Dream Team: The Justice Society of America

Nov-10-08

Ah, the Justice Society of America, or the JSA, as it’s known to its friends. The JSA is DC’s oldest super-hero team, debuting during the early days of World War II. The concept, revolutionary at the time, is now old-hat; a publisher brought their most popular characters into one team, in one book. The JSA survived and prospered throughout the war years, but like almost every superhero title, their popularity waned after the war, and they were soon gone from the shelves. When DC relaunched the superhero genre in the late 50s and early 60s, they created the Justice League of America, an updating of the JSA in much the same way they’d updated the individual members of the JSA, like their new Flash and Green Lantern characters.

Soon, the publishers of DC Comics brought the JSA into their new and updated universe, but for years the JSA didn’t have much to differentiate it from it’s newer and younger counterpart, the JLA, except for that one key element; the JSA members were older. Otherwise, the JSA was just another super-team, and although they tried to maintain their own series a few times, they never seemed able to hold onto the popularity and respect due the original superheroes. However, when the JSA title launched, under the pen of Geoff Johns (and writing partners David Goyer and James Robinson in those early days), the old stars of DC Comics were finally given an identity separate from other teams; they were the legacy team.

DC has done something that Marvel has been unable to do, and that’s create a legacy for many of their heroic identities. Perhaps it’s because their heroes have always been more important than the secret identities, and therefore easier to replace, DC has managed to put succeeding generations of heroes behind the same mask. Flash is the best example, as we moved from Jay Garrick in the Golden Age, to Barry Allen in the Silver Age, to Wally West today. That’s the model for the JSA; it’s about the older generation teaching the younger generation what it means to be heroes. World War II veterans fight alongside teenagers, and everyone learns.

The problem with the JSA is that their roster is huge; they often have 20-30 members, even if they may not all be active at once. I find it difficult to narrow down the ones I think are vital to the team, but I’m going to do it. I’m going to give the group eight members; we normally do seven, but since the JSA is a team that has always been larger than other teams, I’m relaxing that restriction here. I’m also going to say that I love almost every member of this team, and I think all of them deserve a place here, so if your favorite is left out, it probably didn’t mean I don’t like that character; it just means that someone had to give. So, who makes the cut?

The Flash (Jay Garrick) and Green Lantern (Alan Scott): The JSA, to be the true legacy team that they are, must have some of the original members active. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of original members left alive, but these two are necessary to the team. Besides being quite powerful, they have the wisdom and the patience to deal with the younger generation and the experience to teach them. I’m going to leave out Wildcat, the other active member from the old days, for space reasons, which tears me up, as he’s a fascinating character in his own right.

Hourman and Black Canary: The son and daughter of the original members to beat those names, these two have gained their superhero identities by inheriting them from their parents. Both of them are smart and experienced, and their powers are a little bit more street level. Some will say Black Canary belongs with the Justice League, but I say phooey on that notion; her home is the JSA, just like it was her mother’s home. Besides, if we can get her out of the JLA, we can get her away from the horrid Green Arrow and put her with the man she’s much better suited for:

Dr. Mid-Nite: Although the current isn’t related to the original, he’s assumed the mantle of the new Dr. Mid-Nite with grace and style. Yes, he has the original Mid-Nite’s ability to see in the dark and some nice fighting skills, but he’s most useful to the team as a medical doctor. I don’t see why more superhero teams don’t look into having a medical doctor on staff; that comes in handy constantly. The man behind the mask is also interesting, and he and Black Canary became an item until DC decided to bring Green Arrow back from the dead. That was such a horribly bad idea, and I’d like to see Canary and Mid-Nite give it another shot.

Mr. Terrific: The Golden Age Mr. Terrific was, to be honest, something of a goofy character, and wearing ths slogan “Fair Play” on his costume didn’t make him look like any less of a tool. While the current Mr. Terrific doesn’t seem to have much better fashion sense than his predecessor, he’s a brilliant character, and the perfect leader and organizer of the team.

Stargirl and Jakeem Thunder: The new Stargirl has matured more than perhaps any other character in comics in the past few decades; this is someone who’s had an actual character arc, and readers have seen her grow from a spoiled little girl into a worthy hero. I have loved watching her learn from the members of the JSA, and she may be the strongest argument for the value of this team, and for training the younger generation in the field. Jakeem is also maturing, and while he’s not at Stargirl’s level yet, he needs to be on the team so they have someone to mentor. Plus, his friendship with Stargirl is strong and they have a great dynamic.

There’s my eight characters. Mr. Terrific leads Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary, Dr. MidNite, Stargirl, Hourman, and Jakeem Thunder. What do you think?

