Friday, 15 March 2013

Essential Dazzler volume 1

Essential Dazzler volume 1 contains the title character's first appearances in X-Men #130-131, Amazing Spider-Man #203 and then issues #1-21 of her own series. Issue #1 was ground-breaking in its day as one of the first ever comics released solely in the Direct Market of print-to-order-no-return comic shops (as opposed to the newsstands that work on a sale-or-return basis), though later on the series appears to have been newsstand distributed as well.

The early Dazzler issues are written by Tom DeFalco who is succeeded by Danny Fingeroth for the rest of the volume. The first few issues are drawn by John Romita Jr, with help from Alan Kupperberg on one issue, before Frank Springer draws the rest of the run. The X-Men issues are scripted by Chris Claremont, co-plotting with artist John Byrne whilst the Amazing Spider-Man issue is written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Keith Pollard.

The credits on her first issue include "Conceived by Alice Donenfeld, John Romita, Jr. and Jim Shooter with some help from Stan Lee, Al Milgrom, Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco." (Donenfeld was Marvel's in-house counsel and Vice-President of Business Affairs.) That's a lot of cooks around the broth. There are multiple accounts of the Dazzler's creation flying around on the internet and it's a little complex to work out which is correct, but Jim Shooter: The Debut of the Dazzler seems to be the account from the closest person available. The basic plan was to have a singer-superhero with a real-life singer doing promotional appearances. The tie-in failed to materialised and the character rested on the backburner whilst the disco scene started fading away, but there were a few guest appearances and eventually her own title materialised. I've previously written about the highly derivative nature of most female solo stars and it's a pleasing change to find one who isn't a female spin-off of an existing male character. However it's less satisfying that she's another mutant - Dazzler was an early example of an all too lazy approach to origins and powers whereby characters simply acquired them through the genes rather than more original means. By all means have many mutants as X-Men focused characters, but at this stage of her career (despite the location of her introduction) Dazzler was grounded in the wider Marvel Universe and deserved something more imaginative.

Judging by the slightly different cover designs used on issues #1 & #2, and the existence on the Marvel Comics Database wiki of a scan of the cover of issue #2 with the alternative design to the one reprinted here, I'm guessing that it was only the first issue which was released solely in the Direct Market and the series became available on newsstands thereafter. I'm in mixed minds about the way issue #1 was released, though the point is rather academic now. But in an era when large portions of comic readers did not have comic shops within easy reach of them, Direct Market only issues were thus out of their reach even if they had a good advance order and reservation arrangement with their newsstands. A pin-up in issue #2 carries at its base a notice of where to write off to in order to get a list of dealers who still had the issue in stock (which seems in incredibly slow and inefficient from the perspective of the internet era) - considering the huge numbers ordered for issue #1 (c420,000 according to some and the fact the series went to newsstands so quickly certainly suggests sales were high enough to support such a move) I'm sceptical that there was an actual shortage of copies in comic shops so perhaps Marvel quickly realised they had excluded a large portion of the fanbase? It was an early sign of the way that comics steadily became ever more inaccessible, selling to those dedicated enough and lucky enough to have access to a specialist comics shop, with many titles unavailable to the total audience base despite them being key issues for understanding crossovers and the like. Sometimes publishers would make an effort to keep the newsstands in the loop - there were some interesting one-shots that reprinted an issue of an otherwise Direct Market only title - but sometimes the readers there would be left with holes in the narrative. Oh sure there are all the issues about the economics of the two systems and the problems comics were facing on the stands, but there were times in subsequent years when it seemed the industry jumped too far in one direction. (I must admit to being a little biased as for most of my comic collecting days I have lacked a specialist shop in my hometown and it was only through the luck of having a season ticket for travel all over the nearby metropolis that gave me reliable access to shops and enabled me to really get into the habit.)

Dazzler has long been dismissed as a joke, a product of Marvel trying to leap onto a fad that was already fading by the time she debuted. Normally when it is noted that her series was outselling Superman, it's invariably to make a big point about DC's poor sales in the era rather than to highlight how well Dazzler was doing at Marvel. And when Essential Dazzler was announced there were many who joked that the title was a contradiction in terms. (In slight fairness the term "Essential" isn't the best for a series dedicated to long sequential runs of titles, but I guess that when the name was picked it was never realised the series would last for so long.) Others even declared their fear of embarrassment when buying the volume. Was this a remnant of the backlash against disco or was it a specific reaction to the character? Or was it perhaps the product of myths that had built up around her, often repeated by people who hadn't checked out the original series themselves?

