Any time the Justice Society of America make it off the comics page and onto a screen, it’s a big deal. Why? Because without the Justice Society, there’s no Justice League, no Fantastic Four, no X-Men, no Avengers, and no shared superhero universes, cinematic, televisual, or otherwise. And while the DC Universe and CW Stargirl TV series isn’t the first time we’ve seen the JSA on screen, it’s looking like it will be the most faithful version of the team ever to make it to live action.
Y’see, while the comic book industry exploded in the wake of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and the superhero arms race was on with dozens of publishers competing for seemingly endless space on the newsstands, characters weren’t teaming up with each other. Superman, Batman, and others were published by National Periodical Publications while the original Flash (Jay Garrick) and Green Lantern (Alan Scott) were under the auspices of All-American Publications (which was soon absorbed by NPP, who later morphed into DC Comics), but there were no crossovers, no “event” stories, and certainly no superhero teams. If anything, all of these super characters were in direct competition with each other as they tried to become popular enough to break out of their anthology titles and support their own books.
Just for a little perspective here, Superman and Batman shared a title, World’s Finest Comics, for over a decade before they actually teamed up in it!
In 1940 All-American introduced All-Star Comics, an anthology title featuring big names like Flash and Hawkman (who had debuted the previous year in Flash Comics #1), as well as some second stringers like Spectre and Sandman. It was just another anthology title, though, until its third issue, which had a striking cover…
Remember that cover, because I’m going to come back to it in a few. You may already notice some familiar faces that were teased in the first episode of Stargirl.
Essentially, All-Star Comics #3 was still an anthology comic, however. The Justice Society of America promised on the cover, with a meeting of superheroes around a roundtable, ended up just as a bookend, with the heroes meeting up to tell each other stories about their solo adventures. With All-Star Comics #4, instead of telling tales, the idea was that the team would meet up for a mission, and then split up on solo missions, thus preserving the anthology format. This eventually gave way to more full-blooded superhero team stories, but that “let’s split up and tackle different aspects of this mission” is a format that still plays quite heavily in comics and on a superhero team show like Legends Of Tomorrow to this day.
The JSA headlined All-Star Comics through the title’s demise in 1951, when superheroes were falling out of favor, and if your name wasn’t Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, you were getting shunted off to back-up stories, or worse…cancellation. But a few years later, DC revitalized their publishing line and the superhero genre when they introduced the Barry Allen version of The Flash in the paged of Showcase #4. Barry was an updated speedster who bore little in common with the original Flash other than his speedster powers and a taste for the color red. Other updates and revivals followed, including Green Lantern, and a new superhero team who went by the name of the Justice League. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Continuity wasn’t much of a concern for the comic book fan or creator in those days, so the original heroes of the World War II era were hardly referred to. That is, until, “The Flash of Two Worlds” which brought Jay Garrick and Barry Allen together in a story that established that Jay and his fellow Justice Society heroes existed on a parallel world. Flash team-ups became a regular feature, and that soon extended to a yearly Justice League/Justice Society party. There were a number of Justice Society revivals, with the team headlining a revived All-Star Comics for a time, and the exceptional All-Star Squadron comic launching in 1981, showcasing previously untold stories about JSA-related characters during World War II.
This all changed in 1986 when DC Comics decided to clean up their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, eliminating their multiverse in favor of a linear timeline (sound familiar TV fans?). This gave the JSA a new mission, and perhaps a more important place in the overall DC Universe. Now, the JSA were the original heroes of a unified DC Universe, fighting during World War II and beyond, with a legacy that inspired younger heroes like Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and others.
Because of assorted comic book shenanigans that I don’t need to get into here (it’s a headache, trust me), the JSA were able to exist in the modern day, only slightly older than they were in the late 1940s/early ’50s. As a result, the JSA became the proving ground for a host of even younger heroes. The Justice League had their sidekicks break off and form the Teen Titans, but other new heroes found themselves schooled by the JSA, and heroes like Hourman, Sandman, Commander Steel (fan fave Nate Heywood over on Legends of Tomorrow), Doctor Mid-Nite, Starman, and others passed their legacy on to new characters.
Is any of that starting to sound familiar to Stargirl TV fans? It should! The TV version of Crisis on Infinite Earths eliminated the Arrowverse multiverse as it used to be, but re-established it with some new rules. The version of Earth-2 that had been introduced during the second season of The Flash was a weird, slightly darker reflection of the main universe. That was wiped out early in Crisis, but the conclusion saw the formation of this new, wholesome and kinda timeless Earth-2, and that’s where Stargirl takes place. And without getting into spoilers, the idea of legacy characters taking up the mantle of the JSA is a major theme of this season.
