Friday, September 25, 2009

The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel

DC Comics, 2007, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Steve Gerber
Artist: Peter Snejbjerg
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Phil Balsman
Cover artists: Michael Wm. Kaluta, Lee Moyer

Due to its nature as a 22-page one-shot, Zauriel may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking of Steve Gerber’s major works. Together with four other specials by other creators, it was released as a prologue to Mr. Gerber’s revamp of the DC character Dr. Fate, which was in progress at the time of his death in February 2008.

Still, in more than one sense, Zauriel makes for a fitting wrap-up to the series of reviews of Mr. Gerber’s work I’ve posted over the past week. For one thing, it’s a very well-made and inspired little one-shot story in its own right, as I’ll hopefully be able to demonstrate. For another, it ties in with quite a few themes that were also touched upon those earlier stories.

Zauriel, a character created by Grant Morrison for JLA in 1997, is an angel of God in the DC Universe—a meat-and-potatoes Judeo-Christian God, to be precise—and he’s well known as such to the general populace. At the beginning of the one-shot, Zauriel is speaking before a Sunday-school class full of ten-year-olds with lots of tricky questions for him that he’s either unable or unwilling to answer: “Where’s heaven?” “How come God wants praise all the time?” “Yeah, does he have, like, low self-esteem?” You get the idea.

The session is interrupted by Malachy, a fellow angel who sends Zauriel on a mission to another planet, so as to prevent “Okeontis and her band of freedom fighters” from overthrowing “Hyathis, tyrant queen of Alstair.” Alstair being, as we learn, a planet where animals and plants are still much closer related than on Earth—it’s something of a modern Garden of Eden, you might say. Zauriel is confused, initially. Why does Heaven want him to help a tyrant stay in power? Malachy understands his confusion:

“You’re correct, of course. Ordinarily, Heaven looks favorably upon the establishment of democracy, everywhere except in Heaven.

“Alstair, though, is a special case. Okeontis represents a magical and spiritual threat of such magnitude as to compel divine intervention.”

The reason for that, according to Malachy, is Okeontis’ possession of the Helmet of Fate, a magical artifact that makes her untouchable to mortals. Sufficiently convinced of his mission to take the helmet away from Okeontis, Zauriel eagerly embarks to his “chariot”—not least, it appears, because it’s a great excuse to dodge the kids’ questions. “Thank you, God,” Zauriel thinks as he flies away from the school.

Once Zauriel has established contact with the tyrant he’s meant to protect, he elaborates on the exact nature of the threat posed by Okeontis: It—or, rather, she, as it turns out—is an evil fungus.

“The fungus comprises a distributed consciousness. It goes for the brain, insinuates itself into the neural pathways, cohabits with the host personality.

“Either way, the fungus fulfills its biological and psychic imperatives: to propagate. To expand its consciousness. To know ever more, through the cumulative perceptual organs of its hosts. And, through knowing, to dominate.

So, in other words, the story is a very smart re-imagining of the Book of Genesis, the heart of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, as a straightforward superhero story—from the perspective of the Bible, no less, in which knowledge, as the ultimate expression of evil, equals death.

Consequently, Okeontis is in the role of Satan, the serpent who brings forbidden knowledge to the Garden of Eden: She’s portrayed as a bloodthirsty vampire with “perverse” desires who infects her victims with flesh-eating, death-bringing knowledge. They become “fungoids,” suicide troops bent on spreading their fungal intelligence.

Zauriel, on the other hand, is the hero of the story, who kills the serpent and thereby protects “all of creation” from the evil of knowledge. “The people of that world are about to fall into the grip of a great wickedness,” Malachy warns Zauriel in an earlier scene. That great wickedness, we learn, is knowledge, and Zauriel’s mission is to squash it.

It’s wonderful, fabulously twisted stuff.

The germ of the idea can be traced in Mr. Gerber’s body of work to a scene in Sub-Mariner #69, from way back in 1973. In a subplot of that issue, a group of rebels against a totalitarian regime in a parallel world has just discovered the means to defeat the bad guys: music! Because, we recall,

“To make music is to create—and to create is to grow—and growth—! Growth is the bane of all tyrants, all who pretend to sacredness! For it implies learning… and as men learn, their sacred things diminish in number…”

So, in a sense, Mr. Gerber’s thoughts on knowledge vs. faith are coming full circle in Zauriel.

Back in Sub-Mariner, he threw in an observation in a fairly random fashion. Now, almost 35 years later, Zauriel constitutes a full dramatization of those ideas: The school children’s probing, their pastor’s attitude that “belief should be able to withstand a little scrutiny,” Zauriel’s relief when he no longer has to face the questions—everything plays into the larger theme of knowing vs. believing.

Only this time, Mr. Gerber turns the idea on its head by fully embracing, for the purposes of this story, the Christian viewpoint that “knowledge” means “evil”—and why wouldn’t he? After all, Zauriel’s existence pretty much proves the existence of God in the DC Universe, so there’s no reason to doubt the Bible anymore, either.

“You’re not merely incompatible with the fungus,” Okeontis says at one point. “Your angelic nature is anathema to it.” And she’s right: Zauriel is the “hardened dogmatist” that Malachy suggests earlier on in the story, because his belief in the goodness of Heaven is absolute—that’s what makes him perfect for this particular mission. In the end, Okeontis bursts into a cloud of spores, which are inadvertently set alight and destroyed by Zauriel’s sword.

“Perhaps, then, I’ve eliminated the fungal intelligence. And perhaps that was Heaven’s plan all along.”

Once again, Mr. Gerber has found a new way to subvert the role of the superhero: He’s the credulous follower of an ideology whose legitimacy he never challenges. Even when it turns out that he’s been deceived—because Heaven was less interested in the helmet than in preventing the “fungal intelligence” from spreading in the Garden of Eden—he just shrugs it off and comes to the circular conclusion that, well, if this is what God wanted, then it was probably for the best, because how can it not be when it’s God who wanted it. After all, if that wasn’t true, Zauriel would have to question his very existence, and we can’t have that.

Arguably, Zauriel’s character could have used a little more depth—or humanity, I suppose—and there’s a little too much backstory on the Helmet of Fate that’s not all that relevant to the narrative at hand. Overall, though, it’s a thoroughly well-constructed little story with great timing, fantastic dialogue filled to the brim with double entendres and, ultimately, more layers than an onion. Also, as a nice change of pace, the rest of the creative team is able to keep up with Mr. Gerber here. Peter Snejbjerg’s storytelling is fluid and graceful, and his smooth, disarmingly straightforward but somehow slightly eerie style suits the material perfectly.

The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel doesn’t have the overt piss and vinegar and in-your-face revolutionary ambitions of some of Mr. Gerber’s earlier works, but it makes up for that in subtlety and sheer craftsmanship. There’s still a lot of outrage and explosive ideas in these pages—they’re just packaged much more cleverly and with much more deliberation and skill this time around. Zauriel may just be one of the most well-rounded, most brilliantly subversive pieces of comics storytelling Mr. Gerber turned in during his long career.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Exiles

Malibu Comics/Ultraverse, issues #1-4, 1993, between 24 and 28 pages each, plus extra material, $ 1.95 or $ 2.50 each

Writers: Steve Gerber, Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, Chris Ulm
Pencilers: Paul Pelletier, R. R. Phipps
Inkers: Ken Branch, Scott Reed, Dave Simons
Colorists: Paul Mounts, Moose Baumann, Robert Alvord, Psychedelic Prisms
Letterers: Clem Robins, Patrick Owsley
Cover artist: Darick Robertson (issue #1)

Let’s be honest: This is terrible rubbish, mostly.

Exiles, launched by Malibu Comics as part of its Ultraverse imprint in 1993, is remarkable mainly because Steve Gerber (who was one of “The Eight Fathers of the Ultraverse”) ostensibly used it to express some of his ideas on superheroes. In concept, the series boils down to a thinly veiled X-Men knock-off. In terms of the characters and the plot, it boils down to a thinly veiled X-Force knock-off.

In fairness, it’s probably not Mr. Gerber’s fault.

To say that the deck was stacked against Exiles from the beginning would be misleading. There was, in fact, no more deck. The table had been overturned, and cards were missing; shots had been fired, people were lying on the floor bleeding, the house was burning and the fire department was suffering from a collective case of diarrhea. And that’s when the nuclear bombs went off.

Yet, somehow, Steve Gerber managed to be impossibly cheerful and optimistic in his approach to the material, by all accounts—not least his own, which can be found in an interview from 1993 that’s still available on the Internet, as well as his afterword to Exiles #4, both of which combine to paint a fairly detailed—and fairly gruesome—picture of the book’s gestation and road to publication.

It wasn’t Mr. Gerber who created the Exiles characters and concept, but Malibu Comics co-founders or employees Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich and Chris Ulm, and they did so well before the Ultraverse line was invented: Initially, Exiles was meant to be a standalone series at Malibu Comics. The three creators wrote the first issue together, and it made it fairly far on its way through the production chain, according to Mr. Gerber:

“The first issue of the book had been plotted, scripted in first draft, pencilled, and even partially lettered and inked before I ever became involved with it.”

And even when Mr. Gerber did take over the series, it was still not connected to the Ultraverse.

“I came aboard because Dave, Chris, and Tom were knee-deep in other projects […] and none of them had time to finish the Exiles book or write the series in the future. Later, as the Ultraverse was being created, we realized there was nothing in Exiles that inherently contradicted the world we were building, so the title became part of the line.

