The Germans call it “schadenfreude,” or happiness at the misfortune of others. That sentiment prevails within our culture – it’s why Mystery Science Theater 3000, TikTok cringe videos, and the entirety of Reddit even exist . We laugh at the shortcomings of our fellow man not just for sheer entertainment, but because that awareness offers a sense of transcendence from our own fears and failings.
But what if instead of turning our noses up and chuckling at the awful things of the world, we looked on the bright side? Leapt headlong into pop culture’s refuse bin, sorted out the worst comics to be found, and shined them up extra nice to find meaning amid the awkward plots, irksome characters, and obtuse dialogue?
This is “Digging through the Dumps.”
Issue/Series: New Talent Showcase #14
Publisher: DC Comics
Release Date: February 1985
The 411: Running from January 1984 to October 1985, this anthology series was the brainchild of several DC Comics mainstays, including Marv Wolfman and Roger Slifer. While the point was to highlight new talent, NTS wasn’t always a career-maker. For every Javier Saltares (his art appears in issue 14, and was later a huge part of the awesome ’90s Ghost Rider) and Darwyn Cooke (his very first story appeared in issue 19), there were other artists/writers who’d later be forgotten by the comics annal. After just 19 issues (including the final four re-titled as Talent Showcase), DC axed the series. A single issue of volume two debuted in early 2017, but like its predecessor quickly went the way of Tuesday’s trash.
The Awful & The Ugly: Among the crimes against modern literature perpetrated within issue 14, there’s the minor and the malicious. The first three stories in the book are the former, mostly hackneyed versions of Twilight Zone stories.
“A Hero’s Choice” finds an alien giving imagination-based superpowers to a middle-aged man, only to teach him a cheesy lesson about the power of dreaming and self-love. If you love unabashedly hokey ’80s sci-fi, even you may have some trouble swallowing this slice of deep-fried sugar.
Meanwhile, “The Trial” is the most blatant Zone rip-off, an overbearing tale about a futuristic criminal justice system involving an overly complex system of chairs and laser guns. (Don’t. Ask.) If that seems wildly immoral, you should also note that it’s a heavy-handed critique on ethics and personal responsibility.
Yet even those two don’t quite touch “The Fan,” in which a nasty comic writer is forced to pay for his terrible behavior toward nerdy followers by living with a group of these all-powerful alien dorks. As far as meta comics go, it doesn’t get more excruciating.
Still, all of those together can’t hold a candle to the true trash-ter-piece of issue 14, the 24-page “Roosevelt Project.” The long and short of it is that a group of scientists created a superhuman (the titular Roosevelt), who runs away from his home in search of answers. There’s so much wrong with it, like the overwrought dialogue; the completely unlikable nature of the protagonist Rosie; the incompleteness of the finale, and it’s superliminal broadcasting of an agonizingly positive spin; the random religious undertones; the awkward narration; the undermining of an actually enjoyable point (why Roosevelt was made in the first place); the lackluster romantic interest; and a million other threads that all drove a railroad spike of anger and confusion deep into my skull.
There’s properties so bad they become good, earning the status of “entertainment” given jut how much thought and effort to suck that profoundly. Yet this story isn’t that at all, and it plays out like a half-cocked version of The Bourne Identity and Frankenstein (which, Roosevelt references because of course it wasn’t obvious enough). The story knows what it is from the very start yet can’t seem to build into anything beyond sad set pieces hinting at the main themes (humanity’s inherent value, our search for a place in the world, etc.) Roosevelt’s referred to as being like a newborn baby, but you’ll likely be the one left crying.
Saving Graces: As mentioned above, the first three stories aren’t all that terrible. “A Hero’s Choice,” especially, is actually quite charming in its overt embrace of deeply cheesy storytelling. And “The Trial” should generate a chuckle, even if it’s one that makes you feel slightly dirty afterward. These stories are fun enough and utterly disposable, the sort of fare you’d expect from these anthologies. They’re empty calories like a bag of chips, and while they’re not puffy Cheetos, at least they’re not Cool Ranch Doritos.
Even “The Roosevelt Project” deserves some praise, despite the fact that it’s the comic equivalent of walking face first into a kitchen cabinet. The pacing as a whole, with Roosevelt’s origin spread over three stories, is generally solid enough. It may not be the best version of itself, but it’s structured in a way that moves the action along to help readers understand Rosie’s confusion and desire for freedom and existential certainty. As an extension of that, there’s enough elements at play – the lab Roosevelt was created, the new friends he’s made, a potential post-freedom mentor – that feel weighty enough. A place that exists with real stakes and nuance, even if we don’t get to see all (or enough) of it. Additionally, there’s story threads here that are generally interesting, like the stuff about psionics and parapsychology, that make it stand out in a way that nearly distracts from the forced cliches abounding. None of this is necessarily enough to “save” the story, but it does help to contextualize the whole shebang and highlight where exactly it just went wrong (which appears somewhere between steps 4 and 5 of the Frankenstein adaptation handbook).
What Have We Learned?: The story’s three-part approach really pulls all the weight. It’s a surprisingly gutsy and impactful approach that you don’t always see in these anthologies; even if done poorly, there’s still more story meat than with other offerings, and that matters. At the same time, this story makes a strong case for why these anthology series generally opt for smaller offerings. There’s something about the brevity and the directness that comes with a five-ish-page limit that really helps draw out the creative vigor. In the case of “Roosevelt,” it’s clear that, among other issues, there was just too much space to fill, and that hurt the entire piece. Limiting the space, and providing much-needed rigidity, influences the scope and overall approach for writers and artists, and the story in particular is a strong example of how quickly things go awry when you mess with the anthology formula.
DC still earns beaucoup credit for making a series that featured so many first-time creators. As a rule, comics can be a wildly stratified industry, and it’s difficult for creators to break into bigger publishers/books. An anthology series means there’s a chance to let folks shine, and if things go wrong, there’s not nearly as much at stake with, say, a Batman book. Plus, another thought I couldn’t shake: the creation of Image Comics just a few years later.
Now, I can’t say at all that this book contributed to that monumental sea change. However, perhaps NTS was the first sign of much-needed change for an industry that hates such shifts. The initial micro-crack in the dam that would become a ’90s renaissance ushering in more young (and diverse) talent working on far more creator-owned enterprises. That upheaval started somewhere, even if it’s in the attitude that the young kids deserve a seat at the adult table.
And speaking of change, it’s interesting to look at NTS as a great lesson for DC regarding the proper way to conceive and deliver anthologies. For instance, from 1987 to 1989, there was the horror-centric Wasteland, which featured Del Close and John Ostrander and a rotating group of artists. Not only did they stick to the motif of unrelated stories, but having Ostrander and Close take the lead served as a powerful creative anchor and selling point. Vertigo had two similar titles – Gangland and Flinch – in the late ’90s, and those built on similar lessons regarding focus and a balance of untapped talent and established folks. (Flinch No. 2 teamed the young-ish Brian Azzarello with the veteran Eduardo Risso, pre-100 Bullets.)
Again, it’s hard to make any actual correlations, but it’s clear that anthologies are an imperfect science, and each new project provides important insights and a new piece of the roadmap.
Final Thoughts: I came across this series/issue by digging through old boxes at an antique mall. Something about the cover spoke to me, and I knew it’d be worth the $1.86 regardless. In many ways, that discovery and this subsequent review is a larger analogy or metaphor for this ongoing editorial series. Crate-digging is an essential element of comics collecting, and folks open themselves up to all sorts of possibilities when they jump into something sans prejudice or context. Sometimes you find a gem, but more often than not, it’s a dirt clod.
That should only strengthen the collector’s resolve to keep digging. Because even the worst comics provide insight into a creator or a publisher or an important trend. And if nothing else, there’s still something worthwhile about taking chances and considering pieces of art that feel obtuse or awkward – the way your brain exerts effort like one of those old-timey strongmen. In the case of issue 14, it’s going to require some pretty heavy lifting.
Bad Elevator Pitch: “The Roosevelt Project” is like Memento meets The Six Million Dollar Man as set in the universe of Days of Our Lives circa 1985.
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