Thursday, July 29, 2021

Heroes for the '90s!: 1990 - 1994


Heroes for the '90s! is a 44-essay examination of 1990s Marvel and DC superhero comics. Each essay is centered on a particular issue of a comic book, and explores the themes, creators, and characters that defined the first decade of my fandom. Here are links to the 25 essays that cover the first five years of the decade.

1990

#1 - My Secret Origin
What If... (vol. 2) #9 (January 1990)

The New Warriors (vol. 1) #1 (July 1990)

Spider-Man #1 (August 1990)
Namor, the Sub-Mariner #7 (October 1990)

New Mutants #98 (February 1991)
Justice Society of America #1 (April 1991)

Sleepwalker #1 (June 1991)

Infinity Gauntlet #1 (July 1991)

The Fly #1 (September 1991)

X-Men #1 (October 1991)

1992

The New Titans #82 (January 1992)

Quasar #31 (February 1992)

Alpha Flight #106 (March 1992)

Avengers #347 (May 1992)

Wizard #11 (July 1992)

Ravage 2099 #1 (December 1992)

1993

X-Factor #87 (February 1993)

1963 #1 (April 1993)

Blood Syndicate #1 (May 1993)

Superman: The Man of Steel #22 (June 1993)

Flash #80 (September 1993)

1994

The Strangers #8 (January 1994)

Force Works #1 (July 1994)

Starman #0 (October 1994)

X-Men Adventures (Season II) #10 (November 1994)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #25 (Part 2): November 1994

In the Heart of the Beast, Part 2


























X-Men Adventures (Season II) #10
Writer: Ralph Macchio
Penciller: Paul Borges
Inker: James Pascoe
Colorist: Joe Agostinelli

*

As we learned in part 1 of this essay, 1992's X-Men: The Animated Series had distilled 30 years of drastic personality changes into an ideal version of the Beast – smart, funny, kind, disciplined.

But there was one aspect of the character remained extremely unsettled: His love life.

A season two spotlight episode of X-Men: The Animated Series is an encapsulation of the Beast’s miserable romantic history, which is perhaps even more convoluted and confusing than his personality issues.

First airing January 15, 1994, “Beauty and the Beast" was based on an idea by Julia Lewald and written by Stephane J. Mathison. The story finds Beast working at a clinic to give sight to a blind woman named Carly Crocker. In working together, they have developed a strong mutual attraction, but of course Carly doesn’t know exactly what Hank looks like.
 
When the radical anti-mutant group Friends of Humanity get wind of the fact that Hank is working at the hospital, they attack. Hank helps fight them off, but in the fallout the hospital’s board, and Carly’s angry bigoted father, demand Hank quit working with Carly. He obliges, but sneaks in to witness the results of the procedure. When Carly sees Hank’s face she isn’t horrified, and in fact says that he’s “beautiful.”
 
But no sooner does this wonderful moment occur than the Friends of Humanity attack again, this time kidnapping Carly. With Wolverine and Mr. Crocker’s help, Hank recuses her. As they part ways, they promise to keep in touch, but they both seem to know that this is the end for them. She tells him to carry her love with him always.
 
There are both personal and universal elements to this episode. In terms of the former, it gives us some great insight into the Beast’s character, exposing the emotional core underneath Beast’s intelligent, patient, and humorous exterior. While he turns the other cheek to Mr. Crocker’s insults, when he gets alone he breaks down. He wishes he were normal, and laments the fact that he can’t get close to a human without putting them in constant danger. He admits that he distracts himself with work and fools himself into pretending he doesn’t care what others think. It shows that even those most dedicated to hope, kindness, and nonviolence have their dark nights of the soul.
 
This story also a lot to say about societal issues. Since their inception, the X-Men have been allegories for issues related to race. In some stories it’s less direct than others. “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the direct ones. You have a hate group masquerading under an innocuous-sounding name. You have a prejudiced and ignorant father. You have a love affair that’s doomed before it begins, simply because of who the couple were born. The Friends of Humanity’s disgust at seeing the Beast “holding a human girl” is a chilling parallel to the lynchings of young black men who happened to interact with or even look at a white woman. When the Friends of Humanity first attack, Beast remarks, “I’m sorry gentleman. Your anger at the inexorable alienation of late 20th century life is sadly misdirected.” It’s funny, but it’s also chillingly predictive of the wave of race-based fear and fury that put the 45th president in office.


“The Beauty and the Beast” was adapted as both a children’s book (published by Random House) and in an issue of X-Men Adventures by writer Ralph Macchio (not the actor) and artist Paul Borges. Neither adaption was an improvement on the TV version. Both eliminated a vital emotional component of the story, Hank’s breakdown. That said, the ending of the comic is a bit more satisfying, with Jean Grey telling Hank not to torture himself and him responding dryly, “Ahh, who better, Jean? Who better?”
 
But beyond its allegorical powers “Beauty and the Beast” is very much in line with how the Beast's romantic travails have been depicted in the comics throughout the years. Though I’m pretty sure it’s not the case, it almost seems as though every writer who has worked on the character has been directed to not allow him to find any romantic happiness.

