Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Make Them Implode Slowly--The Roy Thomas Story

Before I get started here in what is sure to be the ultimate for-interests-only post, a shout-out to one of the five readers, Christopher Elam, who in burying me under 1980s Roy Thomas comics planted the seed for the blog entry we both knew I would write, but never truly imagined ever seeing. Thanks!

Roy Thomas was, if you think about it, the prototype for the Geoff Johns and his ilk today. He started as a letterhack and fanzine kid, and rose quickly from ascended fanboy to steering most of the major Marvel books through most of the late 60s and finally, as the decade rolled over, becoming the first Editor-in-Chief after Stan Lee. In addition to all that, he established certain patterns we take as given among fan creators--self-insertion characters (Roy had one at BOTH big comic companies, and some for his wife as well) stories that exist for no great purpose than to tie up random bits of continuity that no one else was really all that bothered by, and an obsession with Making It All Fit that, when in ascendancy, sacrificed storytelling and characterization in the name of plot points. He also wrote his girlfriend into a Conan story, and Conan totally bangs her in the story and then dresses like a pimp, not that these two things are related to each other. Or do they?

Roy Thomas' peccadilloes, one imagines, could give Chris Claremont a run for his money.

This is not the story of his success. No, this is the story of Roy Thomas in the 1980s, where after peaking and getting to play in the sandbox of two companies, a series of decisions made at higher echelons hobbled and finally broke the writer, sending him bouncing from one company, to another, then back to the first one and finally finishing the decade by creating Witless Prattle's patron saint, the little known and even less regarded Oort The Living Comet.

It's not really commonly regarded now, but it was big news at the time that there was a mini-exodus of talent from Marvel at the turn of the 70s. Jim Shooter, widely seen as the Antichrist (and not entirely without reason, but what editor-in-chief can you not say that about?) brought with him a whole raft of changes to the way things were done at the House of Ideas, and so those who didn't like the way things were going packed up and went elsewhere.

One of which--Marv Wolfman--went on to jumpstart New Teen Titans at DC, which totally faded into nothingness and is little remembered today. Roy Thomas, who'd spent a good chunk of the 70s documenting the Golden Age Marvel heroes in Invaders, followed to DC, where, in an ironic (or obvious) twist of fate, he got to do the same thing he'd been doing, only now with DCs huge raft of Golden Age characters.

All-Star Squadron is so perfect for Roy Thomas one wonders had the groundwork for it not been laid by the JSAs cult success in the 70s, he would have invented it out of whole cloth. Whatever the circumstance, this was his hour, and he milked it for all it was worth. Though there are others who would know better than I, a cursory reading of some All-Star issues from the early days are filled with the joie de vivre of someone who is doing exactly what they got into comics to do.

For a book mostly set on an alternate Earth doing stories that can hardly be said to "count," All-Star Squadron does pretty well for itself as a reliable-selling mid-list title (you know, the kind that used to be the backbone of the comics business back when there weren't facebook groups larger than the entire comics buying public) In a way, with its enormous cast (seriously, the Who's Who page for the All-Star Squadron has like 30+ and I'm sure some of them got left out) was like a slightly more retro Legion of Superheroes, and as this was set on Earth-Two, where one was allowed to play around with the status quo a little more, Thomas had a freedom to write pretty much whatever her wanted, because really, who was going to miss the Red Bee?

In the meantime, Thomas penned America vs. The Justice Society, an utterly bizarre mini-series which (SPOILERS!) consists of an elaborate plan by the somewhat long-deceased Earth-2 Batman to have everyone stand around and recount their origins and highlights from Justice Society comics for four issues, until Per Degaton pops up and blows his brains out because he can't handle going back and washing those test tubes like a good fellow one more goddamned time (might that be the most obscure joke in the Prattle's history? I think it might!) It's . . .a rather strange mini-series, is what I'm saying, but as a primer to Earth-2 and all its strange wrinkles and deviations from standard DC history it was kinda cool too.