“It's different from the other titles in that there are actually four [five? –ed.] writers on the first issue. Dave, Chris, Tom, and Dan [Danko, another Malibu employee? –ed.] in collaboration wrote most of the first twelve pages. I made some minor changes on those pages, rewrote their draft for the next eight pages or so, and then replotted and rewrote the ending of the first issue. I think we've managed to stitch the styles together without many seams showing, but it's the only Ultraverse title that was put together in quite that way.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. According to the afterword, Mr. Gerber had already completed the scripts for the first two issues when he and editor Chris Ulm decided that Exiles #4 would be the end of the series, leading into Break-Thru, the first big-event title of the Ultraverse line. Add the number of artists, colorists and letterers involved, and it’s obvious that Exiles wasn’t going to be a classic. Even before the first issue saw print, the book was bound to be a gimmick-driven mess.

And, boy, is it ever.

If I had to guess, I’d say the project dates back to 1991, precisely—by all indications, one or more of its creators read Rob Liefeld’s New Mutants and X-Force comics, thought they were the greatest thing on Earth, and wanted to make a comic book that’s exactly like those. And everybody else involved in the project—prior to Steve Gerber’s arrival, mind you—was ready to oblige, probably because those comics they were out to imitate had sold shiploads of copies.

As a result, the names, designs and costumes of the characters appearing in this series are so astonishingly awful as to defy belief. Virtually the entire cast is utterly insufferable, and not in any way that makes me want to read more stories with them. The main villain is, remarkably, a Gideon rip-off—and shame on you if you even know what that means. He’s called Malcolm Kort, wears a suit, and his rendition suggests that the artist has never, in his life, seen what a man in a suit looks like. There’s a character named Deadeye (!), who looks exactly like Cable, only crappier. There are characters named Hot Rox, Bruut—and Supreme Soviet, who yells things like “Capitalist swine!” and “Now be silent, American wench!

The most amazing character in the bunch is called Bloodbath, though, and, judging from the blurb on the cover of issue #2 (“Featuring BLOODBATH”), the name alone was expected to be a selling point. Bloodbath is the bad-guy version of Shatterstar, basically. He wears looong plaits, a purple jumpsuit and shoulder pads with spikes. And his power is that he’s got a bleeding chest wound from which he’s not dying. I’m not kidding. Hence, presumably, his codename: Whenever he hits the tub, it’s gonna be a bloodbath. Or something.

There are all kinds of impossible design elements in all kinds of impossible colors and variations: shoulder pads; green; cartridge belts; orange; spikes; shoulder pads with spikes; purple; bandoliers; plaits; green sprite boots with petal-shaped brims and spurs.

It’s not, despite all indications to the contrary, a parody, I should point out. These people are dead-serious—at least initially. And to emphasize that point, they depict lots of blood, dead people and other dead things, plus lots of sound effects like “KAWOMP,” “KPUNKT,” “Bwa-DOOM” or—my favorite—“TUPPITTUPPITTUPPITTUPPIT.”

Not surprisingly, the first issue, most of which existed before Mr. Gerber became involved with the project, is easily the worst of the bunch. It largely consists of ultra-violent, badly choreographed, badly drawn fight sequences with terrible dialogue—next to this stuff, Jeph Loeb looks like David Mamet in comparison. The storytelling—they need arrows to indicate the order of the panels in the first issue—gets marginally better after that, but Exiles still isn’t anybody’s finest hour.

That said, it looks like the creators start to enjoy themselves in the final issue, at least: Something clicks, and Mr. Gerber and his collaborators suddenly embrace the sheer ridiculousness of the material with a visible amount of glee and creative zip. There’s even an effort to imbue some of the characters with genuine personalities—right in time before everything’s blown up and half the cast bites the dust.

Because the big gimmick of the series, of course, was that Malibu and the creators had led everybody to believe that Exiles was going to be an ongoing monthly title. They’d even put out fake solicitations for the next couple of issues, I think, and if the afterword is any indication, it seems to have worked. Mr. Gerber seems very proud of that. “I don't believe anything quite like this has ever been done in comics before,” he says in the interview quoted earlier, and he’s probably right.

In retrospect, though, what’s left of the coup is little more than a gimmick. It’s kind of like what Chris Claremont, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum did in 1975 when they killed off Thunderbird three issues into the “All-New, All-Different X-Men” run, only more drastic—because, this time, it’s almost the entire team that dies, and the series along with it. But it’s hard to care about characters who are dressed like the Exiles, talk like the Exiles and spend their time doing the things that the Exiles do.

The intriguing part of the book is that, despite all its shortcomings, its take on the superhero concept seems to be coming from the same place as Mr. Gerber’s 1970s work at Marvel, roughly: Once again, the costumed Übermenschen not only utterly fail to accomplish anything, but they make things infinitely worse. Whenever they act, violence is the result. And, as we also know from Sub-Mariner, The Defenders and Omega the Unknown, violence has consequences: things break; blood is spilled; people get hurt; people die.

Remarkably, whatever Mr. Gerber thought of superheroes when he co-created Omega, his work on Exiles, fifteen years later, does not suggest that his opinion had changed much in the interim.

Conceptually, you can see why the project may have appealed to him, certainly. But this time, the progressive nature of the material doesn’t come from the characters. Rather, it’s rooted in the fact that the series officially came with a built-in self-destruction mechanism. The superhuman characters in Exiles fail, ultimately, just like the superhuman protagonist in Omega fails. But unlike Omega the Unknown, which fails at an arbitrary point dictated by sales and management, Exiles fails at a point dictated by the creators.

That’s kind of noteworthy, after all, I suppose, and it’s definitely a point of interest for anyone tracing the development of Steve Gerber’s work in the superhero genre. Given the quality of the material that resulted from his theoretical approach in this case, though, Exiles is probably not going to be of much interest to anybody else.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Omega the Unknown

Marvel Comics, issues #1-6, #9 and #10, 1975 through 1977, 17 or 18 pages each, $ 0.25 or $ 0.30 each

Writers: Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inkers: Jim Mooney, Pablo Marcos, Mike Esposito
Colorists: Petra Goldberg, Phil Rachelson, Hugh Paley, Janice Cohen
Letterers: John Costanza, Irv Watanabe, Ray Holloway, Karen Mantlo, Joe Rosen, Susan Fox, Howard Bender
Cover artists: Ed Hannigan, Joe Sinnott (issue #1)

In Sub-Mariner, Steve Gerber produced largely unremarkable, conventional superhero stories with an occasional flare of social awareness in the prose. In The Defenders, the writer began to construct stories for an existing mainstream superhero series that were at least able to raise the issues he was interested in. With Omega the Unknown, Mr. Gerber, along with co-writer Mary Skrenes and artist Jim Mooney, went on to create a wholly new superhero concept to dramatize his ideas. (Issues #7 and #8 are fill-ins by other writers, so I’m not including them here.)

What the creators are attempting with Omega, plainly, is one of the first deliberate and comprehensive deconstructions of the very nature of the superhero genre. Although the first issue of the series constitutes a conscious blend of various archetypal origin stories, it’s not an origin story itself: It doesn’t tell the audience the origin of the protagonist. Instead, it establishes a whole range of questions and mysteries.

For starters, Omega rejects the usual secret-identity paradigm and splits the two identities up altogether.

On the one hand, there’s James-Michael Starling, an intellectually gifted but emotionally distant 12-year-old who loses his parents in a car crash—and discovers they are secretly androids, robots disguised as humans. On the other hand, there’s “Omega”: a Superman-type character on the surface, clad in red and blue. It’s suggested that he is the last survivor of his race, who escapes to Earth chased by evil “metal men” screaming “Kill!” Referred to as “caped man” in subsequent issues, he is mute at first and seems to be a completely blank slate morally and emotionally—or, as Mr. Gerber puts it in his editorial in issue #1, “an adult with the emotional maturity of an infant.”

The two characters strongly resemble each other, apart from their apparent age difference, and they also share their detachment from other people and lack of emotional development. When James-Michael is taken to a clinic in Manhattan after the accident, the caped man quickly follows, which suggests a “strange link” between them. Contrary to the way some superhero writers still approach their work today, the creators knew what that connection was right from the start, as Mr. Gerber confirms in an interview with the Marvel fanzine FOOM, circa 1977:

“We do know, even though we’re probably not going to reveal it for quite awhile, what the relationship between James-Michael and Omega is.”

There is one major difference between the two characters: Whereas James-Michael responds to his surroundings with eloquence and analysis, his counterpart’s main mode of interaction are physical fights—within the first three issues, the caped man ends up in violent encounters not just with several of the robots following him, but also with the Hulk and with Spider-Man villain Electro.

In very basic terms, Omega the Unknown is one of the first superhero comics that are about something, rather than about someone. It’s not a vehicle for the latest spandex-clad sensation to punch his way through a random and hopefully endless string of monthly complications, in other words, but the deliberate treatment of a theme. Namely, Omega is a story about puberty—and, more specifically, about the superhero origin story as a metaphor for puberty.

The story’s impetus is laid out in the first three pages:

“Some unforeseen factor interrupts the orderly flow of events, and without warning, a finely tuned organism erupts in discord, violence. The mind searches furiously for a key to it all: What is it? What went wrong? Why? How? The body, meanwhile… does what it must… to survive!

