Today’s Super Comics — The Golden Age #1-4 (1993-94)

The Golden Age has a reputation as being Watchmen-lite, but I have to disagree. The two miniseries share some surface similarities. They both examine old-school mystery men through a more adult lens, and Cold War paranoia factors into the plots. But whereas Watchmen deconstructed the genre, The Golden Age also reconstructs it.

After World War II, the members of the Justice Society of America, as well as most other masked heroes, go their separate ways to lead normal lives, with varying degrees of success. Writer James Robinson puts the focus squarely on the people behind the masks, fleshing out characters who had received little development previously.

It’s a large cast, mixing recognizable characters such as the original Green Lantern and Hawkman with obscure ones such as Captain Triumph and the Tarantula. Prominent roles also go to Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hourman, Starman, the original Atom, Robotman, Johnny Thunder…and so many more. In all cases, the miniseries humanizes them and makes each character its own. This isn’t some company-wide crossover with a million guest stars shoehorned in; rather, it’s a complete story that designs each character to serve the larger arc.

The former Mr. America turns to politics, becoming a senator and spearheading a new program of government-backed superheroes with open identities. The new age requires a new type of hero, one without masks or secrets, and answerable to his country. But, of course, the people claiming to have no secrets are the ones with the most to hide.

The climactic action pulls the superheroes and mystery men of yesteryear out of their retirements or semi-retirements. They leap into action, functioning as individuals but showing no regard for their individual well-being.

And the action is incredibly well-choreographed, with lots of characters having specific, important beats to play out. Artist Paul Smith draws it all fluidly, incorporating the best elements of 1940s comic book art—particularly the rough-hewn, innocent purity of amazing super-feats—and tempering it with modern layouts and expressive faces.

The story breaks down these classic characters, but then builds them back up into heroes, showing how they’ll always be needed, no matter how times change. It strips away their innocence, reveals their flaws, and makes their heroic actions all the more meaningful.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Paul Smith

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; JSA: The Golden Age (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — JSA #53 (2003)

As the first super-team, the Justice Society of America’s role within the DC Universe has often been teaching heroes how to be better heroes. But wisdom often comes from mistakes, and the old guard has made their share in their younger days.

In JSA #53, an old mistake comes back to haunt founding JSA member Wildcat. With this being a comic, the haunting is literal.

The new Crimson Avenger attacks Wildcat, seeking to avenge someone he allegedly framed for a crime many years ago, and her supernatural bullets are capable of hurting even Power Girl. Both badly wounded, Wildcat and Power Girl struggle to survive against a relentless force of vengeance.

The tension remains high throughout, and Wildcat’s old mistake is legally black-and-white but morally gray, creating a conundrum for said force of vengeance. But he definitely overstepped back then. It adds to his character and shows how even the most experienced among us are always still learning.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Don Kramer

Inker: Keith Champagne

Cover: Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in JSA vol. 7: Princes of Darkness

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Zero Hour #4-0 (1994)

zero-hour-4Zero Hour was the first company-wide crossover event I read, and the scope was suitably epic.

The superheroes of the DC Universe need to band together to save time itself, which is rapidly unraveling, creating all sorts of mysterious (and entertaining) anomalies. A young Batgirl in her prime appears in Gotham. People randomly disappear as their timelines are wiped out. The elder statesmen of the Justice Society of America stage a heroic last stand.

And at the center of it all is a classic DC superhero gone rogue. (Spoilers ahead, since I can’t really discuss this one without revealing the big bad.)

The most amazing part for me, when I read this at the age of 11, was the reveal of the villain. In the final pages of the penultimate issue, a green glowing fist clocks Superman, knocking him out cold, and then we see Hal Jordan, the definitive Green Lantern since the 1959, standing over him, taking credit for orchestrating this whole crisis in time.

It blew my young mind—the idea of a hero of this stature being the bad guy. And Green Lantern, now calling himself Parallax, is utterly convinced he’s in the right, which is an important ingredient in any great villain. He’s fixing time and removing all the mistakes. Basically, he’s playing God to bring about a utopian vision. And that never goes well.

It’s no work of literature, but it thrilled me back in the day. It lacks a central protagonist, but lots of great characters have their moments, especially Green Arrow in the final faceoff against his old friend. The Flash also gets a big heroic moment early in the series.

By the way, the numbering for this miniseries goes backward. So the first issue is #4, second is #3, and so on. It’s a countdown to the end of time. Happy New Year’s Eve.

Writer/Penciler: Dan Jurgens

Inker: Jerry Ordway

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Starman #37 (1997)

starman_vol_2_37Starman had an annual tradition. Once a year, Jack Knight would spend an issue chatting with his deceased brother, David, in a dreamlike realm that may or may not have been an actual dream. Each occurrence was titled “Talking with David, [year].”

