Feb 7, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 4: Youngblood

Welcome to Day 4 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Wasted Opportunity

If I were to guess, just as I'm starting this article, this is going to end up being the shortest of the Alan at Awesome articles, primarily because, well, it has the least to talk about.

Like Glory, Moore's proposal for Youngblood was printed in Alan Moore's Awesome Universe Handbook, but unlike Glory, it seems he had much more in the way of concrete ideas when it came to Liefeld's signature team book. He outlined the approach he would take to each member of the team and how they interacted with each other. More, he described how he would make each character a true individual, and even proposed some visual approaches for them, including having the three women of the team have varying bra sizes, at a time when "sexing it up" meant that the women would just get larger breasts. Moore wanted to show that there were different kinds of beauty, in terms of both looks and personality.

While Youngblood under Liefeld was your prototypical 90s team book, full of pouches and bullets and gore, Moore and artist Steve Skroce tried lightening the mood. In the wake of Judgment Day, where it's revealed that all the previous history was (literally) rewritten by old Youngblood co-leader Sentinel so the world got darker, Youngblood was decomissioned by the government. Its old co-leader, Shaft, who is the prototypical bowman who has the personality of your generic team leader, was then approached by one of Awesome's heroes from the Golden Age, Waxy "Waxman" Doyle. Doyle made an offer to Shaft to reactivate Youngblood, and Shaft, presumably because he has nowhere else to go and isn't really much of a solo character, accepted, drafting five more members in the process.

Moore and Skroce's Youngblood was composed of three girls and three guys. While Moore only credits Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans run in his proposal as it relates to how he wanted to approach the series, the very composition of the team is reminiscent of that Titans run, including the fact that the most naturally powerful members of the team were the females. (In fact, in this Youngblood team, none of the males were naturally superpowered.)

The first member of the Youngblood team, obviously, is Shaft. Like I said, he's your prototypical leader, and in the proposal Moore even compares him to the X-Men's Cyclops, but he also is infused with a bit more personality than a generic team leader. For whatever reason, a lot of team leaders seem uptight and take themselves too seriously. Shaft has none of that and is closer, I think, to being an everyman character, the kind of character that the audience can see the rest of the story through. Being the leader, Shaft is also reminiscent of Robin/Nightwing from the New Teen Titans, and being a bowman in red, he's also reminiscent of Green Arrow's sidekick, Speedy. He's also quite the acrobat, which was a hand-in-glove fit for artist Steve Skroce, who was just then coming off a stint on Amazing Spider-Man.

The female members of the team were all what we call "legacy" characters, in that they were either not the first to assume their codename or started off as sidekicks or offshoot characters. The most established of those characters is Suprema, Supreme's kid sister, who is essentially the Supergirl of this arrangement (or, to go on with the Titans analogy, this makes her Wonder Girl, Donna Troy), and Moore and Skroce absolutely do not waste any time and space establishing that Suprema is the most powerful character in this entire book. (In fact, the first threat the team comes up against is an alien lifeform that happens to take control of Suprema's body!)  As Supreme readers will also know, Suprema was taken away from the Earth in the late 60s and put in a form of suspended animation, so her personality in Youngblood was still from that era, that of, as Moore says, "unbearable wholesomeness." It provides a great contrast to just how powerful she is.

It also provides a great contrast to the second female member of the team, Twilight the Girl Marvel. Twilight is the sidekick of Professor Night, this universe's Batman. This gives her some correspondence with Robin/Nightwing, along with Shaft. Moore is quick to point out in his proposal that she has the most experience among everyone else, as she has been fighting crime with Professor Night and Supreme since she was eight years old, and is also the most natural second-in-command that Shaft can have—in fact, the only reason Twilight isn't the team leader is that she has no plans of taking the role. Twilight is also unlike Suprema in that while they are from the same time period, Twilight has no problems, and even embraces, modernizing herself, discarding a miniskirt and a domino mask for facepaint and practical (as practical as a superhero comic book can get) leatherwear.

Twilight is also the main example Moore uses in his proposal in terms of his approach to sex appeal in these comics. In the proposal, he states that it would be foolish not to consider sex appeal, but that it would have to be handled with care.
"...while the current trend for the inclusion of female superheroes for their stroke-book value has produced some regrettable excesses, you'd have to be pretty stupid not to accept that sex appeal is a large factor in today's comic book marketplace, and indeed, perhaps it always has been, though in less overt ways. There's nothing wrong with giving comic books a strong element of sex appeal, so long as it is handled right; not so emotion-drenched that it turns into soap opera; so single-mindedly carnal that it turns into the XXX-Women or one of the Eros superporn titles; so blatant that it undermines the other qualities of the book in question."

