Monday, June 26, 2006

ULTRAFORCE #1 Malibu Comics, 1994



Ahh, Ultraforce.

I’m not sure if it would be accurate to call Ultraforce the flagship title of the late Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse superhero line. Ultraforce followed the Justice League and Avengers model, chronicling the adventures of a team consisting of heroes who all had their own solo books and a few lame filler heroes that rounded out the roster. The difference between Ultraforce and its more pedigreed antecedents was, while readers might be interested in reading about a team with Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America on it, they wouldn’t be as stoked to read about characters about whom they knew relatively little, like Prime or Hardcase.

Some background on Malibu Comics and their Ultraverse may be in order. Back in the go-go early Nineties, the comic book market was exploding. People were buying fifteen copies of every issue, special variant holographic chrome rainbow happy happy covers were commonplace, and comic book publishers sprung up seemingly overnight. Malibu was one of those ascendant upstart companies, and they attempted to do something that nobody has ever done successfully: create an entire superhero universe from the ground up.

They hit the ground running, publishing titles like Prime, Sludge, Mantra, Hardcase, and Ultraforce. After some initial success, Malibu sales started slipping and they began canceling books. Marvel Comics bought Malibu – some say to acquire Malibu’s computer-coloring department – and the company’s slow decline turned into a white-knuckle free-fall into suckiness. For a while, Malibu had top-tier talent working on their books, but after Marvel bought them, most of the experienced hands were shown the door and MC Hack and the Hackmasters took over many of the books. Some of the Malibu books were so awful that it makes you wonder if they weren’t deliberately run into the ground out of spite or contempt. Anybody who has read the final issues of Mantra will back me up on this.

For a while though, things looked good for Malibu. Case in point: Ultraforce #1, which was written by Gerard Jones, one of the more ubiquitous writers of the Nineties, with art by comics legend George Perez, who can draw rock very well.

Here’s my main gripe: The problem with making a complete superhero universe out of whole cloth is that you come up with all this backstory and create a complex, cohesive universe – and then you populate them with characters that nobody gives two shits about. The Marvel and DC comic book worlds have evolved into their present state over the course of decades, through trial and error. These fictional universes are staffed with characters who have risen to the top and stood the test of time. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman weren’t created in one long joint-smoking weekend, they have become icons over the course of years. Lesser heroes have fallen by the proverbial wayside, victim of the Darwinist ethic of pulp publishing. If it doesn’t sell, it goes.

I would argue that a book like Ultraforce should only be published after you’ve got some miles under your tires, when you know for sure that, OK, kids really like Prime but aren’t so crazy about Prototype. The problem with the just-add water approach to the Ultraverse and Ultraforce is that there wasn’t a huge fan base for certain characters and readers weren’t absolutely dying to see Prime and Prototype team up. The publisher doesn’t determine what characters are popular, the reading public does. Ultraforce felt premature to me.

I’m sure a Malibu creator would argue the point, but I would counter that any sales success that Ultraforce experienced had more to do with George Pereze and less to do with Hardcase & Co. Am I wrong? Opinions, please.

Wow, this is turning into a longer post than I had planned. I planned on taking a few cheap shots at Ultraforce and getting out, not writing a thesis on Malibu Comics.

The first Ultraforce storyline covered the formation of Ultraforce from a bunch of bickering, bitching heroes into a well-oiled machine full of bickering, bitching heroes. When they’re not fighting with each other, Ultraforce battles a powerful group of subterranean humanoids who have jacked a bunch of nuclear missiles for their own nefarious purposes. The bad guy is basically a lethal, butched-up version of The Mole Man or The Underminer.

The production values and art on this book are top-notch, but the story leaves me a little cold. It’s written in Jones’ characteristic wry style and it’s pretty to look at, but the characters are unlikable and shrill and all the yelling and arguing gets old really fast.

That’s Hardcase above. He needs to practice yoga or take some anger-management classes, because the dude is wound tight. In every other panel he’s hollering at somebody and smashing shit. Settle down, man. You’re going to bust an O-ring carrying on like that.
Aside from the previously mentioned Hardcase, Prime (a Captain Marvel analog) and Prototype (an Iron Man riff), Ultraforce is also staffed by Contrary (a proto-Emma Frost), Pixx (a girl with absolutely hideous hair), Ghoul (smelly dead guy with no useful combat powers whatsoever), and Topaz (a man-hating Amazon).

