Sunday, May 30, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #20: June 1993

The Neverending Battle





















Superman: The Man of Steel #22 
Writer: Louise Simonson
Penciller: Jon Bognadove
Inker: Dennis Janke
Colorist: Glenn Whitmore

*
 
The formation of Image Comics may have been the biggest story of 1990s superhero comics, but
"The Death of Superman" was the biggest storyline of 1990s superhero comics. In terms of publicity, short-term impact, and long-term consequences, there’s no question.

But is it a good story? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
 
Despite being the first and archetypical superhero, Superman seems destined to fight a neverending battle against being declared irrelevant. After getting passed-by in popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s by the likes of Batman and Spider-Man, he came roaring back with the release of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. This sustained him through the early ‘80s, even as his comic books started to buckle under the weight of 50 years of continuity (and considerable silliness). In 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne came along and streamlined the character, reminding a lot of fans of why they loved him in the first place.
 
But the honeymoon didn’t last. Byrne left after two years, and even Action Comics - the book Superman had called home since his debut in 1938 - reduced him to a second (actually more like third or fourth) banana. But in late 1988 the creative team began to form that would guide Superman to his next big moment in the spotlight: Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, George Perez, and Dan Jurgens together spearheaded the three Superman books – Action, Superman, and Adventures of Superman.
 
Perez left early on, but along with artists and inkers such as Bob McLeod, Kerry Gammill, Brett Breeding, and Dennis Janke, Stern, Ordway and Jurgens plotted out some ambitious changes for Superman. For one, Clark and Lois got engaged. Not long after that, he told her he was Superman. Under editor Mike Carlin, the titles started to become more and more interconnected, to the point that in 1991 they started to have little numbered triangles on the covers to indicate what order they should be read. That same year, a fourth title was added, Louise Simonson and Jon Bognadove’s Superman: The Man of Steel, meaning that every week when you went into the comic shop a new Superman book was waiting for you (except on those dreaded five-Thursday months).
 
The new Superman book may have also been an attempt to cash in on the Spider-Man #1 phenomenon, but wasn’t anywhere near as successful, and then of course along came X-Force #1 and X-Men #1, so DC and the Superman team were feeling the pressure amid declining sales. Their response? Create an epic storyline in which Superman dies saving the planet.

In late 1992 the story got underway. It went like this: An indestructible mindless monster called Doomsday arrives on Earth, shreds the Justice League, and causes wonton destruction on a path to Metropolis. In Superman #75 (January 1993), which is presented in a series of epic two-page spreads, Superman battles Doomsday. He defeats the monster but dies from the wounds he sustains. This was met by a massive media frenzy, and the issue itself was polybagged with a black armband, a poster, and a facsimile Daily Planet obituary. 

The issue sold like hotcakes, and became “the best-selling non-premiere comic of all time” (according to Wizard 18). Superman was back on top, he just had to die to get there.
 
The Superman books then spent two months following the funeral and mourning process of its large cast of supporting characters. Where they took the story next is where it gets really intriguing. These days major characters dying in comics is commonplace, and everyone knows they’re going to come back. But that wasn’t a given back in the ‘90s, mostly because killing characters off hadn’t been done to death. Very few major characters had truly died - Barry Allen, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Phoenix - and of those only Jean Grey had returned.
 
So while it was a good bet, no one was sure that Superman was coming back. The creative team decided to play off of that uncertainty by bringing in four replacements, each one with a supposed case for being the true Superman. In May 1993’s Adventures of Superman #500, Superman’s soul fights for life (with Pa Kent’s help) and then back in the real world his grave is found empty, a development that makes the parallels to the Jesus - dies to save the world, grave is discovered empty - a bit too on-the-nose. This is followed by a glimpse of each new Superman, each one a very sharp contrast to the original. One is angry and vengeful and wears a green visor. Another is nearly half cybernetic, and seems to have lost all his memory. The third one is a teenaged clone, and the final is a Black man who builds a Superman-inspired suit of armor.
 
Just as the “Knightfall” story in Batman and 1963 served as a commentary on and criticism of the Image approach to comics, so was Reign of the Supermen. It was also a message to those who might call Superman antiquated or out-of-step with the times. The writers and artists seem to be saying, you want a Superman who is tougher on criminals, one who shoots a cool big gun, one who’s younger and hipper, or one who isn’t so very whitebread, well here you go. This is what that would actually be like.
 
When looked at it through this lens, “Reign of the Supermen” is a pretty fun story. But the Superman team undermined it somewhat by presenting it as a mystery, and as though one of the four might be the actual Superman. But even this was half-hearted, as two of the subjects - the clone and the armored version – never even claimed to be the real thing.
 
