Friday, June 29, 2007

The Outsiders #28

The Outsiders #28, February 1988, DC Comics
writer: Mike W. Barr
penciller: Erik Larsen
inker: Mark Farmer
letterer: Albert Deguzman
colorist: Adrienne Roy
editor: Andrew Helfer

For my penultimate review, since I’ve read so many number one issues this year, I thought I should experience the other side of a series by analyzing a final issue, and fortunately I found one to my liking and have been reserving it for this post for eleven months. As I’ve explained a few times before, though I grew up on superhero cartoons and action figures, I didn’t become an avid reader until my father recovered a box of nearly discarded comic books and left them at the foot of my bed. That fateful morning, I read Amazing Spider-man #347, and while I loved the story, Erik Larsen’s pencils grabbed me in a way I hadn’t been before. His work seemed so stylized and expressive to me, unlike the rigid promotional pieces that adorned the Super Powers packaging or minicomics, that I had to have more – thus, a collector was born! So, for this final issue of The Outsiders to sport some more of his early work, I feel like my yearlong effort has come full circle.

Such is the plight for the Outsiders’ Looker in this issue. In a retelling of her origin, Looker explains that her average appearance was transformed when the underground Abyssian race claimed her as an heir to their throne, and though her husband rejected her new beauty, she embraced her heroic responsibilities, eventually joined the Outsiders that rescued her from underworld war. Now, beckoned by the Abyssians again, who have in turn been besieged by a splinter group of Manhunters, Looker is captured by and must confront the Abyssians’ self-proclaimed (and therefore evil) princess, who has mimicked Looker’s powers and, in their climatic battle, takes them away, returning the heroine into her former, plain Jane self. The rest of the Outsiders ably assist her, and even when one of them falls, the ragtag heroes defeat the Manhunters dutifully. Surely theirs is a Pyrrhic victory, proving that no good deed goes unpunished, yet touched with the promise that the Outsiders will rise again. You really can’t keep a good superhero team down.

If I had been a fan of the Outsiders when this issue was originally released, I might have been peeved that their final adventure was incorporated into a multi-title crossover – in this case, the Manhunters-centric Millennium, but writer and co-creator Mike W. Barr manages to let his team shine despite the mire of other titles’ happenings. In fact, by bringing the Manhunters to the Abyssians, he makes the poignant point that no corner of the DC Universe is safe while highlighting the inner conflicts of one of his protagonists, which is a fair and balanced approach to the crossover epic in general. By confronting the Manhunters almost effortlessly, while at the same time these aliens are giving the Justice League a run for their money, Barr takes this story to an predominantly introspective arena – a place where I’d prefer to see a favorite series end, anyway. Yeah, I’d be peeved, but only until I finished reading the issue.

And what can I say about Erik Larsen’s art? You know I like, though this issue obviously isn’t his best work. These early Larsen samples are really just teasers of what his style would become; under the intricate inkery of Mark Farmer, Larsen betrays his love of Kirby and keeps a simple line to many of his characters’ expressions. When he’s illustrating his own characters, Larsen is much more detail oriented, perhaps because the only true critic of this intimate subject material is himself, sans the baggage of previous creators’ interpretations. While this effort is evident in the current Savage Dragon series, I was recently fortunate enough to discover the Dragon’s very first, pre-Image appearance in the Gary Carlson-driven fanzine Megaton. In the second issue (I found #2, #4, and #5), the Dragon appears briefly as a bounty hunter out for the alien Vanguard, a foreshadowing of their first meeting in Larsen’s Image/Highbrow Universe. Of course, I couldn’t find the follow-up issue featuring their slugfest, but even this quick cameo exudes Larsen’s care for his own creation. The Outsiders #28 is still an eye-catching action packed issue, with expert page layouts and fluid fight sequences, but as in most cases, context is the key to a greater understanding of this work. Art is funny that way.

First issues operate under the presumption that their respective stories will successfully introduce their story in such a way that the reader is instantly invested in their characters and implications. Who would've thought that a last issue could have a similar impression even (or especially) when it's inadvertently and ironically someone's initial experience with that title? Barr and Larsen assert a familiarity with the Outsiders, with nudges toward their long time fans, while remembering that every comic could end up being someone's first. Indeed, everybody that first comic, the one that made them decide, "Yes, I'm going to wipe out half of my savings this weekend to collect every appearance of this character!" or, "No, I don't like it, and further I'm going to make an effort to beat up everybody that does." Of course, I fell into the former category . . . and after a year of complete immersion, I'm more steadfast than ever.

I'll see you at the finish.

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