Thursday, February 7, 2008

"Age is not defined by years, but by regrets..."

If the above statement is indeed the case, then the Fighting Yank, the focal character for the #0 issue of the new Alex Ross/Jim Krueger book, Project Superpowers, ought to be a veritable Methuselah. And with good reason. As we discover in this introductory tale, Bruce Carter (the secret ID of the Fighting Yank), now an old man, is literally haunted by his past actions, "the things a soldier does." For the Fighting Yank stands as yet another instance of that much-loved son of comicdom, the Golden Age hero. (Though, truth be told, all of the characters present here are, apparently, heroes who have become "public domain." And far be it from me to, at this particular moment, interrogate the implications of the fact that the vast majority of superheroes, by and large emblems of the fight for justice, humanity, and common decency, belong to the "public" only insofar as the public dollar allows for their publication. Rather, it's the realm of the corporate that is most heroes' true domain. But, as Peter David might say, I digress.)

When I refer to the "Golden Age," of course, I mean specifically the era surrounding World War II, a period that holds an enduring position in the American imagination, as evidenced by the continuing spate of films and television documentaries about the period. I'm loath to speculate as to the reasons for our fixation on this particular moment, and others have done and will do a far better job of it than I can manage here. Suffice it to say, however, that the "Greatest Generation" still exerts its influence over our fantasy lives.

As far as superheroes are concerned, this has most commonly been inflected as a kind of nostalgia for a simpler era, a period when we knew who was good (we were, we being Americans) and who wasn't (the Axis powers clearly weren't). Of course, this has been problematized in a number of ways, and sometimes the thrill of nostalgia has existed side-by-side with a more critical historical understanding of the time. In superhero terms, we need look no further than Roy Thomas' fantastic evocation of the Golden Age in a couple of much-loved books from my youth, All-Star Squadron and its post-Crisis follow-up Young All-Stars. For instance, Thomas introduced Tsunami as a Japanese foe for the All-Stars, but later issues found her working with the group as they tackled the compexities related to the internment of Japanese Americans by the United States government. Marvel, of course, had its own Invaders (also a project from the fertile imagination of Thomas), a generally more straightforward rendering of the Golden Age, soon to return to the spotlight in a 12-issue Avengers/Invaders maxi-series spearheaded by...surprise! Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, and Stephen Sadowski, the team bringing you Project Superpowers. Weirdly enough, Marvel also has JMS' The Twelve, also a series about Golden Age heroes who find themselves in the modern world.

Oh, btw, did I mention that that's what this book is about? Golden Age heroes, among them such "stalwarts" as the Green Lama, Death-Defying 'Devil, the Flame, and the Mighty Samson, find themselves trapped in, of all things, Pandora's Box (!), ostensibly as the expression of hope. Well, without explicating the plot in its entirety, I'll give you this: Ross and Krueger have crafted a winning introduction to their story, presenting a central character, the Fighting Yank, who is either terribly misguided (though well-meaning) or straight-up nuts. Without explaining who most of these characters are, the creative team has done a nice job providing us with a primer to the mood and feel of the series, if not to the specifics of the host of characters who promise to be a part of the story as it unfolds. (And I don't mean to slight the artistic end of things here through omission; the book, with the exception of some excessive computer coloring effects, looks beautiful. And priced at one dollar for a full-length story, it almost feels like Golden Age prices!)

Each of these series (and I guess I'll have to wait to pass judgment on Avengers/Invaders) seems to exhibit some anxiety about the state of contempoary heroism and, indeed, contemporary society, by juxtposing supposed Golden Age sensibilities against more "modern" attitudes. It remains to be seen whether these gems from yesteryear can remain untarnished by the demands of a modern era, but it seems just possible that these "old" heroes, unburdened (at least initially) by the weight of regret, could be the keys to allowing us to reconnect, not with the jaded weariness of an aging readership, but with that confident vigor of a genre finding its voice.
Grade: A-

(Incidentally, a shout-out to Ed, wonderretailer and fellow All-Star fan, of Monarch Comics, my LCBS. If you're not tuning in to the Monarch Comics Briefing, over at Fist Full of Comics, you're missing out on a great listen, as the always-entertaining Ed and Victor tell you what's what. And while you're there, post on the friendly boards! Tell 'em Celephais sent ya!)

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