Comic book “events.” They started out so small and rare, a guest appearance of one hero in another’s book. If a book warranted an Annual issue, that was a pretty big deal, at least as a reader. DC gave us the annual tradition of a JLA/JSA crossover. There were even a couple Marvel/DC crossover books. Major storylines happened in individual books along the way, but that was pretty much it for most of the Bronze Age. Then came Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars. For good or ill, comic book publishing has never been the same.
Marvel and DC found they could—shocking, I know—sell more books with these “event” stories. Many hooks were used to bring in more sales, but one emerged from a quirk of distribution in the way the direct market worked. Numerous distributors and distribution methods had cropped up to provide stock to local specialty comics shops that had arisen in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. By the mid-90s, the business had shook out to one major player, Diamond Comic Distributors, getting new issues to stores every week to go on sale on Wednesdays. This led to a calendrical peculiarity. Most books came out 12 times a year, but some months had five Wednesdays instead of four. Instead of filling in with the occasional late book, annual, mini-series, or special, in 1997 DC decided to try something new, a “fifth week event.” Thus, Tangent Comics was born.
Initially the brainchild of Superman writer-artist Dan Jurgens, other creators were brought on board to round out the creative teams of the nine issues that make up the event. Thanks to my recent subscription to DC Universe, I was able to revisit the story for the first time i n 20 years. Also, atip of the hat to ComicBinding.com for a handy reading order.
The Atom is the best entryway into this new universe. The Tangent universe is an alternate history, with not only different heroes than the regular DC universe, but different historical events. Chief among them is an escalation of the Cold War in the 1960s and a Cuban Missile Crisis that results in the nuking of Florida. As we learn the history of the Atom, it neatly orients us in this new universe, setting up threads that are picked up or echoed in the other titles. With script by Dan Jurgens, and art by Jurgens and Paul Ryan, this book is a fun read and does a lot of expositional heavy lifting at the same time. One of the fun things about the Tangent books is that they’re not just new twists on the title characters. It’s a whole, rich, new universe. As well, along the way, you get name-dropping and Easter eggs of familiar characters and concepts, but with a totally distinct spin. I could probably spend a whole post indexing all the references.
Metal Men continues to fill out the alternate history via an interview with the President of the United States, Samuel Schwartz. Back in 1968, Schwartz was part of a special military unit known as the Metal Men. They go on a mission to Czechoslovakia to retrieve a chemical weapon. This time scripted by Ron Marz with art by Mike McKone, another team pulls off the balancing act of world building, filling in character backstory, weaving in overall plot threads, and name-checking up a laundry list. Oh, and telling a good story, too.
Green Lantern probably receives the most praise and attention of the Tangent books. This is due, in part, to the stellar creative team: James Robinson, John Ostrander, Andy Lanning, and Dan Abnett on scripts; J.H. Williams III, Georges Jeanty, Mike Mayhew, and Ryan Sook on art. They give us a book that relies as much on the horror/mystery titles of the Bronze Age as it does on a spin on super heroics. This is an anthology book, complete with a framing host in the person of the new Green Lantern. This one’s power is to temporarily bring the unquiet dead back to life so they can complete a task that will allow them to rest in peace. The stories, again, stand on their own and add to the world building of the universe.
With The Flash, scripter Todd Dezago and artist Gary Frank give us our first plain old fun issue. Lia is the daughter of astronauts and the first child born in space. Her strange genesis has gifted her with powers that she uses as the Tangent universe’s Flash. It’s mostly a light-hearted, humorous book, but with a bit of a dark undertone. Lia’s father is an agent of a secret organization that wants to use her as a weapon. Her mom is obsessed with her daughter’s career and celebrity. So along with the fun of a teen lead there is a base of family drama, combined with the threads of a bigger plot of the machinations of the secret organization Nightwing.
Sea Devils deals, literally, with the fallout of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In its aftermath, sea creatures mutated into humanoid forms at an accelerated rate. They are looked down upon and shunned by most of humanity, especially by the denizens of New Atlantis which has been built in the American southeast after the destruction of Florida and a good chunk of Georgia. Scripter Kurt Busiek and artist Vince Giarrano give us a tale of a human girl and a Sea Devil boy trying to cope amid the conflict.
The Joker is a reimagining with a surprising amount of visual flair. Karl Kesel’s script and Matt Haley’s art moves along at a brisk pace, lulling readers into this just being a bit of a caper, a lark. As the mystery of who the Joker is unfolds, the story reveals itself as something more. This gives us much more of the real impacts the altered history of this world has had on people. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but let’s just say the Joker’s motivations are less anarchic and more linked to the tragedies of the nuclear strike on Florida. This is a harlequin in sad clown mode and a levity hiding a purposeful mission.
John Ostrancer is a fitting choice of scripter for Nightwing. This book combines spies and the even darker occult secrets at the heart of their hidden organization. Ostrander has a deft feel for both elements. Jan Duursema handles the art, as we finally learn the history behind the cabal that’s been looming over the entire Tangent storyline. Again, I don’t want to spoil. It should be apparent from what I’ve said here that Nightwing, like any good spy org has its fingers into a lot of the goings on in the Tangent universe. Add a history going back centuries and involving a mystical element, and you’ve got a pretty cracking conspiracy story.
Secret Six is another fun entry, this time from Chuck Dixon on words and Tom Grummett on pictures. This is a big team-up book of some of the characters we’ve seen in the solo books along with a few new ones thrown in. One of these is the Spectre, which is one of the most dynamite designs and interesting characters to come out of this event. Another is an effective rethink on Plastic Man (the big blue dude on the cover). The solo characters are handled very well here, too, and the team’s affinity for each other doesn’t seem forced.
Doom Patrol, by Dan Jurgens and Sean Chen caps off the event. Here, we get a time travel story with the titular heroes fleeing a dying Earth in the future to save it in the past. Only, as you would expect, time travel is a little more complicated than that. They feel they can’t reveal their origins, even when questioned on how they could possibly know what’s going to happen in the future. The story concludes rather open-ended, which makes you wonder if there is still a ticking clock in the Tangent universe’s future?
I had fond memories of these books, though I let them pass from my collection nearly a decade ago. Revisiting them was one of those delightful occasions that the reality held up to recollection. The event’s success led to further fifth week events from DC, including a further trip to the Tangent universe in 1998. With a few intermittent mentions in the intervening years, Tangent characters would pop up again in 2008 in a series called Tangent: Superman’s Reign. Post-Flashpoint, they turned up in the Convergence event. Thanks to my DCU subscription, I’m going to have to work my way through those, too.
This is a series well worth revisiting and it would be interesting to see more of them as DC seems to be embracing the multiverse once again. Only time will tell.