For years — and maybe to this day — readers who lived through the direct market turmoil of the 1990s comic book industry used a kind of verbal shorthand to celebrate or dismiss an entire genre of comics. “That looks like an Image comic,” they would say, with enthusiasm or disdain, or possibly a little of both.
Image Comics — and the supposed house style of that company-that-was-really-a-collective-of-very-different-personalities — became synonymous for flashy action poses and shiny metal appendages, for thousands of inky lines and crass youthful exuberance, for superheroes and aliens and demons and robots crammed together in stories that didn’t always make a lot of sense.
Some might say the “Image style” began with the debut of “Youngblood” #1 in 1992, or even earlier than that when Rob Liefeld first began working on the seeds of what would turn the poor-selling “New Mutants” into the massively-popular “X-Force.” Or when Jim Lee revamped the look and feel of the “Uncanny X-Men.” Or when Todd McFarlane started doing his thing on “Amazing Spider-Man.”
But the origins of the Image style go back farther than that. It begins with new-to-Marvel editor Ann Nocenti trying to recruit someone to draw her weird comic book idea. It begins with an artist who, prior to 1985, had done little in the comics industry other than drawing a pin-up in “Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew” and helping out with a few covers for third-string titles. It begins with the debut of Art Adams and “Longshot.”
The most recent collected edition of “Longshot” I have — which came out a couple of years ago — includes what seems to be the full typed proposal for Nocenti’s Longshot series. Originally planned as four issues that would spin out into an ongoing, the outline document describes the protagonist as “wildly lucky, [with] a fast-track ride-rocket approach to life cause he can count on his luck to pull punches for him…he relies on the ‘high metaphysics of luck’ to keep him in check, the danger is that it could become a crutch, an addiction, like a gun you whip out so often that when it’s out of bullets you find yourself helpless.”
Or, as Art Adams says in “Modern Masters” Volume 6, “Longshot is kind of an odd character to me…I never quite got the idea of the character, that his super-power was that he was lucky.”
The luck power is mentioned several times in the six issues of the “Longshot” series, but it’s really not the core of the comic. The core of the comic is the style of Art Adams, and the premise of a naÃ¯ve alien with a Kajagoogoo haircut and a leather jumpsuit navigating a world he doesn’t understand. And thanks to Art Adams, it’s a strange-looking world, as Longshot’s home dimension bleeds over into the Marvel Universe, where Let’s-Get-Physical-era She-Hulk coexists with eyepatch-sportin’ ram-faced hitmen and a six-armed samurai lady with furry boots.
Art Adams makes a spectacular debut in “Longshot,” with crazy character designs and meticulous visual world-building, but beyond its style, this isn’t a very good comic book.
The Image hallmarks are here, and Todd McFarlane — though working on DC’s “Infinity Inc.” at the time, in a notably more formalistic style than he’d use when he came to Marvel — and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld must have been inspired by what Adams was doing on his “Longshot” pages, particularly his character designs and his figure drawing. Adams is pretty raw in the early Longshot issues, but his covers are proto-Image in their rejection of brush-strokes and fascination with crosshatched grittiness contrasted with a metallic sheen. And just consider the way characters look throughout the series: Longshot’s glowing eye, his leather costume adorned with pouches, the thin-waisted-but-long-legged females, a cybernetic arm here, a pair of cybernetic, disproportionate legs there. The cover of “Longshot” #4 even features the tangled, rope-like webbing of Spider-Man, exactly in the style Todd McFarlane would later use.
Yes, Art Adams didn’t invent most of this stuff, and he was influenced by Michael Golden and “Micronauts” for some of these visual choices, but Adams was the guy who pulled the aesthetic together with aspects of popular culture and made his “Longshot” such a fundamental text for the young artists who followed him, even if the story of “Longshot” is barely remembered today. And, because I neglected to mention it so far, let me add: Image co-founder Whilce Portacio inked all six issues of this series, and he was assisted by the uncredited Scott Williams, Jim Lee’s longtime inker. This is early Image, in primal form.
It’s not that the characters and situations in Longshot were completely forgotten at Marvel. In essence, the six-issue series tells a simple story with a lot of flourishes than imply a larger narrative universe than we actually have time to explore, though others eventually would. Ann Nocenti structures the series episodically — a distinctively different approach than we’d find in most six-issue miniseries today. The first issue introduces the lost-in-space-and-maybe-time Longshot teaming up with a paranoid survivalist to rescue a missing baby, the second issue gives us potential love-interest and stunt woman Ricochet Rita and the sleazy movie director who wants to be called Hitch, and the third introduces Theo, the suicidal loser, who is supposed to be darkly comic relief, I guess?
All the while, elements of Longshot’s previous life pop into the story. Something monstrous is hunting him. He’s some kind of freedom fighter on his homeworld. And we meet Mojo.
The final three issues mostly involve Longshot interacting with the Marvel Universe while the Mojo stuff grows more epically menacing, culminating in an oversized “Longshot” #6 in which the title character and Richochet Rita head back into what would later be known as the Mojoverse to help free the slaves of the spineless one.
But other than the visual style, still striking after two-and-a-half decades and hundreds of imitations, Longshot isn’t particularly compelling. The Mojo of this comic — flabby and maniacal and transported by metal spider legs — looks like the creature who would later become part of X-Men lore, but this Mojo is just a literally spineless slave master who’s obsessed with appearances. There’s no mention of Mojo as a kind of intergalactic exploitation director, either in Nocenti’s original proposal or in the series itself. That was a later addition to Mojo’s characterization. It doesn’t contradict what we see here, but the Mojo in Longshot represents something different — an inhuman mechanization of life. The symbolism of the spineless Mojo, creature who cannot move without artificial aid, and the spined-and-therefore-brave Longshot provides the thin thematic understructure of the story. It’s not a satire of consumerism or celebrity or whatever else would later be grafted onto Mojo’s backstory. It’s the age-old tale of the individual vs. the system. Of man vs. machine. But it stumbles in its telling and gets distracted by other things along the way.
Most damaging to the merit of the series, Longshot himself is never really brought to life, except visually. He’s a Pinocchio character who remains little more than a mannequin around which the story revolves. He’s struggle may be noble — he needs to get back and save his people — but his memory loss and naivete lead to a lack of emotional affect. He’s presented to us as a blank slate, and the blankness never really goes away, beyond his admittedly striking outward appearance.
Longshot, via Art Adams, introduces himself as style over substance. And sometimes that’s enough to help give birth to a new era, but, unfortunately — or maybe appropriately — you aren’t likely find much that’s worthwhile in actually rereading the narrative mess that acts as the story.
The Nocenti/Adams “Longshot” miniseries is best kept in the echoes of memory. In Mojo’s late-night fantasies.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.