Sunday, November 12, 2006

Prime #1

Prime #1, June 1993, Malibu Comics
writers: Len Strazewski & Gerald Jones
artist: Norm Breyfogle
letterer: Tim Eldred
colorist: Paul Mounts
editor: Chris Ulm

On the surface, Prime represents some of my biggest pet peeves about the era in which I began collecting comics, topics we’ve discussed in this forum a few times already. I won’t bother reiterating them, only to mention that I’ve finally discovered that I’m not alone in these gripes. During a brief trip to Borders yesterday, and my usual casual perusal of the graphic novels shelf, I found The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics by Mark Voger, a coffee table book about . . . well, just what the title explains. According to Voger’s assessment, the Dark Age began with Crisis on Infinite Earths and continues to this day, thanks to the ongoing influence of “Dark Age founders” like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. As the inaugural issue of a series spun from Malibu’s melodramatic, continuity-driven superhero imprint Ultraverse, Prime #1 defines this eerie era . . .

. . . except Prime #1 is illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Norm Breyfogle, and although I didn’t actively pursue the series at the time, when I found this issue in the quarter bin at Frank & Sons this weekend, I snatched it with an eagerness akin to those trembling fingers that first wrapped around Spawn #1 oh those many years ago. (Those fingers weren’t mine, mind you, but we all know someone that hailed McFarlane’s reject from Hell the best thing since Batman – just as McFarlane intended.) Yes, I may have mentioned it here before (with over 100 posts, I’ve lost track), but Breyfogle remains one my favorite Batman artists, and by far the most underrated, as he illustrated the Bat-books during the hype of the Burton movie franchise. He contributed to the creation of characters that ripple the Bat-titles to this day, and he played a key role in designing the current Robin costume – well, the pre-One Year Later Robin costume, that found its way into the animated series and Schumacher film fiascos. With all of this credibility, DC never hyped his skill and involvement during this pivotal period, the proverbial heyday of one of their flagship characters, so I can understand Breyfogle’s desire to pursue a project that could give his career the necessary boost. With every other mainstream artist at the time jumping ship for indie pastures, why wouldn’t he? Still, I can’t help but utter an “Et tu, Norm?” Yeah, yeah, I’m my own worst enemy.

Alas, even if Breyfogle hadn’t drawn Prime #1, it would still be stuck in the mire of that decade’s dark trappings. The opening sequence of this issue is interesting enough, but the second act evokes connections with other books in the Ultraverse, losing me completely. With that big fat #1 on the cover (which actually wasn’t that big compared to the other number ones of its time, as Voger explains), I would expect that this issue would welcome me to the ground floor of a brand new concept. With these superfluous references to the other characters in the Ultraverse, Breyfogle’s action-packed visuals come to screeching halt, the scene registers more like an ad for the other books than a legitimately important part of the story, and a new reader like me is completely lost. Then again, if the intent was for me to rush out and buy those other books so I could have a comprehensive idea of what was going on around Prime, I suppose the effort would’ve worked, considering the context of this issue’s original release. Presently, the ploy wouldn’t work so well, as I’d undoubtedly have to rummage around in quite a bit of those quarter bins to explore every corner of the Ultraverse. Goes to show where those crossover efforts get you.

Based on this first issue, I must say that Prime strikes me as a modern take on the Captain Marvel concept, as a child cavorts around the world in a superhero’s body, recklessly solving even the most miniscule problems with the force of an out of control wrecking ball. Breyfogle was on his A-game in these pages, with the complete freedom to exaggerate Prime’s proportions to emphasize his strength, and in the end, peculiar state of being. Yes, at the risk of spilling a spoiler, the last sequence reveals Prime’s “host” bursting from his muscle-bound frame in a “spla-doosh” of goo. It isn’t a pretty sight, but it evokes an intrigue that most certainly propelled this series forward, no matter how dark the decade.

Yes, unfortunately, even if one likes any of the contributors involved, many of the books that came out of this era carry the baggage of their context, the sheer burden of their own hype and mass production to the point of becoming clich├ęd and clustered together in a bygone genre despite the potential of their concepts and aforementioned contributors. Fortunately, Breyfogle wasn’t done with DC (or DC wasn’t done with him – I haven’t really asked), and he continued to work on Batman-related projects well into the next century. If I may conclude on an anecdotal note, I’m proud to say that I met Norm once at the Comic Con. Our Small Press table was just a row or two away from Artists’ Alley, and I did a fanboy double take when I saw Norm there signing books for fans. Unprepared, I found a Detective #608, the first appearance of Anarky, and asked him to grace its cover gushingly, prompting him to comment about the demise of the character. He was a gentleman, and I departed his table both thrilled and a little depressed. You ask me, he deserves to sit right alongside Jim Lee as one of the artists hyped by the Big Two as the best in the business, not to mention influential. Yet, Breyfogle may well be past his prime . . . by no effort of his own. Maybe we need another revolution . . .

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