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Geoff Johns’ Run on Justice Society of America – The Next Age, Thy Kingdom Come (Parts I, II & III) & Black Adam and Isis

With the Justice Society of America perhaps the most high-profile title excluded from DC’s upcoming relaunch, I thought I’d bid them farewell by taking a look at writer Geoff Johns’ second run on the title.

The Justice Society of America is one of those titles that DC does so well, one based on legacy. Admittedly Marvel has made some attempts in recent years (The Immortal Iron Fist stands out as a big example, as does Ed Brubaker’s Marvels Project – focusing on the World War II heroes adopted into Marvel’s pantheon), but DC have always handled the nostalgia so well. In fact, the relaunch of the Justice Society of America was prompted by the outstanding success of James Robinson’s original superhero generational saga, Starman. This collection represents the first set of arcs from the third volume – writer Geoff Johns was a veteran from the second volume, which (along with his writing on Flash) brought him to mainstream attention. So he knows the cast of characters and their world inside out.

Pin-ups...

It’s interesting to note how clearly Johns defines the team’s role in the modern DC universe. It could have been just another second-tier team-up book, a sort of low-rent Justice League, but Johns has a particular niche carved out for it. Indeed, the first issue of this relaunch opens with what is effectively an endorsement from “the big three”. And it is almost immediately given a distinct purpose. “The Justice League is a strike force,” Batman clarifies, “The Justice Society is a family.” In the modern DC universe, in the aftermath of Infinite Crisis and the firm rejection of the anti-heroes and mindless violence which governed the superhero genre in the nineties, “the world needs better good guys.” And that’s where the Justice Society come in.

It’s the job of the Justice Society to effectively train the young heroes of tomorrow, and help steer them away from the harsh methods which have – and, based on this collection’s ties to Kingdom Come, may yet – led the world to the brink. It’s a more balanced approach to what they do, rejecting lethal force. Indeed, the series recruits a Superman from an alternate world, who gentle rebukes Wonder Woman for her more aggressive methods. Referencing her murder of Maxwell Lord, this older and wisher Superman asks her never to cross that line again. “I implore you, if things get worse here, keep your sword in its scabbard,” he begs. While even Justice Society member Hawkman may accuse the Justice Society of “coddling” criminals, they are really just looking to ensure that the heroes remain heroes.

Kingdom Come back into continuity?

Indeed, through the massive Thy Kingdom Come arc, we’re offered a grim depiction of what a world without the Justice Society to train the younger and more inexperienced superheroes might look like – it’s “the Earth where the super-human society ran wild!” According to the team’s resident Starman, this apocalyptic world exists to demonstrate “why… the Justice Society of America shows us all the way.” An ageing Superman from an alternate world reflects on the team’s importance, wondering what effect it’s having on the inhabitants of this world. “Is that why I don’t see men and women tossing one another through buildings?” he asks. “Or unleashing lightning through the hearts of their adversaries? Or fields smoldering with atomic radiation from a battle that went too far?”

Johns’ second run on the title opens with The Next Age, which is a story built around demonstrating the importance of the Society as an institution that stretches beyond the present, from the past and into the future. It sees the Society tangling with the evil immortal Vandal Savage, who provides an interesting thematic opponent. The Justice Society is about training replacements and new generations, the very idea of progression, while Vandal is a man who has stood through time as an immortal constant. He plans to destroy the Society to secure the future for himself (and then, presumably, just wait for the current generation of heroes to die out before making his next move).

The Joker's having a blast...

The arc pits the Society against Vandal’s “Fourth Reich”, a conscious throwback to the days when Nazis used to populate these stories. “It’s been a while since I tangled with a Nazi,” Alan Scott remarks – and there’s something decidedly old-school about it. It’s interesting, then, how Johns juxtaposes this sort of warm and old-fashioned nostalgia against the darkness in the real world. Both heroes to carry the name Mr. America solve horrible cases involving children, the Sandman dreams of horrible things happening to kids, and we’re informed some low rent supervillain actually has a dungeon for torturing poor children he lured backstage. The world is a nasty and cruel place where horrible things happen to children, as Johns points out, but it’s also a beautiful place filled with colour and hope and beauty.

