Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gimmicky Nonsense Done Right: Amalgam Comics

Recently, I reread my collection of Amalgam Comics. For one reason or another, my nine-year-old self wasn't aware of the original run, by in 1997 my ten-year-old self actually managed to be devoted enough to get all 12 issues of the second wave. At the time, I probably only understood half of the references and in-jokes involved, but even at that age I appreciated the concept of the project. So I gathered them all, read them without fully understanding what I was reading, and forgot about each one pretty much as soon as I'd finished the last page. They were light fare, silly and pointless and ultimately insignificant, because they took place in an imagined universe that I'd never see again. But reading them now, in the shadow of DC's New 52 and Marvel's Avengers vs. X-Men and any number of previous events, crossovers, reboots, or similar tricks used to gain attention and boost sales, I have to admire Amalgam. It's just as dumb and obvious as anything that preceded or followed it, perhaps even more so, but it did two things which are rarities when it comes to these kinds of gimmicks.
     Number one, it actually generated new material. Sure, the characters were all derivatives of established superpeople, and so their stories borrowed details from the worlds which inspired them. But they combined aspects of two very different universes, and the end result was something uniquely strange. Like Lobo the Duck or Generation Hex, both instances where the larger plot ideas came from one title (Lobo/Generation X), but the characters and narrative tone more closely mimicked the other (Howard the Duck/Jonah Hex), providing original outlooks on familiar concepts. That was Amalgam's mission, to shake up old ideas by smashing them together, and while that may not have been the most inspired of strategies, it produced fun and original comicbooks.
     Secondly, each Amalgam issue was designed to stand alone as a complete story, which, for me anyway, earns them a ton of points. In modern events, not only do we usually get a lengthy overarching narrative told over several months, there are often myriad tie-ins as well which, while theoretically "non-essential," are still telling parts of the massive primary story. Through Amalgam, DC and Marvel put out 24 self-contained stories (though, again, I personally read only the latter 12), and while their levels of quality varied, it was still an ambitious and impressive endeavor. Give any Amalgam comicbook to someone who's new to the medium, and they can enjoy it, even if they aren't familiar with the characters or titles upon which it's based. The same can certainly not be said for most major event books, let alone the monthly ongoing titles of today.
     I'm not saying Amalgam was specifically targeted at new readers. Far from it. In the case of some titles, like Super Soldier: Man of War and Challengers of the Fantastic, the ideal audience really would've had knowledge of both current (in '97) and classic comics from Marvel and DC. And honestly, the entire thing was aimed at longtime readers, people already familiar with numerous characters and narrative styles and artwork. Amalgam was meant to feel like an established company publishing stories in a large, shared universe, and that's exactly what it did. Meaning in a sample of 12 "random" titles, you got varying levels of talent, technique, and seriousness in the storytelling. So admittedly, if you were inexperienced with superhero comicbooks and read the Amalgam stuff, it might not exactly hook you on the genre. But no matter how good or bad, every title clearly at least tried to be accessible, to explain its characters and world. Most of them included an origin story, and those that didn't offered some amount of exposition and backstory through dialogue. Sometimes it was clunky, sometimes confusing, but this effort to be understandable by everyone is uncommon, and should be appreciated and applauded even in those cases where, perhaps, it falls short.
     I guess that's sort of my outlook on Amalgam overall: they may not be the greatest comicbooks I've ever read, but even fifteen years after the fact I value the core idea of creating self-contained tales with new characters and worlds, or at any rate in new contexts. Are there endless examples of muscly 90's art, sloppy scripting, and rushed plot work? Sure are, most notably in the big team books: JLX Unleashed!, The Exciting X-Patrol, and Magnetic Men featuring Magneto. But there are nearly as many examples of inventive humor and careful, rich characterization. Plus there's some truly stunning artwork. John Romita, Jr. on Thorion of the New Asgods is particularly great, but there's also excellent horror stuff from Rodolfo Damaggio in Bat-Thing, and Spider-Boy Team-Up's Ladronn kills it with the whole huge cast, particularly when drawing cyborg characters. My point is, just like any arbitrary sampling of titles from any month's worth of superhero books from the Big Two, there's both good and bad and wholly mediocre---I'm looking at you, Iron Lantern---material. But very much unlike such a sampling (if taken today), none of the Amalgam stories were inaccessible or incomplete due to being part of a serialized story embedded in confusing continuity. Amalgam is proof that the overall quality of a group of books doesn't have to suffer from using this approach of standalone tales, even if the true goal isn't so much to tell good stories as to pander to fans with gimmicks based on conversations nerds have been having for years. I don't expect every event or crossover to do this, but it would be nice if this kind of thing happened more often. I suppose that's what "Night of the Owls" wants to be, and hypothetically the AvX: VS. mini-series as well, so perhaps it's not as uncommon as I claim. But in both of those cases, the supposed self-contained stories spin out of either an 11- or 12-issue-long larger narrative from another title, so I'm not sure if they really count.
     At any rate, rereading these 12 Amalgam books from '97 definitely made me want to track down the original 12 from the year before. And lucky for me, it doesn't matter what order I find them in or how quickly, because each one will make sense and tell an entire story on its own.

P.S. Dark Claw Adventures is the only thing I read but didn't mention above, so...I'm mentioning it here. It's pretty good. Drawn in the style of Batman: The Animated Series, so that's a bonus.

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