Topaz hails from Planet Lesbo, and finds herself accidentally teleported into our world – right in the middle of a football game. It’s kind of a cute scene – Topaz lands amidst the players and thinks she’s under attack, so she starts kicking ass on two football teams at the same time, and their damn ball, too. She takes a moment to berate the cheerleaders on the sideline:

The team forms after the heroes Prime and Prototype, who are both really kids, decide to take the fight directly to the Mole Men, or whatever they’re called. They’re outmatched: the head CHUD has wicked gravity powers that he uses to kick the shit out of the two half-cocked heroes. Prime, who is basically a super-being made of green proto-matter, gets his head blown off.

Hardcase rescues the two fallen heroes from a subterranean death trap, but he’s none too happy about it. Here he is yelling at Yahweh or Gerard Jones while he carries them up to the surface. Check out Prime’s squashed green head! Grody!

Clearly these subterraneans are too tough for one or two superheroes (called “Ultras”), so Hardcase decides to put on a show to raise money for the orphanage! No, wait – wrong story. Hardcase decides to assemble this rag tag bunch into, yes, Ultraforce!

Myself, I would elect somebody more even-keel than Hardcase, who undoubtedly reminded more than a few young readers of their abusive stepfathers. His reaction to everything is violence. Here he is upon learning that his Veronica Mars DVD is on backorder from Amazon:

I think “Heartattack” or “Hardened Artery” would be a better name for Hardcase. You need to deal with that anger, my man, before it kills you.

I have the remaining issues in the storyline, which I will quickly recap: Ultraforce wins. If memory serves, this story made it on to the short-lived Ultraforce cartoon, which was produced by the animation company DiC. I loved DiC cartoons because after the credits they had a little tag that identified their company – it showed the DiC logo and had a kid’s voice say: “Dick!”

What can I say, it doesn’t take a lot to make me laugh.

In closing, I say long-live Ultraforce and the Ultraverse, a comic book experiment that didn’t quite make it. You can’t fault them for trying.

49 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is... Is she really from Planet Lesbo...?

David Campbell said...

OK, she's from a mystical land called Gwendolyn or something. It doesn't, um, roll off the tongue like Lesbo does.

PalinDrome said...

I loved DiC cartoons because after the credits they had a little tag that identified their company – it showed the DiC logo and had a kid’s voice say: “Dick!”

- To this day I still say Dick! in time with the kid's voice...

Good Times.

Kevin Church said...

There is no need for this sort of disrespect towards the universe that gave you a comic drawn by Norm Breyfogle.

Anonymous said...

I think I need her to be from Planet Lesbo, so just lie to me for a moment, please.

Anonymous said...

"Sludge"?

Maybe a lot of the problems with creating superhero universes from scratch comes from the fact that DC and Marvel used up all the really good names.

Steven said...

Prime was fun. As Kevin points out, it's Breyfogle, you couldn't really go wrong.

And one neat trick Malibu could pull with their "artificial" universe (as opposed to the "organic" universes of DC and Marvel) was Exiles, where the entire team was completely wiped out in their fourth issue! They fake solicited a fifth issue they had no plans to produce. It was a neat way of saying, YES, Mantra COULD die in this issue, and we won't tell you before hand that the series is over!

Again, however, you had to actually care about the characters, and well, I didn't.

Anonymous said...

I went on a mission recently to track down and read the entire Ultraverse universe...Part 3 of my Dead Universes Quest (Impact and Milestone down...Defiant in the batter's box) and let me tell you there were a HELL of a lot more Ultraverse books than I remember there being at the time. The amount of ideas coming out of there were insane. Some real good ones, too, like the Flip books.

What was not fun, however, was watching the video zero issue of Firearm. MAN.

Anonymous said...

Prime's looking like a sterioded up Kevin Nash there. What happened to his more Captain Marvely look?

Steven said...

That would be Rogue Prime: Prime, grim and gritty for the nineties. (or, at least, a 12 year olds understanding of what grim and gritty is).

Matt Chaput said...

