Tag Archives: Golden Age

When Something Awful is Beautiful: The Golden Age #1

Hey there, Legions of The Unspoken!  I hope you enjoyed Emily’s entry last week as Punisher temporarily became a black man!  Check it out right now if you haven’t!  I find that story to be that perfect amalgam of 90’s silliness and 90’s coolness (which sometimes are one and the same) that excited me then and excites me now!  Of course, the fact that Punisher is the main character certainly won’t hurt it in my eyes since, as you all well know, Punisher is my favorite character.

What you may not know is how much I love the Justice Society of America.  Punisher is my favorite character, but the JSA is easily my favorite superhero team.  Bar none.  The difference between the JSA and second place IN MY HEART is the difference between a Martin Scorsese movie and the local community theatre performing Raging Bull.  I have to admit I’m incredibly interested in an awful local community theater production of Raging Bull, so if any of you have any videos of that, send them my way.

Of course, if you’re an elder member of the Legion of the Unspoken, (and we appreciate you greatly if you are), you know how much I love the JSA because you read my earlier article about how much I love the Strazewski/Parobeck 90’s Justice Society of America; The Golden Age, though, ain’t about that JSA.

The Golden Age #1 - Page 1

Already you can see stark differences between the world of the JSA with which we are familiar and the world here.  The dark tones of the cover, the burning image of a Life Magazine cover featuring the JSA, and even the embossed cover would lead you to believe that this ain’t your Daddy’s JSA.  It isn’t even the JSA we had loved a short time prior.

Of course, this is an Elseworlds tale, which is basically a tale involving DC’s characters in a different light that won’t affect continuity.  I think the Elseworlds tale most non-hardcore comic book fans are familiar with is Batman/Dracula:  Red Rain, where Batman becomes a Bat-Vampire, but anyone who only knows that comic is missing out.  DC put out some fine tales under this banner and even centered their annuals around the imprint in 1994.  We got to see everything from Superman landing on Earth and getting adopted by the Waynes instead of the Kents to Samurai Robin!  Ok, some of it was better than others, but most of it was fun and really good.  Very little of it ascended to masterpiece status, though.  The Golden Age is one of those exceptions.

Since this isn’t your JSA, and this JSA story takes place in a non-canonical situation, what exactly is it?  It’s the story of what happened to the JSA in a post-WWII world.  It’s the story of what happens when folks grow from the impudence of youth into the responsibility of adulthood.  It’s about the difference between your early to mid-20’s and your mid-30’s.  It’s about the difference between 1940’s America and 1950’s America.  It starts out, however, about the disappearance of the JSA, and the prominence of the lone “mystery man” that America still seems to care about.

The Golden Age #1 - Page 5

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The dichotomous juxtaposition of the Atomic Bomb, the JSA, and the other mystery men of the era is perfectly encapsulated by Paul Smith’s art and James Robinson’s words.  This series was my first elongated exposure to Smith’s work, and I was a fan from the first page.  I was more familiar with Robinson’s work at this point, but I was still blown away.  Many folks love his Starman series and rightfully consider it a masterpiece, but I think that the love and reverence for that series, no matter how richly deserved, sometimes crowds out the love and reverence that should exist for this series.  Perhaps that’s because Starman was an ongoing while this was a four-issue mini-series.  Whatever the reason, it’s a travesty.

I really enjoy the idea put forth about the “mystery men,” as superheroes were called then, vs. THE BOMB.  Few instances in history are as jarring or as brutal as the unleashing of atomic weapons on Japan at the end of WWII.  The JSA, All-Star Squadron, and their superhero compatriots at various publishers must have seemed silly in an instant to many in our world, as their brightly colored costumes clashed with the newly grey overtone of a world where tens of thousands of non-combatants could die in an instant, and the world itself could be destroyed in a torrential downpour of radioactive fire.  That’s our world, you know?  Now imagine how useless many of the superheroes would have felt in a world where they and the bomb existed.  After all, what’s the point of being a super strong person or being able to glide on wings if a Head of State could turn all of that ability into a mushroom cloud in an instant?

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That’s harsh, except for The Flash.  I’m a huge fan of The Golden Age Flash.  There’s something about his happy-go-lucky attitude that endears him to me.  Even a quickly darkening world can’t diminish his smile.  I think it is because he always comes across as though he thinks of himself as “Jay Garrick, Flash”, rather than “The Flash”.   It’s something Jay Garrick DOES, not something Jay Garrick IS.  The difference is subtle, yet powerful.

The others seem to be going nuts, growing old, growing mean, or all three in Johnny Quick’s case.  Hawkman is mostly on the going nuts side, but I find Mr. Terrific’s tale to be the most depressing thus far, as Terry Sloane literally emblazoned Fair Play across his chest as a mantra, only to turn his back on it in the name of capital gains.  Johnny Quick just seems to be growing old, and as we all might when growing older, gets increasingly tired of who he is without knowing what to do about it.

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And I bet you are asking,  “Who’s Tex Thompson?  What’s all this Americommando nonsense?”  But a less casual superhero fan might also be asking, “Why didn’t the JSA just go end WWII?” They’re both valid questions, and they’re both equally important to the tale.

The Golden Age #1 - Page 19

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So despite having been ineffectual stateside in the eyes of Johnny Quick and many other heroes, Tex Thompson, the Americommando, apparently saved the USA and the rest of the Allies during WWII by killing Parsifal, who negated super powers.   Parsifal is a cool name, and again, Paul Smith does a fantastic job making him look ominous, but not necessarily powerful.  Of course, as evidenced by the inability of the American superheroes to enter into the Second World War, sometimes being able to keep others from being powerful is the most effective power of all.

The heroes we have seen thus far, save Flash, have all been mired in insanity or vice.  Most of the heroes we will see in the rest of the issue will be the same.  One example to the contrary, however, is Alan Scott, Green Lantern.  As a paranoid post-WWII era is emerging, Tex Thompson does his best to stoke the fires that fuel the Second Red Scare.  Alan Scott is standing by his employees, and even in post-emerald days, he remains a noble gladiator dedicated to those depending on him.

The Golden Age #1 - Page 20

The Golden Age #1 - Page 21

Even Green Lantern is cracking under the pressure of this era, and how could he not be, as he intends to stand by his men while Tex Thompson spews forth nonsense like this:

The Golden Age #1 - Page 30

James Robinson does a great job painting a time when America transformed from a nation fighting against fascism to a nation that had been frightened into accepting witch hunts and book burning.  It was a quick turnaround, no doubt exacerbated by the Cold War, the Korean War, changing social post-war mores and the like, and Robinson paints it as the scary time it had to have been.

Possessing radical viewpoints myself, I too often feel as though I am stymied and stifled for my beliefs (I’m a Libertarian Socialist/Anarchist), but what I face is nothing compared to the 50’s, with government committees looking into what people believed, what organizations they had belonged to, and how that could impact America.  Regardless of beliefs, people have the right to possess them without the government infringing upon them, and many people were deprived of these rights during the 50’s.  This is very well documented, as is the impact the climate had on our beloved comic books, with Congress looking into the impact comic books had on juvenile delinquency.  This social climate first led to comic book burnings and the manipulation of children to turn in comic books and boycott establishments that sold “questionable” material.  Eventually, the industry would self-censor by forming the Comics Code.  I suggest reading a book called The Ten-Cent Plague and also taking a look at the 1950’s volume of American Comic Book Chronicles.

Back to the 90’s!  Or back to the 50’s, I suppose!  I mentioned Paul Smith’s art being beautiful, but I have to say that it carries an especially peculiar air of beauty when things get grisly for our heroes.  Take Robotman, for instance, who is struggling mightily with his humanity.  I imagine it is hard to be a human trapped in a robot’s body.  Imagine how odd it must be to sense, but not truly feel.  Imagine being able to recall what it was like to be hungry without having to eat.  Imagine how everyone treats you like you like you are a robot, when you are actually a person just like them.  It would probably make you snap, and then you’d probably snap some people like Robotman does here.

