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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #5

ultraverse_revisited

strangers_0005Dynamic Tension!

Author: Steve Englehart
Pencil Art: Rick Hoberg
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Ink Art: Tim Burgard
Color Design: Rick Schmitz
Color Team: Foodhammer!
Editor: Chris Ulm
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: October 1993
Cover Price: $2.50

A fifth issue doesn’t seem like it’s that far into a series…but in the "meta" sense of this being 25 years old and well over two decades between the END of this series and the present…the series didn’t quite make it 25 issues. But even at 25 issues…this would put us 1/5 through the series now! That’s both discouraging in that the series had such a brief run, but encouraging to notice we’re getting into the meat of the thing, past the most initial of setup and foundation-laying. We saw the origin–the lightning bolt/Jumpstart that hit the cable car. We saw the characters come together, and saw them investigate Yrial and wind up with her the "final member" of the team; saw the team take on TNTNT, their first actual "supervillains" ("ultra-villains"), as well as meet up with Hardcase and have that adventure.

Now in this issue, we see the team–after "most of the series" so far–spit up to go back to their own individual lives. Bob Hardin (Atom Bob) visits with his parents and sees the crowd camped out at their house for a glimpse of him. Leon Balford (Zip-Zap) returns to his street and puts a bully in his place. Hugh Fox (Grenade) and Candy (Electrocute) view his house–overrun with media folks and such,  and head off, discussing their status quo, having a "moment." Elena La Brava (Lady Killer) works the phones on coverage of the team. Yrial takes to a rooftop, frustrated firstly with being "forced" to join the team, and secondly with having no place of her own to go when the team split to go their own ways…but soon spots trouble and prepares to page the rest of the team to regroup. Finally, David Castiglione (Spectral) visits someone in the hospital, and after catching up a bit, he tries to use his healing power. If he could heal a broken arm, surely he could heal this! The scene shifts and we find the rest of the team back together and wondering where Spectral is. They decide to proceed without him, and find Deathwish…who is not at all like the frail old man he "grew from." The Strangers launch into battle, but none of them can take the villain. Eventually Spectral shows up in his green-flame form and lays into the villain…emerging victorious. As things wind down, the team reflects on his action–they’d focused on trying to deny Deathwish any further power, while Spectral gave him more than he could handle. Realizing David’s effectiveness was part anger and venting, they probe a bit and discover that he was unable to heal his partner. They hadn’t realized he was gay, but the fact of it is simply matter of fact and casual…no more a focus than Hugh being attracted to Candy.

I really enjoy issues like this. Maybe it’s that I’ve been reading comics for nearly three decades, but seeing superheroes in action is such a "given" and seeing much of what they do out of costume or out of action is a relative rarity…so seeing a bit of focus on each of the characters reminds us that they’re individuals, gives us a fresh glimpse into their private lives and background, and generally fleshes them out and builds the individuals in a way that doesn’t work easily when they’re all together and being juggled in an action sequence. I often lament the drawn-out/padded-out nature of modern comics written for the 6-issue trade…and even though we’d had very brief foreshadowing bits in earlier issues for Deathwish, essentially he just shows up in this issue, is fought, and defeated–all in one issue. And that’s in addition to getting scenes of each of the individuals on their own…once again packing into one issue what could easily be drawn out to at least 5 or 6 issues in the present (if not 7 or 8 to give each Stranger a solo issue…and even as a single issue, a modern take would have at least 8-9 covers for this issue to give each character a cover, plus the cover we have, plus maybe a glow-in-the-dark Spectral cover on top of that).

Visually this is another strong issue, with all the characters seeming perfectly familiar, and quite consistent with the earlier issues…same artist, same quality and all that. The only thing that really stood out to me was the page split with the Strangers seeing Deathwish the first time…there seems to be a lot of different coloring effects going on with lighting and such that actually prompted me to go back to the credits to see if someone else had contributed a page. It has an almost painted sort of look to it, different from the usual colors of the rest of the issue.

rune_0gRune [G]: The Hunger
Plotted by: Barry Windsor-Smith & Chris Ulm
Drawn & Colored by: Barry Windsor-Smith
Scripted by: Chris Ulm
Inked by: John Floyd
Computer Color by: Albert Calleros
Lettered by: Patrick Owsley
Text Pages Designed by: Jim Chadwick
Edited by: Steve Gerber

I’m sort of surprised–we have our third in-sequence chapter without a great leap in time. This picks up the day after the bitterly disappointing discovery that even Edwin’s power wasn’t enough to permanently restore Rune to his former glory. This chapter picks up the next day and we see that Rune has killed a drunken homeless person…but the alcohol in the guy’s blood is poisoning Rune himself. As a storm rolls in, Rune flies into the sky to be struck by lightning–or perhaps calling the lightning to him–to purge his body of the poison, though it can’t purge the cancer that eats away at him.

