10 February 2012
Time Warp #1-5
Introduction by Alan David Doane
All apologies, as Kurt Cobain once said. I have to apologize for us missing our first scheduled Friday last week, but for one reason or another this one didn't come together as smoothly as our past outings. Maybe I should have realized it would take longer to read and review five 64-page comics than our usual one comic or graphic novel. (Note to contributors: next week's title is Cerebus. All of it. Ha ha ha!)
I also have to apologize for not writing a review myself (still acclimating to my new job) and for blowing this introduction. Thankfully Johnny Bacardi covers much of the historical context that I really, truly wanted to write about, and very well, at that. All I can add is that as a 10 or 11-year-old comics reader, I loved the idea of the Dollar Comics line that Time Warp was a part of, and I think the North American comic book industry has really failed itself and its potential and actual readers by not continuously having a format like this available on a regular basis. Sure, a lot of the stories stunk -- it was a DC comic in the 1970s, after all. But the idea behind the Dollar Comics format was a brilliant one, and I remember joyously grabbing up every one I could back in those long-ago days. Marvel tried something similar with the 100-Page Monster format (Tom Brevoort said outright he was inspired by the Dollar Comics of his youth), but in my opinion, they didn't give it enough of a shot and probably overpriced it by a buck or two.
But hey, comics industry? If you are serious about still existing in 2 or 3 years as anything other than a digital dream of what comics used to be, you need to figure out a way to collect large chunks of good-to-great comics in a cheap and lengthy format like the Dollar Comics. Like Time Warp. Not necessarily this exact format, but a big chunk of good, cheap comics kids can get excited about, collect, trade, and read under a tree on a nice summer day. Is that really too goddamned much to ask? Think carefully before you answer, comics industry -- your very survival may depend upon whether you can be as clever and experimental as DC Comics in the mid-1970s.
"I remember...doing the Time Warp..."
Towards the ass-end of the '70s, inspired by the desire to make a buck in the recent aftermath of the notorious DC Implosion of a year or so prior, the Company Formerly Known as National Periodical Publications decided to take a tentative stab at publishing oversize comics again, and therefore justifying the decision to charge a whole dollar for them, rather than the 40 cents they were charging on the average for the normal-sized titles. Most of the dollar titles were those that DC was already publishing, like World's Finest, Detective, and Adventure Comics, and thus provided opportunities to burn off unused Implosion inventory rather than utilize reprints, like they did in the early-mid '70s via the 100 Page Super Spectaculars. By the way, and I hope you'll let me digress even more than i already have, those 100-Pagers served as teenage me's introduction to many excellent Golden Age stories and creators, such as Jack Cole's Plastic Man, Bernard Baily's Spectre, Gardner Fox/Howard Sherman's Dr. Fate, the Reed Crandall-era Doll Man and Blackhawks, Lou Fine's Ray, and Siegel and Shuster's Superman. Now those were some damn fine comics, and only cost 50 cents to boot.
Anyway, most likely inspired by the recent success of Star Wars and the reception given Heavy Metal magazine as well as Warren's fairly popular 1984, DC also decided to try and launch a couple of straight science fiction anthologies, and Time Warp was the first; they also later exhumed the Mystery in Space title as well. Enticed by the as-always splendid Mike Kaluta covers, I bought every darn one of them back when I was 19, and as my recent rereading of the run for this review has revealed to me, I also promptly forgot about the contents of pretty much all of them, which probably tells you pretty much what you need to know, at least from my vantage point.
