Thursday, March 10, 2005

Brought To You By The Letter "M": Marvel: The Lost Generation

This 12-issue maxiseries came out in 2000-01 from the creative team of Roger Stern and John Byrne. Both were listed as co-plotters, with Stern on dialogue and Byrne on pencils (and Al Milgrom inking). The title refers to Marvel's "lost generation" of Cold-War-era heroes -- from the disappearance of Captain America at the end of World War II to just before Reed Richards and company became the Fantastic Four. They're "lost" because most of them were created specifically for this series.

Obviously the problem with this type of story deals with the sliding-point model of Marvel's modern timeline. When Marvel was young, this period would have been about 16-17 years. When this series was published, if the FF first appeared "ten years ago," that would be 1990. Stern acknowledges this in a text piece, and honestly it gives him more time in which to tell these stories. Furthermore, the stories were told in reverse order, with the heroes getting "lost" in the first issue (which was numbered #12).

The heroes themselves were an eclectic bunch. There was Pixie, an eternally young woman who flew and turned living things to stone with her pixie dust. Black Fox was a Batman-knockoff, and the Yankee Clipper was a patriotic hero reminiscent of Cap. The first issue (#12, remember) provided quick hits on several, and from there the remaining issues filled in the gaps. In this respect the series reminded me of Astro City, in that it aimed to evoke, using brief moments, the atmosphere of a longstanding superhero community. However, this worked against MTLG in the sense that it got me looking for specific superhero parodies and pastiches, and thus distracted me from the larger message.

Unfortunately, I'm still not quite sure what that message was. Historically, Marvel's characters were distinguished from DC's in that their powers almost always caused more problems than they solved. Many times this made them misunderstood, if not hated and/or feared, by society. The "Lost Generation" doesn't have this particular trait, although in the end most of them were tragic figures anyway.

The backwards storytelling also worked against the series. It helped justify the heroes' existence in the light of familiar Marvel history, but with regard to the series itself, it felt more like a payoff than an enticement to read the rest. The story told in issue #1 (the conclusion) skipped around the timeline, wrapping up the series' final threads but acting more like a denouement or an epilogue than a climax. The backwards direction apparently served the time-travel story which provided the series' framing device, but MTLG could have done without this subplot and might have done better.

Now, with all that said, the individual issues were executed very well. I'm no student of obscure Marvel history, but Stern & Byrne clearly did their homework. The new characters were fairly credible, and their stories weren't uninteresting.

Still, without their connections to Marvel history, I'm not sure they feel like "Marvel characters." Maybe this is the creators' attempt to give Marvel a group of more traditionally-cast heroes, but wouldn't that make the heroes more DC-like?

Moreover, for the past 40 years, DC has cultivated a "generational" approach to its history, so that its character interrelationships look almost like family trees. Marvel: The Lost Generation obviously didn't try to do that (and Marvel hasn't had much success with "legacies" like the M2 and 2099 books) -- but neither did it ground these heroes in the overall tone of the Marvel Universe.

I hesitate to say that this series has no compelling "historical" reason to exist, but Marvel has made a lot of hay on being the younger, hipper alternative to stodgy old DC. Part of that was the conceit that Marvel claimed a handful of heroes from the 1940s, but it "really" started in 1961 with Fantastic Four. Everything up to that point was just weird horror and monster comics, much of which Marvel later brought into its superhero books. Regardless, Marvel acted almost as if it didn't have any superheroes before the FF, which gave it a freer hand to break the traditional superhero rules. Having MTLG retroactively seed a dry period with a dozen or so fairly traditional superheroes doesn't help cultivate Marvel's maverick reputation.

I haven't said anything about the art, mostly because it's Byrne, and Byrne tends to have the same high level of competency no matter what he does. Here his lines are softened a little bit by Al Milgrom, so it doesn't quite jump out at you like "JOHN BYRNE ART." Byrne and Milgrom turn in work which is probably most appropriate for the book, since they can ape different styles of art for the different time periods covered. I didn't feel like Byrne was particularly showing off at any point, but on balance that's a good thing.

Ultimately, I did enjoy Marvel: The Lost Generation, and I probably would have liked it more had I been more aware of its reference points. In this age of interlocking continuity, it's refreshing to have a book that tells new, easily comprehensible stories in a dense, established timeline. Not being the biggest Marvel scholar, I don't know whether these characters have been used elsewhere (one timeline also has them in the Byrne-written X-Men: The Hidden Years), and considering Marvel's emphasis these days, I can't imagine them being pulled out of the bottom drawer ahead of too many others. Still, divorced from all its ancillary issues, this was a well-done experiment.

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