A quick note before we begin: I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you worked on one of these titles or enjoyed reading them when they came out.
When I say “not-so-outstanding titles,” I’m talking about books that weren’t the top-selling titles back when they were first published, didn’t star characters who were considered the company’s A-list talent at the time, and are mostly forgotten today except by nostalgic comic fans like me.
Unless noted below, no judgment is being dispensed vis-à-vis the books’ artistic merits because hey, we all like what we like, right?
All good? Okay, let’s do this.
1. “For the Dark Things Cannot Stand the Light,” The All-Star Squadron #20 (04/83)
It was a big deal when writer/editor Roy Thomas — once considered Stan Lee’s No. 1 guy — decamped to DC after a long career at Marvel. But it’s hard to imagine the self-confessed comic history nut passing up a chance to pen a series set during the World War II years on DC’s Earth-2, home to all the mystery-men of DC’s Golden Age. And to give Thomas his due, he took a “don’t use our big guns” directive from Corporate and ran with it, fleshing out previously little-explored characters (like Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle) while adding a few new ones of his own. Unfortunately, Thomas the Historian sometimes overruled Thomas the Storyteller, and his scripts often seemed more concerned about explaining 40-year-old minor plot inconsistencies than telling a rip-roaring tale. Not this issue, though. In this story, the villainous Brain Wave captures 14 heroes and forces them to fight make-believe enemy soldiers inside a mass hallucination of a Japanese village. Enter the original Green Lantern, whose indomitable will proves too much for Brain Wave’s machines, and he saves his teammates from certain doom… but not before GL’s grief leads him to demonstrate the very real devastation he could unleash with his ring if he were pushed far enough. “I am become death… the shatterer of worlds,” a traumatized GL utters, echoing the real-life words spoken by Robert Oppenheimer when he witnessed the first atom bomb test. Heavy stuff.
2. “Henchman,” Blue Beetle #8 (01/87)
DC’s first Blue Beetle series followed the Marvel Silver Age story template to a T: brilliant industrialist, kooky supporting cast, random secret identity crises, multiple soap-opera subplots, you name it. Unfortunately, it was DC and it was 1986, and what sold like hotcakes for Marvel in the ’60s didn’t necessarily work in the ’80s, and the book never really took off with fans. After 24 issues, Blue Beetle was shipped off to the Justice League to provide comedy relief (“BWHA HA HA!”)… which is a shame, because aside from introducing a few new intriguing villains, Blue Beetle’s book could also pull off a decent piece of drama when it wanted to, with “Henchman” being the best example. The “lackey’s POV” story is nothing new to modern readers, but back then it was a novelty to give an entire story over to a “nobody” like Ed Buckley, an ex-con who finds it hard to catch a break. After all the fireworks and oversized-props fighting sequences are done, the story ends on one inescapable truth: every one of us is the product of the choices we make in our lives — and sometimes the hardest choice of all is deciding which day is going to be “the first day of a brand-new life.”
3. “Sins of the Fathers,” Captain Atom #51 (03/91)
Like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom started out at Charlton before moving to DC in the mid-1980s, where he was radically redesigned to fit with the times. The new Captain Atom was the result of a government experiment with an alien metal that threw a wrongfully convicted soldier 20 years forward in time, giving him super-powers as a bonus. The gimmick was that everything the public knew about this new hero was a carefully constructed lie, and he was often pressed into covert service by the U.S. military (represented by General Eiling, probably the best example of military pigheadedness ever written for the comics). Writers Cary Bates and Greg Weisman crafted a solid 50 issues, weaving decent character-driven plots with the requisite action scenes — but it’s this issue, by fill-in writer Kelley Puckett, that stands out. Our hero ended his double-sized 50th issue by confessing his part in the conspiracy to hide his true origin, and readers had every reason to expect this issue to feature the political fallout of his actions. But in a surprising twist, Captain Atom is barely featured in the story; after a brief stab at humor involving Cap and a mob of reporters, the story shifts to an older man who’s inspired by Captain Atom’s televised words to be the hero his son needs him to be. A lot of questions are left unanswered — like who this guy is and where his powers came from — but it doesn’t matter, because the message is clear: you can’t dwell on the mistake of your past, and you can only focus on what you are capable of doing today.
4. “Not Yet,” Green Lantern: Mosaic #4 (09/92)
This was a damned odd title, so much so I wonder if it would ever have gotten the green light (pun!) in any timeframe outside the early 1990s, when both Marvel and DC were pressured to publish an insane number of titles to feed speculator demand. The set-up is kind of interesting: an alien world is colonized with settlements abducted from different worlds (including a Colorado town swiped from Earth) — complete with environmental conditions from each world — and John Stewart is recruited to police this massive experiment in forced inter-species co-operation. It’s a premise that offers a lot of potential for political and social commentary, but it’s anyone’s guess where writer Gerard Jones was trying to go with it over the course of 18 issues. The lacklustre art didn’t help fans make sense of things, either. That said, a strong idea occasionally pushes through, like this story in which we see the differences between how the human kids and adults respond to their new reality with “monsters” as their neighbors. No spoilers; all I’ll say is the kids have the right idea. (As they often do.)
5. “It’s My Party and I’ll Fight If I Want To,” Guy Gardner: Warrior #29 (03/95)
Introduced in Green Lantern’s book back in 1968 as a one-shot character, Guy Gardner was brought back in the 1980s as a guy (pun!) with a grudge against Hal Jordan for “stealing” his role as Earth’s “one, true” Green Lantern of Earth. No surprise, his cockiness and abrasive attitude made him a star in the 1990s, and he graduated to his own solo mini-series followed shortly by his own ongoing series from 1992-1996. The series started out as your typical ’90s slugfest, but #17 sees a much-needed change in direction (and hairstyle) as Guy is forced to search for a new source of power after the loss of his ring. One quick drink from “the Waters of the Warrior” later and — Holy Convenience, Batman! — he finds out he was part alien all along, with the water activating his genetic potential and turning his body into a literal living weapon. You won’t find a better flavor of pure ’90s cheese, but the fight scenes take a break for this issue, a beautifully illustrated Beau Smith/Phil Jimenez production in which Guy opens his bar, Warriors, for business. No joke, literally every DC character active at the time makes an appearance in the story. So, a bar full of 1990s superheroes and Lobo… what do you think the chances are of a fight breaking out?
6. “Girls’ Night Out,” Hawk & Dove #21 (02/91)
Starring a pair of bickering brothers, Steve Ditko’s short-lived The Hawk and the Dove was very much a product of the 1960s; when DC revamped the concept for the 1980s, a new Dove took the deceased brother’s place… and this time she’s a girl! Whoa! Actually, Hawk & Dove was one of the better DC titles at the time, with flashes of warmth and humor set against some grisly crimes. Writer team Barbara and Karl Kesel also came up with some pretty interesting new characters during the book’s short run, like the mysterious Barter (a supernatural gentleman who lives for the deal) and this young lady: Malice Vundabar, one of Apokalips’ Female Furies and someone who only looks like a sweet, non-murderous little girl. In this story, Malice and some other Furies arrive on Earth to play a game with deadly stakes for the Earthlings who cross their path, and it’s up to Hawk and Dove to stop them. What makes this story stand out is how — in a time when heroes were becoming more aggressive in their actions, and the physical and emotional damage caused by violence and rising body counts was all but ignored in most corners — the heroes actually feel the weight of their failure to protect innocent lives. “Is that… it?” Dove asks in the aftermath of battle. “After all the death and destruction, they just stop? Go home? What sort of beings are the gods of Apokalips?” The same could be asked about many readers of the day.
7. “Valley of the Daals,” Justice League Task Force #7 (12/93)
“The Martian Manhunter as you’ve NEVER seen him!” is what the cover to this issue promised and… yeah, they weren’t lying. When a man with a deadly virus sample is taken hostage by a hidden jungle tribe of female warriors, it’s up to the Justice League to go in and negotiate for his release. They will only talk to other women, though, so that means the team is composed of Wonder Woman, Vixen, Zatanna and a few others… including J’onn (or is that J’oan) J’onzz, who’s ordered to assume a female form while mission leader. You would think this wouldn’t be an issue for an alien shape-shifter, but J’onn finds the shift in perspective… unsettling (“And for God’s sake don’t tell Batman!”). Along with Extreme Justice, Task Force was a Justice League spin-off that promised more fist-pounding action than DC’s flagship team title, with the Martian Manhunter promoted to team leader and positioned as the heart of the team. This being the ’90s, it would have been impossible for the story like this not to have a bit of cheesecake in it… but it’s to writer Peter David’s credit that a story in which J’onn explores his feminine side in a very literal manner even saw the light of day.
