On The Weird, by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson

The Weird #1The 1988 four-issue mini-series The Weird — written by Jim Starlin, with art by legendary comics artist Bernie Wrightson and inks by Dan Green — isn’t told from the Justice League’s point of view. Rather, they walk in and out of the story of the strange titular character. In terms of continuity, the story is set during Keith Giffen’s earliest, celebrated Justice League issues, but it shares almost nothing of Giffen’s humorous tone. Instead, its focus on the aliens the League encounters leads to a radical departure in its tone: while the story has the high stakes common to many super-hero stories, its focus is far more existential.  The closest parallel might be a Star Trek story told from the point of view of the godlike, nearly unfathomable alien featured in it.

The Weird also has the perfect creative team for such an offbeat tale.  Starlin, known for his cosmic characters, began his career at Marvel in the early 1970s, creating the death-loving alien Thanos and revamping Captain Marvel (the Marvel Comics character of that name, not the DC one mentioned elsewhere here).  He authored the early graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel, in which the titular hero dealt with his own mortality while dying not from some super-villain but from cancer.  Offbeat, cosmic, and existential stories were right up his alley.  Wrightson, who began his career at DC in the late 1960s, became a legend in comics illustration (and other forms of artwork) for his work on horror series, most prominently co-creating Swamp Thing and working on Warren Publishing’s horror magazines.  Besides being a master draftsman, his renderings perfectly suited the somewhat distorted, alien characters of The Weird.

The story, set almost entirely in Superman’s Metropolis, begins with a half-crystalline Jason Morgan in his apartment, performing what looks like a magical summoning.  A ball of energy emerges unexpectedly and departs; something has clearly gone wrong.  Superman encounters this ball, now in the form of a translucent ribbon (echoing string theory, perhaps).  The ribbon is so full of energy that just touching it sends Superman flying.  The Justice League joins him, and Captain Atom points out that this anomaly doesn’t seem to obey the laws of physics.  Prodding it too much produces an electromagnetic pulse that blacks out the entire city.  It then sends out tiny balls of energy, which prove intangible when Superman tries to grasp one.  One ball scans a genetic research lab’s computer.  The other, to our great surprise, enters a funeral parlor and causes the corpse to dematerialize, leaving the dead man’s widow and son in confusion.  When these balls return to the ribbon, it begins building a human body, layer by layer.  Finally, we see this new character, dressed in black and red cloth reminiscent of a ninja costume, with one eye bulging out of its socket.  Its first action, exhausted by birth, is to collapse unconscious.

Even at this point, halfway through issue #1 (Apr 1988), it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a normal super-hero story.  In fact, the story so far feels much more like conceptual science-fiction.  It’s also apparent how differently the story is paced:  each issue is granted 40 pages of story, and some 21 pages have already been consumed – and this, years before such “decompressed” techniques became commonplace in American comics.

The being’s unconsciousness allows Superman and the League to inspect the creature, soon dubbed the Weird.  Superman’s x-ray vision shows its organs still forming, but it also reveals a molecular instability, making the being a living atomic bomb on a magnitude that threatens the planet.  The Weird wakes and, looking at himself in a mirror, regrets the malformation of his eye.  He brushes off Batman’s concerns about molecular instability; he’s too busy, he says, and it would take too long to explain.  When the League tries to restrain him, he simply makes himself intangible.  When Guy Gardner traps him in a power-ring-generated force field, he builds up force that overloads the ring and dramatically blows out over the city from the skyscraper in which he was being examined.  A battle ensues, during which the Weird quickly incapacitates everyone but Batman, whom he escapes by drifting through walls, eerily peering through the side of a brick skyscraper.

While providing this issue with its requisite dose of super-hero action, this is still hardly typical.  Not only does the Weird make short work of the Justice League, using rather inventive tactics, but he seems profoundly alien and inscrutable.

The issue ends as the Weird proceeds to Jason Morgan’s apartment, but Morgan isn’t home. The Weird then visits the house of Walter Langley, the dead man whose corpse he stole, and he reveals himself to Billy, Walter’s son.

The Weird #1, page 38The Weird #2Issue #2 (May 1988) begins with Superman and the League talking to the press and deliberately not mentioning the Weird’s molecular instability.  Meanwhile, the Weird flies Billy to the beach, which his father always wanted to show him but never found the time to do so.  Billy calls the Weird “Dad” and seems overjoyed to have his father back, but the Weird explains that he only has the memories of Billy’s father.  The Weird demonstrates his powers for Billy and shows the boy the strange dimension the Weird came from.  It’s a highly abstract and immaterial place, where balls of energy called Macrolatts, powerful and ruthless, drain energy from a slave population, other balls of energy called Zarolatts, a process which kills them.  The Macrolatts, having discovered the material universe, work on a portal to enter it, intending to conquer it.  While certainly evil, the Macrolatts seem more motivated by alleviating their boredom.  They enlist Jason Morgan, whom they call “the Jason,” granting him powers and teaching him how to open the portal from the other side.  The Weird, then an incorporeal Zarolatt, observed all this: “I found material existence fascinating, but I was most impressed by certain intellectual concepts that are alien to my world” – most of all, freedom.  He thus dives through the finished portal, ahead of the Macrolatts, disrupting the portal.  On Earth, he found his new environment “alarming”:  according to the material laws of physics, his energy required a vessel.  Not wanting to displace a living being, he found Walter Langley’s corpse.

This is surely one of the most abstract origins ever given a super-human.  Depiction of such an abstract, immaterial reality is almost necessarily doomed to failure:  at one point, Wrightson indicates the Weird’s anxiety, while in his Zarolatt form, by having little globs of energy shoot off from the ball of energy, not unlike cartoon sweat.  But this is only a consequence of this sequence’s ambition.  Star Trek recognized the importance of depicting truly alien forms of life, but for all the immaterial beings of energy it featured, it never attempted such an extended vision of their reality.  In comics, this sequence would normally feature muscle-bound alien despots using energy-whips on big-eyed slaves.  The Weird has the courage to depict such abstract science-fiction, and it works surprisingly well, even if it still relies on the old, clichéd logic of inter-dimensional portals.

Returning Billy home, the Weird explains that he wanted to see the son he remembers before facing “the Jason.”  He pines for a life as simple as that of Walter Langley, who didn’t appreciate “all the wonders of his life” the way the Weird can.  He recalls how Walter enjoyed making ships in bottles, an act of creation the Weird could not have imagined before taking Walter’s body.  As the sun sets symbolically, the Weird explains in his stilted way that Walter “was neither a verbal nor a very demonstrative man” but that he loved his son, and the two embrace.  The Weird departs, and Billy, moved by this second chance at a farewell, goes back inside to look at his father’s bottled ships.

While it certainly borders on the syrupy, a son getting a second chance to say goodbye is still deeply resonant stuff – not exactly your average super-hero fare, especially in 1988.  What’s more, this isn’t his father’s ghost; everything is tinged by the knowledge that his father is indeed gone, and this is just someone with Walter’s memories, doing right by the son of the man whose corpse he stole.  The Weird’s appreciation of Walter’s life is thus a lot more justifiable:  this isn’t someone moved by his life flashing before his eyes but someone from a very alien, incorporeal environment, who can thus appreciate Walter’s life.  And lest we read some sappy metaphor for Heaven here, the Weird’s immaterial netherworld is defined by its own injustice, even more severe than that of Earth.

Meanwhile, Jason Morgan returns home.  In a remarkably dark sequence far more at home with the revisionist 1980s than Giffen’s Justice League, Jason says that he “love[s] those super-powers” for “what they let [him] do to the ladies.”  He expresses a fetish for long legs and has clearly killed a girl named Matilda Gatsby (aged 22), whose driver’s license he has kept, perhaps as a souvenir.  This kind of throwaway scene is exactly what caused some to recoil from revisionism, but it does hint at the psychology of someone willing to help extra-dimensional beings conquer Earth.

