The Justice Society of America, or the JSA, is the world's oldest superhero team, having endured from 1940 to the present in a variety of forms. The group first appeared in All-Star Comics #3 and was created to bring together the popular superheroes from two interlinked comics companies - Detective and All-American - who would eventually be known simply as DC Comics. The first two issues of the title had included characters from both Detective Comics (officially known as National Comics) and All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star), but the third issue included them in one story, and the JSA was born.
The Golden Age - 1940s
The JSA was initially a group of superheroes who met to discuss their cases and was (very democratically) composed half and half of characters from each of the two companies. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom represented All-American Comics, while DC/National had Sandman, Dr Fate, Hourman and the Spectre. A couple of gate-crashers, the light-hearted characters Red Tornado and Johnny Thunder1, also appeared, both of them All-American characters.
Later stories took a chapter format, where the whole group would meet at the beginning and end of the issue, with chapters devoted to solo heroes' adventures (all relating to one big adventure) in between. Other characters from both companies joined the team, Wonder Woman being the most famous, with Doctor Mid-Nite and Starman also becoming part of the group. Batman and Superman were also said to be honorary members of the group but did not actively work with them.
During the years of World War Two, the JSA's stories tended to focus on the conflict, with the team often battling saboteurs and fifth-columnists, or otherwise maintaining morale on the home front. The 'usual' mad scientists, aliens and mystical threats also made an appearance, but (other than those who were Axis sympathisers) would not battle the team with any frequency until after the war ended.2
The two companies parted ways briefly in 1944 - 1945, meaning that the DC/National characters still on the team disappeared, replaced by Wildcat and Mister Terrific from All-American. Eventually, the two companies fully merged and the adventures of the JSA were published until 1951, when super-heroes were falling out of fashion and All-Star Comics became All-Star Western. The members of the JSA (which by now had added Black Canary to its ranks, doubling the female membership), apart from Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, would fade into obscurity for a time.
The Silver Age - 1950s - 1960s / The Bronze Age - 1970s - 1980s
In the late 1950s, superheroes had a renaissance at DC Comics under the stewardship of Julie Schwartz, who helped introduce new versions of many of the popular superheroes of the 1940s. These new heroes eventually banded together and became the Justice League of America, a team that has remained in publication (in various forms) from 1960 to the present.
Then, in 1961, a landmark story was published in Flash #123. Named 'Flash of Two Worlds', this story involved the Flash from the 1940s and the current Flash meeting each other, revealing that they came from two different Earths, similar but not identical. This idea was further developed until the Justice Society began, once a year, to team up with the Justice League in stories which took place over multiple Earths. The Justice Society's Earth came to be known as Earth 2, while the Justice League's was known as Earth 1. Logically, these should have been the other way round, but logic is not always one of the comic book world's greatest virtues.
A certain amount of confusion could sometimes result from the yearly team-ups. For example, Justice League member Black Canary was originally the same woman from the Justice Society, having migrated Earths, but was later decided to be the original Canary's daughter. And although characters like Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom were very different in their two different Earth versions, there were three characters who were essentially the same: Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman3, meaning it could be a tad difficult for readers to know which version of that character was appearing at any given moment. But that was all part of the fun, and after all, readers were quite capable of keeping Earths one, two, three (evil), X (where the other side won World War Two), Prime (the real world, pretty much) and more straight.
Members of the Justice Society were relatively popular guest-stars in other comics, too, with Wildcat teaming up with Batman on a number of occasions, and the two Flashes enjoying numerous adventures together. And so their sagas continued, with DC able to do more radical things with these versions of the characters as they still had the main ones maintaining comics' eternal status quo. Batman of the Justice Society married Catwoman, had a daughter named the Huntress, retired from the JSA to be replaced by Robin and the Huntress, and was eventually killed off. Superman married Lois Lane and did the 'happily ever after' thing, sporting greying temples.
A number of JSA characters regained their own feature in the 1970s, as All-Star Comics was resurrected, followed by a run in the long-running Adventure Comics. Original 1940s characters such as Wildcat and Dr Mid-Nite were joined by characters that had been around at the time but not on the team such as the Star-Spangled Kid and the Justice Society members of the new generations: Robin, Huntress and Earth-Two Superman's cousin Power Girl. This time out, the heroes tended to fight the colourful super-villains of the Injustice Society. One intriguing story explained why the Society had been inactive for some time after 1951 - in the paranoia of McCarthyism, the heroes were told that if they wished to continue, they had to reveal their identities to the world. Afraid for their friends and loved ones, they declined and retired. And in one of the Society/League crossovers, sometimes member Mister Terrific was murdered, launching an memorable investigation.
