Saturday, July 28, 2007

Characterization in The Golden Age: Dragging Heroes to Earth

Today, my week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age continues with a look at Robinson's characterization of the WWII heroes. Check out installments ONE, TWO, THREE, and FOUR for my previous commentary.

While Cooke ignores anyone else's retroactive continuity to graft archetypal personalities onto the early Silver Age heroes in The New Frontier, Robinson takes characters stright out of Roy Thomas's All-Star Squadron (like Johnny Quick on the left here) and Young All-Stars and sends them on a dark journey into the 1950s. Robinson does not reimagine these characters drastically, although he seems to do so with Mr. America (but that's part of his narrative ruse), instead, he takes their established characterization and expands upon it by adding seeds of self-doubt, paranoia, and despair as the characters face a world in which the villains are not as easily identified as they once were. Robinson misdirects the reader at first by pretending to adopt a simplified Watchmen approach, pretending that he's showing what these characters would have been like without costumed villains to fight or gangsters to punch, when, in truth, he's simply changed the nature of the evil to something more covert and less easy to spot. (Which might seem Watchmen-esque as well, except Alan Moore showed us that the heroes were the villains in that story, and here, Robinson ultimately reveals that secret villains with brain-transplant powers were behind the whole thing from the beginning.)

Here's a quick rundown of the central characters in The Golden Age:

Johnny Chambers, a.k.a Johnny Quick: Johnny not only provides the book-ends to the story, but as a documentary filmmaker, he provides the exposition which sets up the story context. One of the things Robinson does NOT do well here, by the way, is clearly distinguish between narrative voice (provided through whitle, rectangular caption boxes), and newsreel voice over (also provided by white, rectangular caption boxes), although perhaps the colorist was supposed to use different color cues for each and didn't. The CHARACTERS who narrate, like Johnny Chambers, each have their own style of caption--Johnny's are rounded and blue, as you can see in the image. Actually, it's not that it's so difficult to identify the narrative voice, it's just that there is an omniscient narrator who pops up every once in a while for no good reason, and tells us things about the story sometimes, while other times he sounds like he's trying to give us character thoughts but not really: the highly subjective "fingers...fumbling...focusing...trying to..." immediately follows the objective "a photographer lurks among the rubble." The photographer is the one who's fingers are supposedly fumbling as he tries to snap the photo, so why does the caption sound like a bad Batman internal monologue? This really has nothing to do with Johnny Chambers, but I just wanted to point out this major flaw in the narration throughout. With so many characters (Johnny being one) actually providing narration through captions, why does Robinson add an omniscient narrator also? It's jarring and ineffective. It's like he took the strategies of Watchmen with the multiple points of view, and then spliced the conventional narrator on top of it. It just doesn't work.

But a few more things about Johnny: He smokes, and he wears glasses. He still has his powers, but even though they would help him in his day job, he doesn't use them. And he's incredibly suspicious, which is the characteristic that makes him the character the reader most identifies with. He's also lost the woman he loves because he works too hard, although he gets her back in the end. In short, he's a slightly older (although he actually seems to get younger as the story progresses, perhaps symbolizing his return to heroic stature), slightly more sullen, slightly more flawed version of the character we saw in the comics produced in the 1980s (even though those stories were set in the 1940s). He refers to his costumed self as "That Jerk!" at the beginning of the story, but ends on a hopeful note as he describes a "new age...fresh and clear and sterling silver!" He's never really a cynic, but his pessimism and self-loathing turns to optimism in the end (even quickly dismissing the threat of McCarthyism to look ahead to the glowing future of super-heroics).