Flying to confront Jason, the Weird encounters Superman, who left before the Weird’s earlier trouncing of the Justice League.  The Weird refuses to leave the planet immediately, and the two exchange blows, then zip through buildings – Superman causing damage as he follows the immaterial Weird.  In an abandoned building, the Weird causes the entire structure to collapse around Superman, then disappears.  As the press arrives, Superman offers no comment and departs.  Then the Weird emerges.  “Don’t be too rough on him when you report this,” he tells the press.  “If you were looking for someone, would you think to look under your own feet?”  When the press asks why the heroes and the government are pursuing him, the Weird calmly replies that they’re concerned he’s going to explode and “destroy your planet.”

The Weird #3As the Justice League recoils from news that their cover-up has been exposed, the Weird enters Jason’s apartment, setting up their confrontation in issue #3 (June 1988).  There, after a brief recap from Billy (obligated by corporate policy, which sought to have each issue accessible to new readers), Jason throws up a cubical force shield to keep the Justice League out.  This force shield apparently extends out from his apartment, causing the entire top of the skyscraper to shred out into the surrounding streets.  The League rescues the falling people from those apartments, while the Weird continues to battle Jason inside.  Jason captures the Weird inside a force field – one apparently invulnerable to the Weird’s power to phase through objects, a convenient narrative misstep.  But this is followed by a brilliant observation:  outside, with the League helpless to enter, Batman points out that they’ve assumed that the Weird’s molecular instability was unintentional; it’s very possible they’re “dealing with the first inter-dimensional terrorist suicide mission.”  While playing on contemporary fears of terrorism, this is also an utterly logical possibility – as well as a brilliant idea.

Inside, Jason narrates his origin to the captured Weird.  It’s a narrative dominated by the idea of being special, owing to his having been named after Jason of the Argonauts.  But Jason’s life, if anything, is only especially awful:  his father commits suicide, and alcohol twists his loving mother into an abusive one before “one of her gentleman friends” kills her with “a razor.”  In an orphanage, Jason learns to fight and shows disinterest in schoolwork until he’s kicked out at 15 over “a little trouble[…] with a girl.”  He proceeds through menial jobs into homelessness, which he resents for making “broads” turn away.  An employment office gets him a sanitation job, which he resents.  “Somehow time slipped away from me,” he says, and five years pass.  His problems with women continue until he explodes at one who responds to him with an insult, bashing her in the head with a trash can lid.  He spends six months in prison, during which he decides he’s only special because, unlike others, he only cares about himself.  Then he’s contacted by the Macrolatts in his dreams, promising him power.  The Weird says the Macrolatts will destroy the planet, converting it to energy, but Jason doesn’t care:  only his “feeling” of “raw power” matters.  “I’ve never been happier,” he says.

The relentless darkness of Jason’s story certainly recalls complaints against revisionism, but it does prompt questions about whether Jason would have become so twisted, had his life been any better.  Obviously, society’s treatment of the destitute plays a role here.  Then again, Jason’s rage against women clearly has deep roots, perhaps in his helplessness in response to his mother’s alcoholism and abuse. For all those willing to see misogyny in comics and super-hero stories, it’s worth pointing out that Jason’s misogyny is a large part of what makes him a villain.  And from an evolutionary sociological view, men deprived of sexual opportunities often become very dangerous indeed. One hopes Jason’s disturbing story acts as deterrent, rather than voyeurism, for the comic’s readers.

The Weird, trapped and as helpless as young Jason in the villain’s story, now makes the sort of tough decision such serious, warlike stakes require: he decides to overload his molecular structure, knowing Jason’s force cube will contain most of the blast.  He and Jason would both be killed, along with the entirety of Metropolis, but Earth would be saved from the Macrolatts.  “May whatever gods there might be forgive me,” he thinks.  Certainly, this is not the kind of action expected of a super-hero, but the Weird’s status as a very odd sort of hero allows him to make the hard but logical choices super-hero comics so often avoid.