*
 
It started with Stan Lee, who introduced bespectacled librarian Vera Cantor in Uncanny X-Men #19. Hank and Vera become a steady couple despite Hank’s tendency to disappear every time there’s danger, which became sort of a running gag. 


By the time of the Beast’s reappearance in Amazing Adventures, Vera is out of the picture. At Brand Corporation Hank immediately falls for Linda Donaldson, who is secretly a double agent. This storyline seemed destined to end in heartbreak, but due to the Beast’s spotlight in the series being cut short, it was never resolved. 

Instead, writer Steve Englehart had begun a subplot in which he brought back Vera. He picked up on that subplot in Incredible Hulk #161, where it’s revealed that Vera's been seeing the former X-Men Calvin Rankin, Mimic. He's losing control of his powers, and Vera thinks Hank might be able to help. Long story short, Mimic dies at the end.

This could have led to Hank and Vera striking back up, but when the Beast joined the Avengers in 1975 she was nowhere to be seen. Instead, for the most of his time as an Avenger, Hank was depicted as a sort of playboy ladies’ man.
 
Vera did return, though, in 1981’s Avengers #209 (written by J.M. DeMatteis). But no sooner did she and Hank rekindle their romance than she was poisoned by a Skrull who wants help retrieving a Macguffin called the Resurrection Stone. The story followed Hank into the pages of the Defenders, where Damion Hellstrom helps cure Vera. After that, she appeared as a background character for several subsequent issues, where it’s made clear that she and Hank are a couple once again.

But they soon fall into the old pattern of him running from emergency to emergency and ignoring her, and her being justifiably frustrated and annoyed. This is humorous in one way, because it’s almost like DeMatteis commenting on his own lack of effort in actually carving out time for the couple. It also leads to Hank’s heartfelt confession in Defenders #116 (see part 1 of this essay).
 
But the confession doesn’t change anything, so five issues later, Vera essentially walks out on Hank, who admits to his friends, “Sometimes I think the only reason I’m with Vera at all is because she’s a comfortable piece of my past to hold on to while I face a verrry uncertain future.” 

It seemed that no one really wanted Vera around, so this seemed like clear break. But then for some inexplicable reason, writer Peter B. Gillis brought her back in Defenders #140, with Hank sending her a love poem. She’s touched, but also angry, saying, “Not only do you break more dates than I can count – flirt with everything this side of Boy George –but you move to New Mexico without telling me -- !” There’s not a single sighting or mention character again until issue #149, when Hank gives her a Beast signal watch and then bounds away. Maybe Gillis had bigger plans for Vera, but Defenders ended with issue #152. 

Bob Layton used her almost immediately in X-Factor, though for dubious comedic effect. In X-Factor #2 we learn that some time has passed since Vera and Hank last saw each other.  She’s moved to New York, ditched her glasses, shaved half of her head, and opened a bookstore that “specializes in left-wing music and literature from South America.” She’s heavily involved in pro-mutant causes, and she and Hank become an item again, with her giving him a New Wave makeover in X-Factor #5. But her last appearance of this stretch was in X-Factor #8; as before, she just disappears with no explanation given to the reader.
 
The last word on Vera Cantor appeared in X-Factor #55 (June 1990), a winking fill-in issue by Peter David and artists Terry Shoemaker and Colleen Doran. Titled “Desperately Seeking Vera,” the story finds hypnotist villain Mesmero using Vera to lure Hank into a trap. In the end, she helps Hank defeat the villain and then they finally put some closure on their relationship
 
In the case of Vera, Hank was cast as the passive heartbreaker. He didn’t have bad intentions, he was just clueless and noncommittal, and at the mercy of easily-distracted writers who didn’t have a clear idea of who Hank was as a character. In every subsequent doomed relationship, Hank would be the victim.

*
 
In fact, he already had been a victim by the time things ended with Vera. The 1985 miniseries Beauty and the Beast had nothing to do with the aforementioned X-Men: The Animated Series episode. Instead it was a strange story by Ann Nocenti and Don Perlin that found Hank striking it up with Alison Blaire, the mutant singer known as Dazzler. Their affair arises quickly in the midst of investigating a conspiracy plot, and it ends just as quickly. The Beast would appear the next year in the final issue of Dazzler's ongoing series, but there was only a brief mention of his love for her, and his invitation for her to join X-Factor would be spurned.
 
Beauty and the Beast was weird, but the 1991 X-Factor: Prisoner of Love prestige one-shot by Jim Starlin and Jackson Guice is most definitely The Strangest Beast Story You’ll Ever Read. It’s also a sterling entry in the Beast-gets-his-heart-trampled subgenre. As it begins, Hank is feeling down about how he’ll never have a normal life. He goes out for a walk and ends up rescuing a statuesque blonde in an alley. He falls head over heels in lust, and the woman - called Synthia - invites him back to her apartment. There they have a dreamlike extended session of lovemaking and elliptical conversation. It’s all great until Beast starts to deteriorate, both physically and emotionally, and begins to have disturbing nightmares.


Synthia then reveals to Hank that she is some sort of alien / otherdimensional being who has been feeding off of his energy to gather strength to fight a creature she calls the Dark One. After he and Synthia defeat the villain, Hank finds himself back in the same place where he first encountered Synthia, no time having passed. It’s an exceedingly odd and uncomfortable comic, especially if you start to think about what sort of theme and message Starlin thought he was a conveying. To me it seems rather than having something interesting to say about the Beast's character, Starlin was using Beast and this story to work out some sort of personal issue. Case in point, none of Hank's concerns from the beginning of the book are resolved in any way.

*
 
Hank’s next major love interest was reporter Trish Tilby. Beginning in the pages of X-Factor, this romance was just as much of a rollercoaster as his relationship with Vera Cantor had been. It never truly seemed on solid ground, with Hank struggling with his jealousy of her ex-husband, and Trish being unsettled by his transformation back to a hyper-verbal blue fuzzball. Their relationship would seesaw for several years until she cruelly dumped him in the pages of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (issue #126, July 2002). He had just made another transformation, this time into a more feline-looking form, and their relationship became public with the newspaper article referring to it as bestiality. Beast's response, trying to hurt her back, was to tell Trish he thinks he might be gay. 

When she leaks that to the media, Hank decides to go with it. Both Cyclops and Emma Frost confront him about it, and he says he "might as well be" gay because of the way he's been treated his whole life, and because he could serve as a positive representative for the gay community. 

This was fertile ground to explore, but thus far no writer thus far has decided to do so. And that's a shame, because Hank’s healthiest and longest-lasting relationship is with a man, Wonder Man. And though it’s never been depicted as a romance, there’s no reason it couldn’t be. 

The first mission the Beast participated in after becoming an official member of the Avengers was dealing with former member Wonder Man (Simon Williams) having made one of his patented returns from the dead. Almost immediately Hank gave Simon the affectionate nickname “Wondy,” and over the course of the next 50 issues their friendship would grow steadily. In Avengers #161 he designed a breathtakingly bad new costume for him that ranks as the second worst of Simon’s many superhero outfits (it's the the second from the left in the picture below).


Writer David Michelinie and artists John Byrne and George Perez advanced the Beast / Wonder Man relationship most significantly, depicting them going to the movies together, having a disastrous double date, getting drunk at the pub, and fighting sewer creatures in their own spotlight issue. In #196 Iron Man even comments on their friendship, holding it up as the epitome of people with great differences finding common ground. In Defenders #104, Simon tells Dr. Strange, “Hank’s my best buddy in the world.”
 
The pair left the Avengers at the same time and went their separate ways. Since then, writers have continually nodded to their bond, but with frustratingly-long gaps in between. When Wonder Man got his own book in 1991, the Beast guest-starred in several issues. Several years later, writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez took great joy in bringing them back together in 1999’s Avengers #14. 


The next year they got their own mini-series by Roger Stern and Mark Bagley, the awkwardly titled Avengers Two: Wonder Man and the Beast. But the promise of this didn’t last, and the next time the two were paired was in 2017, in issue #28 of Uncanny Avengers. It was a satisfying issue, but not enough. I’m putting this idea out there for free to any Marvel writer and/or editor: Make these two a couple and put them in an ongoing book together. The subtext is already there and the groundwork has already been laid.
 
*
 
In recent years writers haven’t even bothered with Hank’s romantic life.

Additionally, the character has strayed farther and farther from the balanced figure he’d become in the early 1990s, making a series of morally questionable, out-of-character decisions that continue into the current 2021 issues of X-Force. I won’t detail those here, as they fall outside of the scope of this essay series and I’ve already gone on long enough. Writer Jim Zub and artist Sean Issazke summed up a lot of the Beast's poor decision-making pretty well here: 


It’s a writer’s job to put their characters through the wringer, that’s just part of the definition of storytelling. But there's a line between complications that challenge the character and complications that torture the character, and the Beast - outside of a few choice instances - has spent too much of his existence wrong side of that line.

But that 1990s version is still one of my favorite characters. I hope one day he lands in the hands of a writer who feels the same.

*
 
Works Cited
 
Lee, Stan and Patrick Daniel O'Neill. “X Marks the Spot.” Wizard: X-Men Turn Thirty (1993).

Lewald, Eric and Julia. “Our Wisest, Kindest Soul: The Beauty of the Beast.” https://xmentas.com/2016/11/19/our-wisest-kindest-soul-the-beauty-of-the-beast/

Lewald, Eric. Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series. Jacobs Brown Press: San Diego. 2017

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #25 (Part 1): November 1994

In the Heart of the Beast, Part 1


 























X-Men Adventures (Season II) #10

Writer: Ralph Macchio          
Penciller: Paul Borges
Inker: James Pascoe
Colorist: Joe Agostinelli
 
*

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fantastic Four #1, and the birth of the modern Marvel universe. Most of the most recognizable Marvel characters debuted within a couple of years of that landmark issue. And most of those characters have had stories told about them for every single month since. That adds up to a staggering number of tales.

Even more staggering is that we're meant to believe all of it actually happened, despite the fact that most of the characters have barely aged, and that different writers and editors have had vastly different interpretations of the characters. The result is that superheroes have the most convoluted backstories in all of fiction, and yes I'm including soap operas characters in that.

