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Subj: All-Star Squadron #51 - Drifting to Oblivion.
Posted: Wed Sep 03, 2014 at 05:20:11 pm EDT (Viewed 649 times)
So ran the introductory text of what would become Roy Thomas' most influential series for DC comics - The All-Star Squadron, and this then was the very first text inside the issue of which any reader would lay eyes on when opening to the first page.
Simple and to the point this brief paragraph tells anyone what the book is all about, and does so with admirable economy. The All-Star Squadron was a book that was, at the time, somewhat exerimental and quite different to anything else which DC was publishing. Not that the company was shy of risk taking, quite the opposite considering books like Arion, Arak, Mazing Man, Ambush Bug, and Angel Love all offered a diverse choice in terms of style and genre. But a superhero book focusing on a large cast of archaic oddball superheroes set in the backdrop of America during the Second world War, of which household names like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman formed a part of the narrative, was a quite baffling experience for any newcomer. The Superman in this book was a radically different beast than the Superman appearing elsewhere in the DC universe, and the difference in attitude and setting likely to generate a tough barrier for the unfamiliar reader to overcome.
But despite the relative alienness of the setting, the obscurity of the gumshoe heroes passing through, and the semi-factual useage of the War's events therein, The All-Star Squadron's ultimate success can be judged today by it's not inconsiderable legacy and the wealth of characters which Roy Thomas either created or revived from obscurity. Much of Geoff Johns' work on the modern JSA revival owes a strong debt to this series and what it inspired in the four years in which it existed and subsequently the immediate aftermath as Roy Thomas attempted to find ways to build on its story. But at the time, was the series actually popular...?
There is no clear way to say. It would certainly be fair to say that the series was an acquired taste however, and DC did support and promote it with admirable enthusiasm. After a special introduction in Wonder Woman the first three years of the series saw Roy Thomas deliver an ambitious crossover with the Justice League, the introduction of Infinity Inc, and some quite exceptional visuals and story content. Whether Thomas had any longterm plan for the series' development and sustainability is unclear but it is certainly a fact that the arrival of 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths marked a near insurmountable problem for the series' future as by virtue of it's very purpose the Crisis was an assault on the very bedrock by which All-Star and its subsequent spin-off's existed. And with issue #50 being the first salvo of that Crisis what followed thereafter is quite telling in terms of what else may have contributed to the books imminent demise just seventeen months later...
Out of all its 67 issues in total All-Star Squadron #51 exists as a testament to all that was flawed and misjudged in Roy Thomas' approach to the series. Not that All-Star lacked in terms of quality and well structured plotlines, but anyone familiar with Thomas will know of his love for the Golden-Age of comics and the world of the Justice Society, this passion extends to Fawcett comics and essentially any obscure and unloved tryout making it into print in that brief era of pulp/patriotic masked mystery men.
That degree of focused passion for characters and forgotten books of another era may not be a bad thing in and of itself, if channelled judiciously, but with the hands of a combined writer/editorial role of which Thomas operated in the early 80s DC comics of Earth-Two passion often overrode good sense. Hence on occasion the simple premise of homefront heroes operating in the Second World War often takes on an altogether convoluted and difficult to penetrate air to it as one procession after another of extravagantly costumed fodder are dropped into storylines and Thomas revisits plotlines from the early 1940s comics, playing continuity cop, mending loose ends from 50 years ago, and generally reheating the stories of that era for an audience that was more than likely reading the more relevant and modern plotting of books like Justice League and X-Men. In a sense then All-Star was closer to being professional fan-fiction than a commercial enterprise aimed at the mass readership, and one does wonder what strata of the potential readership Roy Thomas was aiming the book at originally.
