D.P.7 — Reality Vs. Fantasy

The previous installment recounted how in the landmark year of 1986, Marvel and editor in chief Jim Shooter introduced the New Universe, a new fictional reality, that was intended to be a more realistic setting for stories about superhuman characters than the more fantastical Marvel Universe. Of the eight original series that were launched as part of the New Universe line of titles, perhaps the most intriguing was D.P.7, created by writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Paul Ryan. The initials “D.P.” stand for “Displaced Paranormals.” In the New Universe the term “paranormals” is used to describe people who developed superhuman abilities following the mysterious “White Event.” Whereas in the Marvel Universe’s X-Men series Professor Charles Xavier gathered young superhuman mutants into a school, in D.P.7 the community of paranormals is initially set in “the Clinic for Paranormal Research,” a hospital. Although the series makes clear that paranormals are not “freaks,” it indicates that possesses of “paranormalities” need psychiatric counseling to cope with their unusual abilities. Perhaps Gruenwald was suggesting that any individual can use psychiatric help in learning how to deal with whatever makes him or her different than other people. In this installment you will learn what made these seven paranormal title characters “displaced.”

The composition of the team is in part familiar, but also in part quite unusual for the superhero genre. Dr. Randy O’Brien, who is treated as the lead character, is a Caucasian doctor, another in the long line of white scholar-heroes in the superhero genre that includes Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four and even science student Peter Parker in Spider-Man. After such well-established adolescent superhero teams as the Teen Titans, the original X-Men, and the New Mutants, it should be no surprise that two members of D.P.7, Charlotte Beck and Dennis “Scuzz” Cuzinski, are teenagers, nor that “Scuzz” is a temperamental rebel, a familiar character type.

It was in the 1960s that Marvel introduced its first black super heroes. By the mid-1980s it is likewise no surprise that two members of D.P.7—Charlotte Beck and Jeff Walters–are African-Americans. But Gruenwald and Ryan make some casting decisions that seem surprising even now. For example, David Landers turns out to be an atheist. Stephanie Harrington is a wife and mother in her early 30s and a staunch Christian. Lenore Fenzl is an academic, and her specialty is not science, like so many professors in superhero comics, but Latin. More astonishingly, she is in her sixties, and a later story indicates that she may still be a virgin; she is indeed an unusual choice for a superhero team member. So too is the setting of D.P.7 unusual for the genre, which tends to gravitate towards New York; by the end of the series D.P.7 is set in the Big Apple, too, but its first year takes place mostly in the Midwest, in Gruenwald’s native Wisconsin.

So by this point in the narrative, the readers may think that D.P.7 is a variation on The X-Men. Over the three weeks following their arrival at the Clinic, paranormals Randy O’Brien and David Landers become fully integrated as members of their new community. O’Brien twice compares the Clinic to being at camp: it’s like an idyllic playground for adults. But he is also still aware that it is a hospital, and reflects that “I admit that I’m beginning to feel normal again. The place has really helped me.”

But now Gruenwald gives the new D.P. 7 concept yet another surprising twist. Professor Xavier was wholly benign in his intentions when he founded his School for Gifted Youngsters. But O’Brien discovers that Philip Nolan Voigt, the director of the Clinic, is planning on exploiting the patients, even if it means brainwashing them into obedience. As a result, the seven members of D.P. 7 escape from the Clinic, thereby becoming the seven “Displaced Paranormals” of the comic’s title. For most of the first year of the series, they are fugitives, on the run from Voigt’s agents who are seeking to recapture them. The X-Men have a sanctuary in Xavier’s mansion. In contrast, the members of D.P.7 are homeless fugitives in a world that is hostile to members of their own minority group, the paranormals.

It may surprise contemporary readers to learn that the entire story line from O’Brien’s initial encounter with Landers to the escape from the Clinic took place in the very first issue. Nowadays, “decompressed storytelling” is in fashion, and Marvel and DC editors and writers seem to design stories to take six issues, enough to package into graphic novel form. Telling a complete story in one issue has become relatively rare. Today Marvel would more likely take twelve issues to get to the point at which D.P.7‘s first issue ends.

Eventually the seven D.P.7 characters were captured and brought back to the Clinic, where they rebelled against Voigt, overthrowing his control of the Clinic. With Voigt gone, the Clinic became a true sanctuary for the paranormals for a short time, until outside legal authorities shut the institution down. The male paranormals were drafted into the army as a superhuman strike force, while female members joined the C.I.A.. This was decades before the similar storyline in the main Marvel Universe in which superhumans joined the federal “Initiative” program. In the final months of the series most of the main characters ended up in that familiar nexus of the superhero genre, New York City; perhaps Gruenwald intended this as a parallel to comics fans moving to New York to join the comics industry.

