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...And Justice For All The Men Behind The Junior Justice Society of America

mAR, 2012 March 30, 2012

It might not seem like the men behind the Junior Justice Society of America were taking a big risk. After all, they were following their highly successful formula of combining their top characters into the appropriately named All Star Comics and the equally profitable concept of their Supermen of America club. Between a world at war and corporate in-fighting, though, things weren't as easy as they looked.

Gathered Together
When the superhero tide started, it took no time at all for it to become a deluge of super-powered, mystically charged, and flat out weirdly attired crime fighters to become the norm in comics publishing. From the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) until the emergence of the Justice Society of America, the children of America found newsstands suddenly awash in superheroes.

Prior to the group's first appearance in All Star Comics #3 (November 1940) none of the publishers had cobbled their characters into a super team. In hindsight it's easy to wonder how it actually took someone so long to think of it. Numerous times during the preceding months publishers had put more than one feature character on the cover. By June 1940, Timely's Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, their two main mainstays, had done battle in a story, but it wasn't even close to the congregation of characters gathered together witnessed in All Star.

The Flash, Green Lantern, Sandman, Hourman, Spectre, and Hawkman had already appeared in other comics and were off to a rousing start with Flash and Green Lantern even having their own titles. Dr. Fate and The Atom appeared for the first time in the same issue that featured the team's debut, but by then there was a solid formula in place. If they weren't "can't miss" characters, they were at least close cousins.

Following the aviation kindled boom in characters and character toys, Superman had been the logical extension of the collective imagination when he debuted two years earlier. Here was a man-like being who could throw automobiles, stop airplanes as they flew, and who was faster than a locomotive. That those three icons of the age's technology could be so easily bested by the Man of Steel was no coincidence. Through comic strips and pulps, in science fiction, adventure and crime stories, the fantasy characters frequently represented the pinnacle of development. People, in whatever form, almost always succeed against the odds. Good most often triumphed over evil. Only the forces of nature were not subservient to people, at least not usually.

Compared to the times in which they were created, this particular era of escapism makes sense. The prime consumers of this fare were children. The Great Depression notwithstanding, kids want to be reassured of their place in the world and the general order of things.

Like their predecessors in just about every other creative, fictional form of communication, the original superheroes lent themselves toward a child's interpretation of such archetypical struggles. It would not be so simple for very long.

Though replete with standard fantasy elements, superhero comics were among the vanguard in beginning to address the dark clouds then looming over America's future in 1940. Many yarns were filled with spies, saboteurs, action, adventure, and patriotism. There were also numerous thinly disguised tales about the treatment of those trapped under the Nazi control. While the real world accounts that inspired such stories were often discounted or entirely ignored by the general media, they began to find a home in comics very quickly. Though played delicately at the time, this would soon play an important role in the Junior Justice Society of America.

As 1940 progressed, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, and a large portion of Poland had fallen to the Germans. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the remainder of Poland had been overwhelmed by the Soviet Union, then Germany's ally. France, which with Britain had declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland, was forced to surrender in less than 11 months. Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, officially creating the Axis alliance.

At home, the isolationist movement, though still vocal, was increasingly marginalized as war spread across the European continent. Conscription had begun in September of that year.

The escapism so prevalent in the years since Charles Lindbergh's Transatlantic flight and so vital in creating the entertainment giants of the Great Depression would now have to adapt to the new situation or find itself being perceived as entirely out of touch with the real world.

Two Companies, One Face?
Toward the end of 1938, comics pioneer M.C. Gaines entered into an agreement with DC Comics' Harry Donnefeld. Their bargain created a marketing arrangement that presented one public face to two distinct companies. DC and its new counterpart, All-American, both displayed the DC logo on their comics. Advertising cross-promoted the lines in each other's titles, and there was little to distinguish for readers that they were in fact not one company but two.

It has been noted that All-Star Comics came about following on the heels of DC's New York World's Fair Comics annuals in 1939 and 1940 (precursor of their World's Finest Comics title), particularly since the 1940 edition featured Superman, Batman and Robin on the cover. Whatever the actual genesis of the notion, it's not a huge series of leaps to go from co-cover features to team-ups to a permanent team-up.

Regardless of their direct or indirect inspirations, writer Gardner Fox and editor Sheldon Mayer are credited with coming up with the team. Through the DC/AA relationship, they were permitted to choose both DC and All-American characters to populate the comic. They did so, and the Justice Society was born.

Almost any thorough account of the period's incredible dynamic between publishers and their creators, as well as between publishers and their competitors, reads like pulp fiction. That might be why Michael Chabon's well-researched novel, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay, wrung so true and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. The relationship between All-American and DC was not as seamless as its public face, and there would be difficulties later.

The Club Concept
By the time the Justice Society of America was born, comic character clubs for children were no longer a new idea. While the exploitation of the information they generated was limited by today's standards, they must be considered not only as pioneering efforts, but by and large as incredible successes.

The reader participation concept for comic characters can in some sense be dated back to the Yellow Kid, noted as the first regular comic strip, which appeared in the New York World and subsequently the New York Journal. Created by R.F. Outcault, who also created Buster Brown, the Yellow Kid inspired theatrical productions, songs, and dozens of licensed products. The images on these items in turn directed readers back to the newspapers or the strip itself. A series of celluloid buttons in particular made the Yellow Kid part of a consumer's apparel and helped to create an early sort of brand identification generally associated with much more sophisticated marketing programs decades later.

The evolutionary course of the club concept became associated with comic characters as it developed through the newspaper comic strips, the pulps, comic books, and radio shows. A series of significant manifestations of the club concept corresponds directly with the marketing of aviation heroes (both real and fictitious) in the late '20s and through the '30s.

The Junior Birdmen of America, one of those aviation-themed clubs, was one of the most successful. Starting in 1934, Hearst Newspapers successfully invited the participation of the nation's youth through at least 22 of their papers. By the time DC's Supermen of America club rolled around there was already an art, if not a science, to getting kids involved.

On the trailing edge of the Great Depression, before America's involvement in the Second World War, the Supermen of America was simultaneously marketing at its most cynical and most inspired. The readers of the Superman comic books, unlike the readers of the newspaper strip or listeners to the radio show, were overwhelmingly children. This club recruited Superman fans and enlisted them to recruit others. In other words, it took the standard advertising tactic of going straight to the kids and getting them to pester the parents into buying a product one better: it got kids to not only work on their own beleaguered parents, it got them to get their friends to work on their own parents, too. For successfully recruiting others, members received the Supermen of America patch, today one of the most highly prized Superman collectibles. This successful club continued into the 1960s.

Ideals In A Hostile Environment
Text of the 1942 Junior Justice Society Certificate:
This Certifies that: [Name, Age, Address] has been duly elected a charter member of this organization upon his or her pledge to help keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different, because we are rich or poor; employer or worker; native or foreign-born; Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic. And makes the further pledge to defeat this Axis propaganda, seeking to get us to fight among ourselves, so we cannot successfully fight our enemies - knowing that are all AMERICANS believing in DEMOCRACY and are resolved to do everything possible to help win the war!

It's next to impossible to understand the historic significance of the Junior Justice Society of America without placing it in its proper historic context. Rather than espousing a generic albeit genuine patriotism of many of their contemporaries, the JJSA certificate asked a few specifics of its members. Six months after the first class of Tuskegee Airmen graduated and six years before President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. military, the writers, editors, marketing men and their publisher all made a small but very significant stand. Half a year before race riots broke out in Detroit and more than two years before American troops came face-to-face with the realities of Hitler's "final solution" when they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, the folks behind the club not only wrapped themselves in the spirit of the flag, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they asked America's kids to do the same.

What All-American Comics and DC did with the Junior Justice Society changed what could have been perceived as a cynical promotional ploy into something far more altruistic. And in doing so they took at least some risk, if not a great deal of it.

At that time and for decades to come it would not have been a prudent business decision in many parts of the country to suggest that "rich or poor; employer or worker; native or foreign-born; Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic" would be on the same team. In an age when many of the men who created All Star Comics could not gain access to a country club on Long Island, New York, let alone one in Mobile, Alabama, they decided that in order to "provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," we had to be better than what was being thrown at us from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the form of this simple certificate intended for children, they held that "with liberty and justice for all" meant something, even if we as a nation hadn't quite worked out exactly what it meant.

