Thursday, July 18, 2013

Unearthed: DP7#5

I've long wished to bring my love of the New Universe series DP7 to this blog; delving back to the early days of the series, I'm revisiting DP7#5 (1987) and the story "Exorcism" by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan.

Of the eight titles comprising Jim Shooter's New Universe, DP7 came the nearest to fulfilling the objectives Shooter first outlined - even Shooter's own Starbrand tended to forget the concept of the "world outside your window" described in promotional material. I didn't discover DP7 until years after the series' cancellation, but reading it together in a single evening was an outstanding experience for me; "Exorcism" was especially memorable.

We open in "Central Wisconsin, twenty-seven miles from Stevens Point." Our cast, travelling across Wisconsin in a trailer being pulled by a truck, catch sight of a church bus which crashed into a tree. Our seven lead characters met at the Clinic, a facility which helped paranormals such as they to cope with their powers, but they fled after discovering the Clinic had ulterior motives (namely to supply the CIA with paranormal operatives); although the seven have been trying to keep a low profile, the bus accident attracts their attention.

Randy O'Brien, a physician with the power to release a flying, ebon-black creature ("Anti-Body") from his chest insists on stopping to help; besides being a dedicated care-giver, Randy was frequently the default leader of the seven characters. When Randy suggests helping them the other three men - Jeff Walters, Dave Landers and Dennis "Scuzz" Cuzinski - go with him while the three women - Stephanie Harrington, Lenore Fenzl & Charlotte Beck - remain with the trailer. Stephanie was formerly a housewife with three young children and she desperately wants to rejoin her family; Stephanie's own power is to increase people's energy levels by touching them, enabling people to heal more quickly or receive bursts of adrenaline. Stephanie's power manifests as a series of bright sparks around her body and recently the sparks have been ever-present around her, even when not consciously using her power. Stephanie asks Lenore to help, as Lenore skin's gives off a white light which causes people to fall unconscious. Lenore exposes Stephanie to her white light but it has no effect - Stephanie's body is producing more energy than Lenore's power can handle.

At the bus, Randy begins treating the wounded; despite being a fugitive he gives his real name to a hurt teenager: "I can't lie to a kid." Dave's superhuman strength and Scuzz's acid-like touch help dislodge the bus from the tree. Dave suggests they push the bus back to the road, but the priest is skeptical. "Have a little faith, father," Dave suggests. Sure enough, they are able to move the bus back on the road - but only because Dave is so strong he can drag the bus almost single-handedly. During all of this, Jeff uses his superhuman speed to scout and ensure the situation isn't a trap (Jeff's speed is such that he's always moving, appearing as a blur on the page). The problem dealt with, the men return to the trailer and discuss how nice it felt to help people in need; Dave notes he doesn't believe in God, yet wound up promoting faith to a priest. Scuzz isn't willing to admit he enjoys being altruistic but enjoys any opportunity to use his powers.

Soon the seven are back on the road; Scuzz rides in the flat of the truck, musing how irritating it is for him to be the youngest member of the group; suddenly, he notices his spit is so acidic it leaves a scorch on the truck's body; experimenting with his power, he makes a spitball and throws it at a road sign; the spitball blasts a hole through the sign, much to Scuzz's entertainment; he decides to keep this discovery to himself. Jeff comes running by the truck and has a friendly chat with Scuzz, offering to pick up cigarettes for Scuzz while making his regular phone call to his mother. As Jeff runs ahead of the trailer to make his phone call in the next town, Scuzz wonders what Jeff's ulterior motive is - still suspicious of people'a altruism.

Jeff phones his mother, which is as good a time as any to note Jeff and Stephanie are the only two of the seven with real personal ties outside the group; Scuzz barely tolerates being part of the seven while Lenore, Randy, Dave & Charlotte seem to have no closer friends than those in the group. Jeff's mother has a suggestion about his superhuman powers: if there is no medical cure for his powers, perhaps Jeff should visit an exorcist. We have an "A" plot!

Jeff brings the subject up for discussion back at the trailer, prefacing his story by first asking if any of them have seen the movie the Exorcist. While the group are fairly dismissive of this idea, Stephanie latches on it instantly, noting they've never been tested for demonic possession - why rule it out? Scuzz notes Stephanie's sudden assertiveness, musing "Stephie puttin' on a little weight?" Dave is easily the least-persuaded by this idea and tries to talk Stephanie out of believing something from "the Dark Ages," but Stephanie challenges him to supply a better origin for their paranormal abilities. Randy suggests the White Event (which actually is the source of their powers), but Charlotte doubts it because she didn't see the White Event happen. Lenore notes all of their powers manifested after the White Event; Jeff counters "They all came out after Ronald Reagan was re-elected, too. Is he responsible, maybe?"