All-Star was doing so well, in fact, that during DCs mania for taking high-selling titles, slaving them to the Direct Market and putting them on Baxter Paper (for those of you too young to remember, it was a swindle worthy of Marvel's recent kicking of their prices up a whole dollar in the middle of a recession, it fucked up every popular book in ways that they never recovered from. Want to know why New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes got irretrievably fucked around the mid-80s? The Baxter thing set the stage for their respective implosions) and since DC wanted to round up every cult audience they could find (since there was no guarantee Thriller was going to take the world by storm. I kid, of course--Thriller was always going to suck) Thomas decided now was the ideal time to create the next generation of Earth-2 superheroes . . .

. . .which meant, in practice, that the first ten issues Infinity Inc guest-starred in its own book while the Justice Society beat the Ultra-Humanite stupid over his plans to enslave people with evil water. No, really.

As the book got rather some identity of its its own, and the incongruity of someone with his feet planted firmly in the past the idea of hiring Roy Thomas to write your team of edgy young whippersnappers (and despite this being Pre-Vertigo, you could get away with a bit more in Baxter comics) was . . .well, about as successful as when Thomas wrote edgy young whippersnappers back in his X-Men days--by which I mean the results are at best, quaint.

And yet, Infinity Inc. was, for me, the shiz-nite. In fact, Infinity Inc. is the first comic callow 9-year old me ever subscribed to.With the massive backstories of the JSA in the background, I had a set of characters (this was before the advent of Wikipedia and shit, when I realized a lot of them were Golden and Silver age homages with the serial numbers filed off) I could kind of get in on the ground floor with and watch develop. You had new characters placed into a milieu wherein there was a ton of history to draw from and riff on and it was still -gasp!- accessible! Plus, given that present-day Earth-2 was a blank slate and Thomas had the keys, you got the Infinitors squaring off against Chroma, a magic pansexual elf who wanted to sing everyone into insanity, Helix, the Infintors' sorta-evil opposites, and their leader, Mister Bones, who managed to be visually amazing, utterly unique in terms of characterization and, as I found out later, Roy Thomas still managed to make him a homage to a Golden Age character.

Oh, and some guy named Todd McFarlane comes on to do art. How naive I seem in retrospect, not realizing that his mania for drawing everyone with HUGE FUCKING CAPES wasn't going to lead to something else one day . . .

So, everything was going fine and they lived happily ever after.

Only they don't.

I am told that even substances as dense and virtually unbreakable as diamond can be broken if you find the appropriate shatterpoint. For Roy Thomas, Crisis on Infinite Earths is the shatterpoint as his tenure as DC's Earth-2 golden boy becomes an almost nightmarish parade of undercutting that you begin to wonder if DC editorial didn't just walk up to him and kick him in the balls every day.

First, no more Earth-2, and specific Earth-2 characters get offed. This leads to one of the most insane moments in any comic I have ever read, when Fury, freaking the good goddamned hell out because the Earth-2 Wonder Woman is being deleted from continuity (as you do, right?) forgets about her two pages later. It could not have been more jarring a moment than if someone had just ripped two pages out of the comic and inserted a crumpled piece of notebook paper whereupon someone had written "Earth Two Wonder Woman Died On The Way To Her Home Planet." It is that nuts, y'all.

Thomas, bless him, still remains optimistic. "Surely," one imagines him thinking. "I can find a way to make this collapsing of multiple Earths into one (ha ha) sensible history work for me. After all I still have the Justice Society to . . ."

I think the distance between the Crisis crossover issues and The Last Days of the Justice Society is like, barely 4 issues. Even more insane than the Fury issue I told you about two paragraphs above, it is notable for being completely batfuck crazy, not really being anyone's "last days," and the book that caused Alexander Ross to close his eyes in agony and whisper "mother."

It was Alex Ross who opened them again, and comics have been stiff and posed ever since.

