When Words Collide

Wed, November 19th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 19th, 2008 at 7:46pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

TWILIGHT OF THE SPACE GODS

Pulp Fiction Library

Whatever happened to DC's space heroes?

Characters like Star Hawkins, Tommy Tomorrow, the Star Rovers, the Knights of the Galaxy were important transitional characters from the Golden Age through the Silver Age. Some of them lasted longer than others, but certainly by the mid-1970s they were all but forgotten.

As a reader who grew up on Bronze Age comics, my only knowledge of the original adventures of DC's space heroes (other than the Adam Strange, who keeps popping up everywhere) comes from a 1999 trade paperback published by DC called "Pulp Fiction Library: Mystery in Space." It's a strange collection of stories, ranging from the speculative fiction of "Real Fact Comics" from the 1940s to the "hard" sci-fi of the 1950s and continuing on through the space opera heroes of "Strange Adventures" before limping to the finish with some dystopian vignettes of the early 1980s. The book does a nice job giving an overview of DC's sci-fi adventures by reprinting entire episodes and offering only the slightest commentary between sections. In its trajectory from serious speculation to hope to thrills to disillusionment, it reflects the pattern of science fiction at large, and echoes America's own attitude toward space exploration.

The stories in "Pulp Fiction Library: Mystery in Space" feature some of the greatest creators who ever worked for DC: Jack Kirby, Dick Sprang, Virgil Finlay, Frank Frazetta, Edmond Hamilton, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Brian Bolland, and even Rick Veitch. As great as the artists (and some of the writers) are, none of the stories collected in the volume end up being all that memorable. They are lesser works by some noted artistic masters, and even the identifiable serialized characters, like Space Ranger or Tommy Tomorrow, end up blasting at humanoid aliens by the end of each episode. There's something comforting about their similarities, perhaps, but the stories lack the visceral thrills of Jack Kirby's Marvel work or the inventiveness of the best Edmond Hamilton Legion of Super-Heroes comics.

These uptight, deeply moral space boy scouts didn't stand much of a chance against the onrushing superhero tidal wave. And though their stories still have a definite charm and innocence, they haven't become as central to the DC canon as their super-powered, gaudily-costumed brethren.

Twilight Book I

But in 1990, Howard Chaykin tried to bring the sci-fi relics of DC's past into the postmodern era. With Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez on pencils and inks, and with Chakyin writing, "Twilight" was born. Part deconstruction of pre-Silver Age sci-fi tropes, part celebration of transcendent sci-fi ideals, and part dystopian space opera, "Twilight" was one of the highlights of DC's post-"Watchmen," pre-Vertigo era.

I have no idea how well it sold, and as far as I know it has never been collected into a trade paperback. "Twilight," as a three-issue prestige format series, was probably a difficult comic book to market to readers.

On the one hand, it featured characters that had been out of the public eye for decades, and, on the other hand, anyone who did remembered those characters would probably be offended by their treatment in the series. Chaykin certainly didn't treat these DC sci-fi heroes with kid gloves. No, in typical Chaykin fashion, he took the gloves off, smacked the characters around, fornicated with their siblings, and then blew everything up. But, also in typical Chaykin fashion, he did it with a kind of fondness -- if not for the characters than for the story he was telling. "Twilight" is an exceptionally ambitious DC comic book story, done with flair, and a precise attention to detail. It doesn't feel like the work of someone who was out to cynically deconstruct these characters, even if that's what ends up happening. It's perhaps best termed as an affectionate deconstruction, done with a razor sharp edge.

"Twilight" benefits greatly from the artistry of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Seen as kind of an artistic journeyman by some, as the corporate image of DC comics by others (his illustrations adorned most of the licensed DC superhero paraphernalia we grew up with), and seen as "that guy who drew some fill-in issue of 'New Teen Titans'" by the rest, Garcia-Lopez was never able to create such a vivid comic book world as he did in "Twilight." His "Atari Force" work still holds up quite well today (scoff if you will, but if you're scoffing, I know you haven't read "Atari Force," and that's something you need to rectify), but his penciling and inking in "Twilight" is gorgeous. Gritty, sometimes grim, but always gorgeous.

