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Ultraverse Revisited: Hardcase #6

ultraverse_revisited

hardcase_0006Friends and Enemies, Part Two: Returning Favors

Writer: Jim Hudnall
Penciller: Scott Benefiel
Inkers: Mike Christian & Jordi Ensign
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design: Moose Baumann
Interior Colorists: Family Fugue
Editor: Hank Kanalz
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

After being stabbed and looking like he was bleeding out, we open this issue with Hardcase having an out of body experience, watching Choice find his body, fend off Hardwire, and try to get Tom to a hospital. While having this experience, Hardcase–Tom–is told by Linda (Starburst) to go back while he can. After waking in a hospital bed, Tom and Choice are visited by an old friend…who turns out to be an "old friend" in The Alternate. She claims she’s trying to help them survive, while "The Man Who Isn’t a Man" prepares to send agents to the moon to get something for him that he can destroy all Ultras with. Thanks to his remarkable healing, Hardcase is up and ready before long to re-confront Hardwire, and being prepared this time, succeeds. When police show up, Hardcase dislocates both of the villains arms, so that he can’t use his fingers against them. After this all wraps up, Tom lays in bed with his mind in overdrive, reflecting on the evening–Choice, as well as what he actually saw while dying.

The art for this title has been rather uneven…but it worked well in this issue, taken alone. The cover is nicely detailed, with Hardcase looking like Hardcase…even though it has him seemingly deliberately looking AWAY FROM the attacking villain. Within the issue, the art seems good as a whole. It seems slightly "off" to me–but then, my primary memory of the title and its art comes from the first issue, so that’s what I tend to judge a lot of the art against. It’s better than a couple of the other early issues, though, and better than I remember some of the later issues. The story’s not hard to follow–the action of what’s going on–and that’s the main thing. It’s nothing to write home about, but nothing I’m gonna really complain about.

Story-wise, we get some solid follow-up on Hardcase’s injury–and that while he’s nearly invulnerable, he can be hurt; but he also heals much faster, so even dire damage isn’t necessarily fatal. That said, we get some hints at forthcoming answers for Choice, and knowing what I do of the Ultraverse, it’s easy to pick up on the references to the moon and such (all the more after seeing them in Prime–which is another "core" Ultraverse title as one of the three originals). We get some resolution to this initial encounter with Hardwire; foreshadowing of stuff to come, and generally have a decently well-rounded ’90s comic that moves everything forward as an "episode" rather than being just a 1/6th slice of some singular graphic novel the way most modern/2018/2019 comics seem to be.

As with many ’90s comics and other Ultraverse issues, one could pick up on context simply reading this issue…but it’s not one I’d recommend in isolation or as some singular target issue. It bridges the previous issue and what’s to come in Break-Thru, contributing a bit of setup for that event and preparing us for Hardcase joining the greater stage of the Ultraverse as a whole. This is well worth a 25-50 cent purchase to have along with the earlier issues…but you’re better off grabbing the first issue than this if you just want a single issue of Hardcase.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Mantra #5

ultraverse_revisited

mantra_0005Mantra: The Animated Series

Creator/Writer: Mike W. Barr
Penciller: Terry Dodson
Inker: Jasen Rodriguez
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design: Moose Baumann
Interior Color: Family Fugue
Editor: Chris Ulm
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

This issue is an interesting piece, right from the cover. We have a generic gradient background, with a folded film strip receding to the lower left. In the foreground we see a ‘regular’ Mantra looking curiously at a reflection that on the film is exaggerated and cartoony. On the surface it almost seems like a self-acknowledgement of Mantra being "well-endowed" physically and the costume emphasizing that. But…it also actually fits the interior of the issue, serving as a very reasonable cover for this particular issue of this title!

As the issue opens, we see Mantra and Warstrike–fresh back from Boneyard’s place–confronting Strauss about the charm that failed to return them the way he’d promised. After this confrontation, that pair splits up after an awkward moment. As Mantra flies away, the demon from Prime #5 spots his target! Still without a body, the demon possesses another cartoon character–a Wiley Wolf. Meanwhile, back at home, Mantra experiments with the magic sword, discovering/confirming its additional cloaking ability to hide as a ring on the costume’s belt, but manifest at will when needed. Mantra–or rather Eden Blake–well, actually, Lukasz–walks into the house looking perfectly normal, the Mantra getup magically cloaked. We see that the kids are being watched both by Blake’s mother, and the actual babysitter Kelly Cantrell (who we should recognize as Prime–Kevin Green’s–crush over in Prime). Even without big super-heroics and such, we see the natural mixing/"small-world-after-all" of all these characters existing in the same world. We see further tension between "Eden" and her mother, who still does not know this is actually Lukasz inhabiting her daughter’s body.

