Thursday, February 11, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #10: October 1991

...And in With the New 

X-Men #1
Co-Plotter/Scripter: Chris Claremont
Co-Plotter/Penciller: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Colorist: Joe Rosas

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Chris Claremont began writing Uncanny X-Men in 1975 with issue 94. Over the next sixteen (!) years he transformed it into the most popular and best-selling superhero comic at either major company. Over those years, the title had three spin-offs - New Mutants, Excalibur, and X-Factor - but remained mostly self-contained. Despite having a large cast and enough plots for several books, there was only one place to read about the X-Men.
 
That changed in late summer 1991 with the debut of a second title, simply called X-Men. Like the adjective-free Spider-Man before it, the title was a smashing success. And it never would have happened without artist Jim Lee.
 
Jim Lee was born in South Korea, but his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when he was young. He attended Princeton University, and studied psychology with a goal of becoming a medical doctor. But he felt the pull of art, and decided to take one year to develop a portfolio and try to land professional work at a comics company. It worked, and he landed at Marvel, first doing art on Alpha Flight, then on Punisher War Journal.
 
Lee’s skills progressed quickly, and he settled into a style that was detailed, dense, and dynamic. His work was as exciting as Liefeld’s, but with a better sense of anatomy and layout, and a much firmer grounding in reality. After positive response to a fill-in and a three-issue arc on Uncanny X-Men he became regular artist with issue 268 (September 1990).


Over the next 10 issues, Lee’s popularity exploded. Claremont had worked with many great artists in his tenure: Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Mark Silvestri, but none had caused the splash that Lee did. Sales on Uncanny X-Men were already great, but they got even better, and Marvel took notice. Similar to what had happened with Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man #1 and Rob Liefeld on X-Force #1, the company decided to showcase their superstar artist with a new series. Also similar to McFarlane and Liefeld, Jim Lee was increasingly interested in taking over the plotting side of things, though his case was different. Neither McFarlane nor Liefeld were working with writers whose names were synonymous with the title.
 
The plan was for Claremont to work with Lee as co-plotter, and the pair devised a plan with artist Whilce Portacio to bring the original five X-Men (who had been operating as X-Factor) back to the team, combine them with the newer characters, and split the team into two squads. Uncanny X-Men focused on the “gold team” while the new book would feature the “blue team.” 

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X-Men #1 was a genuine phenomenon. Released with four different covers (which connected to make one large image) and a fifth one that collected all four in a fold-out, the issue broke all existing records by selling 8 million copies. It even warranted an article in Entertainment Weekly at a time when it was exceedingly rare for anything comics-related to get mainstream attention.
 
The issue introduced eye-catching new costumes for most of the characters, and served as the first of a three-part story that reexamined the fundamental tension at the core of the X-Men mythos: Professor Xavier’s “protect those who fear us” versus Magneto’s “embrace and assert our dominance.” 

This was both a good way to usher in new fans and a way for Claremont to bid farewell. Yes, unthinkably, Claremont would only write three issues of the new title before departing the X-Men franchise altogether.
 
At the time Marvel made it sound like Claremont had simply said all he had to say, and was moving on to focus on his career as a novelist. But in an interview with Comics Scene just a year earlier Claremont sounded like he was from done, and in fact said, “As far as I’m concerned they should cancel the book when I decide to leave – if ever.” Later, in a 2000 New York Magazine article Claremont would place the blame for his departure on editor Bob Harras, saying he was tired of being railroaded and overruled by the editor on story decisions. 

I also have a hard time believing Lee – or more accurately Harras’s capitulation to Lee – had nothing to do with it. With McFarlane and Liefeld, Marvel had set a precedent of granting great power and great responsibility to their artists; we’ve already heard about how Harras’s embrace of Liefeld drove Louise Simonson from New Mutants. One could question the wisdom of this, especially with how it would turn out, but it’s not an inherently bad idea. Afterall, Marvel had traditionally undervalued their artists, which makes so little sense for something that’s so clearly a visual medium (in comic books, good art elevates a bad story while bad art sinks a good story). So a change of policy was a welcome one.
 
