Action Comics #1, published in 1938, premiered a character named Superman. Superman was an alien who had been placed aboard a rocket as an infant and launched toward Earth to escape his dying homeworld. Members of his species looked human, but had amazing strength. Putting on a cowardly front as Clark Kent, sidekick of hard-nosed reporter Lois Lane, Superman would learn about some sort of wrongdoing — a man beating his wife, a senator taking bribes, a contractor using shoddy materials, a con man scamming parents of crippled children with a phony polio cure — then switch to his costumed persona, stop any crimes in progress, and rough up the bad guys. As Kent, he would then write up an exposé for the Daily Star. Superman became a smash hit, kicking off a superhero boom; as World War II got underway, newsstands offered up the adventures of characters with names like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, the Flash, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, the Hour-Man, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, the Atom, Captain America, Doctor Mid-Nite, and Aquaman. But when the war ended, so did the boom. Over 700 superheroes had made their debut by 1944, but no new ones appeared in 1946, and by 1952, the only ones still being published were Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and of course Superman.
Superman changed over time. Some of these changes were cosmetic: the Daily Star became the Daily Planet; Superman's birth name changed from Kal-L to Kal-El. Other changes were more substantial. Superman hadn't been intended strictly for children any more than any other pulp magazine adventurer; his early stories are basically 60 Minutes with capes. But he became a children's character, particularly after the American comic book industry as a whole adopted a strict censorship code that killed off the horror and crime comics that had attracted older readers to the medium. Instead of taking on mobsters and slumlords, Superman was more likely to find himself facing off against Mr. Mxyztplk, a mischievous hydrocephalic imp in a tiny bowler hat who could only be sent back to his home in the fifth dimension by tricking him into saying his name backwards. Even this was a more conventional hero vs. villain matchup than a lot of Superman stories of the time. Other genres were dominant in the '50s, and the creative teams on the Superman books were not above chasing trends. For instance, comics about teenage hijinks were popular, so a new ongoing title was devoted to Superman's adventures back when he was a mere Superboy. Romance was another hot genre, so Lois Lane was given her own book in which she and Lana Lang vied for Superman's affections. And then of course you had the biggest seller of them all, surpassing even westerns: funny animal comics. Enter Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, Comet the Super-Horse, and Beppo the Super-Monkey.
Around this time, the publisher of Superman, National Comics — formerly Detective Comics, Inc., and widely known as "DC," as its logo still bore those two letters — attempted to revive the superhero genre. Comics historians have come to identify Showcase #4, featuring the debut of a new version of the Flash, as the beginning of this initiative, but this is pretty arbitrary. Another landmark which was at least as important was Action Comics #241, which marked the 20th anniversary of Superman's debut. In this issue, writer Otto Binder shows us what Superman does when he wants to get away from it all. He flies up to "the desolate Arctic wastes," where a mountainside has an enormous keyhole in it; nearby is a gigantic, arrow-shaped golden key that only Superman can lift. This key opens the door to the Fortress of Solitude. Inside, we see Superman write a diary entry, using his heat vision to inscribe glyphs from the language of his native planet Krypton into a cavern-sized book with steel pages; rooms full of gifts to be bequeathed to his friends Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Batman, "if I am ever destroyed"; a mural of Mars painted by Superman himself, based on what he sees with his telescopic vision; a private zoo full of animals from worlds across the cosmos; really, it's something new with every panel. In the following issue, #242, Superman discovers that an extraterrestrial called Brainiac has shrunk down a Kryptonian city and placed it in a bottle; Superman then gets himself shrunk down, enters the bottle, and meets his father's college roommate, who in the course of three panels reveals that the Kryptonians get around town on personal rockets, that at the zoo is a mole that eats metal, that the crops are grown by "tireless robot farmhands," and that "sealed in a dark cold bottle, we created our own artificial sun… a flaming fireball crossing over the city regularly on its tracks!" Superman ends up taking the bottle, city and all, and adding it to his trophy case in the Fortress of Solitude. This vast expansion of Superman's world, and the promise of some wild new concept on every page, breathed new life into DC's superhero line. New superhero books started to succeed for the first time in over a decade. One that attracted particular attention was Justice League of America, which gathered Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman with several of DC's other revamped superheroes. Someone privy to DC's sales figures shared them over a round of golf with Martin Goodman, the owner of another comic book house, and while Goodman's outfit had come to specialize in westerns, sci-fi, and monster comics, he instructed the editor to launch a new book built around a superhero team. This company was Marvel Comics, the editor was Stan Lee, and the book was Fantastic Four.
