Friday, 24 January 2014

Essential Dazzler volume 2

Essential Dazzler volume 2 contains issues #22-42 of the character's solo series plus the four issue mini-series Beauty and the Beast, Marvel Graphic Novel #12 entitled "Dazzler: The Movie", and Secret Wars II #4. Writing wise the volume covers the end of Danny Fingeroth's run on the series and the concluding run by Archie Goodwin. In between is a turbulent period with issues written by Steven Grant, Frank Springer, Jim Shooter, Ken McDonald, Mike Carlin, Linda Grant and Bob DeNatale. Most of the issues are drawn by Frank Springer and the last ones by Paul Chadwick; other artists include Mark Bright, Geof Isherwood and Tom Morgan. Shooter writes both the graphic novel and the Secret Wars II issue, they are drawn by Springer and Al Milgrom respectively. Finally Beauty and the Beast is written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by Don Perlin. Given the page lengths of some of these the result is the single largest Essential volume to date. So it's no surprise that some of the labels are in a separate post.

This volume comes in a period when the concept of a family of X-Men titles was starting to come together, and would climax at the end of 1985 with the introduction of X-Factor. In the process Dazzler gets ever more drawn into the core themes of the mutant titles as prejudices grow. Appropriately for this shift the very last panel sees the Beast raising his new team with her, though instead a resurrected Marvel Girl would take the place. Was Dazzler axed to free up the character with the intention of using her in X-Factor? It's hard to say though as the last few issues contain all the signs of a series in desperate straits and making a last ditch attempt to turn sales around - the series had been bimonthly for a while, and now it had a new creative team, a new costume and a new logo - then it's doubtful that the series would have lasted much longer anyway.

Sadly this volume shows the series drifting, with changing creative teams changing the premise as they go. In the process Alison Blaire/Dazzler gets moved from New York to the West Coast for not particularly convincing reasons, ditching her supporting cast as she goes and never really replacing them. For most of the run the premise of a superpowered being who has no interest in being a superhero but just wants to live an ordinary life is adhered to, but with limited input as Alison drifts through life and romantic interests, with the series steadily going off the rails. Her original stage costume disappears after issue #26 (bar a brief reappearance in the Beauty and the Beast limited series) and a replacement doesn't arrive until issue #38. It's true the original costume bore all the hallmarks of the disco era that had long passed by this time, both in the series and in wider society, but it always gave Dazzler a distinctive appearance. I'm glad to see that a cover featuring it (#26) was used for the front cover of the volume, as the new costume introduced in issue #38 has dated even more and is extremely generic.

From issue #27 to #35 each issue was graced with a highly stylised painted cover by Bill Sienkiewicz. Painted and photographic covers can look amazing but they are also extremely vulnerable to publication flaws. Unfortunately the black and white reproduction is exceptionally harsh on them, turning many into very dark pages that remove the attraction of them. Worst of all is the cover of the graphic novel, though at least it hides some of the 1984 hairstyles. Is it me or was the fashion of 1984 the ultimate in bad taste?

One area where the series does improve a lot on the issues in the first volume is in having a much lesser reliance on the wider Marvel universe, with many more issues focusing upon characters original to the series. But that's not to say there aren't some appearances and at first we still have the Angel flying about in the early issues, then when in danger Alison engages the Heroes for Hire, Power Man and Iron Fist, then later she's recruited by the Inhumans and encounters practically the entire Royal Family. In the last few issues she trains with the X-Men, then has the Beast come to save her at the end. Then there's the villains such as the slightly renamed Sisterhood of Evil Mutants, consisting of Mystique, Rogue and Destiny, mutant hunters sent by regular government arsehole Henry Peter Gyrich, the duo of Moonstone and Blackout and finally Tatterdemalion. And there's even a surprise appearance by none other than Millie the Model, complete with her rival Chili Storm. Millie now runs a modelling agency that Alison signs for, only to discover sinister goings on with the finger seemingly pointing at Chili. The Marvel universe also intrudes with two wider events, one a mega crossover, the other a theme month.