I will admit up front that I am not as familiar with some of the newer characters in this book as I am with the traditional old-timers. My collection includes a few of the later issues of All-Star Comics and a pretty generous run of All Star Squadron, but with the various crises confusing or flat out eliminating most of the continuity of those books, I don’t know what’s relevant or not. I’ve read the initial four or five trades of the first JSA series and I read the first half dozen or so issues of this latest series, but my history with the title would be best described as “spotty.” That being said, I’m still going to give this a good go. I fear, however, that you may end up winning this round because I won’t be able to argue very effectively for my picks!

Off the top of my head, I know that the Justice Society has almost always had the presence of at least one Hawk family member…usually Hawkman. I know they’ve played host to Dr. Fate and The Spectre. And some quick research tells me that Atom, Starman and Sandman have all played parts on the team from time to time. Current continuity seems to preclude a few of them from being on any team since they’re either deceased or missing or their current incarnations have no real ties to the JSA, but I’ll give this thing a shot anyway. Here’s my JSA Dream Team:

John said Flash and Green Lantern: I find it difficult to argue with either of these and, as our presidential picks went a week or two ago, I think it’s pretty obvious that we both have great affection for these characters. The legacy of the characters, in both name and experience, is essential to any incarnation of the JSA. So Flash and Green Lantern are in.

John said Mister Terrific: Again, I’ve always liked this character and I think it’s important to have someone on the team who is a legacy by something other than relation. Mister Terrific is a smart man and a good leader.

John said Stargirl and Jakeem Thunder: Okay, here’s where we first part ways. I’m good with half of the duo here. Stargirl is a great character. I love the way she has proceeded to become a strong hero and overcome the fears and doubts she had when she first began. And her background is, perhaps, one of the strangest yet strongest ties to a DC legacy: her stepfather was the sidekick of a Golden Age character that eventually inherited the equipment of Starman. That makes her a unique necessity to the JSA. However, I’ve never had a good feeling about Jakeem. I just don’t get the allure of a street smart kid and his magic pen genie. Take that writing instrument away and he’s fairly useless. No, my pick for this slot would be Obsidian for a number of reasons. First, he’s Alan Scott’s son which adds a bit of depth and a new dimension to the legacy aspect. Alan should show fatherly concern whenever they’re in battle. Secondly, Obsidian is gay and I just think that’s something to showcase in the book. And third, his power set is much more interesting and tangible.

John said Hourman and Black Canary: Again, I think we’re going to split the difference here. Hourman is a unique concept for a hero…making him extremely useful for short periods of time, but vulnerable the rest of the day. I’ve always liked the look of the character too. But, in an effort to further solidify the legacy of the team, I’ve decided to throw Hourman’s wife onto the roster instead of Black Canary. Liberty Belle (formerly Jesse Quick) has inherited the powers of both of her parents, giving her flight, super speed and increased strength. That gives us not only a parent/child relationship on the team, but also a husband/wife dynamic.

John said Dr. Mid-Nite: Yeah…I’m not feeling him either. A surgeon who can see in the dark is helpful how exactly? Besides, if I don’t have Black Canary on the team to explore any sort of relationship, then Mid-Nite can be discarded as well. I would prefer to fill this slot with another legacy character who played a prominent role in the second volume of the series: Sandman. Again, I feel that his power set is useful to the team. He has the experience of being both a former sidekick to an original team member and a former chairman of the JSA itself. Plus, he seems to be the resident detective whose skills would play well with Mister Terrific’s science background. And, with Terrific’s current position in Checkmate taking up a good portion of his time, I’d even return the chairmanship to Sandman.

So, my lineup is as follows: Sandman leading a team of Flash, Green Lantern, Mister Terrific, Stargirl, Obsidian, Hourman and Liberty Belle. I suspect a counter-punch is imminent…

Well, I can’t punch too hard, as you agreed with half of my line-up! That may be a first for us here in Dream Team Central. As for the ones you disagreed with, I’m stuck with the problem that I really like my choices, but I like your characters as well. Let me see if I can agree with half of your new picks as well.

I love Sandman, and thought his time as chairman was one of the best eras of the book. He was so close to making my roster, and since you chose him as well, who am I to say no? He’s in, and he can be leader (especially since his new costume is so cool, modeled after the original Sandman).

I didn’t like Obsidian for many years, as I think his early appearances were characterized by him being something of a waffling loser with no self-esteem. That being said, ever since he turned evil, and then came back to the ranks of herodom, he’s had a strength that he was lacking before. I think the writer of Manhunter has used him to great effect, and I do like having him on the team with his father, since these two have a lot of issues to work through. He’s also in.

That means we agree on the team except for that one last slot. I have to be honest; I would have used Black Canary in my JLA dream team, but I was saving her for my JSA dream team. I know she’s a founding member of the JLA in the post-Crisis DC Universe, but I truly felt she fit into the JSA better than she ever did the JLA. That being said, I think she fits into the Birds of Prey better than either team, so I might be willing to let her go from my JSA team if I wasn’t replacing her with Liberty Belle. I agree that having a husband and wife on the team, as well as two legacy heroes is a great idea, and I loved Liberty Belle when she went by the name Jesse Quick and appeared in the Flash comic, but lately she’s been putting me to sleep. I want to like this character again, and there is a lot of plot potential here…..oh, I give up. You win. She’s in.

