Madness as Futility: Ghost Rider #33

Hello, Legions of the Unspoken!  I hope the month of March is treating you very well!  March is a favorite month of mine!  Spring Training is in full gear, and we get to see the Madness of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, both men and women’s!  There isn’t a time of year like it for me, and while I am sure that all reading this agree with me that they hope the Kansas Jayhawks win it all (ROCK CHALK…for real, post who you’re pulling for in the comments!), we decided to delve into Madness of the 90’s comic book variety here at The Unspoken Decade!

I think it is illegal for us to call it “March M*****s”, due to NCAA trademarks, and if you think those cats don’t care about the best 90’s Comics Book website on the planet due to its relative small amount of influence in comparison to the monolith that they are, well these are the folks that suspended a player for NOT BEING HOMELESS, so I would not put anything past them.  They make the Age of Apocalypse look like McDonaldland.

mcdonaldland
The only tyrant that could ever truly strike fear into Apocalypse’s heart is Mayor McCheese.

The NCAA would intimidate even Dr. Doom, Juggernaut, or Magneto, but the villain of Ghost Rider #33 would not care one whit about their infinite wave of minutiae in regards to rules and regulations.  Madcap is mad, you see, and so he would appreciate our “Madness Month,” although I am not sure what he would think of being featured in it!  He would certainly appreciate the McDonaldland reference, however, as no matter how mad, depraved, or evil one may be, the idea that a mayor with a cheeseburger for a head will always bring a smile to anyone’s face, even if your face looks like this:

For not having many features, that face sure is frightening.

On the surface, the pairing of Madcap and Ghost Rider seems odd.  Ghost Rider is firmly entrenched in the occult corner of the Marvel Universe, cavorting about with heroes like Dr. Strange, Morbius, Blade, Werewolf by Night, and others.  I always wondered why they did not marry this world more strongly with the darker street level titles like Daredevil and Punisher.  They tried with the “Marvelution” when they made the Edge imprint (which I plan to take a look at in depth in the future!), but the big 90’d boom had less breath than a lungless walrus by that time.  Too little, too late, and it isn’t like we never got to see Punisher and Ghost Rider or Daredevil and Dr. Strange team up in the 90’s, but I feel like characters with multiple titles in the 90’s could have benefited by having a brand that meshed with a brand for which the character was not known.  How awesome would a Punisher Midnight Sons title or a Spider-Man title set in the cosmic corners of the Marvel Universe be?  The answer is so awesome that if I don’t stop talking about it right now then I will NEVER cease talking about it.

As I started talking about before in the prior paragraph meandered more than the Mississippi herself, on the surface, Ghost Rider and Madcap are an odd pairing.  Madcap is highly frivolous to the point of being a walking work of Dada, while Ghost Rider is the SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE and is quite grim, which I do not mean in the pejorative sense that many would use that word in, but I mean that Ghost Rider does not make a ton of jokes and is generally almost as personable as a walking stick.

What it lacks in personality, it makes up for by creeping the hell out of you.
What it lacks in personality, it makes up for by creeping the hell out of you.

Then all of a sudden, two things are obvious, the first of which is that these two characters aren’t too different once one takes a gander past the surface.  Both are nearly indestructible, both have trouble feeling, and both are engaged in a mission with a singular focus usually only seen in things that cannot think, like thunderclouds.  Madcap spreads madness, and this version of  Ghost Rider avenges the spilling of innocent blood.  There’s not a lot of subtlety to either guy, and it really works for both of them.  The other thing is how awesome the clash over their differences shall be.  Madcap believes in the idea that everything is meaningless, while GR believes that humanity must be worth something, lest he would cease avenging the innocent and start using his powers to run a furnace or something.

I am glad he didn’t go into furnacing because this is a fantastic issue, and Ghost Rider overall was a splendid title!  Ghost Rider #33 is one of the first issues of GR after the conclusion of the “Rise of the Midnight Sons” saga.  After several months of intertwined stories with the other Midnight Sons titles as well as guest stars in his own title (such as Dr. Strange saving Dan Ketch’s life in the very issue prior to this one!), this issue stands alone, and it also sets up some major changes in Danny Ketch (Ghost Rider)’s life!  This issue can also be read alone without reading prior GR issues; there’s a subplot involving ladies from H.E.A.R.T. getting attacked that would make a lot more sense had one read a few more issues, but it isn’t so opaque as to ruin the comic.

I miss the 90’s because they may have been the last era when we would get this sort of comic book, where a superhero story from the Big 2 would begin and end in the same issue.  There were still fill-ins here and yon, and these type of issues were a great gateway for someone who did not follow a title to get into a book.  For instance, I was familiar with Ghost Rider before this issue, but I didn’t follow it closely. I saw this on the rack at Kroger when I was in 7th grade, and I sat down and read it. Sitting and reading a comic book was preferable to walking behind Mom and somehow always being in the way in the flour aisle, and this cover drew me in.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 1
Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that they both have stares that cause mental illness.  My bad.

I wound up following Ghost Rider for about a year after this issue, which I do not think I would have had this comic contained some convoluted story that continued subplot after subplot that I could not catch up with while being a part of 74092980234 different stories as well.  Conversely, though, I would not have given this much of a look had I not been hooked in by the “Rise of the Midnight Sons,” so I guess it works both ways.  Normally, I hate it when things have it both ways, but this is delightful.

Speaking of delightful, how about the inside cover of this bad boy featuring an ad for everyone’s favorite animated band of mutants, the Uncanny X-Men?

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 2
Jesus, 12.95 for two episodes on VHS? Before torrents, they made out like kings. Now they only make out like bandits.

I also have to wonder about the upper-left-hand corner of this ad, where they let us know that this is an “advertisement,” as though people either thought there was a magic comic book that would open up from the INSIDE COVER of another comic book, or that this comic book page was a VHS tape, and that they had somehow lucked out and did not have to pay 12.95 for two measly X-Men episodes.

To be fair though, I would have paid.  X-Men was such a huge part of my life in 7th grade.  Everyone watched it, and by everyone, I mean all the people at the losers’ lunch table with me watched it and discussed it.  LOUDLY.  Actually, as I have gotten older, I have found out that even the kids at the cool table were watching, but I had no idea at the time.  If I had, I probably would have done much better with girls….no, no I wouldn’t have.

The issue starts off with a bang, as not only do we get GR shoving some mook through a window, but we also get existentialism from the get-go!

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 3
I feel like if we changed these two out for teenagers, and it was just a regular push instead of a choke slam through a window, this would be the start of an ABC Afterschool Special also entitled “What Does It Matter” as “WHY?” is bellowed.

Ghost Rider’s absence during the Rise of the Midnight Sons has led certain criminal elements to begin to retake their former territories.  They thought they were safe due to GR being gone, but now he’s back with a vengeance!  (Sorry, I had to!)  I do wonder how these guys dodged the attention of the other Marvel street-level folks at this time, such as Punisher or Moon Knight, whether GR was there or not, but I guess even the lowly street thugs of the Marvel Universe are more resourceful than the ones of our world.

One way or another though, they are no match for Ghost Rider, who dispatches them quite easily, and then uses his insanity-inducing gaze, the Penance Stare, to make these criminals feel the fear and pain of their victims.  That’s such a stellar idea.  The fact that you get the Penance Stare from a flaming skull face makes you feel even more sorry as well, and it gives the Penance Stare a visual that the reader not only will notice, but would FEEL.  Every time I saw GR do it, I resolved to be a better person.

However, that same visual that gives GR the edge in the form of inspiring bowel-emptying paralysis in street level criminals also makes it hard for him to assist the victims of the crimes, no matter how much he wants to.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 5
Even if the Penance Stare was nothing but shooting hellfire from GR’s eyes into someone else’s, it would still be awesome.

The beginning of the issue is very accurate; Ghost Rider and Dan Ketch are having an existential crisis.  Howard Mackie is really good on this title, and he scripts Dan Ketch very well.  Dan muses that, “There has to be more to our lives than waiting for the innocent to die.”  I never really thought about it, except possibly in the case of Spider-Man and The Last Avengers Story, about how much that must weigh on heroes.  There isn’t much for a hero to do but react, and if one is a hero, then the only reaction one would have would be to villainy.  Villainy in superhero comics involves massive property damage and massive attacks on civilians, which would result in massive casualties.  That’s got to weigh heavily on many heroes.  They are powerless to do much of anything but react, and by the time they do that, the damage is done.

Dan Ketch is also dealing with having died, so he has more on his mind than even the crisis mentioned above.  Between all that and a recent encounter with Nightmare, Dan is having issues sleeping, and I have to say that this is the best comic book page in history representing the feeling of not being able to sleep.  Bret Blevins, Al Williamson, and the colors of Gregory Wright really make me scared to lay down tonight, not due to anything monstrous in this horror/superhero mash-up, but rather because I will be haunted by floating digital numbers.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 8
The floating numbers also remind me of a 1980’s commercial, and I mean that in the best way.

Nothing is simultaneously as mocking and haunting as digital numbers when I can’t sleep, whether they be on an alarm clock from the 90’s or my smartphone today.  I want to point out that Gregory Wright got the color of the digital clock display perfect.  The numbers aren’t just red on those clocks; they’re INSANITY-INDUCING red, and Wright nails that color here, especially against the totally black background.

Seeing as how Ketch can’t sleep, he decides to do some physical training, which means hitting a bag again and again.  This is the middle of the night, and so his mom emerges to give him some life-changing news.  Before she can do that, though, Madcap becomes the envy of just about every body modification aficionado as he laments being misunderstood by the consumers of his art.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 12
This is what your parents were worried would happen when they taught you not to play with sharp items.

Madcap is definitely one of the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Players with that knife stuff.  I can’t help but feel bad for him, though, because I can feel, and apparently, he cannot.  That’s more than sad.  I’d rather be able to wrap myself in all the sad times I have had rather than be unable to feel anything, no matter what teenage me said as he listened to the same Nine Inch Nails songs over and over again.

