Luke Cage History: From Hero for Hire to Hollywood
TV, Comic Books
I hear a lot, the last couple of weeks, about how Secret Invasion is just a rehash of DC’s Millennium.
Now, of course, any time one of these big Marvel or DC events kicks off, there’s usually some crabbing about how it’s nothing new and so on and so forth. Which strikes me as completely missing the point: after all, if you want dangerous, cutting-edge innovation in your comics, you probably aren’t going to find very much of it in a Marvel or DC crossover event book.
But I don’t really want to get into another thing this week about what superhero comics can and can’t do. The point is, every time I see the Millennium comparison brought up in regards to Secret Invasion, usually the person making it also takes a second to lob off a quick snipe at how awful Millennium was, and that seems a bit gratuitous.
As luck would have it, I scored a complete set of Millennium in the closeout sale of a local comics shop, and it was the first time I’d read it since it came out; the same week I picked up the Booster Gold Showcase, which closes with the Millennium crossover.
And you know what? Upon rereading it, I found out that it’s not that bad.
I’ll grant you that it’s flawed, and it has the dubious honor of being — I think — the first big crossover project at DC that everyone tacitly agreed to forget. Nothing that spun out of Millennium stuck. As I recall, it sold okay, DC still had a lot of momentum going for it in 1987 and I think the book made money. But (unlike Crisis, Final Night, Underworld, or Legends) it wasn’t ever collected in a trade edition. Not only did all the spin-off series tank hard, but I believe they were all erased from DCU history, even. Certainly as far as, say, characters like Tom Kalmaku or Lana Lang are concerned.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting failure. Millennium was a project that should have worked really well.
The part that everyone forgets is that at the time, Steve Englehart and Joe Staton were really hot creators at DC. They were having an amazing run over on Green Lantern and a great deal of that mythology has stayed in place up through to the present day.
Englehart inherited the book from Len Wein and Dave Gibbons, who had embarked on a long storyline wherein Hal Jordan had resigned as Green Lantern and John Stewart had taken over the job, as well as introducing a couple of recurring mystery villains at Ferris Aircraft, the mysterious Mr. Smith ands the costumed Predator. The conventional wisdom was that Hal would be back in a year or so. Bill Willingham did a nice fill-in where Katma Tui was assigned to Earth as John’s trainer and that was when Englehart took over. Englehart himself said that no one really was expecting great things, Green Lantern had always been a steady mid-list seller and it was assumed that it would probably remain there.
Steve Englehart, though, was brought up through the chaotic era of Bronze-Age Marvel comics, where innovation was the name of the game and writers took a certain rebellious pride in doing the unexpected. He decided to keep John as Green Lantern for the foreseeable future, and he even brought Guy Gardner in as yet another GL, and just to change it up he made Guy the hard-nosed standard-bearer for a splinter group of Guardians that disagreed with the traditional Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps.
All this took place during DC’s year-long Crisis on Infinite Earths event, and many of us reading both books thought that Englehart’s Green Lantern tie-ins to Crisis were quite a bit better than the main book itself. Since Crisis took an obscure piece of GL history as its instigating event, and John Stewart was a major player in the Crisis book itself, this provided Englehart with exactly the sort of cosmic-continuity building blocks for plotting stories he had used to such great advantage at Marvel, when he had done things like the Avengers-Defenders War and the Celestial Madonna storyline.
The Green Lantern Crisis — at least, that’s how I thought of it — ran concurrently for the last half of the year that Crisis ran, and Englehart kept finding new ways to riff on what Marv Wolfman and George Perez were doing, while at the same time managing to confound fan expectations of how it was all going to work out.
It wrapped up with a double-sized battle royal, Guy Gardner’s group versus John Stewart and the rest of the Corps in the anti-matter universe of Qward, with a civilian Hal Jordan caught in the middle. I pulled these books out and reread them not too long ago, and they still have that exhilarating anything-goes feel about them. A lot of writers today in the fan press sneer at serialized superhero Event Comics from the Big Two — I often do it myself — but damn, when they’re done well it’s hard not to get caught up in the wave. Who would live? Who would die? How was it all going to work out?
