Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time for the comic that people were quite surprised to see the first time around! This post was originally published on 22 October 2013. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Silverblade by Cary Bates (writer), Gene Colan (penciler), Klaus Janson (inker, issue #1), Steve Mitchell (inker, issues #2-12), Joe Orlando (colorist, issues #1-5), Anthony Tollin (colorist, issues #6-8), Julianna Ferriter (colorist, issues #9-12*), Gaspar Saladino (letterer, issues #1-5), and Carrie Spiegle (letterer, issues #6-12). (* No colorist is listed for issue #11, but I assume it’s Ferriter.)
Published by DC, 12 issues (#1-12), cover dated September 1987 – September 1988.
Some SPOILERS, I guess, but not too many. I certainly don’t give away the ending!
In 1987, buoyed by the success of 12-issue maxi-series like Camelot 3000 and … well, I’m sure there was another one, but any other comics like it escape me right now, and flush with the success of rebooting their entire universe, DC decided to let Cary Bates, who had written The Flash for, I think, 8000 years, do a 12-issue series with the great Gene Colan. Bates was still fairly young (not yet 40), but he had been around for a long time (he sold a story to DC at 17), and Colan was over 60 and had been working in comics for over 40 years and was an acknowledged master with a long string of work on such comics as Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, and both Batman books. It seemed like a good combination for the book, which would tap into the Golden Age of movies as well as monsters, both of which suited Colan’s sensibilities.
The result was Silverblade, which is an absolutely insane comic book. In the best possible way, of course.
Silverblade is an extremely weird animal. It begins as a sad tribute to the Golden Age of movies, as the star of the book, Jonathan Lord, lives a reclusive life in his Los Angeles mansion, reliving his past glories from his acting past. Then it turns into a superhero story, before then turning into a New Age fantasy about yin and yang and the duality of existence and the power of love. It keeps getting wackier and wackier before Bates gets to the end, and it remains relentlessly entertaining and gloriously weird. Back in those days, DC made sure people got their money’s worth, so each $1.25 issue is at least 25 pages long (the first one is a bit longer), meaning there’s around 300 pages of grand storytelling in this comic. It’s breathtaking.
The beginning of the comic is more interesting than the end, because Bates throws a lot in the mix before having to sort everything out. So early on, we get a bunch of different themes, some of which are just touched on while others remain important. In the first issue, we’re introduced to Jonathan Lord, a movie star who starred in over 100 movies from the years 1935-1964 (the book has little text pieces at the back, which was totally unprecedented back then). He lives in a mansion called Shangri-La in the Hollywood Hills, and he employs Bobby Milestone, a child actor who starred in The Silver Blade, Lord’s biggest movie, back in 1940. Milestone never had much of a career, but he eventually found work for Lord, and he’s one of the few people who’s seen the star in the past 20 years. In the first issue, we find out that a dude named Vincent Vermillion is plotting to kill Jonathan Lord, but that particular plot line kind of peters out after a while. Lord is somehow transformed into a young man with fabulous powers – he can become any character he ever played on film, and when that includes many, many monsters (and he gets their powers, too), it’s pretty helpful in fighting bad guys. But the newly young Lord wants to have some fun, so he goes to a movie premiere (dressed as the Silver Blade from the movie), and flirts with Belinda Pryce, who believes he’s actually Jonathan Lord Junior, the heretofore unknown son of the movie star. He ends up having sex with Belinda and saving her from a mentally disturbed stalker, but he can’t save her from a séance gone wrong at the end of issue #3. Yes, by the end of issue #3, Lord’s love interest is dead – it’s just that kind of comic. The séance reveals what’s really going on – the falcon that gave Lord his powers is battling an ancient evil, which seems to be channeled by an old Indian who has similar powers to Lord, but we soon learn that the Indian is, in fact, trying to stop the ancient evil as well. The ghost of one of Lord’s friends shows up, the ancient demon possesses Vermillion’s assistant, the Indian – Blackfeather – turns out to have a spirit named Grynn living inside him without his knowledge, Bobby Milestone begins reading more and more about New Age stuff, and then, in issue #9, Lord defeats the demon … and it turns out the entire thing was an epic movie called “Silverblade,” about a fictional actor named Jonathan Lord. What the heck? In issue #9 of a 12-issue mini-series, we find out the entire thing was a fake? Well, not really – Bates still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and considering we haven’t gotten to Atlantis yet, we need to keep reading! And what about the leprechaun?????
As insane as it gets, Bates does some very nice work with the characters and the themes. In the first issue, he and Colan show us an aged Jonathan Lord watching The Silver Blade, and both creators do very nice work showing how painful it is for Lord to get old and lose the vitality of youth, something that, it’s implied, drove him into his reclusive state. When Bates writes, “Once a man loved and admired by millions of people all over the world … these days the only love left in his life is film,” it’s a bit ham-fisted, but still powerful, especially as Bates is drawing on real stories of aging actors who fall out of the spotlight. Lord is not a particularly nice person, and Bates does a good job keeping that personality intact even when he regains his youth, and although he eventually becomes a better person, it’s not instantaneous – he has to learn how to become one. In a few short sentences, Bates keenly observes the fleeting nature of child stardom – Bobby Milestone isn’t bitter about his fate, but his blasé attitude toward it hides a deeper depression, as it’s obvious he can’t escape Lord’s orbit, even after so many years. Vincent Vermillion is angry at Lord and Milestone because he was an extra on the set of The Silver Blade, and the one day Milestone was sick, he stood in for a stunt that went wrong, shattering his pelvis and destroying his ambition to be a famous dancer. Vermillion could easily be a figure of ridicule in the book, because his ambition is so far at odds with his pear shape (he’s let himself go in the years since 1940) and his desire is so unexpected, but Bates doesn’t let him become pitiful – he does a very good job making his rage palpable and his situation tragic, even as we recognize that a life spent planning revenge for an accident is a bit pathetic. Dancing can be a metaphor for sex, of course, and Vermillion has a sexy assistant, Miss Hothgard (her first name is apparently LaQeeta, but I don’t think anyone ever calls her that), but Bates doesn’t go that way – he uses Vermillion’s dancing for a more metaphysical metaphor, and it’s interesting how he manages to work it in even after we think he’s forgotten about it.
After Lord regains his youth and gains his fantastic powers, Bates continues to examine interesting psychological and social themes. When Lord meets Belinda Pryce, he’s very gallant to her, and she’s smitten with him (she, of course, thinks he’s much younger than he really is). Lord still has the attitude of an old, crotchety dude though, so when she seduces him on their first night together, he’s taken somewhat aback. The next morning, he tells her, “Where I was brought up, it is the man who customarily takes the initiative with a young lady in the boudoir. You are a beautiful, sensual woman, Belinda. I find it hard to believe you have so little confidence in your own allures. It really isn’t necessary for you to ‘throw’ yourself at a man, you know.” She gets angry, unsurprisingly, and points out that in her business, a woman “has to try twice as hard to get half as far,” and she tells him she doesn’t want to see him if he can’t treat a woman as an equal. She apologizes later, but it’s an interesting exchange, as it shows that Lord doesn’t understand modern society – which isn’t surprising – but also that Bates understands that even “modern” men are uncomfortable around women. In only two issues, Bates makes Belinda a very interesting character – she gets a film of Jonathan changing into various “roles,” because he can’t control the changes when he sleeps, and she at first decides she’s not going to expose his secret, but shows later that she’s not above pettiness when he breaks a date with her and she seriously considers releasing the pictures. It’s a moot point, as the falcon who gave Lord his powers destroys the film and Belinda is killed, but it’s still a very good portrayal of a woman trying her best to get ahead in a world that doesn’t know how to handle her.