And this idea of creating a mystery where two of your four suspects are eliminated immediately pretty much highlights the shortcomings not only of the “Death of Superman” storyline, but this era of Superman comics in general. There were really cool elements, but they didn’t always mesh, and the editorially-driven style imposed creative limitations. The stories were rarely completely satisfying. Kesel alluded to this in an interview with Wizard’s Norman Bertson: “The biggest drawback to the system is that you can’t write a continuing story that you get to finish. I finish Dan Jurgens’ story, and Roger Stern would finish my story.” 
 
A good mystery is one in which you are genuinely surprised by the solution, but also makes sense when you go back over the clues. The “Reign of the Supermen” story is not one of those, because the solution is that none of the characters are Superman.
 
The thing is that they didn’t even need the false pretense to make this an intriguing story. Whether it was actual long-term planning or just opportunistic use of previous stories, one can appreciate how “Reign of the Supermen” draws from earlier moments in this creative team’s run. The green visor Superman turns out to be a character called the Eradicator, a Kryptonian villain Superman had encountered in a 1989 storyline. The Cyborg Superman turns out to be the psychotic Hank Henshaw, a character who had appeared in a 1990’s Adventures of Superman #465, which was a homage to / parody of the Fantastic Four. The teenage Superman clone came out of Project Cadmus, which had been in the background of several stories.
 
The outlier was the armored Superman, and his story was the clunkiest of the four, for many reasons. First is the jumbled origin. In interviews Simonson and Bognadove revealed that their Superman, John Henry Irons, was a gifted inventor who learns his inventions are being used create deadly weapons, so he goes on the run, taking on a new identity as a steelworker. But that's not actually revealed in Superman: The Man of Steel #22. Instead it presents him only as Henry Johnson, a construction worker who was trapped under a building during the fight with Doomsday, but somehow survived. Inspired by the time Superman saved his life, he builds himself a suit of armor, and starts fighting street crime. There are a couple of clues to the rest of Irons' origin, but because there's so much information in the comic already, they just serve to confuse instead of intrigue. On top of all that, there's also an strained attempt to connect the story to the folk legend of John Henry.
 
Once again, it appears that editorial mandates were part of the problem. In an interview with Wizard, Bognadove expressed frustration at how much he and Simonson had to cram in to the issue: “In this issue I’m trying to give his origin, but I find he has so much backstory that I’m really having to do it shorthand. Sequences that should take two or three pages I have to cram down to one.”

Oh, and the story has some ill-advised and unconvincing portrayals of gangs and Black dialect, all the more glaring when compared to the Milestone comics that were hitting the stands at the same time.
 

Again, you kind of had to take the good with the bad during this era of Superman comics. It wasn’t just limited to this storyline. There were ongoing elements that, for me, just never quite worked. Characters like Bibbo (a bar owner who worships Superman), Gangbuster, Guardian, Lex Luthor in a clone body (with long flowing locks and an Amish beard), and a shapeshifting Supergirl (who’s Luthor’s girlfriend) got a lot of page time, more than some of the more classic Superman supporting players. On the positive side of that, though, police officer Maggie Sawyer was one of the first lesbian characters in comics.
 
“The Reign of the Supermen” would last for five months’ worth of Superman comics, 21 issues (including a Green Lantern tie-in), but by the beginning of the third month (Action Comics #689) the real Superman had returned and begun the process of coming back at full strength.
 
*
 
“The Death of Superman” had long-term effects, both good and bad. On the good side, Steel and Superboy each got their own books, and became much more interesting characters than their first appearances indicated was possible. Simonson wrote Steel’s adventures for over three years, before handing the book off to writer Christopher Priest. Cyborg Superman’s destruction of Green Lantern’s home, Coast City, would lead to massive status quo changes for that character, and, ultimately, the introduction of a new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner.
 
But as we’ll see, the major theme of the 1990s in superhero comics was that companies learned the wrong lessons from their successes. “The Death of Superman” prompted DC to disrupt the status quo of all of their major heroes, with diminishing results. Over at Marvel, the team tried the same thing with Spider-Man, resulting in the convoluted “Clone Saga.” To this day, it’s a go-to move for both companies to kill off major characters as a stunt (to be fair, even at the time there were many who decried the "The Death of Superman" as a crass gimmick).

The creation of John Henry Irons also gave us the awful 1997 Steel movie, featuring Shaquille O'Neal 

But the worst of it is that Superman came back with a mullet, and we’ll never be able to unsee that.
 

Jokes aside, this particular illustration (by Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood) is further evidence of giving fans what they think they want in order to show them they don’t really want that. For all the recurring conversations about Superman’s irrelevance, what makes him great is that he doesn’t have to change for the times. The whole point of Superman is that he’s an orphan, an immigrant, and adoptee with great powers who does the right things because they’re the right things. That sort of thing doesn't go out of style in superhero comics, but it's good to have periodic reminders.

