Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Unearthed: Steve Ditko's Static

Until now, I've been using Unearthed to look back on comic books I read in my youth. Today's example does dip back into 1983, but I didn't acquire my copies until a couple of years ago. The subject is the Static serial which ran in issues #1-3 of Eclipse Monthly.

Eclipse Monthly was an anthology title run by editor/publisher Dean Mullaney and featuring work by notable creators like Doug Wildey, Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan. It had been preceded by Eclipse, a black & white magazine-format series. I collected Eclipse and the first three of Eclipse Monthly because they contained a serialized adaptation of Sax Rohmer's Dope by Trina Robbins. I started thinking about these two series again while I was reading Dave Sim's Cerebus Archive#6, wherein he discussed the mistakes Orb made, noting:

"Changing the format is a bad idea -- going from magazine size to comic book and then back again was just confusing."

And:

"Continued stories don't work in erratically published titles or anthology titles. 5- and 6- page installments are too short to "hook" the average reader. A continued story has to be book-length and anthologized stories have to be self-contained.

I don't know the full story behind Ditko's Static, but one senses editor Mullaney wanted to give Ditko a free hand in developing his own super heroes, a way of setting right the assumed indignity of being scripted by Stan Lee in the 1960s. Static was plotted, scripted, penciled and inked by Ditko, much like his Mr. A. In fact, it is very much like Mr. A...

We meet our cast in Eclipse Monthly#1; they consist of scientist Ed Serch, his assistant Mac Rey and Serch's daughter Fera (unusual names are a trademark of the series). While Rey is testing Serch's new experimental space environmental suit within a special environmental simulator, two men break in and steal the Enego device from Serch, attempting to kill Rey in the process. Instead, Rey's suit absorbs electricity and they soon discover he can use the suit's power to increase his strength.

As Serch, Rey and Fera discuss the theft of the Enego device, the series demonstrates its fatal flaw; Serch recalls how rival doctors Pety, Ems and Rale were all interested in the Enego and he's convinced Ems is behind the theft. Rey, learning quickly how to control his suit's unexpected powers, believes he can pursue the Enego thieves and stop Ems. Fera is upset with Serch and Rey, saying it isn't their responsbility, they should notify the police.

By the fourth page of Static, a lot of speechifying has set in and it's quite deflating. Arguments loop around the same issues again and again but worse, aren't even logical. Serch and Rey's decision to pursue Ems for the missing Enego is based on Serch's belief Ems is the thief. Because Fera is the series' straw (wo)man, she fails to point this out when she argues for contacting the police. I mean, there's been a theft at the laboratory and an attempt on Rey's life. Serch and Rey, how ever responsible they feel, are not qualified to solve crimes. Shouldn't they at least bring the facts to the police, even their suspicions? Serch and Rey act as though their suspicions are both a) correct and b) unpresentable to the authorities, thus justifying vigilante behaviour. Static and Fera follow the criminals in a van, because apparently the thieves didn't have enough time to get out of visual range while Rey was discovering his powers, exhibiting his powers, arguing about using his powers and convincing Fera to help him pursue the criminals. It's weak storytelling.

This isn't the first time in the series a criminal announces hearing "static" while Static sneaks around. It really doesn't work because no one talks like that. An exclamation like "hey, what's that weird static-y noise?" might pass muster, but remarking "I hear static" as though it's something you occasionally notice on the highway draws too much attention to the contrived effort at inserting the hero's name into the villains' mouths.

So, Rey goes into battle as Static to retrieve the Enego, much to Fera's dismay. As it turns out, Dr. Ems didn't steal the Enego, the other two scientists - Dr. Pety and Dr. Rale were behind the theft. Static fights Rale, who dons a nifty-looking suit with giant fists and finally electrocutes Rale by using himself as a conduit through a light socket. Static reclaims the Enego and returns to Fera, who hopes Rey "learned a lesson" from all of this, but he clearly intends to keep being Static (or we'd have no story).

Eclipse Monthly#2 continues the tale as the villain Boron tries to kidnap Dr. Otto Cern, only to accidentally kill him. Serch, Rey and Fera attend Cern's funeral and get into a two-page argument on the matter, with Serch and Rey jumping to the conclusion Cern was murdered and Fera wailing at them to let the police do their jobs. The argument runs through 14 very crowded panels, one so badly mangled that Rey is all but obscured. It was over this panel that editor Dean Mullaney argued with Ditko, ultimately driving him away from Eclipse when Ditko refused to accept Mullaney's criticism.

So, Static investigates Cern's murder and luckily Boron returns to the scene of the crime, enabling Static to defeat him and his master. However, Fera steals the Static costume and refuses to let Rey wear it again.

The third and final Static story run by Eclipse appeared in Eclipse Monthly#3. Here, Dr. Serch is kidnapped by the General to build a super weapon for him and Static has to rescue him, forcing Fera to give the suit back (strangely, this happens off-panel! Fera is seen resisting his demands for the suit, then he's Static again on the following page). Serch becomes most upset at how he agreed to build the weapon for the General, trusting in Static to rescue him; he feels he let himself down by pretending to assist the General.

It seems as though Ditko intended for the arguments between Serch, Rey and Fera to be the core of this series, given how much time he devotes to them. The problem is he runs over the same material every story, the characters unchanging in their viewpoint (although it's suggested in the third story that Serch may be reconsidering allowing Rey to use the Static suit; Rey, a true objectivist, simply notes that's Serch's right). The conflict between Serch, Rey and Fera is one note, played again and again. The series would have been stronger as a whole if Ditko had run part of his screed in each story, rather than the full argument each time. If the argument in the first story had been restricted to "is it right to become a vigilante?" it might have been readable. Instead, that argument is played in each story, along with digressions on personal responsibility, not trusting the authorities and whether power corrupts.

Through it all, I never get a good sense of who Static is. I have a pretty good understanding of Fera from the arguments she loses. Static wins every argument and every fight, taking it with the ease of shopping for groceries. I never felt Static was challenged by anything - he masters his powers, he talks circles around Fera and he beats the bad guys. And so, despite having a fight scene and at least one argument in every story, Static feels like a strip devoid of conflict; the villains and Fera are the only ones being put at risk - the hero is up on a pedestal. Ditko's Spider-Man is one of the all-time greatest super heroes in part because of how the hero would react to failure; Static's seeming inability to fail makes him rather bland.

Ditko eventually self-published the rest of Static. His Static work in Eclipse Monthly is absolutely gorgeous, so far as the artwork is concerned. Unfortunately, the unrelatable characters drag the concept down.

2 comments:

Matt Celis said...

Your failure to follow the story correctly makes me wonder about your various conclusions and criticisms. For instance, you clearly didn't read very carefully or you would know that Static didn't follow the men who assaulted Serch and your snotty remark about them not getting out of visual range is idiotic as Static is following the scheduled delivery of the rods in hopes that it will lead him to the culprit behind the assault. So, no, you apparently lack the reading comprehension skills to critique this work.

Michael Hoskin said...

Matt,

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for holding my feet to the fire.

The men who captured the shipment of rods are the same men who stole the Enego - they went directly from one theft to the next. My error was in missing the SECOND theft - the theft of the rods. In my defense, the information is buried in the story, with Serch's one-time reference in the flashback to the "shipment of special rods." When Static talks about "the shipment," I mistakenly thought he was referring to the stolen Enego, not the rods. Perhaps in my haste to render snarky comments I glanced over the issue too quckly - I certainly regret the error.

My failure to understand these details is not necessarily an indictment against me. It could just as easily be another strike against this comic book.