Justice Society Members
So let’s talk about the Stargirl TV version of the Justice Society…both the ones we actually meet in the first episode, and the ones teased via Easter eggs in the rest. Take a look at the photo that Courtney finds with Pat’s things, which looks quite a bit like that All-Star Comics #3 cover!
And now let’s break it all down…
First and foremost, we have Sylvester Pemberton (Joel McHale). In the comics, Pemberton originally went by the non-powered name of the Star-Spangled Kid (and later, briefly, Skyman). He first appeared in Star Spangled Comics #1 in 1941. Here, he’s wielding the cosmic staff that was designed by and used by the original comics Starman, Ted Knight (who first appeared in Adventure Comics #61 that same year). It’s not clear what Ted Knight’s relationship to the JSA will be on this show, and it’s possible that they’ve just condensed Pemberton’s origin story a little to make things flow a little more smoothly, since the legacy of the Starman name is a long one. We’ll probably have to get into this in another article all its own at some point this season.
No, not the cosmic kind. The green flames billowing out of the JSA headquarters in the episode’s opening come from the magical power ring of Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern. We never see his body, though, so is it possible that Alan Scott will show up later in this series?
Visible on the ground during the battle is the helmet of original Flash, Jay Garrick. Like Alan Scott, we never see Jay’s body, so it’s possible that Jay is still running around out there. In a perfect world, this would turn out to be the same Jay Garrick that John Wesley Shipp plays on The Flash, the classic Flash of Earth-3, but his status remains unknown after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
We see the original Dr. Mid-Nite, Charles McNider, fall in battle here. McNider was a surgeon blinded by a gangster who was trying to murder a witness who could testify against him. McNider gained the ability to see, but only in the dark, and got to work fighting crime. He first appeared in All-American Comics #25 in 1941, and has passed the mantle of Dr. Mid-Nite on to several other characters…one of whom we may have already met on Stargirl.
Also fallen in battle we see Hourman. First appearing in Adventure Comics #40 in 1940, Rex Tyler was a chemist who created a drug that could give him superhuman strength and endurance…but only for one hour. Like many other members of the JSA, he has a legacy to fulfill, and expect to see more of Hourman on this show soon enough.
Visible on the stairs is the discarded and damaged gas mask of Wesley Dodds. The Sandman was one of the very first superheroes, first appearing in 1939 with his gas mask, gas gun, trenchcoat and fedora (he was later given a more traditional superhero costume makeover by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby). If you’re looking for some truly unique pulp noir superhero tales, check out DC’s Sandman Mystery Theater series, which took a hard edged look at the earliest days of DC superheroes, including the occasional cameo from JSA members.
And then there are the JSA members visible in the photograph that Courtney finds later on…the one that almost mirrors the All-Star Comics #3 cover discussed up above.
Ted Grant was a former boxing heavyweight champ who turned his skills to crime fighting. He’s also famous for teaching younger heroes how to fight. A version of the character showed up on Arrow season 3 where he trained Laurel Lance as Black Canary. He isn’t the only character to wear the ears and whiskers, though, and Stargirl will introduce another Wildcat later this season.
Hawkman and Hawkgirl
It’s not clear if we’ll see Hawkman and Hawkgirl on this series at any point other than in that photo, but fans of Legends of Tomorrow are already familiar with their story. Of course, these are the Hawkman and Hawkgirl of a different reality than the ones we met on Legends, but the broad strokes (two lovers reincarnated throughout eternity) remain the same.
Not visible on the show yet, but definitely in that photo, is Johnny Thunder, who uses the magic word “cei u” to control a djinn…which is contained not in a lamp, but a pen. Johnny was something of a mascot for the JSA, despite harboring some of its greatest power.
Debuting in More Fun Comics #55 in 1940, Kent Nelson gains the mystical powers of Nabu when he dons an ancient helmet and cloak. Others have also worn that helmet, and perhaps we’ll meet one of them on Stargirl down the line.
If ever there was a feature of the DC Universe that set it apart from Marvel’s brand of superheroics, it was the JSA. That sense of legacy, which often drew a direct line from the era that birthed the entire superhero genre to the modern day, was lost when DC rebooted its publishing line in 2011 with the New 52 initiative, but they’ve finally returned to DC Comics continuity in all their glory. Something tells us there will be lots more Justice Society stories both in the comics and on the screen for many years to come.