Title Revamp: Nightstalkers

Jan-07-09

Jason and I have spent quite a bit of time over the last few months reimagining Marvel and DC characters, trying to reposition them for success in today’s marketplace. This is something that both companies do on a regular basis. However, alongside searching their vast catalog of characters for ideas, both companies also go back to failed series and try to revamp them. It can be quite a quandary, trying to determine what made a series successful enough to launch but not strong enough to survive long term. Intrigued by this challenge Jason and I also thought we’d take a look at some failed series and try to make them viable for 2009. For our inaugural expedition into the land of failed series, we’ve chosen one of the bright spots of the 1990’s: Marvel’s Nightstalkers.

No doubt all the comics fans out there are now thinking “Of course, the 1990’s. That’s where all the great ideas in comics originated!” <sigh> Oh, you cynical, cynical comics fans. Sure, the 1990’s were full of dark characters with mysterious pasts and no personalities; full of men with huge guns and biceps larger than their heads; full of characters with “Death”, “Dead” and “Blood” as part of their names; full of grim and gritty stories, full of characters choking on their own machismo and testosterone; and full of writers who misunderstood their craft, designing long run-on sentences, separated by semi-colons only, as if that made them grammatically correct. All of this is true. However, there may be some genuinely good ideas in that decade, and Jason and I hope we’ve found one in Nightstalkers.

First, some background. The year is 1992. Marvel has been finding great success with books that have a horror background. Characters such as Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire have joined Ghost Rider on the top of the sales chart; okay, okay, maybe the first two aren’t on top of the sales chart, but the fact that they’ve managed to land anywhere on the sales chart is a pretty miraculous feat. Marvel decides to capitalize on the success of these darker, more horror-oriented series by creating a line of comics under the banner of “Midnight Sons”. Marvel created a few new series for this line of comics and one of those series featured a group of vampire hunters called the Nightstalkers.

The three members of the Nightstalkers were all existing Marvel characters. The most popular one today would be Blade, the half-vampire vampire hunter that we all know thanks to three movies starring Wesley Snipes. However, the first of those three movies was still six years off, and Blade was not well known. He was joined by Hannibal King, a private detective who had been turned into a vampire while on a case, but who hated his condition and had never taken to drinking human blood. The final member of the group was Frank Drake, a normal human whose only claim to fame was that he was a direct descendant of Count Dracula himself. These three had worked together in the past, but had split up. Dr. Strange, who was being mysterious and self-serving, as 90’s comics heroes were wont to be, manipulated the three into re-teaming as the Nightstalkers, and history was made!

Sadly, the book only lasted 18 issues, but it drew on past Marvel continuity, referencing stories from the 1970’s and 1980’s. At the conclusion of the book, all three members of the team were believed dead, but in the intervening decade, they’ve all returned to life in the Marvel Universe.

Horror may not be the draw it was when these comics were introduced, but at the same time, I believe there is a market for it. This book has the potential to stand apart from most of the other series on the shelves today, and I think there may be a glimmer of potential here. Hey, if Buffy can go seven seasons, and enjoy a popular career in comics, with the riff of slaying vampires, surely this concept could work at Marvel as well.

What say you, Jason? Can we make this work?

Was there ever a character named Deathblood? That would’ve been totally awesome! If it doesn’t exist, we should will it into existence. I would read that book until my eyes gave out. Seriously. Imagine the possibilities! There would, of course, be some death…and probably a generous amount of blood. Maybe not necessarily in that order, mind you. I’m seeing a cross between Spawn and Punisher. Oh wait, didn’t Marvel try that with one of its Punisher relaunches? Never mind.

And I missed the part where you explained how Kolchak was involved in the whole team thing. What paragraph was that in?

*AHEM* Anyway…yes I think we could make this work. I’m not sure that the draw is all that strong for another teaming of Blade and a couple relative no-names. I’d rather see a new team put together that combines various expertises and makes sense. I’m not even sure I’d put Blade on the team. I think he’d play better as a form of competition for the group or someone who offers them advice, but can’t really be pulled from his own hectic schedule to assist. There should be a straightforward, non-powered human detective type, some sort of lower level magic wielder, and then someone more creature-based to assist in tracking and the brute strength category. Here’s what I’m thinking: Dominic Fortune, Brother Voodoo and Tigra.

No, seriously.

Stop laughing!

Look, I can explain it all. The title begins with a focus on Fortune. He’s an older man who has given up the pretense of playing the hero. His swashbuckling outfit has been replaced by a drab, ill-fitting gray business suit. Sure, he may have let himself go a bit, but he can still tussle with the best of them if need be. He’s seen his fair share (and then some) of the crap that goes on in a hero-driven society and black clouds continue to follow him. He battled Nazis and zombies (not at the same time). He rescued diplomats from terrorists. He fought alongside the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Silver Sable. Yet after all of these adventures, and even because of them, he still watched his son die in his arms. This singular event has led him down a tragic path of divorce, depression and digging for lost dreams at the bottom of a bottle. To say he’s seen it all would be an understatement. The only logical next step for Fortune, the only thing that will give the rest of his shattered life purpose and help distract him from his own problems, is to help solve the problems of other people. Detective work!

His contacts and experiences take him to all corners of the world, from the classic gothic scenery of Eastern Europe to the mystical realms of deep Asia to the haunted swamps of the American South. Every encounter uncovers another supernatural mystery until he eventually decides that it’s foolish to undertake these things on his own. He needs a team.

Enter Brother Voodoo. He has recently packed up his costumed identity and launched a speaking tour of the country’s institutions of higher learning. Voodoo’s presentations on turn of the century occult figures and their relation to ancient tribal rituals pack auditoriums from coast to coast. With a bit of government consultation on the side, he’s leading a fairly happy lifestyle. That is, until the vivid dreams start keeping him up at night. He sees glimpses of the future: key locations, specific artifacts and blurred figures. Is it coincidence or fate that he bumps into Dominic Fortune on the busy streets of San Francisco one blustery, winter afternoon?

Honestly, that’s all I’ve got.

I really want to shoehorn Tigra in there because she’s been dragged through the mud the last couple years at Marvel. And the team needs a female presence. And Tigra’s pretty cool visually.

Can you do anything with that beginning? Do we need some sort of serious, tangible enemy? I see the whole thing playing out with a hard-boiled noir vibe. The narrator of the series would be Fortune and his dialogue would be blunt and clipped like a Sam Spade voice. I’d really like to tap into a sort of rain-soaked tension where it always seems to be dusk and everything happens in the shadows. Costumes would need to be modified or eliminated outright. Some special technologies would need to be invented, but still remain practical.

Yes? No? Maybe?

Interesting. I’m with you part of the way on this one. I was also going to suggest that we not reteam the original three members on this one, as they don’t quite work for me and I think we could do something more interesting. Your suggestions begin the work of something more interesting, but I have a few ideas for some different paths.

First, Dominic Fortune is a great idea. Wonderful character and he’d fit perfectly into this group. I really like the idea of someone who has seen it all and who doesn’t have any powers, but has skills. He’s burnt out, he’s tired, but deep down, he still wants to do the right thing. I’m good there.

I’m good with Brother Voodoo. He concerns me a little, since his name and costume can seem so silly, but I have always thought that he was an untapped resource in Marvel’s litany of characters and I would appreciate the chance to explore his history, his powers, and who he is as a man. With a darker book, we could go places with voodoo that more mainstream books don’t, and perhaps his costume could be tweaked a little to look more menancing and less like he’s at Mardi Gras.

I’m going to ignore Tigra for now.

So, what I think this group needs is a tie to the past. Hey, call me crazy, but I’d like to see this group tied into those who’ve gone before. I also think that this book needs a main villain to call it’s own. I have a solution to the first problem already. At the end of the previous series, all three stars are presumed dead in an explosion. However, it’s later revealed that Frank Drake (the only completely human member of the group) survived, although the explosion left him scarred and crippled in both body and mind. I’d like Drake to be set up in New Orleans; he has bought an old mansion in the city, one that got badly damaged during Katrina, and he’s been living there. Drake hires Fortune for a case. We don’t know it’s Drake at first; Drake doesn’t want to be seen, as he’s hideously scarred, and he’s also not quite sane anymore. Drake uses intermediaries and rather bizarre and unnecessary procedures to stay hidden from Fortune, but Fortune takes the case, as he needs the money. The case is related to the big bad of the series, and that’s what draws in Fortune.

I’d like to have Fortune encounter Voodoo in New Orleans while on this case. Is it a cliche to have them meet in New Orleans and to have Drumm there in the first place? Possibly, but there’s no denying that Drumm has spent a lot of time in that city, and it is viewed as a place with deep ties to voodoo. Fortune and Drumm end up crossing paths and Fortune asks for Drumm’s help, since Drumm knows not only the city, but the supernatural side of things much better than Fortune does. Drumm has those visions and dreams featuring Fortune that you mentioned above, so he’s willing to comply. As they begin working together, they get drawn deeper and deeper into the unpleasantness of the supernatural badness Drake is involved with, and by the end of the first story arc, they’re committed to staying together and fighting this big bad to the end.

I see Drake remaining as a peripheral member of the cast. Drake is someone who is clearly not completely sane, but he also knows a lot about the supernatural, having fought it his entire life. Still, that explosion changed him, and I don’t think the readers are ever entirely clear who’s side Drake is on. Why keep him around then? Because I think Fortune sees some of himself in Drake. Drake was the only human member of the original Nightstalkers, and while Blade and Hannibal King walked away from the explosion without major repercussions, Drake was mangled beyond repair. Fortune can see how that could be his fate, as he works alongside his two super powered teammates (yes, I haven’t forgotten Tigra) and it terrifies him. At the same time, he also sees the evil and destruction that the supernatural baddies cause, and Fortune feels that they will do even worse to even more normal humans if he doesn’t stand against them.

Does that work for you? In many ways, it’s your original idea. I just added Drake and moved the location. There are two things that we need to solve. The first is who the big bad might be. I don’t know that he would have to be in every issue, but I always like the idea of a monumental evil hovering over our heroes. Drake has been present for the destruction of two different vampire lords: Dracula and Varnae. I’d be tempted to bring Dracula back, as he’s a big name and everyone knows him. However, that feels like it’s been done, back in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series. It sure is tempting though, as he’s a fascinating character. If we don’t use Dracula, we could go with the current vampire lord, as Drake might want to destroy the successor to the creatures that ruined his life. Or, it might work better to move into another area of the supernatural and leave the vampires alone for now. Thoughts?

And then there’s Tigra. I agree that she’s been handled poorly by Marvel (which she has been almost throughout her existence with that company) and I agree that the group needs a female. Plus, while superpowered, she’s not overpowered and fits with the group. Finally, her ability to sneak around, her senses, and her close-up fighting style would all fit the feel of the series. So, I like her. However, I’d like to find a hook to bring her in. Do you see one?

It’s tough. Marvel has really painted her into a corner in recent months. She’s been beaten by The Hood’s Syndicate, played as a double-agent during Civil War, and now gotten pregnant by a possibly Skrulled-out Hank Pym. However, if you dig into her past, you’ll find stints as a SHIELD agent, a police officer and a detective (alongside Jessica Drew). She got tangled up in a mystical plot involving Morgan Le Fay, lived in aboriginal lands, ventured around the galaxy with Starfox, was influenced by Agatha Harkness and spent a lot of time alongside Scarlet Witch. Not to mention the fact that her powers and form come from an ancient race of Cat People! Any one of those instances could’ve spawned a connection to associates of Fortune or Drumm. She’s supposedly a member of the Initiative’s Arkansas team now. If we’re fighting the White River Monster or the Bigfoot from The Legend of Boggy Creek, then we’re golden!

On your other embellishments: I don’t mind involving Drake at all and I dig the angle you’ve given him…almost sets him up as the unseen benefactor of the team, the Charlie to their Angels! However, I think it is horribly clichéd to have Fortune and Drumm (and Drake) set up stakes in New Orleans. Too obvious. That’s the reason I pulled Drumm out of the area to begin with. I like the idea of Fortune and Drumm both trying their hands at something other than “superheroing” and then being quasi-involved in it again anyway. Just when I thought I was out…

Back to Tigra…the only thing I can think of to really connect her to our team is to have her announce her pregnancy to a gathering of the rest of her female hero friends. Someone could suggest that she get away to clear her mind. She has already talked about terminating the pregnancy and that alone could lead to her deciding to remove herself from the scene and seek out a quieter existence somewhere else. I don’t want to force a coincidence into the structure (because I hate it when teams are brought together for no apparent reason), but we could create a plot point that has all threeof these characters in the same place at the same time for three completely different reasons. I mean, I had Fortune and Drumm literally bumping into each other. Granted, Drumm was having visions and has that mystical background so he knew how to deal with the encounter. I dunno. Heroes always seem to find fights wherever they go!

As for the villain, I’m very tired of vampires. And zombies. Werewolves aren’t completely played out yet…skeletons…mummies. Maybe the team is debunking monsters of urban legends? Maybe the main baddie is Morgan Le Fay battling Drake for his bloodline. Or Drake could’ve run afoul of the Cat People during his rehab period (hence Tigra’s involvement…fighting on the opposite side at first?). Perhaps we merge two of the Midnight Sons titles and incorporate the Darkhold into this one (I know we mentioned it in our Defenders revamp last year too)?

Let’s dwell on that for a moment…

I understand your hesitation in using New Orleans, and I suggested it for two main reasons. First, I think that there’s certainly a lot of atmosphere and mood that’s inherent in the setting, which would be great for a horror themed title such as this one. Second, I think that, after the devastation of Katrina, New Orleans has emerged as an interesting urban area with a lot of stories to tell, as people rebuild and the city continues to redefine itself for the 21st century. Still, I don’t have a problem relocating them elsewhere. San Francisco doesn’t thrill me simply because it’s where the X-Men currently are, and I’d hate for them to cross paths, although there are approximately 20 gazillion heroes in New York, and they rarely cross paths with each other. I’d like a city with more atmosphere and the potential for horror. Boston springs to mind, but we had suggested that for our Strange revamp, and Strange would run in the same circles as this group, so it makes it implausible that they would all be in the same city and not meet. I can’t think of another city off the top of my head that would have the necessary atmosphere, and San Francisco certainly does have atmosphere, with the winds and the fog and the older areas of the city, so that works for me.

So, Fortune comes there at the behest of Drake, and he runs into Drumm, who has been having some odd visions and dreams that include Fortune anyway, so the two of them are now working together. Tigra, meanwhile, has taken a leave of absence from the Initiative to deal with her child. Honestly, I hate the idea of her being pregnant, and I don’t care whose kid she’s carrying. It just doesn’t fit Tigra, who seems, at her best, to be so strong and independent. One could make the argument that a child would mature the character and there could be a lot of plots spinning out of the child, but honestly, they’re not plots I’m either interested in telling or reading. Generally, I think introducing children hurts books. It works for a group like the Fantastic Four, because it reinforces the idea that they are a family, and all you’re doing is expanding that family, but for a loner like Tigra….no, it doesn’t work for me.

So, I believe that Tigra takes a leave from the Initiative and deals with the child. Does she have an abortion? We can leave that open to debate and never show it. I think she would, but if you don’t want to court controversy, she could have simply miscarried. I mean, she’s a member of the race of Cat People and the father was a Skrull. What are the chances that these two species would even be able to procreate? It seems that such a pregnancy would be difficult to carry to term, and a miscarriage is quite likely. So, the baby is gone, and she’s trying to find herself and center herself after the recent events in her life.

I’d like to integrate Tigra more seamlessly into the team, rather than just having her pass by the scene of a fight, have her join Fortune and Drumm, and then have her decide to join their group. Yes, such things happen, but I think that you give your group a certain cohesion if you can give everyone a reason to stay, and Tigra really wouldn’t have one. Tigra does have a few connections to the world of the supernatural, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to work a plot around the cat people. I think that such a plot is possible, but I also think that I have little interest in it. I’m not sure why, but the cat people have always struck me as being somewhat cheesy. Possibly this is because I’ve only ever seen them in the West Coast Avengers comic, drawn by Al Milgrom, and everyone looks cheesy when he draws them (that’s not as much of a slam as it sounds; Milgrom’s work is very clear and he can tell a story well, but his West Coast Avengers issues had a certain “old school” look to them that made the book seem like a slightly cheesy 70s title. This look worked perfectly with the stories Steve Englehart was telling, and their run on West Coast Avengers is without a doubt the high point of the entire series for me, but that being said, I still have problems reconciling the Cat People Milgrom drew with the ones that we would have in a horror title). More importantly, they’re not much of a draw for anyone, and I still think that this title needs more name recognition.

Tigra’s other supernatural contact, Morgan Le Fay, doesn’t have tons of name recognition, but she has more than the Cat People. Moreover, I think there’s a story here. Morgan Le Fay is a woman from the past, who was born and lives during the time of King Arthur. However, she seems to have a fascination with, and desire to move to, the present day. Many of her schemes have centered around the present day, and she even attempted to take control of the body of Jessica Drew in an attempt to live in the present day. Morgan Le Fay has crossed paths twice with Tigra, and has decided that Tigra will be the perfect conduit for her. The first time she met Tigra, they were battling to stop Le Fay from taking over the body of Jessica Drew. As defeat loomed for Le Fay, she mystically implanted a lifeline in Tigra. This lifeline provides Le Fay with a tether to the present day, one she can use to monitor our world, and for short periods, to manifest in our time. Why choose Tigra? Two reasons: Tigra’s association with the Cat People gives her a touch of the supernatural, making it easier for Le Fay’s lifeline to take hold. Plus, Tigra was peripheral. She didn’t seem that important, and so Le Fay hoped her lifeline would go undetected.

As an aside, it was this lifeline that caused Tigra to revert to her feral form during her time with the West Coast Avengers, during Byrne’s tenure on the title. The mystic energy of Le Fay threw her Cat People/Human balance out of whack, reverting her to a feline.

Le Fay has been busy with other plots in the past, but now she is going to use this lifeline. Le Fay wants to possess the Darkhold, something she has tried to obtain in the past. She’s been thwarted in her attempts to steal the Darkhold in her time, so she’s decided to steal it in the present. Le Fay then becomes the big bad of the series, trying to collect the various pages of the Darkhold while our group tries to stop her. Not every adventure would revolve around her or her quest, but she would always be there in the background, scheming and plotting.

In any case, Le Fay would be subconsciously directing Tigra to San Francisco, since that’s where one of the pages of the Darkhold is. Drake knows someone is after the page, so he sends Fortune after it, and Fortune runs into Drumm, and they all run into Tigra. At first, I would keep the lifeline a secret. We don’t know who is sending people after the Darkhold. We also don’t know that there’s anything wrong with Tigra, and when she joins the group, she does it for another reason; possibly just because she feels like this is a good place to be while she figures out her life. We can dole this information out in small doses, before doing a big reveal.

Whew. Thoughts?

Wow. Did you just make all that stuff up about Morgan Le Fay or was that actually already written into previous plots? If it’s all you, then that’s an impressive way to wrap up a bunch of divergent stories in a way that forms some sort of logic, albeit comic-based. That’s no small feat in itself! However, you took it all a step further and actually incorporated my bizarre, fractured thoughts on villains and subplots into the whole thing too. You’d make a damn good editor. I need to win Powerball so we can start our own comic publishing business!

Morgan Le Fay and her pursuit of the Darkhold are the perfect catalysts for this team to come together. Drake sends Fortune to retrieve pages. Le Fay subconsciously sends Tigra for the same thing. And Drumm shows up to find Fortune and help him explain the visions. Perhaps he senses a “disturbance in The Force,” so to speak. No one knows that Tigra is acting as a double agent of sorts, not even Tigra. And, to be honest, no one knows why Drake is trying to collect the Darkhold pages either. There could be a vicious twist hidden in this whole thing.

I would also see an instant connection between Fortune and Tigra, one where she sees him as a father figure. They’ve both been through a lot, culminating in the loss of a child for each. Tigra is a rather old character too, tracing roots back to a pre-feline run as The Cat…she’s more of a contemporary to Fortune than Brother Voodoo. Voodoo, however, has the strongest connection to the types of threats the group is facing and is able to function on a level closer to Drake himself. I like the potential interactions among the group. Good energy there.

As for location, I completely forgot that the X-Men were now in San Fran. We did put Strange up in Boston during our revamp. So, sticking within our own version of the Marvel Universe and our initiative to “spread the wealth” when it comes to hero concentrations, we should probably find another spot for this group to at least be based out of. I agree that we need a location that has the atmosphere necessary for a horror-esque title. Seattle has the weather, but not really the type of history we need. New Orleans is just overplayed for me and the recent Hellstorm miniseries took place there too. Aside from Boston, New England is fairly nondescript. The midwest is blah (and we placed Moon Knight in Chicago and another adventure in Kansas). What about somewhere in the Antebellum South that ISN’T New Orleans? I’m thinking specifically of Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a very old city that has dealt with everything from pirates to slavery to multiple wars with multiple nations. There’s a cultural diversity there similar to New Orleans with many religions and ethnicities, even a unique African-American subset of the population with their own dialect and traditions (could be something that draws Brother Voodoo in). Charleston is also a place with both military and smuggling backgrounds which could play into a lot of secrecy and mystery. So that’s my solution to our location dilemma.

I like the sound of this new Nightstalkers book.

Yes, that was all me with Morgan Le Fay and it took more research than I’ve had to do on one of these in a while. Still, I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had resurrecting a stupid 90’s title like Nightstalkers! I had no idea where we were going to go with this when we started, except I knew that I didn’t want to reunite the original three members of the team. I think we’ve created a very strong book, with the potential for some great character interactions and some really surprising twists for the readers. I love the idea of Drake wanting the pages, and the readers not really being sure why. Is he trying to protect the world from the evil of the Darkhold, or does he have a more sinister agenda?

I also think that Charleston is an interesting choice for a setting. Once you said that, I was tempted to counter with a city that I had forgotten about until you mentioned Charleston: Savannah Georgia, which I think conjures up even more of an atmosphere. However, Charleston is much fresher and an area that hasn’t ever really been tapped, so I agree that we should go with that.

I think one of the things I like about this book is that it would really help two characters. Tigra is a character that has grown on me over the years. She is, in many ways, a very real person. She’s been sometimes written as a one-dimensional flirt, but when a writer really delves into who she is, we find that she’s someone trying to do their best, who doesn’t always find the life of a hero to be an easy one. When Jim Shooter had her join the Avengers decades ago, we saw her falter and run in the face of dangerous menaces. When Steve Englehart used her in the West Coast Avengers, we saw her fighting her cat side, and even contemplating murder to accomplish her goals. She’s not larger than life, and she’s not perfect, but she does try to do the right thing, and she needs a book where she’ll get time in the spotlight (as she tends to be ignored in team books) and get a chance to show what sort of hero she can be.

I also like giving Brother Voodoo a chance to be more than a supporting character. He’s been around the Marvel Universe for decades, either starring in obscure zuvembie stories in the 1970s, or playing sidekick to more powerful magic wielders in later years. I think Marvel has never been entirely comfortable portraying voodoo in their comics, and their discomfort surely hasn’t done Voodoo any favors as far as finding him a permanent home. Perhaps because of this, he’s never been truly explored, either in his abilities as a practitioner of Voodoo, or in his personality. I think this book would be the perfect home to do both those things.

I almost always come away from these revamps thinking that the one I’ve just done is my favorite, but I have to admit, I really like this one.


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Top 10 Marvel Characters That Would Make Horrible Halloween Costumes.

Oct-30-08

I was getting my youngest son ready for his Halloween Parade at preschool this morning and I started thinking about costumes. One of these days, I’ll have to dig out the Polaroid of my younger self dressed as Captain America with my sweet cardboard shield. Not that that has anything to do with anything.

Anyway, I was thinking that some costumes look great and are instantly recognizable to the common folk. And some? Not so much. The cool ones are easy to applaud, so what’s the fun in talking about them? I’m sure when we have the kids out trick-or-treating tonight, that we’re bound to run into endless iterations of Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man and Hulk. There’ll be a few Jokers mixed into the crowd and maybe, just maybe, someone will have the resources and chutzpah to pull off an excellent Hellboy costume.

However, I’m not holding my breath for any of these:

10. Radioactive Man: Hmm…a husky, glowing Chinese man in a dress. Sure, I’ve been to some crazy nightclubs in my life and done some things I’m not proud of, but that image is just creepy.

9. Sub-Mariner: It doesn’t take much to slap together a costume consisting of a green Speedo, Spock ears and pillow feathers super-glued to your ankles. That said, it definitely takes a lot to pull the look off…like a body that anyone would want to see in a Speedo.

8. Ka-Zar: I guess I have some sort of subliminal problem with half-naked fanboys, because the idea of a stinky hippie in a loincloth reminds me more of Burning Man than Halloween. The only treat this costume would get at my house would be a bar of soap to scrub off the stench of Patchouli.

7. Razorback: My high school’s janitor may have looked kind of weird slopping up vomit in his green jumpsuit and rubber gloves, but adding a pig carcass and CB lingo to the ensemble is NOT an improvement.

6. Starfox: The costume itself wouldn’t be a difficult thing to produce, but it takes a certain kind of schmuck to believe he can waltz into a bar dressed like that and try to pick up a woman with his “empathy” powers. I predict many drinks thrown in his face.

5. Vulture: Not only do I never need to see a bald old guy in some skintight green jammies, but those big wings would be a logistical nightmare in a party setting. He’d be constantly knocking over drinks and getting stuck in doorways.

4. Madrox: Unless you’re one of a set of quintuplets, there’s absolutely no pulling off this “mutant in jeans and t-shirt” concept. But imagine how freaky that would be if you were!

3. MODOK: I’m not sure if this would be the stupidest costume or the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Granted, there would need to be some major “suspension of disbelief” to pull off the hovering bit. It would be pretty hilarious to see MODOK trying to bob for apples with his giant noggin and tiny T-Rex limbs.

2. Professor X: Ooooh. Bald guy in a wheelchair. Original.

1. Ghost Rider: Flaming skull? If you’re gonna go for realism, this one is probably not a good idea. Plus, the motorcycle makes it kind of awkward to mingle.