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Paul Smith’s somehow beautifully depicts this moment of Robotman snapping.  Some folks draw so beautifully that the visceral nature of certain images gets lost in a sea of aesthetic appeal, but Paul Smith somehow manages to turn his refined beauty into an amazing depiction of brutal ugliness.  The blood on Robotman’s face following this farce of a fracas appropriately looks like tears after he breaks these mooks, along with possibly breaking what is left of his humanity.

Need more proof Paul Smith can bring the beautifully horrendous like no one else?  Take a look at the bizarre hallucinatory dream Paul Kirk, Manhunter is having as, in the irony of ironies, he has become the hunted.  Oh, and this dream occurs just before he wakes up to everyone in the shelter he is in GETTING BLOWN AWAY.

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It should not be, but it is a little funny when that priest gets it, as though he was going to wade into this firefight with a rosary and a shrill rebuke and reflect bullets.  I admire his bravery, but it seems like his best bet would have been to stay put; as a general rule, one cannot negotiate with a cadre of folks brandishing Tommy Guns.

Again ,though, I beg you take heed when I point out just how sparkling yet depraved these scenes are.  Madness, fear, and paranoia have never looked so amazing, and somehow, they are also more poignant now that they are beautiful.

Speaking of sad yet beautiful madness, we also see Ted Knight, Starman, in this issue.  Ted blames himself for everything.  He blames himself for the superhero explosion, but he also blames himself for influencing Einstein to create The Bomb.  Johnny Chambers goes to see out favorite Cosmic Rod inventor, and since he goes during the day, he does not like what he sees.  How could anyone enjoy talking to the world’s foremost mind in a state so neurotic?

The Golden Age #1 - Page 36

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Of course, had Johnny Chambers come to see Starman at night, when he thrives, the picture would have been harrowing and frightening in a different way, as Smith and Robinson get across what it is to be a frenzied, driven, and highly intelligent man who can only break free of his neuroses at certain times.

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The Golden Age isn’t shining so brightly, and that’s what makes this a masterpiece.  Often, works that take a darker spin on beloved characters fail due to contrivance.  We see character flaws, but they are flaws that make sense with what we previously know about a character.  In The Golden Age, James Robinson had a grip so tight on these characters that you can almost hear them gasping to breathe as he chokes wonderfully depressing tales out of them, as he forces them to acknowledge their own dark sides, making these characters seem real.  Combine that with beautiful, yet starkly real depictions from Paul Smith, and I find myself unable to put this book down.

 I believe that a man who ran fast for years would be tired of it as he faces the 35th year of his life.  I believe that a genius who created a rod to harness the energy of the stars themselves has a weird bipolar nocturnal, and that the desperation over the negative impact of his genius weighs him down just as much as the elation over the positive impact must lift him up.   I believe in Alan Scott’s troubles and worries as he presides over his broadcasting business in the best and most noble way he can.

But we are barely scratching the surface here!There’s still so much more to tell you about issue #1!  What happened to Libby Lawrence, Johhny Quick’s ex-wife?  Where is Hourman and what is going on with his powers?  Why is The Atom working with Tex Thomson, and what are those experiments the government is doing on Al Pratt. The Golden Age Atom?

I tell you what, Legions of the Unspoken, what say we pick up with The Atom’s story next week, with Golden Age #2!  Be here!

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Finding Love in a Hopeless Place-The Justice Society of America

To enjoy the Justice Society of America as much as I did at the time I did is to be almost as big an anomalous anachronism as they are.  I suppose on the surface, a WWII team that was still active in the 1990’s seems silly, but somewhere in that silliness lay magic.  Even beyond that silliness, within the JSA was sternness beyond reproach.  I respected and revered the JSA for reasons that I did not and still do not fully understand.

Part of my adoration has to be their connection to WWII.  I recently wrote a guest blog for www.longboxgraveyard.com  about the All-Star Squadron, another title I love that features the JSA.  In that article, I talked about my reverence for WWII, both as a young man obsessed with the maps in the encyclopedia that told the story of WWII, and I am also an ardent antifascist (to the point where you can find me on twitter as @theantifascist), which enables me to identify with the brave men and women who stood up against blatant oppression and repression so that the world might be a slightly freer place.

