1. "State Of The Union"
I thought it was the future, but by the time I'd actually noticed it, it was already gone. But for a brief moment in the early-to-middle Eighties , it really did look as if superhero comic books had found their own version of the mythical Third Way. To the right, there were the command economies of the traditional mighty-muscled universes, mass-market, mainstream, familiar and comforting. To the left, the art-house independents, determined to create far more personal and idiosyncratic works of craft than the single-genre, homogeneous product of the cape'n'costume brigade. And somewhere between the two, on a continuum that stretched from "Crossfire" through "American Flagg" to "Flaming Carrot", stood a gaggle of creators who to one degree or another thought that the superhero could actually be used to be both product and art, to be both inward-looking and adventure-minded, to be, if you like, pop and prog at the same time. And by 1984, the majority of the characters associated with this brief "Third Way" shared the shelves of comic book shops with both their more established and their more individual comic-book cousins, and gave a brief but tantalising impression that there were more than just a few left-of-centre creators out there who wanted to engage in mainstream forms without abandoning the aesthetics of more independent thinking.
In retrospect, it was an illusionary movement and a doomed mission, too, for reasons we'll touch upon in a moment, but, for as long as it seemed to last, there were a few of us who thought we'd found our wave to surf, and continued to think so until we noticed that the wave had disappeared from underneath us and that the rocky shore of the beach was fast approaching our tumbling heads.
2. "Through The Door"
This mythical "Third Way" began where my own powers of attention were concerned in May 1983, with the first appearance in a colour and standard-form comic book of Baron and Rude's "Nexus", followed within a few months by Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg". Appearing in the wake of titles such as Frank Miller's "Daredevil" and the Alan Moore strips - "Miracleman" and "V For Vendetta" - in the British magazine "Warrior", these titles reflected a belief that the world of the superhero wasn't so much a dead-end ghetto where creativity was concerned, so much as an opportunity to smuggle individual sensibilities into a genre thoroughly associated with the homogeneous, white-bread "product" still then predominantly produced by the Big Two. And by the end of 1984, the following characters had all had their moment or two of shelf-life, sitting uneasily between the Justice League of America", Detroit, and the unreachable highlands of "Raw";
- Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
- The Badger by Baron and Jeff Butler
- American Flagg, by Howard Chaykin
- Mr X, by Jamie, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez
- Zot! by Scott McCloud
- Dalgoda by Jan Strnad and Dennis Fujitake
- Crossfire, by Mark Evanier and Dan Speigle
- The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens
- Flaming Carrot, by Bob Burden
- Paradax, by Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy
- Mister Monster by Michael T. Gilbert
If I call these comics part of a "Third Way", please believe me that it's with my tongue in my check and all in the name of expediency. But the phrase really does tell a truth, I believe, because for a moment these creators threaten to wrestle some of the power to determine what a "superhero" was from the Big Two, who, it must be remembered in a fact that couldn't be bettered by the invention of a satirical genius, actually trademarked the phrase "superhero" itself. But, sadly, it was a passing threat, and the Third Way books were a passing treat. They began their crashing and burning in the market contractions of the mid-Eighties, caused in no small part by Jim Shooter's Marvel flooding comic book shops with expensive and at-best unremarkable product. And within a few months of that commercial disaster, the appearance of "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" unwittingly gave the Big Two the tools to realign their comics to the preferences of a slightly older, slightly more literate audience. It's an irony that the same desire to innovate within the superhero genre that inspired the Third Way also drove Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and yet their work was used by Marvel and DC to create comics which, by the dubious virtues of "grim'n'gritty" and constant continuity-inversions, hived enough readers weary of standard-model superheroics back to their product to utterly destroy a mass market for a Zot! or, in the long run, a "Nexus".
4. "It Had To Happen"
I. The titles I've listed from the Third Way can, after a fashion, best be described by the qualities that they lacked. They were not, for example, characterised by the soap-operatic angst which Chris Claremont, and subsequently Marv Wolfman, had fastened onto in order to generate the never-ending emotional intensity which powered the young superhero franchises. Of all the comics I've mentioned, only "Nexus" could be considered to bear the mark of angst-dom, but that didn't mean that Baron's SF superhero was weighed down with the unresolved and artificial miseries of Marvel's mutants. Firstly, Baron had given Horatio Hellpop an inventive back-story of future communist tyrants and press-ganged vigilantism to drive his plots, meaning that the conflicts and consequences of Nexus's predicament never felt exploitatively bolted-on. And, secondly, Nexus was saturated with a grand measure of chuckles too, from Steve Rude's ability to create a cartoon-like sensibility underpinning his realistic art, to characters such as Judah Maccabee, a great-hearted sword-wielding alien who liked to practise his bowling during his downtime. And in all the other Third Way titles, the easy trick of manipulating readers by snaring them into a cycle of irresolvable despair was strictly avoided. If Mister X. was struggling to hang onto his sanity, it was the logical outcome of his abuse of sleeplessness drugs and his guilt over what he'd allowed to happen to Radiant City. If Jenny in "Zot!" was prone to the rootlessness and existential despair of adolescence, well, she was a recognisable adolescent! The Third Way titles were designed so that the character's emotions were determined by the story they were living through, rather than the story being designed to stimulate and perpetuate angst.
Or to put it another way: all the Third Way titles could have easily been resolved and ended. They weren't machines maintained so the property would arrive whole and unchanged for each new generation of readers. (*1) Mister Monster's dysfunctional obsession with slaughtering the different wasn't there to provoke endless reader-snaring tears and character conflicts. Dalgoda's loss of his people didn't exist to permanently bend him down under the weight of the destruction of Krypton. Characters could really change rather than merely appear to in The Third Way titles, and so emotional traumas could be resolved rather than being constantly recycled, if emotional traumas there even were. Paradax in his rare appearances rarely seemed to bear any measure of upset beyond those carried by socially-able teenagers with very attractive girlfriends and lots of beer. And certainly Flaming Carrot and Claremonitian angst never came within kissing distance of each other: his world was far too splendid for overwhelming and lasting regret.
(*1) I have no problems with publishers preserving their characters in such a fashion. In fact, as any regular readers will know, I quite support the Big Two in taking such an approach. I'm merely pointing out that the Third Way offered an alternative and wider choice in the market without diminishing Marvel and DC's mission.
II. Neither were any of the Third Way titles characterised by the excesses of supposedly-stomach-turning violence that, sparked by Frank Miller's truly innovative revamping of Daredevil in 1981, saw shadows of psychotic ex-girlfriends, and sai-punctured ex-girlfriends, and the digging up the graves of dead ex-girlfriends, re-presented over and over again as spuriously-convenient markers of serious themes and serious-minded thinking . "American Flagg", for example, was on occasion perceived by some miss-the-pointers as a profoundly aggressive book, but that's a conclusion that could only be reached by somebody who felt that the proper context in which to show violence was to have the Hulk and the Thing pummel each other without ensuing brain damage, body trauma or bystander devastation time after time after time. Chaykin's "violence" is so saturated in the spirit of Chuck Jones and Will Eisner that it's equal parts laugh-out-loud and thrilling, but it's never exploitative. How anybody can take seriously electric knuckledusters swinging through the air accompanied by letterer Ken Bruzenak's insanely self-conscious sound affects is beyond me. (For God's sake. There's a page where Flagg's gun pumps out shells to the "sound" of "papaoooMowMow". If you don't know your Rivingtons, your Surfin' Bird and your Beach Boys, then what are you doing hanging out with Reuben Flagg anyway?) And that's an example of where the pleasure lay in these books; they were playful. The violence wasn't often the point, but sometimes the point was that the violence on show wasn't quite what the reader had been used to consuming. And so when Mister Monster wiped out another apparently alien creature, it was usually his own ego being unwittingly punctured that we registered rather than the thrill of the staking, and though Crossfire existed in a fairly realistic and often seedy Hollywood, nobody could argue that the physical jeopardy he encountered was graphic. It was the characters he encountered and the stories he became embroiled in that made Jay Endicott's adventures so enjoyable to engage with. There were no end-of-the-world events here, no familiar character hoisted onto sharp and bloody life-ending pointy-things, and no cities disappearing cataclysmically under standard-issue mushroom clouds.
Indeed, for a bunch of radical comics, which only a Grothian dedicated to the nay-saying of the potential of the superhero genre could deny, these books didn't take the easy way out. Spurious authenticity can always be generated by a po-faced indulgence in casual and explicit brutality. But then, these creators already were smart, already were to one degree or another adults. They didn't have to show their comic-book "I've-grown-up-and-here's-the-severed-head-to-prove-it" license. It's only the kids of all ages who feel the need to produce that certificate of adulthood, not-adulthood.
III. If these comics weren't characterised by indulgences of blunt angst or ugly violence, the standard models of significance in superhero comics even up to the present day, then they were characterised by an untypical measure of laughter. These were comic books which recognised the sheer joy of being alive, as well as the sheer horror of the whole business too. At the most extreme end of their continuum, Bob Burden's "Flaming Carrot" was a character who'd accepted the absurdity of superhero comic books without swallowing the surface pseudo-sophistication created to make it seem as if comics weren't just for kids anymore. The Carrot saw through that crap and chose instead to live in a surreal comic book universe where nothing was worth taking too seriously because everything was wonderful. Chaykin's future Chicago was so funny because the difference between it's pornography-saturated, capitalism-devastated future and our present was, well, not very great, actually. And if satire was a common component of many of these stories, then so was humour in its broadest sense. The Badger, for example, was essentially a one-note gag which sometimes strayed far too far from a dubious starting premise that mental illness could be of itself funny. And yet it was an oddly compassionate book too, and one which played to good effect with the idea that super-heroes carry much of their weight from our own near-psychotic urges to impose our will violently on others. When The Badger continues his war on crime by beating up a supermarket customer who keeps everyone waiting while he finds and counts out his mountains of small change, it's a hard heart that wouldn't cheer a touch before quietly and self-consciously tutting a little too.
And where superhero comics of the mainstream found it hard to express the joie de vivre you and I might associate with the ability to fly, or shrug off pain, or just look good in Lycra, then the Third Way books were brilliant at doing so. Dave Steven's "The Rocketeer" is love-letter of such hallucinatory intensity towards a non-existent lost world of Thirties America, of depraved Nazis, brutal gangsters, convenient pulp hero saviors and all the detail and clutter of a imagined and decadent era. Can there be objections to the slathering glamour shots so lasciviously represented in the book? Well, there can, and I won't try to defend Mr Stevens against the legitimate charge that while men are shown in a variety of roles and appearances, women in the Rocketeer are mostly undressed and unrealistically beautiful. Still, it'd take a hard heart not to recognise Stevens' fondness for and fidelity to a previous and supposedly less pernicious world of glamour, and there's never a suggestion that Betty is a victim who can't stand up for herself given time and a little greater measure of self-awareness. And if "Crossfire" is a more prosaic piece of work, it's still a love-letter of its' own to the Hollywood of fifty years after Cliff Secord's heyday, a representation of a sleazy LA which is so obviously fully informed by Mark Evanier's experience that the reader would, upon finishing each issue, long to phone the writer and find out just who that movie producer was, or which starlet that daft country-girl was based on. If the Rocketeer was based on a fantasy vision of the past, and Crossfire on a more real acquaintance with a specific contemporary milieu, they were both examples of creators taking what they knew and their love for it and delivering that with a twist of super-heroics which made for a very different product to any that could be tolerated in "Action Comics" or "Marvel Team-Up."
Indeed, it's that common sense of fun and possibilities, that faith in the strength and potential of the superhero genre, that I think I miss the most about the Third Way books. Alan Moore knew of what he spoke when he declared that Mister Monster, for example, was one of but five basic-model superhero identities, associating its' purity of conception with the likes of Jack Cole's Plastic Man. But it wasn't just the brilliant clarity and focus of the character's identity and mission that reminded the reader of Cole. It was also the fact that, during this period in particular, Mister Monster was funny. There was a joy in that daft Doc Stearne and his often Torquemade-esque exploits in ridding the world of anything that didn't look too similar to Doc Stearne himself, and that ability to accept and glory in the silliness of the superhero world while still delivering many of the thrills of a Kirby-krackling punch-up remains painfully rare even here, in far-off 2010.
IV. So, the Third Way was often clever, and regularly funny. It could be satirical, at the expense of comic book fans, or superheroes, or the wider structures and strictures of 20th century America. It was neither excessively violent, with the exception I concede of some of The Badger's exploits, nor manipulatively angst-ridden. Each of its key books reflected an individual sensibility, a unique vision of what a superhero comic book could be separate in part from the traditions of the mainstream, though again I'd concede that The Badger of all the titles came the closest to the visual codes of Marvel and DC. Character development was clearly possible in all the titles, with the exception of Flaming Carrot, whose mind had been so blasted open by an overdose of comic books that he's left with all 57 channels on and permitted only a permanent state of wonder instead of a personality. And yet all the possibilities for action and adventure, for both familiar and unfamiliar "heroic" narratives had been left open in all the Third Way titles. Result! Huzzah! Surely this was the way forward?
V. But, of course, there were problems too. Some of them were common to most of the media products of the early '80s. There were no female leads in the Third Way books, and no people of colour taking the lead either. As might be expected, the Hernandez brothers delivered a far-from-standard model of ethnic diversity in "Mister X", their Archie-Comics modernism being far more inclusive than Archie's world ever was. And members of ethnic minorities appear in Flagg and Crossfire and Zot!, and indeed pretty much all the titles, not just as villains, but as highly competent members of the professional classes too. But for creators which were in part reaching beyond the standard-model superhero form and conventions, it would have been expected that a broader engagement in humanism if not the ugliness of political correctness might have been pursued with a touch more deliberation and achievement. It was almost as if these were books being produced by mostly all-white middle-class creators, and indeed, that's what they mostly were, with all the problems of social perception that involves.
And though women do often appear as individuals in their own right in the Third Way books, with their own lives and distinct personalities and gifts too, as with Sundra and Jenny and Gunner, there's still a sense that many of the supporting female roles are there to be attractive, if not outright sexualised, lovers of the male leads, when they're not, as occurs twice in Dalgoda's brief career, quite psychotic femme fetales. (That's why Terry in Zot!, still the most believable representation of a lesbian suffering through a high-school adolescence in any superhero comic, is such a relief, I believe. *2) Looking back, there's a sense that some of the '80's counter-culture which might have supported the Third Way books may have been turned off simply by the surface representations of gender and race in the work. "Love And Rockets", for example, which had its' own superficially Third Way period when first published, immediately caught the eye with the empathy by which it presented and engaged with diversity and difference: it was a magazine that stood in obvious opposition to the know-nothing, oppose-nothing conservatism of so many mainstream comic books. But it was cheesecake that mostly caught the gender-sensitive eye in "American Flagg", for example, and no matter what the aesthetic decision that under-pinned Chaykin's choice of how to portray his female characters, the truth is that lines such as "My mouth is a legend in its own time. They call me Jaws VIII." spoken by a half-dressed, middle-aged, be-suspendered woman must have excluded at least as many readers as they involved.
(*2) Yep, I fully accept that "most believable representation of a lesbian suffering through a high-school adolescence in any superhero comic" isn't actually an award burdened with an excessively long list of possible candidates. Still, the collected Zot! is well worth seeking out for Terry as well as a hundred other splendid reasons.)
4. "Surf's Up/Hard Times"
I. Looking back, it's easy to see why the Third Way failed. Commercially, too many of the titles were published by incompetent - and perhaps even worse - editors and businessmen. (*3) At the same time, strategies to infiltrate the marketplace by using the superhero form, as Baron and Evanier followed in their different ways, collapsed as the Big Two tightened and then extended their grip on the superhero-consumer through the '80s, finally putting to use a crack-like distillation of The Third Way mission-principles to create a post Watchman/Dark Knight product capable to holding onto a lucrative fraction of those readers who traditionally abandon comics early in adolescence. With the market for their books contracting and returns diminishing, creators had little reason to stay with the Third Wave unless, as with Bob Burdens' comics, what they were doing was already so left-field and individual that they could hop the fence separating superhero from independent and survive.
Surprisingly, few Third Wave creators moved into mainstream books. Mike Baron and Peter Milligan both had successful careers with particularly DC Comics, and Mr Milligan is still there. Steve Rude reached a rapprochement with Marvel around the turn of the century too, and Mr Chaykin has carved himself out a productive niche in the Marvel Universe in the past decade, though he's produced nothing of the audacious quality of American Flagg for decades. But on the whole, the Third Wavers, with their point men Miller and Moore too, now mostly make their living well away from the Big Two. Sadly, most of their books are quite dead too. Mister Monster still appears irregularly, as does the Flaming Carrot. But I imagine that very cold day in Hell will arrive before Paradax or Crossfire reappears. Certainly, the Hernandez Brothers concluded from their brief period on "Mister X" that neither work-for-hire nor fantasy unfiltered through their individual sensibilities were ever to be engaged with again. And considering how hard they found it to be paid the monies owed to them for "Mister X", and the colossal success of their individual careers since, who could ever on any level blame them?
But in part, this almost-total disappearance of the Third Wave is also to a degree a reflection of the success of the work. For what would have been the point of Chaykin continuing American Flagg or McCloud keeping turning out Zot!? Reading through the recent, and highly-recommended, reprint volumes of those titles is at once both a thrilling and a sobering experience. Both creators had created such a perfectly integrated and individual synthesis of story and style that constant repetition could only have reduced their achievement to that of a one-trick pony. Reading strips which show how McCloud's much-discussed formalism allowed him to master the representations of time and mood, for example, in Zot! only accentuates the realisation that he's an artist who has more to do than just draw flying boys. It isn't that the drawing of flying boys isn't fun, or valid, but just that it's only one of the countless vehicles for Mr McCloud's talents. And the same for Chaykin where American Flagg is concerned. The second year of the comic was already something of a diminished and over-familiar take on the first. So impressively had Chaykin created Flagg's world, so uniquely and successfully had he synthesised his various interests and talents there, that repetition just undermined his own achievement.
