The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
James Robinson and Paul Smith’s The Golden Age.
I’ve written about James Robinson at least once in this column, about his brilliant Starman series. And while that series had a profound effect on me when it came out, and still does to this day, the underlooked gem The Golden Age is equally as brilliant, if not more so. A four issue Elseworlds tale from 1993, The Golden Age was an out of continuity tale of the golden age heroes adjusting to the 1950s, and an era of McCarthyism.
This very meta-textual series acts as a commentary on the status of superhero comics in the 1950s, as they were being left behind, no longer as relevant as they were in the war years. Also, the McCarthyism is directly mirrored by the real life witch hunt started by Frederick Wertham’s infamous book, The Seduction of the Innocent. It may look like your typical superhero comic on the surface, but as you pull back the layers so much more depth is exposed. James Robinson shows the same amount of depth here as in Starman, and even brought many of the same ideas and characters to the latter work. This is a history of a certain point in time of the medium disguised as a comic book series.
The series starts out with the Justice Society of America and All-Star Squadron retiring, due to a public that no longer needs them, a fairly obvious riff on comic readers of the time period. Green Lantern has been blacklisted due to the McCarthy trials, Starman has had a nervous breakdown due to the realization that his research indirectly helped create the atomic bomb, Hourman is fighting drug addiction due to his use of Miraclo pills, and so on. It is not a good time to be a hero. And it’s about to get worse.
The Golden Age is a love letter to comics, much like Starman and Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier, and Robinson knows comics. There are plenty of nods to the golden age, and the series ends with the emergence of the silver age heroes. Robinson excels with obscure or underused characters, imbibing them with life, a complex back story, and with many of them, a viable future in others works due to his characterization. This was the book that inspired Geoff Johns to tackle the JSA in the early 2000s.
As usual for Robinson, the book is extremely well written, his usual ear for dialog ever present, as well as his accomplished sense of tone, mood, and pacing. Even though there is a lot more to this book than first appearances would let on, it never feels dense or dragged down by its larger truths. With an excellent mystery at it’s heart with a shocking ending, it is an ultimately enjoyable superhero tale, even if quite a bit bleak. The main themes of regret and redemption raise this story to the level set years earlier by The Watchmen, making it no mere superhero story, but something far greater. Why it isn’t more well known will forever baffle me. As one reviewer on amazon.com says, this series is “Careful, intelligent, respectful, and beautifully done”.
Any comic with art by Paul Smith is going to be awesome, and The Golden Age is no different. Robinson’s frequent collaborator visually delivers on the script’s promise. His mastery of storytelling, page design, panel layout, and using body language to convey emotion are ever present. A master of subtle facial expressions, even without words The Golden Age would be eminently readable. His style in this looks back at the 1940s/1950s with a modern eye for storytelling, giving it a refreshing look like no other book at the time.
While Robinson’s Starman will always be looked upon as a classic, it had four hardcovers worth of issues to get there. With The Golden Age it only took four issues. This is the book that cemented Robinson as one of my favorite writers, and was one more reason it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.