This means that reading superhero comics takes a level of compartmentalizing, contextualizing, and meta-analyzing that no other type of fiction can match. If comic readers didn't do those things, they'd surely drown in a sea of incoherence.

I submit for proof Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast.
 
Why write about the Beast in a series of essays about the 1990s? Well, besides the fact that he was one of the stars of my very first comic, one of the high water superhero moments of the decade was the fall 1992 debut of X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Kids. The show was a massive hit, and introduced the X-Men to an entire generation of fans. It wouldn’t be too difficult to make an argument that it’s the definitive non-comic depiction of the X-Men we’ve seen thus far. And in some cases, honestly, it surpassed the comics. For example, how it depicted the Beast.
 
Henry McCoy was one of the original five X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, a mutant with ape-like agility, humongous hands and feet, and superhuman strength. The inconsistencies in his character cropped up very early on. In the first two issues of the Uncanny X-Men, Hank's dialogue is interchangeable with everyone else's. In issue #3, though, a sudden shift occurs and he begins speaking highly articulately. He also claims to be a pacifist, and then underscores it a couple of issues later when he states that he doesn't enjoy the superheroing element of being an X-Man.


As the series went on, Hank shows a proclivity for dropping poetic phrases and Shakespeare quotations into his fighting patter. Issue #15 reveals some of his past, and we learn that he excelled in both sports and academics in high school, but was constantly ridiculed because his mutation was so pronounced.
 
Lee and Kirby moved on from Uncanny X-Men after only about a year and a half, and a carousel of writers and artists followed: Roy Thomas, Jay Gavin, Don Heck, Gary Friedrich, Werner Roth, Arnold Drake. Despite the different writers, the Beast stayed pretty consistent during these years, and Drake expanded upon his origin in a five-part back up story in issues 48 through 53. 

Strange as it seems now, the X-Men weren’t all that popular in their initial run, and so with April 1970’s issue #67 the title stopped running original stories. With that, Hank McCoy and his teammates went into mothballs.
 
Then, in 1972, writer Gerry Conway and artist Tom Sutton brought Hank back in the pages of Amazing Adventures #11. In the story, Hank leaves the X-Men to work as a biochemist for the Brand Corporation. There, he creates a “genetic extractor” that isolates the mutant gene and makes it so anyone could become a mutant for a “carefully controlled period of time.” Why, exactly, he would want to use his momentous discovery for that particular purpose is baffling. At any rate he ends up testing it on himself, causing a secondary mutation into a gray furry fanged clawed creature. His appearance finally truly matched his name.


Writer Steve Englehart took over for the next issue of Amazing Adventures. Under Englehart’s pen, Hank was no longer hyper-articulate, and, as before, no explanation was given for the switch. Englehart wrote the Beast for five issues of Amazing Adventures, wrapping up the threads of his plotline in the pages of Incredible Hulk #161 in March 1973. 

From there, Hank once again went into storage for a couple of years until Englehart had the brilliant idea to add him to the Avengers. Hank would serve with Earth’s mightiest heroes for six years in, what many consider to be the team’s ideal line-up.

In the pages of the Avengers, Englehart moved the Beast even further from his intellectual roots, casting him as the team clown and wiseass. He’d always had that element, but Englehart emphasized it while deemphasizing his intelligence. It was here that the Beast picked up his catchphrase, “Oh my stars and garters!” Avengers writers that came after – Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, David Michelinie – followed Englehart’s lead (one exception was Steve Gerber’s weird one-off Beast spotlight issue, #178).
 
With Avengers #211, written by Jim Shooter, Hank left the team in a sort of meta-acknowledgement of how far the character had strayed. In explaining his decision to go he says, “You know, I used to be a scientist. I used to have a future besides my next gag and tomorrow night’s date. I want to see if there’s anything left of Hank McCoy besides a ‘blue-furred buffoon.’”
 
Hank landed promptly on another team though, showing up just a few months later in the pages of the Defenders, a group that had originally started as a weird alliance between Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and Namor, but had evolved into a misfit gang comprised of Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Gargoyle, Clea, Hellcat, and Damion Hellstrom. Hank showed up in issue #104, and would stick around until the title’s end in 1986. Under writers J.M. DeMatteis and Peter B. Gillis, the Beast was less bombastic and silly than he had been in Avengers, but he did not return to being a scientist, nor did his speech patterns change.

To his credit, DeMatteis did try to explain why the character had become so drastically different over the years. In issue #116, Hank opens up to his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Vera, saying,

“Since I was a kid I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb! So I developed an interesting skill. I learned how to recreate myself –how to construct new personalities to win people over – and protect me from them at the same time! In my X-Men days it was the ‘intellectual’ game. That was the Hank McCoy you first met – the guy who hid behind a smokescreen of big words and big ideas. But inside I was the same scared kid I always was. I thought I was beginning to find myself when I left Professor Xavier’s school and went out on my own – but then I was accidentally turned into this overgrown Muppet – and it was back to square one! My whole world fell apart! To keep myself together I put on a new mask. No more stuffy, brainy, Henry McCoy. Now I was happy-go-lucky Hank, the man of a thousand jokes! I’ll tell you, Vera, sometimes I don’t know who I am.”
 