Superhorrors: When Capes and Killings Clash

Oct-29-08

So, Jason and I have been discussing bringing horror into your superhero comics, and how it can be done successfully. We thought we’d take some time to examine some heroes and teams in the multiverse of comics that we think lend themselves particularly well to the horror genre. I’m going to just mention five that I think would work well, although to be honest, I think just about any character that is not simply used for comedic effect can work in a horror comic. I’m not sure I’d write the Ambush Bug Halloween Special, although that could be very amusing. Still, it’s not hitting quite the effect that we were hoping for.

I’m not going to be focusing on characters like Ghost Rider and Deadman since it’s pretty obvious that they work well in horror comics. I’m also not going to be suggesting an entire series based around horror for these characters: I’m not suggesting a new Spider-Man book called Spidey Horror Stories or anything. I’m just going to spotlight some characters who could have a really good one or two issue story in their titles that is more in the horror genre and less in the superhero genre. Here we go!

Fantastic Four: At first it might not seem that this group, the brightly colored leaders of Marvel’s superhero universe, could work well in horror. Johnny and Ben are too goofy, and they’re a more happy-go-lucky team, you might believe. However, I think they’d be perfect. Right off the bat is the fact that they’re explorers, which means they find themselves in situations where horror could be found. In fact, I have a scenario already in mind.

Our Fantastic Foursome are flying through the Negative Zone, moving a small group of refugees whose homeworld was destroyed by Annihilus, when they encounter a derelict spaceship. Reed wants to investigate, and so they dock with the ship, and they begin to explore. As Reed tries to determine what happened on the ship and where the crew went, the team splits up to search for clues. Along the way they begin to discover that whatever happened was mighty unpleasant, and that the cause of the crew’s disappearance may still be lurking aboard!

The Fantastic Four have those dark blue/black uniforms, so they can be drawn in a darker art style and still look faithful to original design. The Thing, of course, works perfectly in a horror setting, since he’s a monster. The Thing and the Torch might be lighthearted at first, but they would get serious when the danger became apparent, and that helps sell the horror; if something can scare or at least unnerve these two, then it shows the audience that it must be pretty bad. If you make the threat something supernatural that helps too, since the FF tend to deal in hard science, and the supernatural will immediately throw them out of their element. The refugees give us characters who can be killed or disappear, since we obviously won’t kill the FF. The trick is not to make the danger about whether the FF will be killed, since everyone knows that won’t happen, but whether or not they can protect this group of refugees. Keep the refugees in danger and have the danger stalking them, and you’ve got actual tension. After all, the FF are the ones who decided to stop at this ship; they are truly responsible for these civilians, and are going to do whatever they can to protect them.

I think there are a lot of creative teams that could do something like this justice, but I would choose Dan Jurgens and Kevin Nowlan. They worked together on a Superman/Aliens story that had the sort of atmosphere I’m envisioning.

Martian Manhunter: He’s dead, which makes him perfect for a horror comic! I kid. Assuming he wasn’t dead, I think J’onn J’onzz would do well in a horror story. Honestly, were I to use him in a comic, I’d use him more like the Phantom Stranger. Because of Jonn’s shapeshifting powers, he can be anyone and anything. He used to want to explore the world around him and learn more about humanity. I can envision an actual series with him traveling the world, taking on different identities and spending time with people. In many cases, he’d be more of a guest star in his own series, as we’d truly be reading the stories of other people, with J’onn more on the periphery. Not all of these stories would have to have a horror bent, but some certainly could.

For example, perhaps J’onn meets a group of people in an inn, where he stops to wait out some bad weather on his travels right around Halloween. He spends some time in the common areas meeting the guests and giving the reader a chance to learn about the other characters. Everyone retires to their rooms, but strange things are happening. J’onn assumes the suspicious activities are part of some Halloween prank, but then people start turning up missing or dead. What’s happening to them? J’onn’s a powerful hero, but his power does him no good when he doesn’t know who the bad guy is or from where the threat originates. I think JM DeMatteis would write something like this quite well, and Tom Ostrander has the sort of moody art which would be perfect!

There’s two, and I went longer than I thought. Do you think they have potential, and do you have any of your own to add?

That’s so weird. I was making a mental list in my head and the Fantastic Four was one group that I had definitely decided could never be made into a horror book. And yet, your idea is strangely compelling. Although, to be honest, it reminds me more of a Challengers of the Unknown plot with some convenient superpowers thrown in for good measure.

For me, the obvious titles/teams/characters that could be turned in a horror direction are some of the ones we’ve already mentioned and revamped: The Defenders fighting off the supernatural in a largely covert manner, a la X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Doctor Strange in pretty much any situation; and, of course, Batman when he’s fighting one of his more psychological (or just plain psycho) foes like Scarecrow or Mad Hatter. I enjoy the twisted paths those stories could go down.

However, if I wanted to pitch a completely new direction for an established character, I would pick:

Vision and Scarlet Witch: I know, it’s kind of a cop-out choosing a character with the word “witch” in her name, but bear with me. I see this as more of an urban horror story. Vision plays the role of the vengeful ghost and Wanda is the troubled street urchin trying to convert the masses to her way of thinking. She has that Old World bent to her, but the metropolitan citizens ignore her and look down upon her. Vision visits the successful city businessmen who have shunned their morals in favor of greed and expansion. He’s a creepy robot, the perfect representation of technology run amok, and he can float through their freakin’ walls! The Vision has gone rogue and is taking out his vengeance on the leaders of this new economy. It’s up to Scarlet Witch to find a way to soothe the savage beast, as it were. I’d like to see this written by Warren Ellis, someone who knows a thing or two about current tech but also has a foothold in the paganistic side of things too. And the artwork needs to be done by someone who has a realistic and detailed style…maybe John Cassaday? Or Tim Sale?

Hulk: Given the Jekyll and Hyde background of the character, this is probably a bit of a cheat. At the same time, the Hulk has always been more about the anger and rage of being a monster than of the dark guilt and isolation of being a man with a troubling, uncontrollable secret. Bruce Banner has removed himself to a secluded village somewhere in South America, in the windy valleys of the Andes. He’s set himself up as the town doctor, attending to the elderly residents and the children of the village. But not is all as it seems. In fact, he learns that a lot of the injuries he’s trying to heal have been caused by some mysterious beast that haunts the fields at night. A strong-willed policewoman from the neighboring city has been tasked to track this villain down. Unfortunately for them both, she and Bruce fall in love and he joins the cause to help her hunt…him. This book would have to be written from a first person point of view, like some of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest works, but with a modern nuance and awareness. I’d put Brian K. Vaughan up to the task. And the art style would need to be dark and muted, with the monster emerging from the shadows to claim its victims. I think Ryan Sook could pull this off well.

I think any of these stories, mine or John’s, would work well in an anthology book, similar to the recent X-Men and Avengers Fairy Tales series. Thoughts?

I really like your idea of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch in horror stories, and your creative team is fine.  However, if I may suggest an alternate penciller, I’d like to throw out the name of Michael Bair.  He’s primarily known as an inker, and does a tremendous job in that capacity.  However, he has done some pencilling, and he did a short Vision story for an anthology (probably an Avengers Annual) where the Vision goes into a burning building to rescue a child.  His artwork was extremely moody and creepy (the child is afraid to go with the Vision because the Vision scares him, and a reader could certainly understand why!) and I think he might be an interesting choice.

Fantastic Four vs the Challengers of the Unknown:  honestly, aren’t they the same thing, except with superpowers and a family situation?  They’re both explorers, and you’re right, you could do the story with the Challengers, and it would be excellent.  In fact, perhaps that could be a good pitch for the next Challengers revival; something more horror related.

I do agree that any of these ideas could work if they were fleshed out.  You mention the Fairy Tales series Marvel published; why not a horror series?  Start producing it in the beginning of the year, and then release it weekly in October.  You could do two or three a year, four issues each, and if they come out once a week it could really draw in an audience, particularly at the spookiest time of the year.  You could release collected editions of them the following year 2-3 weeks before Halloween, while also releasing a new batch of weekly horror for that year.  It could be a nice marketing plan, and by the second year, you’d have single issues of horror for the comics shop crowd, and collected horror trades for the bookstore market! 


Marvel and DC: The Horror, the Horror!

Oct-28-08

It’s almost Halloween and so popular culture is awash with the sound of screaming, as television shows, movies, and lots of internet sites use the holiday as an excuse to release their version of horror on a very suspecting public. Comics, however…well, except for frequent mentions of the Rutland Halloween Parade back in the 1970s, comics don’t often take time out of their busy schedules to reflect on many holidays. Christmas will sometimes be mentioned, and there are even often special one-shot comics published for that holiday, but Halloween? Not so often.