But letting it happen at the cost of one of your only superstar writers, one who’d devoted his professional life to these characters? That seems like overcompensating. Claremont was cast aside by two men who grew up reading his work on Uncanny X-Men. Some may argue that it was time for Claremont to go, and that the franchise had become mired in its own complexity. Lee basically said as much in the Entertainment Weekly article (in which he was quoted but Claremont wasn’t) that came out at the time of X-Men #1's release. Of Claremont’s writing he said, “It’s real confusing to jump right in if you haven’t been reading the books all along.” Claremont had a tendency to focus so deeply on matters of character that he often lost control of his plots. But his love of those characters is what made them living, breathing people who became so beloved by fans.
 
Marvel brought on John Byrne to script Lee’s plots on X-Men, in what was marketed as a permanent solution. But Byrne only lasted two issues (in addition to five on Uncanny). According to Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Byrne left because of "impossible turaround times" on scripting artwork from Lee and Portacio that would arrive at the 11th hour. It also happened to coincide with the beginning of his self-created Next Men book at Dark Horse. Scott Lobdell came on next, and would stay for the rest of Lee’s tenure.

Which wasn’t very long. Like McFarlane and Liefeld before him, Lee didn’t make it a year with the title created specifically for him, despite promises that he’d be with the series for “a long time.” Nor did he do anything especially groundbreaking. He introduced a new foe from Wolverine’s past, Omega Red. He brought back Longshot briefly, and he did a crossover with Ghost Rider that started unraveling the mystery of Gambit's past. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't all that different from what Claremont had been doing. After X-Men #11, Lee departed both the title and Marvel itself, joining with Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Eric Larson, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Valentino to form Image Comics.
 
So in the end, Marvel alienated some of its best writers for a very short-term gain. It was sort of like the sports franchise that builds itself around a superstar player, only to have that player leave in free agency.
 
Claremont left Marvel too, landing at DC and creating the team book Sovereign Seven. He’d return to Marvel in 1996 as both an editor and a writer. He’d return to the X-Men in fits and starts, but his days as the primary architect were never to be repeated.
 
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As I cast back to my feelings about X-Men #1, I definitely can recall the excitement I felt. But I don’t think it was really because of Jim Lee. I say this because over the years I’ve realized – and I know for some this will  be akin to blasphemy – that I don’t really care all that much for Lee’s work, especially his sequential art (as opposed to his pin-ups and covers). I admire his talent, but his work always felt claustrophobic to me. I believe my excitement in 1991 was much more about the revolution of the X books as a whole: The original X-Men returning to the team, a whole new X-Factor line-up, Alan Davis returning to Excalibur, the initial thrill of X-Force.


Despite my personal feelings about Lee’s art (and about his career path after leaving for Image), I can’t deny that his X-Men will forever be the iconic versions. The costumes he designed became the basis for the designs on Fox Kids’s 1992 hit X-Men: The Animated Series, and Skybox’s 1992 X-Men trading cards, for which Lee did every card, set a standard for depicting the X-Universe that hasn’t really been equaled since.


Works Cited
De Haven, Tom. “The X-Men Series.” Entertainment Weekly. Sept 6, 1991. https://ew.com/article/1991/09/06/x-men-series/
 
Forge. Alec. "The X-Men Files," Alec Foege, New York Magazine, July 17, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20131203065149/http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/3522/
 
Kanalz, Hank. “Mutant Artist.” Comics Scene, vol. 2, number 21 (October 1991).
 
O’Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Mutant Experiences.” Comics Scene, vol. 2, number 21 (February 1990).

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Heroes for the '90s #9: September 1991

A New New (Old) Universe

The Fly #1

Writer: Len Strazewski
Penciller: Mike Parobeck
Inker: Paul Fricke
Colorist: Tom Ziuko


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By dint of their ongoing 60-year continuities, Marvel and DC superhero comics have the blessing and the curse of the enormity of their characters’ histories. It’s a blessing because it creates a sense of loyalty from fans, and gives creators wealth of backstory to draw upon. It’s a curse because it can be a huge roadblock to welcoming new fans. As I wrote in essay #1, it wasn’t an impediment to me, and in fact I took it as a challenge. But there are plenty of potential readers who aren’t willing to do that.
 
That’s why both Marvel and DC have, since the 1980s, tried a several times to create new superhero universes separate from their mainstream ones. Marvel’s 1986 New Universe was the first. It started as a “back-to-basics” restart of Marvel’s main heroes (an idea they’d actually carry to fruition with 2001’s Ultimate Marvel), but soon morphed into a collection of books featuring brand new superheroes living in what the company marketed as “the world outside your window.” New Universe was sunk by inconsistent and inexperienced creative teams, a lack of editorial support, and lackluster concepts. It was shuttered by 1989.

It’s sort of a surprise, then, that DC tried the same trick so soon after. But, again, the desire to draw in new readers was too strong. DC took a different tactic than their rivals. Rather than invent new characters and concepts out of whole cloth, they made a deal with Archie Comics to revive that companies superhero characters. If you think about it, it’s not far off from what DC had done successfully with the Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, the Question, Captain Atom) both in their mainstream universe, and with analogues in Watchmen.
 
Back in 1940, Archie was known as MLJ Comics, and Pep Comics #1 featured an American-flag-draped hero called the Shield (this was 14 months before the debut of Captain of America). He’d soon be joined by the Hangman, the Firefly, the Black Hood, and the Wizard. But in issue #22 of Pep, a red-headed teen named Archie Andrews made his debut, and his popularity soon eclipsed that of any of the company’s superheroes. By 1947 the MLJ Comics was renamed Archie Comics, and superheroes disappeared completely.
 
When Marvel and DC started to make noise again with superheroes in the early 1960s, Archie revived their characters, adding the Jaguar, the Fly (and Flygirl), Private Strong, the Web, Mr. Justice, and Steel Sterling. They also teamed up their heroes as The Mighty Crusaders. The revival was moderately successful, but went dormant again by the end of the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1983 that the company tried again, this time with an awkward-looking toy line by Remco to accompany the comics. This version didn’t last long at all, ending in 1985.
 
In 1989 Archie decided to try again, this time renaming the brand (Spectrum Comics) and recruiting big name talent to revamp things. This included writers Steve Englehart, Marv Wolfman, and Len Wein, and artists Michael Bair, Kelly Jones, Jim Valentino, and Rob Liefeld. But in the early planning stages, the company got cold feet about things feeling a bit too modern. They nixed the line.
 
Instead they teamed with DC, who put editors Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn on the case. They in turn hired William Messner-Loebs, Len Strazewski, Mark Waid, Mark Wheatley, Tom Lyle, Grant Meihm, Mike Parobeck, Tom Artis, and Rick Burchett (if some of those names sound familiar it’s because they worked on the Justice Society of America mini-series I wrote about in essay #6). This team of creators reimagined the Shield, the Fly, the Web, the Jaguar, and the Black Hood from the ground up. They dubbed the new line Impact Comics.

 
Impact is often described as trying to appeal to younger readers, but really tried to have it both ways. Marketing-wise they aimed at 11-to-14-year-old boys who were just getting into comics, but the “Impact Comics Pledge” printed in the back of early issues stated they would treat their readers like adults. They also wanted their universe to be “next door” to the real world (sound familiar?!). So some of the storylines got pretty serious and grim, which is what most 11-to-14-year-old boys like.
 
I was one of them, and I jumped right on board. As much as I loved the Marvel and DC books I was reading, I was excited at the idea of getting in on the ground floor of something. And so I bought everything Impact put out. 

I enjoyed all of the titles to different degrees, but my hands-down favorite was Len Strazewski and Mike Parobeck’s The Fly. I’ve always been a sucker for “body replacement” heroes (where a youngish main character is transformed into a powerful adult body), and for teen heroes. The Fly had both of these, featuring 16-year-old Jason Troy getting ahold of a mysterious amulet that transforms him into a hero he’d designed himself. Each issue stated on the title page that it was “inspired by the work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby,” and while that was literally true in that Simon and Kirby created the original version of the Fly, it was also true in the style and content of the book. Mike Parobeck’s work was irresistibly clean and cartoony, and Strazewski’s plots were fast-paced. It was my ideal sort of comic book. 