Something else that would surprise contemporary readers is D.P.7‘s extensive use of thought balloons. In the early 21st century thought balloons have fallen from favor in DC and Marvel comics. This trend may have begun when writer Roy Thomas set himself the rule that he would not use thought balloons in his Conan the Barbarian comics scripts; then again, Conan is not a particularly introspective character. The most likely reason that today’s comics writers do not use thought balloons is that they see themselves as writing comics in cinematic style, and movies generally tend not to use voiceovers to indicate someone’s thoughts. If today’s comics writers want to give a character an interior monologue, they will use the device of first person narration in the captions, the only kind of captions that are generally used in comic books nowadays. But typically such first person narration reads as if the hero is telling the audience about his adventures after the fact: the narration tends to have a detached, reflective tone that is at odds with the often violent action being depicted in the art. Thus the narration creates a strange, inappropriate distancing effect from the action of the story, rather than helping to plunge the reader into the ongoing drama.

But the comics medium does not work just like cinema, and if comics offers storytelling tools that other media may lack, like thought balloons, why shouldn’t the writer make use of them? In fact, the interior monologue is very much a part of the Marvel storytelling tradition that Stan Lee established in the 1960s. Perhaps in conscious evocation of the theater, Stan Lee tended to have his characters deliver soliloquies to the readers rather than use thought balloons. Swinging on his weblines through the city, Spider-Man would thus discourse on whatever he was thinking. It is understandable that writers who followed Lee might want to avoid having characters talk to themselves and use thought balloons instead.

However, whether through soliloquies or thought balloons, Stan Lee used interior monologues to illuminate the emotions his characters felt, the psychological conflicts they faced, and their ways of making decisions. They were his tools for allowing his readers to look into the minds of his characters, increasing the audience’s identification with them.

In the New Universe line this tradition is still vital and active. In Jim Shooter’s Star Brand, the hero, Ken Connor, is usually alone as he tries to understand and utilize his newly acquired super-powers and so readers look into his mind through thought balloons. One of Shooter’s goals in the series appeared to be to show just how complicated it would be to use super-powers effectively and responsibly in real life. In issue 2 of Star Brand, for example, Connell finds a cruise ship whose passengers have been captured by terrorists, but is so overwhelmed with worry and indecision as to what course he should take that he is effectively paralyzed, and it is a special ops squad that ends yup rescuing the hostages.

In D.P.7 Gruenwald skillfully manages the feat of having seven protagonists but enabling the reader to understand how each of them thinks, in part through what they say aloud in conversation, but in large part through his use of thought balloons. Sometimes Gruenwald takes this method to the edge of absurdity, as in a panel with a large number of his protagonists, each with his own thought balloon reacting to the current situation.

Nonetheless, D.P.7‘s emphasis on revealing inner conflicts through interior monologues is very much in the Marvel tradition. Moreover, it also suits one of the overall themes of the series, which is to turn the lives of its protagonists into a sort of ongoing therapy to enable them to work out their inner conflicts. The members of D.P. 7 come to grips with their personal problems, both through their interactions in the Clinic and through coping with dangers and confrontations outside the Clinic.

The biggest surprise that readers may have in D.P.7 is that they may expect it to be a superhero comic, yet arguably it isn’t.

The term “superhero” is often used, especially by people outside comics, to refer to any larger than life action hero. But there must be a way to distinguish characters like Superman and Spider-Man from the likes of James Bond and Robin Hood. The key is not whether or not the character possesses super-powers. Batman is a superhero without super-powers; Luke Skywalker of Star Wars has super-powers, but is a science fiction hero, not a superhero.

In his book Superhero: The Secret History of a Genre, comics scholar Peter Coogan provides a useful definition of a superhero. First, a superhero must have extraordinary abilities. These need not be actual superhuman powers, as Batman demonstrates. Second, a superhero must have a superheroic identity, which is typically expressed through a title (like Superman or Spider-Man), a costume (or a distinctive physical appearance, like those of the Hulk and the Thing), and a symbolic insignia (like the bat emblem on Batman’s chest). Third, the superhero must have an ongoing mission, such as crimefighting. In other words, it is his job to perform heroic actions, usually to help others and to combat evil. These are the three principal factors that define a superhero. Coogan also points to other elements that signify the superhero genre, such as the presence of supervillains and costumed sidekicks.

The seven original members of D.P.7 all have superhuman powers. In one of the early issues they decide to adopt superhero names that they can use in public rather than betray their true identities. Pointedly, some of the members note that by adopting such code names, they are imitating characters in comic books. So Randy O’Brien names himself Antibody after his other self. The massively built David Landers becomes Mammoth. The super-fast Jeff Walters is the Blur. Stephanie, who can boost the energy level of others, first adopted the code name Viva (signifying life force) but later changed her code name to Glitter, after the sparkling lights that she emits. Charlotte Beck, who can alter the surface attraction between matter, took the name Friction, and Lenore, who projects a light that tranquilizes others, called herself Twilight.

