This issue is a preview of the new J. Michael Straczynski/Chris Weston mini-series that will be released in early 2008. Well, preview might be the wrong word to use here. There’s a gallery of sketches by Weston of the new series’ characters, and a very short excerpt from the upcoming series. Those items do tantalize me – to want to pick up the new comic. But that’s not what makes me excited about this zero issue. The thing I loved about this comic are the reprints that are presented.
The Twelve are all revivals of old and obscure Timely/Marvel heroes of the 1940s. As is the case with most heroes of that era, the vast majority of those old stories seem impossibly dumb when read in 2007. The characters are absurdly shallow, their adventures simple-minded, and their designs seemed to change from story to story, if not from page to page. Early comic book stories were simple piecework, hackwork produced to make as fast a buck as possible. There was simply no time for artfulness at the rates that Timely paid; only the big stars like Carl Burgos, Bill Everett and the Simon/Kirby team were paid enough to even spend a moment plotting out their stories before drawing them.
The Twelve #0 contains three reprints of Golden Age stories, and all three are strange, surrealistic works. All three have an intense, unreal and improvisational feel to them.
The best of the three is the introduction of Rockman, Underground Secret Agent, from 1941. This story is illustrated by the great Basil Wolverton, an artist who would become famous later in life for his intense and grotesque artwork. In this early story, Wolverton is already showing his chops. Rockman is kind of a benevolent version of the Mole Man. He’s the “leader of the inhabitants of Abysmia, a strange, unknown, subterranean world deep in the Earth’s ancient, gas-formed caverns,” as one caption informs the readers. Rockman is a square-jawed strongman, a noble man from a strange underworld that Wolverton depicts in all its crazy glory. He’s also not above killing bad men in order to destroy criminals. In one memorable scene Rockman threatens to bury some criminals alive; two pages later Rockman allows another character to drown in a rushing river. It’s all primal stuff, youthful wish-fulfillment in its most abstract form.
These stories seem reflections of a world in flux. There’s a subcurrent in these three comics of a comics industry still struggling to find its way, like a new planet slowly cooling into its formal state.
If the Rockman story benefits tremendously from Basil Wolverton’s proto-grotesque art, the other two stories benefit from the crudity of their respective artists. Neither Maurice Gutwirth, who illustrates the Laughing Mask story, nor Sam Cooper, who illustrates the Phantom Reporter story, are well-remembered today. It’s obvious why the two men are so obscure. Both men produce artwork that is short on backgrounds and solid character drawing, but long on energy and enthusiasm. The artwork is very stiff, but occasionally the art seems, savant-like, to produce something transcendent. Page 15, for instance, shows a disembodied laughing mask terrorizing a group of gangsters. It’s reminiscent of the comics of Richard Sala in the way then panel is suffused by blacks and is so interesting at showing the terror of the gangsters. It’s effective the way that Gutworth shows all of the gangsters looking, in abject horror, in different directions in this full-page illustration, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this page was an accident, something produced in great haste and with little or no forethought.
The most interesting features of the Phantom Reporter strip for me were two things: the lettering, and the Phantom Reporter’s mask. I found myself fascinated by the uneven lettering in this comic. It looks as if the letterer was either intensely bored as he wrote out the words in this comic, or as if he had no time to complete this job. The words seem to pulse and move unpredictably in each panel; with their uneven size and style, the letters almost reflect the energy of the story itself. Meanwhile, the Phantom Reporter’s glowing eyes produce an oddly unsettling effect for me, mainly because I found myself fascinated by them. Why do the eyes glow? What would that glow look like for criminals? What would cause such an effect for the hero? Does this glow give him vision problems?
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the reprints in this comic. The JMS/Weston series might be Marvel’s version of Watchmen or it might be quickly forgotten, but it’s a wonderful joy to see these crazy original comics back in print. Your mileage may vary, but I was thrilled by how much I enjoyed those crazy old stories.