Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NEW WARRIORS & The Era Of The Mid-List

Believe it or not, there used to be a time when a book would actually be canceled for selling "only" 100,000 copies per month. Yes, in this day and age this may seem ridiculous when a 50,000 seller is a big hit (of course, there are 100,000 movies, but that mostly happens due to variant cover chicanery and other means to skew numbers) but there was a time when that was the benchmark.

So you had the books that did gangbusters on newsstands (remember when those existed? Remember when they were the primary earner for comics before greed and short-sightedness squeezed everything down to a niche of a niche)--your X-Mens, for instance. But not every book was did X-Men numbers, but, rather than slave everything to their high sellers, they generally . . .well, just let them sell what they sold.

This was the era of Power Man & Iron Fist, ROM, Strikeforce: Morituri, Marvel Team-Up, and many others. One could go into a supermarket or a bookstore, pick up something off the spinner rack and get a self-contained story, taking place in a larger fictional universe but not hopelessly inseparable from it, and allowed to have its own identity and do its own thing, generally. They were never gonna be top sellers, but they were reliable earners and that was okay back then.

I came up just in time for the mid-list titles to die, a few of them staggering around like the last dinosaurs. Part of it was greed (New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes selling on the newsstands? Well, let's take them over to the direct market and up the price, it's a licence to print money . . .and collapse our readership!) part of it was new initiatives shoving the older books out (The New Universe) and some of it was just wretched excess (the early 90's flood of titles from Marvel, which I continue to maintain existed less because people wanted to read about Nighwatch or the Darkhold Redeemers and more because Marvel wanted to crowd out anyone else off the stands) and some of it was down to changing philosophies (the era of the Permanent Crossover assimilating and homogenizing everything in the name of bumping up the numbers) Suffice it to say though . . .they're gone, and it's likely we will never see their like again.

Which is a shame, really, because most of the comics blogger intelligentsia will tell you their favourite books as children were mid-list books. Chris Sims has sung the praises of ROM, Rusty Shackles liked Marvel Two-in-One so much I made a collection of them his Christmas present this year, and Al Kennedy from House to Astonish has sung the praises of New Warriors.

As I am about to. New Warriors was one of the last of the mid-list books that was given the ball and run with it. Fabian Nicieza (laying the bricks for the time when just about every Nicieza story will tie in with every one ever written) and Mark Bagley (who I swear from about 1986 up to this point drew at least one issue of every Marvel comic at the time--dude was everywhere) As a youngster, it was great to have a book that was pretty much allowed to do its own thing, allowed you time to get to know the characters and used the individual characters to provide plot threads that would ultimately impact the team as a whole. There are a few guest appearances and the odd crossovers

Thanks to yet another Marvel trade and HC sale I was able to get hold of the first two trades of New Warriors, and for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised that they held up so well after twenty years or so. Mind you, some of it hasn't--if you're dealing with a story featuring teenage superheroes that desperately wants to be relevant, there's going to be some stuff that's just really dated (can't help but be so, really) but in general it's what it needs to be, solid superhero action that gets the job done.

So in the name of carrying you through how a mid-list book like this gets to truck along, generally allowed to do it's own thing, let's start with a Warriors Roll Call!

(KID) NOVA--The elder statesmen of the group, somehow demoted to "kid" status, despite having his own comic about the time I was still in Osh-Kosh B'gosh. Spent most of the 80's powerless and totally forgotten before Night Thrasher drops him off a building and he gets his powers back, because how else would you do it? Functions as the foil to Thrasher, because he thinks Thrasher is an unstable, violent asshole, and really, he has a point.

NAMORITA--Prior this this Namoraita had a walk-on role in Atlantis Attacks, where if I remember right she pretty much did nothing of consequence. Functioning for most of her life as the airheaded Jubilee to Namor's Wolverine, Namorita is actually allowed to develop her own character here, even though Nova has the whole "flying bruiser" role covered.

SPEEDBALL--The sum total of what I knew about Speedball previous to this was from the "Evolutionary War" Spider-Man Annual a couple years before this series started, and really little of it was ultimately useful. Speedball's the youngest and the most explicitly comic-relief character . . .twenty years after this he naturally became a self-loathing, self-mutilating parody of himself because superhero comics are serious fucken business.