They had a roadmap, a great one, in the guise of Supermen of America. They went another direction. Thousands of kids joined. The Junior Justice Society of America was a smash hit.

The Club Kits
Over the years the kits themselves have been documented and re-documented, researched, photocopied, theorized upon and written about. They've been the subjects of many "definitive" articles and much discussion amongst comic book fans and other collectors. Each of the kits had differences, some distinct, some subtle. While it's relatively easy to theorize about the reasons behind the changes in each of the editions, one thing is certain: There were five of them.

While it's been common to report otherwise, there were at least five distinct JJSA kits. The original 1942 kit was issued for just two months before the membership badge fell victim to wartime metal shortages. It was replaced by a cloth patch featuring the JSA shield emblem. The original certificate was also modified. The phrase "White or Negro" was added to the pledge after "employer or worker" and before "native or foreign-born." It might not seem so huge today, but that was cutting edge stuff in pre-Jackie Robinson America. The letter was also changed to correspond with the membership items. Both versions distinctly mention Axis propaganda, and both were produced with DC's 480 Lexington Avenue return address.

The third variation of the JJSA kit was produced in 1945. On May 7, Germany had surrendered, but the Allies remained at war with Japan. In addition to the substitution of "enemy" for "Axis" in the wording, the certificate, letter and mailer from this kit are easily distinguishable because they used All-American's 225 Lafayette Street return address.

There have been numerous theories postulated about the ins and outs of the relationship between DC and All-American, ranging from the wild to the entirely plausible (including Gaines' ownership of vital paper contracts during the wartime rationing years making him an attractive partner to any publisher). While vagaries of the business dealings may be unproven, their effects can definitely be seen.

With the first 1945 kit, it's clear that All-American had pulled back from their close relationship with DC. The use of the All-American return addresses on the certificate, mailer and letter, and the All-American logo on the comics themselves are readily apparent.

Later that year, following Japan's surrender on August 14, another version of the kit was produced. Among other considerable changes, the certificate's text about winning the war was replaced by the phrase "win the peace" and DC's 480 Lexington Avenue address reappeared for the remainder of the kits. In 1946 Gaines sold All-American to Donnefeld, and what had been one company in the public perception became one in reality.

Advertised in late 1947, the last documented rendering of the JJSA club kit was issued in 1948 and remained in use until the club was discontinued in 1951. For this version the certificate's text was completely re-written to eliminate references to war and included admonishments to follow the Golden Rule and to "never be guilty of prejudice or discrimination against a fellow human being because of race, creed or color!" It also included fewer items than the previous editions, discarding the war-related pamphlets and exchanged the cloth patch for the return of a silver badge.

The Long, Lean Years
With only Superman, Batman and handful of others surviving during the next very lean decade for superheroes, it would have been easy enough for the idea of a super-team to fade away as well. Superhero clubs and club kits quickly went the way of the superhero in post war years, which is to say they almost entirely disappeared. All Star Comics #57 was the last issue featuring the Justice Society. Following the then-current craze, the title became All Star Western with the next issue.

In 1960, DC debuted the Justice League of America in the pages of Brave & The Bold #28. After a three-issue smash hit run there, they got their own title. Clearly inspired by the Justice Society, it took less than three years for the Justice League to feature their elder counter-parts as guest-stars. This cross-time crossover was a big hit with the fans and became a regular event. Comics from the '60s and '70s featuring these crossovers are among the most fondly remembered of the period for many collectors, and the early Justice Society appearances in Justice League of America sparked not only fan interest, but eventually a great deal of research into the history of the comics and the people behind them.

In 1976, DC took an odd step and revived All Star Comics featuring the Justice Society. The oddity was not in the revival of the characters, but the numbering of the series. They started with All Star Comics #58, as if the 61 subsequent issues of All Star Western never happened. This series lasted until 1978. The JSA appeared briefly in Adventure Comics, then was relegated to only the Justice League crossovers, one-shots, mini-series and other guest appearances until 1999.

Aftermath And Rebirth
In the intervening years, those collectors with copies of these kits should have started sending thank-you notes to all of the mothers and kids who discarded their kits. In many of the cases, particularly with the later kits, less than 10 copies are known to exist.

