Everything Old Is Old, Again
Even primitive man was aware that the universe moved in cycles. The sun rose and set. The seasons came and went and then came back again. Animals migrated and returned at regular intervals. So too moves the human consciousness. Styles come and go and, should you wait long enough, they come back. So perhaps it’s not that unusual for old superheroes to be popular again.
Since it’s debut a little over a year ago, JSA has been one of DC Comic’s most popular titles. With a combination of both old and new characters, its unique blend that appears to have caught on with readers. But why does this revival work when previous revivals were only fair successes at best? The answer lies primarily with one person: James Robinson.
The recent trend in character revival began with the 1995 publication of The Golden Age, written by James Robinson and illustrated by Paul Smith. Named for the first heyday of the comic book superhero, this four-issue mini-series bridged the gap between the end of WWII and the beginning of comic books’ Silver Age, roughly the 1960s. The Golden Age answered the questions of what happened to the WWII characters after the war. The story revolved around several of the main 1940’s DC characters and included a group of ‘forgotten’ heroes who had existed on the margins of comic history. Newcomer Robinson incorporated such characters into a larger tableau covering the end of WWII, the creation of a new, ‘atomic’ hero, and the climatic battle between the old and the new. Despite early fears, Robinson delivered a rollicking adventure in the style of ‘good ole superhero comics’. The heroes were pure good, and the villain was the greatest evil of the twentieth century. Cap it off with a fantastic battle royal, and James Robinson became a force to be reckoned with. He had both portrayed the heroes well and infused them characters with an intelligence and sensitivity that hadn’t been seen previously. Yes, these were the same old characters but now they were no longer cardboard cutouts with only two dimensions. They were actual characters to which the reader could relate and respect. Because of Robinson, noble heroics were suddenly back in style. Still, if it had stopped there, the movement would have faded away.
But, shortly after the end of The Golden Age, Robinson followed with the successful revival of one of the most unlikely Golden Age characters, Starman. Except, it wasn’t so much a revival as a continuation. Before the Starman series even began, Ted Knight has retired and handed over this superhero mantle to his son, David. On the very first page of the first issue, David is shot and killed by the son of Ted’s old enemy, the Mist. Left to avenge the death of his brother, Jack Knight picks up the cosmic lance and becomes Starman but refuses to wear the customary superhero uniform Jack prefers to go into battle wearing his street clothes and goggles. He doesn’t want to be a superhero; he is more interested in running his antique and collectibles shop. But, Jack evolves from a selfish, self-absorbed brat into a responsible, caring hero.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with JSA? Simply this: throughout many of the storylines in Starman, Robinson sneaks in appearances by many of the Golden Age heroes. In doing so, Robinson created an interest in many of these characters that had been lying dormant for years. In a number of cases, no writer would touch them because it was long believed that nothing could be done with them to interest today’s reader. So, like any self-fulfilling prophecy, the heroes were left on the shelf. Several of Robinson’s best stories involved Jack Knight interacting with these heroes, particularly Ted’s former comrades, the Justice Society of America.
The JSA returned in a summer crossover event, in which, for three weeks, new issues of Golden Age titles appeared with new stories. Set in the 1940’s, this tale of the JSA versus a villain dubbed “the Stalker” was the perfect primer on the JSA, reintroducing all of the classic characters for new readers. When the actual JSA series began, readers were ready and eager for a new team, and DC, through James Robinson and Geoff Johns, delivered yet again.
The series begins with the death of Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, which serves to unite the new, modern team in an effort to find Dodds’ killer, the wizard Mordru. After the adventure, the team decides to stay together and form a new Justice Society of America. Half the team consists of the originals Green Lantern, Flash, Sandy and Wildcat while the other is packed new incarnations of Starman, the Star-Spangled Kid, Hawkgirl, Black Canary, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Mid-Nite. By carefully blending the mix of old and new, Robinson and Johns manage to keep old readers interest while attracting newer ones. In later issues, JSA squares off against a new incarnation of their arch-nemeses, the Injustice Society, as well as Extant, the once-heroic villain who took the lives of their former teammates. Future issues promise the long awaited return of the classic Hawkman (a victim of continuity confusion) as well as more surprises. The series has proven to be an unexpected success, leaving one to wonder how and why Why this incarnation? Why now?
The writing is good, but so was the writing of Roy Thomas during the several previous JSA revivals. The artwork is also quite stunning but there have been good artists involved with the JSA before. So, again, why is it working now? The answer, as so often happens, is the combination of the right people at the right time. James Robinson, Geoff Johns, and Buzz have the creative edge to provide good stories at a time when readers are ready for them. When The Golden Age appeared, fans were ready for something different. Much like popular culture itself, comic books were looking for a new breed of heroes who, while being modern, were echoes of the originals from decades ago. New definitions of heroes were needed, and Robinson and Johns stepped in to fill that void.
Superheroes were always an expression of self-empowerment: the dream of being able to affect change in situations where others were powerless. It was a theme that spoke loudly to people suffering from the Great Depression and which is beginning to speak to people again today. In modern society, so many are feeling isolated and powerless in their lives. They are forced along into an endless monotony of life in which every day is the same and nothing is important or moral. With the heroes of the JSA, we are shown a new breed of hero that accepts responsibility for its actions. They are heroes who know the difference between right and wrong and make a conscious choice to do right and live with those consequences. Today’s heroes, in reality and in comics, are ones who take personal responsibility for their lives. And, as readers, we are ready to embrace those characters. But perhaps one of the most powerful reasons behind the success of JSA is the simple fact that it is fun to read. The issues are pure superhero escapist stories that look back to the simpler times of the Golden and Silver age while staying modern enough for us to identify with. Sometimes retro can be fun.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More