Sunday, 13 January 2013

We Don't Need No Steenkin' Badgers!

Another of my pet obsessions is comic books. I've been a comic book fan -- collector is probably not the right word, because I'm less interested in keeping my comics in pristine shape than I am in enjoying them -- since I was about six years old. I suspect that everyone believes they grew up in the greatest age of (x), through the lens of nostalgia, but in the case of comic books I really did grow up in a remarkable time.

In the early 80's, a lot of the artists who had been superstars in the 1970s -- guys like Mike Grell, Howard Chaykin, and Jim Starlin -- began dipping their toes in the waters outside the Big Two publishers. Some experimented with creator-owned material (it's hard to believe, in retrospect, that Marvel once had a creator-owned line back in the day) while others just sought out publishers willing to let them produce comics that were about something other than people in long underwear punching each other in the face. That brings us to First Comics.

For a while, it seemed like every exciting, edgy comic in the world was coming out of First. Howard Chaykin brought us his sexy cyberpunk dystopia American Flagg!; Mike Grell produced Jon Sable Freelance (one of my all-time favourites); John Ostrander and Tim Truman created the immortal John Gaunt, AKA Grimjack; and Mike Baron and Steve Rude unleashed the costumed-but-decidedly-unsuperheroic Nexus.

It is another of Mike Baron's creations that I wish to write about today, an oddity (even back in the day, it was pretty odd) called The Badger.

In an age where comics off-the-beaten-track were perhaps more common, and Mike Baron in particular was writing some pretty odd stuff, The Badger was the ass-kicking mayor of Oddtown. Baron complains in an early editorial column -- which may or may not be baloney -- that he had this awesome idea to do a comic about an ancient druid, but couldn't sell it without the presence of a costumed superhero. Now that sounds more like the comic world I'm familiar with!

And that brings us to the Odd Couple who headline this excursion to Oddtown: Ham and The Badger. Ham is an ancient weather wizard kicked out of England by his wizarding contemporaries for his ambition and overenthusiastic storm-making. Taken "over the edge of the world" (to North America) in a state of suspended animation, where he won't trouble his contemporaries any more, Ham slumbers the centuries away before awakening in a Wisconsin mental hospital in the current day. Well, it was the current day back in 1983.

Ham telepathically introduces himself to his next-door-neighbour in the nuthouse, Norbert Sykes -- or at least, that's the name on his neighbour's case files. Sykes introduces himself as The Badger, and a few issues in we learn that this is the name of the largest spoke in a wheel of many multiple personalities. Sykes is a troubled Vietnam veteran who was abused as a child by his stepfather, producing a profoundly damaged human being who also happens to be a world-class martial artist with the Dr. Doolittle-like ability to speak with animals. Oh, and The Badger calls everyone Larry (the name of his deceased father).

Got that? Ham's an ancient druid transported to the modern world -- The Badger's a martial artist with MPD that can speak to the animals -- THEY FIGHT CRIME!

Well, sort of.

Ham teaches Norbert how to talk his way out of the asylum by teaching him how to give his gullible psychiatrists all the right answers, convincing them he's made a full recovery. With The Badger free to act as his familiar and his bodyguard, Ham "recovers" from feigned catatonia and checks himself out of the hospital. Using his magic, he promptly wins the lottery several times over and builds himself a small fortune. He hires his psychiatrist, Daisy, to act as his business manager (she stays on largely to continue treating Norbert) and purchases a castle where he can pick up just exactly where he left off in 412 AD, stirring up wild weather (and trouble).

The Badger, meanwhile, has made himself a costume (which is, it must be said, pretty bad-ass) and set about the business of fighting crime. Well, like I said, sort of. See, sometimes The Badger beats up street criminals like muggers, rapists, and gang members who pretty much all comics would have us believe deserve a vicious beating by someone in longjohns. The Badger, however, often administers beatings to people who are merely rude or uncouth -- litterers, drunken frat boys, and people who talk during movies, just to name a few. He is also singularly stern with those who are cruel to animals.

Looking back, this is the thing that makes The Badger an unforgettable character -- he's a spinning-back-kick in the face of superheroes in general. It couldn't be much clearer that Baron wasn't interested in the traditional dynamics of hero-meets-villain, hero-wails-on-villain, the-Earth-is-safe-once-again formula of traditional comics. Here was a costumed vigilante who basically exposed the arbitrary and absurd nature of costumed vigilantes, and, as Alan Moore would later expand on at length (in a much more dour fashion), an acknowledgement that people who did these kinds of things would have to be crazy.

And The Badger is Crazy. Capital-C Crazy.

The Badger and Ham do eventually fight some oddball characters you might call villains, such as the survivalist douchebag The Hodag (he gets turned into a weird human-turtle hybrid by a native curse), but most of The Badger's rogues gallery are semi-anonymous goons dispatched quickly so the story can concentrate on other stuff. Baron would rather show us Ham and The Badger taking on corporate goons, or comic-burning religious types, or engaging in philosophical debate over a beer. Eventually, The Badger acquires a sidekick of sorts in the ghost of Warren Oates, who passes through Norbert's life dispensing boozy wisdom.

I was lucky enough to recently find the first 15 issues of The Badger at my Friendly Local Comic Book Store for an unreasonably low price. If you happen to stumble across it yourself, it's well worth your time. The Badger is the kind of thing you don't read every day, now or back in the more-innocent-age of the early 1980s. By turns hilarious, political, thoughtful, thrilling, and just plain unlike anything else out there you're likely to read.

Check it out, Larry.

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