Friday, July 09, 2004

Remember The Maine

I hate Kyle Raynor.

It’s not that I had a particularly strong attachment to Hal Jordan, or even the concept of Green Lantern to begin with. No, the problem I had with Kyle Raynor, and the entire run of Green Lantern after Hal went nuts, is the fact that the book was basically "Quasar done wrong".

If you’re like most folks, you probably don’t remember much about Quasar, except perhaps the fact that Wizard at one point made a monthly habit of mocking him. But here’s the skinny: the first issue of Quasar hit the shelves cover-dated Oct of 1989. A little more than five years later the last issue of the series, issue number 60, shipped with a cover date of July 1994. The book had some ups and downs, but overall it’s probably Mark Gruenwald’s most concentrated statement on the subject of superheroes and comic-book universes. He put a lot of himself into the book, probably more than he put into either Captain America or Squadron Supreme. Quasar was a character close to his heart, and it’s hard not to see his bitterness during the book’s last year or so, as the gaping jaws of cancellation that had threatened the book since the very beginning finally closed in for the kill.

Quasar was a fellow named Wendell Vaughn, born and raised - like Gruenwald himself - in Wisconsin (Quasar was born in Fon Du Lac, about twenty minutes south of Oshkosh, where Gruenwald was raised). He started out as a SHIELD agent before accidentally putting on the quantum bands that had been briefly worn by the Atomic Age superhero Marvel Boy. Of course, once you put on the quantum bands, they can only be separated from your arms by death, so he was stuck being a superhero.

He just wasn’t very good at it to begin with. He didn’t really know how to use his bands as anything other than a third-string Green Lantern knockoff. He bounced around the MU for about a decade with sporadic appearances in titles like Contest of Champions and Marvel Two-In-One. Finally in ’89, for whatever reason, he got the call up to the proverbial "majors" after he was awarded his own title and a membership in the mighty Avengers.

The creative duties for Quasar’s new book fell to the team of Gruenwald and Paul Ryan, fresh off a well-remembered – if slightly less than successful – run on the New Universe’s D.P.7. Ryan split after the first half-dozen or so issues, replaced in quick succession by rising stars Mike Manley and Greg Capullo. Manley went on after about a dozen issue to launch the fairly successful Darkhawk title, while Greg Capullo actually lasted twenty, minus a couple fill-ins. As we all know, Capullo left Quasar to assume the art duties on X-Force, where he stayed until he was snapped up by Todd McFarlane to work on Spawn. After Capullo, unfortunately, Quasar saw a progression of less exciting - albeit stridently professional – artists take their turns pushing pencils for the book. If you remember Marvel in the early 90s, you certainly remember that quite a few books had less than the best art. This was due to circumstances stemming from the exodus of the "Image Seven." Right after that happened, Marvel made an extremely sharp increase in the number of titles they produced on a monthly basis in order to attempt to choke off shelf-space from burgeoning competitors such as Image, Malibu, Valiant (remember them?) and Dark Horse (who tried a superhero line of their own in the summer of ’93). So, a lot of books in the mid-and-lower tiers of the Marvel publishing empire got short shrift, artwise, and this certainly didn’t do a lot to help the long term health of books, like Quasar, which were already on the fence sales-wise.

Anyway, the first thing Gruenwald set about doing with the character was to totally revamp and redefine his powers and abilities. It was immediately established that the quantum bands, far from being mere random artifacts, were actually the traditional weapons of the Protector of the Universe, an office that had previously been held by none other than the Kree Captain Mar-Vell. (Mar-Vell, of course, had not possessed the Quantum bands, but the slightly less powerful Nega bands, which was a consequence of the Q-bands being lost with the 50s Marvel Boy and in SHIELD custody for a few decades). The Protectorship of the Universe came with a cosmic mentor – Eon – who was responsible for instructing Quasar in how to use the powerful tools he had been given, and how best to fulfill the awesome responsibilities.

