Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Year of the Superhero - After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age is … I'm still trying to decide as I write this, unfortunately. I think the cover copy did it a disservice, in that it seemed to promise me one book when I got another. The plot summary is neat—accountant daughter of famous superheroes must help take down supervillain—but it got me expecting a cutthroat story about assembling evidence and a lot of time in the courtroom, when the story itself is more about personal journey, family, and acceptance of one's lot in life. Which is not a bad story, at all. It just wasn't what I was expecting.

After the Golden Age is set in a fairly typical superhero world. Commerce City could stand in for just about anywhere. It has superheroes—the four members of the Olympiad, as well as a handful of teamless heroes. The Olympiad works out of a command centre at the top of a skyscraper, mounts patrols, checks the police scanner, and responds to supervillain-type threats, which annoys the police. There's also a supervillain, the Destructor, who's been a thorn in everyone's side for a generation and has crazy, mad scientist schemes that are "bound to work this time!" even if he works in an escape plan anyway. There do not appear to be superheroes elsewhere, and the reasons for powers existing in Commerce City isn't explained until near the end of the book.

But that's all background. Celia West, main character, accountant, and daughter of half the Olympiad, is more interesting. She has issues centering around how disappointed her parents were that she didn't inherit powers, and she's trying to make up for a mistake in her past. It's not going so well, and when she starts helping with Destructor's trial, it only gets worse. She also gets kidnapped enough that she reads hostage video scripts sarcastically and is pretty good at sizing up bad guys. As the story progresses, she starts taking a more active role in her life and the mystery (because there's always a mystery, we'll get back to that), and learns that heroism isn't just about powers and costumes. All the same, I can't help feeling that she could've been better realized, that we could've seen more of her personality outside of her reactions to events.

Like I said, I'd expected a cutthroat trial story, with Celia tracking down evidence in death-defying ways, and that wasn't what I got. The trial takes up maybe half the novel, at most, and we don't see very much of it, or of people putting together evidence. (They're trying to get the Destructor for tax fraud, not property destruction, murder, and the other things he's guilty of.) The story's about Celia coming to terms with herself, and the central mystery involves who's behind the current crime spree, since the Destructor's under way too much security to mastermind it himself. Or is he? As Celia's tracking down evidence against the Destructor, she starts uncovering hints that there's maybe more to the kidnappings, the Destructor, and superpowers than everyone suspects. As mysteries go, it's a fairly predictable one. I caught a lot of the clues before I think I was meant to, and anticipated a lot of, but not all, the twists. It also has an urban fantasy vibe, which isn't surprising considering that's where Vaughn got her start.

There are some moments surrounding superpowers and superheroes that I found interesting. The Olympiad and Destructor are still effective in their hero/villain roles once their identities are revealed, for instance, and welcome the publicity even. There are some sweet moments in which Spark, Celia's mother, cooks food with her bare hands and such-like. There are some not-so-sweet flashbacks where Celia's dad tries to test her for powers. There's mention of the consequences of telepathy. And, so far uniquely in my quest for superhero knowledge, the accident that caused the powers is also responsible for the protectiveness the heroes feel for the city. When they say they "have to" do their job, they mean it.

Ultimately, this isn't a particularly memorable story. Sure, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn't take anyway anything new from it. Everything superhero-wise (which is why I read the book) appears elsewhere—the nature of heroism, the growing-up narrative, the realistic examination of heroes and their powers—and I don't think After the Golden Age does those any better than the other stories. It was definitely an enjoyable read and a good story, but it kind of pales in comparison to some of the other books I've read this year. Oh well, on to the next book…

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