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!

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 # 2: “Hey! Hugh! Get Off’a McCloud!”

strangersissue2The Strangers # 2
Written by Steve Englehart, Illustrated by Rick Hoberg, Tim Eldred & Larry Welch
Lettered by Tim Eldred, Colored by Keith Conroy
Edited by Chris Ulm

Yes, this is the issue where we start off with one of the most groan-inducing bits of alleged humor that the Ultraverse ever saw. Even in 1993, a joke involving the old television show McCloud was pushing it in terms of being relate-able for the audience.

Moving on from there, we see our new group of heroes continuing their pursuit of answers. After a quick origin recap, we begin to see the early stresses about who will be the leader of the team — Elena is the natural person to do it, given her personality and her experience but Bob is someone that people relate to and he’s a little less in-your-face when it comes to ordering people around. We also get some neat scenes as both Candy and Dave experiment with their powers and learn a bit more about their limitations.

All of this leads to The Strangers discovering the homeland of Yrial — a floating island, hidden behind a magical cloud. If this sounds like something out of an old pulp novel, that’s because it is. Our heroes are captured but Dave’s continuing path of power discovery leads to their freedom — but not before Bob learns that not only can he transform items, he can also transform languages! Yes, it was a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, it turns out that Yrial’s people are a mysterious bunch who worship something called the Starfoam and who may have knowledge of the entity that granted our heroes their powers. The tribe’s leader orders Yrial to accompany The Strangers back down below, both learning from them and teaching them of their ways.

The issue ends with Bob officially christening our team as The Strangers.

Hmm. I love this series but I felt that this particular story was a major misstep. It was simply too early to abandon the down-to-earth feel of the first issue and go gallivanting around on a floating island. When we return to the more “mundane” world of superhero action in issue 3, this story feels all the more unusual. Plus, Yrial was by far the least interesting member of the team to me… and while the rest of the group was tied together by their origin, Yrial’s early inclusion seemed to weaken the bonds that held them together.

Art-wise, it’s solid as Rick Hoberg continues to do some lovely work on the facial expressions. Still no costumes (aside from on the cover) but they’re coming, for good or bad!

Speaking of the cover, I don’t really care for this one — for a posed image, it looks pretty busy.

Things will pick up in issue three as TNTNT is introduced!

The Strangers – “Jumpstart!”

strangers_issue1The Strangers # 1
Written by Steve Englehart, Illustrated by Rick Hoberg & Tim Eldred
Lettered by Tim Eldred, Colored by Paul Mounts
Edited by Chris Ulm

And so it begins! The Ultraverse really gets going in this story as 59 random people onboard the Powell Street Cable Car in San Francisco are struck by an odd lightning bolt from the sky. While the passengers appear to be unharmed, a driver is struck in the head by a piece of shrapnel, leading to him becoming — wait. That’s another Ultraverse title entirely! Let’s stick with the folks who will become The Strangers, okay?

We’re quickly introduced to the majority of the cast, as many of them are watching as jerk millionaire J.D. Hunt is fondling a compliant young woman named Candy. His actions disturb many of the passengers and several of them toss Hunt off the cable car just before the lighting bolt hits home, preventing him from becoming one of the recipients of power.

What’s that, you say? Recipients of what-now? Well, it seems that the people struck by the bolt are changed… Candy seems quite different in personality right away and bolts off from J.D. Hunt, much to his dismay. Bob Hardin and Hugh Fox, students at the San Francisco Art Institute, quickly learn that they they are able to transform matter and explode shrapnel from their body, respectively. Elena LA Brava, fashion designer, is able to hit anything that she aims for, Dave Castiglione is able to utilize various powers by changing through the colors of the spectrum. Sixth grader Leon Balford finds that he has superspeed, which helps him in avoiding some of the local toughs in his neighborhood.

When a mysterious woman (Yrial) appears at the site of the cable car accident, many of those affected are drawn back to the scene, hoping to find answers. After battling Yrial, who speaks some unfamiliar language, the group elects to follow after the fleeing woman and discover the full truth about what’s happened to them. As one of them says, “This morning we had nothing in common — we were all strangers!”, prompting this response from Bob, “And now… now we’re all stranger than ever!”

This 28-pager is packed with information and takes a lot longer to read than most modern comics. Englehart really delivers with witty dialogue that helps differentiate the large cast. Rick Hoberg’s pencils are a far cry from those of my favorite comic book artists (George Perez, Alan Davis, etc.) but he delivers with some great panels showcasing facial expressions and poses.

This issue introduces a number of important concepts — the Jumpstart event itself, J.D. Hunt and the Night Man. While we don’t get any of the heroes in their costumes or with their code-names yet, it’s easy to see where it’s all going to come from since Elena is busily sketching away costume designs in the story.

Re-reading this book, I was struck by how enlightened Englehart was in terms of subtly introducing topics such as misogyny and homosexuality. Elena is beautifully depicted by Hoberg throughout and I found myself quite drawn to the character, more so than I was when I first read this story back in (gulp) 1993.

Candy’s lingerie gets quite a few interesting reactions in the story and while I appreciate the lovely form that Hoberg graced her with, I’m looking forward to seeing her a bit more covered up in future issues.

In the next issue blurb: “You’ve been here at the beginning of The Strangers and the secrets of the Ultraverse! Strangers # 2 keeps it rolling next month in: HEY, HUGH, GET OFF’A MY CLOUD!” As we’ll see at the start of the next issue, that title is actually not quite correct… leading to one of the more groan-inducing moments in the series.

Can’t wait, can you? We’ll be back soon with a look at issue two.

Don’t Talk To Strangers

That’s what my mom used to say but she didn’t know that Steve Englehart was going to bless us with the heroes known as The Strangers, did she? Those guys are more than okay to talk to — in fact, they might save your life!

In the weeks to come, we’re going to be taking a long look at these heroes and discussing what made them the Ultraverse’s # 1 superhero team (well, there was Ultraforce but they didn’t feature Electrocute so they can’t possibly be as awesome, right?).

For now, let’s enjoy this image showing the founding members of the team by Adam Hughes from Ultraverse Origins #1!

Strangers by Adam Hughes from Ultraverse Origins #1