I, said the Fly
Every so often, one can see superhero comics’ heart. In the early 1990s, almost a decade after founding First Comics, Mike Gold proposed an imprint at DC to be called Impact. His allies were Mark Ragone in distribution and the writer Brian Augustyn; their goal was simple but profound: rediscover and recapture the fun for pre-teen readers, with comics that didn’t patronize them. Economically, they proposed the startling move of focusing on newsstand distribution.
They decided to reboot the long-standing Archie Comics superheroes, then owned by DC; this would be these characters’ third version. Yes, I know Archie Comics has recently re-launched them for the fourth time. I’m not posting about that.
They had six titles and released them in sequential months. My favorite was the first to appear, The Fly, written by Len Strazewski and illustrated by Mike Parobeck, at the time both in their late 20s just like me.
What’s it about? Young teenager Jason Troy makes up a superhero for fun and then becomes that superhero via a mysterious amulet … the premise isn’t much on paper, and that’s actually part of my point. The comic is all about what happens now, not about how cool it is sitting there static. The origin is there to get things rolling, not to be investigated or constantly mined for problems.
The story included great discovery stuff about the extent of the Fly’s powers which are somewhat malleable based on Jason’s imagination, the difficulty of managing a grown bad-ass’s body with a kid’s mind (“the Fly” persona not always being especially bright), what might the Fly be like out of costume but not converted back to Jason, and Jason’s own thoughts on what to do as a hero when the power-trip fun wore off and he faced genuinely powerful foes. I thought it was a tricky, interesting task: effectively bumping Peter Parker down about five years, so that instead of thankfully seeing him man up fast (Peter having arguably been a bit infantilized by his upbringing), it’s about hoping his innocence isn’t destroyed. That’s why it made sense for Jason to have a decent if sometimes confused school and home life rather than being shunned or ostracized, and why the moments of him getting hurt were rare and significant. When Peter took a bad hit in the first year of Spider-Man, he learned to shake it off and to re-evaluate how to fight this opponent. When Jason took one, he genuinely had a point in wondering whether doing this was worth it.
Crucially, it was the only title in the line with villains worth the name, especially the enigmatic Pirate Blue and the outstanding cyborg Chromium, lieutenant to the big bad guy Arachnus. I still have some of that dialogue approximately memorized:
[One of the early issues opens with a full-page Chromium, unclothed so we can see how little of him is still human, in some kind of technological hookup frame device, spasming and crying out, then the opening panel of the next page shows him dressing as his boss looks on disapprovingly.]
- Arachnus: “You know it’s not good for you – stimulating your pleasure centers with electric current.”
- Chromium (with dignity, lighting a cigarette): “I am a man of few vices these days. Don’t begrudge them to me.“
Parobeck busted out just wonderful art: inventive, dynamic, every page and two-page spread its own distinct composition, clearly inspired by Kirby, Byrne, and Rude, but with an unstoppable cheerfulness and humanity that reminded me more than anything of the best moments in the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man, and then there was Jason’s incredibly hot mom (note to self, delete that).
I liked Mike Parobeck the person too, a lot. He took the time to correspond with me directly after I’d sent a couple of letters in for the book, and just because I’d mentioned the coloring and he felt like it, even sent me some original art boards with the color separations attached, as a gift. Clearly this was an authentic guy who could not only draw great superhero action and emotion, but genuinely liked both the topic and the people who were interested. You can see all his covers for the book here. The internet is not being helpful for interiors, so I’m sad I can’t show you how incredibly well-matched the art and scripting were.
Looking back, I can see that it took the remaining wind out of my sails regarding superhero comics when he died of Type 1 diabetes, a couple of days before his 31st birthday. He was just a year younger than me. It’s technically pushing my concept for this blog’s “absent friends” category as I can’t say I knew him personally, but the connection was real even if brief.
The other solid Impact title was the last one launched, The Black Hood, which among them probably had the best, most serious potential as a concept. There’s this old grim hood you wear, and inscribed on the inside it says: “Do only good,” which of course, now you are impelled to do. Think about it. It’s the best moral Rorschach test (meaning the real test, not you-know-who) and mask-based serial-hero premise ever; it beats Grendel hands-down. (I don’t know if this concept precedes Impact; doesn’t matter.) You can see the covers here. They did a nice job setting up a gung-ho vigilante type for the hero who appeared in cameos across the other titles first, so you got used to him, then killed him off in the first title issue, settling into a teen protagonist whose less-certain moral compass understandably made him a better hero. Mark Wheatley was the writer and Rick Burchett was the artist for both pencils and spooky, unique inking.
