Jim Starlin: the Bronze Age of Comics Goes Hollywood

JimStarlin2008

“Jim Starlin 2008” by Pat Loika – Flickr: Jim Starlin. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The rise of Marvel Studios and its recent purchase by Disney has accelerated the Silver Age of Comics[1] adaptations. Spider-Man is mid-way through his second trilogy of films. Other franchises are well-established and likely to continue on well into the future: Iron Man, Avengers…you know the roll-call.[2]

This Friday (August 1st), with the arrival of the Guardians of the Galaxy film by Marvel, we will begin to see the first serious foray into the Bronze Age and the mind behind some of the characters and concepts: Jim Starlin.

Starlin is behind the creation of Drax, Gamora and the villain Thanos in the film. Bill Mantlo (of Micronauts and ROM fame) created Rocket Raccoon; Star-Lord was created by Steve Englehart but re-conceived by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. All of these creators and creations stem from the Bronze Age.[3]

Starlin holds a special place in the firmament of these creators. He is the most successful incorporating a certain 70s zeitgeist into his work. For the kids reading, we’re talking about the end of the Vietnam war, genocides in Cambodia, Charles Manson, the end of the hippy dream, Nixon in the White House, etc. Starlin’s themes? Mass death, insanity, existential crises, transcendence, inter-generation alienation and Jesus freaks. His work was a veritable Dark Side of the Moon in comics form.

Surprisingly, he was building his distinct body of work from the get-go.

Starlin, like any other young creator just breaking into comics in 1973, was not given the plum jobs. He was drawing fill-in issues for middling titles. Yet in his first three-issue fill-in stint in Iron Man, he introduced two of his most enduring creations:  Thanos, a megalomanical lover of death and Drax, a cosmic case of bad anger management whose raison d’etre is to destroy Thanos. Starlin had conceived of the two while attending a psychology class following a discharge from the US Navy.

Following this,  he was assigned his first regular gig to draw Captain Marvel, another poorly-selling book limping along in its mediocrity. Captain Marvel was a character only created and sustained to maintain copywrite over the name “Captain Marvel.”[4] He was little more than a cynically-conceived cypher. However,  Starlin quickly transformed the character. He did it first by re-introducing his two creations, Drax and Thanos, and expanding upon the cosmic concepts established in the title. Captain Marvel (real name Mar-Vell) was an alien, a Kree warrior, sent out to fight crime around the universe and to spy on Earth lest the latter pose a threat to the Kree Empire. Quickly taking over the writing and drawing himself, Starlin had Mar-Vell’s powers expanded, including a “Cosmic Awareness” power that ultimately made the life-long warrior no longer want to fight.  What could be more hippy and post-Vietnam than that, man?

In the Captain Marvel title, Starlin had the space to expand upon Thanos’ character. Thanos, originally a pacifist and animal lover and born into the perfect family on the Utopia of Titan, in his adolescence grows morose and obsessed with death. He begins to court the cosmic manifestation of Death, a gorgeous woman eternally and maddeningly out of reach. He will do anything his harsh mistress demands of him. He imagines what might please her. He attempts to murder his own family and partly succeeds. Ultimately he will commit genocide against his own people and attempt to attain ultimate power through various means.

Drax meanwhile, continually thwarted in his mission to bring down the crafty Thanos, goes insane with frustration and becomes a maverick force of destruction to be manipulated by various Powers-That-Be.

And that was Starlin’s opening act. His second assignment would be the work that would truly define him.

Warlock-10

Warlock was a dog’s breakfast of a character born from an average Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four tale. He starts off as a genetically perfect human dubbed “Him.” Years later, re-imagined by Roy Thomas and designed by Gil Kane and dubbed Warlock, he is now a “cosmic Jesus Christ Superstar”[5] whose veiled parallel life to the Gospels becomes more apparent as the title progresses. Soon Warlock is bound to a high-tech cross and wonders why he has been forsaken. Alas, the concept wasn’t working. The title was on the verge of cancellation. Then along came its saviour.

Starlin’s first act was to take Warlock the saint and screw him up; make the perfect man a failure and an obsessive. He also picked up the thread that Warlock, despite his adult appearance, is essentially an adolescent, his rapid physical aging an artificial process from his experimental origins.

Starlin lays the groundwork of  Warlock as a screwed-up teen in a re-contextualizing intro of his first story. [6] In earlier pre-Starlin issues,  Warlock had decided he needed a girlfriend and decided to take Thor‘s with an ensuing fight with the Thundergod over that. Another flashback to the character’s origin as a scientific experiment and the “patricide” upon his birth as the underground lab where he was “born” explodes, killing his creators.  Finally, his transition to an angst-filled loner amongst the stars looking for his purpose, his mission in life.

Starlin also puts new focus on a previously minor plot point: the giving of The Soul Gem to Warlock by an entity named The High Evolutionary.

Then Starlin gets rolling: a pretty girl in a skin-tight space suit seeks Warlock out on a remote asteroid. (What’s he doing there? Hanging out and moping, I’d guess.)  In hot pursuit are minions of the Church of Universal Truth who seek to slay her due to her impiety. Warlock vows to protect her for no other reason I can tell except she’s pretty and humanoid and her pursuers lumpy reptilian beasts.

Warlock wins the fisticuffs with the interstellar gang except against a baddie named Borgia who is too strong. Thus, like Bilbo and the Ring or Elric and Stormbringer, he must invoke the evil power of his soul gem to defeat him. Despite this distasteful choice, Warlock’s  enemies still get the drop on him and manage to kill the girl with a laser blast. Wails of anguish as Warlock laments what a screw-up he is. However thinking quickly, he realizes that he can use the power of the soul gem to re-animate the girl, and learn more of her tormentors. Lazarus-like, the girl rises again and explains the deadly methodology of the Universal Church of Truth and how they have spread their faith around the universe using the weaponry of the Purification Fleet against those who don’t convert.

This history lesson is interrupted by the appearance of Magus, the head of the church, who yells at and basically freaks out Warlock by revealing the two are the same guy, only Magus is Warlock’s future version! Magus soon disappears in a de rigeur burst of Joker laughter.

