I reread Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's 'Batman: Dark Victory' again this last week, shoulders deep in a depression inspired nostalgia binge. For those that don't know me personally, this is a notable step out of the ordinary for me, as more often than not I tend to wave my cane at the DC/Marvel shelves at my local comic shop, waxing irritable at the lifeless squatting of these aging characters on our potentially more dynamic culture at the behest of manchildren and millionaires. But getting sucked into 'Dark Victory' and remembering how Jeph Loeb used to be able to craft character driven noir novels out of spandex punchers reminded me that with the right conditions actual stories can be told with tights. That punching is what superheroes do, it isn't what they are, and the confusion of those two things are why its so rare to get a 'Dark Knight Returns' or 'Flex Mentallo' (or a 'Dark Victory') anymore out of comics.
Even the so-called 'emotionally sophisticated' 'Captain America: Civil War' was a pretender, its heart just a steady pulse of CGI enhanced fists colliding with faces. Despite being decades old, new things can be found in the telling of a Batman story, like an actor finding new directions to go with performing Shakespeare character centuries after their creation. It is with this that I reluctantly admit that while DC and Marvel haven't done anything lately to prove it, the rumors of the death of the superhero as an idea may have been exaggerated.
That said, I am still pretty confident that the superhero satire is firmly dead and buried.
'The Not So Golden Age' is a comic about how superheroes are silly worn out archetypes who wear goofy costumes and fight a lot for no reason. Set in a trailer park full of retired four color heroes (many of which apparently were pulled from actual forgotten public domain comics) the characters booze, reminisce, and bicker with each other as worn out parodies of their former selves. When a murder occurs, the former heroes fight amongst each other as the 'super' of the trailer park tries to maintain order.
Now, some of it isn't such a bad idea, but as a regular reader of comics might notice, there's a lot of immediate glaring comparisons that spring to mind when dipping a toe in. You have shades of the 'atomic age' parody 'Venture Bros.' or the retired capes trying to find meaning in normalcy from 'The Incredibles', or the trailer park superhero in Grant Morrison's Man-of-Bats issue of 'Batman Incorporated'. Retired emasculated ex-heroes investigating a murder of one of their own draws a looming comparison to the titan of superhero satire, but strangely my first thought was to compare it to the first arc of the 'Batman' Black Glove storyline involving the International Club of Heroes.
A story having been done before is not a death sentence, hell, Loeb's 'Dark Victory' was pretty much a retread of the exact formula he used on the preceding story 'The Long Halloween' recontextualized to to get different results. The danger however is obvious, as when you write something as narrow and retread as genre parody (especially one as specific as superheroes) you immediately draw comparisons to other, and in this case, much better works.
'The Not So Golden Age' utilizes a cynical meta style similar to that of 'Venture Bros.' but features characters that remain broad parodies by the end of the book rather than reflecting a kind of broken but sympathetic humanity like Publick and Hammer's creation did. The central mystery (which is resolved in the first issue) has a resolution that only in its revelation I realized was intended to be a surprise rather than a conspicuous red herring. The dialogue and pacing isn't terrible, sleepy and slow paced but rarely boring, but the humor doesn't pack many surprises or clever observations that don't feel deeply dated by now. While the premise has potential, the presentation of the superheroes and their lack of characterization beyond their catty punchline laced interactions leaves little gas in the tank for more than a single issue, not clever enough to be cruel and too unpleasant to offer relatability.
That said, the one nice surprise in the book is the art. Joseph Freistuhler, who also serves as the co-writer and creator, illustrates the book with a grimy surreal style, depicting the run down hole-in-the-wall of Golden Age Mobile Home Community with appropriate ugliness. The characters feel stiff and the perspective sometimes looks awkward, but it comes off as intentional and contributes to the feel of unease and decay. The color work, made to look like faded newsprint in the style of Ed Piskor's 'Hip Hop Family Tree', is claustrophobic but balanced, another case of ugliness working in the books favor. It's not a pretty book to look at, but in this case that is very much a point of praise.
The book is professionally presented and is never aggressively bad, but the well has dried and yet we still have so many writers trying to draw from it. Superheroes, satirical or not, only elevate beyond silly tights adventures when they can connect to something human beyond their superhuman premises. Even the most cynical comics about heroes know that these characters represent something of us in them, whatever that might be, mighty or weak. For it to work, the satire really has to be about that connection. Otherwise, all you've got are jokes about tights.
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[su_button url="http://notsogolden.com/" target="blank" style="soft" background="#ef782d" size="7" icon="icon: external-link-square"]The Not So Golden Age Website[/su_button]