1. Howard The Duck, by Steve Gerber, Gene Colan, Frank Brunner et al, cancelled 1979
Like so much of the very best of the era's finest pop-culture satire, Steve Gerber's Howard The Duck was both intermittently brilliant and wildly, thrillingly inconsistent. Re-reading it sparks the same brew of fascination, bafflement, energy and intelligence which catching a midnight repeat of Monty Python or prime-70's Saturday Night Live similarly evokes. So much of what made them all absolutely vital has dissolved with the passing of the years, and that's exactly as it should be. Satire that's written for the university lecturehall and exam syllabi of some distant future is - of course - unlikely to be saying anything that's challenging about its own day. And yet, many of Gerber's targets are still haunting post-Millennium America even as the man himself has tragically left the stage all too early. In the brave new 21st century, it's unthinkable that the Big Two would permit the equivalent of Gerber's fiercely mocking condemnation of the homophobic campaigner Anita Bryant in the pages of HTD#21. Sadly, the corporate emasculation of the comicbook mainstream which Gerber so feared and raged against has long since come to past. As such, the superhero book has seen little mention of the likes of the Wall Street-created global economic crash and the far right's shrill and devastating campaigns against anything but a nightwatchman state. (*1) It's not hard to imagine how Gerber might have felt about such astonishingly public and despicable abuses of power, but it's impossible to believe that he'd be lent a platform to express that as he once briefly had in Howard The Duck.
*1:- It can and has been done, of course. Hats in the air to Gail Simone, for example, for referencing aspects of Occupy's concerns in Batgirl, while Rob Williams and D'israelli are forcibly expressing both loathing and contempt for the effectively-psychopathic culture of today's corporate predators in 2000AD's current Low-Life.
With the born contrarian's enthusiasm for titling at the Republic's often absurd and even toxically pernicious culture, Gerber's stories in Howard jousted with the New Right, religious cults, corporate greed, prurience, Presidential politics, urban alienation and paranoia, media-driven obsessions, and - with a touch more fondness - the absurdities of the counter-culture. At the same time, he also tilted at both the intrinsic silliness of the superhero comic and the conscienceless corporate interests which it ultimately served. At his best, Gerber and his collaborators stretched the taken-for-granted illogic of the Marvel Universe until the likes of vampire cows and duck masters of kung fu seemed far more believableand interesting than the inhabitants of the Baxter Building or Avengers Mansion.
More than thirty years after Marvel sacked Gerber from the character he'd co-created, his ambition, commitment, brilliance and indomitable good humour still radiates off the page. Best of all, there are moments when his work still brings his cast alive with an exquisitely empathetic concern for their ludicrous and yet all-too believable trials. Because of that, we care about the causes which Gerber espouses, because we care about the characters who he encourages us to sympathise with. And so, to take but one example, the sight of the kidnapped Howard forced to perform by the apparently sympathetic and yet entirely amoral members of the Circus Of Crime works not just as a description of the creator's plight in the comics industry. It's also a deeply human and moving moment in its own right, presenting a lonely and susceptible protagonist trapped in a world, as the tag-line went, that he never made.
2. The Invaders, by Roy Thomas, Frank Robbins, Vince Colletta, Paul Kupperberg, et al , c. 1979
As odd as it might seem now, the Marvel of the mid-Seventies had very little of a coherent, well-worked continuity when it came to World War Two. Stories since the early Sixties had established the raw material for such backstory, but no-one had thought to weave them together along with aspects of the comics of the Golden Age themselves. Indeed, it had taken almost a dozen years after The Sub-Mariner's reintroduction in Fantastic Four #4 for he and Captain America to even exchange a few words about the war against the dictators. (*2) Such an opportunity was tailor-made for writer Roy Thomas, who'd long been fascinated both by the superhero comics of his childhood and the history of the war itself. He was similarly enticed by the prospect of carving out an area of the company's output where he might work without having to worry about what his fellow professionals were contributing to the common continuity. As a final incentive, Thomas also knew that he could call upon a huge range of pre-established characters, events and concepts in order to bring the Forties alive without having to create too much of his own that was entirely new. Unlike many of his fellows in the business during the period, Thomas was already well aware of how important it was not to hand over potentially valuable creations to Marvel without the guarantee of adequate compensation.
*2: Even then, it was remarkably vague business, with the Sub-Mariner declaring in Avengers #117 that the two of them were the only two surviving superhumans from the War. That in itself would soon be anything but the truth, and yet the reader coming to the story now may be amazed at the absence of intimacy and a common wartime history between the two.
The vehicle for this comics history of the War was The Invaders, in which the five most prominent of the Timely superheroes of the Forties would band together at Churchill's encouragement to battle the Axis. For a brief few months, the comic was an enjoyable distraction from the mass of super-books, with the fannish excitement generated by such an unprecendented and substantial continuity implant helping to captivate readers. The historical events used to frame the team's adventures added a touch of distinctiveness and character, while the charmingly anachronistic and Cannifesque art by Frank Robbins and Vince Colletta suggested work that had itself been appropriately stored away since the Last Good War itself.
