What makes a Justice Society different from a Justice League? As we get reacquainted with the world’s first superhero team this month in The New Golden Age and the upcoming Justice Society of America, it’s a question worth examining.
Superficially, the difference is obvious. The League is the home of DC’s A-Listers: Your men Super, Bat and Aqua, your women Wonder. The Society is…what? A bunch of moldy old masks from comics your grandparents threw away so they’re all worth a million dollars now? No, it’s actually a lot more than that. There are qualitative, psychological and deterministic differences between what it means to be a Society member, and what it means to be a League member. To put it simply, in the Justice League, you’re at the most important job in the world. In the Justice Society, you’re part of the world’s greatest club.
To start, let’s get a little linguistic. The word “society” is ultimately derived from the Latin “socius,” indicating a bond between friends. “League,” from the middle English “lige,” is used to define a pact between parties. One is a group of friends; the other, a group of coworkers. And if you look at the origins of both teams, that’s exactly how they played out in their original function.
What was the great crisis that brought the Justice Society of America together for the first time? Was it Vandal Savage? Per Degaton? The Ultra-Humanite? No, the first meeting of the Justice Society of America, as seen in 1941’s All-Star Comics #3, took place over…a turkey dinner. Green Lantern, the Flash, Doctor Fate, Hawkman, the Spectre, Hourman, Sandman, the Atom and Johnny Thunder (who wished himself onto the guest list) had formed their Justice Society of America as a means to get to know each other. There was no great emergency. In fact, Flash notes that Superman, Batman and Robin were left out of attendance so that they could remain on guard against global threats as they had their social gathering.
Being a superhero is lonely business, and the Justice Society of America was formed so that the super-set could be amongst their own and share the stories they can’t tell anyone else, and which no one but they could truly understand. It wasn’t long before the Justice Society started working together against common enemies, but that was never the intention of the group. The Society existed as a way for the nascent superhero community to support one another, whether through companionship or against a foe too mighty for any one of them. But they were founded in friendship.
The Justice League of America, however, is a different story. Like many of the most revolutionary concepts of the Silver Age, the idea for the Justice League came from the mind of editor Julie Schwartz. Schwartz’s rebranding of the Justice Society for modern readers was not just with a new lineup indicative of DC’s top shelf heroes, plus a few itching for promotion like Aquaman, Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter who had never had their own titles before. It came with an update of nomenclature as well. The word “Society,” to Schwartz, conjured images of smoky old boys’ clubs and billiard halls where hunters would return from safari to describe their latest hunts in gory detail. The choice of “League” was inspired, if you can believe it, by baseball.
With the National League and American League divisions defining fandom in exactly the demographic that Schwartz and editors were courting, it was high time that the comics got into establishing…I’m sorry, I can’t resist…a League of their own. The Justice League would not be a club. They would be a team, working together with the express goal to beat the other guys.
The very first time we see the Justice League of America assemble, in 1960’s The Brave and the Bold #28, it’s to battle an alien threat to life on Earth as we know it: Starro the Conqueror. Justice League of America #9 establishes that’s not the first time they actually met, though. Actually, the true origin and purpose of the Justice League was…to battle an alien threat to life on Earth as we know it. They were different guys this time, the Appellaxians, but for the past sixty years, that’s been pretty much the day-to-day business of the Justice League. Maybe they’re not aliens. Maybe they’re demons from hell, or invaders from another dimension, or a super powerful being that it takes every hero on the planet to defeat. But the fact remains that the Justice League was formed for the reason any other team in a sports league was put together: so they can beat the other guys.
The Justice League is a group that doesn’t really hang out too much, outside of work. Batman and Superman notwithstanding—the World’s Finest has always been close—the first time that we see Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all together outside of a League emergency is 1985’s Superman Annual #11, “For the Man Who Has Everything.” And according to writer Alan Moore, Wonder Woman’s inclusion was a last-minute substitution. Originally, the plan was to use Supergirl in her stead, but continuity at the time demanded that Superman’s cousin be elsewhere. The greatest of DC’s heroes simply didn’t take the time to see each other socially. They all had their own individual support networks in the likes of Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon, Etta Candy and Steve Trevor, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. The fact that most members of the League had their own comics to go home to meant that they didn’t really need other Super Friends.
Which brings us back to the real reason the Justice Society of America was formed in the first place—not in fiction, but in publication. The Justice Society was a place for National Comics, later DC, to park the characters without headline features to mingle amongst each other, and hopefully grow in popularity by their association with one another. As individual members of the team got their own features, they would leave the group and be replaced by a newer hero, or one in need of a boost in popularity. They were there not just to support each other emotionally, or even in battle, but literally within the eyes of readers. It’s for that reason that the Society—much more so than the League, which has always returned to its original core lineup—has been about fostering the next superhero legacy. It’s a place where sidekicks take on the mantles of their forebears, and the youngest heroes are mentored by the founders of the craft.
The Justice Society is where the calling to use your powers and abilities to protect others is passed from one generation of heroes to the next like an inheritance. The Justice League, in contrast, is where sports fans show up to root for the home team. The Justice League exists for you. The Justice Society exists for each other. Which is why any time you open a modern JSA comic, it doesn’t always feel like you’re staving off the apocalypse for another month. You’re not voting on whether to remove one of your founders because he’s been secretly keeping files on how to beat all of you. Sometimes, you’re having a turkey dinner. Or going to the dentist to cheer on one of your own. When you’re with the Justice Society, you’re part of a family.
The New Golden Age #1 by Geoff Johns and an all-star team of artists is now available in print and as a digital comic book.
Justice Society of America #1 by Geoff Johns and Mikel Janin is available on November 29 in print and digital.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask...the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.