More than almost any other mass medium, comic books have the ability to strike hot and fast to present work that synchs up perfectly with the culture of the moment. Unfortunately, their quick production turnarounds and often small business backing also means that comics can easily disappear off the radar screen moments after they appear. In the case of Rob Williams' acclaimed series "Cla$$war," the pointed political superhero satire achieved both effects during its brief and tumultuous original run between 2002 and 2004.
This month, the series and its publisher return to comics shops in the form of "Cla$$war: Collected Edition," the first full collection of the six-issue series -Â a deluxe hardcover marking Com.X's full return to publishing. Of course, while the book's tale of an All-American superhero's rebellion against the more corrupt forces within his government provides a smart, high-intensity entertainment all its own, the story of how "Cla$$war" came to life holds nearly as much drama featuring high acclaim, burglarizing and the loss of two top artists to industry heavyweight Marvel Comics.
"It was just one hurdle after another, and you were just waiting for the next thing to go wrong with it," writer Rob Williams ("Star Wars: Rebellion," "Indiana Jones and the Tomb of the Gods") told CBR News. "But like I've said before, out of everything I've ever done, I still get e-mails from complete strangers telling me how much they love ['Cla$$war']. It's, what, seven years on from it's initial publication? It just seems to have a life of it's own, this book."
And oddly enough, bringing the book to life happened completely by chance. In early 2000, new publisher Com.X stood ready to burst onto the small press scene. Founded by publisher Eddie Deighton, artist Neil Googe and writer Russ Uttley -- who worked together in an independent design studio -- the publisher made a name for itself with its initial lineup of titles such as Googe's gun-totting teenage title "Bazooka Jules," Uttley and artist Ben Oliver's gritty "Puncture" and "Watchmen" colorist John Higgins' "Razorjack" - titles whose art and production values were as high or higher than those of industry leaders like Marvel and DC Comics.
Accompanying their dynamic first wave of comics, Com.X reached out to unknown talent to pitch them on series at the UK's Bristol Convention in an effort to establish its position as a discoverer of new talent.
"A lot of people seemed to say, 'We'd really like to see how they'd handle and what they'd do with a superhero book,'" explained Deighton of the publisher's launch. "So when we were at Bristol, we'd dig into portfolios looking for new artists, but we'd had a lot of writers coming up to us with new projects. Rob Williams basically gave us the first issue of 'Cla$$war.' He'd never written a comic before. He just wanted to break into comics. He was a journalist, and he gave us this issue. When we got back to the studio from the convention, we spent two or three weeks going through all the samples we were given there, and I read 'Cla$$war' and I thought it was great. So I said to the other guys - Neil Googe and Russell Uttley - 'Guys, what do you think of this?' They both liked it, so we called Rob and said, 'We'd like to do this with you.' He wrote the six issues for the first series, and luckily we knew Trevor Hairsine. He hadn't done any superhero projects at all but had been working for '2000 A.D.' on some stuff, and he agreed to do the series. Everything went from there, really."
When Williams conceived the story of a hero called the American who, in the first issue of "Cla$$war," burns the word "liar" into the forehead of the brash southern President who's been manipulating him and his government sponsored hero team - Enola Gay. George W. Bush had not yet taken office and the War On Terror was over a year away. But "Cla$$war," with its dealing in moral grey areas by way of intense, widescreen action, proved oddly prophetic both in terms of how American politics would be shaped over the next eight years and how comics would respond to the culture.
"At the risk of sounding kind of wanky, we just hit the zeitgeist moment," Willaims reflected. "A part of it was just because the president in it was genuinely based on George W. Bush when he was just a governor. I'd read a feature on him and his brother Jeb, and it was -Â way ahead of either of them running for the Republican ticket -Â stating that one of them would because of the Bush legacy. I just read the feature, and it kind of stuck...that was spookily prophetic and very lucky.
"In terms of things that happened in comics, we came out just after 'The Authority,' and hand on heart, I hadn't read 'The Authority' when I wrote issue #1. But, I think it was directly afterward writing issue #1, I did read it, and I think it influenced the rest of the series but not issue #1 -Â not in terms of wanting to copy it but in terms of that visual approach to storytelling. So I think that when you look at what happened with Mark Millar and 'The Ultimates,' you could see it all falling on. There seemed to be a lot of different people wanting to do a similar type of comic around the same time. I think we were lucky in that regard."
Though its initial debut was delayed out of respect after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "Cla$$war" arrived in 2002 to high acclaim and high sales, spreading Com.X's name in American comics shops and drawing waves of attention to Trevor Hairsine's detailed pencils. "Part of the brief to Trevor was that the comic had to have at least one 'money shot' per issue," Deighton explained. "Hence, you get every three or four pages a really stunning composition. We were geeking out, and we'd do it as soon as we'd get a splash page in the studio, and we knew the readers would geek out too when they got a look at it. I think that we knew straight away with 'Cla$$war' that that was the potential. It just had an edge to it, and at the time it was quite advanced because no one was dealing with the more heavy political issues."
