Sick this week…

 

 

Sorry for not getting The Golden Age #2 to y’all this week; I have had issues with illness.  Will be back on it for The Legions of the Unspoken next week!  Thanks for your patience!

 

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When Something Awful is Beautiful: The Golden Age #1

Hey there, Legions of The Unspoken!  I hope you enjoyed Emily’s entry last week as Punisher temporarily became a black man!  Check it out right now if you haven’t!  I find that story to be that perfect amalgam of 90’s silliness and 90’s coolness (which sometimes are one and the same) that excited me then and excites me now!  Of course, the fact that Punisher is the main character certainly won’t hurt it in my eyes since, as you all well know, Punisher is my favorite character.

What you may not know is how much I love the Justice Society of America.  Punisher is my favorite character, but the JSA is easily my favorite superhero team.  Bar none.  The difference between the JSA and second place IN MY HEART is the difference between a Martin Scorsese movie and the local community theatre performing Raging Bull.  I have to admit I’m incredibly interested in an awful local community theater production of Raging Bull, so if any of you have any videos of that, send them my way.

Of course, if you’re an elder member of the Legion of the Unspoken, (and we appreciate you greatly if you are), you know how much I love the JSA because you read my earlier article about how much I love the Strazewski/Parobeck 90’s Justice Society of America; The Golden Age, though, ain’t about that JSA.

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Already you can see stark differences between the world of the JSA with which we are familiar and the world here.  The dark tones of the cover, the burning image of a Life Magazine cover featuring the JSA, and even the embossed cover would lead you to believe that this ain’t your Daddy’s JSA.  It isn’t even the JSA we had loved a short time prior.

Of course, this is an Elseworlds tale, which is basically a tale involving DC’s characters in a different light that won’t affect continuity.  I think the Elseworlds tale most non-hardcore comic book fans are familiar with is Batman/Dracula:  Red Rain, where Batman becomes a Bat-Vampire, but anyone who only knows that comic is missing out.  DC put out some fine tales under this banner and even centered their annuals around the imprint in 1994.  We got to see everything from Superman landing on Earth and getting adopted by the Waynes instead of the Kents to Samurai Robin!  Ok, some of it was better than others, but most of it was fun and really good.  Very little of it ascended to masterpiece status, though.  The Golden Age is one of those exceptions.

Since this isn’t your JSA, and this JSA story takes place in a non-canonical situation, what exactly is it?  It’s the story of what happened to the JSA in a post-WWII world.  It’s the story of what happens when folks grow from the impudence of youth into the responsibility of adulthood.  It’s about the difference between your early to mid-20’s and your mid-30’s.  It’s about the difference between 1940’s America and 1950’s America.  It starts out, however, about the disappearance of the JSA, and the prominence of the lone “mystery man” that America still seems to care about.

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The dichotomous juxtaposition of the Atomic Bomb, the JSA, and the other mystery men of the era is perfectly encapsulated by Paul Smith’s art and James Robinson’s words.  This series was my first elongated exposure to Smith’s work, and I was a fan from the first page.  I was more familiar with Robinson’s work at this point, but I was still blown away.  Many folks love his Starman series and rightfully consider it a masterpiece, but I think that the love and reverence for that series, no matter how richly deserved, sometimes crowds out the love and reverence that should exist for this series.  Perhaps that’s because Starman was an ongoing while this was a four-issue mini-series.  Whatever the reason, it’s a travesty.

I really enjoy the idea put forth about the “mystery men,” as superheroes were called then, vs. THE BOMB.  Few instances in history are as jarring or as brutal as the unleashing of atomic weapons on Japan at the end of WWII.  The JSA, All-Star Squadron, and their superhero compatriots at various publishers must have seemed silly in an instant to many in our world, as their brightly colored costumes clashed with the newly grey overtone of a world where tens of thousands of non-combatants could die in an instant, and the world itself could be destroyed in a torrential downpour of radioactive fire.  That’s our world, you know?  Now imagine how useless many of the superheroes would have felt in a world where they and the bomb existed.  After all, what’s the point of being a super strong person or being able to glide on wings if a Head of State could turn all of that ability into a mushroom cloud in an instant?

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That’s harsh, except for The Flash.  I’m a huge fan of The Golden Age Flash.  There’s something about his happy-go-lucky attitude that endears him to me.  Even a quickly darkening world can’t diminish his smile.  I think it is because he always comes across as though he thinks of himself as “Jay Garrick, Flash”, rather than “The Flash”.   It’s something Jay Garrick DOES, not something Jay Garrick IS.  The difference is subtle, yet powerful.