When Stephanie repeats her determination to explore the idea, Dave offers another objection: going to an exorcist would involve an outsider with their group and they haven't had good experiences with outsiders (Dave invokes a recent guest appearance in Kickers Inc.#5 where the Kickers Inc. cast tried to capture them for the Clinic). Jeff notes the matter isn't really open for discussion - his mother set up the meeting with the exorcist for him, not the group; if the group isn't interested, Jeff will go alone. At this, Randy insists everyone accompany Jeff, but Scuzz refuses. Now vocally objecting to being the "punk kid of this chicken-licked outfit," Scuzz angrily notes the group haven't been using his ideas, such as the super hero codenames they all agreed to use (back in issue #2, which was basically the first and last time the characters used codenames - outside of various promotional material fot the series). Unlike the others, Scuzz likes his powers and doesn't want a cure; he storms out of the trailer, quitting the group.

Randy thinks Scuzz needs the group and goes after him, insisting they make amends, but Scuzz angrily elbows Randy in the chest; this causes Randy to release his Anti-Body and Scuzz assumes the group wants a fight; Scuzz demonstrates his new spitballs, blasting a hole through the Anti-Body and burning Dave's arm before Stephanie finally intercedes and insists they let Scuzz leave if it's what he wants. The other six return to the trailer as Scuzz walks away. For a moment, a tear runs down Scuzz's face as he considers being alone, but Jeff suddenly returns, causing Scuzz to revert to his tough persona; Jeff leaves his mother's phone number with Scuzz should Scuzz ever need to contact the group again but once Jeff turns his head, Scuzz burns the scrap of paper into dust.

Randy feels guilty about leaving Scuzz behind, but Jeff is convinced they'll be cured by the exorcist and Scuzz will rejoin them for the cure. Jeff declares his attitude is "God only helps those who wanna be helped." That evening as the six prepare for bed, Stephanie insists on gathering for group prayer, praying aloud that if their powers are a form of punishment that it will be driven out. After they go to bed, Randy and Dave sit up for awhile, discussing religion. Dave admits "I'd love to be able to believe in something again... but since Ma and Pa died, and my brother Mark before that -- well, I guess all the faith I had died with them..." For his part, Randy has begun to wonder if perhaps their powers are an "act of God;" from this, Dave correctly guesses Randy is a Catholic.

Outside of a Burger King, the six (all in coats, hoods and dark glasses) meet Jeff's mother, who thanks them for looking after her son (again reminding Stephanie of her children). They quickly move to a Catholic church where they're introduced to Rev. Armand Koehn. The six use aliases with the priest to (somewhat) protect their identities and demonstrate how their powers work to him. Koehn admits he's never seen abilities like theirs and he doesn't sense they're being possessed; he gives them a very basic explanation of how he'll pray over them; even Dave is impressed by Koehn's conviction. As they finally move to the sanctuary for the ceremony, Dave asks "does it matter if we believe in what you do?" Koehn replies, "No, my son, it only matters that I do."

In the sanctuary, Koehn creates holy water by blessing salt and water ("That's all it takes?" muses Dave) and begins to pray over them; Dave wonders whether he could actually be cured of his massive bulk and muscles - and if losing his powers would restore his lost faith. As Koehn reaches Randy, the force of his prayer causes the Anti-Body to exit Randy; the Anti-Body phases through Koehn, transmitting its memories to them (the Anti-Body cannot speak and can only communicate through memory). Koehn quickly restores order in the room and regretfully tells the six he can't cure them - he's confident the Anti-Body is not a creature of evil and thus their powers are not the result of demonic possession. The most Koehn can offer them is spiritual guidance. Stephanie breaks into tears at the news. The six dejected paranormals exit the sanctuary as Koehn prays Reinhold Niebuhr's famous prayer: "God grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change... the courage to change the things you can change... and the wisdom to know the difference between the two." This prayer reflects well over the struggles of the DP7 cast throughout the series.

Thoughts: I couldn't tell you how many atheists have worked at Marvel or DC over the years, but I certainly tell you who the most "loud and proud" was: Mark Gruenwald. Atheism came up frequently in his columns, his series Quasar and in DP7 via the character of Dave Landers. Dave probably represents the viewpoint closest to Gruenwald's, yet Gruenwald was open-minded enough to play Rev. Koehn straight, not as a caricature. Considering Koehn is an exoricist in a post-1973 work of fiction, it's admirable to see the care Gruenwald took in to avoid exploitation (exorploitation?). Further, Randy, Jeff & Stephanie are revealed to be Christians but not for simple mockery; Jeff and Stephanie's belief in the exorcist could have reduced them to naive simpletons - so, kudos to Gruenwald for being sensitive to beliefs outside of his own.

Randy & Dave's discussion about faith was easily a highlight; the series began in issue #1 by following the duo's first meeting and how they came to the Clinic; while the cast of DP7 underwent a lot of changes throughout its run, Randy & Dave would remain constants. They're a terrific example of a comic book male friendship; although divided by occupation (Randy a physician, Dave a factory worker), faith (Randy a Catholic, Dave an atheist) and ethos (Randy an altruist, Dave a pragmatist), their devotion to supporting each other throughout and frequent quiet moments where they voiced their difficulties kept them the real stars of DP7.

DP7's style of people with powers who don't become super heroes has been frequently compared to later (more popular) tales such as Rising Stars or Heroes; I think it's the best comic in the $0.25 bin. Experience it for yourself.

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