1986 was a year of changes for comics, with the Big Two working overtime to freshen up their respective lines with series that could compete with the booming indie world for adult readers who were bored with the soap opera styles of mainstream comics. DC’s successes in that time, including Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, are obviously still having ripples today while Marvel’s biggest attempt at change, New Universe, remains one of the biggest disasters in the company’s history, and rightfully so. But one of Marvel’s boldest and most refreshing attempts to win over new readers in 1986 remains woefully underappreciated, even as its title character has reemerged in recent years thanks to the efforts of Ed Brubaker. I am, of course, talking about Dakota North.
Launched thirty years ago, Dakota North’s eponymous series was introduced in Marvel house ads that aped the look of fashion spreads and fittingly promised “STYLE.” Written by former Norman Mailer assistant Martha Thomases (later one of the brains behind DC’s Death of Superman stunt) and drawn by cult artist Tony Salmons, Dakota North looked unlike anything else Marvel has done before or since. The title didn’t just use fashion terminology and aesthetic in its marketing, it was a comic done completely in a fashion style, with Salmons utilizing the flat, minimalist tone of fashion drawings to illustrate the adventurers of the world’s first fashion focused private eye. Thomases’ script was equally punchy and simple, favoring clever dialogue and references over deep plotting and Claremontian soap opera drama.
Though it was doomed to a very limited five issue run, Dakota North made the most of its time, throwing readers right into the middle of Dakota’s chaotic personal life, never really explaining her origins or how she fit into the interconnected Marvel universe. The comic’s only real connection to the Marvel U is its heavily stylized New York setting, where danger lurks around every corner and every character is involved in some kind of world conquering plot.
The first issue gives the reader the basics of Dakota North’s story— she’s a former model turned investigator, with offices spread around the world (the subtitle of the comic promises New York, Paris, Rome and Tokyo, but we only get to see Dakota in three of those locations) and a disabled former spy father who wishes she’d take on “real” detective work and leave fashion behind. As a kind of punishment, Dakota’s father S.J. also saddles her with her snotty little brother Ricky, who he decides would be better off staying with Dakota for no discernible reason. Dakota’s supporting cast also includes the rambunctious Mad Dog, a punk rocker office manager of sorts, and Amos, an NYPD detective who has a massive crush on Dakota which may or may not be unrequited. By design, Dakota is surrounded by men who think they know more than her, and the only other women in the comic are either enemies of Dakota or involved in the conspiracy against her and her family.
That first issue also introduces the case that ties together Dakota North’s sole arc; buzzworthy fashion maverick Luke Jacobson hires Dakota for protection on the advice of the mysterious Cleo Vanderlip, and in the process Dakota becomes entangled in a globe spanning plot to steal a deadly biochemical weapon. The plot is mostly an excuse to have Dakota travel to a number of stylish locations, with occasional commentary from Thomases on modern art buildings that Salmons has lovingly reconstructed.
Thinking about the plot in any real depth causes it to fall apart as a result of any number of logical failings, but that’s the point— Dakota North is essentially Barbarella meets The Pink Panther and it’s all the better for that. The comic’s tone frequently skews towards slapstick humor and puns, with its paradoxical goofiness and highly literate sensibilities effectively bridging the all-ages and mature worlds of comics.
That’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act to pull off, and the fact that Thomases and Salmons manage to do it should have guaranteed them legendary creative team status and opened the way for more collaborations. As a writer, Thomases understands that the best thing she can do is get out of Salmons way and set him up for moments that showcase his talents. Salmons’ character work in particular is remarkable, he brings life to every member of Dakota’s supporting cast, no matter how minor their role, and his vision of New York (and Paris and Switzerland and Venice) is impressively timeless and exciting.
Dakota North is one of those rare ‘80s works that feels completely of and outside its time— the fashions Salmons depicts either never went out of style or are eerily synchronized with today’s trends and Christie Scheele’s coloring work would fit right in with what Pete Toms has done on books like Curt Pires and Jason Copland’s Pop. Every panel of Dakota North is a delight, with visual gags building on stray bits of background dialogue everywhere you look. Dakota North is a breeze, but not because it lacks substance; it’s an extremely playful work that makes itself memorable by subverting expectations and commenting on the shared oddities and repression of the comics and fashion industries.
Thomases mostly utilizes Dakota North as a cypher for modern anxieties, with her biggest struggles being not the enemies trying to kill her or the global spy plot distracting her from her real passion but her need to be taken seriously. Most of Dakota’s friends and family want to give her advice on her love life and profession at all times, and no one seems to trust that she can handle herself, even as she is overcoming an unending stream of obstacles. The men in Dakota’s life aren’t presented as cliched buffoons or assholes, they genuinely mean well but Thomases makes it clear how frustrating it is to be surrounded by well-intentioned guys who can’t shut up long enough to understand that Dakota is completely independent and doesn’t need their help or input.
Even one of Dakota’s would-be assassins, the oddly named Timas, condescends to her, attempting to seduce her as they fight, claiming that she’s too “lovely” to be brought into a world of violence. When Dakota eventually dispatches and maims him, he still believes he’s in control and that she needs to be saved from the world she is so clearly capable of overcoming.
In moments like this, Dakota North stands out as a work that was clearly too ahead of its time. Reading Dakota North now causes you to think of similarly confident women-led series, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Ally McBeal to Veronica Mars, with which it even shares a profession. The difference is that all of those feminist landmark works were spearheaded by men, and so often miss that element of resigned frustration with the “advice” men can’t help themselves from imparting on strong, capable young women. Dakota North doesn’t read as a traditional autobiographical work, but Thomases’ own remarkable career makes it clear that she and Dakota likely dealt with a lot of the same bullshit, and Dakota’s current return to continuity courtesy of Brubaker functions as a very bitter cherry on top of this sundae when you keep in mind that Thomases has mostly departed comics, with a regular column at Comic Mix being the only place to find her these days. Likewise, Salmons remains an artist’s artist, popping up occasionally to do miniseries and fringe works and brilliantly blunt interviews.
Dakota North might not have the impact of other works from 1986 and its creators may be trapped on the sidelines of comics, but it arguably still stands out as one of the most daring Marvel series from its era, certainly more bold and invigorating than Squadron Supreme or any of the other attempts to be more “mature.” And while Marvel has occasionally hinted at attempts to do new Dakota North series, these never seem that promising, in large part because they involve creators like C.B. Cebulski instead of teams that can truly follow in Thomases and Salmons’ footsteps by being original and different and sympathetic to what really makes Dakota tick. But given how relevant Dakota North still is, who needs a new take anyway?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover