Saturday, February 2

The Golden Age (2012)

By Jeff Deischer

It's rather difficult for me to write this review. On the one hand, I really liked this book and definitely want to see more stories set in what Deischer calls “The Auric Universe.” On the other hand, were I not predisposed to like the idea of telling stories of a “Golden Age” universe of comic book super-heroes in the form of a neopulp prose novel, I would have to dwell on some significant problems of style, editing, and packaging that detract from the overall product. Ultimately, however, he does tell a lively story that leaves me wanting more –and leaves me with a new interest in yet another hitherto largely unknown, to me at least, stable of amazing characters who sprang up literally by the hundreds in the wake of the sensation caused by the unexpected success of Superman in 1938. (A nice touch is that it's a Superman comic book that inspires Deischer's first super-powered hero to take a costumed identity.) It's back off to the Digital Comic Museum's vast storehouse of Golden Age scans for me, and another spate of downloads! So I'm generally going to focus on the positives.

Auric” is Deischer's name for his World War II-era world of super-heroes and -villains which caroms somewhat obliquely off of the characters originally published during that Golden Age of comics by what he generally refers to as “SBN,” a publisher that went through a succession of imprints and names. At times, they were “Standard” comics; at others, they were “Better.” Ultimately, late in the game, they went by the surname of the publisher, Ned Pines, as “Pines.” His wife's name was Dora, and for a long time comics were published under an imprint combining their names as “Nedor.” Add to that the pulp magazine imprint “Thrilling,” and the fact that some characters and titles bounced from one imprint to another and even were published in both genres, sometimes under the same name, sometimes not, and you've got one big confusing mess. The convoluted history is, I think, one reason that these characters have mostly passed into obscurity, with even their legal status somewhat mysterious. It is commonly accepted that they are now in the public domain, and as is sometimes pointed out (such as on certain character pages on the Public Domain Super Heroes wiki), even if someone today actually holds a firm copyright on one or the other, it doubtless does not include all, and the status is so murky that it's very unlikely that anyone will press their ownership. Frankly, most of these characters are so obscure that the effort would not be seen as being worth it.

Not that the characters do not have intrinsic interest, nor that they haven't cropped up here, there, and yonder over the years. Probably the most recognizable instances would be in Alan Moore's America's Best Comics (itself based on the name of one of SBN's more prominent titles) series Tom Strong and Terra Obscura, as well as Dynamite Comics' Project Superpowers and the currently running Masks. There are also at least two recent low-budget or fan-made videos, Legacy of the Masque and Avenging Force: The Scarab. In his afterword, Deischer cites the aforementioned recent comic series, except for Masks which is of course too recent, as giving him his first real exposure to most of the characters, although he'd at least been aware of some of them for decades – mainly the Black Terror and the Fighting Yank – from bare references in such places as the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. After writing several neopulp novels and reference books, he returned to a long-dormant desire he'd had to write a more super-hero oriented story set back during the genre's formative years, and settled on the idea of reviving these specific characters.

But it is not a straight-up adaptation of the SBN characters. He admits that when he began, he knew very little detail about them, having read little if any of their original stories. In a podcast interview on Pulped (6 Nov 2012), Deischer reveals that he was substantially through the process of writing the book before he discovered a huge treasure trove of the SBN comics scanned and available on the Internet in what can only be – although he does not specify – the Digital Comic Museum, and has not nearly had time to read more than a fraction of them. Mainly he seems to have depended on encyclopedic sources such as Wikipedia, which has varying but generally sparse information, as well as his own imagination attempting to come up with rational, logical, and somewhat believable backgrounds that fit into his larger story. I would liken the result to what I found for Art Sippo's version of the German pulp hero Sun Koh, which I read and reviewed about a year ago – the reader is exposed to a version of the characters, but it is not really the characters as they existed in their original appearances. It is nonetheless a good approximation.

The plot overall has a number of Deischer's SBN-derived super-heroes, usually very early in their careers, independently uncovering the pieces of a growing puzzle that ultimately points toward a diabolical German-Japanese plot to unleash a weapon of mass destruction that will so devastate New York City and the US infra-structure so grievously that America will not have the will to continue the war. In order to include as many of the heroes as possible, Deischer writes each of the twenty chapters (plus a prologue and an epilogue) as if it were a separate issue of a comic book miniseries, most introducing and focusing on a different character and telling just one of the escalating series of incidents – some happening concurrently – that ultimately converges to a final confrontation with the enemy agents that ends in such a way, the immediate crisis averted, that points toward a continuation of the story. A few of the characters appear in more than a single chapter; most do not. Therein the main problem that I feel ultimately detracts from the story – it's a bit overwhelming. The book is too crowded with too many unfamiliar heroes, and they and the events they deal with very quickly start blurring together, especially given the considerable overlap and concurrence of the multifarious narrative threads. It would be far worse, perhaps indecipherable, were not a fair amount of ancillary material provided in the form of endnotes where Deischer discusses his creation of each character as it appears and how much it does (or does not) derive from the SBN prototype, as well as the historical background off which his story plays; an encyclopedic glossary giving basic information and history for each of the characters as they appear in his story; and a fairly detailed chronology that helps immensely in clarifying the sequence of events. I found myself consulting all three fairly heavily, which helped a lot while simultaneously interrupting the flow of the story and making it a somewhat bumpy ride. I would frankly have preferred that he scale back this story a bit, adding a bit more depth to the narrative and focusing on a smaller set of characters. And while cost I am sure precluded it, the glossary could have been improved immensely by including a picture of each of the characters, or at least a picture of their SBN prototype. The historian in me would also have liked to see consistent reference back to the original comics' title and issue where the characters first appeared. (See below for links to some of that information.)

