It's only been about 6 months since the end of Geoff Johns's run on JSA, but I've been wavering, of late, on whether to keep going with the new team. As a result I took some time to re-read the 26 issues, plus an annual and a one shot special, that comprise the Johns story of the JSA to see if even that run of story was worth the while. The cover to the first issue certainly sums up what this book is about, at its core. This is a hell of a big group.
Because of the size of the group, the telling of the stories can slow down. There are too many people to keep focus on one story. There's always a side story to monitor. Of course, that can be a plus, too. A lot of people can make for a lot of stories. And this group is largely well formed with individual characters and voices.
Of course, there were the introductory stories to launch, which Lee has acosted for violence and sexuality beyond the levels he finds acceptible for younger readers. The original Mr America dies, much of the family of the two men who have been Commander Steel are killed off, and Cyclone has a cover for issue 3 that evokes Marilyn Monroe while defying meteorology. Drifting into that aside, and a point I don't think I made when Lee originally brought up the cover, Cyclone's not some young teen. She's a college student, possibly a freshman, so she's at least 18, as Johns has presented her back story.
Me, I'm all for stories that present the danger's to superheroes as more final. Mr America and the family of Citizen Steel are much more likely to stay dead than Bruce Wayne. Whether the depictions of the deaths are excessive is a matter of taste. Comics art being what it is, I've never found gore in comics to be as "in your face" as gore in movies or TV. There's more of a sense of remove, at least for me, because of the filter of someone having drawn the viscera that isn't there with photos or movies. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it allows an artist to bring something of his own, whether humor, horror, action, or inertia, that a filmed view of the guts just doesn't convey in the same way.
But back to my overall feeling about the stories Johns presented. I could do without the crossovers into the JLA in the first arc that brought in some of the Legion of Superheroes. And, really, I got no resolution to that story within the pages of the JSA. I was buying JLA at the time, so I got the story completed, but I never like stories that leave the four corners of the series I'm reading. (Blackest Night being an integral part of Green Lantern and the Green Lantern Corps being somewhat different because all three are integral to one another.) Despite that, I enjoyed the opening story that established the team.
I particularly liked the small moments. The developing relationship between the father and son Wildcat nom du guerres that continues throughout the stories. The issue focusing on Hourman and Liberty Belle's marriage, and particularly her history was one of my favorites. I like the way Hourman and Liberty Belle take Damage under their wing and exert a calming influence on him. Hell, I like Damage, even with his frequent whining about his face. I never could understand why Judomaster would be attracted to him, but that's partly because she's such a cypher, I have no idea what her personality is, let alone her motiviations. That's appropriate for her character, who speaks Japanese and little English. With no one else speaking to her in Japanese, there's no way to develop her as other than taciturn.
The large story that ran from the 10th through the 26th issues, and encompassed the annual and special, was an interesting foray into Earth-22's Kingdom Come, with a bonus side journey into Earth-2. In fact, I found the story so interesting I bought Kingdom Come, which I hadn't read previously. Much of the Johns stories actually hinge on Starman, the LOSH member, whose schizophrenia is inadequately treated in the 21st century. His stream of non sequiturs and insights out of left field provide insider humor and bursts of clarity. Without him, the Superman of Earth-22 would not have been brought to the JSA's Earth.
I'm torn about the creation of Magog as a character within this Earth's pantheon. He was a total ass in Kingdom Come, but he's a much more interesting character, uncertain and self-doubting, in the Johns version. But, Johns took the potentially very interesting character of David Reid, a decendant of FDR with the ability to shoot energy beams, if focused by a curious hand held device, and turned him instead into Magog. I would have liked to have seen a lot more development of Reid as a person unto himself with the powers he already had and had someone else turned into Magog. Some of my view of this Magog is colored by the subsequent use of the character after Johns left. The Magog now is a martinet who's led about half of the team Johns created into the splinter group, JSA All-Stars, which I'm not going to follow. This has the feel of editorial dictate over writer's desired story direction. The Magog Johns created was very different, but I'd rather he were created from someone other than Reid.
The Gog story that is tied to the Kingdom Come Superman's involveent and that concluded Johns's tenure bore a religious overtone that I found entertaining and interesting. Gog is a very large alien entity whose head alone survived a trip to Earth. That head landed in central Africa and was at some point an object of veneration, complete with a power staff created by the worshippers. The head of Gog, by the way, has been here a few thousand years. During that time Gog somehow reconstructed a body to go with his head, presumably from the Earth. When he arises now, he walks a much in need central Africa dispensing miracles, benignly, initially. Damage, Sand, Dr Mid-Nite, Power Girl and Starman are all beneficiaries of these miracles, though benefit is questionable for all but Damage.
Along the way there are internicine battles for the JSA, largely along the lines of what will eventually become the splinter JSA All-Stars group, as well as a confrontation with the Earth-2 JSI. What I found most interesting about the concept was that if Gog were allowed to walk the Earth for 7 days he would become intrinsic to the Earth so that if he were damaged or destroyed, so too would be the Earth. It's an only slightly veiled assault on the mythos of God creating the Earth in 7 days (6 and one for rest, a bizarre concept for an omnipotent being) and demanding the denizens he's created worship him. We even have some evil Egyptians, well Black Adam and his family, for a full on Old Testament feel. It's too direct an assault for most "Christians" to use as an opportunity to consider the tenets of their faith, but for an atheist like me it was a joy of thought provocation.
As with all of my favorite writing, it's the character development and individuality, especially in a large team book like this, that really makes it enjoyable. The larger plot arcs serve as constructs for interactions. The conflict within the JSA during the Gog story fits in a logical pattern. The doubters of Gog are lead by Earth-22 Superman, the elder Wildcat, Green Lantern and the Flash, all of whom have lived through eras of demigods or humans who thought they should be treated as such. Hawkman, Magog, Damage, and Citizen Steel lead the troop inclined to follow Gog, the former because he wants peace on Earth at any cost after centuries of reincarnations, and the latter 3 because of their own issues and miracle engendered loyalty to Gog.
Johns also creates or uses little known characters like the newest Wildcat, Cyclone, Lightning (daughter of Black Lightning) and Judomaster to excellent effect. These newer characters bring out elements in stories and have their own interactions that provide nice development. Little bits of humor are also prevalent. In fact, the entire last issue isn't some grand finale, full of panache, but a visit to Stargirl's family for her birthday and hoped for removal of her braces. That story alone emphasized the theme Johns presented throughout his run, that the team is a family more than a fighting force or quasi-police organization, such as the JLA. That was a far more fitting end to his term as writer than than the preceding issue that had ended the Gog story and essentially said that anyone who wanted to be on the team was on the team.
One final note. Throughout the Johns run JSA did one thing all comics should do, and I don't mean provide excellent writing and interior art, which it did. Every one of the 28 issues that comprise Johns's involvement had beautiful, eye catching covers. The first 10 issues largely featured a single member of the team on a black background, but the action covers on the subsequent 18 were equally up to the task of selling the book to the casual browser.