Comic Book Zeitgeist and Blackest Night

A column article by: Zack Davisson

Not to get all Britney Spears on you, but yeah..."Oops, I did it again."

It seems like any promise I make to myself regarding not buying comics never lasts too long. For example, after the confusing, disjointed and supremely disappointing quagmire that was Final Crisis, I made a solemn vow not participate in any future "Big Company Event." I certainly wasn't going to be suckered into Blackest Night.

I had been lured into the Final Crisis trap by the beautiful, candy-colored cover with Supergirl on Final Crisis #3, which then had me going back and picking up #1 and #2, then finishing of the series. I kept it lean though and shunned any of the massive selection of tie-ins and crossovers, sticking with just the main storyline. (OK, I lie. I picked up Final Crisis: Requiem too, because I have a soft spot for the Martian Manhunter. But that was it. I swear.)

The joke was that Final Crisis had no main storyline. Big Company Events like Final Crisis are marketing-driven, rather than creator-driven, and their sole purpose is to get readers to drop a few more hard-earned shekels on titles they wouldn't normally pick up. It's like buying a jigsaw puzzle, only you have to buy each individual piece separately, and you have no idea what the final picture is going to be when it is all assembled. Actually, it is worse than that because the art on a jigsaw puzzle has only one artist, and the jigsaw pieces in the Big Company Events are all done by different people, so that when all the pieces are assembled, they never line up quite right.

Even when they work, the stories rarely have any sort of long-term consequences. Hal Jordan's heroic self-sacrifice at the end of 1996s Final Night seemed a beautiful capstone to the Parallax storyline, but he was soon back as the Spectre in 1999, then fully-resurrected in 2004's Green Lantern: Rebirth. The earlier series might as well have not happened.

A lot of work (or cash) for very little reward.

So when Blackest Night was announced, I met it with a bored sigh. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Won't get fooled again. Keep calm and carry on. My money was staying in my wallet. Yeah, right.

To DC Comics, apparently I am just a fish swimming around in a pond. No matter how many times I refuse to bite, they just keep trying until they find the right lure. So when I saw a couple of gleaming items on the comic rack, they had me. My resolve not to buy vanished like Telford Porter, and I was up to the register and out the door with my new purchase without a second thought.

The numbering was what really hooked me. Starman #81 and The Power of Shazam #48: they had the audacity to continue the numbering from these beloved yet canceled series! What that meant, of course, was that if I didn't buy these two issues, then I would no longer have complete runs. And that would be unacceptable.

You see, Starman and The Power of Shazam were both brilliant series. Really, truly great American comics. They were the kind of comic-book goodness that comes along so rarely, requiring a perfect storm of creator passion, available characters, editorial support, and a few other esoteric elements that are impossible to define.

Whatever those elements are, there are certain periods of time when all of these required dominoes fall into place, and a surge of Comic Book Zeitgeist takes over, allowing some really fine funny books to be produced. In wine, it is what might be called a Vintage Year. In Vintage Years, the same soil and the same grapes miraculously give birth to something of superior quality. It is something that cannot be replicated or manipulated by human manufacturing.

Think about it. In May of 1979, Frank Miller's first issue of Daredevil hit the stands, while at the same time John Byrne was busy laying the fertile ground on X-Men that would continue to be plowed by lesser creators for decades to come. In the meantime, over on The Avengers, George Perez was finishing off "The Korvac Saga," which would become a defining point for the team. In another Vintage Year—1986, Alan Moore unveiled Watchmen at the same time that Miller was striking gold again with The Dark Knight Returns. Some of the best comics ever made, all hitting the stands at the same time.

Starman debuted in 1994 as an unlikely success story from another pointless Big Company Event, Zero Hour. The title Zero Hour might have been some sort of sad prophecy for 1994, because "zero" is just about the amount of success stories that came at the time. Along with seeing the death of the legendary Jack "King" Kirby, 1994 saw the crash of the speculation comic market, which put dozens of comic publishers out of business and the closed of two-thirds of all comic book retailers.

One of the tactics of that period for comics was the "bad-ass character revamp." A pretty simple rulebook was tightly followed: take a classic character with a recognizable name, and turn them into Wolverine (preferably with a tattoo and some form of facial hair). Thus the Golden Age magic-based hero Dr. Fate became the tattooed and goateed "Fate," wielding a giant sword forged from Dr. Fate's melted down golden helmet, and members of the UN-sanctioned Global Guardians became "Primal Force" dealing out elemental justice. Few of these series even lasted a year before being canceled.

