The Golden Age,
The Thomas Era and Beyond
In covering the Golden Age, I must admit that I'm not up to the task of actually discussing the classic tales of the late 30s, 40s and early 50s for one simple reason: I was born in 1970. There have been so few reprints of those titles that I've only seen a tiny handful of stories, and actually acquiring one of those comics, even a title that no one loved in poor condition, isn't really possible. When it is, you certainly don't harm the comic by actually reading it!
All knowledge of that era comes from books about the Golden Age, from the few Web sites about the Golden Age, from comic pros discussing the Golden Age, from modern DC stories featuring characters from the Golden Age (fewer of those all the time) and those rare reprint stories from the Golden Age. But I couldn't really say I know much about it myself. I will thus leave it to others to chronicle the characters in-depth. This article will largely concentrate on the legacy of the characters since the end of that era.
The Golden Age
It all started with Superman. Well, not quite. It all started with
the Crimson Avenger, the very first "mystery man" who appeared
juuuuust before Superman. But if Crimson Avenger was Christopher Pike,
Superman was the James T. Kirk who really started everything!
Shortly after Superman came Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Wonder
Woman, Hawkman, The Atom and numerous others. The comics sold like the
proverbial hotcakes (which sold better in the 1940s, so the phrase had
more meaning). The Sandman, Dr. Mid-Nite, Johnny Thunder, Johnny Quick,
Liberty Belle, Dr. Fate, The Spectre and dozens of others appeared in
rapid succession, and the Justice Society of America was formed in the
winter of 1940. With the advent of World War II, the JSA became the Justice
Battalion, defending the home fort against bundists and fifth columnists,
spies and traitors. In 1947, the Black Canary appeared and joined the
JSA. With the post-war era came a decline in interest in superhero comics,
as life returned to "normalcy" and readers were more interested
in cowboys, soldiers, teen idols and cartoon characters. Superman, Batman
and Wonder Woman retained their books, thus finalizing their status as
the Big 3 of DC (or Detective Comics, National Periodicals or what have
you), while the other superheroes all but disappeared from the scene.
About a decade after most of the superheroes had fallen by the
wayside, editor Julius Schwarz hit upon the idea of using the superhero
names which were simply lying around at DC, licensed but unused. The Flash
was the first, in which he used the same concept on an all-new character,
police scientist Barry Allen. After that success, they introduced the
Green Lantern, a different man with a green power ring, this time as an
interstellar peacekeeper. The Atom was completely different in concept
this time, as he had the power to shrink. Hawkman, however, was practically
the same in appearance AND name, but his origins were from another planet,
not reincarnation. Soon, the Justice League of America was formed, a modern-day
This raised even more questions. How was it that Superman, Batman and
Wonder Woman had interacted with all of those older characters and now
interacted with these new ones
had belonged to both the Justice League
and the Justice Society
if they're in two separate universes? This lead
to the introduction of multiple copies of the same character, one for
each Earth. However, a simple stop-gap answer to a glaring error became
the source of dozens of fun team-ups between Superman and the Golden Age
Of course, this cross-dimensional hopping did get tiresome after a while. Characters like the Flash and Superman couldn't circle the Earth or lean against a washing machine on spin cycle without vibrating into another dimension. Meanwhile, the more down-to-Earth characters couldn't interact with those on the other planet without finding a transmatter device.
And there were endless mistakes and oversights. Zatara, T.O. Morrow, Air Wave, Sargon the Sorceror, Plastic Man and others began appearing on Earth-1 with no explanation and when caught by the sharp-eyed reader, it would be excused by saying that they had "migrated to Earth-1." (Why would anyone do that without great reason?)
For over two decades, the Golden Age characters existed as plot points. This is not to say that they were treated poorly, as they were still regarded highly by the Silver Age heroes and many epic stories were told involving them. However, as they were limited to guest appearances, there wasn't much room to delve into their lives.
