The Gold Standard

By Adam Murdough

Editor Tom Brevoort is candid about the shortcomings of Golden Age Marvel. "The big difference between the Marvel and DC Golden Ages, and one that many Golden Age fans don't really understand, is that DC was successful and Marvel was a schlock house," said Brevoort. "Marvel had three characters who gained any real traction and sold any real comics--Cap, the [Human] Torch, and Namor. Everybody else was a second-stringer at best, a bit player, and tended to last only a couple of installments. The DC Golden Age characters, by contrast, remained in publication for many years and many stories each--they were mostly successful, even on a second-string level. So there was more interest overall in them, and in bringing them back in the contemporary books.... So much of what Timely produced was stillborn, so there just wasn't the same bench of even semi-popular characters to draw from."

Within the last year or so, however, Marvel has been making up for lost time by producing a pair of high-profile Golden Age revival projects, and Brevoort has a hand in both of them. He is the executive editor of the twelve-issue Avengers/Invaders maxiseries, which, like Project Superpowers, is an Alex Ross/Jim Krueger collaboration, with interior art by Steven Sadowski, centered on a symbolic clash between the Golden and Modern Ages. And as editor of The Twelve, another twelve-issue series by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston, Brevoort is presiding over a grand-scale comeback for a small throng of the greatest heroes you've never heard of. The Twelve tells the story of a dozen long-lost Golden Age superheroes--all authentic relics of the Timely era, painstakingly exhumed by Brevoort and slightly refurbished by Straczynski and Weston--who fall into a Nazi ambush during a superhero invasion of Berlin at the very end of World War II, are trapped in suspended animation, and reawaken in the present. The main substance of the story concerns the Twelve's individual struggles to adapt to the Marvel Universe of the 21st century, to cope with the loss of their past lives, and to reconcile their wartime hopes and ideals with the disconcerting realities of the present. Meanwhile, a classic film noir-style murder mystery builds in the background.

Originally conceived as a Captain America project, The Twelve is basically a twelve-way reiteration of the return of Captain America in The Avengers (vol. 1) #4 in 1964, the most famous Golden Age revival in Marvel history. Taking twelve distinct personalities--including a master mentalist, a Hollywood-obsessed swordfighter, a superpowered futurist, a servant of Satan, the alleged prince of a lost underground civilization, and a mindless robot--and charting the wildly divergent ways in which they respond to the "man-out-of-his-time" ordeal made famous by Captain America is an interesting experiment in characterization on Straczynski's part. The key variable in this experiment, however, is the global status quo to which they reawaken. While Captain America emerged from stasis in the happier days of the Silver Age, the Twelve find themselves in a Marvel Universe plunged into confusion by the recent Civil War event, where superheroes are the subject of public suspicion and governmental regulation. There are no Avengers waiting to welcome and shelter them; instead, the Twelve are left to the tender mercies of the U.S. military, which provides less-than-ideal acclimation and guidance for them. The fact that most of the Twelve have much more trouble adapting than Captain America did--a few of them have nervous breakdowns, one is arrested, and at least one will die before the series ends--can be taken as either a testament to the strength of Cap's character or a commentary, a la Project Superpowers, on the failings of the modern world. (The difference here is that while Project Superpowers is about the impact of revived Golden Age heroes on a troubled world, The Twelve is about the impact of a troubled world on revived Golden Age heroes.)

There is a decidedly dark undercurrent to The Twelve that sets it apart from most other Golden Age revivals. One of the main ideas of the series is that the bygone days of the Golden Age "were never quite so innocent or quite so wonderful as nostalgia makes them out to be in our minds' eye," Brevoort explained. One way the creators bring this theme across to the reader is by adopting some of the visual language of film noir and pulp fiction, two of the darker influences on Golden Age comics, for the interior art and cover designs, creating a moodier, grittier vision of the Golden Age and its characters than some fans might expect.

"One of the wonderful things about the really early comic book superheroes is the fact that nobody involved really knew what they were doing--the tropes of the genre hadn't been developed yet. So people tried all sorts of crazy things, looking to strike a vein of gold. And one major source of inspiration was the pulp heroes of the 1930s, many of whom were out-and-out superheroes themselves," said Brevoort. "Plus, given the style and sophistication and subject matter of [The Twelve], we wanted to do something in terms of the overall packaging and design of the series to make it stand apart from the typical Marvel book. We hit upon the idea of modeling the covers after those old pulp magazines, right down to the phrasing of the cover blurbs."

It's important to note that, barring reprint volumes, most of the Golden Age revivals on the shelves nowadays bear little formal resemblance to actual Golden Age comics. They use Golden Age characters outside of their original stylistic and thematic context, adapting them to the specifications of conventional 21st century superhero storytelling. In many cases (i.e., the legacy books) the characters involved aren't even true products of the Golden Age at all, but modern characters using Golden Age names. This being so, most of the current crop of Golden Age revivals might be thought of as "quotations," or perhaps "reincarnations," of the Golden Age, as opposed to "revivals" in the truest sense. However, there is one recent release that takes the concept of a "Golden Age revival" a few steps further than most.

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