Sunday, April 07, 2013

Is that you, Ebony White...?

Apparently, it's supposed to be.

The sidekick of Will Eisner's comic strip crime-fighter The Spirit began his fictional life in 1940 as an outrageous African-American stereotype, and is perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the late Eisner's legacy. When Darwyn Cooke resurrected The Spirit as a DC comic book in 2007, he divested the Ebony character of all of the negative aspects of his original characterization. When Frank Miller adapted his friend Eisner's character to film in 2008, he excised all trace of Ebony completely.

And when Ebony appeared in Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales series creating a sort of alternate universe where Batman and a few minor DC characters rubbed elbows with the likes of pulp hero Doc Savage, W.H. Hudson's Rima from Green Mansions and The Spirit, Azzarello decided Ebony would work better as a girl, apparently following logic similar to that of Frank Miller's in casting a female Robin in his seminal The Dark Knight Returns.

A grown man always hanging around a teenage boy who never wears any pants? That seems suspect. But a grown man always hanging around a teenage girl who never wears any pants? That's the stuff of potent fantasy! The same with fully-clothed teenage assistants, I suppose.

Azzarello actually explains his rationale for Ebony's sex change in promotional material that DC ran in the backs of many of their line when he and Morales' First Wave was about to start hitting comic shops in early 2010. These are included in the back of the hardcover collection of the series.
"As for the the elephant in the corner...Look, I have very strong feelings that the only way to make EBONY WHITE work is to make the character a brash girl," Azzarello wrote. "Make the character a brash girl" is underlined in red, and a big "LET'S DO IT!" appears in red at the bottom of the page; the premise of the promotion was that readers were looking at Azzarello's notebook of character proposals to his editors, who are represented by the red ink.

"Then the name and attitude (sass) fit," Azzarello concludes. "We can talk about this."

I'm not entirely sure why this might be so, as a black person essentially named "Black White" is just as unusual regardless of the gender—perhaps he meant only that more girls' names end in Y's than boys' names—and Ebony wasn't necessarily known for a "sassy" attitude as much as a collection of groan-inducing tics and schticks taken from early 20th century American "darky" humor. None of these are present in the character, who was being completely recreated especially for this story along with all the other characters, so Ebony's attitude wasn't exactly a problem.

Whatever Azzarello and company's ultimate rationale for the change, it's interesting that there was a change, as it was interesting to see the various ways in which the creators decided to try and recreate a group of decidedly old-school—even for superhero comics—characters into something for a 21st century audience. Among the other more radical reinventions were those of Rima and Black Canary.

The former becomes a topless jungle warrior who conceals her nipples behind beaded necklaces that always fall just so, speaks only in whistles and hangs out with a black jaguar who kills the opponents she doesn't spear herself (It's a portrayal DC moved towards in the mid 1970s, when Nestor Redondo, Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert transformed her into a Sheena-like jungle girl heroine for the space of a short-lived series).
The latter never makes it into the story pages of First Wave; she either belonged to an earlier draft, appeared only in tie-ins that aren't part of this collection, or was intended for future stories that the sequel-hungry conclusion begged for, but never actually came.

"Dina Drake is a second-generation American in her late teens," Azzarello writes of his Black Canary. "She lives in Gotham's East End, which is one of the city's worst neighborhoods...over Sherwood Florist, the family business." Deeply respectful of her parents, the young woman is nevertheless "enamored with the exploits of Dc Savage" and fights crime in her neighborhood at night, wearing "a blond wig and a very sexy costume—one her parents definitely wouldn't approve of." (Let me pause to note that with a teenage Ebony and a Rima in her "late teens, early twenties," Black Canary woulda been a third scantily-clad teenage heroine in the world of First Wave; the oldest female hero is the Blackhawk pilot Jenny Cloud, who Azzarello's notes tell us is in her "late twenties.")