The issue concludes with a Warlock thought-balloon soliloquy: “How does one defeat himself without destroying himself? ‘Tis madness to go on, yet if I cease the struggle, madness shall surely prevail!” The prince of Denmark couldn’t have said it better. Except he could. And did. Anyway…

In Warlock,  Starlin created a perfect avatar for the over-wrought adolescent male: adult in power but with immature impulses and emotion, prone to overly grand gestures, narcissistic and moody. With the Magus story-line, Starlin sets up a brilliant teen angst: by fighting his future adult, evil self Warlock taps into a teen’s fear of the future and the compromises to his idealism (don’t trust anyone over 40…) . In possession of the Soul Gem, Warlock has that evil seed literally planted in (on) his (fore)head.

The Soul Gem gradually gets stronger and vampiric, thirsting for souls. The Soul Gem absorbs the souls of its victims and they remain active in the gem. Their voices can still be heard by Warlock. And the voices multiply. Soon Warlock’s head is filled with a cacophony of voices of his enemies and tormentors. He begins to become insane and schizophrenic. He contemplates suicide to release himself from his torment. (Who didn’t feel like that at 14 years old?)

It was the story-line Starlin wanted to pursue: the gradual insanity of Warlock which would culminate in his suicide. End of the title. Unfortunately, Starlin’s editors would have none of that because the book was selling better again, not gangbusters but enough to justify its continued publication. It had “buzz”.  Better sales meant greater editorial scrutiny, however, which didn’t suit Starlin’s agenda at all.  With marginal titles, creators were given largely a free hand because there was nothing to lose money-wise. Starlin elbowed even more creative freedom by deliberately submitting Warlock just before deadline (even though the book was completed 3 weeks in advance) so the editors had no choice but to accept the book as a fait-accompli. Starlin became a victim of his success and quit after his newly-awake editor tried asserting control. The book itself didn’t survive much past his departure. It was one of the first in  a massive wave of cancellations of titles in the mid-70s because Marvel could no longer afford their printing bill.

Starlin was pissed at Marvel for a few years over Warlock and worked for rival DC in the meantime on prestigious titles like Batman.

What lured him back was a new project by Archie Goodwin called Epic Illustrated magazine. Epic Illustrated was another attempt to copy what was selling in the market, this time the object of flattery being Heavy Metal magazine, essentially an English translation of Métal Hurlant magazine in France. The formula of Epic and Heavy Metal was high production values, magazine format, outside the Comics Code[7] with a heady mix of sci-fi, fantasy and scantily-clad women in the serialized story-lines. Epic Illustrated wasn’t as raunchy as Heavy Metal but it did lure in top creators from Europe and the Americas with this: Creator’s Rights. For the first time, cartoonists working for Marvel and published under the Epic imprint would wholly own their creations.

This development towards the Creator’s Rights at Marvel wasn’t just an aping of European practice however. Marvel and DC had both been embarrassed in the late 70s and early 80s with sensational stories of creator exploitation. Seigel and Shuster, creators of Superman, were living in poverty while Warner Brothers raked in millions from Superman: The Movie. Jack Kirby, the genius behind many Gold and especially Silver Age creations at Marvel (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Hulk et al) wanted his original artwork back to possibly sell at auction but Marvel refused (while surreptitiously selling it themselves through back channels).

There was a whiff of rebellion in the air. Elfquest, an independent creator-owned title was a hit. As was Cerebus.[8] Prestigious creators like Howard Chaykin, Steve Gerber, Gene Colon, Mike Grell, Steve Ditko, P. Craig Russell and many others were drifting towards the few but growing outlets of creative freedom and ownership. Marvel provided a major one with Epic Illustrated and Starlin was interested in creating a space epic purely of his own creation.

Dreadstar_graphic_novel

The tale was serialized in Epic as the Metamorphosis Odyssey but now is largely referred to as Dreadstar after its main protagonist.

Dreadstar revisits some of Starlin’s themes but on a vaster scale: genocide, destruction of the universe, the harnessing of evil forces in the service of good (or at least, less evil), revenge, evil organized religion, and good children growing up bad. Where it departs is Starlin gives himself  a larger cast (whereas Captain Marvel and Warlock were essentially loners with an occasional hanger-on. Gamora, a character in Guardians of the Galaxy, began as a companion to Warlock.)

Each cast member of Dreadstar is tormented in different ways of course: one is the guilty last survivor of his race, one compromises his humanity to learn dark magics in the service of good, one a victim of incest etc. Vanth Dreadstar himself starts out as a peaceful farmer forced to join the army of the Monarchy against the evil church of the Instrumentality after his wife and home are destroyed by the Monarchy forces. He is a fifth column, quickly rising in the ranks, until he kills the monarch himself. Vanth installs his own puppet monarch and sets about ending the war with the Monarchy forces at his disposal. Helping him is a mystical sword that grants him immortality. He is a mercurial figure: at times hunter, soldier, rebel, and mystic. Starlin expressed to me at the Montreal Comiccon that his shifting identity was part-and-parcel of his immortal nature and was intended to continue.[9] Vanth ultimately succeeds in ending the Monarchy-Instrumentality War but by losing it on behalf of the Monarchy. His forces routed, he is forced to escape with his companions into the wider universe, his enemies in hot pursuit.

The story gripped its intended readership. Epic Illustrated was initially a success and it’s fair to attribute a large part of that to Starlin’s steady contribution. But Starlin had larger ambitions.

He approached Jim Shooter, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, with an idea for a “graphic novel”[10] format. Essentially these formats would be similar dimensions to Epic Illustrated but with a card-stock cover and with stand-alone stories. (In fact, Starlin had already pioneered the format with another publisher, Eclipse, with his second part of the Metamorphosis Odyssey called The Price.) Starlin wanted to create a follow-up to The Price and call it Dreadstar and create an on-going Dreadstar comic series under a new Epic Comics imprint.

Shooter liked the idea but it was a big shopping list Starlin was presenting.  Shooter wanted something in return: Starlin would create Marvel’s first graphic novel, but it would be a revisiting of Starlin’s most famous body of work: Captain Marvel.

Starlin agreed. For doing an original Captain Marvel graphic novel, his Dreadstar graphic novel and the birth of Epic Comics and the Dreadstar series would be green-lighted. So, Starlin being Starlin, his Captain Marvel graphic novel would be The Death of Captain Marvel.

DeathofCaptainMarvel

The Death of Captain Marvel would become Starlin’s best-selling, most famous and most collectible work. It carried on his theme of Mar-Vell the warrior retiring in peace on the utopian moon of Titan with his girlfriend. But the Kree has grown ill. Indeed, he is diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer which re-ignites his warrior instincts to “rage against the dying of the light.” On his deathbed Mar-Vell hallucinates a last glorious battle to the death with Thanos, his arch-enemy. Alas, Mar-Vell goes out with a whimper, not a bang, surrounded by his superhero colleagues. What struck the fanboy base was the difference of tone to the story. A superhero up to then had never succumbed to something as everyday as cancer. Mar-Vell goes through steps of treatment and denial of his condition. The spark for the story was Starlin’s own father dying of cancer and, in Starlin’s own words, “Death of Captain Marvel”  was “a cheap form of therapy.”

Shooter kept his end of the deal and Marvel Graphic Novel #3 was Dreadstar shortly followed by the launch of Epic Comics in 1983, Dreadstar #1 being its first title.

This would be the highwater mark in terms of Starlin’s impact and influence until now. Dreadstar would have a modest success and other titles launched by Epic Comics would be flops (notable exception being Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis and J. Muth).  Starlin would once again have a falling out with Marvel/Epic and move Dreadstar to First Comics. A former champion of creator’s rights, he would later hand over the title to work-for-hire cartoonists to continue.

My personal “jump the shark” moment for Starlin was when Dreadstar is “killed” by his arch-nemesis The Lord High Papal of the Instrumentality  (an albino Magus/Thanos stand-in) and returns as a superhero in bright yellow skintight costume and Dreadstar chest insignia. The murky troubled promise of the Epic Illustrated serializations vanished for me at that point.

It must be noted Starlin is noted primarily for his contribution as a writer and creator, not an artist although he wrote and drew a great deal of his own work. The peak of his visual output was his painterly work for Epic Illustrated, The Price and Dreadstar graphic novels. Outside of those, he is no great shakes. His character design is pedestrian. Figures are mostly naked with lines denoting form-fitting clothing. He used one lithe female body type for all his female characters and two male types: standard superhero and bulky bad guy. His aliens are insect heads on superhero body. His human faces all had deep-set eyes with heavy shadows above them (or way too much mascara). Starlin has confessed he preferred drawing sci-fi stories because he “hated drawing cars and guys in suits.” Yet even his technology is dull. Walls gridded with multi-coloured lights and minimalist geometric sets. His spaceships and ray guns are completely forgettable.

Yet now on the cusp of seeing Drax, Gamora and his beloved Thanos adapted to the big screen, Starlin is once more ascendant. Deservedly so. His compelling body of work combining teen-centric themes of death, insanity, outrageous scope, Ditko-esque trippiness, and Jack Kirby scale featuring moody characters who take themselves far too seriously has come of age. Add a soupcon on Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga (especially Elric’s sword Stormbringer playing a similar role to Warlock’s soul gem) and Frank Hebert’s Dune (and its idea of the flawed Messiah) and you’ve got the heady mixture that makes Jim Starlin’s body of work so compelling, of its time and yet still resonant today.

For a life-long fan like me, this is a very exciting moment.

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[1]The history of comics has been divided into 4 eras: The Golden Era of the 30s,40s and 50s when comic books began and introduced such characters as Super-Man, Bat-Man, Captain Marvel, The Spirit, The Phantom, Green Hornet, Captain America and their creators: Siegel and Shuster, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko among many others; the Silver Era of the 60s which revived superheroes and chronicled the rise of Marvel Comics and their properties: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk et al; and finally the Bronze Era of the 70s and early 80s which saw a whole new generation of creators take on and introduce characters into the “universes” of DC and Marvel. Creators that rose to prominence included Chris Claremont on the X-Men, Frank Miller on Daredevil, Steve Englehart on Howard the Duck, Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jim Shooter on Legion of the Super-heroes and later Avengers plus many others.
[2]George Lucas could be credited with getting the ball (or egg) rolling with his disastrous flop Howard the Duck.
[3]Only the character Groot stems from the Silver Age and was a creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
[4]Shazam etc
[5]Roy Thomas’ stated aim for the character.
[6]Starlin often did intros that recapped past events as one of his techniques to produce pages quickly. In those economically-strapped days, artists were required by Marvel to do one page “for free”. This often meant duplicating scenes from past issues as flashbacks or taking one page, putting it on its side and making it a two-page spread.
[7]Comics Code was an industry-created and maintained standard of thematic conformity in Americancomic books.
[8]See my original article: Non-genre Revolution of the 1980s
[9]At this writing, the Dreadstar story-line is unfinished after a discontinued run at Epic and later First Comics.

[10]This was 1982 where the very idea of the “graphic novel” was in its infancy. Indeed, the term itself was widely mocked by fans of the “comic book”. Starlin and Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and what’s considered the first modern American graphic novel A Contract with God were its strongest proponents.

Marvel Toys with Sci-Fi

Star Wars - Howard ChaykinA bleak landscape. Casualties by the score. A desperate pack of misfits doing what they can to survive in increasingly hostile terrain. A premise for a post-apocalyptic film? No. What Marvel Comics and its artists were facing in the late seventies.

In my first article, I explained how the plummeting sales of mainstream comics nearly caused the collapse of DC and Marvel and how creators outside of these companies planted the seeds of non-genre comics in the early eighties.

The Big Two comics companies weren’t going down without a fight. Well, maybe more accurately, they were waiting out the downturn and hoping something, anything, would come along as their salvation. Meanwhile, desperate for some sales spark, Marvel in particular fell back on a strategy that many companies had tried in the past: produce a whole bunch of books of various genres, throw them at the wall and see which ones would stick.

To their credit, some of these genre comics were quite inventive. Bruce Lee was a movie sensation in the late 70s so Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu comic was created; Evel Knievel the stuntman had captured imaginations so The Human Fly, a comic about another real-life stuntman was produced; Japanese giant robots and monsters were appearing in cartoons on TV (along with various merchandise) so Shogun Warriors and Godzilla were offered up; horror reappeared in a tamer Comics Code* form in books like Frankenstein,  Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night; adaptations of other successful genre literature were created such as Conan the Barbarian. Blaxploitation film was channeled into a book called Luke Cage, Powerman and Jack Kirby (who always marched to his own drum) tried a book based on the further adventures detailed in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely, previously accepted genres like romance comics were not revived nor were war comics. DC had an on-going title Sgt. Rock whose sales may have played a part in discouraging others. MAD Magazine was still going strong so imitators like Plop! from DC were attempted. DC also tried to capture the zeitgeist by paring Mohammed Ali with Superman for a prize fight but the effort was widely mocked.

