Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ode to a Night Nurse

Night Nurse. If you're a long time comics reader, the mere mention of those words likely brings a small smile to your face. For decades, likely since the moment Marvel published the first issue back in 1972, Night Nurse has been a running joke among fans, synonymous with lame or ridiculous comics. Want to snark on some hapless new title that came out? Give it the ultimate insult: it's worse than Night Nurse. Yes, for years Night Nurse has been the joke of the industry, which would be fine if it weren't for this terrible, astonishing secret: Night Nurse was actually very, very good.

Now, we know what you're thinking: wha? Vault, have you gone crazy? Are you off your meds? Did you fall out of bed and hit your head on a stack of Essential Defenders? At the risk of being shot by an Elf with a Gun, the answer is no, we have not gone crazy. Not only was Night Nurse a good comic, in many ways it was ahead of its time. So today we're going to take a look at the series and examine why it failed and why it has such a bad reputation among fans.

Those two questions, as it happens, have the same answer, but in order to understand Night Nurse first we need to explain just what the series was. Running for four issues before being canceled, Night Nurse followed the lives of three inner city nurses (Linda Carter being the "main" character) as they tried to save lives while also getting tangled up occasional crimes and romantic boondoggles. In the first issue, for instance (and in the interest of full disclosure, the only issue I've personally had the chance to read so far), we meet the three girls while they are in nursing school and follow them as they first put aside differences to become friends and then deal with a bomber trying to blow up the hospital for political reasons, all while Linda is mulling over a marriage proposal to the man of her dreams that would also require her to give up nursing.

Legend (and wikipedia) has it that Stan Lee came up with the name and concept for the book as part of an initiative to draw female readers into comics. Along with Night Nurse, he also put forward ideas for The Cat and Shanna the She-Devil. Roy Thomas, the new editor in chief at Marvel, then took this one step further by hiring women writers (and in the case of The Cat, artists) for all three titles, figuring that this would give the comics a better chance at reaching those elusive girl readers.

Unfortunately, all three comics flopped and were canceled almost instantly. So what went wrong? It's hard to say for sure, but quality doesn't seem to have been a problem, as the first issue of Night Nurse is features compelling and surprisingly complex characters and plotlines from writer Jean Thomas (Roy's wife at the time) as well as sharp artwork from veteran penciller Win Mortimer. No, what I believe caused the series to fail is the same thing that led it to becoming a bit of an industry joke for the past three decades: marketing.

It's important to remember (but easy to forget) that Marvel at this time was not just publishing superhero comics, or fantasy or horror; even though you could scour the Bullpen Bulletins for the era until your face turned blue without ever finding any mention of it, Marvel was also still publishing multiple romance titles, including My Love and Our Love Story. But even though these comics were produced by the Marvel Bullpen and featured writing and art from all the classic Marvel creators, they existed almost as an entirely different line of comics. Just as a regular Marvel comic would never mention these romance titles, so too would the romance titles never acknowledge the existence of the superhero line.

It can be inferred from this that there wasn't a lot of crossover in terms of the reading audiences between the two lines of comics (or at least, Marvel did not think there was). And this is where I think Marvel made a misstep with Night Nurse: rather than advertising and hyping it within the line of romance comics where the title's most likely fan base existed, instead they pitched it to their regular, superhero and fantasy loving Marvel Zombies.

Night Nurse, they promised, "sounds like just another romance mag, however well-written and drawn; but take it from us, fried -- this one is realistic, exciting -- and different!" And while it was written by a woman, it was "aimed at neither guys nor at als, but at true lovers of comix literature everywhere!" Fans were assured that if they tried it, they would like it.

Now, Marvel fans are notoriously loyal, which was even more the case at that time, when Marvel had roared out of obscurity over the course of the previous decade to become the biggest publisher in comics. So when Stan and Roy told them something was good, well, chances are they believed it. And the comic is good. But what it isn't is anything that would be recognizable to a fan of Avengers or Conan or Tomb of Dracula. So instead of catching on and bringing in a new wave of new female readers, the title instead became the punch line for decades of jokes by the typical male superhero fans who were duped into buying it.

Had the title instead been pitched to the romance readers, there's no telling whether or not it would have succeeded, of course; but I think it's fair to say that it would have had a better chance of at least picking up a smaller but steadier group of readers that might have sustained it for at least as long as the other romance titles lasted. As it is, though, the series lasted only four issues (as did The Cat, which is a whole different story), which when you factor in the lead time it takes to produce comics, means it was probably canceled as soon as the sales figures for the first couple of issues had come in.

Of course, there are other factors as well, the main one being that Roy was exactly right one one count: Night Nurse was "different". Indeed, if you read romance comics of the time, you'll see that it was very different even from romance comics, which tended to be anthologies rather than full issues or ongoing stories, and which generally followed a formula (even at marvel) with girl losing guy, hand wringing and then girl getting guy back (or a new guy) at the end. Night Nurse totally destroyed that cliche and, in my opinion, was actually way ahead of its time in terms of the stories it was trying to tell. Night Nurse #1 doesn't, in fact, resemble a comic at all, but rather is closer to a TV medical drama or soap opera than anything else. The kind of plots going on in the first issue -- romance mixed in with gritty scenes in the big city hospital, all topped by the bomb threat and shootout in the hospital basement -- could easily have been taken right out of an episode of ER or St. Elsewhere. Advertising mistakes aside, then, it may simply be that Night Nurse was too atypical and forward thinking to succeed anyway.

Of course, if it was ahead of its time you would think that eventually people would discover that the jokes were unwarranted and the title was, in fact, pretty darn cool. And in the last few years, that's exactly what has happened. As collectors and fans have discovered Night Nurse, prices on the relatively rare back issues have skyrocketed; a check on ebay earlier this week showed even average VG copies going for $35 or more. Some of this rediscovery has to also be attributed to Brian Michael Bendis, who reintroduced Night Nurse to the modern comics audience a few years ago, bringing Linda Carter back as a physician who attends to injured superheroes; she even enjoyed a minor role in Civil War when she joined Captain America's resistance team and patched up their wounds against government orders.

Still, it's a shame that Night Nurse didn't last longer and a bigger shame that for years fans would bag on the title without most of them having ever even seen an issue, much less read it. One way that Marvel could help rectify this would be to put out a trade reprinting the four issues so that everyone would have a chance to read these otherwise difficult to find cult classics. It would also be interesting to hear what the creators of the series thought about the comic and the reputation it has had over the years. So if you're listening, Marvel, here's your chance to right a wrong and do us all a favor at the same time by bringing a little night Night Nurse into everyone's life.

Footnote: One last note I wanted to mention is the "controversy" over whether or not the Linda Carter in Night Nurse is the same character from the pre-Marvel title Linda Carter, Student Nurse. Even the wikipedia entry for Night Nurse claims that there is no definitive connected between the two and I have seen people argue that they must be different characters. This argument seems to be based entirely on the fact that the original Linda carter was a brunette while the one in Night Nurse is a blonde. Firstly, this is ridiculous on the face of it; I mean, who ever heard of a woman dyeing her hair, right? Secondly, the connection is implicit in the opening to Night Nurse #1, which reads in part "Linda Carter, Student Nurse must make the most difficult decision of her life" (bold text in the original). The idea that Roy Thomas, who edited this comic and was the most notorious continuity fanwank in the world, would do this unintentionally is preposterous. Thirdly, in the Bullpen Bulletins for this month, when announcing the new titles, the series is actually referred to as Linda Carter, Night Nurse, a clear callback to the original series. And lastly, as if that all weren't enough, in the new appearances of the character (which Bendis has specifically stated in New Avengers #34 is the same Linda Carter from Night Nurse), Linda has been drawn with her original black hair. This show that, regardless of what her true hair color is, she does occasionally chance it one way or the other.

In conclusion, then, of probably the dumbest argument I've ever participated in, it's painfully obvious that Linda Carter from Night Nurse is the same character as Linda Carter, Student Nurse. Hopefully that ends whatever question you had about that. And just as a side-note, the other claim to fame that Linda Carter, Student Nurse has? Well, back when Marvel could only publish a limited number of titles due to their distribution deal, whenever they put out a new comic they had to cancel an old one. The new title Student Nurse was canceled to make room for? Amazing Spider-man.

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I thought that Night Nurse was brought back in a Doctor Strange miniseries...

She was used in the Dr. Strange mini, but she reappeared prior to that in Bendis's Daredevil run, back in 2004, where she helped treat Daredevil and some other heroes.

I should also mention that one of the other nurses from the series, Christine Palmer, also reappeared in 2004, in the Nightcrawler limited series