Hello all, and welcome to the first ever CSBG installment of “1987 And All That,” a project which began just over a year ago at The Chemical Box, where I review randomly selected comicbooks published in 1987. Why 1987? Because that’s the year I was born, and it seemed as good a reason as any to choose what to read. Which brings me to the topic at hand…
Comet Man #1-6 (Marvel) By Bill Mumy, Miguel Ferrer, Kelley Jones, Gerry Talaoc, Daina Graziunus, Petra Scotese, and Bill Oakley
Fans of superhero comics will find a lot of familiar bits and pieces within the pages of Comet Man, yet as a whole it’s a rather atypical story. It’s bleak without being dark, done in the style of more classic superhero origin stories but with the opposite attitude and end result. This is not the tale of a great new hero rising up and bringing hope, protection, and justice to the world. It is the story of several hubristic men ruining their own lives and those of everyone around them through an increasingly disastrous series of accidents, lies, and evil schemes. The villain comes out better than the hero, but nobody truly gets what they want by a long shot, and everyone is worse off at the end than they were in the beginning. Several people die needless deaths, an innocent child is abused to the point of catatonia, a family is disassembled, and humanity’s violence infects the mind of a peaceful alien observer. It’s not an uplifting series, but it’s a smart, interesting look at the dangers of great power when no responsibility is taken whatsoever.
The main character is Dr. Stephen Beckley, a.k.a. the titular Comet Man, an astronomer and astrophysicist who gets his superpowers through a mash-up of the Fantastic Four and Green Lantern origin stories (if the alien Hal Jordan met weren’t dying, I guess), with a sort of accelerated-timeline Captain Atom thrown in for good measure. While on a mission to track and study Halley’s Comet, Beckley’s vessel is caught in the comet’s tail, causing a massive explosion that kills Beckley and disintegrates his body. Lucky for him, Halley’s Comet is secretly an alien spaceship in disguise, and its pilot, Max, is able to pull Beckley’s molecules out of the inferno and reassemble him. Part of that process is unavoidably enhancing Beckley’s biology via the advanced technology Max has to use, since it’s calibrated to the physical standards of Max’s people and not human beings. So Beckley comes out intact but also overwhelmed by his new capabilities, which are many and varied and hard to control. Max suggests that Beckley return with him to his homeworld of Fortisque, where Beckley can learn all about his new self and adapt gradually in a safe environment. In the first of many blunderous missteps, Beckley assumes he can handle it on his own, and turns Max down in favor of returning to Earth without any understanding of what he can do or how he does it. Even getting back is a happy accident, as he discovers he can teleport by inadvertently transporting himself from deep space into his own office. He never really does get a handle on all of his powers, and seems to stumble into new ones all the time, so it’s not totally clear what all Comet Man can do.
His powers aren’t really the point, anyway; what matters is that he has them at all. It makes Beckley a target, and Max, too, since he is the original source. A secret government agency called the Bridge goes after both of them with obsessive enthusiasm, because the Bridge just so happens to be run by Beckley’s long-lost older brother he didn’t know he had. That brother, called “The Superior,” was given up for adoption before Beckley was born, and his bitterness and jealousy about that motivates his every move. He has Beckley’s wife Ann and son Benny kidnapped so that the child can be studied in an effort to recreate the process that gave Beckley his powers. The Superior figures if one brother can be given those abilities, so can the other, and he uses Benny as a guinea pig to reverse engineer the necessary steps. Meanwhile, Ann dies a brutal death, falling into an electric fence while she and Benny try to escape their captors, a fact Beckley discovers sometime later by teleporting into her unmarked grave. What I’m saying is, The Superior pulls no punches and shows no mercy, and because Beckley is so inept with his new skills and so out-of-the-loop about what’s happening to his family, The Superior gets pretty damn far in his plans before there’s any real opposition. By the time Beckley strikes back, he’s pretty much already lost.
Meanwhile, Max is orbiting Earth and gathering as much of our broadcast information as he can, meaning he gets exposed to a lot of very violent entertainment. Because Fortisquian culture doesn’t have violence at all, Max finds himself powerfully affected by absorbing so much of it so quickly. He’s strangely attracted to it, not because he has any particular rage to get out, but because it is a new and powerful force that he’d like a chance to explore. The Bridge gives him that chance when The Superior sends a team to make contact with Max so they can board his ship and steal his technology and knowledge by any means necessary. They try for diplomacy at first, claiming to be friends of Beckley’s, but Beckley himself arrives just in time to reveal their lie. The Bridge agents then attack, and Max gleefully fights back, killing them all while spouting various song lyrics and other pop culture references. It’s a manic, brutal scene, and Max seems to be in his element, happy and self-assured for the first time in the series. There is no comfort in that, however, because in order to reach that confident place he has to give in to his own potential for psychopathy. Still, it’s the closest thing to a good guy having a clean win as this comic ever offers.
