The Gold Standard
By Adam Murdough
If the popularity of DC Comics' Justice Society franchise is any indication, the legacy approach to Golden Age characters has struck a chord with readers. This is not too surprising. Superhero fans tend to have a strong interest in the history and accumulated lore of their favorite genre, and Golden Age legacy-centric titles have a way of creatively summing up and repackaging that history in a neat, linear manner, while at the same time adding new characters and stories to the decades-old traditions being explored. The overall effect is that of a genealogy of superhero fiction. Moreover, Golden Age superhero legacies appeal strongly to those fans who view the comics-reading hobby as a legacy in itself, something that they were introduced to by a parent or older family member and/or that they plan to share with their own children.
Another important factor to consider in the popularity of legacy books and Golden Age revivals in general is the status of the Golden Age as the genesis of the modern superhero. Superhero comics, like most popular genres, are intrinsically cyclical, revisiting and reexamining certain central themes, topics and story tropes over and over again, and their readership is largely conservative (in tastes, if not in politics), so a certain propensity for cultural classicism and "back-to-basics" movements in superhero comics, a preoccupation with the idealized roots of the genre, is to be expected. The very use of the term "Golden Age" to describe the first period of superhero history gives one an idea of how highly regarded it is among creators and fans. Myths of origin are a powerful focal point for any mythology, and if superhero comics constitute a mythological tradition for modern times, as many deep thinkers both within and without the comics hobby/profession have claimed, then the Golden Age, and particularly the wartime years, could be said to serve as a kind of "origin myth" for the superhero genre.
"I think the Golden Age has an enduring appeal because it's the roots and foundation of everything we read today," offers Bill Jourdain, host of the Golden Age of Comic Books podcast (www.goldenagecomics.org) and author of the "Comics Then" column in this very magazine. "Most people are fascinated with origins, and the Golden Age is the ultimate origin of many of the popular characters of the Modern Age. Creators continue to go back in time to these characters and storylines for many different reasons, but probably the main reason is to ‘leave their mark' by further defining the characters from their original appearances and origin stories."
Project Superpowers, a current seven-issue miniseries from Dynamite Entertainment that launches a new superhero universe conceived by Alex Ross, advances the idea of the Golden Age as "origin myth" by envisioning the Golden Age emergence of superheroes as having its roots in literal mythology. The central conceit of Project Superpowers is the legendary Pandora's Box. According to the old Greek myths, the Box was the original source of all of the evils and hardships that plague mankind, but it also contained a single redeeming force--Hope--that could save mankind from those evils. According to Project Superpowers, the Box (depicted in this story as a Greek urn, rather than an actual box) was found and opened by Adolf Hitler sometime after World War I, resulting both in the global suffering of World War II and in the creation of the first generation of superheroes, who were incarnations of Hope.
From there, however, the focus of Project Superpowers tilts swiftly from the mythological to the ideological, as readers witness one of the heroes, the Fighting Yank, acting on the advice of the U.S. government, hunting and capturing nearly all of his heroic friends and allies in the mystic confines of Pandora's Urn during the post-war years, the theory being that if the avatars of Hope are re-imprisoned, the evil spirits of the Urn will be as well. The modern world that comes into being as the result of the Yank's questionable actions--the world in which the main plot of Project Superpowers takes place--is indeed relatively free of "evil" as Golden Age superheroes might understand it, but it is also free of hope and wonder, and new species of evil have taken root there. The story unfolds as the Fighting Yank, now an old man, tries to atone for his past sins by freeing the superheroes in the present day, and as the heroes readjust to the world (and vice-versa) after six decades of imprisonment.
Project Superpowers reveals the potential for social commentary inherent in Golden Age revivals. The world of Project Superpowers is an extreme extrapolation of certain existing conditions and problems, both in the real world and in the comics industry. Instead of superheroes, the nation is patrolled by fascistic private police forces that provide safety and security at the cost of freedom. Foreign wars are fought by Frankensteinian zombie soldiers, thus making war less costly, less "objectionable," but more inhuman and horrific than ever. People are complacent prisoners of a socioeconomic system literally put in place by robots--namely the Dynamic Family, a cabal of formerly heroic androids who are used here to represent the evils of "progress" and contempt for the past. Then come the revived heroes, symbols of both freedom and hope, whose (mostly) well-preserved Golden Age morality and courage stand in sharp distinction to the bleak modern world that the heroes must now attempt to save from itself.
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