In March 1981, the world saw the release of Marvel’s Dazzler #1. Previously a bit part player in the X-Men comics, Dazzler – AKA Alison Blaire – was given her very own run, and with that came a front cover to behold. From the get-go artist Bob Larkin, known for his hand-painted style, had become famous for his striking pulpy inks, through runs of Doc Savage and notably fellow Marvel title, The Incredible Hulk. Larkin had become synonymous with his use of bright colour in amongst the bland and dark, to direct his audience’s eye like a lighthouse – with his Dazzler cover being no less of an example of his craft.
I’d known about this comic book for a little while now. Always noting how cool I thought the cover art was. Finally, last month compelled – and purposely deciding to do no further reading into the actual content of what the Dazzler even was – I went and bought a copy off of eBay simply so I could have it near me, and to show friends when they came round.
And it is such a piece. I love the incredibly dated and oh so cliché comic book adverts you get on the very first page of the book, and that distinct dated smell of the pages, the sandy touch of the paper and the quite literal age that has drowned them; the coffee stain shade of brown, and the dog eared corners that have been thumbed through by God knows how many readers before me. Going out on a limb, I’m confident in saying that this is my favourite ever front cover of a comic book: it’s weird and it’s alien and it’s campy. It’s a total call back to a bygone era and I couldn’t love it more for that. And personally, I’d say that the following story’s weakness only makes me want to love the cover even more. I went to eBay over a download of the comic, purely to have something physical. To see the artwork with my own eyes, to touch it even. This cover for me perfectly illustrates the winning argument that comics are an art form.
Dazzler, determined to make it as a professional singer, pops from the page in a white one-suit, atop roller skates. She sports chains and blow-dried hair, with a chrome microphone in hand. Alongside its bejewelled main title, acting almost as its own headliner act. Naturally, Dazzler sparkles, and Larkin has encompassed that nightlife and energy associated with the time into his art. Reaching out to the man himself via email, Bob said this:
Bob Larkin (cover artist): John Romita Jr. had worked out her costume and, editor, Louise Simonson approached me to do the cover. I was first choice because I was doing a lot of #1 B&W cover magazines for Marvel starting in ‘73 ‘74. It was simple. Louise asked me to do the Dazzler with her whole costume, microphone, disco ball around her neck and her roller skates. Add four other characters, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thing and such. I don’t remember doing a sketch for her – Marvel trusted me to do the right thing. I shot a model in a bathing suit with my photographer Bob Osonitch, went home to my studio and started drawing. Within a couple of days it was finished. I got the painting into Manhattan up to Marvel. They loved it and gave me my next cover to do.
It’s like a scene out of Boogie Nights, really, and just like that film you can smell it in the air, and can feel just how artificial the lighting is. This character is showcased as this It Girl, she’s calendar–esque, which comes with the territory of her image being based on actress Bo Derek after her performance in the comedy movie, “10”.
What astounds me so much about this cover is that it doesn’t require anything much more than it’s protagonist simply being there. There’s no promise of some game-changing comic book brawl, or even any font telling us what we should expect, as the model stands entirely on her own; this mural is all parts beautiful, cheesy and sleazy. Larkin’s hand-painted approach to me feels almost like more time has gone into it, more passion, which is obviously ridiculous and art isn’t measured like that, but it just does. It’s a disco ball of a throwback, knocking down the pins of our perspective. Rather like the 1970s and 80s, it’s jarring and very much of its own style. It’s ABBA, it’s multi-coloured, it’s big and obnoxious jukeboxes and circular vinyl. And it all comes from Bob Larkin’s background in creating posters for film. Just looking through his work for Hollywood, on fellow 70s titles like Piranha, and Kingdom of the Spiders – particularly low budget schlocky B Movies – one can see how his artwork translated so perfectly to the world of comics in general, and with Dazzler it screams of a join-the-dot look back at the 70s decade milieu.
It’s pure timeframed gimmick worldview. Dazzler is wearing Nike and listening to her Walkman, whilst drinking Pepsi in slow motion, and saying “Here I am”. Dazzler is a product of a time, and – whilst not directly – the exact sort of product that filmmakers like Anderson and Linklater were looking back at, harnessing and, yes, fetishizing. Because nostalgia is a powerful thing. Especially for the 80s right now as filmmakers have grown up (and forgotten enough about it) to remember the time fondly. Dazzler’s cover and the comic’s content itself is very much, and stealing from Boogie Nights again here, a money shot of the 1970s and early 80s – a very specific viewpoint of an in your face onomatopoeia of a decade, more than willing to highlight and promote its own gimmicks and time staples. The Dazzler does its best to be a reminder of that, a loud air freshener of a memory of what that time was.
