Thursday, December 31, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #5: February 1991

The Genius of Rob Liefeld


New Mutants #98
Plotter and Artist: Rob Liefeld
Scripter: Fabian Nicieza
Colorist: S. Buccelatto

*

Without question, Rob Liefled is the defining 1990s superhero artist. In terms of impact and influence, the conversation starts with him and stays there long before it moves on to anyone else.
 
Perhaps because of this, you won't find a figure in the comics world who polarizes fans so completely as Liefeld does. For some he’s single-handedly responsible for generating a sense of excitement about comics they’d never felt before and rarely have since. For others he’s vilified as the harbinger of an era of excess, amateurishness, and style-over-substance.
 
Having been there to witness his meteoric rise first-hand, and having followed his career through the decades, I've found myself residing at both ends of the Rob Liefeld spectrum. As an artist and creator he is a living contradiction: a creative tsunami and a storytelling black hole, an innovator and a blatant idea-swiper, a thrilling designer and a poor draftsman.
 
*
 
A California native, Liefeld came on the comics scene at the tender age of 21 with his work on the 1988 Hawk and Dove miniseries at DC. He arrived with a style unlike any seen before in comics. He claimed influences such as George Perez, Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Art Adams, and Frank Miller, but his work looked like none of those, and not even an amalgam of them. His elongated characters had button noses, squinty eyes, toothy grimaces. Every pose and facial expression was exaggerated. So was his characters’ anatomy, often to the point of straining credulity. His backgrounds were minimal, with all focus placed on the action at hand. But the dynamism and uniqueness of it all was like a shot of adrenaline.
 
He was very sure of himself. In a preview of things to come, he drew the fifth and final issue of Hawk and Dove in landscape format without consulting his writers or editor. It wasn’t a random decision (the dimension in which the issue took place had previously been depicted sideways), but it was a decision that showed Liefeld was going to do what he thought was best, and damn the consequences.
 
Liefeld next made the jump to Marvel, where he soon landed on the junior X-Men title, New Mutants. The book has started off in 1983 under the guidance of X-Men writer Chris Claremont, who then handed the reins to Louise Simonson and artist Bret Blevins in late 1987. The book under this team was consistently good, but its sales were low compared to other X-Men titles. Rob took over from Blevins with issue 86 (February 1990).


Like any superteam, the line-up of the New Mutants had changed over the years. But since the beginning it had featured a stable “core four” of Wolfsbane, Cannonball, Sunspot, and Dani Moonstar. These characters' personalities and relationships gave the team, and the book itself, its beating heart. In his second issue as artist, Simonson and Liefeld introduced a grizzled old cyborg mentor for the team – Cable – and so began a complete makeover of the team, from costumes to line-up to premise.

Interest rose, and so did sales. Liefeld’s art was raw, but it was so vibrant and so different from the Marvel and DC house style that it was like catnip to fans, myself included. But Liefeld’s success on New Mutants wasn’t without drama. Louise Simonson didn’t like the addition of Cable or the fact that he represented the impending militarization of the team. Also, Liefeld had begun collaborating with editor Bob Harras to rework Simonson’s plots, often without consulting her.

Now Liefeld had clearly been brought in to shake things up – Marvel Age ran some of his sketchbook designs for new costumes and new characters before his run on the book even started – but it’s still hard to blame Simonson for feeling hijacked. In the first 11 issues of Liefeld's run, the team she had so lovingly written was ripped down to its studs: Dani Moonstar left the team to live in Asgard, Rusty and Skids joined the Mutant Liberation Front, Warlock was killed, and Wolfsbane was brainwashed into a Genoshan mutate. By the end of the “X-Tinction Agenda” crossover, Simonson had decided to leave the title.

In later interviews, Liefeld was unapologetic about pushing Simonson out, saying disingenuously, “I was basically drawing a book about a group of whining teenagers. I wanted more than just a change in costumes.” (Comics Scene Spectacular 4).
 
With Simonson gone, Liefeld was promoted to plotter, and Fabian Nicieza came on as scripter. With their first issue, #98, the duo quickly set about finishing the job of transforming the team. That issue sees Rictor leave the team, and introduces three new characters: Gideon, Domino, and...Deadpool. Yep, this is where the world first met the merc with the mouth.

 
Deadpool is a character Rob Liefeld takes great pride in having co-created. And he should. It’s rare for a new comic book character to catch on and become a genuine star attraction, but Deadpool did that (Harley Quinn was the only other character introduced in the 1990s that had anywhere near a similar impact). At the same time, Deadpool also perfectly represents all of the contradictions of Rob Liefeld as a creator. Because as iconic as he has become, he’s not a wholesale original character, or at least he wasn’t as he was first conceived. Liefeld admitted to mashing up Deathstroke the Terminator with aspects of Spider-Man and Wolverine and Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe. As scripter, it was Nicieza who made Deadpool a hyperverbal wiseacre, evident from his first appearance. But all of the character’s most unique aspects - his scarred face, his uniquely flexible moral code, and his awareness that he’s a comic book character - were introduced by writer Joe Kelly in the 1997 Deadpool ongoing title. So essentially, Liefeld created a cool-looking cipher that others filled in.
 
*
 
What happened in the next year or so after New Mutants #98 was also instrumental in defining the yin and yang of Rob Liefeld. By issue #100 the demolition of the team was complete. Cannonball and Boom-Boom were the only characters left who’d been in the book before Liefeld’s run began. The New Mutants, in fact, ceased to exist, and the team recast itself as a proactive strike squad. “It’s time we became a force for change in this world. A force – legal or not – for what’s right,” Cable says in the closing pages of New Mutants #100.
 
The book was relaunched as X-Force, and upon its release in August 1991 set a new sales record. Fans picked up five million copies of the first issue, beating the mark set by Spider-Man #1 just one year earlier. I personally bought five copies in order to collect each of the trading cards the issues were polybagged with. I had loved Liefeld’s New Mutants run and had high hopes for his X-Force. But by issue #5, Liefeld was sharing penciling duties, and after #8, his art wouldn’t appear on the title again. He’d completely gone from the book by issue #13. The inconsistency killed my trust in Liefeld. By this time he’d already gotten ahead of himself in interviews, promising a Cable miniseries and a Titans project, neither of which ever materialized.
 
There’s more to tell about Rob Liefeld in subsequent essays, so I’ll stop here for now. But suffice to say that even in 1991 it was pretty clear Liefeld was a genius, just not as a comic book artist or plotter. When it came to producing actual comic books, his ability to generate ideas outpaced his ability to execute them. His real talent lay in creating story concepts and designing characters, not in actually producing them. Each development of his subsequent career would only serve to make that point more and more apparent.

*

 
Works Cited:

“New Mutants No More.” Hank Kanalz. Comics Scene Spectacular 4 (July 1991).

“Youngblood.” Mike McAvennie. Comics Scene 25 (April 1992)

“Rob Liefeld’s New Mutants Sketchbook.” Dwight Jon Zimmerman. Marvel Age 81 (Mid November 1989)

“Rob Liefeld Interview.” Peter Sanderson. Marvel Age 86 (March 1990)

“No Holds Barred.” Patrick Daniel O’Neill. Wizard 10 (June 1992)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #4: October 1990

My First Comic Book Love

Namor the Sub-Mariner #7
Writer: John Byrne
Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: John Byrne
Colorist: Glynis Oliver

*

This essay is the first of a two-parter. The first part is the nice part.

My early comic book purchases were made on instinct with little rhyme or reason. I bought based mostly on curiosity about a certain character or group of characters, and honestly whether or not I liked the cover. I didn’t pay attention to who was writing or drawing the books. That all changed when I discovered John Byrne’s work. He was the first comic book artist whose style I recognized on sight, and he was the first comic book artist I loved.

He drew faces like no one else: squinty-eyed, dimpled, with expressive mouths. His men were lean and muscular but not in an exaggerated way. His women were beautiful. His version of a character almost invariably became the iconic version of that character, at least in my mind. He placed his figures in realistically-rendered settings, which made the fantastic elements all the more fantastic. He was a writer, too, which put me even more in awe of him.

My first Byrne comic was an issue - I can't remember exactly which one  - of Avengers West Coast, somewhere in his 1989-1990 15-issue stint as writer and artist. Those 15 issues were the first comic books I consciously set out to collect. And because of that, my love of John Byrne is inextricably connected with my love of comic book shops.

After my first comic book purchases in late 1989, I began making beelines to the comics spinners and racks in every drug store, grocery store, and gas station I found myself in. 

And then I discovered there was such a thing as a comic book shop.

In Jimmy Gownley’s 2014 graphic novel The Dumbest Idea Ever there’s a scene in which the main character enters a comic shop for the first time. Gownley presents it as akin to the switch from black and white to color in film version of The Wizard of Oz. That was exactly it for me. Walking into a comic shop for the first time was like entering a magical new world, and I was overwhelmed. Stepping into Metropolis Comics in Normal, Illinois – at that time located in an odd little strip of businesses on Main Street, I saw a long wall full of new comics, including dozens of titles I’d never seen before. In the back there were white boxes filled with older issues.

This was a time before superhero ubiquity, so seeing a place filled with them, including posters on the wall and t-shirts, was mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe a place like this existed. On that first trip, I was thrilled to find Avengers West Coast 56 (March 1990) to add to my collection. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that John Byrne’s work is responsible for me becoming a collector. Because after I completed my set of Avengers West Coast, I set my sights on other Byrne comics. And there were a lot of them!

After discovering Metropolis, comic shops became second homes to me. I sought out stores in every new city I found myself in. No two were ever alike, except that they always made me happy. My mom and step-dad especially were gracefully indulgent of this, often enduring burned-out neighborhoods and wrong turns to find a specific shop, not to mention sitting in the car or waiting to the side patiently while I looked through the wares.

Some of my best memories of visiting these comic shops were of finding John Byrne comics for my collection: A few key issues of Fantastic Four at the impressive Tomorrow is Yesterday in Rockford. The six-issue Man of Steel miniseries, purchased for me by my Grandpa Allen at a dusty little store in Mount Zion.

*

John Lindley Byrne was born in England in 1950 but moved to Canada when he 8-years-old. After high school he attended Alberta College of Art for a couple of years and some change before dropping out to focus on breaking into comics. It didn’t take long. His first professional sale was actually to Marvel, illustrating a back-up story by Tony Isabella and David Anthony Kraft that would eventually be published in Giant-Size Dracula #5 in June 1975. By that time Byrne had started doing work for Charlton Comics, illustrating a handful of their TV tie-in titles and co-creating Doomsday +1 with writer Joe Gill.

He headed to Marvel next, and did runs on Iron Fist, Champions, and Marvel Team-Up. He was often paired with writer Chris Claremont, who was just a couple of years into what would become an epic stint on Uncanny X-Men. Byrne joined Claremont on the title with issue 108 and would stay for four years. The pair’s time on the title was remarkably popular and remarkably memorable, culminating in the twin classics “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” Byrne became one of the few genuine superstar artists in the business, and would inspire many a young artist - both Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld would cite Byrne as a primary influence.

Byrne didn’t write Uncanny X-Men, but he served as co-plotter and reportedly clashed often with Claremont over matters of characterization. So on his next major work he took over as both writer and artist, resulting in a legendary five-year run on Fantastic Four. From there he did a couple of years on the X-Men spin-off Alpha Flight, and then made the big leap to DC, where he revamped Superman after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Two years working on Superman and Action Comics left Byrne feeling a lack of “conscious support” from DC, and he headed back to Marvel.

There, he worked on the New Universe title The Star Brand, kicked off a new She-Hulk series (notable for its comedic, break-the-fourth-wall approach), and settled on to Avengers West Coast, where I came in. Though I’d begun by this time to gather up his older work, Byrne’s next project was the first one I got to experience from the beginning. His take on the ocean-faring 1930s character Namor the Sub-Mariner debuted in April 1990 as part of the "Heroes for the 1990’s" initiative that gave us the subjects of our previous two essays, New Warriors and Spider-Man.

Namor was not a character I had much interest in, but with Byrne writing and drawing, I was all-in. There’s nothing particularly special about #7 of the title, but it does serve as a good overview of what Byrne tried to accomplish with the book, both as a writer and as an artist. Byrne repositioned Namor as not an undersea king, but as a corporate CEO, funded by sunken pirate treasure. There was a vague environmental message in the early issues, present here in the “Unknowable Menace of Sluj” but mostly Byrne was interested in corporate intrigue, personified by filthy rich twins Desmond and Phoebe Mars. Honestly, I was more interested the later issues that reunited the World War II era team the Invaders. But the art. Oh the art. 

As happens with many artists, Byrne’s work evolved and became more stylized over time. His X-Men work (inked by Terry Austin) is often held up as a gold standard, but from a drafting standpoint it wasn’t as accomplished as Byrne’s work would later become. His 1980 9-issue run on Captain America showed great strides, and that continued throughout his years on Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, on the former he began inking himself, and this hit the sweet spot of draftsmanship and rendering. 

By the time he reached Namor he was at the height of his powers, and for a large chunk of issues he upped the ante by his use of Duo-Shade. Duo-Shade was a special drawing board with a diagonal line pattern printed directly on. After drawing on the board, the artist could apply a clear solution wherever he or she wanted shading to appear on the final art. The results were striking, unlike any comic book art I’d seen before. It blew my young mind (when I started making my own comics a few years later, I tracked down some Duo-Shade for myself). Even looking now, I still would hold it up as some of the best artwork Byrne has ever done.

