The Gold Standard
By Adam Murdough
One particular story in Fantastic Comics #24--"Stardust the Super Wizard," by Joe Keatinge and Mike Allred--is a fitting allegory for one of the creative aims of the Next Issue Project, and perhaps for the whole Golden Age revival phenomenon. The original "Stardust" strip, created by the late Fletcher Hanks, is remembered as one of the most wildly imaginative of the Golden Age, owing to its heavy use of surreal fantasy, its bizarre stream-of-consciousness plots, and the seemingly limitless array of outlandish superpowers exhibited by its protagonist as he dispensed cosmic justice to evildoers. It was a work of wild imagination, without rules or restrictions, and it is held up today as the purest example of the raw, unrestrained creativity that characterizes the Golden Age. (Interested parties may sample early "Stardust" and other Fletcher Hanks creations in the critically acclaimed 2007 collection I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! from Fantagraphics Books.) In Keatinge and Allred's story, Stardust returns to Earth after a long absence and finds it overrun by strange robotic sentries, who protect the world but have reduced the lives of its citizens to a dull, mechanical routine. When he destroys one of the robots, Stardust discovers that they are really Golden Age superheroes trapped inside metallic shells. He sets about freeing them all, and in the process he restores life and hope to the world--all within a mere seven pages.
The message here is that since the Golden Age, comics have fallen into a rut, having been tamed, gentrified, homogenized, and "mechanized" by decades of restrictive continuity, grim realism, and other "serious" storytelling practices. Enter Stardust, the one character too unruly to be reduced to a formula, to remind superheroes of what they once were: bright, energetic, chaotic, defiant, uncomplicated, and above all, fun. This rough-and-tumble randomness is a legacy of Golden Age superhero comics that is missing from most of the comics of today, including most Golden Age revivals. The point of this story, which takes the two-fisted wish-fulfillment of Golden Age comics and metatextually turns it back on comics themselves, is that comics should stop making points, and take more time just to revel in their own liberating potential. The writers and artists of the Next Issue Project seem to be taking this message to heart, crafting quick, entertaining, one-off stories designed not to make profound statements, to generate endless crossovers or spin-offs, or even to indulge in nostalgia, but simply to get the creators' creative juices flowing and to provide both them and the readers with a little retro-flavored fun. Which is, after all, what Golden Age comics were always supposed to be.
While today's creators appear to have a number of different reasons for producing comics that revisit the Golden Age of Comics, and fans certainly have different reasons for wanting to read them, one sentiment that has become near-universal in the comics community is that the Golden Age amounts to something more than a long-dead historical period: it is an idea, an ethos, an aesthetic, a near-mythic "pure" origin point for the superhero genre, a historical commodity to be drawn upon and used in the creation of new contemporary works. For those who love it, the Golden Age remains the "gold standard" against which all superhero comics, past, present and future, will continue to be measured.
Be sure to read Joe Sergi's companion article What Is Public Domain
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