Another reason for my reverence is my unrelenting passion for things I get interested in.  As was noted in the first entry here at The Unspoken Decade, I must learn everything I possibly can about anything I am into.  I must know the history, and I must know it fast.  When it comes to superhero comic books, they really do not get much more historic than the Justice Society of America!

Of course, no amount of obsession with history could have made me more interested in the JSA than, say, A FUCKING FANTASTIC COMIC!  Which is what the Justice Society of America comic released in the 1990’s totally is in every possible way.  Don’t believe me?  Choke on this, hater.

Maybe if Hawkgirl and Hawkman fly around that monster long enough they’ll defeat it.
Maybe if Hawkgirl and Hawkman fly around that monster long enough they’ll defeat it.

I recall vividly the very first time I laid eyes on a copy of this series.  I was in Springfield, MO.  My Dad had just killed himself. (BUZZKILL,)  We were in town for the funeral, and needless to say, I was quite distraught.  I did my best to keep it together, and all things considered I did a good job.  I was about a year into collecting comics at this time, and to make a shitty situation better, my parents (Mom and Stepfather) had promised to take me to a “big time” comic book store.   Despite the pallor of the trip, I could not help but be excited for this.  Our town had a great comic book store, and in hindsight I love it even more than I loved it then, but I was enchanted by a bigger store with more back issues.  My local store was also a used bookstore, and most of the space was dedicated to the books.  While my 13-year old self occasionally wandered into that section to snicker at the double entendre titles adorning the romance books, I hungered for what I believed a “real” comic book store to be like.  Now that I think about it, what the hell could that even mean?  Did I think Goddamn Stan Lee and Frank Miller were gonna be playing catch with an NFL Superpro football or something?  I haven’t the slightest.

We would not get to that comic book store until the very end of the trip, in what was a hilarious horrorshow that I will save for another article, but during our sojourn, we stopped at several convenience stores in Springfield.  These stores were like magic to me because unlike the backwoods gas stations we had down south, these stores had COMIC BOOKS!  Of course, I was mesmerized at every stop, and I always found some excuse to go in and gaze at the comics.  That’s where I was first introduced to the greatness that is Mike Parobeck’s art.

We finally get the answer to the question of who would win a fight between a balding guy and a guy with bad haircut.
We finally get the answer to the question of who would win a fight between a balding guy and a guy with bad haircut.

(We finally get the answer to the question of who would win a fight between a balding guy and a guy with bad haircut.)

 

I was, and still am, a giant Guy Gardner fan.  He’s still one of my favorite Green Lanterns, mostly because he is the only character in superhero history that got super powers who isn’t all the way good or bad.  He’s an asshole, but he isn’t evil.  He’s like a cop who actually plays by the book, but that same cop likes letting everyone know just how good he is, how bad they are, how lucky they are to know him, and you get the joke by now.  Of course, that cop-stache ain’t going to go well with that do.

Speaking of Guy’s haircut, I find it sort of spectacular he had that haircut because it is the sort of bad haircut most assholes had, but just two years later, this haircut was all the rage.  Even I had one, although all pictures of said haircut have been destroyed…

But the point is that the cover with Guy drew me in, and then I couldn’t really stop staring at it.  I actually got in trouble for looking at it when we stopped at a gas station at night under a street light for the few seconds we would be there.  I just could not stop looking at it.  Then, I read it.  Then, my life changed.

 

Justice Society of America V2 #9 - Page 15
If anyone ever tries to tell me folks with rings that do anything they will fighting each other isn’t cool as hell then I will refer them directly here and immediately accept their apology and firstborn in restitution.

I just loved it.  I loved the art, but I also loved how much I cared about folks much older than me.  I had heard of the Justice Society prior, both through comic book cards and through the issues of All-Star Squadron I had thumbed through at the flea market.  I was interested, but this was the first time I was captivated.

Len Strazewski does a tremendous job of getting Green Lantern over immediately as not just a formidable ringslinger, but he also makes him cool.  Like, he is cooler than the cool grandpa you wish you had.