There are situations, however, where anyone would prefer not to have feelings so that they could deal with heavy stuff better.  For instance, Madcap would not really understand the gravity of the situation that Dan Ketch faces with his mom’s big reveal.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 13
There was probably a better time to tell Dan Ketch this besides right after he just died.

Dan needs to go on a motorcycle ride to clear his head now, which in our world would work out perfectly.  In the Marvel Universe, though, it just leads to angst for our hero and a fight with a villain to boot.  No hero ever gets to just clear their head; they are required to run into trouble and then deal with it.  I am certain that is a physical law in superhero universes.

Trouble isn’t quite the word I would use for Madcap, who is certainly the epitome of madness.  Perhaps even more so than The Joker, though, not because Madcap is crazier, but because he is indestructible.  The Joker is mad, certainly.  No one would dare call that cat sane, unless he demanded you did or else. Even then, everyone reading this article knows that all calling The Joker sane (even at his request) will get you is the “or else” he is threatening, whether that is getting drowned by a clownfish or having to eat the world’s funniest poison.  At the end of the day, though, The Joker is still cognizant that he is alive and can be hurt or killed.  Madcap is alive, but he can’t be hurt or killed.  In fact, he can’t feel much of anything.  That’s the catalyst for his madness.  If you couldn’t even stub your toe and feel that awful pain, you’d go nuts, just like Madcap.

Madcap, though, is really interested in making other people nuts.  Especially folks in Grand Central Station at rush hour.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 18
Madcap says there’s no reason for anything, but obviously his calling in life was to come up with different spins on the word “cop.”

Madcap’s spree spills innocent blood, and that triggers Dan Ketch to become Ghost Rider. Of course, we have to listen to Madcap’s philosophy on life before he gets there, and I wonder how much of this is madness – I mean, other than him inducing the cop to shoot innocent people; that’s firmly in the “Madness” category.

His idea that everything is pointless, however, carries some weight with many people I know.  One can question what is meaning itself for a long time, and if one can’t answer, does that make things pointless?  The folks I know who adhere to this philosophy tend to not be mad (although they are fairly morose and forlorn: think Goth Talk from SNL), but they aren’t very cheery.  They just seem to think that there can be no lasting sort of legacy, and therefore, most everything is pointless.  Yes, I know some weird people; thankfully, I find enough purpose in bringing the Legions of the Unspoken all these fantastic comic books, so I am not like them!

Ghost Rider’s staunch belief in the sanctity of the innocent really flies in the face of Madcap’s philosophy, so they decide to settle it the best way possible; they trade philosophy while punching each other.  Also, Ghost Rider looks cool as hell on that motorcycle.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 20.5
Some of them will just find other ways to destroy themselves, Ghost Rider.

Madcap has the ability to not get hurt, but he isn’t really known for much else.  He doesn’t know, say, Madness Karate, so Ghost Rider and Madcap lock up, it doesn’t last long, and it is decidedly one-sided.  Madcap has no chance against the Spirit of Vengeance!

The highlight of the fight has to be when Ghost Rider and Madcap swap stares!  Madcap’s madness inducing gaze could possibly give him the edge in this battle.

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 26
Make you own “Hanging Around” joke here. Mine involves Counting Crows’s third album.

I really cannot describe what a huge deal it was to see Ghost Rider execute the Penance Stare in the 90’s.  I never, ever got tired of it, although I guess others did.  The idea of a FLAMING SKULL staring fire into someone’s eyes that makes said someone feel the pain of all the evil they have done fascinated me, and it continues to fascinate me to this very day.  The 90’s may have gotten some things wrong, but for a good 2-3 year period, they got Ghost Rider in a way that has never been equaled, before or since, and Howard Mackie’s writing has a lot to do with that, in addition to the great art by Mark Texeira and Javier Saltares on the book’s first few years as well.  Bret Blevins is terrific here; the art really gave GR that Horror Hero look you have to know they were going for.

But I got distracted, which is quite a rarity when super-powered beings are duking it out with madness inducing beams that they emit from their eyes!  As you can see above, Madcap’s beam has no effect on Ghost Rider at all, but the Penance Stare on the other hand…

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 27
They should start having motorcycle lasso competitions at rodeos.

Ghost Rider follows up his Montana impression by saving the baby while telling us that the baby’s life is full of meaning.

That's a pretty tall order, Ghost Rider.  Never let it be said that GR doesn't set the highest of goals.
No blood has been spilled? Didn’t the cop that Madcap turned insane shoot like six people?

I love tying Ghost Rider’s role as the Spirit of Vengeance to protection of the innocent, and I think that is what separated him from other vigilantes like Punisher.  I mean, sure, Frank Castle saves some innocent folks, but his mission isn’t tied to that role the way Mackie is presenting Ghost Rider’s as being.  Of course, his anathema towards killing also separated him, but I like my horror heroes with a smattering of hope.  I am not sure that horror of any kind, even the awesome amalgam of horror and superheroes, works without hope.

