It’s a sad truth that the conceptual aspects of any given groundbreaking work or artistic movement will be overshadowed by superficial readings of its most obvious — and imitable — aspects. The grand prank underlying Duchamp’s “Fountain” was (and is) overlooked by scores of irony oblivious “found object” sculptors as Pollock’s paintings have been reduced to the deceptive simplicity of the splatters and splashes displayed on canvas.
It’s all part of the creative game, ampoule where “scenes” consist of a handful of visionaries and legions of copycat carpetbaggers. The marketplace supports these mad scrums until the novelty subsides and the inevitable shakeout unfolds. It’s as true in comics as is in contemporary art and popular music, pharm and perhaps even more drastically felt given the funnybook scene’s relative insularity, smaller scope, and persistent state of financial desperation. If something “clicks,” or rises to the status of a bona fide critical and sales success, it invariably will become the template for a host of derivative works while its DNA will be decoded and disseminated across the genre spectrum.
So it was for the whole “revisionist superhero” craze of the 1980s, whose currents and superficial elements continue to propagate and thrive through the present day. Labeled “postmodern” or “deconstructionist” by folks with shaky understandings of those terms, the trend was characterized by the examination and dissection of the more troubling and absurd aspects of dressing up in tights and whomping “bad guys.”
Jabs at the inherent sillness of superheroes were nothing new; they’d been subject of satirical takedowns from the primordial days of Scribbly‘s “Red Tornado” and George Marcoux’s Supersnipe up through Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American, various MAD Magazine parodies, Herbie the Fat Fury, and a slew of 1970s Steve Gerber stories. While many of the revisionist takes from the 1980s onward incorporated some degree of satire, they also incorporated “grimmer and grittier” (yet no less absurd) psycho-sexual implications and a more “realistic” take on four-color violence.
The revisionist superhero trend benefited from an confluence of beneficial circumstances — the rise of direct market distribution which bypassed the strictures of the Comics Code Authority, an influx of creative talent willing and able to shake up the calcified Silver/Bronze Age status quo, and a growing segment of fandom hungry for more adult fare than the billionth Superman tale about Red Kryptonite. I was in my mid-to-late teens when the trend broke, placing me smack dab in the target demo for the dark and disturbing charms of Miracleman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen — the Holy Trinity of Revisionist Superheroics.
And because I was a teenage boy, much of the structural subtleties and historical contexts — of those works were lost on me. It was all about superheroes cursing, fucking, and generally acting in what a rock-stupid adolescent thinks of as “badass behavior.” I was not alone in that myopic state of fascination. More regrettably, those superficial elements became tidally locked to a sigificant potion of the manchild fanbase, the rump parliament of hardcore fandom whose stream of dollars and questionable tastes led to the situation where the inclusion of rapey z-list supervillains and severed limbs are considered wise business moves by the industry despite periodic attempts to “lighten the mood.”
Getting back to the 1980s, the critical and sales success of Watchmen spurred an entire cycle of “mature readers” titles hoping to capture a slice of that politically and sexually charged superhero action. A couple of these efforts even managed to succeed on their darkly satiric merits — the over-the-top Marshal Law (until it devolved, Ellroy-style, into polemic self-parody) and the utterly disturbing Brat Pack. Mostly, however, these derivative sank like dour little stones in a marketplace which grew to celebrate the grotty “blood and boobs” window dressing of revisionist superheroics as an end in itself.
Case in point: When was the last time you’ve hear someone mention The New Statesmen?
You know, dystopian superhero tale which originally ran serialized in the British mag Crisis from 1988 to 1989 before getting repackaged as a Fleetway/Quality “prestige edition” miniseries and trade paperback in the States? Anyone? Anyone?
Eh, it’s understandable. I doubt even its creators remember it. Or want to, if they did.
The tale is set in the mid-21st Century where American exceptionalism and genetic engineering have collaborated to produce multiple generations of “Opti-Men.” Part celebrity spokesperson and part black-ops superweapon, each opti-man (and opti-woman) is modeled and named after a aspect or locale of a certain state — “Salem” for Massachusetts, “Burbank” for California, and so forth. (In a shocking turn of events which probably seemed less stupid in New Statesmen‘s original country of publication, England had become America’s 51st State by 2047.)
Not only is there a generational conflict between the older, super-buff “Hard” series and more newer, more esoterically powered “Soft” opti-men, but further tension erupts when Phoenix, the Arizonan super-delegate, sets himself up as the leader of a mass movement of militant right-wingers and Christian fundamentalist jihadists.
The goverment dithers. Acts of terrorist violence spread across the country. San Francisco is violently “cleansed” of homosexuals and other “undesirables” by Phoenix and his followers. A small group of opti-men put up a convoluted resistance to their sibling. A bunch get killed before Phoenix is taken down by an electro-telepathic orgasm.
It’s difficult to imagine a British take on the revisionist superhero trope which didn’t evoke — either intentionally or subconsciously — Alan Moore’s twin pillars of Miracleman and Watchmen. Writer John Smith didn’t even try to escape massive shadow cast by those influential works. As a result, The New Statesmen comes off as so much second-hand wine poured into new, inferior bottles. From the slow (or rather, “soporific”) burn of the conspiratorial mystery to the copious (and contextually meaningless) “in-universe” backmatter text pages to principal artist Jim Baikie’s Gibbonesque riff, New Statesmen exhibits the surface elements of its influences while displaying little of their craft.
Things only get worse when Smith did try to spread his creative wings. For all the insufferable “my influence is cinematic not literary” bloviating in Smith’s foreward to the trade edition, he still lobs in his share of freshman creative writing student howlers. If the symbolism of a politician getting shot while holding a dove wasn’t laughable enough, he had the solid brass balls to have two of the opti-men named and patterned after Holden Caufield and Jay Gatsby. I can forgive a lot of pretentious sins, folks, but even I have my limits.
In addition, the fairly complete story summarized above was wedged between superfluous prologue and epilogue sequences which have little bearing on the main events. The former is a “twenty years later” teaser about nightmarish events which never receive a proper set-up in the main tale, while the latter is a tacked on bit o’ confusion in which a next-gen opti-man — rendered by additional artist Sean Phillips as a scenery-chewing “Raggedy Endless” — staggers in from some stray Vertigo book to wax nonsensically prophetic and philosophical…
To be fair, The New Statesmen does contain a number of visionary elements. It’s the first place I recall encountering the term “neo-conservative,” though its use was more in the “neo-Nazi” sense of the prefix instead of the geopolitical doctrine that would come to signify. (“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to,” I know.) It also featured gay characters in prominent roles, something that was nigh-unheard of in semi-mainstream comics at the time and still a contentious matter today. Many of its plot elements were echoed — hamfistedly and rock-stupidly — in Marvel’s Civil War, though whether one can consider that a positive or negative is debatable.
The New Statesmen isn’t a terrible series, but rather a modestly competent effort which lacked the craft, polish, and innovation to escape the shadows of its immediate influences. Miracleman had the advantage of getting there early in the cycle and Watchmen the advantage of exceptional craftsmanship. The New Statesman had neither those blessings nor the gleefully venomous character which distinguished Marshal Law or Brat Pack from the herd of latecomers. Today it stands out as little more than a relic of a fad which was already played out by 1990 (and beaten into the ground in the two decades since) as well as this weeks selection for Nobody’s Favorite.