Beckley does manage to save Benny from The Superior’s clutches, which is also technically a victory for the heroes, but a tainted one at best, if not completely hollow. The Superior puts Benny through numerous rigorous experiments that leave him barely clinging to life, unconscious and emaciated. When Beckley finally finds him, Benny is right on the brink, and it is only Beckley’s powers that manage to keep the child alive, transferring some of that Comet Man magic to Benny. The joy of Benny’s return to awareness is short-lived, though, because after all he’s been through, the kid is understandably pissed off and unstable. He uses his new powers to throw a massively destructive tantrum, lashing out as hard and often as he can until, once again, he falls unconscious from the trauma. And from that point, he never quite recovers, ending the series in a vegetative state, eyes permanently widened by the horrors he’s faced. Though he survives, Benny’s character arc may be the most tragic of all, and it is that story which the series closes on, ending with a panel of Benny staring blankly back at the reader, sitting alone on a bed in a dark room, no more active or present than the creepy stuffed animals that surround him. It’s a depressing final sentiment, and a chilling final image.
Then again, all the darkest moments in this comic get all the best art, pretty much as a rule. Penciler Kelley Jones, inker Gerry Talaoc, and colorist Daina Graziunus all do solid work throughout, but most of it is fairly unremarkable. It’s clear, the characters are well-built and consistent, and the superhero action and sci-fi scenery look great across the board, but there’s nothing that stands out about it as being especially noteworthy. Except during the truly horrific scenes where the art cuts loose, leaving its strongest and most lasting impressions. When Ann is fried by the electric fence, all the damage it does to her is displayed up close and in full detail, so the reader is hit with the same level of shock and horror as Benny in witnessing that gruesome death. Later, Max uses his powers to blow up two fleeing Bridge agents, and there is a large, wide, haunting panel devoted to showing us all the gory awfulness that entails. Comet Man is not overly violent, but when violence does erupt, the consequences of it are given extra weight and attention by the art. This fits with the generally dreary tone of the narrative, making all the worst things the characters go through also the most memorable for the reader.
This approach to the art also adds credence to some of the more melodramatic actions of the cast. When Beckley teleports himself into his wife’s grave, the complete freakout he has afterward doesn’t seem as intense as it might if Ann’s corpse weren’t so deeply disturbing to look at. I had a pretty powerful negative reaction to seeing it myself, and I already knew she was dead. Similarly, when Benny is revived by his dad’s powers and immediately goes ballistic, it feel like an inevitability after everything else he’s experienced up to that point. The art makes each of these scenes impact the reader with a bit more oomph than they otherwise might, and that in turn makes the characters easier to empathize with, since they are the ones actually dealing with all the madness, pain, and death.
As I neared the end of Comet Man, I found myself wondering how Beckley could possibly pull out any kind of happy ending. Even if he had defeated the Superior, Ann was dead and Benny irrevocably damaged, so it was hard to envision things wrapping up all that positively. I was glad, then, that Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer decided to go the opposite route, letting the momentum of all the established terribleness carry the story to a logically just-as-terrible endpoint. Beckley, finally admitting to himself that he should’ve learned about his powers before trying to use them, agrees to go to Fortisque with Max. Just before the pair can depart, though, the Superior launches one final attack, detonating a nuclear device his Bridge agents left behind on Max’s ship. Max seems to notice that the nuke is going to go off just before it does, and the indication is that he and Beckley teleport to safety, but there’s no confirmation ever given. The Superior, meanwhile, makes out the best of anyone in the cast, not getting all the powers or revenge he’d hoped for but not truly defeated, either. He’s still alive and in control of himself, which isn’t true of anybody else in the book. And then, as I mentioned, there’s Benny, who ends up with his aunt and uncle, though they argue over whether or not to even keep him vs. giving him to an agency more equipped to handle such cases. It’s bad news all around, but it makes perfect sense, and had Mumy and Ferrer tried for something more uplifting, chances are it would’ve felt false. Comet Man is, in the end, a story about what happens if people act before thinking, if they believe themselves smarter or more capable than they really are. Rather than take some time to educate and prepare himself before making any real moves, Beckley insists on going home right away, and this sets into motion all of the other catastrophic events of this comic. In the end, the best thing Beckley can do is to reverse his original bad decision, but it’s too little too late by then, and therein lies the message of this series. It’s a fierce warning against rashness and over-confidence, not the most fun read in the world, but an effective superhero tragedy.