That changed in the 70s, when All-Star Comics was revived. Although the run on the title wasn't long, it did introduce Power Girl (Earth-2's Supergirl) and the Huntress, plus a mature Robin who had taken over the role of the dead Batman. For the first time, life on Earth-2 was shown as progressing and growing beyond simply "Who had married whom and settled down since the 1950s?". The stage was set for:
The Thomas Era
Writer/Editor Roy Thomas deserves a bit of an intro, for those of you who may have begun reading comics in the last five years. To those of us who prefer continuity respected, not trampled, Thomas is nothing short of a hero himself. Roy grew up reading the Golden Age comics and developed a penchant for strict, tight continuity whenever possible. If you wanted to tell a story set in 1943, you had to know which helmet Dr. Fate wore at the time, whether Hourman was still in the JSA or not, whether Wonder Woman had joined the team and if you got something wrong, you'd better bloody well explain it in a manner that made sense!
Ironically enough, this strict professor of Golden Age history is also widely regarded as the father of the term "Retroactive Continuity", from which fans have fashioned the phrase "ret-con" which is so widely used nowadays (sometimes inappropriately). It may be hard to believe, but the ret-con is a very new concept. Today we live in an age where great chunks of history are wiped out and contradicted without explanation on the whim of egomaniacal writers and those fans who stay with a book for longer than a few years are chastised for remembering what has happened before. This wasn't always the case.
Roy Thomas and other writers like him took great pains to explain gaps and mistakes and contradictions. Steve Englehart once wrote an extra-large epic issue of Justice League of America (#144) just to explain why the publication date of Green Lantern's first appearance didn't jibe with the supposed birthdate of the JLA!
The beginning of the 1980s saw the start of a dream series for Roy Thomas: The All-Star Squadron. Set just after December 1941, the series dealt with a superhero organization begun by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unlike the average superteam, this group consisted of EVERY SUPERHERO IN GOOD STANDING from that time period! The JSA, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Seven Soldiers of Victory and numerous other characters big and small belonged to the All-Star Squadron.
Some call this a ret-con. After all, Thomas just made it up in 1980, it didn't exist before. "He's rewriting history!" they cried. But to call it a ret-con is not to know the meaning of the term. Thomas went out of his way to make sure that his stories didn't interfere with or invalidate any previously published story; this was merely a heretofore unrevealed part of Earth-2's history. Plus, to give himself the luxury of exploring new ground and developing some characters, the All-Star Squadron's core group highlighted such lesser lights of the Golden Age as Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Robotman, The Shining Knight and Tarantula (who had, believe it or not, actually been referred to once as Spider-Man back in the 40s!). He also introduced new characters such as a female Firebrand, Commander Steel (a late 1970s creation) and Amazing Man.
Shortly after the ASQ (as it's abbreviated, for obvious reasons) title was launched, to be met by an enthusiastic and highly-devoted segment of fandom, Thomas decided that the modern Earth-2 could also benefit from some new blood. He began Infinity Inc., a group composed of the Justice Society's children, god-children, junior members, proteges and even the son of an enemy. Of course, even in 1983, Thomas was pushing it by making these kids the children instead of grandchildren of the JSA. Assuming that the Golden Agers were around 20-25 in 1940 and that the Infinitors were around 19 in 1983, this would mean that most of the Golden Agers didn't have kids until their mid-40s or 50s! Are we really to believe that, as all of their friends returned from war and had babies (the baby boom), not one of them had kids for another two decades? The excuse given (which also had been used to excuse the youthful appearance of the JSA) was that time worked differently on Earth-2.
In the mid 1980s, Roy Thomas ran into a huge problem namely, the decision by DC's Powers That Be to reduce the Multiverse to just 5 Earths (The characters of DC's Golden Age, DC's Silver Age, Captain Marvel, Quality Comics and the newly-acquired Charlton Comics living on each of them) in an event called the Crisis On Infinite Earths. Partly through the series, that decision changed. Instead of even this limited multiverse, there would just be ONE Earth, ONE History for all of DC's characters and acquired properties. Thomas fought the decision tooth and nail but didn't have any choice. Somehow, DC's history had to be re-written to remove the duplicate characters, delete or alter any stories dependent on crossing dimensions as a plot point, explain inconsistencies such as an alien Hawkman having the exact same name as the earlier human Hawkman and add new histories to explain the characters whose origins were tied into the deleted characters.