Issue #30 fell in Assistant Editor's Month, when the Marvel editors went off to the San Diego Comics Convention and left power to go to the heads of their assistants. Here that's more literal than most as Alison briefly flees Los Angeles and accepts a lift to the convention with none other than editor Ralph Macchio, unaware a military group are tracking her and the second-in-command is determined to sort the problem out during his brief period in charge. Meanwhile in New York power has also gone to the head of the assistant editor, a young Bob Harras as he gets ever more dictatorial, demanding all manner of bizarre changes on his titles... until Ralph phones in and suddenly the power drains away. All these years later and Harras has since  been Editor-in-Chief at both Marvel and now DC, so I wonder how he and other creators now feel about this portrayal. Amidst all this the main story of Alison fighting a soldier who is mutated into a dinosaur man due to a military device is almost an afterthought.

The other wider Marvel event the series ties into is Secret Wars II. Issue #4 is included here and it sees the Beyonder trying to understand the concept of "love", picking on Alison to woe. Eventually she seemingly succumbs and he empowers her to be his equal but then he realises his mistake and releases her form his mind control. He then returns her to her previous situation in issue #40 but gets briefly tied up in a battle in her own series. This particular Secret Wars II crossover is frankly a distraction from the regular series, neither offering a special character piece that shows the series's star in an enhanced light nor a one-off adventure that can be easily brushed aside but instead just adds a needless element to the series's final storyline. All in all it demonstrates the tick-box approach to crossovers that seek to take in every series no matter how awkward this is.

In the meantime the series introduces some more original characters but with one exception it doesn't really develop them. Early on Alison befriends Lois London, her half-sister who turns out to be another mutant. Lois is horrified when she discovers she has the power to generate energy in moments of stress, and believes she's killed a man. This causes her to flee, with Alison leaving New York to help her, but even after Lois is cleared, Alison doesn't return home. In Los Angeles Alison befriends Janet McEntee, one of her aerobics students but not much comes of this. Then at the end she is captured and then aided by O.Z. Chase, a grizzled bounty hunter, and his fierce dog Cerberus, who has a strong appetite for beer and cigars. Chase and Cerberus make for a slightly comical pair as they drive across the country in pursuit, with Chase often declaring how much he hates the dog yet he can never get rid of him.

There are also a number of new foes include Flame, an arsonist for hire and Revenge Inc, a group of mercenaries who carry out elaborate retributions for clients. There's also less superpowered ones with Alison having to handle a deranged obsessive stalker, soldiers sent to tackle the mutant "threat", and the Racine Ramjets, a nasty all-female gang. Finally in an extended story at the end of the series, Dazzler is pursued by Dust and Silence, two individuals who survived horrific drug experiments that have left them trying to survive by bizarre means, and the hordes of offspring of others subject to the drugs, arranged as the "New Wave" including Deathgrip, the Outriders, a trio a powered motorcyclists, Jared and Chunk. And then there's a succession of Hollywood sleazeballs in the graphic novel.

I've written about my dislike of graphic novels in previous posts (namely Essential Killraven volume 1 and Power Pack Classic volume 2) so I'll refrain from going through my general criticisms of the format yet again. However here we see some specific problems caused by using them to feature major events in the life of a character with an ongoing series. As well as all the accessibility problems, any delay on such a graphic novel forces a series either to have a jump in the narrative or else to tread water for up to months on end. The latter seems to have been the strategy adopted here, with the result that Alison has been in Hollywood and around Roman Nekoboh for a while, making some of her naivety hard to swallow whilst his pursuit of her seems even less natural.

