There’s always something intriguing about a supergroup. Them Crooked Vultures. Cream. About a thousand bands led by Miles Davis. ELP. Gnarls Barkley, The Travelling Wilburys, and The Golden Palominos. Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Crosby Stills and Nash. Crosby and Nash.
If one star’s a big deal, then a collection of them surely has to be exponentially fantastic.
But they don’t tend to make supergroups up from the folks who play occasional timpani and flugelhorn on stage behind the big names, let alone from the backstage crews who keep the star vocalist’s ten-thousand dollar Persian carpet dustless and unruffled for his shoeless on-stage cavorting.
This is why The Champions were a very bad idea. They were the superhero equivalents of the best of a selection of short-order cooks from the local catering crews providing chips’n’pasties for the folks who hoover that ten-thousand dollar Persian cavorting carpet.
I promise you, I’ve not come to mock the first issue of “The Champions”. But I will admit, it’s exceptionally hard not to. Because “The Champions” is an almost-inexpressibly terrible comic book. It’s as if the most merciless, savage and utterly unfond satire of the typical mid-Seventies Marvel product had been sneaked into the company's publishing schedule. If its art was worse than its plot and its script, then that’s only because its art was as catastrophically awful as any that’s ever appeared in the first issue of a Marvel superhero title. Yet there were still several moments when wordsmithery threatened to out-crass even the worst of the back-of-a-schoolbook scribbles. The dialogue was as purple as the anatomy was peculiar, the design work as ropey as the plot-coincidences were overwhelmingly daft. It all seems suspiciously tongue-in-cheek, and yet, only the most admirably straight-faced of parodists could ever succeed in keeping their work as joyless as writer Tony Isabella and the art team of Don Heck and Mike Esposito succeeded in doing here. In truth, time spent with just a few of the pages of "The Champions" # 1 is enough in itself to explain why so many folks in the Seventies were convinced that the superhero sub-genre could never survive.
It’s a car-crash of a comic from the top-left of the very first page, which features the Angel’s never-seen-before and never-to-be-seen-again pompadour, to the right-bottom of the very last, where a strange emotionless profile of Venus has apparently been sellotaped into the frame in order to show that the laws of perspective aren’t operating in the comic’s very un-grand finale.
Net-tradition suggests that the best thing to do with such a comic is indeed to ridicule it, to gut it and serve up the most absurd of its contents in a series of supposedly silly and/or inept moments under a heading such as “The Seven Craziest Champions Moments!”, or “Let’s Laugh At This Cringeworthy Champions Crud!”, or whatever. And I am tempted, except that there are folks who are actually very good at doing that kind of thing while avoiding making the whole process seem like cruel and exploitative playground bullying. Anyway, it’s impossible to believe that such an exercise hasn’t already been played out with the pages and panels of the red-rag-to-a-blogger-entitled “The World Still Needs …. Champions!”.
Pantomime artiste: “The World Still Needs …. Champions!”
Christmas audience of kids: “Oh no it doesn’t!”
Pantomime artiste: “I said, the World ..”
Christmas audience of kids & parents: “OH NO IT DOESN'T!!!”
Something went wrong with “The Champions” from the off, that much we can safely intuit. Perhaps Don Heck had been asked to turn the art job around in an insanely fast time, and perhaps Mike Esposito was operating under similarly back-breaking circumstances. After all, both were able craftsmen who’d often shown themselves well capable of turning in some pleasingly classy jobs, though this period rarely saw them operating at the height of their powers. And perhaps Tony Isabella’s habit of describing in his scripts exactly what the art on the page was already depicting, for example, came from a belief that only a fraction of his plot had made it to the boards he was dialoguing. Perhaps the strange politics which marked the book’s gestation period left nobody who was involved quite sure of whatever it was that they’d set out to do in the first place.
Perhaps “The Champions” was simply a rabble of no-one-else-wants-us superheroes thrown together according to an editor’s arbitrary definition of what a superteam should be. (Len Wein had insisted that any strike force of super-people needed a minimum of five members, including a strongman, a woman and a character currently carrying their own book.) It was the year of the superteam at the House Of Ideas, after all, with the Invaders, the Liberty Legion, the Legion Of Monsters, the New X-Men and the Guardians Of The Galaxy all being thrown into the marketplace around the same time, like bags of puppies hurled into a storm-drain.
Only the X-Men made it out of the waters and truly prospered, and it took Marvel’s newly Claremontised mutants several years simply to push past their initial bi-monthly schedule. The Invaders made a fair scramble for dry land, and held on to the edge of it for more than three years, but sales crumbled and then crumbled some more and the book was gone. Everyone else, including the Champions, went under pretty quickly..
Why were so many of us apparently beguiled by the very idea of “The Champions” in the day, and why have so many of us stayed terribly fond of the comic and the concept despite the fact that it was such a relative failure of a book? (When a comic seems to carry less depth and heart than DC’s “Freedom Fighters” of a just slightly later vintage, it’s safe to say that things had not gone entirely well with either its R & D nor its commercial launch.) I suspect a great deal of the sense of “it-could’ve-been-a-contender”, which still haunts the occasional board discussing the comic, can be explained by the fact of how exciting it was back in 1975 to see characters who patently had pretty much nothing in common with each being thrown together. The now-already declining horror boom of the period aside, the superheroic population of both the DC and Marvel universes had remained relatively stagnant for years, and even the fraternisation between characters who inhabited what would now be called separate franchises was limited. Yet there in the Champions were the two least-interesting of the original X-Men, the Soviet super-athlete just dumped as a sales liability from “Daredevil”, Thor’s boorish and occasional godly sidekick, and the Ghost Rider, a character so both absurd and banal that he rarely appealed beyond the first-glance recognition that he drove a motorbike while his head was on fire. Given that only one of these superfolks had the slightest hope of carrying their own title, it surely made sense that they’d all add up to a half-decent sales success?
It is, of course, the kind of logic that assumes that a man disinterested in a particular meal will warm to its eating if it’s mixed in with three other unappetising dishes seasoned with a single foodstuff mildly to his taste.
And yet, the possibilities; surely simply through introducing themselves to each other, these characters would reveal aspects of their characters and their world that we’d never seen before. The Marvel Universe beyond New York and the major books was incredibly under-explored and underutilised in 1975. (It could be argued that in many ways it still is.) “The Champions” was an opportunity for all these superfolks to compare back-stories, effectively crashing one previously discrete area of continuity into another, Booms and bangs would undoubtedly occur. What did the godless atheist Black Widow make of the Satan-created Ghost Rider? What response might carny-born-and-bred Johnny Blaze have towards the hot-house private school students with the name badges “Worthington” and “Drake”? How much fun would they all have to constantly generate in order to entice party-happy Hercules into hanging around, and who else might get called into what was obviously going to become a book that was even more out-there than Steve Gerber’s “Defenders”?
Perhaps the only truly amusing aspect of “The Champions” 18-month existence was the almost-total lack of humour and fun in the book’s pages. Angst there was, and by-the-numbers super-conflict too, but there was hardly anything that was daring or exciting or innovative or even pleasingly executed. (*1) Even the threadbare conflict provided by the jostling of testosterone-charged blokes trying to woe the sole superwoman in view was almost immediately solved by having the biggest bloke with the only goatee leap straight into the water-bed with the perennially be-girlfriended Black Widow. Flaming heads, frozen heads and great moulting wings did nothing, it seems, for Madame Natasha, despite her being just about the only heroine of the period who might convincingly have matched Johnny Blaze leather-for-leather, bad-ass for ass.
But nothing so exciting as uni-sex leather-swaps ever appeared. In fact, even the punch-ups themselves were embarrassingly vanilla, as if everyone had headed for California for the superhero equivalent of wild, transgressive sex and ended up in the missionary position with someone who looked just the same as their first hand-holding crush. In a time when the Defenders and their enemies were routinely swapping brains with each other and the odd stray wild deer too, and in a day when substantial numbers of super-people were quite obviously involved in some steamy personal shenanigans, The Champions just seemed to stumble from one Marvel-typical showdown to another, from one lukewarm meet’n’greet how-are-you social session to the next.
These Champions weren’t just second-string properties, they were apparently third rate personalities too. And though things got a touch more involving as time passed, things never actually became interesting even though they could descend into the hysterically overwrought. Even Hercules wasn’t a joyful force of nature so much as a cross between an eternal mope and a grand bore. The Iceman and the Angel seemed caught together like two shy boys trapped in the kitchen at a parent's-away party glad for the company but bored with each other. The Black Widow was anything but a proactive team leader, let alone the Man-Bull kicking proto-feminist of her Daredevil days, whereas the Ghost Rider, who was after all a demon-fighting stunt-rider with a liquid-flame skull, spent his time whining that he didn’t really fit in. Well, of course he didn’t. A super-person could no more generate a spirit of esprit de corps with The Champions than you and I could find ourselves suddenly bonded for life with the shoppers we’d shared an impossibly long queue with in our local supermarket one rainy Sunday afternoon.
All of which, from a slightly askew perspective, makes the Champions perhaps the most distinct, if least invigorating, superteam of all time. Putting aside the issue of whether any other creators could’ve used these characters in a more interesting and exciting fashion, there's surely something to be said for a bunch of folks who clearly have no get-up-and-go, who are directionless and clueless and, truth to be told, neither particularly bright nor notably inventive. Every fictional universe of superheroes has to have its cast of bores, dullards, drifters and just plain typical folks, who if life had perhaps been kinder, might have been happier as a high school P.E. coach (Hercules), or the Headmistress of a tough inner city comp (Natasha), an accountant (Drake), a creative executive in the recording industry (Angel), or, given how inflexible Ghost Rider could be, a performer on a motor bike in a travelling circus leaping double-decker buses for a living.
These ordinary people, regardless of their powers and costumes, were the Champions, it seems to me, and to criticise their characters for their lack of depth, subtlety or even interest is perhaps to miss the fun of them. What makes this superteam so interesting is that they're not so impressive, they're not ever going to be world-beaters without the presence of a few other folks around to offer up the 'vision thing', and yet they are as best they can fulfilling their potential. They're heroes, but they're mediocre heroes, like you and I would most probably be. For “The Champions” is what happens when well-meaning and quite ordinary joannes and joes go to war, or rather when they set out for the front and then discover that they can’t quite work out in which direction they ought to be headed.
All of a sudden, I like them every one of them a very great deal.
All of a sudden, I like them every one of them a very great deal.
*1:- I know that any Champions aficionados who might by chance pop over may well disagree with me. The John Bryne issues, for example, have a loyal following. Mea culpa! I've no doubt I'll warm to them as they wheel into view.
Next week, on “FRIDAY WITH THE CHAMPIONS”, we’ll be taking 750 words to look at “The Champions” # 1 itself, and asking ourselves why the MU didn’t have a Superhero registration Act years and years ago, given the idiotic and dangerous individuals it had tripping over each even in well-respected Californian campuses.