"[T]hey attempted to do something that nobody has ever done successfully: create an entire superhero universe from the ground up."

Why does Astro City not count?

I guess it's just a city, not a universe. But didn't the Milestone "universe" take place in the same city?

Anonymous said...

strangely, i din't find the ultra verse 'tll dane and sersi jumped over to it after their story in 'vengers..

i thought it was intreting.. and dissapointing it didnt stick around

Anonymous said...

I loved the Ultraverse... Steve Englehart's "The Strangers" was a better team book from Malibu than Ultraforce ever was.

Also, Malibu had Barry Windsor-Smith drawing "Rune". The comic never made any darn sense to read, but it was occasionally interesting to look at.

"Night Man" was a pretty decent solo hero in the Moon Knight/Batman mold, and managed to keep you reading.

And their books were all set on the West Coast, and if nothing else, certainly did a better with the setting that Marvel (West Coast Avengers) or DC (Titans West) ever have.

Anonymous said...

I loved the Ultraverse... Steve Englehart's "The Strangers" was a better team book from Malibu than Ultraforce ever was.

Also, Malibu had Barry Windsor-Smith drawing "Rune". The comic never made any darn sense to read, but it was occasionally interesting to look at.

"Night Man" was a pretty decent solo hero in the Moon Knight/Batman mold, and managed to keep you reading.

And their books were all set on the West Coast, and if nothing else, certainly did a better with the setting that Marvel (West Coast Avengers) or DC (Titans West) ever have.

Anonymous said...

One problem I had with the 90s "instant universe -- just add water" approach to comics universe creation is that most of them had characters that seemed more appropriate for use in a superhero role-playing game than in an actual superhero comic book. Topaz? Prototype? Hardcase? These are the type of knock-off JLA or Avengers characters that my geeky gaming group might have knocked out for a game of Champions. The fact that any of these books were any good at all was a credit to the writers and artists working on them (and I recall Ultraforce being a fun book -- even when Warren Ellis took over after the Marvel buyout).

I always had a soft spot for Prime, though - that was a fun book. Even the "grim and gritty" Prime was hysterical.

Anonymous said...

Christ, I'm sure glad I wasted the early-to-mid 90's studying instead of buying comic books.

S Bates said...

Hey, thanks for the memories! Malibu were fantastic at the time. Better than Marvel and DC with great art and stories. A pity they imploded really.

I also liked The Strangers as well as Nightman and Prime. Solitaire, Mantra and Sludge weren't bad either. I also quite liked their non-Ultraverse stuff as well - Protectors, Ferret, Gravestone and the Bravura stuff (it's a pity Strikeback never finished).

And remember - Men In Black was by Malibu. Did better as a film than it ever did as a comic.

Unknown said...

I believe I must have some sort of strange aural condition where my brain processes spoken english so that I haer it pronounced in an over-the-top fake French accent, because I distinctly remember the little boy always saying "Deek."

Am I misremembering this? Please say I'm not, because my precious, precious childhood memories of such fine works of art as C.O.P.S. and M.A.S.K., are at stake.

Anonymous said...

(it's a pity Strikeback never finished)

If I recall correctly, Strikeback did wrap up after a fashion over at Image.

Anonymous said...

Little known factoid...
MALIBU wasn't really all that big to start off with.

The "universe out of whole cloth" thing took a little while to get to.

Originally they were a small company cranking out a few titles.

But it wasn't until they "took over" AIRCEL comics (one of my FAVORITE companies in the mid to late 80's - so much so that I wanted to work for THEM and NOT Marvel) that they really exploded.

Aircel was a Canadian company putting out mostly D&D type stuff like DRAGON RING (later DRAGONFORCE) which is where DALE KEOWN started, and some other horror/fairy type books like WARLOCK 5 (GREAT freakin book -in it's 1st series. Crap in it's 2nd when it became WARLOCKS), ELFLORD, DARKEWOOD and SAMURAI.

Oh..and MEN IN BLACK!
Men in Black was an AIRCEL comic (with the Aircel logo).
But it was published with Malibu.

Y'see...Aircel were in need of some capital (the canadian gov't pulled some funding from them) and they "loaned themselves out" to MALIBU.

It was then that Malibu started to really pick up steam.