*

I’d remain steadfastly dedicated to John Byrne’s work throughout the 1990s, but as with many great love there would be a few too many bumps in the road to a bitter divorce. If you can marshal your patience and wait for a few years’ worth of essays, I’ll tell you all about it in Part 2.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #3: August 1990

An Imperfect First Issue























Spider-Man #1
Writer: Todd McFarlane
Penciler: Todd McFarlane
Inker: Todd McFarlane
Colorist: Bob Sharen

*

If New Warriors #1 was a masterclass in compressed storytelling, Spider-Man #1 – released one month later – was a cautionary tale about the dangers of decompression. It also taught me a valuable lesson about the how the gap between expectation and reality can be very big indeed.

In the past decade, Marvel and DC have thrown out new number 1 issues for established characters like so much confetti, but in 1990 it was a rarity. And even though Spider-Man had three titles to his name at the time – Amazing Spider-Man (1963), Spectacular Spider-Man (1976), and Web of Spider-Man (1985) – this one was being written and drawn by Todd McFarlane. That was a BIG deal.

McFarlane was a native of Calgary, Alberta, and had made his name drawing Amazing Spider-Man from March 1988 to January 1990, where his cartoony, exaggerated style reinvented the visual language of Spider-Man. McFarlane portrayed Spider-Man as a contortionist, and drew his webbing as thick and goopy and voluminous. His work on that title turned the 29-year-old artist, whose only other major comic book credits to that point were a two-year run on DC’s Infinity Inc. and a brief stint on The Incredible Hulk, into a superstar.

I was totally on the McFarlane bandwagon, and finding affordable issues of his Amazing Spider-Man I’d missed before I started collecting was like finding four-leaf clovers. I treasured the few I had. I’ve since acquired an omnibus collecting all of that run – which encompassed 27 issues and 2 years – and it’s striking to see the evolution of McFarlane’s style over those issues. Following the landmark #300, on which McFarlane began inking himself, his work became more dynamic and stylized with each issue. You can basically see the artist emerge before your eyes, but that rapid evolution also made for some awkwardness. The storytelling was always strong and clear, but the faces and posing could be downright strange. 

Even so, the dynamism of the work overcame all. Though he was born to draw Spider-Man, McFarlane was one of those few artists whose style was so totally unique that you wanted to see him draw every single Marvel hero. And the DC ones too.

Needless to say, I was hyped for Spider-Man #1. A lot of people were. Marvel knew they had a huge moneymaker on their hands, so they sold the book in a polybag emblazoned with a large “Issue #1 Collector’s Item” blurb. They produced variants of the cover printed with gold ink and silver ink to appeal to completionists and speculators. It worked. Upon its release, Spider-Man #1 became the best-selling comic book of all time, with 2.35 million sold and an additional 500,000 copies printed to keep up with demand. The cover itself is one of the most iconic images of Spider-Man ever produced. The poster I had in my bedroom now hangs in my sons’ toy room.

I’ve long since divested myself of my personal copy of Spider-Man #1, but I know I bought at least two when they came out. But of course I wrecked the value of one of them by opening the polybag and actually reading the comic. 

And when I did, I was disappointed by what I found there.

Spider-Man #1 is part one of a five-part story called “Torment.”  There’s a lot of atmosphere and forbidding and narrative captions but not much plot. Spidey stops a mugging, the Lizard kills some people (and a rat), Peter chats with Mary Jane, and a mysterious woman does mysterious things behind the scenes. It’s not awful - there’s an interesting parallel structure to the issue, and there’s certainly a sustained mood - but it’s overwritten, almost more like a prose story with pictures than a comic book. And the lack of interesting plot developments left me cold as a kid. 

McFarlane took on writing duties because he wanted “the freedom to draw what I want to draw,” he said (Marvel). On Amazing Spider-Man he’d been paired with veteran writer David Michelinie, whose plots admittedly didn’t always play to McFarlane’s strengths. The strongest issues in his Amazing Spider-Man run were the horror-tinged ones featuring Venom (a character whom Michelinie and McFarlane created) and the Hobgoblin, and that was clearly McFarlane’s wheelhouse. Well, that and drawing cheesecake shots of Mary Jane in various outfits. So while the story in “Torment” leaves something to be desired, the art is certainly striking. 


I wasn’t the only one dissatisfied. When the "Torment" story arc finished up after five issues, it became clear that first issue wasn't just a slow opening to a story that got more exciting as it went. The languorous pace continued throughout, the mystery woman never became less mysterious, and little of true consequence occurred. 

The overriding narrative became that McFarlane was a subpar writer, and it was cemented when he later admitted he hadn't know what he was doing. He'd say that he was more concerned about the art than anything else. Here’s what he told Wizard Magazine in 1991 about his writing process: “Once I pick something I think is visually dynamic, I start to formulate a story around it. I don’t really bother with the minute details. I would if I had more time, but I have only four weeks to turn out the whole book” (Wizard 1). He’d later grouse that Marvel had offered him no help or advice with his writing (granted, in the same interview he’d just complained at length about editorial interference).

Though his storytelling approach definitely could have been improved, I don't think that was McFarlane's main problem as a writer. The real issue is that the stories McFarlane wanted to write and draw were not quite right for Spider-Man. The 15 issues of Spider-Man McFarlane ended up creating almost all had a heavy dose of darkness and violence, with guest stars such as Ghost Rider, Wolverine, Wendigo, and Morbius. The beloved Kraven's Last Hunt aside, Spider-Man just doesn't work that well in gritty stories. Certainly not on a sustained basis. 

Judging by the structure and style of his work on Spider-Man, McFarlane worshiped at the altar of guys like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and was trying to bring some of that graphic novel gravitas to Spider-Man. It was just an ill fit. Of course now we have the benefit of hindsight and knowing that McFarlane would go on to create the Spawn, a character and concept that he tailored to his strengths.

As disappointing as it was to me at the time, Spider-Man #1 may be one of the most influential comics ever released, with a far-reaching impact on the way superhero comics would be sold. Multiple covers and polybagging would become standard practice. So would be starting new series or restarting old series with new #1s. And the book's structure – a single story stretched out over five issues (something McFarlane claimed in a Comics Scene interview to have done to be "rebellious") – would eventually become the norm in superhero comics. For better and definitely for worse.


Works cited:

Marvel. Les Daniels, Harry N Abrams, New York: 1991. p233.

“Writing and Drawing the Web-Head.” Patrick Daniel O’Neill. Wizard 1 (September 1991).

“Spawn.” Kim Howard Johnson. Comics Scene 27 (June 1992).

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #2: July 1990

A Perfect First Issue

























New Warriors #1
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciller: Mark Bagley
Inker: Al Williamson
Colorist: Michael Rockwitz

*

I became a comics fan at the perfect time, both for what was happening in the industry itself and for what was happening in my life. Let’s start with the second part first.

I started reading comics regularly in late 1989. I was 12-years-old and in the middle of seventh grade. It was a dark and difficult time for me.