Escape… is not sought… nor desired… nor even possible. The alteration, subtle at first, then mounting in intensity, growing bolder, more visible, more disruptive as time went on—the alteration was inevitable. For all the chaos, the tumult raging all about this last of his superior breed… could only be the product… of the pain… and the passion… and the fire… to which he alone remains heir. The energy—the creative force—could be disciplined only so strictly, held seething in check only so long, before it burst forth—ravaging, mindless, uncontrollable.

That’s the answer! So obvious in retrospect! An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow. The element of change, which loomed so terrifying—was in fact the only hope of salvation. To resist, to dam the flow, to go rigid… was to abandon all hope.

“So that now, in the end, no recourse is left but to scream… and wait for the ordeal to be over.

The text accompanies images showing the caped man’s very literal attempt to “depart” his home planet while under attack from the evil robots, but it’s also an apt description of the turmoil and confusion an adolescent experiences in puberty—and, obviously, like many teenagers, James-Michael has his own “robots” to deal with.

The writers continue to play with the narration commenting on the caped man’s escapades in the same fashion throughout the rest of the series. “And, too, he has found the emotionality of Earthmen a source of fascination,” it says in issue #4, “…for all that had been bred out of his race to help insure that order would be maintained”—his race being superhero characters, presumably.

And in a particularly memorable three-page sequence in issue #10, Mr. Mooney’s artwork portrays a perfectly conventional and, on the surface, utterly random brawl between the caped man and a “desert demon” who appears out of nowhere. The narration, however, almost completely ignores what’s shown in the images and talks, in great detail, about the feelings involved in what might be a fight between lovers, friends or family members:

Humans crawl out of the woodwork, demons pop from solid sandstone…! Ordinarily, of course, the intrusions are less obvious than this one. But it’s in their covert nature that their potency reside [sic]. Their strength is their plasticity. Try it: Attack any intruder into your personal space. You’ll find your blow striking a pillow of good intentions.

“And, invariably, you’ll learn that pillows have feelings, too! And you’ll shudder as the pillow drives the point home (usually, but not always, verbally)… reviling your aloofness, your insensitivity… your self-centeredness, your tendency to brood…! …you cad!

“Before you know it, you’re on the defensive…! Your temples throb, your muscles knot… and you reconcile yourself to the fact that, unless your identity is to be gobbled up whole… this intruder has to be dealt with. Decisively. So you retaliate. Mightily. And the old cliche proves true…! It hurts you more than it does them.

“Your space is your own again. But you’ve been scarred. And the distastefulness of the whole business… still lingers in the wind. You’re tainted, and so is your space. Absolution is required. Back into circulation you go. It’s a ‘no-win’ situation.”

Structurally, the series is not—or, at least, not nearly as much as other genre comic-book series of the time—driven by a largely plot-based formula. Rather, every aspect of the comic—including the plot—is made to resonate with the book’s conceptual umbrella and its finely tuned, finite character arcs. And, as the story goes on, its details accrue meaning towards the theme of growing up and coming to terms with the world.

Mr. Gerber elaborates on his and Ms. Skrenes’ approach to the series:

“It has a definite direction. It does not have incidents plotted out all the way through issue #100 or anything like that. We know where it’s going […]. In some ways, it’s the most calculated strip I’ve ever done, and largely that’s because of Mary’s predisposition toward structure.”

As the series progresses, the two protagonists—each in their own way—begin to learn and to adapt, very slowly at first, as they are confronted with their new urban environment. They go on to be exposed to interpersonal relationships, death and mortality, the significance of money, poverty and the daily struggle for survival in the city’s streets—and the consequences of violence, the honest, unflinching portrayal of which has become a recurring trademark of Mr. Gerber’s work at this point.

Reluctant James-Michael, who was raised, sheltered and home-taught in a remote house in the Pennsylvania mountains, first comes into contact with the outside world when his surrogate parents take him to New York, where he is meant to attend school. James-Michael is less than thrilled with the prospect, but his father encourages him to embrace the idea—“because imagination is fueled by experience, which is precisely what you wish to avoid.

A month after the accident that reveals his parents as humanoid robots (and reduces them to piles of ash before anybody else arrives on the scene, evidently), James-Michael awakens in a neurological clinic in New York City. Although his doctor is fascinated by the boy’s intellect and detachment, the board of directors refuses to keep him as a patient. As a result, James-Michael is taken in by his nurse Ruth and her roommate Amber, a flippant, happy-go-lucky-type character. “Who is she?” the narration teases, “…why does he feel, ever so slightly… aglow?

Again, the choice of characters is no coincidence, according to Mr. Gerber:

“Ruth and Amber were specifically introduced to play off each other in a particular way and create a particular kind of confusion in James-Michael.”

In issue #2, when the two women take the boy to their 44th-Street apartment for the first time, James-Michael’s observations hint at the kinds of experiences that lie in store for him. “The noise level is destructive,” he remarks after his first subway ride. When they enter the apartment building, the distinct smell of the place does not elude James-Michael: “Am I mistaken—or is that the odor of human excrement?” Among other glimpses at daily life in Hell’s Kitchen, the sequence also includes a homeless man tap-dancing for change, iron bars on a fourth-floor window and a reference to Ruth’s period: “[…] I don’t think this is the right phase of the moon to point it out,” Amber remarks when James-Michael comments on “the damaging effects of aerosol sprays on the ozone layer […].”

Very clearly, this isn’t the highly romanticized version of New York City that Marvel comics are known for. Rather, it’s Steve Gerber finally zooming in on the aspects of life and society that interest him as a creator. We’re not looking down from the top of the Empire State Building with Prince Namor anymore, as he bemoans the bleak existence of “the land-dwellers.” Nor do we get the luxury of being temporarily perplexed, along with the Defenders, by the concerns of mere mortal souls, before we get to hurry off to the next costumed brawl.

No, this time, we’re down in the streets, experiencing the reality and the hostility of everyday life on the sidewalk and in the crummy and heatless apartments, along with the regular, run-of-the-mill people who live there—just like the writers themselves did at the time, as Mr. Gerber recalls in a 1978 interview with The Comics Journal:

“Mary Skrenes and I were sitting in The Market diner at 44th Street and 11th Avenue in New York […] when some sort of incident took place out on the sidewalk. We couldn't even see clearly what was happening, but by the time we got up and left our seats to see what sort of insanity was going on out there, a kid came staggering into the diner, his face bloodied, stab wounds all over his body, and collapsed on the floor. We were told by one of the waitresses the next day that he had died.”

Subsequent scenes and issues continue to flesh out the urban environment and the characters that populate it. The tap-dancing bum, for instance, is not just an extra who’s dismissed after his initial walk-on part, but a recurring character who receives more depth as the series goes on.

When he first approaches Amber, the homeless man claims to be a tap-dancer. “Look, I just need thirty-seven more cents an’ I can get my dancin’ shoes outta hock.” Even when Amber bluntly rebuffs his advances, he maintains his playful attitude, although he can’t cover that he’s badly shaking at this point, likely from alcohol withdrawal. “I think that man expected to be paid for providing that entertainment,” a confused James-Michael points out, but Amber seems unimpressed. “Can’t live on expectations, punk,” she shrugs.

Several pages later, the same man starts a fight with another “wino” who’s passed on the sidewalk next to a soda fountain (“Up! Now! Outta my bedroom!”). Via the store’s owner, we learn that the tap-dancer is named Zach, and it’s not the first time he’s started a fight. This one ends badly for him, mind you: The “wino” turns out to be Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, who, once transformed due to the provocation, proceeds to hurl Zach through the storefront window. Similar to Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes in the incident recounted above, James-Michael and Amber get to witness the altercation from inside the soda fountain.

This isn’t the last we see of Zach the tap-dancer. In issue #6, he’s passed out in the lobby of Ruth and Amber’s apartment building, and it’s James-Michael—distressed by other events—who vents his anger waking the homeless man up and sweeping him out. When the tap-dancer doesn’t leave James-Michael alone and keeps asking for money despite being repeatedly told off, however, the boy snaps and pushes him—which causes the man to stumble and fall down. “Y-you didn’t haveta do that,” he says, now finally dropping his playful façade. “My boy was killed in Nam. I’m all alone. I—I—”

James-Michael is visibly shocked by the effect of his violent outburst. “I… apologize,” he says. “I didn’t think I could… hurt you.” He hands the man a coin, which is gratefully accepted, but even as he walks away from the scene, the 12-year-old isn’t sure what to make of the episode, or of his own behavior. “He’ll only put it toward his next bottle of wine. Why did I—? Amber would call me a fool.”

So, in only three brief scenes, a character that would have remained a one-note extra at best in most genre narratives is developed into a three-dimensional, authentic presence and used to elicit a major insight from the protagonist. The tap-dancer goes from a beggar who’s best ignored to a quarrelsome drunkard to a downtrodden human being trying to survive and in need of compassion. Each time, the shift is thoroughly credible. The result: empathy.

Likewise, within two pages, the creators let their protagonist shift from unreflected anger to guilt and pity to a vague sense of failure in performing to society’s expectations—the “law of the jungle,” as Amber and Ruth call it in issue #2—because he dropped his guard for a moment and showed compassion after recognizing that his actions are capable of hurting another human being. James-Michael goes on to have more, even more poignant experiences, mainly at the high-school setting where he begins to interact with fellow students and teachers in issue #3—and which, in the end, teaches him the concept of loss. It ultimately results, as Ruth observes in issue #10, in “a genuine show of emotion—!

Encountering and being taught the capacity for compassion turns out to be another leitmotif that connects James-Michael’s character arc with that of the caped man.

