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Geoff Johns’ Run on Booster Gold – 52 Pickup & Blue and Gold

I guess when you’re as popular as Geoff Johns you can pretty much pick your own projects. He’s pretty much the driving force at the company, having helmed two of the bigger more recent “event” crossovers (Infinite Crisis and Blackest Night) as well as managing the return of Hal Jordan to the pages of Green Lantern and Barry Allen to The Flash. He has always skilfully walked the line between a hardcore nerd who knows everything there is to know about DC’s incredibly complicated history and the source of some of the company’s most accessible output. His runs on the “big” name characters (such as Superman) are some of the easiest to read comic books currently published, however it’s clear he has a somewhat deeper level of knowledge and understanding of the way that the DC universe works, and is read to dive into the nooks and crannies of obscure characters and half-remembered trivia with the fervour of a pure geek. Booster Gold is perhaps the best example of this sort of work.

That logo is so money...

Booster Gold isn’t exactly what you would refer to as an “a-list” character. Truth be told, he’s probably not even “c-list”. He was created in the eighties, by writer/artist Dan Jurgens (who returns for artistic duties on this run), as something of a hero “of the time”, as it were. In the introduction to these collections, his creator describes him as “tailor-made for the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ philosophy of the mid-’80s”. He was a hero who – while he was interested in helping people – was primarily concerned with money, sponsorship and his appeal to the (often less than adoring) public. He had a relatively short-lived solo series in the eighties before being coopted on to the controversial Justice League International era of DC’s primary superhero team. And then he skirted the edge of the DC universe for a while.

Geoff Johns evidently took a liking to the character. When Johns, along with Mark Waid, Greg Rucka and Grant Morrison, wrote the weekly series 52, Booster featured as a leading character – despite his relative obscurity. Coming out of that well-loved series, Johns was given the reigns of a solo series featuring the character, which is collected here. There’s no getting around the fact that this is something of a niche character, and Johns seems almost glad to be able to write a character who doesn’t need to be as readily accessible as Superman or Hal Jordan. Knowledge of 52 and Infinite Crisis are practically assumed before you pick up these two books. Of course,  Johns doesn’t lock out anyone who isn’t following continuity (he does provide flashbacks, for instance), but a lot of the book’s energy and power comes from its links to DC’s history.

He plays his cards close to his chest...

In fact, the entire second arc – Blue and Gold – is based on an alternate future where Infinite Crisis went a little differently and seemingly exists to serve as something of a brief reunion to the somewhat cult team gathered in Justice League International. “The old gang, back together,” to quote Max Lord. In fact, a lot of this feels quite familiar to DC’s on-going bi-weekly series Generation Lost, which works on a similar enough premise (except in this case Max Lord was never killed, rather than being resurrected).

There are tonnes of in-jokes and references peppered throughout the run. For example, the seventh issue published is labelled as Booster Gold #0, which is a reference to Zero Hour, a nineties crossover which featured a lot of tie-ins labelled as issue #0 (in fact, this issue is complete with Parallax cameo – “Do you think they saw us?” one character wonders as they pass Parallax in the void). The second volume closes with Booster Gold #1,000,000 which is another reference to another DC mega-crossover, in this case Grant Morrison’s somewhat fondly remembered DC One Million. Although the two issues don’t require the reader to be familiar with either crossover for effect, it’s an indication of just how deeply Johns has dug his tale into DC’s chronology.

Board silly...

The first arc is entitled 52 Pickup, which also betrays how closely the comic book is tied to bigger events (although it’s admittedly something of a misleading title – the individual issues overlap with various other comics like Johns’ Sinestro Corps War or Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke). In it, Johns casts Booster in a sort of comic book Quantum Leap, “setting right what once went wrong” and journeying to key moments (some big, some small) in the rich tapestry of the DC universe. Some choices are inspired (in Hexed, for example, Booster travels to Kansas in Old West times to save the doctor who will deliver Superman’s father’s ancestor), some are clearly pointed (Booster’s attempts to save Barbara Gorden from the Joker in No Joke), and some are just entertaining (an early encounter with Sinestro in Leggo my Ego).

Along the way, Johns works some of his trademark characterisation magic on Booster. Johns’ speciality has always been in finding an angle on a character to make them fascinating (even if they weren’t before). His handling of Hal Jordon in the pages of Green Lantern (and of Sinestro in the same title) has been nothng short of fantastic, finding a way to make the character absolutely compelling. However, I have to admit that I wasn’t necessarily convinced by some of the revisions that Johns employs here in order to make Booster a somewhat more sympathetic hero.

Jonah Hex has come across a Gold rush...

The most obvious is the rather thorough set of “daddy” issues that Johns gives Booster. The event which led to Booster’s public shaming – being caught throwing football games – is no longer a result of the character’s greed, but instead presented as an attempt to win the love and affection of a distant father figure, who really is a bit of a scumbag (readily willing to “launder money or con people” to make a quick buck). The obvious goal is to blame a screwed up paternal figure for Booster’s self-esteem issues, but I’m not convinced it was necessary (let alone the return of Booster’s father in the stories in question). It seems to me that Booster himself was a heavily flawed (yet still loveable) character without these issues.

In fact, between the revisions that Johns has made to characters like Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, I’m beginning to see his over-reliance in the “screwed up parental relationship” trope. It seems that most of his leading characters are defined by horrible childhood instances (to the point of Johns re-writing Barry Allen’s history to include the death of his mother – but that is probaly a discussion for another time).

Mind over Martian...

That said, Johns writes Booster in a charming sort of way. He’s wonderfully likeable, even as a bit of an attention-crazed publicity hound. The revelation that he lied about why he got rid of his cape – he claimed “it was testing poorly” when, in fact, Superman had warned him that “you can’t handle a cape” – is a great example of the sorts of little character beats Johns uses so well. He makes Booster an effective and charming little guy. There’s something almost tragic about his mission statement (“you’ll go down in history as an ineffectual and incompetent fraud when in reality you’ll be the greatest hero history has ever known”), particularly when it leads to things like condescension “from a guy dressed like Big Bird” (Hawkman).

As an aside, it’s interesting to note the recent fascination with The Killing Joke within DC continuity. It’s almost as if writers are only now seeming to notice that Barbara Gordon got a bit of a bum deal. Even more recently, J. Michael Straczynski used a (rather disappointing) issue of his spectacular The Brave and the Bold to also explore the event (Ladies’ Night). Both cases feature characters who know what is about to happen to Barbara – she’s about to be crippled from the waste down. In one, Booster does everything he can to save her, but can’t. In another, Wonder Woman and Zatanna take her for a night on the town, but don’t warn her (because that could lead to ambiguously horrible consequences). I’ve dealt with my concerns about Straczynski’s treatment of the storyline elsewhere, but – for the moment – it’s interesting to note that both issues come to essentially the same conclusion: it had to happen that way. You can’t change it – even though you wish you might.

That's not funny...

The Killing Joke has perhaps become a focal point perhaps because it’s one of the few “birth of the modern age” comic books in continuity. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns both sparked the “darker and edgier” trend of violence and carnage and anti-heroes which gripped the medium in the late eighties and nineties. The Killing Joke, which features the crippling of a young female hero simply to prove a point to a male character, is perhaps – even aside from the disturbing sexual connotations that even the author acknowledges – a prime example of the trend towards darkness in modern comic books, one which has been firmly rejected by writers like Johns and Morrison, who favour a return to almost classical high concepts and heroics tempered with a feeling of real threat (where necessary). What greater symbol of this movement than Booster Gold – perhaps one of the last “carefree” and “lighter” heroes DC produced – attempting to stop The Killing Joke – a symbol of the approaching darkness – from ever happening?

Still, perhaps that’s a bit much to read into what is really just a fun continuity-heavy series. Where else can you hear a New God declare “I hate time-traveling Nazis”? Or witness Mr. Mind restored to his almost cuddly pre-52 form (more caterpiller than “consumer of worlds“)? Hell, Rip Hunter’s blackboards are populated with all sorts of comics-related in-jokes (and side-swipes – “don’t worry about Countdown,” he suggests at one point, referencing DC’s less-than-well-loved lead-in miniseries to Final Crisis).

Maybe it's too early to call it "the butterfly effect"... "the caterpiller effect", perhaps?

Sure, at times Johns makes his tale a little bit too insular to rank it among his best work, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of warmth here. I’m not entirely convinced that Booster needed a tragic backstory to make him sympathetic, but otherwise Johns’ keen eye for characterisation suits the story quite well. He manages to generate a sense of pathos without letting it overwhelm the narrative. I wouldn’t rank it among his very best work, but Johns’ take on the cult time-traveling eighties hero feels like one of the aspects of being such a big-name writer that he enjoys so much – it feels like he’s playing with a toy he really wants to. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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