Thomas decided to begin an all-new ASQ series, this one firmly post-Crisis so as to not confuse anyone. As ASQ drew to a close, Thomas set the stage for the changes. Despite the re-ordering of the universe in Crisis #11, the Golden Age continued unaffected for several more issues. In ASQ #60, all of the Earth-2 superheroes pose for a group photograph as a present to F.D.R. While the film is processed, a time traveler named Mekanique releases the hold she had cast on Earth-2, allowing the effects of the Crisis to finally take effect in 1942. By the time the photo is delivered to the President, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Robin have been wiped out, to be replaced by the Quality characters (who had been on a separate Earth). F.D.R., hearing that a few of the Squadron members couldn't make the group shot, remarks that any hero who didn't appear in the photograph "must be someone so obscure that no one ever heard of them." (As an oversight, Green Arrow and Speedy still appear in the photo. Plastic Man is also there, although it was later decided that he would be introduced as a modern character as well.)
Roy Thomas introduced "retroactive continuity" in All-Star Squadron #64. To demonstrate how, with a little creativity, most of the Golden Age stories can still have happened, he re-tells a story from Superman #19 with the All-Star Squadron in place of Superman. (He also cleverly sets it in the past of his own All-Star Squadron series to demonstrate how the events in his own book have changed due to the Crisis.) In my opinion, his determination to not wipe out any Golden Age stories is almost too extreme, as the story from Superman #19 is really hokey and unbelieveable. (A scientist creates a device which turns line drawings of comic characters into real people!) This is one that could have rested in piece; now it's an official part of post-Crisis DC Universe continuity!
Around the same time, Thomas wrote one of the most powerful stories of the 1980s, The Last Days of the Justice Society, which "killed off" the superteam for once and for all. It was a majestic and glorious end for the team, and though they weren't truly "dead", they were consigned to limbo for all eternity, fighting the good fight to prevent the end of the world. No superheroes could ask for a better way to go after having lived a full life! People, if you've never read this tale, it's a must-read! The team received a beautiful memorial in Infinity Inc. #30, too.
Roy Thomas' new series, The Young All-Stars, was more than just a post-Crisis continuation of All-Star Squadron. Instead, Thomas introduced several new characters and expanded some established characters in order to fill the places of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Robin. Iron Munro, The Golden-Age Fury, Flying Fox, Neptune Perkins, Dyna-Mite, Tsunami, Tigress and Sandy the Golden Boy were made prominent characters in the rewritten Golden Age and Thomas had the added freedom that none of them (save Sandy) appeared in the modern era. Aside from the pre-destined fact that Fury would be the mother of the modern Fury in Infinity Inc, Thomas had free reign to do with these characters as he chose. Even a Golden Age stickler likes to have room to move!
During his tenure as captain of the Golden Age ship, Roy Thomas was a
fantastic editor, with true respect for tradition and the works of those
countless writers who had gone before. As a writer, Thomas' work had its
merits and its failings. Many found his dialogue corny; I believe this
was partly intentional, or perhaps even subconscious, when it came to
writing the Golden Agers. He was undoubtedly influenced by the narrative
and speaking style of the original comics. There is a noticeable difference
in the way he writes modern characters.
Thomas was pushed aside by DC's Powers That Be, and he was disappointed when DC's first-ever JSA mini-series was not given to him to write. DC reversed itself and brought the JSA out of limbo, undoing Thomas' fantastic send-off of only half a decade before. The JSA was given its own ongoing series, wherein we were introduced to Jesse Quick and the Thunderbolt was passed on to Kiku Thunder, last of the Bahdnesians. The JSA series never got the respect it deserved. The stories were serious yet, not TOO serious. The characters were very well-written, with a lot more character development than one would think possible for some 50-year-old superheroes! (The writing of Dr. Mid-Nite was exceptional; he became the Batman of the JSA!) Parobeck's art has its pros and cons. Parobeck was a great artist, and he is now regarded as the unequaled master of the animated style by the readers of DC's " Adventures" books. The inks and colors on this title really brought depth to his animated-style simplicity. However, there's just no avoiding the fact that, for some people, the style was too cartoonish for them to take seriously. (I confess, I passed the series by at the time for that same reason, wondering why a more "serious" artist wsn't chosen; now that I'm older and wiser, I realize how appropriate his style was, as it was very reminiscent of the Golden Age era artwork!)
