The Gold Standard

By Adam Murdough

Golden Age revivals hit something of a dry spell amid the emphasis on progressivism and grim-and-gritty commando violence in superhero comics of the late 1980s and 1990s. Even DC Comics, ever the industry leader in the exploitation of its own history, fell prey to the seductive ideology of "progress" and tried, more than once, to put the Golden Age behind it. DC first attempted to "retire" its Golden Age mainstays in the Justice Society in 1986, in the wake of the epically revisionist Crisis on Infinite Earths event. The JSA made a brief comeback in the early 1990s, appearing in an eight-issue limited series and a short-lived ongoing, only to be decommissioned once again in the Zero Hour event in 1994.

However, as the 1990s wore on, interest in DC's Golden Age characters slowly began to recoup, thanks in large part to the work of writer James Robinson--first in the aptly-titled 1993 miniseries The Golden Age, which presented a somber, mature, tragic take on the first generation of DC Comics superheroes in their post-1940s decline; then in Robinson's ongoing Starman title. Finally, a new JSA series, cowritten by Robinson, premiered in 1999. This time the Golden Age stalwarts found a large and enthusiastic audience and spawned a franchise, including numerous miniseries and original graphic novels. The JSA flagship series, the title of which was recently expanded to the more traditional Justice Society of America, has been one of DC Comics' best-selling monthly titles for years now, and its success paved the way for a new string of Golden Age-derived and -inspired projects in the 2000s, at DC and elsewhere.

The first and second waves of Golden Age revivals appear to have been products of "first-hand" nostalgia, aimed at older fans who actually had read comics in the 1930s-40s (or who had at least read reprints or back issues thereof in the years since) and remembered certain stories and characters fondly. The continued interest in Golden Age subject matter today, when relatively few comics readers remain who experienced the Golden Age personally, is more difficult, but certainly not impossible, to explain. It is probably safe to say, at least, that today's readers have different reasons to love Golden Age characters and concepts than did the readers of decades past. Like all enduring cultural icons, the Golden Age of Comics and the heroes and villains it produced have been continually recontextualized over time, taking on new meanings with each passing era. To their original audience, these characters represented simple escapism and whimsy, fantasies of power, adventure, and triumph over adversity; to modern fans, they seem to function mostly as living symbols of the mores and ideologies of their native time, especially its "purity"--that is, the decency, simplicity, innocence, and good old-fashioned fun that many people associate with the comic books of the Golden Age. (Whether the 1930s-40s or the comics produced therein actually were as "pure" or "simple" as is believed is debatable, of course, but also ultimately irrelevant: comics are about fantasy, after all, and historical accuracy counts for less than the strong feelings that the Golden Age, real or imagined, inspires in readers.)

"I think there is something terribly primal and energetic about those early comics, produced as they were without rules, and often without minimum standards," opined Marvel Comics editor and historian Tom Brevoort. "They're like an explosion of the Id on paper, the expressions of poverty-stricken young men trying to make a buck in a field that was far more enchanting than working in a factory. As a result of all of this, these [Golden Age] characters tend to be iconoclastic and interesting in a way that more modern creations simply aren't--because we know better now. There's also a more general longing and nostalgia for the simple heroism of days gone by, a brand of heroism that they simply don't make anymore, and which in this far more informed and cynical world it's difficult to believe in regardless. But because these characters legitimately stem from that era, they resonate on that very basic level as exemplars of a simpler, happier time."

One adaptation that Golden Age superhero concepts have made to help them win over their latest cohort of fans is the idea of "legacy," which treats crimefighting and superhero identities as a sort of heritage or family tradition to be passed on from one generation to the next. Golden Age characters, as the originators of this superheroic tradition, are now often cast in the role of wise elders and advisors to the younger heroes with which they interact. This has been a particularly dominant theme in the JSA family of titles, dating back to Infinity Inc.--a series about the children and protégés of the original Justice Society, trying to make it on their own as a super-team after being denied JSA membership by their parents--in the 1980s, and earlier still, to the 1970s All-Star Comics revival, when the Golden Age Superman's cousin and the Golden Age Batman's daughter joined the JSA as Power Girl and the Huntress. The cast of characters currently appearing in the Justice Society of America title is intensely multi-generational, with authentic Golden Age characters providing guidance for young "legacies" (i.e., new characters whose names, powers, etc. are loosely based on those of now-defunct Golden Age heroes). Writer Geoff Johns' new high concept for the JSA--that it is less a conventional super-team than a literal society; a support network, learning annex, mentoring program, and private club for multiple generations of "classically trained" superheroes, whose stated mission is to set a good example for the superhero community at large--is something of a microcosm for the desires of hardcore Golden Age fans, who would like Golden Age values to have the same good influence on modern comics as a whole that the Justice Society has on the DC Universe.

Another DC Comics title that takes a looser approach to the legacy concept is Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, a pair of eight-issue miniseries starring a team of radical anti-fascist heroes, all of whom are based on old Quality Comics characters from the 1940s. UsatFF is unique in that it's not so much a Golden Age revival as it is a retread of an earlier reconceptualization of Golden Age characters: the Freedom Fighters team is not an original Golden Age concept, but was introduced by DC Comics in 1973 as a collective vehicle for various Quality Comics heroes that DC had recently purchased. In other words, UsatFF is really a revival of a revival! The mentoring aspect of Justice Society of America is completely absent here; indeed, most of the Freedom Fighters of the 2000s have little or no knowledge of or interest in the history behind their Golden Age codenames, making this a "legacy book" only in a very broad sense. Still, the freewheeling, slapdash, action-heavy storytelling style evokes a certain Golden Age flavor, even if the characters and situations do not.

Look up your favorite comics (Superman, Black Cat) or topic (Artist Interviews, Reviews)