Most of all, who was going to be Green Lantern? At this point, it had been a couple of years since Hal Jordan had quit, but Englehart had teased us relentlessly by never actually taking him out of the book. We wanted to see Hal all the way back…. but we also had gotten attached to seeing John Stewart, and even Guy had his defenders. The letters pages in GL were raging with arguments over who should be THE Green Lantern.
Englehart solved the problem with an elegant simplicity… all three of them would be.
In the big 200th Anniversary Special follow-up to the Crisis story, the Guardians revealed that it was time for them to move on, and they departed Oa, leaving the Green Lantern Corps to function on their own. John, Hal, and even Guy got to stay on, along with several of their companions, and they decided they would station themselves on Earth. This led to a complete revamp of the book as The Green Lantern Corps.
All this had energized the book to a degree no one, including DC management, had thought was possible. Certainly, of the various 80’s revamps and re-imaginings and reboots that spun out of the Crisis event, this was my personal favorite. And I think it was the richest, in terms of the characters and plot devices and story points and so on that got added to the DCU… it really adds up, when you stop and think how many of these Englehart-Staton innovations have stayed in place for over twenty years: Guy Gardner as the GL that plays rough, Kilowog, Salakk, the adult Arisia, all came out of this run. It’s also worth noting that a lot of what Geoff Johns is getting praised for in his current run on the book involves reviving these concepts that were all introduced over that roughly two-year period. It was a huge hit — so much so that nowadays, that stuff forms the “basics” GL is getting back to.
So, when DC editor Andy Helfer was looking to follow up Crisis and Legends with another big event crossover, it makes sense that Englehart and Staton would get a swing at doing it. Clearly, they had a knack for this sort of big cosmic thing.
The premise jumped off one of Englehart’s Green Lantern ideas — as the Guardians departed Oa, ostensibly forever, they charged the Corps with taking extra-special care of Earth, because that was where the next great advancement in evolution was going to happen. So Millennium opened with a Guardian and his Zamaron mate returning to Earth to let everyone know that the evolution thing was actually about to start…. but the bad news was, the evil Manhunter cult knew this and they were against it. And they had sleeper agents everywhere on earth, after thousands of years to infiltrate. The idea was that anybody could be a Manhunter…. even long-term supporting characters like Superman’s Lana Lang or Batman’s Commissioner Gordon.
As a hook, the basic idea was sound and a good one to hang your crossover on. It was easy to plug into, all writers had to do was figure out who their book’s Manhunter was and build a conflict around it.
So what went wrong?
Rereading it, I decided that the basic problem with the book wasn’t the plot so much as the concept. The plot works great — every time the story is about the heroes fighting the Manhunters or dealing with a loved one’s betrayal, it’s cooking. The tie-ins all focused on that angle and it was a good one.
But you get to the part about the Chosen Ones, the ten people who represent the next advance in sentience in the universe, and the whole thing stops dead.
The problem? The Chosen Ones are ordinary civilians, pulled from all walks of life to push forward a destiny they don’t even understand. So far so good –standard reluctant-hero stuff. Englehart’s idea was to show what it was like for the regular folks during these cosmic events, and incidentally show that not everyone in the DCU was middle-class American. Again, a laudable idea.
But the execution was… well, to call it a well-intentioned failure is charitable.
The rationale behind the choosing of the Chosen (sorry, I couldn’t resist that turn of phrase) looks like… honestly, like a quota system designed to fill out a YMCA Diversity Day forum. You’ve got your black woman, your gay guy, your Chinese communist, your middle-aged angry white guy, your studious Asian, your magical aborigine… and the trouble was, that was ALL they were. I recall Gregorio, the flamboyantly gay Brazilian, was especially irritating to both gay and straight readers, though personally, I found all of them annoyingly stereotypical to some degree. Added to the mix, seemingly at random, were Tom Kalmaku and the Floronic Man — the last was an especially baffling choice, considering that the whole point of being Chosen was to advance the evolution of humanity. At least the gay man was theoretically capable of breeding; but why was the plant guy in the group?
And so on. The book got bogged down in a lot of pseudo-philosophical psychobabble about the workings of the universe.
The actual adventure was happening largely off-stage, in the various tie-in books. Millennium, the series itself, ended up being almost a staging area and an index to the story it was supposed to be telling.
There were still good bits to it. Whenever it remembered to be about the battle between the heroes and the Manhunters (who could be anybody!) it was fun.
But overall, it became apparent that Englehart was over-reaching. The decision to devote the entire final issue to the “ascension” of the Chosen was a particularly bad call, I think.
Especially since, in addition to being anti-climactic in and of itself, the trumpeted “next stage in human evolution” looked an awful lot like just creating a new super-team by taking one from column A and two from column B.
It was the Diversity Day thing all over again. Englehart has said that the book’s failing was not entirely his doing, he was censored: “[New Guardians was] the next step in a more realistic approach to superheroes – and to that end I got a promise from the highest powers at DC that I could do sex, drugs, and politics, unhindered. I put all those into the first issue and they were taken out. I went to the man who’d given me the promise and he reneged. So I walked away.”
Fair enough. But the characters, themselves, were still as irksome as they’d been in Millennium, and I think you have to lay that squarely at Mr. Englehart’s doorstep.
I’ve talked mostly about the writing up to this point. But there was a flaw in the art, too, in retrospect. I can certainly understand the desire on DC’s part to avoid breaking up the band that was giving them the hits… but I think it would have been smarter to go with a different artist. Basically Joe Staton is too light and fun-loving in his approach to do the kind of heavy, groundbreaking, philosophical story Steve Englehart was trying to pull off.
I sometimes wonder, if Millennium had been given to another artist, if it might have worked a little better. Maybe the philosophy wouldn’t have come off quite so addled. Maybe Gregorio wouldn’t have been such a polarizingly swishy caricature. I love Joe Staton’s work and always have, but for this kind of story…. he’s not the guy.
Anyway, as it turned out Millennium ended up being the last hurrah for Englehart and Staton on the Green Lantern book that had started it all, too. DC wanted Green Lantern to be the anchor feature of the new Action Comics Weekly book that was about to launch, but Englehart and Staton didn’t want to work in the restrictive weekly seven-page chapter format. So Green Lantern Corps only lasted a couple of issues beyond the Millennium crossover issues, and that was it.
All things considered, well, it probably is just as well. Steve Englehart is obviously interested in the idea of ‘humanity’s next step,’ it’s a theme that’s cropped up all kinds of places in his work. But he did it better in other places. Certainly that was the engine that drove Celestial Madonna.
And later, Celestial Quest.
And it was a key theme in his book The Point Man.
And so on. Avengers, Dr. Strange, Star-Lord… it crops up over and over. In the same way that Steve Gerber tended towards stories about outsiders, Steve Englehart tends toward stories of humanity reaching the next level, of the rising and advancing of a spirit. I think it’s fair to say that Millennium fell off the tracks because Englehart was more interested in that idea than the summer-blockbuster hook the thing was supposed to be hung on, the struggle against the Manhunter cultists …who could be anybody!
That’s why the Secret Invasion/Millennium criticism always makes me laugh a little bit. Because people are remembering the one part of the Millennium crossover that I think its writer was least interested in… and that’s the reason that I think it ended up being something of a failure.
If Secret Invasion is ripping off anything from Millennium — and I’m sure it’s not, so I say this with some humor– at least Marvel picked the right part to steal.
See you next week.
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