It was a good time to be a DC fan in the early Eighties, as the company bounced back with unexpected speed and agility from the nadir of the infamous Implosion and the threat that DC, and maybe even comics, might vanish. Instead, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and George Perez, Marvel-exiles all, assigned to a series that at least one of them didn’t think could last, let alone would, turned The New Teen Titans into DC’s first genuine Direct Market success and, for much of the decade at least, things were on the up.
That half-decade, leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a fun time for experiments. Marvel did Marvel, and did it harder than ever but DC, under a management that accepted being Number Two and concentrated on providing more diverse experiences for older readers, came out with a number of fresh ideas, offering their readers things that differed.
It wasn’t always successful. Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller was deliberately impressionistic, to the point of wilful obscurity: it flattered to deceive though I retain fond memories of it and all twelve issues, even the ones written by Bill DuBay that turned it into a hideous mess. On the other hand, Len Wein’s leftfield throw to hire a British writer from Northampton to totally invert his baby, Swamp Thing, changed the entire industry for a couple of decades.
In this atmosphere, a writing team consisting of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn started getting regular assignments at DC, consciously intent on bringing a kind of updated Silver Age fun into an industry that, under the influence of The Uncanny X-Men, was trending towards anger, pain and other dark elements. They would make their most substantial contribution towards that goal in 1984, with the creation of Blue Devil (which efforts would lead to one of the most stupid letters ever printed in a comic book anywhere in the world). But the previous year, they and artist Ernie Colon came together on a bright, lovely and fantastic in the best sense twelve-issue maxi-series, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld.
The story pitched for a strong, fairy-tale like atmosphere, deliberately geared towards a female readership. It structured itself as an adventure, with a nod towards superheroics of a kind that, without which the book would not have sold, but by making its lead character a young, almost pre-pubescent girl who, magically, transforms into a beautiful Princess aged twenty – adult but still close to her girlishness – Mishkin and Cohn used archetypal tropes to hold the attention of an audience not geared to comics.
And in Ernie Colon they had the perfect artist: clear, clean, with bold black lines, influenced by Gil Kane in his action sequences but, best of all, able to draw Amy Winston as the thirteen year old girl she was, and Amethyst as a tall, blonde, long-legged and beautiful woman who drew the eye as a clean-cut and non-sexually threatening figure and, best of all, relate the two versions of the character to one another.
Colon’s art was both dynamic and comforting. He had a knack for the implausible landscapes of a fantasy land, the Gemworld, rendering them in a sharp-edged style that made them look realistic, even as his art was comforting and cheerful.
Mishkin and Cohn played their story cleverly, aware of what elements were standard tropes and dealing with these with confidence instead of the knowingness that would have undermined and destroyed the series. Amy Winston was an ordinary, blonde, freckle-faced thirteen year old, an only child of ordinary parents – a businessman and a child psychologist – and basically happy with life and school, until she is pulled inside a portal, a hole in the wall, and finds herself aged twenty in the mysterious place known as Gemworld where people she doesn’t know are trying to kill her.
Over the first half of the story, the writers let Amethyst experience things, doling out information as needed to advance matters. Amethyst and Amy alternate. The opening page of the story riffs on the child-like trope of believing your parents are not your real parents and that you are secretly a Princess, and plays with that. Amy is not the daughter of Herb and Marion Winston, but of Lord and Lady Amethyst, the beloved and benevolent rulers of Gemworld, a fantastic dimension founded by the witch Citrine, who led the folk of magic out of medieval Earth to live and prosper here.
Gemworld is divided between Twelve Houses, each named after Gemstones – Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Garnet, etc. – ruled over by the House of Amethyst, until, that is, the evil Lord Dark Opal built forces to usurp their rightful leadership. Lord and Lady Amethyst sacrificed themselves to enable their baby daughter to be saved by Citrine, placing her with the Winstons, whose own baby had just died in childbirth. Time flows differently between the two realms, thus enabling our heroine to be simultaneously 13 year old Amy and 20 year old Amethyst., depending on where she is at any given time.
The second half of the series forsakes Earth and the Winstons. Dark Opal is planning to achieve ultimate power, by securing a chip from every House’s gemstone and welding these into a breast plate that will make him invincible. Amethyst intervenes to prevent the marriage of Lady Sapphire – allied to Dark Opal – to young Topaz, the Prince Charming of the bunch, and thereafter builds a coalition of, eventually, the eleven remaining Houses that finally destroys Dark Opal and all his realm.
Then Amethyst is able to return home and become Amy again, though she knows that if ever trouble recurs in the future, she can transform into her secret identity by returning.
The whole series was a charming blend of the superheroics, which lay under the surface, and the fairy tale. I didn’t buy it at the time but found a complete set very cheap in a Sheffield shop that provided me with tons of my pre-eBay Eagles. I enjoyed it, especially Colon’s art, which combined clarity with a Perez-ian ability to add detail without obscuring the eye. In the end, it failed to survive one of my periodic culls of the comics I didn’t regularly read but I’m very happy to have it back on DVD-Rom, taking up no space whatsoever.
The Maxi-series was a success, enough to spawn first an Annual, in 1984, then an open-ended series, starting from no. 1 again. This I’m reading for the first time. It doesn’t augur well.
It’s an all-too-common failing. Mishkin, Cohn and Colon conceived Amethyst as a complete story, developed over a number of years, and intended to run contrary to the standard DC output. It was a success against the odds of a comic book structure not set up for such things. DC wanted to replicate that success. Mishkin and Cohn wanted to further explore the world they had created. The Annual was conceived as a lead-in to the new series. But maxi-series are complete because they have an ending. That sounds incredibly trite but it makes a massive structural difference.
For one thing, Ernie Colon dropped out. The Annual was drawn by Ric Estrada and Pablo Marcos. Instantly, Colon’s bright, sharp images and their distinct lines were lost, as was the whole fairy-tale aspect. Estrada and Marcos were plainer and more conventional of line. They eschewed panel borders, marking no separation between images. Their art was overall more drab, their layouts less distinct.
Nor was the story up to scratch. It started on Earth with Amy and her best friend Rita (a red herring in the maxi-series, possessing an Opal stone) playing basketball when a dwarf breaks through and tries to steal Amy’s amethyst pendant. To fight it, she transfers to Gemworld, with Rita in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the new Lady Emerald is about to be invested, whilst the impulsive, red-headed Lady Turquoise is mooning over golden-haired Lord Topaz (who is mooning over Amethyst) whilst young Lady Emerald confronts some mysterious menace. Amethyst rescues the munchkins from their land, the former Dark Opal territory but has to rescue Rita from a cat-like menace that turns out to be a former witch’s familiar, transformed by strange magic into an evil intent on conquering Gemworld. To neutralise it, leaving Rita behind temporarily, Amethyst and young Lady Emerald take it back to Earth where it turns back into a cat, but find their portal back to Gemworld blocked. Throw in lots of superheroing in the form of magical battles and you can see the problem: not only is the freshness drastically dimmed, but the story is all about setting up the new series, leaving the Annual incomplete. Something tells me not to read the new series…
Because one thing that always enters in with an open-ended series is Soap Opera, those unending sub-plots that drag down and trivialise events, like Princesses immediately starting to whine like adolescent girls. I got just two issues into the new series, pencilled by Ric Estrada and, for one bright moment in issue 1, inked by Ernie Colon before Romeo Tanghal took over, before deciding not to read any more.
The thing is, as it has taken me a lifetime to learn, you don’t have to accept everything in the DC Universe as real. Just because they publish it, just because diverse hands and minds – the latter term to be read metaphorically – have contributed doesn’t mean that you have to treat it as all being ‘real’. I choose to ignore the latter Amethyst because I can see already that it’s going to be absolute twaddle, even when written by Mishkin and Cohn, and edited by Karen Berger. The Maxi-series is a polished gem, and I’m content with that.