Time for some more Friday fun, and to celebrate my recent acquisition of the final title I needed to complete the entire John Ostrander run of Suicide Squad, I thought I’d take a look at five comic book teams that haven’t had the benefit of a recent ongoing run or shitty-Will-Smith-movie-I-still-love-because-shut-up.
So here are five comic book teams that a) need to make a return and b) need to be given to me to write, because it’s my idea and my website, so there.
5 for Friday: The Lee Teams
If there’s one thing DC do better than Marvel… one thing other than shooting themselves in the foot over and over again with nonsensical reboots, shitting all over beloved characters, and stripping themselves of creative staff on a regular basis until it’s just the unpaid intern with a box of crayons and a pad of post-it notes, that is… it’s the creepy stuff.
Truth is, they have an absolute cornucopia of shadowy, occult, oddball characters that will never have a snowball’s chance of making the A-list alongside the scrubbed-clean child-friendliness of Zatanna, and Captain Marvel, and however they’ve managed to royally fuck up John Constantine this time out. Characters that fit into DC canon even less comfortably three-colour-wise than Deadman. You know, characters like an intelligent alcoholic chimpanzee that hates humans and a guy who wears a costume made out of rags steeped in the corrupted souls of people he kills.
Those kind of characters. And given the world-devouring financial muscle generated by the Marvel Cinematic Soap Opera Universe these days, it’s actually hard to understand why DC is sacrificing the credibility of its small stable of classic ‘heavyweight’ heroes by directly competing. But what they could do, and could do superbly well, is resurrect… if not the actual moment, at least the slightly countercultural vibe of the Vertigo days, when they took naff characters like Shade and Sandman and reinvented them as beautifully realised, weird-as-living-fuck alternative realities that we devoured because, damn it, they were just. so. damn. good.
And Shadowpact is just sitting there, waiting. A fully realised Vertigo 2021 title, full of seriously damaged goods (I mean, honestly, read Nightshade’s bio before Rebirth blanded her out. And she’s one of the more normal ones). Give a semi-decent horror author the keys to the character cabinet, let them loose, and wait. Maybe a semi-decent horror author who’s looking to get back some of the career they’ve lost over the last couple of years of personal tragedies. Maybe one who’s living somewhere out in country Australia, who can devote the time to it. Maybe a fat one, with a greying beard. Who knows?
And honestly, if the idea of a balls out, creepy AF, no-fucks-given title like that isn’t enough to make you go “Oooh, me wanna”, then go and watch an episode of the (admittedly pretty damn good) Doom Patrol TV series produced by that TV channel which is a partnership between CBS (You know, where The Beverly Hillbillies and Murder She Wrote came from) and Warner Brothers (Yibbida yibbida…), and reflect on how that used to be the title based around the idea of characters too damaged for the mainstream confronting villains and plots too outlandish and out-there for the JLA and the spandex mob… and now they share a line-up with World’s Funniest Animals and Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Come. Time. Idea. Has. Whose. Any order you like.
Justice League Antarctica
There was a time, back in the day, when the Justice League of America was a dead title. Nobody gave a shit about it, and nobody but nobody read it. The JLA typified all that was wrong, and corporate, and drab, and one-dimensional about comics. It was square. It was square upon square.
And then Keith Giffen came along, and threw it all out, and turned it into the funniest superhero comic book anyone had seen since Ambush Bug. Suddenly, Giffen could do no wrong: it was his Universe, and we were just living in it. Which lead to a whole passel of offshoots like Formerly Known as The Justice League, I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League, and, well, this. A book in which the JL get so bugged by a bunch of incompetent sorta-villains with monikers like ‘Clock King’ and (I swear to God) ‘Mighty Bruce’ that they draft them and send them to Antarctica, where they are immediately set upon by a pack of genetically altered killer penguins.
Trust me, it’s as funny as it sounds. If you find it funny. Which I did.
Now. Wait. Hear me out. The thing is, this was way before books like Suicide Squad and Dark Avengers took bad-guys-being-bad-guys-but-also-being-good-guys-while-acting-like-bad-guys into the mainstream. And Giffen was a gagmeister at the height of his can-do-whatever-he-wantsness. But the basic set-up is actually really solid as the basis for a dramatic narrative. Checkit:
What if you play it straight? Take a group of D-string villains, and send them to the bottom of the world to get them out of the way. And then, because it is so out of the way, they start discovering stuff for which ‘out of the way’ is the perfect breeding ground. Mountains of Madness stuff. Alien invasion stuff. Challengers of the Unknown stuff. Weird, off-the-scale stuff that nobody would believe, and they sure as shit don’t believe it, because look who’s telling them it’s there. Would you believe someone who calls himself The Cluemaster?
A pack of outclassed, outgunned, and outweirded losers, stuck at the bottom of the world, having to become the heroes they flirted with becoming, but for real, because there is Absolutely. No. Choice. and there’s something outside trying to rip the head off the world and shit down its neck?
It’s Suicide Squad on LSD, Doom Patrol on magic mushrooms. And I think it would work like crazy.
Never mind wondering about who watches the watchmen. Who watches who watches the watchmen? Well, the answer to that is Checkmate, an international agency answering directly to the UN Security Council, tasked with monitoring, evaluating, and ultimately, acting on, unauthorised metahuman activity.
