|Cover from a US reprint|
Burgess: "No. No it isn't".
In 1988 the UK comics industry was in rude health, and the publishers of much loved sci-fi comic 2000AD decided to bring out another fortnightly anthology comic called Crisis, aimed at adult readers. It ran for sixty-odd issues and was most notable for it's distinctly left-wing slant most obvious in one of the two debut strips - Third World War. It's the other strip that ran in the first fourteen issues that we're talking about today though. The New Statemen, written by John Smith and mostly illustrated by the fantastic Jim Baikie (both credited as co-creators), with a few issues done by Duncan Fegredo and Sean Phillips. It's a complex tale of artificially created superheroes called Optimen, each one assigned to a US state, in the year 2048 that also sees England (and England alone) as the 51st US state (a common left wing nightmare scenario at the time).
Frankly the story is so crammed full of detail it becomes somewhat inchoherent and is somewhat undisciplined structurewise making it hard to follow in places, squeezing too much detail in too few pages. In the following summary I've simply concentrated on the storyline following the three main characters, Dalton, Burgess and Meridian, stripping out all the side-plots and characters that only appear for a couple of pages overall. I know at the time, I was fourteen and mostly enjoyed the strip for Jim Baikie's art which I tried so hard to emulate and my interest dropped quite dramatically when he wasn't doing an issue as the writing didn't particularly draw me in back then. The story really needed more space to expand, to understand it fully you had to read the densely wrtten text articles that began each issues story. These provided historical background in the same way the text parts of Watchmen did. Unlike Watchmen you really did need to read them to understand what was going on, rather than them being an optional extra.
|Each strip opened with a text piece|
|Burgess, wracked with guilt|
Phoenix: "Look in your hearts and you'll see a vision we all share. The vision of a united America, where we have pride, where we have meaning...where our children have a future. Where there are no more charlatans...where there are no more radicals... where there are no more liberals.. or liars.. or subversives...or revolutionaries. We have had enough. The future of this country is on your hands."
Dalton: "..You're the perfect Englishman. Quiet, reserved, self effacing. You've even got the funny accent. And just between you and me, you're a lot better looking than Vegas."
He grabs Burgess's hand and his words peter out as they gazes significantly at each other.
Meridian, meanwhile goes to the dead body of the asasssin and reads whats left of his mind and discovers someone intefered with it to turn him into a killer. She and Vegas break into a gang house and get the address of The Mission. Waiting there are many more gang memebers. Vegas kills them all, while Meridian finds the priest, who begs for his life saying they had no cboice about being affiliated with a gang and they didn't push their drugs to kids. Meridian leaves Vegas to deal with him.
|Vegas in action|
|Meridian composing a poem|
"I think I know
I think I am
I think I saw
The Burning Man
And in the night
And cross the sea
I think the Burning Man
At the Optimen reunion, Burgess drunkenly laments how he was chosen to fight the ELA and how the Royalists sold his country down the river. Later we get a subtle look at Dalton and Burgess's growing relationship with a frame showing Dalton tenderly kissing Burgess's hand and telling him he's always cared about him. Meanwhile Meridian is having a premonition that something is coming and it's going to kill Cleve. She carries on probing and has a terrifying visions of a burning skeleton asking who she is. After a flashback through her life, she goes to Dalton's room and finds him in bed with Burgess.
|The Dalton/Burgess/Meridian love triangle|
|BOOM. Headshot. Phoenix takes out Burbank|
Phoenix: "I've been chewing the innards of this city. Imagine that. Before today only a handful could boast that they'd lived through such an atrocity. Now everyone will have their story to tell."
He says that the Halcyons exposing his involvement in South American atrociites "set him free". After beating down Vegas, Phoenix is attacked by Dalton, who then tries to escape, but Phoenix is wating for him. After he is beaten up, Burgess and Meridian arrive. Meridian cradles Daltons battered but still living body. Burgess attacks Phoenix, but stops when Phoenix says he can make Dalton love Burgess. Burgess stands back and allows Phoenix to smack Meridian and goes to Dalton, who mumbles for Meridian.
|Bad luck Burgess|
Phoenix and Burgess then fight in the water, while Meridian tries to get Dalton to a safe place. Recovering a bit they return and join minds, attacking Phoenix together and frying him, turning him into the Burning Man Meridian had a premonition of. And this ends the main storyline, though there is a two issue epilogue.
|Meridian with help from Dalton kills Phoenix|
In the final issue it is revealed that Vegas is still alive, though on life support. The rest of the Halcyons are at Cleve's funeral and the love triangle has been resolved.
Dalton: "I never got any of this crap from Burgess."
Meridian: "Go back to him then if you want someone who'll fawn over you, see if he'll have you back. Burgess might be a little screwed up, but I'll think you'll find even he's got more self-respect than that."
In the garden of the building the wake is being held in, Meridian encounters the strange white-faced, eyeless man Cleve saw before he died.
Meridian: "I want to know what happened to Cleve."
Man: "They crucified him. I'm what he died for. I'm what he became. I'm the little piece of machinery that keeps all you States people goin' an' when you die, all the pieces fit together to make me. I am the Angelus... I am the future, and the future is me. And the future is red with my blood."
|The Mystery Man|
Most notably, the respectful treatment of male homosexuality. First though, lets check out what was going on with the depiction of gay men in mainstream US comics. In 1988 DC introduced the shortlived comicbook The New Guardians. One of them was a gay man called Extraño. And he was a walking gay sterotype, and not just one gay stereotype, he was all gay stereotypes rolled into one. He was a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love. And he was also fucking HIV postive. So, not a great step forward for representations of gay men in comics. Now there is nothing wrong with being a flamboyant gay man. Indeed John Smith himself would go on to write the very camp Devlin Waugh. It was more the fact that the first mainstream comicbook representation of gay male sexuality was so crammed full of all the worst gay signifiers that it resulted in the most homophobic gay character ever created by people who genuinely had good intentions.
|Pictured: Gayness, apparently|
Crisis wasn't some top shelf adult comic you had to go to a specialist comic book store to buy like The New Guardians. Nor was it plastered with "For Mature Readers" labels either. I bought all my copies of Crisis from my local newsagent where it was filed alongside 2000AD and the various other anthology comics out at the time. The best thing about Burgess was he was as normal as a superpowered metahuman could be. He was thoughtful, handsome and sensitive and refused to partake in a lot of the most dubious activities the Statesmen undertook and felt overwhelming guilt about his part in an atrocity while other Statemen don't seem to care about normal people as collateral damage. He's definitely the one who has the audiences sympathy in the early parts of the comic, coming the closest to a viewpoint character the strip has. Showing him and Dalton in bed together either about to have sex or having just had it is something I doubt you'd see even today in a mainstream comic book, the same goes for Dalton trolling for casual gay sex in a bath-house.
|There are no euphemisms, this is clearly stated to be a gay bath-house|
[ADDENDUM: There was actually an epilogue to the series I missed first time I posted this as I hadn't read the rest of my CRISIS collection yet. In issue #28 we get a look at the world seventeen years on from this which seems to have lapsed into chaos linked to the third generation of Optimen being created and only seven of the ones left at the conclusion of the main series still alive. Most notably it covered the history of the creation of the Optimen including a couple of things that would crop up in later superhero stories such as a normal woman being killed by carrying superpowered babies (The Boys) and whales being used to carry the foetuses to term instead (Batman Incorporated). It feels a bit like several ideas for planned sequel series were crushed down into one single chapter and coming over a year after the series reached a natural conclusion, feels a bit superflous. Still lovely Jim Baikie art and that's always good to see]