Silver Age #1 - Brian Bolland coverThe Silver Age

(2000 - 12 issues, published by DC Comics)

The Silver Age was intended as a kind of homage to the Silver Age of comics (ie: the 1960s) by telling a story utilizing heroes from that period -- at least as far as DC's current "reality" permits. Green Lantern is Hal Jordan (this being a few years before Hal was returned to modern continuity), Flash is Barry Allen, the Teen Titans and Doom Patrol are the original incarnations of those teams...but Hawkman and Wonder Woman aren't involved because DC's current continuity had them arrive much later. But it wasn't just the line-up that was the point, but to evoke the overall flavour of the silver age. Outrageous plot twists, comics broken up into chapters, covers crammed with blurbs and dialogue balloons, and an overall sense of fun are all part of the approach.

To older readers, long disillusioned with modern comics and finding them violent, self-indulgent, and dully plotted, the series raised expectations. And for newer readers it promised a marriage between old and new sensibilities.

The result? Not an unqualified success, but entertaining.

The premise has the Justice League of America having their bodies with their arch-foes as part of a universe-conquering plan by an alien named Agamemno. Trapped in the bodies of villains, the Leaguers find themselves hunted by their former allies (Teen Titans, Challengers of the Unknown, etc.) and believing the only way they can save earth from the villains (now in the bodies of the heroes, remember) is to ruin the reputations of the JLA so that earth will be prepared to take arms against heroes like Superman (who's really Lex Luthor).

When I first heard the premise, I thought it was an odd idea -- to use characters who at that point hadn't been around for a while (Barry Allen, Hal Jordan)...then put them in the wrong bodies! But then I realized that that was part of the whole point of the series. In order to evoke the more colourful plotting of the silver age, the creators needed to come up with a colourful, imaginative plot. In fact, it's a sad commentary on modern comics that the only reason they came up with a story concept as clever as this was because they were trying to evoke decades old stories. And the in-between issues are structured so that, for instance, both the Flash and Green Lantern issues involve flashbacks to the characters in their proper bodies.

For the most part, the individual chapters maintain the 1960s feel. The semi-self-contained issues are fast-paced, imaginative and, more often than not, good natured. At times there's a little too much tongue-in-cheek, with too little real characterization, as if the modern creators are sometimes poking affectionate fun at the stories they're trying to emulate. What sometimes emerges is a sense of modern writers and artists who think they're a lot smarter, a lot more talented, than they actually are, condescending to creative people they think were a lot less talented than they were.

The story begins in Silver Age #1 and wraps up in Silver Age 80 Page Giant #1 (both written by Mark Waid), while inbetween are a series of one-shots. Most of the inbetweens (though not all) are reasonably self-contained, while occasionally adding to the overall story, throwing in a scene or a reference that will prove relevant in the climax. Ironically, the two Silver Age book ends are probably the weakest, with Waid relying on too much repetition of action without much emotion, while failing to couch the action in interesting or individualistic scenes...y'know, the way a real silver age writer might have. Though Waid also turns in one of the better in-between issues, The Dial H for Hero issue.

It's perhaps significant that one of the better issues, The Brave & the Bold, was written by Bob Haney...the only one of the writers here who actually was from the period. Granted, Haney also seems to have his tongue in cheek, but it is amusing, and the story clips along quickly and even has some character bits.

The most contentious of the issues among readers was the Justice League of America issue. It's the only issue that focuses on the villains (in the heroes' bodies). Here the ugly, violent nihilism of modern comics creeps in. Particularly in a utterly pointless scene where the villains come upon some shrunken cities and start stomping on the ant-sized populaces -- for no reason at all other than malice! Maybe writer Mark Millar and the editors think genocide is good for a chuckle, but it's completely out of keeping with spirit of the mini-series (and even the personalities of the villains). And, in a way, threatens to derail the whole project because it seems to reveal that at least some of the creators just didn't get what it was about.

The art varies in styles. Some of the artists chosen have a low-key, realist style that suits the period (Barry Kitson, Eduardo Barreto) but others are very much of the modern, stylized (read cartoony) school. As such, though the visuals might appeal to modern readers, they don't always serve the point of this series as well as they might. It's too bad DC didn't get some of the cover artists (many silver age legends) to do some interior pages, too.