In a way this volume is ordered almost by readership, or at least modern readership. The two X-Men issues are part of the Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most celebrated storylines of this era of comics if not of all time, and amongst the most reprinted. Unfortunately whilst the artwork captures Dazzler's design pretty well and gives her prominence on the cover of #130, it's clear the writing brief was incredibly limited to "Disco singer with power to transform soundwaves into light". Nothing is given about the character's real name or background and she is ultimately rather incidental in two issues that are really focused on the steady development of Phoenix and the introduction of Kitty Pryde (who later took the identity "Sprite", then "Shadowcat"). The Amazing Spider-Man issue is slightly better as it's more standalone, though the villain is the rather forgettable Lightmaster and once again the writer hasn't really been briefed on the character, at times resorting to possession in order to cover the gaps in characterisation. The issue notably ends with Dazzler and Spider-Man in a very suggestive situation but it wasn't followed up. (This was the tail-end of probably Spider-Man's most crowded period with women, having in the space of a couple of years gone through a proposal & break-up with Mary Jane Watson, an affair with Betty Brant-Leeds, plus the introductions of Cissy Ironwood, the Black Cat, Debra Whitman and Marcy Kane. Maybe the time just wasn't right for Dazzler.) Instead the character faded away from the Spidey-scene, though she did later pop up in at least one issue of Marvel Team-Up.

But didn't I say above that Dazzler #1 sold 420,000 copies? That's the most common figure cited and whilst I don't know if that's an accurate report of the sales records or just a garden rumour passed around (though it's repeated by the-then Editor-in-Chief), it certainly seems impressive. But as a Direct Market only issue, it doesn't mean 420,000 people individually went and purchased an issue. Rather it means there were 420,000 sales at the wholesale level, on a no-return basis, including those that were over-ordered by retailers and just sat around gathering dust. And as an early DM only release (I'm not entirely sure if it was the very first - I've seen conflicting reports) it's possible that the comic shops mispredicted demand (or thought they had a potential investment from back issue sales at a significant mark-up) and over-ordered, as they did in later years with some of the record breaking issues. Nor do we know if there were many speculator collectors who purchased the issue and immediately stored it away in the expectation of its value increasing - again a common practice in later years. So I suspect the number of people who actually purchased & read the first issue at the time is somewhat lower than this headline figure suggests. And of course the comics industry has seen much turnover of fans so many since may have never read the first issue or any of the series at all. If they've encountered Dazzler's early days outside of this volume then it's most likely to have been through her X-Men appearances.

But even reading X-Men #130-131, Amazing Spider-Man #203 and then Dazzler #1-2 can still perpetuate one of the myths about the character. Because it's only really in these issues that the character is explicitly based around disco. (Fortunately the original plan to name the character "The Disco Dazzler" was dropped.) Afterwards she is a more generic singer who can and does take up work in all manner of genres. It's surprising that she doesn't change her stage outfit at any point in this part of her series, but her look had already been established by this time and visual continuity is often key in comics. Nevertheless there are often times when she doesn't stop to change and instead deploys her powers whilst in civilian clothes.

Dazzler's début story is split across two issues and full of guest stars. Is it really the best way to start a new series by having the lead character rescued from thugs by Spider-Man? Similarly in the fourth issue she doesn't escape from Doctor Doom at the end and it's only the arrival of the Human Torch that makes him flee. In the second issue the Enchantress strikes at a night club where Dazzler is singing and several pages are taken up with a battle between the Enchantress's demons and various members of the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. It probably made commercial sense in 1980 to lure readers in with the established stars but it also means the title character is crowded out in her own book. She may not have a desire to go into the superhero profession - in the X-Men issues she turns down membership of the team after all - but that doesn't stop trouble finding her and we get other heroes either guest starring or cameoing in the following issues: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11, #13, #14, #15, #16, #17, #18, #19, #20 & #21. The appearances range from brief scenes giving Dazzler help, such as the Beast doing some quick research for her in issue #5, to substantial interactions such as the two-part Hulk story in issues #6 & #7. (One particularly fun scene comes in issue #2 when chaos breaks out in a nightclub and Peter Parker races into the gents to change into his costume - only to find every cubicle taken by other heroes doing exactly the same thing!)

