In the continuity of DC’s relaunches, Superman will reportedly be the first super-hero. This implies that the Justice Society will have been wiped from continuity, and that seems to be DC’s current plan.
This isn’t a simple change by any means. In fact, it radically changes the nature of the DC Universe.
But first, let’s be fair to DC and try to understand why this change is being made. It’s actually the final step in a very long progression, going back to the first time the Justice Society was the subject of a retcon: “The Flash of Two Worlds!” (Flash #123, Sept 1961).
There and in subsequent stories, the Justice Society’s 1940s adventures were said to have taken place in the parallel universe dubbed Earth-2. The Justice Society prove popular enough to team up with the Justice League every year through the mid-1980s.
But this presented two rather obvious problems.
First, the Justice Society’s history was fixed around World War II, while DC’s present exists on a sliding timescale. This meant the DC Universe had two time periods, one fixed in time and the other fluid. When the Justice Society was reintroduced in the 1960s, it had only been inactive for a decade. By the mid-1980s, that period had stretched to roughly three whole decades, and it seemed awfully strange to imagine these 1940s characters taking the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s off, then returning to active super-hero duty in their sixties, around 1980.
The Society’s creators addressed this incrementally, making the characters suddenly appear older in the 1970s, before explaining that they had been exposed to an energy that had retarded their ageing process. After the Society’s Black Canary had joined the League and been depicted as much younger than in her Society appearances, the two were said to be mother and daughter. But DC’s sliding timescale made this increasingly improbable: by the mid-1980s, if the original Black Canary were 20 years old in 1940, she would have had to give birth in 1960 at 40 for her daughter to be in her 20s in DC’s current continuity — and this situation was only going to become more improbable, year after year.
The second problem the Society entailed was more nuanced and a side effect of what the Society offered. Especially in the 1970s, the Society had a mentor-like relationship with the Justice League. They were the experienced heroes, the parental figures and then the grandparent figures to whom the League could turn. These were often unique relationships, ones rarely seen in the youthful super-hero genre, and it added to the DC Universe’s richness.
But it also made DC continuity more complicated and difficult for newcomers. Readers had to understand that there was a whole generation of super-heroes that preceded the ones most commonly seen. If you read Green Lantern or Flash, you had to understand that there was this other Green Lantern or Flash out there, on a parallel world, who was much older and at least a spiritual predecessor — but who had slightly different powers. If you read Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, you had to understand that these characters had alternate-universe versions of themselves, who had been active in World War II and whose lives had sometimes taken a very different course.
It’s worth noting that many have questioned the assumption that such a long and detailed history intrinsically makes a narrative inaccessible. I and many other comics readers recall learning this history as part of what we enjoyed about getting into comics: who was this Justice Society, and where had they been? In an email, the always kind and smart Colin Smith has pointed out that this sense of history is indeed part of the thrill of Tolkien, for example, and he’s quite right.
It may be worth distinguishing, at least very loosely, history from continuity. The Justice Society’s mere presence, in the 1960s, certainly confused no one (especially because comics took pains, in those days, to use exposition that rendered each situation accessible to new readers). Nor, I think, are past character developments necessarily difficult for new readers. Continuity becomes a barrier to accessibility as it grows convoluted. Understanding Earth-2 and the Justice Society might be easy, something a writer can explain in a single panel. Understanding the confused history of interaction between universes, in which characters sometimes went from one to the other for many years, may start to become unwieldy. And that was certainly DC’s view, in the mid-1980s.
Before anyone points out that this is something uniquely silly about the DC Universe, Marvel’s has the same problem: the distance between Captain America’s World War II adventures and his revival from being (absurdly) frozen in ice grows with every passing year. So too does the gap between the Sub-Mariner’s 1940s adventures and those published in stories from the 1960s onward. To make matters worse, those 1960s stories are rooted in their era (the space race, the Cold War, Vietnam) much more than DC’s Silver Age revivals.
The major difference is that Marvel didn’t publish new versions of its Golden Age characters. When it revived them, it kept their identities the same. Thus, its story isn’t generational in the same way. Sure, Marvel can say there was a Vietnam-era Captain America, but he’s not the Captain America that’s been published since the 1960s, interacting with the older original. He’s merely an oddity, a footnote, not part of the central story that is the Marvel Universe.
