Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.

Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated.  He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.

Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer.  But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.

Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.

In a 2014 interview with 13th Dimension, O’Neil explained that Leslie was inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs.  Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.

This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway.  It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.

Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books).  Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy.  She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.

In a 2017 interview with Pop Mythology writer / artist Howard Chaykin had this to say about Batman:

“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”

O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person.  He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character.  As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly.  However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories.  Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.

O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman.  Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.

Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger.  However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think.  It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series.  Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.

Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael.  I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”

O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series.  Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest.  As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.

Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Zardoz: a Metaphor for America in 2020

Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, glancing through social media in my spare time, the mind wanders, and you start to think about things, make connections you might not have previously made.

 In 1974 a very strange science fiction movie titled Zardoz was released.  It was directed by John Boorman, and starred Sean Conney & Charlotte Rampling.  Spotting a photo on my Facebook feed of someone’s kid cosplaying as Conney’s character complete with an accompanying Zardoz prop head (yes really) got the wheels turning.  It suddenly occurred to me that Zardoz is actually an extremely accurate commentary on 21st Century America.

Here is a bare-bones description of the movie’s set-up…

In a post-apocalyptic future the Eternals, a group of wealthy, powerful elites ensconced in their remote luxurious estate, create a fake god with which to control the rest of the population, who are known as the Brutals. This deity, Zardoz, looks like a fearsome giant flying stone head.  It spreads the message to the masses that sex is evil and killing is good.  Zardoz commands a group of Brutals known as the Exterminators to give to it all of the food they have collected.  In exchange for this food Zardoz provides the Exterminators with an unlimited supply of firearms which they use to terrorize & subjugate the rest of the population.  Zardoz promises the Exterminators that when they die they will be transported to a heavenly Vortex and live forever.

zardoz

And, really, when I see all of these supposed “protestors” armed to the teeth storming state capitols demanding an end to the shutdown, they seem hell of a lot like the Exterminators.  In spite of their supposed “populist” message they are actually serving the wealthy elites who want to reopen the economy at any cost in order to maximize their profits.  These “protestors” are totally willing to sacrifice themselves, their families, their neighbors, and everyone else on the twin alters of unregulated capitalism and Christian fundamentalism, just so long as long as they can have all the guns they want and lord it over the rest of the working class, along with the promise that when they die White Heterosexual Republican Jesus will greet them in Heaven with open arms.

Of course Zardoz can be read as a warning about any sort of blind, unquestioning religious faith that asks you to sacrifice both your livelihoods and your lives to a god and its supposed human representatives.  Nevertheless, the movie feels especially on-target for what is taking place right at this very moment here in the United States.  So I guess John Boorman is actually a prophet.

It’s worth pointing out that the name Zardoz is an in-story clue that this supposed deity is actually a fake, a sham.  We eventually learn that “Zardoz” is short for “Wizard of Oz.”  I just wish more people would heed the movie’s warning.  Please, please DO pay attention to the man behind the curtain.  The great and powerful “god” is really an all-too-mortal charlatan.

Double the Dystopia for your Social Distancing

This morning on I posted the following on Facebook:

Okay, folks, help me out here. Which early 1970s dystopian sci-fi movie starring Charlton Heston should I be viewing while practicing social distancing from the coronavirus? Should I watch The Omega Man (1971) which sees a pandemic transform the world’s entire population into a horde of vampiric zombies? Or should I watch Soylent Green (1973) in which massive overpopulation and climate change threaten humanity with extinction, and the sheltered ultra-wealthy elites are preparing to screw over everyone else to ensure their own survival?

Charlton Heston dystopia

I was mostly joking / being sarcastic, but several people responded with serious recommendations of which movie was better.  So I then offered the following clarification:

Seriously, I cannot believe we ended up living in a timeline where The Omega Man and Soylent Green are taking place AT THE EXACT SAME TIME!  All we need now is for talking apes to show up to complete the Charlton Heston dystopian trifecta!