So with the Justice Society off the table, never to return (ha ha) Roy Thomas, who had always come off as being rather avuncular and excited in his letter columns, starts to show signs of irritation with the whole business. Now having thoroughly been derailed, a certain laboured feeling begins to permeate Infinity and All-Star both get derailed for extended revisions and re-revisions of the characters origin stories (and the occasional Milennium crossover, God help us all) that conform to whatever bewildering edict was handed down from on high. Infinity manages to tell the last real story it had left to tell before everything went kablooey behind the scenes (the curse of the Silver Scarab) and ends with the most bleak four-issue wrap-up ever. All-Star follows it into the bin, long past its glory days, and Roy Thomas tries, in one last-ditch effort, to play in his sandbox, to fix the holes that have punched in his beautiful Golden Age boat, because why not roll the goddamned rock up the hill one more time?

Young All-Stars is, sadly, not the book it needed to be to justify recounting the new history of the Golden Age, as despite a mighty effort on the part of everyone to provide an interesting spin on the 1940s adventures of the JSA by basically doing Infinity Inc in reverse and creating a new generation of 40s heroes, three of which are analogues to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, no one really buys the fact that you can slot a guy in fur briefs (C'mon, this ain't Eternia) named "Flying Fox" into the Batman role in JSA stories, so it never quite works.

It never quite works, and the wheels finally come off the wagon. I was told the final letter columns of Young All-Stars were some of the most pessimistic things to ever be published by a corporate entity and holy cow, they weren't kidding. He is beaten, indifferent, and hopelessly disappointed. By this time the avuncularity of Roy Thomas has been completely wrung out and he has all the enthusiasm of a substitute teacher at 2:45 on a Friday who finally gives up trying to explain to their students the structure of an atom and sits down at their desk, stares into the middle distance, and glumly runs out the clock. For all intents and purposes, this is the finis to Thomas' tenure at DC.

And look! Jim Shooter's just left Marvel, so he goes back . . .and immediately has to clean up John Byrne's mess in Avengers West Coast. In the middle of a story wherein Magneto makes the Scarlet Witch so evil that she tries to give Wonder Man a blowjob in a scene that is bewildering, utterly inexplicable and utterly ruined the Scarlet Witch for all time (as this was the only story anyone cared to remember with her in it, obviously, and so led to . . .this.) I swear, this is all true. In the name of getting all of this over with, Immortus shows up and says that it was all part of some grand plan to mess with everyone's heads and makes the Avengers fight the Legion of the Unliving again, this time with Quicksilver's arch-nemesis, Oort the Living Comet. Despite the fact that the whole affair comes off as an attempt to very quickly brush the whole thing under the rug and move on to more interesting things (Like Ultron using fruit flies to turn people into robots, a giant baby fighting the Avengers or Joesf Mengele being turned into a supervillain--and yes, these things actually happened) the whole deliriousness of it is a treat, and there's such earnestness behind it, that it's hard to square with the Roy Thomas of a year ago who seemed ready and willing to blow his brains out if DC told him to charge Fury's parents around one more damn time.

This was, more or less, the end of Thomas' run in the majors, although he did a Black Knight one-shot for Marvel three years ago which was frankly spectacular and had few of his usual tics dragging the story down, despite Black Knight being an older character who was later purposed to fit in with the larger Marvel Universe. While no one can dispute his legacy, most of which rightly rests on his earlier successes, Thomas' story exemplifies a adage that should never be forgotten among the people who create and those who read superhero comics from the big two, that lesson being "Today's prize pig is tomorrow's bacon."


C. Elam said...

Frankly, sending you comics is always worth it just to see what you say about them!

I'm pretty sure we've discussed this in the past, and I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. I think perhaps I came into the Roy Thomas-as-"Earth-Two Editor" tenure with a little more fannish devotion to the 1970s JSA, so I was a little harder sell on the whole concept. This sounds odd looking back, but it took a few issues before I decided I liked it.

