When Words Collide: The Legend of Andy Helfer

Mon, November 14th, 2011 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
17

There's a parallel dimension out there somewhere, let's call it Earth-AH, which is almost identical to our reality, except Andy Helfer successfully founded his own comic book imprint at DC and it became more successful than Vertigo. On Earth-AH, "mature readers" comics of the 1990s and 2000s weren't heavily influenced by moody Brits and their fancy literary aspirations. On Earth-AH, mainstream comics are still arty and trashy and pulpy and strange. And viciously funny. Not ironic funny, but pie-to-the-face funny, and the pie is filled with hilarious razor blades.

Unlike our world, the Helfer of Earth-AH didn't have to write a comic called "Presidential Material: John McCain" in 2008. Maybe he still would have wanted to, but he wouldn't have written it, because he would be Karen Berger and Axel Alonso all rolled into one times ten, divided by two, and his days would have been filled with more important things. Launching new careers. Making amazing comics.

I've never met Helfer, and I've never even heard a single anecdote about his editorial style or what happened to him professionally. But looking purely at the comics he edited (and the ones he wrote), a story of the Andy Helfer of our true reality emerges: a story of a man who worked on -- and helped develop -- some of the best comics in the world while he was in his late 20s and early 30s, and then became increasingly marginalized by DC Comics, working on peripheral titles like Elseworld books or anthologies before sliding almost completely out of the industry five or six years ago.

I have no idea why any of that happened, or what he's doing now (at the still-young age of 53), but I've found myself rereading some of the comics he worked on in recent weeks, and I wanted to take time to pay tribute to his career and to spotlight some of the amazing, weird, notable or just generally interesting projects that he helped bring to life.

So here's a list of Andy Helfer comics worth going back to, in roughly chronological order, with a few notes about why these are the ones worth remembering.

"Atari Force" (1983-1985)
Helfer began his comics career working on a bunch of licensed properties for DC, editing comics like "Power Lords," "Super Powers" and "MASK," and even writing a "Robotech" spin-off. And while Dick Giordano edited the first handful of "Atari Force" issues, Helfer took over as editor by issue #5 and shepherded the series throughout the remainder of its run. "Atari Force" is most known (appropriately so) for its impressive Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez artwork, and while it may be scoffed at in some quarters for its video-game-tie-in origin, it's a pretty strong sci-fi action comic. It's not the best example of the Helfer sensibility, which I'll get into more deeply when I highlight some of his later projects, but it's by far the best of his early comics, and more than worth digging for in the discount bins at the next little convention you get to.

"The Man of Steel" (1986)
This John Byrne Superman revamp seems like a relic today, not because it's 25 years old (many of the great comics we still return to are from that 1986-1987 milestone era), but because yuppie Clark Kent and his ultra-humanized, almost plushy Superman seem so dated after all of the revised origins and retellings and Kryptonian suits of armor that have emerged in the years since. Still, this version of Superman's beginnings is still one of the better ones -- astronomically more interesting than the "Superman: Earth One" graphic novel, for example. I mention "Man of Steel" mostly because it's notable, and Helfer was the editor, but it's a John Byrne project more than an Andy Helfer one. Those are coming soon.

"Justice League"/"Justice League International" (1987-1989)
Helfer edited the final half year of the Justice League Detroit run, but it's with the launch of the Keith Giffen/J. M. DeMatteis/Kevin Maguire version that he really begins to make his editorial mark. I'm listing the first two years of the series here, because that's when it was at its undeniable best. The distinctively off-kilter sensibility of this series can be traced back to the Giffen influence, and the amazingly effective collaboration between the members of the creative team, but Helfer's presence surely helped to facilitate the right kind of tone for this series. Compare the adventurous feel of this series (plot-wise, and tonally), to the much more conventional superhero stories coming out of the Superman line (which he co-edited, post-"Man of Steel," with Mike Carlin), and you can get a sense of what makes a Helfer comic a bit different. And there was more to come.

"The Shadow"(1987-1989)
"The Shadow" wasn't the first Andy Helfer-written series at DC, but t was the first and only great one, this two-year run followed the Howard Chaykin revamp of the character, and Helfer was joined by phenomenal artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. Helfer's series was far more manic, darkly humorous, and absurd than Chaykin's retro-cool take, and it has remained unfinished after all these years, with the final issue ending on a cliffhanger and promising more. Still, it remains an astonishingly good run -- a Shadow comic that transcends all other Shadow comics -- and it showed what Helfer's sensibility was all about, unfettered as it was in this series.

"Haywire" (1988-1989)
Thirteen issues of robot battle psychodrama, this unrepentantly odd series by Michael Fleisher and Vince Giarrano isn't necessarily a forgotten masterpiece, but it is largely forgotten (there's not a single substantial piece written about it online, and the internet has substantial pieces about practically every comic book series), and it's unlike any other comics ever. Even when it fails, it fails because it aims to do things that belie an ambition beyond the talents involved. It has the signature oddness and viciousness and sense of humor that we see in Helfer's best editorial work, but it doesn't make for a very entertaining series in the end. I recommend reading it, though, because there's unusual going on between the covers of every issue, and I can't quite identify where it goes wrong. I'll have to write something about this series one of these days. For now, read it yourself, and see the Helfer sensibility shine through, even though the story may not quite satisfy.

