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Tip for comic-book collectors: you can find back issues of a comic cheap if it's a) non-continuity and b) for girls. That's how I stocked up on old marriage-themed Lois Lane
comics (yes, even the one where she marries the Devil) to display at my wedding reception a few years ago. And that's how, just last week, I scored the entire original 12-issue Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld
maxiseries for three dollars. So nobody else at Hayward-Con wanted to ride a flying unicorn through the Gemworld. Their loss.
Why, in 1983, DC suddenly decided to publish one (1) adventure comic for girls is something of a mystery, and Amethyst
's failure to reach its target demographic is suggested by the fact that 90% of the letters in the "Purple Prose" column are from adult men who already buy twenty other DC comics. But it could have been big; after all, Tokyopop built its entire empire upon Sailor Moon
, a license that every other American publisher rejected because everybody knew that girls' comics didn't sell. And Amethyst
managed to survive, even thrive, for a while. The twelve-issue maxiseries was followed by an annual, which suffers from the loss of Ernie Colón's imaginative high-fantasy art, then by a continuing series that lasted for sixteen issues. I haven't read the continuing series yet. The quarter bin at Hayward-Con only had about half the run.
creators (all male except for editor Karen Berger) approach it seriously as a fantasy adventure, not just a "girls' comic" or a "kids' comic." This thing feels like a labor of love. Writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn hit the ground running. Thirteen-year-old Amy Winston becomes hot blonde warrior woman Amethyst on page four, and immediately gets abducted by an ogre, meets the flunkies of her arch-nemesis Dark Opal, is nearly raped (some kids' comic), watches a monsterish fellow kill ravenous lizards with his bare hands, makes it to Castle Amethyst for exposition and a nude bath scene, and learns how to use her rad magic powers. In the next issue, she's kidnapped by a handsome rogue assassin and has to kill his robot tiger while her golden retriever fights a wolf pack. Life is fast and cheap on the Gemworld. And I confess to a weakness for caption-box text like: "He rules his domain with an iron will
and with animal cunning
—even, upon occasion, with diplomacy and tact
Ernie Colón is a gifted artist who doesn't get as much attention as he deserves, probably because superhero comics aren't his forte. He's spent most of his career drawing Harvey humor comics
and oddball fantasy projects like Amethyst
, and Magnus: Robot Fighter
, which I think fans like mostly because it's called Magnus: Robot Fighter
, for Pete's sake. He does a lovely job with Amethyst
, designing elaborate page layouts and filling them with grotesque monsters, ornate costumes, and eclectic fantasy architecture. The panels are packed with detail, like the little monsters running around in the Gemworld's forests, or the twisted faces that peer for absolutely no reason from its cliffs and trees. It was Colón's idea to give Dark Opal a brooch with a face on it that mirrors his emotions, like Wade the Duck's inner tube in the "Garfield and Friends" cartoon. Okay, maybe I'm the only one who remembers "Garfield and Friends" that vividly. But good one, Colón.
The plot is as simple as it gets: Amy travels to the Gemworld, where she discovers that she's a long-lost princess and has to save everyone from the evil reign of Dark Opal, a sneering blue stripy guy. The Gemworld is divided into twelve kingdoms named after birthstones, and Amethyst goes around rallying their leaders in the fight against Dark Opal. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, she gets her own flying unicorn.
I was five when Amethyst
debuted. By the time I was old enough to really enjoy unicorn-riding, magic-gemstone-wielding high adventure, Amethyst
was long gone and DC was busy rebuilding from the rubble of Crisis on Infinite Earths
, constructing a tidy, logical universe cleansed of Gemworlds and Bizarro Worlds and Fourth Worlds and, frankly, any place where something fun might happen. I didn't become a hardcore comic-book fan until I was a nerdy teenager and a much cooler friend turned me on to Neil Gaiman's Sandman
. Very different comic. Same editor, as it happened.
In an issue of Sandman
, one character delineates the difference between boys' and girls' fantasies. "Little boys have fantasies in which they're faster, or smarter, or able to fly," says the dream-stealing Cuckoo. "Where they hide their faces in secret identities, and listen to the people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds…Now, little girls
, on the other hand, have different fantasies. Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses
. Lost princesses from distant lands."
To me, those sound like the same basic they'll-be-sorry fantasy with different trappings (and if you don't think boys dig on the lost-orphan riff, you live in one of those isolated tribal communities in Madagascar where they don't have Superman or Harry Potter), but damned if it doesn't describe Amethyst
to a T. Sailor Moon
, too, for that matter. I can't count the number of shojo manga that open with an ordinary girl being transported to another world where she's important and powerful. It's such a simple, alluring fantasy for put-upon kids. Let's go to this other place where people take you seriously. Let's go to this place where you're an adult
If fantasy adulthood is glamorous and thrilling, actual adulthood can be kind of a bore. During the ongoing Amethyst
series, the character was shoehorned into crossovers and the Crisis, and after that her storyline grew dark and convoluted. Despite merging with the Gemworld at some point, she still does occasional cameos in "events" like Infinite Crisis
, a forgotten minor citizen of a large, impersonal fictional universe that seems increasingly structured like a corporate bureaucracy.
But there was a time when a bunch of guys were willing to put their hearts and souls into crafting an idiosyncratic fantasy comic with the sissiest name in DC history. That's a pretty wonderful thing, even if only the quarter bins remember.
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Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010