*

Works Cited

Bertson, Norman. “The Men of Steel." Wizard: Superman Tribute Edition (1993).
“The Death of $uperman.” Wizard #18 (February 1993).

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #19: May 1993

For Everyone, By Us

























Blood Syndicate #1 
Writers: Dwayne McDuffie & Ivan Velez Jr.
Penciller: Trevor Von Eden
Inker: Andrew Pepoy
Colorist: Janet Jackson

*

1993 was perhaps the craziest comic book year of the 1990s, and that’s really saying something.
 
For one, it seemed like Marvel and DC’s decades-long dominance of the superhero market was over. In addition to Image, there was Valiant, a line of comics based around an updated take on some the 1960s Gold Key superheroes. Both companies - cheered on considerably by the likes of Wizard magazine – became immensely popular and profitable. This inspired a gold rush of new superhero universes: Defiant, ANIA, Ultraverse, Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World, Legend, Bravura, and the Kirbyverse.
 
Marvel and DC, having been burned by their attempts at selling new self-contained lines (New Universe and Impact, respectively), instead went the licensing route. Marvel partnered with Clive Barker for the Razorline books, while DC entered a unique agreement with a new company called Milestone.
 
Milestone started with artist Denys Cowan, who had been working professionally in comics since he was a teenager, starting off as an assistant for assistant for penciller Arvell Jones. He arrived to the studio one day in 1977 to find fellow Black artists Keith Pollard, Ron Wilson, and Aubrey Bradford gathered to talk about creating their own Black heroes and selling them to Marvel and DC. This didn't materialize, but the idea of Black heroes by Black creators stuck with Denys.

By the early 1990s, Denys had made a name for himself with work on such titles as The Question and Deathlok. On the latter he was teamed with a Black writer named Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie had started as an assistant editor at Marvel, but had started to build a resume as a writer as well. McDuffie, with co-writer Gregory Wright, had reimagined the original ‘70s version of Deathlok – a white soldier - as a Black cybernetics expert who also happened to be a pacifist.

With the rise of so many new superhero lines in the early 1990s, Denys decided the time was right for a line of comics about Black heroes, created and owned by Black creators. He shared his idea with his childhood friend Derek Dingle. Derek and Denys had both attended P.S. 37 in Queens and became big comic book fans. The first comic they bought for themselves was Jack Kirby’s New Gods in 1971 when they were 10 years old. They were particularly intrigued by the introduction of the Black Racer, a Black paralyzed Vietnam Vet who like the Valkyries of Norse mythology, escorts the New Gods to the afterlife. 


Black comic book characters were extremely rare at that time. In fact, you could count them on one hand and still have a couple of fingers left: Black Panther (introduced 1966), Falcon (introduced 1969), and Green Lantern John Stewart (introduced 1971). Even as – or maybe especially as – children, Denys and Derek recognized the dearth of heroes that looked like them, and they began to make up their own.
 
After elementary school, Derek moved to Virginia, and wouldn’t see Denys again for over a decade. He’d go on to study journalism, and write for the Black Enterprise magazine and the Wall Street Journal. When Denys told him his idea for a line of comic books starring Black superheroes, Derek saw it as a continuation of what they’d done as children. They brought in McDuffie and Michael Davis – founder of a company that mentored up-and-coming artists and writers, Bad Boy Studios – and began brainstorming the specifics of would come to be known as Milestone.
 
Cowan took on the role of creative director and character designer. McDuffie was editor-in-chief, and took at least partial hand in writing all of the line’s inaugural titles. Dingle and Davis handled the business side of things. Rather than go fully independent, they made a deal with DC for licensing and distribution, while retaining ownership of the characters. This allowed them the best of both worlds, as being under the DC banner would allow them the wide availability and aggressive promotion.
 
Though the idea of Black creators doing Black superheroes was a simple one, Milestone had a pretty complex and ambitious mission. For one, they were trying to completely redefine what a Black superhero could be. Though incremental progress had been made with the introduction of nuanced Black characters such as Storm and Cyborg, Black superheroes were still under the shadow of Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s. Luke Cage, with his unconvincing “street” talk and problematic origins, was often held up as a clownish negative stereotype (though in his book Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes scholar Adilifu Nama makes a convincing case for Luke Cage as "politically and socially profound").

Black athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians became more and more visible in popular culture in the '80s and early '90s, but superhero comics didn't necessarily follow that trend. 

After the "explosion" of the 1970s the companies introduced just a tiny smattering of new Black characters over the next decade plus, characters such as Cloak, Night Thrasher, and Rage. Existing characters began to get a slightly higher profile in the early '90s. At DC, John Stewart got his own book, Green Lantern: Mosiac, and there was a black Superman, Steel (more on him in essay #20). In 1992 Marvel relaunched Luke Cage as Cage. The company did the right thing by putting a Black writer (Marcus McLarin) and Black artist (Dwayne Turner) on the series, but their work on the title felt amateurish, and their reimagining of Luke Cage was uninspiring. Nama called this iteration of the character "about as compelling as the plainclothes he was now wearing."

