DANCING WITH THE DESTROYER
Though largely unnoticed in 2009, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker's "Destroyer" opens with the title character smashing his fist through the head of a gun-wielding minion. Teeth, jawbone, an eyeball, bits of skull, and lots and lots of blood fly toward the reader in the opening panel. It's a Marvel MAX series, and it shows.
I haven't seen much discussion of "Destroyer." Or really any discussion of "Destroyer" beyond a few reviews of the first couple of issues and some message board posts summarized thusly: "Robert Kirkman's doing a Marvel MAX book? Kewl!"
A hardcover popped up at the end of last year, but I didn't see anyone mentioning that they bought it. Or that they cared. As I write this, "Destroyer" is ranked #252,805 in Books on Amazon.com (by comparison, the completely irrelevant, Greg Land-drawn "Phoenix: Endsong," even out of stock at Amazon, ranks at #115,143).
I suppose it's not surprising that no one paid attention to this release. The Destroyer doesn't have a fanbase, barely anyone even remembers the Golden Age character upon which this series is based. And by the time it debuted in single issue form last year, Kirkman had already launched his manifesto. He'd already renounced Marvel and jumped into the cockpit of the Image Comics rocketship of creator-owned greatness.
Not the ingredients for a successful comic book, really. Though if you're judging success not on sales figures, but on quality -- on flavor and aesthetic pleasure and wit and wisdom -- and you should, then "Destroyer" should have made more of a mark. And it deserves another look. But first, some context.
Keen Marlow, the Destroyer, with his pointy ears, blue-green mask, skull emblem, and red-and-black striped pants, debuted in "Mystic Comics" #6, from 1941. Though his striking appearance made him stand out from the crowd of costumed heroes from Timely's Golden Age -- the characters Ed Brubaker is currently weaving more fully into official Marvel continuity via the "Marvels Project" -- the Destroyer is more notable for his genesis than his origin. Though he's basically another WWII super-soldier (his in-story origin is strikingly similar to Captain America, though his exploits were set in German-occupied territories), he's one of the very first characters -- possibly the first superhero -- created by a then-18-year-old Stan Lee. The Stan Lee who would soon become the editor of the Timely line, while still a teenager. The rest is history. The entire history of Marvel comics, basically.
In his early adventures, the Destroyer lived up to his name. He was no costumed mystery man who skirted the edges of the law as he fought crime. No, he destroyed Nazis. He marched, sprinted, and jumped toward anyone with a swastika emblazoned on their uniform and removed them from the scene. Though he explicitly denounced killing in at least one early story, he didn't seem to hold back his fury when it came to punching Nazis. He sought a Germany free from Nazi tyranny. And he wasn't above socking Hitler in the jaw when the time came. And the time came pretty early -- like Captain America, the Destroyer was fighting Hitler and his goons before America even entered World War II. In "All-Winners Comics" #2, a Lee-written story features a super-punch from the Destroyer that sends Hitler flying. "I've been itching to do this for a long time, Adolf," read the hero's word balloon. A caption follows: "And then, with a mocking laugh, the Destroyer, enemy of Nazism, makes his escape!"
That last line pretty much sums up the character. That's about as much nuance as you might expect from a Stan Lee Golden Age comic. Though, in that same "All-Winners" issue, Lee gives us a prose story with a sequence starring the Destroyer, who rescues an elderly German from whip-wielding Nazis. "These fiends won't harm you again," says the arch-foe of Nazism, "Not so long as there's one ounce of blood in my body will any Nazi harm an old person without being punished for it."
Not so much nuance. Not so much elegance in the prose, either. But that was the Golden Age Destroyer, and he performed his heroic deeds exactly as advertised.
Unlike the other "All-Winners Comics" gang, like Captain America, the Human Torch, and Namor, the Destroyer wasn't brought back during the Silver Age of Marvel. (Neither was the Whizzer, but I can only speculate that his name might have had something to do with that. The 1960s was not the 1940s.) Jim Starlin's Drax the Destroyer, created in 1973, is probably the most significant Marvel revamp, sharing some of the same visual appeal as the original -- the skullcap, the emblem -- even if it was a character who really had nothing in common with Keen Marlow. Other "Destroyers" like Brian Falsworth and Roger Aubrey were retconned into Marvel history, and though the Aubrey version paraded around with the Thunderbolts for a bit, he never made much of an impact on the Marvel Universe.
So for Kirkman's 2009 revamp, relaunch, reimagining of the Destroyer for the MAX imprint, he was basically working with a blank slate. Okay, not quite a blank slate, but a slate with a costume design, an air of Stan Lee-ness, and a history of Nazi-punching.