That was 1961; by 1966, Marvel Comics had blown past DC to become the top-selling comic book publisher, and there are a number of reasons why. Part of it was marketing. Stan relentlessly promoted Marvel as a brand: by buying a Marvel comic, he congratulated his readers, they were getting in on the pop culture phenomenon of the age, of which Stan was the jovial master of ceremonies. (How effective this was can be gauged by the fact that I feel compelled to call a 91-year-old man I've never met "Stan," as if he were my great uncle.) But even more important was the content. Wisecracking Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and the Thing made the DC heroes look like stiffs. When Superman and Batman got together, they acted like corporate vice presidents out on the yacht; Marvel heroes bickered and brawled, and had down-to-earth problems like paying the rent and overcoming physical handicaps. Then there was the way that Marvel treated its comics as chapters in a multi-threaded, epic saga, especially once continuity-crazy writers like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart joined the fold. For instance, say it's 1985, you're at the 7-Eleven, and you pick up West Coast Avengers #1 off the spinner rack — a first issue, so you shouldn't need to know any backstory, right? Guess again — the footnotes direct you to Avengers #230 (1983), Iron Man Annual #7 (1984), Avengers #9 (1964!), Avengers #213-214 (1981), Avengers #224 (1982), The Cat #1 (1972), Giant-Size Creatures #1 (1974), Avengers #171 (1978), Avengers #57 (1968), Thing #22 (1985), Avengers #242 (1984), Avengers #50 (1968), and Avengers #202 (1980). Before the advent of the Marvel Universe, it had been taken as a given that a comic book was consumed in much the same way as a candy bar: you shelled out your ten cents, you read Action Comics #241, and you threw it away. If you liked it, maybe next month you'd get Action Comics #242. Or maybe you'd get Batman #116. Or maybe you'd get a Pepsi. But Marvel made each issue a square in a gigantic quilt and thereby encouraged its readers to read as many Marvel titles as possible, picking up issues as regularly as possible, in order not to miss anything — and, when specialty comics shops became a thing, to head in and pick up lots of back issues to see what you'd missed.
So why didn't DC follow suit? It did its best, but it ran into a couple of problems. The first was that it had been around a lot longer than the Marvel Universe had. For instance, dozens of DC comics from the 1940s depicted Lois Lane — a normal human being — as an adult during World War II. By the '60s, this was a problem: Lois had become a character whose chief goal in life was to marry Superman and start a family, and that couldn't continue if she was on the verge of leaving her childbearing years. The solution that DC's Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz came up with was to assert that all those old "Golden Age" stories had taken place on a parallel world called Earth-Two, and had no bearing on these new "Silver Age" stories taking place on Earth-One, where Lois was still 25 or whatever. Problem solved? Well, not so much. DC had a second problem: even its Silver Age stories were embarrassing. Say that along with West Coast Avengers you'd picked up an issue of Justice League of America. The writing and art are comparable to those in the Marvel book, so while you're chasing down the WCA footnotes, you decide to catch up on the JLA saga. Maybe you get hold of The Brave and the Bold #28, where the JLA first appeared. And you learn that their first case had them fighting… an atomic-powered starfish. Pick up some other issues from that era, and you discover that at the same time that Marvel was introducing new characters like the Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men, DC had offered up stories like "Superman's head transforms into that of an ant" and "the left side of Superman's body turns red." (Not to mention the dozens of "Superman is a dick" stories that would one day spawn a web site.) The decision makers at DC eventually concluded that their only choice was to start over. In 1985, an apocalyptic series called Crisis on Infinite Earths brought the contemporary DC continuity to a close. It would run for a year, and at the end of that year, the DC characters would start their stories over, consigning to the trash heap anything so complex or so silly that it might alienate the readers who were buying Marvel books. In Superman's case, that meant no more of this:
It also meant no more gray-templed Kal-L on Earth-Two, no more teenage career as Superboy, no more Krypto the Super-Dog. No more red kryptonite, no more indestructible cape. No more tiny Kryptonian city in a bottle on a shelf. Slated to write and draw the origin of the new, back-to-basics Superman was John Byrne, who had spent the last few years doing similar double duty in a well-regarded run on Fantastic Four. But who would close the book on the old Superman?
DC had recently hired a British writer named Alan Moore to see what he could do with an obscure monster title called The Saga of the Swamp Thing. And, much as Chris Claremont had proven that writing grandiloquent soap opera for outcast teenagers could turn a failing property like X-Men into a blockbuster, Moore's Swamp Thing demonstrated that it was possible to bring in both critical plaudits and very respectable sales figures by writing avant-garde horror for acid-dropping literature majors. Moore had also written the 1985 Superman annual, a well-received story called "For the Man Who Has Everything…", which served to announce that he had an affinity for Superman stories. So DC tapped Moore to write four comics for them that would be cover-dated September 1986. The first was his regular assignment, Swamp Thing #52. The second and third were Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, which together made up a two-part story concluding the saga of the pre-Crisis Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" — now widely cited as the best Superman story ever written.
It's okay. I talk a lot about "the redemption of the ludicrous," especially when I'm writing about comics, and in the '70s and '80s this generally meant taking things in a darker direction than had previously been permitted: "What if the Joker actually just went ahead and killed Robin? That would show comics aren't for little kids anymore!", that sort of thing. To a certain extent that's what we have here. For instance, near the beginning, Bizarro returns. Bizarro was part of Otto Binder's goofy class of '58: he was an "imperfect duplicate" of Superman who lived on a cube-shaped world called (sigh) "Htrae," had "freeze vision" instead of heat vision, introduced himself by saying "goodbye" instead of "hello," and did other backwards shit that six-year-olds found amusing. Moore has him take this to extremes: "When your planet Krypton blow up by accident, you am coming to Earth as baby… so me decide to blow up whole Bizarro World on purpose and come to Earth as adult! […] Next, me realize that Superman never kill, so me kill lots of people!" This sort of thing happens with silly villain after silly villain, which leads Superman to speak the premise aloud: "If the nuisances from my past are coming back as killers… what happens when the killers come back?" The answer is, more of the same: Moore trots out various silly elements of the previous 28 years of Superman comics and finds a way to treat them seriously for at least a handful of panels, long enough to make the reader say "whoa" and to give their endings some pathos. Again, it's good — it succeeds at what it sets out to do, and achieves a fair amount of poignancy — but it's also a bit of a parlor game. It's not Moore's best work; it wasn't even his best work that month. The fourth Alan Moore issue to carry a September 1986 cover date was Watchmen #1.
I didn't buy Watchmen when it came out. In 1986 I was twelve years old, and my tastes ran more towards The Vision and the Scarlet Witch. I went to high school in Fullerton, California, and I generally bought comics at Comic Castle on Amerige Avenue in downtown Fullerton. But occasionally Comic Castle didn't have something I was looking for, so I'd go across the street to Adventureland Comics on Harbor Boulevard. Sometimes at Adventureland I'd see some crappy drawings posted on the walls, done by a local community college student. His name was Rob Liefeld.
Rob Liefeld is pretty much universally acclaimed as the worst comic book artist in the history of the medium. Many people over the years have torn into his trademarks — the chrome guns the size of small cars; the hundreds of pouches on the characters' costumes, including legbands consisting of nothing but a ring of pouches; the pompadours on every character — but these are matters of (bad) taste. The real problem is that Liefeld just can't draw. At all. He displays no awareness of what human body parts look like or how they fit together, nor of what human bodies as a whole look like when doing things such as standing or moving. His faces all look like they belong to mummies, leathery skin stretched over grimacing skulls. He only knows half a dozen poses, and he's just flat-out lazy, frequently dispensing with things like backgrounds or limbs he doesn't feel like drawing. (Admittedly, he does put a lot of loving care into his signature.) Let me put it this way: this is his most famous drawing, and it's not even close to his worst. Here's a gallery, if you're feeling masochistic. But I've skipped ahead a bit in my story, so let me backtrack. While I was in high school, I would occasionally see poorly drawn pin-ups of Wolverine and the like posted on the walls of one of the shops where I bought comic books. Before I had graduated, the guy who'd drawn those pin-ups had become the regular penciler on New Mutants, a popular X-Men spinoff book. Life being what it is, he became a millionaire.
He wasn't the only one. While I was in high school, a bunch of new artists landed high-profile jobs on Marvel books: Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio on the X-books, and Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen on the Spider-books. Sales spiked. But Marvel was a work-for-hire company. That meant that when Rob Liefeld brought his New Mutants editor sketches of a new character (a grimacing muscleman with a bunch of big chrome guns), and the editor directed the writer to work that character into her scripts, and the character became a big hit, Marvel pocketed nearly all of the additional profits. It also retained the rights to use that character wherever it saw fit, while Liefeld surrendered the right to use the character at all. So in 1992, the six artists mentioned above (plus one more, Jim Valentino) left Marvel en masse to form a new outfit, Image Comics. Image would publish the books, which would carry the Image logo in the corner, but each of the partners would run his own studio and retain control of that studio's properties. The first Image comic was one of Liefeld's; it was called Youngblood. (Later Liefeld offerings would include Bloodstrike and Youngblood Strikefile.) The sales of Youngblood #1 were unprecedented for an independent comic, but the book was a disjointed collage of pin-ups of steroid abusers leaping at and/or beating on one another while shouting nonsense in strangely big letters. Reviews were dire, and after a year of mockery of Youngblood and other Image titles, the partners deemed it wise to bring in some better writers.
One of the writers they landed was Alan Moore. What in the world was someone like Moore doing working with Image? Well, Moore is notorious for burning bridges. Artist Steve Bissette had worked with Moore for a quarter of a century, and then, by Bissette's account, one day Moore read an interview Bissette had given The Comics Journal, and their next phone call went like this: "Right, Steve? I'll keep this short. Don't call me, don't write me, as far as I'm concerned, it's over, mate." Click. Bissette didn't even know what had offended him. So, back to the early '90s. Moore had long since vowed never to work for Marvel; more recently, he had vowed never again to work for DC. That didn't leave him with a whole lot of options. When his old partners on Swamp Thing, Bissette and Rick Veitch, proposed the idea of doing a series at Image, Moore hopped on board.
The series that resulted was called 1963. I only found out about it when I walked into Berkeley's Comic Relief and saw this:
So… Image was doing a parody of Stan and Jack's Fantastic Four from thirty years earlier? I flipped it open. There on the splash page, where a Fantastic Four issue would say "Stupendous Story by Smilin' Stan Lee," it read "Sensational Script by Affable Al Moore." Gadzooks!
As it turned out, there were five more issues coming, and they weren't exactly parody. Moore made it clear that he loathed Stan Lee — in his text pieces and in-character interviews he portrayed "Affable Al" the way he has described Stan Lee in his own interviews, as a carnival barker claiming credit for others' work and forcing them into penury. But the comics themselves showed no such venom for '60s Marvel. They're actually excellent examples of the genre. Moore seems to be saying, hey, '60s Marvel took the comics world by storm for good reason: the stories blew the minds of bright ten-year-olds, with a wild idea in every panel, at the same time that they offered up laughs, soap opera, the wow power of a vast ongoing saga, and big brash action! I don't want to make fun of that — I want to show that I can do it too, and every bit as well! And he does. Here's a sequence from issue #2, The Fury, an homage to '60s Spider-Man with a soupçon of Daredevil:
If you want to know why Spider-Man became the breakout hit from the pack of '60s superheroes, this demonstrates it as well as anything. Forget about making the DC characters look stiff — this repartée compares favorably to the dialogue in the Avengers movie that made 1.5 billion dollars. And there was more to come — here's the full 1963 lineup:
This was supposed to culminate in an eighty-page special that would have pitted Moore's ersatz class of '63 against the Image characters of 1993. The special never happened. From what I've read, the story is this: as mentioned, Image was a partnership among several autonomous studios. Jim Valentino's studio was behind 1963, but as soon as the other partners heard that Alan Moore was doing work for Image, they all tried to poach him for their own projects. He wound up writing a few issues of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, for instance, as well as something called Violator vs. Badrock. Apparently Jim Lee talked the 1963 team into letting his studio take over the special, which Lee himself would draw — and then the moment the contracts were signed, Lee flaked. By the time alternate arrangements for the completion of the 1963 project could be made, Image had fragmented, about which more below. But I suspect that an explicit 1963 vs. 1993 capstone would have been redundant. It's pretty obvious what the point of that special would have been, and these six issues make the same point just by their very existence.