These books of course met with various levels of success. Conan was a hit but Shogun Warriors, Godzilla, 2001, and The Human Fly were big misses. Further, none could staunch the bleeding of sales of Marvel’s bread & butter: The Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Avengers, Captain America and Thor.

Then Marvel got lucky.

Roy Thomas, an editor, had heard Hollywood was creating a sci-fi movie that would be released in 1977 and asked the director permission to adapt it for comics. Luckily the director was a fan of Marvel Comics and gave the go-ahead. The adaptation’s publication would coincide with the film’s release but as the final edit was not finished, the artist and writer would work from the script, some rushes and production stills. The result was one of Marvel’s best-selling comics of all-time and by far its most successful adaptation: Star Wars.

Those who have read the Roy Thomas scripted and Howard Chaykin drawn Star Wars know what a funky book it is. It has scenes and dialogue that hit the cutting room floor, a different progression and story structure and some crude likenesses of characters. Star Wars #1 was on newsstands before the film’s release. It would be the first piece of merchandise from the franchise.

Many in the comics industry credit the Star Wars comic alone for turning around Marvel’s late 70s fortunes. (Marvel, of course, continued the adventures of Han Solo et al long after the 6-issue adaptation had finished). It had whet the appetite of Marvel for other space opera properties so when Battlestar Gallactica the film (and later TV series) came along, they bet on lightning striking twice. It didn’t.

Marvel was still casting about for other properties to adapt when one of their lower-tier writers approached them with an idea of adapting toys to comics. As Marvel had little to lose, he was given permission and two books were produced in close succession: the Micronauts, based on a line of Japanese-made interchangeable mini-figures, and ROM, a big clunky robot doll made by Parker Brothers.

The writer was Bill Mantlo, a guy whose comics career up to that point had been based around how fast he could write. That may sound absurd, but in the monthly grind of comics production, a writer who could turn in a reasonable script on a dime when a previously-planned story was delayed for whatever reason was a God-send for many editors.

Mantlo was a “true believer,” a term Stan Lee used to describe die hard Marvel fans, yet he had greater ambitions than writing fill-in issues of Iron Man. He wanted to produce a sci-fi comic and Marvel had given him the green light to produce two. His first would be his greatest.

The Micronauts

Micronauts toys were based around a Japanese anime TV series in 1974 but Mantlo only knew of them as cool toys his mother had given his son one Christmas. The concept was clearly sci-fi with various space ship accessories, futuristic weapons and advanced and impractical architecture. The unique selling point for the toys though was the mini-figures, the robots, parts of vehicles et cetera were interchangeable. You could mix and match the heads, hands, weapons etc with almost any other Micronaut. (This was long before Playmobil or Lego mini-figures it should be pointed out.) One character, Force Commander, had a horse, Oberon, that could blend together to create a centaur for example. Some weapons on the Astro-Station could be mounted on the chest cavity of a normal Micronaut .

The main baddie was a Micronaut named Baron Karza, clad in black armour and mask that looked suspiciously like Darth Vader but actually pre-dates the Sith Lord by at least 3 years.

Based only on the look of the toys and this idea of interchangeable body parts, Mantlo went about creating his comics masterpiece.

He started lucky. Michael Golden, a virtually unknown artist at the time who had done some fill-in work at DC and worked part-time as a plumber, was brought in. Golden was a cagey guy, a bit of a hippy, who loved sci-fi  and Mantlo’s concept intrigued him. He could draw like a dream.

Seizing on the word “micro”, the adventure would take place in a microscopic universe. The evil Baron Karza, a former Chief Scientist, has seized control of the planet Homeworld and slain the monarchy. Prince Argon and Princess Mari escape the coup and go underground to form a rebellion against the tyrant. The dictator doesn’t hold power by sheer force of arms alone, however. The key to his power and popularity is a business he runs, the Body Banks, which allows the Homeworld population to live forever by renewing body parts. Where do these parts come from? Where else? The poor underclasses of Homeworld sell them or gamble them away in the Body Bank casinos while the rich bask in eternal young and beauty at their expense. Indeed, the Baron himself is over 1000 years old.

The seizure of Homeworld is in fact the final move for the Baron to dominate the entire Microverse. Like the emperor he is, he now goes about keeping the population docile and amused by hosting gladiatoral games wherein his enemies are publicly executed. There is one loose end, however.

A former student from 1000 years ago named Arcturus Rann is set to return from his futile exploratory mission of the Microverse. Why futile? Because during Rann’s trip, warp drive (a faster method of travel) had been discovered on Homeworld and the Baron used the data beamed back by Rann to conquer all that had been explored. Rann is also the last of the line of Lord Dallan and Lady Sepsis, monarchs the Baron snuffed out centuries before while their son traveled around in suspended animation as a micronaut.

Upon his return, Rann is quickly imprisoned while the Baron, always the scientist, can examine his protege for any side-effects from the journey. While in prison, Rann meets two other political prisoners, a mischievous insectvorid thief named Bug and Prince Acroyear, another deposed monarch but from the warrior planet Spartak.

Finally they are all set to be destroyed in the arena of the Great Games but things don’t go the Baron’s way as Princess Mari and her rebellion set off explosive charges, cause mayhem and the Micronauts: Rann, Mari, Bug, Acroyear plus two “roboids” of theirs, Microtron and Biotron, escape in Rann’s ancient ship, the Endeavor. With the Baron’s forces in hot pursuit, Rann’s only remaining evasive tactic is to pierce the Space Wall, which lands them as 4″ mini-figures on planet Earth.

What would follow over the next 12 issues was some of the best comics Marvel has produced. The story of surviving as little people on Earth, the forces of the Baron pursuing them there, befriending Earthlings, the discovery that the Micronauts were not the first from their microverse to land there, an encounter with another mad scientist, taking the rebellion back to the Microverse and ultimately defeating the Baron had breath-taking pace and scope. It was a tour-de-force and importantly for Marvel, it sold like gang-busters. It was of course helped by the popularity of Star Wars and some of the elements Mantlo “borrowed”: rebellious princess, funny robots, and the main character’s connection to a mysterious power, in this case the Enigma Force.

The concept itself was strong on its own though. It was also brought to beautiful life by the skill and creativity of Golden who peppered his visuals with odd alphabets, inventive layouts, and excellent renderings of duct work. The rapid pacing was also due to Golden.