Similarly many villains from other Marvel series appear, including the Enchantress, Dr. Doom, the Enforcers (Fancy Dan, Montana and the Ox), Klaw, Terrax, the Grapplers (Titania, Screaming Mimi, Letha and Poundcakes), Dr. Octopus and the Absorbing Man. Throw in the presence of Galactus as well and it's a wonder there's any room to breathe. It's not until issue #8 that we get the first clear new villain (although there are generic gangsters and shady characters before that), the Techmaster. And although he's used twice, he falls into the trap of being motivated by revenge on an individual and it's often difficult to open out such characters into more general recurring villains. Unfortunately the next new villains, Johnny Guitar and Doctor Sax, are again seeking revenge upon members of the supporting cast and offer limited opportunities to be opened out into more general recurring foes. In spite of all this there's a concerted effort to keep Dazzler away from some of the conventions of superhero comics, with the real focus being on her developing her career as Alison Blaire and trying to keep her powers secret and away from the more standard heroics, but frequently this fails to stop many situations coming her way.

The aforementioned supporting cast is at least developed quite well into a rather diverse set as we meet the likes of record producer Harry S. Osgood, his secretary Cassandra Ferlenghetti, field manager Lancelot Steele, band members Beefer, Hunch and Marx, and young singer Vanessa Tooks. Away from the music industry there is Paul Janson, a doctor who meets Alison in hospital and dates her for a while before finding her disappearances too much, and Ken Barnett, a lawyer who successfully defends her from the charge of murdering Klaw. On the costumed front there's the Blue Shield aka Joe Cartelli, a crime fighter operating undercover within the New York rackets. Finally there's her family - her supportive grandmother Bella, and her hostile father, Cater Blaire, a judge who believes his daughter is wasting her life with music and should have followed him into law. It's nice to see a case of parental disapproval over two different career paths, instead of a career vs. being a housewife as seen with Ms. Marvel. Then at the end of the volume we meet Alison's long lost mother, Barbara London, in a touching story that explores the rifts in her family as Alison faces similar dilemmas that her mother did, but overcomes them differently.

At its core the series is about a young woman seeking to follow her own dreams and hopes, and not the expectations of those around her. Alison wants to entertain others, not follow her father into law or become a superhero in spite of her powers and the situations she regularly encounters. Consequently there's quite a bit of focus on her day to day struggles to raise enough money just to pay the rent and eat - with some hilarious results as she has to take what singing jobs she can get no matter how embarrassing - and her interactions with those around her. What's also noticeable is just how much of an independent woman Alison is and how little this has to be said explicitly. She's not clingy and dependent upon any man, expect perhaps her producer for signings, and nor is she constantly struggling to overcome expectations of her gender. She isn't a female derivative of an existing male character but is instead her own independent woman, defined by herself and no-one else. Despite the series being over thirty years old, this approach keeps the character fresh and the stories do not feel particularly dated for it. Some of the situations may be a little forced in order to bring Dazzler into contact with either the villains or guest stars, but she reacts like an ordinary person with extraordinary powers. This was the first ongoing solo series to headline a mutant character and we get some glimpses of the problems that would beset them in later years - the struggle to keep their powers secret from all around them despite the need to use them for safety, the hostile reaction of those they've saved and the difficulty in controlling their powers. This latter problem leads to a particularly dark moment when she confronts Klaw, a being composed of solid sound, and is unable to stop her powers from absorbing him completely. At a subsequent trial Dazzler is found not guilty but cannot expunge completely what happened. But the trial also brings the second of her three romances in the volume. In succession she dates Paul Janson, a doctor who bails out on her when he can't stand her disappearances - and he tries to avoid a confrontation by delivering the news in public at a restaurant - then Ken Barnett, the lawyer who successfully defends her and so who is aware of her powers from the outset. But then the Angel takes a shine to her and starts throwing his money around, as though he can simply buy his way into her affections. This leads to some tense moments, but his attempts to woe her do have their upside, as he becomes a strong support to her grandmother when Carter Blaire sinks into depression. The volume ends on a high note as Dazzler performs at Carnegie Hall, wins her father's approval, meets her mother again and finally dances away at a party afterwards.

When I first picked up this volume I wasn't sure of what to expect, given the longstanding mocking of the series. But the more I read, the more I felt that either the problems stem from material yet to come in the second volume (which collects not just issues #22-42 but also the graphic novel Dazzler: The Movie and the Beauty and the Beast limited series) or perhaps even from her later appearances after the series ended, or else Dazzler has been dismissed by generations of half-remembered points and myths. This series is not some over-ripe disco chasing nonsense but instead a good portrayal of a likeable and well developed character who aims to follow her dreams and not conform to the norms. Perhaps too many wanted her to conform to the norms and be a conventional superhero series, but instead we get something highly original. The artwork is good to even better, especially under Frank Springer, and the writing strong. Oh and her costume is a delight - it may have been dated even at the time, but it's a pity it was subsequently changed.

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