Thursday, July 27, 2006

TARNISHED GLORY

DC Resurrects THE SILVER AGE...
...sort of...


By John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL


Wow. So... the Silver Age really sucked... huh?

So, at least, one would gather from DC's recent publishing event called, I maintain erroneously, THE SILVER AGE.

Apparently, my foggy, aging mind has allowed some inaccuracies to creep into my memory. It seems that my recollections of the DC comics of my early and mid youth must be incorrect... muddled, no doubt, by a sweet, golden haze of childhood emotion.

In the Silver Age I dimly recall, Superman was the mightiest of mortals, utterly invulnerable (except, of course, to magic and kryptonite), capable of traversing the depths of the ocean or the endless reaches of interplanetary space with equal ease.

Furthermore, Hawkman and Wonder Woman were members of the Justice League, Luthor was an infamous, scientifically brilliant, supercriminal, Lois Lane had black hair with blue highlights, Catwoman didn't overtly offer sex to every good looking guy she came across, Brainiac had a Kryptonian city named Kandor shrunk down in a bottle... and super-villains, however nastily inclined they might be towards turning their particular nemeses into sand or puppets or some weird darned thing, did not choke the life out of heroic Green Lanterns with their bare hands, nor did they callously or cruelly drop miniaturized bottle cities full of hundreds of thousands of microscopic inhabitants on the floor, nor did they then go on a sadistic, multi-genocidal mass murder rampage of a sort to make the Nazis look like pikers, stomping and smashing through an entire chamber full of similarly miniaturized, inhabited bottle cities, using their powers to seek out every microscopic speck of life and cruelly exterminate it, while laughing uproariously at how much FUN it was.

In the Silver Age I remember, even the worst villains never plumbed this horrible depth of utter, wicked, twisted, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil depravity. This kind of degraded, subhuman, sociopathic, sick, vicious derangement simply didn't exist in the Silver Age I recollect, and if it ever had, it only existed as a threat. In the Silver Age of my childhood, perhaps Luthor, out of spite, might have threatened to shatter the Bottle City of Kandor, but Superman would have been right there to stop him, (assuming 500 tiny Kandorians didn't swarm out of the bottle and, with their newly gained superpowers, kick Lex's scrofulous ass for him first) and even the dastardly Lex Luthor would most likely have needed a better reason to wipe out millions than the sheer pleasure of doing it. Oh, sure, if the Bottle City of Kandor had to be destroyed in order for ol' Baldy to conquer the universe, or better, get revenge on Superman, Lex wouldn't hesitate. But dropping it on the floor with a malicious little chortle of "Oops! Butterfingers!"...? I don't think so.

Of course, as I say, in the Silver Age I remember, the bottle city was Kandor, late of Krypton, shrunk down and stolen by Brainiac years before Krypton's destruction. Apparently, this is another false memory of mine, as the bottle city destroyed initially by Lex Luthor in the recent DC publishing event THE SILVER AGE is, in fact, the original, lost, capitol of Daxam.

And I suppose that makes it okay. I mean, the current DC universe is positively lousy with Daxamites.

The POINT of the above few paragraphs is not just that I find myself more appalled than charmed by DC's recent, bungling, ineptly executed attempt at reviving their pre-Crisis continuity, which they presented with great care to ensure that in fact, the particular story told therein can be painstakingly fit into their actual post- Crisis non-continuity, in that it is consistent with all the anti-character, mean spirited, petty, creatively flawed, and outright dopey little details that have been forcibly enacted by a marketing department driven editorial policy all through the late 80s and 90s.

Although I have to admit, I think that's a good point to make.

No, the point I'm trying to make is that if DC is trying to get all us aging fanfogeys to stop whining and crying and sniveling for a return to the Silver Age, projects like this are right on target. If this is DC's current idea of the Silver Age, please, by all means, let's keep it in a thick marble tomb where it belongs.

DC's recent SILVER AGE story arc resembles nothing so much as Mary Shelly's monster of Frankenstein; a bizarre, patchwork creation, cobbled together from bits and pieces of various long dead character concepts and story ideas, stitched together with a modern thread of somewhat consistent, if comprehensively lousy, continuity detail.

The guiding creative mind behind this seems to be that of Mark Waid, and while I understand the impulse that led Waid to propose this project, and doubtless do endless hard work networking and politicking behind the scenes to get the project actually produced and published, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what was going through the head of DC's editorial staff in letting it happen.

