The Golden Age,
written by James Robinson,
illustrated by Paul Smith
(DC Comics, 1995)

The so-called Golden Age of comics set a standard back in the 1940s. By today's standards, however ... well, they're a little hokey.

That is, they were until writer James Robinson got his hands on them. In one four-issue mini-series, printed in 1993-94 and collected in a single edition in 1995, Robinson gave the heroes of old their dignity back with a story of drama and intrigue that is anything but hokey.

The big war is over. The soldiers are returning heroes, and the "mystery men" -- masked vigilantes -- are forgotten in the celebration. After all, they stayed home during the war, didn't they? Well, not of their own volition ... they were ordered to stay home by the government, fearful that the death of even one high-profile hero would cripple morale.

But a handful of heroes went overseas anyway, and one of them, Tex Thompson, a.k.a. Mr. America, a.k.a. the AmeriCommando, becomes an overnight public sensation and media darling. He's credited with single-handedly killing most of Germany's superheroes and supposedly offed Hitler himself. It seems only natural that, by the close of the 1940s, Thompson has been handed a Senate seat and is eyeing a run at the presidency.

Meanwhile, the rest of America's heroes have mostly slipped quietly into obscurity, giving up their costumes and powers to find normal lives. Some are happy, some bitter -- and some perhaps a bit mad.

But then Paul Kirk, the Manhunter, sneaks back into the country from parts unknown, pursued by confusing dreams and men with guns, wracked by paranoia and a fear he doesn't completely understand. Al "the Atom" Pratt, Johnny Thunder, Paula "Tigress" Brooks and the emotionless Robotman are recruited to join Thompson's new cadre of American superheroes. And Daniel Dunbar, the former sidekick Dyna-Mite, flunks out of Princeton ... just before receiving a similar offer from Thompson. Soon, Dunbar is unveiled as the new Dynaman, with powers scientifically enhanced to make him the most powerful being on the planet.

The plot thickens from here. The Manhunter regains his missing memories. A few heroes learn that Thompson isn't really the hero he's believed to be but, under the scrutiny of the anti-Communist backlash (a DC variation on McCarthyism), they're unable to come forward with their knowledge. And then they learn the truth about Dunbar....

The Golden Age is a story with an incredible number of interwoven subplots, but the reader never loses track of the individual threads. (Although it is slightly confusing that so many Golden Age heroes were named Johnny....) In the book's stunning climax, the simple courage of forgotten heroes like Miss America, the Tarantula, Captain Triumph and the rolypoly sidekick Fatman puts some of the modern superheroes to shame.

Robinson has crafted an amazing book, and Paul Smith's art gives Robinson's story the appropriate 1940s feel without sacrificing modern techniques. The Golden Age is an excellent package, a welcome reminder of what made comics a popular storytelling medium in the first place.

The Golden Age was reissued by DC in 2005 as JSA: The Golden Age.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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