When the Justice Society of America first gathered around a table in the winter of 1940 (in the opening story of All-Star Comics #3, written by Gardner Fox and penciled by Everett E. Hibbard), the rules of the superhero game were changed. For the first time, heroes like Green Lantern, Starman, The Flash, and Hawkman didn't simply battle injustice in their respective stories, but pooled their resources to tackle their biggest cases together. It was a revolutionary concept, which, with one stroke, transformed all of their stories from individual adventures into windows to a much larger world.
For decades to come, the JSA stood as the standard bearers not just for DC, but the concept of a shared comic-book continuity itself. But as is often the case with standard bearers the inexorable march of time nearly left the JSA behind. As the Golden Age turned Silver, new men took up the mantles of The Flash and Green Lantern, the Justice Society gave way to the Justice League, and the original members were shunted off into "Earth-2," an entirely separate continuity (which itself would ultimately be erased by the Crisis on Infinite Earths). By the late 1980s, it seemed like the JSA was fated to be remembered as little more than a historical stepping stone to the Justice League of America.
Enter the Golden Age
In 1993, writer James Robinson and artist Paul Smith changed all that with a 4 issue limited series, simply titled The Golden Age, which worked not just as a modernized send-up of the JSA, but as a look back at an entire era of comic-book storytelling set within a real historical context for a post-Watchmen audience.
Such a title was only possible thanks to DC's Elseworlds line, which, like today's Black Label imprint, provided a platform for writers and artists to stretch their creative muscles and work out innovative ideas with DC's stable of characters, unencumbered by continuity. A common conceit of Elseworlds titles at this time was to take a familiar concept and place it into a new historical backdrop. Gotham by Gaslight, for instance, gave us a Batman of Victorian England. Justice Riders presented a Justice League in the context of the Old American West. The radical idea of The Golden Age, however, was to set it exactly when the changeover from the Golden to the Silver Age of comic books took place: the 1950s.
Within these four issues, the primary colored, morally infallible comic-book heroes of World War II were granted a depth of character never before applied to their likeness. Like America itself, Robinson and Smith present a Justice Society reeling to readjust to normalcy after years of unending war. Romance blooms and collapses between Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle. Addiction rears its ugly head in the form of Miraclo, the drug which grants Hourman his "hour of power." Red scare paranoia turns former allies into distrusting enemies. And the grim spectre of the atom bomb looms large over Starman, horrified to find he played a hand in its creation.
Like the Batman image reform sparked by Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, The Golden Age brought a new relevancy to a nearly lost generation of comic book heroes. Quite rapidly, The Golden Age cemented itself as not just an Elseworlds tale, but the blueprint for what the JSA would mean to the history of the DC Universe to this very day.
From Elseworlds to DC Universe Canon
When 1994's Zero Hour: Crisis in Time event provided a soft patch to the DC Universe's timeline, many of the ideas presented in The Golden Age were canonized into the mainstream. And for the next 26 years, writer James Robinson was the go-to source for all things JSA. Robinson's beloved Starman series picks up practically where The Golden Age leaves off, with a new Starman taking the cosmic rod from his traumatized predecessor, often burdened with shouldering the Justice Society's unfinished business. In 1999, Robinson utilized his foundation to help David Goyer and Geoff Johns launch a new JSA series celebrating the history and legacy of the DC Universe. Three years later, Robinson teamed up with Johns once again to relaunch the career of another JSA staple hero, Hawkman.
In 2011's New 52 reimagining of DC's continuity, the Justice Society was again cleared away from the central timeline. And the next year, the JSA concept came full circle when James Robinson was drafted to recreate the Justice Society for the New 52's Earth 2 series. Since then, the universe of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman has remained largely unaware of the Justice Society's existence or relevance -- though the events of DC's ongoing Doomsday Clock series seem to indicate that may soon change.
Geoff Johns himself once told Comic-Con Magazine in 2010 that without Robinson and Smith's work on The Golden Age, a modern relaunch of the JSA wouldn't have been possible. It's likely for that reason that when The Golden Age was reprinted in 2005 it was renamed as we now know it -- JSA: The Golden Age.
The Future of the JSA
What's next for the JSA? At last October's New York Comic-Con, producer Geoff Johns revealed that Robinson himself would sit on the writing team for DC Universe's original streaming Stargirl series. Like his Starman comic before it, early casting news and reports indicate the new series will draw heavily from the legacy fostered by the Justice Society of America, bringing Robinson's revitalized vision to a whole new audience. A quarter century after hitting comic book stores, the impact on the DC Universe made by JSA: The Golden Age is bigger than ever.