I do, however, recognize the heavy handed, non creative, killjoy imprint of some editorial hack all over the project. With a sheaf of directives, memorandums, and email reminders from DC's marketing department firmly in hand, some malevolent editorial shill slashed and burned out of this storyline even the tiniest details that might have served to differentiate it in any way from the current dreadful muddle that serves DC as a central 'continuity'.

From the absence of Hawkman and Wonder Woman, through Superman's wearing of a LexCorp deep space suit to explore the ocean floor, to the notation that the shrunken bottle city in which the last fragment of the Jewel Mountains of Krypton was to be found was not, in fact, Kandor (as I'm sure Waid originally plotted it), but was, in actuality, some fucking lost capitol of Daxam instead, the throttling fingers of some idiot overseer can clearly be perceived, chopping and cutting, rewriting and restructuring, making sure that in point of fact, THIS particular SILVER AGE only resembles the real, actual, historical Silver Age in details and particulars that do not conflict with, and thus, mutely criticize, DC's current established timeline.

As an aside, I think it's worth noting that while I normally eschew the casual use of vulgarity or profanity in these columns - I think such usage generally lends an unprofessional tone - I have decided to leave the word 'fucking', above, in place, for the good and simple reason that no other word I can easily think of so succinctly and accurately conveys the sharp and savage exasperation that ripped through me as soon as the narrative made clear that this particular bottle city, which we had been given every reason to think was Kandor (not least of which, the big goddam SILVER AGE logo emblazoned all over the story arc), was not, in fact, Kandor. That it was, actually, a Daxamite city, indicating that we are not, regardless of cover logos or advertisements, in the actual Silver Age, but are still firmly enmired in the horrible stench-redolent mulch of the modern, post Crisis DC era... just, you know, a few years earlier.

As a further aside, could someone explain to me just HOW the last existing fragment of Krypton's Jewel Mountains wound up in a Daxamite museum, anyway?

It is, I suppose, unfair to condemn the entire story arc. It's worth noting that Tom Peyer's DOOM PATROL story, Kurt Busiek's GREEN LANTERN issue, and Bob Haney's BRAVE AND THE BOLD installment, were all good, solid, goofy fun that perfectly reflected the real, actual, DC SILVER AGE in its finest tradition. I enjoyed reading those issues.

To another extent, Brian Augustyn's issue of FLASH was also a convincing reiteration of a Silver Age-style story, although in this case, I feel DC would have done far better not to publish such a story, since what made it a convincing re-creation was the use of idiotically contrived plot devices of a sort that I didn't even like when I was 11.

When the Flash, in Mr. Element's body, explains that he is using Mr. Element's powers to simulate superspeed robberies by having a brief flare of magnesium create a reddish blur, and then using helium to waft the stolen goods away, it frankly makes me want to rip up the comic and flush it down the toilet. I think we've all seen magnesium flares at one time or another; do they look like a guy in a red costume running by to you? And even in a rubber physics metareality like the DC Silver Age universe, I defy ANYone to waft an Army dufflebag full of money away with uncontained helium. I'm sorry. Reed Richards couldn't invent a machine that would do it, Dr. Fate couldn't create a spell to do it, the fricking Voice that gave the Spectre his powers couldn't do it. It's just pure and simple bullshit, the sort of bullshit that, unfortunately, used to be rife and rampant in DC's Silver Age, and that DC's editors would be well advised NOT to put on parade again in front of a modern audience.

Another thing they'd be well advised to keep deeply buried is the concept of a Flash villain who is effective against the Flash because he is SO SLOW. Even the average 8 year old intellect dwelling in 1969 revolts at that particular piece of drooling idiocy, and worse, simply presenting it in the first place leads even the most childlike reader to inevitably start to speculate as to how ANY of Flash's villains except maybe Professor Zoom, EVER give him a hard time. No, it's unwise, foolish, and plain straight outright dumb for DC to even start a reader thinking on that particular mental path, as the inevitable end of the road is the realization that Dr. Alchemy, Mr. Element, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Rainbow Raider, Heat Wave, Captain Cold, and any other bozo who basically has a GUN that they point at the Flash to affect him, should be stripped naked, beaten unconscious and locked away behind bars before they can get the frigging piece out of their holsters in the first place, much less point it (at a guy moving too fast for them to see, no less) and pull the damned TRIGGER.

As I say, the real, actual Silver Age was rife with utter stupidities like this. We ignored them, as much as we could, because the stories were fun. However, when the stupidities become simply too staggeringly mindhurtingly brainbogglingly stupid to ignore any more, the stories stop being fun.