The others seem to be going nuts, growing old, growing mean, or all three in Johnny Quick’s case.  Hawkman is mostly on the going nuts side, but I find Mr. Terrific’s tale to be the most depressing thus far, as Terry Sloane literally emblazoned Fair Play across his chest as a mantra, only to turn his back on it in the name of capital gains.  Johnny Quick just seems to be growing old, and as we all might when growing older, gets increasingly tired of who he is without knowing what to do about it.

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And I bet you are asking,  “Who’s Tex Thompson?  What’s all this Americommando nonsense?”  But a less casual superhero fan might also be asking, “Why didn’t the JSA just go end WWII?” They’re both valid questions, and they’re both equally important to the tale.

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So despite having been ineffectual stateside in the eyes of Johnny Quick and many other heroes, Tex Thompson, the Americommando, apparently saved the USA and the rest of the Allies during WWII by killing Parsifal, who negated super powers.   Parsifal is a cool name, and again, Paul Smith does a fantastic job making him look ominous, but not necessarily powerful.  Of course, as evidenced by the inability of the American superheroes to enter into the Second World War, sometimes being able to keep others from being powerful is the most effective power of all.

The heroes we have seen thus far, save Flash, have all been mired in insanity or vice.  Most of the heroes we will see in the rest of the issue will be the same.  One example to the contrary, however, is Alan Scott, Green Lantern.  As a paranoid post-WWII era is emerging, Tex Thompson does his best to stoke the fires that fuel the Second Red Scare.  Alan Scott is standing by his employees, and even in post-emerald days, he remains a noble gladiator dedicated to those depending on him.

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Even Green Lantern is cracking under the pressure of this era, and how could he not be, as he intends to stand by his men while Tex Thompson spews forth nonsense like this:

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James Robinson does a great job painting a time when America transformed from a nation fighting against fascism to a nation that had been frightened into accepting witch hunts and book burning.  It was a quick turnaround, no doubt exacerbated by the Cold War, the Korean War, changing social post-war mores and the like, and Robinson paints it as the scary time it had to have been.

Possessing radical viewpoints myself, I too often feel as though I am stymied and stifled for my beliefs (I’m a Libertarian Socialist/Anarchist), but what I face is nothing compared to the 50’s, with government committees looking into what people believed, what organizations they had belonged to, and how that could impact America.  Regardless of beliefs, people have the right to possess them without the government infringing upon them, and many people were deprived of these rights during the 50’s.  This is very well documented, as is the impact the climate had on our beloved comic books, with Congress looking into the impact comic books had on juvenile delinquency.  This social climate first led to comic book burnings and the manipulation of children to turn in comic books and boycott establishments that sold “questionable” material.  Eventually, the industry would self-censor by forming the Comics Code.  I suggest reading a book called The Ten-Cent Plague and also taking a look at the 1950’s volume of American Comic Book Chronicles.

Back to the 90’s!  Or back to the 50’s, I suppose!  I mentioned Paul Smith’s art being beautiful, but I have to say that it carries an especially peculiar air of beauty when things get grisly for our heroes.  Take Robotman, for instance, who is struggling mightily with his humanity.  I imagine it is hard to be a human trapped in a robot’s body.  Imagine how odd it must be to sense, but not truly feel.  Imagine being able to recall what it was like to be hungry without having to eat.  Imagine how everyone treats you like you like you are a robot, when you are actually a person just like them.  It would probably make you snap, and then you’d probably snap some people like Robotman does here.

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Paul Smith’s somehow beautifully depicts this moment of Robotman snapping.  Some folks draw so beautifully that the visceral nature of certain images gets lost in a sea of aesthetic appeal, but Paul Smith somehow manages to turn his refined beauty into an amazing depiction of brutal ugliness.  The blood on Robotman’s face following this farce of a fracas appropriately looks like tears after he breaks these mooks, along with possibly breaking what is left of his humanity.

Need more proof Paul Smith can bring the beautifully horrendous like no one else?  Take a look at the bizarre hallucinatory dream Paul Kirk, Manhunter is having as, in the irony of ironies, he has become the hunted.  Oh, and this dream occurs just before he wakes up to everyone in the shelter he is in GETTING BLOWN AWAY.

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It should not be, but it is a little funny when that priest gets it, as though he was going to wade into this firefight with a rosary and a shrill rebuke and reflect bullets.  I admire his bravery, but it seems like his best bet would have been to stay put; as a general rule, one cannot negotiate with a cadre of folks brandishing Tommy Guns.

Again ,though, I beg you take heed when I point out just how sparkling yet depraved these scenes are.  Madness, fear, and paranoia have never looked so amazing, and somehow, they are also more poignant now that they are beautiful.

