The direct market boom of the 1980s was a watershed moment in funnybook history for both the business and creative ends of the industry, refractionist although one rife with mixed effects and missed opportunities for the parties involved.
The ascendancy of dedicated shops as the primary delivery system for comics gave the industry a renewed lease on life at a time when the old “newsstand” method of distribution was faltering in the face of economic reality. They also gave publishers — both old and new — greater access to the consumer base in terms of shelf space and visibility while bypassing traditional hurdles regarding content and format.
The boom hit during the early-to-mid 1980s, women’s health right around the time I was transitioning from a kid who read comics into a full-on teenage fanboy. It was a wonder to behold, a Cambrian explosion of genres titles as well as a reversal (if limited) of the creator complaints about being straightjacketed by monolithic dominiance of work-for-hire, kid-oriented material.
Yet for all the postitive aspects of this sea change, there were a slew of regressive riptides which would end up swamping the nacent revolution. Fan habits die hard — if they die all — and the rise of new direct market darlings saw a corresponding rise in the speculative nonsense associated with the collector mentality’s emphasis on commodification over content.
Publishers, for their part, rose to that speculative bait. Emboldened by a few rare mega-successes (Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, TMNT), they proceeded to drown the goose that laid the golden egg with a torrent of me-too releases. Too much of a good thing is bad enough. Too much of a mediocre thing is the prelude to a harsh reality check.
If the publishing end of the business got mired in its entrenched preference for short-term thinking, the creative side indulged in a unfortunate habit of its own — one which has plagued large sectors of the medium for decades. The comics scene — and by that I mean “mainstream American comics” one — has repeatedly struggled with its own legitimacy as “art,” typically expressed by bouts of public bragodoccio masking a deep-seated inferiority complex.
For every creator who embraces the potential of the medium, there are scores who — out loud or privately — are torn between their fandom and nagging sense they’re either slumming it or temporarily passing through. It’s not so much self-loathing or hackery as it is a subtle form of myopia that seeks t0 emulate other media at the expense of the medium strengths at hand. (It’s not as big an issue these days, but neither is the comics industry as a whole. *rimshot*)
There’s nothing wrong with creative cross-pollination — we could use a lot more of it, in fact — but the above phenomena is more akin to bolting wings on a pick-up truck to make it “more like a jet plane.” The resulting product is neither fish nor fowl, but rather a veiled admission that the reader would be better off watching a movie, playing a videogame, or reading a “legit” work of fiction.
The market-encouraged diversity of the direct market boom only exacerbated this problem, with creators casting off the shackles of the superhero genre only to embrace other sets of shopworn cliches. Bog standard sci-fi epic, tired action thrillers, predictable horror tales — the same crap clogging the creative arteries in other media, but passed off as something special because it had been rendered in comics form.
Couple that with a confused understanding of what “mature content” in comics is supposed to signify, and you had enough material to fill a thousand quarter bins…
…which brings us to Cinder and Ashe, a four issue miniseries published by DC in early 1988.
If the titular pun didn’t clue you in already, the series was a standard “buddy cop” affair — with a lashing of political intrigue — set to words and pictures.
Cinder DuBois is the Tulane-educated-yet-streetwise daughter of an African-American serviceman and a Vietnamese woman. She also sports a fetching (and embarrasing) shade of orange, thanks to the wonders of color separation technology circa 1988…
Jacob Ashe is a ragin’ Cajun mercenary who rescued the orphaned Cinder from the Saigon slums and serves as her partner in the “troubleshooting” business. In addition to his absurdly over the top Cajun accent, he has a skunk-stripe crew cut which he normally hides under a trucker cap.
Together the pair take on tough cases amidst the backdrop of New Orleans — which is “just like wartime Saigon,” we’re told — and all that other shit one normally associates with the Thursday night 10 PM timeslot of CBS’s 1986 midseason.
Apart from the graphic child rape, that is. (Hey, it wasn’t like Cinder’s crusade against bad guys was going to motivate itself, right?)
And the ongoing sexual tension between the surrogate father and his foster daughter.
Now that’s what the industry likes to call “mature content.” The rest of us get by with simply “nauseating.”
Inexcusable lapses into grottiness aside, there’s little in Cinder and Ashe that couldn’t be found elsewhere and executed more effectively. As I said, it’s a collection of cliches whose sole claim to novelty is the chosen medium, even though it made no effort to take advantage of the strengths of said medium.
Unlike something like Kevin Church and T.J Kirsch’s She Died in Terrebone — where the format (akin to a Sunday funny pages strip) was deliberately and quite effectively used to establish narrative “beats” — Cinder and Ashe (despite the fine José Luis García-López art) feels like a hasty adaptation of a film or TV project, alienated from the format instead of integrated with it.
A forgotten piece of shrapnel from the direct market explosion, Cinder and Ashe wasn’t horrible (besides the grotesque sexual politics) as much as it lacked any compelling reason to exist…which is why it deserved to be this week’s Nobody’s Favorite.