Tonight's Smallville: Absolute Justice brings DC Comics' Justice Society of America to television, as written by comic fan-favorite Geoff Johns. But if you're wondering why you should care, here's a quick introduction to the superteam.
Making their debut in 1940's All-Star Comics #3, the JSA broke new ground by being comics' first superhero team. The concept, as created by editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox, was that membership in the Justice Society relied upon a character's popularity - Namely, that any character would remain an "active" member until he or she was popular enough to get a comic of their own, at which point they'd be replaced with another character needing a popularity push. Because of this, the team's line-up fluctuated a lot; characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, the Spectre, Hour-Man and others passed in and out of the series, with only Hawkman appearing in every story. Amusingly, and depressingly, enough, one character was immune from the "Own Series Means No Membership" rule - Wonder Woman, who stayed in the team, but only as their secretary. Oh, how I wish I was making that last bit up (The series holds another place in comics history besides the first superteam title; by featuring characters from both National Comics and All-American Comics before the companies were merged to form what would eventually become DC Comics in 1944, the series was also the first example of an inter-company crossover).
After 11 years of publication, the series was canceled in 1951 as superheroes fell out of favor (All-Star Comics was renamed All-Star Western and continued, however). But by the late 1950s, Fox and editor Julius Schwartz had revived the genre with rebooted versions of not only many of the team's line-up, but a reboot of the team itself. Renamed Justice League of America - the thinking being that "League" sounded younger and more exciting to that era's target audience - the success of these revamps gave Fox and Schwartz the idea to revive the JSA in their original incarnation via the magic of multiple Earths. After a couple of teases and mentions in Fox's The Flash series - where the younger Flash met the original Flash on an irregular basis - the team reformed in 1962's The Flash #137, before returning to full action in the following year's Justice League of America #21, setting up an annual tradition of team team-ups that lasted until 1985.
The annual JLA guest-shots were popular enough to keep the team around for the next 20 years in various series as an alternate world oddity; stuck on Earth-2 and two decades older than their mainstream counterparts, the JSA were allowed to age and develop in ways that the "real" versions never were: Superman and Lois Lane were married, as were Batman and Catwoman. Batman died. Many characters had children, who grew up to become their own superteam, Infinity, Inc.. And then DC Comics turned 50 years old, and everything went to hell.
DC celebrated their 50th birthday with a classic series called Crisis on Infinite Earths, wherein all parallel Earths were either destroyed or merged into one Earth with a revised history, which pretty successfully mangled the Justice Society's history (and membership; alternate characters like the original Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were wiped from history altogether in favor of their mainstream counterparts). Seeing no purpose in keeping duplicate versions of characters around - and older versions, at that - DC consigned the JSA to a literal limbo in 1986's The Last Days of The JSA. The characters ended up stuck outside of time forever, stopping a Wagnerian Hitler Apocalypse scenario.
That lasted all of five years. A mix of fan outcry and creator interest brought the team back in 1991's Armageddon: Inferno series (Time travel and analog gods were involved, I seem to remember) before the characters received a critically-acclaimed, low-selling new Justice Society of America series the next year. Canceled within ten issues, allegedly due to TPTB deciding that senior citizen superheroes was a ridiculous idea not worth publishing, the team was dealt yet another "final blow" in 1994's sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, Zero Hour: Crisis In Time, when the majority of the team were either killed, depowered or forced to act their age - which, at that point, was 70+ years old.
Market forces care as little for age as comic readers do, though, and when Grant Morrison's relaunched JLA turned out to be a massive hit in the late-90s, DC quickly decided that launching a series called JSA couldn't fail. After all, only one letter was different. The problem being, as Zero Hour had ensured, the majority of the original Justice Society wasn't available anymore. 1999's JSA successfully solved that problem by recasting the remaining members as mentors to younger superheroes with some connection or another to the missing founders; some of Infinity, Inc. found a new home in the series, as did brand new characters wearing familiar costumes or names, such as Mr. Terrific, Hourman and Stargirl, amongst many others. New creators, too, made their name on this successful series, including Geoff Johns, who wrote the majority of issues and spearheaded its relaunch in 2006 as Justice Society of America.
Without having any prior knowledge of the Smallville movie, we'd bet that it's this latter incarnation of the team - older veterans mentoring younger heroes - that we'll see tonight; it'd fit with Smallville's incredibly slow-burning theme of its characters learning to be heroes, and also allow for future guest-appearances down the line. One thing is for sure, though; after such a long and troubled history, it's good to see the team get their time in the spotlight for once.
Smallville: Absolute Justice airs tonight on the CW at 8pm.