Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comics that time (mostly) forgot

There are thousands of comics produced every year - hundreds of different titles from dozens of publishers. Some of them fall through the cracks of comic’s collective consciousness, some of them were once hailed and are now barely remembered.

Somebody cares about all these comics. There are comic readers who can swear that the weekly version of Action Comics from the late eighties is a genuinely enjoyable comic, and I know somebody who thinks the Nightbreed comic published by Epic is the greatest comic ever created.

I care about some of them. My interest in superhero comics peaked sometime between 1988 and 1999, and there are some comics from those periods that nobody talks about any more, and I think they can use all the love they can get.



Vext was an astoundingly silly comic from Keith Giffen and Mike McKone that lasted for six whole months in 1999. Giffen’s silliest comics are always taken out behind the chemical sheds after less than a year, and Vext is no different. Part of a mini-wave of genuinely interesting super-heroish titles DC debuted in the very late nineties, Vext didn’t even last as long as Chase or Chronos or Hourman or Major Bummer, and is the least well-remembered of that crop.

It’s a comic that doesn’t go anywhere, but that’s the whole point. Vext is an unemployed god of misfortune, dumped into the DC Universe at the turn of the century. Pitched somewhere in the vast comic wilderness between Giffen’s Justice League work and his Ambush Bug misadventures, Vext features super-heroes standing around looking vaguely awkward, a patron deity of ill-timed flatulence and the issue-long adventures of the Strepto-Commandos of Company Q.

There are whole issues where nothing really happens, which give the impression that Giffen has just sat through an eight-hour Seinfeld marathon, and huge amounts of exposition dumped out in a comedy dialogue. But it also has McKone’s art at his very slickest – and he can do slick. He also does some good exasperation (and there is a lot of that in Vext), and the briefest bursts of action don’t gt in the way of his comic timing.

Vext was also a very traditional title in some senses - it has supervillians who are almost always the cause of their own downfall, loads of plot exposition that doesn’t mean anything and the odd unexpected explosion.

But it also has several charming aspects – the lead character is affably clueless about the entire world, there is some general mockery of racial stereotypes and there is a bunch of story crammed into the whole thing.

A comic book about the god of misfortune was never going to last long, because the world isn’t quite that ironic yet. Frankly, it’s remarkable it lasted six issues, so I suppose we should be grateful for that much.



It’s slightly odd to think of the original Longshot limited series as forgotten – it was damn popular for a couple of years in the mid-eighties, with places like Mile High Comics charging upwards of $20 for a copy of the first issue as demand soared.

Most of this demand was fuelled by the fact that Longshot was Art Adam’s first major project, and his ability to use thousands of tiny scratchy lines to create ridiculous amounts of detail was eagerly devoured by comic readers, right from the start.

But within a few years, and after the character’s story was effectively all tied up with Jim Lee’s last issue of the X-Men, nobody really cared about Longshot anymore. Maybe it was his simple-minded (but never dumb) attitude, or his somewhat obtuse power, or the fact that any story since then has been another retread of Longshot v Mojo that doesn’t need to be told, or maybe it was just that bloody mullet. Nobody really cares about Longshot any more.

(Well, except for Peter David’s current X-Factor series, where the character has been making some interesting appearances, but we’re concerned with the past here.)

There was plenty more sublime Art Adams to get into after Longshot, from Gumby and Monkeybrain & O’Brien, all the way up to the recent Ultimate X, and that whole style that Adams pioneered (and subsequently evolved away from) in the Longshot comics doesn’t look so cool after two decades of pale imitations.

Once one of the hottest back issues on the market, Longshot is now more of an interesting curio – the debut of some truly original creators, a laudable attempt to bridge the gap between Marvel street level superheroes and the demand for a more mature level of storytelling (Longshot’s contemporaries were things like Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns and… er… Secret Wars II.)

It’s also a profoundly weird comic - dense dialogue and parts that are pure nightmare, spineless creatures building perfect beings with four fingers, and innocent stuntwomen strapped to the front of insane flying ships.

