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Dazzler: Ahead of its time?

by  in Comic News Comment

I just finished reading all 42 issues of the late, lamented Dazzler series from 1981-1986, and although there is quite a bit that isn’t good about the series, I wonder if it’s one of those titles that was too far ahead of its time to succeed.  Allow me to explain under the fold!

Dazzler is certainly an interesting comic, with plenty to recommend it.  The art isn’t one of them, as for most of the run, Frank Springer supplied workable but unspectacular pencils that lacked a lot of dynamic fluidity and looked, frankly, old-fashioned (Springer was in his 50s at the time, so maybe it’s not surprising).  At the very end Paul Chadwick picked up the art chores and things improved dramatically, but the book was circling the drain by then and wasn’t saved.  Danny Fingeroth wrote the book early on, Springer contributed some scripts, Mike Carlin wrote some issues, and Archie Goodwin finished up the run.  Marc Bright and Geof Isherwood showed up for some guest pencils, too.  After the double-sized issue #21, the book floundered a little and became a comic-by-committee, which never works for too long.  Dazzler might be most famous for the series of stunning covers Bill Sienkiewicz did for issues #27-35, and when you’re best known for your covers, that can’t be good.

  


 


What makes Dazzler interesting, however, is the way Fingeroth and Springer chose to present our heroine.  Alison Blaire never wants to be a superhero, which, when you consider she starred in a pretty mainstream superhero book in the Marvel Universe for 42 issues, is pretty impressive.  Until the very end of the comic, she denies any desire to be a hero, and although Fingeroth and later writers kind of beat the idea into the ground, it’s refreshing to read such an anti-superhero comic that is, ostensibly, about Alison learning how to be a hero.  She’s not a coward, of course, but there’s one issue in which she actually ducks a fight and hopes Warren Worthington III will want to get involved, because he’s a hero and she’s not.  Early in the series, she fights or interacts with many of Marvel’s heavy hitters, but she’s always looking for a way to stop fighting or find a different way out of the predicament, and she always is forced into action because the bad guys keep getting in the way of her career.  Damn them all!

  


 


The evolution of the artist: Bill Sienkiewicz cover for issue #9, November 1981, and for issue #27, July 1983.

Marvel threw Alison right into the thick of their universe, with the Enchantress showing up as her first villain, and then Doctor Doom.  In both stories, the villains don’t necessarily want to fight Dazzler, a pattern that fits in with her desire to be left alone so she can pursue her singing career.  She tries to sing, and bad guys show up and cause her to use her mutant powers.  And, as I mentioned, very often she doesn’t want to fight and tries to find a way out of it.  Therefore, when the Hulk shows up, Alison flees from him, tries to distract him, but then uses her light powers to calm him down and end the threat.  Galactus shows up in issues #10-11, but not to fight Alison.  He wants her to retrieve his herald, Terrax, who has fled into a black hole, and he needs Alison’s light powers to counter the effects of the black hole.  She convinces Galactus to spare Terrax after she brings him back, even though he was under a death sentence for defying the Big Guy.  When the Enchantress returns and kidnaps Alison in issue #16, she “defeats” her captor by outsinging her in front of Odin and the other Asgardian gods.  But in between those two stories, she enlists the aid of Jessica Drew to find her mother, and when she and Spider-Woman end up in a death trap, Alison wusses out and practically sobs like a baby for Jessica to help her.  It’s a remarkably unsettling portrayal of the heroine of the book.  It shows, once again, that Fingeroth and Springer are showing a person who is uncomfortable with her powers and doesn’t want to be a hero.

                          


 

Another interesting thing Fingeroth did with the book was take Alison completely out of her comfort zone.  This was probably a bad move in the long run, as it seemed to lead directly to the book’s cancellation, but it was still a pretty radical move back in the day for a mainstream comic.  In issue #26, Alison’s half-sister, whom she just met, accidentally kills a man (well, the official cause of death is a heart attack, but she blames herself and probably should) with her newly-discovered mutant powers.  Well, they might be mutant powers – we never actually learn the truth in the series.  Anyway, she and Alison flee New York instead of facing the music, and they end up in Los Angeles.  For ten issues, Alison tries to make a new start on the West Coast, severing all her ties with her old friends in New York, including those with her manager and her band.  Even though she has a single on the charts, she completely ignores her singing career in order to become an actress.  She and her sister have some adventures in Los Angeles, until Alison ditches her when she refuses to leave her biological father, who’s a bit of a scumbag.  Finally, toward the end of the run, she is picked up by a bounty hunter, O. Z. Chase, for leaving New York.  She and Chase form a bond and get caught up in a strange story about a couple who are trying to create their own race of mutants.  Or something.  Alison is trapped in this story, and Goodwin’s only solution is to “kill” her off.  Alison fakes her death so she can start her life over.  She hopefully (and naively) believes that if the world forgets about Alison Blaire, the mutant, then Dazzler, the performer, can start her career again.  She obviously doesn’t live in the Internet Age!