"Dazzler: The Movie" frankly isn't worth the build-up or any contemporary extended wait. Whilst the art looks good even when muddied by the reproduction that turns the unremovable colour into an excess of grey, the story is very pedestrian, focusing upon the sleazy side of Hollywood and the way Alison lets it consume her. Men try to indirectly buy their way into bed with her, and she eventually succumbs to the advances of Roman Nekoboh after he showers her with attention and gifts, fakes an affair for the media to get her to play along, chases her, commits sexual harassment if not sexual assault and fakes a heart attack to make her care for him. Nekoboh (the name is Hoboken backwards - Frank Sinatra's birthplace - and the forename is the clincher) is an aged once-great movie star who doesn't realise that he's in the has-been phase of his career. Bald, overweight and short-sighted, he wears a wig, corset, contacts and false teeth to present a younger, slimmer image to the world, a sign of the fakeness of the environment Alison has stepped into. Her submission is a sign of the poor way she's handled here. Moving beyond her singing career she tries her hand at acting - a combined career that's surprisingly common in the industries - and winds up making a movie with Nekoboh. But her naivety persists and she finds herself taking part in a stunt to reveal her to the world as a mutant, in the hope of boosting the movie's profile and overcoming prejudice by showing the capacity for mutants to do good, but it backfires spectacularly when her powers overload, causing fear and hatred. It's possible to see foreshadows of more recent storylines that focus on how the world reacts to having potentially dangerous superpowered beings in their midst, as well as a parallel to the real life problems many LGBT celebrities have faced when they've come out or been forced out. But the graphic novel is let down by the poor treatment of the central character, showing her as a fool who succumbs to the sleazy side of Hollywood, to the point where she takes a look in the mirror and sees herself as an ever fattening smoker, realising what's she's become and hating it. (It also misses a trick by not exploring the obvious comparison with her mother's life.) Eventually she discovers how she's been manipulated all along by a man whose advances she rejected when working at a gym club and then quit her job when he purchased the club to try to have her. What we're left with is some good ideas but badly executed with a fall out on the main series, both by forcing it to tread water to line up with the graphic novel but also by shifting the character away from her roots and pushing her into a marginalised existence as she tries to survive despite infamy and prejudice, making the series into something very different from before. And Alison doesn't learn all her lessons with the Secret Wars II issue, also written by Jim Shooter, showing her once again quickly succumbing to the advances of a man who abuses his power to shower her with gifts and fakes being in danger to get her to care for him.

As well as the graphic novel, the end of 1984 also saw the launch of a limited series. Beauty and the Beast is an odd little series that appears to have been named first and only then had the contents devised. It sees Alison and the Beast (Hank McCoy) drawn into a theatre comprised completely of mutants, a hotel for other mutants to hide at, and a struggle between Doctor Doom and his alleged illegitimate son. (Doom's presence in the story was a major continuity mess as it came in an extended period when the original Doom had been killed off, bar his explained appearance in Secret Wars.) Hank is drawn to pursue Alison for no particular reason though the two find themselves falling for each other, seemingly just to meet the demands of the story. All in all this is a convoluted mess that distorts characters and continuity in order to tell a rather turgid and forgettable story.

Looking at the main series the same thing happens with the biggest problem being the abrupt shift away from New York. Initially this appears to be only temporarily as Alison helps Lois run away, since Alison has a highly successful album out. But she soon settles on the West Coast and drifts into a succession of other jobs whilst waiting for her career to take off again. The graphic novel and limited series then forcibly drag the regular series into the realm of anti-mutant prejudice but it feels off. Finally the last issues see a new creative team effectively abandon the singing and move Dazzler ever more towards being a conventional superhero, with an extended struggle against powerful foes during which her father is killed. It's all rather jarring and the result is a meandering before a final crash. The last issue also sees her death faked with the result that she believes she can have freedom from prejudice and the ability to continue her singing career - but it's never easy to climb back into the closet so just how is she going to sing in public without being recognised? It seems more likely she is going to be a regular superhero, though not on the initially planned team.

And so a once promising series crashes upon the rock of creative and editorial incompetence. Given the graphic novel was written by the-then Editor-in-Chief, it's easy to guess where the forced new direction came from. Sadly it left the character and series wrecked and attempts to either salvage the mess or move beyond it just didn't come off. The cover of the final issue declares "Because you demanded it! The last issue of the Dazzler". Despite the length of the volume I wasn't screaming for it to end, but the sad state of the series makes it hard to mourn too much. It's a pity because the series had launched so well, offering something different from the norm and giving us that extreme rarity, a female lead who existed for more than just intellectual property protection.

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