Strangers # 6: Deathwish Returns

strangers6The Strangers # 6
“The Tao of Physiques!”
Written by Steve Englehart
Art by Rick Hoberg and Dave Simons
Edited by Chris Ulm

After being dispatched last issue, the supervillain Deathwish makes a speedy return… it was such a quick rematch that even Englehart had to joke about it on page one: “Thought he was gone, didn’t you? So did they…”

Now, one might ask if Deathwish was an interesting enough foe to deserve a return bout, especially so soon. I’ll admit to not feeling the Deathwish love but both last issue and this one gives us the opportunity for some really great characterization – so even if Deathwish himself is kind of blah, he serves as a useful tool for exploring David’s powers and their limitations (last ish) and Electrocute’s status as an artificial lifeform (stay tuned).

After doing some cleanup at the scene of last issue’s battle, Zip-Zap continues teasing Yrial about her membership with the team. Though she continues to loudly proclaim that she’s not really a Stranger and has no desire to be, her actions suggest otherwise. At this point, Yrial is becoming a little more interesting but I still find her to the one member who sticks out like a sore thumb.

At the hospital, Deathwish returns out of the body of G. Lawrence Bushnell, empowered once more by all the beings who are lying near death in the medical facility. Another fight ensues, with Zip-Zap showing off his powers in close quarters. Eventually, Lady-Killer, Zip-Zap and Yrial follow Deathwish into the morgue, where they’re forced to take on their foe while the other members of the team rush to the scene. When Yrial initally refuses to enter the fray, a disappointed Zip-Zap declares “This is the coldest, lowest, sorriest, slimiest–! I thought behind all that shuckin’ an’ jivin’ — I thought we were friends!” It’s a powerful moment though I didn’t know a single person who still said shuckin’ an’ jivin’ in 1993. Perhaps I was just around the wrong people.

Anyway, the other Strangers show up and a massive battle takes place — with Electrocute taking center stage. In a really well-done scene, she declares “I was made in a factory! I can’t die — and I hate it!!! J.D. Hunt made sure the fear of pain and death weren’t programmed into me — so he could anything he wanted with me! You think I’m proud of that? I want to fear death! I want to be able to die — so I can know I lived! But I can’t die! I can’t die! I cant dieee!!!”

Yes, it’s powerfully overwritten but the moment kind of demands it. The expression on her face (as depicted by Hoberg and Simons), coupled with her words really makes the character (forgive me) come alive. Her desperate need and desire to be “real” has never been as clearly depicted to this point. It really, really works.

Meanwhile, Yrial has found the nurse for Deathwish’s host and unleashes Henrietta’s full potential. The nurse, too, was changed by the Jumpstart… and within her is a beautiful embodiment of Life itself. Freed from the shackles of her physical form, Henrietta goes in search of Deathwish and the two of embrace, vanishing before the eyes of our heroes. Yrial proclaims that “I helped the woman of light come forth, knowing she would nullify the man of darkness…!” Zip-Zap apologizes for doubting her while the rest of the team mulls over the fact that people changed by the Jumpstart sometimes don’t show those effects for many months. As they wonder who else is out there, we’re teased that next month brings the crossover known as Break-Thru… and for The Strangers, that means Prototype!

We get a nifty Lady-Killer pin-up by Statema & Schellinger to round out the issue.

Great story by Englehart, especially the parts with Zip-Zap, Yrial and Electrocute. The art was quite nice and I think that Simons is a really nice complement to Hoberg, especially on the facial work.

The series is really hitting its stride, folks!


zip-zapThe Strangers boasted a very eclectic cast and several of them are very “Nineties” in their presentation… and Leon Balford is perhaps the epitome of that. An urban kid, Leon was pressured by bullies and gang members on an almost daily basis. When The Jumpstart gave him superspeed, he was finally able to claim a measure of independence in his life. Rather than running away from his problems, he chose to run directly at them… at full speed, sometimes without giving proper thought about how he was going to handle them!

I appreciate this character because it really represents Steve Englehart’s inclusiveness. Throughout his work, he always used characters of different cultures, ethnicity and sexual orientations. Now, many times he wasn’t very subtle in how he did so but given the times he was writing in and the fact that in many cases, he was pushing the boundaries farther than anyone in mainstream comics had before him, I think he can be forgiven for utilizing what (to our modern eyes) would be seen as stereotypes.

With Leon, everything screams Nineties. From the way he dresses to the codename Zip-Zap to the way he references then-modern celebrities, Leon is definitely a product of his time. If the Ultraverse were revived, I wonder how he’d be treated now — I think he’d have to be updated in appearance but maybe he’d be seen as “retro” or “old-school” and all would be fine.

A word about Leon’s dialogue… he used street slang very often and some of it was painfully awkward. It really did seem like an older guy trying to be “hip” and failing in his writing. Then again, I wasn’t living on the mean streets of San Francisco at the time so maybe someone did talk the way Zip-Zap did?

The Strangers # 5: Deathwish!

The Strangers # 5
“Dynamic Tension”
Written by Steve Englehart
Art by Rick Hoberg and Tim Burgard
Edited by Chris Ulm

This issue features some of my favorite moments from the early Strangers run. With the team finally taking some time to re-establish their personal lives, we get to see our heroes away from one another, hanging out with family and friends. It was a really needed set of moments because the first four issues moved at a breakneck speed. By today’s standards, this issue gallops along but at the time, it was very much a “breather” issue, even with the big action at the back half of the book. In fact, I would have been okay if Englehart had used a “day in the life approach” and not had a big villain in this issue at all — just give us more of the characters being who they are.

The issue begins with the team splitting up. Bob goes home to visit his parents and we find out that his newfound celebrity has really changed things – women who ignored him before are calling him up and the media is camped outside his parents’ residence. Leon returns to the mean streets and teaches a lesson to the gangbangers who tormented him in the past. While it wasn’t the most mature thing to do with his powers, it perfectly fit with his age and felt very real. Hugh and Candy talk about his past (he was a “famous” high school quarterback) and the two of them briefly fight about the nature of their relationship before they make up. As Hugh says to the reader, “I’m confused! You must be a real woman–!” Ah, Englehart, you slay me. Elena continues to be my favorite character, working to further the team’s public relations position while Yrial is the one who uncovers the threat of Deathwish, who turns out to be another survivor of the cable car accident from issue one.

But before we get there… David tries to use his healing powers on a friend who’s dying of AIDS. Like with Leon, this scene really worked because these are the kinds of things that real people would do with superpowers. The outcome isn’t a good one, though, and it reminds the entire team that their newfound powers don’t make them gods… they have limitations.

The Strangers come together to face Deathwish, who’s killed everyone on his city block. After a quick debriefing with Captain Jacob Rome (San Fran’s official Ultra liaison as of Freex # 2), our heroes come face-to-face with Deathwish, a scary-huge villain who says things like this: “Because it wasn’t Death who touched them! It was far, far worse — the all-consuming lust for oblivion! It was I — Deathwish!”

As Electrocute says, “Goodness!”

We find out that Deathwish grew from Bushnell, the old man who was riding the cable car. He’s basically the old man’s sickness given physical form and he’s eager to spread out and infect others with his precious “oblivion.” While the watching cops wonder if this dark individual has any connection to the Night Man (more continuity cross-promotion), David is able to use what he learned in his failed attempt to help his friend to overwhelm Deathwish and (apparently) destroy him. In a somewhat poignant moment , Deathwish proclaims “No! No! Deathwish does not wish to die…”

A really strong issue! Hoberg catches the despair on David’s face and has some cute moments throughout. While the fight ties in to the major character moment of the issue, I still think that the strongest pieces of the story were the earlier ones where we simply got to know them all as people a little bit more. Englehart was always a master at characterization and the series shines the most when he goes that direction.

In bonus material, we get a couple of Rune pages in a flip-book format and an introduction to the Night Man written by Steve Englehart.

Next issue: the long-awaited return of… Deathwish! Wow, that defeat didn’t last long, did it?

The Strangers You Never Knew…

mantraAs recounted on his website, Steve Englehart was asked by Marvel Comics at one point to revive the Ultraverse… but to do it in a single title. His idea was for the heroes of the Ultraverse to wake up inside the Marvel U and have to find new lives for themselves alongside the Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. Englehart figured that a title like The Strangers might actually make more sense for this group than it did for the originals and so he fashioned a new team concept that would bring together at least one character created by each of the Ultraverse’s founding fathers. The roster of this “All-New, All-Different” Strangers? Here you go:

Hardcase, Choice, Mantra, Prime, Sludge, Rune, Lord Pumpkin, Lady Killer, The Night Man, Rhiannon and Atom Bob.

Englehart’s preference was for a monthly, double-sized book but Marvel was a little leery of trying that… in the end, it didn’t matter since Marvel decided not to do the revival project at all.

That’s one interesting mix of personalities that Englehart was planning to bring together, wasn’t it? I’m not sure how it would have played out as the months went by but it’s yet another missed opportunity for the House of Ideas with regards to the Ultraverse.

The Strangers # 4: Hardcase!

The Strangers #4 with Hardcase

The Strangers # 4
“Between A Rock And A Hardcase”
Written by Steve Englehart with plot assist from James Hudnall
Art by Rick Hoberg & Tim Burgard
Edited by Chris Ulm

When last we left our heroes, The Strangers had dropped in on Hardcase, demanding in no uncertain terms that the time had come for a teamup! When we rejoin them, we find that our heroes (along with Hardcase and his partner Choice) are prisoners of Aladdin. We discover that Aladdin has the means to hold Ultras against their will and aren’t afraid to use those techniques — and they’ve gone even father than that. Using DNA salvaged from the dead members of The Squad, they’ve actually used the powers of Hardcase’s dead friends to come up with new weapons and systems. This doesn’t sit well with Hardcase for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, Yrial continues to struggle with her place on the team and we see the beginnings of a potential romance between Atom Bob and Choice… one that reveals a number of self-doubts in Bob. These will take on new importance later in the series but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sam Grandee, the gripman on the cable car that was hit by the Jumpstart effect, shows up — he’s now The Grip and is working for Aladdin. Steve Englehart raises some racial issues when he as Dirt Devil (another Aladdin operative) whispering “That boy’s great-grandpappy would’a made a helluva slave, Foxfire!” While I always appreciated that Englehart didn’t shy away from such subjects, there were times (like this one) when he did it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Grenade and Hardcase use their powers in an inventive way to get past the prison they’re being held in and the team begins exploring Aladdin’s secret base. Along the way, we get lots of character bits and Engleheart moves forward the subplots regarding Lady Killer’s growing appreciation of her teammates, Zip-Zap’s feelings about his place on the squad and the love affair between Grenade and Electrocute.

After a big battle with the powered forces of Aladdin, both sides agree to a truce. Bob makes the stipulation that any attack on Hardcase and Choice would be seen by The Strangers as an attack on the entire group. In the end, Hardcase turns down a chance to join the team and everyone parts as friends.

First off, let me say that the wraparound cover is GORGEOUS and easily one of the best in the entire run. I always had a fondness for that weird outfit that Choice wore and Hoberg depicts her quite well, as he does with all the ladies.

Story-wise… this has some great character-building moments and the action is interesting enough but in the end, it felt like not a lot actually happened. Aladdin is kinda bad? Well, we knew that… Hardcase can be a bit of a jerk sometimes? Yeah, knew that. The Strangers go their way and Aladdin keeps conducting awful research on Ultras. Hmm.

Having said that, I generally enjoyed this issue. It really felt like the old Marvel issues where heroes would team up, move past their differences and then save the day.

Next up: Deathwish!

Unleashing the Ultraverse: In the Beginning…

Unleashing the UltraverseI 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 Wild Cards books, which was edited and written in part by George R.R. Martin (whose Hedge Knight books gave my career a JUMP START) 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

The Strangers # 3: The Explosive Debut of TNTNT!

Strangers 3The Strangers # 3
“Now You Seven Die At the Hands of TNTNT!”
Written by Steve Englehart
Penciled by Rick Hoberg
Inked by Tim Burgard & Larry Welch
Edited by Chris Ulm

This issue starts off in the middle of a huge donnybrook (always wanted to use that word) as our heroes are attacked by the forces of TNTNT. In a classic, old-school fight scene, all the characters not only insult one another but find the opportunity to give their names and powers. From a modern perspective, it’s all a bit forced but having grown up with comics of the Seventies and Eighties, I’m perfectly okay with it.