All-Star Squadron #51 is the apex of this ethos of fan worship, as within its pages the reader starts off in a 1942 setting and goes through not just the concept of other earths and their heroes, but an array of bizarre and outlandish villains plucked from the very depths of 1940s obscurity to serve as a substitute band of villains originally of Earth-Fawcett... The Monster Society of Evil. Starting with the brutal murder of an off-duty sailor in front of his fiancÃ©e the pace is typical All-Star Squadron fare, with the War ongoing as a the background element, a dangerous new threat arising in the form of an unearthly foe, and a brief sequence that tells us this newcomer is a returned foe of one of our cast. All this in the first three pages.
The action then shifts and bobs towards a strange wandering narrative that seems unsure whether it is straight or farce. With cackling talking worms curled up in their miniature whirling microphone ship, an incoherent plan to conquer the World, a collection of the oddest rogues seen this side of Giffen & DeMatteis' Injustice League, and the peppering of this rich steak with steady dollops of heavy exposition and obscure back issue references.
Meet the Monster Society of Evil and you meet a bunch who are either intended to be comedic in an ironic way or, as with Gorilla Grodd for example, quietly disturbing due to that perceived absurdity. To look at they are ludicrous, Thomas even seems to be sending them up initially, but as bizarre as they are the true absurdity for the tale arrives in the form of the cartoonlike Mr Mind. And this is where the fundamental tone of the book comes undone, as no attempt is made to visualise Mr Mind in anything remotely credible or plausible - he is quite literally an impossible cartoon character dropped into a real and serious setting. And it does not work.
The basic plot to All-Star Squadron #51 is in itself reminiscent of the plot to issues #32 to 35, wherein we follow the All-Star's to another earth and along the way meet a similarly wide array of obscure and gaudily dressed heroes from the dawn of comics. The expectation on the audience with these two tales is considerable, but with #32-35 the strong focus on character and the problem at hand is enough to sweep the reader through the experience and the tale reaches a satisfying conclusion with sacrifice, victory, and the promise of more strong stories to come. By issue #51 though the confidence and discipline that marked those initial years is beginning to flag in ways that the impact of the Crisis on Infinite Earths can only accentuate. Roy Thomas' plans for the book by this point likely did not originally include the array of full length origin issues to come, nor the shift to a years worth of stories that deal almost exclusively with the Crisis' general unearthliness and an extended subplot recycling a long forgotten All-Star Comics tale from the early forties with the Justice Society members exiled to alien worlds... despite the 1942 setting the book had been built upon it is fair to say that by the time of issue #51 the second world war was effectively over for the All-Star Squadron.
No more would the gravity of real world events and plausible villains be the series backbone.
In a neat sleight of the narrative hand Roy Thomas never actually reveals the true appearance of Mr Mind to his hapless Monster Society, or the All-Star heroes. Safely cocooned in his airborn ship the strange visitor from another dimension playfully interacts with the world but is never fully a part of it, his appearance in these pages is something of an anachronism as he has yet to visit the earth of his soon-to-be arch enemy Captain Marvel and the unspoken admittance coming from Thomas seems to acknowledge the ludicrous nature of the character being one that could damage the gritty integrity of the All-Star Squadron as a series, whereas with Captain Marvel and his earth anything goes...
The dichotomy of this element is an awkward one, as if Mr Mind's true appearance would taint the credibility of the book and cast then by relation so too would Captain Marvel, his was a book and world that was markedly different to the books put out by DC Comics in the early 1940s and one built upon whimsical characters and a naivette that fits poorly within the second world war context of the Justice Society and related characters. With his use of the Marvel Family in issues #37/38 Thomas solves this tonal problem by way of a possession plot, by the time of his next appearance in the book with issue #52 the Crisis is underway and Thomas has to neatly avoid the more absurd elements of Captain Marvel's world in favour of a 'talking heads' approach. It works quite well, but by this point in the series the original grounding of the homefront heroes who keep peace at home, foil espionage agents, and fret about a War they can only watch and participate in from a distance, has now been left behind. Only the books introductory text remains reminds of what the reality and audience appeal used to be for All-Star Squadron...
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