Friday, February 01, 2008

No time for losers, 'cause we are the Champions

Marvel Comics hates me.

First, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tried to ruin Spider-Man. Now, he's canceled Marvel's best new mainstream comic book in years, The Order.

It's as though Doctor Doom has seized control of the House of Ideas.

The Order, which debuted last summer, was probably the only positive development to come out of Marvel's Civil War mega-event — you know, that silly business in which Spider-Man unmasked on national television, Iron Man turned into George W. Bush, and Captain America got back-shot like Tupac?

Written by the supremely talented Matt Fraction (co-author of another of my current-favorite Marvel reads, The Immortal Iron Fist, which will probably be canceled now that I've owned up to buying it) and engagingly drawn by Barry Kitson (with whose work I fell in love during his recent stint on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes), The Order chronicles the adventures on a group of rookie superheroes, charged by the United States government as the official protectors of California. With a couple of minor exceptions, all of the heroes in the series were created especially for The Order, and Fraction and Kitson have done masterful work in making each member of the team interesting, individual, and compelling.

Heaven forfend that anything both fresh and unique should be given time to build an audience.

In truth, The Order began life with a strike against it (aside from its focus on unfamiliar characters, that is). When first announced, the series and its eponymous supergroup were supposed to be known as The Champions, a shout-out to a short-lived but fondly remembered Marvel series of the 1970s.

Beginning with The Defenders in 1971, Marvel went through a phase of cobbling together superhero teams from the most unlikely assemblages of candidates. The original Defenders lineup, for example, included Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — the Silver Surfer joined them in the second issue — bringing together Marvel's least cooperation-friendly characters into a single unit.

The Champions' roster was even more bizarre — the Greek demigod Hercules; the Black Widow, a former Soviet spy turned superheroine; the demonic Ghost Rider; and a couple of original X-Men, Angel and Iceman. (I always wondered whether writer Tony Isabella and editor Len Wein simply stuck pictures of every Marvel character on Len's office wall, donned blindfolds, and threw darts at random to make up the Champions.)

What made the Champions unique to Marvel, aside from their patchwork lineup, was the fact that they were based in Los Angeles — a break from the New York centrality of the rest of the company's series. (The Black Widow and Daredevil had moved to San Francisco together in the early '70s, forming Marvel's first West Coast superteam.) The 21st-century Champions, also L.A.-based, were initially named as an homage to the originals.

Unfortunately for Marvel, a company called Heroic Publishing (home of Flare and Liberty Girl) had snapped up the trademark on the comic book title Champions, Marvel having abandoned it when The Champions was canceled in 1978. When Heroic refused to relinquish the trademark in exchange for monetary considerations, Marvel retitled its new Fraction-Kitson series The Order.

Now, you can just call it defunct.

Thinking back on those disco-era Champions, though...

I always liked the Black Widow as a character. She and Daredevil, with their similar fighting styles and abilities, made a solid partnership, and the Widow's strategic leadership was one of the best features of The Champions. Plus, her simple, elegant costume design — essentially just a black bodysuit, accessorized with a gold-ring belt with a black widow's red "hourglass" on the buckle, and wrist-mounted "stingers" — is a dynamite look.

As you can judge for yourself, from this slick, retro-cool pinup by the inimitable Phil Noto.

Having dropped away from regular comics reading in the late '80s, I was until recently unaware that Marvel's modern-day Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Natalia Romanova (there was a previous, unrelated character codenamed Black Widow in the 1940s), had been temporarily supplanted for a few years by a newer, younger model named Yelena Belova. The second Widow was blonde, of all things. After four decades of the Black Widow as a redhead, that strikes me as just plain wrong... then again, Marvel doesn't care what I like anyway.

Just to show that I can be open to new ideas, however, this attractive drawing by Matt Haley shows Natasha and her youthful counterpart together.

Okay, yeah. That works for me. (Is it now a rule that young superheroines have to wear bare-midriff costumes? And if so, can we reevaluate that rule?)

Natasha has also graced our Common Elements series with her always-welcome appearance. Artist Ty Romsa pairs the Widow with mercenary-at-large Silver Sable in this commissioned drawing.

Today, the Black Widow is a mainstay of the Avengers. That's the "Mighty" Avengers, as opposed to the "New" Avengers, for those of you who have difficulty keeping the teams straight... as do I.

I'm still ticked about The Order, though.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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3 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger notintheface offered these pearls of wisdom...

Quesada's cancelling THE ORDER?


That comic is one of the few Marvels I pick up on a regular basis. It's pretty much down to NOVA and DAREDEVIL for me now.

And I also remember the CHAMPIONS fondly, in no small part because it was my introduction to the art of an up-and-coming guy named John Byrne. It also introduced noe of the creepiest Marvel villains of all time, Swarm. Ah, the old Mantlo magic!

3:45 PM  
Blogger Darci offered these pearls of wisdom...

I don't know if this will be any comfort for traditionalists, but Natasha is back to being the only Black Widow. First, in the Black Widow: Homecoming mini-series, she learned she was one of twenty-seven Black Widows. The way she found out was someone killed off all the others. They came for her too, but...well, she's the Black Widow, still, so you know what happened.
More recently, Yelena Belova was reduced to a puddle of mush in New Avengers Annual #1. She really should have gone to work for AIM.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Darci offered these pearls of wisdom...

Oops, that should have read: Yelena really shouldn't have gone to work for AIM.

12:17 PM  

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