The caped man’s first brush with compassion occurs in issue #2, where the old owner of a pawn shop patches him up after a fight, takes him in and feeds him. In issue #4, the caped man catches a woman who jumps from the 59th Street Bridge. Pondering what may have caused her to want to end her life, “it occurs to him suddenly that he may have committed a criminal act… by saving her!” The mystery of her motivation triggers his first utterance in the series: “Why…?”

In issue #9, the caped man witnesses the death of a boy who tried to steal food from a fruit stand and then fights a super-villain whose motivation for crime is to be able to care for his child. As a result of these events, the caped man recognizes the meaning and value of money, but his wider motives are only made explicit in issue #10:

“There’s still that ‘act of mercy’ to be performed, a sort of rescue operation, actually. And the only means to effect it—without negating the purpose of his larger mission on Earth—is cold, hard cash.

“The boy—James-Michael—must be evacuated from Hell’s Kitchen. Immediately. Before his mind, his burgeoning emotions fall prey to its poisons.

But the caped man’s mission fails, ultimately. Trying to obtain the money he thinks he needs to save James-Michael, he is shot by the police in the streets of Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, neither Marvel nor the comics market proved to be quite ready for all that in 1975—Omega the Unknown was cancelled after ten issues. In his 1978 interview with The Comics Journal, Mr. Gerber calls the comic “a massive artistic failure and too small a financial success.” He elaborates:

“That strip was an attempt to depict a certain ambiguity about a lot of the characters and a lot of the situations that were occurring — and it fell flat on its face. Everyone, anyway most everyone, interpreted everything we did literally.”

The editorial pages of the comic book, right from the start, strike a rather defensive tone, certainly. Mr. Gerber’s editorial in the first issue is centered in Marvel’s—Stan Lee’s—reluctance to publish a series starring a “kid.”

“’Kids don’t like to read about kids,’ I was told. ‘They want a hero they can look up to and identify with at the same time.’

“I interpreted that to mean an adult with the emotional maturity of an infant—yet another comic-book staple for the past three or four decades. The clown in longjohns who punches first and asks questions later.”

Issue #2 comes with the transcript of a run-in between Ms. Skrenes and a skeptical “Marvel employee” that may, one suspects, not be entirely fictional. And even though most of the reader responses that begin to appear in the book with the third issue are positive, it seems to be an increasing concern among them that Omega may be too idiosyncratic and experimental to last long in the market.

Not all letters are expressions of praise, however.

“[…] Why the psychological dramas? Where are your PhD’s in psycho-analysis? Do you think this sells comics these days, or is it your own ego trip?

Omega is a sick comic book. No kid of mine will ever read an issue of it, if the first issue is any indication of what Steve and Mary are trying to do. Their style of writing is choppy, trite, melodramatic, and shallow. […]

“Please save us from comic book writers with delusions of grandeur! We don’t want you to take the medium in this direction. […] Let me read ‘Rose Garden’ or ‘David and Lisa’ for the psychological studies, and Marvel for the escapism!”

I suppose we can’t be sure if this letter from a disgruntled reader, which appears in Omega the Unknown #3, is genuine. But given the material it refers to, it does sound like an authentic gripe some among Marvel’s audience may have had with the material, at least. Although the final issue of the series repeatedly promises that Mr. Gerber and Ms. Skrenes (and, possibly, Mr. Mooney) would get to finish their work in a forthcoming issue of The Defenders, the conclusion that eventually saw print was produced without their involvement.

In the letter column of Omega the Unknown #9, Mr. Gerber somewhat ambiguously responds to a reader’s accusation of pessimism:

“Perhaps we should state, straightforwardly, that we do not consider Omega the Unknown to be a pessimistic statement at all. Because we don’t.

“If we were truly promulgating negativism in this magazine, James-Michael would have been dead in issue #2. As it is, the punk’s intelligence, insight, and his willingness to learn from Amber, Ruth, and the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen have kept him alive and mostly unharmed.

“And one could say the same of the caped man.

“This is a story about survival in a hostile environment, however, and about how survival is accomplished and enhanced through the necessity of personal growth.

“Our implicit suggestion? That the world, society, cities, even other human beings constitute a hostile environment.

“We consider that realism.”

Another implicit suggestion of the material, of course, is that the superhero genre is inherently ill-equipped to contain themes that speak to a grown-up, emotionally mature audience. In Mr. Gerber’s Sub-Mariner, Prince Namor accomplishes what he sets out to do almost by accident, it seems, and despite being who he is, rather than because of it; in The Defenders, the heroes rarely accomplish anything at all; and in the final issue of Omega the Unknown, the superhero utterly fails and quite possibly dies trying to accomplish what he recognizes as his priority: to ascertain James-Michael’s survival by procuring a large enough sum of money for his benefit.

Although the story itself was cut short by the book’s abortion, it certainly seems like Mr. Gerber’s conception of the superhero idea was brought full circle, ultimately. And while the series remains unfinished to this day, there are clues that suggest what the enigmatic connection between James-Michael and Omega may have been.

In issue #10, for instance, the caped man’s intention to help James-Michael by obtaining enough money in Las Vegas to “evacuate” the boy from Hell’s Kitchen only seems to enter his consciousness after James-Michael himself has “borrowed” a sum of money from Amber, so he can take the bus and return to his deserted mountain home along with his friend Dian.

Now, a common suspicion among readers of the series has been that James-Michael will somehow grow up to become the caped man. But I don’t think that’s suggested in the material at all—clearly, James-Michael is the more sophisticated of the two characters, the one whose attempts to adapt to, and learn from, his surroundings are infinitely more successful than the caped man’s. Not to mention that making the caped man an adult representation of James-Michael would be diametrically opposed in spirit to virtually everything Mr. Gerber says about Omega in interviews and editorial pages.

What I submit, rather, is that the caped man, being an archetypal superhero figure, represents a constantly evolving representation of James-Michael’s imagination: constantly evolving, because, as James-Michael’s surrogate parent in issue #1 says, “imagination is fueled by experience.” James-Michael grows with his experiences in Hell’s Kitchen. Consequently, so does James-Michael’s imagination. And, consequently, so does the caped man, as an expression of James-Michael’s imagination: He learns about compassion, learns to talk, learns about grief, learns about money as a means of facilitating survival.

So, what Omega the Unknown says, ultimately, is that the true source—and the true breadth—of a superhero’s power is to be found in the imagination of its creator.

Perhaps the one thing that’s meant to be taken literally about the series, after all, is its title: Quite possibly, Omega is Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes’ “last word” on the superhero genre—a dramatized demonstration why the idea of the superhero is, by design, not equipped, not capable of surviving puberty, because doing the kinds of things a grown-up person is required to do to ensure their survival is something that’s hopelessly beyond the grasp of a gaudily dressed superman—in order to survive, superheroes have to be outgrown.

Arguably, it’s all spilled out in issue #6, which provides a slightly—but pointedly—modified version of the sequence in issue #1:

That’s the answer! So obvious in retrospect! An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow. The prospect of change, which loomed so terrifying, was in fact the only hope of salvation. To resist, to dam the flow, to go rigid… was to embrace despair.

“So that now, in the end, the only refuge… lies in dying.

Or, in other words: Having fulfilled his purpose of “protecting” James-Michael during his childhood and through puberty, the caped man now has to die so James-Michael can live. Steve Gerber was a life-long fan of Superman and, to the detriment of his own career, became a passionate and ambitious advocate not just for comics creators’ rights, but also for the creative and artistic merits of their work and their creations. Omega the Unknown, it seems, addresses all those concerns.

Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes and Jim Mooney have created a formally daring, thematically sophisticated work with unusually complex characters, not just for its time, but for superhero comics in general. Its make-up, right up from its conception, is almost shockingly deliberate in the context of the 1970s. It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, why the series has become a source of attraction and inspiration for a writer like Jonathan Lethem, who co-created a ten-part series titled Omega: The Unknown for Marvel in 2007 and 2008.

Omega the Unknown—the original—is inhibited by a lot of things. The production values, once again, are often shoddy; the need to include brawls between the book’s hero and Marvel characters like Hulk and Electro does more to dilute the concept than to help it; and while Jim Mooney’s artwork is never less than competent and occasionally shines—such as in the first or final issues, both of which are inked by Mr. Mooney himself—it does seem like the artist often wasn’t able to commit as much time and thought to the work as he would have liked, in an ideal world, to make it the best he could.

Nonetheless, the series stands the test of time as one of the first serious attempts at a major comics novel in the North American market. Omega the Unknown succeeds more often than it fails in its high creative ambitions, and it represents, in its way, a re-evaluation of the superhero idea that is at once more grounded in humanity and more sweeping in scope than later, even more deliberate and complex works like Watchmen.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Defenders #20-25

Marvel Comics, 1974 and 1975, 18 pages each, $ 0.25 each

Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciler or layout artist: Sal Buscema
Inkers or finishing artists: Vince Colletta, Sal Trapani, Mike Esposito, Bob McLeod, Jack Abel
Colorists: Petra Goldberg, George Roussos, Stan Goldberg, Don Warfield, Phil Rachelson
Letterers: John Costanza, Charlotte Jetter, June Braverman, Tom Orzechowski, Ray Holloway
Cover artists: Gil Kane, Klaus Janson (issue #23)

Compared with Steve Gerber’s two final issues of Sub-Mariner, which are a vehicle for strictly conventional early-1970s superhero material with occasional outbursts of poetic melodrama and social awareness, the first half-year’s worth of stories of the writer’s subsequent run on The Defenders marks a departure: Here, Mr. Gerber is constructing his superhero narratives more deliberately to transport and deliver the kinds of themes and issues he wants to address.

