Thursday, June 24, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #22: January 1994

 Strangers ‘Til We Meet

Strangers #8 
Writer: Steve Englehart
Pencillers: Rick Hoberg and Steve Skroce
Inker: Tim Burgard
Colorist: Rick Schmitz and Psychodelic Prisms

In July 1993, comic companies released over 600 new books. That shattered the previous monthly release record set in the medium’s 1950s heyday, when the comic book industry was at its most popular and diverse (in terms of genres of comics). 

In 1993, most of those 600 books featured superheroes. This cornucopia was directly attributable to the new companies and new universes I talked about in essay #19, but also to Marvel’s response to that competition, which was that they flooded the market with titles in order to monopolize rack space.

See, most comic stores had enough space to display about 200 new books per month. That meant all of those other 400 books would have to be special-ordered or not ordered at all. Companies couldn’t rely on customers discovering their books in the shop. They had to stand out. 

Some of these companies did a better job of getting themselves noticed than others, but the best self-promoter was Malibu’s Ultraverse line.

Malibu had previously acted as a publisher for the Image books, but that company had broken away in early 1993. It was a blow to Malibu, but their association with Image had left them flush with cash, which they used to fund the Ultraverse. It’s somewhat ironic that this new universe was so directly tied to Image, because they positioned themselves as the anti-Image.  

Instead of arising from artists, the Ultraverse was created by writers. And they weren’t new writers either, they were veterans who had worked on Marvel and DCs biggest properties: Steve Englehart, Mike Barr, Steve Gerber, Gerard Jones, James Robinson, James Hudnall, and Len Strazewski. In promotional interviews they touted how closely coordinated and interconnected the Ultraverse would be, as opposed to the slapdash Frankenstein that was the Image universe. Though they hired some very high-profile artists (Dave Gibbons, Howard Chaykin, Adam Hughes, Walter Simonson) to design their characters, the art on the books was not part of the sales package; most of the books’ regular pencillers were solid and workmanlike, the opposite of the flashy Image artists. They were not the draw, the writers were.

The Ultraverse debuted in June 1993 with three titles - Prime, Hardcase, and The Strangers - but quickly expanded to over a dozen ongoing books. Malibu put an obscene amount of effort (and cash) into marketing the books. Utilizing their film division, they created a promotional video for retailers, live action mini-movies for the characters Hardcase and Firearm, and TV commercials. There were also radio ads and posters on buses, in addition to extensive print ads in all of the comic-related publications. They announced plans for action figures, cartoons, video games, and a trading card set all before the first books had hit the stands.

And it worked! In the great glut of titles of 1993, the Ultraverse became a hit. While several of the new universes didn’t last through 1993 (and indeed, many of Image’s non-core titles were short-lived), the Ultraverse expanded and became stronger. By January of 1994, the comics market had contracted considerably, and was down to around 350 titles, but a good 20 of those were Ultraverse comics.


I hopped on to the Ultraverse enthusiastically at first, lured by the promise of a writer-driven line of books. Though I loved comic book art, I had been burned enough times by nonsensical Image books to know that a great artist did not necessarily make for a great comic. So I dabbled with every single Ultraverse book before settling on a few favorites: Prime, Freex, Strangers, Ultraforce.

I was excited to revisit these for this project, and to take a second look at some of the titles I’d abandoned early on (Firearm, Sludge, Prototype, Night Man). I was dismayed by what I found. With a couple of rare exceptions, the Ultraverse books were just a big old mess. The art was inconsistent, the characters unlikeable, the concepts muddy, the stories rushed, the attempts at realism unrealistic. Only James Robinson’s 18-issue run on Firearm had any sort of narrative consistency and coherence, but even that title was troubled by a revolving door of artists and a protagonist who racked up a body count without much reflection or remorse.

The title I found myself most disappointed by was Steve Englehart’s The Strangers. I remember really digging the book when it first came out, but this time I found it just a slog to get through, and I had to struggle a bit to understand why. On the surface this story of six random San Franciscans who develop superpowers after a cable car accident has all the right elements: a great artist (Rick Hoberg), a diverse cast of characters with interesting powers, and a creator who’d guided some of the biggest characters at Marvel and DC (Fantastic Four, Avengers, Batman, Justice League, Green Lantern Corps).

First, the positives: The book went directly against the trend, both inside and outside the Ultraverse, of darkness and graphic violence. Its characters were optimistic and heroic. There were two Black main characters (Zip-Zap and Yrial) and the leader of the team was a Latinx woman (Lady Killer). Another member of the team (Spectral) was openly gay, and he had a very cool and clever ability that gave him a different power for each color of the rainbow he glowed. 

Hoberg's art was marvelous, and, even with the occasional fill-in, consistent. Hoberg had the makings of being one of the greats, but outside of the work on this book and a smattering of DC titles, he never really made comic books his home. Instead, he worked in storyboarding and design for both animation (X-Men: The Animated Series) and live-action (the 1990 It mini-series).

But despite those elements, the series just isn’t that great, and it all comes down to plotting and pacing. In presenting a new set of characters to an audience a writer has to find ways to build familiarity and make the reader care. Englehart didn’t start doing any of that work in earnest until the title was over a year old. Maybe he thought he had more time (the series was cancelled with issue #24), or maybe he felt he had to do lots of exciting things right away to hook readers in. But as we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much time or space to do this kind of character work, if you do it right (I refer you to Quasar #31 and X-Factor #87).

So The Strangers is full of intriguing premises that are never satisfactorily explored. One of the team members, Candy, is an android sexual companion who enters into a romance with another Stranger, Grenade. There are all sorts of complications and explorations that could arise out of this, but instead they just flirt and do PDA with each other. Zip-Zap is a 12-year-old orphan and former gang member, but this potentially-rich backstory is just thrown out sort of causally and never really expanded upon. And it seems like a huge missed opportunity to not structure the book around the Strangers tracking down the other 40-some individuals who were on the cable car with them. As it is there were only two stories that arose from this set-up, and only one did so in a meaningful way.


It strikes me now that the Ultraverse really wasn’t as far away from Image as it purported to be. Yes, it was writer-led instead of artist-led, and yes, the Ultraverse had more intriguing concepts and premises than Image did, but the end results weren’t all that different. Both companies put out books that were overly busy and needlessly grisly. Both companies prioritized story momentum over character development, featured poor design work, and lacked for compelling villains.

Unlike many of the other new universes that sort of sputtered out, the Ultraverse actually got a second life, thanks to Marvel. In late 1994 Marvel bought the Ultraverse from Malibu. Marvel was struggling, and grasping at straws. There were rumors that they bought the Ultraverse to get access to the coloring process Malibu used on the books, but that has been disproven. Other, more credible, rumors that said the purchase was to block DC from buying the characters.

Regardless of the reasoning, the effect was immediate. A mini-series called Godwheel featured Thor and a bunch of Marvel artists, including Joe Madureia, Gary Frank, and Mike Wieringo. A series of crossover specials (e.g. Prime vs. Hulk and Night Man vs. Wolverine) culminated in an Ultraforce and Avengers crossover with Loki as the villain and George Perez on art, the result of which was the rewriting of the Ultraverse. Many of the original titles ended, and the line relaunched with seven books in late 1995 (The Strangers was not among them). Marvel shut down the Ultraverse for good with February 1997’s Ultraverse: Future Shock. By that point, none of the original creators of the line were involved.

While many other successful superhero universes of the 1990s have made some sort of return in recent years (Valiant, Impact, Milestone, New Universe), Ultraverse has not. Apparently a circa 2004 proposal from Englehart sputtered out due to the fact that the original creators would be owed 5% of profits from the revival. In a 2005 Newsarama interview, then Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada disputed that reasoning, and instead hinted at a larger issue that involved “dirty laundry” he didn’t want to air.

