Friday, March 29, 2013

1987 and all that 004: too true

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

D.P. 7 #3-14 (Marvel)
by Mark Greunwald, Paul Ryan, Romeo Tanghal, Al Williamson, Danny Bulanadi, Paul Becton, Phil Felix

Realism in superhero comics is an interesting struggle. Because there is an inherently fantastical element to any story involving people with impossible powers, finding a way to keep them grounded is not always an easy or obvious task. Typically, these are narratives about grown men and women who make up secret names for themselves and throw on outlandish, bright, skintight costumes every time there’s someone evil to punch. This is not exactly a genre that lends itself to a believable narrative.  And it’s not that every superhero story needs realism, but those that do strive for it often go the “grim and gritty” route, seeing brutality and depression as the only means of bringing their demigod-like characters back down to Earth. To keep things exciting and intense without always relying on larger-than-life, city-block-devastating action, creators will turn to the ugliest, darkest aspects of human nature and heighten them to super-heroic levels. And certainly many great things have come from this strategy, but more and more often it feels like current creators are piling on the darkness without any rhyme or reason, and the results are just as unrealistic as anything, only bleaker and more violent. 'D.P. 7' offers a different approach, realistic not because of any darkness in tone but because of its pacing, telling its story in as close to real time as it can. At its best, this tactic makes the series better and smarter than your average comic book by far. But at its worst, it’s incredibly boring. As boring as real life.

'D.P. 7', or Displaced Paranormals 7, was a part of Marvel’s New Universe imprint, a group of titles that began in 1986 and existed outside of the main Marvel U. This was a brand new continuity (hence “paranormal” instead of “superhero” or “mutant” or “ meta-human” or what have you), and the whole point of it was to make things simpler and more reflective of the real world. Cutting out magic and super-science and other established elements of modern superhero comic books, the New Universe focused on the practical ramifications of people suddenly developing extraordinary powers. Lives fall to pieces. There is fear and paranoia and, above all, confusion. And for the stars of 'D.P. 7', these powers are treated like a disease, something with which they have all been afflicted and hope to cure or otherwise be rid of eventually.

My instinct is to call this series a “team book,” as there are many obvious parallels to groups like the Runaways, the Outsiders, and especially the X-Men. But these people aren't really a team, they’re just a group. Seven strangers who each individually seek help for their new found abilities from The Clinic, a mysterious medical facility that claims to be studying them in an attempt to understand and ultimately cure whatever gives them their powers. Unsurprisingly, The Clinic is not what it appears, and the people who run it are actually attempting to recruit and/or brainwash the new paranormals of the world in order to dominate it. Our band of seven discovers that something is amiss and flees, spending months afterward on the run. They stick together only for survival, and even that isn't enough to keep all of them around for very long. Group decisions are based on whose car they have or who whines the loudest, and even Randy, the closest thing they have to a leader, is really just an oft-ignored voice of reason. They form friendships and other bonds slowly but surely through their shared traumas and close quarters, but even then, there is no sense of a singular team identity. Before they can reach that point or even get close to it, they splinter, and never manage to fully regroup (at least within this run of issues).

Similarly, it is worth noting that, in the strictest definition of the term, this might not be considered a “superhero comic,” either. Yes, these are good-hearted people with superpowers, and they even take down a villain or two in their time, but they’re not exactly heroic figures. They don’t fight crime or actively seek to eliminate evil. When their lives are at stake, they defend themselves, and when The Clinic finally catches up to and captures most of the group, those strong enough to fight back do so and save the day. But there is no sense of great power equaling great responsibility here, or any responsibility. Again, for pretty much everyone involved, these powers are viewed as a burden, a hopefully temporary condition keeping them from their real lives.

It is those lives that make this series so strong. The characters are all whole and multi-faceted, each of them coming from a unique and detailed background, lives which they had to walk away from once their powers manifested. They vary wildly in age and social status, giving them all very different priorities and points of view. Though they’re all confused by what’s happening to them, their coping mechanisms run the gamut from calm, analytic curiosity to hysterics and outright fear. These stark differences help to establish the cast very quickly and connect the reader to each of them, as writer Mark Gruenwald solidifies their respective voices immediately. Even within each new issue, Gruenwald is sure to remind the reader of who everybody is and some of the details of their former lives, as well as regularly adding to their individual developments. It makes the series incredibly new-reader friendly. Hell, because 'D.P. 7' #3 is the first with a 1987 cover date, I skipped the initial two issues when preparing for this column, but never for a second felt lost or left out. Gruenwald weaves plot recaps and character histories into every chapter, and because his cast is so firm and complete right away, every line they speak or choice they make helps to deepen the readers’ understanding of them. They are always entirely themselves in everything they do and say, and without the consistency and diversity of the cast, this book would be a great deal blander.

