It will be hard to convince me that anyone can write Black Adam quite like Geoff Johns writes Black Adam, but Peter Tomasi comes close in Black Adam: The Dark Age. On display here is both Adam's moral ambiguity and the startling violence that follows, even unwittingly, in his wake. Tomasi asks at least some of the hard questions, and while I'm not sure he provides suitable answers, The Dark Age is an enjoyable read all around.
Black Adam is either the Charlie Brown of the DC Universe set -- nothing he does ever works out quite the way he intended it -- or the Rodney Dangerfield, cursed to get no respect. Try as he might have to live a peaceful life as the demi-dictatorial ruler of Kahndaq, the villains of the DCU teamed together and murdered Adam's wife Isis; Adam's "reasonable" genocidal response brought down on him the heroes of the DCU as if he were the villain. Now all Adam wants to do is resurrect Isis, except he's being attacked by a government agency, hunted by the JSA and the JLA, and sent all around the world on a mysterious mission by the wizard Faust -- what's a Black Adam to do?
In this way, Tomasi presents Black Adam's troubles as never his fault, and instead the consequences of a man who's always right doing what has to be done. Adam is a study in contradictions; he is just as quick to save the life of an innocent doctor who herself saved Adam, as he is to doom an entire village when he steals the amulet that makes them fertile. Adam has a distinct moral code that rewards loyalty but values himself over all, and his regrets are only for what he's lost, not what he's done. It's fun to read about Black Adam because of the struggle within him to do good -- and "good" he sometimes does, though the reader can't ever be sure when Adam will decide to do bad instead.
A defining aspect of the Black Adam story so far has been his friendship with Albert Rothstein, the hero known as Atom Smasher. Once, as Nuklon, Rothstein's teammates considered him a "pollyana," so optimistic was the hero -- but a villain murdering his mother, and then his friendship with Black Adam, changed that.
Tomasi bookends The Dark Age with Adam's conversations with Hawkman and Atom Smasher -- two heroes not afraid to shed blood, but Hawkman wants Adam to turn himself in, while Atom Smasher councils Black Adam to hide. Adam heeds neither's advice, but the fact that he fights with Hawkman but leaves Atom Smasher in peace speaks volumes of Adam's character. The difficulty with calling Adam a villain is that ultimately, he's a reasonable man -- his villany isn't so easily classified in bank robbery or world domination schemes. His reluctance to throw the first punch, when "heroes" like Hawkman have no such reservations, threaten to redefine our concepts of heroes and villains.
Along with artist Doug Mahnke, Tomasi offers six issues that leave no question why we find Black Adam so fascinating. Mahnke demonstrated his talent for drawing the absurd in Major Bummer, but here as in Batman his close-up characters, all with serious, piercing eyes, set the right tone for the book's moral questions. Blood and gore flow freely here, but all in the service of Adam's struggle.
Ultimately Tomasi leaves most of the reflection to those around Adam and not Adam himself. I might've liked an answer, for instance, to Atom Smasher demanding to know why Adam destroyed the rival country Bialya, for which there is a good reason, but Tomasi lets the moment pass. Still, there's no question that Tomasi understands the parameter's of Adam's difficulties, and presents, if not answers, them well in this book.
As a side note -- I picked up Black Adam: The Dark Age some time ago and waited to read it until I had Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis in hand. Looking around when I wrote this review, however, I come to find that The Dark Age is out of print, and sells for upwards of fifty dollars on some sites! This isn't a story terribly tied to continuity, and so my guess is that it's the rarity of the book, more than the book itself, that makes it so valuable. Still, if you want this book, I recommend you check online or the shelves of your local comic book store -- it's possible you may still find it for regular price, but probably not for long!
[Contains full covers]
On now, as I mentioned, to Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis. Stick around!