Anybody who “came of age” in the 1980s can tell you one thing — this whole nostalgia trip some folks seem to wallow in for that decade is seriously fucking misplaced. I was there and I can relate, in no uncertain terms, that the ’80s absolutely sucked. Yuppies wearing Polo shirts with upturned collars. Journey and Air Supply blaring on top 40 radio. The rise of truly repugnant social forces like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Illegal arms sales to drug-running terrorist armies that our government had the nerve to call “freedom fighters.” Skyrocketing federal budget deficits. People so hysterically freaked out by the rise of AIDS that they had the idiocy (not to mention the unmitigated gall) to claim that it was “god’s revenge on gays.” Horrid TV sitcoms like Family Ties and The Golden Girls at the top of the ratings charts. Reagan looming over ever part and parcel of the decade like the grim shadow of death that, for all intents and purposes, he looked like (or probably looked like — it was hard to tell under all that stage makeup he wore).
About the only thing that seemed to offer any hope of escape from the cultural, social, economic, and political death spiral we were stuck in was the deep-seated fear we were all being inculcated with courtesy of the horror story spoon-fed to us by the media, our teachers, and in some cases even our parents, that those evil Russkies might unload their purportedly enormous stockpile of nuclear missiles on us at any minute and put us all out of our collective misery.
It was all a hustle, of course. The Russian people were starving to death and the Cold War was just a cheap scare tactic being used to prop up our out-of-control warfare — excuse me, “defense” — establishment, but shit : it sure sounded good. A mushroom cloud waking you up in the morning or an alarm clock radio playing “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Survivor — which would you pick?
Of course, I was a young, stupid kid so it all seemed perfectly “normal” to me. And besides — I had comic books, goddamnit, and if there’s one thing the ’80s actually were a good time for, it was being a comics fan.
There were a couple of forces at play that were revitalizing our favorite beloved but beleaguered medium at the time — on the one hand, you had superhero revisionism in full force at DC, with books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen redefining the possibilities inherent in the guys-n’-gals-in-tights genre by pointing out, in the most stark manner possible, what a bunch of bullshit the founding pillars of said genre were in the first place, while brewing just underneath that was a booming independent comics scene that was allowing mostly amateur creators to tell — well, whatever kind of stories they felt like, basically. Between the two trends, it honestly felt like the possibilities were endless. As Timbuk3 were telling us, the future was so bright we had to wear shades.
It all fell apart, of course. The “Big Two” grasped the superficial appeal of the superhero revisionist genre easily enough without understanding — or even caring to understand — the deeper implications of why those two seminal works of 1986 mentioned earlier were so important, and as a result we got a steady stream of “darker” and “grittier” masked vigilantes that continues unabated to this day, while the “black and white boom” the small press enjoyed soon became a “black and white bust” when the market was over-saturated with a bunch of third-rate, quick-cash-in books that didn’t sell because,hell, they sucked.
Still, a lot of talent that would go on to take the “major leagues” by storm got started in the independent “minors” — maybe names like Adam Hughes, Eddie Campbell, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and Matt Wagner (to mention just a small handful) ring a bell? And plenty of titles from that time hold up pretty well, it has to be said : Mage, Grendel, Strange Days, Nexus — all of these are better the 30th (or 300th) time around than most of what’s being pumped out by Marvel of DC these days. Heck, even Fish Police wasn’t too bad.
Maybe it’s just the first sign of my inevitable mid-life crisis, but shit — I really do miss the “anything goes” spirit of some of those indies. Which is why I’ve found myself smiling ear-to-ear through each of the first two issues of Protectors Inc., the latest offering from J. Michael Straczynki’s “Joes Comics” imprint, which seems to have found a new (and hopefully permanent) home at Image Comics.
It’s not that it’s a perfect book, mind you — far from it. But it seems to be taking a fresh angle to the by-now-thoroughly-played-out ’80s trope of super hero revisionism by applying the loose, maybe even amateur (and I mean that as a positive) stylistic trappings of the ’80s indie boom and the end result is a title that , at least so far, is a hell of a lot of fun to read.
Sure, Straczynski probably has this sucker tightly plotted out from the fist page to the last, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Some WW II soldier gets super powers, starts calling himself “The Patriot,” and saves the world time and again. But then one day he just disappears. And a bunch of rich people with nothing to do suddenly declare that they, too, have powers beyond those of mortal men, form an outfit called Protectors Inc. (obviously), and take up The Patriot’s mantle of saving us all from — shit, I dunno, ourselves, I guess, because there aren’t any super villains to speak of in this world.
A bunch of good guys with no bad guys to fight — that’s either gotta be the best, or the dumbest, idea anyone’s ever had. I haven’t decided which is the case here yet, but finding out is certainly going to be interesting.
In the meantime, some ex-spy from the “wrong” side of the former Iron Curtain disappears in a flash of blinding light, there are un-natural thunderstorms every night, and some Chicago homicide detectives are investigating some apparently unconnected murders. Don’t ask me what any of this has to do with anything yet, but again, it’s a blast seeing it all play out. Straczynski seems to be in no hurry here, and that’s a good thing — he’s giving his characters time and space to breathe, to reveal themselves, and even folks you know probably won’t be central figures to the proceedings are provided ample opportunity to develop somewhat distinct personalities. Like the best of those ’80s indies, it all feels very organic, maybe even a little bit “loosey-goosey,” but the book’s core premises are intriguing enough to convince us folks out here in reader-land that we should stick with Protectors Inc.‘s creators and trust that they’ll get us all to wherever we’re all going. Even if we don’t have the first clue as to where that is yet.
On the art side, seasoned veteran Gordon Purcell (who, ironically, I knew pretty well back in the ’80s when he was just starting to break in at DC and worked part-time at the local comic shop where I was known as the loudest-mouthed, most opinionated little bastard who frequented the store — before growing up to become a loud-mouthed, opinionated, not-so-little bastard on the internet — the more things change, the more they stay the same) is handling the pencilling and inking here, and seems to have found a perfect style match for Straczynski’s script. There’s something deliciously eager and enthusiastic about Purcell’s (sorry for calling you by your last name, Gordon, if you ever happen to read this) art here, and while I hesitate to say that it invokes memories of some of the better, still-not-quite-ready-for-prime-time artists of those ’80s indies I keep blathering on about, it definitely feels more like the work of an ambitious young talent who wants to draw the coolest super-heroes he can think of rather than that of a guy who’s been at the game for well over two decades. It reminds me of the kind of art that used to be in the modules for that old Champions role-playing game, and that’s just plain beyond fucking perfect for the tone and mood of this series. Michael Atiyeh’s atmospheric and sensitive color palette complements the images to a proverbial “T” and the end result is a book that, again, isn’t perfect to look at, but has a kind of raw, vital, youthful energy to it that just can’t be faked.
All in all, Protectors Inc., at least through its first two issues, is that rarest of anomalies — a comic done by two veteran hands with something like a half-century of combined experience between them that reads, looks, and feels as dynamic, honest, and downright fun as the work of a couple of promising up-and-comers. Sometimes it’s maybe a little too eager to please, and a little scattered or unfocused, but I have faith in these kids, and if their work here is any indication, they’ve both got bright futures ahead of them in this business.