Kirkman's "Destroyer" doesn't feature any Nazis. And Kirkman's no Stan Lee, whatever that means. (I suppose it means he doesn't have a reality show where "characters" like Fat Momma gain prominence so they can tour the convention circuit, and he's never written a comic for Moebius.)
But what Kirkman does in "Destroyer" is take some of that aggro-superhero energy and apply it to a protagonist in decline. A hero who has reached the end of his story, and though he's still punching strong and destroying everything in his path (monsters and super-scientists and evil cabals, moreso than Nazis), he's got a finale in sight and he knows it. Kirkman takes the Stan Lee foundation and builds a humanity on top of it. Instead of revamping the Golden Age character as a bright young thing for the new millennium, he pretends that Keen Marlow has been smashing supervillain faces for decades. He imagines that Destroyer stories never stopped being told. He imagines an entire post-WWII history for the character -- mostly implied but not directly explored in this series -- and tells a story about an old gunslinger, not quite ready to go out with a bang.
Superhero comics, like most mainstream media, aren't particularly interested in growing old. Youth is the buzzword, and whether it's "New Avengers," or "Young X-Men," or "Tiny Titans," or "90210: The Next Generation," the culture is more interested in fresh faces than withered old ones. Even if the fresh faces are just old ones with tighter skin. Remember when Tony Stark was made into a teenager, or Ray Palmer de-aged and hung out at Titans Tower? Yeah, that happened.
But so did "Brand New Day" and "Adventure Comics" and a million other series that brought a youthfulness back to well-established characters.
Old heroes? Not so much. There's "Dark Knight Returns" and "Dark Knight Strikes Again." There's "Old Man Logan." There's the various "Blah Blah Blah: The End" series from Marvel and an occasional "What If?" or Elseworld take on an aged protagonist. But it's difficult to tell superhero stories about old folks. They aren't as pretty and it implies a for-real end. Serialized comics (even ones released in miniseries) don't like definitive ends. They like the promise of an everlasting future.
Kirkman's "Destroyer" gives us an end, or at least the promise of one, in the very first issue. Keene Marlow (yes, he inexplicably added an extra "e" onto his name sometime since the war) -- still face-smashing, still blood-splattering, even on page one, even as an old man -- visits his doctor who demands that he retire. "You've already suffered two heart attacks. I'm certain you won't survive a third," says the doc. Marlow asks how much time he has left, and the doctor replies, "Could be one day. Could be one month. If you keep doing what you're doing -- I wouldn't be surprised to be at your funeral next week."
This isn't some revolutionary exploration of superhero mortality, but the humble way Kirkman writes the scene, and the matter-of-fact, completely unheroic way Cory Walker illustrates it, shows a humanity that's largely missing from the superhero comic book marketplace. I've been thinking about the lack of human superheroes in the Marvel and DC landscape a lot lately -- not as in lack of power, but as in a depth of character that connects somewhat to the way real people might think and feel and react -- and yet here are Kirkman and Walker, giving us a truly human superhuman. And they do it by giving him a chance to confront his own mortality, not in costume, but in his socks and slippers. In a hospital gown.
And they don't stop there. We see Marlow at home in his bedroom with his wife. Not glamorous, certainly not sexy. Just an old man and his disabled wife (she's missing an arm, which is just a fact of her life, not a major dramatic revelation) talking. We later see Marlow at the country club, having (faking) a heart attack (to surprise an opponent). We see Marlow pull the milk carton out of the refrigerator, alone in the darkness of his kitchen.
It's these humanizing elements that help make this series something different, but it also celebrates the character and celebrates the genre. It's full of ridiculous bloodshed, and catastrophic battles. It's madcap and extreme, but with that underlying humanity.
Cory Walker draws one of the bloodiest, most gruesome comics in recent history in "Destroyer," but his clean-line style gives it an absurd quality. The buckets of blood, the flying eyeballs and limbs? Those are reminiscent of the violence you'd see from Chuck Jones in a Road Runner cartoon. Terrible, theoretically painful, but innocently beautiful.
By the end, the Destroyer has literally kicked the Grim Reaper in the head, sending his skull flying into the void of the dreamlike afterlife. So it's not as if Kirkman fully embraces the ideal of the hero at the end of his days. Even Keene Marlow's story must march on in the land of the superhero comic. But at least Kirkman hinted at the end, and embraced the character in the context of age, fragility, and family. He humanized an impossible Marvel superhuman, if only for the duration of this five-issue series.
If it was his farewell to Marvel Comics, it's a good one. And if it's commentary on the plastic, never-aging, inhuman characters that currently populate the superhero mainstream, it's even better. But no matter what, it's a comic that doesn't deserve to be ignored.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan