I wonder sometimes if the critical acclaim some comics receive does more harm to the medium than good. If a comic gets lots of attention and it turns out that it’s inaccessible or badly written or just plain pedestrian yet illustrated, can that be good for a medium seeking acceptance? I sometimes wish we would stop holding up genre potboiler page-turners like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns as the highest mark of artistic merit we can achieve. Fans are so quick to show off anything that even tries to be “smart” which validates the invalid feeling among the literati that comics naturally aren’t intelligent and therefore must try to transcend themselves. And how long before the literati catch on that what we’re showing off is sub-par anyway?
Halfway through The Golden Age I thought it was “fine enough.” An interesting plot, unpredictable characters, good solid Saturday-afternoon-in-the-park reading much like The Dark Knight Returns. A few more pages in and I realized it wasn’t even that. It’s just a bad comic — amateurish writing from James Robinson that any first-year fiction workshop would whip into shape and art from a normally brilliant penciler (Paul Smith) who tries so hard to change his style that he comes up with a mix of ugly and anatomically incorrect. So why bother writing about it at all here? Because this is one of the most critically acclaimed “graphic novels” of all time, a post-modern superhero genre critique that supposedly takes apart all of the things that make it work and exposes its dark underbelly, and it’s not at all. It’s a comic that forces its characters like so many chess pieces into a strategy that resembles something like an intelligent genre critique, leaving all relatable human feeling at the door.
The story opens up at the end of what’s known as the Golden Age of comic books (the era spans roughly from the art form’s birth in 1938 to the late 1950s when the industry bubble burst). The fun, lighthearted, often goofy heroes like Green Lantern, Starman, and The Atom are presented here as heavy-hearted gloomy guys in their various mid-life crises. The war has been over for more than a decade and almost all of these superbeings have retired because of personal choices or personal tragedies. The story kicks into gear when one of the era’s lesser-known heroes, Mr. America, runs for a US Senate seat on a McCarthyistic anti-communist and anti-secret identity platform. His vaguely fascistic power grab and attempt at consolidating the aging superhero community behind him is kind of interesting in a “hmmm, interesting” kind of way. The characters all speak in the same stilted voice of their omniscient narrator so you don’t care about them enough to be empathetically interested in what’s going on.
And that’s the root of the problem here. Stories are living things, not intellectual treatises. When each character speaks in formal eloquent essay-speak you know that Robinson cheated. He didn’t do the emotional and imaginative work that a sprawling novel like this requires. He didn’t get behind his characters’ eyes and show us what they feel. He just told us in prettily strung together phrases, some not as pretty as others. (In one of the more clumsy scenes in the book, the former Green Lantern is in his office alone brooding on how involved he should be in the coming conflict, standing in front of a statue of Atlas so it looks like — wait for it — the world is on his shoulders. In another, Mr. America rudely tells off his former sidekick and when the poor guy leaves he looks down at a photo of the two of them together and rips it into pieces. Such heavy-handed images are not only annoying, they also betray a sloppiness that most editors weed out of real literature.)
The biggest sign that you’ve wasted your time comes when the intellectually curious plot involving Mr. America’s subtle turn to fascism is revealed to be an actual fascistic plot by the Golden Age heroes’ greatest villain, the Ultra Humanite. He’s disguised himself as Mr. America and tricked U.S. citizens into playing into his grab at global domination. Then the heroes get together and beat him up until they win. Any meager attempt at a critique of power and responsibility and how it played into the Atomic Age was done away with a flourish of Scooby Doo. I’m not sure what we were supposed to learn from reading this. Bad guys always lose and superheroes always win? Why didn’t I just read an actual Golden Age comic that gives me the same message but isn’t gloomy and depressing and overwritten?
I always hear comics fans complaining about the standard “holy gosh — an actual literate comic book!” response to things like Maus and Fun Home when they’re published. I agree with them — why do we constantly have to prove ourselves? Maybe The Golden Age is an example of why — our most precious canonical works are poor. Our industry editors and writers — ostensibly the arbiters of taste and quality — grew up reading on-the-nose self-conscious superhero bang-ups and learned to write by imitating these. To this day editors and writers aren’t coming from literature and creative writing backgrounds, but from fandom.
I love superheroes. They’re amazing and they touch a cultural nerve in the mainstream (TV’s Heroes is the best example of that). But the genre doesn’t challenge itself to grow, and maybe that means it will stay where it is while the non-genre comics geniuses cropping up more and more these days will be the ones to keep evolving the medium towards the legitimate art form we all know it is.