...reading comics from the year i was born!
D.P. 7 #3-14 (Marvel)
by Mark Greunwald, Paul Ryan, Romeo Tanghal, Al Williamson, Danny Bulanadi, Paul Becton, Phil Felix
Realism in superhero comics is an interesting struggle. Because there is an inherently fantastical element to any story involving people with impossible powers, finding a way to keep them grounded is not always an easy or obvious task. Typically, these are narratives about grown men and women who make up secret names for themselves and throw on outlandish, bright, skintight costumes every time there’s someone evil to punch. This is not exactly a genre that lends itself to a believable narrative. And it’s not that every superhero story needs realism, but those that do strive for it often go the “grim and gritty” route, seeing brutality and depression as the only means of bringing their demigod-like characters back down to Earth. To keep things exciting and intense without always relying on larger-than-life, city-block-devastating action, creators will turn to the ugliest, darkest aspects of human nature and heighten them to super-heroic levels. And certainly many great things have come from this strategy, but more and more often it feels like current creators are piling on the darkness without any rhyme or reason, and the results are just as unrealistic as anything, only bleaker and more violent. 'D.P. 7' offers a different approach, realistic not because of any darkness in tone but because of its pacing, telling its story in as close to real time as it can. At its best, this tactic makes the series better and smarter than your average comic book by far. But at its worst, it’s incredibly boring. As boring as real life.
'D.P. 7', or Displaced Paranormals 7, was a part of Marvel’s New Universe imprint, a group of titles that began in 1986 and existed outside of the main Marvel U. This was a brand new continuity (hence “paranormal” instead of “superhero” or “mutant” or “ meta-human” or what have you), and the whole point of it was to make things simpler and more reflective of the real world. Cutting out magic and super-science and other established elements of modern superhero comic books, the New Universe focused on the practical ramifications of people suddenly developing extraordinary powers. Lives fall to pieces. There is fear and paranoia and, above all, confusion. And for the stars of 'D.P. 7', these powers are treated like a disease, something with which they have all been afflicted and hope to cure or otherwise be rid of eventually.
Similarly, it is worth noting that, in the strictest definition of the term, this might not be considered a “superhero comic,” either. Yes, these are good-hearted people with superpowers, and they even take down a villain or two in their time, but they’re not exactly heroic figures. They don’t fight crime or actively seek to eliminate evil. When their lives are at stake, they defend themselves, and when The Clinic finally catches up to and captures most of the group, those strong enough to fight back do so and save the day. But there is no sense of great power equaling great responsibility here, or any responsibility. Again, for pretty much everyone involved, these powers are viewed as a burden, a hopefully temporary condition keeping them from their real lives.
The title regularly takes this careful, grounded approach to its difficult topics and complex characters. Yet even during the most fascinating and exciting of these stories, Gruenwald’s tendency to reiterate and re-explain things (which I praised moments ago with regards to the cast) often leads to the dragging of narrative feet. When the group finally fights back against The Clinic, they reveal its director, Dr. Voigt, to basically be this universe’s Magneto: paranormals are the next step in humanity and are destined to rule over normal people and blah blah blah. And the actual showdown with Voigt, who also calls himself Overshadow, is unquestionably a highlight. But once he’s defeated, there are not one but three different conversations amongst various characters, main and supporting, about how the administration of The Clinic will be handled without him. Not that this is an unnecessary decision to make, or even that it has no importance for the ongoing drama of the series. It becomes a power struggle between those staff members who support Overshadow’s maniacal visions of world domination and those who legitimately want to help the paranormals get some answers. But actually listening to them talk about it is mind-numbingly dull. It adds to the realism, because they are conversations that definitely have to take place, but it throws off the rhythm of the series and detracts from my personal interest as a reader. We have already seen the fight and learned what Overshadow was up to, so hearing it described to someone else offers nothing new. And the minutiae of hospital administration just don’t make for gripping fiction, no matter how you slice it.
It’s the kind of thing that would happen if folks all over the world arbitrarily developed superhuman abilities. There’d be various gatherings of such people, formed for different reasons, and they’d inevitably run into one another at some point. And it’s true that, like in this example, almost any time 'D.P. 7' starts to feel boring or lose its focus, it’s still in the service of authenticity, showing the audience what a real-world version of the story at hand would entail. This means that the ending of each issue is not necessarily a climactic or thrilling moment. In fact, most of the final beats aren't like that at all. The problems of these characters are not all solved at the same time, and new ones develop constantly, so at the end of any given issue the cast is often still in the middle or even at the beginning of dealing with some new difficulty. Rather than force cliffhanger conclusions where they don’t fit, Gruenwald is happy to let his issues land wherever they naturally arrive at the end of 23 pages. It can mean that the high point of an issue comes in the middle, with the ending feeling more like a slow-burn prologue for next month, or even just a logical continuation of the current story that stops abruptly. I was surprised more than once to discover that a panel I’d just read was the last of an issue. But again, while this may be unusual and even a tad uncomfortable, it also goes a long way toward maintaining the realism. Life’s problems don’t get resolved in neat little chapters of the exact same length, so neither do the myriad narrative threads of 'D.P. 7'.