Friday, 26 October 2012
From Superman To Doctor Strange And ... Atari Force? The Great Eighties Cancelled Superhero-ish Comicbook Cavelcade
In which the blogger offers up a baker's dozen of much-missed, cruelly cancelled superhero - or superheroesque - comic-books from the Big Two in the Eighties. Other publishers and genres will appear in a later list. For the sake of brevity, what follows doesn't include the likes of mini-series, tenures which came to their intended close, media tie-ins, or interrupted runs by creative teams who were bumped from continuing titles. Those constraints made list-making easier in the pre and post-Millenium posts, but they make it much tougher for the ten years from 1980. It's something of a surprise to note how relatively few outstanding comics there were from the Big Two in the period. (Memory always tends to make something better out of a era where comicbooks are concerned, I fear.) With considerably fewer books being published by Marvel and DC compared to following decades, and with a tendency for long-running titles to stay in print, it's surprisingly tough to find cancelled superhero comics which really deserve to be mourned for anything other than nostalgic reasons. As such, the list contains titles which, though competent and fondly regarded, could hardly be thought of as outstanding, as well as a few - and only a few - absolute gems.
The list begins with the most recently-cancelled title, and ends with the most distant termination. There's no order of preference beyond that;
1. The Shadow, by Andy Helfer, Kyle Baker, Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers et al, cancelled 1989)
A ferociously irreverent and ambitious take on The Shadow which ended up being pulled - so legend has it - when Helfer and Baker had the pulp star decapitated and his head mounted on a robot's body. This was not the kind of licensed tie-in which comic-books tended to produce and it seems to have seriously scared the horses. Brave to the point of recklessness, persistently witty, and challenging in its storytelling on a page-to-page basis, it's sadly a comic that's unlikely to ever be collected, let alone completed. As with Rick Veitch's superlative time-travel epic in Swamp Thing, the DC of the period allowed a classic run to go unfinished. In comic-book terms, the loss of both books before they came to any kind of satisfying end is to be deeply regretted.
2. The Outsiders, by Mike W Barr, Jim Aparo et al, 1988
Unlike previous lists in this series, the scarcity of candidates means that some comics cancelled after a conspicuous decline have been included. While the preceding Batman & The Outsiders title had in particular been an enjoyable ride, the rot had set in by 1988. It was a precipitous decline. In its first years, and with splendid art from the likes of Jim Aparo and Alan Davis to compliment Mike W Barr's sharp scripting, the Outsiders had seemed destined for lasting success.
3. Doctor Strange, by Roger Stern, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin, Michael Golden, Paul Smith et al c.1987
When the best of the post-Ditko/Lee versions of Doctor Strange are mentioned, Roger Stern's few years as the character's writer are rarely lauded highly enough in dispatches. Yet there's a serious argument to be made for his run falling immediately behind those of Thomas/Colan/Palmer in the late Sixties and the mid-Seventies achievements of Englehart/Brunner/Colan. From an ingenious, captivating time-travel epic with Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin to the "final" eradication of Dracula, Stern captured a sense of dignity and purpose for Strange which no-one since, and few before, ever matched.
4. All-Star Squadron, by Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler, Jerry Ordway et al (c.1987)
All-Star Squadron had been stumbling for years before its end. Artist Jerry Ordway had never been satisfyingly replaced, while the title was hamstrung and then killed off by the one-world revisionism of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Its first three years had been no more or no less than an enthusiastically fannish, frequently purple blur of continuity fetishism. Being a fan of the whole idea of Earth-2, I bought into the project despite often feeling that I was paying out for professionally distributed fan-fic. Eventually, it seemed to become more and more amateurish, with frequently disappointing artwork compounding the sense that Thomas was becoming more and more obsessed with decades-old comics trivia. When DC's Powers That Be cut the book off from the pre-Crisis continuity, that fannish drive seemed not just endearingly Quixotic, but entirely futile.
5. The Earth-One Superman books, inc; Superman, Action, Supergirl, Superboy & DC Presents c.1986
There's no denying that the Superman line had seemed all-too-often rudderless and old-fashioned by the mid-Eighties. Yet work by writers such as Alan Moore, Steve Gerber, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen in the period after Marty Pasko's departure from the book had all showed the potential which the old continuity still held. For all that John Byrne's revamp was energetic and enjoyable, it gutted the property of a great deal of charm and pathos. As it was, Byrne's persoanl involvement in the post-Crisis experiment was dead within two years, and the old continuity, which might have been adapted rather than extinguished, had been thrown away for very little lasting gain and at a considerable cost. It was not a lesson which the various regimes at DC over the following quarter-century were to learn from.
6. Amethyst, by Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, Ernie Colon et al, c. 1986
As with other titles on this list, Amethyst seems in retrospect to have been doomed from the moment it was pitched. A female lead that's recognisably a girl rather than an unthreateningly blokeish version of the same? A fairy tale rather than a superheroic punch-up? Emotions which stretched beyond angst, longing, self-pity and anger? A character's name which a great many folks - including myself - might struggle to spell? Yet, as with several other examples still to come here, the market's inability to keep Amethyst alive reveals how narrow and fatally flawed it even then was. Recently collected in a great doorstep-thick, crisply black-and-white DC Showcase Presents edition, Amethyst was an absolute triumph of an all-ages comicbook. With a heroine who was strong, likable, beautiful and yet thankfully not in any way objectivised, it was inventive, intriguing and, at moments, surprisingly and satisfyingly dark. What might the superhero industry have created for itself if it'd invested the undoubtedly considerable resources in the Eighties necessary to sell product such as this to audiences beyond the Rump?
7. Rom, by Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, Steve Ditko et al, c. 1986
For all that Rom was a pleasant enough read, few would care to elevate it to "classic" status. But its presence here does say something about how few truly good - let alone great - comics there were in the period from the "mainstream". Yet by comparison with many of its peers from the day, Rom was always readable and Mantlo ensured a fan-pleasing series of guest appearances by both the great and the deeply marginal of Marvel's characters. If I make not the slightest attempt to hide how I'm currently buying up cheap reading copies of the run, I'd also never make an argument for it being anything more than a minor, disposable pleasure. That alone made it better than a great many of its fellows, although that is, I'll admit, a case of damning with faint praise. )
nb: There was a coin-toss held to decide whether Blue Devil or Rom appeared in this list.
8. Atari Force, by Gerry Conway, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Mike Baron et al,c. 1985
Even now it seems a ludicrous proposition, but the superhero/sci-fi hybrid that was Atari Force proved to be a cracking read from beginning to end, a smart costumed space-opera with an inspiringly strong female lead - Dart - and a host of beguiling alien creatures in the supporting cast. To say that it's some of artist Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's finest work should emphasise the quality of what logic insists should have been an appalling title.
9. Thriller, by Robert Loren Fleming, Trever Von Eeden et al, c. 1984
A comic so imaginatively out-there that Alan Moore once suggested to editor Alan Gold he'd love a crack at it, Thriller was far too left-field to ever gather a substantial audience. (The Bard Of Northampton was passed over and the book was dead in the hands of a new creative team within 6 months.) A sci-fi/spy/pulp/superhero mash-up, it featured a team of "Seven Seconds" serving "Angie Thriller" in the NYC of 50 years hence. It's been said that Fleming's scripts were relatively straight-forward, and that Von Eeden's experimental storytelling made an art-book out of an entertainment. Whatever the truth, its first 7 issues were remarkable if often hard-going, although it was dead in the water when both of its original creators jumped ship after Thriller had enjoyed just over half a year on the stands. Those curious about this brief and mostly-forgotten moment of excellence might care to visit Michel Fiffe's fine site for more information.
10. Blackhawk, by Mark Evanier, Dan Spiegle et al, c.1984, DC Comics
Rumour has it that Stephen Spielberg was thinking of making a Blackhawk movie during this period, and if he had, the Evanier and Spiegle books would've proved a perfect story-bible for the project. No other writer of the modern period has ever managed to define - and often redefine - the various members of the Blackhawks cast with such heart, clarity and purpose, while Spiegle's art was always sharp, transparent and in places innovative too. Yet the comic always felt as if it were out of time, which is far more a comment on most of its fellows. There was nothing of superhero-machismo about the art, and Evanier's scripts were focused on character, heart and story rather than genre-playing and serving up the narrow tastes of the fanboy niche. This was traditional, inclusive, character-driven storytelling which was also smart, mature and unpretentious. Sadly, what it couldn't do was appeal to the fannish buyers of the day, and as such, it stands as one more regrettable example of the roads not taken.
11. Master Of Kung Fu, by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, Dan Day, Jim Starlin et al, c.1983
The last of the idiosyncratic, writer-driven exploitation comics from Marvel's chaotic mid-70s heyday, Master Of Kung Fu had long overcome its original one-note limitations to become a thoroughly ambitious and markedly individual comicbook. Originally a mash-up of cliches associated with Bruce Lee films and Fu Manchu novels, it survived through the dedicated efforts of writer Moench and a sequence of inspired artists, most of whom proved willing to go above and beyond the call of duty on the title. With a string of influences from Bond to Groucho spicing up the book's original premise, it serves as perhaps the best example from the period of how no starting point is too stereotypical or apparently limited to prove worthwhile in the right hands. Doomed never to be reprinted because of the lapsing of the rights to Sax Rohmer's characters, Master Of Kung-Fu sadly seems likely to fade even more quickly from the popular memory than its fellow titles of the period.
12. The Brave And The Bold, by Jim Aparo, Alan Brennert, et al, c. 1983 (DC Comics)
The over-familiar if always uniquely camp charms of Bob Haney's years as scripter of DC's Batman team-up book at last gave way in 1979 to a rotating cast of writers, some of whom took the freedom offered by the peripheral nature of the book to excel themselves . In what was a moribund turn-of-the-decade for the super-book, the Brave And The Bold thereafter featured a sprinkling of excellent tales lighting up a monthly parade of base-level competency. That was never so true as for the four issues which Alan Brennert wrote, which serve as the missing and often sadly forgotten link in the chain of truly great Batman writers between Steve Englehart in 1977/8 and Frank Miller in 1986/7. With consistently fine contributions from regular artist Jim Aparo and creators such as Mike W. Barr and Dave Gibbons, The Brave And The Bold occasionally served as a genuine pleasure in a grey, grey time.
13, Super-Friends, by E Nelson Brigwell, Ramona Fradon et al, 1981
There was a serious measure of contempt aimed at Super Friends during its brief existence by certain quarters of the fandom of the day. E. Nelson Bridwell made no attempt at all in his scripts to target the reader obsessed with the post-Marvel Revolution traditions of storytelling. Similarly, Fradon's art was untouched by either Neal Adam's comics-realism or Jack Kirby's dynamic-muscularity. The fact that Super-Friends was a tie-in to a Saturday Morning cartoon show only compounded those sins. Yet it was a charming, thoroughly entertaining title which typically put the fine detail of DC's continuity to far better use than most of the company's more critically heralded titles.
TooBusyThinking will be returning on Sunday 26th October with a look at some must-buy books for either the end of Fall or the beginning of Christmas .....