Saturday, May 01, 2010

Out of the Vault - Alter Ego

I've already established that (in my opinion, at least) 1986 was a turning point in the comics industry due to the one-two punch of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. But perhaps nothing illustrates it so clearly as a botched attempt to do basically the same things one year earlier.

Because it isn't as though these two comics came out of nowhere and suddenly turned comics darker. Moore been doing similar things in Swamp Thing and Miracleman for years, and Miller had pulled dark stunts like the death of Elektra in Daredevil. And other creators had also been heading in similar directions at the same time.

Which brings me to Alter Ego, by Roy Thomas and Ron Harris. In the early to mid-80's, there was an enormous surge of energy in comics from a series of ambitious young writers and artists, many of them working with more mature themes than were common in mainstream comics of the time--Nexus, Elfquest, Cerebus the Aardvark, Love and Rockets, Mage for just a few, as well as Miller's and Moore's work. Things hadn't turned dark dark yet, but they were headed in that direction, and the industry was taking notice.

Naturally, not everyone was happy with the direction comics were starting to take. Some folks complained that comics were supposed to be escapism and shouldn't be taken too seriously. Comics should return to their fun-loving roots, they argued.

Then again, you could say that Miller and Moore were respecting history in their own ways. Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Watchmen, Daredevil and Dark Knight all took the idea of existing comics properties with recognizable characters (or thinly-veiled imitations in the case of Watchmen) and turned them in more mature directions while trying to stay true to their histories.

And in 1985, First Comics put out Alter Ego, a four-issue miniseries that seems superficially very similar to Miller's and Moore's masterpieces. In the first issue, young Rob Lindsay discovers a new comics shop in his neighborhood with a mysterious owner who lends him some Golden Age comics, including a mysterious title called Alter Ego that he's never heard of and can't even find in the price guide.

That night, the comics shop is blown up, after which Rob is attacked by several barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age comics villains come to life. He is saved by the comics shop owner, revealed to be the Golden Age character Captain Combat. Cap tells Rob of a war being fought on an alternate Earth, a war that Rob must help to win, or else his Earth will be next. Captain Combat then fades out to a scrap of paper which blows away on the wind.

Rob goes home and discovers a glowing mask that has fallen out of the Alter Ego comic. So he puts it on and is transported to the alternate world, assuming the body and costume of a character named (of course) Alter Ego, where he discovers a bunch of barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age heroes being held prisoner by racist caricatures...

though he soon discovers that they're only racist caricature robots, so that's all right then.

If you wonder what I mean by "barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age heroes," check out that bottom panel above. Surrounding Alter Ego are almost identical versions of the Golden Age heroes Daredevil, Silver Streak, Airboy, Black Terror, Fighting Yank and (I think) Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Only in this comic, they're called Double Dare, Scarlet Streak, Skyboy, Holy Terror, Yankee Doodle and Camille, Queen of the Jungle.

In issue 2, Rob learns that the real villain behind everything is a gigantic monster known as the Crimson Claw (another almost identical knock-off of Golden Age villain, The Claw, from Silver Streak Comics), who has stolen three nukes from our Earth.

He destroys his world's Los Angeles with one, in order to frighten his world's governments into surrendering to him, and plans to use the other two to start World War Three on our Earth. So Rob battles to stop the Crimson Claw while also dealing with his parents' divorce and the death and destruction that he witnesses all around him.

On the surface, Alter Ego is made up of the same elements found in both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns--an abiding respect for comics history, new twists on old characters, superheroics mixed with real-life dramatic concerns, gritty violence with bloody consequences and a high body count, an overarching plot concerning nuclear terror. But it doesn't do any of them very well.

Part of the problem was Harris's clunky art. Another part was the fact that the Golden Age heroes were such transparent knock-offs that it became distracting, especially when there were so many of them (including a cavalcade of jungle heroes that ride to the rescue in the final issue, then all die within a few pages). There were so many that none of them came across as actual characters, just familiar costumes with unfamiliar names. Though a lot of characters died, there was no impact to the deaths because the characters were so paper-thin. And the dramatic scenes of, say, Rob trying to process his parents' divorce fell flat because the writing just felt like the same old Marvel melodrama.

In the end, Alter Ego just felt like old pro Roy Thomas desperately trying to stay relevant in an industry that was being transformed by young turks. A few years earlier, Thomas had been the young turk, writing the biggest titles in the Marvel stable before becoming Editor-in-Chief of the entire line, while oldster Jack Kirby was desperately trying to stay relevant writing those hippie New Gods books at DC. It couldn't have been easy to suddenly see all the attention and adulation going to all these young nobodies who hadn't paid any dues at all.

But Alter Ego was a failed attempt to keep up with an industry that was going through fundamental changes.

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