As a dumb kid without much in the way of allowance, most of my early comics acquisitions came from the bargain bin. I was painfully out of the loop when it came to the events of the ’90s and my knowledge of comics history was fragmented and sparse, cribbed from backmatter and little yellow editor boxes more than direct reading. So when I spotted something called Mystery Incorporated for a quarter, I grabbed it because it popped out in a sea of already despised polybagged X-Force titles, the flat yet vivid colors striking me as cool and different rather than nostalgic. The 1963 accoutrements were a little odd to me but I figured it meant these were reprints, which was fine, a good 75% of my “collection” at this point was comprised of reprints anyway. It took about a decade for me to realize Mystery Incorporated and its companion titles were part of an Alan Moore project called 1963, and the realization of that and the sudden awareness of all of its little riffs and jokes and references made a comic I simply loved for the fun of it as a kid all the more interesting. It moved me to reread the series and study up on it, now that I was armed with better knowledge of both the project and the history it references. But if I had grabbed Crime Destroyer #1 as a child instead, I doubt it would have remained in my collection for longer than a week, let alone decades.
Crime Destroyer is the first installment of Josh Bayer and Fantagraphics’ All Time Comics project, an absurdist superhero line that more or less functions as the 1963 for a comics movement Kim O’Connor has dubbed “the Post-Dumbs”:
“So far as I can tell the Post-Dumb hustle is in taking loaded imagery, emptying it of meaning, and then decorating its husk with an aesthetic strong enough that people will mistake it for an idea. I don’t know how else to say it: there’s nothing there.”
You can levy a lot of criticism at Moore and his 1963-era collaborators, and obviously the influence Moore and company had on mainstream superhero comics has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, but hollowness of ideas is not a problem in that scene. I don’t think Bayer and company are directly commenting on 1963 or other “meta-comics” projects (honestly, that seems a bit beyond their awareness), but it’s clear that in their heads the aims are the same.
At the time 1963 was released, its publisher Image was mostly offering up blatant rip-offs of the Marvel material the founders were involved with before they went rogue and 1963 was a logical, more thoughtful extension of that, taking everything back to the origins of Marvel, complete with mock backmatter and fake ads. All Time Comics is a bizarro twist on that on several levels; it’s coming out via Fantagraphics, a historically anti-superhero publisher, and features a core group of creators who are aesthetically unified the way those Image founders were. It also seems to be more DC-oriented, with Crime Destroyer functioning as a blaxploitation Batman and his rival Atlas a Superman/Green Lantern hybrid.
That’s about as deep as the commentary gets, though. From the previews and ads Fantagraphics put out for All Time Comics, it seemed pretty obvious that the entire project was going to be a vain, self-indulgent mess but it’s impressive how Crime Destroyer surpasses even those worst case scenario predictions. Before you even open the comic, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been handed the floppy equivalent of those bootleg action figures everyone mocks on Twitter:
Jim Rugg’s cover is the most visually cohesive moment in Crime Destroyer, featuring mostly flat coloring and minimalist character designs that falsely give you the sense that this comic will be fun if somewhat uninspired. But the layout of the cover is a goddamn mess. There are no less than three All Time Comics logos on the cover in addition to the Fantagraphics logo and the title logo, and four different font styles cluttering the design. The colors, particularly in regards to the dude being stomped to death, are garish but serviceable, until you realize this is as tasteful as the coloring will get for the entire issue. Crime Destroyer has a trememendous number of problems, but this pointless refusal to stick to any kind of palette is one of its most obnoxious issues.
For some reason, the blue and chrome palette Crime Destroyer himself has on the cover is abandoned in the comic’s interiors, with Alessandro Echevarria decking the title character out in hideous purples and pinks, centered by an aquamarine torso piece. The Post-Dumbs all indulge in obnoxious coloring, but their character designs and backgrounds are usually less cluttered and more simplistic, making it more fitting. Here, in an urban superhero book, it feels accidental and flip rather than intentional and abrasive. It’s like no one gave Echevarria any actual instruction other than “please make all your coloring decisions via a pantone roulette wheel.”
Crime Destroyer’s erratic costume coloring makes him disappear into most of his scenes, a vaguely human pile of purple lumps against an equally lumpy city backdrop, usually also purple or pink or green. Crime Destroyer’s skin also tends to have a disturbing rancid meat color to it, not because he’s a Deathlok-esque zombie vigilante but because Echevarria has no interest in using color to express anything other than nausea.
Bayer’s childishly simple script would be more forgivable if he were the type of creator who could at least bring together more talented artists and direct them with confidence. Instead, it seems clear that his flaccid storytelling and lack of vision failed to inspire anyone involved with this project in any meaningful way, making the script’s failures glaringly obvious. The story of Crime Destroyer is your run of the mill Silver Age forced team up concept; Crime Destroyer is contacted by a friend who is in jail and needs Crime Destroyer to check on his family, but the problem is that family lives in a city under the protection of Atlas. Atlas doesn’t like the way Crime Destroyer does business, so they come to blows, go their separate ways, and then have to rescue one another from a gang of “pilgrim hat” wearing sewer mutants.
For the bulk of the comic, Crime Destroyer provides rambling, idiotic commentary on everything that is happening around him. Destroyer talks in a clipped form of dialogue that makes it clear Bayer has never actually heard how real humans speak, let alone ever encountered slang; at one point Crime Destroyer thinks “Sweet mother #$*@ Christmas” because hey Luke Cage is cool now I guess so why not throw in a reference to that. There’s also a scene where an androgynous Jimmy Olsen analogue appears, just to shout his name and relationship to Atlas and immediately get shanked. Obviously, it’s common for modern comics to mock the hamfisted style of Silver Age material, and its over reliance on exposition, but usually there’s a reverence to it, or a wink and a nod, or anything to make it clear the creators know what they’re doing and what they’re riffing on and how you’ll react to it. In the case of Crime Destroyer it merely feels lazy and pointless, it never arrives at any commentary let alone any grand statement about comics’ history.
There’s also something depressing about Bayer’s use of Silver Age icon Herb Trimpe for this project as though that immediately makes the project rise above amateur pastiche, and the fact that this is one of Trimpe’s last works compounds that. Trimpe struggles to bring much life to Bayer’s plotting but Post-Dumb vet Benjamin Marra’s inks are almost antagonistic towards Trimpe’s art, making it hard to tell who’s responsible for any given scene’s failures. There’s also the curious issue of Rick Parker’s lettering, which abruptly shifts in style halfway through the comic, morphing from a cramped, scratchy form to a clearer, more obviously Silver Age-influence style. These issues make reading Crime Destroyer an exhausting, agitating experience, robbing you of the bewildered joy that usually comes from discovering a work so batshit crazy and poorly constructed. On a purely technical level, Crime Destroyer is like the comics equivalent of the notoriously shitty movie Birdemic, but without any of the clueless amusement or sense that it was created by idiots just trying their best.
Which forces the question: who the fuck is All Time Comics actually for? It’s not like indie comics people haven’t ribbed on super heroics before and in more interesting ways. Fantagraphics luminaries ranging from Daniel Clowes to Los Bros Hernandez have all indulged in takes on superheroics to far better results, and even Post-Dumb icons Johnny Ryan and Benjamin Marra have published a fair number of superhero works. But all of those creators went into those comics or strips with an immediately recognizable point, be it mockery or an attempt to scrutinize nostalgia. As an introduction to All Time Comics, Crime Destroyer isn’t just a failure, it’s an epic misstep, the kind of thing that makes you question everyone involved, from the creators to the publisher who greenlit it.
Pure and simple, All Time Comics is a masturbatory exercise. The most optimistic perspective on it is that it’s an intentionally shitty release, intended by Fantagraphics as proof positive that there is no art in the superhero genre. For the publisher, it’s a win-win; Post-Dumb acolytes will flock to it for its lab built ironic coating, while the art comics crowd will scorn it as the ultimate fulfilment of superherodom’s shallow origins. Either way, comics as a medium loses.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover