Live fast… Love hard… Die with your mask on!
A comic book mini-series created by comic’s legend Rick Veitch in 1990 about the relationships between super heroes and their sidekicks. Bratpack is part of Veitch’s Heroica series, and was released by Veitch’s own King Hell publishing company, which are all focused on the deconstruction of the super hero idol. Set in the imaginary town of Slumburg, PA, the book follows the lives of four children who are tapped to become the successors of a group of sidekicks killed after the villainous Doctor Blasphemy calls into a radio show. The disk jockey shows so much distaste and contempt for the youths that he calls for his listeners to poll in with whether the Bratpack should be killed, and if so how?
“Rick Veitch cares deeply about superheroes.
He thinks they matter. That they’re important. That they tell
us things about ourselves. There’s a mixture of love and
hatred here that’s heady, weird, and unique: subtle as a
gang-rape, gentle as a crowbar shattering the skull, sweet as a
dead boy in a bell tower feeding on pigeons.” –Neil Gaiman, Introduction.
To better understand the nature of this comic mini-series you must first look at what was happening in the comics industry when Veitch wrote Bratpack.
DC Comics ran a storyline in Batman called “A death in the family”, a four part mini series in which the life of the dark knight’s sidekick, Robin, hung in the balance at the end of issue three. Did he live? Did he die? They let the readers decide. A one nine hundred number in the back let readers vote on whether the character escaped an explosion, or was trapped and killed by it. The response was overwhelming. The people had spoken. The boy must die. So, in the following issue Jason Todd, who was in fact the second adolescent to don the Robin costume, was found dead in the aftermath of the explosion. The series went on to become highly sought after by comic collectors worldwide, and at the height of insanity it was selling for about forty dollars. A few issues later DC introduced a new Robin, this time sharp tempered Tim Drake, and the whole ordeal was quietly forgotten.
Roughly at the same time a marvel Comics character Northstar, from the title Alpha Flight, came out as a homosexual. Although he was not the first gay superhero, this stunt grabbed the headlines of newspapers and magazines internationally, and drove the price of that comic up to twenty-five dollars two days after its release.
It’s important to note that in neither case did the artists nor writers get any of the vastly inflated profits from these stories. The corporations that owned the characters, and the merchants who owned comic bookstores profited.
Another major factor into the dark savagery of Brat Pack is the relationship between Rick Veitch and his then-employer, DC Comics. Rick was writing Swamp Thing, having taken over the award-winning run by Alan Moore. The storyline he was currently working on climaxed with Swamp Thing, the earth elemental, encountering Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the publisher refused to run the story, Veitch quit his position, and would not return to DC until his recent 2003 run on Aquaman.
“Rick Veitch thinks dirty, grotesque, and completely
unfair thoughts about costumed crimefighters. He remembers
Green Arrow’s ward Speedy, and Wonder Woman’s protégé
Wonder Girl, Captain America’s sidekick Bucky, and the 1940’s
sandman’s assistant Sandy the Golden Boy. He remembers them
and the hundreds of others like them. Innocent kids out there
swinging from tall buildings with their vigilante mentors so the kids
reading would have someone to identify with, so the heroes could
have someone to explain the plot to.” –Neil Gaiman, Introduction.
The camera pans over the filthy city streets of Slumsburg, PA. The reader ‘hears’ a disk jocky from WSLM, Slumburg’s premier radio station. As we sweep past pictures of chickens hanging in the butcher shop, an abandoned car burning in the hot sunlight, and smog rolling out of smokestacks the disk jockey takes calls on the listener line. A man calling himself ‘the Doctor’ calls in, and wants to talk about the superhero sidekick group known to Slumsburg citizens as the Bratpack. The DJ gets carried away, and angrily begins bashing the adolescents. He begins taking calls to poll whether they should, or should not, kill the children. As the callers begin calling in to voice their opinions (which are overwhelmingly negative) the Doctor becomes more and more upset. “Don’t make me do this,” he cries, as the voices of angry callers grow louder and louder.