Most of the stories in these five issues, by a panoply of writers both veterans of (Bob Haney, George Kashdan, Jack C. Harris, Dennis O'Neil of course) and new to (Dan Mishkin and Andy Cohn, soon of Amethyst; J.M. DeMatteis, pre-Justice League; don't know what his first comics work was but I bet there wasn't much of it before this) comics, adhere pretty closely to the time honored Sci-Fi tradition, which can be traced from the pulps through EC Comics through DC's own early-'60s perpetuation, mostly at the behest of Julius Schwartz. People in spaceships, alien encounters, malevolent computers and/or robots, twist endings...nothing especially fresh or original, not even then...and certainly not now. So, the focus shifts to the art...and that's where Time Warp acquits itself in much better fashion. It was a mix of creators either past their prime, like Steve Ditko and Gil Kane, or just approaching that status, like Jim Aparo (who by 1979 had already begun the streamlining process which made his art much less of a joy to behold just five years previous) or the redoubtable and under-appreciated Tom Sutton. Personal favorite Jerry Grandenetti contributed a story in every issue or darn near it, and while none of them displayed the expressionistic excess of his '60s work that I love so much, each of his jobs were solid and did the slight stories justice. I don't think he did much comics work after this. Also of note was the presence of the late Don Newton, whose somewhat moody work was very popular in those days; I was always hot and cold on him myself -- his Batman was a standout, as I recall, but I wasn't a fan of much else with his byline. Lots of South American artists represent; some I had heard of and have gone on to achieve some standing, like Alex Nino, John Celardo, or the late Fred Carillo, and a handful whose name I don't recall seeing in any comics credit box since, like Joel Magpayo or Ernesto Patricio. Howard Chaykin contributes a rushed-looking art job, on a story by someone named Wyatt Gwyon (a pseudonym?). It was amusing to see Joe Orlando drawing a tale of a man, stranded on a planet, who creates a robot to keep him company...it brought back echoes to me of his stint drawing Otto Binder's Adam Link for Warren in the mid-'60s. Young Trevor Von Eeden turns up, post Black Lightning but pre-Green Arrow and Thriller, inked beyond recognition. And so it goes.
Each issue is a real mishmash; legends past their salad days rubbing shoulders with young turks and newbies just happy to see their name in print, all on the crappiest yellowed paper stock you can imagine. I suppose if you should happen to run across an issue or two in a quarter box it might make for a decent read on a slow afternoon, for nostalgia's sake if nothing else. I can't imagine why anyone younger than, say, 45 would even be interested, unless they were just hardcore fans of the likes of Ditko, Chaykin, Kaluta, or Kane.
For my part, though, I'm of the "Let's NOT do the Time Warp again" mentality.
“Step this way for the safety spray!”
After the “DC Implosion” of 1978, DC actually continued to pump out 64-page Dollar Comics such as Superman Family and World's Finest, while exploring the war genre in G.I. Combat and new title All-Out War. But editor/writer Jack C. Harris and Executive Editor Joe Orlando also put together Time Warp, a bimonthly science fiction anthology that would serve as a kind of reboot of '60s DC sci-fi titles like Strange Adventures. Interestingly, Time Warp was chosen as a name precisely because Harris and Orlando didn't want to just reboot Strange Adventures or another old book, concerned that young fans might be confused. This is, of course, the opposite of current editing/marketing strategy for DC.
“I wanted to die on the surface, like a human, though I would die as a smellie...”
Time Warp only lasted five issues (10 months), but boy, that's like 250 pages of comics. If, like me, you decide to read them all in one day, chances are good you'll be numb and exhausted. Basically, a good 80% of the stories are either Man vs. Hideous Aliens/Monsters, Man Turning Into Hideous Monster (or Cyborg), or Man Destroying His World. Sometimes the destroying the world leads to the turning into a monster, sometimes it's the aliens destroying the world, sometimes Man destroys not only Earth but the aliens' planet, too...you get the idea. There are also several tales of greedy, heartless opportunists/poachers/thieves who put money, pleasure or fame ahead of others and pay dearly for it. These are the stories most reminiscent of the kind Orlando worked on or was exposed to at EC Comics in the '50s on books like Weird Science and which influenced countless other '50s stories from National/DC and Atlas/Timely/Marvel, stories with twist endings, spaceships and slimy aliens who were just asking for some laser pistol payback. The kinds of pulpy, occasionally grisly SF stories that thrilled young comics fans until the Kefauver/Wertham era took the teeth out of such tales, followed by the ascendancy of the superhero subgenre.