With the ghost of Brian Vane (whose name is a bit on the nose, but whatever), Bates examines a similar theme to Lord’s, in that Vane was a star who fell from grace, but unlike Lord, he accepted a job on a television show in the late 1960s playing a superhero called the Winged Avenger. Bates is obviously linking Vane’s show to the Batman show, which is fine, as he gets into a bit of Vane’s psychology. It’s clear that Vane thinks working on the show is beneath him, but he desperately needs the money. Vane committed suicide (or did he?), which is another example of Bates examining the way Hollywood works – is it worse to retire and fade from the public eye, as Lord did, or humiliate oneself just to remain famous, as Vane did? Neither man has found a good solution, adding to the tragedy of the book. After death, Vane becomes more thoughtful – he feels nostalgic when he observes a man throwing away his old Winged Avenger paraphernalia, and when Lord auditions for the new, science fiction production of The Silver Blade (much to the falcon’s chagrin), Vane explains that acting is in their blood, and he doesn’t begrudge Lord even though it seems he has more important things to worry about. Vane might still be vain, but he understands Lord as no one, not even Milestone, does.
Another interesting angle in the story is ageism, as Bates brings in the great love of Lord’s life, Sandra Stanyon, whom he met on the set of The Silver Blade in 1940. Sandra is 62 (which is probably a mistake, as she would have been 15/16 during the filming of The Silver Blade, but that’s not completely unbelievable), and of course, when Lord regresses to an attractive 30-year-old even though he still has the mind of a much older man (it’s unclear how old he is, but let’s say he’s 70), he becomes attractive to much younger women. Bates uses his regression as a metaphor – Belinda is attracted to his looks, but she’s also swept away by his old-fashioned attitude, and Bates implies that she would find him attractive even if he were an older man (and he has plenty of real-life examples to back this up, of course). When Lord first sees Sandra, he wears make-up to hide his youth, but that backfires on him and Sandra believes he and his “son” are mocking her. Lord tells her his secret, and she thinks they can rekindle a romance, but she realizes that’s impossible – “You’ve been afforded the chance to relive your past, darling,” she tells him, “but the rest of us have to live in the present.” She’s more bitter than she lets on about Jonathan’s “second chance.” As she leaves the estate, Bates shows us two paparazzi hanging around outside, and their exchange is another nice, insightful commentary on how society views the elderly: The one photographer says, “I’ll say one thing: For an old broad, Stanyon still looks damn good.” The other answers, “Maybe she and Lord spent the night together for old times’ sake.” The first one says, “Yeah, but which Lord did she put out for – senior or junior? Who knows, maybe these days she’s into younger men!” The second one answers with “Sick, Dave.” These two character don’t get many lines in the comic, but these are quite incisive – would anyone care if an older man had spent the night with a younger woman? Of course not, but the very idea that Sandra might have “put out” for a younger dude is sickening to these characters. Ironically, we’ve already seen in this comic an example of a younger woman sleeping with an older man, but Belinda didn’t know it. The idea of an older woman and a younger man has become more common in the years since this comic came out, but it’s still a subject of mockery, even if the mockery is gentler and even self-deprecating. Bates never mocks Sandra, but he does show how much more difficult it is for her, even though she’s not a recluse like Lord has become. Bates’s main point is that love is timeless, but that’s often too much for people obsessed with looks to handle.
When Bates turns the comic on its ear and reveals that it was “just a movie,” the book becomes even more a blend of “reality” versus “fantasy.” Obviously, the entire work is fiction, but by setting up a “real” world within the fictional construct and then subverting that notion, Bates makes this even more of a critique of Hollywood – the movies have always shown us a slightly askew world, as even the most “naturalistic” movies are fictional creations, and so as the book becomes more and more insane, Bates shows us that voila! it was all a movie. But then the “real” world he’s created starts becoming more and more “fictional,” as time moves too quickly and unlikely events begin to occur, until it’s clear that this “real” world is as fictional as any other. The “actors” are still acting, they just don’t know they are. This extends to the climax of the book, where a fictional trope plays an important role in the “real” resolution to the story. It’s quite a nifty trick that Bates pulls off – obviously, it’s not a new way to tell a story, but he commits to the subversion of the story very well, taking it further than just revealing that “It’s all a movie!” Because some of the story is about the magic of Hollywood, the fact that the wall between what is “real” and what is “fiction” breaks down isn’t surprising, but the way Bates uses that breakdown is very interesting.
