Hey Folks! Andy Larson back again with another trip down that comic book golden road to some overlooked series from yesteryear.
Recently I did a bit of comic book gambling, and I’m glad to say on this occasion, it seems to have worked out in my favor. As I’m often a fan of religiously perusing deal related websites trying to find something I might need at ridiculously rock bottom prices, I found a website I had never heard of that was offering 10 DC Comics related trades for the price of only 34 bucks.
Of course, there was a 10 buck shipping cost and a dollar “currency exchange” fee as it turns out the company was based out of the United Kingdom, but still that was pretty much like $4.50 a trade, which is like bargain comic con rates. So although I thought it was kind of sketchy, I bit the bullet for the chance at some really great books that I thought could help fill out the DC portion of my comic book shelf.
Turns out it was well worth it as, not only were the books delivered in only a matter of days, but they were actually not just trades, but hardback versions! Its like what I asked Stew on our podcast several weeks ago that if you had the chance to get hardback books at trade paperback prices, that would be the greatest thing ever! And it indeed it was! I mean just take a look at my treasure trove of DC books that were a part of my recent haul and see for yourself!
Put out by Eaglemoss Collections, these beautiful volumes collect some of the very best classic stories to come out the DC over the past 50 years, so I’m really glad I took a chance and was able to snag some of these for myself.
In fact, in celebration of a gamble well played, I’ve decided to highlight one of these 10 books every month from this point on here on the Read Pile (it doesn’t hurt that it also helps fill my DC Quota which is often severely lacking). And with that said, I’m going to start with some of the lesser known books in this collection including “The Golden Age”, an Elseworlds style celebration of DC’s Golden Age heroes by James Robinson and artist Paul Smith.
Originally released in 1993, this was one of the books my brother recommended that I read way back in mid 2000s when I was getting back into comics after a somewhat lengthy hiatus. At the time, I believe it was because he knew how much I enjoyed “Watchmen” and thought this book was in a similar vein.
Of course, 15 years ago, I didn’t have a website in which to share my views on this interesting “What If” story featuring the original Green Lantern, Manhunter, Atom, and others. However, now I do, so buckle up, Buttercup!
10 Cent Synopsis:
Following World War II, many of the Golden Age heroes of DC have retired from active adventuring and are attempting to settle down into civilian life, similar to the GIs that came home from the war. However, former Mr. America, Tex Thompson, has set his sights much higher transforming his fame as a superhero into being elected to the US Congress and quickly becoming one of it’s most powerful senators.
From his lofty position of influence, Tex has started to groom his own group of superheroes for Post War America out of folks like the original Robotman, original Atom, and most surprisingly former sidekick Dan the Dyma-Mite, who he has exposed to experimental super terrific nuclear forces to become the unstoppable champion, Dynaman.
However not everything is as it seems as Paul Kirk, the original Manhunter, seems to be haunted by visions in his current amnesiac state that Tex could ultimately be the greatest threat to the new found peace in the world. The hired killers sent to exterminate Paul before he can remember the truth could also be a clue that not everything is as rose colored as you might think on the surface.
What trap is lying in wake for the former members of the JSA? Will the original Green Lantern, Hawk man, Hour man and others be able to overcome one last great challenge from their crime fighting past before the entire country is doomed?
Given recent renewed interest in the exploits of the JSA thanks to the current DC Streaming Service TV show, Star Girl, I thought it would be a slam dunk to cover what some might consider the “turning point” in the way that Golden Age superheroes at DC were handled by writers. Gone in some ways was the over simplified characterizations of these folks as just “good guys” and instead we get more nuanced modern day sensibilities as they are fleshed out into real three dimensional characters.
Hour man is suggested to be a drug addict, Star Man wrestles with deep depression over his role in creating the Atomic bomb, Green Lantern is hauled before “McCarthy”esque hearings for his perceived links to suspected communists, and of course in Manhunter, you get a pretty chilling reminder of the horrors of war in terms of the lasting effects of PTSD.
All these new interpretations of the classic old guard of DC would continue for decades after this 1994 Eisner award nominated book was released, as Geoff Johns often mentioned that this series was a huge influence on his later work on the JSA and attempted to incorporate many of the ideas first brought up here.
However, as a newer comic reader or someone not so well versed in the DC’s Golden Age as I was in reading it, I have to say that it’s somewhat impenetrable at first. There are so many characters introduced in the first few pages, and often many of them in their civilian identities that it’s really hard to keep them all straight.
Adding to that confusion is the fact that like Silver Age Marvel, all the heroes are pretty much just white, blonde guys when in their civilian identities, so even though I’m supposed to “know” the difference between Lance Gallant aka Captain Triumph and Johnny Quick, to me they are just the same guy. Even Alan Scott, the Original Green Lantern, can get lost in the blonde guy shuffle at times.
That unfamiliarity with some of the lesser known Golden Age folks and lack of quick visual reference by seeing them in their more distinctive colorful comic book costumes can be quite jarring and was a major reason I found myself struggling both times I read it with the first few issues.
That’s why I found myself so tied to the entire Manhunter subplot, as like Rorschach in Watchmen, in some ways his story is were the main exposition happens. Plus, he’s got dark hair and really creepy visuals every time he comes on the page, with rats gnawing at his face, evil doctors poking him with needles, and lots and lots of blood.
However, sincerely between this story and the Walt Simonson/Archie Goodwin Manhunter stuff from the Detective Comics days, I struggle to understand why the Paul Kirk version of this character hasn’t been given his own series in modern comics. He’s a intensely driven, exciting, no nonsense type super hero that fits in perfectly with folks like Nick Fury in riding that line between tense political thriller and masked vigilantism. It’s possible DC has characters that also fill this role, but in just these two outings, I’m hard pressed to think of someone that does it better.
Seriously, not to spoil the ending of the book too much, but the end of the series long “cat and mouse” game between former friends in Tex Thompson and Paul Kirk in that final issue is some insanely gripping stuff. It’s one of the main reasons I’ll give this series the overall grade I will in a moment despite the fact that for the first 2 issues I was somewhat lost.
For folks like me that got the Eaglemoss Collectables version of “The Golden Age”, my edition came with something of a neat Easter Egg in that it was packaged with an issue of the original Silver Age JLA book.
Issue #22 to be precise, which is the second part of a epic story which saw many of Silver Age DC superheroes we all know and love join forces with their Golden Age counterparts from the then “Earth-2” for the first time.
I will say after reading it, the notion of “joining forces” is somewhat of a stretch as most of the team ups given in this issue don’t actually pair team members from the JLA with those from the JSA, but instead just team them up among themselves. For example, you get Golden Age Atom and Hourman battling the Fiddler, Doctor Fate battling solo against the Icicle, and Golden Age Black Canary and Hawkman fighting the Wizard.
Honestly of all those little vignettes, I enjoyed the Black Canary fight the most mainly because it was refreshing to see the writers of the time still made her out to be a serious crime fighting threat instead of a damsel in distress that might get one shot in against the bad guy before having to be saved by her male teammate.
I know so often I’ve said on the podcast or in other blogs that some comic runs are almost like a “tale of two books”, meaning it’s hard to assign a grade because in some ways I really feel like there’s a dividing line in the series. Based on my comments above, you can probably guess that I felt the same way here.
Really, the first 2 issues of this book are not so great. They are necessary for what happens later in terms of setting up the backstory, but they can be confusing and plodding at times, with very little action and intricate details that makes it clear that you have to be fan of Golden Age DC if you want to get something more substantial out of it.
But once issue 3 hits, Manhunter gets back is memory, and we start getting the first of the really big reveals, then this series really starts picking up speed. Sure that first reveal is just a small snowball, but it’s such a defining one that quickly you realize that snowball is going downhill so fast that there’s going to be an eventual avalanche at the bottom.
I don’t want to say that the first reveal is the moment when the driving conflict of the book becomes clear and it starts acting like a real narrative with stakes, but if the shoe fits.
I mean sure, the entire series is more or less an analog to Post WWII America of the early 50s, when those that protected us from harm during those important battles for our democracy were put on trial by fear mongers who tried to control us with anti communist propaganda. In fact, you could say the Golden Age heroes played the part of the US Army and Tex Thompson is Joseph McCarthy in a retelling of that famous Washington showdown where one senator tried to usurp power from those that just defended the free world.
It’s even more telling when the second reveal hits and we learn just a little bit more about the experiments done to create Dynaman. If that’s not a blatant attempt to draw parallels to the dangers of fascism rearing its ugly face in a fear laden Post War America, I don’t know how better James Robinson could have telegraphed it.
But despite all that artisty analogy stuff, what a good superhero book as to have is a set of convincing good guys and bad guys to help the conflict play out, and you really don’t get that until the climax in issue 4. But boy once you do, with the team up of Green Lantern, Star Man, Liberty Belle, and Captain Comet to overcome a Superman clone that’s gone off the deep end, it’s just wonderfully gripping stuff.
Plus, as a fan of Paul Smith since he first gave Storm from the X-men a Mohawk and leather jacket, issue 4 is some of his very best stuff. It’s emotionally charged and incredibly cinematic, pretty much everything you want from a modern day comic book.
So yeah, in the end, even as someone that doesn’t care too much about Golden Age DC heroes, The Golden Age itself does deliver some solid thrills while making these characters more believable and relevant than few writers prior to this gave them chance to be before.
I would recommend giving it a read for sure as long as you have the patience to allow it to build to that satisfying ending.