So far, so good – the first year of Quasar was pretty unexceptional. Vaughn established his civilian identity as a security consultant based in Manhattan, with office space in Four Freedoms Plaza (the Fantastic Four’s office tower HQ after the Baxter Building was demolished in the late 80s and before it was reconstructed in the early 00s). He even – ahem – wore glasses and slicked his hair back when he was in civilian identity. He was also pretty close to Eon for this first year. The Big E gave Quasar the job of tracking down all of Earth’s rogue extraterrestrials, and this, in addition to trying to juggle his newfound superhero responsibilities with his attempts at carving out a new civilian identity, made for quite a full plate.

If the series had continued in this vein, it would have been a good, if unspectacular, superhero book, in the vein of about a zillion others. But, of course, that’s not how it worked out. Things took a turn for the left pretty quickly.

For starters, his secret identity soon went out the window. His business fell to pieces. Both his friends and his enemies saw through his front, and the latter had no qualms about exploiting this weakness.

His "cosmic mentor" was revealed to have been manipulating him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways since the very beginning of their relationship. Eon had flat-out lied to Quasar on a number of important subjects, up to and including re-animating Quasar’s dead father for weeks after the latter had suffered a fatal heart attack. Eon himself was eventually killed, leaving Quasar helpless (and to also be killed) before Maelstrom, who was able to use the stolen Quantum bands to achieve God-like power, power enough to rival Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet. (A later issue of Quasar offered a glimpse of an alternate reality where the last two beings alive were Thanos and Maelstrom, fighting over existence with galaxies and black holes as their weapons.)

Of course, Quasar got better (as he would do two more times before his series wrapped, next in the course of the Infinity Gauntlet [although everyone died in that one so I don’t know if it counts], as well as in the course of the Infinity War). He was able to implement everything he had learned over the course of his first twenty-five issues in order to become supremely powerful and far more confident than he had been at the series' commencement.

So you can see my frustrations with Green Lantern. It took Wendell Vaughn about 25 issues to become fairly confident in his role as Protector of the whole friggin’ Universe, while Kyle Raynor, a decade and change on, is still essentially a stumblebum. The Quantum bands, as elaborated by Gruenwald, are essentially the same thing as a Green Lantern ring, only without any power limit. There’s no central or portable power battery. The Quantum bands are powered by an entire parallel dimension composed of quantum energy. Quasar, with the bands, can do just about anything he wants, from massive expenditures of energy to instantaneous teleportation from one side of the universe to the other. Like a Green Lantern, his power is only limited by his imagination, but unlike Kyle Raynor, Quasar set about to rigorously probe and test the limits of his power until he realized that said power was nearly limitless. Meanwhile, Kyle Raynor is sitting around New York and hanging out with Jade, or something.

The second half of Gruenwald’s run on Quasar was patchy. On the one hand, you have a wonderful string of issues featuring Quasar exploring the universe and the multiverse, answering fundamental questions about the very fabric of the Marvel Universe. On the other, you have the recurring participation in crossovers like the Infinity War and Operation: Galactic Storm, both of which effectively derailed the series for three months at a time. (Although it must be noted that Gruenwald was able to get some interesting mileage out of Quasar’s death in the Infinity War, which I shall discuss in a bit.) Additionally, odd characters like The Punisher started showing up, quite incongruously, when it became obvious that the frequent crossovers alone were not enough to keep the book afloat.

Quasar, when taken as a whole, serves as a potent antidote to the kind of cynicism (of which I am very guilty, albeit defiantly so) that labels all superheroes as inherently fascistic. Sure, Gruenwald understood that the existence of superpowers opened up the door to disastrous abuse – which is a question he explored in the pages of Squadron Supreme. But the questions he wanted to answer with Quasar had nothing to do with the corrupting tendencies of power, but with the exhausting possibilities of infinite responsibility. If great power is accompanied with great responsibility, what then of infinite, or at least near infinite power? At the end of the series, after a series of progressively meaningless conflicts, Quasar fakes his own death and heads out into the greater universe, because he finally recognizes that there is no way he can fulfill so much as an infinitesimal fraction of his responsibility if he stays close to Earth.

