Turn Back the Page, to the Golden Age

The Dreaded Deadline Doom has caught up with me once more this week, so we’ll be bringing you another lost entry from the original COMICS 101 Archives, from way back in October 2004. Enjoy!

The year 1993 was pretty lean times for fans of DC’s Golden Age characters. The lackluster JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA monthly series was wheezing on its last geriatric legs, and Roy Thomas’ ALL-STAR SQUADRON, which had reveled in its enormous cast of 1940s mystery men, was all but forgotten, having been cancelled six years before. Debuting practically unnoticed that year was a miniseries by James Robinson and Paul Smith that would not only stand on its own right as one of the best graphic novels of the ’90s, but would also serve as just a hint of the excellent stories to come from Robinson in the pages of his Eisner-winning series STARMAN. Let’s take a look at Robinson’s breakthrough work in comics, THE GOLDEN AGE.

As alluded to above, THE GOLDEN AGE wasn’t really a high-profile launch from DC Comics that year. The artist, Paul Smith, was best known for a popular 11-issue run on Marvel’s UNCANNY X-MEN a decade earlier, but his frequent absences from the industry had prevented him from ever really garnering a following. Writer James Robinson’s only real credit of note before THE GOLDEN AGE was a little-seen run on the Malibu Ultraverse comic FIREARM, a hard-boiled P.I. series set amongst a backdrop of superheroes. (FIREARM was by far the best of the Malibu Ultraverse series — keep an eye out for the back issues.) As for the characters themselves, the Justice Society and their fellows were just coming out of a period of serious neglect at DC, so this was not a series that had any kind of promotional dollars behind it; as I recall, it just kind of appeared on the stands.

THE GOLDEN AGE concerns itself with a heretofore unrecorded period in the history of DC’s WW II-era mystery men: the years immediately following the end of the war, from 1946 to 1955. Just as America adjusts to a nation no longer at war, so do America’s costumed homefront heroes adjust to a society that no longer worships them quite so fervently, with so many real-life American heroes returning home from Europe and the Pacific by the boatload, personified by the most honored hero of all: former mystery-man turned soldier and spy Tex Thompson, who went by the names “Mr. America” and the “Americommando” when he was fighting crime from behind a mask on the streets of New York.


Having parachuted behind enemy lines on orders from President Roosevelt, Thompson is credited with having eliminated the Third Reich’s superhuman soldiers, Parsifal, Nazi Germany’s protection from America’s superheroes, and even Adolf Hitler himself.

Who’s “Parsifal,” you ask? Here’s where the series diverges most from the established DC continuity, and what probably accounts most for THE GOLDEN AGE’s classification as an “Elseworlds” story, DC’s brand for books that “never really happened.” As established by writer Roy Thomas in ALL-STAR SQUADRON, the reason heavyweight super-types like Dr. Fate, the Spectre and Green Lantern didn’t fly into Berlin and mop up the Third Reich in a weekend was the fact the Adolf Hitler held the Spear of Destiny. Believed to be the spear that stabbed the side of Christ, this mystical relic created a spell around all Axis-held territory which, if crossed over by an American superhero, would subject that superhero to Nazi mind control until said hero crossed back over into Allied territory. All things considered, a nifty little piece of creative rationalization. However, Robinson herein discards that story as a bit of U.S. propaganda, to excuse the superheroes’ absence from service for an entirely different reason: Otto Frentz, a.k.a. Parsifal, a Nazi agent whose power negated the superpowers of others. After two superhero missions overseas resulted in the heroes barely escaping with their lives, FDR decreed that no super-hero was to cross the Atlantic, fearing the death of any American mystery-man would be too much of a blow to homefront morale.

Having established the initial premise, the story settles into its primary viewpoint, that of documentary filmmaker Johnny Chambers, who has given up his costumed identity of super-speedster Johnny Quick, following his divorce from fellow All-Star Squadroneer Liberty Belle.


Most of the other All-Stars have retreated into the shadows as well, devoting themselves to civilian lives and business pursuits. (In a clever decision by Robinson, since this is at its core a story about human frailty, weakness and mortality, the JSA’s two most powerful members, Dr. Fate and the Spectre, are nowhere to be seen.) Foremost among them is Alan Scott, the ex-Green Lantern, who had given up his superhero career following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, overwhelmed with the responsibility his power carries. With only a fraction of his power, entire cities were wiped out — unable to face his own potential for that kind of devastation, Alan Scott gives up his ring, devoting himself instead to his employees at Gotham Broadcasting, many of whom are beginning to feel the pinch of the Communist blacklist.


As for Chambers’ ex-wife Liberty Belle, the now-retired Libby Lawrence has taken up with another former Squadroneer, writer Jonathan Law, a.k.a. the Tarantula, who’s suffering from writer’s block, finding it increasingly difficult to follow the success of his first book.

