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


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.

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.
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.

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).

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