We'll ignore the fact that the Mirror Master SHOULD be handcuffed to a lamp-post, wondering what hit him, a microsecond after Flash sees him out on the street, because, well, he has a cool costume and we want to see what neat, interesting thing he's going to do to the Flash this time, and how Flash is gonna get out of it. It's dumb, but it's fun.

But... the Turtle? A guy who moves so SLOWLY that... um.... Somehow... the Flash can't... you know... easily... beat him? (If anyone can finish that sentence more articulately, take a shot. I myself have never remotely understood the reasoning behind the Turtle having any sort of supercriminal career at all, ESPECIALLY as a Flash villain... I mean, Hooty and the Blowfish, if they had their own comic, could collar THIS guy... but, as I say, if anyone else out there wants to give it a whirl, knock yourself out.)

I mean... no. At the point where the Turtle takes center stage as our Villain Du Jour, I toss the comic in disgust and reach for a Stan Lee AVENGERS.

And that's not a solitary impulse. Virtually every kid I knew, my age or around it, went through pretty much the same process... we'd read DC comics until we were around 12, then someone would show us an issue of FANTASTIC FOUR or SPIDER-MAN or IRON MAN or AVENGERS, and man, we never looked back.

This stuff didn't have Superman flying around the universe backwards in order to trick Mr. Mxyzpltz into vanishing back to his home dimension, or some weirdo in a jet pack seeding the clouds on Rann to make it rain and wash away the Salt Creatures from the Pretzel Nebula. This stuff had much more believable characters doing much more exciting and, yes, believable, things.

Plus, you know, these guys HIT their bad guys, and often, after getting a good smack, the bad guys would fly through a building or something. (If Superman ever in his life hit a bad guy I think I would have had heart failure. Even the Silver Age Batman, hard though it is to believe now, rarely threw more than one or two punches in a story, and only girls ever kicked anyone.)

Marvel characters had elderly aunts who were always having heart attacks, and stacked blind chicks hanging around making sculptures of them. They rode around on motorcycles and in cool cars. They actually kissed their girlfriends. And nobody was running around in scaly green underwear; in fact, Marvel pretty much gave a pass to this whole annoying kid sidekick thing (which, by the way, Jules Pfeiffer was right about when he mentioned how it generally just annoyed real comics reading kids, who at that stage in their life fantasized about being adult heroes, not some snotty punk who was around our age and could kick our asses at everything).

Marvel characters got MAD, fell in love, made jokes, hung out with their friends, and just generally, acted far more like the sort of people you might conceivably grow up to be or hang out with, than DC's buncha stiffs.

In other words, what I'm trying to say here is that DC's Silver Age... the actual, historical Silver Age... pretty much appealed to young kids and casual comic book readers of any age, the same sort who would pick up an ARCHIE or a SAD SACK comic, read it once, and toss it away. If you got to adolescence and were still interested in superhero comic books (which, sadly, usually meant that you weren't great at sports and girls didn't show a whole lot of interest in you so far), you tended to lose interest in the rather flat, gimmicky, contrived plotlines that were DC's main draw, and switch over to Marvel's more three dimensional, angst-driven, four color soap operas.

"Fun" stopped being about watching the JLA beat Felix Faust because Batman and Superman had switched identities before the evil wizard trapped everyone on specific planets designed to cancel out their powers, and started being about watching Johnny Storm try to rescue Crystal from behind the Great Barrier, or watching a ridiculously overmatched Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch somehow defeat the innumerable of Kang.

DC knows this, too, which is why, by the early 80s, when those same adolescent boys who kept stubbornly switching to Marvel around the age of 13 had become a driving force in the comic book market, DC decided to dump all that silly character history aimed at a younger and more casual, nondiscerning readership, and restructure their concepts to make them more appealing to that same adolescent male target audience.

In other words, DC did their level best to turn into Marvel, and they have resolutely remained with that particular strategy up unto this very day.

All of which, again, makes me wonder just exactly what was going through the collective editorial head over there when they green lighted the recent SILVER AGE project.

Regardless of their intentions, what DC seems to have managed to do is cobble together a fictional saga that will pretty much manage to offend and alienate every audience it could feasibly have been targeted at. The older Silver Age fans, like me, who have been shrieking like demented harpies for decades now about wanting a return to good old fun plots with real, actual heroes, are going to read Mark Millar's execrable "League Without Justice", watch the casual slaughter of 600 Green Lanterns by Sinestro and the even more vicious annihilation of millions of sentient beings by Luthor, Felix Faust, and Chronos, and turn away in utter disgust, sickened to our souls at the thought that THIS is supposed to somehow represent the childlike innocence of the Silver Age we remember so well and so wistfully.