“Renamed in honor of his achievement...Chief Mushroom Cloud!”
I would like to say that Time Warp is a real underrated gem, a lost classic cut down too soon. I can't say that, but there is a baseline competence throughout, even though it features stories from folks who came and went through the comics industry without making much of a splash, names like Mimai Kin and Wyatt Gwyon. Yes, those are correctly spelled. There's also an artist called only, “Vicatan,” and I'd like to say the art was as addictive as the name suggested. The stories themselves are often wearingly formulaic and familiar, with at times absurd twists: the two bitter enemies who are reincarnated or who appear in slightly different form on another planet and can't help but be enemies; the future world free of disease that faces doom from the common cold; the hunter who unwittingly kills his friend who's metamorphosed into a monster, who then becomes a hunted monster himself. We've seen most of it before, with a few stories diverging from the formula. Perhaps it's unfair to knock the book for familiarity when so many superhero books are virtually identical, but when you have each issue being a chunk of 50 pages or so at a time and there's one story after another about humans ruining the planet or growing tentacles because the planet is already ruined, enjoying the book becomes more of an academic exercise.
“Surely you were meant for...Vipswarzznee!”
Which is okay, because there's a lot here to enjoy on a moderate level. I was reminded of the recent Steve Ditko reprints, where the stories themselves are routinely mediocre and the pleasure is to be found in just seeing how Ditko tells the story. Ditko is actually the most frequent contributor to Time Warp, charmingly corny and timelessly cool at the same time, though it's fair to say he doesn't add many of his trademark flourishes and patterns.You do get to see him draw a woman in a bikini, though, which is a real rarity for him.
There's also sturdy work from DC stalwarts like Don Newton and Jim Aparo and a robust and distinctive style to Jerry Grandenetti's work in this era that makes me much more interested in him than I ever was before, and a Sheldon Mayer-written tale that I found amusing for its take on time travel paradoxes. For instance, if you travel to the past and kill an architect, you can come back to your time to find that the building he designed still exists, but is about to collapse and kill hundreds of people. Among the highlights, however, along with the Ditko stories and several detail-stuffed Tom Sutton efforts, are one-offs from the reclusive Trevor Von Eeden (with Carl Potts), Gil Kane (a gorgeous but brief return to DC before signing on for a Tarzan newspaper strip), and a young Howard Chaykin working in a style clearly influenced by Alex Toth.
“Pardon the interruption, Captain Moonkid.”
It's also useful to examine the stories within the context of the era in which they were produced, 1979-1980, with the Cold War still going on and Russia thought of by most Americans as a dangerous enemy. The dread of nuclear war or chemical weapons permeates almost every story, (one evil character is given the Russian-sounding name of General Smerdyakov, though the story doesn't take place on Earth) with characters destroying the Earth, mutating into monsters, and in few instances is there any hope or signs of rebuilding, of getting a second chance to get things right. I think in one of those hopeful stories, the two humans had changed into crawling green slime monsters with eyestalks, but you take what you get. It's also interesting to consider this era for comics, and DC in particular. You have a mix of older and younger talents here, but perhaps due to DC's conservatism, or maybe just the pervasive influence of EC Comics and Twilight Zone type storytelling, even relatively young writers like J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Levitz and Dennis O'Neil for the most part turn in standard, if reasonably well-crafted, fare, although again, it's generally informed by the fears of the times they lived in. Although the samey quality of the work gets to be overpowering, a well-chosen collection of about 100 pages worth of this stuff would actually be pretty fun.
Johanna Draper Carlson
I didn't read all five of the Time Warp issues we were assigned this week, because even with my fondness for another era of comic storytelling, 300 pages was a bit much all at once, especially without continuing characters. But the one I did read, the first, reminded me of several things:
1. Short stories are harder to do well than longer stories, which might be why the comic anthology is all but dead while the collection-told-in-serialized-chapters rules the comic market.