An unexpected side effect of Ghost Rider’s Penance Stare on Madcap is that it made him feel something.  Feeling anything to Madcap is better than feeling nothing, and therefore, getting that feeling is more important than anything else.  Madcap acts in the manner one would expect, as he wants more of it.  The idea that anyone would want more of the Penance Stare put Madcap in to an upper echelon of villainy in my eyes.  I could not imagine someone wanting to feel the pain of their actions over and over again, but I also cannot possibly imagine the insanity that goes along with being unable to feel.  I mean, the effects of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation as torture are well known.  Madcap has been under these conditions for years, and what’s even worse than the fact that he wants the Penance Stare again is the fact that he is willing to go to extreme lengths to get it…

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 31

I would call that creepy, but that would just not be a word with enough weight to describe how I feel about this image and about Madcap in general; truly very few characters personify madness the way Madcap does, and few stories would bring you the Madness you crave in the third month of the year (TAKE THAT, NCAA)!

Dan Ketch has different things on his mind, though, and on the last page of the book the genius in getting folks to pick up another comic book can be seen. The comic had a beginning, middle, and end all of its own, but it also dangled enough subplots to get you to buy that next issue.  That’s a lost art in today’s comics, where just about everything is written for the trade.  Mackie nailed it here, though:

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 32
That is the sort of next issue blurb that hooks me every time!

Before I finish this up, I also want to point out a really cool tidbit from the letters page.  This issue of Ghost Rider came out at about the time that Doomsday killed Superman, and there aren’t many that come more innocent than The Man of Tomorrow!  So, in the bottom right corner of the letters page, we get to see Ghost Rider’s thoughts on the situation!

Ghost Rider - Vengeance Unbound #33 - Page 33

We talked about how cool and brutal Doomsday was in a prior article here at The Unspoken Decade, and I think just about every superhero fan of the 1990’s would have loved to have seen Superman’s killer tangle with everyone’s favorite burning skull-faced hero?  That would have been beyond epic!  I wish that DC and Marvel had managed to do that when they were crossover happy in the 90’s!

I loved this panel; I think it is the equivalent of an Easter Egg on a DVD.  I did not have to work as hard to find it, but I also certainly was not expecting it.  Ghost Rider’s mourning of Superman also made the overall issue even more enjoyable, and I am too embarrassed to tell you of the crossovers this inspired that I played out in my action figures or in the backs of my notebooks at school when I should have been learning Algebra, which I made a “D” in that semester.  My mom was mad, but I managed to keep my comics!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the NCAA Tournament as much as I do!  I’m ready to enjoy some madness, some Cinderella teams (as long as they don’t beat Kansas!), and attempting to eat more snack food than is humanly possible as I hope for a deep run for my Jayhawks!  Stay tuned this week for Mr. Hero from Emily Scott, and Venom:  The Madness from Darry Weight!  Have a great big dance, everyone!

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One Hand, Two Heads, All Heart: Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man by Emily Scott

How best to judge an unfinished work? Is it fair to contemplate what might have been and fill in what you can imagine the artist would have done next, or is that too presumptuous? Is it better only to discuss the parts that actually have been finished, even to the ultimate detriment of that work?

These are the questions I wrestled with while planning out this article on Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man, and I never really came to a satisfying decision. Sure, I went on some mental tangents about how da Vinci maybe meant to paint some eyebrows on the Mona Lisa and never got around to it, but as far as figuring out the best way to analyze art that never got the chance to fulfill its potential, I was torn.

Mona Lisa
Clearly what da Vinci intended all along.

It can be tricky to apply the concept of completeness to a comic book, which, by its very nature is usually meant to be ongoing, but Mr. Hero, published in 1995 by the short-lived Tekno Comix, has to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had reading anything because of just how incomplete it is versus how much potential it had.  This book posed so many questions, set so many mysteries in motion, and it stopped having resolved exactly zero of them. Of course, reading it 20 years after it was first published and facing an ever dwindling number of issues, I knew it would end before I found out everything, but what made me want to punch a wall instead of just shake my fist, was how close to some of those answers it came.

Seriously, if the whole company hadn’t stopped putting out comics, I would be convinced Mr. Hero stopped when it did just to aggravate me as much as possible. Like me personally. That’s how it felt. The last issue even says The End, even though it ends in the most cliffhanger-y way possible.

What I saw.
What I saw.
What it felt like.
What it felt like.

Of course, the reason it bothers me so much that I’ll never find out what happens is that I was genuinely invested in the comic and intrigued by its premise and characters.  If it were terrible, I wouldn’t have spent several paragraphs ranting about how there isn’t more of it. In that light, I suppose I could tell you more about the things that actually happen in this comic rather than the things that never will. Let’s cleanse the palate with a page of a moustachioed robot beating people up and then dive right on in, shall we?

Hero 1Meet Mr. Hero, the robot best friend you and I and every other person in the world have always wanted. (If you say you’ve never wanted a robot best friend, you are either lying or a self-hating robot.) Mr. Hero was one of a line of comics conceptualized by some very big names in science fiction, including Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, and Leonard Nimoy, for Tekno Comix, which, this being a 90s comic website, I feel compelled to point out is the most 90s sounding name a company could possibly have.  Neil Gaiman created Mr. Hero,  and the book definitely has some Gaiman-y trappings to it, but it was Eisner Award winning writer James Vance who entertainingly brought the metal man to life and built something unique around him.

