Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Golden Age

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Golden Age (DC, 1993)

Here's a book that, based on how mainstream superhero comics have turned out over the last decade or so, I should not like at all. James Robinson's The Golden Age is a studied exercise in navel-gazing and paying much more attention to comics' past than thinking about what could be done with new characters in the future. In time, this would become DC Comics' reason for existing, and result in a line of mostly unreadable garbage. But back in 1993, such exercises were pretty rare, and this book was something very novel and exciting. Even in light of how its influence would spread over the rest of the line, the book remains a curious and fun thrill.

The story is set just after the end of World War Two. America has been defended by a volunteer army of costumed mystery men, a handful of whom have gone undercover in Europe, but most of them have been ferreting out fifth columnists and infiltrators on the homefront. One of the most celebrated has been Tex Thompson, who has returned from secret missions overseas to praise and a place in the US Senate. But Paul Kirk, the Manhunter, has also been working in Europe, and he comes back with armed gunmen on his trail.

Prior to The Golden Age, most of the four-color heroes of the 1940s and 50s were the typical two-dimensional strongmen of the day, flawless boy scouts working for the greater good. Robinson really gives life to these heroes, letting characterization lead his story. Interestingly, while this was presented as an out-of-continuity "elseworlds" adventure, thanks to Robinson's later work, some of the character traits and flaws presented here became standard for DC. It's a very interesting prologue to Robinson's masterpiece Starman, which began in 1994 and quickly became one of the best American books of its decade, and which turned some of the characterizations presented here into canon.

It's far from perfect, and the last act revelation of what's been going on with Thompson's project to build an atomic-powered hero is eye-rollingly silly, but every time I come back to this book, I leave impressed. The depiction of flawed men and women trying to leave their heroic pasts behind owes a huge debt to Watchmen, but Robinson still creates some wonderful characters out of old archetypes. There's an absolutely magic bit where the former Green Lantern tackles a criminal in his civilian disguise, and the criminal realizes who he is fighting just by observing the way he talks and carries himself. The art by Paul Smith is extremely good - where the heck has he got to, I wonder - and it all adds up to a very fun experience. Not essential, but recommended all the same.

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