His very first issue, The Defenders #20, begins with a vintage Steve Gerber caption:

“It happens daily on the streets of New York: An old drunk stumbles, clutches at his chest… emits a hoarse, wheezing, almost inaudible cry… and just dies right there on the sidewalk. He’s lucky if anyone notices, let alone cares.”

We do get back to that sidewalk eventually—but the story that follows in issue #20, for the time being, is little more than a hurried deck-clearing exercise that ties up several plot threads left dangling by previous writers. It involves a two-headed demon called the Nameless Ones and deals with the fairly confusing origin of one of the group’s members, Valkyrie—a Norse warrior woman with superhuman strength and a big sword. I take it the character initially appeared in an issue of Avengers, where the Enchantress used her as a pawn against the titular heroes. Subsequent stories established that Valkyrie inhabits the body of a “mortal woman,” but retains none of that woman’s memories, evidently.

It doesn’t seem like Mr. Gerber is very interested in the subject matter, at any rate—the story reads like it was meant to take another issue, but then the creators lost interest and decided to cram the rest of the plot into the last four pages instead.

By issue #21, though, the series is very much Steve Gerber’s. As the title of the story, “Enter: The Headmen!,” suggests, this is the introduction of the infamous trio of mad-scientist types whose gimmick is that their heads don’t match their bodies—there’s Dr. Arthur Nagan, whose head was transplanted to the body of a gorilla; Dr. Jeremy Morgan, who experimented with “cellular compression” and accidently “decompressed” his head; and Chondu the Mystic, who doesn’t get to swap his body until a later story. However, with the help of an icky-looking injection into his head administered by Morgan, Chondu is able to exercise some kind of telepathic sway over the population of Manhattan, turning them into violent, self-destructive maniacs.

The most memorable scene in issue #21 has nothing to do with the Headmen, however. In a brief but remarkable interlude, the creators establish one of the core themes of the stories that are to follow: an unfettered exploration of the consequences of the kind of unreflected prejudice and violence that are a convention in superhero comics.

It’s a very deliberately paced and choreographed sequence. The Hulk, travelling by gigantic leaps on his way to New York, has landed in the suburban idyll of Westbury, Connecticut. Possessing the mental maturity of a four-year-old himself, the super-strong giant watches a bunch of kids play in the front yard. “Their laughter soothes his spirit, makes him smile…”—much to the alarm of their parents, of course.

When the Hulk starts to pet one little girl, her horrified father runs towards them. Hulk, anticipating an attack, tosses him aside and throws one of his “Hulk smash!” fits. In his anger, he strikes the ground with both fists. The resulting shockwave destroys the family’s house, which in turn causes the little girl to cry and scream at the Hulk. Now the Hulk’s anger dissipates—crying and sobbing over the mess he inadvertently caused, he leaps away.

The shell-shocked father’s resumé to his wife in the scene’s final panel is devastating:

“D-Do you realize… that unless we’re insured for destruction by big green monsters… we now hold a 30-year mortgage… on a pile of rubble? I’ll be 64 years old… when we own… our own nothing!

Superhero readers aren’t unfamiliar with the kind of “collateral damage” on display in the sequence, of course—it’s something that occurs so frequently at this point that it’s a genre convention people hardly ever think about anymore.

Here, however, Mr. Gerber and Mr. Buscema deconstruct what’s usually a background detail and illustrate some of the consequences of the kind of insane, mindless behavior and violence that their audience has come to take for granted. Within three pages, the creators escalate an idyllic setting to an utterly violent one, with an outcome of sadness and hopelessness, and the characters seem credible and authentic every step of the way.

And in the end, even more remarkably, there is no moral. Nobody’s to blame for what happens, plainly: not the Hulk, because he’s got the simple mind of a child and defending himself against attacks is all that he knows; not his teammates, for letting him roam free, because it’s impossible to stop him without harming him or his alter ego, Bruce Banner; not Banner, because his transformation is the result of an accident and happens against his will; and not the father, because he has every reason to be concerned about his daughter, and everyone else would have acted the same.

The creators confront their readers with the uncomfortable truth that sometimes there is no solution, and violence only serves to exacerbate the problem. What’s left for the characters—and the audience—to do with the situation is to live with the consequences and, hopefully, learn from it so it won’t happen again. It took decades for this kind of self-reflection to become more common in a genre that’s still largely based on men in tights trying to resolve conflicts by beating each other up at sight—and even when this reflective aspect is present, even today, it’s rarely as well-executed.

Not all is gloom and doom in the story, though. In one of the book’s funnier—if still not exactly “lighthearted”—moments, Doctor Strange and Valkyrie try to locate the husband of the woman whose body Valkyrie inhabits, but only find his feisty old landlady—and she’s not amused to see her. “Security! That’s all you’re after—for when ya ain’t pretty no more,” she yells at the two shocked superheroes, shaking her fist, “an’ ya can’t find no fancy-pants New York artist like this one to take care o’ ya!” She’s referring to Doctor Strange, of course, who is wearing the full ceremonial garb of a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Overall, the narrative is uncharacteristically anti-climactic. Not only do the Defenders—which mainly means Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie and Nighthawk—fail to stop the Headmen’s attack—they never even get around to saving anyone, let alone to finding out what caused the madness. While Strange and Valkyrie are busy handling the Hulk, who is also affected, Nighthawk barely manages to prevent an old flame from throwing herself off his balcony, and he only finally holds her back by hitting her in the face, which leaves her unconscious.

Subsequently investigating the chaos in the streets, Nighthawk spots Nagan, who uses the distraction to “loot diamond row,” in order to fund the Headmen’s forthcoming “transplant experiments.” But Nighthawk proves unable to stop Nagan—instead, he’s knocked out cold by the villain. The attack ends when Chondu passes out due to exhaustion, and the villains escape without further complications. The final panel leaves the heroes standing around dumbfounded and without much of a clue. “[H]as all this been but a prelude,” Doctor Strange wonders aloud, “to the weirdest menace we’ve ever faced?” Already, the Defenders are probably the most ineffectual superheroes that ever joined forces in a comic.

While most of the book’s readers may have expected a more satisfying rematch with the Headmen in the next issue, the four-parter that follows completely ignores them, increasing the sense that everything can’t always be neatly tied up to everybody’s satisfaction, even—or especially—by spandex-clad superhumans. Instead, Mr. Gerber pitches his heroes against the Sons of the Serpent, a group of snake-themed white supremacists.

Most of the action takes place in and around a run-down tenement building in Lower Manhattan, housing “the old… the infirm… the blind… the black, brown, yellow and red of skin.” The story opens with Valkyrie, who is wandering around and aimlessly pondering her confused identity, coming across a knife fight between two residents. “How much have they truly to lose by killing… or dying? The rents may be dear, but life is cheap down these dark streets,” the narration comments.

Valkyrie’s attempts to resolve the situation without violence fail, leading her to draw her sword when she’s attacked by the two fighters. “A man’s strength and character are not measured by the length of his blade,” she proceeds to lecture them once they are disarmed, “but by the boldness of his heart.” By virtue of carrying the biggest stick, Valkyrie is able to dissolve the fight, for the time being. (A blonde and blue-eyed Norsewoman comparing knife-lengths with two dark-skinned men—Fredric Wertham would have had a field day with this one.)

But the heroine doesn’t get a chance to catch her breath, because a scream alerts her to another emergency. Hurrying inside the building, she finds a horrified mother whose child is threatened by a rat the size of a cat inside their crummy, freezing apartment. Valkyrie kills the rat, but learns that the single mother has bigger problems to deal with.

“How can I live under any other conditions? My rent is $ 150 a month… that is what your ‘welfare’ says my baby and I can live on! I eat dog food—so she can have milk! Your inflation… Your welfare…!”

—not the kind of dialogue readers of superhero comics were used to, back in the day.

Valkyrie takes mother and child to the posh Greenwich Village place of Doctor Strange, whose assessment is bleakly realistic. “It is not within even our power to solve the problem, Val… but we may take certain steps in this particular instance. The conditions in Elena’s building are intolerable… and illegal.” As the story progresses, however, the tenement building and its surroundings become a battleground, first between the angry tenants and their greedy “fat-cat” landlord, and soon between the Defenders and the Sons of the Serpent.

Like in the previous issue, Mr. Gerber’s prose in #22 doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to depicting the consequences of violence. This time, a single page suffices to illustrate the horror of a nightly attack by the Sons of the Serpent that sets the building alight.

“Amos Ferret cannot see the flames… but he can hear them. His aged limbs are too stiff to allow him to run from the inferno that a moment ago was his home… but his lungs will still let him shout. So he cries out for help… once, twice, a third time… help!! Then the roar of the fire drowns out his voice. The heat of the blaze drives him back against a wall… coarse grey smoke fills his chest… he cries out one last time… as the tongues of flame lick at his clothing and his body! And then he can cry no more…! The Sons of the Serpent race away as the smell of burnt flesh fills the air.”

Again, the scene suggested by the creators—the slow, agonizing process of an old, black man helplessly burning to death—is not the kind of thing his readers are used to seeing in the Marvel Universe. For that matter, unlike the Hulk’s intermezzo in suburbia, this time the source of death and destruction is not some unstoppable, superhuman force of nature, but plain old human prejudice and hatred.