The JSAers began to appear in various books. Jay Garrick became a supporting
player in Flash, where he and Johnny Quick helped to confront the
false Barry Allen, plus he helped to train some of the junior Justice
Leaguers. Hourman was a central figure in THE best Justice League Task
Force arc (issues #10-12). Green Lantern even reunited with Doiby
Around the same time, James Robinson's The Golden Age Elseworlds
mini-series came out, and it set everyone's preconceptions about that
simple, peaceful, innocent era on its ear. With realistic dialogue, these
superheroes became humans while still retaining some of the true greatness.
The Golden Age has been overshadowed by more recent works like
Supreme, Kingdom Come and Astro City, but if you
haven't read it, don't deny yourself any longer!
1994 was a bad year for DC fans. One of DC's most unique female characters and a central figure in the Justice League, Ice, was killed off too hot on the heels of Superman's overdone funeral for it to have much impact. Guy Gardner lost his bowl cut, his girlfriend, his distinctive outfit and his ring. The Metal Men mini-series completely ruined their central concept. Emerald Twilight needs no elaboration. And Zero Hour brought an end to the JSA.
Rather than a majestic farewell, the Justice Society faced off against the time-manipulating Extant who removed all of the magics and energies which had left the team vital so far into their declining years. Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite and Hourman died of sudden old age. Flash and Green Lantern retired their names. Ted Knight passed on his heritage to his son, David, for all of one day and then to his other son, Jack. The only good thing to come of Zero Hour was Starman, a series which would have been launched even if the JSA had all lived.
Since then, things have been rather grim.
Wildcat was placed in an "Ultimate Fighting" ring and held his own against Batman, with no explanation of how this 80-year-old can last against the "most dangerous man in the world." (Kinda shoots a hole in that "Batman could take down the Spectre with his eyes closed and his limbs broken because after all he's Batman" attitude that runs rampant in the DC newsgroups.)
The slow-witted Johnny Thunder has now developed Alzheimer's, which must be someone's cruel idea of a Ronald Reagan joke. It's also been revealed that he was galivanting around America a few decades ago and fathered a son by a native American woman.
Green Lantern became The Superhero Formerly Known As Green Lantern.
Johnny Quick became one with the Speed Force.
Sandman, now quite elderly, recently adopted the ol' gas mask to assist Jack Knight.
The Golden Age Black Canary had her name changed to Diana for no good reason. It's been revealed tht she cheated on her husband with her teammate Starman.
The Golden Age Hawkman and Hawk"girl" were fused into the current Hawkman during Zero Hour.
Dr. Fate's fate depends on what element of his character you're refering to, but it's all different now.
Starman Ted Knight retired, devoting his life to science. His black sheep, ex-druggie, recovering slacker son, Jack, carries on his tradition and is occasionally made to feel better about himself by discovering the Golden Age characters' failings, addictions, sins and moral lapses when he's not spending entire issues orgasming about the city he lives in, that is.
All the more disturbing than the ignominious fate which has befallen some of the individual JSA-ers are the signals that less attention is being paid to even the broadest aspects of established history/continuity. Last December, The DCU Holiday Bash #1 featured a wartime JSA story in which the Black Canary appeared several years too early. However, it also starred James Gordon, who would thus have to be elderly in the current Bat-books; this impossibility indicates that the story was uncanonical (although I doubt that was the intention of the writer). The first story arc in Legends of the DC Universe featured a character called the U.L.T.R.A.-Humanite, which would invalidate every appearance of the Golden Age Ultra-Humanite, a key player in far too many post-Crisis events such as the origin of Nuklon, the organization of several villain teams and others. Legends of the DCU is, like Legends of the Dark Knight, supposedly not in continuity, but there aren't really any disclaimers saying so. So, we continuity-lovers do have a way to disprove these stories, but they are establishing a bad precedent for the future.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2000 by Michael Hutchison.
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