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Strangers in a Strange Land: The Story of the DNAgents

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In the real world, the DNAgents were created one day over lunch by writer Mark Evanier and artist Will Meugniot, who had got together to decide what kind of book they’d like to collaborate on. A simple enough idea, but the result was one of the most interesting titles that prolific Eighties ‘indie’ company Eclipse Comics ever published, and it still has a small but vocal fan following 20 years after its final issue. There was something about the DNAgents which set them apart from the average super team. For one thing, they were slaves…

In the thankfully not so real world of the Matrix Corporation, the DNAgents were the creations of a group of scientists (notably Dr’s Harden and Vlasov) employed by Lucius Krell, the ruthless and thoroughly obnoxious billionaire behind Matrix – a man who believed that it was the place of big business to rule the world. To Lucius – whose response to his daughter’s murder, we later learned, was to simply clone a replacement – everything and everyone was property, and everything and everyone was expendable, including the five successful creations of the Regeneratum experiment. Surge, Rainbow, Amber, Tank and Sham had other ideas, however.

Of the five DNAgents, the hotheaded energy blasting Surge, the group’s nominal leader, was probably the closest to the traditional super-hero archetype. Rainbow, the group’s resident sex symbol, was a telepath, while the naïve and trusting Amber could fly and manipulate energy. The unimaginatively named Tank, good-natured and gentle, was the armored strongman, while shape shifter Sham could take on any form, but had no real sense of self and considered himself to be worthless. Later, in #13, Sham gained a kind of ‘pet’ in Snafu, a failed attempt to grow a sixth Agent who was effectively a kind of semi-sentient green blob!

Over the course of their two series (DNAgents #s 1-24, March 1983-July 1985 and New DNAgents #s 1-17, Oct 1985-March 1987), a 3D Special and a couple of limited series (Surge and Crossfire & Rainbow) Lucius Krell’s super powered lab rats faced any number of weird menaces, from the super powered agents of Project Youngblood (no relation to the later Image Comics characters; this team were killed at the end of their first appearance) to the undead Cadaver through to the costumed spy Crossfire (later, a second Crossfire became a recurring character, and was also awarded his own spin-off title). But the real focus of the strip was always the characters and their attempts to find their place in the world.

Evanier and his various co-creators on the book (Meugniot left after #14; others who worked with Evanier on the title included Dan Spiegle, Erik Larsen, Sam De La Rosa, Mitch Schauer and Willie Blyberg) made DNAgents unlike any other super-hero series. For one thing, the Agents were not supposed to be heroes. The first issue’s tag line was "science made them, but no man owns them", yet it was clear throughout that a man did own them; they were artificial humans with no legal rights, despite the sympathetic attitude of certain humans to them (notably Dr Harden and Krell’s PA, Tawny).

The obvious move would have been to have the Agents assert their independence and become heroic fugitives, but Evanier opted to keep them in thrall to the Matrix Corporation. Surge and Rainbow wanted their freedom, but Sham saw himself as something apart from humanity, and had no wish to leave the safety of his position as Matrix property. It was not an attitude anyone would have expected, and the self-pitying, self-hating Sham became perhaps the most interesting character in the book because of it.

Every attempt the Agents made to become more than just lab experiments seemed to be a case of one step forward being followed by two steps back. In #4 and #5 (a two-parter divided into the imaginatively titled "Who Killed Angela Krell the First Time?" and "Who Killed Angela Krell the Second Time?") Surge, who has fallen for Krell’s daughter only to lose her to a hired killer, discovers that she is no more human than him, and tries to find both her killer and Crossfire, the man who murdered the original Angela eleven years before.

He succeeds in catching Crossfire, only to find that the spy is unaware that his actions led to a death, and in the process we see that Lucius Krell himself has less real humanity than his creations, as he attempts to cover up his daughter’s murder for expediency’s sake and plans to ‘terminate’ and dissect the rebellious Surge as a failed experiment. In #22, Amber tracks down her ‘mother’, the woman whose genetic code was used to grow her, but the woman has no interest in being a part of her life. Rainbow wrestled with the notion of posing nude for a men’s magazine. Sham finally learned to care about something when he got his ‘pet’, Snafu-but ended up shooting the innocent creature dead by mistake and retreating into himself.

As the series developed, Rainbow’s relationship with the second Crossfire, now a solo star in his own right, led to the DNAgents becoming mainstays of a gradually developing ‘Eclipse Universe’ (an idea earlier deemed problematic since most of Eclipse’s characters were creator-owned). They also had a kind of unofficial ‘crossover’ with DC’s Tales of the Teen Titans #48 (Project Youngblood were clearly based on the Titans, and in the same month over at DC the Titans met a group called "The Re-Combatants" in a story which virtually mirrored Evanier’s). For a time, DNAgents was among the fast growing Eclipse’s top titles. And then, in March 1987, it just stopped. New DNAgents #17 was the final issue.

Normally, falling sales kill a title off, but in the DNAgents’ case that was not the reason. As Mark Evanier explained in the final issue, fond though he was of the characters, he was tired of writing them and wanted to devote his time to other projects. The book would not be continuing without him, a rare common sense decision in an industry which too often follows a creator’s departure by giving his series to a succession of less suitable writers until it simply fizzles out.

The end of the Agents’ story was no less abrupt. Krell, tired of the bad publicity that has come from the public revelation that Matrix have created life, and of the Agents’ rebellious attitudes (he first tries to curb Amber by removing her power of flight without telling her), knocks them out with gas and has the protesting Dr Harden deported home to the USSR. In the final pages, we see the Agents back in cryogenic suspension, and Crossfire learns that Rainbow is carrying his child-a baby which will now likely never be born, since he has no legal means of releasing her. The Agents are property, as Krell points out just before Crossfire decks him.

In 1994, Antarctic Press released a DNAgents one-shot which retold their origins, while in 2004 their first half dozen issues were reprinted in a digest-sized collected edition by About Comics. To date, though, no-one has ever revived the DNAgents. They’re still frozen in time in those cryogenic tubes, endlessly dreaming of a better world. Perhaps they’re better off that way…

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