In fact, horror seems to get somewhat short shrift in the superhero comics universes. There are certainly horror comics being published, and there have been for decades. In fact, one can look to the horror comics published by the late, lamented EC Comics back in the 1940s and early 1950s (like Tales from the Crypt) as being partly responsible for the direction that the comics industry has taken. I’m sure we all know the story: the EC Comics were rather graphic, and they were some of the primary evidence used by Dr. Frederic Wertham when he tried to convince Congress, and the world, that comics were a destructive influence on children. His crusade led to the development of the Comics Code Authority, and some rather stringent regulations that made horror comics all but impossible to produce, since almost any facet of an effective horror comic had been forbidden by the Code.

At first glance, some people might consider some of Marvel’s titles from the early 1960s to be horror comics. Titles such as Tales to Astonish, before invaded by the spandex set, often featured stories of hideous monsters threatening the human race. Still, these are normally classified as monster comics, mostly because there were few scares to be had in these tales, and there was no atmosphere, no sense of foreboding, that a horror comic needs. No, it would not be until the next decade that horror comics would begin to return, and this time they’d start melding with the superhero lines of both companies.

In the 1970s both Marvel and DC had begun to test the boundaries of the Code, and one of those areas was in the area of horror comics. In fact, the 1970s were something of a Golden Age for superhero horror, as both companies launched numerous supernatural or horror comics. Some of the titles, particularly on the DC side, were separate from their superhero output. Tales of the Unexpected, Ghosts, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were titles that had no crossover with DC’s stable of popular superheroes (of course, some of these titles would be yanked into DC’s Vertigo line in the 1990’s, but at the time they were originally published, I don’t believe DC foresaw any potential crossover value). However, DC was still bringing horror to its main superhero line, with stories about Deadman, Swamp Thing and the Phantom Stranger.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, horror was being integrated into the superhero line much more forcibly, with the best example being the long running Tomb of Dracula title, which introduced the vampire lord to the Marvel mainstream, where he fought such foes as Dr. Strange and Thor. The Man-Thing was also introduced around this time, as was Ghost Rider in his own title. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, is that Marvel began publishing stories with a horror bent in their mainstream titles. The Defenders, while perhaps not a horror title, featured many situations involving the supernatural which bordered on horror; Dr. Strange also saw his adventures take an even more gothic turn; new characters such as Moon Knight encountered horror themed villains, such as Werewolf by Night; and even perennial favorite Spider-Man got mixed up with Morbius, the Living Vampire.

Oddly, as the 70s drew to a close, horror comics disappeared from both companies, and the characters associated with horror, such as Deadman and Ghost Rider, soon saw their books cancelled and their appearances dwindle. Since that decade, horror has been mostly forgotten by the big superhero publishers. DC has been successful with horror in the decades since, but almost always under their Vertigo line, which is somewhat divorced from their superheroes. Marvel tried to revive horror in the mid-90s with a line they branded The Midnight Sons, which included such 70s heroes as Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider and Morbius, and introduced new heroes such as Terror and a group called the Redeemers. However, those comics were not successful, commercially or critically.

What do the two major superhero publishers currently have in the horror genre? What has happened to horror in comics? Is it possible to mix horror and superheroes? Were any of these comics, or the concepts behind them any good? That’s what we’ll be discussing this week.

My thoughts are a bit all over the place on this one, so please bear with me. First, let’s talk about the overarching view of horror in other media. Movies and TV are able to handle horror very well because of the movement, the ambiance and the vocal aspects of their presentation. These tools allow tension to be built and emotions to be exploited. Movies and TV relish their ability to delve into the unexpected, which is much harder to do on a series of flat pages that can be perused to avoid any sort of anticipation. The “reveal” that sparks a gasp or a scream on screen is blunted, if not completely eliminated, in comics. And the authenticity of real people in real (even if exaggerated) situations can never be duplicated in print. I don’t care how good the creators are.

That being said, I still think there’s an opportunity for comics to dig into the surreal aspects of horror. The series in the 1970s really wallowed in the macabre and a sense of black humor. Of course, this was also a time of social experimentation and by using supernatural…and, at times, Satanic…themes, these comics were really playing off the vibe of the era. The films of the 80s seemed to revolve around extreme violence and body counts, which played into the selfish excess of the times. And today’s best horror films are built around victims being trapped in settings that are completely out of their control. It’s the slow, torturous plotlines that remind us of the helpless feeling we have in the world environment, claustrophobic and panicky.

It’s funny how some genres want to offer followers an escape from reality, while horror firmly plants itself in the ethic of “no escape.”

Like John pointed out, there’s never really been a consistent horror comic in the stable of either Marvel or DC. They’ve had their moments and certain books have come and gone over the years, but nothing has taken a strong hold on the sales chart. The strange thing is that every time one of the tried and true characters is brought back, the relaunch is often greeted with relatively high readership (Ghost Rider, Moon Knight) at first, only to see the numbers trail off dramatically. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of readers like the characters themselves, but the storylines often become repetitive or just lose their momentum. You can’t keep up the “ooh…spooky” feeling for too long before it becomes a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. People start to not care.

I believe that the best usage of these characters is as Marvel has done with them. Dracula shows up every few years to advance a plot. Blade and Dr. Strange work on the fringe of the Marvel Universe, knocking back villains and threats that other heroes just don’t understand or can’t be bothered to care about. However, I feel that, if used correctly and sparingly, these characters can build a solid niche for themselves. Worked into the existing continuities, they can exist side by side with the other popular heroes and villains. It adds a depth to the characters that relegating them to simply horror usage seems to remove.

John and I have already offered our own horror-skewed revamps of both the Defenders and Doctor Strange. I’m not as familiar with the DC side of things (aside from Swamp Thing…sorry for the pun), but John and I promise a deeper look into Vertigo in the near future.

Any sort of reintroduction or revamp must take into account the current zeitgeist. The Son of Satan from the 1970s can’t be played the same way in the 2000s or it comes off as hokey and flat. The problems these characters face can’t be the same rote Gothic mansions populated by creepy spirits and deranged groundskeepers. And you can’t simply invent a foreboding dimension with shambling monsters and expect it to portray the same threat level as it did decades ago.

The biggest obstacle when trying to place horror types next to superhero types is that fleeting element of believability. The best horror and suspense stories have to be believable to be truly frightening and having some dude flying by in tights and punching zombies’ faces off really takes away that suspension of disbelief. That’s another reason why the threats need to be tweaked.

John and I wanted to introduce a young Steampunk villain for Doctor Strange. With a lack of morals and a twisted worldview brought on by a fascination with technology and the past, this character could do some truly creepy things and really set himself up as a new type of horrific bad guy. Creepy is the key word…perhaps even “unsettling” would be a better description. I think DC has done some interesting things in their world, though terribly misguided and poorly timed, with all the grisly murders that have taken place in recent years. Sure, stuffing women in refrigerators, developing a plot around the rape and murder of a hero’s wife and even having a vigilante-type tear a criminal in half in full public view, may be a bit extreme for mainstream superhero fare, but I think some of those outlandish elements could play into a new horror theme rather well.

Critics have labelled these new horror movies as “torture porn” and I tend to agree for the most part. However, I find the randomness of some of these situations to be fascinating. I look at a movie like The Hills Have Eyes or Funny Games and I see everyday people plunged into pure chaos by the seemingly coin-flipped decisions of their captors. The over-the-top gore of a Friday the 13th is laughable in comparison to the psychological horror of The Strangers, where the antagonists are always two steps ahead of their victims. Just when you think the good guys have come up with an ingenious way to escape their situation, something goes wrong and that elation you felt is instantly replaced by an uneasy nausea in your gut.

Like I said, it’s nearly impossible to replicate something like that on the page, but adjusting for the times is a clear first step. Let’s update not only the characters, but the settings and subsequent consequences as well. A good horror yarn can be stitched together with a truly credible threat and a seeming lack of viable contingency plans. Put the heroes in real peril and make them work for their escape.

That’s probably the other problem with trying to fully integrate horror types with hero types: the heroes never lose. Kinda makes for a lame horror movie, huh?

It’s interesting that you mention how times were different in the 1970s. That is so true. It’s often said that morals and values have lessened over time, and one can do and say things today that were unthinkable thirty years ago. In some areas, that’s certainly true. Besides the relentless onslaught of blood and gore that one sees in DC comics now, and sometimes at Marvel, there’s also the use of such words as ass and damn, which would never have seen print in 1970s mainstream comics. However, there are certain things that were okay to print back in the 1970s that one couldn’t print now, and one of those things was Satanism. I recently (just this year) reread the entire run of Ghost Rider, from his beginnings back in 1972 to some of the most recent issues. That series in the 1970s was absolutely packed with Satanists! It seemed like every third character in the book identified as such! I have to believe that, when it was published, it seemed to be a relatively minor point, but now, it stands out most tellingly. Heck, Marvel comics today don’t even want to admit that Satan exists, despite the fact that he was a villain in their comics for years!