Pretty much the entire issue would be rendered in black and white except for David in the classic Starman costume, which received full-color treatment. These talks were a clever way to chart Jack’s growth as a superhero and a man by taking a dialogue-oriented break from the action.

The best iteration I’ve read so far is in issue #37, in which the brothers share a meal with the deceased members of the Justice Society of America, including Hourman, Dr. Mid-Nite, the original Black Canary, and others. These first-generation superheroes take turns sharing their wisdom with Jack, while D-list Golden Age hero Red Bee provides some tension with his inexplicably rude behavior…which winds up tying into his own bit of wisdom.

As a special treat, the final page eschews the black-and-white motif with a full-color painted splash page, capping the issue with a suitably vintage look.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Tony Harris

Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger

Cover: Tony Harris

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Starman Omnibus vol. 3 (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Justice Society of America #1 (2007)

justice-society-of-america-1Over the past few days, I’ve reviewed Supergirl, Flash, and Green Arrow comics (see what I did there, CW viewers?). That would put Legends of Tomorrow next…except that’s not actually a comic book. But its characters come from many different comics, providing plenty of options.

Since the Justice Society guest-starred the other night, let’s go with that. Plus, the 2007 relaunch is so over-populated, the cast also includes characters viewers have watched on Flash and Arrow.

Written by Geoff Johns, the series finds the perfect role for DC’s original super-team. The world needs better heroes, and the veterans of the JSA are best-qualified to train them. It’s a nice, aspirational mission.

The original Flash (Jay Garrick), original Green Lantern (Alan Scott), and Wildcat are the elder statesmen of the bunch, and the rest of the ensemble are all related to classic characters in some way or another. Hourman, Stargirl, Obsidian, and Dr. Mid-Nite, whom we just saw on television, are there…as are numerous others.

The first issue introduces or reintroduces us to folks. It’s the standard team-gathering issue, and not even in full—that cover includes characters who aren’t in this part. However, the large cast is a strength. This is a series about family, both in blood and in bond.

But while this family is coming together, a lone costumed hero is losing his family in a series of grisly murders. Johns weaves this dark plot between more optimistic scenes of the JSA recruiting new members, establishing a compelling tonal balance. We’re rooting for the brightness, but there’s plenty of darkness to overcome.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Dale Eaglesham

Inker: Art Thibert

Cover: Alex Ross and Dale Eaglesham

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Justice Society of America vol. 1: The Next Age (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Justice League of America #171 (1979)

justice_league_of_america_vol_1_171I always loved the “satellite era” of the Justice League of America, particularly when I was first discovering comics as a kid in the early ‘90s. Those late ‘70s/early ‘80s JLA books were always a treat to find in the quarter bins.

Justice League of America #171 is a good example. It begins with a joint meeting of the JLA and Justice Society of America (visiting all the way from the parallel world of Earth-2), and it ends by kicking off a locked-room murder mystery aboard the satellite HQ.

It’s harder to recommend for adults (other than for nostalgic reasons), but it shows what makes these classic JLA stories great for kids. These superheroes are adults and consummate professionals, and they respect and trust each other enough to freely share their secret identities. After the meeting, writer Gerry Conway takes time to show the two teams simply enjoying each other’s company, like a bunch of firefighters hanging out in the fire hall between calls, having forged close bonds in the course of their dangerous work. But when disaster strikes, they drop everything and leap into action.

If you’ve got kids interested in superheroes, show them old Justice League of America books from circa 1980. You’ll be giving them terrific role models.

Writer: Gerry Conway

Artists: Dick Dillan and Frank McLaughlin

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comic — JSA #69 (2005)

JSA_Vol_1_69What a great concept for a team-up—the Justice Society of America and…the Justice Society of America!

The storyline by Geoff Johns takes advantage of DC Comics’ long history by having the current-generation JSA members travel back in time to 1951 to meet their first-generation counterparts…right as they’re disbanding. They’ll all have to work together to prevent a villain from wrecking the timeline, like villains tend to do. (Oh, and Rip Hunter is the one who gathers the present-day team and sends them back in time, which naturally reminded me of the TV show DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.)

Issue #69 is the second part of the story, but the first with the modern team navigating the ‘50s. In classic team-book fashion, they split up and individually track down their counterparts, thereby putting each JSA member in a different scenario. Stargirl meets the original Starman in a mental hospital. The era’s horrible segregation laws interfere with Mr. Terrific’s pursuit of his predecessor. Sand finds not only Sandman, but also himself at a uniquely terrible point in his long life. And so on.

Good stuff indeed. The generational approach suits DC’s original super-team.

And the cover features painted art by Alex Ross, so there’s that, too. Alex Ross is always a plus.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Don Kramer

Inker: Keith Champagne

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in JSA vol. 10: Black Vengeance (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up