Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ultraverse Month 3 -- August 1993

Ultraverse Month 3 -- August

Big month, this month, with eight titles coming out. This includes two new titles (Exiles and Prototype, the later being something that has been heavily set up in Ultra Monthly the last two months).

First, a look at the new titles:

Exiles #1
So, Freex looked like it was going to be the “X-book” of the Ultraverse last month. (The advertising tagline, “Fighting to save themselves from mankind and mankind from itself” is a clever twist of words, but also a very “mutant-y” sounding line.) This month, Exiles comes on the scene. Now, if you haven’t read Exiles, “I know something you don’t know”, and for its time, it was brilliant. More on that when I get to month six or so . . .

Meanwhile, this book sets up like the X-Men . . . two groups of opposing forces are targeting and “kidnapping” people they refer to as “potentials” -- people who may have a fatal “Theta Virus”, unless their messnger RNA (M-RNA) is altered, turning them into an “Ultra-hero”! The good guys quickly become “exiles” when they try stopping the bad guys from kidnapping a potential and people end up dead. This issue introduces the HUGE cast of characters (including Ghoul, who becomes a major player later in the UV) and corporate bad guy Malcolm Kort.

It’s also written by FOUR writers and drawn by two pencilers. I’m very curious how and why the arrangement occurred. I thought it was a Steve Gerber book, and him alone. Maybe it was in later issues. However, what looks like, on the outside, a standard “team of teen heroes” book actually forms the spine of a major development in the UV later on AND has a big twist in issue four. In many ways, this series alone is a set up for something bigger, which may explain why they had four writers (including the line editor, Chris Ulm). It’s also of interest because it is the first UV book I’ve seen that dd not have Tim Eldred as letterer. Writers, Steve Gerber, Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, Chris Ulm. Pencils, Paul Pelletier. Inks, Ken Branch. Letters, Clem Robbins. “Color design”, Paul Mounts and Moose Baumann.

Prototype #1
Prototype is the Ultraverse’s version of Iron Man. That’s not a bad thing. (Although, it’s easy to make these connections. Heck, Exiles not only sounds like it should be an X-book, it ended up being used as a title for an X-book!) Like Choice, from Hardcase, Prototype is the face of a corporation, meant to do demonstrations and photo ops. Once more, we get a book that starts with some ultra-violence. This time, the tearing off of the original Prototype’s arm in a flash back, the blinding of a woman by a green baddy, Of course, green baddy gets attacked by the NEW Prototype, a young kid named Jimmy (and there may be more to him than just armor). Oh, and we are introduced to Prototype’s corporate bad guy (I guess) Mr. Leland, the CEO of Ultra-Tech. Writers, Tom Mason & Len Strazewski. Art, David Ammerman & James Pascoe. Letters, Tim Eldred. “Color design”, Paul Mounts.

Freex #2
Well, with issue one I said it was better than Strangers because it had a smaller cast size. With this issue, we learn that there’s actually a much larger cast in the wings. However, since the introductions spill over from last issue, it’s easier to take in. Turns out “our heroes”, now on the fun because they are freaks, have been targeted by some unknown bad guy and brought together because of one of them (whose power is to travel in electricity and can read information from computers) saw they were all targeted. It’d be interesting if they were being targeted by the same bad guys from Exiles . . . but I can’t remember. Meanwhile, they fought cops this issue. And had lots of in-fighting. This reads like an X-Men book, only I understand it. Writer, Gerard Jones. Pencils, Ben Herrera. Inks, Micheal Christian. Letters, Tim Eldred. “Color design”, Keith Conroy. Editor, Hank Kanalz. (First book not edited by Chris Ulm.)

Hardcase #3
As these series move on, I’ll probably say less about them. I don’t think I need to say too much about the plots, because that’d take all the fund out of reading them for you, Gentle Reader (if there even are any of you!). I may eventually do some links to the online comic dealers or to eBay auctions to help you find them. Anyway, this issue just pushes forward the whole Choice subplot, as we learn there’s more to her than just being a super-powered cola spokesperson. I like her powers. She says a word and she gets that power for an hour. Like, when someone shoots at her, she says, “Shield,” and she has shield around her for the next hour. I like that. So far, still pretty cool take on the superhero. And the art was 800 times better than last issue. And there’s a set up for the first Ultraverse crossover as the Strangers just show up at Hardcase’s house. Writer, James Hudnall. Pencils, Jim Calihan. Inks, Rodney Ramos. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Moose Baumann. “Special thanks to Roger Robinson layout”. (Note: edited by Chris Ulm and Hank Kanalz.)

