Spawn of Zap
Posted by Ron Edwards
September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why it’s generally considered a 70s thing. What happened to it? Did anything happen to it? Was it just a 70s thing?
The good news is that the zap never really ended. It faded from Marvel, as I could easily see when I returned to reading superhero comics in 1985 with a pile of the interim to backstop it (see The river). You can see it gradually disappear from Byrne’s work, and much as I like his skill, Simonson’s skill, Perez’s skill, Miller’s skill, much as I appreciate Sienkewiecz – they always seem to stay on the page, if that makes any sense. With the Zap, I always jumped into it, and then imagined so much more … if I were to display a New Mutants page as a piece of art, I’d frame it and put it on the wall, but if I were to do the same with a Captain Marvel page by Starlin, I’d paint it in wraparound on all four walls and maybe the ceiling too.
I am also unsentimental about Metal Hurlant and most other non-U.S. work, especially into the 80s. 1970s Moebius, Philippe Druillet – absolutely! That’s all part of what I’ve been writing about, for sure. But even as it faded from Marvel, and as the undergrounds became less and less visible, it also became sterile in the European and South American work. Beautiful, but without politics and punch. I’m thinking about Jodorowsky’s interview with some comics magazine about the Metabarons (a 90s work), where he berates the interviewer for asking stupid and superficial questions, and I have to say, gorgeous and fun as that title is … it doesn’t really justify his own claim to deserve more important questions.
But it wasn’t really gone. A whole post awaits about how a certain bearded British import tried his level best to bring Marvel-style cosmic zapping to DC a decade later, transferring the metaphysics of the Marvel bog-monster to the DC one in doing so. Before that point, certainly you have cosmic zap’s direct descendants in Starlin’s Dreadstar and Grell’s Starslayer, and near relative in Englehart’s Coyote. And others were nearby who knew a thing or two about subversive pop culture and tripping, as found in the confluence of theater and comics in Warp! which began as a perfectly open on-stage expy of Cosmic Zap Marvel, formed the creative linchpin at at the founding of First Comics in 1981, and led to Cynosure – the dead opposite of boring ol’ Tanelorn. You may recognize Peter B. Gillis there and spot the entry of John Ostrander into comics, which would then lead directly to Grimjack, which itself began as a backup in Starslayer and is trippier than you may think. And after its initial run at Capital, then landing at First Comics as well, we find Nexus, a true cosmic zap original, and at times the high-water mark of SF/superhero comics – not just in the 80s, but period. I enjoyed the pile of 19878-1986 Marvel comics lent me by friends, and I did start buying a couple X-titles, but what really brought me back to comics were Grimjack and Nexus. I was a Zap kid first and foremost, and I knew what I was looking at. A few printed letters later, and First had me, and I was happy in its grasp.
Mike Baron and Steve Rude doing Nexus was like Lee and Kirby come again: the politics (specifically, a troubled Russophilia), the hyper excess, the blazing and unstoppable art, and the synergy to fuel it all into one crazy page after another.
I don’t think I can summarize it: the main character Horatio Vladimir Hellpop is an interstellar assassin, compelled and empowered by a nigh-omnipotent alien in the service of some strange justice … but is his curious focus on human perpetrators of genocide derived from the alien, or from his own conscience? The disenfranchised and idealistic flock to his home and create a new, vibrant culture there, but is it a haven of freedom or a hotbed of incipient terrrorism? The soap opera, interplanetary politics, and secrets of the past just keep proliferating, with enough kooky comedy or irony or whatever it is along the way to make sure it’s not depressing. The cosmic and interdimensional vistas, the corridors of memory, and the descent into the interior of his home moon, Ylum, become more than just comics panels, but a unique experience of comics.
Plus the unstoppable rip-roaring adventure and violence. Everyone loves Judah but my favorite supporting character was Kreed.
In 1990 or so, First Comics was writhing in the same circle of speculative-venture payback hell the Eclipse and Comico had already entered, and a bunch of titles were axed. Those that remains underwent weird changes in their content, relying on a strangely similar tactic of replacement-people for their named characters, similar to what had been going on with Grendel for a while. Personally I think the only one which worked was Grimjack, in ways I’ll reserve for that title’s posts – when the whole “who is the next Nexus” thing began, I think it spelled the end of that title’s energy. Still, it was a hell of a run.
There was more too, as I started looking around. One of my faves was Those Annoying Post Bros, as Matt Howarth was definitely a Zap master. Dimensional-shifting psychopathic gun-toting bad fellows from Bugtown, the city that turns Cynosure up to 11. As a comic moving into the 80s, its content shifted from crazy-hippies to witty-punk, as Ron traded out his Magus fro for a flattop. Kooky reality-borking adventure and soap opera, definitely. But is it a comic or a satire of comics? Is it a satire of bloody-horrible gore-porn or – uh – bloody-horrible gore-porn? Is it insightfully funny or just humorously contemptuous? Is it over the line or just standing on it? Can you keep up the review-prose blather indefinitely about this thing? (yes) Whatever you want to say, the art is absurdly, soul-to-the-devil good – look here, and realize he did all that hatching ‘n stuff by hand. Howarth kept the Bros going for a really long time, almost twenty years I think, all told. As the tiniest footnote, you should now be realizing where a good 80% of DC’s Lobo comes from.
That reminds me of something too … you couldn’t really follow the Post Bros in retrospect, as the stories and characters bounce around across titles, stand-alone issues, and mini-series with much abandon. I found myself buying Savage Henry (music review with comic? comic with music review?), Keif Llama, and more, arriving at a relentless pace for years. I know it flies in the face of everything we know is “good” in serial comics, but I only really felt like I was following the Post Bros in the leading edge of publication, drinking the firehose of various titles, some of which I knew were coming and some I didn’t. Just getting any one of them and reading them in sequence doesn’t really work, and not even getting them all does it either, because it’s not like stuff in issue A is then followed by issue B over here in this title. It’s happening just … together, like the Marvel superheroes comics of the mid-70s. Cosmic Zap seems to defy its own infrastructure more often than not.
Let us not forget, too, the title that must not be named, named Cerebus the Aardvark, whose roots lie directly in the drugs and sword-and-sorcery and the bewildered mid-70s contact with the counterculture encountered by many people a bit older than me. The intermittent Mind Games sequences are just the start. When Sim and Gerhard realized they could start drawing shit in space, they loaded up on India ink and white spackle and never looked back. Cerebus’ cosmic encounters with his primary opponents, interpreters of his fate, alternate futures and pasts, different layers of reality, his author’s avatar, his actual author, his illusions, his delusions, and much else are, or at least should be, legendary comics. The core concept is that it seems like in the fiction, the characters are going outwards from the mundane earthly setting, but actually the grander experience is going psychologically inwards in terms of the author and reader. Outer space becomes inner space and it’s not a joke.
My favorite comes in Mothers and Daughters, at the transition between Reads and Minds when Cerebus’ and Cirin’s climactic duel leaves Earth and rockets past Jupiter, and their competition for the role of protagonist literally bleeds into the author’s mind as he tries to talk to them, so that his word balloons start to duplicate and overlap, but containing subtle differences. All sorts of stories have the hero realize “I’m in a book!!” and it’s always supposed to be sooo profound, but really, I think only Sim’s work managed to pull it off to give me chills.
The Zap remained as hard to sustain per title as ever, and as variably successful within each story, but I don’t think a year has gone by without someone in comics tripping out on the cosmos. There’s a funny thing about it … most of these titles flip around to more than one publishing company (or companies change ownership, with different kinds of contracts), jitterbugging through different publication identities. Something about Cosmic Zap comics defies comics infrastructure, and much like its name, it seems to do best when it appears, generates an explosion of material that can be mined in more mundane ways forever, and then sort of fades or vanishes.
The question is whether those days in the 80s were just the tail-end finishing out of the 70s, such that all since is merely an echo. I’m probably not the one to judge and wouldn’t mind some of the collective mind considering the question. I haven’t read any of Starlin’s later work, although I’ve always wanted to catch up on Dreadstar. I haven’t read any of the later Thanos or Warlock material, whether the Infinity Gauntlet or in fact anything at all. I like Godland a lot, but it’s still weak on immediate relevance, and wouldn’t fly a foot without its deliberate invocation of the older material, and I think the same goes for Prophet, which threatens to become lovely but ultimately empty in the fashion I associate with Metal Hurlant. I fear the Zap has merely become a meme, or at best, a technique. It’d be nice if some of you were to show I’m wrong, or even a little bit wrong.
I’ve been writing about whether Cosmic Zap was gone from comics, or present to what degree, but that’s too small a scope for the real question. And unfortunately, in that case, my answer is less hopeful. See, I’m not talking about a style, or a topic, or (huck-ptoo! ptoo!) a “genre.” I’m talking about a reality and experience of life which itself provided material to express in this very way – mostly confusion actually, leavened by authenticity: figuring out who women were as people, figuring out what a “man” was supposed to be if anything, seizing politics on the street, trying to get your head together, thinking the whole world would change in a generation, wondering if orgasm were enlightenment (and let’s try it again just to be sure), looking across designated social and ethnic lines to see same-alien and alien-same. This isn’t “the Sixties.” Fuck the Sixties. This is 1975 and the world is the Zap; comics and vans and movies and whatnot are … just drawings that reflect that.
And that world is gone. Gone in the haze of social coding that grabs this-and-that from prior subcultures, in the morass of reboots which stun the collective memory with lies. Authenticity is unknown, replaced by the psychological whore called sincerity, itself reduced to a mere commodity. In one of Vaughn Bode’s Deadbone Erotica strips, three wacky little adventurers proceed through strange chambers until they come to a great viewing-portal, and they try to figure out the meaning of what they see through it … until the final panel which cuts to its outside …
Well … this was scheduled to be the last Cosmic Zap post, and it’s a bummer that September provided a fewer-than average number of Sundays and Thursdays this year. I’ll include one more as a bonus post on Tuesday so I won’t be too sad, and I have some more posts in prep which qualify, and I’ll tag’em appropriately as they appear.