Unfortunately, problems arose early with getting the series out on time, nearly capping the book's run before it got started. "I don't think any of us knew what we were doing," Williams confessed. "But with all concerned, there was a lot of enthusiasm and talent that wasn't quite formed yet. So we kind of blundered our way into something that people liked, which is great. I look back sometimes, and I am slightly befuddled. I think, 'How did we pull it off?' I think now, close to nine years on since we started it, I think all concerned would have in retrospect walked away and said, 'Let's do something else.' But at the time, it was one of our first jobs for all of us, and we just kind of fought through."
There was a lot of fighting to be done. "Cla$$war" and Com.X became victims of their own success, as Marvel came calling for Hairsine, leaving them looking for a new artist to take over the series. "Obviously, it was a mixture of being very, very pleased for Trevor and being absolutely gutted that it was going to delay the project even more than it was because of all the problem's we'd had," recalled Deighton. "We were faced with the monumental task because the artwork was so superior to most of the stuff out there, and I really think it did put Trevor on the international map when it came to his work. So we had to then step up and look for somebody that was going to fit those shoes. We didn't want to just go for second best or for an artist we just thought was adequate for the job."
After a search that delayed issue #4 for nearly nine months, fellow Brit and "2000 A.D." artist Travel Foreman was tapped to take over "Cla$$war," a change that Deighton described as "like Spielberg directing a film and then getting someone else to step in like Peter Jackson." A collected edition of the first three "Cla$$war" issues hit stands, followed soon by issue #4.
And then the Com.X offices were robbed.
"The whole of the agency was full of Apple Macintoshes and printers and scanners, and we lost about $60,000 worth of equipment because they trashed it when they tried to get it out of the studio," Deighton explained. "We had hard drives destroyed and monitors and you name it. It was absolutely chaos."
The damage was fatal. While issues #5 and #6 of "Cla$$war" shipped along with a few other scattered Com.X titles, the company soon folded. "During that time, we took a long hard look at where we were at in our careers," Deighton said. "Neil was working well with Wildstorm, and Russell took a totally different career path. So the collected edition of #4 - #6 never came out."
The oversight gets corrected later this month, when "Cla$$war: Collected Edition" hits shelves as part of Deighton and new business partner Ben Shahrabani's resurrection of Com.X, which started with the release earlier this year of an all-new tile, "Path." The new edition of Williams and co.'s book comes complete with an all-new seven-page story by the writer and Hairsine, an extensive cover gallery, and Williams' original script accompanied by Hairsine's old school layouts.
Looking at the package now finally delivered Williams a sense of completion...well, almost. "Even now - I know this sounds like a George Lucas revisionist line, but it's not -Â the whole series was meant to be 12 issues. It was a 12-issue story, but we only ever got six out because Travel went to Marvel as well after issue #6, and then Com.X just dropped away from comics for a few years."
Now that his original publisher is returning to the fray, could "Cla$$war" Vol. 2 be far behind? "I've always known how the story is going to end," Williams said. "But my writer's voice is quite different these days, and you know, it's quite an angry book in its politics, and I think I was quite a bit angrier when I wrote it than I am now, to be quite honest. And what I said earlier about the nature of the zeitgeist and writing it in the moment -Â this isn't particularly a time to be angry about American politics. So it would be odd to come back to right now. But on the other hand, I've always wanted to come back and finish it at some point, although part of me doesn't know if people are going to be interested. Perhaps there's been too much of a distance.
"This isn't like a sales pitch thing to say, but if the interest is big enough from the hardcover, that might prod it into life again. We'd need the right artist, and being an independent publisher, it would be very tough to get someone of the quality of Trev Hairsine or Travel Foreman for financial reasons to commit to doing six issues of a book in this way. There'd still be obstacles, but I think all of us would like to finish it at some point. We'll have to wait and see."
In the meantime, Deighton is moving ahead full bore with new Com.X plans, including a collected edition of John Higgins' "Razorjack" set to debut by the end of March and a brand new original superhero graphic novel called "45" planned for this summer. "'45' is well on it's way to complete," the publisher said. "The script is finished, and we've gotten maybe about 35 artists on board for the whole project. The concept is that a normal Joe Public journalist finds out his wife is about to give birth to a baby that may have the S-gene -- or 'the super gene' -- and he has to face reality and accept the kid may change the whole course of his life. So he decides to go and interview 45 different superheroes.
"The graphic novel itself is basically a transcript of each of the interviews that he has with these superheroes, going from a one-year-old to a retired superhero. He talks to all these characters and tries to understand how their lives have been affected by being born with this gene. So what we decided would be pretty cool was that for each of the 45 transcripts, we'd commission a different artist to do each one. We currently have about 35 of those artists on board and are looking at the remaining ten. It's a who's who of comics artists. We've got lots of different people that have come on board. There's a lot of cool British artists, American artists and new guys."
Deighton continued, "I'd like to think that with us coming around for our second go at things, we're still going to bring that uniqueness and originality to what we're doing and keep the industry excited by what we're doing. For us, it's important that the readers appreciate the effort we put into the books. We want to make a difference to industry. When we launched, there was a lot of apathy in terms of comics when it came to the readership, but we're still excited by it. But at the same time, comics has become a much more exciting outlet than it was even seven or eight years ago, and we want to be a part of it again."
For more on "Cla$$war" and other upcoming Com.X projects, check out the publisher's blog at http://comxcomics.blogspot.com/.