However, as Scuzz complains a few issues later, his teammates do not end up using their new aliases after all. A few of the members wear distinctive clothing, like Twilight with her face mask, and Mastodon certainly has an unusual physical appearance, but none of them wear superheroic costumes.

Most importantly, in these early issues the members of D.P. 7 do not have any particular mission. Later on, some of them will join the United States Army or the Central Intelligence Agency, and some D.P. 7 characters, including Captain Manhattan, will even operate as conventional superheroes. But in the initial year of the series, the seven original members of D.P.7 are really just trying to escape the clutches of the Clinic and to survive in the outside world. At times they aid people in trouble, but they do not go out looking for people outside their circle to help or for enemies (apart from their pursuers from the Clinic) to combat. They are heroes in the sense that they are the protagonists and that the audience admires and empathizes with them, but they are not superheroes in the sense of having careers in crimefighting or aiding people in distress.

What about some of the secondary factors that Coogan mentions? Arguably, the super-powered antagonists from the Clinic are supervillains, and some even have code names, but they do not wear unusual costumes.

The fact that the members of D.P.7 are aware of comic book superheroes and adopt aliases in imitation of them suggests that the series is in part a metafictional commentary on the superhero genre.

It also seems a natural response to consider super-powered protagonists in a comic book to be superheroes, since the superhero genre originated in comics and is most associated with that medium.

If Coogan’s definition is strictly applied, then D.P.7 is not a superhero series, but is instead a science fiction series that focuses on seven people who possess paranormal abilities.

And perhaps that is why D.P.7, and indeed, the entire New Universe line, did not last. The New Universe titles were not commercial successes, and its line of comics ended in 1989. Subsequently, some attempts were made to salvage the New Universe characters by bringing them into the Marvel Universe.  Writer Peter David later reintroduced Justice as the “Net Prophet” in Spider-Man 2099, a series about the Spider-Man of an alternate future in the Marvel Universe. Mark Gruenwald brought a number of New Universe characters into various Marvel Universe series including Quasar, which he had co-created and wrote. Gruenwald was working on plans to establish these characters in new lives in various cities in the Marvel Universe’s United States, but his unexpected death put an end to these plans. An alternate version of the New Universe appeared in The Exiles in 2005. In the following year, 2006, Marvel marked the twentieth anniversary of the New Universe by launching various one-shot comics under the umbrella title Untold Tales of the New Universe, followed by writer Warren Ellis’s reboot of the New Universe in the series newuniversal. But all of these revival attempts have proved to be short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful. (In 2013 writer Jonathan Hickman introduced New Universe concepts including the White Event and the Star Brand into the Marvel Universe in Avengers.)

Perhaps that was because the premise of the New Universe, “the world outside your window,” was flawed from the start. Yes, Stan Lee and his collaborators had revolutionized the superhero genre in the 1960s by adding a greater degree of realism, and the New Universe sought to go further in that direction. But Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company had also revolutionized the superhero genre through brilliantly reimagining and reenergizing the fantasy elements that are essential to it. They were still doing stories about costumed crimefighters performing incredible feats, and through extraordinary artwork and storytelling, made these escapist fantasies more gripping and exciting than the comparatively mundane work at other comics companies. The cascade of amazing fantasy concepts that Lee, Kirby, Steve Ditko and company imagined—the interstellar empires, the mystical dimensions, the hidden superhuman races, and more—were also key elements to Marvel’s success: evoking a dramatically powerful “sense of wonder.” Stan Lee’s Silver Age Marvel Comics combined reality and fantasy in a way that seized readers’ imaginations. Keep in mind that even those landmark 1986 titles that are renowned for their realism, Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, still center on costumed superheroes and include strong fantasy elements. The New Universe concentrated on realism at the expense of fantasy, and could not attract enough readers to survive. Most of the titles were books about superhumans that fell short of being superhero books.

D.P.7 may now seem like a forerunner of Heroes, the NBC television series that similarly was about an ensemble cast of ordinary people with superhuman abilities who were trying to survive despite adversaries who were out to capture or exploit them. Heroes too avoided giving its protagonists code names, costumes, or missions, and thus was really a science fiction series, not a superhero show. It was astonishingly successful in its first season, and then rapidly lost its way and its popularity, and was cancelled.

So D.P.7 and the New Universe were an experiment that proved short-lived because they veered too far away from the basic conventions of the superhero genre. Yet it is the very fact that D.P.7 is not truly a superhero book that is the key to its real achievements. D.P.7 is best regarded as a years-long character study of its ensemble cast, in which plot was far less important than the exploration of its protagonists’ psyches and emotions. Their powers were much less important than their personalities.

And in that same year Gruenwald and Ryan would find a successful way to combine realistic character studies with superhero fantasy in Squadron Supreme, which has become a true and enduring classic, as a subsequent chapter will show.

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Peter Sanderson:

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


Leave a Reply