*

The problem remained that Black superheroes were so still rare that they were inevitably seen as representatives of their entire race. So one of the Milestone's two main goals as stated by McDuffie in an interview with Wizard, was to “destroy the monolith.” By this he meant that the company wanted to introduce Black characters with a “wide range of backgrounds, points of view, temperaments” so they could be viewed as individuals. The other goal, related closely to the other if you think about it, was to portray their fictional world as realistically as possible.
 
This latter aim meant not just introducing lots of Black characters, but Asian, Latinx, female, and gay ones as well. And they were committed to having those stories told authentically. “We’re looking for women, Asian, and Hispanic creators,” McDuffie told Previews. “We want people to bring their own specific voices to characters in a way that hasn’t been done before. What I’m hoping will happen is, as this is successful, Marvel, DC, and all the other companies will start doing characters of color and more female characters.”
 
A commitment to have comics that represent the racial diversity of the real world shouldn’t have been a controversial thing, but it was. Some fans, and worse, some comic book store owners, saw Milestone as a “political” company, and refused to support it. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (which is not a history of Milestone, but rather an ethnography of Milestone readers), a retailer named Jake said he under-ordered Milestone comics because they were “activist” books about “politics and race problems.” This sentiment was not based on the content of the books themselves (though Milestone storylines did occasionally explore issues of race), but simply the fact that the characters were mostly Black. Others worried the line would only appeal to Black readers or that a line of Black comics was "reverse racism."

I probably don’t need to tell you that these concerns are damn fine examples of white privilege. Retailers like Jake considered comics with Black characters “activist” or political, but were perfectly fine with the fact that approximately 98% of the characters in the Marvel and DC comics of the time were white. They also never worried for a moment that people of color would not support white superheroes.
 
But it this perception – asinine though it was (and still is) – was a real problem. Milestone’s founders had the unenviable task of trying to promote the line as being for everyone, while also expressing their desire to bring more representation – and more accurate representation to superhero comics. And some  people saw these two messages as mutually exclusive. Marketing people will tell you that a nuanced message is one that’s easily misunderstood or muddled, and that’s sort of what happened. In promotional interviews, the guys mostly ended up repeating over and over that their biggest concern was telling good stories. That sounds like a very “duh” statement, but in superhero comics in 1993, that was nothing to take for granted.
 
As a 16-year-old fan I was looking for good stories amidst Image’s narratively impenetrable output, and Marvel and DC’s shameless chasing of Image's "extreme" art style. And I don’t recall a single moment’s hesitation about the fact that most of the Milestone characters were Black. I don’t say this to celebrate my teenage self – I was not an especially enlightened on matters of race – but to point out how the fears of comic shop owners like Jake were unfounded. And once I read the first couple of issues of each of the Milestone books, I was hooked right in.
 

What’s especially interesting to me now is that, though all four books had the same creative minds behind them, and all had the same Milestone 100 process that made them one of the first comics to have a modeled, painted color - they all had completely a completely different look and feel. This was somewhat by design, as McDuffie and company purposefully worked within familiar archetypes, which allowed them to make superhero comics while also commenting on them and their shortcomings. Hardware, about an engineering prodigy who discovers his mentor is evil, was like a high-tech thriller. Icon, concerning an alien who has spent the past 100 years stranded on Earth in the form of a Black man, was a mix of traditional superheroics and character study. Static was a teen drama with a quick-witted, electromagnetically-powered protagonist. And Blood Syndicate was a soap opera featuring racially-diverse (Latinx, Asian, Black) super-powered gang members.


But as different as each title was - a fact underscored by very different artistic styles on each book - the universe itself was well-coordinated and interconnected in the same thrilling way the early Marvel comics were. Virgil Hawkins (Static) has an Icon poster on his wall, and he got his powers from the same event that the members of Blood Syndicate got theirs. Augustus Freeman (Icon) is Curtis Metcalf’s (Hardware) lawyer. After being expelled from Blood Syndicate, Holocaust tries to recruit Static into his new enterprise, and turns out to be responsible for the bad guys Static had to face in the first couple of issues of the series. And DMZ (from Blood Syndicate) is from an alien race with which Icon is familiar.


*
 
In spite of ignorant retailers and heavy competition, Milestone books sold fairly well to start. And DC, to their credit, stuck by the company even when sales dipped during an industry-wide slump developed in late 1993.

This allowed Milestone also managed to maintain its commitment to quality. Though Static and Hardware both suffered after losing their initial creative teams, Icon and Blood Syndicate actually improved over time. Icon benefited from the consistency of McDuffie and artist Mark D. Bright, and their 42 issues on the title (give or take a fill-in here and there) stand as a career highlight for both men.

