Thursday, March 10, 2016

RIP: Paul Ryan

Comic book artist Paul Ryan has passed away. Although he laboured within the comics industry up to his death, I haven't read much about his passing, aside from those who knew him personally and a handful of fans. As most of his comics work in the 21st century was on the Phantom comic strip, he simply wasn't doing the sort of "Big Two" super hero work which creates recognition from the majority of comics fans.

Indeed, even his 80s & 90s comics work is seldom spoken of. Iron Man. Avengers. Avengers West Coast. Quasar. Squadron Supreme. Fantastic Four. They're all known names to comics fans. Why have his contributions been ignored?

Some of this is because of the style he drew in. He was a solid, dependable artist who could render uniformity among the many Marvel characters. This made him perfect for the 80s & 90s obsession with continuity - his Hulk was not grotesque like Larsen's, his Spider-Man lacked the over-sized lenses of McFarlane, his Iron Man had a more believable sense of perspective than his predecessor Romita... in short, though he laboured through times of big, flashy super hero artists, he didn't try to entice undue attention to his work. Some, I'm sure, would go further and call his style "bland."

It also didn't help that he came in on the Avengers during a very lackluster moment in that series' publishing history, serving writers John Byrne and Larry Hama - neither of whom rank anywhere close to fandom's favourite Avengers scribes. And if they do remember him, it would be as the co-creator of Rage, a character who is still ridiculed for being a street-level hero who dared, dared join the Avengers, which occasioned many an Avengers fan to drop their monocles. His Avengers West Coast has fared somewhat better, helped by having drawn a pretty neat Ultron story, but the West Coast series is itself not often brought up.

He drew the Fantastic Four every month for five years, yet while that run (with writer Tom DeFalco) has its fans, it also has its detractors. He drew the series during the age where the Thing wore a helmet, the Invisible Woman put a chest window on her uniform, Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom died and everyone wore drab jackets over their costumes. Of course, he also helped undo every single one of those changes before leaving the series but to outside observers his Fantastic Four has too much of the 90s about it. It smells like Nirvana.

Even his contribution to Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme can be over-stressed as he was only one of three artists to work on the series. Indeed, many have said the art shake-ups have diminished the book's reputation in the long run. In total, Ryan drew 5 of the 12 issues, including the climax. But while Squadron Supreme is often called Gruenwald's greatest work, it's quietly falling into the past, a book beloved by those of its time but not appreciated by the next generation of readers.

Does it seems as though I'm trying to sound depressing? All right, let me cheer you up; let me give you a good reason to celebrate Ryan's life and legacy. I can spell it with three characters: D P 7.

Falling between their collaborations on Squadron Supreme and Quasar, Gruenwald & Ryan's DP7 is my pick for the best work of either man's career. Being a New Universe series it was largely neglected in its time and forgotten since, but I hold it to be a fine story, one which pushes against the tropes of super hero comics in that way so many 80s books tried to (be they Zot! or Marvelman).

In the New Universe, all superhuman people received their abilities from the same source, the "White Event" astrological phenomenon. Gruenwald liked this origin, calling it a "democratic" super power origin. Thus, the people who made up the cast of DP7 had not caught in some accident, been born special or subjected to weird experiments - they each simply woke up one day to find they had an odd ability they couldn't account for (and within the pages of DP7, they never do learn their origins - when one character suggests the White Event another scoffs, suggesting they might as well blame the Reagan presidency).

Although the cast of DP7 shifted around (sometimes more than 7 leads, sometimes fewer) the two characters who remained in-focus the longest were Dave Landers and Randy O'Brien. Dave was an atheist, blue collar factory worker; Randy was a Catholic physician. Dave spent much of his time hoping his "freakish" appearance wouldn't stand in the way of romance with fellow paranormal Stephanie; Randy spent a great deal of time unsure of how to respond to the advances of fellow paranormal Charlotte because she was black (he eventually received an appropriately brutal put-down for his wishy-washyness). Through it all, Dave and Randy were friends.

At one point both Dave and Randy were in the military and Dave, in despair after being sent to solitary confinement, attempted suicide; Randy saved his life. Later, Dave would return the favour by saving Randy from an erupting volcano; it's only as Dave carried Randy to safety that he realized his own drive to live and rejection of suicide had been truly reached.

DP7 also featured the antics of Philip Nolan Voigt, a paranormal with the ability to duplicate the abilities of any other paranormal he met with absolutely no drawbacks. What's a man with so much power to do with himself? Why, run for President, naturally! Only Dave and Randy were immune to Voigt's mind control powers, but as Voigt could order their friends to kill themselves with a single thought, they had no choice but to let his campaign carry him all the way to the White House.

There's so much more: Lenore, the elderly woman whose powers steadily rejuvenated her, but seemingly at the cost of becoming an addict to her own abilities; George, the hapless fellow whose body was constantly mutating into new forms; Jenny, the former armored hero Spitfire who grew her own armor after a brush with mutagenic waste; Merriam, the woman who tried to romance Dave, but always ranked second-place with him. Scuzz. Jeff. Stephanie. Charlotte. Evan. The Woodsman. Captain Manhattan.

I absorbed the whole of DP7 across one late afternoon, years after the series had already concluded. In the span of hours it took to read those 32 issues (plus one annual) I came to know and like the unfortunate cast members. Ryan drew all 32 issues and, if you do think him bland, then he was the right choice for the reasonably well-grounded stories, set in a somewhat-more mundane world without high-tech Helicarriers or tiny cities in bottles.

Rest in peace, Mr. Ryan.

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