Finally, Bates gets into a New Age mysticism, which forms the foundation of the comic. It’s a bit silly, but Bates treats it very seriously, so by the end, it fits well into the comic. Of course, he names Lord’s mansion Shangri-La, and while some characters remark upon it, they don’t make a big deal about it. Shangri-La implies the mysterious Orient, a place where dreams come true but which is frozen in time. That’s certainly what has happened to Lord, but it also eases the path to the greater emphasis on mysticism that Bates gets into as the comic moves along. What’s perhaps the best thing about the denouement of the comic is that Bates creates a situation where we think there will be a big fight, but he’s more interested in examining why these two opposing forces want to fight rather than the fight itself. So while Lord and the evil demon battle quite often, as the book moves toward its conclusion, Bates shows that the characters understand more the nature of the “evil” demon and what it’s really doing, and the book becomes more a meditation on human nature rather than a big fight. There’s plenty of action, but Bates isn’t interested in a Manichean conflict. He’s more interested in how two violently opposed forces can co-exist, and he does a good job incorporating many of the ideas he’s dropped throughout the book in resolving this. It’s well done.
This blending of fantasy and reality is well suited for an artist like Colan, who does stellar work on the comic. He and his collaborators – Janson’s rough inks in issue #1, Mitchell’s lighter line for the rest of the series, and Orlando, Tollin, and Ferriter’s colors – help bring Bates’s wild script to vivid life, and while I’m not sure that this is Colan’s masterpiece, considering all the wonderful work he did over the years, it’s certainly not a lesser work. We see Colan’s brilliant work from the first page, which is a splash page in which Bobby Milestone buys a Maltese Falcon statue. In the background is a giant poster for The Silver Blade, dwarfing Milestone and the proprietor of the prop shop. Colan places Milestone’s credit on the poster directly behind the character, so that Milestone’s head blocks out our view of part of the name, linking them beautifully. He frames the scene with props – birds and puppets hanging from the ceiling, a battle axe and a conquistador’s helmet, and shelves holding various creepy masks. Orlando places the frame – the inside of the store – in deep blues and greens, while the giant poster is in bright yellows and oranges. It’s a striking image, and gets the comic off on the right foot. Colan mimics the image in issue #10, twisting its meaning because we’re now in the “real” world and Jonathan Lord and his career have been relegated to the “fictional” world. It’s cleverly done – this “real” world is brighter, less sinister, and Colan’s characters wear more “regular” clothing to reflect that, while Ferriter’s coloring does not contrast the shop with the poster as much, instead breaking down the barriers between the two. It’s a very clever trick. Meanwhile, back in issue #1, Colan follows up the first page with a 3 x 4 grid of Lord watching The Silver Blade – he does this on two pages, with one page in between showing Bobby Milestone walking out of the prop shop. The two pages of Lord watching the movie are impressive, too – most of the panels show the movie unfolding, but Colan drops in panels of Lord watching it, and we see only his face in close-up. Bates doesn’t use any words, so it’s all on Colan to depict Lord’s pleasure and then despair as he watches the movie. It’s an excellent look at how Lord exists in his solitude.
Colan has always been a bit more liberal with his page layouts, often ignoring panels to create full-page collages that move the readers’ eyes effortlessly, and he does quite a bit of that in Silverblade. Even when he does use panels, he doesn’t just use standard rectangles with gutters, but places rhombuses and other shapes as in-set panels over bigger pages, creating a more kaleidoscopic layout that helps make the page more urgent, for lack of a better word. In a comic like this, with a lot of action but also a lot of exposition, Colan’s ability to use a lot of the page is very helpful, as he is able to accommodate large word balloons without obscuring the drawings. Early on in the comic, his history with monsters is very helpful, as he draws Lord’s transformations very well and does an excellent job showing the use of energy and power as Lord battles the demon. His ability to be “sketchy” – Colan’s pencils are often quite loose before inking – is well suited for the way Lord changes shape and for the way the demon inhabits a world slightly different than ours. Colan even gets to draw Lord as Dracula, which might have been an indulgence by Bates, recognizing some of his more famous work (Lord’s transformation as Dracula is germane to the overall plot, but it could also be that Bates wanted to give Colan another chance to have some fun with the character). As the book becomes more mystical, Colan’s fluid lines become even more suited to the material, as the plot goes to more ethereal extremes. The final issue is a trippy experience, as the characters enter the spirit world and find strange, semi-solid beings waiting for them. Colan nails it all.
