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1987 And All That: Silverblade #1-4

by  in Comic News Comment
1987 And All That: Silverblade #1-4

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Silverblade #1-4 (DC) by Cary Bates, Gene Colan, Klaus Johnson (#1), Steve Mitchell (#2-4), Joe Orlando, Gaspar, and Denny O’Neil

First of all, I do I realize that I’m reviewing only the first third of a 12-issue series, and that as such, my impressions of the book may be incomplete or skewed. For anyone who may think this is dumb/pointless, I don’t necessarily disagree, but the arbitrary rules I set for myself when I began this project were to read only comics with a 1987 cover date, and to select what I read largely at random, based on whatever I happen to come across or already own from that year. I’ve managed to stick to those rules so far, and I will continue even if it means reading only part of a whole. In the case of Silverblade, I picked it because I saw an ad for it in some other DC comic that I reviewed for this site before (I don’t remember which one…it may even have been more than one) and it looked interesting and weird so I figured I’d give it a go. I did no in-depth research, just went online and quickly figured out which issues were dated 1987, then ordered them right away. I legitimately have not read beyond issue #4 yet, because I don’t own anything past that point, since I only bought the ’87 issues to start. I will most likely end up getting the rest of the series eventually, partly because of being a completist, but mostly because this comic was every bit as bizarre and baffling as I’d hoped, and now I need to see where it all ends up. Before I do that for myself, though, let’s talk about these opening four chapters and how, despite a few big missteps, they manage to be a charmingly insane and delightfully horrifying start to this story.

To a degree, the premise of Silverblade is exceedingly simple. Washed-up movie star Jonathan Lord, an aging, bitter recluse who spends his days longing for the youth and fame of his past, is given the power to transform himself into any character he’d played in any of his old movies. He possesses all the skills/powers of whatever he turns into, and his available roster includes not only a variety of human heroes, but many monsters and other supernatural creatures as well. Lord uses his new talents to battle various evils, including but not limited to an unnamed and powerful threat that he’s warned about by the magical falcon who gives him his transformational abilities in the first place. It’s a pretty straightforward central concept, essentially just a superhero tale where the protagonist is a whole bunch of different superheroes rolled into one person. But Silverblade expands on that foundational idea in such an arrhythmic, zany, unpredictable style that it becomes increasingly complicated, and sometimes briefly confusing.

For starters, when Lord first gets his powers toward the end of the debut issue, there’s no clear explanation as to what the hell is going on. That doesn’t come until partway through issue #2, by which time the reader has already pretty much sussed out the situation, having seen Lord turn into a huge wolf monster, a guy made out of molten rock, himself as a younger man, and so forth. The talking falcon who grants Lord the power to do all of this never entirely introduces or explains itself, but is quickly accepted by Lord as a part of his new life, and acts as a sort of halfhearted guide, sometimes telling Lord what needs to be done but often choosing not to get involved. So the reader has no insight into why Lord was chosen by the falcon, or what exactly he’s meant to do now, though we do eventually learn that it’s all about fighting “the threat,” another cosmic force of vague origins and nature. The reader also doesn’t have any real familiarity with Lord’s career, meaning from an outside perspective, the list of things he might turn into could be infinitely long. He becomes a giant bug at one point to escape a kidnapping, and part of me thinks, How did he ever play a huge insect? Wouldn’t that have just been a special effect? But I can’t confirm or deny my assumption because I don’t know very many details of his history as an actor. He was a huge deal in his time, he starred in loads of different films, and he played all manner of roles. That leaves things wide open, which is great in terms of how inventive the book gets to be, but also makes it hard to anticipate any of Lord’s choices, or even entirely grasp the potential of what he can do.

Cary Bates doesn’t write Silverblade as an easy-to-follow narrative, is what I’m saying. It doesn’t follow a strict or recognizable path, choosing instead to wander down side streets and stick to the shadows. Nor does it pin down its hero too hastily, letting him maintain some amount of mystery and leaving the limits of his powers open-ended. There are many blanks to be filled in, and during these early issues, Bates seems more interested in piling on questions than providing answers. There

are several small, seemingly throwaway side adventures, like Lord fighting a madman in a duck mask who tries to murder Belinda Pryce, a reporter with whom Lord begins a semi-casual sexual relationship after reemerging back into the world and pretending to be his own son. The comic moves in fit and starts, introducing and removing new supporting characters all along the way, building on several subplots at once, and regularly checking in on Lord’s disgruntled butler/caretaker/manservant, Bobby Milestone. Milestone is bothered by his boss’s new abilities and the life of adventure that come with them, yet remains loyal because Lord saved his life and he has nowhere else to go. There are numerous threads being spun simultaneously, and all in the context of a tale about a man who is many different people (and beasts) at once, so there’s a lot going on in every page, every panel, and keeping up with it all is not always the easiest thing to do. While this sort of disjointed storytelling can often make it hard to get fully invested in something, Silverblade is energetic and imaginative enough to pull it off, to make the reader not only agree but actively desire to be swept up in the craziness and carried along for the ride.