After Micronauts #3, Marvel and Mantlo knew they had a hit on their hands and the latter’s ambition grew. Mantlo began to draft a 50-issue epic that would culminate in the defeat of Baron Karza at the hands of Arcturus Rann. Golden would have none of it.

He had committed to a 12-issue run and after that would be happy to do a few covers but that would end his association with the book. Mantlo, the Marvel fanboy, had introduced some superhero elements that irked Golden and Golden had been told his beautiful drawings weren’t “Marvel enough” and he should ape Jack Kirby like everyone else.

So Mantlo changed tacks and crammed the important elements of his 50-issue master plan into 12 so that Golden would be the artist to realize them.

Other artists would take over after Golden. Chaykin, hot off his Star Wars success, was a natural choice but he handed in some rather pedestrian work. Pat Broderick, another newcomer, revived the book with some stellar illustrating. A year after Broderick left, Jackson Guice would bring the book to another creative peak.

Mantlo ultimately got 58 issues of Micronauts, 2 Annuals, a 4-issue mini-series with the X-Men, but using all-told a dozen artists and a story-line that included 2 Baron Karza resurrections. The book rarely wavered from its core sci-fi premise and had a cadre of very loyal readers, so loyal that the Micronauts was one of three books Marvel selected to sell exclusively through a new form of comics retailing in the 80s: the comics shop.

Mantlo would pen another hit book based around another toy, the aforementioned ROM, Spaceknight. This toy had no backstory whatsoever except a blurb on the box saying his arch enemies were something called “Dire Wraiths”. Mantlo’s concept was a cross between the Silver Surfer, the Skrulls (concepts lifted from classic Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Comparing the impact of ROM versus the Micronauts is a case study of the influence a talented artist can have. In the Micronauts there were the stunning visuals and compelling character designs of Michael Golden, whereas ROM was pencilled by a journeyman cartoonist Sal Buscema. The art was serviceable but hardly inspired. The dreaded Dire Wraiths, whom Parker Brothers had named but never visualized, were no more than Pillsbury Doughboys with fangs.

The concept was that the Dire Wraiths, a shape-shifting sorcerous race,  had threatened ROM’s home planet of Galador for generations but were ultimately defeated by the valor of the Spaceknights. The Spaceknights were selected from the best and brightest of Galador, but their humanity was transferred into an electronic suit of armour. The knights’ original human form would be restored once the war was over. Alas, upon defeat, the Dire Wraiths fled and scattered amongst all the populations of the universe. Feeling responsible for this outcome, the Spaceknights pursued the Wraiths to all corners of the universe. ROM’s assignment was Earth.

What followed was a McCarthy-esque hunt for the evil shape-shifters which ROM could detect with a special analyzer kept in an extra-dimensional “pocket” and which would appear in his hand at will. Upon discovering some evil-doers, ROM could switch devices and blast the Wraiths, compassionately banishing them to limbo. As the war progressed, however, and the casualties mounted, ROM began to feel his humanity melting away and being replaced by the cold Galadorian steel which housed his soul. His salvation? A pretty woman from a small town, of course, named Brandy Clark, who reminds ROM what is important in life.

In execution, ROM was more super heroic than the Micronauts. It was largely based on Earth with only an occasional sojourn into space. There were many super-hero guest stars over the course of the book and the story culminates in practically all the super people forming a massive army to help ROM kick Dire Wraith ass once and for all. It dealt with themes of duty, sacrifice, guile, and compassion with a sheen of sci-fi as shiny as ROM’s armour.

It sold well, helped in its early days by Michael Golden covers.

These three books together: Star Wars, the Micronauts and ROM Spaceknight helped to save Marvel from collapse in the late 70s. It could have been the beginning of a new era of sci-fi comics (or toy-based comics for that matter) except for the revival of super-heroes spearheaded by 4 prominent creators: Chris Claremont on the newly launched The New Uncanny X-Men, John Byrne on X-Men and later the Fantastic Four, Frank Miller on Daredevil and Jim Shooter on the Avengers and later Secret Wars.  These books and creators brought new life and concepts to long-in-the-tooth properties and were largely responsible for the boom in comics sales in the 1980s. The super-heroes were back, having narrowly escaped death, more powerful than ever.

Star Wars the comic finished shortly after The Return of the Jedi film came out. Micronauts finished in the late eighties. ROM lingered only slightly longer, but their work was done. Unfortunately for the creators and Marvel, these properties couldn’t be revived at a later date because they were not owned by Marvel, only licensed.**

Of the three, the superior book is the Micronauts, in particular the first 12 issues. You will have to hunt them down in whatever comic shops are left and in the few remaining back issue bins still stocked. Or if you want to be lazy about it, find them on-line.  You will be treated to a well-crafted and highly entertaining book, a book that could have been a new direction for mainstream comics but is now a fondly remembered footnote.

——

*The Comics Code was responsible for the demise of the strongest line of horror comics ever created, those being from EC Comics of the 1950s. Indeed, it was created to specifically target and neuter the conventions and violently graphic nature of these books.
**Recently Marvel and Lucasfilm were bought by Disney, so Marvel will be once again producing Star Wars comics.

Top Five Reads of 2013

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco

I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.

So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.

5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple


I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.

In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.

Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.

Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.

Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.

4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.

The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.

In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.

The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.

3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher

If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.

Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.

It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.

2. The Passage, Justin Cronin

This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.

Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.

The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.

Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.

Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.

What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.

The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.

You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.

Honorable mentions:
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale
Fatale, Ed Brubaker & Sean Philips

The Myths of Capitalists

In the Sept/Oct edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, renowned writer Lucius Shepard, went on a brief rant in his Films column about the contemporary penchant for describing blockbuster superhero movies as the myths of our times.

“Myths…are not simple stories with cartoonish morality foisted upon a dumbed-down audience, but intricate distillations that arise from a culture over time. They do not come attached to automobile tie-ins—they have nothing to sell other than a consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.”

My first instinct, as a lover of the classics, is to embrace Mr. Shepard’s comments, but both the durability and elasticity of superhero stories, and the socio-political contexts of ancient myths, counter his arguments.

Let’s start with the purpose of ancient myths. Mr. Shepard contends that they represent a “consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.” That sentiment is true, to an extent, but these stories also represented the unique worldviews of the people who originated these myths—including cultural signifiers, prejudices and ulterior motives.