Comic book artist Roy Richardson responded to this by asking “Trump’s not a talking ape?”  I told him “That’s an insult to talking apes.”

However, thinking about it, Donald Trump does have at least two things in common with Doctor Zaius from Planet of the Apes, specifically a bright orange complexion and a severe aversion to the truth.

trump and doctor zaius

For those of you who think I am making light of the current crisis, well, as the saying goes, if I wasn’t laughing I’d be crying.

Seriously, words cannot describe my absolute disgust at how Trump has so utterly botched the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Yes, even with genuinely competent, intelligent leadership in place this would still have been a serious crisis.  But Trump, with his arrogance and greed and selfishness and petty jealousy, has made a bad situation much, much worse.

My abhorrence certainly extends to the Republican Party that for the last three and a half years has protected & enabled Trump’s nightmarish behavior, all the while taking each & every opportunity to line their own pockets at the expense of the people who they are supposed to be representing.  I hope there will one day come a severe reckoning for all these crooks, cowards and traitors.

So here we are, stuck in a world right out of various dystopian, apocalyptic works of fiction.  Where do we go from here?  Well, as I have said in the past, democracy is not a spectator sport.  We need to vote, we need to call our representatives and remind them of exactly who they are supposed to be working for, and once we can get back in the streets we need to protest.

voting is a bus

Some liberals and progressives have decried the mantra “Vote blue, no matter who.”  They claim there is little to no difference between moderate Democrats and the Republicans.  The thing that needs to be recognized is that real, lasting change does not occur overnight.  It does not happen in just one single election.  Sometimes it requires long, difficult years to achieve progress.  It took women decades of struggle to gain the right to vote.  African Americans have been fighting against racism, segregation and white supremacy for over two centuries.

Right now we are teetering on the edge of dictatorship.  We need to pull the country back from the abyss before we can even hope to successfully advance a progressive agenda.

To do that we need to all work together.  We can figure out how & when to put programs such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and all of that into effect after we save the country from irrevocably transforming into a fascist corporate-run religious theocracy.

I normally do not veer into such gravely serious territory on this blog.  However, this time I felt compelled to do so.  I just hope that the current crisis will finally serve as a wake-up call.

Because, good lord, if the world is going to resemble a science fiction franchise, I want it to be Star Trek and not The Hunger Games.

Donald Trump under the microscope

Donald Trump is an idiot.

Yes, of course that’s obvious. He has always been an idiot. Anyone who lived in New York and witnessed his revolting activities over the past four decades could have told you that. And, believe me, we did try to tell you. Really, we did.

But it takes a very special kind of stupidity to land yourself in this kind of mess.

Yesterday the Chicago Tribune reported that “Two years after Donald Trump won the presidency, nearly every organization he has led in the past decade is under investigation.”

Trump is under siege from all sides, his every action, his entire history being vigorously dissected by Special Counsel Robert Muller, by numerous other investigations, by the incoming Democratic majority of the House of Representatives, and by the press.  As the pressure continues to mount his sycophantic followers are at last beginning to jump ship in order to save their own skins.

Trump could have, should have seen this coming way back in 2015.  But no, as always, he just had to be the center of attention. He just had to run for President, consequences be damned.

donald-trump-election-caricature

I don’t know if Trump actually wanted to win. More likely, as others have reported, he never expected to win, and he believed that his candidacy would give him a massive public profile on the far right, and that when he lost he could claim he was cheated, and then parlay all of the attention & anger he had cultivated during his campaign into a highly successful ultra-conservative “news” channel where he could spend the next four years criticizing “Crooked Hillary” and boldly claiming that if he was President he would be doing a much better job.

Whatever the case, it really demonstrates a grotesque combination of arrogance, stupidity, and short-sightedness for someone with as many skeletons in his closet as Trump, as many blatantly illegal actions & associations in his past, to seek out the most high-profile, critically scrutinized position on the planet. It’s astonishing that he could not foresee that this would lead to every single one of his dirty little secrets being examined under the microscope, which is exactly what is now occurring.