But DeMatteis never followed up on this, nor did Gillis.

*

Hank’s next big spotlight was in X-Factor. Debuting in 1986 from writer Bob Layton and penciller Jackson Guice, the book reunited the original five X-Men. Within the first three issues, Hank was reverted to human form. When writer Louise Simonson came on, she added a new wrinkle: Hank’s reversion had increased his strength but was steadily draining his intelligence. Whether this was a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the different depictions of the character over the years, Simonson’s idea of good drama, or both, the storyline went on for nearly two years before the Beast returned to his furry, fully loquacious self.
 
In many ways the Beast that emerged was a combination of the two main iterations of the characters. He kept his sense of humor, but his jokes were framed using the “big words” from the early Lee / Thomas / Drake issues. He had become what one of his co-creators intended. Stan Lee said in 1993, “The Beast I loved – he looked like the crudest one, but he was the most well-educated and cultured.” 
 
When the original X-Men returned to the team in X-Men #1 and Uncanny X-Men #281, Chris Claremont continued this portrayal of Hank, and so did Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza when they took over the books.

*
 
The comics had seemingly finally settled on a definitive version of the character, and then came X-Men: The Animated Series. In defining the Beast's personality for the show, the creators started with the Simonson iteration as base, but also went all the way back to the original Lee / Kirby version (well, from issue #3 on at least). Showrunner Eric Lewald and his wife, scriptwriter Julia Lewald, glommed onto the contrast between Hank’s appearance and his demeanor. “We at X-MEN:TAS ran with this idea, supercharged it. Our constant method was to differentiate our characters as much as we could, so we wrote Hank to be as thoughtful and considerate as we could make him.”


The show’s Beast was a furry blue hyper-intelligent lug with a huge heart, a deadpan sense of humor, and a proclivity for timely quotations. The latter was something Hank had only occasionally done in the comics, but X-Men: The Animated Series made it a defining trait. In the first episode, as he tries to navigate security lasers, he quotes Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s “A Farewell”: “With faint heart, averted feet / And many a tear, / In our opposed paths to persevere.” What really makes it though, is his dry commentary on his own quote: “A minor poet for a minor problem.”
 
Throughout the series he’d quote from the likes of John Wesley, Richard Lovelace, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Quarles, Emily Dickinson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, yes, Shakespeare. As uttered in the enunciated baritone of character, voice, and stage actor George Buza, the words of these authors never sounded better. When Kelsey Grammar was cast as the Beast in Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, it was Buza’s work he was living up to.
 
Lewald and his team – which included producer Will Meugnoit, head writer Mark Edens, director Larry Houston, and designer Rick Hoberg – also reached back to Lee’s depiction of the Beast as a pacifist at heart. One of the first season’s ongoing storylines finds Beast imprisoned for a breaking into a government building (the one in charge of mutant registration). Rather than escape, as he easily could, he chooses to stand trial. There’s a direct correlation between this and the civil rights activists of the 1960s who were arrested protesting Jim Crow laws and refused bail to make a point. This made Beast the embodiment of Professor Xavier’s teachings.

So, it only took 30 years and being translated to a new medium, but there was finally an ideal version of Henry McCoy. His personality rollercoaster ride seemed to be at an end, and there was just one more aspect of the character to reconcile: His love life. 

We’ll take a look at that in part 2.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #24: October 1994

Look Out Your Window, I Can See His Light

























Starman #0 

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Tony Harris
Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colorist: Gregory Wright

*

In September 1994, which was the beginning of my senior year of high school, I wrote a journal entry in which I boldly declared, "Superhero comics are dead." 

My argument was that all that was interesting about superheroes had already been done and that there was nothing new to be done in the genre. I declared that all of the most interesting and innovative comic books were non-superhero titles: Tales of the Beanworld, A Distant Soil, Scud the Disposable Assassin, Atomic City Tales, etc. 

Ah, the brashness of youth.

And though I didn’t state them in that particular one-page handwritten treatise, I realize now there were a trio of reasons I had taken on this attitude. One was the diminished quality of the books Marvel (and Image, and Malibu, and…) were producing. Another was that I was genuinely excited by indie books; they made me feel the way my first superhero comics had. The final reason was that I’d started caring more and more about seeming cool, and being seen a grown-up, and I didn’t see how superhero comics fit into that calculus. I had observed the thirty and fortysomething men who came in to Metropolis Comics each week, still wearing their button down shirts and ties from their office jobs, and I did not see myself becoming like them.

In my journal entry I did make an exception for “well done hero comics coming out at DC and Milestone.” Which DC titles I meant I can only hazard a guess, but my guess is I was probably talking about Legion of Super-Heroes / Legionnaires, and Flash.

And soon enough I'd add Starman to that list. In fact, it would be the comic that showed me just how wrong I was about superhero comics. It became a bridge between my teenage fandom and my adult fandom.

*

Starman had just debuted that summer as part of DC’s Zero Hour event. It was the brainchild of writer James Robinson, a relative newcomer. A native of Great Britain, Robinson moved to California in the late 1980s, attended film school, and began doing work for independent publishers and Dark Horse. In the early 1990s he landed a three-issue story in the Batman anthology book Legends of the Dark Knight. He was also became one of the cofounders of the Ultraverse, writing Firearm for the company. His breakthrough was the 1993 miniseries he did with Paul Smith, The Golden Age. It was an Elseworlds tale of the Justice Society being blacklisted following World War II, and it would be a fitting precursor to his work on Starman.

Robinson had grown up a DC fan, and in writing The Golden Age he realized an entire untapped potential in the Starman character. Like the best ideas, he couldn't believe no one else had already thought of it. It became an obsession. "I have to get it out of my system," he told Steve Darnell of Hero Illustrated.

Without delving too deeply into it, the Starman name has an unusual history, even by comic book standards. The Golden Age original was Ted Knight, a scientist who invented a cosmic rod that allowed him to fly and shoot energy bursts. He was a member of the Justice Society, and had many solo adventures in the pages of Adventure Comics in the 1940s. But he wasn't revived for the Silver Age outside of participating in the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers. In 1975 DC tried rebooting the character as a blue-skinned alien named Mikkal Tomas in the pages of First Issue Special, but this Starman didn’t catch on. In 1980, Paul Levitz and Steve Ditko created another new alien Starman, Prince Gavyn. This one had a longer shelf life than the second, but not by much. The fourth incarnation of the character, Will Payton, was created by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle, and starred in his own series from 1988 till 1992. Like the two before him, he had seemingly no connection to the earlier Starmen.




An integral part of of Robinson's idea for the series involved his Starman being the book to unite them all. He started with Stern’s introduction of David Knight in 1990's Starman #26. David was the son of the first Starman, who was angry at Will Payton for using this father's moniker, which he believes rightly belongs to him. They worked it out, but with Payton apparently dying at the end of his series, Robinson’s Starman #0 opens with David having taken on his father's mantle.

And then he dies on the third page. 

This shocking turn is the result of a calculated revenge plot carried out by the original Starman’s nemesis, the Mist. This plot also involves an attack on the heretofore unknown youngest son of Ted, Jack Knight. Jack is a hipster antique dealer who doesn’t get along well with his brother or his father, at least in part because he’s completely dismissive of their superheroic notions. But with his brother’s death and his father’s life on the line, Jack has to very reluctantly step into the role he so readily dismissed.


If that were the only premise of the book, it would have been enough. Grief, father-son dynamics, and the complicated process of growing up and accepting your legacy are rich areas to explore, and the book does that. But it also does more than that. Over the course its seven-year run, the book would also deftly bring all of the disparate Starman concepts together into an interlocking whole. But it does even more than that! It takes a stock villain called the Shade and makes him into a complex and compelling anti-hero. But it does more even more yet! It adds an entirely new location to the fictional DC map, Opal City, and does it so well that the city itself feels like another character in the book. 

Whether or not it’s the actual truth, Robinson gave the appearance of having approached Starman with a carefully-considered long-term plan. And he actually executed it. From the Shade spotlight issues to the periodic “Times Past” standalones that filled in vital backstory to the yearly beyond-the-grave visits with David to the romance between Jack and Hope O’Dare to the bitter-but-complex rivalry between Jack and Nash Nimbus (the Mist’s daughter), nearly all of the series’ defining elements are in place by the end of its first few issues.

To me this is the big thrill of superhero comics: A writer with a vision comes into his own little corner of the shared universe and builds upon the work of those who came before him to create something far richer than what was there before. 

*

Of course back in late 1994 I didn’t know the scope of what Robinson would do with Starman. I only knew that it felt way different than any of the other books I was reading 
 
A big part of that was the character of Jack himself, who was unlike any other superhero I’d ever encountered. He was more like someone out of a Nick Hornby novel (though of course I hadn't yet read any Nick Hornby novels yet) than any Marvel or DC book I’d ever read. And I could relate to him. He was well-versed in movies, TV, art, books, and he didn’t differentiate between highbrow and lowbrow. He was just as likely to make a reference to Tod Browning as he was the Hues Corporation hit “Rock the Boat.” My own development into a pop culture obsessive was just in its infancy, but I recognized like.

And I was fascinated by his job as a dealer of antiques and vintage items. A collector himself, Robinson packed the book with specific references to the artifacts Jack sought out and sold, and as a degenerate amasser of artifacts myself I could relate. It helped that my dad and step-mom were at that time heavy into side-careers as antique dealers themselves, and I had spent many a Saturday and Sunday with them at antique malls, garage sales, thrift shops, and flea markets. That world made complete sense to me, and I’d certainly never seen it reflected in a comic book before.

It was such a big part of Jack's character that it created a conflict over priorities. Robinson amusingly told Hero Illustrated: "If [Jack] had some Bakelite cutlery to go out and buy and he had a supervillain – he’d probably fight the supervillain, but he’d kind of weigh the options.”

Having not at that point read Swamp Thing or Animal Man or Doom Patrol or any other "mature" take on superheroes, this was completely novel to me. I'd read plenty of low-hanging fruit superhero parodies, hut Starman managed to be off-kilter while also taking itself seriously, and that was something I'd never experienced in an ongoing superhero book: the depth of characterization, the culture references, the longform storytelling, the reverence for the character’s history, and, oh, the art.

