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August 16, 2007

Autopsy Report – Essential Dazzler

Filed under: Reviews — Matt Jett @ 3:51 am

Even the cover has guest stars
Reprints: X-Men 130-131, Amazing Spider-Man 203, and Dazzler 1-21 Creative Teams include: Chris Claremont/John Byrne, Marv Wolfman/Keith Pollard, Tom DeFalco/John Romita Jr. and Frank Springer, and Danny Fingeroth/Frank Springer. Fingeroth/Springer are responsible for the bulk of the work in the TPB.

Yes, they’ve printed an Essential volume staring Dazzler. Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary solicitation.

Dazzler is an interesting character not only because of her exploits on the printed page, but also because of her origins in the Marvel offices. Introduced to comics in 1980, she was created as a cross-promotional tie-in between Marvel and Casablanca Records by a committee of Marvel staffers, most notably Tom DeFalco and John Romita Jr. Approached by the Casablanca record company in the late 70’s, the Marvel staffers were basically asked to come up with a singing character, who Casablanca would then use as an identity for one of their artists. Dazzler isn’t the first example of this cross-marketing focus at Marvel, joining luminaries such as ROM Spaceknight, the Micronauts, and eventually, NFL Superpro. The difference between Dazzler and those characters is that Casablanca pulled out of the deal before she was introduced in her solo title, leaving Marvel with a character that had little reason to exist.

An old interview with Tom DeFalco gives some insight to the problems that resulted from the record label’s abandonment of the idea. DeFalco mentions turning in plots for issues, only to be informed that the title had been canceled. Weeks later, he would get a phone call from the Marvel bullpen informing him that the title was again scheduled to be published and that he was several plots behind schedule. This happened several times, as the first issue was repeatedly put on and taken off of the schedule, changing format each time. It went through short lives as a double-sized issue, a series of black and white issues, and finally, the story was split into the Dazzler #1 and 2 issues that we have now.

Once Dazzler’s book got off the ground, it was a very different sort of title for the time. It was the first Marvel comic sold exclusively through specialty comic shops. This is the norm now, of course, but at the time it was a really strange move for 1981, as comic shops were sort of a new concept. This boosted sales of the first issue dramatically, and the success carried through for a while, but sales dropped off rather quickly. The title went through several trials during its history, including a change from a monthly schedule to a bimonthly schedule, and several changes in direction that were basically permutations on the same theme. Fortunately, the Essential volume stops before the issues where attempts to regain sales changed the content too much.

Feel that disco fever

The first thing that jumps out at you when you read Dazzler’s solo title is the attempt to balance the themes of finding a place in the world through your work, the whole “girl living her dreams under the bright lights” sort of thing, and traditional superhero antics. It flits back and forth almost effortlessly between these themes, with scenes of Dazzler dealing with her agent and recording songs juxtaposed with Dazzler becoming a Herald of Galactus or fighting The Hulk. However, it’s clear that a little more effort should have been put forth in structuring the stories, as the balance between her dual identities is not struck very well. It was obvious to me while reading through the collection that something happened to change the tone of the series dramatically. This leads to issues that were prominent at the beginning of the series, like the simple struggle to pay the rent and buy food, swept completely under the rug in favor of blander personal problems that are a dime a dozen, like boyfriend problems and love triangles. The music plot is never fully dropped, which is good since it’s the only real thing that sets Dazzler apart from the other superheroes in the Marvel Universe, but it’s reduced to the odd few-page long scene or even a few panels in each issue.

The problem here is that when that balance of themes is abandoned, a large chunk of what makes Dazzler a unique character disappears. Her stories become interchangeable, with only the barest of plot threads woven throughout the title. Dazzler gets a date with a guy, or she doesn’t. Dazzler gets a concert, or she doesn’t. Without the focus on her personal life, Dazzler is reduced to a cipher; the stories in her own comic book could have featured any superhero without changing many details. They would have been equally effective if Spider-Man, Cloak and Dagger, or Wolverine were the main characters, and that’s never something someone should be able to say about a good story.

Dr. Doom looking incredibly goofy

This ties in with what I feel is really the main problem with the Dazzler series, and really every comic she was featured in before getting her own solo title: there are far too many guest stars in any given issue of Dazzler, leading to there being no room for her character to grow or establish a supporting cast around her. This is another contributing factor to the incredibly generic feeling of the title. The standard issue of Dazzler goes something like this: Dazzler has a concert somewhere. Suddenly, a supervillain/hero from the Marvel Universe at large shows up. Cue fight/misunderstanding, and wrap up the issue. With the revolving door policy of guest stars, the authors don’t bother to really seed subplots or create compelling, original villains to move stories forward. It’s a “borrow first, create second” philosophy, and it’s an incredibly lazy approach to storytelling.

For example, the first few issues in Essential Dazzler are her debut in Uncanny X-Men 130 – 131, and a guest appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #203. None of these stories is particularly compelling because of Dazzler. She is an afterthought in the X-Men story, as those issues fall right in the beginning of the Dark Phoenix Saga. The issues are also part of the introduction of Kitty Pride to the X-Men, and she gets most of the “new character” attention, most likely because of the fact that Kitty would actually be around in future issues of Uncanny, while Dazzler wouldn’t appear in that comic again for years. The Spider-Man story is an average issue of Amazing Spider-Man, featuring a rather obscure villain in Lightray, who possesses Dazzler, resulting in a really suggestive panel.

Move over, Mary Jane

The guest appearances sometimes lead to insane, creative stories that almost justify the guest-driven format. Highlights include a two part story featuring Dr. Doom sneaking backstage at a Dazzler concert and shooting her in the back, and then spending several pages apologizing profusely for doing so, is directly followed by Dazzler meeting up with Galactus and becoming his herald for a short time. When the authors really cut loose and let their creative juices flow, the book is fun and a fairly refreshing break from more serious titles.This happens sparingly and it’s not really enough to balance out the mediocrity in the rest of the title.

Dazzler had a lot of potential, both as an individual character and as an outgrowth of the “mutant persecution” theme, as she was quickly becoming an incredibly popular (in the Marvel Universe) mutant celebrity. It’s telling that in this collection, the one-shot released where Dazzler is outed as a mutant and has her career destroyed, is omitted. The single most interesting story ever told featuring Dazzler is left out in favor of a few more mediocre issues of her ongoing title. Perhaps Marvel is hoping the bad stories will sell decently enough to publish the good ones, but it’s telling that just like when the original issues were published, the compelling stories are too little, too late to save the character from mediocrity.

3 Comments »

  1. I’m loving this site! I love that someone actually reviewed Essential Dazzler! I was actually thinking of buying this, but after reading your review, I don’t think I could tough it out. You wrote a phenomenal review, though. Thank you!

    Comment by Kenny — August 16, 2007 @ 9:30 pm

  2. Good review — glad to see someone reviewed Essential Dazzler!

    Thoughtful critiques on the series, but I think that Dazzler could benefit from a bit of 1981 timewarp perspective. I always thought Dazzler was a great POV character for the average reader — a fairly average life (even if caught up in something like music) surrounded by very NON-average circumstance. In a lot of ways, I thought the Dazzler was set up like Spider-Man — estranged family with a loving elder relative, relationship drama, dual-identity, and a “with power comes responsibility” kick.

    The problem is that Dazz really didn’t create her own adversaries or her own little section within the greater MU. Her unique villains fell way flat, relying only on her “personal life” acquaintences as any semblance of “Dazzler.” But she had a fantastic set-up.

    I agree that Dazzler didn’t hit what it should have hit — in my opinion Dazzler staked out the “mutant persecution” theme long before Claremont really explored it (Dazzler #6 — subway with the thugs). Especially so within the one-shot graphic novel you mentioned. But it was 1981-83. Most stories were still pretty standard, pretty kitsch, and pretty simple. What I do appreciate about the title is that a lot of what we see in Marvel today — injecting the characters into the real world –Dazzler was doing before it was the modus operandi. And now in Essential maybe people will stop with the “WOW! Dazzler was awful!” meme, when it really wasn’t.

    I may be giving it too much credit, but I thought Dazz was a fantastic voyage. Sometimes a little “Mary Sue” but a sure likeable gal. Lightyears above the Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, and Spider-Woman solos, and those gals didn’t get one eigth the “oh so RIDICULOUS!” edit that Dazzler did, just because she wore some rollerskates.

    I wonder if they’ll be even be able to collect the Dazzler graphic novel in an Essential Dazzler Vol. 2, considering the page size, but it must be collected — it’s easily the best story the character had.

    Kudos for the review. Very much enjoyed it!

    Comment by Chris — August 17, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  3. Thanks for reading!

    I do actually enjoy the character and the idea of Dazzler, which is one of the reasons I was so hard on it. There’s a lot of potential there that just wasn’t followed through on.

    Comment by Matt Jett — August 17, 2007 @ 10:13 pm

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