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Monday, November 21, 2016

We looked back at 1993's Outsiders v2 so you didn't have to...

One of the few perks of managing a blog that doesn't have any sponsors or corporate backers is that you can write about whatever strikes your fancy (within reason), as long as you can somehow tie it in with DC comics of the 1980s. Today's article will be examining a series I can't believe I missed the first time (since I'm a self-proclaimed Batman and the Outsiders fan), but was probably swept up in collecting whatever "hot" book Wizard Magazine was praising at the time. This is poaching a little further into 90s territory than this zine is normally accustomed to, so I apologize about that. [If you're into 90s comics, do check out The Unspoken Decade  a fantastic site that covers a wide range of 90s material.]

Outsiders v2 hit the comic book stands in late 1993. As it happens, 1993 was a tumultuous year in comics: Valiant comics was at a fever pitch, Image comics was in it's second year of publication and churning out massively hyped creator-owned titles, Malibu Comics decided to jump into the fray and launch it's Ultraverse line of books, and new comic book publishing companies [Topps, Bongo Comics, Triumphant Comics, etc] had popped up trying to snag a share of that comic collector's valuable dollar. Where was Marvel and DC comics in all of this? X-Men, Superman, and Batman were still dominating the market, but their *other* books may have been passed over for the 'flashier' competition... and that's one of the biggest challenges Outsiders v2 had to face.


Covers for Outsiders v2 #1 Alpha and Outsiders v2 #1 Omega (1993)


A glut of comic books being released wasn't the only thing happening in 1993 — we were starting to see the rise of gimmick covers and extreme revamps of classic characters/teams to keep collectors interested. The former, I'm assuming, was to have a fighting chance of getting spotted on an overly-crowded comic book rack, and the latter was to keep up with Image Comic's 'extreme everything' that seemed to be all the rage among collectors (and Wizard Magazine).

Back then, at a glance, I wouldn't have recognized half of the characters on the cover(s) of issue(s) #1, and probably just dismissed it as an 'extreme revamp' of a classic DC team for a new audience. The cover art (pencilled by Travis Charest) was very... Image-esque and not something ordinarily seen on a DC cover. Having two #1 issues was a bit of a trip, too. Unlike Jim Lee's X-Men #1 (1991), which had five different variant covers, Outsiders v2 had two different #1 issues (Alpha and Omega) which told the same story from two different points of view (and sported a different cover depending on which characters were featured in the issue). I can see the appeal of having two #1 issues for collectors to collect, but it may have been confusing to anyone who didn't realize each issue contained a different story. I can't remember these being released with foil-embossed covers or anything (the copies I'm holding in my hands are pretty standard fare), but both covers joined to form a diptych to complete the whole team roster — so I guess this was the gimmick in and of itself.


panel from Outsiders #1 alpha (1993). Property of DC comics.
Outsiders v2 roster - art by Paul Pelletier and Robert Campanella

Buyer Beware: the art on the inside of the book does NOT match with what's on the cover of the #1 issues. Paul Pelletier pencilled the first 19 issues (plus the 'zero issue') of this ongoing series and Robert Campanella inked over Pelletier's pencils. Prior to his work on Outsiders v2, Pelletier was know for his lengthy run as penciller on Malibu's Ex-Mutants and a few issues of Marvel's Incredible Hulk. Campanella had previously inked Suicide Squad, Wanderers, and Wonder Woman. Together, the duo brought a look that was quite reminiscent of Erik Larsen's work on the tail end of Outsiders v1 - a look that was somewhat cartoony (e.g. exaggerated jaw lines, overly expressive facial features), but still worked with the mood of the book. Readers were claiming that Pelletier's work was very reminiscent of a young Alan Davis' work (which, honestly, I just didn't see).

The NEW Outsiders v2 roster consists of Halo, Looker, Katana, Geo-Force and three NEW characters who debuted in issue #1. Halo, Looker, Katana and Geo-Force were all co-created by Mike W Barr in the original series. [You probably didn't recognize Looker on the cover of issue #1 because her eyes weren't glowing blue. I know I didn't.] Faust (a sorcerer), Technocrat (a man with a cybernetic suit of armor)and Wylde (a human/bear hybrid) were created by Barr and Pelletier for this series. Why weren't Metamorpho and Black Lightning included in this line-up? When this ongoing series was debuting, Metamorpho was finishing up his own mini-series and was still an active player in Justice League International v2, meanwhile Black Lightning was mysteriously absent from the DCU at the time. My best guess is that Tony Isabella (the creator of Black Lightning) was still disputing with DC over the rights to the character*. Metamorpho was originally created by Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon. Maybe the big take-away here is that Barr likes to write characters he had a hand in creating?

Outsiders v2 #3 - introducing Faust, Technocrat and Wylde in the letters page

I enjoy Mike W Barr's writing, and his work on 1983's Batman and the Outsiders cemented my life-long adoration for the team. Outsiders v2 is a different kind of book (editor Kevin Dooley is quick to point out that it's 'Outsiders' and not 'The Outsiders'), and seems to be written differently than what we've previously seen in BATO. Interpret this any way you want, but this feels like an early 90s book. By the early 90s, it felt like everything had been done: Superman had died and returned to life, Batman had been crippled and replaced, Hal Jordan had gone crazy and turned against the Green Lantern Corps, Aquaman's hand was replaced with a hook, and there really wasn't much that could surprise a DC reader anymore. Sales now seemed to rely on how much you could shock/entertain the reader and keep them coming back for more - this seemed true to form with the Outsiders v2 ongoing series (hint: a long-standing Outsider is killed in the first issue). In the letter column for issue #5, editor Kevin Dooley warns readers "Now, the team is back with some old faces and some new. And some of you older fans may be a little upset with the plans we've got for the team. Don't expect things to remain the same. We're going to try the unexpected, the unrestrained, the unprecedented, and perhaps attain the unspeakable." and this series delivers on his promises. (Dooley picked up as editor for the series at issue #5 after Bill Kaplan left to edit a few Image titles.) 


The Outsiders I grew up reading - art by Paul Pelletier and Robert Campanella

So, where's the 80s connection I was alluding to in my opening paragraph? Well, this ongoing series picks up after the events of The Outsiders v1 #28 (1988) in which Halo ends up in a coma and Looker is de-powered. This new series opens with Halo being revived from her coma and Looker gaining her powers again — it's like nothing had changed since we last left the team! (Except for the newly resurrected Metamorpho who is now a member of Justice League International, the unexplained absence of Black Lightning and Windfall, and there's a continuity snafu in which a fully-powered Looker assists Batman in defeating the Mudpack in Detective Comics #604 - #607 (1989), but let's overlook that for now).

There are currently no Outsiders v2 reprint collected versions, so, unless you were lucky enough to obtain the single issues at a flea market as I have, you're going to have a hard time finding these issues. Keep reading if you want to hear SPOILERS.

Here's an extremely brief synopsis of the series: the previous Outsiders (sans Black Lightning, Metamorpho, Windfall and Atomic Knight) meet together for a ceremonial event in Markovia (small Eastern European country. think: Belgium) and, due to a series of events involving vampires, decide to band together. They pick up a few stragglers along the way (Faust, Technocrat and Wylde) and become a team. The vampire story arc is resolved by the end of issue #4, and the rest of the series consists of the Outsiders being on the lam while fighting to clear their name, or splitting into two teams with the intent of the "good" team trying to prevent the "bad" team from causing too much damage. As mentioned, this is a mid-90s book and the stories moved pretty fast to keep up with the attention span of readers. Sometimes it moved too fast and there wasn't enough emphasis on character development to really make you want to invest interest in these characters. 

Panel from Outsiders v2 #18 (1995). Property of DC comics.
You want action? The Outsiders will give you action! illustrated by Paul Pelletier and Sam De La Rosa

There's no shortage of action (i.e. huge fight scenes), nor guest stars in this series - appearances by The Eradicator, Checkmate, Jean Paul Valley as Batman, Superman (with mullet), Lady Shiva, and the New Titans (as well as references to other current titles such as Deathstroke v1 and The Flash v2) continued to remind you that this was a 'totally relevant' series being published in the 1990s. To the creative team's credit, a few 'classic' Outsiders-related villains appear in this series: the Masters of Disasters appear in an issue, and a Kobra splinter-group battle the Outsiders for an issue. Dooley affirms in the letter columns that they were trying to keep Outsiders v2 'fresh' and went to great pains not to keep rehashing the same ol' battles with the same ol' adversaries (in issue #14, he states that the appearance of the Masters of Disaster in issue #9 had caused sales of the series to drop after a long stretch of increased readership) — so we've got stories with the Outsiders battling Felix Faust, Eclipso, the Jihad (Suicide Squad villains, remember them?), and Darkseid's forces. Actually, the Outsiders battling the Jihad was one of the more memorable issues in this series.

The Outsiders battle the Jihad in Outsiders v2 #6 (1994). At least two Jihad members get killed off.

This series is easy to read and doesn't require great intellectual effort to follow. Most mail from readers were usually a mix of "where is Black Lightning/Metamorpho/Windfall/Atomic Knight? Please have them rejoin the team", "why did you kill of Looker? she was my favorite", "please add Creeper/Blue Devil/Blue Jay/Firehawk/[insert other obscure DC character here] to the Outsiders roster", and "why did you change Halo's outfit/hairdo? please change it back". If for no other reason than to give the readers what they want, the Outsiders do meet up with Metamorpho in an issue, Windfall does rejoin the team and Atomic Knight becomes a recurring character (so we may as well just go ahead and consider him as a member of the team). It is later revealed by issue #10 that Looker is not actually dead, but is now a vampire [more on that later].

panel from Outsiders v2 #10 (1994). Property of DC comics.
The dramatic return of... vampiric Looker! Illustrated by Paul Pelletier and Robert Campanella 

Something notable about this ongoing series was that it gave the Eradicator considerable attention since his 'death' in Reign of the Supermen and resurrection in Action Comics #693 (1993). The Outsiders battle the Eradicator early in the series, and he becomes a team member several issues later (and would stay with the team until the end of the series). Barr's interpretation of the Eradicator is a 'take no prisoners' energy being who just wants to punish the guilty. One would assume that this would get tired very quickly, but I found the Eradicator to be one of the more interesting characters in the series — but this may be because he was one of my favorite 'false' Supermen from the Reign of story line. By the last issue of Outsiders v2, Eradicator had quickly been snatched up by Superboy, Supergirl, Alpha Centurion and Steel to embark on a new story arc that was more interesting than whatever the Outsiders were doing at the time.

panel from Outsiders v1 #3 (1994). Property of DC comics.
The Eradicator: pre- and post- resurrection from 1993's Action Comics #693 

This series did NOT have the Comics Code Authority seal on the cover. This may have had something to do with the accumulated body count the Outsiders had racked up — Wylde, Katana and Eradicator had no qualms about killing opponents. (Vampires need to feed on blood to survive, hence Looker the vampire was killing opponents off panel and drinking their blood. This was the extreme 90s, what other reason do you need?). When asked why there was no CCA seal, Dooley explained in the letter column of issue #22 "It's a long, complicated decision process weighing paper stock choices, possible newsstand versus direct sales, adult content and basically it's something that was decided long before I got here."

Why was this series cancelled after 25 issues?

The short answer: sales. One of the perks of reviewing/researching a mid-90s book is that some comic book sales data is available online and can provide a bit more insight as to what was going on in the comic book market at the time. Sales for Outsiders v2 were never incredibly strong (they were passed over for an annual - twice) and I'm impressed the series lasted as long as it did. To quote Dooley again: "I am constantly surprised by diehard Outsiders fans. Their loyalty surely rivals that of supporters of LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (or LOSHers), but they're more exclusive. They've followed the team through trials and trials until their eventual, shall we say, demise." . 

Based on the interactions Kevin Dooley was having with readers in the letter columns, it was a little difficult to determine who was the main driving force behind the stories — editor Dooley or writer Mike W. Barr? It seemed like the creative team was just throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck. Dooley was eager for feedback from readers and was often asking how they felt about the new characters introduced, the direction the series was headed and how they felt about issue x, y and z. At the time, Dooley was also editor for Green Lantern v2 (particularly the Emerald Twilight storyline), Aquaman v5 (hand replaced with a hook) and Guy Gardner: Warrior (the two former titles experienced an explosion of popularity during Dooley's reign). Dooley was the right man for the job, and had a very definitive idea of how to revitalize a comic book series in order to keep it afloat in a competitive/aggressive comic book market. I'll admit, reading about Azbats battling the Outsiders was not a twist I saw coming and did fill me with nostalgic glee.



In my opinion, the series died because Outsiders v2 lacked a strong A-list character to bring in readers. A lot of 80s readers picked up Batman and the Outsiders v1 because it was initially Batman's team, and you could expect to find Batman in the book. There isn't very much that Batman can't sell. The Outsiders v1 (1985) realized this fifteen issues in and quickly re-added Batman to the team. The formula is pretty simple: attract readers with an A-list character, and, via strong character-driven storylines, get them acquainted with the rest of the team. As interesting as the Eradicator was, he wasn't high profile enough to make a new reader want to pick up the book. En masse, most of the characters were a little dull and we didn't get much of an opportunity to get to know them better — it's a little difficult for a writer to dive into too much characterization when a team consists of eight or more characters. 

Regular penciller Paul Pelletier left the book after issue #19 (to pencil Green Lantern v2 for Dooley, I'm assuming) and, after a single issue by guest penciller David Ammerman, Casey Jones pencilled the last few issues of the series. Jones' pencils combined with Chad Hunt's inks gave the series a grittier/rougher feel and, daresay, may have re-ignited interest in this series had this creative team started several issues sooner.

The Outsiders battling Darkseid and his minions - Outsiders v2 #22 (1995)


I've never read Outsiders v3 (2003) or Outsiders v4 (2007), so I honestly can't tell if you if it gets better than this. At a glance, the rosters for Outsiders v3 & v4 have none of the original team members, and seems to be more of a Teen Titans spin-off book. At least the Creeper finally got to join.

Lasting Legacy

Make no mistake, this is a 90s comic through-and-through. I don't think I've ever overhead anybody saying that this was their favorite incarnation of the Outsiders. In thirty years from now, when our children/nephews/nieces ask us what the early 90s were like for comic books, we'll throw these issues at them and say "here". Besides being a snapshot of what was going on in the early 90s, this ongoing series did introduce a few ideas that stuck...

1) Looker as a vampire:


Outsiders v2 gave Looker, nobody's favorite DC character, a vampire make-over that augmented her from being DC's version of the X-Men's Marvel Girl to a character worth paying attention to. I realize that's putting it a little harshly,... but while Looker was a key member of Outsiders v1 (and I can't imagine the 1980s Outsiders without her), she wasn't exactly selling books on her own merits. Vampires were a hot pop culture commodity in 1994: films like Bram Stroker's Dracula (1992), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) ensured vampires would remain on our collective conscious, while Marvel Comics published titles such as Morbius: The Living Vampire, Blade: The Vampire Hunter, Midnight Sons Unlimited and Nightstalkers to remind us that vampires were viable antagonists. [In 2016, the hot pop culture commodity is zombies, evidently.] Looker being turned into a vampire was one of the few 'events' from this series that actually stuck, and she is still a vampire 20 years later,      

cover of National Comics: Looker #1 (2012)

2) Faust:

Of the three new Outsiders created for this book, only Faust seemed to have had the staying power to still be remembered twenty years later. While most fan mail during the series was indecisive about how much they liked Technocrat and Wylde (often comparing the former to Marvel's Iron Man and the latter to a hybrid of Marvel's Hulk and Beast), it was apparent that readers were intrigued with the son of Felix Faust and found him to be one of the most interesting new characters featured in the series (and not just for his relationship with fellow teammate Halo). Once the series was concluded, Faust would become a member of DC's Sentinels of Magic in 1999's Infinite Crisis, while Wylde would never be seen again after issue #19 of the series he debuted in (turning even more bear-like after his appearance in Zero Hour didn't do anything to help his popularity with readers). Technocrat is still alive and kicking (as of this writing), as we last seen him making a brief appearance in Outsiders v4 (2009).

panel from Outsiders v2 #23 (1995). Property of DC comics.
Faust had that cool 'generation x anti-hero' look that made him an instant hit with readers. Art by Casey Jones and Chad Hunt.

I'll be the first to admit that Faust had a bit more je ne sais quoi that led him to be a little more fondly remember than his other two teammates. I remember collecting the 1994 Skybox DC Master Series trading cards and kind of glazing over the Technocrat & Wylde trading card wondering who they were and if I cared enough to find out. A Faust trading card was also featured in the same set, and... well... you can tell me which one looks like a character you'd want to read about:



So where was Aparo during Outsiders v2?

Jim Aparo, illustrator of the original Batman and the Outsiders series (and later Outsiders v1), was busy illustrating Green Arrow v2 during Outsiders v2. Aparo did make the time to contribute a cover for the last issue of the series:



And that wraps up this review. Hope this article brought back some fond memories (or at least memories).

-Justin

*Tony Isabella has gone on the record to say "Only once in the past have I agreed to a use of Black Lightning that I didn’t write myself and that was Mike Barr's Batman and the Outsiders. I was okay with Mike writing my character and, when he told me about his series, I gave it my blessing. " (source: tonyisabella.blogspot.ca)

5 comments:

  1. Great write up on the Outsiders 1990's series. I enjoyed the 1980's series the most. It was offbeat and fun. The 90's Outsiders was fun but very 1990's. The 2003 series starts out really good but after awhile runs out of steam. Never read the last series. - MVP

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  2. Nice write-up. I truly got the notion that Dooley was the driving force behind this book, and, if you read his replies (as I recall them), he seems ready to challenge anyone with any suggestions that aren't inline with his own.

    I left the book when Pelletier did, and really haven't thought much about it since then.

    Now I'm going to have to track these issues down again. . .

    Thanks for rekindling my interest in the series!

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  3. Technocrat was just BLATANTLY a black Tony Stark. This was not a bad thing, since the Outsiders didn't shy away from showing how much that guy would set fire to his own life. I'll note that Black Lightning didn't appear here because he was busy having his own Isabella written book at the time. F

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    1. That IS true - but the Black Lightning series was published around the tail-end of this book. I only remember because Dooley kept side-stepping the topic, and near the end of the series he started promoting the new Black Lightning book coming out soon. My hunch still says Isabella was in a bitter feud with DC over the direction/ownership of the character. The 1995 Black Lightning ongoing series ran for thirteen issues, and Isabella only wrote the first eight. That's the smoking gun...

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  4. Great review!

    I think Vampires are still a hot commodity.

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