In which the blogger offers up the first part of a baker's dozen of much-missed, cruelly cancelled superhero - or should that be superheroesque? - comic-books from the Big Two in the Seventies. Other publishers and genres will appear in a later list. For the sake of brevity, what follows doesn't include tenures which came to their intended close or interrupted runs by creative teams who were bumped from continuing titles. The list begins with the most recently-cancelled title, and ends with the most distant termination. There's no order of preference beyond that;
1. The Shadow, by Dennis O'Neal, Mike Kaluta, Frank Robbins et al, c 1975
of what made The Shadow such a compelling comic in the mid-seventies was the
relative lack of quality in the rest of DC's output. Debuting in late 1973 just as Marvel was beginning to lurch chaotically forward into its second great era, The Shadow was a rare example of an idiosyncratic and even innovative comic appearing in an ever-stagnating line of books from DC. The glory years of the likes
of the Fourth World titles and Green Lantern/Green Arrow were long
passed, and DC had slumped backwards into producing a slate of fundamentally conservative and unexciting books. With just a tiny number of truly excellent comics
rolling off its presses, mediocrity beckoned. Against such a
background, The Shadow shone out as the product of a quite distinct and therefore refreshingly unorthodox approach. Mike Kaluta's sumptuous, stylish evocation of the Thirties in particular gave the comic
the all-too-rare sense of an auteur's imprint. The brutally violent world of The Shadow was an odd arena for his often-wistfully nostalgic and glamorous work. Yet Conan's milieu had hardly seemed an appropriate vehicle for Barry Windsor-Smith's Art Nouveau-influenced style either. In both cases, something new and fascinating had been created through the fusion of what at-times seemed a fundamental clash between style and content. In collaboration with O'Neil's efficient if watered-down-for-the-Comics-Code scripts, Kaluta's artwork transformed The Shadow into an event rather than just another comicbook.
Sadly, in less than a year, the meticulous Kaluta
had left the comic. Although his replacement Frank Robbins produced some
wonderfully idiosyncratic art, the comic had lost the innovative spark
which it originally bore. Robbins' work carried an all-too-familiar and dated if beguiling style. Reaching back to the influence of Milton Canniff, his art ironically reflected a style from the era of The Shadow's heyday. Yet that inevitably seemed old-fashioned compared to the work of the eclectic generation of young Turks - including Kaluta - who briefly made their presence felt in the early-to-mid Seventies. As such, and for all its appropriateness, Robbins' artwork failed to suggest that some new fusion of illustrative delicacy and pulp-era sensibilities was being created. Though O'Neal's scripts remained as concise and respectful as before, The Shadow swiftly declined from an invigorating
book which suggested that comics could be both personal and surprising
to yet another competent, run-of-the-mill title.
2. The Fourth World Saga: Mister Miracle, The Forever People, The New Gods, , by Jack Kirby et al, c. 1972/2/4
history of the superhero comic is in so many ways the history of how
owners and editors have quashed the very best of the sub-genre for the most
stupid, short-sighted and often selfish of motives. There's obviously no better and
more tragic example of this than the cancellation of Jack Kirby's Fourth
World titles in 1972. (A denuded Mister Miracle struggled on into 1974,
but the comic had been essentially staked through the heart in the year in
which the line as a whole was cut. *1) It's one thing to possess
unfinished masterpieces by creators who sadly died before they could
complete them. Yet to recall that Kirby was still at the very height of
his powers when DC pulled the plug is to once more experience the same
old sense of profound loss. There is never a moment when DC's failure to
support Kirby's endeavours with the Fourth World becomes something
which can be, through familiarity and resignation, shrugged off. Only
Kirby himself could have known something of what he still had to add to this
particular corner of the DCU, but the fact of its curtailment is a
desperately sad one.
The many and varied elements of
the Fourth World went on to generate millions upon millions of dollars
worth of profit for DC. In comics and in merchandising, in cartoons and
TV series, Darkseid and his fellow members of the New Gods have proven
to be exceptionally lucrative properties. (When a Justice League movie
finally arises, it's hard to imagine that Darkseid will be absent from
it, just as its tough not to see the appearance of Thanos in The Avengers as something of a pre-emptive strike as well as a creative choice.) Kirby's work has paid for itself time and time and time again. What riches
DC might have reaped if the company had had the sense to swallow the
apparently relatively low sales of Kirby's
books in 1972! In the end, everyone lost beyond the beancounters taking comfort from the next quarter's returns, although Kirby, of course, lost most of all. Thankfully, what's left is, with the Ditko/Lee Amazing Spider-Man, still the absolute pinnacle of the superhero book.
But there could and should have been so much more of it.
A first attempt to bring back Mister Miracle in the last years of the
decade was also swiftly cancelled, despite fine stories from Englehart
and Gerber and beautiful artwork from Rogers and then Golden. That
reboot of the book could've been added to this list too.