There are continuity problems (as is maybe inevitable when all these different writers and artists are working on a story) and the episodic structure means it never does quite feel like a complex, multi-layered "epic". And the whole "we must ruin our reputations!" plan seems kind of ill-conceived and executed throughout. (There's also an interesting clash with later stories -- in 2005s notorious Identity Crisis, villain Dr. Light was portrayed as a rapist, whereas here dialogue specifically indicates he has no interest in women!)

Overall, there isn't really a great issue here (if only the modern writers and artists were half as talented as they think they are, they might've come up with some better stories) but, conversely, most are reasonably entertaining reads. And how often can you pick up 12 different comics by a variety of writers and artists and claim that, eh?

As a reminder of a time when comics were fun and storytelling -- that is, nuts and bolts plotting and imaginative ideas -- was paramount, the epic Silver Age does pretty good and is worth tracking down.

The issues were individually titled, and should probably be read in the following order:
Silver Age Secret Files #1 (features a thirty page story that acts as a prologue, plus various odds and ends and character bios)
The Silver Age #1 (Mark Waid/Terry Dodson - Agamemno makes a deal with the villains and switches their bodies with their heroic foes -- O.K., but a bit repetative),
Justice League of America #1 (Mark Millar/Scot Kolins - the villains head off into space to enact Agamemno's plot -- brisk, but marred by a pointless vicious streak),
Challengers of the Unknown #1 (Karl Kesel/Drew Johnson - the Atom (in the body of Chronos) ends up fighting the Challengers of the Unknown...and is given a clue as to how the villains may ultimately be defeated. Though shouldn't the Challs have featured sidekick June?)
Teen Titans #1 (Marv Wolfman/Pat Oliffe - while investigating a town where the teens are mind-controlled, the Titans encounter villains Penguin, Black Manta, and Mr. Element...unaware they're really Batman, Aquaman and Flash; a good attempt to evoke TT stories -- acting as a buffer in the generation gap, but that aspect of the story isn't fully developed),
Dial "H" for Hero #1 (Mark Waid/Barry Kitson - while trying to wreck the reputations of the (now evil) JLA, J'onn J'onzz ends up fighting Robbie Tyler, the Dial H for Hero kid),
The Flash #1 (Brian Augustyn/Ty Templeton/Norm Breyfogle -in a tribute to silver age Flash comics, it's two stories: one is an out of continuity tale of the Flash, the other has the Flash (in Mr. Element's body) battling Kid Flash and Elongated Man (frequent co-stars in Flash comics of the period),
The Doom Patrol #1 (Tom Peyer/Bachan - The Doom Patrol reluctantly team with Lex Luthor (unaware he's good guy Superman) to stop some DP villains from raiding a cache of weapons; I looked forward to this one, 'cause I'm a fan of the silver age DP, and it was pretty good, though the cartoony art was a far cry from classic DP artist Bruno Permiani and sort of hurt it),
Brave & the Bold #1 (Bob Haney/Kevin Maguire - featuring the Metal Men who, at the behest of Batman (who's really Penguin), sends them after Felix Faust and Catwoman (who're Green Arrow and Black Canary)),
Green Lantern #1 (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson - GL heads off into space in Sinestro's body to try and stop the villains solo, and also has a flashback to an in-his-own-body adventure; not as good as I was hoping, given that I'm a Hal Jordan fan),
Showcase #1 (Geoff Johns/Dick Giordano - featuring a new Seven Soldiers of Victory as Deadman recruits second string heroes Batgirl, Adam Strange, Metamorpho, Blackhawk, Mento, and a pointless new Shining Knight (just a dull idea of a soldier in a super suit, though he's a homage to a silver age sci-fi series called The Atomic Knights) to try and fight the villains on the planet Rann; like the Green Lantern issue, this leads a little more directly into the climax than some),
Silver Age 80 Page Giant #1 (Mark Waid/Eduardo Barreto - the final showdown in a whopping 52 pages with everyone back in their own bodies...too bad Waid couldn't have crafted it into a story instead of basically an extended action sequence; still the art's nice and the solution's clever. It also features a couple of real, never published 1960s stories (one Batman, one Jimmy Olsen) and a new story of a teen age Wonder Woman done as an "imaginary" story).