This being another 3-page segment of a single issue-length story, the art is consistent as expected with previous chapters, as it’s the same creative team as those earlier chapters.

There’s not a lot of room for development or continuing story, but this shows us that while Rune might have trouble taking down anyone more powerful than a powerless human, he can still survive (and even thrive from) a lightning strike! His magical/sorcerous power is still there, even if he lacks the physical might he once had. And this does show his growing desperation, which likely makes him all the more dangerous!


As with the other Rune Month issues, this is one that is easily identified as a Rune Month (October 1993) issue, but the Rune chapter alone does not give cause to seek it out as a single issue. However, for the Strangers portion…this SOMEWHAT stands alone. It doesn’t in itself give much exposition or backstory, but if one is loosely familiar with the characters, this would not be a horrible issue to get on its own.

The cover is at once a bit bland to me, yet over-promises on Deathwish and his power. Sure, the character was a bit imposing and wielding a very dangerous power…but he was hardly holding sway over an entire city, nor much mystery to the team as to his identity. This cover would seem more fitting to me as the cover to a collected volume of a several-issue story against Deathwish or of multiple encounters with the character. The blurb "Vs. Deathwish" seems tacked on and somehow just LOOKS "’90s-ish" and seems far too symmetric…so basically showing off then-new-ish stuff done with digital elements for the cover.

This is well worth getting from a bargain bin, though as many times as I’ve seen this and other early Ultraverse issues in 25-cent and 50-cent bins, I suggest as with those not to go much over $1 for this issue if you seek it out.

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Ultraverse Revisited: The Night Man #1

ultraverse_revisited

nightman_0001The Night Man

Writer: Steve Englehart
Penciller: Darick Robertson
Inker: Andrew Pepoy
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Color Designer: Paul Mounts
Interior Colorists: Foodhammer!
Editors: Chris Ulm & Hank Kanalz
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: October 1993
Cover Price: $2.50

I think this issue’s cover is one of my favorite #1s of the Ultraverse. I really like the gradient from dark purple to a pink for the background, as well as the full moon, a bit of city architecture, and the gargoyle at the foreground with our title character perched on it, looking quite ready for action. The visual is rather striking, and seems quite "iconic" to me, despite being a generic pose or such–perhaps because this is the (only/main) cover for a #1 issue officially introducing the character. batman_608_2nd_printThis single image is truly "selling" the thing–visually and conceptually. This is no Batman, but perhaps borrows a bit of the imagery (though the most "iconic" Batman-and-a-gargoyle image I can think of–at age 37 in 2018–is the Jim Lee cover to Batman #608, which came nearly a decade after this cover). The fact of this being a #1 likely also lends to the "iconic-ness" of the cover…it’s simply a first issue, and carries a whole other sort of significance as such.

We open on a black-clad figure with goggles coming at us, apparently leaping down from above; the figure is narrating, informing us that he’s not who he was, and that he is (and this gives us the title of the issue itself) The Night Man. Our hero’s about to hit a roof, and flashes back to earlier. First, an accident he was in (this is "Johnny Domino," and he was in the car hit by the cable car when the Strangers got their powers back in Strangers #1). Then when he got out of the hospital, he now needs to shield his eyes from bright light…and discovered that he could "hear" evil thoughts. We follow him trying to deal with that and realizing the ridiculousness of the premise, eventually settling on having to do something himself. His first foray into thwarting evil leaves him banged up and this initial costume quite damaged. During the day, he meets with his father, and we see their interaction, and get a bit of setup for what’s likely coming later. Johnny continues his ‘detective’ work, and tries to save the woman who’s been threatened. Unfortunately, we find that he’s too late–when he gets to her place, she’s already been killed, and the killer has literally stolen her face. A chase ultimately leads to a fight on a boat, and the villain winds up in the water, apparently eaten by the shark. And of course, Johnny didn’t sense any evil from the shark–it’s just a shark looking for food. Closing out the story, having survived a couple of nights AS The Night Man, he takes full ownership of the role, that this is his duty, put on him by the cable car accident, and he is The Night Man! (and then a menacing fist with a knife sticks out of the water–the villain’s apparently not completely dead).

