Jemm, Son of Saturn
(1984-1985 - 12 issues, DC Comics)
Script: Greg Potter. Pencils: Gene Colan. Inks: Klaus Janson, Bob McLeod.
Jemm is a mix of super hero and sci-fi, borrowing dibs and dabs of inspiration from various sources, including ET: The Extraterrestrial. The story concerns Jemm, a red-skinned humanoid alien who arrives on earth, believing himself the last of his people, and who befriends a young ghetto child, Luther. Actually, one wonders if creator Greg Potter was consciously or sub-consciously inspired by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrene's mid-1970s Marvel series, Omega the Unknown -- also about an enigmatic alien, pursued by mysterious alien killers, who develops a bond with an earth boy who lives in the ghetto (in both the alien and the boy don't communicate verbally). Though if so, Potter's take on the theme is far less strange and abstract.
And what unfolds over 12 issues is uneven, sometimes flawed...but also reasonably intriguing and occasionally compelling. It becomes more effective as it gets further into the SF and space opera. It starts out earth-based, with a conspiracy flavour, as we are introduced to a corrupt businessman, Claudius Tull, a power hungry Senator, and a CIA man with a grudge. But though Tull remains a villain throughout, the others are written out early.
By that point though, we've begun to learn more of the history of Jemmm's people, who were almost annihilated in a racial conflict between red and white Saturnians. Jemm discovers he isn't the only survivor of his people, but Potter avoids going too easy a route. Jemm's belief that all Saturnians are equal doesn't sit well with either the Whites (who are trying to kill him, and all the Reds) nor many of the Reds, either (despite initially welcoming Jemm as their saviour). Potter provides some shading and nuance to some of the Saturnian characters, so that even if we don't agree with their actions, we can understand their motivation -- including the democratic leanings of some, which causes even the reader to question Jemm's position of privilege as the hereditary prince of his people. It's this aspect that lends the series' its greatest air of sophistication, a sense the philosophical undercurrents are sincere...at least, more than just token window dressing to jazz up the fight scenes. There are even a few interesting creations, such as the alien Koolar, white Saturn warriors with the ability to possess inanimate objects.
The art is by Gene Colan, an artist I tend to regard highly for his distinctive-but-eclectic style, that somehow manages to marry a hyper realism with a distorted cartooniness. Yet Colan has his problems, his style, and his compositional experimentations (a phase I think he was beginning to move into more with this series) sometimes working...and sometimes muddying the scene, rather than clarifying the action. The first half is largely inked by Klaus Janson (who had worked with Colan on a Batman/Detective run) and the second half by Bob McLeod. McLeod's inking came sometimes overpower a penciller, but here Colan shines through nicely, with the McLeod inked issues better than the Janson inked ones. Janson's inks tending to emphasize the murkiness of some of the imagery, making it sometimes unclear what's going on. Still, overall, the art is rich in mood and atmosphere.
This was apparently Potter's first major comics work...and Potter himself maybe demonstrates some of the curiousness of a comics career. That is (at least according to a bio he provided for the first issue) Potter's intro to comics seems a bit like a creator's dream. In the '70s he sold a bunch of short stories to various horror and mystery anthology comics, basically right off the bat (no papering his wall with rejection slips), dropped out to pursue a "real" career, then got a hankering to write comics again. He landed a meeting with DC where he emerged with an invite to submit proposals -- yeah, he didn't show up with a brief case full of samples and ideas, and he's still invited to pitch something. So he comes back, not with some back up filler or something, but a proposal for an epic 12 part maxi-series...and DC goes for it, even pairing him up with a veteran like Colan. And for a brand new property, at that -- although, apparently the initial concept was to have Jemm be a Martian and related to J'onn J'onzz (who, at that point, had yet to enjoy his renaissance...so it could be that Jemm was pitched as simply a revamp of a pre-existing property). This connection explains Jemm's physical similarity to J'onn, and maybe why the surface of Saturn owes more to early 20th Century pulp fiction than anything an astronomer would endorse. But when so many writers and artist will tell tales of slowly working their way up through the ranks, Potter's career rise seems like a fairy tale (though it probably wasn't quite as easy as it sounds)
Yet Potter's comics work seemed to be relatively short lived, I think culminating with his leaving the post-Crisis revamp of Wonder Woman in mid-stream after Potter found -- like so many creators before him -- that there's no guarantee you're the top dog (as his editors sided with artist George Perez over him in the story direction). The reason I say it's an illustration of the comics biz is because one gets the impression that, well, few people get rich in comics, so it's very much about working for the love of it -- when the love is gone, so is the writer or artist. Hence why comics seem to be full of people -- even successful ones -- who just walk away from it (whereas in Hollywood, people may feel creatively stifled and violated...but stick with it because the pay cheques are so fat).
Viewed as a writer's first long form work, Jemm is not without its teething pains. As mentioned, there's almost a sense Potter kind of changed direction in mid-saga, shifting focus from earth-based conspiracy, to the larger canvas of an alien civil war. The dialogue is okay, without being exceptional, and is sometimes a bit clunky and heavy handed. Many of the characters don't really emerge as fully fleshed out -- including Luther! And this for a series that clearly viewed itself as being about the relationship between Jemm and Luther.
Ironically, like a lot of writers starting out, Potter evinces a certain cockiness in his commentary, suggesting some of the radical things he wants to do...that don't seem that radical. Even his decision to set the story during the winter seems less radical when, simultaneously, the opening arc in Roy Thomas' Infinity, Inc was also set mid-winter. He knocks the past portrayal of blacks (suggesting Luke Cage and Black Lightning were interchangeable)...yet his blacks also live in an inner city ghetto of crime and drugs, and where the primary black character, Luther, is a little boy...joining a rather long, non-radical list of black boy's in pop culture from TV's Webster to The Spirit's sidekick Ebony.
Don't misunderstand. There is nothing particularly negative about what he's doing. I just think he maybe thought he was being more progressive than he was.
I don't actually have all the issues (I have most). Yet unlike how comics are written today, there's usually enough recapping, and expository dialogue, that you can follow what's going on even if you're missing an issue or two. And despite being a "mini-series", not every issue ends on a cliffhanger, again, making it something you can pick up and sample
How well Jemm did, is hard to say. Certainly the letters page comments by editor Janice Rand suggest it was doing well, and that there were plans for a follow up special (even leaving a plot thread unresolved). But they never happened, though Jemm has had a few -- a very few -- appearances in subsequent DC Comics (though I think with some post-Crisis revisions). It's also interesting that there's an unusual high level of female letter writers -- so was that a reflection of Rand's selections (maybe to deliberately encourage female readers, by showing "hey, comics ain't just for boys!") or did the comic genuinely appeal to women (as well as guys) more than a lot of comics?
Ultimately, Jemm, Son of Saturn isn't a lost classic, and has some misses and hits both, but it is a reasonably interesting, occasionally off-beat saga, that works -- even with a guest appearance by Superman -- as a work for itself (as opposed to needing an encyclopedia of DC references to follow).