The Defenders arrive on the scene shortly after, but they are too late to save old Amos. All they can manage is to prevent the outraged tenants from harming their rich, white landlord, who in turn accuses the tenants of having set the fire. At this point, the Sons of the Serpent attack once more, and though they are defeated by the Defenders, the issue ends, for the second time in a row, with the villains escaping and the heroes not having achieved a great deal of anything.

The three remaining chapters deal with the same issues, but much of the human drama is traded in for costumed brawls, as the Defenders are joined by Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Luke Cage and the Son of Satan. The tenants and their concerns, on the other hand, disappear from the story altogether.

Still, things remain several steps removed from being conventional. For instance, the creators keep throwing in the odd storytelling experiment. In issue #23, the Sons of the Serpent hijack the country’s TV frequencies to address their “fellow Americans.” The speech is communicated on a single page that swaps white for black as the background color. The upper half of the page is filled with a panel in the shape of a television screen, showing the group’s leader, the Serpent Supreme, behind a podium. The lower half has the address itself, in a white type font. The speech is written in a style reminiscent of your vintage State-of-the-Union address.

Issue #25, notably, marks the first appearance of the infamous “Elf with a Gun,” who proceeds to show up sporadically in the series, in a string of bizarre interludes. Who is the elf? What does the elf want? Don’t know, doesn’t matter. The plot thread never goes anywhere during Mr. Gerber’s tenure, and, given that it so perfectly demonstrates the kind of random, absurd violence that superhero stories trade in, it’s doubtful whether it was ever meant to: The “elf” just randomly shows up at people’s doorsteps, pulls a gun, makes some kind of nasty remark and shoots them. In this case, the victims are a cheerful, musically minded couple living in a remote trailer park. “Linda—you’re gonna think I’m crackers, but—there’s an elf at the door. An elf—with a gun!” Those are, evidently, the last words spoken by Tom Pritchett. “BLAM,” ends the interlude. 

In the main storyline, the Defenders ultimately defeat the Sons of the Serpent in a big fight. But, once again, the creators don’t seem very interested in the fisticuffs as a means of resolving things: A single, quick double-page splash is all the room they have to spare for this part of the proceedings. The real climax of the story, meanwhile, is found in a string of revelations and confrontations that—similar to the Hulk scene from issue #21—emphatically refuses to draw a clear line separating the “heroes” from the “villains.”

As the Defenders learn, the funding for the Sons of the Serpent comes from the fortune of none other than Kyle Richmond—a.k.a. Defenders member Nighthawk. Through a coincidence, Nighthawk learns that the Serpent Supreme is secretly Richmond’s trustee, a man named Pennysworth.

And that’s not all: When Pennysworth is first seen without his mask shortly after, it turns out that the white supremacists’ leader is a wealthy black man.

“Forget me! I don’t even matter!” an enraged Nighthawk confronts Pennysworth. “But how could you do what you did—to your own people?!?” Pennysworth is less than impressed:

“The cold, unadorned truth is… I spent most of my life trying to escape ‘my own people.’ Do you think me despicable, sir—for turning on my ‘brothers’ and my ‘sisters’? Before you answer, ask yourself—is every white man your ‘brother’? Do you feel kinship with him—because your skins are the same color? Of course you don’t! Why should you? Why should I?

As the conversation goes on, we learn that Pennysworth doesn’t even believe he was deceiving his employer—rather, he regards funding and running the Sons of the Serpents as a legitimate investment that Richmond would eventually have profited from.

“Ah. But you hold stock in companies which gouge the public of millions each year—and in firms that pollute the air and water—and in—but need I go on, sir? You never objected to those investments. Never even asked where the money was.”

The leader of the Sons of the Serpent, this time around, is not some kind of racist, nationalist ideologue—he’s a hardcore capitalist. Nighthawk’s initial response is denial: “There has to be more to it than that… but it’ll have to wait—” He then introduces Pennysworth to his teammates, among them Luke Cage, one of Marvel’s earliest black characters. Cage’s immediate response is violent rage—he punches Pennysworth across the room and says he wants to kill him, before he’s stopped by his teammates; the way the scene plays out, you believe that he means it.

So, in summary, the big villain of this four-parter is the wealthy black trustee of a vast fortune, who takes charge of a white-supremacist group because he believes it’s a good long-term investment for himself and for his white employer, who doesn’t much ask or care where his money comes from, or where it goes. And among the heroes are not just the negligent white owner of the fortune, but also a stereotypical “angry black man” who responds to the villain with abuse and violence.

Obviously, the aforementioned two-page splash of the Defenders taking down the Sons of the Serpent, which immediately follows these developments, resolves none of the issues raised in the storyline whatsoever—and it’s safe to say that this is intentional. The superheroes win the physical fight by beating up the guys in the funny costumes. But beyond that, when it comes to the root of the actual problems they’ve been confronted with throughout the story, they are, once again, thoroughly ill-equipped and ineffectual.

Two parts into the Sons of the Serpent story, the woman and her baby and the other tenants from chapter one seem like a distant memory—the Defenders weren’t able to accomplish a thing for them and, in the end, may have simply forgotten to even try, because they were too busy punching things.

In fact, through Nighthawk’s negligence alone, the group arguably did more harm than good throughout the story. It certainly seems like Nighthawk could be infinitely more effective as a businessman than he is as a superhero, if he only paid more attention to his own resources, instead of spending his nights looking for people to beat up wearing fake wings and a rubber nose—an unfortunate truth that he evidently recognizes himself on the last page of the story.

Those are not the messages people were used to taking away from Marvel comics in 1975, as the fairly apologetic letter column of The Defenders #25 is on hand to testify:

“Incidentally, this issue winds up our four-part Sons of the Serpent tale with what we think may be one of the most unexpected ‘messages’ of all. We’re very interested to know what you people think of this sort of adventure. No, we don’t plan to lay the social consciousness on you this heavily every month, but we’re curious—did you find it as intriguing a change-of-pace as we did? Let us know, huh?”

In terms of the artwork, the best and the worst thing you can say about Sal Buscema’s pencils (or, sometimes, layouts) is that he’s a very competent superhero artist. Mr. Buscema’s storytelling gets the action across, keeps scenes dynamic and never lacks clarity.

On the other hand, the way the pages are composed is purely functional, and the range of facial expressions and body language limited. There’s anger and sadness and surprise and grim determination, and these are all very clear, but then again, there’s not much else Mr. Buscema does with people’s emotions, and nothing in-between—there are few faces or poses that don’t look like stock expressions.

The fact that each story of this six-issue run is inked (or “finished”), colored and lettered by different people with completely different styles—something that’s entirely unthinkable in our present age of paperback and hardcover collections—doesn’t make for a very consistent look, not surprisingly. The best-looking package among the bunch is issue #24, inked by Bob McLeod, colored by Phil Rachelson and lettered by Tom Orzechowski. The artwork looks crisp and bright, with smooth, clear lines not unlike those of later collaborations between John Byrne and Terry Austin, and the text is inviting and easy to read.

It’s worth pointing out that the writing, for all Mr. Gerber does so much better than his contemporaries, has its share of flaws, as well, even if many of them are owed to the fact that these are 1970s Marvel comics. The storytelling relies too much on the text and not enough on the art; the prose is much too obvious for its own good a lot of the time, making it crystal clear that Marvel didn’t trust its readers as far as it could throw them (actual text from issue #25: “But as you view this spectacular panoramic battle scene, keep in mind its most massive irony:”); and, ideally, there would have been a more organic, less jarring way of imbuing the silly costumes and fights with “messages” and “social awareness.”

Then again, genre conventions were very much on Steve Gerber’s mind as he wrote the story, plainly, so perhaps it’s fitting that not just his heroes had to struggle with them and fail, but also the writer himself.

If these comics aren’t in print right now, they should be. Much of the storytelling is bogged down, inevitably, by the conventions of the mid-1970s. But overall, the stories hold up remarkably well—that three-page Hulk sequence in issue #21 can give any recent comic a run for its money, in terms of authenticity and empathy, but also as a piece of economic comics storytelling. And the themes and issues Mr. Gerber addresses in these stories are as timely and relevant today as they were thirty years ago.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sub-Mariner #68/69

Marvel Comics, 1973, 19 pages each, $ 0.20 each

Writer: Steve Gerber
Pencilers: Don Heck, George Tuska
Inkers: Jim Mooney, Vince Colletta
Colorists: George Roussos, Glynis Wein
Letterers: Artie Simek, Charlotte Jetter
Cover artist: John Romita

Page one: We see Namor the Sub-Mariner’s right eye. Zoom out to both his eyes. “And what they behold is a sight so grim—so fraught with horror and hopelessness—as to drive even this prince of the blood to the outermost fringes of sanity!” Zoom out to his face—he gazes in terror. Zoom out to his head, clutched in his hands: his features distorted, his mouth gaping wide, his royal heritage betrayed by disbelief and agony.

“Have I not tasted enough this day of the bitter wine of tragedy? Have the fates not yet finished toying with me—making a mockery of myself and my kingdom? A man—any man—can endure only so much before the fabric of his being stretches thin as gossamer—and ultimately—begins to fray—until its dangling threads brush against the world like raw nerves, leaving that man… ON THE BRINK OF MADNESS!

Clearly, nobody in superhero comics does melodrama anymore.

It’s easy to look down on the sort of storytelling put forth here, in the two final issues of Steve Gerber’s run on Sub-Mariner, as an artifact of a bygone age.