How ideal? By 1991 I was deep in an ambition to become a comic book writer and artist, and the first comic I tried to write and draw myself was a 2-page "story" featuring the Fly fighting his enemy Arachnus, done in a poor imitation of Parobeck’s style. Here's a taste:



Strazewski and Parobeck were both Chicago residents, and part of a collective of Windy City creators that included Paul Fricke and Scott Beaderstadt (who co-created and self-published a book called Trollords) and Brian Augustyn. Augustyn was the key, as he landed a job as an editor at DC and started bringing his friends along. Strazewski, a journalist by training, had done some work for independent companies (most notably a Speed Racer miniseries at Now in 1987). He got a gig at DC writing Starman, which led to Impact and Justice Society of America. Parobeck, an Ohio native who’d moved to Chicago to work in advertising, collaborated with Augustyn on an update of the Golden Age hero the Target for a project that never materialized. It did lead to Parobeck getting assignments at DC, most notably El Diablo, with writer Gerard Jones.
 
Parobeck cited John Byrne as his primary comics art hero, but Augustyn has pointed out that his work also bore the mark of Love and Rockets co-creator Jamie Hernandez, and that he also admired Alex Toth and Jack Kirby. Elements of all of those men's styles are visible in Parobeck’s work, but like the best of artists, he took his main influences and made them into something completely his own: clean, cartoony, and dynamic.


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Impact was not destined to last long. While the line was initially successful, and ended up producing some creative highs (besides The Fly, there was also Meihm’s Legend of the Shield, the first few issues of Black Hood, and the Jaguar’s forward-thinking use of an immigrant female as its lead), but was plagued by inconsistency. Creative teams fell apart (Artis, Lyle, and David H. Williams barely lasted six months on their books), Augustyn left to edit the Justice League books, and the line suffered for it. The supposed coordination and cohesiveness afforded by new small self-contained superhero universe didn’t really happen. 

The introduction of the Crusaders in their own title (featuring art by Rags Morales) injected some temporary life into the line, but by December 1992 – just over a year after Impact debuted – the line shut down with a storyline that found the Comet destroying a city and the other members of the Crusaders going missing. A six-issue mini-series called Crucible was meant to set off a streamlined relaunch, but sales were low, and the three spin-off series – The Wrath of the Black Hood, The American Shield, and The Wrath of the Comet – were scrapped.
 
The Archie heroes wouldn’t be seen again until a 2008 reboot – once again spearheaded by DC – that was even more inconsistent and frustrating than the original. Archie has taken over the reins themselves for more recent relaunches in 2012 and 2014, but neither lasted long. It kind of seems like these heroes are a sort of “stop trying to make fetch happen” situation.
 
Though Impact was not an especially promising start, the 1990s would turn out to be the golden age of Marvel and DC sub-universes, and it deserves a place in comics history as a pioneering effort.
 
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Rereading the 17-issue run of The Fly now 30 years later, I’m just as enamored of Mike Parobeck’s art, but Strazewski’s stories are haphazard, the characters were given too little room to breathe. For example, there was a half-hearted romance subplot with one of Jason’s classmates – Jen, a character given zero personality traits. And the mystery of how Jason's fly powers actually worked were left completely unexplored. On the positive side, Jason had a charming relationship with both his mother and his grandfather, and stories exploring suicide and animal exploitation hit the right emotional notes. One wonders what the title could have been with a less dysfunctional editorial situation, and bit more time to develop.
 
Strazewski and Parobeck went on to a 10-issue run on Justice Society of America, and that title's premature cancellation turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise for Paroback. It allowed him to move over to an acclaimed stint on Batman Adventures (but more on that in a future essay). Strazewski would go on to help found another new universe, the Ultraverse at Malibu Comics (but more on that in a future essay).


Works Cited
Khoury, George. "Mike Parobeck Revisited." February 10, 2011. CBR.com. https://www.cbr.com/mike-parobeck-revisited/

Augustyn, Brian. "The Target." Back Issue #118 (February 2020).

Kupperberg, Paul. "Impact Comics: The Little Imprint that Was Left Out in the Cold." Back Issue #118 (February 2020).