Colan can get away with this because when he wants to be, he can be a very grounded artist. He has a good sense of Los Angeles, and he contrasts the solidity of the landscape with the dreamscape of the Hollywood movie ideal. This is most completely realized with Shangri-La, an ultra-modern house in the hills that nevertheless feels unreal because of its inhabitant and by the way Colan makes the inside of the house slightly shabby while making the exterior sleek and futuristic. This contrast helps sell Bates’s odd script more, because it feels like it’s taking place in a recognizable reality. This becomes even more prevalent in issue #9 and after, when the “real” world is introduced to contrast what Bates implies is a fictional movie world. Colan’s lines are more solid, the inking is heavier, and the world feels more solid. Almost immediately, Bates begins hinting around that this world isn’t real, but Colan’s art has sold it well, so when the movie world begins to intrude again, it feels more unusual. It’s a nice trick. In other places, the colorists add bands of color without any holding lines – whether Colan drew them and then erased them or just indicated where they should be, I don’t know – which has the effect of making parts of the book appear more mystical. This is not a new device, but it’s an effective one. Colan also uses Zip-A-Tone in some interesting places, too, adding just enough a hard edge to the world that it doesn’t feel lighter than air. Despite the fantastical nature of the book, characters do die, and people are hurt. The art, at least, doesn’t let us forget that.
In a comic with a lot of characters, Colan does some good work making these people look like real people. None of them are movie-star perfect, which is another way Colan and Bates subvert the Hollywood ideal lurking throughout these pages. The elderly Jonathan Lord is not ugly, but he is old, and when he does transform into a young man, he is very handsome, but that’s the point – he’s a product of the movies, and Colan’s depiction of him runs nicely counter to Bates’s ideas about him learning to be a better man. Belinda Pryce and Miss Hothgard, the two main young women, aren’t dazzling, just attractive, while Sandra might still look “damn good,” but she still shows the effects of age. Vincent Vermillion and Bobby Milestone are portly, and Blackfeather shows the ravages of a hard life. Colan makes these people real by making them imperfect, making sure they dress as the characters would, and showing the effects the “real” world would have on them in their lives. Colan can draw drop-dead gorgeous women, and toward the end he does draw a beautiful woman, but she’s also an ideal, like Lord, so the point is more powerfully made. The “regular” characters in the comic look like regular people, which helps make Bates’s points better.
If you honestly think DC, which is just now getting around to collecting some excellent Batman comics from the 1990s, has collected this in a trade, you just might be insane and I worry about you. I’m not entirely sure if anyone working for DC right now even knows this comic exists, much less that it hasn’t been collected. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t appear that the single issues are too hard to find or too expensive. Silverblade is a marvelous adventure story, but what makes it great – aside from another chance to see 12 issues of beautiful Colan artwork – is that Bates doesn’t limit himself to just telling a grand adventure. He manages to do that and write critiques of many things that still plague our society, which makes this book feel far less dated than you might expect. Do yourself a favor and track it down the next time you’re in the mood for back issues. It might be a little-remembered gem, but it’s still a gem!
Yes, it’s a link to the archives! Everyone loves the archives, right?
[Yeah, DC still hasn’t seen fit to reprint this, even though they gave us a nice collection of Night Force, for crying out loud, so they know Colan worked for them at some point! If freaking Tom King can get accolades for writing 12-issue “maxi-series” about obscure DC characters, surely DC can put out a nice hardcover of this and throw some money Bates’s way. I’m pretty happy with this essay, to be honest, so I won’t say anything else. The back issues can’t be that spendy, so go hunt them down!]