It would almost be amusing, if it was not for the horrible damage that Trump has already inflicted on this country, and the further harm he is certain to cause now that he is the equivalent of a rabid animal cornered by his pursuers, violently lashing out at everything around him.

Certainly it amply demonstrates the ideological rot, the sheer naked lust for power, the wholesale embracing of racism and misogyny and homophobia and religious fanaticism and anti-intellectualism and runaway greed, and the abandonment of any interest in the democratic process that has steadily consumed the Republican Party over the past half century, that they could foresee what an utter inevitable train wreck Trump would be, but they nevertheless embraced, and then attempted to shield from justice, a narcissistic, sociopathic con artist in order to ensure their own personal short-term gain.

I hope that Trump finally lays bare for everyone to see the festering disease at the heart of the Republicans, that his downfall at long last serves as the bullet to finally put down the monstrosity the GOP has become.

I also pray that Trump has finally served as the wake-up call for America to at long last acknowledge the pervasive racism and misogyny that pervades our society, the sick worship of wealth & fame, the rejection of reason and science that has taken hold of a good portion of this country’s population.  Trump’s election is but a symptom, and unless we confront the causes, there will inevitably be many more like him.

It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!

Comic book reviews: X-Men Black – Magneto

What if Magneto was right all along?

Magneto, mutant master of magnetism, has been a central figure of the X-Men mythos since the very beginning. Frequently an adversary, but sometimes an ally, Magneto is a figure who has often found himself in the grey area between villain and hero, terrorist and freedom-fighter.

Initially conceived in the early 1960s as a one-dimensional megalomaniac determined to conquer the world in the name of mutant-kind, Magneto was later re-conceptualized by writer Chris Claremont.

It was revealed by Claremont that Magneto was a Jew from Eastern Europe who spent his childhood imprisoned in the living hell of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Having seen his family murdered by the Nazis, and subsequently experiencing further discrimination after World War II ended, Magneto became convinced that humanity would never be able to accept the emerging mutant race.  Magneto was certain that another Holocaust was inevitable, this time with mutants facing extermination.  Resolving to never again be a victim, Magneto believed that the only way to prevent a mutant genocide was to preemptively conquer the world, to crush humanity before they could attempt to wipe out mutants.

X-Men Black Magneto cover

Claremont, the co-architect of many classic X-Men storylines, returns to Magneto in the new special X-Men: Black – Magneto.  “The Stars, Our Destination?” is penciled by Dalibor Talajic, inked by Roberto Poggi & Belardino Brabo, lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna, and colored by Dono Sanchez-Almara.  The cover artwork is by J. Scott Campbell & Sabine Rich.

As the story opens, Magneto is in his civilian guise of “Erik,” sitting in a café near San Fernando TX, drawing in his sketchbook.  The waitress, a teenage African American named Kate, comes over to talk to him.  The two converse, and Kate explains that her family has owned the café for generations.  Her family also has a long tradition of military service; Kate’s mother tragically was killed while deployed overseas.

Their conversation is interrupted by a television news report that the government’s Office of National Emergency has opened a “detention center” outside of San Fernando to house mutant children who “are being detained for their own safety, as well as the security of the general public.”

Magneto is, of course, aghast, immediately seeing parallels to his own childhood imprisonment in Auschwitz.  He is further disturbed by the reactions of the café’s other patrons, who vocally approve of the government’s actions.

Kate is the only one present who perceives the terrible injustice in imprisoning children who have committed no crimes, arguing “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!”  Unfortunately her protests fall upon deaf ears, with one customer angrily snarling “How can liberals be so stupid?” and another arguing “They’re talking civil rights, we’re talking the survival of the human race!”

Magneto, seeing how ugly the mood in the café has become, excuses himself.  Kate follows him outside to apologize for how the customers treated him, and she accidentally observes him beginning to use his mutant powers.  She isn’t afraid, though, and Magneto tells her “Today, child, I’ll wager you’ve made your mother proud. Never lose those ideals, Kate.”