However, when he gets to the section regarding Twilight, he gets a bit daring.

"This is perhaps a good example of how I'd like to treat sexuality in the new Awesome Universe: Leave most of it in the feverish minds of the adolescent audience. We set up parameters in which the sexual imagination can run amok, and yet never show or say anything that isn't entirely innocent and in keeping with a fun superhero comic. This is something far more subtle than innuendo: It is more like forcing the reader to dwell on the subject in their thoughts by avoiding it altogether and making it conspicuous by its absence. We never suggest that Twilight and her uncle, Professor Night, have been sleeping together for a while and have a passionate romantic and sexual relationship, but then we never suggest that they're not."

One of the elements over the decades that has persisted in Batman and Robin comic books has been the underlying subtext of the two of them being involved in a homosexual relationship, starting from when Dr. Fredric Wertham pointed it out in Seduction of the Innocent and leading to the creation of female characters such as the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl so that Batman and Robin would have girls to hang out with. Moore thought that this was part of the fun, and apparently wanted to work it so that it was more overt, while at the same time more subtle ("forcing the reader to dwell on the subject... by avoiding it altogether") than anything unintentional. It seems like a major balancing act, and I wonder if he could have pulled it off. If nothing else, it surely limits the kind of character development for Twilight.

(As an aside, I do think it was fascinating that Twilight became a regular character in one of the Awesome books while Professor Night never did. That's some kind of testament to the power of the Batman archetype, that an offshoot idea could be introduced and explored before the main idea, but still, I wonder how a Supreme/Glory style pastiche with Batman would have looked like. Which Batman era would the creator focus on?)

If Moore was being daring or challenging with his approach to Twilight, it never showed, because Twilight barely figures into the two issues that made it to print. (To be clear, there was a zero issue with a story featuring Shaft, and a story narrated by Twilight, which was nothing more than a "Here's what's happened so far" summary; two issues that made it to print with Steve Skroce pencilling; and one last issue that seemed to have been put out much later, which Skroce didn't even finish. I'm just counting the middle two, though I talked about the zero issue during the Judgment Day article.) He would be far less daring, perhaps because there was less to be daring about, with the final female member of the team, Doc Rocket.

Doc Rocket was the granddaughter of the original Doc Rocket, and she could only be the equivalent of the Flash (or Kid Flash, to go with our Titans analogy), since her power is superspeed. She's probably the most "normal" of the Youngblood members, and Moore guessed that she would be the member that readers like the most and get a genuine crush on. She does get a lot of screentime in the two issues, and is more exemplary of Moore's approach to the sex appeal situation. We see Doc Rocket change her clothes, because she's travelling at superspeed and no one can see her, and it's all innocent and logical. Of course, it's the kind of thing an adolescent audience would eat up.

Doc Rocket is also the focus of Moore's approach to the visual aspects of these comics. Noting Carmine Infantino's slow-motion effects in the early days of the Silver Age Flash, multiple exposure effects as seen in photographs, and Marcel Duchamp's painting "Nude Descending a Staircase," Moore wanted to utilize a bunch of effects and use modern technology to make it look better. "We certainly have better technology to do it now," Moore says, "so why not invest some imagination as well and make this superhero team book really memorable?"

Unfortunately, aside from the multiple-image approach, in which there would be many images of Doc Rocket in one panel to show her "trail," we didn't see any of that. I guess the series just didn't go long enough for that to really take effect.

Nor did the series ever go on long enough to really utilize the visual possibilities of the fifth member, Johnny Panic, who is probably the team's only member without a true counterpart to a Titan, or indeed, a member of any classic superteam. In the proposal, he's described as an eighteen-year-old scientific genius with a warped sense of humor and an attitude problem, but in the execution, somehow, he pretty much just got turned into a wisecracking scientific genius who was hesitant to jump into a fight. He's supposed to have developed a bunch of designer drugs to do a bunch of different things, but in the two issues, he's primarily an illusionist, using little gadgets to bring images to life via very convincing holograms.

