Hello Legions of the Unspoken! Have a listen as Dean Compton welcomes newcomers Jesse Starcher and Chris Armstrong to the site to discuss the forgotten DC Comics gem of the early 1990s, The Hacker Files! It’s non-stop computer action in the DC Universe, and you can goddamn hear all about it right here, right now!!!
Greetings, Legions of the Unspoken! Emily Scott here with yetanothertantalizinground of telling you about a comic that never got to fully explore its potential! Come one, come all and gather ’round to gasp at the abandoned character development! Marvel at the missing resolutions! And if you’re very brave, try your hand at wildly speculating where the unexplored plot points would have eventually lead!
I kid, but as the links demonstrate, a lot of interesting and worthwhile comics never got the chance see how good they could really get, and each one makes me a little sad and wistful, even as I’m simultaneously glad I got to discover them at all. As fans of, say, Firefly or The Clash will tell you (whether you want them to or not), it can be rough to contemplate what might have been with any art that speaks to you, but as the links also demonstrate, good art goes away abruptly all the time, and there’s no use being histrionic or too sentimental about it. Sometimes you read a fun comic, and then there isn’t any more of it, and it’s a bummer. Such is the case here. So without further ado and sans the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, let’s cut right to the Chase. (You knew that was coming. Hell, I made it the title of the article.)
Chase, a DC comic published from the beginning to not quite the end of 1998, follows one Cameron Chase, a rookie agent with the Department of Extranormal Operations. (Its name calls to my mind the opposite of what it’s meant to. I picture of bunch of agents in suits investigating, like, really normal things. EXTRA normal things.) Its ten issues, mostly written by Dan Curtis Johnson, drawn by J. H. Williams III, and inked by Mick Gray, paint a character who feels very of her time but also slightly ahead of it.
Chase is cynical but determined, brave and unafraid to take action, but flawed in more than enough believable ways to keep her far away from fulfilling any Strong Female tropes. She might not feel quite as novel a character in a time when even non-comic readers know the name Jessica Jones, but in 1998 there was a dearth of female characters in any medium written complexly enough to wear their strengths and their weaknesses equally well, and there’s still one now. I may have gotten some 90s nostalgia reading Chase, but there’s not much about it that couldn’t have just been written today and still feel pretty fresh.
There also aren’t a ton of characters who can slot right in to as many different settings as Chase can, but that’s one of the benefits of a perpetually put out character. She feels just as natural rolling her eyes at Batman or scoffing at the Teen Titans as she does sneering at weird mystical creatures or quipping at an Artificial Intelligence. Her scorn makes her feel relatable in unrelatable situations, where you could see why a detachment from her surroundings would make her a top notch investigator. She has a disdain for the superhero (pardon me, metahuman) world in particular, and her choice to inhabit that world anyway and the ways in which she belongs there more than she knows seemed as though they would have been pivotal emotional conflicts had the title continued.
Chase’s first mission finds her in Ohio investigating a case that would fit right into today’s world (well, today’s world if people had superpowers). Jerry, a high school kid sick of getting picked on by a chadbro actually named Chad, is set off by the sight of his crush with his tormentor and unleashes a pyrokinetic blast. Chase and her handler, Agent Sandra Barrett, track Jerry down, and Barrett tells him he will be sent to a training facility for “talented” youth, a decision that does not sit well with Chase. (This is another conflict that seems like it also would have been expanded on in further issues had there been more. There are references to a list generated by standardized testing used to identify children who likely have powers, and in a later issue, you see a newspaper with the headline “Govt. kidnapping super kids!”)
Chad ends up dying from his injuries, and the town shows up to Jerry’s cell out for his blood. Jerry escapes with another pyrokinetic blast, and Chase finds him by correctly guessing that he is heading for his crush’s house. Before Jerry can do any more damage with his abilities, something inside Chase reaches out and dampens Jerry’s fire. Chase decides not to tell anyone how she was able to counteract his powers, considering she is still new to the DEO, has already had an ideological disagreement with how they handle metahumans on her first mission, and has wholly negative feelings about those with powers anyway. And, you know, shadowy government agencies, real or fictional, don’t always have the best track record at handling things they don’t understand particularly well. So probably a good call on her part.