As an example, let’s look at the Enûma Eliš, the sacred text of the Babylonians. There are any number of scholarly treatises on the original purpose of this text—here’s a good essay by Stefan Stenudd—that all agree it was designed to promote the elevation of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, above all other Mesopotamian deities; and by extension, reinforce the presumed supremacy of Babylon itself. The Enûma Eliš represented the myth of Babylon that the Babylonians wanted to tell themselves.

But does the fact that the original purpose of the Enûma Eliš was primarily political negate the resonance of the stories it contains? I wouldn’t be alone in arguing: absolutely not.

In Supergods, Grant Morrison wrote:

“Writers and artists build by hand little worlds that they hope might effect change in real minds, in the real world where stories are read. A story can make us cry and laugh, break our hearts, or make us angry enough to change the world.”

A quote that could just as easily apply to the storytellers of ancient societies as to the creators of modern-day superhero comics.

Furthermore, the superhero stories of today might serve the same purpose in terms of our “place in the universe” that Mr. Shepard mentions. In an interview with Wired—based on his book Supergods—Grant Morrison argued that superheros…

“…fill the gap in a secular culture, because they open up dimensions of the cosmic and transcendent, which is stuff legends usually have to deal with. It’s not so much that they are new versions of the gods, because the gods were always just our eternal qualities. Superman possesses the qualities of the very best man we can imagine at any given time. In that sense, he’s divine. Batman is representative of our dark subconscious, who nevertheless works for the good of humanity. They embody the same ideals.”

Maybe a little New Age-y for my taste, but Mr. Morrison makes a valid point about the way humankind used ancient myths to relate to the world being essentially the same way we currently use superhero stories. Gilgamesh and Enkidu represented different aspects of human nature (much like Superman and Batman) in addition to being a possible retelling of earlier stories and a version of the lives of historical figures—all at the same time. The literary construct of Gilgamesh was as elastic as Superman and was as open to reinvention by successive artists for different purposes.

When we look back at the myths of Babylon we see traces of stories that existed prior to the creation of the Enûma Eliš and continued on through into Zoroastrianism and The Old Testament. Part of the enduring quality of myths are their adaptability. In Grant Morrison’s words again:

“Actually, it’s as if [Superman is] more real than we are. We writers come and go, generations of artists leave their interpretations, and yet something persists, something that is always Superman.”

The longevity and variation of superhero stories points to their being something more than simply marketable franchises. I would also argue that, somewhat contrary to Morrison, the iterations rather than the overall process of “distillation” (Mr. Shepard’s word)—or the original sources—are more important to us. How and why each new version of a myth is told reflects the culture of the moment and impacts how those stories continue to echo into the future. Where did most of us first encounter Norse myths for example? In Marvel comics.

Further, Marvel’s Captain America movies are, to me, a perfect example of a modern myth. In the movies, Cap is an old-before-his-time, world-weary survivor, besieged by enemies without and within, who nevertheless retains a core of unspoiled decency that others are drawn to—even in spite of their cynicism.

Captain America represents the myth that the American empire wants to tell itself today—and that myth is inextricable from the worldview, and even the consumer products, it’s meant to sell.

Comics in the 1980s: Transcending Genre

As a long-time comics reader and creator—let’s just say it, lover—when I look upon the art form now in North America, I see elements familiar and banal, refreshing and revolutionary. I also see the results of a process that began in the 1980s.

On one side of the equation, you have the familiar tropes and market share of comics about super-heroes, bolstered by the spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (Need I give examples here?)  On the other, what can only be described as non-genre comics are finding their readership thanks to a combination of book store distribution, greater cultural awareness of seminal works, and, um, a spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (e.g. American Splendor, Art School Confidential, V for Vendetta)

Both sides can be found in various formats, primarily what is now called “pamphlet” (or ‘comic book’ form back in the day), graphic novel, art book or electronic. With the exception of super-hero comics and some other genre work (e.g. The Walking Dead) the pamphlet format has largely been supplanted by the graphic novel or art book for non-genre works. The latter formats better serve the logistical interests of traditional book stores and the largely self-contained nature of non-genre comics story-telling; whereas, the primarily serial nature of super-hero and other genre works can be served by the monthly offerings in the four-colour pamphlets. Cannily, publishers of the genre pamphlets have been eager to adopt the graphic novel format as it allows an opportunity to reach non-traditional audiences with their works. Within the serial story-lines of super-hero comics, the gradual adoption of “story arcs” within the continuity has made the packaging of the genre graphic novels easier and more satisfying for the new or casual reader.

So that is where we are today. But how did we get here? Was it a “natural” evolution of the form and market? I would argue it was not; that this state of affairs can largely be credited to four cartoonists: Wendy Pini, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez and Dave Sim, all of whom were prominent figures in comics in the 1980s.

It was in the eighties that comic books underwent a significant transformation and, by the nineties, began their long trek to social-artistic acceptance by the general public. Some scholars would claim the process dates back to the underground works of the sixties by the likes of Robert Crumb and the artists associated with Zap! Comix.  While this work was largely non-genre (I don’t think “drug-induced” or “psychedelic” constitute genres), its impact was limited to a particular cultural milieu and geography, that of the hippie counter-culture of northern California and upstate New York. It did have its particular distribution (through head shops) but once the hippie zeitgeist blew itself out in 1972, with it went the underground comics. Revival attempts of the undergrounds were made by Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead fame) and Art Spiegelman (Maus)1, but none would take hold until, you guessed it, the 1980s. And the eighties return of some of these underground artists wasn’t paved by other ex-hippies, but a generation of artists following, who came out of the fandom of mainstream comics.

These eighties titles that were the vanguard of a movement towards non-genre comics in fact began as genre comics. The three most influential were Cerebus by Dave Sim, ElfQuest by Wendy Pini, and Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (with occasional contributions by another brother, Mario). The transformation occurred on many fronts, however, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention also Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin), Will Eisner (A Contract With God), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), and Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) as significant contributors.

Love & Rockets began in 1981, a year that marks the creative nadir of the mainstream comics industry in its entire 100+ year history. The industry then, as now, was dominated by Marvel Comics and Warner Brother’s DC Comics, both of whom were churning out superheroes of unparalleled vacuousness. Stan Lee, the publisher of Marvel Comics in 1981, was starting to dabble in Hollywood for some movie deals based on Marvel characters. He was frustrated because his contacts would not commit due to the changeability of the characters (insurmountable obstacles such as costume redesign and new superhero team rosters. Horrors!)2 Finally, at one point, Lee ordered all innovation and change to stop. This is true. This from a company whose nickname was “The House of Ideas”!

