Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why Won't This Work? Outsiders

Looking over the 52 books DC will be rolling out this September—and August technically—as part of their massive publishing overhaul, you’ll see a lot of diversity. There are the traditional heavy hitter super hero books, some out-of-left-field revivals, genre-stretchers in fields like western and horror as well as new takes on classic characters and concepts.

One thing you won’t see—aside from a Justice Society, which is really another discussion—is a series starring any incarnation of the Outsiders.

This will mark the first time in eight years DC will be without an Outsiders ongoing series (I don’t count the new Red Hood book as a replacement). The most recent series—set to end this month at issue #40—began in 2007 as the second incarnation of Batman & the Outsiders before dropping the first part with issue #15 and became the fourth volume of Outsiders; it continued directly from the previous series that launched in 2003 alongside Teen Titans.

On the one hand, I’m a bit surprised there will—apparently—be no more Outsiders come September if only because they’ve been a DCU fixture for quite some time now; the current eight year run surpasses previous five and two year stints outside of limbo. On the other hand, it doesn’t come as a shock as DC seems to be lining up characters and concepts with a strong brand identity or hook, and as I’ve discussed with my blog-mates here on a few occasions, I’ve never seen Outsiders as fitting those particular bills.

The Outsiders were introduced in Brave and the Bold #200 in 1983 and then moved quickly into their own Batman & the Outsiders regular book. The initial roster included Metamorpho, Black Lightning, Katana, Geo-Force and Halo, but as I touched on recently, the group’s primary identity was as Batman and the guys who would help him out on missions the Justice League didn’t want to touch. That’s not a knock on those characters—Black Lightning and Metamorpho in particular I would consider DCU cornerstones and particularly resilient players—but when one guy’s name is “above the fold,” there’s really no questions whose show it is.

“Outsiders” is a cool name and conjures up images of a group that doesn’t fit in or operates far outside the law, but while both those concepts did play somewhat into the series’ initial incarnation, it really was more “these are the guys we’re having back up Batman because he’s cool enough to have a team book he doesn’t need to share with Superman and Wonder Woman.”

Batman left the book in 1985 and it became just Outsiders. I don’t know sales history well enough to speak too authoritatively—maybe somebody in the comments can clarify—but given that it lasted a few more years, I’d guess at least initially the established momentum of the book and the fact that readers had formed an attachment with these non-Batman characters—it should be noted that the series was supported by a trio of hugely talented creators in writer Mike W. Barr and artists Jim Aparo and Alan Davis, so the stories were going to read and look good regardless of the high concept behind them—sustained some success before it tapered out gradually.

Why don’t I think Outsiders continued past 1988 while the Justice League, Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes marched on? Because it really had nothing to distinguish itself, and with team books that’s even more important I’d argue than series starring solo characters.

The Justice League is the A-list of DC heroes. The Teen Titans are the next generation. The Legion of Super-Heroes lives in the future. Across the street, the Avengers are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The X-Men protect a world that hates and fears them (honestly, they’re comics’ true outsiders). The Thunderbolts are bad guys trying to become better.

Dig deeper and you’ve got some other teams that may not be published consistently, but get lots of chances because they’ve got something unique at the heart. The Suicide Squad is villains being pressed into heroism against their will. The Defenders are powerhouses who don’t really get along but put aside their differences for the greater good. The Doom Patrol is a team of freaks (again, they’re closer to outsiders than the Outsiders). Even Alpha Flight and Excalibur have different settings to their advantage.

Then you’ve got that long list of teams who outlived their premise but the names are recognizable so you’ll see new books featuring them every now and again and sometimes if you get lucky with the right creative team or new spin, they land. Infinity, Inc. was the Teen Titans of Earth-2, but then there was no more Earth-2. The Champions were the west coast super heroes but then the Avengers got a west coast branch.

X-Factor is kind of a unique case (appropriate given the name): they started out as the original X-Men, but once those characters left the book morphed into a government-sponsored mutant team and later a mutant detective agency. Perhaps no team has proven as adaptable over the years as X-Factor, with the recognizable name remaining, but mission statements sliding in and out as necessity demanded.

At times, Outsiders has come close to being DC’s X-Factor, but more often than not it’s been another Champions or Infinity, Inc.

In fact, I’d say the book’s initial cancellation in 1988 came about at least in part because of the last part of that statement. The Outsiders even without Batman had something of their own identity as the official super hero team of Los Angles, but following Crisis On Infinite Earths, Infinity, Inc. also made their home in L.A. That’s not to say the City of Angels isn’t big enough for two teams—Marvel’s New York has at least half a dozen at any given time—but that there were two books about super hero teams set in L.A. in 1988 without anything to really distinguish either probably spoke somewhat to their redundancy, and neither lasted to 1989.

Five years later in 1993, Outsiders returned, maybe in part because there was a strong pitch—Mike W. Barr was again writing, this time with a young Paul Pelletier on art—but more likely because it was the 90’s and a lot of books were getting green lit. I was only 11 at the time, but I didn’t really have any nostalgia to see Geo-Force or Looker again—Black Lightning and Metamorpho were otherwise engaged at the time, so their spots went to fairly forgettable newcomers like Wylde and Technorat, though we did get the pretty cool Faust out of the deal as well—and didn’t get the sense anybody else did either. The book did play somewhat on the name as Geo-Force was framed for murder and he as well as his allies become fugitives, but it would only run 24 issues before being cancelled in 1995.

In 2003, while Young Justice gave way to a new Teen Titans, a fresh take on Outsiders rose from the ashes of the previous Titans book. Name aside, this was a fairly fresh take on the old brand, with former Titans Nightwing and Arsenal putting together a group to replace their former one. Judd Winick was the writer—Tom Raney started out as the artist but subbed out for Matthew Clark—and I thought came up with justification for why the Outsiders existed beyond there just being another super team; at the outset, he utilized my least favorite comic book cliché of “these are pro-active heroes,” but that seemed more window dressing for the heart of the book. What was really going on—in my eyes at least—was that Nightwing no longer wanted to work with other heroes because the death of Donna Troy burnt him out on being a Titan, but his buddy Arsenal didn’t want him to become like Batman—in demeanor—so he convinced him to found this new crew on the basis that they wouldn’t be friends, like the Titans, but strictly professionals with limited emotional attachment.

It also helped that Winick filled out the roster with a combination of less overt ties to the original Outsiders—Black Lightning’s daughter, Thunder, as well as pseudo-Metamorpho clone Shift—and actual misfits who wouldn’t fit in on the Justice League—uncouth female bruiser Grace and “reformed” killer robot Indigo. Jade—ironically formerly of Infinity, Inc.—filled the final spot to give another known quantity and it made for an interesting dynamic. Winick even had a nice moment at the close of the first arc where Nightwing informed Batman he’d be leading this new team and that they’d be called the Outsiders, with both men exchanging a smirk.

I was a big fan of Judd Winick’s Outsiders. I thought the writing was good and the characters were fun, but perhaps more than anything I was impressed that he located a niche in a universe that already had the JSA, JLA, Teen Titans and more for the Outsiders to fill. I actually became an even bigger fan following the One Year Later jump as Winick pulled an X-Factor move and changed the game.

One of the threads that ran prior to Infinite Crisis was that as more traditional heroes like Captain Marvel Jr. and Nightwing’s former fiancée Starfire joined up, it became more and more difficult for them to remain a “strictly business” operation. Ties began to be formed and Dick Grayson didn’t like where things were headed. After Jade was killed, Starfire was lost in space and Captain Marvel Jr. became involved in the Marvel Family upheaval, Nightwing took the opportunity to revamp the operation. He faked the deaths of everybody but himself and Arsenal—kicking Roy Harper out of the group because he had a daughter and couldn’t do the things required that were coming—and turned the Outsiders into a completely off-the-grid black ops squad doing dirty deeds in the post-Infinite Crisis DC Universe. Grace and Thunder stuck around, Shift reverted to Metamorpho, Katana returned and the villainous new Captain Boomerang joined hoping for redemption.

For awhile, I touted Outsiders as my favorite One Year Later DC title around the Wizard offices. It had elements of the sneaky stuff and moral handwringing I loved in the original Suicide Squad, but it was even more complex with genuinely good people crossing lines to get things done. There was a great scene in the first arc where Superman came close to shutting the team down, but Nightwing “bluffed” him off their scent with a piece of Kryptonite in a lead-lined box, and then we find out he wasn’t bluffing. Winick’s writing was smart, Clark’s art was slick, and for awhile, the book was gold.

Like so many good things, though, this incarnation of Outsiders had to come to an end. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be terribly long-term—you can’t really keep a character as prominent as Nightwing as a true outsider for long and the idea worked in large part because of him—but it got a good 18 issues before ending in a crossover with the also excellent Checkmate by Greg Rucka where control of the group returned to Batman.

Things came full circle to an extent as Batman & the Outsiders returned in 2007 with Chuck Dixon writing. I didn’t stick around for the re-launch, but from what I understand the first year or so were pretty standard super hero adventures—that’s not a knock on their quality as, again, I didn’t read them and thus can’t judge—with Batman and Outsiders vets Katana, Metamorpho, Grace and Thunder being joined by a rotating assortment of members including Martian Manhunter, Catwoman, Green Arrow and Batgirl. Geo-Force and Black Lightning would eventually rejoin and then the series name reverted to simply Outsiders with issue #15 as Batman seemingly died during Final Crisis.

I followed the 10-issue post-Final Crisis run written by Peter Tomasi—I’m a Tomasi fan—and there were some decent stories, as he had the conceit of Batman leaving behind in the event of his death a plan for the Outsiders to continue with the original team plus The Creeper and a new Owlman, whom together he felt all possessed a skill or talent needed to basically create a composite replacement Batman. While that was a neat starting point, though, more and more once again without Batman or the true outsider status Winick created, it felt like just another super hero team with no real reason to exist.

That brings us up to the present day, the current volume’s cancellation and no announced plans for a new series during the Fall re-launch.

I guess the moral of the story—if there is one; there rarely is in my ramblings—is that some team books in comics have characters or names or basic ideas so strong and iconic they can exist just on that. There will always be a Justice League series, an Avengers series, a Teen Titans series, an X-Men series. Once you go beyond that top tier, you need to work to make sure your team book has a reason for being (not that you shouldn’t even on one of those titles). Sure there are fans out there whose nostalgia for Mike W. Barr’s work or seeing Geo-Force paired with Katana will make them pick up any Outsiders series, but I don’t believe it’s a huge group. Likewise, Batman is a character who is too in demand to base an entire team around; odds are he’s going to be needed elsewhere at some point, and you need a back-up plan.

Judd Winick took the idea of Outsiders and really gave it some thought; kicked kudos to the guys who came before and the fans who loved that work, but also found a particular way to approach the franchise that had legs. I hope that when the next Outsiders re-launch comes around—and it will come around—whoever gets the chance to shepherd it will do the same.


WD said...

Really interesting analysis. I'd argue that, for once, one of the strongest elements of Winick's restart was the focus on sexuality. It actually felt as though these were young adults in their 20s, and unlike most of Winick's work on the topic wasn't wretchedly heavy handed. It seems that "middle ground" team, between the Justice League / Avengers top of the food chain and the Teen Titans / New Mutants / Avengers Academy training teams has vanished from comics today...

Ben Morse said...

One could say the New Mutants has become that team with the New X-Men, Generation Hope, etc. filling their old spot.

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