Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Heroes Reborn
A cursory viewing of The Lion King will provide you with the fundamental understanding of the Circle of Life, which is probably the best way to explain the phenomenon of Heroes Reborn, Marvel’s attempt to glom onto the success of Image Comics which had, itself, been formed by creative talent who’d been routinely overlooked and underappreciated by Marvel. Marvel takes young talent and makes them strong on the milk of X-Men spinoffs, the young artists go out and plant the seeds of aborted four-issue miniseries and company launches, and then return to nourish the ailing parent by allowing them to consume their sloughed-off carapace after a biological process called “moulting” wherein they shed their skin by rubbing it off on sharp rocks.

While Marvel was willing to allow Image’s most opportunistic creators to helm the relaunch of their old-school core titles – Avengers, Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America – they weren’t willing to completely hand over the franchises sight unseen. An in-continuity gimmick involving a super-powerful psychic menace named Onslaught sent the affected heroes to another dimension (inside the mind of Franklin Richards, the FF’s all-powerful pet boy) where they could enjoy a year of gritted teeth and lazy cross-hatching before being cleanly returned to the primary continuity, unchanged, in the event that the stunt failed. Guess if it did.

Among the multitude of inter-company crossovers throughout the 1990s, the most unexpected probably came in the form of DC’s stalwart cash cow Batman, their recent and critically celebrated alterna-hipster super-hero sensation Starman and Hellboy. Obviously the actual team-up was that of James Robinson, then then-hot writer of Starman, and Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola, who handled the art chores. In that sense, the superfluous member of the team is likely Batman, as Robinson’s Starman was effectively a creator-owned character in every sense except the legal (although the fact that the book was probably banking on Mignola’s previous association with the character in Gotham By Gaslight probably didn’t hurt).

Still, the Bat sells books, as Rob Liefeld once infamously pointed out, so he provided a bit of a safety net for the unlikely team-up. Unfortunately, excepting the Madman/Superman crossover, no other creator-owned Dark Horse titles made the jump, which is a shame because we never got Usagi Yojimbo meeting Captain Carrot or Hitman Vs Concrete.

Embedded Trading Cards on the Cover / Bagged with cards
The rush to stay at the head of the pack in the crowded marketplace of the 90s meant that comics had to become more than merely stories on paper between flimsy covers. The value of a comic was artificially inflated by the gimmick cover, which became a standout issue merely by the virtue of its oddity. Giveaways naturally became the next obvious idea, as something similar had been the staple of magazines and other publications for years – Heck, I still have my Captain Britain boomerang.

Trading cards had inexplicably become the next hot collectible of the marketplace following comics, certainly favored by manufacturers for their relatively low cost and shipping-convenient size. Naturally, the partnership was inevitable, simultaneously leading to the rise of the Polybagged comic – better to preserve your pairing of card and comic, and to help add to that swirling plastic mass in the Pacific Ocean.

Embedded cards were the next obvious step, with the X-Books attaching holographic cards directly to the covers of their Fatal Attractions event (you know it as the time Wolverine’s adamantium was sucked out of his body, albeit not in a sexy way). Me, I’ll always prefer the plain old ploybagged trading card, if only for the prestige. I still carry my Mister T and the T-Force card in my wallet and remain offended that it’s not considered valid currency at Starbucks or ID at border crossings and the Post Office.

When Ragman debuted in the 1970s, it was a short-run of a street-level costumed vigilante who’d ended up largely unembraced by the fans. It did develop a cult following, though, and among the cult evolved an interesting shared idea – that Ragman, despite being portrayed as Irish-American Rory Regan, was Jewish. Something in the portrayal of the character and his father in their trade as literal ragmen – buyers and sellers of junk and discarded goods, we give them shows on TLC these days – via the renderings of Joe Kubert and the Nestor Redondo studios evoked the idea (even though the editorial team famously tried to quash it in the lettercol) and the fandom held onto it for twenty subsequent years.

Revived in the 1990s by the super-team of Giffen, Fleming and Helfer (with Pat Broderick on art), the post-Crisis Ragman was recreated as explicitly Jewish. In fact, crazy amounts of Jewish, like ten pounds of Jewish in a five pound sack. His cup of Jewishness runneth over. What had been implied by the original scenario and inferred by the audience became a giant Jewish neon sign – all of a sudden, Rory Regan acquired a kvetching Yiddish rabbi, a golem for an adversary and a suit of possessed scraps of fabric somehow related to kabbalistic magic.

The 1990s were a good time for multi-ethnic characters and characters of color to find a place on the racks, but this incarnation of Ragman was unfortunately representative of how the urge to do the right thing and represent diversity created, effectively, multicultural cartoons devoid of nuance.

The update ultimately worked for the character, making him at the very least one of those prominent C-Listers whom you can find milling about the background of crowd scenes during the big Summer crossovers. It sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but that’s actually a pretty big step-up for this guy.

In the pre-Jon Stewart days of The Daily Show, during what we can accurately call, with little exaggeration, ”The period of time when Craig Kilborn was the host,” guest and comedian Janeane Garofalo ended up giving comic books a bit of a big shout-out when she mentioned that she read Preacher.  She did it a bit of a disservice, in my memory, originally calling it a comic book then recanting “Well, it’s not really a comic book, it’s actually a graphic novel” when it’s still technically and practically a comic book, but that’s a battle for idiots so ::drops the mic::

Preacher was certainly a comic engineered for the self-proclaimed badass. As arguably Vertigo’s second biggest original title behind Sandman, it shared some of the same shortcomings and strengths – It was pretty clear that author Ennis’ vision for the title wasn’t fixed at the start and otherwise important plot elements just withered on the vine, the short stories were far superior to the overall tale, and characters were often there merely for set dressing or to pass the time between main character plot points. But then someone would kick a cowboy boot through a biker’s jaw and say “fuck”.

The title’s reliance on language, shock and excess was simultaneously a strength and a weakness, providing some of the book’s most memorable moments and its most absolute cop-out endings. What it did have going for it, inarguably, is it was absolutely the only book of its kind on the racks. That is, until Vertigo and other companies started shoveling cash at Ennis to make fifteen more titles in his chosen oeuvre of “A Pope with epilepsy wanking off a Hitler lookalike over a shitting dog”.

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