Striking twice, some day
I’m realizing from the late 80s through the mid 90s, lots of people missed “the way they were” and tried to reboot Marvel, or more broadly, something about Marvel. Much the same way a lot of us were doing it through the role-playing medium too. And man did people keep trying.
Let’s see, the relevant highlights from my reading experience anyway include The Liberty Project in 1987 (Give me liberty), the New Universe in 1989, The Hero Alliance in 1989, and the Impact line in 1991 (I, said the Fly). Culturally, I think of all of these as intensely 80s. The whole phenomenon definitely grades right into Astro City and the post-Image Wildstorm and Valiant titles without a break, but for whatever reason, the earlier ones have captured my interest at the moment, and Hero Alliance reads to me like the trailing-end of these. Although it’s true that I needed a re-reading to detach it from Astro City in my mind, as the content of both was entirely mixed up in there.
I suppose I’m gearing up to the New Universe post in stages with this particular sequence of posts. My first thought is how all these – I’ll call them attempts – were so similar in specific ways.
- The unconsidered, no-longer-quite valid context for doing superhero things: “I have powers, think I’ll put on a costume and fight crime”
- The over-emphasis on interconnected titles in a ‘Verse, an effect thankfully kept to a minimum in Hero Alliance
- The collision between some good reflections & ideas, and actually scripting them in entertaining comics form
- Completely fumbling the basics of storytelling, so that some really good reflections or ideas are like islands in a sea of idiot plots, and reliance on coincidence
- The heavy-handed attempt at drama – funny how unsubtle and scattered 70s drama is and yet so much more effective
- Villains seem to come out of nowhere and to have no particular sense in what they do, and they are curiously socio-politically neutered
- It really comes down to this, and more on it soon: being a superhero comic vs. being about superhero comics
Hero Alliance is the most mixed of the bunch for me, as any given component is either really good or squint-inducing poor. Briefly: it was initially written as a graphic novel by Kevin Jauire and David Campiti published by Pied Piper Comics in 1989, then in its move to Innovation, written by Campiti and Robert Ingersoll (author of the long-running column “The Law is an Ass” in Comics Buyers Guide), and various writers phased in and out from there. A lot of well-known 1990s artists got their start by doing a Hero Alliance issue or two. (The details and exact number of issues et cetera are at the Wikipedia and My Comic Shop entries).
The setup in the original graphic novel is that some time around WWII, a Superman-like alien and a man with a golden techno-psionic helmet became superheroes, setting the example for a host to follow, and leading the resulting superteam. But through the decades to the present, including the death of the Golden Guardian, the heroes became all about marketing and image.
But that’s all backstory handled in the first few pages, including the very good and much-reprinted page to the left. What this comic is about is when the latter-day Guardians are all killed by a bomb, and Victor decides to form a new group – and soon after that, not to re-form the Guardians at all, but rather a Hero Alliance that is more savvy and might also discover or recapture the heroism that the Guardians had lost. Basically: the Justice League loses its way (and gets exploded) and one of its founders decides to start the Defenders.
That’s a pretty good idea! But there’s one lurking and dangerous concept in there: its reliance on the Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron model in a big and not good way. ’cause that model is just ass. There weren’t any such things, especially not in a graded downswing from Cheerful Idealism and Patriotism into Bitter and Tragic and then into Dark and Mature and Gritty. I’m calling this mythology out; it’s bullshit. It was confabulated by journalists and hucksters in the mid-80s to hype specific titles (“Zap! Pow! Comics finally grow up”), and it relies on cherry-picking titles, plain and simple. I can reverse the alleged sequence by doing the same in thirty seconds, but I will save all that for another post before I start throwing things. (This is one of the reasons I don’t frequent many comics discussions on-line.)
Hero Alliance suffers from this myth specifically because the backstory hinges on the Golden Guardian: what an asshole he was to his kids, how his deranged son (who frankly has plenty to be mad about) gets hold of the helmet and how his sister takes up the name-and-mantle. It should be an excellent story; written in premise like that it’s a knockout. But clearly the authors have absolutely no idea what to do with it, dropping the whole “what the Guardian really did” story like a rock and turning Marc into perhaps the least interesting supervillain of the decade, with no personality, no plan, and not even the guts to kill his hated sister when he has her imprisoned and helpless for days. They could either have run with the myth as a perfectly good in-story premise (real-world true or not doesn’t matter) or deconstructed it as they seem to have begun, both of which are perfectly good ideas, and did neither. It’s especially lacking in what the Guardian and Victor did during their early heyday.
On the plus side, most of the characterization and development for Victor is pretty good too, at least until some late-stage babble kicks in about how his powers are “whatever he wishes for” or something poetic like that. His main problem is that, once the Dark Knight came along, Superman and his expys were forevermore cursed to be sorta stupid, emotionally disconnected, bad with people. I’m not sure why or how this stuck so hard – possibly because without that, Clark’s a pretty good guy and Batman is simply a dick. This said, in Hero Alliance, Vic isn’t entirely an idiot and Sentry works well as a non-ironic Batman expy who uses his “dark image” intelligently. I would not have minded seeing a lot more of the two of them on the job, to enjoy how competent superheroes get stuff done.
The minor villain stories are either very good or very bad. One of the best concerns brothers with super-strength who go minor-villain and minor-hero, with provocative results, and the other good ones are similar, working the angles between hero and villain choices. One of the high spots of the later phase comes when Doctor Satan forcibly restores good plots and characters to the in-setting superhero comics because he dislikes the image problem generated by the latest fads, all of which are based on Marvel and DC of the period. However, anything to do with Sepulchre is wretched and unreadable, and when that particularly badly-conceived wench in the lingerie gets going, the plots go down with her, and not in the good way.
