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CSBG Archive

A Year of Cool Comics – Day 91

Here is the latest in our year-long look at one cool comic (whether it be a self-contained work, an ongoing comic or a run on a long-running title that featured multiple creative teams on it over the years) a day (in no particular order whatsoever)! Here‘s the archive of the moments posted so far!

Today we take a look at Christopher Priest and Denys Cowan’s run on Steel…
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Enjoy!

Christopher Priest and Denys Cowan’s sadly short-lived run on Steel began with issue #34 and ended with the book’s cancellation at #52.

But there was a lot of fun in those 19 issues!

The book opened with a dramatic status quo shift for the title (which guest-writer Peter Tomasi so nicely wrote so Priest did not have to deal with explaining away so many characters in his first issue).

The status quo shift was that the title, which was about John Henry Irons (Steel) being a superhero in Washington D.C. while helping to take care of his extended family (his sister, his parents and his sister’s kids) became a book about Steel in Jersey City with his most interesting family member – his niece, Natasha. Irons was now going to work in research and development at a medical group – developing medical equipment instead of weapons (and, of course, in signing him, Jersey City acquired its own resident superhero).

That first issue, #34, introduced a bunch of new characters, including Steel’s new contact at the police department…

plus Irons’ new boss, Dr. Villain (in one of the major recurring gags of the comic, it’s pronounced Will-hane)…

plus, perhaps most importantly, Natasha’s engaging new friend, who she dubs “Boris”…

when you add in Dr. Amanda Quick (an old friend of John’s who convinced him to take the job – they begin to date) and another doctor on staff, Dennis Ellis, who is secretly a supervillain called Skorpio, then you got quite an intriguing supporting cast.

Issue #46 has a good sequence that I think highlights a lot of the great character interactions in the title. In the issue, Superboy shows up to woo Natasha. Steel takes him off on a mission to give him a hard time about his courtship of Natasha. Meanwhile, Amanda has slept with Dennis and he is trying to convince her that John is never going to have the time to treat her the way she deserves to be treated.

When you mix all of this together with some awesome action, courtesy of the great Denys Cowan (and the legendary Tom Palmer on inks), then you have quite a sequence…

Cowan, by the way, is stellar on this title. Not just great, moody artwork, but TIMELY great, moody artwork! Tom Palmer is definitely a great help in both regards (the moodiness of the art as well as getting it out timely, as Palmer is a fast worker).

This was a fun, offbeat but also often dark and serious book. Few comic book titles run the gamut of emotions like Steel did when Priest was writing it.

Sadly, the book ended at #52, but if there’s ANY silver lining, it’s that Priest’s particular take on John Henry and Natasha has BASICALLY been the prevailing take on both of the characters, no matter what other situation they might be placed into (like when Natasha became a superhero on two separate occasions). So that’s something!

21 Comments

It’s the version that prevailed in the DCAU (RIP!) too.

Doug M.

Honestly as sad as it is that Priest’s books get canceled, pretty much every version of a character he writes ends up becoming the definitive version. Heck, he was the one who added the whole Bruce Wayne went to the Far East to train to become Batman.

I’ve always been meaning to track down this run. It’s too bad Priest’s been out of the business for a while now. That man knew how to write.

Wow, these page scans totally remind me of everything I hate about Christopher Priest’s writing. That “witty banter” between Boris and Natasha (Boris and Natasha, get it? *groan*) was especially painful. It just seems so excessively pleased with itself when it’s nowhere near as clever as he apparently thinks it is. Some of the other sequences are better, but nothing so exceptionally good that it compensates for the bad.

Denys Cowan’s art though? GREAT. No complaints there.

Priest didn’t seem too impressed with Cowan’s contribution (about 3/4 of the way down):
http://www.digital-priest.com/comics/adventures/curse.htm

I thought the Cowan/Palmer combination was fascinating, but even I realized that the art was more and more Palmer as time moved on. Not that it was a bad thing, as those mid-80s Buscema/Palmer Avengers showed, since those only had layouts by Buscema and looked quite nice.

I like this Steel run quite a lot, but as someone who very briefly worked in a comic book store at this time, I can say that at that store, Priest lost all of the existing readers of this book with his very different style. By the end of the series, the store was only ordering one copy, which was for me.

Thanks for featuring this. Good stuff!

Preist ran Steel in the ground, once he and Cowan changed a great looking Bogdonove costume. The stories were meandering and did a huge 180 from what Weezie and Batista did in the prior issues. Preist’s attempts at being cool with making Natasha and “Boris” (which was bowel clenchingly bad) relateable.

The villains were even lamer…Dr. Villain, Scorpio…the hell was Priest trying to do?
Along with The Ray, Priest ran 2 books into cancellation land. He was poison to DC in the 90s.

Priest was even worse to Marvel in the late 80s with his tenure editing, and even worse, writing Spider-Man as Jim Owsley.

Matter-Pooper Lad

April 2, 2010 at 9:57 am

I enjoyed that! Thank you for posting.