Meanwhile, DC, as it had since being overtaken by Marvel in clout and sales in the sixties, followed suit. At the same time, the underground cartoonists were more marginalized than ever, and other innovative creators such as Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine) had either withdrawn from such a restrictive industry or could not get publishing houses and distributors to take their work and still retain ownership over it. The result was a black-hole of stagnation, plummeting sales, and general despair and malaise in the industry. New cartoonists were no longer being hired. Established cartoonists were clinging onto whatever viable titles left. There was serious talk about how much longer comic books would survive.

The crumbling of the comics industry monoliths inadvertently sparked the revolution. Fan creators, confident they could produce something better than the dreck of the time, started small, independent companies run by themselves. Or perhaps their love of the medium was such that they wanted comics to exist in whatever form possible. Regardless, the first of these to gain prominence were Wendy Pini’s WaRP comics (the odd name was an acronym for Wendy and Richard Pini, her husband) and her lone title, Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim title, Cerebus.

Elfquest began as a magazine format, black and white comic published quarterly and was a fantasy story of elves finding their homeland. A comic whose story was in another genre than superhero was startling enough at the time, let alone the unconventional format and distribution.  The art was also a departure, deviating from the Jack KirbySteve Ditko super-hero aesthetics and leaning towards a cutesy wide-eyed manga style only just beginning to be known in North America.

Pini was also the sole creator on the book and a woman, which had not been seen even in the sixties underground comix (which were almost always anthologies and by men primarily). The story evolved along themes such as love and family and gradually the fantasy elements became so secondary as to be unnoticed. It was the cast of characters and their interlocking personalities that became the narrative thrust, not the rigours and conventions the genre required. The characters lived and breathed, loved, lost and had a sexuality. Subjects were dealt with maturely, with no black or white answers, and a controversial but tasteful hetero- and homosexual orgy was once depicted. Pini also declared at the outset that her story was finite, to last twenty issues, and would not be some super-hero title dinosaur wrung of every last element of life then left to slip into the mire.

With Elfquest, Pini had single-handedly initiated and prophesized many of the new trends in eighties comics—the limited series (to be taken up by Marvel in 1983), the graphic novel3, the independent mainstream comics publisher, deviation from the Comics Code4, “direct sales only” title (meaning only sold in comics stores, a relatively new form of retail in the early eighties), the creator as writer, publisher, artist, and owner of her own work, and finally, the use of genre as a readership “hook”, only to later shuck almost all vestiges of the genre by story’s end. With Pini’s success, she paved the way for other creators such as the Hernandezes.

At the same time in Kitchener, Ontario, unbeknownst to one another, fan-boy Dave Sim was doing something similar by self-publishing his parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Marvel comic, Conan the Barbarian, titled Cerebus the Aardvark, a black and white pamphlet comic with a colour cover. Like Pini, Sim soon declared the Cerebus story finite (three hundred issues), totally wrote and drew the book5, and it was only to be sold in comics stores, freeing it from the Comics Code. Also like Pini, Sim’s Cerebus was entrenched in a genre, a funny animal parody, but by the twenty-fifth issue, he had branched out into politics, religion, mature love, feminist critique and the genre elements still retained had taken on a non-genre life of their own.

As stated, both of these books’ successes relied upon capturing an audience with the familiarity of genre fiction but then transmogrifying the stories to more closely and  align with the creators’ idiosyncratic concerns and whimsy. Both Sim and Pini were influenced creatively by genre comics (with the exception of some undergrounds and Mad Magazine, there was no other kind in North America) and did their own take on them when they self-published. This changing of these comics into works dealing with more individual preoccupations could only have occurred at the time in the alternative press where formulas and editorial board standards did not exist and where creators owned, hence cared more, about the work they were creating.6

The Hernandezes’ story is similar. Raised on what they describe as “junk culture” (super-hero comics, pro wrestling, b-movies), they did their own genre stories when Love & Rockets first began. These stories were at times a pastiche of genre, sci-fi meets pro wrestling super-heroes for example, but set apart even from the start by a cast predominantly made up of Latin Americans. The Hernandez brothers soon realised the freedom that was to be had in the alternative press and shucked many of their genre elements to focus on the concerns of their characters. These stories were from time to time sprinkled with genre conventions (the book was called Love & Rockets, after all…) but over the span of a couple years, the readership had expanded beyond the hardcore fan of genre fiction.

Love & Rockets was first created as a “mini-comic” (or “zine”7), a photocopied, smaller format, b&w pamphlet that was sold on the street by the creators themselves. To get some publicity for their book, the Hernandezes sent their first issue to Fantagraphics Book‘s The Comics Journal, the industry’s most prestigious trade magazine.8 Fantagraphics liked the book and wanted to publish it.

L&R was published in a format virtually identical to Elfquest, magazine format, colour cover and b&w interiors. The comics material itself was divided into two sections: those stories created by Jaime and those created by Gilbert. Each cartoonist did his own work and wrote about themes relevant and interesting to himself; Jaime the everyday, if sometimes extraordinary, lives of a multicultural group in a Los Angeles barrio; Gilbert the fictional and highly political Latin American town of Palomar. (The two rarely collaborated.) Like Sim and Pini before them, the Hernandez brothers emphasized characterization in their stories, but unlike them, their central characters were mostly women. Their explanation for this rather radical approach to a male-dominated male-consumed medium was their love of drawing beautiful (but individual) women and from a story point of view, women generally dealt with their feelings more, therefore had more dramatic possibilities.

Love & Rockets was slow to catch on in the mainstream due to the radical approach the title had almost right from the outset.

Meanwhile back in the industry, other publishing houses for alternative comics were being born due to the obvious market for alternatives discovered by Pini and Sim. The difference between these new companies and their underground predecessors (like Rip Off Press of San Francisco) was their distribution would be through mainstream comics stores. One of these new publishers, Vortex Comics of Toronto, lured the Hernandezes away from Love & Rockets for four months in 1985 to do a comic book called Mister X. The character, Mister X, was company-owned  and was a sci-fi dystopian tale of an architect who designs a city using “psychetecture” but has to return and live in his creation because something has gone “wrong”. Gilbert wrote the story based on Dean Motter’s premise and Jaime drew it and their work was coloured. The book was a great success, but the two soon returned to their own Love. Their brilliant work was noticed and soon Love & Rockets began to be discovered and bought. Soon the title was dubbed “the only comic worth killing trees for.”