Before the Weird can do so, however, two Macrolatts escape through the portal, flying out into Metropolis.  The Weird, freed in the commotion, sends a disruptive shock into Jason’s brain.  Then, his face and dialogue filled with grief, he snaps Jason’s neck for the greater good.  It’s another dark but thoroughly logical moment, one reminiscent of Alan Moore’s almost contemporary penultimate issue of Miracleman – high praise for any mature super-hero work.

from The Weird #3 page 29As he dies, Jason’s force cube falls, and the Justice League descends to find the Weird standing over a naked corpse.  As the Weird tries to explain himself, it’s clear the League isn’t prepared to listen.  Martian Manhunter, using his power of invisibility (which would feel wrong were it not used somewhere in this story, given the Weird’s frequent use of the similar power of intangibility), surprises and disables the Weird.  But the two Macrolatts return, having possessed the bodies of Superman and Nuklon (of Infinity, Inc.).

The Weird #4The final issue (July 1988) opens with the League losing the fight against the possessed Superman and Nuklon.  The Weird again bucks super-heroic expectations by surrendering.  “I was once their slave,” he says.  “I’ll not waste what time and energy I have left in a vain struggle against an unbeatable enemy.”  As the two Macrolatts finish off the League, except for Batman, the Weird kneels before them.  In a fairly stunning sequence, the Macrolatts respond by setting a series of high-rises ablaze, with people inside them, then drawing the flames upward to absorb the energy released.  The Weird offers to help the Macrolatts, proving his loyalty by briefly knocking Batman unconscious.  After several lines of argument fail, the Weird offers his own energy to his Macrolatt masters, then pulls the Macrolatts as balls of energy out of Superman and Nuklon, crushing them to kill them.

The League and Superman, thankful to the Weird, test his molecular structure but find no method of reprieve.  The Weird accepts his death but asks to be indulged in one final act.  Off the coast near Metropolis, he reshapes the seafloor to create the beginnings of an island.  Most of a day later, Superman arrives on schedule with Billy, and we see the Weird’s project:  a life-size ship made of rock, on its own little island, complete with a staircase winding up the highest mast.  Superman says they explained everything, but Billy’s mother didn’t want to come.  The Weird thus says goodbye to Billy again, calling him son.  As Martian Manhunter flies Billy home, his face is understandably twisted by pain – but there’s no doubt that it’s part of the healing process, not a trauma that will haunt him like Jason’s did him.

Again, it’s an unusually meaningful sequence for super-hero comics, and its sentimentality is lessened by its bittersweet feel.  Before, the Weird offered Billy one last chance to talk with his father by proxy.  Now, we get the sense that Billy is saying goodbye to the Weird, who he has taken as his dad, not merely to his father’s memories and twisted appearance.  The Weird has won, not merely against the Macrolatts but in creating something, an experience he was deprived in his own dimension and only learned through Walter’s memories.  But the story, smartly enough, doesn’t underline this with dialogue.  The scene works like the best Spielberg movies, which can root melodramatic action in identifiable characters, especially children, engaging in sentimentality just enough to keep the audience from feeling overly manipulated.

All that’s left is for the Weird to explode.  Like Starlin’s earlier The Death of Captain Marvel, the story doesn’t chicken out here.  There’s no last-minute reprieve.  Instead, Superman and Guy Gardner take the Weird to an uninhabited sector of space.  There’s little that can be said, though – in a nice touch – Superman calls the Weird “Walter.”  The Weird explodes.

After this, the final page offers a single image of the boat island that the Weird built, without any dialogue or captions.  Echoing the Weird’s earlier departure from Billy, the boat is set against the setting sun.  It is the perfect image to end the story, at once wonderous, triumphant, and as impossibly sad as death itself.  Such touches as these define great literature, and this is no exception.

This is not your standard Justice League story. It’s not even your standard super-hero story. It’s bizarre. It’s alien. It’s abstract science-fiction. But it surprises us with its humanity, more bravely depicted than most stories without such exotic elements. The Weird is about unfathomable alien beings battling for Earth. It is about the strangeness that super-heroes like the Justice League might really encounter, beyond the traditional super-villains. But it’s also about the quieter, far more resonant things super-powers might afford, like island boats. It’s about a boy coping with the loss of his father. And about accepting death. And about making a difference in someone’s life while you still have the chance. It’s not a perfect story, but it is a masterpiece.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics and his transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. He currently lives in Illinois.

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