And Blood Syndicate hit a stride once Chriscross came on as penciller. Brand new to the industry, his work was good to start, and it got better every issue, just as all the story seeds writer Ivan Velez Jr. planted early on began to sprout and flourish. The team would stick together for over two years, and the book itself became a textbook example of how to effectively write a comic book featuring a large cast. Velez, a gay Bronx native with Puerto Rican roots, applied the same principles of storytelling that he used on his indie book Tales of the Closet.

*
 
There’s a lot more to say about Milestone and diversity in comics, but I’ll save it for another essay. I’ll wrap up this one by saying that for all of its innovation, Milestone in many ways typified 1990s superhero comics: A new, creator-owned superhero universe that defined itself at least initially by being the anti-Image. And it was initially very successful, causing it to grow a bit too fast, and having to pay for that later.

*

Works Cited

Benton, John. "Little Bang." Hero Special Edition: 1993 In Review. February 1994.

“The Birth of Milestone: An Interview with Denys Cowan.” Previews, Vol II, No 12 (December 1992).

Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. University Press of Mississippi. 2001.

Christensen, William and Mark Seifert. “Four-Color Culture: Minority Diversity In Comics." Wizard, number 20 (April 1993).

Dingle, Derek T. “Building a Milestone." Milestone for Kids Magazine. 1994

“A Milestone in Comics History: An Interview with Dwayne McDuffie.” Previews, Vol II, No 12 (December 1992).

Nama, Adilifu. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. University of Texas Press. 2011.

O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Marking Milestones." Wizard, number 20 (April 1993). 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #18: April 1993

A Riotous and Refreshing Retro Recital

























1963 #1 (April 1993)
Writer: Alan Moore
Penciller: Rick Veitch
Inker: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: Marvin Kilroy

*

Alan Moore is often given credit for helping to pioneer a mature, realistic, and complex approach to superheroes. His work on books like Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Watchmen, and Batman: The Killing Joke managed to be both visceral and lyrical, both lurid and thematically rich. 

It's because these comics combined a surface-level thrill with a literary depth that Moore is also often given partial blame for the rise of morally-ambiguous (or morally reprehensible) and relentlessly dark superheroes in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Many who were inspired Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke saw only the violence and trauma, and ignored the thematic and structural complexity. And even those who did recognize those latter aspects weren’t always up to the task of replicating them. 
 
Moore himself is often said to have been chagrined by the way his superhero work was twisted into something so unrecognizable. He had a genuine love for traditional superhero comics, perhaps to at that point best expressed by the excellent two-issue “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” story that served as the final Superman tale before the 1986 John Byrne reboot. But that was the outlier in his oeuvre, at least until 1993 and 1963.
 
1963 got its start when Image co-founder JimValentino asked Moore's Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette if he and Alan Moore would like to do an issue of Valentino's book, Shadowhawk. They declined, but the idea of doing a superhero book for Image was appealing. Moore had declared he'd never work for Marvel or DC again, and he liked how Image had challenged the stranglehold those two had on the industry. He said, "Although my aesthetics are different than theirs, I admire what the people at Image are doing. They've shaken up the industry in a very brutal way, and I think probably shaken it up for the better." Moore dusted off an idea he'd had several years earlier, he and Bissette brought in artist Rick Veitch, and the result was a six-issue tribute to the early days of Marvel comics.
 
Now I call it a tribute because there’s clearly a great familiarity and affection, but there’s also a meta-textual element to the whole thing. In lesser hands it could have easily become a lightweight spoof, but 1963 actually brilliantly walks the line between honoring the era while also digging beneath the nostalgia to expose some of its less-admirable tendencies. But before we get into that, here’s a rundown of the six titles:
 
#1: Mystery Incorporated concerns four friends who take a trip in a rocket and gain strange powers, a clear analogue to the Fantastic Four.
 
#2: No One Escapes the Fury features an acrobatic mash up of Spider-Man and Daredevil. He's got a wise-cracking demeanor and feels great guilt over the death of his father, the original Fury.
 
#3 Tales of the Uncanny is a double-feature title with the Captain America-inspired U.S.A. (Ultimate Special Agent) and the Hypernaut, who has elements of Iron Man and Silver Surfer.
 
#4 Tales from Beyond co-stars the Hulk-like N-Man and Johnny Beyond, who owes a debt to Doctor Strange.
 
#5 Horus, Lord of Light is essentially Thor if he'd been inspired by Egyptian mythology instead of Norse mythology.
 
#6 Tomorrow Syndicate teams up U.S.A., N-Man, Hypernaut, and Horus with Infra-Man and Infra-Girl (based on Ant-Man and the Wasp), Avengers-style.
 