Given how these revivals typically fare creatively, and how uninspiring the original comics were, it’s probably for the best.


Works Cited:

-“’93 Malibu.” Hero Special Edition: 1993 The Year In Comics. February 1994. 

-Berry, Michael. “Origins of the Ultraverse.” Comics Scene #36 (August 1993).

-Johnson, Kim Howard. “Crisis of Infinite Comics.” Comics Scene #35 (July 1993).

-O’Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Use Some Fantastic Foresight When Buying.” Wizard #23 (July 1993).

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #21: September 1993

The Best Fastest Man Alive

Flash #80
Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Mike Wieringo
Inker: Jose Marzan, Jr.
Colorist: Gina Going


One of the best things to come out of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was the decision to have Wally West – the former Kid Flash – take over the mantle of the Flash. Wally became a Flash for the 1990s and early 2000s. He was a shining example of DC’s commitment to telling a multi-generational superhero saga, allowing its characters to grow and evolve along with its audience.

Like most of their best innovations of the 1980s and 1990s, DC eventually tied all of that to a rock and drowned it in a river. And so Wally West has had a rough go of it in the past 15 years. With 2006’s Infinite Crisis, he was shuffled off to an alternate reality, and DC tried to pass the Flash torch again, this time to Bart Allen. But his series proved unpopular, and Wally returned for a couple of years. Then 2009’s Flash: Rebirth found Wally sidelined by the unnecessary return of the first Flash, Barry Allen. 

But it got worse. In 2011’s Flashpoint and its resultant “New 52” reset, he was written out of continuity and replaced by a completely different character with the same name. The 2016 “DC Rebirth” brought him back, only to find he’d been forgotten by his wife, and that his two children were lost somewhere outside of reality. This trauma eventually led him to have a breakdown and to involuntarily murder several of his fellow heroes, as depicted in 2018's Heroes in Crisis

Wow, I got exhausted just writing that out. 

Just as Wally was once the epitome of DC’s commitment to forward momentum, his egregious mistreatment is an encapsulation of DC’s regression in the 2010s, as well as yet another example of their determination to give every single character a backstory as tragic as Batman’s. What made this all the more difficult is that such fantastic work had gone into building Wally West up into someone truly admirable. 

That work started in earnest the 1990s with writer Mark Waid.

Starting out as your typical bland 1960’s sidekick, Wally served as Teen Titan, went to college, and retired from superheroing. He was brought back reluctantly with 1980’s New Teen Titans, in which Marv Wolfman – who disliked the character – wrote him as exceedingly normal “mid-western conservative” who sometimes had little patience for his teammates’ eccentricities and hang-ups. (though to Wolfman’s credit he did devote a whole issue to showing Wally’s compassion for and understanding of his friends, New Teen Titans #20). Overall he was a character very much in the mold of his mentor, the straight-laced and humorless Barry Allen.

Wally’s time as the Flash began with his own title in 1987, with the team of writer Mike Baron and artists Jackson Guice and Mike Collins at the helm. They lasted about a year before William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRoque took over for what would be a four-year run. Like many of DC’s post-Crisis books, the title was idiosyncratic. DC editorial at this time seemed to allow writers to really bring their personal visions and quirks, and in Messner-Loebs’s case that meant a strange brew of absurd elements and very real-world concerns. 

Though I didn’t particularly love Messner-Loebs’s work on the title, I recognize he did some very important groundwork in allowing Wally to begin a journey of immense personal growth. He introduced the reformed and openly gay Pied Piper as a close ally, and he created Korean-American reporter Linda Park as a romantic interest. Most importantly, he showed Wally’s worldview expanding.