8. “Brief Lives,” The Omega Men #26 (05/85)
Now mainly remembered as the book where Lobo made his inauspicious debut, The Omega Men featured a ragtag team of space-faring freedom fighters — complete with a princess — rallying against an evil interstellar empire. Any resemblance to certain film franchises of the time are (cough cough) entirely coincidental. Team members came straight from Grim n’ Gritty Central Casting, with the only real suspense coming from whether the Omega Man named “Demonia” would betray them. The book only found its way starting with this issue, with Todd Klein and Shawn McManus taking over the reins and giving more attention to the interesting secondary characters and alien-ness of the setting. This is also the issue that saw the first of several short back-up stories focusing on the many planets in the Vega star system. “Brief Lives” is a fun Alan Moore tale that has something to say about the nature of conquerors and those whom they wish to conquer, and I won’t spoil the ending for anyone by saying more than that. But trust me, it’s a good one.
9. “Dumas Kills,” Manhunter #2 (DC, 08/88)
Mark Shaw has the kind of convoluted back story that would make your average X-Men fan back out of the room; suffice to say in this series he’s a reformed bad guy working as a bounty hunter, chasing after super-villains on the lam with this tricked-out mask and battle staff gifted to him by his former alien cult leaders. Nice work if you can get it. Written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale, the 24-issue series (1988-1990) was never less than entertaining superheroics, and it’s worth checking out any random issue you find in your local comic-shop bargain bin. But it’s the second issue, featuring the masked assassin known as Dumas, that stands out from the pack. Artists Doug Rice and Sam Kieth work with the writers to create an inventive, multi-page fight sequence that would work very nicely as a storyboard for a movie fight scene.
10. “The Skull, the Serpent and the Outsiders,” The Outsiders Annual #1 (1986)
Again, I’m not judging you if you’re a fan of any of these titles or superheroes I’m talking about. But the Outsiders… man, I need someone to explain the appeal of these guys to me. Assembled by Batman after one of his tiffs with the Justice League, the Outsiders first appeared in the final issue of The Brave and the Bold in 1983 and… yeah, that’s about it. The team was an obvious attempt to repeat the then-recent successes of the revamped X-Men and Teen Titans teams, bringing established C-list heroes (Black Lightning and Metamorpho) together with brand-new hopefuls (including Looker, a supermodel telepath who would later become a sexy vampire; no, really). When Batman and the Outsiders turned into Adventures of the Outsiders and the Batman-less team earned its own second, direct-sales title, it didn’t take a Dark Knight Detective to figure out where all the readers went. That’s probably why DC brought Batman back for a guest spot in the Outsiders’ first annual issue… but if I’m being honest, he’s not the main reason to tune in. With pencils by Kevin Nowlan, the story is a taut thriller featuring two of DC’s more reliable fanatical groups in a power struggle (Skull and Kobra, hence the spooky cover image above). Even better, the story finds the Outsiders actually working as a team of, well, outsiders, engaging in Mission: Impossible-style subterfuge to infiltrate a military base as part of their plan to stop the bad guys. If only the regular series featured more of this and less of no-hopers like the Nuclear Family and the Duke of Oil.
11. “More Than Human?” Starman #7 (DC, 02/89)
There have been several Starmen in the DC universe over the years, but Will Payton was the first of them to star in his own title. Waking up in a morgue unable to account for six weeks of his life, Payton soon learns he can fly, generate heat and change his facial features and skin tone. The stories leaned towards the fomulaic, but sometimes formulaic works: fans of 1960s Marvel superhero stories will recognize the mix of all-out action and soap-opera subplots featuring Payton and his supporting cast. In this issue, Payton discovers that those powers come at a cost; after running some tests on him, a scientist breaks the news that he’s no longer physically human, becoming a “living fusion reactor” instead. Payton takes this hard — not having to breathe or sweat is one thing, but learning you can’t procreate or feel things like you used to is a bitter pill to swallow, sweet powers or no. Luckily, he has a friend who helps set him straight: “I don’t care if your innards are an atomic pile or a V-8 engine, you still look like a man to me! As long as you think and act like a man, then that’s what you are! That’s all that matters!” That and a trip to a local children’s hospital is enough to shake Payton out of his human-no-more blues. A bit corny, perhaps, but corny in a good way, and a nice balance between the constant woe-is-me chest-thumping of some superheroes and the blasé, the-nature-of-my-entire-existence-has-changed-oh-well-let’s-go-fight-crime attitudes of others. And the underlying message — “it’s the connections we make with others that define us” — is hard to miss.