As Moore recently told the Guardian, superheroes "were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their 9-to-13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently." 1963 is an illustration of this: it's not a parody of the comics Moore is talking about, not an update or reimagining to make them respectable to 40-year-old men, but just a straightforward facsimile of early Marvel comics, done excellently. I mentioned William Sleator above, and this is the same sort of thing: you take a scientific or mythological concept and build an exciting story for tweens around it, and you end up with a bunch of kids who have not only been entertained but who also now have this concept in their heads, one that will stick around long after they've outgrown the types of stories that delivered it to them. But somewhere along the line, comics started to grow up along with the readers. In the mid-'80s in particular, a number of writers asked, what would people with superpowers really be like? What effect would they really have on the world? And they tended to come up with the same answers. The quest for realism led to story after story featuring psychologically disturbed vigilantes, shocking acts of violence, and dystopian worlds — and then trend-chasers took these elements as their starting points. Not out of a quest for realism, but just because they thought these things were cool, and sold well. The wave of comics they launched came to be known as "grim and gritty." And stupid people read these grim and gritty comics, and sat in the back of their classrooms filling their notebooks with doodles aping what they'd seen, and wound up getting jobs in the industry. The result was that anyone who picked up a copy of Mystery Incorporated, like I did that afternoon in 1993, would find it surrounded by hundreds of comics whose covers were emblazoned with feral and/or robotic men, wearing outfits consisting primarily of chrome hubcaps, grimacing and/or screaming with mouths filled with hundreds of teeth, hundreds of neck tendons straining, hundreds of bullet casings flying all around them. So who needed a formal compare-and-contrast exercise within the covers of a 1963 book itself?
Chief among those who'd set these trends in motion was Alan Moore himself. While there's much, much more to Watchmen than just "a realistic take on superheroes," I have to concede that if you look at the press Moore was doing at the time, it was a huge part of what he was pitching. Even "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" was driven by questions such as "How long could Clark Kent really keep his identity secret?" and "What would a fifth-dimensional sorcerer really be like?" By the mid-'90s, Moore was eager to atone. And in a fun bit of irony, the guy who gave him that chance was Rob Liefeld.
Supreme: The Story of the Year
As discussed above, Liefeld had formed his own company in large part because he didn't want Marvel and DC to gobble up the profits from characters he created. "I had notebooks of characters and concepts," he boasted. So, what characters did Liefeld create once he could let loose? Well, Marvel had a character named Captain America, who dressed in a red, white, and blue costume, carried a circular shield, and fought a Nazi called the Red Skull. Liefeld created an all-new character who dressed in a red, white, and blue costume, carried a circular shield, and fought a Nazi called the Iron Skull, named Agent: America. DC had a character named Wonder Woman, who was a princess of the Amazons raised on Paradise Island; Liefield created Glory, a princess of the Amazonians who was raised on the Isle of Paradise. Marvel had an undersea king called Namor; Liefeld created an undersea king called (sigh) "Roman." And then there was Supreme. Supreme was like Superman, only more violent. I can't really say much more than that, because the concept seemed to be different every time he appeared. At one point he was a prisoner who'd gained his powers in an experiment, at another point he was a god who said "Lo!" and "Forsooth!" a lot, at yet another point he was space-based and fought for the "Kalyptans." When Liefeld offered the title to Moore, Moore agreed to take on the assignment on the condition that he be allowed to throw out everything that had gone before. Liefeld agreed, and "The Story of the Year" began in Supreme #41, cover-dated August 1996.
