In 1993 DC Comics released a series of inter-related annuals called “Bloodlines” that followed a time-honored tradition in the television world: the spin-off. While most TV spin-off shows feature cast members from the original series (think Frasier or Angel or, if you must, Joanie Loves Chachi), some spin-offs come from stealth pilots.
What’s a stealth pilot, you ask? A guy that flies an F-117? Yes, but in this case I’m referring to the sneaky practice of incorporating a guest character into a regular series with the sole purpose of spinning them off into a new series of their own. The new series is only tangentially related to it’s progenitor. Stealth pilots are a sneaky way of testing the water and trying out new characters/concepts on a target audience before committing to a whole new series. In effect you’ve broadcast the pilot of your new series on an unsuspecting audience. Hence the term “stealth pilot.”
Lots of TV shows do this. Walker, Texas Ranger begat Sons of The Dragon and (I think) Martial Law. The Practice begat Boston Legal. The Golden Girls begat Empty Nest. And, of course, comic books do it, too.
Ever read Uncanny X-Men #261, featuring Hardcase and The Harriers, a group of tough, forgettable mercenaries? What about the Cyberforce and WildC.A.T.S. issues that Chris Claremont wrote featuring The Huntsman? Those are stealth pilots.
The most blatant example of the stealth pilot are the Bloodlines annuals. They should have just called them: “Do you like this character?”
In the Bloodlines books, a group of evil shapeshifting aliens who look like a cross between H.R. Giger paintings and cow skulls come to earth to suck the lifeforce out of the back of their victims’ necks. Some of their prey, however, are mutated into superhumans instead of dying. It’s a lame “just add water” approach to a superhero origin that is as lazy as it is unimaginative. Each of these suck-ass new superheroes debuts in one of the Bloodlines annuals and gets exposed to readers who might not otherwise take a chance on a whole new series.
In Green Lantern Annual #4, we’re introduced to Nightblade, a young man who loses his legs in an accident but develops incredible regenerative powers when one of the cow skull aliens tries to swallow his soul. His legs grow back, and he decides to fight crime or something. Through trial and error he discovers his regenerative powers, meaning some alien-possessed goons chop off his arm:
As somebody that can regenerate, he takes the obvious superhero name: Nightblade! I guess he can, um, throw steak knives, too. I’m to assume that if Nightblade had ever caught on and starred in his own series, he would lose a limb in damn near every issue so the reader can see how his power works. “Hey, Nightblade! Will you get this fork out of my garbage disposal for me?”
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Nightblade. Nobody has. If you look up Green Lantern Annual #4 in the Overstreet Guide, it will read: “1st appearance of what’s-his-face.” The beauty of stealth pilots like the Bloodlines annuals is that if the characters don’t catch on, no harm done. Nobody will remember the other Bloodlines characters like Layla or Argus or Ballistic. DC published a few mini-series featuring “Bloodpack” characters, but unless I’m mistaken, and I often am, the only character from this series to actually catch on and get a regular series was Hitman.
Green Lantern is in this comic, too. I almost forgot.
In Coast City, Hal Jordan’s former girlfriend Carol Ferris is being stalked by one of the shapeshifting cow skull aliens. This one can turn itself into a hypnotic tramp in order to seduce people before sucking out their spinal fluid. Hal crosses paths with Nightblade and the two team up to stop the cow skull alien and her horde of demonic pawns. Wackiness ensues.
This issue was written by Gerard Jones, who was everywhere in the nineties, with art by Mitch Byrd and inker Dan Davis. Jones is a competent writer and I’ve always kind of liked Byrd’s work, so their work raises this annual above the other Bloodlines annuals, which mostly sucked ass. There’s a surprising amount of gore in the book, which has some strange sex/violence subtext going on. It’s all Comic Code approved, so enjoy kids!
Yikes. Somebody's seven-year old son got this back in the nineties and now they're a serial killer - all because of this book!
The cover is awful, but Mitch Byrd’s interior art is pretty solid. Byrd draws dynamic action scenes, the “camera” is always well-placed, and his figures look three-dimensional and real. His art has a distinctive look; all his characters have button-noses and seem a little over-rendered. Plus, he draws every woman with thick legs and plump butts. Mitch Byrd is the Ass-Man of comics, the counterpoint to Jim Balent’s breast fetish art. Seriously, the man is like Sir Mix-a-Lot with a pencil – he likes the flank steak.
Mitch Byrd’s not the only one who likes rump – check out Hal:
It’s his duty to please that booty! Watch out, Hal, she only wants you for your spinal fluid.
Big butts aside, the other noteworthy thing in Green Lantern Annual #4 is how many times Hal Jordan gets smacked in the head. I’m going to have to scan some panels and send them to Scipio over at The Absorbascon, who collects images of Hal getting brained. It’s actually kind of funny how many times he gets clocked in the noggin.
How embarrassing. What, he can’t set his ring to warn him about sucker shots? Ultimate weapon of the universe my ass!
Green Lantern Annual #4: the best of the Bloodlines annuals. That’s damning with faint praise, but it’s true. If only Nightblade had caught on… Sigh.