Sunday, 23 September 2007

Five Superheroes since 1950

Over at the Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon asked on Friday for nominations for five good superheroes created since 1950 and not published by DC, Marvel or Image. Unfortunately, he wanted replies the same day, so I’m going to treat this as a meme instead.

1. Marvelman
Created by Mick Anglo for L Miller and Sons, 1954
Created anew by Alan Moore and Garry Leach for Warrior, Quality Communications, 1982

I admit to having only an historical interest in Mick Anglo’s original (if we can call a knock-off of Captain Marvel “original”). It was crude and ugly stuff even by the standards of its day, and even when drawn by future great Don Lawrence. Moore’s version was something else again, taking Nietzchean claims of transcending morality seriously, examining the social and political consequences of the übermensch, and doing it with meticulous story construction and genuinely literate, if still mannered, words. It didn’t hurt that Garry Leach’s artwork, at once penumbral and crackling with energy, mimetically realistic and convincingly other, made my teenage eyes pop. His successors – even John Totleben – never quite lived up to the start Leach gave the series. If you’ve only ever seen Eclipse’s crayoned-in colour reprint under the name Miracleman, you owe it to yourself to track down the black and white originals in Warrior. Copies are still available cheaply, I think.

Marvelman and its pseudonymous continuation by Eclipse spawned swarms of inferior imitators, who borrowed only the darkness and brutality. It also helped convince the comic industry that “superhero comics for adults” was not an oxymoron, leading to the current climate of rape and dismemberment at DC and clumsily obvious political allegory at Marvel. But to blame Marvelman for Penance, Tony Stark and Superboy-Prime would be unfair. Taken by itself, it is still one of the most interesting works in the genre.

2. Zenith
Created by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell for 2000AD, Fleetway Publications, 1987

In part, this was Morrison’s riposte to Marvelman. Here, the morally serious superhumans who want to reshape the world are the source of danger and disaster. It is Zenith, who just wants to be famous and get laid, and, above all, hippy-turned-Thatcherite Peter St John, who wants to accumulate conventional political power for himself, who emerge as the heroes, alongside brain-damaged robot Acid Archie.

Steve Yeowell has a following, but I'm not part of it, so the pleasure for me here is in Morrison’s writing. It is refreshing to find him treating sympathetically views about the benefits of self-interest more commonly associated with Samuel Johnson or Adam Smith, and indulging in nostalgia for old British comics rather than Silver Age americana, while already throwing out catherine-wheel sparks of mad science and narrative bravura.

3. Jack Staff
Created by Paul Grist for Dancing Elephant Press, 2000

And speaking of British comics nostalgia … In truth, I find Jack Staff the character one of the least interesting in Jack Staff the comic, but that is because it is overflowing with charming, compelling characters like Becky Burdock (Vampire Reporter), the staff of Q, Alfred Chinard and Bramble and Son. Grist draws his cast’s natures with the same deceptively simple elegance that he draws his pictures. Above all, his storytelling, integrating layout and narrative in complex, experimental ways that seem simple and natural when read, makes this not just one of the best superhero comics around, but one of the best comics, full stop. The frequent, smoothly integrated, appearance of characters drawn from 1960s and 1970s British comics and TV is just a particularly pleasing garnish for the ageing Brits among the readership.

Jack Staff is now published by Image, but wasn't created for them.

4. Fighting American
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Prize Group, 1954

Enough with these black-and-white Britons! It’s time for the superhero genre to return to the country of its origin and to its lifelong master and his principal accomplice. Again, Fighting American is a comic in which its lead character is the least interesting, overshadowed by the gallery of grotesques brought to life by Simon and Kirby, like Doubleheader, Hotski Trotsky, Poison Ivan and Rhode-Island Red. As political satire, this is little more than name-calling, but the stories burst with an energetic silliness. I have a very soft spot for the 1950s artwork of Kirby and his studio, which retains the smooth, heavy shading of the 1940s, but in service to more disciplined compositions. I gather that there were several Fighting American revivals by other hands in 1990s, but really, what’s the point of that? The value of the original is in the work of its creators and its response to the times.

5. The Incredibles
Created by Pixar Studios under the direction of Brad Bird for Disney, 2004

This entry is a cheat in two senses: it isn’t a comic, and it covers five superheroes, not one. But Pixar here demonstrated that animation could create cinematic superheroes who suffered from neither the ponderousness nor the camp foolishness that tend to afflict their live-action counterparts. The characters are charming, the story is funny, and you can amuse yourself with the paradox that an argument in favour of meritocratic elitism is being presented in the most lowbrow and populist of genres and media.

Pictures and panels
Marvelman “… A Dream of Flying” by Alan Moore (script) and Garry Leach (art), Warrior, Quality Communications, March 1982

Zenith “1. Dropping In” by Grant Morrison (script), Steve Yeowell (art) and Mark King (lettering), 2000AD prog 536, Fleetway Publications, 22 August 1987

Endpiece from Jack Staff: Yesterday’s Heroes by Paul Grist, Dancing Elephant Press, 2002

Fighting American issue 4 “Operation Wolf” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Prize Group, October-November 1954, reprinted in Fighting American, Marvel Comics, 1989

The Incredibles DVD sleeve by Pixar Studios, Disney, 2005

1 comment:

The Mutt said...

Once I saw The Incredibles, I had no interest in ever seeing a live-action superhero movie again.