2. Spitfire And The Troubleshooters #1 (Brown/Morelli/Conway/Trimpe/Sinnott/Morgan/Roussos)
The New Universe was intended to be more ‘realistic’ than the main Marvel line – “the world outside your window” as the early editorials put it. In the comments to the first post in this series, Phil Sandifer reasonably asks how much of this was hastily added after the fact, perhaps to cash in on a vogue for gritty realism following the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
For some of the New U titles, the relationship to ‘realism’ is obviously a very tenuous one. But there’s clearly something to it. Several comics read like attempts to solve puzzles, where the starting point is “the real world” and the end point is, say, “an Iron Man comic”. If you must do a comic about a powered exoskeleton, who is most likely to be building one?
Iron Man’s answer to this is – clear-sightedly for a 1963 comic – ‘arms manufacturers’. Spitfire And The Troubleshooters arrives at the same rough conclusion: a genius scientist is building it, the military want it. The wrinkle the comic adds is that it’s not about the genius scientist, who is killed off on page one. It’s about his daughter, an MIT Professor, who sets out to keep his final creation out of the hands of the military. With the help of five of her students, who essentially go on the lam with her.
Here’s where the realism thing starts to feel the strain. By saying “shucks you guys” when her students decide to join her, Spitfire is obviously being grossly irresponsible, perhaps criminal, and also guaranteeing more attention than if she’d just gone on a crime-fighting sabbatical herself. But there’s no sign the comic wants to explore this: it wants to get from A to B, and the B is a gang of science kids on the road in three garish trucks. A bit like Emerson, Lake And Palmer in their touring heyday, though I bet ELP never had fun like this.
The point is that these guys are smart and nerdy, and hackers, in the grand old put-a-cop-car-on-the-roof collegiate tradition. Spitfire And The Troubleshooters was a pitch rooted in hacker culture by Elliott R Brown, who had been a Marvel jack-of-many-trades on the production side, doing diagrams for The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe, for instance. Brown thought he had the nod to write the comic, only to find that editor Bob Harras had got someone else to do it. (Followers of Harras’ later career will be stunned by this development, I’m sure.)
That someone else was Gerry Conway, one-time Marvel stalwart. Like Romita Jr on Star Brand, getting Conway on board was actually quite a big deal: this was his first Marvel work for a very long time, and he’d recently been writing Justice League at DC, so he was hardly low-profile. I have never knowingly loved a Gerry Conway comic, but after Star Brand’s meandering, weirdly-paced journey through Jim Shooter’s id there’s a cast-iron competence to Spitfire And The Troubleshooters #1 that’s corny but quite satisfying. This is a comic that knows enough not to fuck things up.
It’s helped enormously in this by Herb Trimpe and Joe Sinnott on art – exactly the kind of veterans you want to call in when there’s a potentially quixotic project to salvage. The art on Spitfire is as solid and square as the heroine’s tin-can battlesuit, but even if it’s not exciting, there’s at least a flow and logic to the storytelling in sequences like this one.
Spitfire And The Troubleshooters still has two problems, though. One is fairly minor: Conway doesn’t feel that interested in the book’s MIT/hacker set-up – Brown apparently lived that stuff, but the comic reads like Conway’s read a magazine piece or two on it. Pro that he is, he’s way more into the emotional centre of the story – Jenny Swenson’s relationship with her late father and her quest to avenge him. In practical terms, this means the book has a supporting cast of gung-ho students, the Troubleshooters, who are introduced with a degree of razzmatazz and then have nothing to do. Are any of them memorable? Not a whit.
The tech whiz plus dead father plots do dovetail for this great 80s Comic Hacking Scene, though.
The second problem is more fundamental to the New Universe as a whole. Conway finds his story, and tells his story, and then – like Star Brand #1 – the comic ends. It reads like a pilot that never expects to be taken up. What else is there for Jenny Swenson and company to actually do, in a world without any supervillains, and with their obvious adversary sent packing? You can’t read Spitfire And The Troubleshooters and come away with any idea of what a Spitfire And The Troubleshooters series is going to be like.
This sort of approach worked for original Marvel, because the “what are they gonna do?” part of the deal was implicit: they are going to fight some weirdo or monster every month. So you can do the work introducing the character and their internal conflicts knowing that element is taken care of. The New Universe not only has less intriguing characters, it has a “world outside your window” premise which explicitly rules out the weirdos and monsters. This is going to become a problem.
Next – the first New Universe crossover, as Star Brand meets Spitfire. What will happen? If you guessed “Star Brand is a giant dick to her”, then well done, True Believer.