I wanted to like the new Doctor Solar series from Dark Horse. I really wanted to. I know that, as a reviewer I am supposed to look at books with an unbiased eye, but sometimes it just isn’t possible. Sometimes it is a character I love. Sometimes it is a creator who I admire. And sometimes it is nostalgia for a particular time or place in my life. The Doctor Solar relaunch had all three of those things going for it…and it still failed miserably.
Let me start with the character. Doctor Solar debuted in 1962 as part of the new breed of super-heroes that were partly based on science and partly grounded in the reality of modern life. Solar had fantastical powers brought about by exposure to radiation (sound familiar to anyone?), but this exposure also left him as a danger to others. He was forced to wear a lead-lined lab-coat, and live in a lead-lined room. People could only visit with him for short periods for fear of over-exposure.
It was really pretty charming. No one ever commented on the fact that his skin turned green (a side-effect of the radiation exposure). There was never any explanation as to why he always wore his dark glasses, even before the accident. It was just part of the character, and you were expected to go with it. I loved the stories as a child (I caught them at the tail end of the series when the entire Gold Key line was being published by Western). Sure, the bait and switch of the gorgeous painted covers and the flat, stiff interior art kind of bugged me, but I was young, and my parents were buying me the comics. Who was I to complain…especially when there was a Magnus Robot Fighter backup story!!!
In the 90′s, I was a marginal fan of the Valiant series. I actually picked up a solid run of Solar much later from the quarter bins (where most of the Valiant titles were relegated) and read through it all. I enjoyed all the twists and turns. It was a smart book that took chances. And, even though the entire Valiant line kind of went sideways towards the end, Solar was a shining example of what the Valiant comics line was all about.
And that brings me to the creator. No, not Solar’s original creator (Paul S. Newman), but his Valiant creator, Jim Shooter. Now, say what you will about Jim Shooter (and I know there are many creators out there who have stories to tell about working for Shooter at Marvel in the 80′s), but the man basically defined my childhood. Marvel comics in the 80′s was what I read. I cannot begin to tell you how many times read and re-read my friend’s copies of Secret Wars. Years later I discovered the other books of that era, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Walter Simonson’s Thor, Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (what can I say, I was an Iron Man kid on a very tight budget). Say what you will, but the Shooter era of Marvel has not been matched since.
So, with all that, I think it should be clear that there was a strong sense of nostalgia for me about the new Doctor Solar project from Dark Horse. Jim Shooter was at the helm of a character that he had helped shape. I had an affinity for both versions of the character (The Gold Key and Valiant characters had some distinct differences). Dark Horse is a publisher with a long history of producing quality comics. How could this possibly go wrong?
Like the best intended nuclear experiments of comic books of the 1960′s, what should have been a bold leap in the future, creating a new age of greatness, quickly melted down in to a glowing slag of incomprehensible trash that no one wants to touch. Doctor Solar was a failure on every level.
The comic begins shortly after a nuclear accident that has claimed the lives of two scientists. One of those scientists, Doctor Solar, has mysteriously returned from the dead with some amazing powers and a desire to find out who was responsible for the “accident”. It was part of the FCBD book from Dark Horse (which you can read for free right here!). It was a pretty good story that set up the premise nicely.
One of the things that the introductory story clearly demonstrated was that Doctor Solar (in his new super powered form), had the ability to seal up anomalies that were created by the accident which were imbuing others with super powers.
It is a solid premise. Find the anomalies, fight the bad guy, close the rift, discover a new clue about the accident. You could easily string this out for twelve issues or so before you need to have a major reveal or something that “changes everything”. It seemed like Shooter had a good grasp on the character and a solid framework for constructing adventures. But, by the next issue (or, actually issue 1 of the series), somehow Solar has forgotten that he has the ability to close the fissures (thus eliminating someone’s super powers).
Solar is fighting a super powered being who is actually a construct of a not-so-talented fiction writer. This fiction writer theoretically has one of these anomalies inside him that has now given him the ability to turn his thoughts in to reality. While he is not being devious on purpose, his creations have a way of getting out of hand.
When Solar finally tracks down this writer, it seems like it should be a simple matter of him removing the anomaly (as he had done just a few pages before) and ending the threat once and for all. But does he?
No. He just leaves the writer with his two creations. Nothing bad could ever come of that! Wait! What’s that? Something else happens?
So NOW Solar is going to take away the guy’s power, right? I mean, he has created two people out of thin air, and he has let them go out in to the world. Surely this guy cannot be allowed to keep such an awesome power!
Now this is getting out of hand. Doctor Solar has somehow managed to cheat death, go back in time, alter history, create a nifty super suit, and lose fifty pounds, but he cannot seem to recall that he has the ability/duty to end the chaos that he has created? this is the worst kind of storytelling. It is comparable to the classic scenario where the bad guy has the hero unconscious. But instead of either unmasking him or actually killing him, he decides to monologue for a while just so the writer has an opportunity to let the hero escape. Shooter is conveniently ignoring Solar’s power so that the story can continue and the threat level can increase.
I don’t think I am spoiling anything by saying that the writer goes on to create something else far more dangerous than a super powered thug and a slutty girl. How does Solar handle this?
So, after all this, he just flies away?!?!? By this time I had lost all sense of caring any more. The idiocy of the protagonist is mind-boggling. This was poor storytelling at its worst! SPOILER ALERT: Solar NEVER takes the man’s powers away from him. Even after he creates a nigh-unstoppable god-like being and an army of over a thousand rock creature minions, Solar seems to believe that this hapless writer does not need to have the simple procedure of having the anomaly removed from his body and closed.
How could the person who crafted such an amazing run on this character get it so wrong this time through? It was painful to read. I had to force myself to keep reading it, just to get to the end. Unfortunately, with each page, I just kept liking the book less and less. Shooter is a much better writer than this. Or at least he was. I admit that I have not always enjoyed his writing (the less I say about Defiant comics, the better), but clearly the man has chops. Where were they for this relaunch where there was so much on the line???
The terrible mess that is Doctor Solar cannot rest entirely at the feet of Jim Shooter. I have to say that the art was equally as disappointing. There were two artists credited in this volume, Dennis Calero pencils the FCBD preview and the first issue while Roger Robinson comes aboard with issue 2. Honestly, like with the writing, any promise of quality was lost between the preview issue and the publication of the first issue.
The art fluctuates between overly photoshopped and poorly executed. For me, the breaking point came with this panel:
This panel is everything that could possibly be wrong with the digital production of comics all conveniently located in one place.
The panel was not drawn on a piece of paper (or even on a Wacom tablet) as a single image. I count five separate images that were all photoshopped on top of each other to create this panel. Unfortunately the images do not fit together smoothly. there is no life to the piece. It is like the old Colorforms that we could slap down on a piece of coated paper to form an action scene.
Instead of working together, everything is just flat and off. The characters do not appear to interact with each other, and they both seem to be independent of the background. How difficult would it have been to create this panel in one piece?
Unfortunately, when the digital aspects of the art are not prevalent, the art does not improve. The figures are not well rendered, and they still seem to be independent of their surroundings. Again, with so much riding on this, one would think that Dark Horse would have insisted on higher caliber art.
In the end, this was a massive failure. I really wanted to like this. I wanted an ongoing Solar. I wanted an ongoing Magnus. But, after reading this first volume of Doctor Solar, I will not be back for the second volume. More importantly (at least as far as Dark Horse is concerned), it has soured me on the entire line. I am not going to be picking up the other books. If this was the flagship title, what does that say about the rest of the line?
It appears that others have the same thoughts. Rumor has it the entire line is folding by the end of the year. Maybe the returning Valiant Comics will be better. It would be difficult for it to be any worse.