3. Green Lantern, Green Arrow, by Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams, Dick Girodano et al, c. 1972
Green Lantern, Green Arrow is
all too often seen as nothing but an embarrassingly uber-Liberal
polemic, purple, obvious and patronising, Yet the truth is that there's
much to celebrate in the brief run of issues which the O'Neil, Adams and
Giordano team produced. Though there's no denying that there's more
than a suggestion of the pulpit to be found in most of these issues,
there's also a fierce sense of principle and commitment that's almost
entirely absent from the sub-genre in the don't-upset-the-applecart 21st
century. To come across a comic that was dedicated to discussing the
issues of the day through the sub-genre of the superhero is to be
suddenly reminded of how blandly disconnected from all but the most
general of political metaphors today's books mostly are.
also a great deal more to value in these issues than is typically credited. Few of the characters
of the day ever felt quite as real as did the cast of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.(Their
stereotypical politics did, after all, evoke a world in which most
folks' beliefs are exactly the same.) In showing the developing and yet
rarely entirely-frictionless friendship between Hal Jordan and Oliver
Queen, GL/GA injected a sense of volatility as well as intimacy to what
had previously been predictably wooden types. Similarly, the second-time-around romance between Jordan and an initially-wheelchair bound Carol Ferris was a heartfelt, moving business which few would associate with the comic today. And when aspects of the
fantastic were reintroduced into the world-outside-your-door
narratives, as in the reappearance of Black Hand or the feminist-tinged
fantasy of The Harpies Are Coming, something uniquely compelling
was created. Ironically enough, the super-heroics didn't overwhelm the
message of the month when the book's creators let them back onto the
page. Instead, they helped to balance out the admirable and yet often
wearing worthiness of the project.
For all that its
politics could be so sincerely and simplistically expressed as to be
cringe worthy, the causes that O'Neil and Adams focused on are still
every bit as relevant today. Drug abuse, racism, the destruction of the
environment, over-population, corporate greed, and rampant consumerism
were just some of the social problems which they discussed. In that if nothing
else, Green Lantern/Green Arrow still makes most of today's output appear at best ostrich-headed and at worst flat-out cowardly.
4. Aquaman, by Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo et al, c. 1971
The Skeates/Aparo Aquaman
succeeded in representing something of its time without abandoning
anything of the character's Silver Age set-up beyond the disappearance
of a few cute, telepathic undersea creatures. Indeed, a great deal of
the appeal of the last few years of the comic's existence came from the
juxtaposition of what was still a recognisably decent-hearted DC lead
with stories which contained aspects of social relevancy, traces of the counter-culture, and a playfully inventive approach at times to storytelling. Highlights of
the final year of the title included an ingenious crossover between a
Neal Adams' Deadman three-part back-up series and the title character's
own adventures, the bizarrely jarring scene of a drowning secretary in
"Is California Sinking?", and the shocking-in-its-day death of the
costumed vigilante The Crusader. Even the plot-threads which were left
unexplored when the comic was dropped with issue 56 were later tied up
in a Skeates-scripted edition of Marvel's Sub-Mariner, a quietly subversive touch which seems appropriate for a little-acknowledged and yet highly enjoyable and forward-looking superhero book.
5. X-Men, by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Tom Palmer et al, c.1970
cancelled by an impatient and ill-informed Martin Goodman, who didn't wait to discover
that the book was actually selling rather well, the loss of the Adams/Thomas
X-Men was just one more sign that Marvel was rolling further and further
back from the liveliness and innovation of its first few years.No matter what Stan Lee's peddler pitching might otherwise have declared, Marvel was in full retreat from the very unpredictable qualities of ambition and ingenuity which had made the company such a vital institution.
Adams and Thomas had taken one of least successful - both commercially
and artistically - of the initial wave of the company's superhero books
and made it the most compelling of Marvel's turn-of-the-decade output.
With the intense fusion of verisimilitude and dynamism that Adams'
comics-naturalism created, the X-Men suddenly seemed to be describing
something of the social tumult and uncertainty of the late-Sixties
Republic. Constantly threatened by the fracture lines in the mutant
community as much as by the bigots of the broader MU, this version of
the X-Men appeared to represent the counter-culture of the day and its
concern for difference and diversity far more than any previous take.
What Lee and Kirby and Ditko's work had been to the rest of the Silver
Age of the early Sixties, Adams and Thomas' X-Men was to the vast
majority of Marvel's comics as the soon-to-be-Kirbyless company limped into the Seventies. Though much of what artist/plotter and scripter did involved reworking
tropes from the very beginning of the title, their versions of the
Sentinels, the Savage Land and Magneto's Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants
have a considerable claim to being definitive.Concepts which even then
seemed predictable and timeworn were made to appear both entirely
convincing and often distinctly unsettling.
At the heart of the X-Men's appeal is the idea that they are coming in great numbers to get us because we're unfortunate enough to be different.
Few runs on the property have equalled this one in convincingly evoking
exactly that sense of a beleaguered, peripheralised and innocent
minority struggling to find a place for itself. The X-Men revival of four years hence, which would finally see the title rise to the status of line-leading title, couldn't have had a more solid and inspirational foundation to build from.
To be continued in the coming week. Before that, Saturday will see a very welcome guest blog from Martin Grey of the splendid TooDangerousForAGirl I hope you'll join me, and Martin, then.