The next day at work, we find that there’s even more to Eden’s story than anyone realized, which lends itself well to what Lukasz may need to accomplish: Eden’s recruited for Aladdin! Before there’s any dwelling on that, Eden gets an emergency call from her friend Marla…seems that now Brent is dead as well as her husband Carl! (We know Brent as the guy Lukasz woke up next to when he first found himself in Eden’s body!) Eden then has to rush off to deal with an emergency as Mantra…Wiley Wolf is threatening her kids’ school! The "living cartoon" is dealt with, though Mantra may have let slip more than intended by addressing Evie by name–something odd for Mantra, who has never actually MET Eden Blake’s daughter. Later at home, Eden takes a copy of Ultra Monthly Magazine from the kids, and realizes a model posing as Mantra for risque photos in the magazine will be a prime target for the cartoon/demon!

We then launch into several pages of 6-panel grids made out to be filmstrip frames as Mantra is engaged by the demon, pulled into the tv world…and finds herself a cartoon! And as a cartoon, subject to typical cartoon gags and visuals, as well as rules. She manages to defeat her foe and return to the real world…with just enough page space left to demand the model be paid properly for her trouble, don’t do it again, and a single panel showing the demon (trapped as Wiley Wolf) kneeling in disgrace before an angry Boneyard.

Judging by the length and detail of my "summary" above, compared to other recent Ultraverse issues I’ve covered…I think it’s very safe to say that Mantra is STILL one of (if not my top) favorite Ultraverse titles.

As a guy, sure, there’s likely something subconscious to the depiction of this female character’s visuals and light-on-covering-clothing as we see on panel. But I truly find it fascinating this notion of a man trapped in a woman’s body, having to learn to adjust to the world from that state; but even on the notion of ANYONE being trapped in SOMEONE ELSE’s body–PERIOD. Considering what it means to all those around the body–Eden’s friends, coworkers, anything Eden had set in motion for herself–as well as a suddenly strained relationship with her mother, and an awkward, unexplained distance from her kids (that the kids surely pick up on but may not understand)…there’s a lot of depth to be had!

For better or worse, though…some of this understanding and knowledge and way I take in the character and stories is me more than 2 decades later re-reading stuff that I read and loved as a kid! If not this particular issue, then at least this series.

I continue to enjoy the visuals on this title…it certainly seems pretty consistent with the previous issues; with Dodson on pencils, that certainly makes sense. There’s a certain grounded feel to things, while still looking like drawings in a comic book. Alternatively, the "animated" portion takes on the goofy cartoon-like look in a rather obvious way…both poking fun at old cartoons as well as perhaps borrowing the style of the "_____ Adventures" comics of the time–Batman and X-Men at least–based on their respective cartoon series.

Story-wise, I love all the subplots and worldbuilding going on here…it feels like Mantra is an extremely rich title in that regard! In some ways the story is all over the place, though–Mantra and Warstrike barging in on Strauss, then scene-hopping all over the place for just a page or few pages at a time. This would not "work" for most titles, but does for me here as said with stuff above.

Perhaps more for the "Mantra the Animated Series" segment, this issue can SORT OF work on its own. Nothing overly fancy or special in and of itself, but if one gets through the main part of the issue, they’re then treating to the "Mantra Adventures" segment.

Five issues in and we should be "wrapping up" a story arc as far as looking from the modern perspective in 2019. I vaguely remember that the next couple issues cross over with the rest of the Ultraverse–first as a whole for the Break-Thru event and then with a prominent Prime issue; so I don’t remember any clear-cut hard-stop breaks in terms of an actual story conclusion or new story start.

As always…I definitely recommend this in context of the other issues of the title! If you can get these first 5 or so issues, you’re in for a treat; or if you’ve read the previous issues, you’re still in for a treat with this issue. If you find this issue alone for 25-50 cents, it’s probably gonna be a fun, VERY-’90s sort of read where you can pick up on context within the issue itself.

I remember in broad strokes where this series goes, at least for a bit, and I’m eager to get to a prominent story in particular, but I’m holding myself back to continue reading issues as single issues in the greater context of the whole of the Ultraverse publication!