Broadly, that’s what it is, certainly. Like many American superhero comics released in the 1970s, Sub-Mariner bows to a crippling share of genre conventions. There are scores of redundant caption boxes, speech and thought balloons narrating the action that’s visible in the images; the artwork is functional rather than inspired; much storytelling space is spent on flashback sequences that bluntly retell the plot of earlier stories; in each issue, there’s an obligatory, prolonged brawl between the protagonist and his villain of the month; Spider-Man shows up, for no discernible reason other than to boost the sales figures of a struggling B-list series (Sub-Mariner was cancelled four issues later); the plot mechanics are clunky and riddled with holes—improbably, a key moment involves Namor colliding, for no apparent reason, with a sunken ship (“I used my arms as rudders, tried to veer away—but my speed was too great!”), which makes you wonder if he constantly bumps into things underwater—and, implausibly, Namor doesn’t seem to recall that particular incident at the beginning of issue #68, but then goes on to recount it anyway when it’s time for the flashback; and the plot itself is highly derivative and rigidly structured, to accommodate all of these things—nobody’s allowed to have a conversation that lasts longer than a page before it’s interrupted by some kind of action sequence, for instance; I’m sure there are more.

There’s also a major disconnect between writing and art in issue #68: Namor’s lament, as quoted above, is followed by a big double-page splash that shows the cause for his condition. But although Namor explicitly and repeatedly observes in his dialogue that absolutely none of his subjects have survived, Don Heck’s artwork in the very same panel blissfully contradicts him, as many of the Atlanteans in the scene are plainly standing and sitting around and mourning the dead (or rather, the comatose, as it soon turns out). Further adding to the confusion, Mr. Heck’s pencils also depict damaged buildings and broken swords, although the dialogue makes it clear that what we’re seeing is meant to be the result of a cloud of nerve gas rather than anything capable of causing the kind of structural damage or battlefield scenario shown in the art.

Sub-Mariner, not surprisingly given its strict adherence to convention, doesn’t tend to be regarded as one of the more inspired Steve Gerber works—an assessment which Mr. Gerber seems to have shared. Still, it contains some early hints at the qualities that made his subsequent superhero work on The Defenders and Omega the Unknown stand out from their competition in the mid- and late 1970s.

The first page, as described above, may be sledgehammer melodrama, for instance, but it’s incredibly deliberate sledgehammer melodrama. The prose is distinguished by an uncommon attention to rhythm, and it takes care to build and escalate the tension inherent in Namor’s monologue until its ultimate release in the words that double as the title of the story (“On the Brink of Madness!”). As far as traditional splash pages go, this is pretty much a textbook example—it follows the established formula, but at the same time, it’s fully aware of the formula and takes it to an extreme. That very first page of Sub-Mariner #68, for all the flaws of the story that’s to follow, is comic-book opera at its finest.

As a narrative, of course, the story doesn’t hold up. Namor finding Atlantis in some kind of ruin and throwing some kind of fit as a result seems like every story ever told with the character, perhaps most famously by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, when they revived Namor in Fantastic Four #4 in 1962. But upon closer inspection, Mr. Gerber’s take turns out to be more subversive than one might suspect.

His Namor takes the spoiled-bully antics to new heights. The Sub-Mariner’s first reaction to the apparent ruin of his kingdom, for starters, is to start vandalizing buildings and vehicles. (“The land-dwellers have disabled me… wrecked my kingdom… killed my race…! Why should I not finish their work—their glorious victory?”) In his first encounter with new super-villain Force, Namor shows little regard for collateral damage—when a bystander is hurt by a piece of debris deflected when Namor throws what looks like a block of concrete at Force’s back, the hero blames his opponent, pathetically: “You—have placed an innocent woman’s life in danger—for nothing!” To defeat Force, Namor sees fit to bring down an entire monument, but then he can’t be bothered to arrest the criminal; he lets him escape, instead, because he’s got more important things to do.

In issue #69, as if to emphasize his less than favorable interpretation of the title character, Mr. Gerber invites the comparison between Namor and the enforcers of an oppressive regime. In the subplot, set in some sort of parallel dimension, a mob of evil storm troopers crashes through the doors of a rebel hideout. In the very next panel, Namor himself, in search of a scientist whose help he requires, tears through the entrance of a hospital, wreaking havoc among its staff and breaking furniture, until a doctor manages to win Namor’s “respect” by opposing him. “Parallels: What would literature be without them?” a transitional caption reads.

But Mr. Gerber’s Namor isn’t just an emotionally immature and impatient one-note brute with a very low tolerance for frustration. He also seems to be disappointed with the kinds of living conditions the “land-dwellers” create for themselves. Arriving in New York City, the Sub-Mariner looks down at Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building, a view prompting a soliloquy on the course of humanity.

“The crowded, filthy streets—teeming with life in such numbers that it no longer has any value—! The ruthless, nightmarish rush, rush, rush to nowhere—mankind is a species so far removed from nature that it has lost its most basic instincts—even, perhaps, that of self-preservation—the most essential. It is as though man remembers how to multiply—but has forgotten why! And that makes the most fearsome brand of foe—one who cares not if he lives or dies!

Namor’s arrival at Empire State University triggers another thought. “Once I had hoped that change might spawn in such alcoves of intellect,” he says. At which point the end of the page is reached and Namor’s harsh assessment of human society interrupted, even more harshly, as the resident super-villain introduces himself by knocking the foreign social critic out of the sky. It’s the prelude to several pages’ worth of fisticuffs—much more common ground to the avid Marvel aficionado.

Mr. Gerber’s excursions in social criticism don’t end with Namor. In issue #69, in the aforementioned subplot, a wizard, a scholar and a musician are rebelling, with some trans-dimensional advice from Doctor Strange, against a totalitarian regime that handily cops to being unequivocally evil by referring to the three resistants as “love-mongers.” In a scene that winds up being unintentionally funny, the musician, in an act of defiance, begins to sing what might be kind of a national anthem, which suddenly causes the villains to drop to the floor in pain and lose consciousness.

Wha—?! They—they went numb at the moment I commenced singing!!” he wonders. “Why? Did I chant some arcane spell—purely by accident?” Or did he, per chance, hit a wrong note? But no such thing, as Doctor Strange is on hand to explain: “Music is the spellbreaker!” he exclaims, 30 years before Phonogram. “The sounding of a horn—the soft strains of a lyre—even a voice raised in song—!”

Instantly, the rebels comprehend, as they jointly embark on a sermon that rivals Namor’s in terms of socio-political philosophizing:

“To make music is to create—and to create is to grow—and growth—! Growth is the bane of all tyrants, all who pretend to sacredness! For it implies learning… and as men learn, their sacred things diminish in number… until only life and love can be so worshipped. Our task is set for us, then. We must sound a clarion call all Zephyrland will hear!”

Now, this is a bunch of other-dimensional hippies, granted. (Someone in the letter column points out that there were initially four of them, and they had a yellow submarine when they picked up Namor and sailed to “a sea of green” in a previous issue.) But imagine, in 1973, the average Marvel reader’s reaction to the the notion that enlightenment leads to the rejection of religion. I’m not sure I’d want to imagine the average Marvel reader’s reaction in 2009.

All those interjections of social awareness are fairly random here, ultimately. They’re stapled on to a generic superhero plot, rather than organic parts of a narrative that’s informed by them, and they don’t add up to anything bigger than the sum of its parts. That said, in many ways, they still make the story a more memorable experience than many more recent genre narratives, despite the many obvious flaws and shortcomings that date it as something very much of its time.

Steve Gerber’s Sub-Mariner is not a classic by any means, but it may still be a rewarding read if you’ve got a taste for off-kilter superhero comics with a strong melodramatic bend. Simply put, it’s already plain here that Mr. Gerber had something to say, even if he hadn’t found the right approach to communicate it in the shape of a superhero comic-book story.

Grade: D

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Destroyer Mouse

I’m probably the only one who’s amused to no end by the fact that the news of the Kirbys’ challenge to Disney/Marvel breaks on Steve Gerber’s birthday.

For the uninitiated, Gerber and Kirby were friends and supported each other in their respective legal fights with Marvel—by collaborating, for instance, on a fundraising comic-book series called Destroyer Duck.

Oh, and there’s also the matter of Howard the Duck’s appearance, of course, which once caused Disney to threaten legal action unless Marvel agreed to accept a redesign of the character dictated by Disney.

Unfathomably, Marvel accepted, which—because the Disney design was, of course, made to look as crummy as possible—led to a rather startling re-interpretation of Howard once Gerber returned to the character in 2001:

Linkage: More on Jack Kirby’s legal history with Marvel can be found at The Comics Journal, Gerber and others chime in in this transcript of a radio show, and Gerber elaborates on the shared history between Disney and Marvel regarding Howard the Duck in an interview available at his Web site.

Suffice it to say, if you’re familiar with Gerber’s history, it’s been a very strange couple of weeks.

“My Artistic Expansion Can’t Be Contained by This Medium Any Longer.”

Writer Steve Gerber would have been 62 years old today.

Gerber died in early 2008, from pneumonia in combination with a terminal, progressive lung disease. The above quote is taken from an interview he gave to Gary Groth of The Comics Journal in 1978—a transitional, crucial moment in Gerber’s career.

To see what Gerber was saying, it’s important to understand where he was coming from. At that point in time, Gerber had just been fired by Marvel because he was seeking control of his creation Howard the Duck, and he had also seen the cancellation—due to a lack of support from the publisher, as well as a lack of commercial success—of Omega the Unknown, a superhero title he had co-created and co-written while at Marvel.