Yet Thomas never solved the key problem of how to represent superheroes in a wartime setting without seeming to denigrate the folks who'd in one way or another actually contributed to the fight against Fascism. This was certainly a concern for some of the title's British readers. For them, the sight of the Invaders swatting the Luftwaffe out of London's nighttime skies, for example, only seemed to emphasise how little assistance the then-isolationist America had actually lent the UK during the first few years of the War. Andor all that the comic celebrated the nation's defenders as plucky and brave, it was the folks in the costumes who were mostly shown dominating the limelight and landing the blows. Squaring such a circle remains a problem in today's superhero books which portray the War, but Thomas' unintended insensitivities didn't end there. The addition of two aristocrats as the Invader's new British members - Union Jack and Spitfire - seemed as crass as it was ludicrous. World War Two might not have been the unalloyed People's War that British popular myth had come to regard it as being. But the suffering and achievements of the nation ought not to have been represented with reference to a stereotype of nobles, country houses and landed estates. But then, Marvel's predilection for representing Britain's heroic virtues with members - or at the least descendants - of the landed gentry had begun with The Black Knight and would continue with Captain Britain. Yet just as it wasn't America's superheroes who won the war for the Allies, it wasn't an elite force of hereditary aristocrats which saved the day for Britain either. Regretably, The Invaders all too often reduced events to a matter of costumes and super-powers and media stereotypes, and in that, it sacrificed a great deal of its distinctiveness while at times failing to emphasise how the war had really been fought, and to what cost.
Other aspects of Thomas' scripts were far more progressive and successful. He was, for example, the first writer of a superhero book to criticise the despicable wartime concentration camps which the Republic established for its Japanese American citizens on its west coast, and he did so with passion and clarity. If his work lacked the rage and scope which a more radical writer might have expressed for America past and present, it was also admirably decent-hearted and unambiguous in its principles. Yet for all that laudable commitment, his stories rarely seemed to rise above the formulaic and, with Robbins' departure, the book lost even its endearingly anachronistic feel. What had initially promised to bring a greater measure of diversity to the even-then all-too-predictable and constricted superhero book ended up offering more of the same. The Invaders had at first suggested that the superhero comic could be used to tell a far broader range of stories than was typical. But in the end, it seemed to suggest that the sub-genre was simply swallowing up all of its rival forms and reducing them to homogenised playgrounds in which the same costumed types would play out the same thin melodramas over and over and over again. Despite that, the disappearance of the book was still a regrettable business. No matter how unadventurous it had finally proven, its presence on the stands still suggested that there were new possibilities for the sub-genre just waiting to be put to use. Even now, the superhero comicbook staged in anything other than a nominally present-day setting is a rare event indeed.
3. All-Star Comics, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Wally Wood, Gerry Conway, Joe Staton et al, c 1978
As The Invaders was attempting to built an audience for the adventures of Marvel's superheroes in a comicbook version of the Forties, DC was taking its Golden Age characters and representing them in a contemporary setting. The spin, of course, was that these were the superheroes of a parallel Earth, who, while inspiring the next generation of super-crimefighters, had grown old with the passing of time. Here, for example, was a greying Superman of the Justice Society, who was gradually being succeeded by his decades-younger cousin Power Girl, and a soon-to-be murdered Batman, whose daughter would become the Huntress in order to honour him. With its characters free to age and change and even die in a way that those of the merchandise-spawning mainstream continuity couldn't, All-Star Comics promised to be a fundamentally less conservative superhero book.
Sadly, that promise was never fulfilled, although the comic itself was a perfectly pleasant if fundamentally typical product of the time. At moments, the alt-world setting sparked some intriguing divergences, such as Gerry Conway's mention of a South Africa freed from Apartheid and Paul Levitz's suggestion of an independent Quebec. But it was a world that was little explored, and even Levitz's ability to give each member of his cast a distinct and sympathetic personality couldn't rescue the book's plot from their fundamentally predicable nature. As with The Invaders, the sense was always of a comic whose creators either didn't fully recognise the opportunities before them, or who weren't allowed to pursue anything so unconventional. Both books contained the potential to explore the superhero sub-genre in an adventurous way, and yet both chose instead to stay paddling remarkably close to the shore.
As with Frank Robbins' idiosyncratically old-school work on The Invaders, a great deal of the pleasure that's still be taken from All-Star Comics is to be found in the book's art. In particular, the first six issues contain the last significant work by the great Wally Wood to appear in either of the Big Two's comics, and, whether alone or in collaboration with Keith Giffen, his pages still retain an impressive if fading measure of his old genius. They also - in the figure of Power Girl - contain an expression of his fascination for cheesecakery too. That distinctly Seventies fusion of stereotypically strident feminism and what would become seen as body-fascism would prove a considerable challenge to the creators of supposedly more liberal times. But then, Wood's work as a whole still stands as a challenge to those artists who've followed him. All too few of them seem to have understood what he achieved, let alone how he did so. Some, I fear to suspect, don't even know who Wally Wood was. His brief twilight time on All-Star Comics won't explain anything more than a fraction of that, and it certainly produced art which contained its own challenges and contradictions. Even so, it remains characteristically beautiful work, and well worth paying attention too.
to be concluded;