Collects: Chase #1-9, 1,000,000, and several Secret Files backups (1998-2002)
Released: December 2011 (DC)
Format: 352 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9781401232771
What is this?: An agent for the Department of Extranormal Operations deals with the heroes and villains of the DC Universe.
The culprits: Writer Dan Curtis Johnson and artist / co-plotter J.H. Williams III
It’s not often that a penciler gets top billing over a writer on a book. It’s merely a convention that puts the writer first, but it’s a strong one, one that neither publishers nor readers violate without some overriding reason. That being said, there’s a short list of comic book artist who deserves to be listed first, and J.H. Williams III is definitely on that list.
So it’s not entirely surprising that DC chose to put Williams’s name first on the cover of Chase.62 Not on Williams’s later, more acclaimed work such as Batwoman or Promethea, but Chase, a late ‘90s series that followed Cameron Chase, a government agent tasked with keeping tabs on DC’s superhuman community. I have a feeling Williams’s name at the top is more a function of writer Dan Curtis Johnson‘s obscurity compared to Batwoman writer Greg Rucka or Promethea‘s Alan Moore. Yes, Williams is a co-plotter for most of Chase‘s run, but as an artist, he isn’t the J.H. Williams he will become in the 21st century. He even skips most of a couple of flashback issues.
That’s not to say that Williams isn’t excellent on Chase His art is strong, well laid out, and clear; he’s already working with non-standard layouts and non-rectangular panels. He manages to draw attractively without making Chase’s world artificially pretty. But that’s it — it’s pretty, not beautiful, and there’s none of the occasionally breathtaking work you find in Batwoman. (Obviously, I’m spoiled by his later work.) He’s working some things out in Chase; you can’t convince me that Williams would draw something like Chase’s clumsy hold on a pistol today. Also, Chase’s sister, Terry, is clearly v. 1.0 of Stacia from Promethea.
It’s not surprising that DC can collect the entire run of Chase in a single paperback volume and still have room left over for tie-in issues. DC’s trades are often excellent values, but Chase lasted only nine issues plus a 1,000,000 issue, which served as the series’s tombstone. That’s an incredibly short run, probably because it featured a new, low-power protagonist — a new female low-power protagonist in the DCU. By some lights, it’s a miracle it got nine issues. That’s not to say Chase deserved only nine issues, though.
In theory — at least for those unversed in comic-book viability — Chase is a good idea for a series. (It actually is a good idea for a TV show, I think.) Chase travels through the DC universe for the Department of Extranormal Operations, giving her the ability interact with almost any hero or villain. Williams and Johnson have her dealing with the Suicide Squad, Rocket Reds, Batman, Teen Titans, Booster Gold, and a couple of Green Lanterns. She has an interesting backstory: a childhood with a father who was a crap superhero, an adulthood career as a private investigator before she joined the DEO. Williams and Johnson delve deep into her past, with two flashback issues featuring her and another PI fighting the Cult of the Broken Circle. Both stories are fun, and I suspect there were a lot more stories of that type that Williams and Johnson could have told, but I’m also sure two flashback issues in the first nine didn’t help sales any. (Nor would the 1,000,000 crossover issue, if it hadn’t been the last issue.) I’m unconvinced that hinting Chase had superhero powers of her own was a good idea, but since the series had no definitive ending, I’ll reserve judgment on that.
I’m also unconvinced that the series had many more interesting stories left. Johnson and Williams told the story of Chase and her sister confronting their father’s secret hero career, and Chase explained what that meant for her own professional career in Chase #8. In one sense, the series could always have become a peripatetic trip through the corners of the DCU, but once Chase confronted her powers and perhaps her freeloading boyfriend, what’s left? I could see this being a 25-issue series, but that probably wasn’t the plan, and it definitely wasn’t what happened.
Chase’s appearances in the included Secret Files issues certainly don’t indicate there was a need for more stories. These backups are interesting if you simply want more Chase and DEO, but there’s no desperate reason for them to exist other than that, except as page filler. The best of the lot was The Joker: Last Laugh Secret Files, in which Chase and another agent, who survived a botched attack on Gorilla Grodd, interview survivors of the Joker’s attacks. The idea is better than the story, which needed more room to breathe but was still worth reading. The rest tend to blend together, an impression that is strengthened by the reprint editor’s refusal to label these Secret File stories. Evidently, some were tied to a specific storyline; adding footnotes or explanatory text would have helped clarify the incident in Kansas that everyone is alluding to but not explaining. A note that is included from the original printing of (what I’m assuming is) DC Universe Secret Files #1 says Chase’s fight with “Buzzword” (again, I’m assuming, as the name is mentioned only tangentially) is shown from Chase’s perspective in DCU Heroes Secret Files #1. However, that issue isn’t included; why is that? (Was it not published? Not very good? Not included for some other reason?)
I can see why this series is beloved by some. It was certainly ahead of its time, both as a precursor of J.H. Williams’s stardom and as a more grounded, broadly focused look at a superhero universe. I enjoyed and would read more, if it existed. That doesn’t mean the series was great, though it does mean it was better than a lot of other series that lived through horrible patches at about the same time. At $30 for more than 300 pages, Chase is certainly worth a look.
Rating: (3.5 of 5)