Comics You Should Own flashback - <i>ClanDestine</i> (the Alan Davis issues)

This is a bit tricky, because since I wrote this, there's been a sequel. I'll deal with that below!

ClanDestine by Alan Davis (writer/penciller), Mark Farmer (inker), Sophie Heath (colorist, volume 1, issue #1; Marvel Comics Presents #158), Helen Nally (colorist, volume 1, issues #2-8), Mark McNally (color separator, volume 1, issue #7), Ian Laughlin (colorist, X-Men & ClanDestine #1), Joe Rosas (colorist, X-Men & ClanDestine #1-2), J. Brown (colorist, volume 2, issues #1-2), Paul Mounts (colorist, volume 2, issues #3-5), Pat Prentice (letterer, volume 1; Marvel Comics Presents #158), and Dave Lanphear (letterer, volume 2).

Marvel, 15½ issues (Marvel Comics Presents #158; volume 1: issues #1-8; X-Men & ClanDestine #1-2; volume 2: issues #1-5), cover dated July 1994 (MCP #158), October 1994 - May 1995 (volume 1), October - November 1996 (X-Men & ClanDestine), April - August 2008 (volume 2).

Some SPOILERS ahead. Not too many, though. I promise!

Whenever I read or even think about ClanDestine, I get angry. Not because of the comic itself – I will prove soon that it's a wonderful book that you should own – but whenever I think about it, I think about the failure of this series.

I think about this series, and Aztek, The Ultimate Man, and Major Bummer, and The Heckler, and dozens of other comics featuring excellent talent, fun adventures, and "old-fashioned" superheroes – the kind that comics fans of many stripes say they want. I mentioned this when I did my column on Aztek, and I'll mention it again: ClanDestine is a fun, action-packed superhero book with vibrant colors, an intriguing story, and the magnificent art of Alan Davis. Yet even before Davis left the book (I'll get to that), the series wasn't selling well. Sad. Ten years ago [now fifteen, of course] the comics universe was too dark for this kind of book, and even today, I doubt if it would sell [I never saw the sales figures of the sequel, but I suppose it's a good bet it didn't sell either]. It's strange.

ClanDestine, as well as some of his other work, surprises the reader, because it's odd, when you consider his glorious art, what a good writer Davis is. Writer/artists have, of course, been a staple of comics for decades, but usually Davis's name doesn't come into the equation, probably because he's most famous as an artist and even today he does most of his work on the art side. However, when he writes, as he does in this series, it's obvious he's very good at creating realistic and likeable characters with ease; building tension; pacing a comic book the way it should be paced; and incorporating the rich history of whichever company he's working for (he's written for DC, too) into the fabric of the narrative without being too obscure. On the first page of the first issue of ClanDestine, A.I.M. and M.O.D.O.K. show up, and if you're unfamiliar with them, it doesn't really matter that much.

You get the gist easily enough. It's a major part of the story, but you don't need to know what M.O.D.O.K. is – when I bought this, I wasn't even sure what he was! All you need to know is that he's pretty despicable. It's a comic book; you move on when confronted by a giant head with stubby appendages spouting orders at underlings. That's what happens in comic books!

ClanDestine is a team superhero book that sprung fully formed from Davis's forehead, and reflects the joy and craziness that we all think we remember from the "good ol' days" of comics. The team is really a group of siblings, all sired by the long-lived Adam Destine, a medieval farmer who happens to be immortal. We meet the family through the introduction of its youngest members, Rory and Pandora, who in the first issue thwart a robbery wearing brightly colored costumes and exhibiting strange powers. They believe that they are mutants and that it's their responsibility to fight crime. The very naïveté and innocence of their beliefs is what makes them charming and endearing. In a world like the Marvel Universe, of course, kids find out they have weird powers all the time and, of course, they decide to fight crime. And, of course, there are criminals breaking into museums at all hours of the night. Davis makes the kids fun right from the beginning, as Rory talks in comic book clichés (deliberately) and calls Pandora his "assistant," which leads into an argument between them while the bad guys fire bullets at them. Their argument resolved, they turn on the thieves and proceed to kick ass. As usual with Davis, the characters smile a lot (he's the only one, I think, who has been able to draw a convincing smiling Batman in the past 30 years) and they go about their business with a joy that's wondrous to behold.

In today's comics, the characters who take pleasure in their superheroing are often described thusly by some omniscient narrator. Davis doesn't need to tell us that these kids love it – their dialogue and the way they are drawn does it for us. Later on, they discuss their responsibility to use their powers to help humanity, but again, it's the dialogue of kids, and although it's deliberately stereotypical, it feels like things kids would say and is never forced. We don't need to be told that this is a "fun" book – we feel it on every page, even the more violent ones.

