Tuesday, July 24, 2007

James Robinson's use of History in The Golden Age

This is part 2 of my week-long look at The New Frontier and The Golden Age, part one of which can be read here.

One of the things that strikes me about both The New Frontier and The Golden Age is the way the creators weave American history into their stories. On the surface, such a technique might not be surprising, especially considering that both tales take place in the past. And while it may be true that a so-called "historical novel" or "period film" would be amiss to neglect the details of history which fit its setting, the same isn't always true for comics.

In comics, stories set in the past tend to take place in some vague memory of the past, without any apparent intent in locking the stories into a particular date or era. Take the typical origin stories, or "Year One" stories which DC Comics' creators have retold again and again. In such a story, whether it be Miller and Mazzuchelli's take on Batman, or Waid, Augustyn, and Kitson's take on the Justice League, the setting lacks a distinct time stamp. The characters are younger, true, but the setting lacks specific period detail. The reason for this isn't at all surprising, because locking the characters' past into a specific date would require some major explanations about their ages in the present. Had Miller time-stamped the date on Batman: Year One, and included captions saying "May 3rd, 1980," or whatever, then that might have worked for a few years, but even if we assume that Batman was only 23 when he took inspiration from that window-smashing flying rodent, according to that temporal continuity, he'd be 50 years old in the current stories. And he's clearly not.

So we expect stories set in the past to avoid any kind of specific references to contemporary history, at least in comics. A recent jarring exception to that can be found in Diggle and Jock's newly released Green Arrow: Year One, in which a yound Oliver Queen references the "Kevin Costner" Robin Hood. That means Queen must have become Green Arrow sometime in the mid-1990s, which might explain his age today (if he was 22 in 1992, he'd be 37 today, which might be right), but it also implies that his son Connor must only be a teenager today, and he's clearly older than that. Perhaps the reference will work better 10 years from now when the Kevin Costner reference will become part of the vague historical past, but right now it seems too current to make sense.

Anyway, the other MAJOR exception to the rule of not using historical references in comics is the case of stories set during World War II. Even comic books written at the time of WWII regularly included time-stamp references in a way that later comics tended to avoid. Yes, since then, Superman has met Kennedy, and you might see analogues of Bill Clinton or George W. in a story or two, but in the 1940s heroes came face to face with major historical figures (contemporaries to them) on an almost daily basis. Here's FDR! Here's Superman grabbing Hitler on a cover! Here's Tojo! Here's Hawkman enlisting in the army to fight overseas! Etc. Such close ties between "comic book reality" and real-life events never matched the heights of the WWII comics.

And that's why later writers, Roy Thomas MOST prominently among them--he practically invented the whole idea of historical nostalgia super-hero comics, felt compelled to weave actual historical events into the retelling of stories from the WWII era. Thomas's Invaders for Marvel and his All-Star Squadron for DC playfully fit the timeline of actual U.S. history into the fictional timeline of the past super-heroes. In his letter columns, Thomas would often explain (or justify, for the more contentious fans) how the chronology worked.

But, other than WWII era-stories, most comic book stories that take place in the past (unless they are time travel stories, which have their own rules) DO NOT USE SPECIFIC HISTORICAL REFERENCES. It's weird to imagine novels or films avoiding such references--they would surely be criticized for it--but in comics, it's commonplace.

So, in the case of both The New Frontier and The Golden Age, you have two rather significant violations of that standard "rule." And both of which seem deeply indebted to the type of approach Roy Thomas favored so much.

Let's take The Golden Age first, since it was published a decade before Cooke's work. The Golden Age seems like a logical off-shoot of Thomas's All-Star Squadron. It features many of the same characters, and Johnny Quick, a relatively obscure DC character from the past, would certainly not have been a suitable narrator for the story without the characterization Thomas provided in years of All-Star Squadron stories. James Robinson is clearly building on the foundation Thomas created. So, it's not surprising that he would, like Thomas, blend U.S. history into his story. Yet Robinson's approach differs in two distinct ways: (1) He doesn't seem interested in the exact historical details and how they fit into his timeline--he seems more interested in the general sense of historical forces of the time, and (2) Unlike Thomas, who was writing out of a Golden and Silver Age optimism and a belief in the American Dream, Robinson was writing from a post-Watchmen perspective, as a foreign-born writer, who could play with the cynical expecations of the time.

Thus, Robinson gives us coke-sniffing "super-heroes," corruption, brutality, and sex in a tale which features the "pure" heroes of the DC Golden Age of comics. Robinson's approach is not to use specific elements of McCarthyism or the Red Scare, (even though those ideas are referenced at least once), but to use the general sense of paranoia and panic, the cynical manipulation of the public for personal gain, and the looming threat of the bomb.

Ultimately, however, Robinson uses all of this as a backdrop for a traditional super-hero romp. The coke-sniffing "super-hero" turns out to be Hitler in disguise!!! (Well, actually the brain of Hitler in the body of a former kid sidekick--talk about a symbol of corruption!) And the hero-turned-power-hungry-politician in the form of the patriotic Mr. America turns out to be old JSA villain the Ultra-Humanite, who knows a thing or two about brain transplants. So, in the end, it's just a classic Golden Age story about punching Hitler and defeating an evil genius.

But it's Robinson's historical subtext which makes the story resonate. It's his use of those undercurrents of paranoia and despair which make this formerly perfect heroes of the past seem flawed and human. His story start dark and becomes darker, but by the end, Robinson's veil of cynicism falls away, and he reveals himself to be a humanist if not an optimist. His reverence for these Golden Age characters would not let them be truly corrupted--it had to be evil masterminds and Hitler all along.

And that, perhaps, is one of the failures of The Golden Age. The shock of the initial chapters is just a ruse, and as low as these characters seem to sink, everything can be explained by pseudo-science and comic book logic.

It's just another Justice Society of America story, ultimately, but it's a good one. And Robinson's use of the undercurrents from that era of history make it work, even if it never transcends its roots.

Come back tomorrow for my look at how Darwyn Cooke uses a different approach to history to shape The New Frontier.


Matt Jacobson said...

Something to note when talking about this books' (and I'm fairly certain, The New Frontier) use of historical references and such, is that it's marketeed as an Elseworlds. Being outside continuity, it has that luxury.

On a side note, I hated this story. I thought it was boring and overlong, and I only read iot about 6 months ago (for the first time).

Timothy Callahan said...

Good point about the "Elseworlds" classification. "The New Frontier" is actually not an Elseworlds series, since DC abandoned that label years ago, but it contradicts current continuity far more than "The Golden Age."

I don't think there's any real reason why "The Golden Age" had to be an Elseworlds, now that I think about it. It was a much darker take on the JSA characters, but it seems like it could fit within continuity. Anyone else have any thoughts on that?

Unknown said...

I think "Elseworlds" was a tag slapped onto anything prestige format but not necessarily commercially viable in DC's eyes. It's not recognizably Elseworlds like JSA: The Liberty Files is (which, I might point out, is a much better miniseries)

Timothy Callahan said...

I have always meant to pick up The Liberty Files, because the Harris art looks sharp, but everything I've read by Dan Jolley has been weak. Is Liberty Files definitely worth picking up?

ATOM-HOTEP said...

I did not care for his Firestorm at all and Gods & Monsters was pretty lame. But JSA: Liberty Files was uncharacteristically good. It's like how Gray and Palmiotti's Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters rocked my socks off.