We then find ourselves watching Father Dunn at Saint Bingham’s Catholic Church performing a baptism on an infant. Weary, and looking very disheveled, he wishes the family of the child a pleasant day as they leave. He is then visited by Chippy, sidekick to the masked vigilante The Mink. He’s upset about the Mink, although we are not sure why. He wants out. He fears for his life. Father Dunn says that he may never forgive himself for getting the boy into this life. The priest asks Chippy if he wants to take confession.
Cody, Dunn’s altar boy, steps into the back alley behind the church to take the garbage out. He finds blasting caps in the dumpster, and then is confronted by Wild Boy, the beer drinking aeronautic sidekick of King Rad. We hear the radio in the background as more and more people call in to display their unhappiness with the childhood adventurers. Cody then runs into Luna, sidekick to the Moon Mistress, who damn near molests the boy as she frisks him for weapons. When Cody tells her of the dumpster full of blasting caps she goes to investigate. Startled, she tells Cody to have Chippy meet the group at the rooftop of the old incinerator. She says that Doctor Blasphemy, the archenemy of the city's heroes, is on the loose again.
The Bratpack meet on the rooftop, and immediately begin to argue and fight. Kid Vicious, the sidekick of the masked avenger Judge Jury, is going through steroid rage and beating another member of the team. Chippy tries to hold them all together, reminding them that if they can’t work together then there’s no way they will be able to stop Doctor Blasphemy. They all laugh at him and call him gay, saying that the Mink is obviously out, so apprentice must be too. Doctor Blasphemy stands high about the group, at the top of the incinerator tower, watching them all. He is listening to the radio, and talking on the phone. We learn that he is ‘the Doctor’ who has been on the radio discussing the fate of the sidekicks. He decides to carry out the wishes of the audience, and tricks the kids into opening the trunk of the Mink’s car, which is packed with explosives. The four sidekicks are consumed in the explosion.
At the funeral, nobody seems as tormented by the loss of these children as Father Dunn. We ‘hear’ again the WSLM disk jockey, who refuses to talk about the ordeal, choosing instead to have a panel discussion about the cities waste management system. The Mink, Judge Jury, Moon Mistress, and King Rad confront the priest after the proceedings. They demand that he get new recruits to take the newly deceased place. At first he refuses, but then they threaten him. Quickly new recruits are found.
The four new children are chosen, one of who is Cody, and a good part of the book is spent dealing with their induction into this new and disturbing world of being masked sidekicks. I don’t want to go any further into the plot of the story, as I don’t want to ruin anything for any potential new readers. I can promise though, that you will be thoroughly amused, shocked, and disgusted.
“The corporations, after all, own the characters. Remember:
Batman isn’t simply a comics character: he’s a movie star,
a lunchbox pin-up, a licensing goldmine. You mess with Batman
and Warner Entertainment gets worried. You screw with
Spider-man, and watch Revlon get upset.” –Neil Gaimen, Introduction.
Bratpack is a slap in the face for the industry and for readers. It’s a reminder of the independence and free spirit that started the comic book movement in the fifties and sixties. Are sidekicks merely used as plot devices? YES. Is it strange to think that a grown adult would spend all their time with an adolescent child? YES. Is the fact that giant corporations have a stranglehold on characters that we’ve dreamt about for years an evil thing? YES, of course it is. I recently bought the newly released trade paperback to Bratpack, and read it for the first time. I love Rick Veitch’s other work, and mostly I couldn’t wait to see what his perspective is on the super hero sidekick. The answer is something that I was unprepared for. It’s sick, twisted, but truthful. It’s ugly, shameful, but righteous. It’s everything you wished you’d never seen, and everything you’ve ever wanted to say. It’s brutal and beautiful. I can honestly say that this book changed my life, and changed the way I will look at comics forever.