So… who the heck are thee guys who call themselves TNTNT? Well, there’s a big dinosaur-like guy called Tyrannosaur, a spunky young woman  named Neu-Ronne (yeah, terrible name), a gun-wielding samurai named Tugun, a water-witch named Naiad and a strange floating armored man with energy-based arms and legs dubbed Torso.

We’re told that TNTNT has been in training for three years, mastering their abilities for the day when they would be called upon. This gives them a tactical advantage over The Strangers, who are not only new to their powers but to working as a team. Employed by J.D. Hunt, they’ve been sent to retrieve Candy (aka Electrocute).

In flashbacks, we also get to see The Strangers meeting Bob’s parents and having a discussion about building a public branding for the team. We get references to Michael Jordan and product endorsements as Englehart plays with the elements of fame in the 90’s. We also see the group getting their costumes for the first time — Leon is less than pleased with what Elena comes up with for him, rejecting all three designs. In the end, he sticks with his own clothes, preferring to have his legs relatively free in shorts.

Despite the fact that TNTNT has the advantage in terms of experience, our heroes emerge victorious and take the opportunity to introduce themselves to the media. For the first time, they’re officially introduced to the world as The Strangers. In the first of several epilogues, G. Lawrence Bushnell, one of the other passengers from the cable car accident, learns of his own ultra-abilities… and they seem much darker and evil than the ones given to The Strangers. We then get an update on the man who got the shrapnel in his brain, as he finally wakes up (you’ll learn more about him in the pages of Night Man). After a check-in with J.D. Hunt, we move over to Hardcase’s home, where The Strangers drop in unannounced, heralding their first ever… crossover!

This issue is a fun one if you like superhero fights. Englehart manages to pack in a lot of characterization with the flashbacks that surround the brawl with TNTNT and we continue to see developments in how The Strangers’ powers work. I really liked how Elena’s background in fashion and business played into the birth of the team’s public image, though I had doubts then (and even more now!) about Leon’s personal fashion choices.

TNTNT would go on to appear in other Ultraverse titles besides just The Strangers — and while they’re kinda fun, there’s nothing here that left me particularly excited about them. Their dialogue was really stilted (this was especially true of Tyrannosaur) and given the size of The Strangers, having that many villains running around made some of the pages seemed really busy.

Art-wise, there are some gorgeous panels here and there but the presence of two inkers led to some pages looking a bit rougher than harder-edged than others.

The promise of a crossover with Hardcase didn’t leave me breathless with anticipation at the time as I was never a huge fan of that character. But as we’ll see, there are some really fun moments coming up in issue 4 and I think you’ll agree that in the end, the event turns out to be an entertaining one.

Stay tuned, Stranger fans!

The Strangers vs. Ultraforce

Strangers vs Ultraforce Slider

When the Ultraverse launched, there was no doubt about which superhero team was # 1… as much as I adored Freex, you knew that if the world was imperiled it wasn’t going to be Sweetface and Plug who were going to get the call. The Strangers were one of the original launch titles and they were prominently featured in house ads, crossovers and the like.

So why aren’t they remembered by the more casual (i.e., pitifully Ultraverse-unaware) fans?

I’ll tell you why: Ultraforce.

From the moment the Ultraforce was announced, The Strangers slid backwards in terms of importance. Ultraforce was the Ultraverse’s Avengers or Justice League, featuring their heaviest hitters and most popular solo stars. While The Strangers were united by a common origin, the Ultraforce was united by the old trope that they took on villains too powerful for individual heroes to face.

Plus, you had George Perez handling the art duties on the early issues of Ultraforce. As much as I like Rick Hoberg, that’s not a fair fight! And when the Marvel crossovers began, who battled against and alongside The Avengers?

Hint: it wasn’t The Strangers.

When The Black Knight moved over into the Ultraverse, was he fighting Atom Bob for leadership of The Strangers?

Hah… no.

Was it Electrocute and Grenade starring in their ongoing animated series? Sadly, no – though most of The Strangers did get to guest star in the Ultraverse toon.

For me, I’ll associate Ultraforce with the beginning of the end… the coming of Marvel and the losing of the Ultraverse’s focus. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy parts of that series — hell, I’ll argue to this day that Topaz was a great character and you can never go wrong with Perez on art.

But I’ll always hold a grudge against Ultraforce for knocking The Strangers down a few pegs.