Saturday, July 11, 2009

Golden Age Review

Even though the first run of the Justice Society finished before my Dad entered high school, some of the earliest comics I bought featured the JSA. DC enthusiastically reprinted Golden Age stories in the Seventies, and though I often found the art to be smudgier and less fun than Silver Age artwork, I was familiar with the Justice Society, and yet I felt like an outsider to their world. With new Justice League comics coming out every month, I knew the names, home cities, and powers of the JLA members by heart, while the limited volume of JSA stories coming my way left many of the Golden Agers a bit foreign to me.

Newer stories of the JSA (Seventies Revival and onward, including many Elseworlds of high quality) gave me more and more to read about them, but the original was still strange to me -- until lately. In the last few months, I have read the great proportion of all DC superhero stories from the very beginning up through early 1941. Armed with this new familiarity, I'd like to review the original JSAers, from their debuts up through the first two JSA stories.

Sandman: With a debut barely after Batman's, millionaire Wesley Dodds was one of the original masked crimefighters in comic books. The Sandman character obviously did not have the endurance that Batman has enjoyed (no billion-dollar movies lately). With the benefit of hindsight, it is probable that the awkward suits worn by the Sandman and the even-earlier Crimson Avenger were a creative mistake in the eyes of readers. Indeed, both the Crimson and Sandman switched to colorful tights a few years later, but by that time, there was no catching up to the popularity of the Caped Crusader. And yet, the early Sandman stories were marked by a cinematic flair, with the last panel often showing panache and humor not easy to find in comics of the era. Another part of the winning formula of Batman that was not utilized by Sandman was the character-flawed secret identity. While Bruce Wayne was famously vapid and without focus in life, Wesley Dodds was gallant in his own skin, and often began or finished cases out of costume. His galpal Dian Belmont was a fixture in his stories, creating a Girl Friday formula that never caught on for the most successful superheroes, but added style to the Sandman. His adventures started off as standard detective fare, but soon after he became the oldest charter member of the JSA (debuting 6 months before any of the rest), he was involved in science fiction plots, in one story saving the planet from destruction, a feat that neither Superman nor Batman had on their resumes at that point in time.

The Flash: DC's second superhero with science-based powers was the first to be revived when Barry Allen visited him in 1961. Jay Garrick was also the third-most popular DC character in the early going, winning a solo title that ran over 100 issues. The Flash's stories were more light-hearted than that of most superheroes -- if one sets aside the pure slapstick of the Red Tornado and Johnny Thunder. And yet, many early Flash villains die at story's end, and Jay Garrick is not always without blame. Ironically, the Flash is the first superhero to be regarded as law-abiding, buddying up with the police when his four antecedents were all vigilantes who often (but easily) evaded arrest. Barry Allen's costume fixed the conceptual flaw of giving a character that runs really fast a loose helmet.

Hawkman: The combination of reincarnation, anti-gravity, shirtlessness, and ancient weapons are four facets I might never have thought to combine. But Hawkman, arguably the first flying superhero, got the job done with brutal efficiency. Executing his opponents left and right, Carter Hall differed from Batman in always setting out on a case with just one weapon instead of a beltful, and yet he always chose correctly. (If you're going to get a good whack at an opponent's head, a scimitar does just as good a job as a mace, I think.) The suggestion of a sex life with Shiera was pretty close to the surface, so overall, Hawkman was a pretty raucous series featuring a lot of action and drama with very little humor.

Johnny Thunder: Although he was possibly the most powerful "hero" to date, Johnny Thunder was pure comic relief, because he didn't know that he had power at first, and didn't know how to control it when he figured it out. While he fights crime at times, he more often is trying to win over his erstwhile girlfriend Daisy Darling, and wins a boxing championship along the way. The slapstick tone would arguably disqualify him (as well as Ma Hunkel's Red Tornado) from consideration as a superhero, but by landing a spot on the JSA (which thereby acquired his slapstick nature, at first), he is remembered that way.

Spectre: It's worth noting that Jerry Siegel followed up Superman by creating, less than two years later, a character who was even more powerful! When a policeman was killed and returned to life (yes, this was before Will Eisner's Spirit) comics got a hero so powerful that they hardly knew what to do with him. His stories usually lack drama as to whether or not he will succeed and more about taking you into the psychological terror of the criminals who earn his unstoppable wrath. I was as pleasantly shocked as any contemporary reader when one of his cases facing mortal mobsters suddenly threw him face to face with Zor, a wizard who was nearly his equal (and much more comfortable with his powers). I knew Zor from the opposite end of DC history, Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers, which banishes Zor to an unenviable fate after he'd earlier tangled with Zatanna. When the Spectre encounters yet more supernatural foes who give him a challenge, he acquires (from God?) the Ring of Life, and easily one-ups them. As an indication of the weak sense of continuity of the time, he actually acquires the Ring of Life in two different stories, both times as though it were for the first time. Oddly enough, Jim Corrigan tailored his "uniform" with physical materials in its first appearance although it was later shown that he was easily capable of doing just about anything at will.

Hourman: I always thought Hourman was a great concept, especially the look of the character. Indeed, he was one of the spotlight characters in the JSA revival decades later. But he was unheralded in his first run and essentially kicked off the team (given a "leave of absence") for one simple, regretable reason: The early Hourman stories weren't very good. The continuity was jaw-droppingly inconsistent (Rex Tyler's own boss was revealed as a master criminal in one issue, but was back as though nothing had happened in the next). The sense of aesthetics, aside from the art, was terribly flawed: Hourman called himself publicly the incredibly un-heroic name 'Tick Tock Tyler' even though it was supposed to be a secret that he was Rex Tyler. I cannot explain the logic of revealing one's last name while trying to maintain a secret identity. Of course, it's even less logical that you would choose a name that reveals your one weakness. And as what was likely the death blow for the character, he became the head of an army of boy assistants, the Minute Men of America. Sounded like a good idea at the time? Hourman debuted the same month as Robin, the Boy Wonder, so sidekicks were in vogue. But he lost popularity quickly, and I think it's for the reasons I have listed.