Mantra #2
This second issue once more pushes everything FAST. So much happens in these 22 pages or so, it’s quite refreshing when I consider current day comics. I love how things just keep moving. But that doesn’t mean all action. There’ some nice character moments as the warrior trapped in the woman’s body decides to give the kids one last night out with their mom, since he has no plans to stay in her body any longer. Nice stuff. Writer, Mike W. Barr. Pencils, Terry Dodson. Inks, Al Vey. Letters, Patrick Owsley. Colorist, Moose Baumann.

Of note, this is the first time they didn’t say “Color design”. Also, they included a special note: Warstrike created by Dan Danko. Boneyard created by Chris Ulm. At the start, the Ultraverse focused on creator’s rights. Very cool.

Prime #3
Prime learns more about his past. His father seems to know something about his son’s secret. It all involves a big governmental experiment gone bad, a mad scientist did experiments on infertile couples and never told anyone. Most of the baby’s died, but Prime didn’t and instead became a superhero. You know, a clich├ęd plot like this could be really hard to read. In this case, the characterization is awesome. I like the boy that becomes Prime, and I’m enjoying as he learns about his past, his powers, and his limitations. Oh, and Prototype and Prime will fight next issue. I think Prototype will be a guest star, though, not a crossover. Writers, Len Strazewski & Gerard Jones. Art, Norm Breyfogle. Letters, Tim Eldred. “Color design”, Keith Conroy.

Strangers #3
The Strangers each get a chance to shine as they fight TNTNT, a group of super villains whose names are Tyrannosaur, Naiad, Torso, Neu-ronne, and Tugun. TNTNT. Cute, eh? The most interesting thing of the book, though, is the old man who seems to have also gained some powers from the lightning “jumpstart”. His cancer disappeared, but he started hearing an evil sounding voice that he thought might be his cancer. Also, Johnny Domino, soon to be the Night-Man, wakes up in his hospital bed, while the Strangers go public and reveal their identities to the world. Oh, and corporate bad guy J.D. Hunt shows up. Yes, that’s three suit and tie bad guys in the Ultraverse this month alone. Story ends with The Strangers showing up at Hardcase’s house for next month’s crossover. Writer, Steve Englehart. Pencils, Rick Hoberg. Inks, Tim Burgaard & Larry Welch. Letters, Tim Eldred. “Color design”, Keith Conroy. Thanks to Terral Lawrence.

Ultra-Monthly #3
More of the same. I still enjoy it. They infused Ultra Monthly with some fun personality.

What have I learned so far? Team books are difficult when you have a large cast and try to spotlight them all in one issue. Three issues of Strangers trying to give each character a moment in the Spotlight feels a little bit tedious, rushed, and cramped. Meanwhile, Freex has a similar sized cast but gives them room to stretch.

Also, as important as I believe writers are to things, and I do believe that to be true, let’s face it . . . in comics, if your art isn’t awesome, your comic isn’t awesome. And the art suffers in many of these titles.

They’re up to seven titles this month, up from three two months ago. Wild. There’s some heavier months ahead . . .

As evidenced by the fact that Chris Ulm and Tim Eldred are no longer editing and lettering ALL the books, respectively. After the first and second months, I wondered when this would happen.

I’m going to keep my comments on plot and stuff to a minimum from here on out, and keep my comments to observations about the comics, I think.

~ Ben

Monday, June 2, 2008

Marvel's Civil War Roots?

Here's a scan of the one page debate about registering "ultras" or not. It's an interesting fake debate . . . and many of the things they bring up are EXACTLY the same things that were brought up in some of the Marvel Civil War comics and interviews with the creators involved.

There's nothing new under the sun.

I seriously doubt that this one page thing, which (to my knowledge) was never referenced again in an Ultraverse book, had anything to do with the creators involved in Civil War. I doubt they'd ever even read it, and even if they had, it would have been long forgotten. It was a logical thing to think about then, and a logical thing to think about now.

This appeared in Ultra Monthly #2, July 1993.

~ Ben

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ultraverse Month 2 -- July 1993

July 1993. The second month of the Ultraverse.

