, prefiguring that of Lyle’s modern Starman, Will Payton. I’m not keen!

When this came out I remember being disappointed by the structure – it’s called Justice Society of America, not Justice Society of America Solo or Justice Society of America Team-Up – I wanted to see the interaction, the character and action dynamics. There’s no denying the early issues are entertaining, but I wanted the team members together. Being able to read the stories in one go, knowing the heroes will be gathered for a big finale, makes for a better experiences.

The script isn’t perfect, with the Constellation creatures a little too mysterious – are these the actual stars, somehow made small enough that they don’t destroy the planet simply by existing? Why do the humanoid star folk also turn into animal avatars? Why isn’t Vandal Savage named until the fifth issue when it’s quickly obvious to any old JSA fan who the bearded guy slowly emerging from the shadows is?

But these are quibbles. Vengeance From the Stars is a fast-paced, great-looking superhero story, with a novel setting, classic heroes, dastardly villains and, in Will Wildeagle and Alan Scott’s news crew, nicely painted supporting characters who contribute to the overall story. I’m glad the eight issues have finally been collected.

Art by Mike Parobeck and Rich Burchett

As for those other two stories, of course, they’re really here simply to pad the book out to hardback length, but they’re good reads. Actually, the All Star Comics #57 story, Mystery of the Vanishing Detectives, is a wonderful read. Four world-famous sleuths – because that’s a thing – go missing after the JSA set a puzzle for them at an international crimefighters’ convention. This sets Wonder Woman, Dr Mid-Nite, Green Lantern and Flash on a globe-spanning adventure to the detectives’ homelands, to solve local crimes on their behalf, while Atom, Black Canary, and Hawkman search for the lost lawmen in Civic City. And the question hanging over everything… Who is The Key?

Art by Art Peddy and Bernard Sachs

I loved this story to bits. John Broome’s script is full of twists and turns, colourful characters and incidental facts – this really is a comic a kid could show to their grown-ups and say, ‘Look, the Funnies are educational’. Of course, the local colour is beyond cheesy – guess what the weather conditions are in London! – but it all serves a clever, great-value tale that always plays fair with readers. And the art is terrific; half of the story is pencilled and inked by Frank Giacoia, who I know solely as a Silver Age inker but his work is so strong – smooth, thick lines – that it all makes sense, once you know. Alternating chapters with Giacoia is penciller Arthur Peddy, whose work I’m less familiar with, but his pages look excellent too, having a flavour of both the Forties and the Silver Age to come. Peddy is inked by Bernard Sachs, another artist who went on to be a Silver Age stalwart, his finish immediately recognisable by the way he draws lines on foreheads and outlines eyes.

Art by Frank Giacoia

The last story in the book sees Seventies JSA members Huntress and Power Girl passing the time after the funeral of Mr Terrific. Power Girl is a newcomer to Earth, so doesn’t know all the JSA history, and is shocked when she hears that the JSA hung up their masks for years rather than show their faces to the infamous Un-American Activities Committee. This came after they’d just escape a space trap intended to get them out of the Underworld’s hair forever – oh, the irony. Power Girl’s incredulity matches my own, it never made any sense that the mighty JSA should give up defending the planet from villainy due to politics. Even had the situation arisen with McCarthy, there had to be a better solution than vanishing in a puff of smoke until the Justice League called their Earth 2 forebears out of retirement.

Art by Joe Staton

Writer Paul Levitz’s story is clever, in a sense, putting the JSA’s disappearance in the Fifties in a historical context, and it became an important part of the team’s history, but it’s a little gloomy. The storytelling by Joe Staton is good, bold and clear – his naive, no-fuss style would have fit right in with some Golden Age artists – and colourist Adrienne Roy can do no wrong.

Tom Ziuko’s colouring on Vengeance From the Stars is a delight, and well served by this volume’s reproduction, but letterer Janice Chiang is less fortunate. Perhaps because the series was produced in a hurry there are typos in most issues, and while they may have been forgivable at the time, this is an expensive collected edition, one that’s been coming for years, yet the typos – in one case, there’s a space where a letter has apparently dropped out of a word – remain. Are these stories considered historical artefacts by DC, to be reproduced exactly as they were, errors and all? To me, they’re memories to be enjoyed anew, and I’m very good with typos being sorted out.

And while it’s nice to have a foreword, the one we get is Mark Waid’s introduction to the follow-up ongoing series; the member profiles include Hawkgirl, Atom, Sandman, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, Dr Mid-Nite and Wildcat, who aren’t actually in Vengeance From the Stars, but not Black Canary, Hawkman and Starman, who are.

A more serious production problem is the way the book has been bound – the glue goes too far into the page, meaning words and pictures are lost in the gutter. It’s a very poor show. I’ve had to nick images from a scan site for this review, because even my iPhone document scanner, that flattens images nicely, can’t get into the tight spaces here.

The cover is the final opening image from the mini-series, but what a shame the gorgeous, retro logo has been swapped out for the 2000s masthead.

For fans of the JSA, this is a good collection; it’s just a shame the reading experience is hurt by lack of production oversight.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Justice Society of America: The Demise of Justice

  1. I read this when it was first released, and I enjoyed it, but I have not looked at it since. I might get this, but I’ll probably wait to see if there is a softcover edition. I agree with you, Vengeance From the Stars would have been a more dramatic title for the collection.

    Looking at this in 2021, it strikes me that too many of the creators who worked on this miniseries died too young: Mike Parobeck, Tom Artis, and Tom Lyle. Yes, Frank McLaughlin has also passed on, but at least he lived to be 84 years old, a full life. I’m glad Len Strazewski, Rick Burchett and Grant Miehm are still with us.

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  2. It is sad that we lost such great creators, Ben.

    Sorry, that came out wrong, it’s sad when anyone dies young. You know what I mean… how great would Parobeck, for example, have become were he still around.

    Definitely wait for a softcover, they should have sorted out the gutter problem… at the very least, softbacks are simpler to manipulate.

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