I had the semi-unusual experience of growing into comic books just as they were being re-defined. In the early- to mid-1980s, readers saw powerful new ideas in the medium that have gone on to become "must read" books for comic fans. Maus. Watchmen. The Dark Knight Returns. As I was just beginning to explore the medium of comics, though, these were curiously not as groundbreaking since they were (to me) just as new and innovative as what John Byrne was doing on Fantastic Four or what Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom were doing in West Coast Avengers. My lack of experience in comics meant that everything was new and exciting.
But Rick Veitch's The One stands out.
I'm fairly certain that I didn't read the book as it originally came out. In dragging my father to comic shops, he had begun picking up unusual titles which I would only read much later, after I had read and re-read my own superhero books dozens of times. The comics of Dad's that I would read were largely ones that were superficially, at least, known to me. Basically, superheroes and science fiction. And I largely read them in precisely that capacity. Watchmen was originally for me another superhero story. I distinctly recall that the only bit of that story that really struck me as innovative at the time was when Ozymandias revealed his secret plan after he had already implemented it, making some comment about not being a B-grade villain from an old serial. Most of the other commentary and sub-texts were lost on me.
Eventually, I got around to reading The One, it's covers making some fairly obvious commentary on the nature of commodity comics. I expect I was a little older than when I had read Watchmen and I was able to grasp things a little better. It was also more of a commentary on current events, as opposed to historical ones, so I was more aware of what was being commented on.
I haven't read the story in probably 20 years now, but as I recall, the gist of it was that the U.S. and Russian governments had created super-powered beings in their (then) ever-escalating Cold War. These superheroes were then manipulated by their respective governments to coerce them into waging war against each other, eventually wiping out nearly the whole of mankind, leaving the two super-powered beings to become the next Adam and Eve. (My apologies to Veitch if I'm mis-remembering things, or glossing over significant plot points. Like I said, it's been two decades since I've read it.)
At the time I read the book, I had a youthful outrage at anything resembling "The Man" and The One just provided more "evidence" that the government was wholly untrustworthy, and was clearly working against the best interests of mankind. There was also a sub-plot concerning religion, which ended in the book by suggesting that those who follow an organized religion were mindless leeches clamoring to become part of a giant monstrosity. My growing cynicism latched on to that aspect as well, reinforcing the distrust I had of organized religion.
The book was, by and large, was very cynical itself and it encouraged my own cynicism. (Not by itself, mind you. Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Heavy Metal, Shatter, and many other comics helped.) But The One was the first comic that really struck me as being more than what the superficial story was about. It was the first comic that, to me, read AS social commentary. It was the first comic that had a real impact on how I thought about the world.
Now, looking back on it, I can't speak to how elegantly Veitch did this. I'm actually tempted NOT to re-read it, because I suspect that it may have been a bit heavy-handed. (How else would a self-absorbed, ignorant teenager pick up on the sub-texts of a comic book about two super-powered agents beating the crap out of each other?) I rarely see mention of the book anywhere these days, so it certainly didn't cause a particularly notable stir in the industry. At least, not a long-lasting one.
But for me, personally, it opened my eyes to what a comic could be in a way that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were unable to do. It was the right book at the right time for me, and I still remember it with some degree of reverence. So, even if it's not mentioned in the same breath as those other highly-regarded books, it at least sits alongside of them for my 15-year-old self.
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