"The Generations Saga"

Writer: Roy Thomas, with Dann Thomas. Pencils: Jerry Ordway. Inks: Mike Machlan, Tony DeZuniga, Al Gordon.

Infinity, Inc. #1-10 (1984)

This arc from Infinity, Inc is kind of an odd selection for my "They Ain't TPBs...but should be" section. 'Cause, in a lot of ways, it's not that great (not that it's bad). But there is something oddly appealling about it, precisely because of it's sheer, self-indulgent, length.

Published at a time when DC's Golden Age characters resided on a parallel world (earth 2), and for whom Roy Thomas (among others) had an enduring affection (he was currently writing All-Star Squadron, the World War II era series about them). Those characters -- generally grouped as part of the Justice Society of America -- continued to appear in DC comics as guest stars, often depicted as grey haired and middle aged.

So Thomas, along with wife Dann, and artists Jerry Ordway and Mike Machlan, conceived of a spin on the Earth 2 premise...by creating a brand new team composed of second generation Earth 2 heroes, some literally sons and daughters of the aging JSAers. So the opening issue begins with a handful of new costumed heroes crashing a JSA meeting, hoping to join the group...only to be turned down (after a bit of fighting, arguing, and misunderstanding) but then decide to form their own team...joined, at least temporarily, by some of the younger JSAers, including Power Girl, Huntress and the Star Spangled Kid (presumably to give the series some recognizable faces). However, this coincides with the machinations of the Ultra-Humanite, an evil genius (in a white gorilla's body!) and long time foe of the JSA.

So despite this being a "new" series, there is continuity baggage. Especially as in a kind of preview for the series, Thomas had already featured the Infinitors in an All-Star Squadron arc from a few months earlier (through the miracle of time travel), so at one point early in this arc, the newly formed Infinitors get whisked back in time, only to reappear a page or two later, now having had their All-Star Squadron adventure. It's not that important to following the rest of the story...except that it's supposed to explain part of the Ultra-Humanite's vendetta against the fledgling team.

The ensuing issues are often more talk than action, as Thomas crams the issues with the characters hanging out, trading origin stories, deciding to form a team...while the Ultra-Humanite looms in the background, with most of the action and adventure arising in the second half as a brainwashed JSA goes rogue and it falls to the Infinitors to rein in their parents and mentors. Despite being an Infinity, Inc saga...the traditional JSA characters flitter in and out of the story, so that it still feels like a JSA/earth 2 adventure. At the same time, maybe that reveals a weakness to the story...because, by the end, even though I liked the story arc, I didn't necessarily emerge with any burning interest in the Infinitors themselves! They are an engaging enough bunch in the context...but don't really leave me with a need to follow them on, into less JSA-heavy adventures.

And that reflects the strengths and weaknesses of Thomas' style. The strength is that he does make them engaging, his patented snappy patter keeping things lively. As mentioned, there's a lot of talky scenes...but such scenes are vivacious and rarely turgid. But there's also a little too much of a sameness, as they all speak the same, using similar colloquialism and phrasings (with the main exception being the half-human Northwind). Likewise, their powers and abilities are fairly generic and familiar (deliberately so, as some are clearly junior versions of the older JSA members). Thomas, despite being a super hero veteran, doesn't necessarily stage many of the action scenes with much creativity. And despite the fact that many of the characters basically just arbitrarily decided to be super heroes (no training for many years, nor motivated by traumatic origins), Thomas doesn't really play up a sense of inexperienced heroes...yet when they face off against their rogue mentors, and eventually triumph, neither do they necessarily triumph through anything more than good fortune.

So why does this linger with me?

Partly as I say, is the length. It's a kind of slow building, rambling epic, yet thanks to Thomas' dense scenes and snappy banter, this is the polar opposite of today's "decompression" movement. The story arc itself may not really seem to justify ten issues...but issue-by-issue, you truly get your money's worth, with dense chapters of character interaction, developing plot threads, action, and a few sort-of stand alone adventures that, nonetheless, are loosely part of the greater arc. Nor did I read it (and recently re-read it) and find my enthusiasm waning too much as sometimes happens with over long -- even critically acclaimed -- epics. As well, there is an appeal to Thomas' focus on the characters just talking. In a way, it can almost seem a bit like, after decades in the biz, Thomas is getting bored with the fighting and violence, preferring to focus on the "human drama" aspect. But, unlike Alan Moore (with The Watchmen) and others, he has no desire to cynically deconstruct or satirize super heroes. As such, there's a low keyness, a measure of "realism", that's appealing, ranging from the fact the arc is set around Christmas time, so atypically takes place amid a lot of snow, to simple scenes of the characters interacting with the Sheriff and constabulary of a small town police station.

There's also a general "cleanness" to much of the violence, with very few deaths by the end (though the way Power Girl and Huntress both end up a bit bloodied and bruised in a couple of fights might seem a bit fetishtic...given the guys don't usually end up the same)

Jerry Ordway's art is also appealling, although I'm not sure if I find Machlan's inks entirely sympathetic to his pencils (despite it clearly being a partnership, and with Machlan also credited as co-creator). Ordway's style is unsplashy, but like Thomas' script, mixes a definite super hero idealism with a kind of plausible realism, deftly balancing the super and the human to nice effect. This was also one of the earliest series published on crisp, white, high end paper. And maybe it's the mix of that sharp paper, with Bronze Age colouring (a few years before computer tones and faux-painted hues) that adds to the visual appeal, giving it a kind of attractive sharpness -- a bold vibrancy.

Since I'm a snippy reviewer, I'll comment on one curious sequence. The Infinitors stop off at a diner and get embroiled in a brawl with some locals -- it's one of those kind of silly scenes comics throw in just to add some action (I mean, why would some punks deliberately pick a fight with beings with super powers?). But it's also kind of awkward because of the ethnicity of the punks, many depicted with dark skins. It wouldn't be strange, except the arc in general -- and earth 2 stories over the years -- tend to be pretty white. But even that's less curious than when a later letter writer (apparently) makes that observation, and instead of Thomas simply apologizing and saying there was no intention to be pejorative, Thomas gets defensive and snippy, practically accusing the letter writer of being racist for even noticing it. Okay, I get no one likes to be called a racist (except, well, I suppose racists), particularly as Thomas had even gone to the trouble of introducing an original black hero into his All-Star Squadron series recently and the Infinitors' Northwind is, himself, black (well, black...and a bird man). But responding to a legitimate observation with basically a school yard response (kind of like "I'm made of rubber, you're made of glue...") is a poor way of dealing with an issue.

Anyhoo...

As I say, it's a bit heavy on the past continuity references, and despite focusing a lot on the characters, the characters -- though amiable enough -- don't emerge as that compelling or intriguing. Yet as a work, as a sprawling saga that is both grandly epic, and low key and parochial, it's appealing, maybe precisely because of its mix of unpretentious, Old School gee whiz super heroing with a slightly more sophisticated, kitchen sink ambience that maybe anticipated Alan Moore, or Grant Morrison's Animal Man.

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