"Enemy Ace: War Idyll" (1990)
George Pratt delivered the single best comic of 1990 with this original painted graphic novel of war and remembrance. Helfer edited it. Pratt hasn't done much comic work since, but what he has done has never reached the level of this effort, under the guidance of Helfer. It's not that this book shows the typical Helfer sensibility, but it does show a Helfer not particularly interested in commercialism -- this is an introspective, meditative war comic -- and it foreshadows the kinds of projects that would consume his time during the next decade of his career.

"Twilight" (1990-1991)
I've written about this Howard Chaykin/Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez miniseries before, but I don't think I ever mentioned that it was yet another Helfer project. I've been using words like "off-kilter" or "weird" when I talk about Helfer's tendencies -- or the tendencies of the projects under his editorial control -- but another thing they tend to have in common is a sense of irreverence. That's what permeates this variation on the DC space heroes. Irreverence. Chaykin's good at that. So is Helfer.

"The Big Book of…" (1994-1995)
The rise and fall of Andy Helfer reaches its peak during the mid-1990s, after Helfer assumes editorial control of the DC imprint Piranha Press and it becomes Paradox Press under his leadership. Piranha, guided by Mark Nevelow, was a genuinely alternative imprint for DC, producing comics that still haven't received their proper critical acclaim. But, man, they were about as non-commercial as they come. The longest running Piranha series, "Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children" was a comic in which every issue was a dark, possibly humorous, illustrated prose story. When Helfer takes charge, he takes the imprint in a different direction, setting his sights on the bookstore market. It's highly likely that this was a DC directive, one that just happened to be spearheaded by Helfer, but he seems to be the point man for this attempt at bringing comics to the masses. And it didn't work -- it was too early and the bookstores weren't ready to build graphic novel sections. But the "Big Book of…" series comes out of this bookstore, mass-market push. Helfer was the guiding force behind them, and they are yet another prominent example of his irreverent, off-kilter, weirdly charming sensibility. The best of the bunch is the first, "The Big Book of Urban Legends," but they are almost all interesting visual showcases full of artists you will now recognize (like Frank Quitely, Roger Langridge, Renee French, and many more), and though he didn't write the volumes, they are just about as Helfer as they come.

"A History of Violence"/"Road to Perdition" (1997-1998)
Though these two original graphic novels feature two different creative teams, and distinctly different approaches to the crime genre, I'm lumping them together as examples of Paradox at its best, with Helfer at the helm, editing both. It's notable that both of these books receive almost no critical attention from comic book circles, and they certainly weren't part of many comic shop discussions when they came out, and the bookstore market wasn't firmly enough in place to give these books the proper readership. But yet they both became Hollywood movies with impressive directors behind the cameras. This is Helfer at his most commercial, and yet these books landed without any fanfare and little acclaim, and if you actually read them, they are anything but what you might expect from movies-on-paper. They aren't masterpieces of graphic narrative, but they are unconventionally paced, yes, I would even say "off-kilter" (again) black and white crime story comics. Better, honestly, than almost all of the much higher-profile Vertigo Crime books that have since been released.

"Doom Patrol" (2001-2003)
After Paradox's demise, and concurrently with its later days, from the looks of the official timeline, Helfer ends up working on a variety of Elseworlds projects at DC, and a few low-profile series like this John Arcudi "Doom Patrol" relaunch. This series is the best of the bunch, with a couple of stellar Seth Fisher issues in the middle of the run. Most importantly, this has the feel of a classic Helfer series, and his editorial touch is prominent throughout. The mass market may not have been ready to embrace the Helfer vibe, even when tempered, but the comics community embraced him wholeheartedly. Oh wait, they didn't. This series was a critical and commercial failure. But that doesn't mean it's not good. It just wasn't what people were looking for in the early days of the 21st century. It had too much of a sense of humor about itself.

And that's about it for Helfer's career, though he did work on a few years of "Legends of the Dark Knight" stories, on the editorial side, and he penned a twelve-issue series "Batman: Journey into Knight" for the bat-offices in 2005-2006, but I'll admit to ignorance on that project. It has never been collected by DC. Everything I've read about it says that it wasn't the Helfer we all once knew (and some of us loved), but reflecting on his career has made me much more curious about it then I was when it originally hit the stands and I'll have to track down that series and talk about it in a future column.

But the point is that here was a guy who was central to so many memorable comics of the 1980s and 1990s, a guy who somehow found himself in charge of a couple summer event books and ended up guiding us toward "Millenium" and "Invasion!" which, even in their failures, were typical of his unusual approach to superheroes, and storytelling in general. And he went from that, and narrative and aesthetically-impressive highlights like "Justice League" and "The Shadow" and "Twilight" to leading a major DC initiative in Paradox Press to drifting off the surface of comic book landscape in the last decade. When you're Andy Helfer and a comic book biography of a presidential candidate is your only paying gig, you know you're pretty far from Earth-AH.

I don't know the story behind the story. But I know Helfer has been instrumental in bringing some of my all-time favorite comics into our reality. And, even as his spirit remains, captured between the hardcover collections and inside the long boxes, I can't help but wonder where Andy Helfer has gone. And whether he left comics behind, or whether comics left him behind.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, andy helfer, justice league, the shadow, paradox press

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