In Moore's first issue, Supreme finds himself afflicted with partial amnesia, on an Earth that's flickering between two realities. As he tries to get his bearings, he is greeted by a group of super-beings who descend from an interdimensional portal. All are wearing variations on his costume… but one is a jive-talking black woman with a huge Afro, and another is an musclebound anthropomorphic mouse. They take him through the portal to Limbo, where they and hundreds of other Supremes have built a floating city called "the Supremacy." And they explain: every so often, reality gets revised. When it does, the previous version of Supreme, and anything connected with him, gets dumped in this dimension. There's Original Supreme from the late '30s, along with the Daily Record, where he'd worked… a Supreme who was the last son of the exploded planet Supron, the entirety of which came with him; a Supreme from the future with a giant head, some Sergeants Supreme from World War II, and many many more. Reality has just been revised again, they tell "our" Supreme, and while he may have dim memories of being born in 1920 like all the rest of them, he's actually only been around for a few moments, and is about to take his place as the Supreme of a new continuity. Which he then does.
Supreme begins to fill in his past, returning to his childhood hometown of Littlehaven, visiting his Citadel Supreme in the clouds above Omegapolis. "When I see something," he explains, "I get a flood of memory filling in the gaps in my recollection. My past gets slowly colored in." We see what he remembers in simulacra of Silver Age comics, drawn by Rick Veitch of the 1963 team. We learn about Supreme's adolescent career as Kid Supreme, back when he saved Judy Jordan from supervillain Darius Dax. We learn about his little sister Suprema, the Lass of Laurels, and their superpowered dog Radar, the Hound Supreme; about the League of Infinity, which inducts Kid Supreme into its ranks; about the mineral supremium, which can weaken him, or temporarily change him in bizarre ways. We learn about his friendship with Professor Night and Twilight the Girl Marvel, and about his membership in the Allies along with such characters as Glory and a delightful retconned "Roy Roman, the Mer-Master." We also learn about Supreme's civilian identity as Ethan Crane, artist for Dazzle Comics, which also employs his current love interest, Diana Dane. In short, Moore puts the '80s on rewind. He takes a "grim and gritty" Rob Liefeld character and builds a whole new Silver Age around him.
It's reasonable to ask whether there is ultimately any more to this exercise than a middle-aged man grumbling that the shitty media back in his day was better than this new-fangled shitty media. To put it another way: why would anyone who wouldn't read Action Comics #241 for fun enjoy Supreme #43? Certainly, if you hate postmodernism, stay away. Even if you do like it, Moore's Supreme takes it to excesses, particularly once "The Story of the Year" wraps up. When Ethan Crane and Diana Dane start working on a story about Omni-Man visiting a city in Limbo full of alternate Omni-Men, it starts to get more than a little wanky, as do the jokes about British comic book writers — though they're not as direly unfunny as the Clinton jokes in issue #57. But all that said, I do think that even if you don't enjoy actual Silver Age comics, it's hard not to be impressed by the feat of rebuilding almost the entire Silver Age from the ground up in thirteen issues. In a way it's the same sort of exercise as taking a bunch of old stories about a long-ago war, passed down from generation to generation, and turning them into the Iliad. Or at least a version of the Iliad featuring such characters as Akillyzz and Mairp.
Judgment Day, Supreme, Youngblood, Glory
Shortly after Alan Moore started working on Supreme, Rob Liefeld was kicked out of Image for, among many other things, using company funds to pay his personal debts. Liefeld starting putting out his comics himself, combining his companies Extreme Studios and Maximum Press to form Awesome Entertainment, and yes, those are the actual names he picked. The problem was that his characters' backstories were all tied up with properties belonging to people who were now suing him. Supreme was fine on this score — Moore had just done a reboot, so his backstory was wiped clean — but now Liefeld needed the someone to do the same for all his other characters. This event would unfold in a three-issue miniseries called Judgment Day, he decided, and he asked Moore to write it. Moore agreed, but said that if he were stuck with that title, he'd rework it to refer to a trial rather than the apocalypse Liefeld had in mind.
Judgment Day combines some very good elements with some atrociously bad ones. Chief among the bad ones is that Liefeld himself does the art. Here's a typical panel:
This is what Rob Liefeld calls "drawing a courtroom." Question: what is that shadow being cast against? I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury!
I ask you, crudely sketched outlines of the jury! Oy.
