Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Shadow(hawk) Falls Over 1963

Comics have long history of ham-handed attempts at controversy and social relevance. Even the best of this stuff doesn't age very well and looks clumsier and more dated as time goes on. I'm looking at you, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Here now is the story of the most misguided train wreck of a comic in my vast collection. Shadowhawk #14: "The Monster Within" Part Three: "I'd Rather Be In 1963".

Image comics’ heyday of the early ‘90s was an interesting time for me. Comics were sucking as they rarely had before or since, but I'm way into this comic thing, as you may have guessed by now, and my stint in the Navy meant I had more disposable income than ever before. I spent my money on some pretty dicey things back then, and a lot of first issues of things that never went anywhere, but I never did embrace any of the core Image titles. I probably had the least interest in Shadowhawk, Jim Valentino’s signature creation. Shadowhawk was Image’s dark, brutal vigilante-with-a-twist, one who broke his enemies’ spines rather than kill them. At Image, this made him a flower sniffing, bleeding-heart pacifist. He also had the AIDS, a condition that defined him throughout his early adventures. Mind you, he didn’t get it from sex, but rather by being injected with the virus by mobsters. Because that’s what mobsters do, you know. All that "whacking" you hear about is more like "jabbing".

At any rate, Shadowhawk? Not gay! Mob guys did it!!

One Image series I did devour, however, was 1963, the brilliant, six issue retro-comics written for Image by Alan Moore and drawn in early faux-Marvel style by frequent Moore collaborators Rick Veitch, Don Simpson, Dave Gibbons, and Steve Bissette, among others.

was all at once a loving pastiche of silver-age Marvel and an ongoing narrative starting with 1963:Mystery Incorporated through the final issue, 1963:The Tomorrow Syndicate. That issue followed the Tomorrow Syndicate (who bore a striking resemblance to the Avengers) on a trans-dimensional journey through Alternity in search of the missing Mystery Incorporated (think Fantastic Four). They sail through an infinite maze of possible realities, including glimpses of pretty much every significant independent comic of the era with glimpses of Cerebus, Mister Monster, the Flaming Carrot, etc... At the end, The Syndicate reach a darker, grimmer Earth than their own, one where the air is thicker, the light more harsh. One that feels fundamentally wrong to them. Then Youngblood's Shaft is revealed to be the mysterious kidnapper that they were pursuing. They've crossed over to the Image universe:

And that 1963 Annual? Yeah, that shit never happened. Shadowhawk #14 was published a full year after 1963: The Tomorrow Syndicate was released. It was just sinking in that we were never ever ever gonna see the long-promised 1963 Annual from Image or from anyone else. That meant that I picked up Shadowhawk #14, with its gratuitous 1963 guest appearances, in hopes of recapturing that 1963 magic. Much to my eternal horror and shame.

“I Want to be…in 1963!” finds Shadowhawk in the middle of a time and dimension hopping quest to cure his AIDS. For some reason, Shadowhawk has been bonded to a living computer named Phoebe, who is providing him with vital information and charting his trip through Alternity, all the better to deliver lots and lots of exposition and handy plot shortcuts as necessary:

Wolverine?!? Wicked kewl!! Shadowman?!? Decidedly less so!

If you were unsure whether or not a two-fisted superhero comic packed with alternate timelines, magic computer voices, time travel, outlandish super-freaks, and teleportation was the best place to have a thoughtful examination of one of the most tragic and devastating illnesses of our time, you’re about to be convinced fo shizzle.

Our hero, sick and aching, arrives in 1963 on the latest leg of his journey and encounters the Fury. In true Marv...er... '63 fashion, the two immediately begin battling:

Thus begins the first of many fight scenes, not to mention the first of a lot of expository banter about how dark and grim Shadowhawk is, and how naive the 1963 heroes are. Implicit throughout this issue is the suggestion that Image’s brutal, violent antiheroes are better, faster, prettier, and generally super-awesomer than the old guard.

The fight ends when Shadowhawk keels over and must pause to take his medicine:

You will note that this is somewhat less good than the Alan Moore stuff, and a poor substitute for the 1963 Annual; that cliffhanger goes unaddressed in this story. Valentino had a hand in 1963, penciling the Johnny Beyond story in 1963:Tales From Beyond, and delivering a fair semblance of Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange in the process. I don't have any particular gripe about the art in this issue. Doesn't mean he shoulda been the next guy to write them, is all I'm saying.

