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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: 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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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #3

ultraverse_revisited

strangers_0003TNTNT!

Writer: Steve Englehart
Penciller: Rick Hoberg
Inkers: Tim Burgard & Larry Welch
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design: Keith Conroy
Editor: Chris Ulm
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: August 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

Three issues in, and we get introduced to a villainous team for our Strangers team to face–TNTNT!

As the issue opens, we get an introduction to the villains of TNTNT, by way of simultaneous fighting and chattering, as they introduce themselves to the Strangers as each fights a Stranger. Tyrannosaur, Naiad, Torso, Neu-Ronne, and Tugun. Get it? TNTNT. We have some choppiness, between seeing parts of the fight and the aftermath of the Strangers (victorious) getting costumes made and such. Then we get another bit with the old man we’ve seen at the ends of issues, as his cancer reveals it’s actually a villain and he’ll never be healed. There’s also a quick check-in with J.D. Hunt, before we get back to the Strangers, who’ve gone to Hardcase’s place and are there waiting for him when he and Choice get there (see also: Hardcase #3!)

The art on this issue’s not bad, but doesn’t blow me away. It has the "look" and "feel" of the Strangers for me, and definitely has a ’90s vibe. The story is a bit choppy, and whether it’s lack of story elements (such as a caption denoting time) or the way the art is, I actually thought my reading copy of this issue had been misprinted and that pages were out of order. I eventually caught on to what was being done, but considering I’ve been reading comics for nearly 30 years, I don’t feel I should be so thrown by an issue or unable to catch on FASTER.

The story itself isn’t all that bad…this gives us a villain team for the Strangers to fight; obviously if you have a whole team of super-powered heroes, just a lone villain shouldn’t be a match, so having a whole team of super-powered villains works. The way everyone talked in-battle, and the way the TNTNT members introduced themselves felt cheesy as heck to me, and not exactly in a good way. Zip-Zap gets a bit of a subplot, with a bigger range to get away from the battle proper and discovering some suits watching the group; and even gets himself shot/drugged for his trouble. Confusing (and frustratingly so) as the issue could be structurally, I definitely do relish the inclusion of subplots; and whatever complaints I have, there’s a bit of nostalgia in the "old style" of focusing on team members individually in a battle that–were it to happen in real life–would absolutely not be one in which characters could interact as they’re shown here to do.

I wasn’t overly thrilled with this issue, but I’m still curious where things go, and looking forward to the Strangers/Hardcase crossover. I’m hoping that where I’m not terribly engaged with the Strangers as they’ve been thus far, I’ll enjoy them more once I see them interacting with the Ultraverse world as a whole.

This is only a 3rd issue, and Ultraverse issues not being terribly expensive–period–I would recommend getting issues 1 and 2 along with this, as this would seem more of a mess as an isolated issue. And there’s no real reason to read this in isolation without the first couple issues!

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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #2

ultraverse_revisited

strangers_0002Hey! Hugh! Get Off’a McCloud!

Writer: Steve Englehart
Penciller: Rick Hoberg
Inkers: Tim Burgard, Larry Welch
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Designer: Keith Conroy
Editor: Chris Ulm
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: July 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

This issue opens with an anecdote that also proves to be the issue’s title…then shifting to our group of strangers in an aircraft, heading for a cloud that the strange woman from the first issue disappeared to. They reflect on the events of the previous issue (in a page-ish on-panel/page recap). They then come up with a plan for compensating for screwed up sensors in Dave using his yellow flame to fly, and manually guide them. The group finds an entire island in the sky, surrounded by the cloud! After a rough landing, the group is captured, and eventually are able to communicate with the inhabitants of the island (after a battle that threatens the airworthiness of the island), and seem to have more questions then they started with. The leader of the island’s inhabitants suggests that "searching for the reason IS the reason" regarding their seeking how they all got these powers, and so on. As he "assigns" the woman–Yrial–to the team and sends them on their way, they determine they’ll call themselves what they started out as: The Strangers! Meanwhile, we get some token development regarding a likely soon-to-be villain.

This issue (as I’m likely to be saying about many, many Ultraverse issues in the coming weeks/months) is "VERY ’90s" in tone. It’s got what–especially by contemporary comics–is a choppy story with rather quick and convenient plot points (and plot jumps), with some familiar tropes. We have a bunch of people who don’t know each other but suddenly got powers working together–some token disagreement, but conveniently working well together. We have a random flying island manned by a group that knows way more than our heroes, but won’t clue them in, saying they’ve gotta find the information themselves. And we have a group assembled and an additional person arbitrarily added to the group that must be accepted…for the heckuvit. And we still don’t really have any answers, just a slightly wider world that now not only includes a bunch of people hit by lightning developing super powers, but an ancient people with a flying island over the United States and the US Government apparently doesn’t know/hasn’t done anything about it.