Anyway, Judgment Day revolves around a magical book: everything written in it ends up happening, and you can cross out things and write in your own stuff to change the future. The book falls into the hands of one of Liefeld's characters — his name is Marcus Langston, code-named Sentinel. Sentinel, we learn, read in the book that he was doomed to die at nineteen, shot dead while robbing a liquor store. So he wrote a new story for himself, one in which he becomes a superhero. But Sentinel isn't satisfied: "There isn't enough shooting. He doesn't get to kill enough people. Around the middle 1980s, Marcus had grown bored of this. He decides to write a nastier, shadowier, and more violent world for himself… and for everybody else. Our entire reality changed and darkened. Gone was the naive wonder of the '40s, the exuberance of the '50s, and the nobility of the '60s. Working a dreadful reverse alchemy, Marcus Langston let our world slide from a Golden Age to a Silver Age, and finally to a Dark Age. Now, heroes motivated only by money or psychopathology stalked a paranoid, apocalyptic landscape of post-nuclear mutants and bazooka-wielding cyborgs. Our universe had been sucked into a bad action movie of constant, meaningless mayhem." So, yeah. Liefeld paid Alan Moore to tear him and everything he stood for to pieces. I wonder whether he realized.
Maybe not! Not only did Liefeld keep working with Moore, but he had Moore map out his whole universe for him. Moore was amenable. Having rebuilt the Silver Age in Supreme, he was ready to move forward: "I see this as not being a retro book, not in the way 1963 was," he wrote. "What I'd like to do is try to infuse this new '90s model superhero with all of the imaginative power of the superheroes of the previous fifty years. To give it that sort of humor and grace and see whether we can come up with some composite that's viable for the next century." He also agreed to write Youngblood and Glory. I've read a writeup of his plans. It was fascinating to see how he thought through each character, in psychological terms, in archetypal terms, in marketing terms. Really, it was my first exposure to how really good commercial writers ply their trade — I learned quite a bit. And yet almost none of his prep work came to fruition, at least not with these characters. After ten substantially less inspired issues of Supreme and three issues of Youngblood, Awesome Entertainment abruptly went out of business. Three issues of Glory were also produced, but didn't come out until Avatar Press picked them up a few years later. Moore moved over to Jim Lee's outfit to start the "America's Best Comics" imprint. Liefeld has spent the past decade-plus announcing new series after new series and then releasing only a single issue of each. This is probably just as well. After all, when he did manage to put out more than one issue of something, namely Judgment Day, he numbered the issues α, Ω, and 3. Rob Liefeld, everyone!
(Incidentally, normally when I recommend something as strongly as I recommend "The Story of the Year," I post an Amazon link. I'm not doing so here because Rick Veitch has urged readers not to buy the collection, saying that "the reproduction is unbelievably bad" and that "none of the creators, except presumably Liefeld, have received any royalties from these editions." As for 1963, it was never collected and the creators have gone on record saying that it never will be.)
From 1997 to 2003 I released at least one piece of interactive fiction per year: long ones in '99 and '03, a couple of medium-short ones in '00, and "comp-sized" ones each of the other years. The last one, Narcolepsy, took fourteen months to write and code, during which time I made almost no progress on any of my other projects. I therefore decided to take a hiatus from IF. But then, at the beginning of 2006, I read "The Story of the Year." And it seemed to me that the Supremacy was just crying out to be adapted into IF. For while reality may be revised in comic books every few years, the world of an IF story reboots every time the player types RESTART. So, what if there were an IF story in which all the past versions of the player character ended up hanging out together on another level of reality somewhere? Now, it's one thing to be inspired by another work of art; it's another to rip it off wholesale. My rule of thumb has long been what I eventually called Pattern 38: a story should be a synthesis of at least two ideas, and not only should they not all be borrowed from the same source, but ideally, at least one of them should be personal. As it happened, the previous summer I had spent a week at a beach house on Cape Cod with a bunch of other IF people, a vacation that proved to be personally quite fateful — so much so that by the end of the year I had moved back to California (as coincidence would have it, onto a street in San Leandro called Cape Cod Drive). So there was my second thread: my IF Supremacy would be the beach house.
This was the seed of Endless, Nameless. I ended up weaving in a few other major themes, but once I had the basic outline, I got to work right away. Nearly all my free time in 2006/March went to coding it up — and then, after a month of that, I thought, what am I doing? I'm never going to finish my second book if I take a year to write another giant IF piece! So I put E,N on hold and returned to traditional fiction, right up to the point that I suddenly found myself offered a screenwriting job that made the concept of "free time" a thing of the past.
