Highly regarded early ’90s series JSA: The Golden Age is back in a new deluxe edition. It’s a saga worth revisiting.
This Elseworlds tale picks up shortly after World War II with many costumed heroes abandoning their masked personas for civilian life. Tex Thompson, once an unremarkable hero known as Mr. America, returns to the US a war hero. He embraces red-baiting and manipulative populism as his political fortunes rise. Tex recruits Dan Dunbar, once a teen sidekick known as Dan the Dyna-Mite, to undergo a dramatic transformation into Dyna-Man, the vanguard of a government-controlled group of heroes. Meanwhile, Johnny Chambers (Johnny Quick) struggles with divorce from Libby Lawrence (Liberty Belle) and his career as a documentarian. Alan Scott (Green Lantern) runs afoul of the McCarthy hearings because of some of the writers employed at his radio station. Ted Knight (Starman), tormented in his role in developing the A-bomb, retreats to a sanitarium, even as he envisions his greatest invention. Around the edges, Paul Kirk (Manhunter) returns from his own European war stint with fractured memories, even as a mysterious hit squad hunts him. Kirk’s memories point toward a terrible secret that threatens to detonate the community of heroes.
For many fans, The Golden Age remains some of writer James Robinson’s best work, a fitting companion to his seminal Starman. Robinson remixed the JSA tropes that fans knew well, making the heroes more fallible, more trouble-prone and altogether more human. “Heroes are screwed up” wasn’t a novel concept even in the early ’90s, but Robinson infused his tale with a keen eye for characterization and was careful not to let his characters descend into grotesques. Some of them came off a bit nuttier than others (Hawkman, especially), but all told, Robinson spun a meditation on the nature of heroism and people willing to put themselves in an extreme situation for the common good. Atypical for a dark, alternate world story like this, Robinson actually allowed many of characters that rarest of ’90s comic book commodities: a happy ending.
The great Paul Smith hasn’t been very visible in the comics world in a long time, which is a shame. His work on The Golden Age was near flawless. Smith carefully melded his own well-defined style with a retro ethos that met the 1940s era characters on their own terms. He gave their looks some interesting tweaks, often re-designing costumes to make them just a tad more “real world” believable, while still maintaining their colorful distinction. Smith’s approach to layouts and page composition was very thoughtful and his lovingly-rendered images were the perfect balance of modern and old school. Years later and Smith’s line work would still hold up against today’s top talent. Colorist Richard Ory performed some very precise work, giving the images a softer, more muted feel that evoked the concept of a sepia wash without losing the dynamics of tone. The deluxe printing shows off this team’s work to strong effect.
If you’re a fan of the original or have never had the opportunity to experience this tale before, JSA: The Golden Age should be on the reading list of any serious fan of the medium.