Speaking of sad yet beautiful madness, we also see Ted Knight, Starman, in this issue.  Ted blames himself for everything.  He blames himself for the superhero explosion, but he also blames himself for influencing Einstein to create The Bomb.  Johnny Chambers goes to see out favorite Cosmic Rod inventor, and since he goes during the day, he does not like what he sees.  How could anyone enjoy talking to the world’s foremost mind in a state so neurotic?

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Of course, had Johnny Chambers come to see Starman at night, when he thrives, the picture would have been harrowing and frightening in a different way, as Smith and Robinson get across what it is to be a frenzied, driven, and highly intelligent man who can only break free of his neuroses at certain times.

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The Golden Age isn’t shining so brightly, and that’s what makes this a masterpiece.  Often, works that take a darker spin on beloved characters fail due to contrivance.  We see character flaws, but they are flaws that make sense with what we previously know about a character.  In The Golden Age, James Robinson had a grip so tight on these characters that you can almost hear them gasping to breathe as he chokes wonderfully depressing tales out of them, as he forces them to acknowledge their own dark sides, making these characters seem real.  Combine that with beautiful, yet starkly real depictions from Paul Smith, and I find myself unable to put this book down.

 I believe that a man who ran fast for years would be tired of it as he faces the 35th year of his life.  I believe that a genius who created a rod to harness the energy of the stars themselves has a weird bipolar nocturnal, and that the desperation over the negative impact of his genius weighs him down just as much as the elation over the positive impact must lift him up.   I believe in Alan Scott’s troubles and worries as he presides over his broadcasting business in the best and most noble way he can.

But we are barely scratching the surface here!There’s still so much more to tell you about issue #1!  What happened to Libby Lawrence, Johhny Quick’s ex-wife?  Where is Hourman and what is going on with his powers?  Why is The Atom working with Tex Thomson, and what are those experiments the government is doing on Al Pratt. The Golden Age Atom?

I tell you what, Legions of the Unspoken, what say we pick up with The Atom’s story next week, with Golden Age #2!  Be here!

The Punisher Goes Black, Can Still Come Back – by Emily Scott

Hey, everyone! (The readers of this blog really need a collective nickname, like The Unspoken. It would be more convenient for me and make you guys sound ominous and badass, a win-win scenario.) I’m sure that Dean, this wonderful blog’s proprietor, would like me to thank those of you who scoped out last week’s installment of Super Blog Team-Up and encourage those of you who haven’t to check it out as soon as you are done reading this very article. (Seriously, finish mine first.) Last week’s SBTU theme was Team Up, Tear Down, and Dean’s article examines one of the more unexpected pairings in comic book history, The Punisher and Archie. Yes, that Archie. Yes, that Punisher.

This week I will be taking a look at another of the weirder Punisher offerings, The Last Days, a story that starts out as a fairly typical Punisher plot before taking a sharp turn into the Twilight Zone when Frank Castle becomes a black man. After I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s Death and Peter Milligan’s Enigma, Dean promised me less heady subject matter, and while this comic is certainly not as cerebral as those fine works, it is no less of a mindfuck. What it most certainly isn’t is unprecedented:

On a scale of 1 to Ted Danson, I honestly have no idea where this ranks on the offensiveness scale of white people putting on a form of blackface.
On a scale of 1 to Ted Danson, I honestly have no idea where this ranks on the offensiveness scale of white people putting on a form of blackface.

While I haven’t read all of this Lois Lane comic (and am pretty sure my brain would have up and quit if I’d tried to pair it with the Punisher story), I’ve seen enough individual panels and pages to get the sense that its makers at least tried, successfully or not, to explore some weighty race issues by showing what a white person could learn from experiencing life as a black person. Yeah….not so much with The Punisher. If you are wondering if Frank Castle has any sort of epiphanies about the prejudices the black community endures or revelations about his own bigotry, I will sate your curiosity right now before we proceed any further: nope, no, not even a little.

This is seriously as introspective as he gets - realizing that all men, regardless of color, are equally good targets for him to kill the fuck out of.
This is seriously as introspective as he gets – realizing that all men, regardless of color, are equally good targets for him to kill the fuck out of.

This is a gimmick, plain and simple, produced in what this very blog’s tagline will tell you was the era of gimmicks. It’s certainly an entertaining gimmick and worth the read, if for no other reason than novelty’s sake or because you like action comics, but I don’t think I have to point out to anyone reading this in 2014 or beyond that it has the potential to veer into wildly tone deaf territory.

It’s possible that by avoiding much social commentary from Castle himself, it remains about as inoffensive as a comic about a white guy who temporarily gets turned black can get. (It’s also possible that the opposite is true and that it’s worse to turn him black and not make any real race relations critiques, but my pasty white ass wouldn’t really be the best judge of that.) But I said this would be less heady subject matter, so I won’t make the same mistake I did while reading it and try to turn it into something it’s not. What is it, then? Let’s dive in, shall we, Unspoken? (You like it, don’t you?)

Our story begins in familiar territory, with The Punisher taking out some low level thugs of a crime boss who has been giving Kingpin some competition. Kingpin’s new lackey comes up with a scheme to kidnap Punisher’s pal Microchip to persuade him to take out their enemy for them. The Punisher, bereft of safe ground to run to, goes to a stash of weapons guarded by perhaps his only other friend.

It's impressive that in a comic involving him changing his race through plastic surgery, The Punisher asking his puppy, "Who's a good boy?"
It’s impressive that in a comic involving him changing his race through plastic surgery, The Punisher asking his puppy, “Who’s a good boy?” remains one of its most surreal moments.

With nowhere to run and Kingpin sending him a piece of his friend (his little finger, sickos), Punisher has little choice but to go along with the plan, which he executes in the most Punisher-y way possible. No mere van will do for this mission, no sir. With so much on the line, he needs a vehicle that would put the Popemobile, the newest movies’ Batmobile, and other mobile you can think of to shame.

"Yep, no big, just an $8 million car. Maybe on the next mission I'll just drive my Battleyacht and encrust my skull shirt with diamonds."
“Yep, no big, just an $8 million car. Maybe on the next mission I’ll just drive my Battleyacht and encrust my skull shirt with diamonds.”

The Punisher gets his target, but it’s not a victory without cost. (And I’m  not talking about the Punishermobile.) The fight draws the cop down on them, and unwilling to turn his gun on any of the boys in blue, Punisher must submit himself to arrest. As someone who has wholly devoted himself to taking out criminals, he is understandably underwhelmed about being locked up with a giant building of them, but Kingpin gets to his lawyer and judge, of course, so it’s off to Rikers for Punisher till he can figure out how to escape yet again.

Microchip, meanwhile, no longer a useful pawn with Punisher locked away, gets dropped off in Thailand with  no way home but his wits. He manages to get a briefcase of money sent to him but must prove his identity, with no ID, to claim it. Conveniently enough, though, the store owner who holds the briefcase also happens to carry a video game Microchip has designed, setting up what would have been an amazing scene in any 80s or 90s action movie.

Punisher Over the Top
The best and most ridiculous way anyone has had to prove themselves since Sylvester Stallone had to prove he could take care of his son by winning an arm wrestling championship.

Back at Rikers , Punisher must fight off multiple inmates, who are themselves fighting over who gets a chance to do him in, decline an invitation to join the Aryan Brotherhood, and fret over over who will feed his dog while he’s on the inside. Punisher’s old pal Jigsaw, whose name more alludes to how his face fits together after encountering Punisher than his love of puzzles, is chief among those out for blood.

Punisher Shiny Knives

They are fighting with the shiniest knives ever.
They are fighting with the shiniest knives ever.

Punisher fights off the bevy of assailants as well as could be expected, but even the Punisher can only do so much without an arsenal.  Eventually he gets overwhelmed, and Jigsaw takes out his own punishment on Frank Castle’s face, cutting him up beyond recognition. Punisher ends up in the infirmary, his face heavily bandaged, and through a series of events that would only happen in a comic book, has another injured inmate offer him his place in his own escape attempt.

Before we proceed any further, we should take a look at the bizarre cover of the fifth issue of this story, which features a photograph. Why it features this I couldn’t even begin to tell you. It’s not like the whole storyline has covers with photographs. Did the artist who was supposed to draw the cover break his hand? Was every single other artist in the business out of town? Did they lose the cover drawing right before press time and all they had in the studio was some gauze? I would accept any and all of these explanations because the alternative, that they did this on purpose because it would be super awesome, seems ludicrous.

Punisher Photo Cover
Ah, the bandaged face, source of so many wacky sitcom hijinks from this era.

Punisher manages to escape the dudes who helped him escape from prison, but he jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, as Kingpin and his lackey put a bounty on his head big enough to make any two-bit crook or opportunist take notice. Severely weakened from having most of his face sliced off, Punisher must go back into hiding while Microchip, who has undergone his own physical transformation to stay discreet, finds a suitable plastic surgeon to make him look less Frank Castle-y and remain less dead.

Kingpin’s lackey finds Microchip anyway and breaks into the facility guarded by Punisher’s beloved pup. (This part makes me incredibly sad because I’m sure you can tell where this is going and it isn’t any place good and no, poor puppy, I’m not crying, shut up, you’re crying.) At least before he goes, the dog gives the lackey hell and takes a chunk out of his arm, which isn’t especially relevant to the story, but it makes me narrow my eyes and whisper, “Good,” all the same. I couldn’t make myself take a screen shot of the doggy, so enjoy this page of Microchip looking completely goddamn ridiculous instead:

Punisher Ruffian
“My word, a ruffian!”

Punisher, despite being damn near dead, holds off his bounty hunters long enough for Microchip to find him his surgeon. That this surgeon, the only female character in the entire book, is  also a junkie who loses her license for stealing meds and is literally dressed like a whore as a disguise is something I could go on and on about, but I already have a weekly radio show on which Dean and I discuss gender dynamics in dork culture (Tune in live every Thursday night at midnight!), so I’ll settle for an eye roll and move on.

I have to give Dr. Junkie Hooker credit where it’s due, though, since she manages to perform a surgery so complex no actual surgeon could achieve it while fighting off both withdrawal and two dudes who come prowling around for drugs to steal. A lot of surgeons might call it a day if they had to drag two dead bodies out of their operating theater, but she just blows them the fuck away, drags their corpses right outta there, and gets back to business.

Punisher Paging Dr. BAMF
Paging Dr. BAMF.

While I was reading this comics, I couldn’t believe how far into the story I got, stealing glances at how many issues were left, before this moment, the thing that it is by far best remembered for. You might have felt the same way reading this article, noticing at how little you had left to scroll before the end and still having not reached the point in the Black Punisher comic when Punisher actually becomes black. Well, wait no more.

Punisher Black
I like how they put the skull symbol on the bottom of the mirror in case you somehow forgot whose comic book this was while you were actively reading it.

With a new face, a new race, but no place to go, Punisher sets out for Chicago, where he has stored a cache of guns and money. In what is, unfortunately, the most realistic thing in this comic, Punisher gets pulled over and brutalized by the cops a scant few hours after becoming a black man. He is saved by none other than Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, who takes him in while he recovers and attempts to kick him out once he’s well.

Instead, Punisher hires Cage to help him recover his guns and promises him the money as payment. Cage agrees, so long as Punisher agrees to do things his way, meaning no killing, the least Punisher-y way possible. They recover the guns but find the money missing, leaving Punisher in Cage’s debt. Cage offers to let Punisher repay that debt by helping him with a case of his own, which entails stopping some bad guys from taking over a building inhabited by Cage’s clients. Once again, Cage stipulates that Punisher kill no one in their efforts.

Punisher Karate Chop
I suppose it’s easier not to kill people when you can double karate chop a machete.

Castle, who is going by one of his super clever aliases (Rook),  gives not killing people the ol’ college try, but ultimately Punisher gotta Punisher, and he takes a guy out trying to get some of the residents out of the building unharmed. Castle and Cage debate their ideological differences about how best to clean up the streets, and Castle tries to teach the guy who has been black longer than five minutes about race. Cage is having none of it.

Punisher Privilege
Even when he’s black, Punisher still has a lot to learn about white privilege.

Once he discovers that there might be some validity to what Cage is saying, Castle contemplates a world that no longer has a need for a Punisher. He starts to think that he might be able to carve out a life somewhere in this crazy world for Frank Castle, Regular Joe, the timing of which is perfect because his surgery is wearing off, and it would be difficult to explain to a community of black people why he is suddenly a white guy.

Punisher FadeBut before he can ride off into the sunset, he is taken captive by the Kingpin’s former lackey, who has coerced Dr. Junkie Hooker to identify him. (How he totally just figures that Punisher has become a black man I will never understand.) I say former because at some point, the Kingpin’s entire operation was apparently brought down. At first I thought I must have slept through the couple issues where this happened, but apparently it occurs in a Daredevil comic. I was all the more confused because the lackey went from being a young Asian man to looking like David Lynch with no explanation given.

Punisher David Lynch
You thought I was just joking.

Cage busts in at the last minute to save Punisher, who is turning whiter by the panel. (Seriously, he is black one panel and white the next.) Cage seems somehow unsurprised by this development and shrugs it off with a “you lost your tan” comment, and it’s back to business as usual for both. Punisher may appreciate the help, but it doesn’t stop him from warning Cage that he tows the line between do-goodery and crime, and we all know how Punisher feels about crime. Balance restored, world back to normal. Of course, if we needed any proof that he never really stopped being The Punisher, it would be this, the panels I’ll leave you with.

Punisher Tape Shirt
You really couldn’t just put on a plain black t-shirt instead?