The Unexpected Return of Dakota North, part 1

Addendum:
R.I.P. Stan Lee. 

The mid-1980s, when I was a serious comic book fan, was a great time for taking risks: it gave us Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and Miracleman; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns; and significant runs in all the major series, many of which have turned up as the plots of current superhero movies. There were also the singular, non-superhero titles like Maus, Love and Rockets, and DC’s terrific run of Peter David’s Star Trek. And it was in this bubble of possibility that Marvel took a flyer on Dakota North.

The ad announcing Dakota North, seen in comics trade journals.

Dakota North was (is?) a former fashion model who quit the runway and took over the family business, high-tech security. She operates in the Marvel universe, but has no super powers, and—in her original run—crossed paths with none of its costumed heroes. Her series was action-packed, alternately campy and satirical, and yet with serious undertones that even a clueless guy like me could pick up on back then: issues of gender roles, feminism, and self-determination. In other words, it was unique then, and pretty much remains so. I was first attracted by the implied Modesty Blaise/Ms. Tree vibe of the cover, but quickly realized this was no mere copycat. Dakota might operate in an established genre, but she fit into it in a whole new way.

Dakota was created, at the behest of Marvel’s Larry Hama, by writer Martha Thomases and artist Tony Salmons. Thomases, who has since written about comics but to my knowledge has done no more comic writing, was an experienced journalist familiar with the NY fashion scene, who also edited the satirical magazine, Comedy. In her introduction to the recent collection Dakota North: Design for Dying, Thomases says:

“Dakota…was a modern single woman trying to make her way professionally at a time when that was still a relatively new thing in popular culture. […] I wanted to show how Dakota would react to street harassment, creepy clients and finding a good public school. She was in the fashion world, so she would know far too many people affected by AIDS, cocaine, and crack.”

This complex ambition is probably why it lasted only five issues, ending in the middle of a story arc with the disclaimer, “This is where we usually put the blurb for the next issue, if there was a next issue, but there isn’t.”

(You can find a more detailed history of the comic’s creation in the Comics Journal here.)

But oddly, this wasn’t the end. Dakota popped in up Web of Spider-man #37 in 1988, protecting Mary Jane Watson-Parker, a model, from a serial killer. Since then she’s shown up in all sorts of Marvel series; I recently ran across her in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of Captain Marvel from 2012. It sparked my memories of the series, of which I may have been one of the few enthusiastic fans (I even had a letter published in one of the last issues). There were even some thoughtful retrospectives (see here, and here).

But still, I was startled to see that a collection of the original 5 issues, plus a sampling of her later appearances, had been published earlier this year. Why, after all this time, was she experiencing a renaissance? Possibly the success of the similar-but-different Jessica Jones series on Netflix reminded the folks at Marvel that they had another character in the same genre, created fifteen years earlier.

The collected five issues of Dakota North don’t interact with the larger Marvel universe, but all her later appearances do. It’s interesting to see this at work; subsequent writers do a great job of showing how her entirely mundane skills are still valuable in a world of superheroes. But there’s a purity to Thomases’ work that, to me, demands belated acknowledgment. It’s a cliche to blame something’s failure on being “ahead of its time,” but in this case, I think it applies. Dakota North would probably fit right into the modern media landscape, and—perhaps—that’s a reason for her sudden reappearance.

Next post: an interview with writer/creator Martha Thomases.

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