As I read the editorial material in the back of this month's books, they mentioned television commercials, bus ads, park bench ads, and some sort of billboard near both Marvel and DC's offices in NY. They were coming out with a vengeance.

Hardcase #2
So, starting with Hardcase #2 . . . the art was the first thing I noticed. Because it was bad. This is true of many early UV titles, I think. Remember, they were pitching themselves as the "anti-Image", focusing on writers, rather than artists. That doesn't mean NONE of their art was good, but here at the beginning, some of it was show stopping awful. The story was good, though, getting into Hardcase's choice and Choice's hard case . . . introducing Choice, who was to be an ultra created for commercial purposes and now escaping. Choice appeared last month in an ad for Choice Cola in Ultra-Monthly. Writer, James Hudnall. Art, Cranial Implant Studio. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Moose Baumann.

Ultra Monthly #2
Speaking of Ultra-Monthly, I'm enjoying these faux-magazines. They report on the events
of that month's comics, but do so based on what the "human" repsonse to ultras would be.
There's even a "Point/Counter Point" argument about ultra registration. The arguments are
the SAME as what we're seeing in Marvel's current Civil War. It's pretty funny -- Marvel has printed a faux-Daily Bugle with articles similar to this month's Ultra-Monthly.

Prime #2
Prime #2 gets into what I love about Prime. He's a kid in an adult ultra body. Captain
Marvel SHOULD be like this . . . but I've only seen one or two stories where they've done it well. Here, Prime gets a "Superman/Lois Lane" moment with the girl he's got a crush on. The problem? he looks like an adult, and he's taking an unusual interest in a 13 year-old girl. It ends in a cliff-hanger, with Prime getting caught by some sort of creature sent by the people who created him. I'm enjoying reading this again. Writer, Gerard Jones & Len Strazewski. Art, Norm Breyfogle. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Keith Conroy. (Note: every month, Gerard Jones and Len Strazewski switch back and forth whose name gets credited first. I can't remember what their co-writing process was. If I find out, I'll make an entry about it.)

Freex #1
Freex #1 is a classic origin tale, featuring origins of the teen-aged freaks. It SHOULD be a poor man's X-Men . . . and it comes close. It also reminds me of Runaways. There's nothing new under the sun, eh? There's very little plot -- just characterization. I don't mind. Freex #1 succeeds where Strangers #1 failed for me. This is a great example of a first issue of a team book. Set up some mystery, introduce your characters, and don't try jamming too much into one issue. Writer, Gerard Jones. Pencils, Ben Herrera. Inks, Mike Christan. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Paul Mounts.

Mantra #1
What was that I said about not jamming too much into one issue? Mantra, in a nutshell, Lukasz is an immortal warrior with a twist: to stay immortal, he takes over a new person's body every time he dies. The other twist, the battle hardened, booze hound warrior ends up in the body of a woman. I'm amazed how much they packed into this one issue. Battles take place, origins are explained, and the battle Lukasz swtiches bodies three times. The last switch, of course, being the woman he is for the entire series. I expected that shot -- where he finds his new body to be female -- to be the last page. Sort of like in Prime. Lukasz looks in the mirror, sees his body and . . . "Oh no! I'm a woman!" Classic cliffhanger, eh? Nope! They move on -- MORE STORY after that! Writer, Mike W. Barr. Pencils, Terry Dodson. Inks, Al Vey. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Paul Mounts.

Strangers #2
Strangers #2 was definitely a new read for me, and it keeps getting into why they should be a team, what their team name should be, etc. It was a little tedious. Now, later issues of Strangers, which I read because the crossed over with Night Man and with Break-Thru, did not bother me. But I found these first two issues to be work to read. And it's interesting, because I liked Night Man a LOT and it's the same writer. Could the problem be the size of the cast? Possibly. Though this brings up something interesting. Steve Englehart is KNOWN for awesome team books. He has classic runs on both Justice League and Avengers. I'm not sure why Strangers isn't hitting the mark with me. Although, there is some set up for a HUGE twist that occurs in the Strangers Annual and Night Man Annual crossover, called the Pilgrim conundrum, which make some of this reading very interesting. Writer, Steve Englehart. Pencils, Rick Hoberg. Inks, Tim Burgard & Larry Welch. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Keith Conroy.

All books edited by Chris Ulm.

Anyway, next month:

Prototype and Exiles are new titles. It's cool, because in Ultra-Monthly they keep mentioning Prototype and Ultra-tech -- setting up interest for that new title.

~ Ben

"Unleashing the Ultraverse" -- special Previews Guide

I can't find a date on this. But it came out a few months before any of the books were released.

I'm a comic book creator, some of you may know. I've been involved in a number of "launches", from the launch of a single title, to the launch of a whole line of graphic novels, to the launch of a whole new company. Some of those things thrived, some failed. This may be why the Ultraverse interests me so much. It was a BIG launch. To me, it was like the anti-Image (even if Malibu was publishing Image at the beginning). Malibu was putting out a line of books where "writers were the best gimmick", instead of tons of alternate covers (although they did that as well). Image was style, the Ultraverse was substance. My opinion, anyway.

This little booklet, Unleashing the Ultraverse: Special Previews Guide, with a headline "Talented writers sharing a vision: The image of the future" was an interesting read.

It starts with an introduction from Chris Ulm, the editor of the line. It's essentially a letter to retailers and readers. In it he says some interesting things, like, "the Ultraverse line of comics was created around a simple idea: put the story first." "The Ultraverse is a universe that was created from the ground up to make sense." He also says, "Expect a Prime video game" (which happened) "a Hardcase short film" (which did not happen, but a Firearm short film was produced) "and a line of Ultraverse trading cards" (again, which happened). He ends the introduction with, "Ultimately, however, the success of the Ultraverse in in YOUR hands. Evaluate the material presented here and go with your instincts. We did!"

There's then an interview with Tom Mason and Chris Ulm. In it, he explains how they gathered together people like Mike W. Barr, Steve Engelhart, Steve Gerber, James Hudnall, Gerard Jones, Larry Niven, and Len Strazewski to create a new universe. He also reveals that the Wildcards books, which was edited and written in part by my friend George R.R. Martin (name dropping!) helped model what a "shared universe" should be like. It's four pages long and gets into a lot of the nitty gritty about how they planned to use the universe for their stories, the creative process of the "think tank" of writers, and the experience of the people involved.

A brief overfiew of Hardcase, Prime, and The Strangers follows. Each had two pages of art as well.

Then, a writer profile of the writers of those first three titles follows. I found this very interesting. For instance, Gerard Jones gives his take on the creation of the existing comic universes from Marvel and DC: "I think [the Ultraverse] is the most well-planned. The marvel Universe grew outward from its beginnings in a more organic fashion. The DC Universe, on the other hand, grew in a more inorganic fashion -- that is, by uniting its various characters in environments after the fact. Of course, some new comic book 'universes' are well-planned -- Valiant, for instance, is a good example -- but I think that this group of writers and editors has done the best job of blocking out the rules, characters, and other disparate elements beforehand."

James Hudnall has an interesting view of the universes as well: "The trouble with Marvel and DC is that their continuity is so messed up. Even Marvel, who used to pride themselves on a sensible continuity . . . has gotten so ridiculous with nine X-men books and such. There's no way their continuity can make sense. We've figured out our history, and we've left room for things to be invented." He wraps up saying, "All the creators are really into the Ultraverse; there's none of the jaded, 'let's get this out' attitude. If I wasn't involved in this project, I'd be jealous."

Heh. I AM jealous.

~ Ben

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ultraverse Month 1 -- June, 1993

June. 1993. Hardcase #1, Strangers #1, Prime #1, and Ultra Monthly #1 hit the stands . . .

When they first came out, I didn't buy ANY of them. Three months later, I DID buy Strangers #1 . . . but only because Johnny from Night Man made his first appearance in that book. So the FIRST time I read any of these other books was after the Ultrsaverse was a just a nearly forgotten memory, when I started compiling my collection.

None of the books in this month's batch were new to me reading through them now, though. I'm excited about some upcoming months that will have some stories and even some complete series that will be brand new!

Hardcase #1
Hardcase starts out with a flashback to the death of the Squad . . . flash forwards to his current career -- playing himself in movies . . . and ends with his decision to get back into the crime fighting game . . . Writer, James Hudnall. Pencils, Jim Callahan. Inks, Norm Breyfogle. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Paul Mounts.