If the character details are what make this book so solid, though, it is the plot details that weaken it the most. Not because the stories are bad or even badly told. On the contrary, it is mostly quite interesting and well-handled material. Like the storyline where Stephie tries to reunite with her kids, only to add to the chaos and drama of their lives by knocking out their grandmother and kidnapping them. Or Scuzz’s savage beating at the hands of a biker gang and doubly vicious revenge. These are sensitive issues, but because of the incredible legwork Gruenwald does with the characters, by the time we get to these stories they can be explored fully and honestly from all sides. We don’t hate Stephie for exacerbating the upheaval of her children’s lives, because we understand her motives and we know she’s not quite capable of thinking the whole thing through. But that does not make us feel any better for the kids when it’s happening. As for Scuzz, he’s the teenage rebel without a cause, a child with a big mouth and abrasive attitude but who means no real harm. Watching him get so mercilessly beaten is hard, and we understand the ferocity of his vengeance, whether or not we condone it. He’s too young to control himself, to be able to handle something like the violent near-death experience he’s put through. It might be senseless violence, but it’s not pointless in terms of the story.

The title regularly takes this careful, grounded approach to its difficult topics and complex characters. Yet even during the most fascinating and exciting of these stories, Gruenwald’s tendency to reiterate and re-explain things (which I praised moments ago with regards to the cast) often leads to the dragging of narrative feet. When the group finally fights back against The Clinic, they reveal its director, Dr. Voigt, to basically be this universe’s Magneto: paranormals are the next step in humanity and are destined to rule over normal people and blah blah blah. And the actual showdown with Voigt, who also calls himself Overshadow, is unquestionably a highlight. But once he’s defeated, there are not one but three different conversations amongst various characters, main and supporting, about how the administration of The Clinic will be handled without him. Not that this is an unnecessary decision to make, or even that it has no importance for the ongoing drama of the series. It becomes a power struggle between those staff members who support Overshadow’s maniacal visions of world domination and those who legitimately want to help the paranormals get some answers. But actually listening to them talk about it is mind-numbingly dull. It adds to the realism, because they are conversations that definitely have to take place, but it throws off the rhythm of the series and detracts from my personal interest as a reader. We have already seen the fight and learned what Overshadow was up to, so hearing it described to someone else offers nothing new. And the minutiae of hospital administration just don’t make for gripping fiction, no matter how you slice it.

There’s a lot of this kind of unnecessary stuff in the book: scenes that reiterate the events of other scenes, internal monologues that express out loud feelings already made clear in Paul Ryan’s detailed visuals, or even throwaway B plots that serve only to fill time or pad an issue but aren't really important pieces of the bigger puzzle. When Dave, the resident muscle man of the titular group, encounters a strange and secret community of paranormals with mental powers called the ESPeople, we get a whole issue devoted to introducing and explaining them. This would be fine if they were going to stick around or participate in the main story at all, but aside from giving Dave some protection from telepathic attacks and invasions, they are narrative non-entities. They prevent Dave from being captured by The Clinic, tell him who they are—literally just a group of people with mental powers living together—and offer him a spot in their little gang, and then, when he kindly turns them down, they wipe his memory and send him out to get caught by the very people from whom they’d protected him initially. And we never hear from the ESPeople again, making their brief time in the series all the more confusing and even less important than it seemed at first.

It’s the kind of thing that would happen if folks all over the world arbitrarily developed superhuman abilities. There’d be various gatherings of such people, formed for different reasons, and they’d inevitably run into one another at some point. And it’s true that, like in this example, almost any time 'D.P. 7' starts to feel boring or lose its focus, it’s still in the service of authenticity, showing the audience what a real-world version of the story at hand would entail. This means that the ending of each issue is not necessarily a climactic or thrilling moment. In fact, most of the final beats aren't like that at all. The problems of these characters are not all solved at the same time, and new ones develop constantly, so at the end of any given issue the cast is often still in the middle or even at the beginning of dealing with some new difficulty. Rather than force cliffhanger conclusions where they don’t fit, Gruenwald is happy to let his issues land wherever they naturally arrive at the end of 23 pages. It can mean that the high point of an issue comes in the middle, with the ending feeling more like a slow-burn prologue for next month, or even just a logical continuation of the current story that stops abruptly. I was surprised more than once to discover that a panel I’d just read was the last of an issue. But again, while this may be unusual and even a tad uncomfortable, it also goes a long way toward maintaining the realism. Life’s problems don’t get resolved in neat little chapters of the exact same length, so neither do the myriad narrative threads of 'D.P. 7'.

Essentially, 'D.P. 7'’s biggest virtue is also its greatest flaw. Gruenwald’s attention to detail and his focus on making everyone sound and feel true-to-life are why the large cast is so likable and easy to connect with right away. The characters are what hooked me, and they continue to be people in whom I am deeply invested, even though I have spent considerably less time with them than innumerable other comic book protagonists. Yet in taking great pains not to omit the tiny bits and pieces of his stories, Gruenwald often presents the reader with repetitive and/or dull material. Whole pages are devoted to moments that could’ve been handled off-panel, people tell us things overtly that we have already been more subtly shown, and plots spring up and are abandoned in the course of a single issue. The periods of excitement are all the more exciting for it, and more often than not the series’ realism goes in the pros column rather than the cons. But just as any real-life fun or frightening or otherwise adrenaline-producing escapades will always be punctuated by the doldrums of the day-to-day, so too are 'D.P. 7'’s best adventures split up by some of comics’ most mundane moments. Ultimately, it is the slow and deliberate pacing of the book that makes me a fan, because it gives the whole cast ample room to breathe and grow, as well as creating a unique world that also feels far closer to our own than I am used to in my super-powered fiction. But the pace is also what most often bothers me, a strangely contradictory aspect of what is generally an original and intelligent title.

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