Monday, April 20, 2015

Remembering Roger Slifer, Comics Pioneer

Roger Slifer, discussing his work
on the Jem and the Holograms DVD.
@ Amazon
Around the Web, commentators are remembering comics and animation writer Roger Slifer as the co-creator of intergalactic bad-ass Lobo and the victim of an unsolved 2012 crime.  That's a bit of a shame, since Slifer was more than either of those things — except in the just-the-facts manner of obituaries.  You might even say he's the thin end of the wedge of much of what we consider the modern comics industry.

Born in 1954 in Indiana, Slifer came up through the Midwest's thriving comics fandom, contributing to fanzines such as Contemporary Pictorial Literature.  Like regional contemporary Tony Isabella, he made the leap from engaged fan to pro during the 1970s, working in the Marvel Comics offices.  There, he racked up writing credits on Marvel Team-Up and The Defenders before defining a niche for himself as an editor on Marvel's newsstand magazines.

Modern audiences may not appreciate how diversified Marvel's publishing strategy was in the late '70s.  Beyond their super-heroic icons lay a variety of titles and formats geared toward cultivating new audiences.  Black-and-white newsstand magazines, in particular, catered to post-adolescent readers by providing self-contained stories that didn't shy away from material too bleak, coarse, or sexual for the mainstay world of the four-color super-hero comics.  Content aimed at these older readers and an emerging network of comics specialty shops to sell it to them meant — heavy sigh here, but we're talking about the period during which the cliché came into being — "Pow! Zap! Comics Weren't Just for Kids Anymore!"

Marvel's starting line-up for direct sales.
As the direct market coalesced into a real distribution channel, Slifer left Marvel, taking his experience crafting comics for grown-ups across town, to the competition at DC Comics.  In 1981, he became that company's liaison with comics shops.  Around that time, Marvel began offering a selection of titles geared toward the new audience exclusively to that audience through the direct market, skipping newsstands entirely.  For this grand experiment, Marvel chose low-selling, critically acclaimed titles Moon Knight, Ka-Zar the Savage, and Micronauts.  (An odd assortment to modern ears, perhaps, but dip into vintage 1980 back issues of those titles, and you'll see how much they differ from what was being published around them.)

When DC followed suit, they learned from Marvel's lead (and perhaps from Slifer's experience there), launching new #1s for two best-sellers with known older audiences (The New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes) and a third, brand-new title crafted with the direct market in mind.  Enter The Omega Men, featuring characters created by Titans writer Marv Wolfman, drawn by Legion artist Keith Giffen, and written by comics-shop liaison Roger Slifer.

DC also chose to publish their direct sales titles on heavier paper using new printing methods.
Wolfman had created the Omega Men in Green Lantern and used them in subsequent stories in New Teen Titans and Action Comics.  Refugees from the Vegan star system, they were a ragtag band of political prisoners intent on returning to their home and liberating it from the rule of the villainous Citadel.  As leaders among the genetically varied peoples of the Vegan system, the Omega Men possessed a dizzying array of super powers and distinctive designs.  In short, they were the rebels from Star Wars as super-heroes, staring down the barrel of a war with their own Galactic Empire — much like Marvel's soon-to-be-canceled Micronauts.

In Slifer's hands, the Omegans became more than Star Wars stand-ins.

Not approved by the Comics Code Authority.
@ Amazon
The splash page of Omega Men #1 opens with the titular heroes witnessing the on-panel cannibalism of their long-time foes in the Citadel — before fan-favorite Omegan Tigorr engages in a bit of his own!  The topic of extreme violence dominated the title's letters column from the beginning, with Slifer presiding over the discussion himself rather than handing it off to Wolfman, who served as the series editor.

Despite a dozen appearances around the DC Universe over the previous two years that had teased an epic confrontation with the Citadel, Slifer uses the first seven issues of the Omega Men's own title to bring the Citadel War to a hasty conclusion.  Primus, the Omegans' leader, finds himself ousted by the impetuous Tigorr, who rallies the piecemeal army of Omega Men for a brute-force attack on the Citadel that leaves the enemy defeated and Wolfman's status quo for the team a casualty of war.

At first blush, Citadel War is simplistic.  Slifer as writer espouses distrust of governments and belief in the power of the individual.  Primus is a bureaucratic nightmare of a leader; Tigorr, by contrast, is all charisma and effectiveness.  Despite what was happening in Central America or Afghanistan during these years, Omega Men's political landscape is at least as broad and cartoonish as that of Star Wars, its heroes clear-cut and easy to root for, despite their bloody hands.

On closer inspection, though, you find Slifer subverting his simple set-ups at almost every turn.  The longer you read, the more you remember Americans didn't used to be so binary and simplistic.  Libertarians could appreciate a good government program when one was necessary.  Diplomats could conceive of a time when the usefulness of diplomacy had passed and the only remaining option was force.  Primus turns out to be made of sterner stuff than empty promises and pretty rhetoric.  Tigorr, for all his bravado, threatens the very peace his heroics won in Citadel War with rash judgment.

Lobo helping.

Pick your jaw up off the floor.
That's what he looked like
back then.
In spite of their seeming naïveté, the various Omega Men find themselves falling back on their individual options of last resort with unsettling frequency.  Peace-loving Broot kills — and discovers to his unending heartbreak that each act of violence he commits makes the war more brutal and unforgiving for the innocents he seeks to protect.  Noble Primus plays Hamlet with every decision, missing opportunities to take the battle to the Citadel, driving his wife into the arms of another suitor, and extending the endless war he claims to want to end.  Only when he strikes a diabolical deal with the Citadel in the wake of their defeat (with the help of, yes, Lobo) does Primus become an effective political leader in the Vegan system.  Fallen angel Nimbus brings death with his touch, his immortality a prison of living death.  Slifer even reveals X'hal, the nigh-omnipotent warrior goddess of these various alien races, to be less a warrior than a victim driven to madness by abuse in the name of science.

