This Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Tangent Comics: Nightwing Volume 1 #1
“The Most Dangerous Man in the World”
Writer – John Ostrander
Penciler – Jan Duursema
Inker – Jan Duursema
Letterer – Dave Lamphear
The nineties saw a lot of reboots and grand alterations of comic properties. Some argue (myself included) that this left a bad taste in the mouth in comic book readership for breaking the mold and trying other ideas. When you ponder the vast and diversified conceptual frameworks comics have spawned over time, sometimes the results are absurd, if not outrageous. What if Batman was actually a bat? Really? Seriously! Already happened in Earth 43. So at the height of revisionism, comics began to show their creative wear. Tangent Comics, a DC subsidiary, is a prime example of what not to do when rebooting comics.
Imagine a word jumble, only the letters are actual comic book characters. This, in essence, is the mainstay of Tangent Comics. Even the publishing imprint is meta! I can imagine the pitch conference at DC:
“What if Wildcat was a woman, who turned into a giant werecat, who was controlled by a guardian, who says, ‘Shazam?”
“Jesus Christ! Bill, you were supposed to come up with comic book ideas not just steal other people’s intellectual property. What is this… China?”
Believe it or not, there are some redeeming qualities, few as they are. The original intention for Tangent Comics was playing with the character roster of DC to return characters to their original roles in the Golden Age of comics. The Atom and Superman, for instance, share a common bond in the annals of DC imprint history. Superman’s role in the DC Universe (then, more aptly, a solar system) was more in line with the Atom, playing the part of an educated intellectual in matters of science and technology. (This was explored in the character “Tom Turbine,” an amalgam for Superman and the Atom from Justice League episodes 18 and 19, Legends.) Tangent Comics attempts to restore these original sketches, allegedly, by having their “Atom” imprint resembling the original Superman. How successful they were, I can’t say. This one before me is called Nightwing, which ends up being very confusing, as there is no one in the comic that happens to actually be Nightwing.
Issue 1 breaks the news that Nightwing is an organization secretly running the country using black magic, or technology… or whatever. It’s all the same thing, right? Certain limited series such as Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic posit that magic isn’t really supernatural in origin but more of a philosophically driven power in which the user sees past what is “real” to the average person and is able to manipulate the fabrics of reality using their superior will. Having magic be indistinguishable from technology à la, “well once it’s quantum mechanics, it’s all the same crap,” becomes a bit of a cop out. It alienates the history of Magik, the sociological roots, the cultural heritage, and the outright fun of inexplicable powers, and replaces this mystery with a man named Hex, who is like an over-the-top Booster Gold rip-off obsessed with being self-referentially cool. He insists on it no less than three times, which reveals less about the character, and more about the struggling creative force at DC. This was the decade of Superman Red/Superman Blue, and we all know how well that went over.
Nightwing #1, as far as the story is concerned, isn’t completely awful as one might suspect. The use of existing DC properties only amounts to confusion and disarray when trying to break down the story, much like proactive interference in memory studies. Visual iconography clashes with preexisting schemas of heroes with varying intensity. The character Hex is clearly Booster Gold, while Wildcat is Black Canary with Ted Grant’s bag of tricks. Tangent Comics features a character named Green Lantern, which concerns a woman that brings people back from the dead with a lantern. It amounts to a very confusing journey. As the comic progresses, there are twists and turns that transform the plot, but there is no urgency because the reader has no stock in the characters that they are supposed to be invested in. The big twist of the comic is that the leader of Night Force, the rogue gallery in opposition to Nightwing (yeah, I know), is a double agent working for the other team. Black Orchid and Wildcat are still objectified as sex objects. Clearly, that is the most consistent element in this cross continuity. Don’t get me started on “Tantric magic,” which is a thing I’m sure, but it plays out in the issue with Black Orchid raping men to gain back lost magic reserves. It’s an odd masochistic twist to an even odder character trope.
While being hopelessly mired with misappropriated terminology, Nightwing #1 represents what could have been a very promising endeavor in comic book creation. To approach comics analytically, to observe and systematically deconstruct what they mean and what they contain, is a laudable pursuit. Final Crisis, 52, and The New 52 are all examples of taking existing work and reinterpreting it, effectively drawing on supporting casts of long forgotten characters and experimenting with their relevancy in the modern day. Even Justice League, the animated series, featured numerous Easter eggs from earlier, seminal comic book arcs dating to Jack Kirby and beyond. Conciliatory nods to older material encourages readers to understand that comics are irrevocably canonical, and express a fundamental cohesiveness that spans decades and cultures. Nightwing #1 asks us to see pink when all we know is red, and that is truly frustrating.
2 Identity Crises (of 10)