During this same time, the influence of Sim was growing in the industry. Taking their cue from Sim, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird did their own funny animal parody, this one of Frank Miller’s popular Marvel comic Daredevil, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the rest is history, this immensely popular b&w book caused a black and white comics speculation “boom” in 1985, where all the fan-boys were buying up anything small press and in black and white. Many b&w comics publishers soon flooded the market, all through the comics stores or “direct retail outlets”. As with the undergrounds in the late sixties-early seventies, most of these new comics were of poor quality and none proved to be the next “big thing”. Speculators had been fleeced again and in 1987 the boom went bust.

Sim and the Hernandezes both benefited from the boom and survived quite handily after the bust due to high standards of quality, a regular publishing schedule and the loyal, mature audiences they had cultivated.

One of the side effects of the boom-bust was the emergence of a new genre, the rock & roll comic. The boom had been influenced by what was called “the musical attitude”9 of Cerebus and Love & Rockets. One element in Love & Rockets was extrapolated into punk comics, heavy metal comics (not to be confused with Heavy Metal the comics magazine) and eventually into copyright-infringing rock biographies of real artists.10 The eclectic attitude of L&R and Cerebus was now the “standard” in the direct-sale press, influencing such titles as Bernie Mireault‘s The Jam and Mackenzie Queen, Alan Moore’s Watchman and V for Vendetta, and Scott McCloud’s Zot! In fact, the influence went both ways: a British pop band, friends of Alan Moore who introduced them to the book, named themselves “Love & Rockets” (to the chagrin of the Hernandezes who now had to endlessly explain that they were the original L&R and not a derivative medium of the band); another less popular band named themselves Zot! Dave Sim, an increasingly outspoken proponent of comics creators’ rights, was beginning to take on legendary status amongst fans due to his outrageous behaviour during comic book conventions. He soon earned the title, “comics’ first rock star”.

In 1983, the first solid steps into producing a “graphic novel” had been taken by Sim, Pini and a few others.11 In 1987, Love & Rockets was collected into eight volumes and sold in bookstores to moderate success. Later that year, Mister X was compiled as well. Sim had begun a second reprinting and compilation of his Cerebus work, this time into massive volumes structured around complete story arcs within the ongoing series.

Another side effect of the b&w bust was, as the market collapsed and unrestrained by the Comics Code,  creators turned to more and more sensationalist themes to attract or retain readership: sex, extreme violence and racism. DC Comics, always looking for an edge over its rival Marvel, was the first to adopt a softer version of this “aesthetic” and apply it to its super-hero titles. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a public backlash unseen since the 1950s. Comic shop owners were arrested; books were burned; there was local legislative censorship and import barring of American comics by Canada and the United Kingdom. One of the titles pointed to as corrupting the nation’s youth was Love & Rockets. Obviously the censors had only glanced at the book which, at times, did depict nudity, hetero- and homosexual activity and used naturalistic language including those swear words, but did so to no greater extent than Hollywood did. The focus soon shifted to more extreme examples at DC Comics and to porn or “erotic” comics.

It was phenomenon tirelessly repeated since demonstrating that the two things that will raise a fuss in North American culture are sex and politics. Put those together in a medium still perceived as being exclusively for children and you invite trouble. Worse, add those elements to the super-hero genre and you’ve blurred more lines than Robin Thicke. That Cerebus, Elfquest and Love & Rockets weathered that storm was another testament to their quality and adult approach to the material. They did not fall into the porn genre. Or the rock genre. Or fantasy. Or sci-fi. They were unique books, beyond pigeon-holing, and they had each attracted a readership which had stopped following a genre, but were now following an artist and his or her creative journey.

This was new to comics in the 1980s. In fact, it was a revolution.

——

1. most notably Arcade, the Comics Revue.
2. to give the Hollywood Powers-that-be their due, they were clearly just waiting for CGI to be invented to do the characters justice…
3. although Will Eisner had created a few by this time, their readership was low, the books hard to find, and inspired only the most dogged of cartoonist-collectors.
4. a self-imposed comics industry-controlled standards council dating back to the 1950s. Restrictions included no depictions of sex, bad guys must lose and no decapitations.
5. he would later bring a local artist, Gerhard, in to help with background illustration and cover colouring
6. not that work-for-hire cartoonists didn’t necessarily care about what they did, but the best often went through an early-career enthusiastic stage then ended on sour, bitter notes as the fruits of their labour (beyond their page rate) benefited solely their employer.
7. zine comics were another innovation in the medium that took place in the 80s mainly brought about by the accessibility and affordability of xeroxing. The zine subculture would crest in popularity in the mid-nineties thanks to review magazines like Factsheet 5 but collapse shortly thereafter with the advent of the internet. The zine culture did introduce some notable creators though: Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Louis Riel), Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve) among many others.
8. the influence of The Comics Journal is an article unto itself. Started by two frustrated fans, Gary Groth and Kim Thomson, the journal was a tireless champion of good comics over mediocre and followed and exposed cartoonists that pushed the envelope in terms of story-telling. While never turning its back completely on genre comics, the editorial was consistently disparaging of creators wasting time reinventing super-heroes and urged them to explore different themes and do more personal work.
9.  on a superficial level this referred to Sim’s taste in classic rock influencing things like titles of chapters. It primarily meant Sim’s lyrical use of sequential images, his pacing and timing. His narrow, vertical panels, especially in his graphic novel Church & State are as close a graphic representation of musical beat you will find in any medium. In Los Bros Hernandez’s case, one of the main protagonists in Jaime’s stories was the singer in a punk band and many stories centred around that lifestyle.
10. admittedly, the genre didn’t start in the b&w boom. A licensed comic book rock biography of KISS was published by Marvel in the late seventies as they threw any comics concept at the wall to see what would stick. The sales must not have met expectations as the experiment was never repeated.
11. Jim Starlin was also a pioneer in the mainstream press with his Metamorphosis Odyssey series of graphic novels; Don McGregor with his Sabre graphic novel; and Will Eisner with his A Contract With God.