That’s the thing about Johns’ run that I really appreciate, the way the writer (with help from artist Dale Eaglesham) balances the two – accepting that sometimes the world is an awful place, but we can hope otherwise. It’s a strange tone which fluctuates between nice and witty character building scenes (like a new recruit picking her costume and codename – “how about Red Hurricane?” “if you want to sound like a drink on a T.G.I. Friday’s menu”) right into dark and violent territory. It’s hard to balance those two without making the book seem almost bi-polar, but Johns manages it.

Meet Mr. America... no, he doesn't hold a military rank, why do you ask?

Perhaps what’s most notable about this section of Geoff Johns’ run on the title is his attempt to coopt Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come into mainstream continuity by drafting a sequel in Thy Kingdom Come. I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about the argument that a story’s relevance is determined by its place in continuity or that everything needs to be neatly labelled. For example, I’ve always scoffed a little bit at the way that comic book authors insist on designating the fictional alternate universes – for example, the fact that Kingdom Come takes place on “Earth-22” or Red Son on “Earth-30” or some such.

In fairness, all of this stems from the revelation at the end of the 52 miniseries (as much as a 52-issue series can be “mini” at any rate), that there are 52 alternate Earths. Of course, there’s a complex history behind this. The DC universe used to be home to countless alternate universes – it’s a logic which makes sense, since the possibilities are as infinite as imagination. There were frequent “imaginary stories” offered up by writers which played out “what if” scenarios with familiar characters. However, editorial determined that such a vast multiverse was simply too much to keep track of – who could really invest in these characters if they are only one of countless alternatives? So, the decision was made. There would be – from 1985 on – only one Earth. The massive crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths effectively destroyed all but one world.

Golden age oldies...

However, over the following two decades, a nostalgic mood took root at DC (and also over at Marvel) and the powers that be began to rethink the policy. And hence, a false compromise was reached. The premise of alternate Earths was reintroduced, but this time with a finite number. There were alternate worlds where other possibilities played themselves out, but only 52 of them. To me it always seemed counterintuitive. Imagination was either limitless or it wasn’t. To be honest, sticking numbers on possibilities and narrowing them down to 52 seemed a little ridiculous. But such is life.

Of course, all of this stems from an assumption I never bought into: that these fictional universes need to be ordered and structured and fitted into continuity in order to make sense. I’ve never subscribed to that view. A good story is a good story. If it tells us something unique about a character or uses a smart conceit, I couldn’t care less that it isn’t “in continuity”. Having a designation like “Earth-1” or “Earth-2” doesn’t grant an idea legitimacy, and drafting the phenomenal Kingdom Come into continuity through a crossover seems almost unnecessary.

Oh, my Gog!

Still, Johns always had a flair for continuity – one which he always managed to synergise efficiently with rendering his stories accessible. While his Superman or Green Lantern runs were easy enough for a layperson to follow (and, as a general rule, make a perfect starting point for anyone looking to get into comic books), he has indulged his taste for what might affectionately be referred to as “continuity porn”, based around the little nubs and cracks of DC’s convoluted chronology – like Booster Gold or Legion of 3 Worlds. Justice Society of America is definitely a “hardcore” title, featuring characters from alternate worlds and possible futures, and duplicate versions of well-known characters like Superman or Starman or Power Girl (who is a duplicate of Supergirl).

There are several generations of heroes present (some genetic, some earning the title by other means – like two unrelated characters with the title Mr. America). It’s sometimes hard to keep track of everyone, which is why some of the single-issue character profiles Johns occasionally offers (like ones for Liberty Belle or Citizen Steel) work especially well. Slowing down to examine a particular character offers a nice bit of depth, and it’s the kind of slowed-down perspective that fits a title like Justice Society of America, but wouldn’t work on a larger book like Justice League of America. Still, as nice as these issues are, there are simply too many characters to keep track of at points, Johns’ excellent ability to keep track of characters’ voices not withstanding.

A shared society...

However, that’s not to discredit what Johns is attempting to do here. It’s still a well-written yarn, and one which is engaging on its own terms. It’s easy enough to follow for someone not bogged down with decades-worth knowledge of the inner workings of the DC universe, though you undoubtedly feel like you’re missing something – not like Johns is trading in-jokes for the sake of in-jokes, rather making passing reference to casual acquaintances he’s made over the decades.

And there’s certainly enough continuity here to delight and astound fans. As I mentioned above, this is a “legacy” series, which means that it essentially runs by reference to the seventy-odd years of stories that came before and give Johns an excuse to “geek out” as it were (and, trust me, it were). There’s an annual dedicated to the old concept of Earth-2 for example, “a place where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of Earth’s greatest heroes first appeared decades ago” and now “their descendants carry out their legacies”. Which is, in essence, what Johns has cast the Justice Society as in the mainstream universe, populated with children and successors and literally generations of heroes – it’s telling that The Next Age, the first arc, featured a sinister figure attacking the children and grandchildren of heroes with the Justice Society stopping them; generations and legacy are the speciality of the title. Thy Kingdom Come is based around the fundamental idea that it’s the Justice Society which would prevent the horrors of Kingdom Come from ever coming to pass.

Throw it against the wall, see if it sticks...

I found it fascinating, however, the way that Justice Society of America is so firmly anchored in American history. It’s understandable, but a lot of comic books will try to keep their timelines vague and imply that the world they inhabit isn’t too distinct from our own. However, there are a few instances in the book where Johns draws conscious attention to the fact that the DC Universe must, despite its similarities, have an alternate history to our own world.

So we get elements like the casting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s descendant as a superhero, or the insertion of an African American superhero into sixties politics. We’re informed that Amazing-Man tracked down and apprehended Martin Luthor King’s assassin. “Along with King and Malcolm X,” we’re informed, “Amazing-Man is one of the most important historical figures in American Civil Rights.” It’s kind of a little bit daring to actually insert characters into a fictional history, especially in passing. I wonder, for example, what superheroes might have chased down Lee Harvey Oswald, or fought in Vietnam. However, it does reinforce the unique concept of this series, the fact that it is anchored in a long-term legacy.

Armed and dangerous...

What is unique about giving Johns a title like this – as opposed to see a more popular or mainstream book – is that he’s free to tackle somewhat more controversial ideas like faith or religion (though I suppose that’s a given in the sequel to Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come). Sure, there are moments when the script plays its hand a bit too strong – the image, for example, of Gog (a living god) as he makes his way through Africa towards the Middle East being played out as a metaphor for religious conflict is perhaps a bit much – but for the most part it works. It’s the intimate moments as the characters react to the religious experience which lend the story its power (for example, Mister Terrific’s reflection on his lack of faith, juxtaposed against his counterpart’s absolute faith).

Thy Kingdom Come has been accused of being padded, and that’s certainly an assertion that is easy to understand. The plot twists and turns and spins out in all sorts of directions. I’m not entirely convinced that we needed to visit Earth-2 with Power Girl, for example, and I’m fairly sure that Gog could have been introduced earlier. That said, the series draws a lot of power from its character interactions – if ever there was a character-driven ensemble superhero comic, Justice Society of America is it. I wouldn’t get rid of those moments of characters interacting for the world, even if there must have been a more effective way to move the plot forward. Johns has a huge ensemble cast and, being frank, one could be forgiven for wondering how he planned to work with so many of them. The answer, it seems, was in spreading out the arcs to allow them all room to breath.

I'm not sure I give Adam about him...

Still, it’s a shame that his final arc, Black Adam & Isis doesn’t quite work as well as the rest of his run on the title, and it makes for a somewhat disappointing ending. This especially so because Johns has alway written a remarkably strong Black Adam, and seeing him return to the character should have been an absolute pleasure. Instead, I actually found the Marvel family dynamic somewhat harder to keep track of, and I don’t know it it relates to Final Crisis in any particular way, shape or form.

That said, Johns’ final issue is a nice farewell to a title that served him well, a fond goodbye to a franchise that helped make him the popular writer he is today. It focuses, as one might expect, on the character of Stargirl, Johns’ pet character, and her birthday celebration. It’s a nice little story that – like a lot of the series – can’t help but bring a smile to my face. The schizophrenic Starman actually stands in for Johns on the final page, uttering a simple, “Thanks.” A colleague asks, “Who are you talking to Starman?” The character replies, with his usual smile, “Everyone.” It’s actually much sweeter than a little postscript might have been, and fond farewell from a long-term writer to his fans.

Cycling through the heroes...

Johns’ Justice Society of America isn’t an essential read, but it’s an entertaining one. It’s an affectionate and heartfelt superhero comic, with an honest sense of nostalgia for the genre. It’s well-written and can be forgiven if it occasionally gets a little bit too bogged down in its big over-arching plot. Thy Kingdom Come could certainly have used a somewhat tighter leash, but I think to focus the title so rigidly might have taken away a lot of the charm.

Now, where are those omnibus collections of Johns’ original run?

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