Comics Ate My Brain

March 10, 2005

Brought To You By The Letter "M": Marvel: The Lost Generation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 8:23 pm
This 12-issue maxiseries came out in 2000-01 from the creative team of Roger Stern and John Byrne. Both were listed as co-plotters, with Stern on dialogue and Byrne on pencils (and Al Milgrom inking). The title refers to Marvel’s “lost generation” of Cold-War-era heroes — from the disappearance of Captain America at the end of World War II to just before Reed Richards and company became the Fantastic Four. They’re “lost” because most of them were created specifically for this series.

Obviously the problem with this type of story deals with the sliding-point model of Marvel’s modern timeline. When Marvel was young, this period would have been about 16-17 years. When this series was published, if the FF first appeared “ten years ago,” that would be 1990. Stern acknowledges this in a text piece, and honestly it gives him more time in which to tell these stories. Furthermore, the stories were told in reverse order, with the heroes getting “lost” in the first issue (which was numbered #12).

The heroes themselves were an eclectic bunch. There was Pixie, an eternally young woman who flew and turned living things to stone with her pixie dust. Black Fox was a Batman-knockoff, and the Yankee Clipper was a patriotic hero reminiscent of Cap. The first issue (#12, remember) provided quick hits on several, and from there the remaining issues filled in the gaps. In this respect the series reminded me of Astro City, in that it aimed to evoke, using brief moments, the atmosphere of a longstanding superhero community. However, this worked against MTLG in the sense that it got me looking for specific superhero parodies and pastiches, and thus distracted me from the larger message.

Unfortunately, I’m still not quite sure what that message was. Historically, Marvel’s characters were distinguished from DC’s in that their powers almost always caused more problems than they solved. Many times this made them misunderstood, if not hated and/or feared, by society. The “Lost Generation” doesn’t have this particular trait, although in the end most of them were tragic figures anyway.

The backwards storytelling also worked against the series. It helped justify the heroes’ existence in the light of familiar Marvel history, but with regard to the series itself, it felt more like a payoff than an enticement to read the rest. The story told in issue #1 (the conclusion) skipped around the timeline, wrapping up the series’ final threads but acting more like a denouement or an epilogue than a climax. The backwards direction apparently served the time-travel story which provided the series’ framing device, but MTLG could have done without this subplot and might have done better.

Now, with all that said, the individual issues were executed very well. I’m no student of obscure Marvel history, but Stern & Byrne clearly did their homework. The new characters were fairly credible, and their stories weren’t uninteresting.

Still, without their connections to Marvel history, I’m not sure they feel like “Marvel characters.” Maybe this is the creators’ attempt to give Marvel a group of more traditionally-cast heroes, but wouldn’t that make the heroes more DC-like?

Moreover, for the past 40 years, DC has cultivated a “generational” approach to its history, so that its character interrelationships look almost like family trees. Marvel: The Lost Generation obviously didn’t try to do that (and Marvel hasn’t had much success with “legacies” like the M2 and 2099 books) — but neither did it ground these heroes in the overall tone of the Marvel Universe.

I hesitate to say that this series has no compelling “historical” reason to exist, but Marvel has made a lot of hay on being the younger, hipper alternative to stodgy old DC. Part of that was the conceit that Marvel claimed a handful of heroes from the 1940s, but it “really” started in 1961 with Fantastic Four. Everything up to that point was just weird horror and monster comics, much of which Marvel later brought into its superhero books. Regardless, Marvel acted almost as if it didn’t have any superheroes before the FF, which gave it a freer hand to break the traditional superhero rules. Having MTLG retroactively seed a dry period with a dozen or so fairly traditional superheroes doesn’t help cultivate Marvel’s maverick reputation.

I haven’t said anything about the art, mostly because it’s Byrne, and Byrne tends to have the same high level of competency no matter what he does. Here his lines are softened a little bit by Al Milgrom, so it doesn’t quite jump out at you like “JOHN BYRNE ART.” Byrne and Milgrom turn in work which is probably most appropriate for the book, since they can ape different styles of art for the different time periods covered. I didn’t feel like Byrne was particularly showing off at any point, but on balance that’s a good thing.

Ultimately, I did enjoy Marvel: The Lost Generation, and I probably would have liked it more had I been more aware of its reference points. In this age of interlocking continuity, it’s refreshing to have a book that tells new, easily comprehensible stories in a dense, established timeline. Not being the biggest Marvel scholar, I don’t know whether these characters have been used elsewhere (one timeline also has them in the Byrne-written X-Men: The Hidden Years), and considering Marvel’s emphasis these days, I can’t imagine them being pulled out of the bottom drawer ahead of too many others. Still, divorced from all its ancillary issues, this was a well-done experiment.

