Friday, November 11, 2016

Unearthed: The Destructor #4

Welcome back! Once again I have exhumed my infrequent feature "Unearthed," in which I delve into some long-retired piece of comic book history. I am very pleased to once more feature the short-lived Atlas comics hero The Destructor, drawn by Steve Ditko! You may recall I have already featured the first three issues on this blog:

Destructor #1

Destructor #2

Destructor #3

At last, I finally hold a copy of Destructor #4 in my hands, thus completing the series! Let's jump right in!

"Doomsday -- Minus One!" blares the cover once again rendered by Larry Lieber in his best faux-Kirby manner. You will observe the Destructor is still wearing the refined costume from issue #3; you shall also note he apparently now has the ability to fire blasts of energy from his hands. Generic powers for a generic hero!

The story inside was brought to us by new author Gerry Conway (replacing Archie Goodwin), returning artist Steve Ditko and new inker Al Milgrom (replacing Frank Giacoia). We open within a cavern in New Mexico as two men hired by the Combine are hunting for the Destructor. Having hidden above the cavern, the Destructor simples drops upon his two enemies and with his superhuman strength handily defeats them. Just as one of the two men draws his gun, a blast of energy strikes from out of the darkness of the cave, hitting the gunman in the back (fatally?).

And who fired this ray of energy? Before the Destructor stands three superhuman beings whom we'll soon learn are Kronus, the Eye and Sister Siren. The Eye's cyclopean "de-moeleculorize" ray was responsible for hitting the Combine agent and the Outcasts now demand the Destructor remain where he is; our hero refuses and the Eye fires a beam at him which misses. "You may have a wacko eye-blast -- but I've got the powers of a beast -- and that makes me the winner!"

Kronus quickly orders Sister Siren to sing her "dream song -- before we have to commit violence!" Evidently firing a destructive ray of energy does not constitute violence in Kronus' mind, but it seems to suggest a pacifist streak amongst these Outcasts. Sister Siren emits a "melodius, luring strain" which causes the Destructor to black out.

The Destructor awakens in an advanced facility with the Outcasts facing him, his mask removed. They all begin calling him Jay Hunter, although he doesn't stop to wonder how they learned his secret identity. Sister Siren begins talking about their world and how their parents "abandoned the culture from which you sprang," but Jay has no interest in gabbing: "as far as I'm concerned, you can take your junior 'Star Trek' set and shove it!" Jay seems unusually high-strung this issue as he socks the Eye one in the face and threatens to do likewise to Sister Siren. Kronus appears and suggests the Destructor is one of them - an Outcast - but Jay takes exception to this.

You may possibly have noticed Kronus' powers haven't been established up until now; we now see he has the power to send people into other dimensions and briefly deposits Jay in one to teach him a lesson. This alien dimension is fully of frightening beasts and has no clear directional axis - yes, it is clearly a Steve Ditko creation. When Jay is brought back to the Outcasts' base he decides to be rational and listen to what Kronus has to say.

While taking Jay on a tour of their underground city in a flying vehicle, Kronus explains the Outcasts' parents were people who feared the atomic bomb and built their city to avoid fallout. Because this is a Steve Ditko comic it is tempting to suppose they were Galtian "off the grid" folks, but that would suggest Ditko plotted this comic which I don't believe was the case (then again, maybe Conway was hired strictly for scripting duties; these Outcasts certainly seem very similar to the Misfits created by Ditko's friend and ex-inker-of-Destructor Wally Wood).

Unfortunately for the founders of this city, they were financed by one Abraham E. Caldwell III "and he was evil incarnate." Caldwell insisted on testing an experimental nuclear power plant in the city, which - as the residents' entire motivation was to escape nuclear weapons - did not go over well. Unable to prevent Caldwell, the citizens watched as their children were born as mutants with supehuman powers. When Caldwell returned in 1956 he was beaten to death by an angry mob. Kronus concludes his explanation by revealing all of the Outcasts are telepaths, which is how they learned Jay's name. Hearing all of this, Jay begins to feel they truly are alike, which prompts a sinister reaction from the Outcasts. There is nothing in the script to suggest the Outcasts are anything other than forthright with Jay, but Dikto's art certainly says otherwise. I don't know how Destructor was created but I assume it would have been "Marvel style," so Ditko likely created the pages with very little input from Conway.

Suddenly, an atom bomb is set off ten miles away (this is the unluckiest anti-atomic radiation plot ever). The radiation from the blast bathes Jay and reacts with the serum in his bloodstream, causing his powers to alter even further so that now he can emit destructive blasts of energy. "We may have gained a new soldier for our... army." Kronus remarks with another fiendish Ditko grin. The Outcasts convince the Destructor he should use his powers to destroy the nearby army base where the bomb was tested and Jay sets off with the Eye to do just that. To be continued... never!

The next issue blurb announced "The Man with the Golden Bomb" which sounds like a magnificent Bond mash-up. But this is where the Destructor ends - the plot of him destroying the Combine unresolved and with Jay joining forces with the Outcasts (though it's the sort of plot where one assumes he would eventually discover they had evil intentions).

Conway didn't have time to get into the Destructor's character, what with this issue basically setting up a completely different series and taking its time to introduce the Outcasts. Archie Goodwin had a firm grip on the plotting & characterization in the first three issues, but for whatever reason (editorial? Ditko?) this last issue jettisons much of what made the prior issues work. Ditko remains game, of course and can never be boring. The Outcasts are a bit generic as characters but are fine Ditko designs.

Unfortunately, the Destructor suffered from being too generic; even if the comic book marketplace of the time had been more forgiving to the line of Atlas Comics it would not have made up for Destructor's generic origin, generic powers, generic motivation and generic costume. What the strip most needed was something unusual; Ditko drew unusual characters, true; Goodwin could script unusual villains; but a hero avenging his father's death by wearing a costume and using the powers he received from a fluke experiment is played out on every level. As Jay began as a criminal and would sometimes use his connections to combat the Combine, perhaps it would have been more interesting if Jay were like Serpico, an undercover super hero trying to bring down the gangsters he worked alongside; that would have been different and appropriate to the 70s zeitgeist.

This then is the end of the Destructor. Look for his return when the rights around the Atlas heroes are sorted out and he's (inevitably) snapped up for a quickly-forgottten revival series. My money's on Dynamite, but IDW has fair odds. And then there's Marvel, but... hm... what was I talking about?

No comments: