Aside from being the title of my favorite New Order song, 1963 was a graphic experiment in time travel devised by famed comic book writer Alan Moore in 1993 for Image Comics. Although 1963 was originally conceived as a six-part limited series with an 80-page annual designed to resolve the cliff-hanger ending of issue 6, backroom politics assured that the annual could never be started, let alone finished. Therefore, as of mid-2006, 1963 remains incomplete and unresolved.
The project itself was begun as a reaction against the state of the comics medium in the early 1990s; comic books by that time had moved so far away from their original intent (escapist fantasy) that they were hardly recognizable as such. Classic titles such as the Amazing Spider-Man had become unnecessarily "grim" and "gritty" in the name of realism (whatever that means as far as superhero books are concerned) and new titles such as Image's own Spawn underscored the disconnect between the medium's origins and its then-current state of existence. On top of this, the growing over-commercialization of comic books that saw each issue mercilessly released with dozens of variant covers resulted in the speculation boom that saw comics rise and fall exponentially in price (to say nothing of "value") for the most mundane reasons infuriated the commercially-disinclined Moore.
While Alan Moore has pretty good anti-pecuniary credentials (he routinely forfeits the royalties to which he is entitled for films based on his works), he is not entirely blameless when it comes to the transformation of comics from something carefree and innocent to something more mature and adult-oriented. Moore's controversial and iconoclastic Watchmen series has cemented his place in comicdom forever. The basic premise of Watchmen is that "costumed adventurers" have been with us in the real world since before World War II and that their presence has shaped everything from foreign policy to energy consumption to mass entertainment. By disassembling the superhero archetype, Moore's 1986 work was the culmination of a trend toward dark subject matter that began with 1973's seminal Spider-Man tale the Night Gwen Stacy Died (in which the popular title character -- Spider-Man's long time girlfriend -- was killed by a combination of the Green Goblin's malice and Spider-Man's irresponsibility). A subsequent Moore work, V For Vendetta, dealt with the grey area between two forms of sociopolitical absolutism (fascism vs. anarchy) and took on questions more typically reserved for the likes of Hegel and Bentham than Lee and Kirby.
The point of 1963, then, is to simultaneously honor and parody the feel-good, free-wheeling comics of the 1960s, specifically those published by Marvel. The art, dialogue, fake ads (one of which invites the reader to "Banish Clear Skin Forever!"), fake letters, and fake bullpen items all evoke the overall Marvel style of the era. Moore even takes on the persona of Stan Lee in a not-so-nice pastiche of Marvel's "work for hire" practices and Lee's tendency to be rather, uh, generous to himself in taking credit for his employees' creations (which, ironically, Image's own Todd McFarlane has something of a problem with doing). While the overall tone of 1963 is playfully satirical in nature, one cannot help but feel nostalgic for the more naïve times described within it.
As stated above, there are six issues in this series. Each issue is from a different imaginary title that corresponds to a real Marvel book/character and the overall story arc that was supposed to be resolved with the nonexistent annual begins with the first issue.
- Mystery Incorporated: Obvious Fantastic Four parody. During a mission, these four astronauts were transformed into Crystal Man (Mr. Fantastic), Kid Dynamo (the Human Torch), Neon Queen (an Invisible Woman parody who has the absurd ability to transform herself into flourescent gas), and the Planet (the Thing) and became superheroes soon afterward. In this issue, a mysterious masked villain walks backwards out of the Maybe Machine and plays hell with the defense systems of Mystery Mile. The masked archer captures Kid Dynamo (who has the ability to turn into an electric current) inside a small television and absconds with him to another dimension with the rest of the team following behind him. There are several pretty funny moments in this one, but my favorite is the part where the Neon Queen does the typical 1960s female comic book character thing and questions her worth as a member of the team. Just as she becomes determined to prove her worth by following the masked archer on her own, she declares that "this is too big a mystery for me to handle on my own!" and calls the boys to handle it.
- The Fury: Spider-Man with minor Daredevil elements. The Fury has no apparent superpowers but comes into conflict with Voidoid, a technologically-inclined supervillain with a close connection to Rick Judge, the Fury's "real" identity (possible Green Goblin reference?). While escorting a large piece of mysterious cargo to help out Sky Solo (a female Nick Fury) Voidoid attacks and unwittingly sets loose the contents of the huge truck: a gigantic, talking tyrannosaurus rex with a brain in proportion its physical body size. In the middle of the battle with the T-Rex, the Fury realizes that he has forgotten to call his mother and runs away to use a payphone and discuss dinner as the creature rampages through downtown New York City. Eventually, the Fury knocks out Voidoid and steals his advanced weaponry to defeat the dinosaur and be home in time for his curfew. The Fury leaves the weapons with Dr. Kent Kane and Marla Mason to analyze them, not knowing that they are in fact Infra-Man and Infra-Girl.
- Tales of the Uncanny: Split title with Ultimate Special Agent (Captain America) and Hypernaut (Iron Man and Green Lantern). The USA portion of this issue is my favorite in the entire series. USA foils the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by dressing up as the President during the motorcade procession and taking the bullet for him (with his bulletproof armor). He investigates and finds the would-be assassin in the school book depository, but the man disappears in a puff of thin air, leaving USA with no clues other than the shooter's seeming twin bound and gagged in the back of the room. USA turns Leo Harley Osborne (hmmm...) over to the Dallas police department and at the last second foils Osborne's assassination at the hands of Brian Ruby, who turns out to be none other than the fearsome bolshevik baddy the Red Brain (the Red Skull) in disguise! USA and the Red Brain fight and just when it seems the commie is going to beat our hero, Osborne steps in and paralyzes him with a futuristic gun before disappearning (again) in a puff of thin air. Meanwhile, in orbit around the earth, the entirely cybernetic Hypernaut battles with a creature from the fourth dimension and defeats it by overloading its brain with information that it can't possibly comprehend. Both USA and Hypernaut will appear later.