Tex Thompson, meanwhile, has parlayed his hero’s popularity into a Senate appointment, and begins laying the groundwork for a program to create a government-controlled superhero, claiming it necessary to defend America from the “growing threat the Soviet nation now poses.” In addition, Thompson begins recruiting from his former allies in the All-Star Squadron, including Justice Society members Johnny Thunder and the Atom, as well as All-Star Squadroneer Robotman, who’s losing touch with his humanity, more by the day.


As Thompson’s motives begin to appear sinister, more of the All-Stars are shown to be battling their own demons, whether it’s Hourman’s dependence on Miraclo, Ted “Starman” Knight’s guilt-wracked mental breakdown following his assistance on the Manhattan Project, or Paul “Manhunter” Kirk’s frantic flight across country, fleeing assassins and fueled by terrifying nightmares. As the first chapter draws to a close, we meet Thompson’s final recruit: former Squadroneer Daniel “Dan the Dyna-Mite” Dunbar, whose mentor, the superhero “TNT,” was killed in the war, and who has had as much trouble as anyone adjusting to civilian life, finding himself flunking out of Princeton University. When Senator Tex Thompson shows up at his doorstep, Dan readily agrees to join up.


The story barrels on from there, cutting between Daniel Dunbar’s atomic rebirth as Dynaman, Thompson’s ready-made all-American hero, Alan Scott’s battle to keep his writers from being branded as Communists, Libby’s estrangement from the deteriorating Jonathan Law, and Paul Kirk’s continuing flight from the mysterious assassins. Kirk finds some good luck when he runs into Bob Daley, another retired mystery-man, who takes him in and tries to restore him to his senses.


Daley serves as a thematic link between Kirk and Thompson, the story’s antagonist, thanks to their past together: Thompson and Daley once patrolled New York together as Mr. America and (wait for it) Fatman, but after the war, Thompson tells Daley in no uncertain terms that he considers their past together an embarrassment. It’s a credit to Robinson’s writing and Smith’s facility with conveying emotions that probably the most laughable, stupid character in DC’s library comes across here as a figure of sympathy and nobility.

Thompson, meanwhile, enters into a romantic relationship with Joan Dale, the ex-superhero known as Miss America (Of course. Who else would Mr. America be involved with?), which will eventually lead to his undoing. Robinson also re-introduces some of the more obscure characters in the DC archives, like Captain Triumph, a.k.a. Lance Gallant, who only needs to touch a birthmark on his arm to summon the spirit of his dead brother, combining their strength as Captain Triumph.


As Robinson points out here, being able to summon your brother’s spirit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’ve retired from the superhero game. At the story’s halfway point, it’s become clear that Dynaman isn’t quite the same insecure kid that Thompson recruited from Princeton.

By 1949, Thompson and Dynaman have continued their anti-Communist propaganda campaign, calling for all of America’s mystery-men to appear in Washington to take an “oath of loyalty.” When Thompson’s veiled attacks on the disloyalty of America’s superheroes are pointed out as specious by ex-Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, a potential political opponent, the suddenly despondent Forrestal swiftly “takes his own life”:


At the same time, events are separately converging against Thompson. Bob Daley takes Paul Kirk to New York to see Carter Hall, a.k.a. Hawkman, in the hopes that Hall, with his knowledge of hypnotism and past lives, can unlock the mysteries of Kirk’s amnesia and nightmares. Under Hall’s trance Kirk remembers his exploits during the war, working behind enemy lines with Thompson. As it turns out, Paul Kirk, not Thompson, was the one who killed the Nazi super-agent Parsifal, as well as eliminating the rest of Germany’s super-beings. Kirk also sees once more the horrifying sight that had led to his nightmares and amnesia. On a mission to assassinate one of Hitler’s scientists, Kirk infiltrates a Bavarian castle, where he discovers that his target is none other than the brain-swapping fiend the Ultra-Humanite, as evidenced by the brainless body of his last host, actress Dolores Winters, lying lifeless on a lab table.


Even worse is the realization of where the Ultra-Humanite’s brain was now residing: the body of Tex Thompson. Kirk barely escapes with his life.

At the same time, Joan Dale, disturbed by the increasingly moody and abusive actions of her lover Thompson, makes off with Thompson’s locked journal and heads to her friend Paula Brooks, the reformed costumed thief once known as the Huntress. Paula picks the lock and soon Joan, Paula and Paula’s lover Lance Gallant are made aware of the same ugly fact that Paul Kirk has finally remembered, that Tex Thompson is really the Ultra-Humanite. The journal, however, holds even worse revelations, prompting Paula to call Johnny Chambers, whom the story has characterized as “the one superhero that everyone else came to with their problems.”