What begins as space opera quickly evolves into political melodrama.  As soon as the Citadel War is won, its victors find themselves torn between the isolationism of Omegan leaders Primus and Kalista's homeworld and fears of a new Citadel coalition arising to fill the power vacuum.  Alliance-building and distrust replace revolution and tyranny at the heart of the series in the post-war issues.  Slifer methodically dismantles a comic book space war and replaces it with a cold war, making Omega Men a compelling series for '80s readers.

As Star Wars-influenced comics go, Omega Men is shockingly prophetic.  Beyond reflecting its inspirational roots, Slifer's run actually prefigures the second Star Wars trilogy, with its focus on political and economic alliances, ideological concessions, and the foundations of war.

Nute Gunray with his college haircut.
Concepts that seemed broad and jingoistic at first get revisited with new layers of complication.  When we first meet Broot's people, the Changralynians, in the first two issues, their philosophy of extreme non-violence is a bit of a straw man.  A modern reader might take Slifer for a libertarian atheist picking a bone with religion as a means to disenfranchise and control.  By the time they return in Slifer's final two issues, however, we've spent several issues watching Broot's decision to rebel pile up disastrous consequences.  While the Changralynians aren't role models, their pacifism no longer seems as hollow and tedious as when we first met them.  One hopes subsequent encounters with X'hal and her son Auron would've painted in the gray area between X'hal's lurid victimization and her triumphant godhood with more nuance than we got during Slifer's brief run.  (Todd Klein, who takes over after an even more brief run by Doug Moench, does expand on those characters more.)

Not that unreasonable, in the end — even for a socially
conscious '80s funnybook.
Alas, Slifer's run ends suddenly with #13, explained only by a brief note on the letters page about "irreconcilable differences between myself and DC."  He lingers for a couple of issues in the letters column, addressing still-ongoing concerns about graphic violence, then is gone.

His next gig would be writing and producing animation for Sunbow Entertainment, the studio that partnered with Marvel Comics to produce cartoons based on Hasbro licenses throughout the 1980s.  For the next two decades, Slifer worked mainly in animation and video games as his former comics employers expanded their readership into adult markets and their content and themes into more adult arenas.

While they were doing so, the Big Two were following other trails blazed by Slifer, as well.

According to Mark Evanier, Roger Slifer was a tireless champion of creator's rights.  Those "irreconcilable differences" with DC?  Apparently over that very issue.  Peek at the credits on Omega Men when Keith Giffen was the artist, and you'll notice he and Slifer are co-credited as "storytellers," a convention I dearly wish had caught on.

@ Amazon
He also edited DC's first archival reprint of classic material for the direct market — a project that eventually landed in comics stores as 1984's Manhunter one-shot, collecting Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's back-up stories from Detective Comics.  Publishers had reprinted stories before, of course, but not with the express purpose of making them available as historical artifacts on a higher quality of paper for a more discerning readership.  According to Paul Levitz, Slifer had modeled the Manhunter reprint after French albums, and it eventually became the template for a line of high-quality reprint mini-series including one reprinting O'Neil and Adams's Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories that Slifer oversaw while at DC.

Looked at from a certain angle, that Manhunter one-shot is the ancestor of Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives and certainly an early entry into the modern reading approach we call "reading in trade."

So, yeah — a lot more to Roger Slifer than co-creating Lobo and having his creative years tragically cut short.  In my heart of hearts, I've waited almost 30 years to see him credited as storyteller in a comic again.  It's disappointing knowing that hope, however remote, is now gone.

Maybe someone should collect Slifer's Omega Men run as a trade.  There's a new series coming up, which is always a good excuse, and it might be a fitting a way to remember a man who made trade paperbacks and comics shops everyday concepts.

In the meantime, you can remember Slifer with a contribution to the Hero Initiative in his name.  HI raised money and helped out during his hospitalization, and there may be bills they can help the family take care of.  If not, your donation will still go toward helping creators in need, and that's something a man who walked away from DC Comics on principle would surely appreciate.

— Scott


Jim Shelley said...

Excellent tribute to Slifer and his Omega Men run. I suspect you are right - that a new collection of the run will be forthcoming at some point soon.

I'd be curious what his irreconcilable differences with DC were? Perhaps he wanted to own rights to the Omega Men?

Secret-HQ said...

Thanks, Jim! I'd love to know more about those "irreconcilable differences," too. Maybe they had to do with payments to other creators? Slifer was at DC after they reached to Siegel and Shuster in the wake of the "Superman" movie and began quietly making arrangements with Golden Age creators here and there. Given his involvement with the Baxter-paper "Manhunter" and "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" collections, maybe he was pushing for a more coherent royalty program. (Just idle speculation on my part. I have no idea.)

In that piece I link to at the beginning, David Anthony Kraft says, "We were young and, in terms of being willing to quit dream jobs at Marvel and DC at the drop of a hat over perceived injustices, maybe foolish. In latter days, we shared a joke between us that we often quit a job before we applied for it or were actually hired." Of all the (too sparse) coverage of Slifer in the last couple of weeks, his post is my favorite — and it features the most vintage-Comic-Con pic of the pair that could ever have existed!

Connie Carlton said...

Reading this makes me proud of my brother Roger. Thanks to all of you for your prayers these last almost 3 years. He chased his dream for sure!


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