Chase’s next mission sends her off to South America to investigate an Artificial Intelligence called the Construct that had taken up residence in a temple and was a day away from taking over the world’s computer network when the Justice League shut it down. Amanda Waller informs Chase that there is still a heat output in the temple and sends her to investigate with, you guessed it, the Suicide Squad!
The mission goes about as well as you would expect, with the Suicide Squad amusingly annoying the piss out of Chase, then deciding to go with Plan B (escape) when the conflict between some insurgents and the soldiers holed up in the temple prevent them from accomplishing their objectives. Chase attempts to stop them, which leads to her power-dampening powers flaring up on Copperhead, and she falls down a cliff and ends up in the custody of the soldiers. Those soldiers turn out to be form Soviet Intelligence, who are apparently just kind of bored since the Soviet regime collapsed and scavenging for information in the temple. They stick Chase into the Construct’s interface, since they don’t know what it will do to a human, and she is informed that the Construct has infiltrated the Soviets’ armor with plans to take over the world’s systems next.
Chase does manage to escape with that valuable information after kneeing her captor in the crotch (see above), so it’s not a total wash, but she assumes incorrectly that her next assignment, babysitting the Teen Titans, is a punishment for the previous mission’s failure. Her misconception is corrected by the DEO’s director, Mister Bones, who she discovers is a talking skeleton. (Am I the only one who would read a title that’s nothing but a walking, talking skeleton engaging in mundane bureaucratic tasks to work his way up the ranks?) Bones tells her that a lot of European law and intelligence agencies are suddenly willing to exchange information with the DEO now, and since no good deed goes unpunished, Chase’s reward is to guard just the sort of people she can’t stand!
The real star of this issue, however, is not its titular character, any of the Teen Titans, or even Booster Gold, who shows up seemingly for no other reason than to rag on the Titans for his action figure being better than theirs. No, the real star of this issue for me is the villain, spoiling for a fight, and ready to introduce the world to his new group of henchmen, the Clockwatchers. It’s time (I said it) for the Clock King.
To be honest, there’s nothing beyond a really cool design that makes me like the Clock King so much, and his team gets handled pretty quickly by the Teen Titans and Chase’s still-hidden power. He and his Clockwatchers are mostly played for comedy, which is all worth it for the scene where they squabble about taking the bus:
Chase is injured in the fight, and while she is laid up in the hospital, we get the chance to hear a story about one of her pre-DEO P.I. exploits, an encounter which Klarion the Witch Boy. This issue also gives us a closer look at the characters who make up Chase‘s supporting cast, her superhero obsessed sister Terry who has been displaced by an earthquake in Gotham, a vagrant named Knob with a penchant for the paranormal, and Chase’s boyfriend Peter.
I enjoy the way her relationship with Peter is handled because it is a prominent part of her life and interferes with and buoys the rest of her life in realistic ways. So often females characters are entirely defined by their romantic relationships or those relationships are presented as impediments to some mythical idea of “having it all,” so it’s always refreshing to see the situation handled with more nuance. When they bicker, it feels lived in, and the shadow of past grievances can be heard in their words. Peter may flirt dangerously with being something of a useless boyfriend cliche who only serves to, like, hold her back, man, but he always seems to be pulled back before he can cross that line. He may not be crazy about, you know, getting a job, but he proves his worth with some 1337 haxor skills, and when he argues with Chase about her work with the DEO, it feels like the words of someone who truly cares rather than someone trying to keep her down.
Chase’s relationship with her family and the particular nature of her opposition to superheroes is explored in the next issue when she and her sister are stuck on an elevator. Chase is tired of hearing about the stories in her sister’s superhero tabloids and snaps, revealing a tragic past her sister is wholly ignorant of. Their dad, who Terry was lead to believe died in a benign way, was in fact a mask who belonged to a group of do-gooders. He was known as the Acro-Bat, which is both a great and a stupid name. What is just a great name is the moniker of the group of masks he belonged to: The Justice Experience.
It’s kind of hard to blame Chase for being embarrassed by this piece of her family’s past, considering her dad is the only one of his friends who looks like an out-and-out dweeb, amirite? These wannabe heroes got into a fight with a villain group called the House of Pain (You’re hearing Jump Around in your head right now, aren’t you?), and a woman was caught in the crossfire and died. The man who loved her was less than pleased with the Justice Experience, as you might imagine, and he begins to take them out one by one. The comic goes from “Haha, look at these silly vigilantes in their silly costumes,” to, “Oh Jesus Christ, that’s brutal,” real quick when you see the aftermath of his revenge.