And if Chaykin couldn't replicate the success of his own work, then nobody else could either. Some very big names worked on Flagg after Chaykin, from a one-shot by Alan Moore to runs from the very-able Steven Grant and J M DeMatteis, but they couldn't even produce a pale shadow of the original. These Third Way books were simply not franchisable. Because they had infused the superhero with an independent-minded measure of individual expression, the removal of the creator from the property destroyed the property too. In essence, the Third Way creators often became indistinguishable from the independent/arty brigade, bless them all, because once an individual take on the superhero had been achieved, there were other story-telling challenges in other genres to engage with, and so the superhero became a genre to master and move on from rather than a life's work. (*3)
It was a bind which Scott McColud himself accepted when he reflected that " ... all of these books were alternative to a degree, but they were still a kind of contiguous expansion out of (superhero mainstream comics) ... We had not really broken free .... ". (*4)
And whether they choose to break free of superheroes entirely, or whether, such as with Mr Gilbert and his Mister Monster, they return to their old friends in different ways on occasion as time passes, the truth is that the illusion of a coherent movement to create a non-mainstream world of vigorous and expressive superhero comic books passed long ago. The centre, or the Third Way, couldn't hold. In the years beyond "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns", the truly independent, free-standing superhero figure declined and was replaced by the rise of the company-owned, editor-driven "alternative" superhero universes, from Pacific to Dark Horse to Malibu, which always failed to satisfy and always failed to survive, because in large part they were merely offering what the majors were without the Big Two's depth of history and breadth of characters to draw off. And where superhero-esque comics flourish today outside of the Marvel and DC, they tend to either feature clearly-recognisable doppelgangers for the mainstream product, full of character analogues and meta-narratives, such as "Invincible" and "Savage Dragon" and my beloved "Jack Staff", or function as quite distinct properties existing in specific niches all their own, quite separate from any chimeric movement, as do, for example, the undeniably splendid "Hellboy" and "The Goon". There's no wave of alternative and independent superhero comics threatening in any small way the interests, economically or most importantly conceptually, of the mainstream companies now. In fact, as argued above, in their own fashion, the Third Way books helped to illuminate the existence of alternative modes of presenting superhero product, enabling Marvel and DC to develop strategies to maintain their hold over hardcore and aging fans.
But those "alternative modes" weren't the ones which the creators of the Third Way titles, from Moore and Miller to Gilbert and Burden, would themselves have ever, ever placed into anything as crude as a manifesto. Where the Third Way enjoyed playfully re-inventing the superhero, even to the point of discovering how little "superhero", and indeed how little standard-model "hero", a heroic lead could contain, the Big Two developed a new template for capes'n'costumes; violent by its nature rather than violent where appropriate; grim rather than, at least on significant occasion, joyful; constantly recasting superheroes into multiple versions of themselves, all for the thrill of seeing Batman and Superman fight each other, as they did in the Dark Knight, except this time they could really do lasting damage to one another, as the Watchmen had of course done, rather than creating fresh hybrids of the superhero/adventure figure; fiercely serious and angst-filled rather than human and capable of a broad range of emotions; conservative in story and art rather than aesthetically adventurous; "adult" as a mid-teenager might envisage adult rather than a sensibility reflecting at the very least a few more years of experience on this Earth. In truth, whatever the Third Way was, the new superhero orthodoxy was largely not, and by the time Image Comics had appeared, Dalgoda and Zot! and their unknowing compatriots were to mostly seem as quaint and irrelevant as Rex The Wonder Dog must have appeared to the first rabid consumers of Stan Lee's Marvel revolution. It would take many years for a quiet fightback, beginning with Mark Waid's early "Flash" issues and reaching right up to the present day with titles such as Jeff Parker's Agents Of ATLAS, to begin to restore even a small measure of just the gentler possibilities offered up and largely ignored since the Third Way titles went to the wall.
Which, of course, is the way it was always going to be. The Third Way in superhero comics, just as The Third Way in politics, was an attempt to create a more humane and creative environment without sufficient reference to the realities of a cruelly competitive world. Neither the political or the creative Third Way quite worked, which is a shame, but one seems to me to have produced by far the better comic books.
*3 - "Back Issue" # 41 has a wonderful rage from Chaykin about the incompentency, at best, of his editors at First Comics. "The Comic Books Heroes" by Jacobs and Jones spills a few of the beans about the alleged criminality of a few publishers at that time.
*4 - From an interview reprinted in the third "Comic Book Artist" Collection.