Paul Kirk, a.k.a Manhunter: If we play out the James-Robinson-is-trying-to-do-Watchmen-but-not-as-well game a bit more, we could say that if Johnny Chambers is the Dan Dreiberg analogue (the low-self-esteem voice of reason and calm) then Paul Kirk is clearly the Rorschach character. He's the crazy one who will surely upset the apple cart, yet isn't that what has to happen in order to get to the truth? That's his role, anyway. Unlike Rorschach (in his insane way), Kirk doesn't have a methodical approach to uncovering the truth. In fact, he's tormented by the truth, which lies buried beneath mind implants, exploding into awareness only through a series of horrible dreams. He seems deeply disturbed because of the War, but he's actually deeply disturbed because of the secrets he knows. He's another character, like Johnny, who seems to become more youthful and vibrant in the final Act, when he is able to unleash his demons through old-fashioned fisticuffs. Unlike Johnny, though, he visibly suffers for long time before he reaches the point of action. Here's a sample of his inernal monologue from one of his many tortured dreams: "Save the eagle. Save it.!!" Then he wakes up and thinks, "Still afraid." That's about the extent of his characterization. He's tormented, fearful, and knows he should be better than that. And "save the eagle?" geez, I wonder what in the world that could possibly mean in a book about corruption within the American government. Clearly, even though this book is directed at an older audience than the original Golden Age tales, Robinson keeps his symbolism quite simplistic.

Tex Thompson, a.k.a. Mr. America (on the left), and Daniel Dunbar, a.k.a. Dan the Dyna-Mite (on the right): These are the two characters most radically changed from their Golden Age counterparts. Mr. America was a whip-wielding patriotic hero and Dan was a kid sidekick who later, under Roy Thomas's writerly guidance, became one of the lead characters in Young All-Stars. In Robinson's story, Mr. America becomes a corrupt politician who seeks power by any means necessary, and Dan the Dyna-Mite becomes America's beloved Dynaman, the only active costumed crimefighter of the time. And, he snorts coke. And he's evil.

Neither of these two characters have internal monologues via captions for the reader, because that would give away the twist. Tex Thompson is not really who he seems, for he has the brain of the evil Ultra-Humanite (who has in previous stories adopted the forms of a gigantic white gorilla and a hot ex-starlet, among others). And Daniel Dunbar, who has fallen so far from grace in our eyes (a former teen sidekick with a drug problem whoring around) actually has the BRAIN OF ADOLF HITLER!

So there's not much to say about the characterization here, since these are two evil characters in the most simplistic way. What is interesting, though, is that (a) Robinson chooses one character, Thompson, who seems vaguely sleazy to modern readers anyway, what with that whip and the moustache, and when he's shown to be corrupt, we can buy into it, falling into Robinson's trap of thinking that it's just a regular dude becoming corrupted by power; and (b) Robinson's use of the pure and innocent Dunbar is also a good choice, because it is not only shocking to see him corrupted so extremely (before the truth of the brain-swap is revealed), but it's a nod to cultural expectations about former child stars, who, by the 1990s, were expected to grow up and become criminals or drug addicts or worse, at least by our tabloid-fascinated society.

Like a director who makes his film better through excellent casting, Robinson uses the right two ex-heroes in the apparent role of the villains. His bait-and-switch works, although I was personally disappointed that the threat turned out to be external (evil villains) and not the corruption of these characters from within.

Robinson uses other characters to show the corruption of innocence and loss of the heroic dream. Robotman, so noble in Roy Thomas's All-Star Squadron, has lost any humanity by the time of this story--he's pure machine, while Alan Scott, Green Lantern is conflicted about his duty as a business leader and law-abiding citizen and his passion for ring-slinging and butt-kicking. Hourman is shown to be addicted to his Miraclo pills, while the man once known as the Tarantula is an egoist with writer's block. Ted Knight, Starman, who Robinson would go on to write with great depth and sensitivity in the ongoing series about Jack Knight, is a mad genius who is trying to put the pieces of this shattered world together through science.

I should add here that Robinson, unlike Cooke, isn't drawing from the original sources as the basis for his story. He's adapting his characterizations from the work done during contemporary comics, as Roy Thomas provided retroactive characterization (and explanations) for the WWII-era heroes. Robinson is building on the layers which Roy Thomas built upon the layers which Gardner Fox (among others) built.

Overall, Robinson does provide a sense of disillusionment in his characterizations in this story, even if his narrative technique is sometimes sloppy or inconsistent. Cooke tried to add a bit of humanity to iconic characters in his work, but he was mostly interested in the icons of the era. Robinson drags his characters down into the muck and then builds them back up again, hoping to show how their inner humanity wins out (with all of its flaws) in the face of systematic adversity. Cooke's characters inhabit the skies, the stars. Robinson's characters live on the ground.

Come back tomorrow for my final verdict on both works, as I explore the artistic storytelling (comics have pictures too!) and pull all my thoughts together into an overall evaluation.

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