Their publishing exploded due to the fact that they had 2 companies working for them to put out titles.

Eventually, the owners of AIRCEL got tired (perhaps because most of the AIRCEL titles were being turned to crap and softcore porn - no, really. ELFLORD and anything else being done by Barry Blair was just elves with hard-ons teasing each other while being tied up) and handed AIRCEL over to MALIBU.

All the AIRCEL titles were chopped, a more streamlined "universe" started taking shape, other disgruntled creators hopped over from the big 2...and that was roughly when MARVEL took a huge interest.

And we all know what Marvel does to things they buy out (Heroes World, anyone?)...

OH well...the mid 80's were good for comics.

90's...not so much so.

~P~
P-TOR

Phil Looney said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one to giggle at the en dof a DiC cartoon...

Anonymous said...

"I believe I must have some sort of strange aural condition where my brain processes spoken english so that I haer it pronounced in an over-the-top fake French accent, because I distinctly remember the little boy always saying "Deek."

Am I misremembering this? Please say I'm not, because my precious, precious childhood memories of such fine works of art as C.O.P.S. and M.A.S.K., are at stake."

Hmm, that's how I remember it as well. "Deek".

Anonymous said...

I side with rosenpoint. I always heard the small child saying "deek", not "dick".

Ken said...

What with the bickering and all, it reminds me a little of Justice Machine.

Anonymous said...

* I'm in the "Deek" camp, as well, actually.

* Lettering from John Workman.

* Malibu had a fan advisory board of fans they'd mail previews out to and ask for comments. I got a hologram cover of HARDCASE #1 off the deal. At the time, it had to be worth about $100. Today? That and $2 will get you half a cup of Starbucks coffee.

* Norm Breyfogle did a great job on PRIME, but it was still no BATMAN, the book he was born to draw. =(

* James Robinson's FIREARM was actually a really good comic. Cully Hamner did a lot of the art there.

* But my favorite comic title of that era is still from Dark Horse's attempt at a superhero universe. It was titled CATALYST: AGENTS OF CHANGE. I think George Perez might have drawn the cover on it.

Anonymous said...

If Marvel still owns these characters, they should really bring back Prime and reboot him in the 616 Universe.

It was a fantastic, modern interpretation of the Captain Marvel concept. Although turning into a superhero by being encased in hundreds of gallons of green goo is not as cool as transforming in a flash of lightning with the utterance of one magic word, I liked how the child-like perceptions of Prime's alter ego effected how Prime looked. I didn't care for Grim-n'-Gritty Prime as much as Capes-n'-Tights Prime, but it was clever meta-commentary by Malibu.

As much as Quesada likes to spar with DC, a new Prime comic series would be a great way to counter Winick's new "Trials of Shazam!" series. In a perfect world, Robert Kirkman would write it, and stick it to DiDio & Co. by keeping the series fairly whimsical and introducing a talking lion pal for Prime.

Anonymous said...

Sanctum...I'm gonna have to disagree with you a tad here. It wasn't Aircel that launched Malibu into the stratosphere, it was being the publisher of Image that did. Remember, Image went through Malibu when they first started out, and it was that HUGE influx of cash that put them in the A-list of publishers...well, B-list, with Valiant and Dark Horse.

Matthew E said...

From jer's comment above:

One problem I had with the 90s "instant universe -- just add water" approach to comics universe creation is that most of them had characters that seemed more appropriate for use in a superhero role-playing game than in an actual superhero comic book. Topaz? Prototype? Hardcase? These are the type of knock-off JLA or Avengers characters that my geeky gaming group might have knocked out for a game of Champions.

I have actually created characters named Hardcase and Topaz for use in Champions. As far as I knew at the time, they were original.

Ray said...

A few bits:

Aircel and Malibu and a few other companies were all part of a shell-game-like scheme involving a distributor that Rosenberg owned. It all ended badly, except for Malibu. A lot of small publishers were hurt when Rosenberg's distribution company folded, partly because he had been funding five publishing companies. Yech!

Warren Ellis ended up writing Ultraforce after Marvel bought it. Fun times.

The out-and-out best Malibu book was the Firearm series from James Robinson. Cruddy art, but fantastic writing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ultraforce and the Ultraverse. Talk about a trip down memory lane...