As far as editing goes, it's too easy to beat up on small presses such as White Rocket, who do not have the resources for a full-scale publishing apparatus, but the number of typographical errors did get annoying, as well as a major editorial failure to smooth over some of the more blatant signs that the individual chapters were written as pretty much separate short stories. I get the feeling that Deischer himself wasn't quite sure exactly how the various pieces were ultimately going to fit together, which means that there is occasional redundant repetition of descriptions as if he wasn't sure which instance would ultimately be read first as the the reader's introduction to that particular character. The most glaring example because of proximity in the book was between the end of chapter 13 and the beginning of chapter 16 which had basically the same information dumped on the reader virtually verbatim only 25 pages apart.

Nonetheless, as I indicated above and despite my ultimately dwelling a little overlong on the shortcomings, I did enjoy this book a great deal, if only because I am predisposed toward this type of exercise. And I am anxious to read more of Deischer's stories set in the Golden Age. According to the aforementioned podcast interview, Deischer plans at least two more volumes, one focusing on the prose pulp characters published under the Pines umbrella, the other is entitled Mystico, and centers on the more mystical characters.  I eagerly await them.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!
* * *
Links to more information on the SBN prototype characters for Jeff Deischer's The Golden Age, including pictures and original comic book appearances. All links are to the Public Domain Super Heroes wiki's category page for Nedor Characters. Sometimes Deischer's changes to the characters were substantial; I only note the most radical.

The Black Bat … seems very much like a cross between Batman and The Spider.

The Crusader < The American Crusader –

Doc Marvel < Doc Strange – ... he's also very much a Doc Savage type.

The Four Comrades – – Deischer has this as the name of Doc Marvel's allies, much like Doc Savage's “Fabulous Five” aides … but he gives them totally different names than the SBN “Four Comrades.”

Haldor the Wondrous < Mystico (with the name “Haldor” taken from a one-off character in Thrilling Comics #26) –

The Liberator < The Grim Reaper – – This is one of Deischer's triad of heroes (Liberator, [Grim] Reaper, and Sphinx) whom he basically rotated through names and situations. His endnotes to chs. 2, 7, and 13 explain his reasons better than I can.

The Lone Eagle II – Deischer's “Bestiary” makes him a legacy hero, son of a Lone Eagle who flew during World War I.

Major Mars – SBN's Major Mars ( has nothing to do with Deischer's – It's best just to see his endnotes to the Epilogue.

The Mask … but see also the Black Bat's link above. The Mask was essentially SBN's comic book version of their pulp hero, the Black Bat, necessitated by an agreement struck between Ned Pines and Whitney Ellsworth of National Comics when comics' Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 and the pulp Black Bat led off Black Book Detective #1 within weeks of one another, that each would stick to their respective media.  See .

Mechano < Mekano – – SBN's robotic character is recast by Deischer basically as the original grey Iron Man.

The Reaper < The Sphinx – – This is another of Deischer's triad of heroes (Liberator, [Grim] Reaper, and Sphinx) whom he basically rotated through names and situations. His endnotes to chs. 2, 7, and 13 explain his reasons better than I can.

The Sphinx < The Liberator – – This is the third of Deischer's triad of heroes (Liberator, [Grim] Reaper, and Sphinx) whom he basically rotated through names and situations. His endnotes to chs. 2, 7, and 13 explain his reasons better than I can.

Theseus, Son of the Gods < Thesson, Son of the Gods –,_Son_of_the_Gods.

* * *
AlterEgo #111 (July 2012) also contains a lengthy and somewhat expanded reprinting of one of the few sources on the SBN super-hero comics, Michelle "Mike" Nolan's 1968 Nedor Comic Index. Included are the index proper, containing lists of the Nedor features, title by title; the Nedor heroes and their stories; and the Nedor comics listed out issue by issue with their contents; along with many full-color pictures of covers and interior art.

For anyone interested, here's a chronology of Nedor Publications: , part of a site I just discovered apparently devoted to Golden Age comics in general, but mainly outside the main companies (National which became DC Comics, and Timely the precursor to Marvel): .

No comments:

Post a Comment