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Why Everyone Should (Legally) Download DC’s ‘Chase’ Drawn by J.H. Williams III

One of the great things about digital comics is how much potential there is to get great stories that just didn’t hit the first time around into the hands of new readers. Without the print and distribution costs seen in traditional channels, publishers are able to make a few of the more obscure parts of their back catalogs available to readers at much less risk than they would with a printed comic — and that’s exactly what DC’s doing by offering up Chase through Comixology.

Originally released in 1998, Chase focuses on a private investigator turned government agent whose job was to keep tabs on the super-heroes of the DC Universe. Written by Dan Curtis Johnson with art by J.H. Williams III, it was sharp, creative and well done, but was also short-lived and the entire series was never collected. Now, it’s getting a second chance to find an audience, and if you haven’t read it, you should.If you look back at what DC was putting out back in the late ’90s, you’ll notice that between 1996 and 1998, there were a handful of new titles being published that seem to have an awful lot in common. I suspect it has a lot to do with the commercial and critical success they were enjoying from James Robinson, Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg’s Starman, but it looks to me like there was a sudden rush to catch lightning in a bottle a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) time with books like Hitman, Resurrection Man, Aztek and of course, Chase:

The goal here seemed to be to follow in the footsteps of what Robinson had done with Starman: They all had new characters who drew on the larger DC Universe, but still stood apart and brought interesting new takes on super-hero comics, and they were all produced by the same creative teams for the entirety of their existence. Unfortunately, aside from Hitman — which lasted a solid sixty issues under Garth Ennis and John McCrea — they all had something else in common: They were all canceled fairly quickly, with Aztek and Chase failing to last even a year.

And that’s pretty shocking, considering the incredible amount of talent from the creators involved: Resurrection Man was written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning with art by Butch Guice, Aztek was written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, and Chase featured scripts by Dan Curtis Johnson and art by J.H. Williams III.

I think it’s fair to say that Williams is the reason the book’s becoming available digitally — as well as the recent DC Comics Presents that reprinted #4-6 — with DC hoping to capitalize on his upcoming (and extremely delayed) Batwoman series, and it’s a great choice. Not only does it feature his art, but he co-plots most of the issues, and he and Johnson end up with something that was unquestionably ahead of its time.

The series focused on Cameron Chase, a former private investigator who had just become the newest agent of the Department of Extranormal Operations. Johnson had introduced both Chase and the DEO in Batman #550, and while that story laid things a little thick, it introduced what was at the time a pretty new concept for the world of mainstream super-heroics: Cameron Chase just did not like super-heroes.

This wasn’t an entirely revolutionary idea, of course. J. Jonah Jameson’s been hating on Spider-Man for half a century, and comics pointing out the inherent silliness of super-heroes had taken root starting in the late ’80s, but there was a difference here. Those stories were — and still are — usually done with obviously ridiculous analogues set up as straw men for characters that are already fictional. Chase, however, was set firmly in the DC Universe, with someone actually interacting with Batman and the Teen Titans, and exploring a dislike that wasn’t just an author ripping on characters he doesn’t like via proxy, but felt like a part of her character, built from equal parts job frustration and her own past traumas.

In fact, one of the major hooks of the story was rooted in Chase’s hatred of super-heroes. Well, her dislike of them, anyway; “hatred” in comics generally implies putting on a suit of armor and standing on a rooftop while referring to yourself in the third person, which isn’t exactly her style. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that she had powers of her own that played right into it: an uncontrollable ability that she was either unaware she had or refused to admit to herself, which manifested when she was in danger and caused the metahuman powers in others to backfire.

But rather than just creating the one-note irony of “she hates people with super-powers but she has super-powers herself!“, Johnson and Williams use this sparingly to keep it mysterious. In a lot of ways, it feels like something that Johnson added so that he’d be able to appeal to readers who only like comics about super-heroes by assuring them that oh yeah, she’s totally a super-hero. She’s got powers and everything!

Instead, the focus is shifted to why she doesn’t like them, and explores elements of super-hero stories that other comics would be getting around to five and ten years later. Chase’s hatred isn’t just that she doesn’t like heroes, it’s rooted in the fact that her father was one, keeping it a secret from his family and devoting the time she believes he should’ve spent on fatherhood to a putting on a costume and battling injustice. It’s a similar thread to Jack Knight’s resentment of his father and brother in Starman — an obvious influence, especially with how Williams presents the book — but with the difference being that Chase’s father, known as the Acro-Bat, was murdered in their home in front of her by his arch-nemesis, Dr. Trapp.

Incidentally, the idea of the “Acro-Bat” is the only thing I don’t like about this comic, as a bat-themed hero in Gotham City before Batman sort of chips away at what makes the latter unqiue. But even then, it’s an indication of just how much Johnson and Williams were bringing to the table with Chase. They put more ideas in ten issues than a lot of books have in fifty.

Not only is there the DEO, which has become a fixture of the DC Universe, but the creation of the Acro-Bat and his team — the Justice Experience, which was also used by John Ostrander in his 1998 – 2001 Martian Manhunter series — addressed one of the increasing problems with the sliding scale of continuity, in that there were a lot of heroes during World War II, and then forty years of nothing until Superman showed up whenever “twelve years ago” currently is. And it doesn’t just create something to fill that gap, but with the idea of Dr. Trapp’s serial hero murders, goes a long way towards explaining why others were a little reluctant to take up the job.

And then there are the great plots to the stories themselves: The Clock King creating Supervillains.com and crashing a toy store appearance where Booster Gold is trying to horn in on the Teen Titans’ appearance fees; flashbacks to a battle with cultists who worship Atem; a look at the Red Rockets after the fall of the Soviet Union and a loss of funding for their power armor that left them as just dudes with jetpacks; a spirit who lives in ATM machines and rewards them with money for human sacrifice (and a proper PIN), and a truly great story where Chase is sent to discover the secret identity of Batman, and comes face to face with Bruce Wayne…

…and determines that Batman is, in fact, Gotham City’s own Alan Scott.

Even beyond the stories themselves, though, there’s an innovation in how they’re told. Considering that Chase often finds herself acting as a cop investigating the super-hero community, I’d be absolutely shocked to find out that this series wasn’t an influence on Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers, especially given how those investigations are laid out on the page:

Powers would, of course, catapult Bendis to superstardom just two years after Chase was canceled for apparently being just enough ahead of its time that it didn’t catch on. It’s a shame, too: Much like Aztek, Johnson and Williams introduce a ton of recurring plot threads that they never got a chance to fully explore, including — hilariously — a villain that was introduced on a trading card that came with the first issue, but never made it into the comic since it got the axe before it appeared.

Fortunately (sort of), Chase would later appear as a member of the supporting cast in another cult favorite, Manhunter, where writer Marc Andreyko — obviously a fan of the original series — finally got the chance to continue Chase’s conflict with the man who killed her father, almost ten years after Johnson and Williams introduced it:

Of course, Manhunter managed to outdo Chase by getting canceled twice, but they’re both great books, and Chase in particular laid the groundwork for a lot of great stuff that would come after. It’s been thirteen years since it was first published, and it genuinely reads like it could’ve hit the stands last week. It’s exactly the kind of innovation that should’ve been rewarded at the time, and definitely should be now that it’s being made accessible to the current audience.

The first five issues are currently available on the web, Android and iOS devices through ComiXology, and they’re well worth a read.

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