By 2011, I had made enough money writing movie scripts that I felt I could take some time off and get back to one of my many backburnered projects. Initially, my plan was to finally complete one of the several half-finished novels sitting on my hard drive. I also had a bunch of IF pieces in various stages of development, but dusting off one of those had long seemed like a waste of time. Who would play it? I had assumed that interactive fiction would be stone dead by now. I said as much in some interviews back in the early '00s. It seemed to me pretty clear that the renaissance IF had experienced in the late '90s could be chalked up to demographics. There were a lot of people around my age who had grown up playing Infocom games back in the '80s. By the mid-'90s we were old enough to write equally good ones ourselves; we had the free time to do so, since most of us were in grad school for something or other; some excellent IF development tools had been made freely available; and then of course it helped that a free global distribution network had come onto the scene. But by the early '00s, most of the people I'd met through IF in the '90s had drifted away from the hobby. They had jobs now, and kids. A lot of them had written one game and found that it got the urge to write IF out of their systems. And who was going to replace the people who were leaving? The twentysomethings of the '00s had no nostalgia for gray-on-blue ANSI text. Sure, we always said that IF as a medium was no more a relic of the 1980s than the novel was a relic of the 17th century… but who were we kidding?
But then I started to encounter some data points suggesting that I'd been wrong. I heard that some of my old IF compatriots had done a panel at some sort of convention, expecting a handful of people to show up, only to pack the whole auditorium. I sat in on a graduate seminar and was kind of shocked to discover that these little games that my online pals and I had cobbled together a decade earlier were now the subject of serious academic study — not in the way that sociologists study fan communities, but as legitimate literary works. One of my better friends in the IF world landed a plum job on the back of her IF work. I started to think that maybe it'd be worth taking a few months to finish one of my big IF projects. After all, if Photopia had won me a screenwriting job, who knew what something bigger and better might lead to, especially now that the IF audience had apparently grown well beyond the confines of the old Usenet groups?
Well… I was probably right the first time. I'm pretty happy with how Endless, Nameless came out. The writing isn't quite as sparkly as that in Narcolepsy, but it's a lot better structurally. I think the final act works particularly well, which is kind of shocking given that I added it at the last minute — I'd already sent the program off to alpha testers and everything. And I've been gratified to find that those who have played it have deemed it the best of my IF works; as of this writing (2013.1215), it's the one item in my IFDB bibliography to have received a full five stars. But all that said, finishing it appears to have been a poor use of my time. There were a couple of articles about it in the independent gaming press, but otherwise it came and went almost without a trace. And… well, let me put it this way. I was recently startled to discover that I'd been given a shout-out on the blog of the London School of Economics by a researcher who'd studied the IF world. In the absence of a commercial market, he argued, IF writers produce work pretty much exclusively in order to create "cultural value." This may be as good a descriptor as any for why writing Endless, Nameless now strikes me as probably a waste of time. Back in the day I might work for weeks or months on an IF piece, and maybe it would get a hundred downloads — but fifty of the people who downloaded it would post about it. And those fifty people had all gotten to know each other a little bit, if only through the newsgroups, and so those posts tended to lead to actual conversations about the work — and therein lay its cultural value. I could look at those conversations and feel like I had accomplished something. Endless, Nameless may have garnered exponentially more downloads immediately upon its release… but if only four of the people who downloaded it actually say anything about it, and if those posts don't end up inspiring much discussion, that doesn't give me a whole lot of motivation to do another one. Don't get me wrong — I certainly can't blame anyone for passing on this one. I don't play these things either. Endless, Nameless in particular isn't necessarily the most accessible piece: it's IF for people who know IF, the way that "The Story of the Year" was an off-brand Superman story for people who know Superman. I knew that going in, but I went ahead anyway because it seemed like the one IF project that I could finish and still have time to complete a book as well before my savings ran out. As it turned out, I was wrong about that, too — in the summer of 2012 I had to take on another script, and while initially it looked like it'd be a quick job, it didn't wrap up until last month. So now I have 2014 to try to finish something else — and it's not going to be IF this time around.