This is a strong first issue. We have ties to the larger Ultraverse–the story universe in general–as Johnny first showed up in Strangers #1. That was a nice bit of detail that at the time was sorta throwaway, but comes into play here in a major way–what was "just some guy in a car" is a major character with powers and his own series, now! But while those details are great for tying this to the larger universe…they’re conveyed in such a way that you don’t have to have read Strangers or other issues…you just get a better appreciation for the details if you have. In typical/trope-ic fashion, we’re tossed into the action and essentially given the "…see that guy? That’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here…" thing. We get Johnny’s name, what he does, what’s happened to him, his current status quo, meet his father, see that he’s the owner of an amusement park resisting a takeover, get plenty of exposition to flesh out the relationship between father and son, etc. We see the character discover his power, start figuring it out, make decisions based on it, don multiple iterations of a costume (learning from near-fatal experience); we’re introduced to a "super villain" or potential "arch enemy" (at least "first major enemy who might be a recurring figure"), and generally have all this stuff packed into this one issue.

In 2018, this issue alone would probably be spread across some special issue/one-shot(s) and no less than 6 issues, each with umpteen variant covers.

That it’s all crammed into one issue makes it a very good value, and a strong stand-alone piece that sets you up to want to find the "sequel" in the form of subsequent issues.

Visually, I really like the issue. The art is quite appealing, with a great sense of realism, while not trying to be something other than a comic book. That is, it’s not particularly cartoony, nor is it hyper-realistic. There’s a good amount of detail throughout, with an assortment of page layouts that change things up nicely, keeping stuff from being just a bunch of pictures placed evenly on a page. The coloring also plays a huge part, and like with the cover, I particularly like the night-time stuff with the purple skies, full moon, and dark water.

rune_0cRune [C]: The Sorcerer
Plotted by: Barry Windsor-Smith & Chris Ulm
Drawn & Colored by: Barry Windsor-Smith
Scripted by: Chris Ulm
Inked by: John Floyd
Computer Color by: Albert Calleros
Lettered by: Patrick Owsley
Text Pages Designed by: Jim Chadwick
Edited by: Steve Gerber

I feel like this is the most detailed piece of the Rune story so far. We’re given visuals to go along with what is essentially a journal entry or letter written by Tesla–presumably the actual historical Nikola Tesla–used here in fictitious context. He writes about someone coming to him for information about energy, and muses on who or what the figure was, figuring it must have been a vision…except for a stone he found on his desk with a particular rune on it, that meant "fire" or "sorcerer."

Essentially, this segment shows us that Rune met with Tesla…and that he has the ability to influence how he is perceived. In this case, perceived as quite the cleaned-up, respectable figure. This could be interpreted as shape-shifting, but the detail of Tesla noting that he could almost see something else, suggesting that this truly was his being influenced to see one thing despite the actuality of Rune’s true appearance. The emphasis on the word "sorcerer" gives us a bit more insight into Rune; that where once he was worshipped as a god, as time went on he’s gone from being a god to being a sorcerer, as an explanation for "what" he is and how he’s beyond human.

As a stand-alone piece, I feel this is the most effective so far, as it is an entire thing within three pages. We have Tesla’s letter/thoughts/recollection and the visuals show us both what he saw and what was actually there; the entire episode is conveyed right here. The lengthy wordiness really helps, given the limited page count, making it seem like more than just taking in a page, turning the page, and being at the end of the segment.

Since this is a serialized piece of a single issue and the creative team remains entirely the same, the consistency of visual style keeps this feeling like the next bit, without some jarring change. Where the first chapter was just there to be taken as itself, and then a drastic change in setting for the very next segment, and now another here…at least at this third part the "story" begins to take a bit more shape or pattern as it grows clearer that we started in the present with Rune, and now are seeing moments from the past, leading us to the present, perhaps.


nightman_dvdThis issue comes off like a pilot episode of a tv series, and while there’s the Firearm #0 thing advertised in the Sptember 1993 Ultraverse titles–giving a short live-action piece that continues in a comic, this feels more like something that would fit as an ongoing live-action thing, like a tv series…

…which is rather fitting, as there actually WAS a tv series of The Night Man, that ran 44 episodes across two seasons! (And is freshly available on DVD!)

With the Rune piece on the flipside of this issue feeling a lot more substantive than the previous couple of segments and working nicely as its own standalone unit…The Night Man #1 as a whole is an excellent single issue! Most of the Ultraverse #1s make strong jumping-on points, but this one seems like one of the best so far (if only for being the one I’m currently taking in). This issue’s definitely worth 25 or 50 cents in a bargain bin…and really, is one I’d even consider worthwhile to get for up to its original $2 cover price…especially given the tv series is now (June 2018) out on dvd. This is a great piece to read to get a sense of the original comic and the comic-version’s origin for the character, before perhaps diving into watching the tv series.

