DP7: Gruenwald and Ryan’s Soap Opera
by Travis Hedge Coke
Comprising thirty-two regular issues and extra-length special, DP7 is a mid-1980s soap opera in comics form drawn by Paul Ryan and Mark Gruenwald. DP7 followed the lives of diverse Americans, as they are changed by a mysterious white flash that blanked out the entire sky. In the days and weeks following, many people find themselves possessed of superhuman attributes or inexplicable abnormalities and disabilities. Several of them find way to a hospital in the midwest, and our title seven (that’s Displaced Paranormal 7) escape in the night, into the woods, and begin a tour across America pursued by hospital staff, mercenaries, vigilantes, and a harsh world, before… well… the rest of the story.
DP7 was created with the conceits of “the world outside your window,” and honoring the then-current anniversary of Marvel Comics by doing a modern take on what made the Marvel Universe different: leaning into the kind of realism that highlights flaws and empathy. Plotted only issue to to issue, DP7 was consciously designed to mimic traits from contemporary hot television, including soap operas, seriocomic on-the-run shows, DP7 combined the charming cast of characters of a sitcom with the emphasis on high-emotion stakes moving across issue after issue seen in soaps, and today, in the arrangement of deliberately binge-friendly programs. Gruenwald aimed for a “punk/new wave” name for the comic, and to place its world, its style, squarely in an 80s dominated by Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Dallas on the tv.
While never escaping a middle class white male tonality, having a principle cast of seven that included two black characters, three women, while allowing nonwhite characters to know other characters of their own ethnicity and for women to engage with one another over more than only men could be novel in a comic today, but was virtually unheard of in white-led comics or television of the 1980s. Call up in memory the few times black people appeared in The Golden Girls, the most remembered example being the episode where two of the primary cast appear in pseudo-blackface as a joke. The title character of Benson living in a kind of isolation. The novelty of nonwhite characters ever appearing in Cheers, or that even in the 1990s, the title character of Frasier loathed every single black character to appear on the show, up to, and including the episode where Frasier cannot tell a black woman how obnoxious he finds her uneducated lying self, because he’s afraid of offending a black person, but still willing to impersonate a black woman, with voice and hand gestures and throwing his hips around, for his family.
Storylines such as the gang war between a black gang, a youth gang, and other themed cliques can play a little tin-eared, but compared to an era-relative Silver Spoons or 80s movie icons like Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong? Scary black people in Adventures in Babysitting. Gruenwald, in the late 1980s, looked back at DP7 as a comic set in a consciously alternate reality, alternate history, unlike the Marvel Universe or DC Universe, which clearly are alternate to our reality, even alternate to our history, but are usually treated by creatives as if they are not, and comics like Killraven (set in the future of 2019, after a Martian invasion), or Watchmen, which stacks its alternateness with a multi-term Nixon presidency, and plays out pretty atrociously in its use of nonwhite characters, even if you can get over the hump of some of the social dynamics and “psychology” with female characters.
Watchmen is a great and substantial comic, still loved by many today – it’s shadow is cast over all of American comic books of the late 1980s, and definitely Gruenwald’s – but the specific machinations of Watchmen’s Nixon empire or some technological and thereby cultural differences are unexplored because they are not the story. A DC “imaginary story” or Marvel-published “What If…?” could generate twenty pages or a miniseries about ramifications. DP7 was able to take us through stages of not just ramifications but what led up to them, and as an ongoing series, what came later. It is, in many many ways, an alternate 1980s.
Gruenwald and Ryan, along with colorist, Paul Becton, letter, Janice Chiang (who handled the title from issue #16 through to the end), inker, Danny Bulandi (#10 to #32), and some of Lee Weeks’ earliest professional comics art in the 1987 annual, put together a thirty-three issue single narrative with characters who continue to feel real, true to life, and remain emotionally affecting. DP7 can be read an issue a month, as published, or binged en masse. Rather than existing in a sort of timelessness as traditionally Marvel’s serial comics have, DP7 progresses relatively close to a real time schedule mirroring its original publication dates.
Many of the social and interpersonal concerns are as relevant today as they were in the late 1980s. Race, politics, sexuality, gender, class, pop preferences and regionality is the bread and sauce of this sandwich.
While the breadth of black characters gives multiple perspectives, the only pro black or black majority groups are decried for militarism while “good” white characters train and develop combat maneuvers without question, including an out in the woods survivalist. Our man group’s (white) therapist handles her patients in a nominally compassionate fashion than barely disguises reaganite lackeyism. The most abusive (white) patients are the security detail as soon as the patients are treated closer to equal with the staff. Not all patients are as equal as others.
There are complexities within multitudes, however, and the “good” white dominant group – our protagonists – wonder why the young black woman left them while referring to her as a “broad,” as if she is a child, and after exhibiting classic white liberal racism.
The writer’s “white middle class midwestern America[n]” background, by his own admission could cause some missteps in comics, though he consciously attempted to bring in characters of color, voices and presence that was not white. In his somewhat concurrent Captain America run, Gruenwald had to take corrective measures when it was explained to him that combining the terms Bucky, and Buck, with a black man, had racial, and racist connotations. In DP7, one black character, Pittsburgher and former fast-food manager, Jeff Walters, teases another character, Charly Beck, calling her, “Char-baby.” If that was not meant to stir up the term, “tar-baby,” in readers, it certainly did. Or, the white teen who calls her, “Charcoal.”
DP7 broke some unexpected ground in Marvel-published comics, from an elderly regularly-appearing character, Lenore Fenzl, showing sexual awareness and an active, non-novelty sexual appetite, to concern over STDs, racial dynamics that were not overcome by the well-meaning of white men (including Randy O’Brien, a young doctor, up to then, one of the most sympathetic characters, who realizes he could sleep with a black woman, but he would never marry her or bring her around his family), and playing no games with domestic abuse and who is at fault.