Despite being my parents divorcing when I was four, and despite attending three schools by third grade, life was pretty happy-go-lucky for me in my first 11 years. Circa sixth grade, however, things took a turn. My best friend Stan moved across town and to a new school. I got big clunky glasses, and I started to gain weight and become very self-conscious about it. Being a June birthday I was already among the youngest kids in my class, but when I reached sixth grade it felt like everyone had gotten a memo that I hadn’t. All of my classmates seemed to have grown up without me. I had no close friends nearby for the first time in my life. My once healthy self-confidence sprung an unpatchable leak, and was soon gone completely.

It got bad enough that my teacher, Mr. Lange, noticed and referred me to the school counselor, with whom I started having regular visits. I never defined it this way or had it defined this way to me, but it’s clear now that I had become depressed.

It got worse in seventh grade. Though it could have been a fresh start for me, I came into the race limping. At one point, I tried to see how many days I could go without a classmate voluntarily talking to me. I don’t remember how many days it ended up being, but I do remember it was broken by Andy Adams, whose locker was one down from mine, making small talk about a class we shared. I remember being shocked to discover that he was speaking to me. My classmates’ indifference towards me occasionally turned to light bullying; threats and insults and “friendly punches” that were just a bit too hard and required the holding back of tears. During gender-separated P.E., my reluctance to communally shower and my lack of interest in wrestling led to the regular disappearance of my gym clothes out of my gym locker.

These were the conditions under which I wandered into comic books. They arrived at the exact moment when I needed a source of joy in my life, something to provide escape from the harshness of the day-to-day. Comic books didn’t cure me of my depression, but I shudder to think of an alternate reality where I didn’t start collecting comics, and what might have happened to that version of me.

*

Not only was my timing perfect for my mental health, it was perfect for what was happening in the books themselves. Marvel introduced six new “very modern” books in the first half of 1990 as part of what they called “Heroes for the ‘90’s” (sound familiar?!). The books were Robocop, Namor, Ghost Rider, Guardians of the Galaxy, The New Warriors, and Spider-Man. I bought all of them except Robocop, which held no interest for me.

These new titles loomed large for me as a novice collector, and still do for me now as a veteran collector (I’ll be writing essays about Spider-Man and Namor for this project, and I wrote about Guardians of the Galaxy here), but none more than The New Warriors. The first issue of that comic - and the next couple years’ worth of stories that followed it - defined my comic reading tastes, proclivities, and sensibilities.

Why did this particular comic book captivate me so completely? Given that I was a month away from becoming a teenager, and that I had my fair share of angst and anger, perhaps it was a simple matter of being able to identify with the characters. But it wasn’t just that. In fact, I’d say that was only a very small part of the appeal.

The New Warriors were an unlikely team consisting largely of unwanted characters who had been kicking around the Marvel universe for several years. Namorita, Namor the Sub-Mariner’s cousin, first appeared in 1972. Vance Astrovik, Marvel Boy, debuted in 1975 (and came to prominence in the mid-‘80s in the Thing’s solo title). Richard Rider, Nova, had his own 25-issue series starting in 1976. Firestar originated not in the comics but on the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon in the early 1980s (she made her comics debut in 1985). Speedball first showed up in 1988. 

Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz had the ingenious idea of throwing those five together along with a mysterious new character - Night Thrasher – to lead them. DeFalco and Frenz introduced the New Warriors in late 1989 in the pages of the Mighty Thor (issues 411 and 412, to be exact). 


Response must have been good enough to give the team their own book. The task was put in the hands of two relative newcomers. Fabian Nicieza had served behind the scenes at Marvel as both an advertising manager and as an editor of titles such as Barbie Fashion, ALF, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, and Wonder Man. As a writer his only previous regular assignment was the New Universe Psi-Force, which was about a group of psychic teens. Nicieza wrote the book from issue 16 (February 1988) through to the title’s cancellation at issue 32. He worked with a variety of artists, but on #24 he was teamed with Mark Bagley. 

A military brat, Bagley studied at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. For awhile he worked odd jobs while trying to break into comics, but then landed a job doing technical drawings at Lockheed Martin in Georgia. In 1983, Marvel put out the Marvel Try-Out Book as a contest to find new talent. A friend encouraged Bagley to enter. Though reluctant, Bagley did it, and won. He didn’t hear from Marvel for several months, but eventually he was flown to New York, met the Marvel editors, worked on a story, and was added to the call list for assignments. Jobs were slow in coming at first. Bagley did mainly fill-in work on New Universe titles, back-up stories, and some trading card work. The New Warriors was his big break, but Bagley wasn’t exactly over the moon at first. “At first I didn’t really want to work on New Warriors,” he told Wizard Magazine in 1992. “I mean, it had Speedball and Marvel Boy in it!” But he was won over by Nicieza’s enthusiasm and long-term plans for the book.

*

In these days of decompressed storytelling, where stories are given more space to unfold, it’s almost shocking how much Nicieza and Bagley were able to establish in New Warriors #1. This was in many ways a throwback to the Marvel of the 1960s, when telling the Fantastic Four’s origin didn’t even take up a whole issue. But those older issues often felt rushed, likely because they were. New Warriors #1 doesn’t take shortcuts, but it definitely starts with its foot on the gas, and doesn’t take it off.

The book begins with Night Thrasher dangling a terrified Richard Rider over the edge of a tall building, and then dropping him, an act which awakens his dormant Nova powers. When Rider marvels at how Night Thrasher knew that would work, the latter says simply, “I didn’t.” Thus in two pages we learn something fundamental about the two characters and their relationship. From there we bounce quickly to Marvel Boy’s botched Avengers audition and Night Thrasher’s oddly threatening way of inviting Firestar onto the team. A menace arises, and Speedball and Namorita arrive by fate, not as recruits. The six heroes defeat the enemy through cooperation and quick-thinking, and decide to band together. This all happens so effectively and thrillingly, I’m not shy to label New Warriors #1 a perfect first issue.

It might just be because I read and re-read this issue so often, but it’s just filled with memorable moments, wonderfully conceived by Nicieza and masterfully executed by Bagley. These include:

  • Firestar burns a hole through a pillar in anger. Bagley depicts Nova and Marvel Boy looking through the smoldering hole in astonishment, then quickly blaming Night Thrasher for threatening her.
  • Terrax comes to life from inside the AILEAC unit over a series of panels.
  • Marvel Boy puts Speedball in a telekinetic bubble, forcing his bouncing momentum to build up inside of it, then unleashes him on Terrax.
  • The Avengers show up after the battle is over and condescendingly dismiss the Warriors and their accomplishment.
  • When the heroes agree to form a team, they put their hands in the middle one by one, echoing a similar moment in the first comic of the modern Marvel age, Fantastic Four #1.




I wasn’t the only fan of New Warriors #1. The series became a surprise hit. As typified by Bagley’s initial reaction, no one within Marvel really thought a book full of cast-off obscure characters had much of a chance. I’d venture to say that much of the book’s success was that the characters were unwanted, as it afforded for more growth and drastic change than mainstream superhero books typically allow. Nicieza recognized this, saying of the Warriors, “When they appeared in Thor, I thought right off the bat that this was the perfect group of characters for me to work with, the right balance of established detail and tabula rasa blankness.” (Comics Scene 20) As such, the New Warriors became an unpredictable book: Costumes changed, powers evolved, characters came and left, relationships deepened and broke. This thrilled me as a kid.

The subsequent 24 issues Nicieza and Bagley did as a team weren’t quite as perfect as that first issue – the Punisher story arc in issues 7 through 9 is particularly awkward – but in general it’s a very impressive run. As a kid I especially loved the alternative reality “Forever Yesterday” storyline in issues 11 through 13. So many aspects of the series became fundamental elements of my ideal of superhero comics. Besides the character development and interactions, there was the tight plotting, the balance of gravitas and levity, the dynamic but unobtrusive visual storytelling, and the mixture of epic and intimate stories.

Besides the character development, Nicieza had a clear thesis behind his approach to the series. He told Comics Scene, “These kids are looking at the world and trying to do something about the problems they see, to do the right thing no matter what. It’s damn hard to do. I hope teenagers in the ‘90s are absorbing this, not only from comics, but from what’s going on around them.” That theme didn’t show up in every storyline, but it certainly ran beneath the series for as long as Nicieza wrote it, which was until 1994. (It was also the central conceit of the excellent one-page reunion between Nicieza and Bagley that appeared in Marvel Comics #1000 in 2019, which unapologetically depicted the original characters as, in the modern vernacular, social justice Warriors).

*

New Warriors turned out to be quite a significant career launch for both its writer and its artist. Bagley would leave New Warriors in 1992 to work on one of Marvel’s flagship titles, Amazing Spider-Man, and eventually become known as one of the definitive Spider-Man artists. Nicieza’s career took off as well, and by 1992 he’d be writing X-Men. We’ll hear more about both men going forward.


Works Cited:

“Interview: Fabian Nicieza” Dwight Jon Zimmerman. Marvel Age 89 (June 1990).

“School’s Out” Drew Bittner. Comics Scene 20 (August 1991).

“Of Webs and Warriors” Greg McElhatton. Wizard 10 (June 1992)

“Influential Creators” How to Collect Comics (Wizard), 1st Edition (1994).


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #1: January 1990

My Secret Origin


What If...? #9
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciller: Rich Buckler
Inker: Sam Delarosa
Colorist: Evelyn Stein

*

I bought the book that started my 30-year obsession with comics when I was 12 years old, but my fascination with superheroes and cartooning goes back much further.

By all accounts my first pop culture love was Sesame Street. Now before I get lost trying to trace Super Grover to Watchmen, I’ll instead say that it might actually have been Sesame Street’s sister show, the Electric Company – which stopped production of its initial run the year I was born, but lived on in reruns long enough for me to watch as a preschooler – that actually sparked the fire. The Electric Company not only featured the superhero Letterman, but also the ongoing “Spidey Super Stories” segment, introducing me to my favorite super-hero, Spider-Man. When I was around six years old, I would meet him in person at a toy store in Decatur, a high point of my young life.


One of my most vivid and happy Christmas memories is of waking up to find the fireplace mantle in my grandparents’ house in Bowling Green, Kentucky lined Underoos: Boba Fett, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern. 


The debut of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe when I was in first grade blew my young mind. While not strictly superheroes, I mean, come on, they pretty much were. A bunch of muscled men and women in colorful costumes with an array of inventive powers battling one another? My favorite aspect of the Masters of the Universe were those costumes and character designs. Those are what really set my little imagination reeling. By second grade, circa 1983, I had created my own superhero alter-ego, Super Paul, who had a bulbous nose and his own legion of allies and enemies. These are sadly lost to time, but were likely mostly rip-offs of MoTU characters.

Superheroes lived on the periphery of my experience through early adolescence. I had a Mighty Marvel Super Heroes Fun Book from Fireside that I often perused, wondering who exactly all these costumed people were. But I was more into G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., and Transformers than Marvel or DC. Part of that was an issue of exposure. The only superheroes on TV in the early 1980s were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and while I was a faithful viewer of both of these programs, they weren’t enough to drive me to comic books. Neither were the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, all of which I watched repeatedly.

As I grew I developed a healthy interest in comics and cartooning, driven largely by old Peanuts paperbacks that belonged to my mom, Garfield and Heathcliff collections, and the twin powerhouses of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I decided I would like to be a cartoonist one day, and would most likely take over from Bill Waterson or Charles Schulz when they decided to retire. As I reached junior high, this morphed into an ambition to become the editor-in-chief of MAD Magazine.

In retrospect, my obsession with MAD probably walked me right into comics, since they were positioned next to each other on the magazine racks. But that summer after sixth grade provided the clearest antecedent: On June 23, 1989 the Tim Burton-directed, Michael Keaton-starring Batman movie premiered, and like a good portion of the country I was swept up in Batmania. I saw it at least three times in the theater. I ate the cereal, I collected the movie cards, I put the poster on my wall, I read the novelization, and I bought the toys. The 1960s Batman show began showing up in reruns again, and I went to the campus theater with my step-mom and dad to see the 1966 film on the big screen in rerelease.

It’s no surprise then, that I bought my first comic books that winter. But it wasn’t Batman comics that reeled me in. When I had to go grocery shopping with my mom at Jewel Osco on Oakland Avenue, it became my habit to beeline to the magazine display at the back of the store. One day circa November 1989 I started flipping through the comics and became fascinated with one called What If…?, a title I’d later learn reimagined pivotal moments in Marvel history. This particular issue - “What If the X-Men Died on their First Mission?” - examined an alternate reality in which the story told in Giant-Size X-men #1 (1975), the book that introduced Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and others as X-Men and revived the franchise, instead ended in tragedy.

The writer of this issue, Roy Thomas, had a long history with the X-Men. He was actually the team’s second regular writer, taking over from Stan Lee with 1966’s #20 and guiding the characters for two years. After about a year away, in which Doom Patrol co-creator Arnold Drake wrote the book, Roy returned to the X-Men and saw the title through to issue #66 (1970), the final issue before the book went into reprints for five years. And he though his brief stint as Marvel’s editor-in-chief ended the year before Giant-Size X-Men’s publication, it’s likely he had a guiding hand in making it happen.

For this What If…? story Thomas basically took the events of Giant-Size X-Men and its immediate follow-ups, Uncanny X-Men 94 and 95, and reimagined them. In this new reality, all of the X-Men, old and new, perish in space. Only Professor X and the Beast (who at that time was an Avenger, not an X-Man), survive. But when Count Nefaria and his Ani-Men take over a nuclear missile base, Beast has no choice but to call together a new group of mutants to defeat the villain. The team he calls together is full of familiar characters who at that point hadn’t been X-Men before: Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Theresa Rourke Cassidy (Banshee’s daughter), Namorita (Namor’s cousin), Rahne Sinclair, and James Proudstar (brother of Thunderbird, who had the misfortune to die in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in both realities). They save the day and then band together as the new X-Men.