THE DAZZLER COMIC IS a money shot of the 1970s and early 80s – a very specific viewpoint of an in your face onomatopoeia of a decade, more than willing to highlight and promote its own gimmicks and time staples
With the 1980s just around the corner at this point, the cover has a funky energy to it. You can basically hear it. It’s Disco, and it’s karaoke, with a major influence of Saturday Night Fever (having hit cinemas just two years before the cover was conceived in 1979). We see Marvel’s guest stars also featured on the front have an almost kitschy American chat show feel to them. You can feel the influences of the time heavy in the piece – Dazzler was originally conceived as a movie/record/comic tie in with Casablanca Records. Keen to capitalise on fellow client band KISS’s megalomania approach to branding and merchandise, and instead here reverse-engineering the idea with a fictional character. Casablanca struck a deal with Marvel to create Dazzler and we got the Tom DeFalco/John Romita Jr take that would last for 42 issues until March 1986. As a small aside, you can see the Kiss reference in Dazzler’s face makeup, which is very similar to that of Ace Frehley’s on-stage persona. So keen to push forward with this character, a spec script for a Dazzler live-action piece, intended for Casablanca to produce, was written by Marvel’s Editor Jim Shooter over a weekend with the view to then become a feature, but Shooter said on his eye-opening blog post:
Jim Shooter (Marvel editor at the time): “Casablanca was being bought out and accounting improprieties were being alleged. The project fell into limbo.”
NOTHING MORE THAN A MAGPIE
And while this #1 comic itself is frankly very forgettable and includes no less than twelve guest stars; including Beast, Spiderman, the Avengers and the X-Men, not to mention the comic’s would-be villain, Enchantress, the story is bloated, giving off a feeling of unconfidence in its own hero – with this inclusion of special guest stars receding throughout the series’ 42 episode run. Talking about issue #2, and following more of these indulgent problems with guest stars, DeFalco said this:
Tom DeFalco (one of the Dazzler creators): We had, like, 34 superheroes in the book? I don’t remember what it was – some outrageous number. [Casablanca] liked all the introductory scenes where all the characters were introduced, but they just didn’t see any need for a fight scene. Originally there was just a one-page fight scene. – via CBR.com, in December 2019
And looking back at this comic now, it does beg the question as to who the character was actually aimed at in the first place. The comic feels like a T for Teen in block capital letters, and suggests that its main character is perhaps aimed at young girls with its retelling of school dances, father issues and an emphasis on performance and singing. Digging a little deeper, you could even argue that it’s a comic and an intro to a character that takes in celebrity culture and with that a consumerism – something that I feel was probably not intentional but rather adds a little weight to an otherwise light story.
And while the X-Men comics were born out of the civil rights movement, Dazzler arrived far later, and in a time where talent in America was sold like gold dust, and snorted up and consumed like cocaine. Dazzler, unlike the X-Men, suggests that one uses their uniqueness and speciality for personal gain as opposed to helping the good of mankind. Dazzler is a character that again, quite literally sparkles – whose main power is a manipulation of light through sound, or music even. However, that itself comes off as a mere side note to the fact that Alison really just wants to make it as a singer. This is a character who would go on to turn down a position with the X-Men repeatedly to instead focus on a career; something very uncharacteristic of a comic book hero.
A WOMAN OUT OF TIME
And while Dazzler has always been stuck in an obscure fan favourite sort of limbo, there is still a call for the character, making regular enough appearances in other comic books like 2015s A-Force.
She has remained a huge mainstay in the queer community for her themes as well; following your dreams, an eye for fashion, and being told to condition by disapproving parental figures and peers making it easy to see why it is a character that this group can relate to. And with a redesign in 2018, and an appearance in the X-Men: Dark Phoenix feature film in 2019 the Dazzler name still holds a level of meaning behind it.
DISCO IS DEAD
For better or worse, you can’t help but feel that Dazzler is simply a product of its time, holding her back and keeping her chained as a funkadelic ghost of Christmas Past, jiving and bopping to an outdated beat. From this first iteration to the very last, the character of Dazzler comes off as an advert cooked up by commercial companies to sell something and cash-in on a trend that was on its way out and becoming very stale. While her look alone is something that both immediately dates the character, whilst simultaneously acting as a time capsule as well, she, and this cover introducing her, if nothing else is a fantastic and awe-inspiring product of its time. In this case, I’m glad I read a book by its cover.