Though Marvel (through its Epic Comics imprint) was quick to exploit the creative potential provided by the emerging dominance of the direct market distribution model, DC was a little slower on the draw when it came to exploring the possibilities for slickly produced and sophisticated funnybook fare not beholden to the strictures of CCA censors.
The company’s initial trickle of product (i.e. Camelot 3000, Ronin, Thriller and a few graphic novel releases) turned into a full on torrent during the latter half of the 1980s after the dynamic duo of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen met with unprecedented critical and commercial success. Fortified with the foolish overconfidence that follows a double lighting strike, DC sought to extend its winning steak by greenlighting a host of half-assed vanity projects.
The vast majority of these efforts sunk without so much as generating a ripple of audience interest, thanks to the brutal calculus of imitation-based economics where scores of lesser contenders must compete for space in the dark chill of an inspirational shadow. Not only was there simply too much product for the marketplace to absorb, but most of the material was mediocre drek. An audience won over by top-tier creators doing groundbreaking work cannot be sustained by some fantasy/sci-fi boilerplate gussied up with a lurid “mature readers” makeover.
The various products of the boom have long since vanished down the memory hole, delegated to the hazy limbo of quarter bins, vaguely remembered house ads, or footnotes on an up-an-coming (or declining) talent’s biblography. Does anyone else recall Outlaws? Tailgunner Jo? Slash Maraud?
When one of these efforts does resurface in fandom’s collective memory, it’s typically for reasons which have little to do with the actual quality of the book…
…as is the case of Sonic Disruptors.
When the 1987 “maxiseries” pops up as a subject of geeky conversation, odds are it’s either in reference to the laughably hokey house ads plastered across other DC titles during that era or — more likely — the fact that DC took the then-unprecedented step of pulling the plug after the seventh issue of its planned twelve-issue run.
“The miniseries that got cancelled halfway through” is a tough rep to live down, and Sonic Disruptors has become a legend in the annals of terrible funnybooks. Like most legends, however, the knowledge of the comic’s awfulness is more received than empirical.
Don’t get me wrong — it is exceptionally bad — but it’s the type of bad that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
“The United States Army versus the United States of ROCK” declares the ready-made-for-mockery tagline, though it only reflects a smallest sliver of the insanity which unfolds through Sonic Disruptors‘ abbreviated run.
The tale is a futuristic period-piece set in a 2030 extrapolated by mid-1980s anxieties about the Moral Majority, PMRC, and Reagan Era militarism. The United States has become a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship ruled by a collection of one-dimensional stock caricatures! Rock’n’roll has been outlawed and a satellite-based pirate radio station (and hydroponic weed farm) run by the uber-hip Shiek Rattle Enroll (yes, I know) and his zany crew of counterculture misfits fight the good fight by namedropping acceptable cool artists and song names!
As groanworthy as that concept summary sounds, it did have the the barest fixings for some facile high concept parody. If Sonic Disruptors held to that throughline (and maybe trimmed it down to a more managable four to six issues), it could have went down as a forgettable bit of fluff — kind of like a Mad Magazine spoof of Gimme a Break, a satiric moment frozen in amber.
Instead readers (in the hypothetical sense, I mean) were treated to a bizarre fever dream which expanded the narrative to include asides about Red China and outlaw rock festivals and magic guitars and a celebrity impersonator robot and tax exile genre-based micronations for musicians even as central characters and plot points were actively ignored or simply bumped aside.
The relationship between writer and reader is based on trust, the trust that the former isn’t wasting the latter’s time. It’s bad enough when a reader gets the sense that the writer is running up the fare by looping around the block (yeah, I’m looking at you, Kirkman), but it’s even worse when you realize that the driver hasn’t a damn clue where they’re supposed to be going.
A reasonable amount of wheelspinning can be acceptable in an ongoing series where readers’ expectations boil down to something like “seeing Batman do Batmanny things.” However, if you’ve hit the halfway mark in a twelve issue mini and have yet to define the principal characters and the predicaments which have befallen them, then it’s pretty clear things have gone off terminally off the rails. (Mike Baron, an otherwise solid writer, has stated that he was pretty much winging it with Sonic Disruptors and the decision to kill the series was a mutual one.)
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Not if it means recording a jingoistic anthem in the wake of 9/11 and certainly not if it means becoming synonymous with an unmitigated funnybook disaster…which is why Sonic Disruptors has gone to top of this week’s Nobody’s Favorite charts.