The rest of the hero team is generally badly done. Clearly even the founding authors had no idea what to do with Gemini Plus, or really with anyone else, once they got past introducing them. It’s the curse of starting with action-figure mentality and trying to write from there instead of the other way around. Each character merely repeated his or her starting catch-phrases or characteristic behavior exactly like a sitcom character must do night after night, and believe me, “This guy’s obnoxious! Isn’t that funny? Look, everyone tells him to shut up! Isn’t that funny?” does not induce a desire to read more of it. This is what produces that weird mix of interesting ideas and flat-out face-sprawling halts in enjoying them. None more so than with Kris, who by herself practically embodies this phenomenon.
I have to say “embodies” is the right verb to use, too. Reading the book now, the big hair and spike heels … but OK, that’s a cheap shot. Or almost – c’mon, heels are not defensible. More substantially, it is really odd to see sex being portrayed more literally and yet more artificially. I’ve been preparing a post on the ordinariness of superhero sex lives in the early-mid 70s, and I just do not understand how, when comics are supposed to be “grown-up,” sex is treated as if it’s a spectacular and exotic thing … anything but actual sex.
It’s part of the reason that Kris as a character completely fails … The primary part is this whole business about redeeming or living up to the Golden Guardian’s name, but never stating clearly what that is, or more importantly, demonstrating it. The body part comes right after some reasonably good relationship drama between her and Vic, about how she wears this skin-tight costume because it turns her on, and she does that because being aroused pumps up her super-powers. I’m guessing this is meant to be a weak joke saying “see, we can justify her in skin-tight outfit and pokey-out nipples, all in good fun.”
Sure it is. Because then we have the Tawny person who has no personality of her own because she’s always fulfilling others’ fantasy imaginings, and Gossamer, the ex-hooker black woman who says “dint” and “gonna” when no one else does. At least Kris has occasional interesting decisions and situations to deal with, especially the resentment and discrimination she receives as a person because she’s successful as a hero, which is a really strong concept to work with. The others never do.
I say again: the 70s were not the bad old days for comics objectifying women. I’ll never be able to convince anyone that Tigra’s or the Black Cat’s or Ms. Marvel’s swimsuits and body-stockings simply weren’t in the same universe of sexism as this halting, semi-ashamed, semi-funny “adult” 80s nonsense, but I’m gonna keep trying. Is it fair to say that 70s hot-superbabes were written and drawn by men who got laid for boys who didn’t … but that these ~1990 hot-superbabes were written and drawn by those boys, now older but not grown up? Probably too simple.
I was surprised it lasted as long as it did, given the irregular release and constantly-shifting creative team. I know it was dead on its feet when just as with the Liberty Project, the New Universe, and Impact, the desperation-crossover event showed up, this time with the Justice Machine. I think the last issue of the rebooted “quarterly” title came out in 1992.
You might be getting the wrong idea about now. I didn’t post about this title to pick on it, but as the most striking good/bad exemplar of what is obviously a repeated phenomenon in a specific time period, late 80s through the mid 90s. Its premise and many of its secondary concepts were really strong. It’s the evident thought and enthusiasm that went into the title on paper, initially, that jumps out – and just as quickly, dissipates, not just in the first-couple issues vs. the rest, but as an ongoing phenomenon all the way until cancellation. What to make of it? Each title doesn’t look like it was bad but like it was killed, in a fashion that induced organ failure along the way. The weird flaws and incomprehensibly amateurish story-telling are remarkably alike across them. The thing is, regarding the creators, they aren’t amateurs. We’re talking about people who do know and love the comics they’re emulating or whose inspiration they’re striving to recapture, and I have to ask, uncharitably, again and again, why are they so bad at it? I am not going to invoke the lightning analogy except as as a bit of post-titling poetry. I’m not going to look sentimental and say “the age of miracles is over, Stan and Jack will never be repeated in our time.” I wanna know.
It can’t be blamed on the audience, as we’re talking about a lot of creative freedom compared to Marvel and DC work at the time, except maybe for the New Universe. I can think of two things right off, and maybe a third.
The first thing is the historical change in comics as product and the corresponding infrastructure, which matters a lot. The exact details don’t matter (e.g. a flood at the Eclipse warehouse, the sabotage of the newsstand strategy for Impact); such things reliably happen when the more general structure is borked. Specifically the nigh-impossible 80s constraint: this is the age of immediate ROI, you’re a hit or you’re nothing, so you’re only funded and distributed when someone feels like seeing if you might be. Therefore everything’s rushed and snail’s pace at the same time. Remember, in 1965, Goodman Publications had zero interest in “breakout hit” status for any of those funnybooks it was inadvertently publishing down the hall. Jack and Stan and Steve had room to get it wrong, both in time, month after month, and in scope across titles, crucially, in anthology titles.
The second thing is vision, not of some lofty goal or dream of the perfect comic, but rather literal vision, seeing, toward the surrounding world. I point again to the Lee/Kirby deep connection to immediate politics, not as they are distorted and promoted by electioneering rhetoric (what you call “politics”), but how real-world conflict and policy affects real-world people – and what you want to say about it. Not preaching about, but pumping it into high-octane form especially via the villains at their very cores – something almost all of these attempts sorely lack. Let alone giving the villains some Pie, as these titles never even come close to that.
I’m slowly putting the third thing together, too, as I work on the eventual post about the New Universe. A lot of my previous posting suddenly reveals itself to me as the necessary bedrock: the vocabulary of the Zap, the Swing (which I’m deciding is the right term for the Spider-man posts), and Scream.
Links: Hero Alliance cover gallery (Comics Vine)
Next: Now you’re a myyayun