Justice Society of America V2 #9 - Page 18
Alan Scott, Golden Age Green Lantern, calls Guy Gardner a Looney Tune, then dispatches him like one. That’s how it’s done!

The dialogue is also spot on.  Some folks have denigrated it as “old-fashioned,” but imagine that, some guys who fought in WWII talk differently than other folks in the 1990’s.  I don’t find it to be “old-fashioned” at all, though.  I think it is straight-forward, as people of that era often were.  These are folks who just do not mince words, and that happens to be a massive part of their appeal to me.  The JSA came to me during what was a rather tumultuous time in my life, as referenced earlier.  Their strength and matter-of-fact attitude helped me feel and stay safe in a world that for me was changing fast.

I loved that comic so much, that the comic book part of the trip was grand.  I had found a treasure in a bad part of my life in a place I never thought I’d find it.  Of course, that just meant that the next day I would find another issue of Justice Society of America in a different gas station!

Justice Society of America V2 #8 - Page 1
Only bad thing about this cover is you can’t see the cool eye logo they wear on their hoods.

I felt like some sort of Texas oil man who had struck two gushers in as many days!  My good fortune was much needed at this time, and again, I just read it over and over again. I loved the introduction of Jesse Quick.  The idea that these identities would be mantles to be passed in legacy was sacrosanct to me.  I wanted to believe in such a thing, especially at this time.  I wanted to believe in legacy; even if I hadn’t, the Justice Society of America would have convinced me otherwise anyhow.   There isn’t a damn thing this series gets wrong.  For Christ’s sake, look how it starts!

 

Nice Sign, #8...
Nice Sign, #8…

The JSA has returned in all of their glory!  This is from Issue #1, and the splash page is beautiful.  Mike Parobeck did such an amazing job with all of these guys, and really on everything he touched.  I also don’t want to underestimate the coloring in this book.  The colors pop in a way that matches the never-say-die attitude of these members of The Greatest Generation.  Many times over the course of this title, the JSA triumphs seemingly with just their grit and determination!   Strazewski and Parobeck do a great job of making almost everything they do inspiring.  Even a subplot about Wildcat and The Golden Age Atom wondering if they are too old or too depowered to help, they inspire.  When Hourman struggles with addiction to Miraclo, the drug that gives him his power, his struggle inspires.  This title never loses sight of the fact that the JSA were a beacon of hope to many in the DC Universe, starting with Superman practically worshipping them in issue #1; the guest appearance that really hammers home the relationship of hope and legacy, though, is the appearance of The Flash in #5.

(Ultra-Humanite looks like a cross between an ape and a sad old man.  That Hulk Hogan hair just isn’t working in this picture.
Ultra-Humanite looks like a cross between an ape and a sad old man. That Hulk Hogan hair just isn’t working in this picture.

Despite having been overwhelmed by the Ultra-Humanite, and despite being seemingly outclassed, the JSA tackles and defeats Ultra-Humanite en masse, with a joviality and determination that could be reserved only for the best of friends!

Wildcat can't believe it's not butter.
Wildcat can’t believe it’s not butter.

I love how their camaraderie may be their best weapon.  Their ability to fervently believe in each other and always have each other’s backs makes saving the world not just cool to see, but it comes across as cool for them to do.  Basically, they are the most effective and fun-having extended family since Full House.

For real though, no matter how dire the situation, and no matter how serious the threat, the JSA never loses their swashbuckler attitude, and why should they?  No matter what the threat was, if I was the fastest man alive or if I wielded the magicks of the Lords of Order then I would also constantly be having the time of my life as well, although I’d be slightly more selfish than these guys.  I’d totally use those magicks to make a giant pie that I would then shove into the “face” of a planet.  I’d also do the world saving stuff, but I am just too much of a scamp to never indulge the great interstellar pranks I could do with, say, a power ring.

Unfortunately, the fun and adventure in this title would not last long.  Despite good sales, the brass at DC decided that the JSA didn’t fit into their plans.  Len Strazewski (who I am interviewing on my radio show, Compton After Dark on 5/4 at www.vocnation.com) thinks that Mike Carlin is the man primarily responsible, but whoever it was very short-sighted, as the JSA still had lots to offer.  I find it very telling that unlike other titles that were canceled at this time (many of them canceled for much worse sales than JSA had) got twelve issues to fill out their stories.  This instance of Justice Society of America only got ten.  Black Condor got 12!  Primal Force got 12!  Black Canary got 12!  All of them, and I like all of them and plan on bringing y’all articles on each one of them in the future, had worse sales than JSA.  Why cut this title two issues earlier than was the standard paradigm at the time?  I have no idea other than what Len says, which is that there was enmity against the title within the front office.

Enmity or not though, the Justice Society of America goes out with a bang!

Justice Society of America V2 #10 (1993) - Page 1
I love how angry they all look. They must know they are being cancelled. Especially nice is how angry Sandman is able to look DESPITE WEARING A MASK.

 Since issue #1, we have been dealing with a sub-plot involving everyone’s favorite ornithological archaeologist couple, Hawkman and Hawkgirl.  They’ve been in Egypt, unearthing some sort of bizarre GIANT MUMMY.  Caps are there just to let you know how giant it is.

Unfortunately for the Hawks and the rest of the JSA, this mummy is actually Kulak, a little-used Spectre villain who showed up here to plague the JSA!  The fact that Kulak, former high priest on the planet Brztal, had hardly been used since the Golden Age prior to this is some sort of insult to everything great about comic books.  He uses magic, has a GIANT EYE as his symbol, and went toe-to-toe with The Spectre!  Naturally, he has everything it takes to essentially enslave the Hawks and have Carter Hall turn the entire world against the rest of the JSA!  He also had the ability to be super creepy as he intimates doing the nasty with Hawkgirl.

Justice Society of America V2 #10 (1993) - Page 6
I wish the panel where Hawkgirl holds that whip and moans while Kulak licks her with his oversized tongue was more suggestive

Sadly, for the last time, we see the JSA’s indomitable spirit enable them to rise to the occasion and defeat a foe who had them badly on the ropes, and once again some of the members who possess the least powers are the ones that rally the team and remind them all that no matter what the odds are, they can prevail; at least, they can prevail provided they are fighting Wotan or the Ultra-Humanite, but against the powers of a DC Comics editorial mandate they are helpless.  Of course, they really didn’t get to fight too fairly.  Can you imagine a DC Editor telling Dr. Mid-Nite no?

Justice Society of America V2 #10 (1993) - Page 15
Golden Age Green Lantern is very whiny considering he has a magic ring that can do ANYTHING while Dr. Mid-Nite is just a blind guy who can see.

The Hawks get freed, and the JSA finds a way to save the day.  Everything feels really rushed, and I wonder if it is because the cancellation came on quickly.  I will definitely be asking Len on my show May 4th about that!

This series came to me at a time in my life when I really needed something like this, and I could not be more thankful.  That having been said, this book would be wonderful to me no matter when I would have discovered it.  Good story, great art, and a sense of spirit that few comic books ever have.  This book is inspiring without being preachy about it; there’s a sense of pride and determination that I took away from it.  I think many others do too.

I am going to leave you with the last shot of the book and the comments Len made in the last LetterCol in JSA.  Even in their last moment, the JSA seems so regal, as though even though they know that this book is going away, nothing will ever really dampen the legacy they built.  No matter what the company that owns them does with their name and with the characters, the Justice Society of America will always persevere, and no enemy will ever hold them down for long, unless that enemy is the Golden Age Green Lantern arch-enemy Sportsmaster.

sportsmaster
He is evil and good at sports? So that makes him, who, Barry Bonds?

Don’t forget to listen to my radio show, Compton After Dark, Sunday, May 4th, 2014, as we will be interviewing the writer of this book, Len Strazewski!  It’s at 11:30 PM EDT on http://www.vocnation.com!  Enjoy the pinup and Len’s thoughts below, and join us here at The Unspoken Decade next week when we tackle Darkhawk!  Not literally.

 

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