Thursday, January 05, 2006

JSA: The Golden Age get a Gold Star

Well I’ve listened to them and they’re right – I’m a number five mixed with a bit of six and a pinch of the rest.


And since I’ll get my blog license revoked if I don’t mention it, I just don’t like All Star Batman and Robin so I dropped it. I gave it a chance but I just don’t like the thing and I do think it’s sexist and it turned me off but I don’t particularly want to debate anyone about it. I figure diverting my money to another title will have more of an effect than polemics about the content. To me it’s Daredevil movie bad.


And now for something completely different…

JSA The Golden Age. I embarrassed myself on another blog with this title because I thought it was more recent than 12 years. It taught me to look at something other than reprint dates. I also read that it was good and it is.

For some reason my day off had a lot to do with wartime America. This comic is sort of the opposite from Sgt. Rock’s Combat Tales as it revolves around the after effects of the war and the people left behind or coming back from the horrors of war to adjust to regular society. I can’t really inform you about how the art reflects the content than to repeat what is in the introduction, needless to say it really works. From the men in suits and hats to the haircuts we see and the slight emergence of the Beat generation into the cultural conscience – it’s all there and it all looks like a comic from the era. Simply brilliant.

What I wasn’t expecting was for the story to follow a similarly brilliant path. This story is as much an exploration of the characters in the time period as much as it is a story from that time period. The reader is drawn into the story through the characters. We see them all doing their own thing, using their own voice to explore not only their situations but their perception of post-war America. Then the reader is pulled back from the close-ups of all the characters and witnesses the larger plot taking place which is taken directly from the best pulp stories and movies of the fifties. As a reader we experience the characters exploring their new place in the world and we only see a bigger threat when they do. Only when the characters stop focusing inwardly are we given the real fight.

In some ways this book is really prescient in that it explores how the self-absorbtion that afflicts post-war America allows for horrible things to happen. The heroes are too caught up in their own problems, the problems of not having a role in society like the returning soldier, and it allows the American dream to become a nightmare. The war gave everyone a role to fulfill and without an identifiable threat the social contract was essentially ripped up and these characters don’t know where they fit in anymore. In turn, it allows the villain to create a false sense of belonging for those who want to fit in no matter the cost. Simply having a role to play is better than not having one at all whether or not the new role completely violates the principles your existence was based on.

The new post-war America looked to it’s own citizens as criminals and villains with the costumed heroes being no different. Where they once took part in the social make up their motives and means were now questioned and suspect. The hangover of everyone with a place became everyone needs to stay in his or her place. The women who built the weapons of war were expected to return to their homes, the men who risked their lives daily were expected to return to their 9-5 jobs and anyone who couldn’t adjust was suddenly suspect. This is the era that first saw biker clubs and introduced the Beat Generation and the revolution of bebop jazz. This generation was swarmed with images of wholesomeness and servitude but is remembered for rebels and restlessness like Hourman who was experimenting with a pharmaceutical escape. The corrupted social hangover felt imposed and false to anyone who remembered why they fought or why they took on new roles during the war – why would they voluntarily submit to repression when they all fought to protect what they believed in?

Now how does all of this relate to the book? The easiest connection is with Paul Kirk returning as the very obviously damaged Manhunter. He did horrible things in the name of goodness and a wholesome America. Is it any wonder he cannot adjust? Yes, he gets conked on the head but he, more than anyone, is aware of the façade that is post-war America. And for that, his country, the home of freedom needs to get rid of him. Even though he can accept that he did horrible things in the name of good and right the powers he serve cannot allow their myth to be proven as a myth. In other words, the image is more important than the reality. A wholesome America would not systematically kill people, or its own citizens, to keep its wholesome image – the lie must be contained whether or not the public cares. With so many people returning from war it’s foolish to think they wouldn’t accept that killing had to be done in order to protect freedom. What we see through Manhunter is the beginning of image over content as politics. This is when it started. We see the introduction of television and we see how damaged soldiers cannot be allowed to confront the public. Paul Kirk would shake the faith of average Americans. They fought the good fight, so why would one of their own be damaged?

