Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Golden Age

Last night, as a result of tropical storm Noel spinning past the New England coast, Cape Cod took a big whack and power outages and other damage abound. Fortunately, at our place we were spared the worst of all that, with only minor tree damage and a great many wet leaves to rake abounding...but the power was out for about twelve hours, beginning around 6:00 p.m.

We have candles (and safe candle holders) a-plenty, and a little battery operated radio to distract us from the rising/falling sound of the wind gusts and dancing treetops and battering rain. But I'm sorry, you just can't be entertained by the radio in the same way you can by television (had it been NPR, this might've been a different story, but they were off the air before we even lost power). And so I happily turned my attention to the comic collection for entertainment. Thank goodness for the LED camp light.

My selection to start the long evening was DC Comics' four-issue graphic novel miniseries "The Golden Age", written by James Robinson and brought to life by artists Paul Martin Smith and Richard Ory.

This is an "Elseworlds" story, which was the designation DC gave to so-called "imaginary stories" in the nineties. In an Elseworlds tale, the starting point is a comics scenario we're all familiar with, which then takes a turn in some new or unlikely direction, usually with pretty entertaining results.

Here, the story picks up in the late days of 1945, and continues the stories of the members of the Justice Society of America and the All-Star Squadron (which by this point, had been post-Crisis re-jiggered to no longer feature the adventures of the Big Three: Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.). World War II has drawn to its familiar end, and as America tries to resume it's rosey, pre-war lifestyle, the mystery men of the earlier half of the decade are feeling a little unnecessary. There aren't Nazis and Japs (don't send me email about being racist, its how they were known in the US at the time) to beat up, and the costumed villians don't hold the same interest they once did.

In some ways, this is sort of a Watchmen-style treatment of our Golden Age heroes. Johnny Chambers (aka, Johnny Quick) is working on a documentary about wartime superheroes, and through him, we catch up on how "real life" finds those shiny heroes of the Golden Age. He and Libby Lawrence (Liberty Belle) have divorced, and she has set up housekeeping with novelist Jonathan Law (Tarantula), who is unfortunately now suffering the proverbial Long Weekend of alcoholism and writer's block. Alan Scott (Green Lantern)is seeing his radio and TV station flagging and has gained the attention of Congress' HUAC.

Ted Knight (Starman) is in a sanitarium, having been driven a little nuts with knowing the information he traded with Einstein was in some part responsible for the atomic conclusion of the conflict with Japan. Rex Tyler (Hourman) is still working to perfect the Miraclo pill that gives him his hour of super-strength, but he's also discovering that he's become an addict to the stuff. Paul Kirk (Manhunter) has returned from Europe with no memory of why he's so paranoid about anyone discovering him.

Against a backdrop of All That, a former nobody of the superhero set, Tex Thompson (the Americommando) is being hailed as a national hero for his undercover work in Nazi Germany, where he was apparently nearly single-handedly responsible for the defeat of the upper levels of the Third Reich, including Hitler.

Now really, do we need more than Tex Thompson's cheesy little moustache to telegraph to us that he's the villian of this piece? Hardly, as it comes out rather quickly that his brain has actually been replaced ("We've replaced your regular brain with Folgers." Anyone old enough to remember those commercials...?)with that of the (da da DAH...) Ultra-Humanite.

Of course, no one knows that at the onset, and Thompson, with the encouragement of the President and Congress, begins gathering a team of carefully chosen heroes to be a government-sponsored supergroup, with an eye toward taking out the rising threat of Communism. Al Pratt (The Atom) and Johnny Thunder, two of the younger and more hare-brained members of the JSA, are quickly tapped for Thompson's team.

We are shown the former hero Robotman, tearing apart a team of jewel theives in a dark alley, in a style today's Black Adam would be pleased with. "There was a time," we are told, his face splattered with the blood and gore of men. "when Robotman's primary wish was to stress the MAN in his name."

He, too, is solicited for this group, along with former kid sidekick Danny Dunbar (DynaMite), who's feeling at loose ends following the end of the war and the death of his mentor, TNT. Dunbar is selected as the "benefactor" of new experimentation which grant him extreme powers to serve on this new team.

It's a pretty great ride, this story, and I won't give away anything more, in case you have a chance to pick it up and read it for yourself. But I can tell you its kind of a wild, moody ride through the post-war days of America...and in case all that, and a return of our four-color heroes toward the story's conclusion aren't enough to entice you, then maybe the promise of more Black Adam-style carnage during the big Fight Scene will help, and just wait until you see where Hitler's Brain ends up!!

Having been published over a dozen years ago, this may be a tricky story to find. Ask at your favorite comic shop, or look in those back issue bins. I'm not sure if the mini-series was ever collected in trade paperback form. Barring that, send DC some mail on the subject. I think its high time they start putting together some treasuries of these great Elseworlds stories, although they are unlikely to listen to my voice only.

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