Monday, September 24, 2007

The Comics Page #16: Essential Dazzler

If there’s something innately appealing about the concept behind DAZZLER, it may just be that it’s so incongruous to the comics world. For at least the past few decades, superhero books have been mostly geared towards men and boys in some state at least close to adolescence. It’s a high-action, high-octane kind of crowd- a metal crowd, if you will. And Dazzler is a disco/pop diva who wears clothing from ABBA and uses her mutant powers to create laser light shows. You have to admire Marvel for trying to expand their audience, and this whole project was apparently cooked up as a cross-media promotion between the comics publisher and Casablanca Records (Casablanca wanted Marvel to create a “Disco Queen” heroine, and the label would put some unknown singer in the role- apparently they vacillated too much for the project to go anywhere). Reading this relatively new ESSENTIALS collection, featuring the retro-fabulous heroine’s early appearances in X-MEN and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN as well as the first twenty-one issues of her own title, one senses the company pushing their new and glorious creation just a little too hard, but it’s a series of fun and vivid stories from Marvel’s flashiest period, and there’s a kind of sincerity to the whole thing too.

Dazzler’s origins are simple; Alison Blaire was born a mutant, and has long had the ability to turn sound waves into light. An aspiring rock singer, she mostly uses this to provide impromptu stage effects for her act; however, when supervillains and such roll around she can focus the light into laser beams and blinding flashes and so on. She’s not really interested in the superheroing game, but keeps getting dragged into it- first the Enchantress engages her in a singing contest to get the gig at a club which happens to have some cosmic significance, then Dr. Doom gets involved with a jewel exhibition tied into a UNICEF concert Dazzler’s performing at, then there are encounters with Nightmare, the Hulk, and even Galactus. Through it all, Alison is distracted by two major issues; her estrangement with her father, who wanted her to follow him into law, and her even greater estrangement with her mother, who left them both when Alison was very young and whom she knows very little about.

From the start one can very easily pick up that Marvel intends this character to be the Next Big Thing. Apart from the big-name guest stars (which is actually common practice when launching a new superhero title), you have a heroine who, in her first issue, sings more mesmerisingly than the Enchantress, whose powers are given no practical limit, and who comes with a ready-made catch phrase- “Go for it!”, which is ALWAYS uttered when she lets loose a giant blast of light energy in order to turn the tide in a crucial battle. Dazzler got a big push, but time was working against her. Though ostensibly a rocker, Dazzler’s look is much more disco, and by the time the series debuted in 1981 (after delays in dealing with the record company), the anti-disco backlash was already well underway, and the face of rock was in flux. Roller skates, KISS-ian facial makeup, and a disco ball necklace were so five seconds ago. Reading the stories now, the character’s wonderfulness is excessive, but the writers do their best to round her out.

You’ve got some of Marvel’s better talents on the early issues- Tom De Falco writes the first seven issues and John Romita, Jr. pencils the first three, and the switch to Danny Fingeroth and Frank Springer respectively is pretty smooth. At this point, buoyed by the success of X-MEN, Marvel had a reliable “house style”, one that was slick, hip, and emphasized the Marvel heroes as celebrities, mixing with the great and powerful (such as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players) and living lives that were slightly more glamorous but no less difficult. Dazzler fits right into this milieu, and personally I’ve always found that approach vaguely appealing- on a fundamental level I believe that superheroing should be fun, and even a reluctant heroine like Dazzler gets some satisfaction from her sideline. The Marvel Comics party needed a singer.

Apart from the general grooviness (and occasional cheesecake in issues wherein Dazzler meets up with She-Hulk and Spider-Woman), the series manages to work on a dramatic level more often than you’d think- Dazzler’s family drama heads towards a strong soap-operatic resolution, appropriately enough in the last issue of the collection (but not the last one of the series, which managed to run 42 issues.) As traditional superheroics go, Dazzler also has a couple of moody voyages across realities and into the center of a black hole. Finally, Dazzler’s love life has a few nice twists- she gets briefly involved with a few men, including the X-Men’s Angel, but she has trouble making it work with any one man, and with family troubles like hers, she really doesn’t have the time. There’s something about her travails that manages to ring true amidst all the glitz, which is nice.

Dazzler is one of those characters that I like precisely because she’s not that popular- which makes me sound like a pretentious cutting edge hipster, but it’s more an empathy with the underdog. I think she also appeals to the part of me that liked XANADU (and there’s a fanfic waiting to be written.) She’s just fun, and this is a fun collection. Dazzler’s still around, sporting a more modern and slightly blander look, but she may yet strap on the skates again. One can hope.

Grade: B+


Marionette said...

Wait a sec. If her power was to transform sound to light, and she used it at her concerts, how could anyone hear what she was singing?

Evan Waters said...

Uh... I guess it's not completely transformed, or it's augmented, or... uh...

Look over there!