The other titles weren’t so good, in a way I perceived as painful – you could see them trying. I have to say that having four out of six titles feature young white-guy protagonists might have been thought-out a bit better. The Jaguar was my biggest disappointment with its young Brazilian heroine and William Messner-Loebs on the writing, as the imagery was indistinguishable from Tigra and here, unfortunately, the young-hero moral uncertainty that worked so well for the Fly and the Black Hood meant the story went literally nowhere immediately. The remaining three were frankly a bit ham-handed, as the titles couldn’t figure out whether it was for kids or not, whether “for kids” means silly, what the heroes would actually do when they weren’t distracted by something … the whole line almost seemed stuck in place, static even as the characters moved around and bumped into one another.
All this makes a lot more sense in examining the publishing and economics. Since there’s no books I know of which frankly discuss DC business and economics, there’s certain to be some missing context. I do know that Impact lost its infrastructure almost immediately, when Mark Ragone went (was transferred? dunno) to a different part of the company, and the new guy in his old position was completely unsupportive. That meant the whole newsstand ball was completely dropped, so it would be a store-only line, and at the stores, DC sales reps were actually telling them not to order it because it wasn’t tied to the Big Crossover Titles that were involved in Yearly Crossovers which made DC its money, or to any movies. One might well consider too, from a store-retail perspective, that Image Comics launched in 1992 with considerable run-up, including both Spawn and Youngblood. When you’re considering whether even to order Batman or The Avengers this month, The Fly ain’t even on the wall.
That was probably enough to doom it – I don’t mean “the market” but its abandonment by infrastructure. But I also think the trouble with the content, meaning trouble for me as a reader, makes even more sense in examining the philosophy underlying the editorship. and the usual ‘Verse problem of writing a parallel 6-titles x22-pages serial. Yet again, I see the problems with forcing it all work as a shared world at the creative end.
DC’s Impact imprint: a look back inadvertently shows that’s what they did.
“We had preliminary bibles written beforehand,” says Gold. “They were revised after the meetings. Assignments had already been made and everybody showed up highly prepared, particularly Len [Strazewski] and Mark [Waid]. We discussed approach, audience, technique and shared elements, and put all that together into a universe. …”
Ouch. My respect for Mike Gold’s professional and creative history is very deep, and although he probably doesn’t remember it, he was very decent to me in person. With Impact, he had me from the word go, and I bought every issue of each title, at first with delight. But … so many years later, as I write this, I think that such “bibles” are the Devil. The ‘Verse, injected into the creative process, becomes the opposite of its intent and is inevitably revealed to be the Great Sucking Void Into Which All is Sucked.
What do I mean? I mean way, way too much time with heroes running into one another and displaying their established “by the book” traits, completely at the expense of developing linear internal arcs and worthy baddies with Pies. So they were timed with perfect continuity? So what! Aside from the rather clever Black Hood cameos and its payoff, the crossover/shared-world attempts were forced and disastrous, especially their painful attempts to make the Comet and the Fly (who had zero chemistry) similar to the early Human Torch and Spider-Man. Too many of the characters had nothing to do except show up for the required continuity bit, even in his or her own book! The ‘Verse-Void sucked and sucked, meaning that the more the creators loved and tried with all their skills, the worse it got. They attempted to save it all by turning the very problem feature up to 11, first with a team-up book, then a huge crossover title (did no one learn from the New Universe? From Total Eclipse?), and horror of horrors, a “universe” book called Impact Who’s Who, which was truly the death rattle. In this context, I find the latter third of the linked article almost unreadable.
But lest I be accused of armchair quarterbacking, or of blaming, I didn’t know any of that then either. My dislike of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was visceral, not analytical, and I couldn’t understand why, since my own reader’s love for canon was as extreme as anyone’s. I’m barely managing to work it out now for myself by writing this blog. I’ll wager not anyone working in comics at that time could have seen it this way.
Now, I think it works best to drive a hero forward (not around and around or looking back[much]), to throw spaghetti into story after story after story, then as it goes, to decide what’s stuck best, specifically which villains you like because they might have a point, and to give them Pies.
That’s merely a blog opinion, at worst, and at best, it’s twenty-five years too late. If I put on the Black Hood myself, I wouldn’t typing this. I’d be giving my stack of The Fly to my kids to read, and telling them about both Mike the editor and Mike the artist. Which I have just decided to do.
Next: Bare-chested villainy
Posted on May 17, 2015, in Absent friends, Commerce, Heroics, Lesser is still great and tagged 'Verse, Black Hood, Chromium, DC Comics, hot mom, Image Comics, Impact Comics, Jaguar, Len Strazewski, Mike Gold, Mike Parobeck, Pie, Spider-Man, The Fly, Total Eclipse, wirehead orgasm. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.