In 1992, with issue #62, Alabama native Waid took over. It was a pretty big assignment for someone whose only ongoing credit to that point had been with the ill-fated Impact line. Like so many writers before him, Waid had begun as an editor, but he quickly differentiated himself  through his encyclopedic knowledge of DC (and Marvel) history. Starting with a “Year One,” story exploring Wally’s origin and psyche, Waid began what would be an eight-year epic about a man coming fully into his own, as a hero and as a human being.

In his time with Wally, Waid established an emotional life for the character, created one of the great love stories of the DC Universe, developed a mythology behind the Flash’s powers, and built an extended family of speedster heroes.

Flash #80 picks up in the aftermath of an epic storyline called “The Return of Barry Allen” that found Wally beginning to come out from under the shadow of his fallen mentor. The four-part “Back on Track” story concerned him confronting a different figure from his past, former girlfriend Frankie Kane. Turns out that Frankie’s magnetic powers are wreaking havoc on her brain chemistry, and this has brought out her anger at Wally for how their relationship ended. This forces Wally to acknowledge some of his less-than-admirable past behavior, and to make things right while also navigating the jealousy of Linda, who has now become his girlfriend.

The storyline's guest stars, Nightwing and Starfire, underscored Waid’s strength at drawing upon a character’s history in order to move things forward.

But Flash #80’s greatest significance come from who drew it. Greg Laroque had continued on the title in the switch from Messner-Loebs to Waid, but #80 featured the debut of a new regular penciller, a young man from Virginia named Mike Wieringo. Wieringo had literally three professional credits to his name before being given the keys to the Flash, and his style – clean and cartoony – was 100% out-of-step with what was popular at the time in mainstream superhero books. But because of that, and because his talent that became more apparent with each issue he drew, he stood out and would very swiftly become a comics superstar. In fact, he would be at the forefront of a back-to-basics movement in comic superhero art that wouldn’t fully take hold until the late 1990s.

Waid and Wieringo's defining moment with Wally was Flash #0, cover-dated October 1994. As a result of the Zero Hour event, Wally finds himself revising his own past, and becomes corporeal enough to interact with his 10-year-old self, a dreamy kid whose parents are tough on him. And he's able to tell him what we'd all love to hear:

...It's gonna hit you like a bolt from the blue."

Wieringo would only stay a year on Flash, but had a great impact on the way Wally, his supporting cast, and the book itself were perceived from that point forward. He’d go on to work on Robin, Sensational Spider-Man, the creator-owned Tellos, and the Adventures of Superman to name a few. His crowning achievement was a beloved 2002-2005 run on Fantastic Four that reunited him with Mark Waid. Tragically, Wieringo died of an aortic dissection at the age of just 44.


Other than a short bit of time where Grant Morrison and Mark Miller wrote the title, Waid guided Wally’s adventures until 2000. At the time he shared that he felt he'd said all he had to say about the character. In the process of explaining that, Waid revealed what made his take on Wally work so very well: "The book's always been at its best when its been most personal - when I was using Wally to work out the difficulties and quandaries in my own life." 

Geoff Johns took over next, building upon Waid’s character work with Wally, though it became clear early on that his greater interest was in developing and exploring the Flash’s villains. He did end his run with Wally becoming a father, a thread Waid picked up on during his brief return to the character from 2007 to 2009.

In 2001, the Justice League cartoon premiered on Cartoon Network. The Flash in the show? Wally West. Though more quippy (and horny) than Waid’s version, the TV version captured the essence and heart of the character, and became the definitive Flash for a generation of fans.

As of May 2021, with issue #768, Wally West is back as the primary Flash. Writer Jeremy Adams has assured us this is no trick, and that he won’t break our hearts, but he’ll have to forgive Wally West fans such as myself for not getting our hopes up just yet. It's probably too much to ask that Adams approach Wally's character development as thoughtfully and thoroughly as Waid and company did, but at this point I'd settle for him receding into the background with dignity.


Works Cited:
Wells, John. "Growing Up Fast." Back Issue #126 (April 2021).