When the 1997 re-launch of the Justice League, entitled simply JLA, proved to be a major hit, it spawned the 1999 introduction of JSA, the first on-going title to feature the Justice Society in more than 20 years.

With the creation of their DC Direct label, DC Comics launched a line of toys based on their comic characters. They included many different Justice Society items featuring the team, its villains, and a number of the individual characters. It had been a half-century since the last JSA collectibles other than comics themselves had been produced, which just might be the longest inactive period for any presently active characters depicted in this book.

Since the early DC Direct toys saw distribution limited to comic book specialty shops, many of these items will prove a worthy challenge to track down for JSA collectors who are only now becoming aware that their collection will no longer be complete if it ends with the club kits for Junior Justice Society of America.

It's difficult for collectors today to put themselves in the shoes of the late '30s and early '40s. With newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts forming an ominous portent of what was to come, an explosion of superhero comics flooded newsstands. By the time All Star Comics #3 was published in November 1940, sizeable chunks of real world bad news had begun to add up.

May 1936
Italian forces take Ethiopia

October 1938
German troops occupy Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia

March 1939
Germany takes Czechoslovakia

August 1939
Germany and Italy sign "Pact of Steel"

August 1939
Germany and Soviet Union sign non-aggression pact

September 1939
Germany invades Poland

September 1939
Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand declare war on Germany

September 1939
U.S. proclaims neutrality

September 1939
Soviets invade Poland

September 1939
Germans, Soviets divide Poland

November 1939
Soviets invade Finland

March 1940
Finland signs peace treaty with Soviets

April 1940
Germans invade Denmark, Norway

May 1940
Germans invade France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland

May 1940
Holland, Belgium fall

June 1940
Norway falls

June 1940
France signs armistice with Germany

July 1940
Battle of Britain begins

July 1940
Soviets take Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

August 1940
Hitler declares blockade of British Isles

September 1940
Italy invades Egypt

September 1940
Conscription begins in the U.S.

September 1940
Tripartite ("Axis") Pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan

October 1940
Germans enter Romania

October 1940
Italians invade Greece

November 1940
Hungary joins Axis powers

November 1940
Greece defeats Italian invasion force

November 1940
Romania joins Axis powers

Ten Notable Differences Between The JJSA Club Kits
1.The original 1942 large-lettered metal badge was changed to a cloth patch (which changed in size) after just two months during the war because of metal shortages. It reappeared with smaller letters in the 1948 kit.

2.The text in each of the letters changes to reflect the items included with the membership.

3.Characters portrayed on the certificates change after the first two.

4.Text changes on each of the certificates.

5.There were three versions of the decoder, 1942, 1945 and 1948.

6.The pamphlet, "Youth and the War Effort" existed in two versions with different fonts and layout. The second version was created for first 1945 kit.

7."The Minute Man Answers The Call" was a four-page color comic included in the kits. Two versions, 1942 and 1945 were produced (the latter including a reference to 1945).

8.Neither "The Minute Man Answers The Call" nor "Youth and the War Effort," appear in the second 1945 or the 1948 kits.

9.The War Savings Bond stamp album became a Defense Savings Bond stamp album for the 1945 kits. It was omitted from the 1948 kit.

10.On the first 1945 kit, the return address on the mailers, letters and certificates changes, corresponding with the fall-out between All-American and DC.

November 1940:
All Star Comics #3
Justice Society of America formed

June/July 1941:
All Star Comics #5
Debut of Hawkgirl (1st costumed female)

December 1941/January 1942:
All Star Comics #8
Debut of Wonder Woman
All Star Comics #12
Wonder Woman becomes JSA secretary

December 1942:
All Star Comics #14
Junior Justice Society Advertised

March 1951:
All Star Comics #57
Last JSA issue

February/March 1960:
Brave & The Bold #28
Debut of the Justice League

October/November 1960: Justice League of America #1 August 1963:
Justice League of America #21
JSA appears for first time in JLA

January/February 1976:
All Star Comics #58
Revived series begins featuring JSA

September/October 1978:
All Star Comics #74
Last issue of revived series

Last Days of the Justice Society one-shot special

August 1992:
Justice Society of America #1- ten-issue mini-series

August 1999:
JSA #1 debuts

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