X-Men Black Magneto pg 6

After a brief stop at his orbiting asteroid base, Magneto returns to Earth, where he approaches the Detention Center.  He is quickly attacked by ONE forces, including a woman in Sentinel armor.  Although briefly caught off-guard, Magneto soon gains the upper hand.  Using his powers, he destroys all of their weapons.  However, in an act of mercy, as well as so they will pass along his message, Magneto does not kill any of the government agents.

Magneto frees the children in the Detention Center, offering them sanctuary on Asteroid M.  The children ask if their parents and families will also be coming, and Magneto has no answer.  One of the children then tells him that they cannot run away, that they need to stay, to fight for the principles the country was founded upon.

Sad, but understanding, Magneto uses his powers to destroy the Detention Center and spirit the children away from the authorities.  Before he leaves, he addresses the prison officials:

“Your actions betray the bedrock ideals of your nation. You should be ashamed. Mutants are not your enemies. They are your friends, your neighbors, your family… Act as oppressors, you’ll be treated like them.”

Regrettably his words fall on deaf ears.  The ONE agents, completely disregarding Magneto’s act of mercy in sparing their lives, instead resolve to fight that much harder to kill him next time, genuinely believing that they are humanity’s first line of defense against extinction.

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In the past I have written about Magneto on this blog.  I have expressed the opinion that he is a man who let his childhood traumas and fears completely warp his thinking.  He is so terrified of another Holocaust occurring that he has become the very thing he despises.  As I saw it, Magneto’s good intentions had paved the road into his own personal hell.

But was I wrong?  Was Magneto right?  The events of the last several years have led me to question my certainty.  Chris Claremont’s story has given focus to my doubts.

Reading the X-Men comic books in the 1980s and 90s, I recall thinking that the anti-mutant racism and hysteria shown in the Marvel universe was depicted in a very overblown manner.  It seemed exaggerated and unrealistic, in comparison to our own real world.

Growing up in the 1980s, I believed that racism was mostly a thing of the past.  Yes, I acknowledged that there were still bigots out there, but I thought that they were now the exception rather than the rule.  I believed that so many advances towards equality were being made, that most people in this country had moved beyond racism… or maybe I should say that is what I wanted to believe.

As a middle class white male in suburban New York it was all too easy for me to ignore the widespread, institutionalized racism that still existed in the United States.  It was foolish and naive of me to believe that a nation that was founded upon the genocide of Native Americans and the brutal enslavement of blacks, a country that after the Civil War saw African Americans subjected to nearly a century of segregation and violent oppression, could completely turn away from racism & intolerance in just a few short decades.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 9

It took the events of the last ten years to finally open my eyes.  The election of Barack Obama to President brought to the surface all of the bigotry that had gone underground over the previous 40 years, but which had been quietly, persistently simmering just out of sight.  The idea that a black man was now occupying the Oval Office resulted in an eruption of vile, paranoid hatred, in the peddling of insane conspiracy theories and cries that the “white race” was in danger of extinction.  The Republicans were more than happy to cynically exploit the racism of their base, utilizing that blind hatred to obstruct Obama and the Democrats at each & every turn.

And then came Donald Trump, who wholeheartedly embraced the racist fear & anger of America, riding it straight into the White House.  Trump, a racist and misogynist who praises neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  Trump, whose administration is engaged in ongoing attacks on the rights of blacks and women and Muslims and the LGBT community and civil liberties and science and rational thinking.  Trump, who has separated thousands of children from their parents, and who has put those innocent children in cages, to the enthusiastic approval & applause of his many followers, who hate anyone who is different from them.

The idea that Magneto was wrong is predicated on the idea that another Holocaust would not, could not occur here in the United States.  However, the last several years have demonstrated that the institutions of democracy & liberty in our country are alarmingly fragile, and that we could very easily follow the evil path that Nazi Germany took 80 years ago.  Some would say that is exactly what we are doing right now, and perhaps they are correct.