And this makes that generational aspect — the fact that DC’s heroes had a previous generation before them and have these mentors — one of DC’s defining traits.
Marvel also hasn’t sought to fix the continuity problems raised the ever-widening gap between its two main periods of heroes. Perhaps because of the wider role granted these older characters, DC has attempted to fix these problems on two separate occasions, prior to its current relaunch.
In the mid-1980s, DC famously merged its various parallel universes into a single one, via Crisis on Infinite Earths. It did so in large part to simplify its continuity, and it predictably played havoc with Justice Society continuity, since it required the removal of any Society members who had present-day analogues. After all, DC wanted Superman to debut in its present-day continuity, without a 1940s predecessor, and the same went for Batman, Wonder Woman, and their related characters, such as Power Girl, who was (like Superman) also Kryptonian. Justice Society continuity changed drastically, as analogues were inserted to fill the missing characters’ roles.
In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC published Last Days of the Justice Society, which placed most of the Society in a limbo dimension. By editorial fiat, they weren’t supposed to be mentioned. DC had relaunched many of its titles, and it decided that forcing readers to understand the Justice Society would be a burden upon new readers.
It’s worth noting that the average comics reader was considerably younger, in the mid-1980s, than today, and younger readers are arguably less inclined to engage with heavy continuity. Also, DC’s storytelling style was more old-fashioned than Marvel, and its most popular, standout creators were often former Marvel creators. DC wanted to seem new and accessible and, well, younger. Removing the older characters of the Justice Society rested upon practical reasons, but it also carried immense symbolic weight.
The Justice Society returned, first by a lifting of the ban on even mentioning it, then through characters who hadn’t been exiled to limbo, and finally through the entire team returning from that limbo.
In the process, the meaning of the Justice Society changed. The Society’s former role as mentors to younger heroes now carried additional meaning, since it was part of DC’s main timeline, its only universe.
Especially in the latter half of the 1980s and the early 1990s, DC tried to be new. It allowed characters to change. It made Superman and Batman more troubled: the former killed and went insane, while the latter lost Robin and began a series of bouts with obsessed personal isolation. Wonder Woman developed a strong social conscience. Flash (Barry Allen) died, and his successor (Wally West) struggled to live up to his predecessor’s image, in a character arc that took most of 100 issues to resolve, in a series of stages. As it tried to be new, DC had shuffled the Justice Society offstage.
Curiously, the gradual return of the Justice Society worked so well precisely because the DC Universe had embraced the new. These new, more uncertain heroes were even more in need of mentors, and now they had access to an entire generation that had gone before them, in the very different world of the 1940s.
Consider the impact that Jay Garrick, the Flash of the 1940s, had on the current Flash, Wally West. Garrick returned years before the rest of the Society, when Wally was still searching for his own identity, very much in the shadow of Barry Allen, to whom Wally had been a sidekick. In its willingness to embrace the new, DC had even allowed Wally to become a somewhat unlikable character for a time, as if Wally were rebelling against the impossible example Barry had set. Of course, Wally had only seen Barry through a child’s eyes, and their relationship had been rather superficial. Wally had no insight into how Barry saw women, except to see that Barry had loved his wife Iris very much, yet had tried to move on and remarry after Iris’s apparent death. But because Barry was dead, he could not communicate about such adult issues with his mentor.
What he had instead, as an example of an older super-hero, was Jay Garrick. A spiritual grandfather, because his spiritual father had died.
What a intriguing and rare situation for a super-hero story! And it was made possible not only through the return of Jay Garrick but also through DC’s commitment to change, which had allowed Barry to die and Wally to succeed him.
DC was a place where sidekicks could actually fulfill their promise of succeeding their mentors. And where both could interact with an older generation, which remembered fighting Hitler instead of the morally ambiguous situations of the 1980s and ’90s.
In other words, the story of the DC Universe was generational one. It worked backwards, through the Justice Society and a generation of heroes who had fought in World War II. And it worked forwards, as DC allowed characters to change and be replaced. New and old worked well together, to mutual advantage.
Then, even with the Justice Society popular enough to sustain its own ongoing series (one trailblazing in embracing a bold, cartoon-esque style and unapologetically bright, classic super-hero plots, which fit the Society perfectly but also prefigured the reconstructionism inaugurated by Marvels), DC chose to get rid of the Society again. The less prominent members were killed, quickly and without much fanfare, during the crossover Zero Hour.
But even with the Society gone, Jay Garrick survived in the same generational role. And DC kept evolving, kept moving towards the future, by having Hal Jordan become a villain, replaced as Green Lantern by Kyle Rayner. While never as successful a replacement as Wally West had been as Flash, Rayner’s story was also unique and forward thinking: Wally had to deal with a dead, beloved predecessor, while Kyle got a corrupted, despised one.
And in his story too, the Society’s Green Lantern, Alan Scott, played a crucial role, providing a mentor as well as a link to the past.
Here again, real change went hand in hand with honoring the heroes of the past, augmenting both.
And as much as DC was known as uniquely generational, it was also uniquely able to embrace permanent change. Marvel would never have killed and replaced Iron Man, as DC did the Flash. Nor would it have corrupted and replaced the Hulk, as DC did Green Lantern. This change didn’t destroy the past; it honored it. And the more it did so, the more it succeeded — which explains why Wally West, who had a past as Kid Flash, succeeded better than Kyle Rayner, who had been invented specifically to succeed Hal Jordan.
With the success of Grant Morrison’s JLA, the Justice Society returned again at the end of the 1990s, reaching its apex in the 2000s under writer Geoff Johns. The title’s success helped the Society secure a position as the DC Universe’s mentor figures, who could nonetheless take key roles in major events like Identity Crisis. Winning critical acclaim on JSA, Johns went on to write Green Lantern, DC’s mega-crossover Infinite Crisis, and become one of the guiding voices of the entire DC Universe.
In fact, Johns’s position at DC is why the company’s removal of the Justice Society from continuity came as such a shock. Johns is obviously a fan of the Society, and this retcon will remove from continuity the long and generally acclaimed work that made his career — work he completed just a couple years ago. The irony is only exaggerated by the fact that this retcon will occur in the wake of Flashpoint, a company-wide crossover written by Johns — his third in just over half a decade.
If one has to guess at DC’s motivations, one can certainly look to the reasons DC has cited for its two past attempts at removing the Justice Society: above all, that it simplifies continuity. This is all the more important as DC makes the plunge into day-and-date digital distribution. It wants prospective readers to see those #1 issues, so as not to be intimidated by Action Comics being in the 900s. And it wants the content of those comics to be accessible, hence the emphasis upon explaining the origin or set-up of the characters, in their first issues.
But there’s another reason being cited this time around: the only reason we know for sure that the company doesn’t plan on the Society being a part of its relaunched continuity is that it’s stated that Superman will now be the DC Universe’s very first super-hero.
In practice, this is bound to be more of a guiding principle than a hard-and-fast rule. One could scarcely imagine that no story will ever be told, in the entire DC Universe, in which a character discovers super-powers sometime in DC’s past, prior to Superman emerging on the scene. In the same way, while Crisis on Infinite Earths theoretically eliminated DC’s parallel universes, specific stories were using this device just a couple years later. The theory is more important than the technical reality.
There is a certain logic to DC’s emphasis on Superman as its first super-hero. Of course, Superman debuted in 1938, prior to any other DC super-hero, and he’s often cited as the first full instance of a super-hero in history (ignoring pulp adventurers, Medieval knights, and Greek demigods). And it’s true that, since Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman has always been the first in a new generation of super-heroes — it’s just that, previously, there were previous generations.
With the current relaunch, this will no longer be true.
In commercial importance, Superman naturally takes precedence over the Justice Society, so restoring his status as the first super-hero apparently takes precedence over the Society’s status as DC’s first super-hero team (and arguably the first in history).
Of course, it’s not just the Justice Society that will be lost. Plenty of other DC heroes were active during World War II; it’s just that the Justice Society are by far the most famous and thus serve as emblems for the rest. Equally, characters inserted into the growing gap between that generation and the present one will disappear, such as the brilliant but rarely-referenced Justice Experience, which the excellent but short-lived series Chase (1998) inserted into the 1970s, as a forgotten interlude of sorts between the Justice Society and the Justice League.
It now feels like, in a single stroke, the DC Universe is being stripped of its historical depth. From the 1960s onwards, this depth has always been one of DC’s unique strengths. This depth came at the price of continuity, which carries complications, not the least of which is a certain amount of inaccessibility. But that same continuity, between the generations, was a large part of what distinguished DC Universe.
That historical depth is about to get a lot less so. Call it a sign of the times, but the core sample of the DC Universe is going to look a lot less like that of a glacier and a lot more like a thin sheet of ice.
This means that the DC Universe may still be a saga, but for the first time since the 1960s, it won’t be a sprawling, generational one, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.
Something is being lost here, along with what’s apparently gained. And it is important to note its passing.
True, DC has hinted that the Society will return, only in another parallel universe. Nothing in corporate comics seems to go away forever. If this proves to be the case, one can certainly claim that the DC Universe might again become at least as generational as it was in the 1960s, when Earth-1 communed regularly with Earth-2.
But that generational element was never as strong as it was for the last 25 years, after Crisis on Infinite Earths, when Wally West could interact with Jay Garrick and Kyle Rayner with Alan Scott.
But then, as the above examples suggest, DC’s been rolling back everything done since Crisis on Infinite Earths for some time now. Superman, made the last survivor of Krypton after Crisis, is once again anything but. Batman’s dead sidekick, Jason Todd, returned from the dead and will even be headlining his own title, as part of the relaunch. Virtually every other dead character, even those killed only a few years prior, has returned as well.
Reportedly, the relaunch is said to be undoing even Superman’s marriage.
Instead of continuing in the direction of Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which characters are allowed to change and evolve, to marry and to die, an imaginary Silver Age status quo is being restored. Rather than telling new and risky stories, all change and character growth must go.
More importantly for our purposes, Hal Jordan has returned and benefited from an improbable retcon that allowed him to escape blame for his evil turn — a turn that, while certainly rushed, also had deep roots in the character’s history as an authority-challenging, risk-taking flyboy trained by hero-turned-villain Sinestro.
Even the inviolate death of Barry Allen has been reversed, undermining the decade-long character arc in which Wally West dealt with Barry’s legacy and earned the title of DC’s principle Flash.
In these two moves, the DC Universe undid its two great forward-looking generational stories.
Is it any surprise, then, that it would undo its great backward-looking one?
Ironically, Geoff Johns not only scripted JSA but also the retcon that revived Hal Jordan and wrote Barry Allen’s first stories following the character’s return.
Honoring the past, of which the Justice Society is an emblem, doesn’t mean a permanent status quo. It doesn’t mean undoing any change to some imaginary past state of grace.
After all, Barry Allen’s death and Hal Jordan’s corruption were themselves firmly established (though not equally so) parts of DC’s past, when they were undone.
Indeed, part of the Justice Society’s appeal, especially in the 1970s, even before Crisis on Infinite Earths, was that it was allowed to change while DC’s main heroes were not. Most dramatically, its version of Batman married Catwoman, then died, his daughter becoming the heroine the Huntress. The primary version of Batman would ever be allowed to evolve in such a way.
The generational nature of the DC Universe was probably most successful at the same time that it was busy changing. Honoring the past and pushing forward aren’t mutually exclusive, as we might think. Rather, when it comes to generational stories, they’re complementary.
Having stripped itself of its future, in Wally West and Kyle Rayner, the DC Universe is now going to be stripped of its past, in the Justice Society. This may be an unintended consequence, but we must not pretend the two are unrelated.
Having stripped itself of its forward-looking nature, of its willingness to change, the DC Universe is now going to be stripped of its backward-looking nature, of its sense of deep history. Again, we should not permit ourselves the pretense that the two are unrelated.
The result may well be a cleaner continuity, one more accessible to new readers. New corporate super-hero universes are typically accessible to new readers too, but they’re understandably lacking in the richness that history and a responsible care for continuity can bring.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m rooting for DC. I’m rooting for these titles. I’d like them to win new digital readers. I’m also instinctively admirable of bold moves, and you don’t get much bolder in super-hero comics than relaunching one of the two major corporate universes, while simultaneously going day-and-date for digital distribution. I can even see the logic behind erasing the Justice Society from history, with these ends in mind, and I hope I’ve been fair to this reasoning.
But we must not pretend something unique about the DC Universe isn’t being lost.
And we must not pretend that this loss isn’t related to the equal loss, in the years prior, of the bold steps that universe had taken towards real and lasting change.