Anyway, yes, times change. And horror is very difficult to do around the hero set. Just about every hero has probably had a few spooky adventures, but you really have to change the tone of their book for a few issues to pull it off effectively. Otherwise, supernatural elements stop being harbingers of horror and just become superheroes or supervillains with drab costumes. When Marvel tried their relaunch of horror in the 1990s, the Midnight Sons, they separated them from the rest of the Marvel Universe. Yes, they were still in continuity with the Avengers and Fantastic Four, but it was pretty clear that those characters wouldn’t be making guest appearances in the Midnight Sons titles, and vice versa. This is one of the reasons that Dr. Strange is so horribly cast as a member of the New Avengers; the Avengers are too mainstream, and while on the team, Strange becomes just another superhero. With the Defenders, he could maintain an air of mystery and atmosphere, because that team was on the fringe and had horror elements as well, but with the Avengers, all of that gets washed away.

With all of that being said, I still think that there is a place for horror in comics. A lot of people like to bash poor Howard Mackie, who wrote a few comics that were not well received (including a run on Spider-Man), but I would take the first 20 issues of Ghost Rider that he wrote, starting back in 1990, and use them as an example of how to do horror in comics. He kept guest stars to a minimum, and he used mostly new villains, all of them dark and somewhat twisted. Moreover, when those guest stars did drop by, they were forced to adopt the darker outlook of the book. When X-Factor made an appearance, they were there to deal with rogue mutants, most of them hideous monsters living underground. When Dr. Strange stopped for a visit, he was allowed to be mysterious and we didn’t delve into his head. Much of the credit no doubt goes to the excellent artists Javier Saltares and Mark Texiera and their colorist (I can’t find the colorist’s name online, and I don’t have my issues here, so whomever the colorist is, forgive me for not knowing your name), who kept the book extremely dark. One of the neatest things they did was color the spaces between and around the panels black; there was no real white on any of the pages, making everything seem dark and claustrophobic.

Unfortunately, I think where the series lost its way was around issue 25, when they began to introduce more and more demonic villains and the human characters started to get lost and pushed into the background. As Jason mentioned, it’s difficult to do traditional scares in a comic, but they can make you anxious and uncomfortable. The early issues of Ghost Rider did that by building up a supporting cast and not being afraid to kill them when necessary. As a reader, you were never sure if someone might survive to the next issue. Once those human characters were gone, it really just became any other superhero book, except with demons and vampires substituting for more traditional heroes and villains.

In the end, I do think a horror comic is possible, and would be a welcome addition to the comics racks. You need a dark, atmospheric art style. You need to keep the character’s interaction with the rest of their superhero universe to a minimum. It’s fine to acknowledge that all the characters are in the same universe and guest stars can work, but it can’t be too much, and the guest stars have to be brought into the horror genre (i.e. bright primary colors on their costumes need to be muted and their more outrageous abilities need to be toned down). There needs to be a strong, human cast, people who can be threatened by the darkness around them, and characters whose deaths will be meaningful to the series. Wholesale slaughter is not the way to go; it decimates your cast, and it cheapens death. Occasional death is the ticket, as it makes death unpredictable, and suggests that no one is safe.

I think these tricks could even be used in mainstream comics for a few issues, just to shakes things up a little. Batman is a perfect example of a character whose comic (one of them, at least; goodness knows he has enough) should be spotlighting a horror story now and again, since so many of his villains lend themselves to that. Still, horror can happen to anyone. Captain America, one of the brightest, most cheerful heroes out there, could star in a good horror story. Actually, he almost did; when Roger Stern and John Byrne were the creators on his series, they pitted him against a vampire named Baron Blood. Those few issues were awfully close to the definition of a horror story, and might very well qualify. There was mystery, a darker art style, a good cast of humans who you believed could die…..it’s possible anywhere.

And hey, wasn’t Cap turned into a werewolf for a little while? That story was pretty horrible…

I hadn’t thought about the crossover aspect of heroes and horror as specifically as you just pointed out and I think you make an excellent point. Dr. Strange is NOT an Avenger. I don’t care how much Bendis likes him. His power set is antithetical to most superheroes. His demeanor is much more reserved. And his battles, both internal and external, are much more private and singular. Having him crack jokes with Wolverine makes him seem more like an amusement park caricature than the Sorcerer Supreme. And therein lies the rub.

When you import superheroes into horror settings, they stand out like a sore thumb. Brightly colored tights and abilities that include stretching their bodies, turning into ice and shooting arrows at robots makes them seem like a joke. Conversely, shining the big spotlight on a magic man by dropping him into a hi-tech headquarters littered with public figures flying around and saving lives really exposes him as some sort of hokey kid’s birthday act. They are two great tastes that don’t taste so great together…like ice cream and tuna.

I agree that any successful integration by a horror title into a mainstream superhero world must focus on moderation. Not only do guest stars need to be limited in general, but the ones that are allowed have to be very specifically chosen as well. Spider-Man works as a visitor in a Dr. Strange book, Captain America doesn’t. Batman could blend into the atmosphere of a Swamp Thing issue, Superman could not. I think the interaction of all those characters that don’t fit should be limited to one of those conversational mentions in passing. Y’know…Brother Voodoo and Hellstorm are assembling the proper materials for an exorcism and one of them cracks wise about the Fantastic Four not being so fantastic. That has its place and reminds readers of the bigger world outside this insulated and secretive story.

I also like the idea of a disposable supporting cast. Too often, situations arise where you know that no one is in any real danger and that strips the suspense out of the story. There is no way to play favorites in a true horror genre. Granted, the title character is probably safe, but that’s only because the story needs to be told through the eyes of a consistent figure. If I were an editor, everyone else would be fair game. The powers that be can always figure it out over in the superhero side of things anyway.

My last point would be to agree with what you’ve described as far as tone goes. The right artists (including ink and colors) are key to the success of a strong horror title. Just take a look at how Mike Mignola has developed his style over the years, from his early days at DC to his current Hellboy output (which Alan Moore has described as “Jack Kirby meets German Expressionism”). The stable of artists he has assembled for the Dark Horse books, including himself, Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis, are excellent for that genre. Texeira has certainly made a name for himself with that kind of work, as have Angel Medina, Frazer Irving, Doug Mahnke, Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben to name a few.

We’re in agreement that a good horror title could exist in the Marvel or DC stable. Should we try to flesh one out or provide a somewhat detailed list of what we think could be done? Maybe even throw some characters at each other and see how we could turn them into horror stories?


Angel & Iceman: Best Friends Forever

Oct-06-08

Do you think Bobby Drake and Warren Worthington wrote the typical messages in their Xavier Institute yearbooks? You know, all of those “have a great summer” lines and “remember that time we gave Cyclops a wedgie?” quips. I would conclude that they did, indeed. Why is that? Well, for the simple reason that the two of them seem to be inseparable in the Marvel Universe. So what makes these two heroes such tight teammates?

Let’s try to find some answers, shall we? Angel and Iceman made their first appearances in X-Men #1 way back in September 1963. Since that time, you rarely see one without the other. They remained on the original X-Men team through issue #94 in August 1975. My first inclination would be to say that they were so used to being teammates, that when the first incarnation of the X-Men split, Angel and Iceman thought it would be best to continue on together. Beast was too cool for school and had already left to join the Avengers. Cyclops stuck around to lead the new team. And Jean Grey was too busy being killed and reborn for nearly 12 years to be bothered by any sort of continuity.

Being post-teen mutants in the swinging 70’s must’ve been too much for Warren and Bobby, so they decided to take a cross-country trip to Los Angeles and join the most disparate group of comic book weirdos ever assembled (since trumped by nearly every Defenders gathering ever). Until January 1978, they were members of The Champions. Evidently, writer Tony Isabella wanted The Champions to be just Angel and Iceman, but editorial intervention brought in Black Widow, Hercules and Ghost Rider (and later, Darkstar…with Black Goliath and Jack of Hearts waiting in the wings). Aside from the completely obvious pairing of two mutants with a Russian spy, a Greek demigod, and a flaming demon on a motorcycle, The Champions was most noteworthy for having the team face off against Swarm, the Nazi beekeeper. That was good stuff.

Times must have been tough after that powerhouse group disbanded. For the next couple of years, Angel and Iceman make scattered appearances, primarily in a few issues of Spectacular Spider-Man , Marvel Two-in-One and What If? And, while Iceman was busy on his big television debut in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Angel had a recurring role in early Dazzler issues.

Angel & Iceman somehow dragged themselves out of character purgatory and dove headfirst into the eighth circle of Marvel hell, the Defenders. In October 1983, they joined their fellow former X-Man Beast in the New Defenders (Beast having joined up with the non-group after his run with the Avengers). I don’t have the issue in front of me, so I can only assume that Bobby and Warren agreed to come aboard after a conversation with Beast that involved a lot of crying and begging on his part. I don’t know. Maybe they lost a bet? That seems likely.

When that group broke up for good in February 1986, the duo came together with their Xavier Institute alumni to form the original X-Factor. Yes, they were saved from falling back into obscurity by becoming mutant hunters. See, X-Factor (aside from unbelievably bringing Jean Grey back to life and facilitating Cyclops leaving his wife and newborn child) was set up on the basis of reverse psychology. They “hunted” mutants, but were secretly mutants themselves and only “hunted” other mutants in order to save them from persecution. Shh! Don’t tell anyone.

Of course, realizing that calling yourselves mutant hunters was probably bad PR for mutants in general, they soon abandoned that premise and were promptly taken over by the government who quite enjoyed the mutant hunting notion. By this time, the main catalyst for keeping the original X-Men from rejoining the flock (Magneto as leader) had been removed and Angel & Iceman were free to return to the fold. Oddly enough, the two of them continue to come and go together from the X-Men pretty much up through present day.

Are they just good friends? Are they MORE than friends? Is it something about their powers that work well together? Is Bobby Drake really shallow and just hanging out with Warren Worthington because he’s rich? Is Angel sticking close to Bobby because his powers are cooler and make up for Angel’s inadequacies?

There HAS to be an underlying theme here!

It’s interesting that you bring these two up as a couple, since there were rumors swirling in the late 90s and early 00’s that Iceman was gay. That would have supplied an interesting reason for why he hung out with Angel so much; he had an unrequited crush on our winged mutant. However, Marvel, no doubt feeling that one gay mutant was more than enough, quashed these rumors pretty quickly, and started trying to give Iceman feelings for any woman he came in contact with, which always struck me as being incredibly forced and uncomfortable. I’m not saying I think Iceman is gay, as much as I’m saying that having a crush on every girl he met had never been his thing before, and trying to shoehorn it into his personality now just didn’t seem to work.

In the end, I think these two have a nice little bromance going and they certainly have spent more time together than any other mutant duo I can name, except for Cyclops and Jean or Havok and Polaris, which isn’t really helping their claims of being no more than a bromance. Iceman, we may remember, actually did try to break up the Angel/Iceman bromance with an actual romance; when Polaris was first introduced, her boyfriend was Iceman, and the two were rather inseparable. Well, inseparable for all of about ten issues, until Havok was introduced. His golden hair, chiseled features and Summers boy ability to have women fall all over him quickly seduced Polaris, and she left a very hurt and angry Iceman to chase after a man who couldn’t control his powers, and could emit mortal blasts of concussive force at any time. Polaris wasn’t too bright in her early appearances.

It is interesting that Iceman and Angel have ended up together so often. If one reads the early issues of the X-Men, when they appeared together, or even the issues of X-Factor in which they starred, they don’t tend to pal around much. Both of those books almost always paired Iceman off with the Beast; they were the Scooby and Shaggy of the mutant set. I would consider Angel the Daphne of the group (some might think Jean should have that position, but I would argue no; after all, Daphne is useless, which fits Angel, Jean has red hair, just like Velma, and in the end, Angel is prettier than Jean), and we all know that Daphne never runs around with Scooby and Shaggy. Indeed, Angel usually spent time with Cyclops and Jean, especially in the early issues of the title, when Stan Lee and subsequent writers were desperately trying to create some tension in the Cyclops/Jean relationship by making us think that Angel might sweep Jean away before Cyclops got his chance. Sadly, it’s difficult to build that tension, since it was obvious that Jean had no romantic interest in Angel by her thought balloons, so unless Angel was going to kidnap her and force her to marry him at gunpoint, the reader could be confident that Jean and Cyclops would eventually be together.

Iceman and Angel both have tried to separate themselves; they’ve both had limited series and one-shots, and as I’ve mentioned before, Iceman even went back to college and became a Certified Public Accountant. Surprisingly, this career does not appear to have held his interest. Apparently, he preferred dealing with Magneto over dealing with the IRS.

I don’t believe their powers are incredibly compatible, and they don’t seem to complement each other much in that regard. Of course, as we’ve noted, except when he had the metal wings created by Apocalypse, Angel is basically worthless. In 1963, as I’ve also mentioned before, most of Marvel’s heroes (except for Thor and the Hulk) were much weaker; the whole Marvel Universe was probably a 1/3 of the power that it is today. Over the years, both heroes and villains got stronger, and where the ability to fly was relatively unique and interesting in 1963, by the mid-80s almost everyone in the Marvel Universe could fly, even Aunt May (that time she became the herald of Galactus). Upgrading Angel to Archangel and giving him metal wings was a very necessary way of keeping the character relevant, but it has sadly been reversed, and he is now useless once more. Certainly, as I’ve said before, the personality is more important than the power, but when your power is the ability to flutter around the villains, smacking at them with your little pink fists, you become difficult to write, and generally frustrating to read about. Hey, I liked Cypher of the New Mutants too, but the ability to understand languages earned him a grave before he was out of his teens.

I’m sure the real reason that Iceman and Angel so often find themselves on teams together is because someone in Marvel editorial feels that, by placing them both on a team, you can get some of the magic of the original X-Men. This is also highly absurd, as the original X-Men had no magic; if they had, their book would not have been bimonthly and they wouldn’t have been in reprints for two years in the 70s. Still, putting either Iceman or Angel on a team means nothing, and conjures up no images. Putting them together makes one think of the original mutants, and that means something. Storywise though, it also makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re launching a new venture, surely you’re more comfortable with an old friend at your side. Since the original X-Men were rather insular and didn’t mix much with the rest of the Marvel Universe (much like the current X-Men, come to think of it) Angel and Icemen don’t have a lot of friends beyond their immediate teammates, and the original X-Men class certainly shares a bond that would be hard to break. I would imagine that it’s this very sense of camaraderie that keeps these two close through thick and thin.

I agree with you for the most part. I’m trying to recall any significant romances that either Angel or Iceman have had in their documented existences. Iceman had a fling with Opal Tanaka, who ended up leaving him for a former villain. He dated Lorna Dane on and off over the years. And he flirted with Havok’s nurse Annie for a bit. Angel has done slightly better for himself, pursuing both Jean Grey and Dazzler, bagging Candy Southern during the Champions years, hooking up with Psylocke later on, becoming close with a police officer as Archangel and even having an implied fling with the much younger Paige Guthrie.

Angel has always come across as being above everyone else around him (perhaps that’s a subliminal reference to his angelic name and abilities). He was a superhero on his own before being located by Xavier. He helped house and fund both the Champions and the Defenders for some time. And he supposedly left the X-Men for a while because he thought Wolverine was a “brute.” Seems pretty metrosexual to me.

Bobby plays like more of a hanger-on. He’s younger than Warren and probably more unsure of himself and his place in the world. At the same time, he’s also more laid back and easy to get along with. Iceman, as you’ve noted, has palled around with Beast and is friendly with Spider-Man.

I, for one, was completely horrified when Angel lost his wings. And then, when Apocalypse turned him into Archangel, I was pretty ticked off. It wasn’t so much that they had messed with one of my favorite characters, it was that they used that lame villain to do it. I can’t stand Apocalypse. Archangel’s metal wings seemed like a pure 90’s thing to me. And they were out of place for such a grounded character whose entire identity was originally based around trying to hide his wings and then learning to live with them. Man, the writers really put him through the ringer emotionally during those years too. His wings are cut off and replaced, he watches his girlfirend be killed, then he has to deal with Apocalypse. Poor guy.

His lack of significant power doesn’t bother me. He just has to be used as more of a tactical weapon than a powerful one. And he has his purpose…he flies up high and looks at stuff. Whee! Plus, I think his newly revealed secondary mutation of having “healing blood” is much more in line with the angel imagery.

As far as the idea of constantly placing Angel and Iceman on teams together, I think there is some resonance for readers. Sure, the beginning publishing history of the X-Men is laughable at best, but over the years the characters have become rather iconic. There are worse things that Marvel has done than trying to build a team around a few original mutants (*cough*Spider-Clone*cough*). Hell, there wasn’t any other common thread holding the Champions together, was there? And the Defenders actually started to feel like a team when Beast was leading a group that included a couple former teammates and friends.

Honestly, it’s weird for me to think of Iceman and Angel in separate lights. They’ve been side-by-side for so long that one without the other just seems odd. I was completely taken aback when Iceman was on TV with Spider-Man. It just didn’t make sense (not to mention how much better the show would have been with Iceman AND Angel). And the few runs where Warren worked in tandem with the Avengers just felt awkward to me. I remember being excited to see Angel and then feeling dirty after reading the issues…like I just witnessed something I shouldn’t have. Of course, those weren’t the best years for the Avengers either.