I’m fine with your roster: Sandman as leader, with Green Lantern, Flash, Mr. Terrific, Hourman, Liberty Belle, Stargirl and Obsidian.

And can we put Dr. Mid-Nite on the team as someone who stays back at base and waits for people to be injured? He can hang out with Ma Kunkle.

What the…?!? Who are you and what have you done with my friend John? Seriously? That’s it? I was sure you’d have some sort of trump card in your back pocket that you would confound me with and I’d be forced to bow down to your more convincing reasoning. Now I’m just confused, but happy nonetheless.

I agree that Mid-Nite should hang around as a supporting character. I was originally going to suggest the same thing for Mister Terrific because of his involvement with Checkmate, but I feared that his lack of appearances wouldn’t be fair to such a great character. The same thing for Flash. I was going to suggest that he take a backseat to Liberty Belle and act solely as a mentor for her, but then I thought about the great dynamic he and Green Lantern share and I could imagine a storyline where the two of them just reminisced over a drink or two.

I originally wanted to put Cyclone on the team, but thought better of it because…well…she’s just kind of annoying.

So that does it, huh? The Justice Society of America Dream Team is Sandman, Flash, Green Lantern, Mister Terrific, Stargirl, Obsidian, Hourman & Liberty Belle.

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Sidekicks: Interns to the stars!

Jul-25-08

Batman and Robin. Captain America and Bucky. Flash and Kid Flash. Aquaman and Aqualad. Sidekicks have been a staple of the comic form almost since it’s very inception, although the concept is quite a bit older than that. After all, what is Dr. Watson if not the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes? However, while you can find examples of sidekicks in other places, it was in comics where sidekicks became known by their current popular meaning, which is a younger hero who basically apprentices him or herself to an older, more established hero.

Sidekicks are probably most prominent in those super-hero titles published by DC Comics, which really popularized the sidekick phenomenon with the most popular sidekick ever, Robin. After he proved a success, DC introduced a veritable plethora of sidekicks and for a time it seemed that everyone of their superheroes had one (except, interestingly enough, for Superman and Wonder Woman. While there was a Superboy and Wonder Girl, both of these characters, originally, were simply younger versions of the title character. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that Wonder Girl was made a separate hero and sidekick, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the same thing was done for the Boy of Steel). Marvel also used sidekicks during it’s Golden Age, and introduced one for it’s other popular hero of the 1940s, the Human Torch, in the person of Toro. However, while DC would retain the use of sidekicks in the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel disavowed the concept after the years of World War II, and never again would sidekicks play a large role in any Marvel comics. Younger heroes at Marvel might be inspired by a hero, but rarely would they work with them and train with them.

It is said that sidekicks were often added to a book because they provided a younger person to which the children (the perceived audience of comics) reading the tales could relate. Of course, we now know that very few children read comics; is this why sidekicks seem to be disappearing out of our favorite comics? DC found sidekicks so popular that they introduced a title in which these younger heroes could gather, The Teen Titans. When this title was first published, all of these heroes could also be found in the monthly titles of their mentors, and truly the book was something of a mini-Justice League. While the title is still being published by DC Comics, and it still showcases younger heroes, how many of them have actually worked with their mentors? Has the current Wonder Girl ever really spent time with Wonder Woman? Certainly the Kid Flash who previously starred in the book, Bart Allen, never really trained with Wally West. Although many of these characters may be considered sidekicks by the general public, do they really fit that mold?

Times are certainly changing, and the reading public of today has different needs and wants then their predecessors half a century ago. Have sidekicks gone out of fashion? Is there any need for them any longer? Was there ever a need for them? Which sidekicks work and which don’t? And if I could get a sidekick, would they do some of my work for me? Would that have enabled me to post earlier this week? Good questions, and as always, I’m sure Jason has good answers.

I don’t know about GOOD answers, but I have a ragtag assemblage of comments that I’m going to throw out there and we’ll see what sticks. I have to get back into the groove of doing this whole blog thing again after the two-week Batman whirlwind and subsequent week-long dearth of posting. But I guess transitioning from Batman to a discussion on sidekicks is a semi-natural progression. After we saw The Dark Knight, my wife and I were on our way home and she asked me if I thought they would introduce Robin in the next Batman flick. I starting laughing so hard I almost ran off the road.