MARVEL BOY--He's the guy who will eventually end up as Vance Astro, head of the enthusiasm-sapping Guardians of the Galaxy, so until that time, he apparently pestered the Thing for a few issues and then kind got forgotten. Ultimately, Marvel Boy does pretty well in the team dynamic, generally because he's more of a leader than Thrasher is. Has a bad homelife, which eventually leads to trouble (and prison) in the book's second year.

FIRESTAR--Apart from Firestar's mini-series, I'd be mightily surprised if she'd appeared anywhere before New Warriors #1. Anyways, Firestar has fire powers and if you grew up in the early 80's you remember her from Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, and apparently she was a member of the Hellions back when Emma Frost was a bad guy. This figures in later.

NIGHT THRASHER--Oh lord. The eternal punchline whenever New Warriors is brought up, Night Thrasher is a black guy with Batman's origin story and a killer skateboard, and no, I kid you not. Despite being the guy who founds the Warriors and brings the team together, he's sort of sidelined except to frequently complicate the plot by not telling his teammates vital information in a timely fashion, which leads to a whole bunch of problems. Ultimately, his rather puzzling history is filled out in the series second year. But I think he keeps the skateboard for God only knows what reason.

Initially, the Warriors sprang out of Acts of Vengeance (see? More came out of it than Psylocke ninja-ho'ing it up), specifically a rather desultory pair of issues deep in the DeFalco/Frenz run wherein Thor fights the Juggernaut and no one acts in character and short of these two issues being the Warriors' first appearance, they can safely be skipped as they really don't have much to recommend them.

The story proper begins in New Warriors #1, wherein Night Thrasher, in between recruiting his team in the most assholier-than-thou way possible, stumbles on to a big fight with Terrax, who wasn't so much "dead" as "horribly crushed by dirt" and resurrected via the miracle of soil aeration. This is not as one-sided a fight as you might imagine as Terrax had been jobbed out before and had fallen rather far from his days as a Herald of Galactus. Anyways, the important thing to take away from this is "big fight, everyone stands around at the end and says 'yeah, we should totally stay a team and beat the hell out of bad guys for reasons that are somewhat nebulous, yet concrete enough for the book to have its own identity." And off to the races we go.

Issue 2 gives us a bit of insight into Night Thrasher's past, and we get a sense of All Is Not As It Seems with the setup for the Warriors' infrastructure and we're rapidly introduced to Night Thrasher's arch-nemesis, Midnight's Fire (Fabian Nicieza's inelegance with names popping up here for the first and not the last time--Just ask Adam-X the X-Treme, Commcast, and The Left Hand) and his would-be love interest Silhouette. We'll see more from both as time goes on, but this story is primarily concerned with filling in the blanks of the skateboard guy.

The third issue has a pretty good gimmick at the heart of it--the Mad Thinker is hired by Evil Corporation Genetech to research the Warriors. Nothing new there, of course, but it's played in auch a way as to where it's primarily concerned with giving us little vignettes of the Warriors in their civilian roles which hints at plotlines to come (specifically Marvel Boy and Speedball's) and generally starts laying the groundwork for bringing these characters together for more of a reason than the obvious ("here's a bunch of characters we found in the bin plus an angry black guy with a skateboard, now go have fun!")

It also sets up issue 4, which introduces us to the Warriors would-be opposite numbers, Psionex. I always kinda liked Psionex and hated that more wasn't done with them, as the idea of a math telepath was actually pretty damn cool even if it never came to much on the printed page. Anyways, this is an excuse for a fight that ends inconclusively (it gets picked up in the second year of the title) and is, again, generally to whet our appetites for what comes next.

Issues 5 and 6 are a little more standard and consist of that old chestnut, the guest stars introduced to give sales a little goose. Mind you, the guest stars involved are the Inhumans, who I would not have thought had the juice of, say, the Punisher (don't worry, he's coming) but there they are nevertheless. Anyways, the lever of this particular plot is the appearance of the 19th guy to call himself Star-Thief (seriously, there are dozens of these guys around) who's going around blowing up space shuttles and rockets and at the end of it he learns a valuable lesson about fitting in and letting go from the Inhumans, who, let's not forget, are slave-holding assholes.