You're not wrong on the "bewildering edicts" part, which included (swear to God) the notion that All-Star Squadron would still take place on Earth-2 before Crisis even AFTER the whole thing was done. This idea was deemed potentially confusing (and yes, it probably was) and was therefore scuttled without anyone telling Thomas (wha--??). So with this kind of thing going on, it's no surprise that frustration started to bleed over into the letters pages.

Yes, the near-meltdown of the later lettercolumns of Young All-Stars is perhaps the highlight of that book's run. When you can't even be assed to pretend you care anymore, it's bad. I'd never considered your substitute teacher analogy for the end of Roy's DC stint before, but now I don't think I can compare it to anything else.

You know, I really liked the freelance stuff Thomas did at Marvel and elsewhere afterward, like Avengers West Coast and his Invaders mini-series. I think he's capable of great stuff, either with or without his focus on Golden Age material. I don't think there's any danger of him being in touch with the younger generation (the man is 70, for Pete's sake), but he's supremely capable of telling a story people want to buy. That's better than at least 75% of the folks writing mainstream superhero comics today.

C. Elam said...

I really hope Blogger didn't lose that lengthy comment I just tried to leave, or I will have to punch it. In its soul.

Kazekage said...

I didn't think about it until just now that both revivals of the JSA were spearheaded by former Marvel Editors-in-chiefs. Hm. The irony is very ironic.

Yeah, there are how many stories where the Crisis is still going on? In Last Days, it's all Hitler's fault (as it usually is) and then when All-Star ends, it's Mekanique who's started it and . . .wow. Before Hawkworld came along to show everyone the tatty seams post-Crisis continuity left in everything, there was this. No wonder it broke him.

Yeah, it's not even a meltdown, really. It's funny to compare it to Byrne's meltdown when X-Men: The Hidden Years got the axe. He just kinda says "Y'know what? I tried, but this is the way it is."

I loved his Avengers West Coast run after this, because it's fucking crazy. I don't know if I can say "good," really, but just absolutely nuts. They fight a group of supervillains comprised of Mengele, Lizzie Borden, and Lucrezia Borgia, for God's sake.

And that Black Knight issue was pretty damn good, even if it features the wrong Black Knight on the cover.

C. Elam said...

And Conway only revived All-Star because Thomas had the put the idea in his ear.

Oh, this plan was bigger than that. The compromise that was worked out was that All-Star Squadron would have been set Pre-Crisis indefinitely. I guess this would have ruled out using anyone assigned to the "other" parallel Earths, like all the folks that were shipped off to Earth-X, but for a brief moment in time the thought was given that All-Star Squadron would have been set on Earth-2 for as long as it ran. Granted, this would have been...weird & confusing, but the alternative (taking the book out behind the woodshed & shooting it to replace it with Young All-Stars) didn't really work out either after this plan was kiboshed.

I got those YAS a few years after the fact, and y'know, I was kind of startled to read the letter columns. Such a switch.

I've often wondered how much we can credit Dann Thomas for the books they co-wrote. She took very few assignments with solo credits (actually, I can only remember the Raven stories in that THUNDER Agents series), so it's hard to gauge.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, I was always kinda puzzled that Gerry Conway spearheaded it, because he really didn't seem like the person who would. Paul Levitz, yeah OK.

Yeah, and I think that must have been the plan for awhile, because if I remember right, they ran with until they decided "No Roy, just do retooled origin stories that won't fit in Secret Origins" then "No, Roy, just send in Mekanique to blow everything up, and we'll let you get your Philip Wylie homage on in Baxter Format!"

Yeah, you can tell a switch gets flipped and he's like "You know, I could bore you with citations, but I remembered I don't care anymore."

The last time I remember Dann Thomas writing anything was when they collaborated on Avengers West Coast The next thing I remember Thomas writing was some Dracula comic for Topps . . .and he wasn't co-bylined there.