Though I give the books' Marvel inspirations as a point of reference, I will also point out that, for the most part, Moore added enough novel elements to each concept that they don’t feel like parodies. Instead, they felt like books from some long lost mid-century comics company. Moore and friends threw themselves fully into this conceit. Everything in the book - from the coloring to the old-style ads to the “Sixty-Three Sweatshop Section” to the letters page to the full page character pin-ups – was designed to evoke a silver age sensibility, and the thrill of reading those early comics (which I was too young to experience firsthand). Vietch and Bissette's pencils were so perfect, especially with Gibbons's inks. Each panel is almost a mini-masterpiece by itself.
 
I adored this as a young reader; to me it was the height of cleverness, but I also genuinely enjoyed the characters and the stories. My favorites were Mystery Incorporated and Tomorrow Syndicate, but I studied all six of these books religiously. I didn't realize at the time but 1963 arrived at the exact right moment in my fandom. 

As approached my 16th birthday, I was reaching the age where Marvel and DC expected me to move on from superheroes. And I did feel that slight pull away, especially as the Big Two tried to emulate the bombastic and hormonal Image style. By this time I had made friends at school who also liked comics, but was often dismayed at their tastes and opinions. These were very much akin to the following sentiment shared by a young fan called Neil (as reported in Jeffrey A. Brown’s book Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans): “OK, but let’s face it, someone like Batman just isn’t man enough to take on somebody like Bloodstrike. None of this ‘I don’t kill ‘cause I’m a good guy’ crap – Bloodstrike would fold him in half and put him in the ground.” 

It was all about who looked coolest and who could beat who, and I didn't relate to that at all. 


This sense of alienation happened to coincide with a growing awareness of independent comics. So - often guided by Tom Palmer, Jr.'s Palmer's Picks column in Wizard - I got into Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Coleen Doran's A Distant Soil, and Paul Chadwick's Concrete, among others. My tastes in superheroes started toward books that still held on to a more classic feel, but I also branched out into homages, deconstructions, and reinventions; stuff like John Byrne’s John Byrne’s Next Men, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Mike Allred’s Madman, and Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes

1963 was also on that list, but I realize now that I understood it on a pretty surface level. I was definitely aware of the Marvel concepts the characters were playing off of. I laughed at the abundant, exorbitant use of alliteration in the “Sixty-Three Sweatshop Section” write-ups. I guffawed at the ridiculous ads, my favorite being the “Shamed By You English?” one on the back of Mystery Incorporated.

But I missed of the more subtle ways the series both nodded to and criticized early Marvel comics.
 
None of these books were presented as the first appearances of the characters. Instead the reader is thrown in the middle, allowing for tantalizing references to past storylines and other titles that never existed, both in the patented editorial footnotes, and in invented letters from fans. The latter also showcases the various types of letters, leaning heavily on the readers who wrote to point out mistakes, either in continuity or real-world accuracy (there were also funny letters from real-life people, including Neil Gaiman and Michael Uslan).
 
Moore’s understanding of silver age Marvel was so complete that he replicated a lot of the minor tics of those comics, including the slightly-awkward American pop culture references (Liberace, Johnny Weissmuller, Jackie Gleason, Judy Jetson), not-so-subtle cameos by other superheroes, and the way characters constantly retold their origins (every issue is somebody’s first, goes the adage).
 
Moore also zeroed in on some of the more dated and troublesome elements of those older comics. There was the over-the-top anti-Russian sentiment brought on by the Cold War (present especially in the N-Man feature) and the use of lazy stereotypes, such as the red-nosed, thick-accented Irish cop. There was also a persistent problem with sexism, showcased in several comments made by and directed toward Mystery Incorporated’s Neon Queen and Tomorrow Syndicate’s Infra-Girl.


 
One of Moore's “Al’s Amphitheater” columns (patterned after Stan Lee’s “Stan’s Soapbox”) is a meta-commentary on the lack of racial diversity in the comics. In a self-congratulatory sermon about brotherhood, Moore writes “…there may be those amongst you who’ve noticed that we currently feature a person colored a light and inoffensive gray as a minor supporting character in one of our books, with plans to make him completely black in a few years time, assuming we don’t get any negative feedback from our regional retailers.”

Moore's "Affable Al" persona was a Stan Lee analogue, and the imitation was not a form of flattery. Moore clearly had no love lost for "Smilin' Stan," specifically the way he actively participated in the narrative that he was the sole creator of the Marvel Universe. The “Al’s Amphitheater” in Tales from the Beyond features Al’s autobiography, which lays bare the nepotism that got him his job (Lee’s uncle was the publisher) and his hands-off approach to creating the books (he says he provided his artists with a manuscript that said “Maybe something about a space monster…” and then left them to “tidy up a few loose ends like character concept, plot, panel breakdowns and suggested dialogue”). 