The further realizations, each hitting like a hard punch to the solar plexus, that this is somehow a Silver Age with no Hawkman, no Wonder Woman in the JLA, no bottle city of Kandor, a post MAN OF STEEL Lex Luthor, a brazenly slutty Catwoman, a Superman who can't fly into space without an environment suit, and 600 Green Lanterns who can't beat Sinestro and three other lame supervillains in Justice League bodies they can barely control... all of this simply culminates in a comics reading experience that I, at least, found far more annoying, and occasionally revolting, than enjoyable.

The younger, modern comics fans, on the other hand, won't blink an eye at the sight of hundreds of heroes and millions of innocents being exterminated like bugs for no good reason; hell, Darth Vader was blowing up whole planets before they were born, and the Good Guys responded to that by blasting the crap out of a whole artificial moon full of Imperial storm troopers and techie types, so who gives a flip?

However, what the modern day comics fan is going to care about greatly is the ridiculousness of the stunts Mr. Element pulls to simulate Flash's powers, the absurdity of a supercriminal named The Turtle, and even the absolute deranged flip-your-lips-and-say-wubba-wubba-wubba insanity of a comics plot in which humanoid robots get turned by magic into real humans, and then, without breaking stride, jump into some sort of machine that turns them right back into robots again.

Those of us experienced with the real, actual Silver Age (and especially the 'damn all logic, full speed ahead!' plotting of Bob Haney, consummate maestro of Senseless But Fun Scripting) take all this stuff without batting an eye, but the modern day comics fan, used to folks like Alan Moore and John Byrne and Roger Stern at least making a token effort to script things in a sensible and coherent fashion, are going to be appalled.

I mean, you know, it... doesn't... make - SENSE...! (Of course it makes sense. The Metal Men were getting turned into humans right, left and sideways back in the Silver Age, of COURSE Doc Magnus would keep a machine handy to turn them back. No, no, NO, don't talk to me about the moral implications of such a retransformation from human being to mechanized property, or even ask me for the slightest shred of even a pseudoscientific rationale as to how such a machine could conceivably work, this is the DC SILVER AGE! Come on, now. WORK with the writer.)

In addition, however charmed we fogeys may be by the return, front and center, of perhaps that most awful of all DC superhero concepts, DIAL H FOR HERO (Brother Power the Geek was not a superhero concept, now just shut up and sit down) I cannot IMAGINE any 15 year old fan of the new Green Lantern regarding Robby Reed and his ridiculous transformations with anything except a mixture of horror, hysterical laughter, and derisive, contemptuous dismissal.

And while I frankly adored the concept of the entire JLA 'dialing H for Hero', I have to admit that from a more modern and sophisticated viewpoint, the scene where the Martian Manhunter transforms into a black and white checked embarrassment called Go-Go has to stand as the all time worst moment in modern comics publishing. I mean, it pretty much smashes open the trophy case, swaggers up to the shelf, and kicks YOUNGBLOOD #1 right on to the floor.

So, all told, what we seem to have in this latest DC publishing event, erroneously entitled THE SILVER AGE, is a story arc virtually guaranteed to aggravate, alienate, and annoy everyone who buys or reads it. I suppose congratulations are in order. Someone did a thorough and comprehensive job, here.

As for myself, all I can say is, if DC ever DID reboot its continuity to a 'Silver Age' context again, as has been rumored might happen... it's not going to matter much. The evidence at hand indicates it won't be the REAL Silver Age by any stretch of the imagination. What DC's current editors consider to be "Silver Age" is enough to make anyone who remembers the real thing cry like a Superbaby.

No, for the REAL Silver Age, we're just going to have to keep reading SUPREME.

********

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, has to admit right here and on the record that while he loves any old all-reprint Giant Size or Annual or 100 Page Super Spectacular from DC's 60s or 70s - even the Lois Lane ones - he still thinks that for actual quality of product, the Marvel Silver Age beats the DC Silver Age to a bloody wheezing sobbing whimpering pulp with its hands in its pockets, three times an hour, every hour, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, with overtime for weekends and holidays. However, he does think everyone out there who was disappointed by THE SILVER AGE should start picking up Alan Moore's SUPREME to see it done right.

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