                          


Even more than the first half of the series, the second half shows Alison turning away from the heroic.  She simply tries to live her life, and never seeks trouble.  Trouble, of course, finds her, but she attempts to get out of its way and ignore her powers.  This becomes even more difficult after the events of the graphic novel Dazzler: The Movie, in which the fact that she’s a mutant is revealed to the world (and which, unfortunately, I don’t have).  In the spirit of the book, when the Inhumans try to enlist her help in issue #32, she rejects them initially, even though she owes Black Bolt for helping her defeat the Absorbing Man in issue #19.  She finally does the right thing and helps the Inhumans, but it’s very strange that Mike Carlin and Jim Shooter, who co-plotted #32, allow their heroine to be seen in so unheroic a light.  Finally, when she gets caught up at Camp Silence in the final arc, she meekly submits to the bad guys because they have taken her mother hostage.  She eventually fights back, but it’s not all her doing, as Chase and Henry McCoy help her out.  Finally, as a minor point about the unusual way Marvel chose to present their heroine: Dazzler doesn’t have a “superhero” costume until issue #38.  Yes, she has the disco suit that she wore in her first appearance, with its excellent flared collars and snap-on roller skates, but that’s not a “uniform” like, say, Batman’s garb is.  She wears it when she performs, and very often, enemies attack when she’s performing.  If she’s attacked while not performing, she fights in the clothes she’s wearing.  After she leaves New York, she doesn’t appear in “costume” for many issues: the last time she wears the “disco” outfit is issue #26, and she gets her more familiar blue costume in issue #38.  Fingeroth and his fellow writers simply ignored the use of costumes.

                          


All of this unheroic behavior can be seen as chauvinistic, I suppose.  The poor female needs a man to save her!  It’s rather odd that in the final story arc, Alison does less than Chase and the Beast, but for most of the story, that criticism doesn’t ring true.  Dazzler solves the problems, Dazzler fights the bad guys, Dazzler wins the day, but, as I pointed out, she doesn’t really want to.  It isn’t that she can’t.  Perhaps it’s chauvinistic that she doesn’t want to be a hero while a male character craves it, and that’s another good point.  Alison, however, is a single woman trying to make her way in the world, and she struggles with paying the rent, with men not taking her seriously, and with parental disapproval, as her father wanted her to go to law school and disowned her when she chose a recording career.  Her relationships are even somewhat mature for their time.  Yes, she gets starry-eyed over dreamy men, but when her first boyfriend, Dr. Paul Janson, dumps her because he doesn’t think she’s serious enough about life, her attitude changes.  Alison gets upset about getting dumped, but from then on, she’s very tough when it comes to men, even those who appear to be decent guys.  She lets herself get swept away by some guys who appear to live thrilling lives, but when she realizes what flakes they are, she ends it.  Alison doesn’t allow herself to get into bad relationships, which is nice to see.  The other men in her life are as varied as in real life.  Her agent, Harry Osgood, appears to be a buffoon early in the run, but he shows nice depth as the series moves along and becomes a good friend to Alison.  Her manager, Lance Steele, is a male chauvinist pig, but he’s loyal to Alison and he isn’t a complete jerk, even though he gets less development than Osgood.  Alison’s bandmates remain background characters for the most part, but her father is a nice character who comes to realize that Alison is a fine person who should be allowed to do her own thing.  And O. Z. Chase is a fascinating character, and he and Alison form a very nice non-romantic relationship in a brief time.  So the men in Alison’s life do not define her, except maybe in the way she reacts to her father.  Even many of the ancillary women in the book, such as Alison’s sister and the friends she makes in Los Angeles, are portrayed in a relatively decent light.  If the way Alison is shown in Dazzler isn’t perfect, it’s much more complex than you might expect.

                          


Obviously, there’s a lot wrong with Dazzler.  It’s an early 1980s mainstream Marvel comic book, after all, with all the built-in problems that that entails.  The art isn’t great, the narration and dialogue is heavy-handed at times, and the soap opera elements are often pretty darned soapy.  However, it followed somewhat in the tradition of the 1970s Marvel books, where creators were given a bit more free rein, and therefore Fingeroth, Springer, and the other men who worked on the book (no women worked on the comic, although Mary Wilshire contributed a cover to issue #37) were able to attempt something a little different than the normal superhero book.  Dazzler survived early on, no doubt, by the stars of the Marvel Universe who showed up in the book – not only the villains, but the Fantastic Four (Johnny was a big fan), Hank McCoy, and several Avengers – but it lasted because the creators weren’t afraid to take some risks.  I shouldn’t really say it was a failure, because at 42 issues, it was remarkably long-lasting for a book featuring a female lead with very little history.  I want to say that after the second volume of She-Hulk (60 issues), it’s the longest-running Marvel book with a female lead.  Can anyone back me up?  So it was successful, to a point.  However, I wonder if it was a bit ahead of its time.  Fans claimed they wanted something different, but when Alison didn’t act like a “mainstream” heroine, they rebelled and left the book.  Sound familiar?  The brief arc by Goodwin and Chadwick at the end is an apparent attempt to rectify that situation, but even then, Alison was still a bit less heroic than she needed to be.  With Dazzler, however, Marvel saw that you could publish a book that wasn’t necessarily about superheroes, but about a person who happened to have powers struggling with her own life, and people would be interested.  This became a trend in the 1990s and into the present day, and I wonder if any of the creators who decided to go in that direction were influenced by Dazzler.  I can’t imagine that the series was so far under the radar that comics creators today didn’t know about it.  Marvel has recently published an Essential volume, which might be pushing it, but it’s certainly a different kind of book than you might expect.

Of course, whoever came up with Dazzler’s catch-phrase should be taken behind the woodshed and beaten:

              



  


                                  


It doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Avengers Assemble,” does it?  Oh well.  Nothing’s perfect!