What’s interesting about this particular team is how it drew from history while presaging a few developments that had yet to occur. Rahne of course was the New Mutant Wolfsbane, though here recruited to Xavier’s school at a much younger age than she would be in the main reality. Theresa had debuted in a 1981 Spider-Woman story, and then had joined the X-Men orbit in the 1987 Fallen Angels mini-series. She would go on to join X-Force in the 1990s, and so would James Proudstar. In fact, the latter’s story in that book seems to be lifted directly from this issue of What If. The use of Namorita was also intriguing, considering that just a few months after the publication of this issue, she’d join a different team, the New Warriors.

Thomas ends the issue with a nice little joke that was funny at the time but became even funnier in the 1990s as the number X-Men-related books ballooned: “It seems there will always be ‘X-Men,’” the Watcher says, “And ‘X-Factor,’ and ‘New Mutants,’ and ‘Excalibur…’”

Of course at the time I bought this issue I didn’t quite get the joke, nor did I understand any of the history I just outlined above. In fact, I don’t even remember what it was that drew me to that particular comic book. Why did I choose to lay down my (or my mom’s) $1.25 for an alternate reality tale about characters I knew nothing of? Well, I believe the fact that it was all foreign and seemingly impenetrable was actually a draw. I wanted to know who all these characters were and how they fit together and what their histories were. 

Rich Buckler’s cover was another draw. The emotion and drama of it still strikes me even now. I have a hard time believing, however, that his inside art set me on fire in any way. Buckler – an artist with a long list of credits at both DC and Marvel since the 1970s – has a style I’d call workmanlike, and I don’t mean that as an insult to his skills: His draftsmanship and layouts are solid, and place storytelling over all else. He worked very much the “house” Marvel style of the 1970s and 1980s, typified by John Buscema and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. It’s a style that was already somewhat antiquated by the late-‘80s and would become nearly extinct within a couple of years.

Now I’m still objective enough to know that What If… #9 was no comics masterpiece. Rereading it now, I realize there’s not a ton of nuance or depth to the story. But it strikes me that some of the elements I most value in comic book stories are present in this one, namely alternate realities, unlikely teams, new beginnings, and the power of legacies. So I can draw a direct line from this particular comic book to those proclivities. This book also made me a lifelong fan of Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast (more on him right here and here).

Most significantly, What If… #9 also made me want to read more comics. 

When I look now at the list of comics that were released the following month (February 1990 cover dates) it’s clear that my dabbling quickly turned into a preoccupation. The covers of Avengers 314, Avengers Westcoast 44, Fantastic Four 337, New Mutants 86, Silver Surfer 34, and Web of Spider-Man 61 – featuring art by the likes of Paul Ryan, Walter Simonson, Ron Lim, Alex Saviuk, Rob Liefeld – are all burned inside my brain, and looking at them now fires the same neurons that fired when I was 12 years old.

I was hooked.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Heroes for the '90s!: An Introduction



Riddle Me This
What do you think of when you hear the words “Superhero comics in the 1990s”?

Holographic covers? Gritted teeth? Improbably large guns? Polybags? Exclusive trading cards? Superman’s “death”? Image Comics? Foil-embossed covers? Marvel’s bankruptcy? Wizard Magazine? Cross-hatching? Pouches?

All of the above?

We rarely know what’s going to define a certain period of time while we’re still the midst of it.  Trends in fashion, music, graphic design, TV, etc. are kind of like a plant or a child. They’re changing every day, but you don’t notice it happening. Only later can we really take stock of what went on before. One of the stranger aspects of entering middle age is seeing eras you lived through – and remember well – gain an identity. 

It has been really weird for me to witness the 1990s boiled down to its defining aspects. There were certain things we knew at the time would be part of the story: grunge music, flannel shirts, the swing revival. Others have come as a surprise, at least to me: oversized t-shirts, boy bands with odd facial hair, Nickelodeon cartoons, hackey sack. Once an era does gain definition, that identity often focuses on the big trends, and thus ends up feeling superficial and reductive, never quite matching how it felt to really live it.

This is definitely what has happened to the view of superhero comics in the 1990s. The exaggerated artwork and gimmicky sales techniques and massive shifts in status quo all happened, and they were all huge, but they are also far from the whole story. I know because I was there!

When the idea occurred to me to write a history of superhero comics in the 1990s, one of my big goals was to present a wider picture of the decade than what we’re used to seeing. I’ve always been drawn to lesser-known stories, the ones in danger of being forgotten in time’s unending march. In the 1990s these lesser-known stories include the fact that classic-style storytelling and artwork made a resurgence, new superhero universes were born and died at an alarming rate, and black superheroes and creators came into their own.

This is also personal to me. I started reading comic books religiously in late 1989, and in fact due to the two month lag between actual release date and cover date, the first books I bought were cover-dated January 1990. I temporarily quit following new comics in the later months of 1999. So the story of comics in the 1990s is also the story of the first and most formative phase of my 30-years of comic fandom. 

A Few Words About Format
Writing a comprehensive history of something takes obsession and focus, and is the act is always in danger of becoming untenable. This level of difficulty increases with the scope of the topic. My history of Random House’s Beginner Books line covered several decades and over 100 books, and that took me over two years to research and write. There were at least 100 comics released each month in the 1990s, which adds up to over 14,000 different books. I’d already decided to narrow my scope to only superhero comics published by DC and Marvel, but estimated that would only reduce the workload by about 20%. To try to cover everything would take several years. And the end result would be either tediously long or frustratingly superficial.

While trying to solve this problem, I flirted briefly with the idea of focusing on just one year, say the eventful 1993, but that wouldn’t have been personally satisfying because it wouldn’t have allowed me to write about all of the runs and creators I want to. Next, I hit on the idea of picking one Marvel or DC comic from each of the 120 months comprising the 1990s, and writing an essay about each one. I went so far as to choose all 120 issues, but in that process I realized 120 essays was simply too...much...content.

So, I went backwards. I wrote out a list of creators, characters, runs, and trends that I definitely wanted to discuss, and then picked the individual comics that lent themselves to that. I ended up with 44 comics. Though this approach sacrifices comprehensiveness, I hope it will gain a level of depth it couldn’t have had before. I won’t be able to discuss every single significant comic book of the 1990s (I’m not writing about Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, for instance), but I do believe that, when taken in whole, this body of essays will present a vivid picture of superhero comics at the Big Two in the 1990s.

Though I’m going to approach this project with the same level of detailed research as I have my published books, this will ultimately have a different tone. In my books, I aim for as much nonjudgmental clarity as I can muster. My interests, values, and opinions come through, but in subtle ways. Because this is an extremely personal project for me, those interests, values, and opinions are going to be more directly stated. Many of the essays will also illuminate some aspect of the growth and evolution of my comics fandom.

Each essay will be numbered, just like comic books are, but will also be “new-reader friendly,” meaning you don’t have to read them in order, or read all of them. But if I do my job right there’ll be a cumulative effect, just as though you were reading these in a book.

Before we get to that though, there’s some context I’d like you to have.

Superhero Comics from the 1960s to the 1980s
As the 1990s dawned, DC and Marvel were on different trajectories, but that was nothing new. When the modern Marvel universe debuted in 1963, DC was already cruising along with a refreshed line that centered on the the perennially popular Superman and Batman, but also included new versions of their 1940s characters, including Green Lantern, Flash, and Hawkman. The major heroes had banded together as the Justice League of America in 1960. The remarkable success of Marvel’s rapid-growth superhero universe - Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man - and their mix of the conversational and the cosmic didn’t really change much about how DC operated. Their stories remained straight-laced and static, imaginary or of no lasting consequence. Character development was practically non-existent, and impactful new characters came along in drips and drabs.

In the 1970s, both companies allowed their superhero universes to become shaggy and a bit weird, but 1978 would be the year that set the course for both companies. DC, after attempting to match Marvel’s prodigious output, ended up cancelling 24 titles in what would be known as the DC Implosion. Marvel, meanwhile, ended its carousel of editors-in-chief and gave the job to a brash 27-year-old named Jim Shooter. He ushered in some fantastically beloved runs, including Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and John Byrne’s Fantastic Four.

Partly thanks to Shooter's micro-managing of talent, and partly thanks to its decision to start offering royalties to creators, DC in the 1980s reimagined itself as a creator-friendly haven willing to take chances on risky ideas. They allowed Marv Wolfman and George Perez to reinvent the Teen Titans to great success, and then gave the same team the keys to streamline the entire DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, resulting in, among other things, the John Byrne-helmed Superman reboot in 1986. That same year, DC published Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, both of which redefined the parameters of superhero stories. Those two blockbusters weren’t “in continuity,” meaning that DC’s mainstream universe continued on a somewhat staid (and low-selling) course, though the infusion of new writers brought character development and actual change into the DCU.

Under Jim Shooter Marvel reached new highs of commercial success, especially with the 1984 Secret Wars mini-series he wrote himself. But his 1986 New Universe – an attempt to create a new superhero continuity – was mostly a sales flop, piercing his air of invincibility. He was fired in 1987, and replaced by Tom DeFalco, who had helped found the lucrative Star Comics imprint that focused on licensed properties such as Heathcliff and Muppet Babies. In 1989, the Warner/Time merger gave DC huge media presence, which coincided perfectly with the release of Tim Burton’s mega-hit Batman film.
As 1990 arrived, DC pursued a path laid out by the success of Batman combined with their past acclaim for adult-oriented takes on their heroes. Marvel, meanwhile, was guided by DeFalco’s child-friendly outlook and undying admiration of the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby / Steve Ditko era.

That’s where our story starts, but there’s still a bit more you need to know.

Superheroes Weren’t Cool in the 1990s
We are currently in the midst of the salad days of superhero fandom and nerd culture. There are DC and Marvel movies, TV shows, video games, and merchandise everywhere you look. Nearly any past issue of a comic you’re looking for is available in a collection or online. You can find fellow fans easily, and everyone from infants to dudebros wear shirts with Green Lantern and Black Panther logos.

It was not always like this. Believe me. In the 1990s superheroes were extremely niche. It was exceedingly rare to see any evidence of them anywhere in mainstream culture, which is partly what made the success of the 1989 Batman movie so very exciting. Now people know once-obscure characters like Cyborg, Rocket Raccoon, and Captain Marvel (back then she was Ms. Marvel, or Binary if you were nasty). Now everyone recognizes Stan Lee on sight. Libraries and bookstores are filled with superhero “graphic novels” (we called them "trade paperbacks" in the 1990s) for all ages.

And in those pre-Internet, pre-Big Bang Theory, pre-Stranger Things days being a fan of science fiction/comics/anime/video games/role-playing games did not make you a part of an empowered geek culture. It made you uncool, and being uncool was mortifying. When it came to superheroes and comics liking them also set you up as a target for derision. Superheroes and comic books were for little kids and the sub-literate, so you had to hide that aspect of yourself.

The massive changes in the visibility, accessibility, and acceptance of superheroes and comic books didn’t happen in the 1990s, but the seeds were planted then.

What to Expect
Though I like to think 18 years as a teacher have given me the ability to make topics accessible even to those without great background knowledge, but I’ll warn in advance that there might be some stuff that flies by you if you aren’t a comics fan. I will however, be sure to explain the important bits.

It occurs to me that a good introduction should give you some idea of what to expect. So here’s just a partial list of the characters and creators I’ll be covering:

Zero Hour, the New Warriors, Starman, Legion of Super-Heroes, Batman Adventures, X-Men: The Animated Series, Wally West, Azrael, Amalgam, Ultraverse, Milestone, Impact, 2099, Spider-Girl, Rise of the Supermen, Kingdom Come, Justice Society of America, Image, John Byrne, Rob Liefeld, Mark Gruenwald, Todd McFarlane, Bret Blevins, Mike Parobeck, Mike Wieringo, Ron Lim, Dwayne McDuffie, Ron Frenz, Paul Ryan, and Fabian Nicieza. Whew!

Look for a new essay every Thursday (in honor of the day of the week when new comic books were released the 1990s). I’ll post on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but if you enter your e-mail address at the top right sidebar, you will be notified every time I publish a new essay.

Thanks for coming along on this journey with me.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Criminal Energy

"The ghost of recent misery
Still has a song to sing
Your captivated heart
Waiting for a spark
No one you'd care to recognize
Suddenly in control
Unfortunate to find
What it is inside"
- Jimmy Eat World, "Criminal Energy" (2020)

*

What happens when life not only imitates art, but takes it further than the art possibly could? We're finding out right now in the United States, where we have a president so drunk on power and short on empathy that that his words seem perfectly natural coming from the fascist Nazi bad guy the Red Skull. So natural, in fact that the person who created President Supervillain on Twitter has to accompany each post with a disclaimer stating that these are not just panels from old Captain America comics, but the president's actual words.


No comic book writer could create an antagonist as narcissistic, ridiculous, and malevolently ignorant as the one that currently darkens the White House. And so the past three years haven't seen the comics flooded with villains serving as thin analogues of the current president. In fact, one might say that superhero comics had long since moved on from the narcissistic, one-dimensional, fake-tough-guy, schoolyard-bully-writ-large, bellowing-man-child supervillain archetype long before the election of 2016 rolled around. Bad guys such as the Joker, Bane, Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, Doctor Octopus, Doctor Doom, Thanos, and Venom all become characters with complex motivations and worldviews, nearly every one at some point serving as heroes.

