Hello, Legions of the Unspoken! It’s been a bit since Ol’ Dean Compton has been able to celebrate the greatness of 90’s comics with y’all, but life has been getting in the way. Hopefully things are starting to calm down and I can get here a lot more often.
One thing that doesn’t seem to be calming down anytime soon is the public’s hunger for superhero movies, especially Marvel movies. The Cinematic Universe has excited the public in a way that very few other movie franchises seem to be doing these days. Black Panther has taken the world by storm, and it’s very, very good! The movie that preceded it, though, Thor: Ragnarok, had a very neato tidbit that’d get a 90’s comic book fan as excited as a puppy in a dog park.
One of the most beloved of the many universes, and maybe the most beloved, that popped up in the 90’s was the Ultraverse. Malibu’s big swing for the fences wound up coming up short, but for a while prior to the Marvel purchase, the little company that could on the left coast was spitting out fascinating ideas faster than seeds at a watermelon eating contest. One of those ideas seems to have shown up in Thor: Ragnarok, and her name is Topaz.
While this Topaz looks decidedly different from the Ultraverse’s Topaz, the similarities are fairly shocking and vastly outweigh the differences.
Topaz was an integral member of UltraForce who used a power staff to keep her enemies in line. She is a warrior-queen from a matriarchal realm, and she’s pretty female supremacist. Now I know that’s gonna float some boats for some fellas reading this, but it was also fun watching her attempt to learn how to integrate into a male-dominated society in UltraForce. She used a power staff to deal with threats, and she got caught up in a big cosmic scuffle featuring The Avengers, Thor, and…The Grandmaster. Sound like the Topaz from the movie a little. TRY A LOT.
Topaz is one of the central characters in the UltraForce/Avengers crossover, which has a lot of dealings with The Grandmaster. Sound familiar? In the movie, she’s the right-hand woman of the Grandmaster, and she fights Thor. In the UltraForce/Avengers crossover, she teams with Siren to take on Crystal and Black Widow as part of the game between Grandmaster and Loki. There’s never a huge Avengers vs. UltraForce showdown, as the crossover mostly follows the “heroes meet, fight, realize they are on the same side/being manipulated, team up against the threat, and then look really cool doing it” template.
But the really important thing about Topaz right now isn’t her history, although as I said, she’s fun in UltraForce, and her debut in Giant-Size Mantra #1 is pretty awesome too. It’s the fact that Ultraverse fans like myself have been waiting for Marvel and Disney to do something with this dormant universe for way too long. The Ultraverse was full of fantastic ideas and amazing characters, and it was created by a group of some of the best writers in comic books. The universe was shepherded well by Chris Ulm, Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg so that everything felt important and needed. You never knew when something small would happen and it would balloon into something huge. Until the Valiant relaunch, it was easily the best universe created since the Marvel Universe.
For about 20 years, Ultraverse fans waited and waited for any sign of life from the Ultraverse. There would be rumors, rumors of rumors, and Joe Quesada flat out saying that these characters would never see the light of day again. Ultraverse fans like myself finally have a ray of hope with Topaz showing up in this movie. Will Prime return? Hardcase? Firearm? The Solution? Will they get their own comics back? Maybe a Netflix show? I know the 90’s kids who loved The Strangers and Sludge sure hope so! Here’s to seeing a lot more Ultraverse characters in the comics, on TV, and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe very, very soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Hello, Legions of the Unspoken! Indie February is over, but just like the 90’s, we at The Unspoken Decade don’t give a damn about the rules because we are EXTREME! Indie February bleeds over into March, with this final installment of our look at The Ultraverse’s Exiles, my interview with Tom Mason, and Emily’s forthcoming article on Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero, the Pneumatic Man! The 90’s keep coming right at you here, folks, and it’s up to you keep up, get on, or get out of the way!
That sounds sort of hateful. I suppose I should apologize, but hey, I keep cranking out the good stuff, and you keep reading, so I think I am entitled to a little arrogance. Not as much arrogance as “The Model” Rick Martel used to have, but certainly enough to not worry about anyone stealing my girl!
Everything was going wrong for The Exiles when last we saw them in Issue #3. Tinsel had just been brutally murdered, Ghoul had been captured, and the rest of the team was unable to either convince Mastodon to come with them or to subjugate him. Also, Amber Hunt is going to die unless the team gets back in time to administer the cure for her Theta Virus. She refuses to die filthy, however.