Maybe this entire history is why I suggested we set Bobby and Warren up as leaders of the X-Men. The two characters have been ingrained in my brain as a permanent team. Man and man, side-by-side. Two former schoolboys sticking up for each other through thick and thin. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


1986: It Was A Very Good Year.

Apr-18-08

While doing research for our Defenders post, I began to realize that a lot of great (and a few not so great) things were going on at Marvel Comics back in 1986. So here, in a brief and highly disorganized ramble, is a recap of the year that Marvel Comics hit its stride (I think).

In 1986, I was making the transition from middle school to high school. It was a tumultuous year. I was saying goodbye to friends that would be attending a different high school and I was filled with anxiety over meeting new people at my new school (our school district is kind of twisted, don’t ask). This was the year that I embraced comics completely and let my paper friends comfort me in the transition. Granted, I had been reading comics since around 1978 and collecting them seriously since 1984, but this one year had it all for me.

I wasn’t the only one in transition though. Jim Shooter was running a tight ship at Marvel and the publisher was celebrating its 25th anniversary. However, not everything was puppies and rainbows. Marvel was about to be purchased by New World Entertainment, which looked great on paper and added both an animation studio and a feature film outlet for their characters. Unfortunately, New World didn’t know how to handle the business and soon sold it off to Ron Perelman. The rest of the debacle you can read in Dan Raviv’s excellent book, Comic Wars.

So what was the big deal with ‘86? I’m glad you asked. First of all, a couple miniseries hit the shelves that changed the way I looked at the Marvel Universe. Firestar was a character I knew from the Spider-Man cartoons and I was curious as to how they would work her into real continuity. Balder the Brave was an unknown Asgardian to me and I was eager to learn about more than Thor and Loki. And finally: The Punisher. The team of Baron, Zeck and Janson just blew my mind. At the time, all were minor characters and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would become of Frank Castle’s story.

Punisher #1

Aside from the focus on new characters, Marvel was pulling off some of its best ongoing work as well. We had Bill Mantlo writing Alpha Flight AND Cloak & Dagger. Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run was in full force (as was his Squadron Supreme maxiseries). Walt Simonson was working on what would become an iconic run on Thor. The West Coast Avengers, a pivotal book in my comic obsession, had recently begun their ongoing title. John Byrne was writing AND drawing not only the Fantastic Four but ALSO the Incredible Hulk!?! Oh, and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham was still going strong too. Sue me, I like the funny.

Spider-Ham #12

It wasn’t all joy and excitement for me though. Two of my favorite books disappeared from the shelves forever: The Defenders and Power Man and Iron Fist. Also falling casualty to slowing sales were three licensed books: ROM, Star Wars and the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (which was actually a great read).

Indiana Jones #34

Unfortunately, not only was the dreadful Secret Wars II going on in 1986, but the New Universe launched as well. But those travesties were offset by the launch of the new X-Factor series. And the end of 1986 marked the beginning of what I believe to be one of the best written storylines in all of comics history: Roger Stern’s great “Under Siege” run in Avengers.

But the biggest event of 1986 for me had to be the introduction of the new Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I easily lost myself in the pages of each issue of that title…memorizing every detail, every event and every secret identity in Marvel’s intriguing world. To this day, I still test the true faith of supposed fans by asking them “Which villain’s real name was Bruno Horgan?”

Marvel Handbook #8

Yeah…look it up, posers! (CLUE: He’s in the issue shown above.)

1986. I can’t think of a better time to be a Marvel Zombie.

Interesting that you would pick 1986, and yet, as a Marvel Zombie, you don’t mention The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, two seminal mini-series from that time as well. They show up on most people’s lists, but not on yours, since you’re focusing exclusively on Marvel.

I know that Maggie Thompson from Comics Buyers Guide has said (and she may not be the only or even the first person to say this) that everyone has their own Golden Age of Comics, and that their personal Golden Age is when they were twelve. I’m not sure that the exact age is always correct, but I agree that the comics of our childhood will always be our favorites, or at least hold a special place in our hearts. It’s obvious that this describes 1986 for you. I also have a special place in my heart for many of these comics, but being a cold, unfeeling android, I can often separate what is good due to nostalgia from what is good due to quality.

I wouldn’t dream of arguing the memories of your childhood, so instead of mentioning a few of these series where I disagree with your opinion of them, let me focus on the ones where I agree wholeheartedly.

I think Mark Gruenwald’s writing was always underappreciated, especially when one considers that he was doing it while holding down a job as one of Marvel’s best Group Editors. I think that almost all of his long run on Captain America is worthy of reading, but I also agree that he was strongest right out of the gate. His stories involving the Serpent Society and Scourge were excellent. Captain America is, I think, a difficult character to write well, but Gruenwald seemed to understand how to make him inspiring and heroic, without being boring. As Jason says, Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme was another excellent read, and about fifteen years ahead of its time, looking at a superteam in a more realistic way. Finally, while it came out after 1986, I need to take a moment to plug the first few dozen issues of his Quasar comic. The later issues devolved into overly complicated messes that tied into some truly horrible miniseries, but the early issues were an excellent examination of a super-hero just starting out in his career.

I could comment on a few other series, but instead let me take a few moments to mention Roger Stern. You bring up his “Under Siege” storyline in the Avengers, and rightly so, as it remains one of the best multi-issue storylines in Avengers history, and truly in the history of about any comic I’ve read. Why Roger Stern isn’t currently writing four books a month will remain a mystery to me. I consider him one of the best writers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in comics and I have been continually amazed by what he has been able to do with what have been some truly horrible comics.

Two series illustrate this point very well. The first is The Incredible Hulk which he started writing at a time when the book, to my eyes, sorely needed help. The Hulk had been a mindless dolt, running around the countryside having random adventures for what seemed like years. His comic was pointless and dull. Stern came on board, set up a new staus quo, introduced some supporting characters, and give the comic a purpose. He was the first writer in the series history to make the Hulk interesting for me. Sadly, his run on the title was very short.

He performed the same amazing feat on the original Ghost Rider series. Ghost Rider’s series had been boring me to tears since Tony Isabella left the title back in the 70s. The stories since then weren’t necessarily bad as much as they were unconnected stories which seemed to blend into each other. Again, the series lacked direction. Stern came onboard, and again, he gave this title direction. He brought in a supporting cast and gave us plots that made us care about these new people in Blaze’s life (and, to be honest, to care about Blaze’s life, which I had stopped caring about some time before). Unfortunately, he again left the title in a short time.

I could go on and on, talking about his work on Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, and a slew of other comics, but instead, let me just come back to the Avengers. If I had to pick my favorite comic series of all time, it would probably be the Avengers. There are many reasons for this, but part of it has to be because I was lucky enough to begin reading it during Roger Stern’s run as writer, which thankfully, lasted quite a few years. All of his stories are good, but his run really began to take off when he was paired with John Buscema and Tom Palmer on art. This art team gave his stories a weight and grandeur that made them more than comic stories; they became epics. The “Under Siege” story was certainly the highpoint, but it was quickly followed by a multi-part epic where the team when to Olympus to fight the Greek Gods, which is almost as incredible. Never before or since have the Avengers so embodied their title of “The Earth;s Mightiest Heroes.”

Yeah, DC was pretty active in 1986 too. You mention Dark Knight Returns and the beginning issues of Watchmen…there was also the start of solo series for both Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up in ’86 and the important Legends series began. And don’t get me started on indie comics…Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Ralph Snart Adventures and the relaunched Grendel all saw print then. It was a pretty busy year for all comics!

I’m not saying 1986 was the pinnacle of comics as we know them (although, not being alive during either the traditional Golden or Silver Ages, I think it was pretty close). Oddly enough, I was 14 going on 15 that year…so not too far off from Maggie Thompson’s ideal. I actually started collecting heavily when I was 12 though.

Anyway, yeah I know which of my spotlights — *cough*Firestar*cough* — you’re referencing when you talk about separating nostalgia from quality. But I think I pointed out the reasons WHY I thought they were important and, frankly, it had nothing to do with quality but more to do with coming from a different place and showcasing something new.

It’s funny that you touch on Mark Gruenwald. Not too many people know this, but I actually had a letter-exchanging friendship with Mr. Gruenwald around the time of his Cap run. We talked about the changing times in comics and he advised me to read what I liked. I was actually quite upset when I read that he had passed away.

And Roger Stern was perhaps my favorite writer of the time as well. Like you, I would call The Avengers my favorite book of all time (I have quite the extensive collection). While I came of age reading his run on the book, I was also active in collecting the back issues featuring runs by Englehart, Conway, Thomas and Shooter. In fact, right now I’m reading Assembled! by the folks at AvengersAssemble.net. It’s a fun read about Avengers history. DK Publishing also put out a pretty book called Avengers: The Ultimate Guide written by Tom DeFalco…beautiful art and brief write-ups of all the prominent members of the team, their villains and the important storylines.