In the column in Horus, Lord of Light, he says you can read the rest of the story in his book ORIGINS OF SIXTY-THREE PART TWO: HOW I CREATED EVERYTHING BY MYSELF AND WHY I AM GREAT. This was a clear reference to the Origins of Marvel Comics series of books published by Fireside in the 1970s, books that went a long way in building the Stan Lee legend, at the expense of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

Moore also gets some playful digs in at his old employer, DC. The story in Tomorrow Syndicate finds the team pursuing Mystery Incorporated into a nexus of realities called Alternity. When Hypernaut runs into his golden age counterpart, he’s surprised to find that he’s not a member of the Guild of Hypernauts. “Something tells me I’m going to have to resolve this inconsistency one day!” he says, a meta-textual reference to DC’s various attempts to streamline their conflicting continuities. And later Infra-Girl meets the Blurs of Earths Alpha and Beta, who tell her, “We’ve just concluded our annual team-up.” (the Justice League of America and the Justice Society, who were at one point from different realities, had yearly team-ups). You might also spot Superman there, holding a death certificate (the ballyhooed "Death of Superman" storyline was happening during this time; more on that in essay #20).


Tomorrow Syndicate ends with the team visiting a decaying alternate world of the future, which we find out on the last page is the Image universe. The letters page advertised a concluding special called the Double Image Eighty Page Giant in which the 1963 heroes were to meet Spawn, Savage Dragon, Youngblood, and other Image heroes. Moore planned to use the special to draw a pointed contrast between the silver and modern ages of comics, and likely take more than a few digs at the latter, and his own publisher. Jim Lee had requested to draw the special, and the creators had readily agreed (reportedly angering Valentino in the process; there was a sometimes-unhealthy competition between the Image founders). I remember scanning the comics solicitations hopefully each month waiting to see the book listed, but it never materialized.
 
Turns out, Lee didn’t follow through on the commitment, instead taking a year sabbatical from drawing. By the time Lee came back, Rob Liefeld (whose character Shaft was to play a major role in the special) had left Image. Also, Moore had a falling-out with Bissette, who owned the Fury and N-Man.
 
As much as I would have loved to see this special, the fact that it was hyped and never published is just as much a commentary the dysfunction of Image in those days than anything Moore could have put in the comic itself.

*
 
Though it contained several layers, at its core 1963 was an ode to the power of superhero comics to stimulate the imagination, and their unique ability to serve as a private universe that anyone can access.  It was also Moore's first act of atonement for and admonishment of cynical superheroes. His America's Best Comics line (Top 10, Promethea, Tom Strong) of the late 1990s and early 2000s would serve as the logical continuation and conclusion.

Personally, it reminded me of my enduring love of superhero comics at a time when I needed it most.


Works Cited:
"Image Comics Goes Back to the Future." Inside Image #2 (April 1993)

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #17: February 1993

 An Almost Perfect Eighty-Seventh Issue





























X-Factor #87
Writer: Peter David
Penciller: Joe Quesada
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist: Marie Javins

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In the early days of my comic book fanhood, it was nothing extraordinary for me to develop artistic crushes. I'd get really into a certain artist for awhile and try to read as much of their work as I could, and imitate their style in my own drawings. But very few crushes arrived as quickly and intensely as the one I had on Joe Quesada.

He first came to my attention in the middle of 1992 with his work on a DC miniseries called The Ray. Written by Jack C. Harris, the comic was a revival of a 1940s Quality Comics hero by the same name. I loved it, and Quesada’s art was a big part of that.

Hot on the heels of The Ray came Batman: Sword of Azrael, a mini-series written by Dennis O'Neil. Here, Quesada was inked by Kevin Nowlan, a talented penciller in his own right, and the result was gorgeous: solid, fluid, and moody.
 
(An aside: This miniseries was part of an elaborate set-up for an epic storyline - or series of storylines - in the Batman books, “Knightfall,” “Knightquest,” and “Knightsend.” In the story, Batman’s back is broken by Bane, and Azrael assumes the mantle of Batman. But it’s not long before his tendency to violently kill criminals - and the deterioration of his mental health - leads Bruce Wayne to confront him and wrest the role of Batman back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a clear condemnation of the extremely violent vigilante superhero trend of the early 1990s.)
 
After finishing work on Batman: Sword of Azrael, Joe Quesada jumped ship from DC to Marvel and then drew what for a long time I considered the single best issues of a comic book I had ever read, a comic that completely changed the way I saw superheroes, X-Factor #87.
 
Conventional knowledge gives a lot of credit to Alan Moore and Frank Miller (and Dennis O’Neil, too, come to think of it) for helping comics grow up. They did this by introducing real-world social and political concerns into their fictional worlds (and in Moore’s case, deconstructed the medium at the same time). Less attention was paid to the way these writers didn't just put scrutiny on the world outside their heroes, but also the one inside. These books really explored what made their characters tick, psychologically speaking. Of course one of the innovations Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko brought to Marvel in the early 1960s was that they gave their heroes real-life problems and hang-ups. But even these didn’t go much deeper than Dr. Strange's arrogance or Spider-Man’s guilt or the Thing’s anger/sadness at being a monster.
 