Thus ends the first collection. Volume 2 begins with the Bengal/Force of Nature arc from #7-9, which is the first big misstep of the book. While the rest of the Warriors sally forth to Brazil to fight an extremist environmentalist group and their pet superteam the Force of Nature (eat it, Captain Planet) which is a good superhero row that moves a few plot threads forward. It's a passable enough story.

The B story is inane and repetitive. The Bengal (who showed up in a Daredevil fill-in, apparently, previous to this) shows up, tries to kill a priest, fails, fights Night Thrasher, Punisher shows up and this goes on with minor variations for THREE DAMN ISSUES and oh my GOD was that two issues too many. Night Thrasher's just not that interesting at this point to carry this arc, the Bengal is a total cipher and the Punisher (of all people) keeps going "now you kids play nice" and . . .yeah, this is a bit of a misstep as, due to the nature of this book, it's very self-contained and so anything that makes us care about what's going on has to be in this book, a prospective reader can't be expected to have consulted outside sources, and most definitely not a barely-remembered Daredevil fill-in.

Anyways, this is mercifully over in time for the Warriors to have a rumble (it even says so in the title of this issue) with the Hellions, which is the exact antithesis of the previous arc in that the stakes are clearly understood (the Hellions want Firestar back, Firestar doesn't want to go) plants some more seeds for the second year of the book. We also get a cliffhanger that leads into the next story in the book, the Nova-centric alternate universe story, "Forever Yesterday."

We don't get that here. That's a shame. Instead we get "Kings of Pain." Without getting too deep into things, after "Evolutionary War" and "Atlantis Attacks," it was decided rather than one long-form crossover that cut through everything, we would instead have smaller crossovers yoked to a line of titles. It was decided for 1991 that the X-titles would add in New Warriors to their crossover for the year. Hi-de-ho.

Only one thing--in the run-up to X-Men #1 and Jim Lee and company really blowing the X-Franchise up, the books involved really had no decent status quo to draw from. So what you end up with is an annual from a canceled title (New Mutants) crossing over with an extant title (New Warriors) a title soon to undergo a massive shift in direction (X-Factor) and a title wherein really none of the main characters appeared (Uncanny X-Men)

The House to Astonish guys have said Kings of Pain is not very good. They're being kind. The reason its widely regarded at all as that next year's crossover ("Shattershot") is even more incomprehensible than this one is.

The plot of "Kings of Pain," as far as I understand is that someone is trying to resurrect Proteus for no real good reason (as it was a rather good story that didn't need to be undone, especially this way) except in the name of scoring some easy points by portraying Proteus and the kid who's involved in his resurrection as equally abused children and . . .then someone says in Chapter 4 something to the effect of "Hey Proteus! Aren't you supposed to be dead?" and Proteus responds "Oh, yeah, I think you're right, actually. I'll just be running along now" and promptly buggers off. Oh and it turns out Toad and Gideon were behind everything, and if you next question is "Who?" the answer is "Exactly." Mannequin was less lightweight than this story.

That said, weak as it is, there is one good bit in this story, and that is the conflict between X-Force and the New Warriors. They have really great chemistry and play off each other really well, and given that Nicieza was writing both books, it seems like the plan was for this to become an annual event. In practice, they do it twice. Missed opportunity, really.

And that's the end of Volume 2. Lord, I wish we'd actually got more New Warriors issue in that one, as you really don't need all of "Kings of Pain" as the Warriors barely figure in the last 2 chapters. That said, this still functions as an example of a book that was able to hold on to its own identity and find its own voice. It's only really later that New Warriors loses its way in the usual ways books like this do--it became its own family of titles for a while, then contracted, then got yoked to the Spider-Man books in the middle of the Clone Saga, then it got canceled. A few revivals have been tried but nothing's really come from it.

But I suppose everyone has their secret love, their hidden treasure, the thing they feel like they discovered and no one else knows about. New Warriors was mine. Give it a look-see of you have a chance.

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