Silverblade and Twenty Years Later… How Times Have Changed

After a favorable writeup in Back Issue #24, I decided to try the 12-issue series from 1987 called Silverblade. It was described as old-movie-influenced, about a fading star who is given the supernatural ability to turn into any of the heroic characters or monsters he’d played in his long career. Written by Cary Bates, drawn by Gene Colan, and inked by Klaus Janson.

Silverblade #1 coverI’ll get to what I thought about the comic in a minute. The first thing I saw when I opened the first issue was one of Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile” columns. He was head honcho of DC Comics at the time, and this was his venue for talking about the cool stuff the company was doing. It was definitely their most productive and experimental period in the modern era, so looking at these now are like opening a time capsule.

In particular, Dick promises that “I’ve long outgrown any kind of embarrassment at reading comic books in public. Not everybody has, though. This year, we’re going to change that.” He goes on to plug their new “Prestige Format” for making comics into “books, squareback, lavishly produced, full-color”. The new products that will break through into public awareness and remove embarrassment for adults reading comics?

First, The Longbow Hunters. It’s significant because of its painted art and the “weighty stuff” about relationship decisions that make up its story. Then John Byrne’s Freaks is mentioned. That project never appeared, beyond one plate in the “History of the DC Universe Portfolio”. Howard Chaykin’s Blackhawk “like you’ve never seen before”. A Superman one-shot by Byrne and Curt Swan. (What was this?) And last, The Killing Joke.

[Note that none of these are currently in print, although Killing Joke is coming back as an upscale hardcover at triple the price, and there was a collection of Longbow Hunters at one point.]

Dick goes on to say “our plans for this format are long-range. We want the work that appears in this series to be as good as it possibly can be…. that means that more people will be taking comic books seriously.” Now, these were all important projects for their time, but looking back from the perspective of today, when so many more varied graphic novels that have more than 64 pages under their spine are so easily available to so many audiences… it seems a bit quaint and naive. And superhero-heavy.

After taking up almost two columns on this, there’s one paragraph at the end:

Warner Books will be doing trade collections of some of our best and most popular series, among them Ronin, Watchmen, and Swamp Thing. They’ll be following our wildly successful Dark Knight collection into the bookstores. And just wait until you see The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told!

[Well, two out of five isn't bad. Ronin "best and most popular"? Really? That's what happens when you let auteurs do whatever they want. Only Watchmen and Dark Knight have held up this level of high reputation twenty years later.]

Silverblade #9 coverThat was the way forward, bookstores and thicker collections, but you couldn’t tell it from this promotional piece, especially not based on column inches. Anyway, back to Silverblade.

It’s got a lot more potential than actual quality. It’s obviously hampered by concerns over audience, with more adult material (one-night stands) only alluded to or backed away from. It’s incoherent at times, with the writer reaching and falling short. The characters are more fully realized than many of the era, but they’re still two-dimensional. Everything’s still larger than life, not in an appropriate Hollywood glamor way, but in a “I was writing superheroes yesterday” fashion. The bad guy’s a crippled arch-rival who creates his own team of codenamed assassins. Ultimately, it’s silly, which is the kiss of death for an ambitious project of this sort.

Oh, and the coloring! Orange walls, bright blue stairs, lemon yellow windows… like the rest of the material, it lacks subtlety (and that’s an understatement). It’s incredibly high contrast, totally unsuited for the attempted character nuance. The book quickly sunk into horror conventions, which overpowered the elements (film history and references) I was interested in. And by the end, it’s flailing wildly.

The series Wikipedia entry is mostly plot summary, and you can see the covers at comics.org.


14 Responses to “Silverblade and Twenty Years Later… How Times Have Changed”

  1. Chad Anderson Says:

    A Superman one-shot by Byrne and Curt Swan. (What was this?)

    It was Superman: The Earth Stealers. Not bad, but not Earth-shattering, either.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Oh, I’ve heard of that. Thanks for educating me!

  3. Joel Says:

    Wow… a Gene Colan comic I’ve never heard of! Whether or not the writing’s good, bad or indifferent, I want to own it so I can look at it.

  4. Ford MF Says:

    “Only Watchmen and Dark Knight have held up this level of high reputation twenty years later.”

    I think Swamp Thing has stood the test of time. Sure, it doesn’t get write-ups in Time magazine like Watchmen or Dark Knight, but what the fuck do those people know?

  5. T Campbell Says:

    RONIN should not be seen as a cautionary tale. Auteurs doing whatever they want have given us most of our best comics.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Joel: The Colan art was very neat and distinctive, if a bit confusing at times.

    Ford: I think that one’s arguable either way. On the one hand, its length and spotty reprint history makes it difficult to push on people; on the other, it’s still remembered, and there was a character movie. :)

    T: I tend to think a little constraint, whether physical (format, price) or artistic (nine-panel grid, a good editor for feedback) can spur greater heights.

  7. Chad Anderson Says:

    On the one hand, its length and spotty reprint history makes it difficult to push on people;

    I’ll grant you the length — one volume with a beginning, middle and end is always easier to push on people — but the spotty reprint history’s a thing of the past: Moore’s entire run is now in TPB, and there are even a couple volumes collecting Rick Veitch’s terrific run on the character.

  8. Johanna Says:

    True. I should have been clearer I was talking past tense, earlier in the 20-year period.

  9. Leigh Walton Says:

    I haven’t read it, but RONIN is still in print, 20 years later…

  10. Johanna Says:

    Sure, but have you ever heard anyone recommend it? I haven’t.

  11. Bill D. Says:

    If Ronin had been written by someone who didn’t have Miller’s fanbase, it wouldn’t only be out of print, but mostly forgotten, probably mentioned whenever someone online talks about other mostly-forgotten DC minis from the 80s like Gilgamesh II or Tailgunner Jo.

    As for Superman: The Earth Stealers, well, it wasn’t very good. Always nice to see Curt Swan artwork, but under Ordway’s inks and Wray’s colors, it looked more like an Ordway book than one done by Swan. And Ordway’s good and all, but if it says Curt Swan, you want it to look like Curt Swan.

  12. Alan Coil Says:

    To me, the problem with Ronin was its ending. SPOILER !! !! DON’T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED. !! !!

    SPOILER That it was a dream ruined it for me, just as those Imaginary Stories were “no good” because they weren’t real.

    If you say they are all imaginary stories, my response is Oh. Shut. Up. ;)

    END SPOILER

  13. Rob S. Says:

    I think the Alan Moore Swamp Thing has pretty much maintained its reputation, too.

    But what I really wanted to say is that I was convinced you were setting up a Lucky Charms joke with that coloring description!

  14. James Schee Says:

    Ah yes the Meanwhile columns. I remember when first encountering these a couple of years ago really finding them a great time capsule of what was going on at the time.

    From talk about Alan Moore’s little project with the “Charlton characters,” to discussions about comic pricess going over $1. They were very interesting stuff.

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