- Tales from Beyond: Another split title featuring N-Man (the Incredible Hulk) and Johnny Beyond (Dr. Strange with what has to be Sammy Davis Junior's voice). N-Man is an all-American tough guy scientist who was turned into a large red hulk (no pun intended!) by atomic bombardment. While investigating irregular energy readings in the Yucca Flats (gee, who'd have ever thought that a nuclear wasteland would have unusual energy readings?), N-Man encounters his four-armed Soviet nuclear nemesis, the Cockroach. During their battle, however, they move dangerously close to the epicenter of the testing ground and the radiation shrinks the Cockroach into oblivion. Despite the gravity storm that threatens to pull him into nothingness, N-Man survives and escapes from it (how this happens is not shown). In the second half of the issue, Johnny Beyond encounters a woman from the future who is unaware of the fact that she has gone back in time. For an idea of the way this adept at Tibetan mysticism talks, he thinks "wow! Dig that real gone lingo! I ain't hep to word one of it, except for laundry and that rebop about the Orient!" Anyway, Johnny and his newfound ladyfriend quickly figure out that his house is the focal point of a timewarp and encounters a future version of himself along with his jive-talkin' buddy Lips Lincoln. I need to quote the next few panels verbatim to do the book justice:
WOMAN: It's stopped! Everything's back to normal! I have to go back inside and find John...
Eventually, the past and future Beyonds fight and the younger one is thrown directly into the timewarp as the issue comes to an end.
BEYOND: Lay dead, Lady! Maybe everything is real George...and maybe not! I mean, like, didn't this stairway wind the other way a moment ago?
WOMAN: No way, Jose! This is my apartment and inside I'm going to find...an Afro-American playing a saxophone??
LINCOLN: Hey, Johnny! What's shakin', baby? I done been wailin' like a fool!
BEYOND: Something is jive about this dive, Lips! You pin anything?
LINCOLN: Man, I'm all tore up on muggles! I ain't hep to nuttin'!
WOMAN: Huh? Listen, I'm not into ethnic stereotyping, but all my CDs are gone, and...where are you going?
BEYOND: Later, baby! I gotta see a cat about a conundrum!
- Horus: Lord of Light: Thor. Horus is obviously the Ancient Egyptian god of the sky and exists on the mortal plane as Professor Whittaker Falcon. An overeager student follows him as his Horus persona into Heliopolis and battles Set, Anubis, and Astarte, with an assist from the dead but dreaming Herakhty. The student is put on trial for blasphemy (as mortals are not permitted in Heliopolis unless they are dead) but Osiris intervenes and spares her for her bravery.
- The Tomorrow Syndicate: Based on the Avengers, the members include Horus, USA, Hypernaut, N-Man, Infra-Man (Ant Man), and Infra-Girl (the Wasp). The team investigates the weapons from issue 2 and discovers the secret headquarters of Mystery Incorporated in the process. They go into the Maybe Machine and meet their doubles from other dimensions and hunt for the other missing adventurers. They fly through the Aleph, which appears to be a hub connecting different universes to one another. These other universes reveal themselves to be then-contemporary comic books that Moore et al deemed worthy of praise, including Sin City, Cerebus (the friendship between Moore and Dave Sim is something I will never understand), Flaming Carrot, Steve Bissette's Tyrant (significant because Bissette penciled the Fury for 1963), and several others. Eventually, the team winds up in 1993 and as this happens, the art changes abruptly to a significantly more modernized Image house style. The team comes to bear more than passing resemblances to the Watchmen both physically and as characters. As they wonder what dark world they've stumbled into, the scene shifts to the lair of the mystery archer from issue 1: as Kid Dynamo asks him what his intentions are, the man unmasks and reveals himself to be Shaft from Youngblood. We are then most definitely promised a hair-raising 80-page annual that features a showdown between all of the 1963 characters and Image's own stable of original characters. Naturally, this never materialized.
The thing that really mystifies me about 1963 is not so much that it was never finished, but rather that it ever got started in the first place. One of the myths that Image likes to put forward about itself is that it was started by a group of innocent artists who were struggling against the oppresive corporate structure of Marvel Comics, which desperately sought to steal their intellectual property. While this certainly has a kernel of truth to it, the fact of the matter is that Image was founded by a group of cocky, arrogant artists who wanted more royalties for characters they arguably had no right to in the first place. For McFarlane and especially Liefeld, the train of thought was that the art was more important than the story and that style over substance would sell itself. And why not? The artificially inflated numbers owing to the speculation market seemed to bear this out. Similarly, Image titles like Spawn and Youngblood were some of the worst offenders of the grit-for-grit's-sake mentality that Moore hates so much. What was the logical conclusion of the showdown between the 1963 characters and the modern Image characters? Was Moore (who has never had any problem naming names when it comes to grinding axes) going to systematically dismantle the Image Universe? Did these guys not understand what they were setting themselves up for? Perhaps it was a positive advent for Image, then, that the petty squabbles that have turned the company into the distant third place in sales that it is today saved it from an almost certain savaging at the hands of one of comics' most talented aesthetic terrorists. What I wouldn't give to see Moore's script notes for that annual...