There was a whole world of opportunity, then, to examine superheroes’ inner lives, and Peter David was one of the first writers to recognize that and actually do something about it. David got his start in Marvel’s sales department, eventually moving over to write Spectacular Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk. It was on the latter that David made what’s probably his signature mark in comics, writing the title for twelve years and introducing ground-breaking elements to the Hulk mythos, namely Bruce Banner’s abusive father and his multiple personality disorder (which resulted in various manifestations of the Hulk).
 
David became a comics-writing superstar, working on a variety of projects for both Marvel and DC. One of those was taking over X-Factor in late 1991 as part of the X-Book shake-up that also produced X-Men #1. The X-Factor title had initially followed the adventures of the first five X-Men, reunited to track down and help newly-identified mutants. With those characters folded back into the X-Men, X-Factor was recast as a government-sanctioned team consisting of former supporting characters: Cyclops’s brother Havok, Magneto’s daughter Polaris, the Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver, Madrox the Multiple Man, Guido, and former New Mutant Wolfsbane.
 
The line-up was quirky, and so were David’s stories, but none more so than issue #87, otherwise known as the “analysis issue.” The premise is that the team’s government liaison, Val Cooper, is exasperated by the team's dysfunction, so she asks a therapist to sit down with each member. This, of course, ends up revealing quite a bit about the characters and their hang-ups and motivations. When I first read the issue, it seemed like an act of magic to me, both in concept and in execution.
 
In terms of concept, I was blown away at least in part because at that point I hadn’t yet read those  Miller/Moore/O’Neil comics, so the focus on character seemed like a true innovation. But more than anything else, I’d just never conceived that you could make an interesting superhero comic book without any action in it.
 
As for execution, David is only able to give 2-5 pages of spotlight to each character, but he’s somehow able to reveal a shocking amount of character insight in just that little bit of story acreage. He was, of course, greatly helped in that by Quesada’s intricate layouts – there’s zero wasted space – and his expressive character work. It Quesada's first issue on the book, and the first time he and David had worked together, but it was a rare case of writer and artist being completely in sync.

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Rereading it all these years later, I find that X-Factor #87 is still compelling, if a bit too proud of its own cleverness. This is especially evident in the final page where Val Cooper reveals her takes on the characters and they’re all the exact opposite of what we just learned.
 

There are also elements that feel too facile. Yes, Quicksilver is impatient because he’s so much faster than everyone else, which is presented as an excuse for why he acts like a dick. There are plenty of other characters in both the Marvel and DC universes who have superspeed who don’t act that way (this makes me happy that David never wrote the Flash).
 Both female members are given somewhat sexist hang-ups that hinge on male approval. Wolfsbane’s session explores her tendency to fall in love with male authority figures. Polaris is revealed to have a negative body image, which she then attempts to deny by adopting a new, skimpier costume. 


But other elements work really well and add depth to the characters, particularly the revelations about Guido (that he was bullied as a child and that his power causes him constant pain) and Madrox (that his annoying, attention-seeking behavior stems from a fear of being alone). And though, again, it might be a bit too clever, David positioning characters in psychological opposition to their powers (the guy who can multiply is lonely, the lady who has magnetic powers feels unattractive) was sharp.
 
The things we learn about each character also provide a wonderful set-up for future conflicts, both internal and external. But that promise was not fulfilled, at least not in the short term. David quit the book three issues later over his objection to the title being included in a line-wide crossover. In 2005, David returned to a rebooted X-Factor (with Madrox, Guido, and Wolfsbane still in his cast) and spent eight years and 112 issues chronicling their adventures. X-Factor #13 (2006) serves as a sequel to X-Factor #87 (the fact that the sequel has a lower issue number tells you everything you need to know about comics renumbering). Like most sequels, the issue doesn't quite hit the highs of the first one, but it does contain some fun callbacks.
 
Flaws and all, X-Factor #87 will forever stand for me as an example of the unlimited potential of superhero comics, and the importance of characters having, you know, character.
 
*
 
I obviously wasn’t the only one who saw something special in Joe Quesada. After a short stint on do some work here and there at Marvel before going independent with his writing and inking partner Jimmy Palmiotti to create the superhero Ash. In 1998, he’d return to Marvel and spearhead a line called Marvel Knights, which offered creator-driven, mature takes on heroes such as Black Panther, the Inhumans, and Daredevil. The success of that led Quesada to become Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 2000. It was the first time an artist had ever held the top post, and Quesada would stay in the position for 11 years. He now works as the executive vice president and creative director for the company.