So Fury calls in the Tomorrow Syndicate to see if Thor stand-in Horus can help:

No dice, naked bird-head man. The Horus treatment revives Shadowhawk just a bit, but he can still feel the disease eating away at him. Shadowhawk then suggests that they go after Comrade Cockroach in order to stop his plan altogether via time-travel trickery. Anybody who’s ever read a time travel story knows how well that works, but some people are a bit thick. The now united Tomorrow Syndicate and Shadowhawk then travel to the Cockroach's lair via Deus-Ex-Phoebe’s magic…teleportation…thing somehow:

So they spend a few pages fighting, and Shadowhawk learns a thing or two about teamwork just before totally flipping the fuck out:

Haven’t we all wanted to travel through time and space with our magic computer chum and punch history in the face with our clawed talons? Oh yes we have. Now at this point, you might think that the best course would be to capture and restrain the AIDS infected guy, right? I mean, if you stopped him, you might still be able to quarantine him and stop the disease, right? Sorry, baby, that’s not Shadowhawk’s style. To re-iterate: totally flipping the fuck out Is Shadowhawk's style:

Turn aroundTurn aroundTurn around, you stupid bastards!!! Turn around right now and you can still stop…

SIGH. Never mind. The heroes of two eras eschew pursuit to deal with more important matters. There’s still a whole entire dead horse to be beaten, after all:

With options diminishing, and no one among the gods and monsters present able to track down a non-powered human apparently, the heroes return to the city where the beatnik sorcerer Johnny Beyond takes a crack at the AIDS monster and fails:

Huh. AIDS must not be that bad. I’ve seen WAY scarier monsters in comics.

So in the end, Shadowhawk takes his leave, and everyone is sad because they couldn’t do more.

Keep in mind, AIDS was a huge big deal at the time. It was in all the papers, and a real hot topic. Not that its been cured since, or anything; we’ve just been distracted by other craziness since. This is America, after all, where we don’t ever solve our problems, we just forget about them until its time for them to be the crisis du jour again.

This story would have been perfectly acceptable had it been about Shadowhawk’s quest for the MacGuffin serum, the cause of his fatal case of Virus X. Framing it as the Secret Origin of AIDS, however, made this one of the worst of the many terrible comics I own. If there had been an internet back then, I’m pretty sure it would have imploded when this issue was released, but as it is, I don’t recall any controversy over this at all.

Finally, this joke comes with one Hell of a punch line. Remember how up there I was explaining the 1963 series and the Tomorrow Syndicate’s journey through Alternity? I summarized all of that to tell you this: The Image Universe is very specifically NOT that of the 1963 characters. I imagine that in the present day "1963 universe", Hypernaut and U.S.A. just got done battling each other in the Revolutionary War, Hypernaut was assassinated, and the Fury was unmasked on live Television. I'm not sure what would have been happening in the Image universe circa 1963; I think Team Zero was doing bloody black-ops work in Montenegro, and Henry Bendix was...um...Stormwatch Prime... Er…Grifter?

Anyway, they're not the same time line. Well, I don’t think Mr. Valentino got the memo, because Shadowhawk #14 acts as if this was truly the origin of the AIDS outbreak in Shadowhawk’s (ie: "the real") world, but Comrade Cockroach only introduced AIDS to his (1963 Universe) timeline, and not to the Image Universe proper, rendering the whole stupid story a moot point!

Ecch. Now my head hurts. Bad Comic!

1963 is copyright Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and Stephen R. Bissette.
The Hypernaut, The Fury and N-Man are copyright and trademark Stephen R. Bissette.


googum said...

Guff. I read a good chunk of bad comics, but you took a bullet on that one.

I didn't read any of the 1963 issues until long after they had been out, which is probably just as well: I would've gotten all worked up over the Annual, but since I had never seen it I thought it was a joke.

Brian Hughes said...

Yeah, the joke was on us.

Isn't bashing an Image comic some sort of blogger rite of passage? I feel like I've passed a milestone here...or is that kidney stone?

Phillip said...

Well, shit. I read one or two of those 1963 comics when they came out. I only recently got the full run, so I only just got to the cliffhanger ending. I never knew they never printed the Annual... nuts.

Damn you, 90's comics!!

The Mutt said...

I, Grigor Kokarovitch, don't know whether to laugh or cry. The secret origin of A.I.D.S. Sheesh!

Were all those villains Alan Moore creations? The names sound very Moore.

Here's hoping for a Johnny Beyond vs The Beastnik miniseries to retcon this all away.

Brian Hughes said...

Yes, all the villains were featured in various 1963 stories and created by Moore. The Voidoid was originally going to be called the Void, but I guess there was also a Void in Wildcats, so someone changed it to the awful, awful Voidoid. Wosrt re-name ever.

Anonymous said...

This was done much better in the underrated Squadron Supreme miniseries written by Mark Gruenwald.

He has Tom Thumb go into the future and try and find a cure for his cancer. Its much, much better than this as you can imagine.

Anonymous said...

The Voidoid's name is a tribute to the band Richard Hell & the Voidoids. So not a re-name at all, but intentional.

Manolis Vamvounis said...

Great article, been doing research on AIDS as presented in comic books and this is a treasure chest!