Friday, September 18, 2015

Gone Before Their Time: Series That Were Cancelled Too Soon

This past week, DC Comics announced it would be cancelling a group of comics, many of which barely made it six issues, leading to a good deal of head-shaking among fandom; also this week marked the sadly premature end of Secret Identities, Jay Faerber and Brian Joines's excellent super-hero title from Image (but more on that come Monday). I'm not going to talk about the pros and cons (mostly cons, I admit) of cancelling low selling titles before they get a chance to get their feet under them, because it's not a new phenomenon. What I am going to do is talk about some of my favorite comics that ended before their time. I went back and forth on what constituted "before its time"; whether it was a plot thing, where the book felt incomplete, or a number of issues thing. I settled on an admittedly arbitrary number: no comic that lasted more than twenty four issues would make this particular list. So without further ado, here are ten series that I feel should have been given more time, presented in alphabetical order.

Captain Britian and MI-13
Ran: 15 issues and 1 annual

I wrote a whole recommended reading for this series a few years ago, but when it comes to short-lived series, it's one of the ones I miss the most. Captain Britain and MI-13 was a supernatural superhero book starring a group of British characters, including Captain Britain, Spitfire, Black Knight, Blade, a new character who was named Excalibur, and my favorite British Marvel character, Pete Wisdom. Over the course of its short run, written by Paul Cornell, the team fought Skrulls, demons, and vampires, and has the distinction of being the final appearance of what I like to think of as the real Marvel Dracula, the classy cape wearing one from Tomb of Dracula. Cornell captured Wisdom's voice just right, and did interesting things with Blade and Spitfire, pairing off the two daywalkers in a way no one had thought to before. In a time before Marvel's push for diversity, Excalibur was Faiza Hussain, a British Muslim doctor, and is more than just those things, but a fully formed character in her own right. Sadly, the introduction during Marvel's Secret Invasion crossover and the tangential ties to the X-Men family of titles didn't get enough attention to the title, though Cornell was able to wrap the book up in the exciting "Vampire Nation" story. The trades for the series are sadly out of print, but with some digging you should be able to find them, or the original single issues.

Ran: (9 issues and an issue 1,000,000 as part of a crossover)

Chase is a case of unfortunately bad timing. A superhero adjacent procedural, about a government agent who dislikes superheroes but is forced to investigate and work with them, is a great pitch, but the industry wasn't quite ready for it in the late 90s. Writer D. Curtis Johnson built a hardass yet multi-dimensional character in Cameron Chase, one who had an elaborate backstory that the series only scratched the surface of. Factor in early work from now superstar J.H. Williams III and you have a book that a few years later, at the height of popularity for titles like Powers, Alias, and Gotham Central, would have gotten more attention and would have lasted a few years. Instead, we got ten issues, counting a crossover with DC One Million. Still those nine issues included Chase having to work with the Suicide Squad, investigating Batman's secret identity, and a glimpse into her father's time as a member of a 70s superhero team called The Justice Experience. Johnson and Williams were able to co-write a series of Chase shorts that appeared in various DC Secret Files issues (these sort of primer issues that gave readers backgrounds and lost stories of different major characters and teams), and Chase went on to appear in a good number of other series, including John Ostrander's Martian Manhunter and a regular spot as a supporting character in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter (both series I would have liked to last longer, but they both ran well beyond the twenty four issues limit I set for this piece). Williams even brought her back as a character in his run on Batwoman as part of the New 52. But those first issues are outstanding, and should be read even if you have no intention of following the character. DC released a trade of the series a few years back, and it should still be in print.

Crossing Midnight
Ran: 19 issues

In between epic runs on Lucifer and The Unwritten, Mike Carey wrote another series for Vertigo. Crossing Midnight was a series that mixed Japanese mythology with a more Western fairy tale aesthetic. The tale of two twins, one born just before midnight, the other just after, they each have distinct abilities that attract the attention of supernatural forces. Carey mixes in some social commentary along with the mythology, and built an interesting take on many tropes. I wish I had a chance to reread it before I wrote this up, so I could lay out more details, but time is at a premium right now, and so I might have to do a fuller "Lost Legends" piece on it in the future. Jim Fern's art is luscious and he draws some excellent monsters throughout. Carey clearly had a long game planned on this series, and the last arc, and especially the last issue, are rushed, as he knew the series was ending, but there is at least a degree of closure. The trades are currently out of print.