2. I've always been surprised that science fiction isn't more successful in comic form, since it seems the perfect medium for it: idea-driven, cheap to show the most outrageous concept, capable of portraying anything that can be imagined, sharing much of the same fandom. But if one rules out superheroes (which are only SF in the loosest definition), then it's difficult to think of any well-known, successful SF comics. (Manga, as usual, is the exception, and many more people should be reading Finder.)
3. I miss the art style of the '80s, where competence was required at a minimum. Ah, the glory of Dick Giordano inks and relatively realistically drawn and posed figures. These were filler work, but they're all readable and easy to follow, artistically.
4. Science fiction is where O. Henry-style stories went to multiply. The twist ending -- aliens are just like us! judging by appearance is bad! love will show you how bad prejudice is! murderers get what's coming to them! aliens may be bigger or smaller than us! -- is a requirement, it seems, to make the tale meaningful. It's the EC influence, I'm sure, with everyone remembering those classic morality tales disguised as fiction.
5. Yet science fiction ages badly. All these technological marvels, and no one could envision equality between the sexes, or a world run by people who weren't white. Maybe because the future is shown as a scary place, full of things that can kill you. That's the biggest twist ending of all: technology can't protect you.
6. My gracious, the limited color palette made for some vibrant choices. Purple shirts, orange machinery, bright yellow walls, reds, blues, and of course, lots of green tentacles.
I think the piece I'll remember most is yet another "Martians want our women" story with Steve Ditko art, because, aside from the cliched premise, his showgirls are really strange-looking. His aliens, in another chapter, are much better.
In its two-hundred and fiftieth issue, the Comics Journal published an article by Ng Suat Tong called “EC and the Chimera of Memory.” The actual article is, aside from the target, a fairly standard Journal rip job. Arguably a necessary one, as the critical regard for New Direction EC Comics does outstrip their merit in some ways, but I bring the article up for the tagline given to it on the title page, which does not have anything to do with the actual content, “[...] Tong explains why EC comprises a ‘legacy of mediocrity.’” Frankly, that description would pretty much fit this week’s Flashmob Fridays installment, as DC’s Time Warp anthology sadly amounts to being a little more than a pale imitation of EC at its best.
Last week, with Chainsaw Comics’ Fear, we did briefly discuss the problematic nature of anthologies — they are always going to be a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the best part of Time Warp, on all five of its issues, comes on the cover. Each one is a lovely illustration by Michael William Kaluta, usually divorced from any of the tales inside. Of perhaps more historical interest though, is that DC chose to place the names of the creators on the cover, above the title even. This is not a subject I’ve had time to research to see if it’s a first for a major American comics publisher, but even if it is not, it is genuinely shocking and pleasing to see such a thing in a comic from the late 1970s.
As with the EC comics, the art is generally the best element of the interiors. Steve Ditko has at least one story in 4/5 issues (though this is not his best work). Don Newton, an artist I know but whom I’m largely unfamiliar with, is I believe in all five issues and is usually delivers the best-looking story in each issue. Tom Sutton, Howard Chaykin, Dick Giordano contribute one or more nice-looking tales to the series, but by issue four, less and less of the big names are appearing.
The writing is rarely worth talking about. These are all EC-style twist ending sci-fi horror tinged stories and despite a Murderer’s Row line-up writers from the period, they largely fail to even be as entertainingly lurid as the EC comics from 25 years prior. There’s one stand-out exception to this; it is still not very good, but “Pen Pal” by Bob Haney and Fred Carrilo probably comes the closest to matching EC. In it, a woman takes up correspondence with an astronaut stationed far away. She begins having nightmares about being sexually assaulted by an alien; her Freudian psychotherapist suggests this means she needs to go and finally consummate her relationship with her pen pal. Shockingly (or not), the pen pal turns out to be the alien of her nightmares, which are produced by him having sex with a clone of her produced from a lock of hair she sent him. The woman destroys the clone, and the final panels are a look of horror on her face as the alien caresses her and tells her how now she’ll have to stay with him because killing a clone is a capital offense. Again, this story isn’t actually good, but it is as close as Time Warp gets to truly capturing the tone and spirit of EC.