Story-wise, this works…I’m not completely enamored with the title as of this second issue, but it’s still early; and I’m much more familiar with the likes of Prime and Mantra, with the Strangers as a blind spot…so while I’m eager to get back to familiar stuff, this is new for me. It’s "only" the second issue, and we have a superhero team starting to work with each other, coming together…so it’s going to be continued development. I don’t believe I’d known prior that Yrial was "assigned" against her own choice to participate in the team…I must have thought she was "just another" of the people on the cable car.

Visually this is a solid issue. It "looks" like a ’90s comic, and I could do without some of the layouts…but at least the main double-page splash of the group suddenly coming to the island is something that arguably serves the story–showing the sheer enormity of the island, adding to its spectacle as something floating over Los Angeles. This is a colorful comic, not least of which is thanks to Dave and his multiple colored flames and extended "yellow flame" learning-to-fly sequence. No huge complaints or anything for this issue.

Given what I do know of the Strangers, I would not recommend this issue completely stand-alone. It works well as a 2nd issue…but especially as ONLY the 2nd issue, I can’t think of any reasonable reason to seek this out in isolation on its own without the first issue; and ideally along with the first and next issue to be a bigger chunk of overall story. That said, I’d definitely consider this a bargain bin comic, and wouldn’t recommend paying more than $1 if it can be helped; and ideally 25-50 cents.

I’m curious to see the further development of this group of characters, though not as much as I am in Prime or Mantra. Given those were two of my favorite Ultraverse books as they came out, that I mostly kept up with, I recognize my bias even as I can’t honestly or with proper authenticity rid myself of it. Those were my favorite titles, so delving back in, I want to get back to what I enjoyed…forcing myself to read other titles is–while starting out–forcing myself to read other titles I haven’t read and don’t have a singular interest in. This isn’t a bad issue, but it hasn’t immediately become a favorite for me or anything like that.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #1

ultraverse_revisited

strangers_0001Jumpstart!

Author: Steve Englehart
Penciller: Rick Hoberg
Inker: Tim Burgard
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design: Paul Mounts
Editor: Chris Ulm
Published by: Malibu Comics
Cover Date: June 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

I know I’ve read this issue several times over the years. I’d guess this to be at least my 3rd time. And yet, it’s not one that has stuck well in my memory; especially for–as one of THE initial #1s–it NOT having one of those CD Romix-Comix deals.

We open with some narration about San Francisco and get a quick glimpse of several people, before their cable car is struck by a bolt of energy. Just before the bolt hits, several work together to throw a guy OFF the car for refusing to cease with the PDA-ing with his (apparent) girlfriend. The bolt of energy hits the car, costing its operator control, and it slams into a passenger vehicle, gravely wounding that driver. Later after the incident, as everyone’s gone their separate ways, we check in on several of the passengers, and see them discovering strange new abilities and experiencing a profound change in the wake of things. When another disturbance occurs, several make their way to the scene, where they band together to drive off a strange woman, and then decide to stick together while they learn about their new powers and life-situation.

This is another issue to just SCREAMS "’90s!" to me; from the fonts to coloring to dialogue and character names (well, knowing some of the names, as the characters don’t really adopt them here in this issue). To best of my recollection, this was the FIRST of the Ultraverse books to be available for purchase…though it’s the one I was least looking forward to (re) reading. That being said…I actually enjoyed this a fair bit, and am now interested in checking out some subsequent issues. This is one series that from #2-forward will be all-new reads to me, or close enough to it for lack of memories of actually reading them.

This issue does a solid job of BEING a first issue. It introduces us to a slice of life in the city, with the characters, shows us their "inciting incident," see them discover their powers, see them band together to face a threat and actually interact with said threat, AND have a reason to stay together past this one encounter, while leaving enough hanging to keep one curious about what comes next. There seems to be some "shorthand" in some interactions and dialogue that I’ll be looking for some quick payoff, as I’m not 100% if memory serves on where they go, and they’re definitely things that never even occurred to me in prior readings of this issue. The repeated use of narration to remind us of San Francisco and the light was effective twice…but hitting it three times in the issue seemed a bit much. It’s still a solid attempt, and gets points from me for "effort" and picking up on what’s being conveyed!

I like the art and character designs–the people all seem like real people, there’s no wonky anatomy or strange and obvious "shortcuts" or such, nothing that puts me off or makes me wonder what’s going on and all that. Even though I recognized all the characters, I’m not great on the names and would not be able to pull most out of thin air with any confidence…but their appearance does wonders here, and I imagine once I get a few issues in I’ll be doing a lot better with the names.

All in all, this is an issue that I would actually recommend…it’s very much worth the 25 cents or so if you find it in a quarter-bin, and probably even worth 50 cents if one of those bins. This was such a mass-produced issue, and the Ultraverse such an entity that while this doesn’t really have much financial value, the READING value is strong, and the series didn’t last long enough to really justify jumping in anywhere BUT this first issue…especially now, 25 years after its release!

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