From the very first page, it’s obvious that Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man will defy easy categorization, as we are introduced to a hellscape called Kalighoul run by a giant evil lizard named the Teknophage, who seems to be building an army of Victorian-era robots powered by melted souls. Or something. The specifics on how the automatons are created are a little fuzzy, one of many aspects of this world I was disappointed not to see fully explored. So right away, we get a little science fiction, a little steam punk, and some metaphysics, which will soon be joined by healthy doses of action, adventure, and comedy, all rolled in  a shiny metal package.

Mr. Hero 2
I could actually tell that this comic would be quite funny from this page too, but now that I look at it, and myself, critically, that just might mean there is something seriously wrong with me.

Mr. Hero is shipped off by the Teknophage to Earth to be of future use to  in taking it over, but in the meantime he becomes a part of a magician’s act, learns boxing, accidentally punches a punter, gets boxed up, and does not reemerge until he is discovered decades later, sans head and one hand, by our human protagonist, a young mime/aspiring magician/museum worker named Jennifer Hale. Credit where it’s due to artist Ted Slampyak (pencils), both for having an amazing last name and for being insanely prescient in drawing the location of the missing head, a piece of artwork that doubles as a bike any modern hipster would trade a significant portion of his vinyl collection for.

Forget Mr. Hero, or even Mr. Fix-it; meet Mr. Fixie.
Forget Mr. Hero, or even Mr. Fix-it; meet Mr. Fixie.

When Jennifer puts the head back on Mr. Hero and essentially brings him back to life, a whole host of the Teknophage’s baddies come to reclaim him, but, as evidenced in the page above, Mr. Hero is more than adept at giving some rapscallions what for. Much of the earlier issues is devoted to such skirmishes and the schemes of these minions, but the specifics aren’t particularly important, not because they are bad, but without resolution, much of the meat and potatoes of the plot seems random, and a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” vibe is pervasive. I attempted to lay out just the basic plot points for my own use, but it sounded so convoluted that I abandoned any notion of describing the comic that way. If I found myself muttering, “Why exactly is this happening?” to myself while actually reading it, I can only imagine how erratic it would sound to someone who didn’t.

What is important are the antagonistic characters themselves, a very motley crew working in various capacities for the Teknophage, everything from genetically modified men who can camouflage themselves with any background to actual monsters to sniveling bureaucrats.  One of my favorites is a man named Mr. Kingman who is sent to Earth to oversee the capture of Mr. Hero. He does exactly what I would do if I were sent away from a hellscape to a relatively cushy planet, which is not give a shit about anything I was supposed to be doing and enjoy some earthly comforts for a while. Did I mention he thinks dressing like Elvis will help him fit in?

It never occurred to me that those metal ball things could be played like a game, but now I really want to sneak into some middle manager's office to try that out.
It never occurred to me that those metal ball things could be played like a game, but now I really want to sneak into some middle manager’s office to try that out.

Considering Mr. Kingman’s fascination with Elvis and video games and the fact that one of the main antagonist plots revolves around subjugating Earth’s population through their TVs, I assume that there was much more pop culture satirization planned for future Mr. Hero issues. As it stands, in addition to all the other genres intermingling in these comics, Vance finds some room for comics’ favorite genre, the superhero. Two of the Teknophage’s genetically modified goons are introduced to Kingman’s comic, and they do pretty much what anyone with superpowers and a newfound knowledge of superheroes would do: demand costumes and cool names:

Mr. Hero Creampuffs
From now on, I will find any excuse to say, “Grab the cryin’ towels, creampuffs – it’s blubberin’ time,” and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.
If every comic book cover looked like this, I would have started reading them a lot sooner.
If every comic book cover looked like this, I would have started reading them a lot sooner.

If the letters pages of these issues can be taken as an accurate representation of how readers felt about these characters, fans were decidedly split over whether Deadbolt and Bloodboil were great additions to an already great comic or bad enough alone to ruin them outright. For my part, they were a great injection of humor at a point in the story that could have easily been bogged down by exposition leading to no satisfying resolution. (Something to do with a group of rich guys who are against technology and a plan to take over the world using a Sasquatch-y looking character, who seems neither to be human or one of the Teknophage’s experiments, as a mouthpiece. I’m not sure how this storyline would have fit into an overarching plot, but it does give me an excuse to mention of my favorite classic Dr. Who stories, which it reminded me of, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Watch it and thank me later.) I enjoy how they ably demonstrate that superpowers alone doth not a superhero make, and I appreciate how they add yet another layer to an already complex universe, but their most valuable asset is the amount of just plain fun they bring.

Some of the best genre-mashing Vance pulls off in Mr. Hero combines the grotesque with a dash of humor, particularly when it comes to satirizing corporate culture. A revolving door of terrified cronies come to cower before their big boss man, and the slightest infraction or failure is met with swift and horrific retribution. The Teknophage maintains an air of etiquette and refinement, all while committing unspeakable acts, and I’m sure the conspiracy theorists who believe the upper echelons of society are lizard people would read this and think that there isn’t even any satire involved.

Mr. Hero Tekno 1

Pictured: Events happening in real time.
Pictured: Events happening in real time.

The Teknophage is a tricky character for me because a big dinosaur who has conquered countless worlds, subjugated untold numbers of people, and harnessed pure soul power is an antagonist who sounds downright terrifying on paper. The problem is that I see the big toothy smile and the proper suit, and it just looks a bit, well, silly. Almost, dare I say…cute? He’s handing out man cubes, and I’m having a hard time not going, “Tee hee!” Is it my fault dinosaurs wearing clothes are adorable? (side note: so are snakes wearing hats).

I do not intend that comment to be a criticism of the character itself so much as a criticism of my own ability to sometimes take things seriously. The Teknophage is a fascinating specimen, juggling many schemes and machinations at once, always one step ahead of his adversaries. Any time they think they have gained an advantage over him, he reveals they have been playing into his hand all along, and you get the impression you have yet to see the limits of his power. He is formidable. It is one of my biggest disappointments in the premature end of this title that we don’t find out more about his plans and motivations, though some of the answers I seek might be found in the solo title I’m thoroughly unsurprised the Teknophage received.

Mr. Hero Ad
TEKNO COMIX…more than just exploding heads….but also, exploding heads.

There are so many things I could say about this ad, but it so thoroughly speaks for itself that it would feel almost disrespectful to add anything. Just bask; just take it all in.

Some of the Teknophage’s plans are more well thought out than others, and one that doesn’t lead the places I thought it might is a plot to corrupt Jennifer Hale. The basic idea is that they will give her a lot of money, let it corrupt her, and then take it all away. I like that the Teknophage is convinced the best way to take over the Earth is through corruption, but using her as a trial run doesn’t make much sense since he already seems well aware of the corrupting influence of wealth. He also doesn’t let her keep the money long enough for it to have much of a corrosive influence on her, but they still consider the plan a success, even though the worst thing she does is use a grade school insult on a boss who’s being a bit of a prick.

Mr. Hero Lottery
This is just a more polite version of what ANYONE who came into a large sum of money would say to their boss.

While we don’t delve deeply into the Teknophage’s corruption and subjugation of Earth, later scenes on Kalighoul give us a frightening glimpse into what centuries of his dominion look like. More disheartening  than his sadistic tyranny itself is the affects it has on his subjects, many of whom would rather worship old revolutionary legends than be their own heroes. The ease with which people will accept, and then come to depend on, being ruled is not one of the more flattering sides of humanity, but it is well worth exploring.

Many stories examine what exactly it is that makes us human,  and some of those stories contain robots, but Mr. Hero may be the first I’ve encountered that does so without using the robot as the vehicle for that philosophizing. For as many aspects of this comic as I have touched upon, the one part of Mr. Hero you may have noticed conspicuously absent is, well, Mr. Hero. The biggest reason for his absence in my retelling of his own story is that his role in it is mostly reactionary. He fights because he is attacked; he seeks answers because those around him pose questions. Even when he discovers that he was once a flesh and blood man, with a wife and children and a rebellion to lead, there is not time for even a moment of introspection. He just kind of goes, “Blimey!” and everyone goes on with their day in a hell world.

Just because he is not given the opportunity to develop a great deal of emotional complexity, though, does not mean he is a shallow character. For starters, this is one automaton with not one, but TWO heads, one for ol’ timey boxing and one for thinky times:

Normally I would complain there's no reason he can't just have one head that's good at fighting AND thinking, other than his creators thought it was cool, but when the results are this cool, who am I to argue?
Normally I would complain there’s no reason he can’t just have one head that’s good at fighting AND thinking, other than his creators thought it was cool, but when the results are this cool, who am I to argue?

Granted, the heads aren’t normally on his body at the same time, but we still get some nice Jekyll/Hyde by way of the Odd Couple bickering between the two even when we only get them one at a time. The pipeless head is the one you want to show up to your party, quick to defend his friends, endearing in his simplicity, an all around good bloke. The head with the pipe, who goes by the Ratiocinator, is the one who will come to your party only to recite poetry, then insult you when you ask if he could just not. I think it goes without saying that this is a character who is easy to like and to want to know more about (I mean, did you look at that picture?), but the only time he takes initiative is setting out to find his missing hand, which we never find out the story behind!

I know I have sounded like a broken record about all the things that don’t happen in this comic, but I’m no less torn at the end of this article than I was at the beginning when it comes to how to discuss it. How do you assess, critique, recommend, etc. something that promised so much but never made good? On the one hand, I think it would be yet more tragic if this comic were to be forgotten, but on the other, can I really suggest anyone should read something that will ultimately lead to frustration? (I mean, to be fair, I do still recommend Firefly…screw it, read the comic.)

Perhaps if you do read Mr. Hero, it will wet your whistle for later this year when we take a closer look at Tekno Comix!

Mr. Hero CrossoverSomething a little closer to look forward to, though, is the rest of Madness in the Month that happens to be March here at the Unspoken Decade! Next up is Darry Weight’s look at Venom: the Madness!

Tom Mason talks Exiles and Ultraverse!

  1. Based on house ads, Exiles wasn’t intended to be a part of the Ultraverse upon its creation. When and why did that change? Was Steve Gerber involved from the start?

TOM: Exiles was created long before the Ultraverse and had nothing to do with Steve. What happened was that Dave Olbrich, Chris Ulm and I started kicking around ideas for a super-hero team book that would be owned by Malibu Comics. Almost all of the titles that Malibu had published up to that time had been creator-owned and Scott wanted a couple of properties that the company had claim to. We’d thought we’d create one, so every Monday night for many weeks, the three of us would go out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant near the office and just brainstorm, make notes and start writing a script.

We’d kicked stuff around, Chris had point for the first part and would write things up during the week, then we’d get together again, pass around pages and write, tweak and rewrite and brainstorm some more. And eat nachos.

We finished the first issue’s script, and hired Paul Pelletier to pencil the entire issue. While that was going on, we did a few company-based promotional things – a poster, a promotional postcard, a two-pocket folder, stuff that could be used as presentation pieces for licensing and merchandising. If you’ll notice, a lot of properties shown in the material were not owned by Malibu – Ninja High School is there, Evil Ernie, Dinosaurs For Hire were all creator-owned. The idea was just to make the company look more appealing to other corporate entities. Since Exiles was in the works, and we assumed it would be part of something in the future, we stuck them in there. If someone saw Exiles there, and somehow, magically wanted to develop it as a movie or TV show, then that would’ve spurred actual publication faster.

Exiles #2 - Page 1

Steve Gerber didn’t get involved with Exiles until at least a year after the first issue had already been pencilled and lettered. What happened was we were all sitting around the conference room at the original Ultraverse Founders Conference in Scottsdale in October 1992. On the first day, everyone was pitching around stuff that they’d always wanted to see in comics. Steve threw out that what he’d like to see was to have a character really die and stay dead, and prove it by cancelling his book. And do it all without telling anyone in advance.

By the end of the conference that weekend, Chris, Dave and I decided that we should take Steve’s random thought and match it up with the Exiles that had been sitting on the shelf. Chris sent all the material to Steve once we got back to the office, and the two of them batted around some ideas for how to make it work, and to have Steve rework a few of the existing pages from issue #1 while keeping as much intact as possible, and then develop the story over issues #2-4 so they all could die in the last issue.

The idea only worked because Exiles had never been published as a comic book. If the series had debuted back when we originally wrote it, we would never have suggested bringing it into the Ultraverse. Things would’ve turned out quite differently.

After everyone agreed to graft Steve’s thought to the Exiles, and then killing them off, the trick was just keeping it secret. Back then, as now, books are solicited months in advance and if we stopped soliciting Exiles after #4, everyone would know the book was ending. We didn’t want that. People would start focusing on reasons for the cancellation, and it wouldn’t look right to be cancelling a book so early after the launch of the UV and revealing the truth behind it could spoil the surprise. Also, we didn’t want anyone to know that the characters were going to die. We wanted the shock. We wanted the surprise. We wanted people to see that things about the Ultraverse were different from what they were used to – we’re willing to kill off characters from our launch, cancel their book, and keep them dead.

Of course, the only way to keep it a secret is to lie. Pretend like the book is ongoing, make no mention of the death anywhere for any reason, tell only the people in the office who need to know, and write fake solicitation copy for issues #5 and #6 to keep up the pretense.

It was great fun.

  1. What was Steve Gerber like to work with? Was he a big influence on you and the other Exiles creators before you guys worked in comic books?

TOM: Steve had been recruited as an Ultraverse Founder by Chris Ulm and Dave Olbrich. Both of them (as I had been) were huge fans of Gerber’s work on The Defenders. We wanted a guy who could take the tropes of super-hero comics and spit them out in a new way. Steve had a clever, inventive mind. He’d been around enough to know what DC and Marvel had done in the past, and he was always pushing to acknowledge that and twist it around to make something different. It was remarkable to sit in the same room with him and kick stuff around.

At the Founders Conference, I really pissed him off. Back in his early Marvel years, he had created a character called Doctor Bong in Howard The Duck. And even though he had a bell-shaped head to go with his name, Doctor Bong debuted in the late 1970s. Steve swore to me that the name was not a not-so-subtle drug reference, that it really was a bell reference. And I wouldn’t let it go. I was convinced he was rewriting history so he didn’t get called out by crazy politicians or whatever. I eventually dropped it, and it was all good.

The thing about Steve though is that he just couldn’t keep a schedule. It was always like pulling teeth to get him to turn in a script. He always needed money and we always needed pages and those two forces rarely met on the appropriate day. One time, he was so far behind in writing the dialogue for a pencilled issue of Sludge, but needed money so desperately that we had him come to the office and work with the understanding that at the end of each day he could walk out of the office with a check for each page he completed. We were always advancing him money for work he was promising to deliver. I think by the time Sludge was cancelled, he still owed us a script and we never called in the marker.