New Comics 3/9/05

Drove back from Virginia today — 8 hours, two brief stops, hardest part was West Virginia (no offense, David Welsh) — and still have lots to do, but here’s what I read when I got in.

Action Comics #825 (written by “J.D. Finn,” with art by Ivan Reis & Marc Campos and Joe Prado) wraps up the Chuck Austen Era with the revelation that Gog was behind all the bad guys fighting Superman during Chuck’s tenure. The fight du jour takes an unexpected turn into moderately familiar territory. Although Aust– er, “Finn” — tries to make a profound statement about Superman, ultimately it’s nothing we couldn’t have guessed. Also, my head hurt trying to figure out the timeline of Gog’s origin. Finally, the book is 40 pages, but with all the big panels and action sequences, it didn’t feel like a whole lot extra had been added. Maybe some of those pages could have explained Doomsday’s existential crisis.

Superman #214 (written by Brian Azzarello with art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams) fares a little better. It too is Superman getting the snot pounded out of him, and it too almost made my head hurt trying to figure it out, but it has at least tried to tell a more coherent plot. However, it asks the reader to believe that Superman would essentially try to hide his plan for saving the Earth from everyone on Earth except his wife. There’s also some bits with the enigmatic Mr. Orr and some mysterious super-soldier builders, but I couldn’t remember enough about them from previous issues to comment. I still need to read this storyline in a sitting, and maybe then it’ll make more sense.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #189 (written by Shane McCarthy with art by Tommy Castillo and Rodney Ramos) would probably also benefit from being read in one sitting. It’s the conclusion of “Riddle Me That,” and it is full of “Aha! But I am left-handed!” moments — but not in a good way. Actually, I don’t know whether to fault McCarthy for this, because had I made the effort to read Parts 1-4 all at once before today, clearly I would have enjoyed Part 5 more. “Riddle Me That” was basically a caper story with some Riddler backstory woven in, and it was an attempt to remake the Riddler without the mental block that compelled him to tip off Batman using his trademark clues. This would ostensibly make the Riddler cool, I guess; but I’m not sure it did. Back in the reading pile, then.

Adam Strange #6 (written by Andy Diggle, with art by Pascal Ferry) is a good example of how to keep my short attention span engaged. It starts tying together the story’s threads with two issues left to go, and it works in a couple of pleasant surprises as gravy. There’s not much more to say, except that this continues to be a fun story, executed with wit and panache.

Gotham Central #29 (written by Greg Rucka, with art by Stefano Gaudiano and Kano) continues the Keystone City/Dr. Alchemy storyline in fine fashion. Gotham detectives Montoya and Allen travel to the home of the Flash to find out how to reverse the mutation of a Gotham policeman caught in a Flash villain’s boobytrap. I have to say, one of my least favorite parts of Geoff Johns’ Flash makeover has to do with the police characters he created, but here they are handled very well. In fact, they seem more at home in this book than they do in Flash. Montoya also gets a couple of good moments with her dad and her significant other, so all around a very good issue.

Nightwing #105 (written by Chuck Dixon & Scott Beatty, with art by Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens) continues “Nightwing: Year One” by telling the story of Nightwing and the second Robin’s first meeting. It’s rooted in a test run by Batman which goes awry, and it sets up what should be a grand finale wherein Nightwing, Batman, Robin II, and Batgirl all learn to get along. For those of us who were around for the original stories (about 20 years ago), this has some nods to them while being a completely new work. Ironically, McDaniel and Owen manage to make the classic Robin costume (short pants and all) look cooler and more natural than Dick’s first Nightwing costume.

Reading last month’s JSA, I complained that I couldn’t tell whether the bad guys were winning. This month the JSA seems like it has the upper hand, but JSA #71 (written by Geoff Johns, with art by Don Kramer & Keith Champagne) also seems a little rushed, especially since Atom-Smasher’s motivations are explored in bits that turn out to be redundant. It also left me wondering how (in good Star Trek practice) how the timestream won’t end up being corrupted. Still, everybody gets a little scene, and it’s fun to see the current Mr. Terrific beat up some Klansmen. Not enough to keep me on the title past the end of this storyline, though.

The first of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers miniseries, Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #1 (art by Simone Bianchi) came out today. Most of it relates Sir Justin’s role in the last days of a Camelot unlike many of the traditional interpretations. There’s a fair amount of “wha–huh?,” but the context keeps everything clear. The art is fine, although thanks to some weird silhouettes occasionally I had to pay a little more attention to who was doing what. The coloring, by Nathan Eyring, also makes everything take on a nice ethereal watercolor look. It’s a pretty good start which reminded me, at least superficially, of Morrison’s Seaguy.

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