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Weekend Aside: “JSA – The Golden Age”

February 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Written By James Robinson
Art By Paul Smith and Richard Ory
But it from Amazon.com here

Okay, so even though I swore I wasn’t going to review the Justice Society’s debut on Smallville, I figured this is as good a time as any to cover what’s probably the most famous Justice Society story ever told. Long before he supervised the team’s revival in JSA, James Robinson teamed with his Leave it to Chance partner Paul Smith to produce what many people have called the in-universe version of Watchmen, The Golden Age. Tom Welling’s wooden acting or Robinson hitting one out of the park? Yeah, that’s a real tough choice.

(To be fair, Smallville was actually fairly decent for the sheer amusement of seeing all the props they put in the JSA brownstone)

To get some of the side material out of the way first, this story falls in a bit of a weird place. Although it now carries the title “JSA: The Golden Age” in reprints, it’s not a pure JSA story. We’ve talked about the All-Star Squadron in this column before, and with characters like Johnny Quick, Mr. America and Manhunter playing key roles in this storyline, it’s apparent that this is really something more like an All-Star Squadron story, with almost every hero active during WWII making an appearance at some point. And just to get it out of the way, various people have criticized the story for being a little too close to the plot of Watchmen to truly be a great series, but I don’t think that’s a big problem – if you’re going to copy anything, that’s a pretty good target.

The story begins as World War II comes to a close, and with it, the Golden Age of the Mystery Man. The premiere super-hero team of this day is the Justice Society (cheerfully gender biased in Robinson’s take, with no Hawkgirl or Black Canary to be seen except for two very brief cameos). The JSA, however, operated solely on the home front during the war, due to the machinations of a Nazi agent who was capable of cancelling out their powers; in fact, the only exposure the JSA had nearly led to the deaths of the team’s two heaviest hitters, Green Lantern (Alan Scott) and Starman (Ted Knight).

With the war over, the team scatters; the Flash has retired, Hawkman is travelling abroad to discover his Egyptian roots, Green Lantern has returned to his broadcasting company and starts to feel pressure from HUAC, Johnny Quick is back to editing newsreels while his estranged wife Liberty Belle has fled to the arms of his teammate the Tarantula, who can’t seem to write about anything other than his superhero career. And, tragically Ted Knight (the character closest to Robinson’s heart) sits institutionalized, suffering from crippling guilt due to his role in creating the atomic bomb. Not all heroes have retreated, however; Robotman, divorced from the emotion of the war years, now fights crime in an increasingly brutal fashion, while Hourman spirals into a haze of Miracolo pill addiction but continues to try and fight the good fight.

The dirty work in Europe was left to non-powered American heroes, one of whom returns home in 1946 to an outpouring of joy not seen since the end of the war. Tex Thompson, aka Mr. America when he was a mystery man working in New York with his sidekick Fatman (yes, Fatman – best to get over that bit of giggling now, he’s an important character later), became the Americommando and stormed Europe doing all sorts of dirty missions for the government. In fact, his last mission of the war was to kill Hitler, which of course led to Germany’s… ahem… downfall.

However, once returning home, Thompson’s goals are loftier; he aligns himself with the HUAC and starts proposing that America develop superhumans to combat the threat of the Soviets and their allies. His first test subject is perennial JSA underdog the Atom, whose limited powers apparently make him unsuitable for a full conversion. Thompson instead turns to a seemingly unlikely subject: Daniel Dunbar, formerly an obscure sidekick to an even more obscure hero.

However, the stillness is disturbed by another hero returning to America; Paul Kirk, the original Manhunter (remember him from the background section of In Blackest Night? No? Then go back there and read that). Haunted by inexplicable dreams, he thinks himself mad… until he’s assaulted by unknown agents and forced to flee.

The second issue is about the gathering of forces, as now-Senator Thompson introduces Dunbar and supervises his atomic transformation into Dynaman, a hero with the power of Superman (who of course doesn’t exist yet). Beyond his power, though, Dynaman surprisingly proves himself a remarkably persuasive speaker for a man who dropped out of college only months earlier, rallying thousands to Thompson’s cause.

Thompson adds another member to his team in the eye-catching form of Joan Dale, the former Ms. America, and woos the support of Oil magnate Lance Gallant, who used to operate as Captain Triumph (by merging with the ghost of his near-psychotic brother; Gallant’s struggle against having to activate the powers is one of the main subplots of the book). Meanwhile, the Atom, rejected by Thompson, finds himself recruiting another low-profile, naive, JSA member, Johnny Thunder. The book concludes with Fatman, civilian name Bob Daley, tracking down the near-crazed Paul Kirk, while Thompson and Dunbar discuss their further plans… which aren’t limited to the United States.

The third issue opens as Dynaman’s popularity grows further, while the JSA still struggle with their daily lives; Hourman is trying to devise a way to end his addiction, while Green Lantern sees his opposition to Thompson and the HUAC costing his company sponsors. GL finds a way to fight back by arranging for Liberty Belle, who was a famous war correspondent in her native Poland, to host a show that refutes many of Thompson’s claims  (suggesting that the JSA were cowards for not acting more directly in the war). However, one of her key guests is summarily murdered by Robotman, even as Thompson begins a relationship with Joan.

The plot kicks into its final stages towards the middle of this issue, as Kirk finally gets what he wanted – a meeting with Carter Hall, who has mastered ancient Egyptian techniques of hypnosis that finally unravel Kirk’s dreams. It turns out that the unstable Kirk had followed in Thompson’s footsteps, operating as a devastatingly effective undercover operative during the closing days of the war, doing the dirty work while poster-boy Thompson got the credit. However, Kirk’s final mission of the war was something else, as he found the corpse of famed actress Delores Winters lying in an operating theatre with Thompson on the table next to her. Joan flees a scary night with Thompson to find Gallant, and they stumble upon the same secret by reading a diary she stole from Thompson.

