Saturday, February 07, 2009

Out of the Vault - DNAgents

In 1983, as the direct market was first finding its feet, several independent publishers jumped into the market and started publishing new titles to compete with Marvel and DC. One of the first and most fondly remembered is Eclipse Comics' The DNAgents.

Created by Saturday morning animation veterans Mark Evanier and Will Meugniot, the DNAgents were five superpowered teenagers who had been genetically engineered in a lab by the Matrix Corporation, and were used as corporate troubleshooters/bodyguards. The five were Surge, who could shoot electricity; Tank, super-strong and super-tough; Rainbow, a telepath and illusionist who relayed orders from their bosses at Matrix and functioned as a leader; Amber, who created electromagnetic discs that she could use as force shields or weapons; and Sham, an insecure shapeshifter who could also fire any weapon made.

The series ran for about two years under its original title, then switched gears and became The New DNAgents for another 17 issues.

Thinking back, I had thought that I would write a big entry on the DNAgents, but couldn't remember much about them. Digging into the Vault, I discovered that I only have four issues. No wonder I couldn't remember them well. But why did I only buy four issues? Rereading the issues, I remembered.

They were bland.

I'm not sure what it was specifically. Meugniot's art was part of the problem. He has done storyboards on tons of shows I really liked, but his skills didn't translate well to the page. His layouts were often cramped and confusing, which resulted in stiff, unnatural figures.

For instance, the panel at right, featuring Surge fighting the hit-man Luger. There are two big figures performing four simultaneous actions (Surge drawing glass fragments out of his eyes while shooting lightning, Luger dodging the lightning while throwing a knife at Surge). The layout takes your eye in a nice circle and down to the next panel below, but the two figures are really crammed in there, with Luger in particular having to wrench into a painful pose.

At the same time, the writing was walking a strange line between reality and fantasy. The DNAgents tried to seem more realistic than Marvel and DC comics by using genetic engineering and corporate malfeasance to ground its setting. And the characters went through their share of angst, with Surge especially going through a dark phase as he attempted to avenge the death of his one true love in issue 3.

But the added "realism" just made the superhero aspects of the story that much harder to accept. In issue 10, Surge's and Tank's girlfriends react with horror when they discover that their boyfriends are artificially-created organisms with superpowers. It was supposed to be poignant or something, but all I could think of was, "Their names are Surge and Tank. You had to know something was up." (And if you are wondering about Surge's girlfriend in issue 10 when he's mourning the loss of his true love from issue 3, well, let's just say that consistent characterization wasn't a strong point, either).

Another problem was the tension between Evanier's Saturday morning instincts and the attempt to introduce more adult fare into the comic. Meugniot loved to draw cheesecake into the comic, such as the above shot of the DNAgents in their breeding tank, or this shot from issue 2 of Tank's soon-to-be-girlfriend (and later-to-be-ex-girlfriend) in a towel.

(And given what has happened in the comics market since, it's amazing to note just how controversial this was in 1983--the issues I have print several letters complaining about the semi-nudity in the book)

At the same time, you had villains like Mega-Man, a combination of Transformers and Voltron (a giant robot formed from the combination of five transforming trucks). The silliness destroyed the realism and undercut the mature aspects, while the darkness and adult overtones made it harder to accept the silliness.

Which isn't to say it was a bad book. It was just dull enough and inconsistent enough that I wasn't compelled to keep picking it up. The best thing to come out of it, in fact, was its spin-off, Crossfire (which will be discussed separately some other time).

If you're interested in seeing DNAgents for yourself, the early issues were collected into a trade paperback just last year.

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