Links: Steve Rude (homepage), Matt Howarth (homepage)
Next: The Baxter building bathtub
About Ron EdwardsGame author, publisher, consultant, teacher
Posted on September 27, 2015, in Commerce, The 80s me and tagged Cerebus, cosmic zap, Deadbone Erotica, Dreadstar, First Comics, Godland, Grimjack, Heavy Metal 1981 film, Infinity Gauntlet, John Ostrander, Matt Howarth, Metal Hurlant, Mike Baron, Nexus, Philippe Druillet, Ron Post, Savage Henry, Starslayer, Steve Rude, Those Annoying Post Bros, Vaughn Bode. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
The _Nexus_ part (and all you write before it) it’s easy: I agree 100% and could leave it at that (with still the standing question: why call a sect of assassin _Gucci_ ? I was half expecting their rivals to be called _Prada_ and meet a galactic overlord called _Armani_ …)
The other Nexuses, the “who is the next nexus”, even Rude leaving… it did turn a unique book into “another superhero series”. And it was what almost everybody did at the time: take their most peculiar and unique series and try to pass them as “the same as everybody else” to remain in the failing comic book market. Around the same time Dreadstar did lose the sword and started flying in a costume. Elfquest became a “universe” (destroying it’s value as a possible series of books in the book trade market opened by manga in the following decade: now you can’t reprint it easily as _Bone_ for example). The fact that none of them survived show how functional was that solution
I did never read any _Those Annoying Post Bros_ , even if I had heard about them.
I agree on Jodorowsky too. I cringe when people talks about _The Incal_ as if it was this revolutionary and visionary comic. People who had never read _The Garage Ermetique_ chapter by chapter every month, or the _Major Fatal_ … I see The Incal as Moebius stopping drugs and hard rock, putting on a tie and and going to work 9-17 every day in a office.
About Dreadstar… search for “The Metamorphosis Odyssey” on Epic Magazine and “The Price”, they are still from the same Starlin that did Warlock: a lot of Death (not deaths), power from dubious sources for noble ends, galaxies that commit suicides, the Earth euthanasia, it read as a thematic prosecution of his Marvel works. When he did return to Marvel bringing Dreadstar first in a Graphic Novel and then in a Epic Comics series, at first it followed the same course, even if a little toned down, and with a protagonist much more violent that Warlock or Mar-Vell (Dreastand kills a enemy in one issue with the weapon that you used on the cover of Circle of Hands, and use it specifically to cause more pain…),
But it didn’t last. I don’t know if it was Starlin that changed (he did never reach his 70s peaks again with any series or any character), if it was the Epic line when it became more a “mature” division for Marvel rather that the avenue for creator-owned works it was at the beginning, if it was to try to get more readers… but the series changed around issue 13-24, little by little, bit by bit: there was a “mystery” added, even there (“who is the traitor?”) that ended in a very underwhelming way, characters began to talks more like superheroes, and even Dreadstar ditched the cape and cowl look for a spandex superhero costume. And super-powers instead of the sword. When the writing passed to Peter David it was already another boring superhero series. You can stop reading when you want, don’t try to search for a true “end” for the series, there was never one.
About Starlin’s Marvel work after that, with the return of Thanos… my first inclination would be to say to you “don’t bother”. But as I wrote in another comment last week, I see a lot of people talks about these stories with the words I would use for his 70s stories, and I am not sure if it’s not the quality of the stories the problem, as much as having read way too many of them already. So yes, read them and let me know what do you think. (just don’t give me the fault if you end up hating them, I warned you!)
About more recent cosmic zaps, did you read Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics series _Promethea_ ? It reminded me a lot of 70s Englehart on Doctor Strange (it has everything, yes, even the weak ending…)
Talking about comics that you should absolutely read (even if they are not strictly cosmic zap), you should absolutely read “The Eternaut”/”El Eternauta” by Hector Oeasterheld (Fantagraphics will finally publish it in English in December, but maybe you have already read the Spanish edition from some years ago. It was first published in Argentina in the 50s so it was originally written practically almost in Spanish).
Most people read it “only” as a exceptional “Alien invasion” story, but you should be able to see right away who are the “others” that descend onto South America in the 50s… 🙂
(Oesterheld was kidnapped and killed by the government in the 70s for his political views…)
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I think there’s an interesting spawn of Zap into the 80’s and early 90’s in some CRPG’s, especially those that blended sci-fi and fantasy (I’m thinking Wizardry and Might & Magic, primarily). Google up some images for wizardry “dark savant” and see if that space-faced villain (and other artwork) wasn’t inspired by Zap. Read text like “Within the Black Ship comes the Harbinger of Doom, challenger to the throne of the Cosmic Circle.” Note quests like combining a “pastille” with your pipe, smoking it, and journeying off to the Realm of Dreams (from which you can only exit by embracing gruesome, repeated death).
Now, don’t try to actually play the games, unless you were conditioned in your youth to derive inordinate pleasure from pressing fingers to the arrow keys, and thus moved through the (other)world, one 10’ish step at a time.
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