And if that is the case, perhaps Magneto was right, and Professor Xavier was wrong.  Perhaps peaceful coexistence is not possible, simply because there are too many willfully ignorant, hateful bigots in this world, people who will not be swayed by appeals to reason or pleas for empathy, people who will happily see their neighbors sent to the death camps.  If that is so, then a man such as Magneto, for all his flaws and zealotry, might actually be a necessity.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 20

In any case, X-Men: Black – Magneto is an effective utilization by Chris Claremont of real-world contemporary issues to tell a compelling comic book story.  To anyone who wants to argue that in the past comic books were not political, Exhibit A for the defense could be Claremont’s original 17 year run on X-Men, which was frequently political, with mutant-kind serving as an allegory for any number of persecuted minorities.

Marvel Comics has been very reluctant to openly address Trump and his followers in their stories.  I am not surprised, given that Marvel is now owned by Disney, which has always endeavored to avoid controversy.  Certainly the recent firings of James Gunn and Chuck Wendig, both of whom have been extremely vocal in their criticisms of Trump on social media, demonstrates that Disney has no desire to overtly wade into politics.

Under those circumstances, the allegorical approach favored by Claremont is probably the best, at least if one is writing at Marvel, or DC Comics for that matter.  I have often commented that science fiction is an effective vehicle for addressing contemporary political & social issues, because the genre enables writers to utilize analogues for real-world controversies.  Claremont is certainly adept at this.  If he submitted a plot concerning the government putting young Hispanic children in cages it would undoubtedly be rejected flat by Marvel.  Instead he writes about a fictional government agency imprisoning mutant children, but it is very obvious what he is really talking about.

If there is one message that we can take from X-Men: Black – Magneto, it is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  Democracy is not easy.  It requires active participation from its citizens.  We must vote in every election.  We must contact our government representatives to let them know how we want them to act.  Like both Magneto and Kate, we must loudly, angrily protest whenever injustice occurs.  If we do not, our freedoms will certainly be taken from us.

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

American Flagg house ad

American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

American Flagg 11 cover

Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

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In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

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Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

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It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

American Flagg 1 pg 17

Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

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Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.

Tony Isabella returns to Black Lightning with “Cold Dead Hands”

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.” – Rod Serling

I am very pleased to see writer Tony Isabella back on his signature creation, Black Lightning.  Jefferson Pierce, schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, was the first African American character to headline a solo book published by DC Comics.  Isabella previously chronicled Black Lightning’s adventures in the late 1970s, and again in the mid 1990s.  This new six issue miniseries Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is the first opportunity Isabella has had to return to Jefferson Pierce’s world in 20 years.  It was well worth the wait.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is actually something of a reboot to the character’s mythos.  All of the reality-altering events to have taken place in the DCU over the past two decades have provided Isabella with a chance to give Black Lightning a bit of a fresh start, keeping some elements of Jeff’s back story intact, revising and/or jettisoning others.

Jeff, as seen in Cold Dead Hands, has been a costumed hero for only a few years.  He is relatively young, and still single. Jeff is teaching at John Malvin High School, located in a predominantly black area of his hometown Cleveland.  An idealist who wants to make a genuine difference in his community, Jeff has made it his mission to help his teenage students achieve not just an education, but to also set aside hate & violence.

Jeff also works closely with Detective Tommi Colvalito, who he has known since they were children, and who he fondly refers to as “my sister from another mister.”  I was appreciative of the fact that Isabella established right off the bat that Tommi knows that Jeff is Black Lightning, avoiding the clichéd scenario of a hero’s close friend unknowingly pursuing them in their costumed identity.

The story opens shortly after the death of Jeff’s father, a veteran journalist.  Jeff has scarcely had an opportunity to mourn his father’s passing when a violent crime spree begins to engulf Cleveland.  Gangs armed with high-tech weapons are carrying out hold-ups across the city.

Jeff in his guise of Black Lightning attempts to stop this rash of robberies, a task made more difficult by the racial tensions inflaming the city, and by the fact that certain members of the police department resent that a black vigilante is, in their minds, upstaging them.  Matters are made even worse when Black Lightning is framed for murder by Tobias Whale, the mysterious crime lord responsible for arming the gangs.