Robinson’s primary artistic collaborator was penciller Tony Harris, whom Robinson specifically requested for the book. As it was for Robinson, Starman was Harris’s first high-profile comics work. He’d only done a couple of projects for Marvel, and some horror adaptations for independent publishers. His high contrast, design-minded, angular style was enhanced and defined by the heavy inks of Wade Von Grawbadger. Harris also painted the title’s eye-catching covers.

It all added up to something that showed my 17-year-old self that there was plenty more to superheroes than what I'd experienced to that point, and that of course there were still new things to say about them. Just as Jack's attitude toward superheroes evolved as the series progressed, and so did mine. Like Jack, I realized that growing up didn't mean having to deny or leave behind vital parts of myself, and that in fact true maturity meant fully owning and embracing those things.

*

Harris left Starman in 1998 with issue #45, and the talented Peter Snejbjerg took over. 
Starman ended in August 2001 with issue #80, with Robinson having told the complete story he wanted to tell. Jack Knight would go on to have a brief membership in the revived Justice Society of America title (more on that later), but for the most part has been allowed to remain retired. Robinson returned to the world of Starman twice, for a one-off tie-in to 2009’s Blackest Night event and again for a 2011 Shade miniseries.


Works Cited:
Darnell, Steve. “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Hero Illustrated #15 (September 1994).

Darnell, Steve. “A Day at the Races.” Hero Illustrated #16 (October 1994).

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Heroes for the '90s #23: July 1994

A Show of Force

 























Force Works #1 
Writers: Abnett and Lanning   
Penciller: Tom Tenney  
Inker: Rey Garcia
Colorist: Joe Rosas

*
 
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I need to say it again: The massive success of Rob Liefeld and Image comics had a seismic impact on the superhero comics industry, both from a business standpoint and a creative one.

On the latter, there were two main responses. Books either tried to define themselves against what Image was doing (a la 1963 and the Ultraverse), or they tried to imitate it.
 
While DC dabbled in both approaches, Marvel almost exclusively took the latter route. Like a jilted lover who just can’t get over the one who spurned him, Marvel couldn’t move past the success of Liefeld and X-Force. So they just kept trying to recreate it, resulting in them subjecting some of their most prominent team books to what I call "the Force Treatment."
 
The Force Treatment is where a previously happy-go-lucky superhero team is broken down to the basics and then rebuilt as a para-military unit “designed to take out threats before they become threats” and/or “to operate outside of the rules.” Of course this is what had happened to the New Mutants as they morphed into X-Force, and it appears that both Marvel and DC misunderstood why exactly that had been exciting to fans. Sure there was a lowest-common-denominator contingent who liked the violence and guns and aggressive attitude, but most fans found the New Mutants becoming X-Force exciting because it was unexpected, and because Liefeld’s art was so radically different from everything else at the time. So they were trying to create imitations of something that had been appealing because of its novelty.
 
Here’s where a not-so-brief digression into the phenomenon of the Liefeld imitator might be warranted. A byproduct of the young artist’s ascent to stardom was that artists both up-and-coming and already-established tried their hand at mimicking his style. None, in my opinion, did it with any degree of success. Liefeld’s approach was so idiosyncratic that only he could make it work. It’s said that if you copy someone else’s work you end up copying their bad habits, and Liefeld had a lot of bad habits.
 
Though DC and Marvel each had their share of Liefeld clones – which we’ll discuss soon – perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole thing was that Liefeld himself hired an army of these imitators to work for him on his various Extreme books, including Jeff Matsuda, Chap Yaep, Dan Fraga, Marat Mychaels, and Mark Pacella.
 
Perhaps the most famous case of an artist catching Liefelditis was when veteran penciller Herb Trimpe began imitating the style. Trimpe had worked for Marvel since the late 1960s, most notably on a run of the Incredible Hulk that introduced the character of Wolverine. Trimpe’s style was very much in the Buscema-by-way-of-Kirby Marvel house style that dominated the company throughout the late 1960s and into the 1980s. But with the debut of 1993’s Fantastic Four Unlimited Trimpe was suddenly drawing like Liefeld. Fans assumed he’d been forced to do that, but the artist did it of his own accord, hoping it would lead to more work for him at a time when older artists were being cast aside (Trimpe's heartbreaking account of the demise of his professional career was published in the New York Times).


So, as flawed as the logic was, part and parcel of the Force Treatment was finding a Liefeld-lite artist to draw it. The first attempt at the Force Treatment was actually made by DC in the 1992 Titans Hunt storyline. DC tried to hire Liefeld himself to take over the New Titans and do what he’d done to the New Mutants. The deal fell through, but it eventually resulted in the Team Titans, a bloodthirsty strikeforce with a grizzly big-gun-toting leader. The art on the first few issues of that series was by Kevin Maguire, whose clean, classic style that blunted the perception of the book as an X-Force rip-off.
 
