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)

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