And yet this perception of the powers that be is wrong. When Paul Kirk goes through America he is welcomed and understood. He is given a place and accepted because the people were there with him. They all lived through the same horrors and are just as suspect of the created vision they are presented with by those in power. Yes, they all listen to the radio announcements of Tex Thompson but you never see many characters paying attention to it. It’s background noise to them because this is the age of the individual. It was when men who were men were suddenly expected to be a part of a group. They all earned their piece of the pie but were expected to be the same as everyone else. It’s no wonder they don’t pay attention to the demagogue on the radio – they were there, they know the truth of an enemy, they fought him face to face. After killing your fellow man it becomes harder to believe in foreign threats. The threat becomes yourself when you’ve taken part in mass murder under any name. Believing in truth and justice doesn’t mean blind faith in the State you were born under. This is where the battle is for most of these characters.

Take Starman for instance. His pursuit of knowledge leads to the Atom Bomb. His noble pursuits are used to destroy that which he holds most dear. He too becomes fractured in the same way America was. There is the pure face but the terrifying underlay of destroying those which do not conform. I see him as the William S. Burroughs to Hourman’s Jack Kerouac in a lot of ways. He’s the visionary that’s broken.

Besides Paul Kirk, I think the character of Lance Gallant/Captain Triumph has a very poignant roll. He is basically another version of the post-war male trying to come to terms with the post-war female and technology. Lance is quite literally haunted by his past ghosts and does a decent job of repressing them to function in his current life. He needs to fight himself and his past beliefs in order to fall in love with a new woman and eventually defeat Robotman. Now Robotman is great. He is essentially the faceless, ruthless nature of technology personified. He is the Tin-man who isn’t looking for a heart. Robotman’s heart is the heart of his controller. It’s no coincidence that he is the one who destroys Miss America. It was women who took to the factories when they were needed and when they question their forced return to passive rolls the technological oligarchy destroys her. Lance realizes his own failings and is old self as something that really doesn’t have a role anymore. He does what he can to ignore it when he realizes that this new technology is corrupt and is helping to destroy those around him, especially the women around him.

And yet in the end his plight is just as doomed as most of those around him. It’s an outdated sense of valour that kills Lance. His woman is holding her own against the technological menace but he gets involved because he cares. Only it is his refusal to allow for his past that really kills him. If Lance would only admit that his past wasn’t completely wrong he would have had a chance to survive. He just simply denies his roots, doesn’t touch his birthmark and doesn’t become Captain Triumph to fight Robotman.

In the end, all of this is wrapped around a great romp of a story. Only in the best pulp stories to you get Hitler’s brain being transferred to an American superhero. Not only that, he’s constantly doing speed. The arrogance of the Ultra-humanite is also pure golden age along with the blatant lines drawn between good and evil. And yet this story is all about the evil that is hidden just below the glowing surface of post-war America. Even it’s most powerful hero appears flawless but under his skin is a drug addled, crazy, fascist dictator.

This is also a story of hope. Yes, it’s okay to be fractured, it’s okay to be lost. But it’s the characters that go beyond their assumed role that show us the way. The Green Lantern shines because he is basically aware of who he is and accepts who he was. He is strong and upright – a glowing beacon whether he’s Green Lantern or Alan Scott. He knows what he serves and what is right and wrong – confident without being arrogant. Self-effacing without being self-absorbed. He continues to embody what the new generation of heroes looks up to and what the old generation needs to be reminded of.

So yes, I liked the story very much. It introduced me to a lot of characters I've never read before in any form and it makes me interested in their stories. It gives me hope that this medium, even when it's mainstream, is capable of fantastic heights. And yet I'm always left with a bit of knawing guilt that these older books can't be repeated, that they're just too clever, that they've simply "been done." Where are the current books that examine the time and place of the story itself and why aren't we demanding them? Do we even recognize them anymore and can we? I certainly hope so.


Jhunt said...
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Jhunt said...

Check out Howard Chaykin's American Century, if you haven't already. It's definately a Chaykin book, which isn't for all tastes, but I really enjoyed it, and it definately takes a close look at many of the difficulties of post-WW2 American life.

There are tpbs of the first two story arcs, and I'm sure you could find the remaining issues for very little, if so moved.

Byt the way, great examination of one of my favorite mini-series. Boy, James Robinson was really firing on all cylinders during much of his time at DC.

joncormier said...

If anything, this makes me want to start looking up his run on Starman. What ever happened to this guy?

Jhunt said...

He went to Hollywood, but fear not, as he's returning to comics with a 1YL run on Batman/Detective Comics. So, good news there. And if you haven't read Starman?

You. Need. To.

Seriously, it's that good.

joncormier said...

Mr. Hunt. I will do my best with a bit of time and money (and possibly effort).

I'm happy about the Batman news.