He was supposed to be the prototypical Vertigo-type character who would swear and drink, but perhaps Moore saw Skroce's style and realized that that kind of thing wouldn't really fit with the overall lighthearted tone. One thing that I still think is a shame though is that Moore really wanted to use Johnny Panic for a lot of visual effects, citing him as "possibly being a 90s updating of the experimental visuals that Steranko used to employ in the 60s." That never happened, although Moore would later on work with the man I consider to be the modern-day Jim Steranko, JH Williams III, on Promethea.

The final member of the team was Big Brother, Waxy Doyle's adopted son, who so happens to be disabled, black, and a scientific genius. He had a host of robots, all called "Big Brother," which had a variety of purposes: fighters, vehicles, and whatever else was needed. (In contrast to his public "artist, not business" image, Moore admitted to be thinking about merchandising possibilities early on.)

Big Brother can easily be compared to the Titans' Cyborg, and was a bit awkward in that, coming after Judgment Day where Awesome's sole black superhero was revealed to be a supervillain, he was also treated dangerously close to being unlikable, always grumpy and swearing. If I didn't know any better—if Awesome were my only exposure to Moore—I'd have thought he couldn't write a black character without resorting to stereotypes. (But he did Tom Strong right afterward and proved me wrong.)

The two issues of Youngblood that came out were good fun, although on reflection, they didn't seem to be the best way to introduce a team. Moore made it a point to introduce as many elements of the Awesome Universe as possible so quickly, which is a technique Wolfman and Perez used in New Teen Titans to show the expanse of that universe, that there was really little time to introduce the characters in depth at all. The first issue has a six-page prologue featuring the escape of an alien form known as the Occupant, which, as its name suggests, takes over host body after host body, killing the previous one in the process. It makes its way to the city and takes over the body of Suprema, and it's up to Youngblood to take her down. A good, fun issue, but pitting one of their own against them is probably not the best way to show them getting together as a team.

The second issue is even more fun for me because it uses one of my favorite concepts: the evil counterpart team. Sentinel (still the unfortunate scapegoat from Judgment Day) escapes from Supreme's Hell of Mirrors and assembles a team of villains, which he plans on calling Youngblood. Each member of Youngblood has a counterpart on the other team—Suprema's archfoe Satana, the Lounge Lizard for Twilight, twins named Speedwell (speedster) and Poppy (illusionist), and a 50s monster named Atomo to take on Big Brother. The issue has Youngblood picked off in pairs, and shows some of the long-term planning that went into the series: each Youngblood member has their own logotype, so in the event that one of them got their own book, he or she would have a logo ready.

The issue wraps up a little too conveniently, as Badblood scampers when Suprema cuts loose. Moore made it a point in his proposal not to go over one issue unless the story required it, and even then, not to go more than two issues. Each issue would be its own story, although a case could be made for such a setup leading to a much more simplistic and easily resolvable and less satisfying storyline.

There is a third issue that features Jack-a-Dandy, Awesome's version of the Joker, but I don't have it, and from what I understand, it wasn't even finished by Skroce.

That's probably the thing I find most wasteful about this whole enterprise: that Steve Skroce never really went back to superstardom after this. Of the post-Image, manga-influenced superhero artists of that era, I thought he was the best, able to mix dynamism with a quirky style and a range of expressions. He could depict movement and had a good grasp of body language and gesture, and he gave up a superstar-making gig on Amazing Spider-Man so he could do Youngblood, and only a handful of issues came out. I've heard that he was supposed to be the artist on Top 10 in much the same way Brandon Peterson was supposed to be the artist on Promethea, but have never been able to verify that. It looks like he did a handful of comics afterward, and then worked primarily as a storyboard artist. It's too bad. I really liked his style.

On the whole, Moore and Skroce's Youngblood was a fun ride for what it was, but there wasn't much to it. I think it's a wasted opportunity, but it gave way to the ABC books, which were better anyway, so it's also, for comics as entertainment and as an artistic medium, a blessing in disguise.

I just wish Steve Skroce had done more afterward.

In two weeks: Supreme Returns!

(We're taking a week break for Valentine's.) 

1 comment:

Dimitris said...

"Big Brother can easily be compared to the Titans' Cyborg, and was a bit awkward in that, coming after Judgment Day where Awesome's sole black superhero was revealed to be a supervillain, he was also treated dangerously close to being unlikable, always grumpy and swearing."

That was just the beginning of his character development though. Moore had written complete scripts up to issue 7, and by that time he was getting romantically involved with Suprema. We were supposed to watch him soften up.

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