It does take place in the Marvel Universe, with She-Hulk, Doc strange and Spider-Man all showing up, but it’s far from the halls of the Baxter Building, and a long way from a perineal Westchester estate. This is a dirty and nasty corner of the Marvel Universe, with every speck of filth lovingly rendered by Adams. There are still kids playing space games, but also outright slavery, a malevolent little sidekick that turns into bloated, dangerous menace and a dead parrot.

Ann Nocenti’s script does overcook the story occasionally, but for a novice writer, it’s an assured, witty, moody and well-thought-out tale that didn’t feel like anything else on the stands at the time, and has only become more unique over the years, despite the pale imitations.

Nobody cares about Longshot anymore, but his debut series is a weird and wonderful book that shouldn’t be overlooked. Good luck with it.


Guice/Baker New Mutants

Bill Sienkiewicz left the New Mutants comic broken in the wake of his brilliance. It couldn’t go back to regular superhero art, not after all those remarkable things he had done, so the one 1980s Marvel comic that seemed pre-programmed for mediocrity continued to be an incredibly interesting book.

Around about the same time Ann Nocenti was doing terrific things with that Longshot book, she was also editing the New Mutants, and managed to keep the post-Sienkiewicz shock to a minimum. Chris Claremont’s scripts were some of his freewheeling eighties craziness, and while it all looks a bit dated now, it’s also packed with incident – the entire cast die, come back to life, go to Valhalla and are overcome by nerves at a local school dance. Anything could happen.

Fortunately, there was also terrific work by idiosyncratic artists like Steve Leialoha, Rick Leonardi and Mary Wilshire to ease the blow, before Jackson Guice became the regular penciller.

Guice’s art is classical superhero, and he often goes for big movements buried beneath a soft line. It can also be incredibly stiff, sometimes to a distracting degree (the JLA: Gates of Hell thing he did with Warren Ellis is the worst example of this stiffness). But he can also be the perfect artist for certain material, and his mid-eighties style was made for the New Mutants’ mix of mutant angst, teenage longing, metaphysical musing and goofy action scenes.

A lot of Guice’s work lives and dies on the strength of the inker, and it’s here that Guice’s art becomes something else. It helps that he had proven talents like Terry Austin and P Craig Russell pitching in to ink his pencils, but there are also half a dozen quietly extraordinary issues inked by Kyle Baker.

After work as diverse as the Cowboy Wally Show, Nat Turner, Plastic Man, King David, The Bakers, Baker’s brilliance is well known, but his inks on New Mutants are proto-Baker, and not even mentioned on his wiki page.

This was when he was learning his craft at Marvel under Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Larry Hama and Jim Shooter, hoovering up any advice he could get and churning out enough work to evolve his own style. The New Mutants comics are before his terrific work on the shadow, and just before Cowboy Wally, but his artistic signature is all over these six New Mutants comics between #40 and #47 in late 1986. It’s all over their faces.

Baker’s strength is in the expressions and emotions on his character’s faces, and this gives a vitality to Guice’s pencils that is often lacking. There are brooding eyebrows, delicate noses and a startling variety of lips. Baker’s early work is a direct descendant of the looser, more cartoony, style, but there is something affecting in the way he and Guice combine to convey super-teen angst.

The joy of these slightly clumsy New Mutants issues is that Guice and Baker are very different artists, but their styles unexpectedly meshed so well together here. Their careers both went off in separate direction, but these early comics of theirs are only gaining in fascination as the years pass by.


Anonymous said...

Nice article!

LC Douglass said...

Nice piece - thanks for taking me back to those days. I recently tried to sell some of my Longshot issues on ebay. It was hopeless.

Tam said...

I love pretty much everything Kyle Baker's ever done so might have to check them out, despite my dislike of mutants. Have you seen the one panel x-men gags he was doing at the same sort of time? If not,you can find them here

Carl Walker said...

Missed this post at the time, but believe it or not someone else was talking about Vext just a month prior!