He ends his paragraphs on Black Canary with, "Now, doesn't this story make even more sense if Dina is of Korean, Indian, or Middle Eastern descent?" The red-penned editor agrees, underlining "Indian" and "descent." "I mean the old-world parents, the family business in a bad neighborhood. This rings so true to me..."



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Seen in its already-historical context, DC's First Wave and the sub-imprint/continuitiverse it sought to establish is something of a curiosity, one of several of the more amusing publishing bumbles of the post-Paul Levitz DC Comics. It seemed a more-or-less doomed endeavor from the start, given little promotion and no real sign of priority among the rest of the publisher's goings-on (particularly compared to the New 52 reboot that was coming just as the final issues of First Wave were shipping).

It had a Batman in it, sure, but there are a lot of comics with a Batman in them, and this was a Batman, not the Batman, and DC's fans, like super-comic fans in general, want to read the comics the publishers tell them are important, the ones that "count," and this was an alternate-continuity one, a comic that most obviously did not count.

The other characters were pretty ragtag in terms of sales draw. Everyone knew The Spirit, of course, star of the critically-acclaimed, marketplace poison Darwyn Cooke series DC had just recently canceled before First Wave. Doc Savage is kind of famous, I suppose, though hardly a popular presence in our culture. Then there was a even less well-known pulp character with some kind of chameleon-esque disguise power (The Avenger, I think; the text was pretty vague); a new, infinitely less offensive version of the Blackhawks-as-international-army group of characters: and a new iteration of Hudson's 1901 jungle heroine, based on the 1975-1976 version.

Basically a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen type of concept, but without any core, organizing principle—the characters were from fiction literate and pulp, from the comic strips and the comic books. (The concept could probably work for a publisher like Dynamite and, in fact, they've been publishing lines based on lapsed-into-public domain superheroes, another based on various pulp, comic, radio and comic strip heroes interacting and, for a while, were publishing as many Green Hornet comics as Marvel publishes Spider-Man comics, but Dynamite is a small publisher operating with very different math and money than DC has to operate with).

Like a few similar efforts around the time—DC's revivals of The Red Circle characters and the THUNDER Agents—it was assumed the audience would already know and care about the characters enough to buy the books. Very little effort is put into the story itself to thoroughly introduce the characters and, in the case of Doc Savage, his Byzantine back story, which includes a half-dozen sidekicks (who, unlike the DCU Batman's army of sidekicks, lack colorful costumes to distinguish them more easily), and several not-entirely introduced villains, some of whom I knew no better at the end of the book then I did at the beginning.

In other words, the thinking seemed to be that 2010-2011's direct market would embrace such a comic book because it existed, which, sad to say, is the basic wishing-and-hoping publishing strategy of DC Comics and, to (a thankfully and) an increasingly lesser extent, Marvel (Though you look at releases like, say, Fearless Defenders and know they're just throwing books into the market to die for nothing more than the intention to crowd small publishers off the new books racks and on the slim hope they'll get an unexpected sleeper hit, too).

The creative team didn't guarantee success the way that, say, a Geoff Johns/Jim Lee or Grant Morrison/Anyone Halfway Decent creative team might have, either. Azzarello's a pretty great writer, and Rags Morales is a really great artist (and one of my personal favorites), and while it's true they do command their own fan bases within the market and can thus bring a certain, set amount of readers to any project, they don't guarantee blockbuster sales by their presence alone (This was a problem with the aforementioned Red Circle and THUNDER Agents books as well; if you're already facing an uphill battle, you really have to assemble a team strong enough to get up that hill almost on their own).

And finally and, I would guess, most damningly, DC started expanding the miniseries into a line almost immediately, before they could possibly have even gotten a sense of how many readers there actually were and how the storyline, its world and the new versions of all these characters were being received.

So 2010's Batman/Doc Savage Special #1 (by Azzarello and Phil Noto, not Morales) was followed a few months later by the first issue of First Wave by Azzarello and Morales.

The following month, when First Wave #2 hit the stands, a Doc Savage monthly and a Spirit monthly set in this new setting also launched. First Wave was a $4, over-sized monthly, and both the new Savage and Spirit books were in the $3.99-for-a-regular-length-title-story-and-short-back-up format that was pretty widespread at DC at the time, but has since mostly disappeared save for a few popular books (Savage had a Justice, Inc back-up; Spirit had a "Spirit Black-And-White" back-up, which featured stellar creative teams doing short one-offs featuring the character, akin to the back-ups that used to run in the back of the late, great Batman: Gotham Knights).

So after spending maybe $8 meeting Doc Savage and getting a feel for the new pulp-iverse in Batman/Doc Savage and First Wave #1, DC then upped the curious' commitment to $12 a month for three different over-sized books. I'm not sure what killed the First Wave-iverse—a re-prioritizing that meant not wasting resources on comics featuring characters the publisher didn't own outright, a desire to focus all attention on The New 52 DCU instead of fooling around with offshoot lines and universes—but if DC didn't grow these books and this premise to death by over-producing too quickly, that decision couldn't possibly have been healthy.


The comics themselves really aren't bad. I was curious to read much of the First Wave line (not $4-a-pop curious, but borrow-a-trade-from-the-library-years-later curious), most particularly the main series and those black-and-white Spirit shorts. The First Wave trade contained the Batman/Doc Savage special (which I'd actually read in the serially-published format; I didn't like it) and all six-issues of the First Wave series.
Savage and Batman are the two real stars. The former is basically this world's only real super-hero, and the story begins after the death of his father, as he and his team begin to reassert themselves in the world, and chase down a conspiracy involving a bunch of pulp villains, a secret society, a mad science island, a robot, genetic lizard-embiggening, and suchlike.

The latter is very much First Appearance Batman; he doesn't wear the purple gloves, but he carries a pair of .45s, guns down his foes and is more about protecting his city from crime by ridding it of criminals than saving the world (His story arc involves coming to terms with the idea of being a superhero; working with others, leaving his comfort zone to effect true good).
The Spirit is next most prominently featured, but he's more of a collection of tics than a character. He's a fun and funny character, but he's mainly there to bounce off of Savage, Batman or whoever he's sharing a panel with (In addition to making Ebony a sexy teenage girl, Azzarello makes Commissioner Dolan a corrupt cop).

The other characters play minor roles. Rima moves a maguffin from Point A to Point B. The Blackhawks are mercenaries who get tied up in the plot. The shape-changing guy shape-changes once or twice (See back-ups in Doc Savage, I guess). Black Canary never shows up.

There's a lot of plate-spinning and juggling going on with so many characters (Doc's staff doubles the cast size, and the villains double it again), and, structurally, it's a pleasing read. Azzarello fills it with cool stuff of the sort mentioned three paragraphs up, heroes and villains alike are pretty cool and he manages to make the story "about" something, even if that "something" is just "Batman's feelings" or "the world's need for heroic inspiration" or whatever. (The one thing I'd slap him on the wrist for? The fact that there is an actual, literal wave in the climax. The bad guys have built some kind of tsunami-generating device, so if you thought "First Wave" was a reference to the first wave of superheroes, well, sure, it is, but also? There's a wave in this).

A far greater treat was Morales' art which, as mentioned, I'm a fan of. This book is a particularly good showcase for his particular skill for character modeling and acting, as the dozens of mostly costume-less characters all need to look like different people for the story to read at all, and Morales accomplishes that with great gusto.


JohnF said...

"Grant Morrison/Anyone Halfway Decent"

In other words, not Tony Daniel.

David Jones said...

In all fairness, Ebony was treated a lot better in the ongoing series as written by Mark Schulz and David Hine. There was none of the "surprise her in the shower" nonsense that Azzarello has going on here.

I really wish people wouldn't judge the ongoing by the nowhere-near-as-good First Wave miniseries. They were completely different animals.