In the early 1980s, the Justice Society launched a couple of spin-offs. First, All-Star Squadron went back to the World War Two era and showed how the JSA had joined together with all the other heroes of America at the time to defend their homeland. And Infinity Inc. featured the younger JSA members (Star-Spangled Kid, Huntress and Power Girl) along with the children of various other heroes, striking out on their own as successful heroes. After 40 years, the Justice Society was a franchise. Both of these were spearheaded by Roy Thomas, a writer who could reasonably be described as obsessive when it came to these characters. Then, in 1985, something happened that would change everything...
During 1985 and 1986, the twelve-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths redefined the 'universe' of DC Comics, and had an immense effect on the Justice Society. A major result of the crisis was that the multiple Earths were merged into one, and history somehow rewritten so that there had always been one Earth and only one Earth4. The Justice Society had been active in the 1940s, forced to retire in 1951 and only came out of retirement when the heroes of the Justice League emerged 'about ten years ago', sparking the dawn of a new heroic age. This would have been fine, except that the Batmen, Robins, Supermen and Wonder Women of the two Earths were the same characters, and so the ones from the Justice Society were declared never to have existed. So Huntress never was either (her parents didn't exist!) whereas Power Girl was the cousin of a different Superman and the rest of Infinity Inc. had somewhat confusing parentage5. All-Star Squadron was cancelled soon after this event, as large portions of its membership had been wiped out6. Infinity Inc. continued, with a changed membership and a new need to fill in backstory for its characters.
Then the Justice Society was shuffled off to the sidelines in The Last Days of the Justice Society. Here, the veteran heroes went off to fight an eternal Ragnarok-type war in another dimension. Most of the members (plus a couple of others) thus disappeared for five years. The list of the missing: Flash, Green Lantern, Johnny Thunder, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Sandman, Sandy the Golden Boy, The Atom, Dr Mid-Nite, Starman, Hourman and Wildcat. The reason for all of this was that readers would find these characters confusing.
Five years after their disappearance, the Justice Society returned triumphantly in the pages of a mini-series called Armageddon: Inferno which was an odd tale of time travel and other such shenanigans. An eight-part tale of the JSA in the 1950s proved popular and so the group were launched into their own open-ended series, where they picked up the pieces of the lives they'd left behind and showed the new generation of heroes what heroism meant. It was incredibly popular, but was cancelled after ten issues, because, apparently, nobody really wanted to read about elderly heroes...
A dark period followed for these characters and their fans. A number of them - Dr Mid-Nite, Hourman, the Atom - were killed off, and worse things happened to Hawkman, Hawkgirl and Dr Fate. And a phenomenon known as 'the curse of Infinity Inc.' came into play, as almost all of the characters from said series died a horrible death or went off the rails. Johnny Thunder succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease, while Sandman and Starman retired.
But some writers obviously loved these characters, and the survivors of the purge were handled with respect. The original Flash became a semi-regular guest star in the new Flash's title and served as an occasional mentor to the then-current Justice League. Green Lantern became Sentinel and fought mystical menaces. Power Girl, a long-standing member of the Justice League, had a baby which grew up overnight (as comic book babies do) and continued her heroic career. The Spectre had a critically acclaimed series (though he, a restless spirit, was eventually allowed to go to his eternal reward). And Starman passed on the mantle to his son, launching a series which ran for 80 issues and which handled the elder Starman's final fate with dignity.
Finally, in 1999, following a story of the original 1940s Justice Society, a new series, JSA, was launched. This featured surviving Society-related characters Flash, Sentinel, Wildcat and Sandy (now called Sand) along with the children, grandchildren and namesakes of other members, including the survivors of the 'curse of Infinity Inc.' - a multigenerational team. Along the way, the series rescued Hawkman, introduced a number of new characters and rehabilitated a number of the off-the-rails Infinity, Inc. members. Somehow, the writers (James Robinson, screenwriter David Goyer and Geoff Johns) squeezed in stories on alien worlds, ancient Egypt, the modern middle East and New York City, with the team battling costumed villains, magicians, cult leaders. A number of difficult moral decisions and a fair bit of (implied) sex have been thrown into the mix as well. JSA has been a solid success for DC Comics - in July 2004, issue 63 was DC Comics' tenth best selling comic (out of eighty published that month) - and has been collected in a number of 'trade paperback' editions: Justice Be Done, Darkness Falls, The Return of Hawkman, Fair Play and Stealing Thunder. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the world's first super-hero team is going strong once more.