Saturday, April 19, 2008

Out of the Vault - The One

This week's Out of the Vault was a hard one to write for some reason. I made the scans, knew the kinds of things I wanted to say, and yet, it just never seemed to want to come together the right way.

It's hard to remember the way things were in the mid-80's. If you believed the media, there was widespread paranoia about nuclear holocaust. Ronnie Ray-Gun was in the White House, and he was craaaaazy, man. He had this silly idea about putting satellite-mounted weapons in orbit to shoot down the Russkie's nukes, and this, along with his general belligerence toward the Evil Empire, was going to push us into global thermonuclear war. We were doomed.

You saw this in movies like 1983's "War Games" with Matthew Broderick and the TV movie, "The Day After," also from 1983. Songs like Nena's "99 Luftballons" also conjured up the specter of nuclear holocaust. Even comics got in on the act.

Everybody remembers Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, both of which play off of nuclear paranoia are generally regarded as ushering in the grim-n'gritty comics of the 90's. But before either of those comics came Rick Veitch's The One.

Veitch, along with Steve Bissette, was one of the first graduates of the Kubert school. Veitch and Bissette collaborated on several stories for Marvel's Epic Illustrated before Bissette moved on to draw Swamp Thing for DC. Veitch would take over the character when Bissette moved on, but first he made this six-issue adult-oriented take on nukes and superheroes for Marvel's Epic Comics imprint.

In issue 1, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. launch nuclear strikes at each other. Before the missiles can strike, however, they are stopped by a mysterious flying figure known as The One. A large proportion of the world's population is unaware of this, however, since they were catatonic at the time. In the aftermath of the failed nuclear strike, both the Americans and the Russians release super-powered soldiers as the next generation of the arms race. The superhumans come into conflict, ultimately destroying the world. However, before the world can end, the good souls of the world complete the next phase of our evolution. Turns out The One was an oversoul created by the merging of humanity's collective soul. While the evil humans struggle to survive on the blasted, barren earth (merging into giant snakelike piles of wretched creatures struggling to reach the top of the pile as in the illustration at right), The One flies off to explore the universe.

It's an odd duck, this story. Unlike the classic stories soon to come from Miller and Moore, The One is quite clearly a product of its time, straddling a delicate line between drama and satire. This was during that strange period on the mid-80's when you could literally play rape for laughs. In addition, Veitch was one of those guys who seemed to think you should relate to unpleasant nihilistic characters as if they were just like you.

This was also early in Marvel's Epic line-up, when they were still trying to establish proper boundaries. This is a story about the death of hte entire world, after all, featuring widespread destruction, graphic dismemberment, drug use, rape, incest. Yet the only nudity I can remember is one partially revealed nipple, and the entire book uses the rather silly euphemism "shuck," as in, "I'll kill you, mothershucker!" It's hard to take it seriously as adult drama when you read dialogue like that.

And yet, in a lot of ways, The One was ahead of its time. It anticipated the deconstruction of the superhero that would continue apace into the 90's. What's more, Veitch pushed his super action over the top in ways that would look very familiar to later fans of Japanese manga and anime, say, Dragonball Z. For instance, look at the scenes below, first of Cell in Dragonball powering up his chi and causing devastation without lifting a finger. Then look at the sequence from The One, in which the Soviet super destroys a building merely by flexing his muscles really hard.

Another even more startling example: This scene, in which millions of souls merge into The One before leaving Earth...

reminded me rather forcefully of this scene from "End of Evangelion" when all the souls on Earth merge into Rei Ayanami (starting about 5 minutes in).

Veitch later took over not only the pencilling duties on Swamp Thing, but the writing as well, and later returned to satirical over-the-top super action with Maximortal and Brat Pack.

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