I have always wondered at the possibilities of a prose rendition of super-hero comics. The DC and Marvel universes, a terrain well-travelled by so many teenagers (and for a long time predominately boy teenagers), deserved, in my mind, a prose treatment. How would the world of super-heroes manage outside of the structure of sequential art? The excavation of the space between panels, an examination of the ur-logic of a reality inhabited by supermans and wonderwomans, might produce a sub-genre of speculative fiction with a depth of critical potential.
And so I was quite excited to read Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age, a piece of fantastic prose fiction that takes place within a universe not unlike the one depicted in DC comics. Instead of Metropolis or Gotham, however, Vaughn places her story within the fictional “Commerce City”; instead of Superman and the Justice League, we are given Captain Olympus and the Olympiad. Otherwise the subject matter is the same: people with super-powers (and at least one exception without) wear costumes and fight crime, sometimes dealing with megalomaniacal super-villains motivated by the desire to either rule the world or create murderous chaos.
The plot of the novel (which I will not bother explaining in detail in order to avoid spoiling the book for anyone planning to read it in the near future) is focused on Celia West, the un-powered daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the super-powered founders of the Olympiad, who is somewhat resentful of her lack of super-powers. Although Celia’s metahuman parents are also billionaires, Celia lives apart in a small apartment working as an accountant in the present timeline of the novel. Occasional flashbacks inform the reader about the tension between Celia and her god-like parents as well as providing context for the present plot trajectory.
Unfortunately, although these plot details could have produced a critical novel capable of interrogating the super-hero comic genre, the way they are employed in After the Golden Age does little more than reify the standard tropes. In the end, Vaughn’s novel is just a prose translation of a graphic novel; one wonders whether its existence in prose rather than sequential panels is simply because she couldn’t find an artist. If you’re going to take what is normally the subject matter of comics and change the medium, then maybe there should be a reason for this transition. That is, a prose translation of the super-hero comic should be motivated by a desire to cover territory that the medium of comics cannot cover. This is not to say that the prose medium is superior to the comics medium (or vice versa), but that they are different mediums and so to translate the subject matter of one to the other should mean something more than simply a script with a few details filled in. And yet reading After the Golden Age feels like having a comic-book read to you with the pictures and speech bubbles described.
Even more disappointing is the novel’s inability to escape the more tedious tropes of super-hero comics that have already been critiqued and detourned by comic-book writers themselves. Although Vaughn calls her book After the Golden Age, I could not help but feel that I was reading a moral story from the golden age of DC or Marvel comics: evil is generally evil, good is generally good, Law and Order are platonic concepts – maybe not as conservative as some of the golden age comics, but definitely nothing more than liberal bourgeois values.
This is a world where cops are good because they’re cops, where bourgeois politicians are only bad if they’re corrupt, where billionaires (whose existence in real life is structurally contingent on the global killing fields of capitalism) are super-heroes who protect upstanding citizens, and where the greatest evil is the criminal defiance of LAW. In short, these are the values of hegemonic capitalism that were already reflected in golden age comics and that those of us who have any critical insight should know are murderous values. And the fact that the novel’s super-villain turns out to be someone who (okay, SPOILER!) wants to make people more obedient to the law doesn’t make up for the reification of these problematic values. He is bad only because he is extreme; the author doesn’t seem to understand that the values of her villain is a logical product of the values her entire book espouses – just as a liberal capitalist doesn’t realize the values of the fascist are a logical product of the values of capitalism in general.
And if the book reifies the overall values of the cookie-cutter golden age of comics, it cannot help but wallow uncritically in other dubious and connected values as well. Take, for example, the protagonist’s asshole of a father, Captain Olympus. This is a macho jerk, a square-jawed raging masculinist, who inherited his fortune from an already billionaire father and who smashes shit with his fists and super-power will when he gets angry. There are times when Vaughn even describes her protagonist, Celia, cowering in the face of her father’s cock-brained and violent tirades. And yet we are supposed to believe, by the end of the book, that he’s actually a “good man” who loves his daughter, even be moved by his love – nevermind the fact that so many of us cannot be moved by a violent billionaire.
Celia’s interactions with other men emerge from the same a priori justification of male power. At one point her cop boyfriend (and yet again I want to complain about the fact that we are immediately supposed to accept that “police officer” equals “good”, as if we are pre-teens reading 1960s Avengers comics) gets mad at her for some secret she did not divulge, and is almost as much of an asshole [but minus the wall-smashing rage fest, thankfully] as her father, and Celia, who we are meant to believe is such a rebel, is uber-depressed. This would believable if she had been dating this character for more than a year – people do get irrationally depressed by the asshole behaviour of their partners if they have a long period of emotional investment – but Celia was only dating this character for a week. In this week he somehow becomes, without any explanation, the centre of her life. Really? You would figure that, consummate rebel this character is supposed to be (she is always described as willful and stubborn), Celia would tell this character “fuck off, you don’t know me” and dump his cop ass the moment he pulled some jack-booted moral high ground tactic.
What makes After the Golden Age extremely redundant is the fact that the comic medium itself has already interrogated its foundations and has done so with far more critical depth. Hell, Alan Moore’s Watchmen attempted to interrogate super-hero comics by examining what these super-heroes would look like in the real world in the late 1980s and did it with far more insightfulness, and far more political understanding, than Vaughn managed regardless of the prose translation. And if we want to find a comic about the jaded children of super-powered folk, then all we need to read is Runaways – one of these rebellious kids also lacks superpowers, just like Carrie Vaughn’s protagonist.
The comics medium is already conscious of itself… so why did Vaughn go backwards in her novel? If this is some longing for the by-gone days of comics, where men were men and good/evil was good/evil, then there is no reason for us to receive a vapid prose translation of what we already receive in countless movies and super-hero comics. As the quote in the “About” section of this blog implies, Achilles no longer makes sense in the era of powder and lead – that artistic narrative of the world comes to an end. So too does the paradigmatic comic-book landscape end when the medium, now estranged from its cold war routes, becomes aware of itself as a critical medium… Why, then, does a prose translation of this medium need to return to an era that has come to an end? Thus, against all of my comic-book loving hopes, Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age fails to be anything but a one-dimensional translation of golden age comic-book values.