Give me liberty

Approaching the perfect ur-issue of superhero team comics

Nigh the ur-issue of superhero team comics

This was a small, feisty, doomed push for a bit there in 1987-88 to recapture the superhero magic. It succeeded. It’s a superior supers comic, full of action and plot, somehow combining totally kid-friendly with complete lucidity, standard but completely justified actions and interactions. It was charming, intelligent, wonderfully drawn, and fun. Eight issues is all we got.

The premise of criminal supervillains coerced into being a hero team is handled lightly but without skating past it. It’s definitely not the gritty, politics outside your window, who-dies-tonight deathporn Suicide Squad, but all five have genuine criminal backgrounds and were serving time without obvious miscarriages of justice.  Two of them are minors and therefore legally less liable than the others, but then again, we’re talking about Burnout and Johnny Savage, who are responsible for the most deliberate and heinous acts of the five prior to the start of the series. If “tried as an adult” applies to anyone, it’s them. It’s lucky for the Project that Cimarron is basically a nice person with low impulse control, Slick is smart enough to see that his crime career is a dead end, Burnout trusts Slick’s lead enough to keep from frying people she thinks deserve it, or not right away anyway, Crackshot is passive enough to go along with it all, and Johnny Savage is so needy he would eventually have stuck with the rest, although this didn’t have time to develop past a few hints. Their sponsor was also a good subverter of the classic hard-ass unreasonable authority, as he’s willing to trust the team to do well, and was justified … OK, about half the time.

Ultimately it’s a crooks-going-straight story, and at least in today’s kindergarten-level political terms, “liberal” in the sense of actual felons getting a second chance and stepping up to it, with their pasts affording them a bit of lateral-thinking imagination in dealing with problems. The story featured no classic superheroes at all, not even mentioned (except in one bit I’ll talk about later), and I quite liked the implication that maybe there weren’t any.

You don’t get too much saga in just eight issues, but what’s there is solid. Their first mission is to capture Johnny Savage – basically a horned-and-fanged Hulk who’s rampaging around in a fit of teen angst – in this case justified; no one feels bad about his asshole parents even though he killed them – and after some very painful tries (for them, not the reader), they bring him down – to discover that he becomes the next member of the team, vow of cannibalistic vengeance and all.

They had a little policy difficulty at first.

They had a little transitional difficulty in unifying the team.

They also initially plan and pull off an escape only to decide they’re probably better off back on the Project. Their adventures as a team on the job are marked by “learning to work together” and a bit of “mysterious past,” but also by interesting foes and always-surprising tactics, which were more-or-less the team’s signature. I assign a well-deserved gold star for all their powers working without “struggles to control” or loopy excuses for failing – Crackshot really is a wicked shot with cool ammo, for instance, and the others are all equally competent with their various abilities. Believe me, this was by no means common in the Big Two’s supercomics of that day.

James Frye delivered clear and zesty art, always fun, exciting compositions, not over-rendered, colored brightly but not garishly. It had a unique fluid look that maybe invoked Cockrum’s 70s work. Certain individual touches included the characters wearing clothes and shoes. The art was always seamlessly tied to the writing, evident in all plot and characterization, and especially well-applied in the humor.

Uniquely in the era of Bwahahaha, it was genuinely hilarious without being self-referential, satirical, or stupid, and without detracting from the solid humanity of the situations. Some of it was visual inventiveness – you can see in the panel above how Slick’s ever-present shades and cig stay in place as he’s swatted right out of his cool, and that Burnout is so ticked off at Savage that she forgets all about her powers and just ankle-bites’im, the point being that both jokes are entirely in character for both of them. My favorite example is the redneck superteam that Cimarron used to run with, whose own internal squabbles were so funny I practically believed these guys were crossing over from their own dysfunctional monthly title, and even sort of liked them for that. Ha! I’m remembering it now … one of the subtle jokes was that the one most prejudiced against their Mexican-American ex-teammate Cimarron obliviously sported a Spanish super-name presumably because that’s Texan. (Granted, maybe Gringo adopted the name as a fuck-you to Mexicans, but then again, maybe not.)

I wondered whether they would eventually do something interesting with Crackshot who unfortunately exemplified a certain trend for black characters to be bland to the point of catatonia, especially men. This was a late-eighties thing, wasn’t it, with some nineties examples too? Possibly a deliberate reversal from the hip-and-histrionic stereotype? There’s probably a descriptive phrase for it that I don’t know. I did like his spiffy costume which included a tie of all things, and very rarely he snarked enough for me to see that maybe a character-in-waiting lurked there.

It had absolutely everywhere to go and clearly the energy to do it, but barely got the chance to cement its own origin. It also didn’t develop any villains worth the name, now that Savage was more sympathetic. Who knows where it might have gone with that?

The cancellation demonstrates yet again that a superhero comic’s “failure” is not a free-market Friedmanite cosmic quality-judgment, but an infrastructural phenomenon. The history of Eclipse Comics is really complicated, and I’ll refer to the Wikipedia link below for details. At this moment in 1987, it seemed like the flagship of independent publishing, a haven for older innovators to do their thing, a launch point for new creators, and a venue for unknown work from other countries to come to the States (yes, Virginia, in 1985-1987, U.S. geeks had only just discovered manga). But apparently 1986-1993 was one long painful slide into bankruptcy, and I think that might have kicked in hard pretty early. I recall that even as The Liberty Project was coming out, the store guy was complaining that the company release schedule was already unreliable, and Wikipedia tells me there was a horrible stock-destroying flood in 1986.

I think it’s interesting as well as painful to observe that in three similar cases (Impact, Eclipse, and New Universe), the final death-rattle of these cool superhero lines was to try to ‘Verse them as hard as possible, as if that would somehow cement them harder into the customer base or legitimize them or something. In this case, in this comic’s pages, it began with a series of previously-absent references to other Eclipse superheroes, which I suppose happened in the other titles as well, and ended – and I do mean ended, thud – with a come-to-Jesus crossover title called Total Eclipse, after which every source title was canceled for good. There was some kind of magical thinking or industry groupthink going on with this pattern.

Links: Busiek.com, International Catalogue of Superheroes entry, Eclipse Comics (Wikipedia)

Next: Dagger & Cloak [guest post]

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on June 21, 2015, in Commerce, Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. James Nostack

    I’ll try to find it. For some reason, “kid friendly” generally seems to mean much better craftsmanship in terms of setting, characterization, and plot–and general fun per page–than in “adult-aimed” super human stories. It’s not like a cosmic law or anything, but I’ve noticed it often enough to bet loose change on it.

    The comments about the superpower-that-fails and the bwa-ha-ha (This Has Been Decreed To Be Hilarious, Dear Reader) aspects are definitely familiar. The boring-black-man stereotype to me shows up more in 1980’s action movies rather than comics of the day, but that’s because I read Marvel who only really had Luke Cage.

    Like

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