This could easily spin off into a discussion of the introduction of moral gray areas into superhero comics, but the real point here is that with the current president in office, comics are now more representative of reality than reality is.

*

Superhero comics have been commenting on social and political realities for pretty much their entire existence. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had Captain America punch Hitler in the face in the early 1940s. Superman's exhortation against intolerance from 1949 has made the rounds on social media. There's of course Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' groundbreaking Green Lantern/Green Arrow of the 1970s that took on drug addiction, war, and racism. Watchmen can be read as a cold war fable. The Dark Knight Returns has a lot to say about the news media and the responsibilities of power. The mutants of the X-Men have often served as a comment on bigotry and intolerance.



The idea of people with power using that power to do what's right, often at great personal sacrifice, is baked into the very core of the superhero. In their ideal form, superhero comics should absolutely take stances on issues of right and wrong as those concepts pertain to the times in in which they're created.

Just in the last month, I've noticed three separate series that have done just that. They all comment on life in post-2016 America, and what's especially interesting is that they all tackle the exact same aspect of it. Instead of focusing on the decayed morals of the leader himself, they explore the most disturbing aspect of his rise to power: That there are people - people we love - that have responded so wholeheartedly to his message of hate, division, xenophobia, and selfishness.

The oldest of these is Tom Taylor's 2018 title X-Men Red, which ran for 11 issues and told a complete story tilted "The Hate Machine." The premise is that powerful telepath Jean Grey, newly resurrected from the dead (again) has a vision of peace and harmony between human and mutant, and then assembles a team to try to carry it out. Trouble arrives in the form of Cassandra Nova, Professor Charles Xavier's evil human sister. She's developed nanite sentinels that invade people's minds and make them hate mutants.

She's also using other methods to sow hate and division. In issue #9 (with art by Roge Antonio and Rain Beredo) Trinary, a character who has the power to control machines, says, "There are so many demonstrably false stories online demonizing mutants. They've been posted and shared and believed despite being complete fabrications. I'm trying to address the false narrative dog whistle politics and hate speech. I'm trying to replace the lies and move the truth to where people will see it."

In the next issue, Nova releases a deep fake video of Jean dismissing humankind, and Trinary says she can disprove it. Storm responds:


Issue 11 comes on with a slam bang fight (with the Avengers joining Jean's team) and looks like it will wrap everything up in the typical superhero manner, thus belying Jean's whole message of fighting for unity without violence. But this turns out to be smoke and mirrors, as Jean's real purpose is to reprogram a nanite and infect Nova with what she's been missing: Empathy.

In Jean's final speech, she says, "I died. I returned to a world divided. A world where intolerance is cheered. Where ignorance is celebrated. Where rumor is fact and fact is dismissed. I don't believe in this world. I believe in a greater one. We are, all of us, better than this. Stronger than this. Kinder than this." Togetherness is her answer, and this is by far the most hopeful of the three stories.

*

WONDER TWINS #11 (OF 12)Wonder Twins, a 12-issue DC series by Mark Russell and Stephen Byrne published largely in 2019, takes a much different tone and approach. The book makes a similar point to X-Men Red, but its use of humor and satire actually allows for a darker and deeper message. Issues 10 and 11 concern an artificial intelligence called the Colonel. The Colonel was created in 1986 by a D-List villain called Filo Math, but when he's purchased at an estate sale and connected to the Internet (which he likens to Communism because of its egalitarian nature), he hijacks the digital world. The changes in society have deeply confused him, so he copes by attempting to return the world to its circa-1986 state. For example, he invests all of his new owners' money in Blockbuster stock, and he voids all same-sex marriages.

His mission resonates with white men, who rally to his cause ("I know he's controversial, but Colonel 86 just gets me!") and Lex News (a thinly-veiled Fox News) jumps on the bandwagon ("Is Colonel 86 the best thing to ever happen...or just the bold voice of a forgotten generation?").

Filo himself realizes he has to destroy his creation, saying: "Sometimes...a program just refuses to be updated. It refuses to acknowledge that the world has changed, but assumes the world was at its best when they were at theirs. In a perfect world, we would all update ourselves regularly. And if we can't update the program, then we have no choice but to shut it down."

Repulso, another D-List villain, is called in to disperse the crowds, and offers some food for thought on that same theme:


As the events wrap up, the Wonder Twins themselves have this exchange:

Zan: "Wow. For a monster, a lot of people really loved the Colonel."
Jayna: "They never loved him; they loved the monster he allowed them to be."

*

Scott Snyder's and Jorge Jimenez's Justice League epic "Justice / Doom War" built over 39 issues and two years, concluding in early 2020. In the story, an overpowered Lex Luthor frees an ancient god called Perpetua who gives the people of Earth (many Earths) the choice between good and evil. They choose the latter. What could have become yet another story about heroes triumphing through their courage and sacrifice becomes something much more ambiguous. As Martian Manhunter summarizes:

"But now a counteroffer has been made. By a being far more powerful than I. A god who, instead of inspiring you to reach up, tempts you to reach down, into the past, into the basest elements of your nature. She asks that you serve her by serving yourselves. She says there is no him or her or them. For her there is only 'I.' She wants you each to exist like the letter itself. I. I. I. Every life like the thinnest island, floating on its own needs. A line connected to nothing but her."

Like Jayna in Wonder Twins, he realizes, "There is no beating her. She is always there. In the flesh, the bone. The swirling dust. Forever whispering...but what she speaks to in us, the worst parts, those are what make things like generosity, compassion all the more powerful."

The Manhunter makes a strong telepathic appeal for people to reconsider their choice, but...


Perpetua says, "See, I wanted you to make your case to humanity. I wanted your plea to be full-throated, to have the chance to side with you. You spoke with them because I allowed it. For in the end... I knew they would choose me."

As the story ends, the heroes lose this particular battle. "The rise of evil in this universe, the lack of connection between the good" make Perpetua too powerful. The heroes are told, "The universe has been divided by evil, and in division comes fear, anger, and disillusionment. No single action or wonder or victory can correct such a tide."

The story will likely continue in Snyder's next big DC project, but for now he recognizes there are no pat answers.

*

I didn't look up any sort of online reaction to these stories, but I can guarantee you that there were angry fans who decried the writers for inserting liberal politics into their stories. There's a small but vocal segment of backwards-looking comic fans (I won't invoke their name for the same reason I won't invoke the name of the man they admire, because names have power) who vociferously condemn anything and anyone they can define as a "social justice warrior." A group of "fans" who get deeply angry about heroes fighting on behalf of empathy and unity proves the very point each of these three writers so elegantly made.

I wish I had some answer for how to deal with the fact that our mothers, fathers, friends, etc. have given into that monster inside of themselves, but the conclusion that hews most closely to my own feelings and outlook is the non-resolution of the Justice League story. There's clearly no pat answer or singular victory to be won. The story goes on, and the conflicts within it are not going away, even when President Supervillain does.