I can’t seem to get away from J. Michael Straczynski’s work. After his long tenure on Amazing Spider-Man and his current runaway hit, Thor, he now tackles the high though achingly familiar concept, The Twelve. The story begins in Berlin during the final days of the Nazi regime when twelve heroes independently descend upon the SS headquarters and fall victim to a Nazi trap. The Twelve are Rockman, Black Widow, Blue Blade, Master Mind Excello, Mr. E, Laughing Mask, Dynamic Man, Firery Mask, The Witness, Captain Wonder, and the Phantom Reporter. These were heroes from the Timely Comics era, Marvel Comics’ predecessor. Placed in “freezing tubes” to be defrosted after the Americans leave Berlin, the plan goes awry and the Nazis never come back for them. The US military is called in after the chamber is discovered by a modern day construction crew and they discuss whether or not they’re going to thaw them out. Then again, considering these are the times of Civil War and Secret Invasions, it’s not like trust in super heroes isn’t at a premium. Awakened, the story revolves around how the Twelve react to the future and how the current heroes react to the past.

We have a long time fascination with the World War II era/The Greatest Generation. It was a simpler time we often long for, when good guys and bad guys were clearly delineated. After all, the Nazis were and are the quintessential evil villain. The idea of altruistic relics of the past confronted with the cynical reality of the present/their future has been done since Captain America was frozen in ice and awakened in a time not his own. Told from the point of view of the Phantom Reporter, a “tourist,” or a costumed hero who tags along with major heroes, The Twelve has a reporter’s feel and tone.

Everyone has a secret, something he or she is running toward or from, as they try to figure out where they fit in this new world. Squadron Supreme and even Rising Stars, in retrospect, either look like they were practice runs for this series or Straczynski going back to his familiar themes, putting different heroes through same paces. Since this is a finite series, it can’t be a matter of all set-up and no payoff.

“But there’s something we can give you that’s more important that money or a place to live. Purpose. We can give you purpose again. The world needs people like you, maybe even more than it ever did before.”

In taking 40s era heroes, patriots of a simpler time, and transporting them to now, The Twelve examines what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost as a people. It’s easy to view a bygone era through rose tinted glasses. The 50s-era show Mad Men looks like a grand old time, until you ask yourself “where are all the black folks?” (oh yeah, they’re in the back at the bus still). Instead of sexism and racism, our culture wrestles with terrorism, the erosion of civil liberties, and the loss of national optimism.

The Gospel has power to transform individual and society, so traditions and mindsets need to be periodically examined to see if they remain relevant. For example, some commands in Scripture are time bound and culturally limited. It is dangerous to ignore the voice and lessons of tradition. At the same time, we need to recognize when it is time to jettison traditional beliefs. Culture shouldn’t determine theology, but the impact of culture on the biblical writers and all biblical interpreters (us) shouldn’t be ignored. Many cultural issues, from the role of women to the issue of slavery, have had to be re-examined over time through our culturally impacted lens of Scripture.

Yes, this kind of story has been done been done time and again and your gut instinct might assume this to be a generic Watchman retread, but the characters are intriguing and Straczynski manages to balance sophistication and fun. I love the art work, especially the expressiveness of faces. I’m hoping that all of the potential of this book is fully realized.

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