Unfortunately, the crazy boom of the '90s was a good and bad thing as it gave us some better looking books but it created today's "Hot Writer and\or Artist" syndrome, where the big two aren't willing to give anyone not from Hollywood or already proven a shot at writing a halfway decent character. At least IMHO.

Anonymous said...

To arizonateach,

YES!

How on EARTH could I have forgotten THAT!

I KNEW there was a missing link there in my timeline.

I just couldn't remember it.

ThanX!
My brain might have imploded from trying to figure it out.

OH!
And yes..."Deek", but I ALWAYS said "DICK" along with the kid (with a chuckle).

Kevin Church said...

Nobody appreciates my sarcasm in regards to Breyfogle.

Well, Campbell does...and that's what's important.

Anonymous said...

The Ultraverse had a lot of good ideas and some pretty good titles, but I have the impression they had bad editorial management.

For one instance, on *Mantra*, Mike Barr apparently was directed to really downplay the sex change aspects of the title... which, really, was pretty much the only inherently interesting thing about it!

Then eventually they got rid of the original Mantra altogether for a teen-girl cheesecake fest.

Rob Schamberger said...

"Please, child. Please. Say 'Deek'. Yes. Yeeessss."

Joe said...

The first five issues of Firearm were great. The first arc had swell art by Cully Hamner, and the fifth remains one of my favorite standalone stories ever.

Night Man was OK (anyone remember the TV show?).

I remember Solitaire, the purple and blue clad vigilante.

Plus there was Break-Thru, the big company crossover, which had something to do with everyone going to the moon.

Anonymous said...

Wow Dave. A semi-serious treatise on comic history that launched a semi-serious discussion (minus the recuring "dick" comments) in the comments section.

Knock it the hell off.

Anonymous said...

"For one instance, on *Mantra*, Mike Barr apparently was directed to really downplay the sex change aspects of the title... which, really, was pretty much the only inherently interesting thing about it!

Then eventually they got rid of the original Mantra altogether for a teen-girl cheesecake fest. "

Ummm, I would have put some cash down for the 'teen-girl cheesecake fest' but I quit buying about three issues too early.

Anonymous said...

I remember the ends of those old cartoons well. In particular, I remember Inspector Gadget rolling by the "dic" on his Gadget Roller Skates, losing his balance and flailing about as the Gadget Hand-Holding-Mallet popped out of his hat and dotted the I.

After that, the quasi-creepy child's voice said "deek."

Sadly, I missed out on the Ultraverse. I still have a crapload of old Valiant books, though. Nothing said quality back in the day like a foil-plated chromium cover that glowed in the dark and sang you sweet lullabies.

Anonymous said...

It seems like in 1993 you coudn't walk around without tripping over a new comic universe. Ultraverse! Defiant! Legacy! Comics' Greatest World! Axis Comics! Usually with a bunch of trading card tie-ins!

And by the end of 1994... they were all gone.

Anonymous said...

Aircel and Malibu and a few other companies were all part of a shell-game-like scheme involving a distributor that Rosenberg owned.

I believe it was called American Comics, or something like that. Oh, how I hated Malibu for "taking over" some of my favorite late-80s black & white publishers, Aircel and Adventure Publications. Between the crap books they foisted on fans through those companies, as well as their earlier glut of black and white "indy" books from their Eternity Comics imprint, they really did a lot to ruin the market.

I could never bring myself to read a single Malibu title, and didn't shed a single tear when Marvel acquired them and did to them what they had done to so many other publishers. Poetic justice, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

"Oh, how I hated Malibu for "taking over" some of my favorite late-80s black & white publishers, Aircel and Adventure Publications."

Wow, I remember Adventure (unless, of course, I'm remembering something else). I remember being sick and my dad bringing me home a stack of Adventurers, Elf Warrior, and, uh, some sci-fi thing, and a few others. I don't remember how good they were but I did have a good time reading that stuff.

Martin Wisse said...

"It's a pity Strikeback never finished)"

Relaunched and finished as an Image series. Fun, but not as good as the first two issues promised.

Malibu actually did two separate superhero universes: Ultraverse and the Protectors, a bunch of nohoper Golden Age superheroes brought back as sortof more accessible counterpart to the Ultraverse line.

Mostly remembered for the gimmick cover, which had a "laser shot" hole throughout one issue: literally a hole punched through the comic. Which was a gimmick actually stolen from someone else, who had done that stunt as a parody of all the gimmick covers at the time, only to have Malibu do it for real...

Now, if you want to get the good Ultraverse stuff get the following:

Solitaire: 12 issues, written by Gerard Jones, a nanotech vigilante taking revenge against his crimeboss father

Strangers: By Steve Englehart: a 'Frisco tram was hit by some sort of event and 59 strangers got superpowers, with several becoming superheroes and friends. Got points for introducing a gay character who was not a flaming stereotype, nor the one you expected it from

Firearm: James Robinson's breakthrough series, an English superspy turned detective

Rune: Barry Windsor Smith. 'nuff said.

Chris Arndt said...

You are only half-right about Ultraverse, Dave. That's cool.

The Ultraverse started out small with a few titles and slowly got bigger. The universe aspect was just a marketing ploy so the more popular characters can sell the less popular characters.

The most important thing to remember is that twain. Ultraverse was just another imprint to Malibu Comics at the start.

The other thing was that Ultraverse was inspired by Image.

Where Image Comics was a comic book character franchise and universe started by artists, Image Comics was created around artists, Malibu Comics Utraverse revolved and evolved around its writers.

Ghoul was the last remnant of the original Exiles team.

Prototype was Iron Man/X-O Manowar and was cool.

Hardcase was Superman/Captain America/John Wayne and carried the heavy load on his back... his previous team (which included his love interest), the Squad, mostly died in their last action. His girl ended up in a coma.

Marvel used Malibu's coloring services and technology. Then it was decided that it is cheaper to buy it outright then suckle at Malibu's tech teet. It's like Disney buying Pixar.

Marvel Comics originally went non-interference on Malibu Comics. Then they had Thor in the Godwheel crossover. Then they had some Rune Infinity Gems thing.

Then they mad Marvel Comics guys doing Malibu stuff. Then they cancelled all the Malibu stuff except Prime and Ultraforce.

Then they cancelled the Ultraverse because it would be cheaper to put out Marvel Comic books rather than both lines... especially since with Marvel Comics THE WRITERS DON'T HAVE PROFIT SHARES FROM THE COMICS. Prime comics got the Prime creator extra dough. Rather than have profits decreased Marvel cancelled the whole deal across the board.

Greedy bastards.

Ultraverse might not have failed as an experiment if the rules of the game had not changed for the entire company.

K.Fox, Jr. said...

You may very well be one of the funniest men alive. Rock on, my man.

Anonymous said...

LOL

Anonymous said...

I too have read all of the Ultraverse books (well ok, almost, I just need Prime 1/2 and some of those Ultra Monthly 50 cent news mags) and I miss it. So many characters with so much potential who Marvel's EIC (Evil InCarnate) Quesada said we'll never see again.

Anonymous said...

If there is anyone who is interested in the Ultraverse, or is an Ultraverse collector, please contact me by e-mail at Michael@ArrowpointRealty.com

Your address will be shared with other people who are on the Ultraverse e-mail distribution list.

If you come across another person interested in the Ultraverse or an Ultraverse collector, have him or her send me an e-mail to be added to the distribution list.

I have been researching for months and have created a list of issues and variant covers which should be close to complete. If you would like pdf copy e-mailed to you, let me know -- even if you do not want to be on the distribution list.

Once you get the pdf list, if you have, or know for sure of a cover or issue not on this list, please let me or the group know.

Any future e-mails are intended to be very infrequent, primarily to distribute collector updates.

Next year marks the 15th anniversary of the Ultraverse (1993 -2008) and I have been on several websites asking people to write to Marvel managing editor Joe Quesada to do something to mark that anniversary, such as a trade paperback of all the first issues, or a "Best of the Ultraverse.' I have even added Joe to our mailing list -- hope he doesn't mind.

You can join in encouraging Joe to consider this by e-mailing him at joe@joequesada.com

Btw, I was at San Diego Comicon this year and thought that next year might also be a great occasion to present a look back at the very interesting story of little upstart Malibu comics and the origins of The Ultraverse.

Best wishes,

Michael

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