Sidekicks are all kinds of ridiculous, in a traditional sense, from both a moral and practical view. No one is going to seriously consider bringing a child along to help them in a combat situation. I used to watch episodes of the live-action Batman show and wonder how Robin was able to knock these thugs out with the same force that Batman used. I mean, if you’re getting your ass kicked on a regular basis by a teenage boy in his underwear, you may want to consider a new line of work. Not to mention how pissed off some of these “family groups” would be…hell, they’d be calling for Batman’s head just for putting Robin in the line of fire. It’s dangerous, irresponsible and nonsensical.

I don’t, however, have a problem with the Teen Titans forming a group on their own. It makes sense from a social standpoint, that these kids would want to surround themselves with like-minded peers. That’s not to say that I think they should be going on missions to fight the same villains as their grown-up counterparts either. It would almost be kind of sweet to see the Titans taking on someone like Li’l Riddler or Kid Brainiac or Gorilla Grodd’s son Monkey Mikey.

I can understand the relationship that Green Arrow has with his son Connor. And, while Connor isn’t technically a sidekick, I think he works better as one than Roy ever did as Speedy. I think the idea of the sidekick has been trivialized to always indicate someone who is usually younger and of lesser value. It has taken on a negative connotation (most likely because of Robin and the weird associations made with the character) that pervades all of pop culture these days. However, I can also see a view where “sidekick” has the same meaning as “wingman” or someone who assists you to reach a goal. The sidekick isn’t lesser than the main character, it’s just that the main character is the catalyst for whatever the adventure is about and whoever he brings along with him is his sidekick.

Does that make any sense at all?

I think that it makes sense, and I think you highlight a problem, and that’s with our traditional definition of a sidekick. It makes perfect sense for a hero to have a partner of some sort. Being a hero is a tough job, and there’s a lot to it for most of them, and that sort of work could best be accomplished with some help. I also think that it behooves the current generation of heroes to help and train the next generation. After all, there isn’t any college where you can learn super-heroing (although, considering how many heroes populate the Marvel and DC universes, I can’t believe some college hasn’t created that curriculum) and super-heroing isn’t a profession that is kind to amateurs. The best way for someone to learn to be a hero would be to apprentice themselves to an established hero.

The trick here is that these amateur heroes need to be at least 18 years old. It’s pure lunacy to take a younger person into any sort of situation when they’re younger than the age of consent; if they can’t be drafted into the military, they have no business being a hero. There’s been a lot of talk about Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin comic, and critics are saying the book is bad because Batman is insane and a child abuser. While I can’t say I’m a fan of the book, is this a bad portrayal of Batman? Isn’t taking a 10 year old boy into combat child abuse and the act of a crazy man? I have to say yes. So, the first thing we’ve done is redefined sidekicks as no longer being children. These are men and women of legal age.

Next we make these sidekicks less plot devices for villains to capture, and more actual characters. Give them a chance to shine from time to time, and instead of being considered expendable losers, they may start to become junior partners. Sure, they’ll make mistakes, and more often than the hero they’re working with, but they should be growing in the job, and constantly improving. This is also a win for the company publishing the comics, as you can use a sidekick in a book for a few years, growing them as a character and growing them in popularity, and then, when the character is ready to go out on their own, they can graduate to their own series. It’s a perfect training ground for new characters.

I think that’s how you save sidekicks; make them older and follow their training. Do that, and I think they have potential.

There’s something horrifically humorous in the assertion that being a superhero is not something for amateurs. Perhaps it’s been done and I’m just not remembering it (maybe ground covered in Rick Veitch’s Bratpack?), but I can see a scenario where an established hero keeps recruiting “sidekicks” to use as human shields…or where they keep getting killed purely by accident, but the accidents get more and more bizarre in a Spinal Tap-ish vein. There’s also something in the idea that someone could just decide they want to be a superhero and then fail miserably, or that they garner some new powers but are completely inept at using them.

You never really see that process, do you? I mean, some of Marvel’s X-titles allude to training new mutants in harnessing their abilities, but you never really witness the fallout from these attempts. How many young heroes have been secretly shuffled out the back door and tossed carelessly into the dumpster? C’mon, there have to have been a few “accidents.”

One thing you didn’t touch on in your intro wrap-up of the sidekick phenomenon is the fact that, not only were they introduced to appeal to children, but they were used as a way for the hero to recap the plotline within the confines of the story itself. The sidekick would ask some inane question and then the hero would give a page-long exposition on the villain, his motives and the general direction the adventure was heading. I tihnk one of the reasons marvel was able to move away form sidekicks is that they started to internalize these recaps in their characters’ inner monologues. How many issues of Amazing Spider-Man DIDN’T feature Peter Parker swinging through the city moaning to himself about how his battle with so-and-so had made him late for school or caused him to skip out on a date. The angst that Marvel was able to drum up this way easily replaced the need for a goofy mini-me version of the character to tag alongside.

I’d like to see a good parody of the sidekick world that takes all of these tropes and expands them to a completely ludicrous level. There’s fun stuff to be mined here.