The first story arc introduces the family and their powers. The kids live with their older brother, Walter, whom they think is their uncle. They have other brothers and sisters scattered across the globe, but something is attacking them – creatures who dissolve when they lose a fight. The creatures manage to kill a few of the clan, but the rest band together to fight back. Meanwhile, in space, the Silver Surfer happens across a Volkswagen van painted hippie-style, which contains a still living Adam Destine. Needless to say, Mr. Surfer is quite surprised. (And we should ignore the fact that in the Marvel and DC Universes, people are always stumbling across each other in space even though it's pretty stinkin' huge.) Adam needs the Surfer's help to get back to Earth so he can help his family. Meanwhile, said family discovers that they are being attacked because Rory and Pandora inadvertently took a machine – called the GRYPHON – that can "remodel a fully developed organism, irrespective of age or genetic composition." Pretty neat! Two different people want this – a mad scientist with flawed genes, and a creature we saw at the very beginning of the book - when A.I.M. showed up - an experiment gone wrong, one that turned him into a "super-advanced prehistoric beast."

Both of these dudes want the machine so they can change who they are – the doctor, presumably, to fix his condition, and the monster (his name is Lenz) to create more of his kind because he fears extinction. The clan fights Lenz, but in the end, he defeats them, until he meets Adam, who is far more powerful than he. Adam, however, lets him go - he understands what it's like to be alone and the only one of your kind. It's an interesting choice.

Those are the first four issues. Issue #5 is an origin issue, with Adam explaining to Rory and Pandora who he is, and by extension, who they are. In issue #6, Rory and Pandora try to adapt to school, but they keep getting in trouble. They want to be superheroes, but Walter, their guardian, won't let them. Finally they run away, to the only place in the Marvel Universe that accepts superheroes – New York! Unfortunately, it appears somewhat obvious that the book's sales weren't stellar, because issue #7 features everyone's favorite web-slinger as a guest star. It's not a completely inorganic situation, I suppose - the kids are in New York, and they are super-powered, so Spidey might show up, but he doesn't necessarily add anything to the story, which ties in with one of the siblings' (Kay, who can inhabit any - dead - body and bring it back to life) plot to "inherit" the wealth of the body she was previously using, a body that was "killed" in the first storyline. However, one of her employees is plotting to steal the money, and he wants this new threat out of the way. Rory, Pandora, and Spidey save the day, which is nice of them, and Frank Castle makes an appearance in the best way possible – on one page, with no dialogue. Finally, issue #8 takes us on a guided tour of the Marvel U., as Walter, Dominic (another brother), and Adam reminisce about past adventures they've had. Dominic recounts a time he got sucked into another dimension and Doctor Strange had to help him out of it; Walter tells about a time he assisted the Invaders in a fight against a Nazi war robot in World War Two; and Adam recalls when he single-handedly stopped an alien invasion because they believed all humans were as tough as he was. Luckily he happened to be passing by at the time! It's a charming issue that ends Davis' run on the book.

As usual with many great works of art, the plot doesn't matter all that much. The stories are slight and fun to read, but it's what's in between the lines that matters. I have mentioned the obvious love Davis puts into the work. The art is staggering – it's Alan Davis, after all – but because these are his own creations, the vibrancy really shines through more than it does on some of his other work. He makes some very nice choices about what to show and what not to show, and does good work with sound effects. When Spider-Man first appears, we simply see thugs disappearing off-panel, and Rory and Pandora swiveling their heads to follow the action, and Davis uses lots of cool sound effects – "thwiiipp," "smak," "wud," "thwiiipp," "wak," "wap," "thwiiipp," "thwiiipp." (For the uninitiated, those are the sound of Spidey's webbing, and the three "i"s are very important!) The reaction of the kids is what's important; we've all seen Spider-Man web bad guys up before, but the sheer amazement on the kids' faces is what makes the scene.

(On the next page, the final one of the issue, when they see Spidey in all his web-slinging glory, they say "Amazing!" and "Spectacular!", a nice nod to his two books at the time.) They react the way we would, even though they have powers of their own. The whole book is like that – an examination of what it would be like to be children and suddenly discover you're blessed with these fantastic powers.

One reason Davis never really clicked on a book like Uncanny X-Men (I love his art on the mutant titles, but it never really worked on the main ones) is because his art is too joyful for those. On New Mutants or Excalibur, he was able to match that exuberance with Claremont's writing, but on the main books, it was incongruous. Similarly, the last time I can remember an even somewhat happy Batman was when Davis drew Detective in the mid-1980s. His art, however, suits ClanDestine perfectly. Yes, people die. Yes, Adam killed his son (an event referred to often). There are certainly dark undertones to this book, but generally, it's an homage to superhero books of the past, when people in brightly colored costumes beat up villains because it was the right thing to do. Walter, in this case, represents the cynical modern fan – he thinks the world is too dangerous for Rory and Pandora to run around beating people up. That's part of the reason why they run away. As Rory points out, they aren't normal, and it's stupid to act that way. This debate in fiction isn't new, and it's constantly begin recycled, but Davis shows us both sides of it, and shows us that Walter's concerns are justified. The twins are in danger, and he is right to worry. But Davis makes the point, over and over, that if the twins – and by extension, the reader – don't embrace the things that make them special, then they lead empty lives. Rory and Pandora become our stand-in, and we live vicariously though them, rebelling against the father figure of Walter.

Despite the fact that most of us would be the kind of people who would react negatively if children like Rory and Pandora were among us, Davis makes us appreciate the sheer joy of discovering that you are something special and the serious commitment to do something about it.

The story is also about family. Naturally, you might think, but it's about what makes a family and what keeps it together. A family doesn't have to be a biological unit, after all, and although the children know they're all related, they don't know that they're all brothers and sisters. Adam is the prodigal father, and the interesting thing is that we never actually find out why he left Earth. We can infer that it has something to do with the fact that he was forced to kill his insane son, but that's just speculation. The Destines are split over his return - some are happy to see him, and others, like Walter, resent the attention he gets from the children. He's the exotic stranger, showing up with tales of Crusades and genies and magic, so of course they will gravitate toward him, especially because Walter is the one who makes the rules. Adam is not a good father, and the siblings, like Dominic, who should know better, make the same mistakes Adam made. The revelations about the existence of the family and their powers to the twins is a fine jumping-off point for a drama about how family binds us together whether we like it or not, and how we have to adjust every day to the subtleties of other people. In Davis's final issue (of volume 1), when Adam, Walter, and Dominic go "crime-fighting" together, they bond in more ways than just sharing stories from the past – they bond with the absent children, because they are trying to understand why Rory and Pandora go out and fight crime. These are the first steps toward bringing the family back together. Alas, we'll never know what Davis had planned.

Davis left the book and it sputtered on for four more issues, of which I own only #9, a hideous piece of work. Despite the presence of Bryan Hitch on a few issues, it died quickly and was relegated to the dustbins of comic book history, fondly remembered by fans but languishing somewhere in the back of a long box. Davis did a crossover with the X-Men, but I don't have that comic.

[At this point I should mention that I have now read the crossover, and it's as good as you might expect and as fairly inconsequential as you might expect as well (although Davis explains away the four crappy issues of the regular series in one panel - Rory had a weird dream, and that's that). Davis does continue the theme of family, as the notion of both the Destines and the X-Men being a family is brought up, and the ties the Destines have with each other help them defeat a big ol' demon. I should also point out that volume 2, the five-issue mini-series that came out in 2008, doesn't do much to change my ideas about the series.

The plot is a bit more intricate, as Davis brings back Griffin and the Omegans, adds a weird guild that is investigating the Destines, sends Dominic into the past to interact with Excalibur during their "cross-time caper," gives us a bit more of Newton's world, and sends Adam on a quest to find his wife. However, the general themes are still there. It's a rollicking adventure that fits together rather well, and ends with a hint of a sequel. I don't know if Davis will ever get to write another story about this family, but it would be nice. While I don't want to write too much more about volume 2 because it feels almost like a continuation of volume 1 and therefore whatever I write about it would be a bit redundant, it's still a wonderful book and should be hunted down.]

The death of ClanDestine, like the death of Aztek, is puzzling. Why did it fail? Was it the time it was released? Were the mid-1990s just not the right time for this book? Did Marvel not give it enough publicity? I don't know; I rarely pay attention to the mechanics of comic book publishing, preferring instead to buy what I like and ignore what I don't. ClanDestine was a joy to read and look at, and Davis certainly was a big enough star to attract buyers. I have said it before and will say it again – we don't want fun superhero books. Whenever we get them, they die. It's a shame.

In anticipation of the new mini-series in 2008, Marvel released a giant trade of the first series which includes Marvel Comics Presents #158 (their first appearance) and the X-Men crossover. The second volume has also been released. These are wonderfully fun comics, and feature some of the best art of Alan Davis' long career. I encourage you to track the trades down. And feel free to browse the quickly-being-rebuilt archives!

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