Delores Winters was the second body of the Ultra-Humanite, the JSA’s most dangerous foe. Now, his brain has been transplanted yet again, into Thompson – the presumptive future President and the man in control of the most powerful man on Earth.

Meanwhile, as his empire collapses around him and Hawkman desperately tries to make contact, Alan Scott, Green Lantern and formerly the most powerful man in the world, can’t bring himself to take action.

That’s my favourite panel from the story, and one of my favourites ever – Alan in his office, ignoring the phone, with the weight of the world figuratively placed on his shoulders. Just a beautifully composed shot from Smith. A quick word about him – he was one of the great lost talents in comics history, being the man who took over X-Men between Dave Cockrum and John Byrne’s runs, then only worked sporadically after that. The third issue is largely a showcase of his talent for moody, expressive work, between the scenes set in Kirk’s dreamscape and the flashbacks to 1945.

The final issue begins with the heroes attempting to figure out how to stop Thompson, whose popularity makes it impossible to touch him. They theorize that a hero joining Thompson’s forces could work, but then that hero has to survive an attack from Dynaman. With both GL and Starman out of the picture, the remaining ‘big gun’ of the JSA is Hourman, and the conspirators turn to him as Thompson convinces Truman to order the heroes to show up in Washington and pledge alliegance to the flag. What the JSA doesn’t know is that Starman has been working on a new invention… his ‘Cosmic Rod’, a vastly more powerful version of his original Gravity Rod, and will be joining their fight after all, his head finally clear of the madness that has gripped him since the Manhattan Project. The heroes descend on Washington, and are joined by an unknown face – a man so new to the game that he hasn’t even come up with a name yet.

The players are finally all in position, but when the time comes, it’s Joan who takes the podium and reveals to Congress and the media that Thompson is the Ultra-Humanite. Robotman, however, silences her in brutal fashion in spite of Hourman’s best efforts. An enraged Hourman assaults Thompson and reveals the final secret – that Thompson performed a second brain-swap, removing Dunbar’s brain before the Dynaman powers took hold, and replacing it with the brain of… Adolf Hitler.

“The truth is that the Devil hovers above me… in the body of a god.”

The heroes attempt to contain Dynaman, but Thompson convinces Johnny Thunder and the Atom to help, playing on their… less than well-rounded intelligences (Johnny’s especially pathetic, as years of ridicule by the JSA have manifested as a desperate need to belong to something, even something as evil as Thompson’s regime). Thankfully, the Thunderbolt is less easily swayed and takes itself out of the fighting entirely due to being unable to fulfill Johnny’s order to kill Hourman, and the Atom sees the error of his ways and takes the fight to Dynaman himself.

Meanwhile, Kirk catches up to Thompson, finally embracing his role as Manhunter, while Gallant attempts to stop the homicidal Robotman (who apparently knew the entire time what Thompson was planning and just didn’t give a darn) while refusing to transform into Captain Triumph. He stops Robotman, but it costs him his life. Dynaman tears a swath through the underpowered JSA, killing the Red Bee and Tarantula (who’d earlier gone so far as attempt to hit Libby, so it’s not as though he was portrayed as sympathetic in this story). Hawkman makes a go of it, as does Johnny Quick, but both are put down, as is the unnamed kid from earlier. Alan finally has had enough, and gets his ring out of the safe it’s been locked in since the end of the previous issue and returns, finally turning the tide.

In the rotunda, Manhunter manages to kill Thompson, ending the threat of the Humanite once and for all, while Dynaman manages to put down both GL and the recently-arrived Starman. However, he’s distracted by the kid again, who lands a couple of blows before being subdued. Deciding to make an example of him, Dynaman attempts to use his entire power to crush him with a bus, but, as noted earlier in the series, he’s most vulnerable at such a point. Liberty Belle takes advantage, driving the overriding Cosmic Rod through his chest, finally killing him.

The series ends with the JSA finally returning to their normal lives for the most part; Starman regains his sanity, GL moves into television, while Manhunter and Hourman just can’t stop doing what they’ve always done. Thompson’s power void in the Senate, however, is filled by an unknown named Joe McCarthy, proving that some history is unchangeable. However, one last surprise is left unsaid, as the kid is revealed to be Captain Comet, DC’s first super hero of the Silver Age, and his defiant image in the face of certain death inspires a whole new generation to take up the fight.

While I’ll always have some minor issues with the series – Atom and Johnny Thunder aren’t given enough play to make their final decisions weight, to this day I can’t find any evidence of Sportsmaster before his one scene at the climax, and  the revelation of Dynaman’s true identity is inexplicably confined to a tiny portion of the page (if there’s a better time to pull out a two-page splash than revealing that Hitler has been hiding in the body with all the power of Superman, I can’t think of it) – this is simply one of the greatest miniseries ever produced, right up there with more iconic works like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and New Frontier. It helps, of course, that it feels like the proper wrap-up All-Star Squadron deserved but never really got.

Robinson would go on to write Starman and JSA, and Geoff Johns and David Goyer would eventually incorporate many of the events of this story into the latter (this is still technically an Elseworlds story, but about 75% of the book fits in with modern stories without a problem). But for my money, he’s never going to top this one.

[Not that he wouldn’t have tried, of course – “The Silver Age” was on DC’s to-do list for a very long time, until the combination of Mark Waid’s JLA: Year One and Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier made it a bit redundant to revisit the same time period yet again.]

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Categories: Weekend Asides

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