So, quite literally, Gerber was talking about a “medium” that had, in no uncertain terms, proven unwilling and unable to accommodate his creative endeavors on the terms and conditions that he thought were appropriate.

“I don't really foresee my staying in comics much longer,” Gerber tells Groth. Part of the reason is that he doesn’t “like the way business is conducted in this industry,” he says, but there’s also a more creative concern at the heart of his disenchantment with comics:

“I think my work already—this has nothing to do with the quality of it, only with the nature of what I'm trying to do, I don’t want to get too self-congratulatory—it’s already—the balloon is about to burst in terms of how much further the medium can be stretched. If I ever wanted to do the stories that Howard is currently appearing in, but without a duck, there would be no way to do them in comics. […] Unless I was willing to put someone with long underwear in the lead. That would be the only other way of doing the stories. I’m trying hard to avoid sounding pretentious, folks. My artistic expansion can’t be contained by this medium any longer.”

So, as it turns out, when Gerber talks about the “medium” of comics, he doesn’t mean the kind of platonic ideal people tend to have in mind today when they mention the “medium,” one that’s big enough to include mainstream bookstore successes like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Jeff Smith.

Rather, what he refers to is the de facto state of American comics, circa 1978: a medium where the “mainstream” of “overground comics” is synonymous with generic, gaudily dressed, garishly colored superheroes who star in shallow, rigidly formulaic stories. (There was the occasional barbarian, martial artist or fowl, but those were the exceptions that proved the rule.)

The statements quoted here are not, by a long shot, the most controversial ones Gerber makes in that interview, and I have no doubt that there were plenty of ruffled feathers (and worse) as a result. By openly stepping up and demanding more for himself—and from himself—than Marvel was ready to go along with, Gerber challenged not just Marvel, but the entire comics industry along with it.

In retrospect, however, Gerber’s predictions on the medium’s capacity to “contain his artistic expansion” turned out to be true—tragically so, because, looking at the work he’s done, I’m coming to think that it’s both unfathomable and inevitable that they turned out to be true.

I haven’t seen all of Gerber’s work yet by a long shot, and not all of what I’ve seen of it is up to par. Still, the more I’m exposed to, and the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that Steve Gerber was very much the first writer in North American genre comics who came to approach his work in a deliberate, proto-literary fashion, and with the kind of creative ambition that makes him, at the very least, a missing link between Stan Lee and the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

(Not to give Jack Kirby, Will Eisner or Frank Miller short shrift, but their work speaks more to the visual aspect of comics than the literary one—which is important, too, of course, and certainly not separate, either, but still a very different line of development than the one I think Gerber is a part of.)

Starting on Monday, I’m going to post a series of longer examinations of five of Gerber’s superhero works. They’re not necessarily the most significant ones—although Omega the Unknown is in there—but I do think they still demonstrate a certain progression that’s broadly in line with the writer’s own assessment of his prospects as quoted above. I’m restricting myself to the superhero stuff here, because it speaks directly to the point Gerber was making in the interview—in a sense, it seems he did cave in and put someone with long underwear in the lead, eventually.

There’s plenty of other material he produced that’s well worth examining, of course, including non-superhero stuff like Howard the Duck and Nevada, among many others, so I’m fairly confident that I’m not nearly done with Gerber’s work yet.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying, I don’t think the comics industry at large has quite recognized—let alone acknowledged—the significance of Gerber’s contributions to the creative evolution of the form, to anywhere near the extent that’s due to him. In the five reviews I’m going to post in the next five days, I hope I’ll be able to explain at least part of why and how I’ve come to that conclusion:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Marvel Super-Heroes #18

Marvel Comics, 1968, 22 pages plus reprints, $ 0.25

Writer: Arnold Drake
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Mickey Demeo (a.k.a. Mike Esposito)
Colorist: Stan Goldberg
Letterer: Herb Cooper

Arnold Drake and Gene Colan’s “Guardians of the Galaxy!”—which introduces the long-running Marvel property of the same name—is very much a post-Star Trek, pre-Apollo-11 type of sci-fi story, albeit spruced up with superheroes, that couldn’t really have been told at any other point in time. In April 1968, a few months before its release, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey had begun to prepare the mainstream for a weightier kind of science fiction; and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin raised the bar for authentic-looking space fiction in a rather dramatic fashion.

Essentially, in this origin story, the concept boils down to a darker, grittier version of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes—the first line on the first page describes the Guardians as a “guerrilla legion,” in fact. The story is set in the year 3007 (so, not the “30th century,” as one caption states), at which point “dozens of planets” have been colonized by humanity. “Wars among nations long ago ceased,” we’re told, and there’s now a U.L.E.—standing for “United Lands of Earth”—as well as a U.L.E. Federation that includes all the various colonies. Instead of fighting amongst themselves, humans are now at war with… well, communists from outer space, evidently—in this instance, a space-faring race of green lizard people called the Badoon.

The story opens with Charlie-27, a resident of Earth’s Jupiter colony, who returns home “after six months of solitary space-militia duty,” only to find that the planet’s been overrun by the Badoon, “in the name of the glorious Eastern Zone Council!”—because commies always live in the East, globes or outer space be damned. Charlie escapes (via “teleport”) to the Pluto colony, but finds the same picture: A lone free fighter, named Martinex, remains to commit acts of sabotage among the invaders and “blow up some industrial complexes.” The two travel to Earth, also occupied by the Badoon, where they encounter 20th-century man Major Vance Astro and his companion Yondu. We’re leaving the four rebels as they decide to join forces in search of some “free colony.”

Although a few nice ideas went into the design of the characters, they’re a largely bland and generic bunch. “Like all pioneers, Charlie-27’s human body was adapted at birth to withstand Jupiter’s conditions—eleven times the mass and three times the gravity of Earth—!” The character is made to look the part. Martinex from Pluto is a being of “living crystal”—and lord knows how that’s meant to work, particularly since he says his folks are “descended from Earthmen,” as well.

Major Vance Astro, meanwhile, is a pretty blatant superhero version of Buck Rogers. He leaves his old life in 1988 behind and spends a thousand years in suspended animation on a space rocket—something the scientists back home told him was necessary to “reach the nearest star,” because “Einsteinian physics” had it that it was impossible to go “beyond the speed of light.” Once he arrives at his destination “ten lifetimes” later, however, he is astonished to be greeted by humans. “Earthmen! B—but it can’t be! How could you beat me here?”

Well, turns out Einstein isn’t up to date anymore. “Harkovian physics, old man! It replaced Einstein’s 800 years ago!” The news causes Astro to have a bit of a nervous breakdown that, incidentally, makes him the most interesting of the four heroes. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” he goes. “It was all for nothing! My home—my girl—my friends—ha ha ha!—all thrown away for nothing!” Unfortunately, the creators don’t manage to capitalize on the meltdown in the rest of the story, in which Astro comes off as generically square-jawed rather than intriguingly unhinged. In the heat of the battle, he does get the best line by far in the entire script, though: “[…] Like we used to say back in 1988—that’s the way it moves!” Suffice it to say, I thoroughly approve.

Yondu, finally, is a borderline offensive stereotype, even, I’d wager, by the standards of forty years ago. The character, described by Astro as being “native of the planet I landed on,” is blue and evidently naked except for a pair of red pants. He wears a mohawk, fights with a faintly futuristic bow and arrow and is the only one of the four protagonists who doesn’t speak proper English. “I not believe it, Major! Is no free colony! Everybody dead—or slave!” He seems to be a direct descendant of Friday from Robinson Crusoe, in other words—the loyal, childlike savage type who requires strong guidance from the white man.

The highlight of the piece, in lieu of an engaging plot or compelling characters, is the plainly fantastic artwork by Gene Colan, who’s doing some incredibly dynamic and flashy page layouts and figures here. Neal Adams’ work around the same time immediately comes to mind as a point of comparison, but to be fair, I couldn’t tell you which of the two gentlemen got there first. The way Mr. Colan composes his pages and stages the action looks expressive, refreshingly creative and exciting all the way through, without making any sacrifices towards clarity. You can tell that the artist had the time of his life drawing this, and even forty years later, I can’t think of many of his colleagues who are able to produce equally dynamic visuals while still guiding you through the story as sure-footedly as Mr. Colan is doing here.

Thematically, I guess there’s a case to be made that the unusually strong military bend of the characters—either explicitly, by way of their backstories, or, with Vance Astro, in the kind of psychological trauma that soldiers returning home from the war may experience—may have been intended as a nod to the Vietnam War and its growing rejection among the general populace, which certainly came to a boil in 1968. Overall, though, it’s not a very strong case, to be honest. The Guardians of the Galaxy’s debut is tons of fun to look at, thanks to Gene Colan, but as a story, it doesn’t really hold up.

In addition to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” feature, the book also includes a couple of Golden-Age reprints starring the Sub-Mariner and the All-Winners Squad, of which the less said, the better. And on the letters page, a certain future comics professional from Madison, Wisconsin, writes in praise of a previous issue. “In my opinion, the Phantom Eagle is going to be one of the smash sensations of the year,” he writes.

“I, being a student of motives for war, and a confirmed fan of World War I biplanes and triplanes, consider that most comics groups take preference to WWII and its land and sea battles. Well, for battles, WWI is pretty good, too, especially for aerial battles. Too long has the War to End All War been neglected. Now, Mighty Marvel has changed that. World War One has been recognized.”

I’ve never heard of the Phantom Eagle, to be honest, but I do wonder how you become a confirmed fan of World War I biplanes and triplanes.

Grade: D+