In 1996, just as Marvel was set to launch Heroes Reborn under their new distribution channel and Spawn was the best-selling comic coming out of Diamond, DC Comics kicked off a new sci-fi imprint called HELIX. It featured heavy-duty sci-fi novelists and a few of the best artists working in comics. It lasted barely two years. Almost none of the comics from the line have ever been collected or reprinted in any way. Are they lost classics or best-forgotten discount bin fodder? That’s the question that drives…THE HELIX FILES.
Welcome to my new obsession: Helix comics.
I’ve been compiling a complete collection of the comics released under the Helix banner during its brief and fleeting run in the mid-1990s (not that hard to do, trust me), and I’ve devoted myself to reading all the Helix comics over the next few months. I won’t spend every installment of “When Words Collide” on this endeavor, because as unpopular as these comics were when they first came out, I’m sure a dense series of columns about those comics would be even less appealing. Unless you are me. Which, thankfully, you are not.
I’ll be checking in with Helix periodically over the next five or six months, and tossing out maybe one “HELIX FILES” entry per month, usually covering a few series at a time to see what’s worth a second (or first) look and what’s definitely not. And I hope to get Helix editor Stuart Moore on the phone at some point to find out what went on behind the scenes as the line was being prepared at DC and the comics were marched out into the uncaring wilderness of 1996-1998 comic book market.
Unlike future entries, this first installment of THE HELIX FILES spotlights a single series, as I look at the first of the Helix launches, “Cyberella,” written by Howard Chaykin and drawn by Don Cameron.
How can you go wrong with that guy?
Mostly by having him write but not draw the comic, but there’s more to it than that.
First, let’s talk about what “Cyberella” is. It’s a comic. And it lasted 12 issues. And it’s about science. And magic. In the future!
Cyberella — the riot grrrl with the Bride-of-Frankenstein haircut — was the face of Helix prior to the line’s launch. When it was originally announced, by the name “Matrix,” Cyberella was the face we saw. And when the name “Matrix” became Helix (because of a then-in-production Warner Brothers movie called “The Matrix” which turned out to be a pretty big deal a few years later), it was Cyberella chastising us that access had been denied and we’d have to learn to call the line by its new name.
Cyberella was our gateway into Helix, and her comic was the first to launch, with Christopher Hinz and Tommy Lee Edwards’ “Gemini Blood” coming out in the same month and “Vermillion” by Lucius Shepard and Al Davison and then Garth Ennis and Carlos Ezquerra’s “Bloody Mary” following soon after.
Those four series — the initial Helix launch — show a well-choreographed plan: a mix of sci-fi writers and highly-regarded comic book talent, some fresh new artists with bold styles mixed in with veterans known for their punk rock attitudes on the page.
Howard Chaykin and Don Cameron and “Cyberella” were the harbinger of things to come, in every way that such a thing implies.
Oh, I was supposed to talk about “Cyberella” as a comic. I should probably do that. Here’s the plot: Cyberella is an avatar of Karoshi/Macrocorp and in this world-of-the-future, she’s the most popular character to play in what amounts to a vast MMORPG zapped with virtual reality juice. One player, Sunny Winston, becomes Cyberella — or Cyberella becomes Sunny Winston — and the virtual world overlaps with the real world and the people can’t seem to tell the two apart all that well.
It’s a Howard Chaykin comic, so there’s satire of corporate America and sex and violence but mostly a whole lot of exposition, particularly in the early issues.
There’s a lot of exposition in the early issues. It’s like Chaykin decided that in the future technology would so overwhelm our lives that we would have a constant bombardment of messages and opinions. And he crammed all that stuff into the first couple of issue of “Cyberella” and while it’s true that we are now, in the future, constantly bombarded by messages and opinions, it’s also true that simulating that in a comic book as you’re trying to set up the first act of your dramatic sci-fi story just makes the whole thing launch into the world with a thud.
An aside to look at how much of a thud we’re talking about: the handy-dandy Comichron sales charts don’t have super-accurate information from the July 1996 launch of “Cyberella,” because that was just at the time that Marvel pulled out of Diamond distribution and so we don’t have the combined list of how well all the comics sold that summer, but we do have some seemingly-accurate information about the fall of 1996, which shows that “Cyberella” #3 sold a total of…18,087 copies.
That may seem pretty decent. In today’s comic book market, that would be a decent-enough number for the third issue of, say, a Vertigo comic, but that’s also in a world where trade paperback sales make up a significant percentage of the Vertigo profits. There was no trade paperback system in place for Helix. Nope. And those 18,087 comics were sold in a market where Image’s “Backlash” #24 sold twice as much as that. So did “Aquaman” #26, at a time when no one liked Aquaman, except Geoff Johns and he was too young to get paid to write about it. To put 18,087 in more perspective, in that same month, “Excalibur” #102 sold over 100,000 copies. 18,087 was a vicious flop, and those were sales based on retailers ordering the comic before they’d even seen the exposition-heavy-and-super-leaden first issues of “Cyberella.” 18,087 was a number that couldn’t be sustained. The series ended a year later with sales under 7,000 copies per issue.
And that was your fun and informative sales aside for the day.
But poor sales don’t tell us anything about whether or not “Cyberella” was any good. Sure, the first couple of issues loaded us up with background info and bombarded us with text and texture, but surely a comic book written by Howard Chaykin in 1996 couldn’t be all bad, right? Right! It’s not all bad.
The story that launches “Cyberella” takes eight issues to tell, which, again, was probably not helpful in energizing the few readers who had sampled the book. But Chaykin doesn’t skimp on the story. “Cyberella” is basically the story about a corporate icon come to life — like if Shirley Temple and Mickey Mouse were one-and-the-same and she/he/it transformed the body of a human into a kind of sci-fi superhero who could ironically fight against corporate oppression and also fight the literal-not-metaphorical Devil too. If you can imagine such a thing. Though, you don’t have to if you read “Cyberella” because that’s the story you get.
It’s not high-concept, but the concept is certainly up there in the stratosphere of things-Howard-Chaykin-would-be-an-ideal-writer-for.
The thing is, while that may be the case, and while “Cyberella” does have plenty of renegade ideas beneath its sci-fi-superhero-vs-the-devil overstructure, this isn’t really a Howard Chaykin comic. It’s a Don Cameron comic. And that’s just enough to tip the scales towards interesting-but-ultimately-unsatisfying.
Cameron, a former Chaykin assistant who went on to work on storyboards and production design, is a good artist. He apes a pseudo-Chaykin style for “Cyberella” but it’s more like Chaykin-meets-Richard-Case-meets-Steve-Yeowell. It has an angular stiffness to it, yet it tells the story just fine. The fact that it feels kind of artificial is an asset to a comic where the entire experience is a blurred line between virtual reality and “real” reality and the iconography of corporate culture has infiltrated everyday life. “Cyberella” details a fake world, and the humanism of Chaykin and Cameron desperately pushes to expose that faÃ§ade to get to something meaningful beneath. That’s the thematic underpinning of the comic.
But as much as Cameron clutters the pages and Chaykin layers on the narration (using proto-blog-like entries from guys like “Lone Gunman Infoline v. 6.3” and, later, the less vitriolic “Solomon v. 2.3”), the series goes limp well before it reaches the end.
The idea for “Cyberella”, according to the back-matter in issue #1, came from a character design Cameron had shown Chaykin with the name of the comic already in his mind as he presented the drawing to his mentor. Chaykin explains how Cameron’s strangely conservative first pass turned into something completely different by the end. Something that became the first Helix comic (though Chaykin seems to think it will be a Vertigo release in the back-matter, so that may well have been the original plan). Faced with the prospects of a market that would rather see sexed-up Chaykin comics, the writer admits, in the very first issue, that all indications point to a short life for the series he’s launching. “So if it’s at all possible,” he writes, “we’d be really happy if you proved us and statistics wrong and bought this wonderful comic book despite the lack of bad girlosity.”
Statistics weren’t proven wrong. Readers, or retailers at least, preferred to see what Aquaman stabbed with his harpoon arm each month, rather than the “stuff [Howard Chaykin considered] pretty important — television, advertising, capitalism run rampant, image over substance, and let’s not forget the ever popular personal betrayal.”
By the time the opening arc ended, Chaykin seemed to have lost interest, or maybe it’s just that the series already felt like it was winding down toward its inevitable end. Don Cameron wrote and drew issue #9, a goofy “X-Files” kind of story with a cute little alien and a lampoonish superhero insert with guest art by Butch Lukic. Issues #10-12 are like an epilogue to the opening arc, with more of the same kind of satire, only this time focused on what amounts to Tickle Me Elmo dolls with gigantism and sentience. And in the end, Cyberella and R. J. MacReady the big-eyed alien hold hands and say their goodbyes to the audience as the metaphorical curtains close in on them.
It may not have amounted to much, ultimately, but Chaykin and Cameron gave it a shot, even if they didn’t seem able to sustain their enthusiasm through the final chapters. Still, as clumsy and off-putting as “Cyberella” was as a Helix launch title, there would be worse titles still to come, and at least Chaykin and Cameron told a story that made sense, even if it didn’t end up amounting to much beyond its initial ambitions.
So while “Cyberella” is not a lost classic, it’s worth remembering. If you can find the whole run in a discount bin, you might want to pick it up. As Chaykin says in issue #1, “Things suck — so why play it safe?” And that’s a motto you can believe in.
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.