Prime #1
Prime was cool too. I forgot the way they introduced him this way . . . without anyone knowing his identity -- reader included . . . although they had some clues, and some very good writing that made sense considering his true identity. He starts by beating up a gym teacher who "touched" some girls in his class. He then busts up a drug house. And then goes to give aid to the U.N. against terrorists in Somalia. The reveal of his secret identity was pretty good, and as I said the writing was good, essentially presenting Shazam/Captain Marvel done the right way (although still not the way I'd do it, but it's really good . . . probably better than the way I'd do it). Reference is made to Prototype, an upcoming series. Writer, Len Strazewski & Gerard Jones. Art, Norm Breyfogle. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Paul Mounts.

Strangers #1
Strangers was the weakest of the lot -- a standard origin story, with the origins of all the members of the team and then HOW they become a team. This is the first mention of the Jumpstart -- the event in the Ultraverse that created most of its heroes.* Here, a bolt of lightning strikes a cable car and everyone in it is given some powers. So we have introductions to over a half dozen main characters: briefly digging into their pre-powers existence, revealing their powers, showing them deal with their powers, and then gathering together to fight! It was a LOT to jam into an issue. But it also was indeed the first appearance of Night Man (remember, Night Man was my introduction to the Ultraverse), who was in a Miata that was hit by the cable car. These seeds were being planted, though, because the writer of Strangers also created Night Man. Writer, Steve Englehart. Pencils, Rick Hoberg. Inks, Tim Burgard. Letters, Tim Eldred. "Color design", Paul Mounts.

Ultra Monthly #1
Ultra Monthly . . . somewhere along the line I accumulated this book to complete the collection (I've been working on and off on collecting teh entire Ultraverse) . It was interesting, with articles about the Ultras but written BY "normal humans" . . . a clever way to supliment and introduce a new comic book universe. Of course, today this would be a fake news blog or something.

The surprising thing about all these books is the mature content. In Prime, allusions are not so subtly made to a teacher taking advantage of his students sexually. In Hardcase, the flashback to the aftermath of the death of his teammates is bloody and violent -- bodies have been torn in half, blood is everywhere.

~ Ben

* I'll be seeing about getting some cover images to go with these "mini-reviews". I want to get permission before I just use images from other websites.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Ultraverse - an introduction

Following the footsteps of a friend of mine who read through Cerebus, one issue a day for a year, I've decided to try something similar.

I've always been a fan of Malibu Comics Ultraverse, later Marvel Comics Ultraverse, and when it debuted in 1993, I was just getting into comics in college. I saw a blurb for The Night Man in Wizard magazine, saw it was brand new, and decided to get in on the ground floor. I bought every single Night Man comic and every single other comic he appeared in (like the two crossover stories Break-Thru and Hostile Takeover), and when Marvel took over Malibu and consequently took over Night Man I kinda got lost trying to follow it and let it fall to the wayside.

But make no mistake. Night Man and the Ultraverse were major parts of me wanting to become a comic book writer. The gimmick behind the Ultraverse was that their focus was on story. They brought in some of the best writers they could find and created the world the stories would take place in and then, in June of 1993 they launched. These were well written and well thought out stories and even though I was only looking at one corner, the Night Man, I really enjoyed it.

Later, as an adult with a disposable income, I decided to complete the run of The Night Man when I found a bunch of Ultraverse comics in a Quarter Bin at a local comic shop. After completing the Night Man set, I decided to go one further. These comics were good. Why not get them all? So I did. I found sets of them on eBay for extremely cheap (considering the quality of the reads, it is an amazingly cheap thing to do) and over a few years I collected almost the entire run of the entire publishing history of the Ultraverse. Some were good, some were bad, some were in between. Many of them I haven't even read.

Which leads me to my friend and his Cerebus reading. Why not do something similar?

Now, I don't plan to read an Ultraverse comic every day (although I could), but I am going to read through the Complete Ultraverse, in publishing order, as part of my free reading time. In some ways, yes, this is entertainment and fan-boy-ishness. In other ways, this is something of a clinical study, as I examine the creation of a fictional universe and the structure of the stories. For that it what make this whole exercise interesting: from the first promotional announcement through a hostile takeover by Marvel to the final issue of the universe, here is a chance to look at some unique storytelling and watch how it plays out over time and real-world changes and challenges.

I'll post thoughts and notes here, and maybe comic covers or other stuff (like the Ultraverse Valentine cards I once got . . .), and probably some links to interviews or things like that (things like Steve Englehart's website, which has some interesting insight into his time with the Ultraverse).

If you like the Ultraverse, pop this on your RSS feed and chime in from time to time, I'd love to hear from you.

~ Ben Avery