Chambers, realizing this is more than he can handle, in turn tries to contact one of the “big guns,” Alan Scott, who’s still refusing to once more pick up his power ring, and whose battles with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee has him feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, as keenly realized by Smith:


In the story’s final chapter, a hasty war council is convened of the few mystery-men who know Thompson’s secret, and a plan is made: during the upcoming ceremony at which all of America’s superheroes are supposed to go to Washington to swear their loyalty, another new recruit will be named to Thompson’s camp, who will then expose the truth about Thompson before the superhero community and the eyes of the world.


However, to withstand the strength Thompson has at his disposal, the whistleblower has to be one of the “big guns,” and Rex “Hourman” Tyler is elected. Nearly every mystery-man and superhero turns out at the nation’s Capitol for the ceremony, and before things can begin, Joan Dale takes to the podium and exposes Thompson herself, but before she can tell the entire truth, Robotman brutally and permanently silences her.


Hourman intervenes, and forces Dynaman to reveal his true nature (which I’m not going to give away here, by the way). The remainder of the book is a colossal brawl, as it looks like the strength of America’s superheroes combined isn’t enough to slow down the unstoppable Dynaman.


Meanwhile, Paul Kirk reclaims his identity of Manhunter and faces off against the Ultra-Humanite. And elsewhere, Lance Gallant refuses to change to Captain Triumph, taking on the murderous Robotman himself.


At the same time, dozens of mystery-men are falling before the power of Dynaman, and unlike recent comic-book deaths, these losses have meaning. No gunshots to the back and exploding spaceships here.


Finally, the tide begins to turn with the arrival of two more of the All-Stars’ heavyweights, Green Lantern and Starman, although the deciding blow finally comes from a surprising source.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with Johnny Quick, now reconciled with Liberty Belle, recounting the fates of the battle’s survivors, and looking forward to what he can already see as the next generation of heroes, and “a new age, as fresh and clear and bright as sterling silver!”

James Robinson takes Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron and imbues them with a humanity and depth they’d always lacked under Thomas’s pedantic style, yet doesn’t invalidate anything that’s come before or betray the heroes’ existing characterizations. As for the story itself, Robinson expertly paces the narrative, slowly adding to what we know about Thompson and keeping track of multiple characters, while building to the series’ two big revelations, all of which set the stage for the titanic clash in Chapter 4, which is really the only action in the entire book.

As for Paul Smith’s art, he’s able to expertly straddle that line between making the characters look all too human, and even a little lost, in their capes and masks, and charging them with the power and legendary standing that’s customarily been their trademark.


Smith also conveys a ferocity and mortal desperation in the battle scenes, as the assembled heroes struggle with the very enemy they’d been denied the opportunity to fight during the war, only now with a power too overwhelming to conceive.


Smith does an excellent job of differentiating likenesses, as most of the characters spend the majority of the series in their civilian identities, and Smith manages to create distinctive, in-character and instantly recognizable faces for all of the unmasked heroes, most of whom barely had any distinguishable characteristics to their faces in their original inceptions. Paul Kirk looks nothing like Johnny Chambers, who doesn’t resemble Carter Hall, who doesn’t look a thing like Rex Tyler. And their likenesses fit.


Carter Hall has taken on an almost Egyptian aspect, while Johnny Chambers’ face shows the wear of a failed marriage and stalled career, and Rex Tyler has the pugnacious brow and high forehead of a man who lives by his fists.


Credit should also be given to colorist Richard Ory, who grants the entire book a kind of subdued moodiness, while retaining the bright, colorful costumes so prevalent in the Golden Age heroes.

While the Justice Society and company had been published by DC for decades, James Robinson was really the first to make them human, which is why this book struck a chord with so many readers, and led to the characters finally getting a return to the spotlight through Robinson’s later STARMAN and JSA series. THE GOLDEN AGE is a gem in the DC library, and a currently neglected one at that. If ever a book deserved the deluxe hardcover treatment, it’s this one, and yet it’s currently not even available in softcover. Hopefully someday soon DC will realize its error and put THE GOLDEN AGE where it should be: back on the shelves and constantly in the hands of new readers.

This week’s title courtesy of Bill, Miguel, Max and Steve from Seduction of the Innocent.


One Response to Turn Back the Page, to the Golden Age

  1. Jeff Nettleton March 26, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    Gee, I always kind of enjoyed the Justice Society series from Len Strazewski and Mike Parobeck, especially Parobeck’s art. However, Golden Age was definitely on a higher plane. I especially enjoyed Smith’s channelling the styles of some of the era’s artists, like Alex Raymond, Mort Meskin, Lou Fine, and Reed Crandall. He captured the subtleties of their anatomy and details like feathering and minimal linework. I used to onw the promotional poster, which was a thing of beauty.

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.