Friday, January 28, 2005

A Quikc Note From Our Sponser

Hey, like all this new content since I'm back in the saddle? Well, than maybe if you're not one of the folks who have already contributed funds or goods to the continued survival of this blog, maybe you should think of making clickee on one of the many strategically placed Amazon links? Not like I get paid a lot for them, but its nice to know people are paying attention with the only audience that truly matters - their Benjamins, of which it is all about, in case ya didn't know.

If you've a care to do such things, you can check out my review of the new Chemical Brothers album here, and if you are interested there might just be a link on the sidebar to bring you and this marvelous CD together like the lost soul-mates I know you to be...

Tarnished Silver

Now, either I'm smoking crack or this is a Kirby cover. Does anyone know?

Nostalgia is great. I indulge in it myself occasionally, and sometimes it really is amazing how a bit of well-placed infantilism can really clear your mental sinuses. I have often reflected that anyone who never indulges in occasional bouts of nostalgia - or who would never publicly admit it - probably has deep-seated insecurities about the way other people perceive them.

But nostalgia is an inclination, not an aesthetic. When the urge for nostalgia exerts itself most strongly, it can be mistaken for an aesthetic - but the kind of art that the pursuit of pure nostalgia creates is quite often barren and hollow, the mental equivilent of watching someone else crawl back into the womb.

Which is why the ongoing and long-lived fetishization of the so-called "Silver Age" is somewhat fascinating and endearingly baffling to me. It seems enough - to me - to aknowledge that there were some great comics produced, a few not-so-great comics produced, and an ocean's full of crap to clog the drains. As an "era" it's no greater or worse than many others - I wouldn't want to relieve the 80s or the 40s either, even if there were a lot of goood things about both decades that I wouldn't mind revisiting from time to time.

But for those of us "on the outside looking in", feeling slightly bewildered by the undying lure of the Silver, there is good news: this too shall pass. The reason for this is fairly simple, if unpleasant. One day all the people who remember the Silver Age so aggressively will either die or get too old to bother.

It used to be, back in the halcyon days of yore when organized comics fandom was just getting started, that Age of choice was not Silver but Gold. Sure, nowadays most people don't give too much thought to the Golden Age. There were a few highlights, five metric tonnes of crap, and some fair-to-middling stuff in the middle. But back in the days when Roy Thomas really was a boy, and homemade mimeographed newsletters served roughly the same function that a blog does now, the Golden Age (which wasn't even called that yet, because there hadn't been any other ages yet) was the gold standard. Among superhero collectors, you weren't considered a real collector unless you had a complete set of All-Star #3-57 (the original run of the Justice Society in its entirety) -- back before there was ever even a comic book store in existence, let alone eBay and San Diego, this was easier said than done. The conversion of All-Star to All-Star Western with issue #58 is still remembered by these folks as their defining trauma, an eschatological enema in the same way that Fantastic Four #103 would become for the next generation. They may have been enthusiastic about the return of the characters - albeit in oddly transformed incarnations - at the beginning of what they would later term the Silver Age, but the consensus was that everything after the demise of All-Star was somehow inferior - illigitimate - when compared with the comics of yore. If you've ever wondered why Roy Thomas' work on later "Earth-2" books like All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc. read so strongly like fan-fiction, that's because for Thomas those books served a very similar purpose. He was playing with the same toys (or at least in the same toy box) that he had enjoyed as a kid, and the results carried a whiff of the same kind of cloistered feverishness which brands most authentic fan-fiction as dynamically insubstantial.

So, these are all I got left over from the yearbook...

The same impulse that held the Golden Age in such high regard for so long is fading. The Golden Age exerts a woefully weak gravity on modern publishing, considering that the number of active readers who remember the Golden Age firsthand must be statistically insignificant at this point, and if there are any old-timers still around they have almost certainly been driven into quietude by the preponderance of the crass Wizard culture throughout superhero fandom. We even have an old-folks home, of sorts, in the form of Thomas' Alter-Ego - which isn't to sell that magazine short, since I read it myself occasionally, but its preoccupations are largely those that would hold little interest to collectors under forty, or even fifty.

And before someone points out the persistently successful JSA revival book, I will point out that that title mostly exploits the continuity and characters of Infinity, Inc. and All-Star Squadron - two titles that were published in the 1980s, well within the bounds of most modern readers' nostalgia zone, placing it right next to The Transformers, GI Joe, Firestorm and Power Pack in the ranks of current nostalgia books.

So, in another twenty years the Silver Age fetishism will have gone the way of the Golden Age fetishism. By then most all of the available Golden Age books will probably be priced out of anything resembling a casual market, so the period will recede into the same kind of haze that holds the so-called Platinum Age - albeit having left behind a few more copious records of its passing than that nebulous and ill-remembered era.

I can appreciate Kingdom Come on its surface as a somewhat well-executed nostalgia trip, and on that level, although I confess I enjoyed it when it came out, it holds precious little interest for me. But if I were to try to read any kind of thematic intent into the narrative, I'm afraid the results would be pretty damned poor. As it is, I'm content to let it be, because its not worth the trouble to tear it down.

