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Old Glories

  JSA: Darkness Falls

 

David Goyer, Geoff Johns, writers; Stephen Sadowski and various others, artists

DC, 2002

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: June 17, 2002

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

In the 1986 film The Best of Times, Robin Williams portrays a somewhat awkward and nerdy banker forever haunted and defined by a dropped pass in a long-gone high school football game. Determined to relive past glories and recreate the historical moment that branded him one of life's losers, Williams' character orchestrates a rematch of that crucial contest.

In JSA, the ongoing monthly superhero comic chronicling the exploits of a modern-day Justice Society of America, DC Comics is staging its own version of Times' climactic rematch. The Justice Society, DC's first super-team, is revered by fans of comics' storied past, and nostalgic souls are no doubt cheered by the prospect of such Golden Age stalwarts as Jay Garrick and Alan Scott flexing their muscles in today's post-modern climate. But Darkness Falls, the second volume to collect the current JSA title, clearly demonstrates the danger in positioning characters with decades of back-story in the present day. Reading JSA, while possessed of its share of superhero-comic pleasures, is disturbingly akin to watching a new version of Dragnet in which an octogenarian Joe Friday, his aging process slightly retarded due to some magical formula, fights crime alongside such decidedly flawed descendants as NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz or The Job's Mike McNeil.

For the uninitiated, then, a brief recap: The Justice Society of America fought on the mystic and meta-human front during World War II, and various of its members have pinballed around the DC Universe ever since. Many of its members are still active in the infant stages of the 21st century, due to a complicated and difficult-to-keep straight chronology; the team apparently spent many years fighting in a parallel dimension, and some have since enjoyed a retardation of the aging process while others, such as the now-deceased Wesley Dodds (the original Sandman) haven't been so lucky. (Those interested or compulsive enough to dig further should search for back issues of All-Star Squadron and the "next generation" title Infinity, Inc., for further details.)

So in the title's previous collection, Justice Be Done, a new JSA is formed of old and new members after thwarting the machinations of the ageless sorcerer Mordru (best known for vexing the Legion of Super Heroes in the 30th century) and helping to usher in the existence of a new Dr. Fate. The old guard is represented by Garrick (the original, and still active, Flash) and Scott (a former Green Lantern now known as Sentinel and possessed of some ridiculous "green flame" hoo-hah of a power given to him by something known as the, er, Starheart), while the younger set includes the offspring of former members (Jack Knight, the current Starman, and Dinah Lance, daughter of the original Black Canary).

Anyway, to the present, where the Justice Society of America becomes the all-initials JSA. (It's an obvious nod to the similarly-titled JLA, to be sure, but let's be clear: JSA has absolutely nothing in common with JLA in terms of approach, save for a roster of iconic DC heavyweights.) Darkness Falls finds the newly re-constituted team facing off against a card of enemies drawn from the deep, deep pockets of DC Comics' continuity. In one of the two major story arcs presented here, Scott's son, Obsidian (like Atom Smasher -- formerly Nuklon -- a former member of Infinity, Inc.), succumbs to a medical history of schizophrenia and sets out to envelop the world in darkness, aided -- no lie -- by a villain last seen by Scott in a comic published in 1941. In the other, the team battles the time-traveling villain Extant (from the ill-conceived Zero Hour mega-event of a few years back), himself a former old-school DC hero; Extant, it should be noted, is responsible for the deaths of some original JSA-ers (the original Atom, Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite) and the funky aging processes of some others.

The Extant storyline highlights one of the major flaws of this new JSA: All of the action is directed from without. A confrontation with the serpent-garbed terrorist/villain Kobra is orchestrated by the skeletal Mr. Bones of the Department of Extra-Normal Operations. A recuperating Wildcat is besieged by a new Injustice Society, Die Hard-style, while alone in the team's vast new headquarters. And the JSA's battle with Extant is full of cryptic directives from Metron (of the New Gods). Throughout this series, there's simply too much heavy-handed, out-of-left-field exposition on how such-and-such can be defeated by assembling the pieces of this or that device, and the heroes are simply pawns madly dashing (or carried) from one fight to the next with very little choice in the matter.

But that's the price you pay for constructing a comic so dependent upon back-story. A reliance on events long past is one of the drawbacks of this particular form of serial fiction, but JSA carries it to a ridiculous extreme. The title means to celebrate the vast and powerful legacies of its characters, and that sense of reverence can indeed be infectious. But by the same coin, the book simply wouldn't exist, would have no point, without years of contorted continuity, and that's just a shaky foundation upon which to build.

And therein lies the problem with this new-fangled JSA; its slavish devotion to the past renders it maddeningly irrelevant. One gets the sense that the team will forever be fighting only those menaces that can be dredged up from its colorful past, engendering an old-boy network feel that divorces the proceedings from any real sense of urgency. Everything that happens within its pages could be sliced out of the regular DC continuity and take place on its own self-contained little island (or parallel dimension, as the case may be).

Even worse, the strain of keeping certain characters viable well past their prime shows all too clearly. Aside from Flash and Sentinel, team chairman Sand (formerly Sandy the Golden Boy, adolescent sidekick to the original Sandman back in his prime) is also much, much older than he looks, thanks to the fact that he somehow became some sort of silicon monster, which thus arrested his aging process. And Hippolyta, mother of the present-day Wonder Woman and queen of the female warrior island of Themyscira, is immortal and thus cannot age, so that's all right -- although her very existence is a band-aid slapped on the thorny problem of how Wonder Woman could have fought alongside the JSA when her own re-booted continuity renders such a thing impossible, which is another gripe altogether. (Only Ted Grant, the Wildcat, gets off easy here, since he's possessed of nine lives.) Over in the Marvel Universe, it's hard enough to swallow the existence of just one WWII-era hero -- Captain America -- as the gap between then and now eternally widens. When you've got to explain a handful of characters jumping that gap, things get exponentially more problematic.

To be fair, there are a couple of instances wherein all of this retro-fever actually works in favor of Darkness Falls: Specifically, the appearance of new versions of two Golden Age stalwarts, Dr. Mid-Nite and Mr. Terrific. Both of these characters are intriguing updates on their predecessors, and are refreshingly free of cumbersome ties to the past; they're simply men with cool gadgets hoping to do some good while paying tribute to their namesakes. One is left wanting to see more of them, in direct contrast to some of the team's older members -most notably Sentinel -who seem to have long worn out their welcome. A little of such revisionism goes a long way: Unfortunately, JSA is packed with an ungainly amount of revisionism and modernizing, which ironically only serves to diminish the heritage it seeks to honor.

Related Links:

Starman: A Starry Knight

The Flash: Blood Will Run

JLA: Divided We Fall

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