Doctor Fate: Although a cool concept, Doctor Fate started off as a poor man's Spectre, appearing in the same magazine (More Fun Comics) with fewer pages per issue. Although he was a magician, he often used magic to produce science (eg, nuclear radiation). Unlike the Spectre, he always matched up against enemies whose power rivaled his own, who usually attacked him first and put him on the defensive. Every story involved his platonic female associate Inza, who was defined as the embodiment of real-world existence countering Doctor Fate's purely aethereal operations out of a tower in Salem, Massachusetts. While the Kent Nelson identity came later, he was said early on to be "not human... never a child", having been a creation of the elder gods. I'm glad the elder gods liked primary color uniforms.

Green Lantern: Alan Scott, soon to be the fourth hero to win a solo title, launched a concept that has stood the test of time. The atrocious costume (justified in his first story as something no one could forget) was an inevitable casualty of the Silver Age reboot. But the Green Lantern, whose power came mysteriously from outer space by way of China and an insane asylum definitely looked powerful. Charging into fights with his broad chest and throwing punches that were apparently powered by the ring, the first Green Lantern didn't create artistic constructs to fight with -- he just blasted injustice away. He also vied with Hourman as the first hero to have his signature weakness overused as a plot device. I don't know how many gangsters in the real world would try to use a wooden club on the head of a guy who was bullet-proof, but in GL's world, the idea seemed to come naturally. He was the first superhero to appear unambiguously by name ("a superman" may be a common noun) in the pages of another's story (providing the inspiration for the Red Tornado, who appeared in the same title, All American Comics).

Atom: There's never been a faster track to the top. Al Pratt only appeared in costume the month before he was included in the first meeting of the Justice Society. The first Atom story is not in any sense a superhero story: It is simply the story of a small college student who trains his physique and is rewarded by humiliating those who teased him. In summary, the Charles Atlas ad drawn out to six pages. But he begins to fight crime with a mask one issue later and goes about his task with determination -- after all, he's trying to impress a girl.

I always hated to come into a story late. Getting to know the JSA from their original stories gives me the feeling of at last being an insider to a great lineup of heroes who appeared in some of the first comics I ever owned.

A fan's not a fan if he's not giving opinions, so to list my favorite JSAers, on the basis of these original stories alone, I would name the Spectre, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Sandman -- probably in that order. While Green Lantern is perhaps the most like modern superheroes in his manner of operating, the other three capture some of the cinematic elements of their time -- noir, adventure, romance. These stories can come alive today and take the reader on a trip back in time to the era that first needed, and therefore created, superheroes -- and lots of them.

5 comments:

  1. You have to love how GL and the Spectre are both hitting the same guy in the face. Talk about a mismatch. The third guy better slink away while they're preoccupied with his buddy.

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  2. Rikdad, your insight on those early-early solo adventures of the founding JSA members is quite similar to mine. That some of those adventures evoke the same feelings I get watching old 1930s movies -- Sandman, Hawkman, in particular -- reflects the genius of some of the creators involved. That other adventures are so poorly plotted or mind-numbingly formulaic -- Hourman, Atom -- highlights the genius of Gardner Fox in putting 8 heroes into one team and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
    I first read All-Star 3 in some giant-sized Famous First Edition in the mid-1970s. I realize now it featured eight solo stories held together by the construct of a dinner meeting. But at the time, I found it to be among one of the most fascinating comics I'd ever read, including the dinner banter. Johnny Thunder in some ways becomes the reader's proxy, while Fox and the characters' home artists deliver on what made each character unique. Indeed, I love the first 10 or so JSA adventures because the solo chapters are true to the source material in Flash, All-American, Adventure and More Fun. By 1942-1943, the solo chapters became increasingly generic, and the special powers of the Dr. Fates and Starmans and Spectures were barely focused on, with each of the characters simply punching their way through their chapters.
    Really, it wasn't until the end of Fox's run (Solomon Grundy, Wizard) and the ensuing year-plus of great JSA stories (Degaton, Injustice Societies, etc.) that the characters' powers and personalities become more distinct again.
    In a way, it's funny that those 1939-1941 Golden Age stories, written often on the fly by desperate comics creators to be consumed by kids, are subject to such endless analysis 70 years later by the Roy Thomases and ourselves. I do sometimes wonder, however, as decades turn into centuries, whether it will be the simple, high-energy stories contained in DC's Golden Age Archives that will stand the test of time more so than the latest graphic novel about an angst-ridden hero.

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  3. Rikdad, just wondering what collections you read from. Archives? Are there other Golden Age collections that are less expensive?

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  4. Man With Ten Eyes: Thanks for the comments and the look ahead at the history of the run beyond what I've mentioned (most of which I have yet to read). Even though these stories are not page-for-page the best crafted there have ever been, their seminal role makes them highly interesting, and I plan on commenting on them from many other standpoints in future posts. In particular, I'm interested in the international politics apparent as WW2 unfolded. And, more to the core of the medium, picking apart why it was that the JSA debuted in All Star #3, not #1, and how that publication defined what a superhero is.

    E. Gruszka: The Archives are the best bet. There is also some gap fill among stories that were reprinted in various Silver Age comics; it would be interesting if someone produced a comprehensive directory of Golden Age stories reprinted later. I read a lot of them in the Seventies and had one personally interesting experience tracking down the TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite story that alluded to atomic energy before such a thing actually existed. (That story was not unique in doing so.)

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