The Justice Society of America veterans are eventually enlisted to take care of this threat, sparing anyone else from being maybe sort of eaten, but leaving lasting scars of Chase’s psyche. Terry is understandably indignant that no one told her the truth sooner, but she doesn’t hold it against her sister very long. That’s good news for Chase because she will need all her focus on her next mission, which sends her to Gotham, to properly verbally cut Batman down to size, once of my favorite things in the title.
The gist is there is a new drug mutating its users, who now look demonic. The DEO and the DEA have been experimenting with thyroidal mutagens, which only one corporation in Gotham is licensed to use. Chase sees Batman skulking around the place, and when they return together the next day, they discover the doctor who designed the mutagen went missing with the drug in the days after the earthquake. The doctor had been growing increasingly paranoid that the government wanted to steal his work to create superheroes and supervillains. They find two more kids who’ve been mutated, and Batman turns up to stop them. Chase shoots one of them who is about to get the drop on Batman, and he has, what she will later describe in a way that makes her one of my heroes forever, a Bat-Tantrum.
I’ve got to go with Chase on this one. I first read this comic right after seeing the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, and I was so tired of Matt Murdock’s smug sliding scale of morality, that I was happy to see someone pretty sane just take some decisive action without wringing her hands a whole bunch about it. I understand why the taking of a life is a huge moral dilemma in a lot of comics (and obviously in a plenty of real world scenarios), but it seems like it’s usually someone on the Punisher’s level of not ok that you see characters fall on this side of things. Seriously, though, if you ever see a large demon creature trying to rip me apart, you certainly have my permission to do whatever it takes to stop them without spending a lot of time considering if they might be able to be changed back.
The doctor escapes, and the mutagen is recovered, at which point we find out Chase’s presence has been a cover for her real mission, which is to find out if Batman is a lone nut. Since she had previously met him in her first appearance, in Batman #550, she is able to confirm that it is the same man and not a group of men all using the mantle Batman.
Chase uses the pretense of trying to find the doctor to stay in Gotham, and Peter continues to be marginally useful with hackzor assistance to try and smoke Batman out. He eludes their attempts, at which point we find out it was actually the Oracle they were tracking all along. She warns Batman, who is already aware the Chase is spying on him, which he probably can’t be too upset about, considering he is already spying on her. Oh, those kooky spooks!
Chase attends a party at Gotham Broadcasting, where she uses all her secret agent and private eye skills to come to the startling conclusion that Batman must be the guy in charge of GBC, since Batman has to be using its satellite. Well, in all fairness the guy was standing next to Bruce Wayne. Ok, seriously, in all fairness, that man is the Sentinel, Alan Scott, so it’s not like she was completely off base on the whole him being a superhero thing.
Chase encounters Batman again, where she learns some less than savory stuff about the agent she was working with on the case, and Batman delivers the world’s most hypocritical advice about revenge not healing the death of a parent. At least, it would be the world’s most hypocritical advice if it were actually Batman and not Alan Scott doing Batman a solid.
Chase….chases him across the top of some buildings to tell him just how wrong he is, and “Batman” falls through a roof. Chase considers taking his mask off while he’s dazed, but decides not to, saying that her actions haven’t been motivated by hatred but a desire to keep anyone else from going through what she went through. Her proof her intentions are good will be to keep his identify safe. We find out the ol’ switcheroo was Nightwing’s idea to throw Chase off the scent of both Wayne and Scott’s identities, but Batman, of course, has to be the smartest guy in the room, saying that he knew Chase didn’t really want to know but she had to discover it for herself.
And that’s about that for Chase the title, even though Chase the character would make plenty of other appearances in other titles. As I said earlier, I’ll do no bemoaning there’s not more. It was good, I enjoyed it, and you probably would too. Chase has also recently been portrayed on Supergirl by the fantastic Emma Caulfield, so she has been far from forgotten even if her solo title was regrettably short lived. What will hopefully not be short lived is your enthusiasm for the subject of my next article, Valiant’s Magnus, Robot Fighter. How can you not be enthusiastic for something with such a great name? See you then, Legions!