Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Posting this image is sheer bait-and-switch because I barely talk about this fuckin' guy here at all.
A few months back, I had the questionable fortune of stumbling across a complete run of Marvel's mid-90s unpredictably year-long series featuring straight-up sour grapes tearful post-breakup "We didn't want you around here anyway, Todd" creation, the very very Spawn-reminiscent Nightwatch, in a local bookstore's quarter-bin. At a dozen issues for three bucks total, plus local sales tax, you can make the convincing argument that I overpaid.

What followed was a joyless Saturday afternoon spent plowing grimly through a bleak and confusing tome. This, then, was followed - as is the case with most of the articles on this site - by my re-reading the series, taking notes as they occurred to me, and then reading it a third time to pick out images to scan. This is typically a rewarding process, because it unveils hidden and unexpected layers to materials you might've otherwise dismissed after a cursory glance. Such wasn't the case with Nightwatch, which was about as pleasant an experience as licking sticky-tac from a horse's hoof, but at least I had an article out of it.

Or so I thought. Usually, after an introductory read about a character, the next thing I do is check online to see if anyone else has written about the character, if any further info is available, or if they have an illuminating Wikipedia entry. This time I waited until after I had the material for the article, only to discover that Nightwatch had recently returned as a villain with a whole new backstory and a new, much worse name - Nighteater. And that all of this had happened, like, in the previous four weeks.

You tell US "when," dude, you're the comic book!
I already have enough trouble with writing about characters who haven't seen the light of day in half a century, only to have someone stand up and shout "He's not forgotten - I remember him!" (me too, buddy, that's why I wrote an article on him). More than that, I'll frequently write about a character and their short, cohesive run, only to have some nerd I've never met before holler "Actually she's not gone or forgotten," which is an intro that has promise, only to end it with "She had a cameo in Starman!" (which is a book that hasn't been on the racks for twenty years, but I digress).

So writing an article about "gone, forgotten" Nightwatch who has just reappeared as Nighteater and has had his entire history rewritten is just asking for trouble. It does, however, give me an opportunity to talk about how I approach characters who've been retconned or revived, and why I generally choose to focus on the original runs of characters in these articles. You may stop reading now, this might be dull, and I am officially letting you off the hook.

My preference in writing about these characters is to stick with the original appearances or, failing that, a peculiar but still cohesive set of later appearances. Typically, these are stories produced by the original creative team are specific to a certain timeframe, and reflect the zeitgeist of the era and the spirit of the comic racks in a very specific way. I know fandom enjoys treating characters whose histories may be wildly diverse - someone like Captain America, for instance, who has been the product of dozens of writers, spanned almost eighty years of comics, appeared in a multitude of media, who's maintained dozens of relationships both professional and personal, and been representative of the mercurial national mood across four generations - as a single, cohesive and purposeful narrative. This is why Tumblr is an echo chamber of angry nerds decrying after every objectionable storyline "Steve would never do that!" Well, his writers might, and also it's weird when you call superheroes by their first names like you went to camp together.

That "1994's hottest new character" line must've made Generation X
feel like shit.
I don't see one character as being the same character between creators. Don Cameron's Superman and Jerry Siegel's Superman shared a lot in common, but you'd never mistake one for the other if you'd been made aware of who wrote which early story. Binder's Captain Marvel and Geoff Johns' Captain Marvel are distinctly different Captains Marvel, despite the latter creator having borrowed extensively from the foundation established by the former.

Nightwatch/Nighteater represents a particular breed of character reintroduction, as it hinges on a revamp and a retcon which - a good half of the time - makes it a completely different character. The Nighteater character who was the focus of the recent appearances in She-Hulk doesn't work backwards, as it were; it's basically a new character from 2015 onward, because none of the changes made to the character, retroactive or no, were hinted at in the original text.

I feel that retcons and revamps fall into two categories, retroactive and proactive. A fine example to differentiate the two comes by way of a man whose early career was almost exclusively reconstructions of existing characters to varying degrees - Alan Moore, who enjoyed both types of revamp.

Miracleman, for instance, is a wholly proactive rebuild of the Marvelman character and mythos. Moore imagined the classic British Silver Age character as the product of government experimentation with alien technology, and that all of his previous adventures had been hypnotically crafted to take place entirely in his subconscious. The thing is, it only works going forward, starting with the first Alan Moore-scripted issue of the series. If you go back and read the original Mick Anglo stories, there's nothing to hint at the world Moore created - no subtle insinuations, no ironies, no seeds are planted which imply the premises around which Moore built his incarnation of the character. Even if you read the previous adventures thinking "Oh, but this is just a laboratory-constructed hallucination," you don't receive a single clue or intimation that it might be the case. Moore's Miracleman is effectively a new character.

Meanwhile, by contrast, his Swamp Thing is retroactive, because elements of his story can be found by reading the stories which precede him. His changes to Swamp Thing's character lend grim irony to the character's previous quest to regain his humanity, lend portentous omens to the excesses of Anton Arcane, set the stage for the emotional resonance between Swamp Thing and Abigail Arcane. It's a fluid alteration to the character - it's a dynamic change which leaves everything preceding it perfectly intact,and uses what preceded it to feed Moore's incarnation. Moore's Swamp Thing is a continuous iteration of the original character.

With all of this in mind, then, I honestly believe that the Nighteater character which appeared in the recent pages of Marvel's latest She-Hulk comic is a completely different character than the 90's Nightwatch, despite relying on the latter's story in order to construct his own. There's no evidence in the original character's history to suggest any of the elements which introduced Nighteater, who is effectively a brand new character, and probably I could've written about Nightwatch under the auspices of this blog without fear or contradiction, and I would've except by god it was a horrible and wildly uninteresting book.

Nightwatch: effectively gone and forgotten and also just an interminable read. But at least I finally got to write about how the sausages are made around here and now I never have to do it again, right? PS I'll probably write about Nightwatch eventually, I guess. Ugh.


John said...

You've mentioned your system of reading the comics you choose for GAF three times, and your attention to detail and insight when writing these pieces has always been evident. But it is nice to get a look "behind the scenes". Thanks.

Nate Fancher said...

1. I have been wondering who this character was, since forever. He came about in that godawful era with Cardiac, Solo, and Chance. I could never remember his name though; I kept thinking it was "Bloodsomething."

2. I enjoy reading about people's creative processes and insights. So, thanks!

Bram said...

Thanks for the insight and look behind the scenes.

Mostly … oh, that's who that character was.

Nate Fancher said...

PS: By all means, feel free to discuss Warrant in an upcoming article.

Eric Meaders said...

Very interesting read (although they always are). I've often thought the proactive retcon to be simple laziness in the hands of an unskilled writer. Thinking about how the character fits the milieu and speculating about the creator's intent can be a lot of fun. Not sure why, but this peek into the process has been one of my favorite articles. Thanks for years of entertainment! I'm looking forward to receiving my copy of the book from Amazon soon.

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