Halfway through, Gruenwald and Ryan threw out, “the world outside your window,” and dove into making their own different world that still strongly reflected, and even sometimes dented into ours.
“We brought many of our real-life experiences, both positive and negative, to the series. We loved our characters,” Ryan told Back Issue!
The exploration of the side effects of superhumanity as genuine disabilities was present in some short comics, including Marvel’s own story of their Invisible Man, by Jack Kirby, a character who, though capable of living at high speeds, also aged quicker than normative humans and died a young old man. But, it is with Fantastic Four, drawn and often at least heavily co-written by Kirby, with Stan Lee, that the conceit is given an ongoing narrative application. Early Fantastic Four saw its primary characters afflicted by their powers – self-igniting, turning invisible, being a lumpy big monster man – as well as being able to turn those powers towards exploration and rescue missions as superheroes.
The primary characters of DP7 are not superheroes. There are moments where they take on aliases, that they then completely fail to ever use, toying with superhero-like nicknames, and some characters, as years go by, do try their hand at being superheroes, but the emphasis is on factory workers, stay at home moms, CIA operatives, doctors, dancers, high school drop outs and presidential candidates being those things. The disabling aspects of what happens to them is not erased or particularly eased b the chance they could some day stop a bank robbery or be kidnapped by an international criminal in a metal mask. Super strength may come with chronic muscle pain. Uncontrollable glowing might ruin chances of procuring a job, might disrupt family life. The super-speedster of the comic cannot stay still without extreme sedation. Another person secretes an acid that ruins clothing within a few times of wearing an item. A dancer who can subconsciously affect friction may not have a visible disability, but she is still disabled.
When our fleeing cast are pursued by mercenaries in one issue, they try, in the next, to bring law enforcement in, and when the police threaten them, they fight back, but in fighting, even trying simply to disarm and escape, they give one officer a concussion, and remove a finger from another. In many science fiction or on-the-run narratives, this would be acceptable collateral without a second thought, but in DP7 these are injuries they feel responsible for treating, and circumstances that hurt them, emotionally, and affect how they proceed in the future.
The naturalism of Gruenwald and Ryan’s work differs, in DP7, even from how their work plays in other comics. Two of comics most solid pros, both lost to us much too young, they came together on DP7 with a very televisual pacing and comfort, arranging the comic both for those who read comics frequently and audiences who do not. Characters are introduced and re-introduced in each issue without ham-handed declaration of power stats or an attempt to give every character a key sound effect or catchphrase. Dynamics grow, change, die on the vine or flourish into new flowers as the comic moves along. The characters, unlike traditional superheroes or comedy comics, are maturely, and modernly socially aware. AIDS exists, without being a satire or parody. Religion dominates some lives without transforming the person into a megalomaniacal villain or a pathetic waste. Race is itself, and not a mutant or werewolf proxy. Behavior in issue #7 will not be conveniently forgotten or underplayed in issue #28. The characters of DP7 live in a world of consequence.
DP7’s main characters engage in theft, early on, of food, of a commercial bus, but outside of food and transport/shelter, they do not take a criminal route. Even when family members are pressuring an exorcism or law enforcement is antagonistic, they attempt to abide by the standards of their society and to behave civilly.
Early in the comic, we primarily follow Dave Landers, a cheese packing factory worker who suddenly went bald, grew several feet in height, and gained much in body hair and muscle mass. His body belies his inner world, a romantic, a formerly conventionally handsome man who did not realize he was. He is quick, in early scenes, to clarify that the woman helping keep him alive before his hospitalization is a friend, a co-worker, not a romantic partner, and though he has an instant attraction to Stephanie Harrington, a married woman, he is careful not to abuse her trust in favor of those feelings, and spends much of the series conflicted over whether or not he is being fair to her, and even at times, if he is being fair to her abusive, and ultimately 100% scummy husband.
Early in development, when it was still possible the comic would be called, Missing Persons or, Displaced Persons, Gruenwald committed to a study of fourteen superhero teams and their relative comics, in an attempt to basically make a Venn diagram where his cast, his book would not crossover much with any of the other fourteen concepts or their traditional execution. That might be why sales were never amazing, because doing everything different is not the same as doing everything well, but it does give the comic a breadth of dynamics, a wealth of diversity that other comics, especially of the time, really do not. There is more attempt to be diverse, realistically and fairly diverse, in DP7, than maybe in any other 1980s comic with a science fiction or fantasy bent.
DP7 was also Marvel’s first and sole attempt at a long-form serial romance comic in many years, and remained so, afterwards for quite some time. While there are chases, fights, mysteries, espionage, betrayals, friendships and family crises, it is romantic entanglements that primarily move the comic along, scene to scene, issue to issue. It is the love life of David Landers, ultimately, that provides the series a spine and nervous system even when the comic angles off into being a war comic, a thriller, a horror, an adventure story.
The emphasis on romance and conspiracy should mean that DP7 actually aged into a bigger, broader, sturdier audience in the 1990s, while X-Files and WildCATs ruled the roost. This should have expanded and strengthened exponentially, through the oughts and the new teens, here in 2020, but a poor showing in reprints, with only one seven-issue collection briefly in print, as resulted in DP7 being largely forgotten, often ignored, and if invoked at all, usually the butt of a received wisdom joke.
If you are looking for a comic with a healthy page count to binge over a few days, dive deep into a world, splash around among some intriguing characters, tense plots, heartfelt engagements and the occasional hijacking, DP7 is here for you.
DP7: Gruenwald and Ryan’s Soap Opera
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