Ran: 24 issues

For this title, I pushed the issue limit of this piece from eighteen to twenty four. Loveless was a western from 100 Bullets auteur Brian Azzarello and initially his previous Hellblazer collaborator Marcelo Frusin (and later with Danijel Zezelj and Werther Dell'edera) that is in the traditions of the darkest of tales of the old west. Wes Cutter arrives home from his time in a prison camp after the Civil War to find his home occupied by carpetbaggers, and the people of the town, Blackwater, hating him. The series follows Wes's reunion with his wife, Ruth, and their plans to revenge themselves against the people of the town for all the ills that occurred during the war. As with much of Azzarello's work, pretty much every character exists in varying shades of grey, no one being a purely good character, and frankly the characters here are even greyer than those in 100 Bullets. Wes and Ruth both have their reasons to be as angry as they are, and in many cases rightly so. The series moved forward in time shortly before the series ended, after a final conflagration at Blackwater that saw one of our main protagonists dead, to a series of stories that dealt more deeply with racial and social issues in America. Azzarello had a four year plan for the title, but with the end after just two, there were a lot of plot threads left dangling. The trades are currently out of print.

The Movement
Ran: 12 issues

Here's an example of how even a big name creator can have a title that ends too soon. The Movement was a noble experiment by Gail Simone to create a team of brand new young heroes set in the DC Universe. Set in a new city, Coral City, the team was fighting against a city that is even more corrupt than Gotham City. The series had a slow build, and it gradually revealed more and more about the characters, who worked outside the law to try to defend the people of the city who had no other respite from the corrupt establishment. As with much of Simone's work,the cast is diverse in all respects, and I enjoyed the simple fact that all but two of the cast were brand new characters (of those two, one, Katharsis, was introduced by Simone in her run on Batgirl, so was practically new as it was; the other, Rainmaker, was a member of the Wildstorm team Gen13). Part of the title's problems was in how it was marketed; lumped in with another title, Green Team, it seemed to be DC trying to catch the rising tide of the then very relevant Occupy movement. Simone had to explain in interviews it wasn't just Occupy DC, but was a book about power and disenfranchisement, with more of an appeal than the particular pigeonhole it seemed to be set in, but from responses I got when working at the comic shop, most people didn't get past that initial advertising to try it out, which is a shame. Simone has also said DC stood behind the book, and it did last considerably longer than Green Team. The entire series is collected in two trades, both of which are still in print.

Near Death
Ran: 11 issues

Near Death was a title I reviewed on my very first week writing this blog. A crime comic out of Image, Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini tell the story of Markham, a cold as ice hitman who has a near death experience and sees what is waiting for him on the other side. With that in mind, he decides to clean up his act, not only not killing anymore, but defending those who other professional killers are after. Through a series of crime stories, we see Markham's progression from someone who views other people as a means to an end into someone who can make the right choice for the right reason. He's a layered and morally grey character, which is something I always like in my crime story protagonists. Add in Guglielmini's great art, and you had a crime comic that I would have loved to read more of. Faerber has indicated on Twitter that he's working on another Near Death story now, so in a few year's time, adding the series together, this book might fall off this list, and I would be pleased to see that. The original series is available in two trades that are available at finer comic shops and on-line.

Saucer Country
Ran: 14 issues

Paul Cornell makes a return to this list, this time with his Vertigo series, Saucer Country. A mix of politics and modern UFO legends, the title was often addressed as a combination of The X-Files and The West Wing, which are two of my favorite TV series of all time, so I was sold from the moment it started. The series focuses on Gov. Arcadia Alvarado, who is running to become the first Latina president of the United States when she is abducted by aliens. Or is she? She and her campaign team, along with a scientist who is studying UFOlogy, begin to dig deep into a web of conspiracies that may or may not involve aliens, but certainly involves the US government, to find out exactly what happened to Arcadia. Was she abducted? Is this part of a decades long project? Is it just her opponents trying to discredit her? And what do the visions Professor Kidd, the scientist, has been having of the couple inscribed on the gold disc from the Voyager space probe have to do with anything? Filled with interesting characters and more twists and turns in one issue than most series have in a year's worth, Saucer Country was a great series for those of us who love a good conspiracy story. The series is currently unavailable, but Cornell has stated he would love to do more when the rights revert to him.

Ran: 12 issues

She-Hulk, the gamma powered lawyer Jen Walters, has had plenty of series over the years (four ongoings at least). And this most recent volume, from Charles Soule and Javier Pulido isn't the first to focus on her career as a lawyer as much as her superheroic one (that goes to the Dan Slott series from the early 00s). But this series impressed the heck out of me. Soule, who is a practicing lawyer as well as a comics writer, balanced Jen's two lifestyles beautifully, and wrote some great courtroom cases for Jen, including an asylum request from Dr. Doom's son, someone seeking to sell his patent for knock-off Pym Particles, and a suit for wrongful death against Captain America. All of this was set against the backdrop of a mysterious Blue File that names Jen and a group of other superpeople as defendants in a case no one can remember. I love how he portrays Jen, as someone trying to make it in a world that isn't cooperating, and her supporting cast, her investigator Patsy Walker (that's Hellcat) and her mysterious paralegal Angie Huang are delightful. And Pulido is one of the most capable artists in comics, doing great things with She-Hulk and her... it's not really a transformation, but bulking up (Ron Wemberly, who pinch hits for a couple issues, also does an able job). Soule was able to wrap up his plotlines before the book ended, but I hope to see She-Hulk show up in his upcoming run on Daredevil. Oh, and the series created a phenomenal new character who I hope we see again somewhere: Matt Rocks, an unabsorbed duplictae of Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man who is now and entertainment lawyer. Comics, everybody! The whole series is available in two trades, and if you want to see more about the series, check out my reviews here.

Star Wars: Agent of the Empire
Ran: 10 issues over two mini-series

Dark Horse Comics losing the Star Wars license saw quite a few books come to a premature end. Both Dawn of the Jedi and Invasion could have been on this list as well. But the title I felt got the most disservice was the excellent Agent of the Empire. John Ostrander, Matt Signal favorite creator, created Jahan Cross, an Imperial Intelligence agent who is the James Bond of the Star Wars Universe. The two mini-series, Iron Eclipse and Hard Targets, had very different feels, the former a techno thriller and the latter a tale of political intrigue, but both featured Cross as a slick operator with complex morality; this wasn't a goatee stroking villain like Grand Moff Tarkin or Cross's boss, head of Imperial Intelligence Armand Isard. No, Cross was doing what he was doing because he thought he was making the galaxy a better place; he is one of the tradition of Noble Imperials, a trope I love that includes characters like Thrawn, Admiral Pellaeon, and Baron Fel. Over the course of the two adventures we saw, Cross crossed paths with such characters as Han Solo, Boba Fett, and Bail Organa, putting Cross firmly in the thick of the Star Wars universe. The second mini-series ended with Cross starting to question some of the Empire's methods, and I would have been curious to see where his story went (and what would have happened if he had a run in with Armand Isard's daughter, the notorious Rogue Squadron villain, Ysanne Isard). None of the Dark Horse Star Wars material is available to order any longer, but many stores still have it in stock, so you can find it with some industrious searching.

Ran: 5 issues

By far the shortest lived title on this list, SWORD was a series dedicated to the alien fighting military organization of the Marvel Universe. Starring Abigail Brand, thee head of SWORD, her boyfriend Hank McCoy, the Beast, her lieutenant, the alien Sydren, and Lockheed the alien dragon, SWORD only got one story before it was cancelled, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Steve Sanders, has Henry Peter Gyrich, described as the Marvel Universe's answer to Ghostbuster's Walter Peck, gets all aliens banned from Earth, and SWORD must do its best to balance obeying their duty with finding a way to get the law overturned. It's a great story, and introduces the strange villainous android UNIT, who Gillen would use to great effect in his run on Uncanny X-Men. The five issues of SWORD were collected in a trade, which was recently on one of Diamond Comics Distributors clearance sales, so you should be able to find that at a lot of comics shops.

So those are ten series I wish had lasted longer. I would love to hear from you, readers, what series you wish had some more issues. Reply to this post, over on Facebook, or on Twitter (@mattlaz1013) with your suggestions.

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