Detail from Star Rovers in Who's Who

He seems to have been inspired by what Chaykin had done on "American Flagg!" as he uses some of the same artistic rhythms Chaykin used, like the insert close-up shots layered over panel shapes, or the stiffly-posed aristocrats with their square jaws contrasted with the soft femininity of the women. Yet "Twilight" is unmistakable Garcia-Lopez, with its tight draftsmanship and meticulous detail. There are no obvious shortcuts in these three issues. Everything is drawn -- and drawn well.

Such meticulous realism helped make Chaykin's story work particularly well.

Book I, "Last Frontier" begins with a former Star Rover, Homer Glint, stumbling after his seeing-eye cat in a most undignified manner. Glint, the level-headed "novelist" of the Star Rover's Silver Age stories, provides the narrative throughout "Twilight" and by opening up with this frame story -- with him later in life, made to look ridiculous yet still trying to maintain as much dignity as he can muster -- Chaykin signals to the reader that he's going to put these characters through the wringer.

Chaykin doesn't seem to care whether or not the reader actually knows who Homer Glint is -- I didn't have a clue who he was when I first read it -- and though a knowledge of the various DC space character might enrich a reading of "Twilight," Chaykin isn't telling the "continuing adventures of DC's space heroes." He's taking those old characters, throwing them in a blender, conflating different eras (some of the DC space heroes lived hundreds of years apart from one another in the original stories, but not here), and spitting out a self-contained story about sex and death, love and power, and, most of all, hubris.

After the framing sequence, the first book launches into a jungle scene -- on the outskirts of an Animal/Automaton Matrix village. In Chaykin's vision of future, DNA meddling and robotics have led to new forms of intolerance and hatred, and the humanoid animals and the robotic not-quite-humans have established a military resistance to mankind. Thus, we get the Star Rovers -- a younger Homer Glint, the idiotic and vain Rick Purvis, and the confident and beautiful Karel Sorensen -- discussing the failure of diplomacy with Bruno, a talking guerilla gorilla.

Manhunter 2070 from Twilight Book II

Clearly, these aren't our grandparents Star Rovers, and Chaykin and Garcia-Lopez emphasize that fact when Rick Purvis takes a machete to Bruno's head and the image is broadcast across the galaxy thanks to spin-master Homer Glint, who admits that it's his job, "making heroes."

That's one of the central themes of "Twilight," and perhaps it makes Glint less than reliable as an overall narrator since, throughout the three issues, we see how instrumental he has been in taking tragic events and turning them into heroic actions, merely through putting the right spin on them. In Chaykin's world of the future, the only "heroes" are the manufactured kind, created to give the public what it wants -- what the powers-that-be thinks it needs -- regardless of the atrocities committed along the way.

The character who best embodies that type of manufactured heroism is Tommy Tomorrow, who, in Chaykin's hands, becomes the ultimate space fascist. With his jackboots and high collar, there was always something a bit too regimented about the original Tommy Tomorrow, but when he first appears in Book I of "Twilight," there's no mistaking the nazi overtones. Decked out in black military garb and surrounded by banners featuring stylized swastikas and fists of lightning, this Tommy Tomorrow is the ultimate hate-monger. As Glint narrates, "Tomorrow never got over being an orphan -- never knowing whether he was born of woman -- or Petri dish…it made of him a xenophobic monster, obsessed with eternal life." And, as Glint tells us soon thereafter, Glint himself made him a hero -- glamorizing his violent actions during the first inter-planetary war.

Chaykin throws plenty of other DC space heroes -- in sullied form -- at the reader in Book I. We meet Axel Starker (a.k.a. Star Hawkins, space detective) and his brother Jon Starker (Manhunter 2070). By linking those two disparate characters together, by making them brothers in his reinterpretation of the future, Chaykin adds pathos that was certainly not present in any of the original tales featuring either of those characters. We also see Star Rover Jack Purvis playing some kind of space hockey against Ironwolf (a kind of Saxon-in-space character Chaykin had worked on in the 1970s), and Ironwolf's wooden space ship becomes an important plot point in the climax of Book I.

Showcase #41 with Tommy Tomorrow

Chaykin weaves these diverse characters into a single, unified tapestry, and Garcia-Lopez gives them all a look which makes them believably consistent. Their attire, for example, quickly differentiates each of them, and none of the costumes look dated, even eighteen years later.

But instead of maintaining the future-isn't-as-glossy-as-we'd-like-to-believe tone, and simply pitting the cynical characters against each other to show their very human failings, Chaykin and Garcia-Lopez end Book I with divine transcendence, as former Star Rover Karel Sorensen's disintegrating body -- caused by an explosion, in turn caused by Tommy Tomorrow --merges with the bodies of the Methuseloids (alien creatures who seemed to live forever) and she becomes a goddess.

By the end of the three books, Tommy Tomorrow will steal her god-like powers and fashion himself as the ultimate being in the universe, a fact which Homer Glint only alludes to by the end of Book I, when he narrates, "it seemed like an awfully anticlimactic entrance for a messiah." Tomorrow, after causing the explosion which propelled Karel to godhood, flies down with his jetpack and begins feasting on the bodies of the remaining Methuseloids, thus granting himself immortality as well. The first step towards his own plans for godhood.

Book II, "Lords of the Long Shadow," shows the effect of Karel's newfound status as a transcendent being, a position she owes as much to Homer Glint's gospels as to her death-and-resurrection. Chaykin sends the other characters into their own personal abysses, and before their paths converge in Book III, things look bleak for humanity indeed. Even with immortality stolen from the Methuseloids and filtered out to mankind, and even with Homer Glint building a myth from the rebirth of Karel Sorensen, a dark pall has spread over the galaxy. Tommy Tomorrow has turned from uptight fascist to a raging maniac, donning armor as if he were a futuristic samurai, heading for the Space Museum (now Karel's royal palace) with one thing on his mind: "I'm going to nail that sanctimonious bitch to the cross," he says.

Twilight Book III

From there, everything escalates through Book III, "Blood on the Stars," and, as you can imagine, once Tommy Tomorrow declares himself the messiah, and has the galaxy in the palm of his cosmically-enhanced hand, things take a turn for the worse.

No matter to what extremes Chaykin pushes this deconstruction of the DC space heroes, Garcia-Lopez keeps it all grounded in a believable reality. Yet he never saps the power from the images either, as the vibrant, glowing, pure-energy form of Tommy Tomorrow interacts with his disciples. It really is the best work of Garcia-Lopez's career.

I could elaborate more on the conflict between the Knights of the Galaxy -- as royal protectors of the goddess -- and Tomorrow's Planeteers. I could describe the depths the former "Manhunter 2070" has sunk to by the time he's helping to end the lives of immortal citizens who pray for a quick demise. I could talk about the appearance of none other than the Space Cabbie in the final act.

But I really think you owe it to yourself to read "Twilight" on your own. From what I've seen, you can get a complete set of all three books for cover price or less almost anywhere you look online. And as a highlight of the mid-Modern Age, it's certainly worth your time. It's not as cheaply cynical as so many products of the post-"Watchmen" era, and it works particularly well as a cohesive whole -- as a radically reimagined vision of the future, informed by the works of the past.

So to answer my opening question, "What ever happened to DC's space heroes?" Howard Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez happened, almost two decades ago. And even though "Twilight" has never been part of any kind of official continuity, the characters have never been the same since.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the in-this-month's-Diamond-Previews' "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  twilight, howard chaykin, jose luis garcia-lopez

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