When we next saw Quasar, a year or two later in the pages of the short-lived Star Masters series, alongside the Silver Surfer and Beta Ray Bill. He was attempting to fill the universe with quantum "satellite" transceivers, a sort-of early warning system/communication grid by which far-flung quarters of the universe can contact their erstwhile protector. Even though Eon had been a manipulative SOB, Quasar was still driven by the responsibilities Eon had given him. Quasar even acted as a parent towards Eon’s offspring, Epoch.

It was later revealed, following Quasar’s third death, that when a Protector of the Universe passes from life, they are brought to a pseudo-mystical "White Room" to sit in immobilized silence for eternity. Was it a trick by Eon, to punish those who had had the temerity to believe they could protect the entire universe? Was it a cosmic mistake? A preparation for something greater? Gruenwald never lived to reveal the answer to that question, but it is revealing that his conception of the ultimate reward for great heroes was an endless purgatorial nothing.

Quasar is nothing less than the sum of Gruenwald’s (woefully abbreviated) lifetime of thinking on superheroes and superhero comic books. It was obviously a labor of love. There’s an early story featuring a cosmic foot race, wherein all the fast-running characters from the MU were brought together by the Runner (an Elder of the Universe) to race for the privilege of racing in the universal speed trials. At the end of the race, a blond figure materialized on the racetrack, emerging from a cloud of lightning bolts, with the remnants of a red uniform and bright yellow boots. He was a total amnesiac, except for the memory of what his name could have been . . . perhaps "Buried Alien"? Just because Gruenwald worked down the road at Marvel didn’t stop him from paying tribute to one of his favorite childhood heroes, DC’s Silver Age Flash, in the wake of his demise during the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Some of the most memorable moments from Quasar were moments like those, dedicated basically to exploring the unenlightened corners of the Marvel Universe, and exploring the very nature of fictional universes. How are fictional characters created – and at what point do characters take on a life of their own? Shades of Animal Man! How do Gods – or at least near-Gods – die? Who mourns the passing of cosmic beings? How about the birth and creation of cosmic deities? How are comic book universes structured – what separates mere alternate realities from entirely separate multiverses, like the Marvel Universe and the New Universe? Some of these questions might seem a bit wonkish, but Gruenwald’s enthusiasm for these cosmic questions was truly contagious. As preposterous as it sounds, he believed every bit of it, he believed that it mattered, on some level, and that by answering one deep question of comic book lore he only asked a dozen more.

But the best thing about Quasar, as a character, was the fact that in terms of attitude he was just about one of the most unlikely super-characters in comic book history. From the very first he regarded fighting and violence as awkward necessities, to be avoided at all costs. In the early days, at least, he always addressed both his peers and his opponents as "Sir". When he grew more powerful, he put a premium on being able to stop his opponents in nonviolent ways – immobilizing them or destroying their weapons or simply teleporting them elsewhere. He didn’t want to fight, which is probably the oddest thing a superhero can do. I think perhaps this was Gruenwald’s way of signaling his own personal protest against the overwrought violence of 90s comics, but that's just my guess.

So, is it any surprise that Quasar was an unpopular book? It’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did. I think that after a certain point he lost interest in writing Captain America, or at least it seemed so from the rather insipid plots he was throwing out every month. At about the time his Cap lost it’s focus, Quasar started getting real interesting. Unfortunately, since Gruenwald’s passing the character has been used sparingly, if at all. He's had a few moments in the revamped Avengers, but other than that the low point was undoubtedly the Maximum Security X-Over that featured Quasar being chosen as the host body for – ah – Ego the Living Planet. It was such a lame plot point that no one since either.

Which makes sense, as crappy as it may seem. By the time his own series had run its course, Quasar had been elevated from a third-string supporting character to someone with nigh-limitless power at his disposal, and with both the knowledge and the confidence to use it judicially. He was transformed from a Marvel Two-In-One punchline to the single most powerful member of the Mighty Avengers, perhaps the single most powerful human being in the Marvel Universe, period, someone able to go toe-to-toe with the Silver Surfer and . . . hold back for fear of hurting the Surfer. So of course it makes sense that he’s not going to be hanging around Avengers’ mansion too often - "oh yeah, Ultron? I threw him in a black hole while I was watching TV."