In the same way that the beautiful lotus flower blooms from muddy swamps, a good Comic Book Zeitgeist seems to require proper compost from which to emerge. With all the crap being published in the 1990s, Starman creators James Robinson and Tony Harris and The Power of Shazam creator Jerry Ordway almost seemed to take it as a dare to produce something of quality.

Starman, which ran from 1994-2001 for a total of 80 issues, did an innovative twist on the "bad-ass character revamp." Introducing Jack Knight, the (tattooed and goateed) rebellious son of the Golden Age Starman, the main difference between Jack Knight and the big-knifed Fate was the level of respect given to the tradition and lineage of the Starman character. Jack Knight was the next chapter in a long story, adding to what was already there instead of wholesale destructionism.

This respect for tradition was also the foundation for The Power of Shazam, running from 1995 to 1999 for 47 issues. Unconnected to Zero Hour, the series also made its debut in 1994, as a one-shot painted hardcover graphic novel by Jerry Ordway. Once the most popular character in comics, Captain Marvel had proved difficult to update for modern sensibilities, and Roy Thomas' 1987 revamp Shazam! A New Beginning had disappeared without comment. Like Robinson and Harris did with Starman, Ordway decided to respect the Golden Age roots of the character rather than destroy them, and established a 1930s-influenced film noir style as Captain Marvel's world.

Admittedly the superior of the two series, Starman benefited from a close writer/artist relationship between Robinson and Harris. And while the Ordway written-and-drawn graphic novel The Power of Shazam is a masterpiece, the ongoing series was well-written but hurt by a rotating cast of artists who never quite seemed to get down the 1930s tone originally established by Ordway. Ordway still painted the phenomenal covers, but even with guest artists like Gil Kane and Curt Swan taking a turn, the overall effect was too disjointed and was a weak point in an otherwise terrific series.

What both series shared was that magical blend of history and modernism, of respect for tradition without being trapped by it. This sense of lineage is one of the unique aspects of American comics. You won't find it in Japanese comics. The link between Starman and The Power of Shazam was even acknowledged with a four-issue crossover in Starman #39 and #40 and The Power of Shazam #35 and #36; later, when Robinson did a one-shot for the Big Company Event Girlfrenzy, he depicted a battle between Mary Marvel and his Starman villain, The Mist. (This issue remains one of the best single-issue Mary Marvel stories, which just shows that even a Big Company Event can produce a bit of gold from time to time. Probably because that Comic Book Zeitgeist magic was still at work.)

So to make a short story long, that was the lure that DC finally caught me with, enticing me to pick up two issues of that latest Big Company Event, Blackest Night."

Fool me twice, shame on me.

Both of these Blackest Night tie-ins were huge disappointments and had none of the charm and quality that made the original series so great. They didn't even feature the same characters. The bigger disappointment was The Power of Shazam #48. Not only did the Marvel Family not actually make an appearance (except for a token panel), the creator of the original series, Jerry Ordway, wasn't even involved. The story instead followed the characters Osiris and Sobek, members of the Black Marvel Family from the series 52.

I have no beef with Osiris in general, and in 52, the kid had a nice story arc and wound up eaten by his own pet crocodile man. To tell the truth, the story wasn't so bad in and of itself, and maybe if it had been called Blackest Night Osiris #1, then it would have been an enjoyable little issue. But if you are going to title the issue The Power of Shazam #48, readers are going to expect some sort of attachment to the prior series.

Starman #81 was a little better. The original Starman writer, James Robinson, was at least brought back to write this one shot, and the issue DID, in fact, feature a Starman. Sure, not Jack Knight, not the Starman we all wanted to see, but instead his dead brother, David Knight. In a bit of a spit-in-the-face to what came before, Robinson has the now-evil David kill police officer Clarence O'Dare and do battle with The Shade. At the very least, one can say that the face-spitter Robinson was at least trashing his own series. Small consolation, but it is something.

There was a lot of potential here that was wasted. If you are going to release a one-shot that continues the numbering of a beloved, canceled series, why not do it right? Why not bring back Jerry Ordway to write and draw on last beautiful issue of The Power of Shazam? Why not reassemble the Harris/Robinson team for one last magnificent issue of Starman? Even with the continued numbering, these Blackest Night issues don't really deserve to be filed numerically with the rest of their venerable brethren.

And there it is. To anyone who made it this far, my advice is that your hard-earned shekels are better spent on buying old, good comics from a time when the Comic Book Zeitgeist was peaking and each page was pure joy, than to reinforce this kind of shameless marketing scam. Picking up these issues now only ensures more of the same further on.

As for me...Never Again! (Yeah, right...)

Most of the Starman series is available in the Starman Omnibus collected editions. The Power of Shazam has never been collected in trade form, and back-issues will have to be picked up the old-fashioned way.

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