I quite like the samples here. I’ll pick up the back issues if I ever stumble across any.

Damn, I thought this was going to be about Gerry Conway and Don Heck’s seminal 1978 Steel series, one of the most influential …

OK, I can’t even pretend that’s true. Of all the cancelled “DC implosion” titles, that was easily the one I cared least about — and that’s including Star Hunters.

That’s not how you pronounce “villain” in french.

A great pick, Brian. Reading these panels just makes me wish all the harder that Marvel would put Priest back on BLACK PANTHER

Priest was even worse to Marvel in the late 80s with his tenure editing, and even worse, writing Spider-Man as Jim Owsley.

Kidding? The Jim Owsley issues were much better than the surrounding De Falco issues (which were passable themselves), not to mentionm, Owsley wrote the Spider-Man / Wolverine one-shot, which is one of the most celebrated Spider-Man stories of the last twenty-five years.

I had mixed feelings about this run. Cowan’s a great artist., and Priest definitely made the character much more interesting. The problem is that Priest suffers from Peter David syndrome- Interesting ideas and good character bits undermined by constantly trying to be clever and wittiy and falling short of the mark most of the time. His characterization is generally better than David’s, so his work is usually more readable, but a whole lot of it is cringe-worthy.

This was the first Priest series I ever read. Actually, it’s one of the first DC comics I ever read–I’d stuck to Marvel before trying out STEEL and Morrison’s JLA–but regardless, it utterly won me over. Fantastic, thoughtful, funny stuff. Probably not on the same level of Priest’s BLACK PANTHER, but one of his finer moments.

Yeah, that dialogue was truly atrocious. That’s high school “I’m so witty” writing.

Neat stuff, this. The Steel parts are some of the best of The Return of Superman saga.

‘Preist ran Steel in the ground, once he and Cowan changed a great looking Bogdonove costume. The stories were meandering and did a huge 180 from what Weezie and Batista did in the prior issues. Preist’s attempts at being cool with making Natasha and “Boris” (which was bowel clenchingly bad) relateable.

The villains were even lamer…Dr. Villain, Scorpio…the hell was Priest trying to do?
Along with The Ray, Priest ran 2 books into cancellation land. He was poison to DC in the 90s.’
It helps if you spell the villain’s name correctly in the second-to-last line: it’s ‘Skorpio’ not ‘Scorpio’!

Kidding? The Jim Owsley issues were much better than the surrounding De Falco issues (which were passable themselves), not to mentionm, Owsley wrote the Spider-Man / Wolverine one-shot, which is one of the most celebrated Spider-Man stories of the last twenty-five years.

I have to disagree.

First off, you have to realize a lot of what Owsley had planned for both his Spider-Man writing and for Spider-Man/Wolverine. If you read his site or accounts from Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco, they both did a lot to hold back some of his excesses. And what did end up getting through was still atrocious.

My problem with Owsley/Priest is his unrelenting negativity and cynicism. Although people may find it ironic I’d complain about this given my comments, you have to understand that no matter how I am as an individual, if I was to write a comic about an idealistic superhero I’d rein all that in and write in the tradition of that book.

Priest’s problem is that he can’t check his cynicism and bitterness in at the door on anything he writes. He either has to keep the character idealistic and constantly reveal him to be a totally naive, clueless, manipulated chump that constantly gets disillusioned (his Spider-Man writing, his depictions of Captain America in Captain American and the Falcon, any idealistic heroes who guest-starred in Black Panther) or he has to take a previously idealistic character and suddenly and inexplicably write them as snotty, cynical, condescending and Machiavellian in order to give them any good treatment (Black Panther now is Machiavellian, aloof and only joined the Avengers to spy on them, Falcon is an arrogant, cigar-smoking, cynic, etc.) If you’re a character who is already cynical and grim and gritty, you will get great treatment from him, hence why Wolverine always gets great treatment in a Priest book, usually at the expense of more idealistic characters.

So if you read his Spider-Man with these tropes in mind, it’s obnoxious. Spider-Man, the old school colorful hero who won’t kill or do backroom, sleazy deals with the underworld to keep the peace, is constantly, constantly chumped by more cynical, grittier heroes at every turn. They treat him like a rank amateur not worthy to be allowed in on their plans, even though he’s been a superhero as long as Daredevil and longer than the Falcon. They use him as a pawn. They trick him and belittle him as naive and inept. Daredevil, Falcon, Tork, and the others in Gang War constantly keep him out of the loop, show his ideals as outdated and always end up right in the end. Spider-Man keeps trying to insert himself in the mix and things turn out worse as a result of his outdated idealism and the more cynical heroes have to not only save the day but babysit him and keep him from mucking things up worse. He keeps getting more and more harsh wake-up calls throughout the story that the world is such a nastier, more brutal place than he previously thought and gets more and more grim and gritty and disillusioned throughout, and by the end as Kingpin sits back on his throne gloating, and the other gritty heroes are there having successfully gotten the Kingpin back on his throne and outmanuevered Spidey every step of the way, Spider-Man has one final outburst and show of impotent anger, and has to slink away with is tail between his legs.

In Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, same thing. Many Spider-Man fans HATE that book. The whole book is a showcase about how grim and gritty and cynical and savvier Wolverine does everything right and is always in the loop and old-school, non-killing, idealistic, working-class square Spider-Man is just a know-nothing, in over his head inept amateur snotnose kid who has to be “managed” and kept out of the loop rather than treated as an equal partner. A total moron. A rookie. A chump. Wolverine is the cool James Bond meets James Dean meets Charles Bronson while Spider-Man is Inspector Gadget who needs to be sent on wild goose chases so that he doesn’t mess things up more. Spider-Man fails to keep Ned Leeds alive. And to prove Wolverine right, when Spider-Man finally does catch up to Wolverine, Wolverine’s ex Charlie is yet another person who effortlessly plays Spider-Man as a patsy by manipulating him into killing her. PRIEST CASUALLY WRITES THE FIRST SCENE WHERE SPIDER-MAN DIRECTLY KILLS ANOTHER HUMAN BEING BY HIS OWN HAND.

Now ask yourself, if any of those books were your first time EVER reading Spider-Man, and your first exposure to him ever, would you think him competent and cool? A team up ideally exists to make the fans of each character interested in the other character and increase both fanbases. Spider-Man vs. Wolverine on the other hand only exists to showcase Wolverine and make him look cool at the expense of Spider-Man. Priest constantly complains that Marvel never asked him to write a sequel to the book despite it being one of the best sellers in history. He doesn’t realize it’s ONLY a bestseller because it has Spider-Man and Wolverine, and NOT because of his abysmal story.

More fun facts: Christopher Priest’s ORIGINAL script for the story had Spider-Man looking worse. As Priest originally wrote it, when Spider-Man catches up with Wolverine, they square up to fight, and as they start fighting, Wolverine just pounces on him with such speed, such ferocity, that in a split second Spider-Man realizes Wolverine is hands-down the most dangerous opponent he’s ever faced, in a whole different class than him, and TOTALLY FREEZES UP. Goes down without a fight, or a single punch. Totally wusses out, freezes up, instantly dominated without offering any resistance.

Tom DeFalco, who got wind of this, thankfully went over Priest’s head and complained to Jim Shooter about this. Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco both called Priest into the office and informed him that he can’t have a huge team up that exists to totally demolish the image of such a major flagship character and forced him to write a more equitable fight between Spider-Man and Wolverine into the story. And when you see Priest write about this on his site, he still seems bitter and unable to see why DeFalco and Shooter would rule that way. And still unable to understand why Marvel won’t ask him to write another sequel to the story. And say what you want about DeFalco, but he did more to help Priest’s story than hurt it.

Also, Owsley was supposed to keep writing Web of Spider-Man and he kept planning to drive him further down the road of disillusionment in the ultimate goal of turning him into a cynical, grim and gritty hero. So all these chumpings he was receiving were in the ultimate goal of making him abandon his old school idealism and cross over the side of grimness and cynicism and dark heroism along the lines of Wolverine and Frank Miller’s Daredevil.

To me, if you can’t write optimistic superheroes, then DON’T. If you have to make them cynical and Machiavellian assholes in order to write them, or if you keep them optimistic and idealistic and just chump them throughout, then just pass up writing them altogether. As a Spider-Man fan, I didn’t enjoy just reading book after book by Priest spitting in the face of the character’s belief system as created by Stan Lee, Ditko and Romita.

Throw in his atrociously “I’m so clever” cynically humorous dialogue and it gets worse. There was a lot of that in those issues too.

I had mixed feelings about this run. Cowan’s a great artist., and Priest definitely made the character much more interesting. The problem is that Priest suffers from Peter David syndrome- Interesting ideas and good character bits undermined by constantly trying to be clever and wittiy and falling short of the mark most of the time. His characterization is generally better than David’s, so his work is usually more readable, but a whole lot of it is cringe-worthy.

That’s funny because I was going to type the opposite. That he has everything that makes Peter David cringeworthy but minus any of the positives like good characterization and readability. His tendency to randomly introduce gratuitous flashbacks and flashforwards just to make the story look “deeper” and more adult tend to make the readability even worse to boot. For example, in the book Sleeper by Brubaker, the flashforwards and flashbacks exist to reveal something crucial at a pivotal point in the story, and if the story was told on a linear timeline the desired effect would totally be ruined. This is similar to how they work on the show Lost.

Priest on the other hand has stories that could have the exact same effect if told linearly and just tells them in flashback and flashforward form for absolutely no reason, and it actually makes the story more confusing without any of the benefits that can come from a flashforward or flashback as used by Brubaker of the Lost writers.

I’ve never been able to get on with Jim Owsley’s writing – and I don’t much like Denys Cowan’s post-Question art so I’ll pass on this one.

Never cared for Priest. I don’t hate his work it’s just that everything of his I’ve read has been simply competent and that’s about it. I struggle to read through it. This looks better than most every other Steel comic I’ve ever seen, but still..

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