3.01.2006

Graphic Novel Of The Month

Battle Hymn: Farewell to the First Golden Age (Image Comics): B. Clay Moore, best known for his Hawaiian Dick detective series, and Jeremy Haun, of Paradigm fame, offer up something really special here. Their story about the first gathering of WWII era heroes, the Watchguard, is a real dichotomy of themes.

To the left, we see the hopeful optimism of that era. The feeling that anything is possible, that the future is open to influence, and no obstacles are insurmountable with a healthy dose of American conviction. To the right, we see something far more disturbing. We see a seedy underbelly. Political posturing and back room deals, a government’s hidden agenda and disreputable motives.

This work that could easily be passed over as a traditional Golden Age superhero affair starts innocently enough. A government sponsored team is being assembled with some familiar archetypes. We have the superhuman aquatic being Quinn Rey, the speedster and media hound Johnny Zip, the ultra patriotic Proud American, the nuclear powered android The Artificial Man, and the token British representative named Mid-Nite Hour, who may just be the only true reluctant hero, often serving as the lone voice of reason.

The archetypes are quickly turned upside down and made uncomfortable. The egotistical Proud American proves to be little more than a figurehead; he can’t even be bothered with actual field work and has a stand in named the Defender of Liberty for the dangerous bits. Betty Jablonski was blackmailed into joining the team to initially tempt Quinn Rey to join. “Jablonski” later becomes “Jones” for the press; her surname we can only assume was too ethnic and did not sound “American” enough for the PR department. Her role on the team was unclear from the start, ultimately we discover she was deliberately planted as a “comfort woman” because of her known promiscuity and she goes on to sleep with at least 3 members of the team.

All of these character shifts really underscore the dark side of man’s inner nature. Ultimately it is not the Nazi war machine or secret missions that tear the team apart, but each other. The very nature of their personalities and their own government’s agenda are what drives them to death or disbanding. The mysterious government figures are evaluating their field performances which add no real tactical value to winning the war. They are little more than PR stunts designed to prove that the government can control the “freaks.” The entire scope of the project appears to be a ruse to test the capabilities of numerous weaponized Artificial Men. This team is completely expendable if it doesn’t suit a PR image. And we see that evidenced by the demise of several lead characters, only two or three actually make it out alive by the end of the series.

The dark tone of the narrative is really enhanced by the realistic pencils of Haun and a color palette featuring heavy reliance on deep browns and greens, which feel very weighty, as if the future of the free world is depending on their actions.

Overall, I believe that Battle Hymn serves as warning tale. It reminds me of Lincoln’s emancipation remarks, which I’m admittedly paraphrasing, that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. This book is iconic in its brutal handling of an aptly titled goodbye. Goodbye to an era of selfless golden deeds, which is a bold comment on the possible collapse of the American Dream.

This was my favorite mini-series from last year, which has recently been collected in this single volume. There’s a rumored follow up project to this featuring some of the same characters which I really want to be published. I want to see the next project advertised from B. Clay Moore and Jeremy Haun that is not connected to Battle Hymn, they’re an impressive team of creators. I also want the grading scale to go higher than Grade A+.

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