Companies got less subtle as time went on. In January of 1994 Marvel published the final issue of Avengers Westcoast. The book had run for many years chronicling the adventures of an Avengers team based in California. The team’s roster varied, but consistently included big-name characters such as Scarlet Witch, Vision, Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Wonder Man. The final issue found the team being disbanded against their will, with Captain America and the Vision upbraiding the members for poor decision making. With unresolved feelings still lingering as a result of Operation Galactic Storm, Iron Man decides to form his own team rather than be reincorporated.
 
With Scarlet Witch, U.S.Agent, Spider-Woman, and Wonder Man in tow, he forms Force Works, the first and only superhero team whose name doubles as a sentence. The team’s mission is laid out by Iron Man right away:


There you have it: "An aggressive policy of defense and security."

And if you took a gander at that art you’ll realize that Marvel found a suitably Liefeld-esque artist to work with writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. His name was Tom Tenney, and he had just a couple of credits to his name before getting the Force Works gig. As far as Liefeld clones go, Tenney at least showed some signs of individuality. He clearly had some other influences, like Jae Lee and Liam Sharpe. Unlike Liefeld, he seemed to actually enjoy depicting background detail, and his storytelling wasn’t bad. He had the potential to grow into a formidable superhero artist, but that wasn’t to be. Tenney only stayed on Force Works for four issues, and then fulfilled his destiny by going to work for Liefeld. After a couple of brief assignments at Image, he disappeared from the comic book industry.
 
In a lot of ways, his story is the story of the mid-1990s in comic books: New artists showed up out of nowhere, worked in the industry for a year or two, and disappeared. This was a direct result of a dearth of talent at the Big Two.
 
As Kim Howard Johnson outlined it in a lengthy July 1993 Comics Scene article, there were three challenges facing Marvel in terms of recruiting talent. One was diminishing royalties due to lower overall sales. Another was the fact that Marvel had become extremely gun-shy about promoting its artists, lest they develop a high profile and then leave for Image or some other company willing to throw them a bunch of money. And the final factor was that Marvel couldn’t offer ownership of anything the artist or writer created themselves. These circumstances, combined with the fact that so many established artists were being pulled away to other companies (Valiant, Malibu, Defiant, Image), created a vacuum that was filled by untested young artists.
 
*

Force Works was an intriguing book, but never overcame its lack of originality. The new member of the team, Century, had an ugly design and failed to make much of an impact. But in the hands of more solid and experienced artists, like Paul Ryan on issue #5 and David Ross on issues #13 and 14, the book flashed its potential. Writers Abnett and Lanning, of course, would go on to better things, creating the version of the Guardians of the Galaxy that James Gunn translated to film.
 
Other books got the Force Treatment in short order. In November 1994, Marvel introduced Fantastic Force, but they didn’t quite follow the rules. While the group was an “extreme” version of the Fantastic Four, it didn’t replace the original title or feature any members of that team. Instead it focused on a future version of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman’s son Franklin, a warrior named Huntara, an Inhuman shapeshifter called Devlor, and hot-headed Wakandan Vibraxas. Artist Dante Bastianoni was - wait for it  - a newcomer, and he wasn’t a Liefeld imitator. His art was more reminiscent of Patrick Oliffe or David Ross, though not as fundamentally sound as either of those. The book's biggest debt to Image was in its ugly costume designs.
 
Over at DC, the Justice League split into three teams each with their own book. Justice League Task Force took a Mission: Impossible approach, with Martian Manhunter picking the best team for each crisis (it sounds cooler than it actually was). Justice League America focused on Wonder Woman, Flash, Hawkman, and a few lesser-known heroes doing the typical superhero thing. And then there was Extreme Justice. Though it was a slight breach of etiquette by DC to not use “Force” in the title (Justice League Task Force had preempted that) it was the Force Treatment in every other way. In the series, a group of Justice Leaguers – Captain Atom, Maxima, Amazing Man, Blue Beetle, and Booster Gold – break off from the main team because they feel hampered by the constraints of the United Nations and want to administer “extreme justice” to bad guys in other countries. The art on the series was initially provided by Brazilian Marc Campos. Campos has said that he was encouraged by DC editorial to draw in Liefeld's style, and that it wasn’t natural for him.


One final aspect of the Force Treatment is that death of a major character had to be involved somehow. Fantastic Force grew out of Mr. Fantastic’s apparent demise. For Extreme Justice, it was Ice, who had been an integral part of the beloved Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire Justice League. In the first issue of Force Works, Wonder Man is killed. Of course, these deaths were short lived, just like the careers of the artists who drew them, and the titles themselves. Force Works lasted 22 issues. Fantastic Force, 18. Extreme Justice, 19. Proven commercially unsustainable, the Force Treatment was mercifully abandoned as a go-to move.
 
As for the Liefeld clones, it’s worth mentioning some grew into respectable talents with their own unique styles, including Brandon Peterson, Dan Panosian, and Mike Dedato Jr. Marc Campos would go on to have a long career at DC, mainly as an inker.
 

 

Works Cited:
“Extreme Crimes Call for Extreme Justice.” https://www.cosmicteams.com/jla/_chron/extreme-justice.html

Johnson, Kim Howard. “Crisis of Infinite Comics.” Comics Scene #35 (July 1993)