Thursday, April 15, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #16: December 1992

You Can't Go Back... to the Future

Ravage 2099 #1
writer: Stan Lee         
penciller: Paul Ryan                  
inker: Keith Williams
colorist: Paul Becton

If you were flipping through the September 1990 issue of your favorite Marvel title, you might have come across a fascinating tidbit in Stan Lee’s semi-regular “Stan’s Soapbox” column on the Bullpen Bulletins page. Here, Marvel’s beloved publisher revealed he was working with John Byrne on a project “featuring a never-before-seen superhero world.” In subsequent columns over the next few months, he unveiled a working title of "The Marvel World of Tomorrow," and raved about Byrne’s artwork for the project. He also revealed the hero would be a character called Ravage.
When I read this, it seemed too good to be true: The co-creator of the Marvel Universe and my then-favorite artist working a story about superheroes in the future? I waited with great anticipation.
Well, as it turns out Lee’s promotional efforts got ahead of the actual work. At some point, Byrne backed out of the project (it’s said he used some of the ideas on his 2112 graphic novel for Dark Horse, and the subsequent Next Men series), and the "Marvel World of Tomorrow" became "Marvel 2099," which launched with four books in late 1992.
According to Danny Fingeroth’s 2019 biography of Lee (A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee), the concept started as a potential reunion of Lee and his original Spider-Man and Dr. Strange collaborator, Steve Ditko. Lee had the idea of a futuristic world overrun by pollution, with trash collectors serving as superheroes of a sort. Ditko was surprisingly amenable to working with Lee again, but didn’t like the dystopian bent of the story (indeed, this was something rarely seen in comics, where the future was typically depicted as moving closer to utopia, as in DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and Marvel’s own Guardians of the Galaxy). One assumes Byrne was next in line.
After Byrne bailed, the assignment fell to veteran artist Paul Ryan. The concept kept its ecological focus, but was wrapped in with other 2099 writers’ vision of a future that’s technologically advanced, but grimy and ruled by corporations. This allowed the line to focus on the “edgy” type of hero that was selling so well during the early 1990s. Ravage also survived from Lee’s initial idea, though he wasn’t quite a garbage man (though he does briefly drive a garbage truck).
Marvel 2099 debuted in November 1992 with Spider-Man 2099, and would be joined by Ravage 2099, Doom 2099, and Punisher 2099 in subsequent months. Of these, only Doom had an explicit connection to the present day. Ravage, on the other hand, was the only non-legacy character.

Stan Lee hadn’t written any comic books regularly since the late 1960s, but after being absent from the writing side of things for most of the 1970s and 1980s, he had been returning to the pages with more regularity. In 1988 he teamed with John Busecema for the Silver Surfer: Judgment Day graphic novel. He followed that up with a two-issue Silver Surfer story with legendary French artist Moebius in 1989. That same year he scripted a new take on a licensed character called Solarman (there was also a cartoon pilot for a show, but it was never picked up). And in 1991 he wrote a comic about a character called Nightcat, whose identity was real life singer Jacqueline Tavarez (there was even a Nightcat album).
Ravage 2099, then, was Lee’s first wholly new superhero concept in many years. The first issue introduces us to Paul-Phillip Ravage, of the “Commander” (akin to a CEO) of a company called ECO, whose mission is to fight pollution, seemingly by sending its bloodthirsty security force after “polluters” (again, in this future, corporations have essentially taken over public services). Trick is, they’re a subsidiary of Alchemex, a company that does most of the polluting.
This is an intriguing set-up, but Lee doesn’t seem all that interested in the inner workings or grander implications of the world he’s created. He only wants to get Paul-Phillip to his status as a kick-ass vigilante. So through a series of events not worth recounting, Paul-Phillip learns of his company’s misdeeds, gets framed by his boss, and is forced to go on the run. 
At the start of the story he’s a polished, articulate company man who believes in the system, but the trauma he experiences causes him to revert to a sort of primal state. By the end of the issue his hair is wild, he starts wearing a dagger earring, and he begins speaking like Ben Grimm (his dialogue is all dropped “g’s” and New York street grammar). I think Lee was going for some sort of Falling Down / Dirty Harry vibe, but it's a jarring transition. I wasn’t the only reader confused. In issue #6, the letters page featured a note from John D. Moon, who wrote “I fear, however, that when the na├»ve but sophisticated business-man became the savage pseudo-Wolverine, you lost a little of the character you had built so well in the first issue."
I’d go farther and say that they lost most of the character. Ravage is an extremely unlikeable individual. He’s unconcerned about committing murder, and he’s rude to those who are trying to aid him. This is especially true of his secretary, Tiana. Lee’s 1960s Marvel work has been justifiably scrutinized for its belittlement of female characters, with the Wasp and Invisible Girl particularly facing a steady barrage of derision and dismissal from the male superheroes in their lives. In Ravage 2099, Tiana is ostensibly a love interest. Paul-Phillip says in the first issue, “You know how I feel about you” and he twice goes to great lengths to rescue in the course of the first seven issues. But doesn’t seem to like or respect her at all. In fact, the way he talks to her is borderline abusive. 


