BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The un-super daughter of Commerce City’s most famous superheroes tries to find her own way, but stumbles on a criminal plan worthy of her parent’s nemesis, the Destructor.
PROS: Believable, realistic depiction of superheroes as human; swift prose.
CONS: Focusing on the human aspects of superheroes seems to undermine the point of superheroes.
BOTTOM LINE: A satisfying read that realistically depicts superheroes.
I used to read superhero comic books as a kid because I liked the adventure. I eventually stopped reading comics, but always associated them with action. I suppose that’s why, as an adult, I found Watchmen so enthralling. Not only was there action, but there were realistic depictions of people. The superheroes weren’t just caricatures, they were characters. Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age picks up that treatment of portraying superhumans as human.
Here, Celia West is the un-super daughter of two of Commerce City’s most famous superheroes: the super-strong Captain Olympus and pyro-kinetic Spark — who make up half of the superhero team known as the Olympiad. Despite having superheroes as parents, life hasn’t been all that pleasant for Celia. In fact, Celia cites having superhuman parents as the source of many miserable memories and life experiences, including the still-occurring periodic kidnappings by ne’er-do-wells who attempt to use her as insurance against the Olympiad while they commit crimes elsewhere.
Celia used to have a hard time coping with things. Eventually, as a rebellious teenager, Celia ran away and conspired with Commerce City’s most infamous villain, the Destructor, to wreak havoc on the city. But now Celia is a twenty-something adult and although she still has a strained the relationship with her parents (especially her father), she has worked hard to make her own way in the world. Employed as a forensic accountant, Celia is assigned as the district attorney’s assistant in the case against the psychotic Simon Sito, (a.k.a. the Destructor). Celia’s investigation leads her to stumble upon both a city-wide criminal plot being led by a mysterious mastermind (possibly Sito) and the secret origins of the city’s superheroes.
Reading a story about superheroes, you’d expect lots of derring do and narrow escapes. While there’s some of that in After the Golden Age, the more immediate attraction is how the potentially unrealistic escapades of superheroes are made to seem realistic; not mundane, but certainly something that citizens of Commerce city see every day. Against this backdrop of “normalcy”, it thus becomes easy to relate to the problems of everyday life. Celia is essentially trying to find her own identity. Who hasn’t been there? But for Celia, that’s not a task easily accomplished; her parents were already famous for being rich, and when their secret identities were revealed, it was essentially game over for having a normal life. That’s what makes Celia such a juicy target for kidnapping, the frequency of which, by the way, leaves her comically blasé about the whole thing. And yet…this same focus on the everyday and ordinary seems to undermine the point of superheroes to some degree. Maybe this is the action-loving kid inside me talking, but it seemed like there were several opportunities to play up the superhero aspects even more than they were, perhaps even offering a stark contrast to the human side of the characters in Celia’s journey.
After the Golden Age does do a decent job with the mystery of the crime spree and the Mayor’s openly disrespectful treatment of superheroes. Besides the obvious contentions there, it puts additional strain on Celia and her budding romantic relationship with the police officer who also happens to be the Mayor’s son. If not her parents, at least Celia has some people to turn to, like her friend Analise, a.k.a. the water-controlling independent superhero named Typhoon, and Dr. Mentis, the telepathic member of the Olympiad who Celia has known for years. Their moral support is unwavering and helps Celia cope with her crisis.
Eventually all of the story elements satisfactorily lead to a conclusion that is suitable tense and surprisingly bittersweet. The reader is left feeling like they witnessed something that could happen given the premise. And that makes it wholly enjoyable.