In case you haven’t figured out, I love Quasar. I said yesterday that it was in my top two or three superhero books of all time, but the thing is, I racked my brain all day and I honestly couldn’t think of one that I had more fondness for. Sure, there are many better series, many more consistent series, and many superhero books that I would rate as "important" before I even got around to thinking of Quasar. But in terms of my personal favorite, a super-hero title that I would write myself in a heartbeat if given a chance? Well, there aren’t too many of those, but at the top of the list would have to be Quasar.

Well, I have just permanently destroyed my Comics Journal cred. Join me next week as I wax poetic on Atari Force.

Travels With Larry Part XIV


I didn’t want to like Hench. It’s not that I had any preordained antipathy towards the book, but as I have stated before I think that the whole concept of superhero parody is getting to be more played out than the superheroes themselves. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Hench isn’t actually, as it may appear to be, a spoof or parody book. It is a very funny book, but it plays things straight. In doing so the book manages to somehow achieve a bit of emotional poignancy, despite the constant flow of silly situations.

The most controversial aspect of the book seems to be the art. Admittedly, Manny Bello’s work is rough. Although his figures and design work is strong, he seems to struggle with complicated perspective and especially with texture. Sometimes entire pages pass by without background details. I have to question why the decision was made to publish the book in the form of rough pencils. I realize the answer to that was probably either a creative decision, fiscal decision – or possibly both – but it the book suffers for it. Many of Bello’s more problematic areas could have been "fixed in post", as it were.

But, regardless of that, the book still manages to get by. There is an endearing quirkiness to Bello’s pages. He draws everyone with an exaggerated slovenliness that definitely adds considerable ballast to the book’s humor content.

As for the story itself? Well, that’s the real star of the show. Adam Beechen has set out to answer one of the great imponderables of superhero comic book – why the hell would anyone want to be a villainous henchman? This is putting aside the psychotic gun molls who usually hang out with Batman villains – those gals usually have a few screws loose themselves. I’m talking about the meat-and-potato dudes who put on the funny costume and lug the death-rays while their boss is busy eating filet mignon and snorting coke out of his psychotic gun moll’s belly button.

Surprisingly, Beechen actually comes up with quite a good answer. It’s mostly ex-athletes, sidelined by injury or by life, anxious to get into another profession where they can feel the same kind of adrenaline rush they used to. They need the money and most of them are smart enough to bank the proceeds from a few successful jobs to hold them over the long stretches of prison. It actually makes a lot of sense – people do stupider things on a regular basis.

So, we follow one henchman, Mike Fulton, as he embarks on a life of crime. Initially he’s just in it for the money, but later on, after his family leaves him and he winds up in jail for longer and longer periods, he becomes addicted to the sense of danger and, more importantly, the camaraderie of the criminal fraternity.

So, in some respects, it’s a story that you’ve heard before: the criminal lifestyle proves too much of a lure for our hero to resist. But the difference is, this isn’t just your garden-variety world of mob dons and machineguns. No, this world is filled with colorful and deadly villains who can melt your flesh, summon the forces of Satan or irradiate your body until your penis falls off. As I said earlier, the book plays it totally straight, which makes some sequences absolutely priceless:

"Randy introduced me to my new boss the next day. I think he was happy to meet me. He kept praising ‘Ashtoth,’ or somebody. Then he gave me my uniform and some weapon he called an ‘iron shemeleth.’ Said it would ward off the forces of justice. He gave me the code name ‘Baal-Yiggurth.’ I never felt like such an asshole in my whole life."

I must admit that I laughed my ass off.

So while Hench is by no means perfect, it does have one saving grace that trumps any qualms I could mention about the art: it made me laugh. So, all things considered, it’s OK in my book.


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