That pun is ridiculously wonderful; I have a soft spot for puns, as does my girlfriend and co-contributor to this blog, Emily Scott, and so that was terrific in my eyes! I also understand where Amber is coming from. As I have noted numerous times throughout this look at Exiles, Dr. Rachel has the best of intentions but all the execution of a car without an engine. The way she is going about this just is not going to work, and she has no clue. She has treated everyone shabbily thus far, and in many cases, she has treated everyone except Deadeye like they are mindless idiots. That too, though, will change in this issue.
This title, and of course this was sort of the point, makes one wonder what would have become of The X-Men or Doom Patrol had Professor X or The Chief not been so good at shepherding the young and the powerful. I get the feeling that this team could have been something special in The Ultraverse had Rachel Deming just been a better leader. Unfortunately, we will not get to see that. We will get to see Amber Hunt badmouth the only clothing she finds in the way only a snobby teen ever could.
Amber Hunt goes from worrying about dying to worrying about fashion more quickly than a opossum can scoot under a house!
We also get to see another side-effect of putting together a bunch of strangers with powers who happen to also be young. That side-effect would be attraction and unwanted attraction. Again, not to just keep on making comparison with the X-Men, but that’s an issue that almost always seems to work itself out with them, unless you are Jean Grey, in which case you get involved in a love square so thorny that one could walk through 872010 rose bushes and come out with fewer scratches than her heart got from Wolverine, Cyclops, and White Queen.
This ain’t the X-Men, and so things here go less smoothly, which makes tons of sense. I used to go to APPLE Project, which was an Upward Bound program. It’s a terrific program that helps impoverished youth find ways to get to college, and one of those ways is by hosting a summer session in which kids get to go stay on a college campus, take college courses, and live in the dorms. This was lots of fun, but when you put that many teenagers in one spot, the emotions and hormones become a juggernaut even more daunting than Cain Marko himself, and that situation can lead to awkward misinterpretations, such as the small moment we see here:
That’s explosive, and no one even tossed any dynamite or old-timey bombs with long fuses like they use on Spy vs. Spy! The chemistry element gets more play here in one page than it gets in years and years with some team books.
Sadly, though, Ghoul isn’t there to laugh at this interaction, as he has stumbled upon Tinsel’s body. Ghoul’s power to talk to the recently departed is neat, but the sorrow it must bring comes to the forefront as he talks about Tinsel’s last moments…with Tinsel.
Things aren’t going much better for the rest of The Exiles, as in addition to not being able to nab Mastodon, they are now under siege from basically every cop between San Diego and Los Angeles. The field mission is not going especially well for The Exiles, and I have to believe that part of it is that Dr. Rachel Deming just isn’t qualified to be a field commander. She commands Mustang to take out some cop choppers without hurting the cops, and when that isn’t working as well as it could have, Deadeye takes aim.
The only person up until now immune to the condescension of Dr. Rachel Deming, Deadeye, is now subjected to the same treatment all of his teammates have been getting. The only difference is this time, Deming instantly knows she has gone too far, as Deadeye isn’t like the other Exiles. This is not only his first rodeo, but based on his demeanor and confidence, it is entirely possible that he invented rodeos.
I feel like this points out why The Exiles never could have worked as a team. It wasn’t because Tinsel, Ghoul, Mustang, Catapult, and Deadeye were awful, but it was because Dr. Deming never thought of them as people. At least, she never thought of them as people outside of the Theta Virus and the abilities said virus would and did grant them. Leadership is more than just hiring (or in Deming’s case, quasi-kidnapping) folks, telling them what you want, and then manipulating them into doing her bidding as she looks down on them the entire time.
I am pretty sure that most of you reading have a job, so you understand the concept that I am talking about. We have all had a boss like this, who just does not get the fact that you’re a person. They don’t get the fact that you can’t just morph into some sort of atomic-powered robot that can get three things done at once in the EVER SO PERFECT way that they can get it done. Dr. Deming is totally that boss. The way she said that Deadeye was in charge of the mission and then undermined him the very first time he did something that detracted from her greater calling of gathering up the Theta Virus carriers speaks volumes about her personality and her “leadership” paradigm. You’re wrong, she’s right, and here’s 78 snide comments to remind you of such.
Of course, her arrogance costs the team everything. I think that her shabby treatment of Amber Hunt really caused Amber to act so impulsively. I also have to laugh at the fact that the girl who eschewed her science class just a day or two earlier is now entirely dependent upon a super-futuristic science lab to save her life. Of course, she was complaining about high school biology, so perhaps had they taught “super virus removal science” at her school, she would have been more interested. I think all kids would be more interested in science in high school if they taught that course, and if they did teach it, then maybe she would have been able to use this machine properly.
I sort of do not blame her for going ahead and trying to do this herself; I mean, she is going to die one way or another, so she may as well give it a try, especially if Deming is so callous to her needs as to go on a mission that Deming really isn’t needed on while Amber Hunt wonders if she’d die before Deming’s return.
I also have to commend Hunt on using “the big chiclet” as her preferred way to describe death, as I am very sure that most of the ancient religions of the world have described death as being “odd-flavored gum that colors one’s tongue green.” I hope that is what death is like, but it is probably a lot more like the movie The Frighteners.
Amber’s mistakes will cost The Exiles, well, um, themselves, but for some Exiles, like Tinsel, all is lost already. Her life was snuffed by Bloodbath in the previous issue, which does not bode well for Bloodbath now that Ghoul is on his trail. His trail is easy to find, though, seeing as how he was blinded in Tinsel’s last great act of defiance. Ghoul is slightly more indestructible than Tinsel, however, and despite being what seems to be The Ultraverse’s greatest blind marksman, Bloodbath stands as much chance against Ghoul as your favorite ice cream treat stands against August.
Those two pages are very cold-blooded, but also hilarious. That’s a hell of a combination, but Gerber handles it not just with aplomb, but like it was as natural as something one does all the time, like pouring cereal or slacking off at work. The same way you wake up and rue the paltry amount of dough you have in the bank, Gerber marries two seemingly impossibly disparate feelings.
None of this will matter as much as Ghoul would like it to, as Amber Hunt’s attempt to avoid biting the metaphorical chiclet that is death is wreaking havoc on the island, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Deming isn’t there, and the entire lover’s spat that occurred earlier prevented those crazy kids from keeping Hunt from doing something stupid, like use technology she cannot understand on herself.
All of their effort turns out for naught, however, and Deadeye, who is just adept at telling you like it is, sums up exactly why these Exiles cannot save themselves.
And that fact there, uttered by Deadeye in the midst of a mad dash home, sums up Exiles perfectly. In some ways, it sums up humanity, sadly enough. Sometimes it seems that no matter what our gifts and abilities are, we remain capable of so much less than our potential due to impudence and shortsightedness. The Exiles sort of exemplify these aspects of humanity.
Then, of course, we are introduced to futility, as regardless of the efforts we make, on occasion, they just do not matter. I know that we have all interviewed for a job where we had a KNOCKOUT interview, but we did not get the job b/c it was already decided who would. Of course, that was just our livelihood. When those with super powers encounter futility, the ramifications are much more devastating. The Exiles are destroyed.
The Exiles are finished. Their hubris and inexperience combined to destroy them, despite their powers and valiant natures. Ghoul got his revenge on Malcolm Kort, and he got to dress like Panama Jack’s cousin, Rambo Jack, as he did it, which is an image to leave you with since this series is a downer.
I don’t mean that pejoratively. I am a huge fan of sad music, to the point where almost every song I enjoy can be described as “really sad, but really good.” Many movies we enjoy that resonate with us on a deep level are sad, such as The Ice Storm, which is seemingly designed to nothing but drive the happy to the suicidal and the suicidal off bridges. I love that movie. So to say that this makes one feel awful to see play out makes sense, but that was sort of the point. The real world isn’t always sunshine and roses, unless it is blooming time on a rose farm. Then, I am pretty sure it is all sunshine and roses. Otherwise, life is tough, and we often have to pay very hard for the actions we take that do not work out, and it seems like the more spectacular of an action we take, the higher the price we have to pay if it fails. Actions do not come much more spectacular than those of Deming and The Exiles. Steve Gerber sort of explains in an afterword for The Exiles.
Steve did a great job in that essay telling us what happened and why, and Tom Mason did an interview with me that will be posted in the next day or two that reveals even more behind-scenes info on The Exiles!
Amber Hunt will go on to be in The “All-New Exiles,” and she is basically the jumpstart for the Ultraverse crossover “Break-Thru.” Ghoul will go on to be in Ultraforce, but The Exiles were never forgotten, and now, they are no longer Unspoken! Thanks for reading, and stay tuned the rest of March for “Madness Month”! Emily will bring us Skrull Kill Krew, I will be doing Ghost Rider vs. Madcap, and Paul O’Connor of Longbox Graveyard and I will be chatting about the merits or lack thereof of 90’s comics in a podcast! Stay Tuned, folks!
Now as promised, Ghoul as Rambo Jack, with just a touch of Road Warrior Hawk tossed in!