I’m feeling like I definitely missed out on something special by not having followed this series back in the day–I definitely remember GETTING this issue, and reading (but not caring for it) back then…but now it seems like this would have been one of my favorite Ultraverse titles! I’m looking forward to getting into the coming issues as well as hopefully getting and digging into the tv series.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #4

ultraverse_revisited

strangers_0004_frontBetween a Rock and a Hardcase

Author: Steve Englehart
Pencil Artist: Rick Hoberg
Ink Artist: Tim Burgard
Plot: Steve Englehart and James D. Hudnall
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Color Design: Rick Schmitz
Interior Colorists: Foodhammer!
Editor: Chris Ulm
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: September 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

The way Hardcase #4 ended with our heroes suddenly facing some off-panel figure they seemed to recognize, I figured I’d just managed to "forget" someone that had been rather minor up until now…so I was looking forward to the "reveal" in this issue.

But as we open up, we find Hardcase and the Strangers underground (I thought they were still aboveground where we’d left off) and facing an Aladdin agent through some pink force shield. The shield prevents anyone from attacking/using their abilities against the Aladdin folks, and unless they agree to join/work with Aladdin, our heroes aren’t going to be allowed to leave. After some back and forth between the two groups, Grenade realizes there’s a loophole, and seems to start a fight with Hardcase. They can’t use their abilities on their captors…but they CAN against each other. And if their captors get caught in the ricochets, well, that’s just too bad for them. Our heroes escape, though the captors aren’t far behind. Hardcase pauses–he’s going to destroy Aladdin’s DNA labs, as they’ve already violated his old friends by digging up bodies and harvesting their DNA. The Strangers wind up helping, though this means further fighting with Aladdin’s own Ultras. Of course, they’ve got a better idea of what to expect and have continued to learn about their own abilities…so achieve a momentary victory. Realizing at best they’d deal with this single base, a deal is struck–The Strangers (and Hardcase and Choice) walk away. No retaliation from either side. Aladdin keeps their data, our heroes get their freedom to fight another day. No one’s happy about it, but the confrontation ends without any deaths.

Perhaps it’s the larger cast being juggled here, but it seems like there are a lot of little "moments." We have the sorta heavy-handedness of Atom Bob’s obvious interest in Choice; we get Spectral tending to Lady Killer; Zip-Zap marveling at this group that accepts him without belittling him for being "just a kid," and even Hardcase gets a bit of a mentorship role with the group, as he’s been at the Ultra-hero game longer than all the rest. As is definitely a recurring thing as I’m going through these early Ultraverse issues–there’s a lot crammed into any given issue, overall. What we’ve gotten in just four issues of one title from 1993 would probably be stretched to at least 12 if not 18-24 with the way comics are "done" in 2018. There are some leaps of logic and plot holes–and this isn’t a 100% smooth continuation from Hardcase #4. Some of that seems likely that the co-plotting happened, but final fine details weren’t necessarily worked out in time to be reflected properly. That said…if one is just reading this one title, all they really have to know is that the Strangers went to Hardcase’s place and he joined them to fight these Aladdin folks. That can be picked up from context, so the fine details aren’t as important as such. And of course, twenty-five years ago you didn’t have "everything" available digitally or in guaranteed-everything-will-be-put-into-collected-editions, so it was essentially "expected" that one COULD "miss" an issue (not that it would be encouraged).

Visually I definitely enjoyed this issue. I recognized al the characters, and everyone looks good–on form–and the action and such is easy enough to follow. I didn’t get taken out of the story by anything wonky or having to really scratch my head wondering what I’d missed form one panel to the next.

Whatever the specifics and logistics of a story going across multiple titles…this felt like an organic sort of thing. It’s not part of some big event, it’s not even actually "chapter one" or "chapter two" of however many parts; it’s not some "structured crossover" or the like. We just have characters that share the same world interact as they would, SINCE they share the same world and are aware of each other.

We had several issues to establish the Strangers on their own, and now they’ve touched base with the wider world…though things are about to "come back home" for them with Deathwish in the next issue, apparently.

strangers_0004_full

The cover is quite familiar, as it is the "second half" of the front cover from Hardcase #4. Given the placement, though…where Hardcase #4 had a gatefold front cover where the Strangers part folded out…this issue has a wraparoud cover where the Hardcase part is the back cover. The two issues can fit together to make up the single image, and the two issues can each stand alone, giving the full image. No variants in sight, no being forced to buy multiple copies of the same issue chasing some ubiquitous, over-hyped gimmick.