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Ultraverse Revisited: Prototype #4

ultraverse_revisited

prototype_0004Wrathful Moon

Writers: Len Strazewski and Tom Mason
Penciller: David Ammerman
Inker: James Pascoe
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Designer: Robert Alvord
Interior Color: Family Fugue
Editor: Chris Ulm
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

The cover starts us off with a glimpse of what the issue contains, in telling us someone called Wrath enters this issue. Enter: Wrath. That is, this is the official debut of the character…and (25 years’ spoiler-free time gone by) I know the character winds up with his own series, so that–plus the "logoed" name on the cover–hints at the importance/significance of this character, over some run of the mill generic character that could otherwise fill a similar role. It’s also remarkably refreshing having just a single cover image to worry about, that it shows Prototype fighting the guy we can (from the cover alone) assume IS this Wrath character.

Despite the above, the ’90s were a time with loads of new characters being introduced by all publishers, so there being a "logo" for a character’s name wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d get an ongoing series or even mini-series. And some part of me remembers that the Ultraverse trading cards that were produced included a bunch of characters that only ever saw print there–though my memory and understanding of that may be faulty after all this time, clouded by "rumors" or stuff I’ve come across (but not verified) over the years. Point being–the logo AND knowing the character got his own series tipped me off here, where the logo alone wouldn’t not necessarily tell one such information.

As we open the issue itself, we find Jimmy Ruiz contemplating his latest "upgrade," an implant that should make his interfacing with the Prototype suit much better. He’s called back to bed by a woman…while outside Ultratech HQ, a woman from his past tries to find out about his whereabouts, knowing only that Jimmy works for Ultratech and lives in the building. Meanwhile, a costumed figure gains access to the Prototype suit, and sets off a stabbing pain in Jimmy–he knows from that that his suit is being messed with. The two collide–one leaving, the other going–and Jimmy winds up on the lesser end of things. Getting to the armor, Jimmy suits up…and we get a good chunk of pages with Prototype and Wrath brawling. The fight spills out of the building, where Angella is threatened…Prototype saves her from an errant blast from Wrath, who didn’t actually wish to harm an innocent–he seems to have a new, grudging respect for Prototype beyond his initial assessment. Wrath escapes, as Prototype’s armor isn’t doing well…and we find out why Angella is seeking to re-connect with Jimmy! Elsewhere, the original man of the Prototype armor, Bob Campbell, tests out his home-brew armor, but finds himself trapped by an ambush of officers–highly armed–accusing him of theft from Ultratech.

I recall–and believe I’ve touched on this previously–there being two Prototypes: "the original" (Bob Campbell) and the "new" that I "knew" (Jimmy Ruiz). For all the more I was consciously aware, though, Jimmy was the hero, and Bob was a villain. Though I also think I recall that after Black September, Bob was Prototype in Ultraforce and no one remembered Jimmy…or some such. That’ll be something to get into in quite awhile, after covering all of the pre-Black-September Ultraverse comics.

That said, I’d figured Bob Campbell to be some 2-d jaded "bad guy," and yet he’s getting a story similarly compelling (to me) as that of Jimmy’s…and maybe it’s that I’m 25 years older now, but to a certain degree, I find it easier to "get" Campbell than Ruiz. I actually find myself more interested in Campbell’s story and feeling like that’s simmering a bit too long on the "back burner." Still…this is from 1993, a time when comics had these things called "subplots" that WOULD simmer on the back burner for ages before flipping to the "A" plot. Instead of random-seeming "retcons" we’d actually SEE and "touch base" on these events happening simultaneous with the main plots, and KNOW something is coming…rather than an arc or two further in being told "oh, by the way, while all this has been going on, this guy’s been doing ____."

Visually, this is a solid issue. There were parts of it that reminded me of Prime, so I guess some of the art seems a bit Brefogle-ish…though that could also be other parts of the art process such as the inking and coloring. It reminded me of Prime‘s art, and I’d say I enjoy the similarity as it further solidifies that the titles take place in the same universe at the same time and all!

When I started this Ultraverse Revisited project, I’d hoped to blow through the line a lot faster. That real life has slowed me down to a nearly-embarrassing extent has brought a lot more "real time" back to the reading in terms of time passing between my getting to each issue.

While this title is pretty good "internally," with time and keeping it as just one title out of the 12 or so Ultraverse titles, each individual issue of this one title feels a much smaller piece of things than being "the next issue" of itself.

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