Checkmate is a rare and strange beast. As much as it is a superhero comic, it is also, and much more interestingly, a political comic. The Checkmate organisation has a hierarchy split between operational (the punchy bits) and the liaison and planning (the talky bits), and what’s more, there’s a very careful balance maintained between metas and non-powered humans. Both sides of the heirarchy contains an equal number of meta and non-powered characters, and gender-balanced to boot, and no position contains more than one of each. If the White King (male head of the talky talky section) is a meta, then the White Queen (female head) is human. Ditto the Black (punchy punchers) King and Queen. Ditto their XOs (Bishops), and their operational staff (Knights). So, for example, when the White King is the Green Lantern Alan Scott, the White Queen is Amanda Waller.
And if you don’t see the potential for conflict in those two names having to work together peacefully, you’ve not been paying attention. And if also you don’t believe it can be fascinating to watch a Green Lantern in his civvies, not using his ring, talking to a bunch of UN suits around a desk, you really should read this title.
In essence, the whole comic is a narrative about maintaining balances of power. Even when Superman makes an appearance, he doesn’t just get to go flying off punching whomever he pleases. There are rules, and even Supes has to follow them.
Of course, given that the person in charge of the non-operational half of Checkmate is Amanda Waller, and given half the meta staff are ex-or-not-quite-as-ex-as-they-seem villains, and given that it’s an international organisation– so you have Americans and Russians and Chinese and Israelis all pulling the agenda towards their own clandestine political ends…. well, tits up is a fair rule of thumb for most of the attempts to maintain that balance.
Thing is, though, it’s exactly that balance, and the struggle to maintain it, which makes Checkmate a unique beast among comic books. It’s closer to the book that more mainstream ‘team’ titles like Avengers and Justice League try to be but fail to achieve. Inevitably, without a human element, even team books become ‘punch in the face of the week’ stories, because when all you have is big muscly people draped in latex and adrenalin, it’s too simple to play rock’em sock’em robots with them. That’s what they’re for. But Checkmate cleverly defangs that option. Firstly by limiting the ‘supers’ to those who need a regular paycheck, so you have Fire instead of Wonder Woman, and Count Vertigo instead of Green Lantern. And secondly, by focusing on the very real political consequences of superpowered vigilantes blundering in to any international situation they don’t like the look of: wanna nip over to China and slap a bunch of scientists around because you don’t like their human rights abuses? Checkmate gets to deal with the fact you’ve violated sovereign airspace, assaulted however many civilian government employees, blown a dozen international treaties into kindling, and, oh, you know, initiated an act of war….
It’s a constant powderkeg, and because it’s balanced so nicely between two differing forms of narrative, it has the ability to switch between them to constantly refresh itself. It’s one of the cleverest, most complex, and sophisticated superhero comics that I’ve read over the years.
There’s always space for a bit of maturity amongst the flashing colours.
Legion of Monsters
Legion of Monsters is nuts. The monstrous outcasts of the Marvel Universe — Morbius, the Living Vampire, Werewolf by Night, the Man-Thing, N’Kantu the Living Mummy, the Manphibian, and others — are thrown together by chance and circumstance, and take up residence in the Morlock Tunnels under New York, where they attempt to create a workable civilisation for others like them. And when things even worse than themselves come knocking, well… they form some committees, take votes, and attempt to… wait, what? Arrest it?
Well of course: just because they’re monsters, doesn’t mean they’re savages.
Seriously, it’s a hoot. If you’ve ever wondered what a werewolf and a mummy would find to argue about while fighting a horde of parasitic vampires, and your answer isn’t “Who Elsa Bloodstone finds hotter”, then you need to hunt some of this stuff down. And yet there’s a very serious underpinning to what is often presented as very self-aware high farce. Because, at its heart, this is a book about the need to create a culture and society from scraps, and to hang on to what makes you a sentient, moral creature when you’re judged on nothing but your appearance and the superstition of others. Morbius may be a vampire, but he’s a vampire by accident, and one obsessed with reversing his condition and regaining what he views as his lost humanity, when he can’t see that it is his humanity that distinguishes him as he is. Werewolf by Night is exactly that: half a creature half of the time, and one trapped within the form of a human for half his day. And vice versa. N’Kantu is the exact opposite: a dead man trapped in a state that just won’t allow him to be what he is meant to be: dead.
And so on, and so forth.
Marvel has a rich history of monster characters, and they’re rarely used with anything approaching verve or elan. Legion of Monsters has two very short runs in its past, but it could be used as a perfect metaphor for the kind of cultural isolation, persecution, and alienation we’re seeing played out right now, particularly in America, where pitchforks and burning crosses are doing big business.
Do I need to go on? I’ve gone mental about Planetary before. More than once. It’s exactly the kind of hyper-paranoid conspiracy theory nutbar-flavoured slice of fruitcake I absolutely love, and at 27 issues, it clearly ran for far too short a time. It’s gone on to be remembered as a slightly less-striking adjunt to The Authority, which is unfair to a title that has a cynical, Challengers of the Unknown Who Don’t Give a Fuck vibe that is all its own.
Anyway, as the reviews above show, I love the damn thing, I would write it for half pay and a six-pack of ginger beer, and I think I should be allowed to, right now.