If you can find the first few issues as well as Hardcase #4, this issue’s quite worthwhile. It’s surely got its long-term importance in the grand scheme by itself, but this would be best enjoyed along with Hardcase #4 at least.

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The ’90s Revisited: Lord Pumpkin #0

ultraverse_lord_pumpkin_0000The Return of the Great Pumpkin

Storyteller: Dan Danko
Illustrator: Aaron Lopresti
Finishers: Gary Martin, Aaron Lopresti
Letters: Gail Beckett
Color Design: Micky Rose
Interior colors: Foodhammer! with Sharleen Gaertner
Editor: Roland Mann
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: October, 1994
Cover Price: $2.50

Happy Halloween! For this day, I figured I’d post about one of my favorite "Halloween-themed" characters… Lord Pumpkin! (Even though this totally jumps the gun on an "eventual" Ultraverse reading project).

And why not just cover an entire issue devoted to the character as my means of doing so?

Much as I enjoy the character/concept (if only for the sheer visual ridiculousness), I still have a huge blind spot in terms of concrete comic knowledge of the character and events involving him, outside of a slight memory of the character being featured on the Ultraforce cartoon series, and sharing a "flipbook" for three issues of NecroMantra before the two characters’ stories collided in NecroMantra #4.

But that gets ahead of things a bit.

This issue opens with a pumpkin-headed (or rather, Jack O’Lantern-headed) character arriving on Earth, seemingly with no memory of who or what he is. We then flash back to the GodWheel where we witness a band of fighters seeking to take down the Pumpkin King. On Earth, we see the character essentially "enslaved" by a traveling carnival, and befriended by a young boy. Another player enters the scene, looking to stir up some mischief, providing the boy with a special candle for his pumpkin-headed friend…which leads to a sort of awakening. Ultimately, we see the fate of the fighters and their simultaneously doomed attempt on the evil king’s life as well as said attempt’s impact on Earth, and we see our abused character exact a certain key revenge for his imprisonment…while getting some foreshadowing for the sinister, recurring nature and visual iconography of Lord Pumpkin.

To the best of my un-confirmed, un-researched knowledge, this issue was a one-shot, providing us with a Lord Pumpkin-centric story giving some background on the character–where he came from, who/what he is, and all of that…an "origin story" of sorts. (Yet with the aforementioned NecroMantra flip-book, and a Limited Special Edition variant, one can functionally have Lord Pumpkin #s 1-4 in addition to this #0).

I enjoyed this well enough as a standalone special. We’re introduced to the character, given some background, witness some developments that’ll likely factor into the character’s position as a villain of the Ultraverse, and get a conclusion (while stuff’s left open for later stories). While the character concept is rather ridiculous–a villainous Jack O’Lantern with a human body?–it works, and I am more than willing to suspend disbelief regarding the character. Of course, certain factors that one might question with the character–particularly the pumpkin-for-a-head–is actually dealt with in context of the character/story, and makes for an interesting element for the "villain is seemingly killed but we still know he might be back" trope.

Story-wise in itself, I’m not overly impressed…but then, for a single-issue self-contained thing with a character I recognize more than I "know," and lacking other immediate/conscious context, I don’t supposed I should be. Still, it’s a solid issue and a complete story in itself…serving both as a one-off tale and situating the character within the then-current Ultraverse line.

Visually, I really dug this. The art seems at once simplistic in a way, yet rather complex…and looking at it, it just feels like an Ultraverse comic. It does not look out of place for what memories I have of the line. I was rather interested at realizing Lopresti did the art here, recognizing his name from later Marvel and DC stuff, and not remembering that he was involved in at least this issue of the Ultraverse.

ultraverse_lord_pumpkin_0000bAlong with the "main" cover, there’s a cool variant (I can’t believe I just said that, but I’ll get into the subject of Ultraverse variants in another post) that is also quite fitting for Halloween, and I’m glad to have BOTH.

While not AS "special" as, say, a mail-away special (Ultraverse Premiere #0, Rune #0, The Solution #0) this is still a worthwhile issue to get if you come across it in a 25-cent or 50-cent bin. It stands alone as a self-contained story, but should provide additional complex if you’ve come across the character in other issues…and sets the character up for appearances in later Ultraverse comics (there’s an ad in this issue for the GodWheel mini-series that Lord Pumpkin gets a role in).

I found it rather fortuitous the timing of going through my Ultraverse comics and realizing I had just the time to get to this issue for Halloween.

Sad thing (to me)? I wasn’t yet 13 when this issue was new…yet with an October 1994 cover date, this issue is now 22 years old!

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