The other exception to the blending together of all the cliché twist endings for me is “The Truth.” Lushly illustrated by Sutton, it is one of several early stories by J.M. DeMatteis found in Time Warp, and seems like the most like his mature work. In it, an astronaut encounters a humanoid race that seemingly practices human sacrifice. After crashing there and falling in love with a priestess, he learns that what looks like a barbaric practice, is actually the final stage of their culture’s method of mind-expansion. As with the other stories, there’s nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s quite well done and shows themes DeMatteis would go on to explore in more depth with his more mature work.
As it only lasted five issues and there was a clear talent drain on the final two issues, Time Warp was a failed experiment for DC in 1979, and time has not exactly been kind to it. In 2012 reprints of the EC Comics it weakly draws on are (mostly) readily available, rendering Time Warp essentially superfluous. Still, if you’re a fan of any of the big-name artists involved in the early issues, Time Warp is relatively inexpensive to pick up and it’s probably worth your while to track them down if you’re a Ditko, Sutton, Newton, Kaluta, or Chaykin fan.
Reading DC's Time Warp #s 1-5 for this week's Flashmob Fridays, I'm trying to figure out how I'm so unfamiliar with this short-lived series (though that may have something to do with it) even though it features stunning Kaluta covers and art by names like Grandenetti, Chaykin, Ploog, Giordano and Ditko. At the height of Star Wars fever, a huge comic featuring science fiction stories was something that I think a 10 year old me would have been all over. Sadly, I don't remember this title at all and it would still be a few years into the Reagan decade before I'd discover anthology comics thanks to Dark Horse Presents. More and more as I grow older, I realize how much of my own comic book tastes that I still have to this day are formed thanks to the old newsstand distribution system and the local drugstore's magazine racks.
Time Warp is a perfect example of a blind spot in my history and how it was formed. Discovering comics back around the ancient days of 1976, the only places I would go to regularly that had them was the neighborhood drugstore and the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. The drugstore was a weekly store for entertainment, one quarter at a time. I remember plenty of Spider-Man, Avengers, Batman and Justice League in the racks but not a lot else. Compared to the wall-to-wall new comic shelves that most shops today have, I think I was stuck with a selection of only 15 books to choose from, mostly the most popular superheroes that DC and Marvel offered. No war comics, no horror comics and no science fiction comics other than Marvel's continuing Star Wars series.
I can't imagine that they ever carried Time Warp. Even if they did, I was already conditioned to think that my comics should look like second-generation Kirby knockoffs and not like Kaluta's graceful and delicate cover images. The eighties and the discovery of comic shops and back issues would open up the world for me. I started to discover that there were more comics than just the few I regularly could see on the magazine racks. But even as my knowledge of comics grew, my tastes still stayed fairly focused on superheroes.
Now, thirty years later and reading Time Warp for the first time, it makes me wistful for other books that I wish I had discovered as a kid -- EC's old horror and science fiction comics. The stories in Time Warp also draw heavily from The Twilight Zone, delivering cautionary tales about the future and man's small role in a great big universe. Half of the stories look and feel like classic science fiction comics, more Flash Gordon than Star Wars. These are odd stories, relics and imitators of those old EC comics, stories that are about cliches of science fiction. Then in the same issues, there are cutting edge stories, using science fiction to comment more on the world around the creators.
It's thirty years since these issues came out and I've just read this series for the first time, thanks to a drug store that just didn't carry these books. Unlike when I read EC comics or old Creepy magazines, Time Warp doesn't leave me feeling like I missed anything. Some nice art, some fun stories but Time Warp's stories all kind of felt the same. Unlike DC's other anthologies House of Secrets and House of Mystery that my store didn't carry that I've learned to love through the Showcase reprints, Time Warp was a series that didn't offer enough new and exciting stories to make it a timeless series.