The real irony here is that in trying to pay conscious homage to the halcyon eras of their youth, most writers end up unwittingly exposing the worst shortcomings of the sourse material. If you have any knowledge whatsoever about the original Justice Society, you'd know that for the most part the original members were all fairly interchangeable. Sure, the Spectre was a spooky sonofabitch (regardless of the fact that no one at the time ever seemed to really let the implications of the whole "Wrath of God" thing sink in), the Atom was just a pissed-off short guy (seriously, I couldn't make that up if I had to), and Johnny Thunder has always been an infuriatingly useless jerk, but for the most part everyone else was pretty much the same. What we may now think of as being these character's personalities was only developed year's later, oftentimes as a result of guesswork and bald assumptions ("let's see - Mr. Terrific wasn't included in All-Star's 45-49, so during that time he must have had an illegitimate child with a Mexican senator's daughter and had to fight Per Degaton in Peru with a time-travelling Black Lightning! It follows perfectly!")

There have been enough stories written to explain stupid inconsistencies in past stories - hell, the modern DC Universe seems to have been built on them. Thankfully, we don't have to suffer through too mant of the "but what really happened to Green Lantern between pages ten and fifteen of the Silver Age Justice League?" variety anymore. We do seem to be suffering through an unnaccountable spate of origin-retellings, but I think that this has little to do with a nostalgia for origin stories (no-one has nostalgia for origin stories), and a lot to do with the comic industry's current fear of forward momentum and a slavish devotion to the "high concept" pitch as the possible solution to all our woes. "I know!" the Superstar Writer says, "I'll write a new Doctor Strange origin that cribs the worst parts of The Matrix! Hollywood will eat it up - the Doctor Strange movie will save the comics industry forever! We'll get Keanu!!!"

Anyway, there's a book that I think might serve as the perfect balm for anyone fed-up with the constant nostalgic reinvention that sweeps through mainstream superhero comics. Sometime in the early 90s James Robinson wrote a series called The Golden Age, and it had some great art by Paul Smith. Despite the title, it was not a polemic on the virtues of the "Good Old Days". Rather, it took place right at the tail-end of the period we call "the Golden Age", right when all the DC superheroes were getting pressured by the HUAC to hang up their capes and masks. It may sound grim, and it isn't necessarily light hearted. It's got a conspiracy and a few murders and at least one big-ass donnybrook towards the end of it. Basically, the whole point of the book is that nostalgia is never what it's cracked up to be - the past was usually pretty shitty too, albeit sometimes for different reasons than the present.

It's not often remembered these days, and that's a shame, because its a very good book. There was a bit of controversy, as I recall, when the book showed a couple long-time Golden-Agers having an extra-marital affair (and despite the "Elseworlds" logo on the cover, said affair and most of the other events of the series have been mentioned and referenced in "canon" repeatedly). Again, it didn't necessarily strike me as being sensational for no reason - the whole book was essentially a big upraised middle finger to the kind of thinking that consistently exalts the past at the expense of the present. The past was interesting, sure. But if I recall correctly the book leaves off with the pretty clear message that while the past is cool, the future is where it's at (because, as a wise man once said, "the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives"). The future is an unknown quantity, and that is the greatest "Golden Age" of them all.

Lightning Strikes, Not Once But Twice.

Of course, this brings us, somewhat circuitously, to the subject of our latest nostalgia wankfest, Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier. Now, I haven't read New Frontier, and while I do like what I've seen of Cooke's art I don't think I probably will, if for no other reason than the fact that I have no interest in dropping that kind of money on two trades (when I and everyone else knows perfectly well it could have been bound into one and been much cheaper). I must confess to the fact that I was initially slightly interested in the book because it seemed to be similar in form to The Silver Age, the long-ago announced but abandoned and never produced sequel to, duh, The Golden Age. That book was supposed to have had Chaykin art over Robinson's story, but we're just gonna have to assume it would have kicked ass, because we'll never know.

But really, the critical reaction to The New Frontier makes me kind of glad they never did do The Silver Age. The Golden Age was a great book because it was slightly cynical and just a little bit punch-drunk - it had an over-the-top, pulpy feel that was strongly reminiscent of the slapdash material produced during the Golden Age. It didn't take itself to seriously - which is, I realize, a critical cliche. But look at books like Kingdom Come and, I suspect, New Frontier, and you will see people taking the entertainment of their fondly-remembered childhoods w-a-y too seriously. They're overgrown with nostalgia, until it covers the walls and clogs the buttresses. The Silver Age of the early 60s was a time of relative hope and clarity in both the public and artistic sphere, and those attributes make the era extremely hard to evoke in any sort of critical manner.

In the end, all you have left is Mark Waid wearing a faded wedding dress wandering through a dusty, cobweb filled mansion, pining over his forgotten youth and practicing the cruelties he wishes to inflict on poor old Pip.

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