It’s difficult to guess what Lee thought he was accomplishing with Ravage 2099, but one thing that’s clear is that the book was a response to the explosive popularity of the Image artists, especially Liefeld. In a manifesto in the back of issue #3, Stan writes, “One thing you might have noticed about our first few issues, we’ve been trying to concentrate on the story line and character development as much as possible. At a time when everything in comics seems to move so fast and furiously, we felt we’d give our Ravage-ites a bit more copy to read, more panels per page to look at, and more time to mull things over and let the plot points sink in.”
This is a noble goal, and a not-so-subtle swipe at the direction comics were then headed, but it doesn’t actually play out in the comic. Ravage 2099 does have a classic look and style, but story-wise it’s is a very facile book. The environmental theme is all but forgotten after the first issue, and every chance to do something layered or complex is passed up. And with its constant action and violently one-dimensional protagonist, it actually reads like a failed attempt to replicate Liefeld's work, even down to the armored villain Dethstryk (about as '90s of a name as you can get, but odd since Marvel already had a character called Lady Deathstrike).
Ravage 2099 did have a sort of spiritual connection to the Image artists, though, in that they seemed to have shared the same inspiration: Stan Lee’s most famous collaborator, Jack Kirby. Rob Liefeld and Erik Larson, in particular, greatly admired Jack Kirby’s 1970s work, and tried to replicate that anything-goes energy in their books. Compared to, say, Youngblood or Savage Dragon, Ravage 2099 actually does a better job of capturing the frenetic, improvised feeling of Kirby’s work on books like Kamandi and OMAC. Partly that’s because those books were also set in the future, but it’s also thanks to artist and co-creator Paul Ryan.
Kirby’s self-written work sometimes lacked story logic, but made up for it with crazy ideas and mind-blowing visuals. Ryan’s work is nowhere near as inventive or dynamic as Kirby’s, but it has that same impeccable draftsmanship, design, and storytelling. Lee gave Ryan high praise in that same write-up in issue #3: “First I must congratulate Paul Ryan, one of the most talented and dedicated artists with whom I’ve ever collaborated. His every panel is so meticulously and painstakingly detailed, so lavishly endowed with colorful backgrounds and authentic costuming that I’d almost suspect he’s a time traveler from the future who is simply illustrating scenes that he’s already seen in 2099.”
I loved reading that. Ryan, one of those unfortunate people who has their name hijacked by a horrible human being, is one of my favorite comic book artists of all time, and is criminally underappreciated. A Massachusetts native, Ryan was a former National Guard member who worked at an engineering firm before landing a job as comics artist Bob Layton’s assistant in the mid-1980s. That led to inking and penciling work at Marvel, including Squadron Supreme, D.P.7, Quasar, Avengers, Iron Man, and Fantastic Four. Not only was his artwork detailed and solid, he was fast, which meant you often got two books worth of his artwork each month. For instance, while he was doing Ravage 2099, he was also working on Fantastic Four. His art on Ravage 2099 is, frankly, the only thing that makes the book readable.

Ryan exited Ravage 2099 after issue #7. Lee co-wrote #8 with the title’s new writers, Pat Mills and Tony Skinner, before handing it off completely. Along with artists Grant Miehm and Joe Bennett, they somehow managed to nurse the book along until issue #33, which came out in August 1995. In that issue, Ravage is apparently killed by Doom after being encased in adamantium and shot into space. The 2099 line as a whole didn't survive either. All of the remaining titles were cancelled in August 1996, and the line was given an 8-issue miniseries (2099: World of Tomorrow) and one-shot (2099: Manifest Destiny) to wrap things up. Since then, 2099's most popular character, Spider-Man (Miguel O'Hara), has continued to pop up here and there.


I hate the false narrative that a creative person's skills inevitably go into decline as they age, and before re-reading Ravage 2099 for this project, I was prepared to put it forth as an example that Stan Lee still had some creative mojo in his later years. But now having re-read it, and having surveyed Stan's various attempts to create new superhero universes in the 1990s and 2000s, I'm inclined to say he was better off in the role of elder statesman, hype-man, and ambassador. 

And I think he either knew that, or at least he recognized that those duties made it so he couldn't give 100% to writing a comic - one Ravage 2099 letter page tells a story of him writing a script for an issue in a hotel room in one night. So it's no surprise that Ravage 2099 would be Stan Lee's last extended work as a writer (a series of one-shots for DC in 2002 are the only thing that comes close). It's not an especially inspiring swan song. Lee was a supremely talented writer and creator, but sometimes you just can’t go back, not even by going forward.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #15: July 1992

Conjuring a Phenomenon

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the comics industry as we know it only exists because of the intense passion of its fans. Every medium needs fans, obviously, but there are few others for which the fans have played such an outsized part in how it operates.
The origin of superhero comics is closely intertwined with the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s; Amazing Stories, Detective Story Magazine, Doc Savage Magazine, and the like. The origin of superhero comics fandom is also tied up in those pulps. The pulps had letter pages, and fans writing into the magazine soon began writing to one another, and this led naturally into the creation of fan-produced news bulletins sharing reviews, recommendations, news, and classifies. These became known as fanzines, and in those way pre-Internet days, it was one of the only ways for fans to connect with one another. Not surprisingly, the first fanzine was centered on sci-fi. 

And superhero comics as we know it grew from there. In 1933 two young men from Cleveland - Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster - introduced nascent version of Superman in their own fanzine, Science Fiction.
And once Superman inspired a superhero boom, comic book fanzines followed closely after. The first known of these was David Kyle’s The Fantasy World, which began in 1936. For decades following, comic book fanzines were a vital part of driving fandom forward, but they were strictly regional affairs.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a fanzine got national distribution. Jerry Bails’s The Comic Reader became the official publication of the Association of Comic Book Fans and Collectors in 1961. It started out as a mimeographed booklet with fan art on the cover, by the early 1970s had enough clout to be professionally printed and get Jack Kirby to contribute cover art. 

Comic Buyer’s Guide came along in 1971, but it was mostly ads surrounding with a handful of news and editorial columns. Other fanzines followed, but the biggest development was the 1977 debut of The Comics Journal, which aimed to be more journalistic and serious-minded, covering underground and independent comics, and sharply criticizing mainstream superhero fare from Marvel and DC (taking up “a niche that nobody wants” publisher Gary Groth once quipped). The emergence of TCJ (as it came to be known) highlighted an identity crisis for any fanzine that wished to be taken seriously: Can you be a fan and a journalist at the same time?
This was further blurred by the fact that many who worked on fanzines had aspirations to become comic book professionals themselves. The Comic Reader alone was once home to Paul Levitz (who at various times worked as writer, editor, and president at DC), Paul Kupperberg (also an editor at DC), Tony Isablla (creator of Black Lightning), and Don Rosa (best known for his work with Uncle Scrooge).

The early 1980s saw a slew of slick new magazines that aimed to walk that thin line, fueled partially by the success of the 1978 Superman film and the rise of the direct market. In 1981, Fantagraphics, who also published TCJ, introduced Amazing Heroes as a direct competitor to The Comic Reader. The same year New Media Productions came out with Comics Feature. In 1982 the publishers of Starlog and Fangoria debuted Comics Scene, which would only last a year, but then get a revival in 1987. While clearly holding affection for their subject matter, these publications at least had the veneer of traditional journalism.
But it wasn’t an easy road. The Comic Reader ceased publishing in 1984. Comics Feature made it to 1987 before folding up. Comics Scene’s focus was mostly on the TV and film side of comic books. Soon, Amazing Heroes was the only game in town, and this was the vacuum into which Wizard stepped.
Wizard was initially conceived by Gareb Shamus as a newsletter for his parents’ comic shop, The Wizard of Cards and Comics, in southeast New York state. Working with Pat McCollum, he turned that newsletter into a monthly magazine that debuted in September 1991. It was an instant success, helped largely by an original cover Spider-Man cover by Todd McFarlane (as well as an interview with the man himself).
From the get-go Wizard had a younger “hipper” take on comics than had ever been tried before. And hearkening back to the earliest fanzines, it didn’t even try to appear journalistic. The magazine didn't aim to just comment on comics culture, but to become an integral part of it. And in that it succeed wildly. It didn’t just end up reflecting superhero comics of the 1990s, it helped define them.

Looking through Wizard #11, which had yet another Todd McFarlane cover, it’s amazing to see how quickly the magazine established its identity. Yes, it would become slicker as the 1990s wore on, but all of the tone and content the magazine would become known for was there from the start.
In the 1990s when reading comics wasn’t cool (I’d argue it still isn’t, but at least people understand it more than they used to), one of ways to explain it to incredulous friends and relatives was to say you were in it for the investments. I myself used this excuse on more than one occasion in attempt to fend off embarrassment, though the truth was I always collected them to read. There were others, however, for whom it wasn’t a front. They really did buy with the idea of reselling for a profit at some later date. Given the highly variable nature of comics values, this is somewhat akin to gambling.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. 1995.

Wizard consciously fed into that speculator mindset. Nearly half of the magazine was devoted to a price guide, and its features consistently returned to the idea of comics as collectibles. Features spotlighted the “hottest” books of the month, new number one issues due to be published, and a top ten list of comics whose values were on the rise. This can be pretty humorous with the gift of hindsight. For example in Wizard #11 “Wizard Comic Watch” guessed that Captain America Annual #5 would skyrocket in value because it featured the first appearance of Nomad. It’s currently a $5 comic at best (now if Jack Monroe appears in an MCU movie or TV show, all bets are off). Similarly, the three books that Greg Bals recommended in “Wizard’s Crystal Ball” as becoming hot commodities – Spirits of Vengeance #1 and #2 and Terror, Inc. #2 – are worth $2 each at most.
Similarly, Wizard was very concerned with popularity, or as they deemed it, “hotness.” And not only in comics, but artists (they’d add writers later) and characters. In Wizard #11 half of the hot artists on their Top 10 were the Image guys (McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, and Erik Larsen). The “Top 10 Hottest Heroes & Villains” were all Marvel characters, and almost all “edgy” (Wolverine, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Venom, Sabretooth, Archangel). There was also a cringeworthy feature celebrating sexual hotness, this month highlighting Captain America (“with blonde hair and blue eyes and buns that won’t quit”) and X-Force’s Boom-Boom (“hmm…wonder if the Danger Room has a ‘jump rope’ setting”), and featuring pictures of both in swimsuits. Swimsuit specials were a weird ‘90s trend that served as the comic book equivalent of MTV’s The Grind.

This, in combination with other aspects of how Wizard approached its operations had the effect of making it seem like a vehicle for fanboyish marketing. There’s even an article called “Lunch with Marvel Comics,” in which a Wizard writer sits down Marvels sales department to talk about upcoming titles (writer Fabian Nicieza, to his credit, tries to ruin the proceedings with smartass answers, including challenging Wizard to go one issue without using the word “hot.”).
A one-page article about Spawn by editor-in-chief Patrick McCallum (who would later go on to work in the upper echelons of DC editorial) is fluffy promotion. So is Gareb Shamus’s interview with McFarlane. One question is prefaced thusly: “You practically rewrote the rules of drawing comics and have since become one of the biggest names in the field.” A picture of a grinning Shamus with Liefeld and McFarlane is the cherry on top of the fawning pie.

In those early days it all seemed just amateurish, but as Wizard grew in popularity it felt a more nefarious. The magazine had the power to make or break books and companies by its choices of what to cover. Image books probably didn’t need the free promotion they got from Wizard, but companies like Valiant got a huge boost from being declaring "hot" every single month.
But in other ways Wizard was a very typical publication at first. They had a news section (in this particular issue we learn that Youngblood #1 has sold out, that Eastman and Laird are reuniting on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that a Star Wars game is coming for Super Nintendo – I had that game and it was super fun), a word search, an unscramble-the-word send-away contest, and a quiz (I got 24 out of 30 of this particular month’s questions).
One way the Wizard staff’s fandom shone through more positively – and called back to its fanzine roots – was in the inclusion of fan art. For its first year Wizard’s cover gimmick was to have artists put a wizard hat and robe on whatever superhero they were doing. Readers were encouraged to create their own Wizard covers in this manner, and the magazine printed a couple pages worth of them each month. Wizard #11 happens to feature a Fantastic Four themed entry from 18-year-old Jason Bone, who would go by “J. Bone” during a respectable professional career as an inker (largely over the pencils of the wonderful Darwyn Cooke) and artist. This issue also has a “My Kind of Hero” wherein readers submitted a Who’s Who type entry for their self-created characters (this feature did not last long).
Wizard also had some worthwhile innovations.
Recognizing how many of their readers were also aspiring artists, the magazine added a monthly how-to-draw feature, initially done by DC and Valiant artist Bart Sears but later taken on by a rotating cast that included Greg Capullo and Art Adams.
The magazine also acknowledged that comic fans naturally had an interest in films, trading cards, and toys featuring their beloved characters. So there was “Andy Mangels’ Hollywood Heroes!” (which this month speculated about details from the then-forthcoming Batman Returns), “Wizard of Cards,” and “Toying Around” (which this month featured an article on toys from The Empire Strikes Back). As an avid action figure collector, I particularly enjoyed the latter. I loved Brian Cunningham’s enthusiasm, and in those pre-Internet days it was the only place I was going to catch a glimpse of, say, a Mego Shazam figure. In the mid-'90s Wizard would spin off some of these features into their own separate magazines (Toyfare and Inquest Gamer).
The magazine could also surprise you. The “Palmer’s Picks” column gave a monthly spotlight to independent and non-superhero titles. “Brat Pack” was a transcript of an ongoing conversation with teen collectors that often served up the range of opinions you’d hear at any given comic shop in the country (in this particular issue during a conversation about gimmick covers/trading cards/etc. one of teens talks about comics as investing – see, I told you! – but another says prophetically, “The flashy stuff brings in the new people, but there is no substance to make them stick around.”). 

Similarly, an editorial by Patrick Daniel O’Neill bemoans DC’s decision to reboot the Impact line. He says it's short-sighted and that the line was an investment in bringing new young readers that needed more time to play itself out. He writes of DC, “If a subsidiary of the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world can’t make a commitment to lose money for a couple of years on a line of eight books – on the premise that the line will mean greater returns for the entire company down the line – then I can’t figure out who could afford it.”

Unfortunately as the years went on Wizard became even more about the popular aspects of comics and even less about their depth and range, helping to push the speculator bust that happened in late 1993. Wizard became so popular, it ended up outselling many of the comics it was covering. The magazine started out including posters and trading cards, but leveled up to sendaways for comics created exclusively for the magazine. In addition to the spin-off magazines, Gareb Shamus even expanded his empire by buying the Chicago Comicon in 1997 and renaming it Wizard World Chicago. Later there'd be Wizard World conventions in cities across the U.S.

Once you start getting Marvel and DC to produce comics for you and are hosting your own conventions you aren't reporting the story, you are the story. And for that Wizard got its fare share of deserved criticism. But it was a product of its time and a product of its milieu. In a way that few other mediums can, comic books completely blur the line between the producers and the sellers and the consumers and the marketers and the professionals and the fans and the commentators. Wizard didn't invent that, it only exploited it and took it to its logical lengths.
And with the gift of distance, Wizard is something to be extremely thankful for. Reading each issue is like taking a time machine directly back to that era. And though it will always be inextricably tied to the 1990s, Wizard was actually able to weather the darkest days of the comics industry, and would make it all the way to just short of its 20th birthday, ceasing publication after the January 2011 issue. It outlasted its predecessors (Amazing Heroes ended in 1992 - the same month Wizard #11 hit the stands; Comics Scene called it quits in 1996) and its imitators (Hero Illustrated, Comic Talk, etc.), and paved the way – for better and worse – for Internet comics fandom as we know it today.