  1. Deadeye does not appear in the house ads for Exiles that indicated they would not be part of the Ultraverse. When was he created?

TOM: It’s funny what people take away from what they see. Deadeye was part of the original script that Chris, Dave and I wrote. He was in there from the very beginning and was created by us at the same time as the rest of the characters. He just didn’t make it into the house ad. He was probably left out for space reasons.

You just know Evil Ernie killed everyone on this poster mere moments later.

  1. Amber Hunt goes on to be an integral part of the Ultraverse, as she is the catalyst for the Break-Thru crossover. Was that planned from the start? How did you feel about her character? The creators did a great job making me both love and hate her.
  2. Exiles #4 - Page 28

TOM: My memory bumped me on your question, so I went to Dave Olbrich to see what he remembered. Dave says: “Amber Hunt was a character that was designed to be the center of Exiles. It was through her eyes and her initial storyline experiences that the audience was going to be introduced to the world of the Exiles (as it was designed before the Ultraverse). When we decided to bring Exiles into the UV, Gerber really took a liking to the character and her situation and wanted to expand on her original set-up. Since the characters were going to die and their book was going to be cancelled, that really felt like a marketing surprise. The real trick was how can we take that and make it work as a story, make it impact the UV beyond the shock? So out of that notion – let’s make this death mean something to the arc of the UV overall – she became the catalyst for Break-Thru. It was a story point that developed organically with the editorial team as Break-Thru was being worked out. Having Amber involved in Break-Thru helped tie the title back into the whole of the Ultraverse world.”

  1. How did you feel about creating a team to die? Did it bother you at all?

TOM: Well, they weren’t originally created to die. The timeline is this: Exiles #1 was created and written by Dave Olbrich, Chris Ulm and myself. It was going to be a stand-alone superteam book, not connected to any universe and we assembled the story bible and wrote the first issue’s script sometime in early 1991. And hired Paul Pelletier to pencil it. He completed the pencils for the whole first issue.

Then we got busy with Image, then the Protectors came along, and then the Ultraverse. And all this time that first issue of Exiles just sat on the shelf, waiting for the right time to release it. But it kept looking unlikely that based on the way the market was at the time, a stand-alone super-hero book was the right idea. We shelved it until we could figure out what exactly to do with it.

Exiles #4 - Page 22

  1. What about the portrayal of how hapless these heroes were? Was it hard to go against the grain of heroes generally be really good at everything?

TOM: That goes back to our original concept for the book. At the time we were developing it, Chris, Dave and I knew that the market probably didn’t want, and wouldn’t respond to, an independent super-hero team that was really good at what they did. There were tons of those already. We needed an angle, something different. Far better to go the other way – make them hapless, give them a learning curve and still have it go badly. Steve took that and ran with it, of course.

  1. Exiles #5 was solicited, but you guys knew it would never be made. I am assuming that retailers got their money back, but did any of them give you any flak, anyhow?

TOM: I think both Exiles #5 and #6 were solicited in order to keep the secret from getting out, but there were no refunds because no money changed hands. Retailers don’t pay when they order – they only pay when a book ships. So since neither issue shipped, retailers weren’t out any money, so refunds weren’t necessary.

We caught some flak from the distributors because cancelling books that weren’t going to ship creates extra paperwork that someone has to handle. Most people were cool with it because once you realize what happened, everyone knew it was the only way to pull off a trick like that.

  1. Would Exiles have been part of Malibu’s Genesis Universe if it had not been part of the Ultraverse? Would the Exiles have suffered the same fate?

TOM: The Protectors universe was developed before the Ultraverse, and the Exiles was in development before The Protectors so we had the chance then to add it to the Protectors, but chose not to. The Protectors was really designed to be a reboot of the old public domain heroes from Centaur that originally appeared in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Exiles didn’t fit that narrative.

Had we forced the issue and put Exiles into the Protectors Universe, it’s doubtful they would’ve died because the idea of killing a character and cancelling his book came from Steve Gerber at the initial Ultraverse Founders conference in 1992. Dave, Chris and I were the ones that offered up Exiles at that time.

Exiles #3 - Page 1

  1. The death of the Exiles is one of the more spoken of events in the Ultraverse. Does that surprise you?

TOM: Not really. We knew it would be a big deal, at least we hoped it would. We weren’t just killing off characters, we were making a statement about the UV itself. We were going on record by saying we weren’t bringing them back, and we cancelled their book the second they died, and that if we’re willing to do this with an early launch title, then is anyone in the UV really safe?

It’s a good feeling.

  1. If you bring back Dinosaurs for Hire, you’ll let your buddy Dean know first so we can break it at the only 90’s comic book website out there, right?

TOM: Oh yes. They are coming back. It’s just a question of when.

-Thanks again, Tom for taking some time out of your day to talk 90’s comics, the Ultraverse, and Exiles with us!  Looking forward to the return of Dinosaurs For Hire!