Which is not to say the book is without problems. There are, in fact, a few troubling elements to this story, even in just these first four parts. Pryce, who I mentioned above, is probably the clearest example, as she gets strangely and needlessly mishandled. At first she’s an excellent addition; unlike some characters in this comic, Pryce is fully-realized and independent, standing on her own and not needing Lord to define her. Yes, she’s brought into the comic as a love interest for him, so they are always connected to one another, but right from the start she’s more than just a prop for him to play off of. She even calls Lord on his bullshit when he tries to tell her she need not be sexually aggressive to get men’s attention. She tells him that her confidence and forcefulness are deliberate, things that she brings to all aspects of her life, not just the bedroom, and that he should be ashamed of himself for trying to correct her behavior when, in fact, she’s done nothing wrong. Later, it looks like she might represent a danger to Lord, when she secretly films him transforming uncontrollably in his sleep. All of that is strong, interesting stuff, and it sets Pryce up to be a major player, but then she gets suddenly and brutally killed off-panel (though we do see glimpses of it after the fact via a recording of the incident). It is the aforementioned threat that kills her, the entity which Lord has already been told he’ll have to face eventually, so it’s not as though he needed another reason to fight it. He was already destined to do so, and killing off Pryce just to give Lord some minor personal stake in the conflict is cheap at best, and a big-time waste of a character who, right up until she gets wiped off the stage, was positioned to be a fascinating and complex member of the cast. Maybe she comes back in a later issue? That would at least be something, though I’m not convinced it would totally undo the damage of her death.

Bates’ dialogue is not always that sharp, and some of the more minor characters, by which I mostly mean low-level villains, sound less than natural. And though everything about his life is fun as hell to watch, Jonathan Lord isn’t exactly a hero I root for. He’s too self-important, thick, and short-tempered to be likable or even trustworthy. He is so quick to embrace his powers that he never questions where they come from or why. That ends up being Milestone’s role to play, always the grumbling skeptic, but Milestone’s not easy to warm to, either. He’s pathetic to such an extreme degree that I stop feeling sorry for him and get annoyed by his whining pretty quickly, and he never comes back around, at least within these issues. The falcon I like, if only because his no-nonsense attitude puts both Lord and Milestone in their places a few times, but the falcon is also just one more in a long line of super-powerful enigmatic beings who can’t let us humans in on what’s happening until the time is right. That’s a trope that can grow tiresome, the constant teasing of information to come, which we’re supposed to be enticed by despite no trust having yet been earned. So there are definitely rough patches throughout Silverblade, and even some fundamental bits that didn’t do much for me.

Why, then, did I like this comicbook enough to say at the top of this column that I’d probably end up purchasing eight more issues? Primarily because of Gene Colan. Pretty much everything Bates does, even the stuff that’s not so great, is so that Colan can have as much room and as many excuses as possible to do something crazy entertaining with the art. Every character Lord becomes is its own visual experience, and so are many of the enemies he faces. Colan gets to do a lot of design work, and to pull from many different genres, so the art is constantly making new moves that are impossible to see coming. His layouts are similarly unpredictable, panels overlapping or bleeding into each other on one page and divided by wide, bare white gutters the next. Colan’s work can be rough, blurred, even obscured here and there, but it has an incredible sense of motion and urgency, even at its haziest. His enthusiasm for the comic, the fun he had drawing so many different roles for Lord to play, is immediately and consistently evident.

Part of why Colan’s art gets to be so elastic and packed with variety is that Bates makes the narrative the same. It’s why there’s a random duck-masked killer, why Lord’s pool of characters isn’t firmly defined or restrained, why a large, looming falcon with magic powers and an attitude problem is one of the main characters. Even some of the stuff I complained about specifically was accompanied by excellent artwork, like Pryce’s death. When Lord hears about it initially, his rage and pain transform him into a huge, impressive-looking gargoyle. Later, when he watches a tape of her death, there’s a spectacular splash panel of the threat, inhabiting the costume of an old TV superhero called the Winged Avenger, rising into the air intimidatingly while Pryce and others are incinerated in its wake. Bates may not always make choices I love, but Colan is right there every time to ease the pain or soothe the anger with some gripping, haunting, and/or amusing imagery.

The very best pages of Colan’s in these issues come in Silverblade #1, when Lord is first given his powers. He owns copies of all of his movies on old-school film reels, and these suddenly fly off their shelves and unspool themselves around Lord, wrapping his entire body and face and, at the same time, catching fire and burning him. The whole sequence is inspired and effectively scary, aided in no small way by Gaspar’s forceful lettering. It’s the first moment where either the story or the art truly go off the rails, and they both go so far off so quickly in that scene, it defines the direction of all that follows.

Or all that follows for the next three issues, at any rate. As I said, I haven’t read the end of Silverblade, so I’m not sure how definitive a statement I want to try and make about it here. I do have confidence that, if nothing else, Colan’s art continued throughout to be as much of a blast as it was in the issues I read, because he was obviously in a special kind of groove when working on this series, and I have faith that he kept it going until the end. I’d be willing to bet Bates’ story ultimately finds it shape and its message, too, because it’s not as if the narrative ever feels out of control, it’s just so big and bananas that not every detail or plot point works perfectly. Better that than something formulaic or trite. Silverblade doesn’t fit into any category I’ve ever seen before, and it only takes one issue to see that. The rest of the good stuff is pure frosting, and the bad is aggravating but not insurmountable.

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