Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Requiem for Damage

So amidst the chaos that was Blackest Night, several characters ended up taking a dirt nap, as one would expect in an event all about death. Like many other readers, I kinda figured a good chunk of the casualties would end up resurrected by series end, but folks like Tempest, the female Hawk, Firestorm’s girlfriend Gehenna and the new Captain Boomerang were still resting in piece as of this writing, as was former Teen Titans and erstwhile Justice Society member Damage.

Upon reflection and seeing the solicit for next month’s issue of JSA: All-Stars, I remembered that I actually kinda liked Damage, so I figured I’d write about him for a bit.

Grant Emerson, the lad who would be Damage, first showed up in 1994 in his own self-titled series. I found the cover to the first issue particularly eye-catching, so I decided to give it a shot. I actually quite enjoyed that initial story by Tom Joyner and Bill Marimon as Grant spends the first half of the issue as your typical put-upon high school teen—struggling through classes, arguing with his folks, crushing on a cute girl, etc.—and then out of nowhere he explodes. Literally. His body becomes ground zero for a huge energy blast and he emerges as a juiced up bruiser who just destroyed his school. And then he fights Metallo for a bit.

It was the moments immediately after the explosion that really grabbed me though. Grant’s best friend is terrified of him and runs away. The coaches and authority figures he instinctively looks to for support and guidance are freak out too. The girl he likes is actually the only one who will come near him, but he bolts because he’s afraid he’ll hurt her. He speeds home to find his parents gone and some forgettable mercenaries at his house, and the issue ends there.

I didn’t end up getting the second issue of Damage—or any other issue for that matter—not for any reason I remember (probably money), but that sequence has always resonated with me. Super hero comics are usually such a wish fulfillment avenue and that moment where the hero gets their powers is typically such a feel good moment, but this was the nightmare version of that, where your whole world falls apart, everybody you counted on abandons you, and you’re left with no idea what to do next. It was a well-written piece of business with a protagonist close enough in age to me that it really stood out to me as being unique and thought-provoking

(Howard Mackie and Tom Grummett did a kinda similar story a year or so later in X-Men Unlimited that also grabbed me the same way and shared a lot of the same themes, but props to Joyner and Marimon for doing it first)

While I didn’t follow Damage in his book, I kept abreast enough of what was going on in comics and the DC Universe via Wizard and other avenues that I learned his “parents” were actually just people paid by Vandal Savage to watch him and that he was the son of the Golden Age Atom injected with DNA from like a dozen other heroes.

The next place I actually saw Damage was in Zero Hour #0, and it was pretty nuts. After not having appeared in the entire line-wide Zero Hour event, Damage shows up in the final issue as part of the randomly-assembled squad of heroes Waverider hastily pulls together to go fight Parallax and save the universe. Despite only having been around a few months, Damage was shoulder-to-shoulder with Superman and Captain Atom fighting for reality. Even crazier, Damage’s powers end up being the key to undoing all the crap Parallax did to the timestream and he literally becomes the “big bang” that re-starts the DC Universe, something that was both bizarrely cool and a point that would be brought up usually as a jab or self-deprecating remark in stories for years to come. I personally always thought it was pretty cool that Zero Hour architect Dan Jurgens was tuned in enough to the DCU to bring in such a new character in such a major role.

I jumped out of comics around this time, but when I came back in a few years later, I caught up on Damage’s time with the New Titans; while that book may have been on its last legs, certainly one of the bright spots was Grant Emerson attempting to fit in among other young heroes with way more experience than him, getting hit on by Terra and reprimanded for not being good enough by Arsenal until he walked out on the team in a huff.

That second bit proved important down the line as Arsenal would end up plucking Damage from a few years in obscurity following the cancellation of his book and recruit him for a new Titans team (and series) partially out of guilt for not being a better mentor. A tiny cosmetic change to Damage’s costume—giving him white pants to contrast his primarily purple top—made him really stand out visually in my eyes, and it seemed like the character was going places…but he never seemed to get there. Writer Devin Grayson never really seemed to find much to do with Grant during her tenure on Titans, and then wrote him out towards the end of her run with the revelation that his fake “father” had abused him as a child. To help Grant collect himself, Arsenal takes him to the Navajo reservation where he was raised in order to give him a safe place to rebuild; it was an interesting premise, but it never really went anywhere.

A couple years later, Geoff Johns began using Damage occasionally for cameos in the JSA books as a member of the unofficial “All-Star Squadron” team that formed during Our Worlds at War and later as part of the new Freedom Fighters. Grant only got a few lines here and there, but formed a neat bond with his real father’s godson, Atom-Smasher, and again seemed to be building a bit of momentum.

In the very first issue of Infinite Crisis, written by Johns, the Freedom Fighters got massacred by the evil Society, with Damage managing to survive but having his face horribly scarred by Zoom. Johns used this set-up to bring Grant into the JSA for real when the Justice Society of America series re-launched, albeit under a full face mask like his dad wore and with a new cynical and self-destructive attitude.

Damage ended up working his way towards a healthier outlook on life in the early issues of JSoA, thanks in large part to the newly-married Hourman and Liberty Belle taking a special interest in him (as Jesse Quick, Belle had actually been one of Damage’s teammates in the Titans). I remember chatting with Geoff on the phone once during the early days of JSoA and assuming that he was working towards some sort of love triangle between the three characters, but he emphatically told me that wasn’t in the cards and that he was far more interested in showing a genuine friendship among the trio; stuff like that, where Geoff zigs when anybody else would have done the clich├ęd zag, is part of what makes him such a talented fellow and why that first year and change of Justice Society of America was so special.

Over the course of JSoA’s Johns-written era, Damage would undergo many trials and milestones, including a rematch with Zoom, temptation by Gog, and a challenging romance with non-English-speaking Judomaster. After 15 years of wandering through the DC Universe, it seemed Grant Emerson had finally found a nice little niche.

So of course when he had his heart ripped out by Jean Loring during Blackest Night—written by Geoff Johns, no less—I sighed a little sigh.

Fun fact: I’ve never gotten anywhere near close to finishing it to the point where I’d want to really share it with anybody, but I actually have a half-completed Damage script set around the start of Justice Society of America sitting on my desktop. It was born out of the bug I get every so often to try my hand at actually writing comics—it typically doesn’t last long—and another conversation with Geoff, this time about how to construct a comic script. I’ve only attempted that feat a couple times over the course of my life and never made it to the end, but Damage is the one I’ve come closest with. I’d rather not say anymore, because who knows, maybe someday…

(Another fun fact: the above gorgeous black and white piece by Dale Eaglesham is one I had a role in commissioning as it was for a Justice Society sketchbook Geoff and I pitched to Wizard when the series kicked off)

Damage was never really among my very favorites or even a guy I’d likely pick in my top 30, but there was still something about him that stood out. He was a character who provided some impressively memorable moments during his uneven 15-year existence and likely had a lot more potential than ever got used, so here’s to ya, pal; if you get resurrected in All-Stars next month, I will still feel this post was somewhat worthwhile.

5 comments:

KP said...

Dude!

I TOTALLY had only the first issue of Damage as well! I don't think I bought it right when it came out, but I got it soon after in a dollar bin back when "new" comics making it to the local dollar bin was relatively unheard of.

And then I also followed him into Arsenal's Titans (which I read for GL and Impulse) and on into Devin Grayson's Titans relaunch, but she really lost me with the whole "abused by my foster dad" story. It just felt forced and melodramatic in a way that a kid who'd already spent his entire fictional life essentially being shit on didn't deserve. I dropped that book soon after that.

But what I'm saying is that I really feel you on this one.

Anonymous said...

Nice write up. I discovered Damage in JSoA and liked him a lot. Sad to see the character go.

KentL said...

I didn't really know much about the character until he showed up in JSA, and I'm with you, Ben, that I wouldn't pick him out as a favorite. But I liked the character and was disappointed by what happened in Blackest Night. Seems like a waste of a character to me. I also, like you, figured those that died would be resurrected at the end. Maybe eventually they will. The Deadman storyline needs somewhere to go, right?

Ben Morse said...

KP: It wasn't so much the revelation I thought was bunk, more that he was written out of the series in the very same issue. Could it have been interesting and well-handled? We'll never know.

KentL: I have a feeling for some reason Tempest could see rebirth by Brightest Day's end, but I'm not getting the same vibe for Damage. As my little exploration showed me, he had potential, but not really that unique a place in the DCU to warrant *needing* him back.

JimmyGlenn711 said...

Great read. I too was disappointed that Geoff Johns killed him after putting so much work into him.

C'est La Vi.