A graphic novel published by DC Comics. It was written by James Robinson and illustrated by Paul Smith. It was originally published in 1993 as a four-issue miniseries called, simply, "The Golden Age" but was retitled in its most recent publication to capitalize on DC's popular "JSA" series.
First, some history: the so-called "Golden Age" of comic books refers to the period from 1938 (the publication of the first issue of "Action Comics" featuring the debut of Superman) to approximately the early 1950s. Concerns about the morality of comics lead to a steep decline in popularity, and a witchhunt pushed by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham almost killed the comic book off for good. Years later, DC rewrote its continuity in an attempt to explain why their flagship characters weren't old and retired -- many Golden Age characters did make their debuts in the late '30s and early '40s, but characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman didn't actually show up until a few years ago.
This story is not part of DC's official continuity -- events occur that never happened according to DC's official timeline, and characters are often changed drastically from their official biographies. The tale is set between 1946-1950. World War II is over, and the true glory days of the Golden Age are ending. America is more suspicious of superheroes, and paranoia about Communism is on the rise as the Cold War begins.
Many characters put in appearances, but the main characters who drive the story include:
- Mr. America (Tex Thompson): a former mystery man and war hero, now a politician with ambitions on the White House
- Manhunter (Paul Kirk): an amnesiac haunted by nightmares of something he saw during the war and hunted by powerful enemies
- Johnny Quick (Johnny Chambers): a superspeedster who prefers to forego his powers to work as a documentarian
- Green Lantern (Alan Scott): a television network owner, the great power he wielded as a superhero is useless as he is badgered by the House Unamerican Activities Committee
- Liberty Belle (Libby Lawrence): unlucky-in-love (two failed relationships with other superheroes) television celebrity
- The Tarantula (Jonathan Law): an alcoholic writer who can't make any progress on his new book
- Robotman: a human brain in a robot body, he has lost all human compassion and feeling
- The Atom (Al Pratt): a former nobody adjusting to amazing new atomic superpowers and frustrated that his new government job doesn't let him go out and fight crime
- Fatman (Bob Daley): a minor hero, cast aside as an embarassment, trying to solve a mystery
- Hourman (Rex Tyler): a powerful hero fighting a growing addiction to the chemical that gives him his powers
- Starman (Ted Knight): a former hero and leading scientist who has gone insane because of the guilt he feels about helping to create the atomic bomb
- Dynaman (Daniel Dunbar): an ex-sidekick turned into the mightiest superhero on Earth by the government -- and hiding terrifying secrets
- Johnny Thunder: a total screwup with a magic genie
- Miss America (Joan Dale): Tex Thompson's lover, she has access to his journals
- Captain Triumph (Lance Gallant): he is literally haunted by the spirit of his dead brother and desperately wishes he were free of both him and his powers
- The Tigress (Paula Brooks): former jewel thief turned government operative
- Hawkman (Carter Hall): the winged wonder is now half-mad from his obsessions with reincarnation and Egyptology
The plot, aside from all these people interacting with each other in entertaining ways, focuses largely on Tex Thompson's rising political career. He quickly gets a reputation as a crusading senator who is itching to lead America into a war with the Soviet Union. He has a solid plan for how to do it, too, including the creation of an atomic superman and the drafting of America's superheroes into a government-sponsored military strikeforce. But all is not well. Thompson's rhetoric is increasingly extremist, and though America loves him and the charismatic Dynaman, other former superheroes wonder where this will all lead. All the plot threads eventually culminate explosively during a patriotic ceremony in Washington, DC, when secrets are revealed and blood is shed.
This is an astoundingly dark story -- paranoid, untrusting, frightening, with very few characters who could really be described as happy or well-adjusted. It may seem a bit strange for a comic named after its most hopeful and optimistic era. But in fact, despite its name, "The Golden Age" isn't really about the Golden Age. It is, after all, set in the early years of the Cold War, when the specter of nuclear annihilation loomed over us, when everyone was hyper-sensitive to the threat, whether real or imagined, of Communist subversives invading private life, when the memories of the glory and nobility of WWII were fading into the background as the difficulties of the post-war era picked up. If the superheroes here seem more grim, it's because America itself was more grim during this period.
It's also a story that wears its politics on its sleeve. The HUAC is not among the heroes of this tale, nor are the warmongers, or the politicians, or the government. None of the characters ever expresses any sympathies for Communism, but the sneaking fascism of post-war America, represented by the Unamerican Activities Committee, does receive condemnation. The comic is possibly more politically relevant today than it was when it was originally written. There's a great line late in the story that, more and more often, I find myself wanting to shout at my TV: "Denial in the face of reason. Blind obedience. I love that in a soldier. What a great little Nazi you would have made."
"The Golden Age" also features, not one, but two of the very best denouements I've ever seen in a comic book. To spoil the mystery would be a crime, but when the villains finally stand revealed (and they're not the people you ever predicted they'd be), you're left almost stunned and gasping at how completely perfect and shocking and terrifying it all is. Lance Gallant's astonished "Shit and hellfire!" when he discovers the truth is an entirely appropriate reaction.
Robinson's dialogue is one of the true joys of this book -- for all their powers, these are, deep down, normal people, and they talk like normal people. There are no dramatic monologues in the midst of combat -- when people start fighting, most are lucky if they can get out more than a syllable at a time. Most speeches are reserved for political arenas. Smith's art, meanwhile, is sophisticated and expressive enough for modern tastes while still retaining some of the simplicity of the comics of the Golden Age.
DC classifies most of this comic as an "Elseworld" -- a non-continuity tale that has little bearing on today's stories. There are exceptions -- DC's current continuity says that Ted Knight did have a nervous breakdown when he realized how destructive his atomic bomb was, and Hourman did struggle with an addiction to his Miraclo pills. But most of this story exists outside of DC's current continuity. Daniel Dunbar never became Dynaman, Paul Kirk didn't have amnesia, Tex Thompson didn't become a politician, and all the people who died at the end of this comic didn't really die. Personally, I think that's too bad. "The Golden Age" is a great story, and it gives a great deal of richness, relevance, and even closure to an era that few modern comics readers understand well.