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In Black Lightning volume two, Isabella had Jeff describe Tobias Whale as “the single most evil human being I’ve ever known… an insidious and ruthless predator.”  Those remain the defining characteristics of the Whale in this new continuity.  Having scoured the country for technology left over in the wake of various failed alien invasions, the Whale has had his technicians reverse engineer the recovered artifacts, producing a lethal arsenal of “sci-fi guns.”

Tobias Whale is a monster obsessed solely with the acquisition of wealth and power.  He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even the members of his own family, to achieve his dreams of avarice.  Tobias explains to Black Lighting his vicious plan to flood first the city, and then the entire country, with the alien weapons…

“The frightened citizens will want to arm themselves against these guns, legally or otherwise. The NRA will demand the guns be available to all, and their toadies in Congress will agree. The gun manufacturers will spend millions, maybe billions, to make that happen. Eventually a great many of those millions will make their way to me. Once I lease my designs to those gun manufacturers, I will become richer and more powerful than entire nations.”

In addition to utilizing this miniseries to touch upon the epidemic of gun violence in America, Isabella also casts his gaze at the tragic rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, something that I do not believe has been examined anywhere near as closely as it ought to be.

As a white male, I cannot imagine what it is to be black in this country.  I simply cannot know what it must be like as a black man to walk down the street, knowing that any minute you might get shot and killed by a cop because you happened to be holding a wallet, or a cell phone, or a metal pipe, in your hands that was somehow mistaken for a gun, or because you were wearing a hoodie, or because you were moving in a “furtive” manner, and so on.  And I cannot conceive of the outrage and disgust that a black person must feel, witnessing again and again and again cops who have shot and killed unarmed black men getting off with, at most, a slap on the wrist.

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Isabella is very concerned with the toxic effects of fear and bigotry on people, and upon society as a whole.  Us versus them, white versus black, cop versus civilian… fear plays a significant role in all of these exchanges.  And of course there will always be individuals such as Tobias Whale who will take every opportunity to fuel and exploit those fears for their own personal benefit.

The classic The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is alluded to throughout this miniseries, with Jeff’s class staging a school play which is a thinly-veiled version of Rod Serling’s story.  At one point Assistant Principal Lynn Stewart tells Jeff that that another teacher has disparagingly referred to the school play as “SJW Theater,” and I chuckled.

Despite the manner in which some comic book fans have recently utilized the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative, the fact remains that for much of the history of comic books numerous creators have utilized the medium to advocate for progressive causes, and to rail against injustice.  Isabella has certainly been doing that for his entire career, and via his invocation of The Twilight Zone reminds us that Rod Serling was also doing so in one of the most popular television series of the 1960s.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very political work, blunt and honest in its addressing of the issues and crises of racism, gun violence, and the unchecked excesses of the police.  I am appreciative of the fact that DC Comics gave Isabella carte blanche to write about these controversial issues.

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The main artist on Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is Clayton Henry.  He does good, solid work.  It is flashy, but at the same time solidly rendered.  I previously enjoyed Henry’s work on various titles for Marvel over the past decade and a half, so it’s nice to see him teamed with Isabella on this miniseries.

Also contributing to Cold Dead Hands is the underrated Yvel Guichet, who is the co-artist on issue #s 4-6.  Guichet is an underrated artist who has been in the biz since the early 1990s.  I fondly recall his early work for Valiant, and I’ve also enjoyed his more recent assignments at DC.

Additionally, the talented Ken Lashley drew the cover for issue #5, as well as a variant cover for the first issue.  Mark Morales inks Henry’s covers for #1, #2 and #4.

I think it’s worth noting that Isabella, the creator of the Black Lightning character, is white, but he has often worked with black artists.  That is especially the case on Black Lightning.  Trevor Von Eeden (the penciler on the original series), Eddy Newell (the artist on volume two), Clayton Henry, Yvel Guichet and Ken Lashley are all black.  Isabella has always strived to make Jefferson Pierce an authentically African-American character, and I think it’s wonderful that a significant part of that has involved collaborating with artists of color.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 5 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very effective miniseries, with passionate and insightful writing from Tony Isabella.  He does a fine job both in developing his characters and in broaching important issues facing American society.  His writing is complemented by dynamic work from talented artists.

I hope that Isabella will once again have an opportunity to return to Jefferson Piece in the near future, either to recount his continuing adventures, or to explore his origins in this new continuity.

April 30th Update: It was great meeting Tony Isabella yesterday at the East Coast Comicon at the Meadowlands Exhibition Center.  Of course I asked him to autograph my copy of Cold Dead Hands #1. I recommend checking out Isabella’s most recent Bloggy Thing installment for some behind-the-scenes info on the miniseries.

Baby Boomers and the Bomb

In the last several years there has been much examination of the role that Baby Boomers played in shaping the dysfunctional America of the 21st Century.  I think at long last I have finally wrapped my head around an aspect of the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation that led to the creation of the screwed-up world we are living in today.  I actually owe this to comic book  writer Alan Moore.  The blog Dork Forty is examining Moore’s proposal to DC Comics in 1987 for a dystopian saga, Twilight of the Superheroes.

In his proposal, Moore wrote…

“What I want to show is a world which, having lived through the terrors of the Fifties through the early Nineties with overhanging terror of a nuclear Armageddon that seemed inevitable at the time, has found itself faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud or nine hundred.”

Previously I have had a great deal of trouble understanding how the Baby Boomers could go so wrong.  How could a generation that grew up in one of the most economically prosperous, technologically advanced eras to ever exist go on to tank the economy, become violently anti-science, ignore inconvenient facts like climate change and elect politicians who severely destabilized the institutions of this country, threatening the prospects of numerous future generations, all for short-term economic gains?

I have heard it suggested that because Baby Boomers grew up in a time of prosperity and growth, with no financial hardship, no Great Depression or mass-unemployment, they developed the assumption that things would always be that way.  I think that definitely played a role.

However, the Cold War also undoubtedly also played a major part in shaping the self-centered, sort-sighted psyche of the Baby Boomers.  As Moore observes, for a period of several decades, between the 1950 and the 1980s, the possibility of nuclear war was very real.

mushroom cloud

So on one hand you have a generation that were basically handed everything on a silver platter, benefitting from previously-unseen levels of economic growth and technological advancement, living lives of comfort and affluence previously unknown to most of people in the world.  On the other hand, that same generation grew up being reminded on a daily basis that any minute those dirty Commies might drop the Bomb on us, kicking off a nuclear war and wiping out all life on Earth.

In a way, it is not too surprising that so many Baby Boomers went on to live selfish, self-centered, me-first existences, making no allowances for others, or for the long-term future of the country and the planet, because on some level they probably did not expect there to be a future.  This is a generation that lived each day as if it was their last because they genuinely believed it could be the last, that any minute civilization could end.  Now all these years later they are unable to escape that fatalistic mindset, to wrap their collective heads around the possibility that humanity could conceivably have a future.

I wonder if that is why so many older voters who voted for Donald Trump are perfectly fine with him playing chicken with North Korea.  Maybe the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse is something they lived with for so long during their formative years that it actually now seems much more palatable than facing the difficult work of actually having to deal with complex, long-term crises such as climate change, rapidly-changing job markets, and wealth inequality.

I do realize that there is more to this issue than just Cold War psychology.  I am also leaving out the existence of racism in America, which has warped the thinking of a great deal of the populace for many decades.  As well, there are the issues of an increasingly multicultural society and the fight for women and the LGBT community to gain equal rights.  Certainly, we cannot overlook the tendency of many people to want to find simple answers to complex solutions, and to look for scapegoats for society’s problems.

For all I know I could be completely wrong on this issue.  I just thought it was worth pondering.  Feel free to let me know what you think.