Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Industrial Strength Entertainment!

Let me say categorically that "The DNAgents" might be my favorite title for any comic anytime. It's ferociously clever and instantly communicates not only the name of the heroes but also identifies their plight as "artificial" human beings. Grown in a vat from strands of select DNA and a multitude of chemicals these superhumans are wonderful analogs for any marginalized group who might want to identify with them, a fantastic ploy for comics seeking readership. Created at the height of the popularity of the X-Men and the New Teen Titans, Mark Evanier (a first-rate writer and comics-lore expert and raconteur) and Will Meugniot (the second best Good-Girl artist of his generation after the late Dave Stevens) found a fantastic formula (almost literally) which tapped into that same vein without seeming imitative. Some of that goes to the strength of the characterization which is evident in both the writing and the illustration. These are stories about "people" seeking relationships among themselves, others outside their group and with the broader society which slowly learns of their existence.

For those who might not know The DNAgents are Surge, Rainbow, Tank, Amber, and Sham, five teenagers who are all of five years old. Grown in a lab they have been developed and programmed by rather cold-blooded scientists and even colder-blooded businessmen to serve the interests of the Matrix Corporation, specifically one man named Lucius Krell. The team are sent to perform various tasks for Matrix, rarely if ever told the truth behind their missions and at the same time they are seeking to find some semblance of what passes for a normal existence as college students in Southern California.

I've always gotten a smidgeon of a Jack Kirby vibe off this book, not in the way that often comes across as an attempt to clone Kirby's style in the art, but rather in regard to the themes. The Maxtrix Corporation always struck as me as The DNA Project/Evil Factory set in a more realistic and recognizable environment. The Agents themselves have a "Forever People" vibe, though the personalities are slightly different. Their "bus", the awesome ship they used to travel in from time to time reminds me of the Super-Cycle and the Fantasticcar at the same time. I say this not to suggest the DNAgents are mere copies of other work, but that like most superhero work they evolved from that which had come before, using the themes and tropes in new ways to somewhat different effects.

Also I've always thought (and maybe Evanier or someone else has said as much) that the DNAgents were a commentary on the then new concept of creator-owned properties. That the Agents are the "property" of Matrix goes to the thematic core of the comic, and it's difficult to imagine that Evanier and Meugniot weren't speaking to the comic book powers-that-were-at-the-time about the changing nature of the enterprise. 

I read the saga as it first appeared, but then ultimately traded away those comics. Then I re-gathered them again many years ago. Most recently I picked up the black and white reprint of the adventures from Image which featured many pages developed directly from Meugniot's originals. The DNAgents, published by Eclipse was always a professional looking publication, properly bright and colorful. But reading these same stories in a restrained black and white format has caused me to focus more intently on the writing and less on the shiny well-crafted images, and good writing it is indeed.

I bought The DNAgents - Industrial Strength Edition a few years ago, and it was published a few years before that in 2008, so this review is long delayed. I'm bad to buy a thing with every intent on reading it immediately and then getting distracted by some new shiny thing. That happened here, but a few days ago this volume came to light and seemed ideal for the time I had available to read carefully. It was well worth the time and effort as the stories seemed somehow more restrained and personal in the new format. Also quite nifty are the many "extras" such as original artwork and covers and ads and such which featured the characters.

It's a total hoot to read stories filled with nostalgic tech such as video game parlors, walkmen, and pagers. The 80's seems like yesterday to me, but then I'm getting rather old and reading stories which document that time can really drive home how quaint it all was compared to the way technology has seered its way into nearly all aspects of modern life (this blog for instance).

Here are the lovely covers for the issues contained in this volume. 

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  1. I saw that black and white reprint book recently and was intrigued. I've never read this title, but may go pick it up now. Thanks for the review!

  2. I bought a bunch of these in the dollar bin but it was a mix of the original and the New DNA Agents. But I should just read what I have

    1. Caution. It's a difficult story without all the parts, but worth it nonetheless.

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