Sep 10, 2014

Looking Back at Crimson Plague

Looking Back at Crimson Plague

With George Perez’s Sirens coming out next week, I thought I’d take a look at the last time George Perez launched a creator-owned comic that used real people as models for the characters.

Crimson Plague’s first issue was published in 1997 by Event Comics, a company that wouldn’t stick around for much longer, mainly because the guy heading it was only a few years away from taking over Marvel Comics. At the time, Perez, only one of the rare artists who had been a superstar in each decade he worked in (his third, at that point), was experiencing a slump in his productivity. Ending the 80s on a high note with Crisis on Infinite Earths and a very successful Wonder Woman relaunch, Perez didn’t do so well in the 90s up to that point. He was getting out some successes like Future Imperfect and his creator-owned Sachs and Violens (both with Peter David), but he was also late with the latter. His event at DC, War of the Gods, wasn’t even marketed as an event by DC Editorial (DC Editorial: Screwing Things Up Since Even Before 1991) and was pretty much overshadowed by Armageddon 2001, a truly atrocious “event” even if your comparison was strictly atrocious events. Meanwhile, at Marvel, Perez was working on Infinity Gauntlet, a true comic book phenomenon, and he couldn’t even finish past midway through the fourth issue of six.

Crimson Plague was Perez’s last project before he returned full time to Marvel with Avengers. The concept was that DiNA: Simmons, whose origin is unknown, has a plague carried by her bloodstream, and anyone who comes into contact with her blood instantly dies. The setting is futuristic, and there’s an entire crew who’s after her, led by a military woman named Shannon Lower.

It’s actually difficult to summarize the story because, to be honest, the first issue was a little confusing. I’m a big proponent of the idea that artists are co-authors, since they are responsible for so many storytelling decisions, such as pacing and expressions — regardless of how tight or not the script is, the final execution is always in the hands of the guy holding the pencil. But one thing that’s definitely the provenance of the scriptwriter is the overall structure of the story, and in Crimson Plague, Perez decided to use a nonlinear framework, putting flashbacks within flashbacks. The first narrative captions of the story read, “Her name is DiNA: And, contrary to what she said, this is not the end of the story. This was but one random chapter in the history of Crimson Plague. What follows is another. The setting is approximately one year ago on a faraway moon, where, five years ago, DiNA: Simmons was born.”

So in case you missed that, the next scene took place one year ago. DiNA: was born there five years before that. But the scene, containing Shannon Lower’s fleet on their way to a mission, was only a year ago. Until at some point in the scene they get briefed, so we have another flashback.

Structurally it’s a bit of a mess. The comic under Event folded, Perez went to do Avengers, and then in 2000, he re-issued the series under Gorilla Comics. I understand the re-issue of the first issue had additional material, but the second issue’s letters page has someone criticizing the structure and Perez copping to it not being as clear as he’d have liked, in hindsight, so I guess the issues weren’t resolved.

Crimson Plague’s also a bit unwieldy because there are so many characters introduced pretty much all at once, and they all seem significant. This isn’t really a problem, given that it’s a comic and you can just go back and forth to figure out who’s who. It’s also helped that it’s Perez drawing it, and he’s one of the best ever when it comes to drawing distinctive faces (Shannon Lower is distinctly Shannon Lower, whether her hair is down and she’s in her underwear or her hair is tied up and she’s in full military gear, for example). But because it’s full blast and the juggling of the characters isn’t really done as deftly as someone like, say, Kurt Busiek would do it, it does prevent a reader from getting immersed in the story.

This sounds like I’m saying Perez is a bad writer, but I’m not. I hold his Wonder Woman run in high regard, and he did pretty much all the writing for that (he had assistance with the dialogue), and Marv Wolfman never fails to call him a co-plotter for New Teen Titans. Kurt Busiek has mentioned before that Perez would take liberties with his plot-first scripts on Avengers, because Perez would just make storytelling decisions like “Hey, this page where Kurt describes four things would need 16 panels.” But I think in Crimson Plague, Perez tried too much. The one time he was fully responsible for handling structure was on Wonder Woman, still focused on one main protagonist and thus giving him a focus. Crimson Plague is ostensibly about DiNA: Simmons, but it’s mainly about Shannon Lower and her fleet. It’s really a case of Perez flexing writing muscles that he wasn’t used to flexing.

I think one of the reasons he tried introducing as many characters as he possibly could right away was the whole idea of the series basing its characters on real people. Shannon Lower actually is based on a real woman named Shannon Lower, a friend of Perez’s wife, and so the fictional Shannon Lower has a tiger tattoo on her leg just like (presumably) the real Shannon Lower. DiNA: Simmons actually is based on Dina Simmons (pictured here from George Perez: Storyteller). So it did seem that he was shoehorning everyone in right away so … people would be happy? I don’t know.


Crimson Plague ended at two issues because Perez didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of production, including the costs of paying the models for likeness fees. He estimated he’d lost $5,000 per issue, which makes me wonder how Sirens is going to work, since it’s based on nine different cosplayers.

He’s mentioned that royalties from his old work will keep it afloat, but I also worry about how he will juggle nine different protagonists since he seemed to have a hard time with it the last time he tried doing it on his own. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to Sirens, because whatever criticisms I may have about Crimson Plague, it was an interesting concept, the leads were gripping, it was well drawn, and it was nice to see Perez really reach for something different. If Sirens can be nine times as interesting, gripping, well drawn, and intriguing, then I think we’re in for a treat… as long as the whole problems of juggling the characters and structuring the story don’t stick out nine times as obviously either.

I’ll be reviewing Sirens #1 next week! Come back then!




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