Greetings, Legions of the Unspoken! It’s an exciting time here at The Unspoken Decade as we gear up for our very own Dean Compton’s favorite character to make a first appearance on Netflix’s Daredevil! And no, folks, I’m not talking about Elektra. It’s none other than Mr. Frank Castle, the one and certainly the only, Punisher. And what better way to get psyched for his debut than Six Weeks of Punishment?
This weekend Mr. Compton will bring you Punisher and Batman: Deadly Knights, and I, Emily Scott, will take a look at Punisher 2099 shortly after that. We are kicking off Six Weeks of Punishment, though, with the event that launched the short-lived Marvel Edge imprint, Over the Edge, a showdown of Castle versus Nick Fury that includes Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, and Hulk’s titles. Take a listen to mine and Dean’s podcast below, take a look at some sweet very 90s covers, and take another trip back to the Unspoken Decade this weekend for more punishment. For the next six weeks, we’re all gluttons.
Warren Worthington: Before you go any further, you need to ask yourself… is any story really worth dying for? Irene Merryweather: Depends on the story.
No theme this month at “The Unspoken Decade” so I have taken this opportunity to look back at José Ladrönn’s run on Cable that helped close out the nineties.
Irene Merryweather is a reporter, a storyteller. She acts as Cable’s chronicler and as the reader’s way to understand the man and his world. She provides a way for the plot devices and conflicting motivations of such a popular character to be examined and contextualized in a much needed way.
Who is Cable? What is he? Why does he call himself that? Maybe in 1990 when the character was first introduced this was considered a suitably sci-fi term. The modern equivalent of calling a character “Plastic Man” in an era before that was a household name. Did this name say something about the character that was deep and meaningful? Was it the name of one of his weapons, maybe an artistic way of describing his method for traveling through time?
No, of course not.
Cable is what you would call yourself if you had been raised two millennia into the future. This is the same reason his arch-foe (and one of several clones) is known as “Stryfe.” These people are as separated from “today” as “today” is from the beginning of the Common Era. Cable is a character that everyone recognizes, comic fan or not, even though he has avoided the Silver Screen for seven X-Films and counting. For me there is no more interesting take on the character than his extended tour of the Marvel Universe in the artistic styling of Jack Kirby.
The Hellfire Hunt is a story from 1997 written by James Robinson. Halfway through, after issue #50, scripting duties switch to Joe Casey. From then until issue #70, in August of 1999, Casey and artist José Ladrönn put their mark on the Man With Many Names. The run was bookended by extended crossovers with the plethora of other X-Titles, from Operation: Zero Tolerance (itself spinning out of Onslaught) to the Apocalypse centered The Twelve soon after its end. In between was an attempt to define the character of Cable in a way that made him grounded and believable, or in other words, in the Marvel way.
In addition to the extended X-Family (for the most part) there is no appearance by X-Force, the child soldiers that Cable usually drags into dangerous war zones, or Rob Liefeld, Cable’s self-appointed ‘sole creator.’ The Rob would eventually bring back the expected trappings of the franchise but in his absence Casey, and especially Ladrönn, build a supporting cast unique to Cable including re-introducing Nate’s own personal Yoda, Blaquesmith, and the aforementioned former gossip columnist Irene Merryweather, as well as the brand new love interest, and confidante, diner waitress Stacey Kramer.
Over the course of these twenty issues Ladrönn’s depiction of Cable, and the world he inhabits, comes to resemble one drafted by Kirby. The King himself passed away in 1994 so this type of tribute would not be uncommon except that Cable, and the Modern X-Men in general, had nothing to do with what he had come to stand for. This appears to be envisioning what Cable would have been if Kirby had created him at the peak of his career.
A time-traveling, cyborg with a Messiah Complex, locked in an Eternal Struggle with a being destined to conquer the world and subjugate its people. That feels as if it could have been a pitch for a story Kirby never got around to putting down on paper in the years after he left Marvel in search of the greener pastures he never found.
For reasons none too important to the overarching plot Cable finds himself in the nation of Wakanda fighting Ulysses Klaw alongside the Black Panther. A few issues later he engaged in the defining conflict of the run in a fight against Jack Truman, Agent 18 of SHIELD. An appearance by the newly revitalized Mighty Avengers closes out the run featuring Kirby Classics such as Captain America and Thor. This resembled a comic done in the Mighty Marvel Manner at a time when nothing else the company put out really did. Even non-Kirby, but classic nonetheless, vintage characters such as Zzzax and the Tinkerer make appearances. They are not furthering the plot, but rather showing how rich and imaginative a world Cable occupies.
A year and change after the bankruptcy that nearly buried Marvel, and comfortably before the movies would start to shape what the company would become, Cable takes a tour of an older version of the Marvel Universe, one not seen in some time. He himself gets a streamlined, shoulder-pad-less redesign that allows, as all Kirby characters must, to be in constant motion and bristling with power. The tons o’ guns are stripped away as this Heroic Quest sees Cable wield the Psimitar, a future-tech spear capable of focusing his advanced telekinetic abilities into Kirby Krackle. The static, cold images that had come to define the character up until this point are forgotten as Cable genuinely struggles with whether or not he can really save the future, a fight that seems u winnable and a task that seems unsurmountable, even though he can remember what happens if he fails.
I am not sure whose idea it was to go down this road but it does not happen all at once. Ladrönn had been involved with the title before Casey arrived and the latter went this route again with his later Image series Godland (I am not putting a “0” there, but you may need one if you want to research the series). Does the fact that no one else was doing overt Kirby homages on a regular basis make the issues worth seeking out, or picking-up discounted at least?
Yes and no.
This is one of the few full runs of Cable I have read but was by far the most rewarding. The aesthetic got me in the door, so to speak, but the character does not keep me there. Ladrönn clearly has a love for these particular layouts and design work. There are ways of presenting a story and moving events forward that only ever seem to appear in those older books. Figures in motion stride through scenes of intense action oblivious to “cool” poses and the constraints of the page. Not to say that the genre as a whole does not pull plays from the same book but these are specific, and in some cases too much so, references the work of a single man.
Ladrönn at one point, before the Kirby homages are overt, places a panel of only Cable’s foot in motion in the midst of an action scene. This warrants a caption box, with a message from the editors, stating that “we’re not really sure why Ladrönn put this panel here, but it was too fun & wacky to take out.” Fun. Whacky. These things have no place within our comics, clearly. This is how far the expected conventions had moved. Panels are mere recommendations to the characters and the Kirby Krackle is everywhere. This constant love and affection is also how they begin to lose their appeal.
There is a love here, but is there an understanding? Casey’s name is attached to many beloved runs in superhero comics as well as under the radar projects that remain fan favorites. The main pitfall I have come across that prevents me from embracing his work is that he never quite seems able to keep up with his own ideas. Superhero comics can be dense. Packed full of characters, ideas, and images that combine through the act of reading to form entirely new experiences. They should not be stagnant and they cannot to waste space. Casey does not seem to spend the time giving Cable, or any of the other characters, enough to do. He is not very imaginative when it comes to creating new ideas or concepts and he certainly does not seem to maintain the primary rule of a Kirby Comic: Create!
Jack Kirby created at a rate that far outstripped his peers. Physical number of pages (at one point Kirby was personally responsible for more titles per month than the Liefeld’s Extreme Studios), concepts, characters, and plots. Not only are the Marvel Age works with Stan Lee responsible for most of what we still read today but each of Kirby’s series after showed that the act of creation was the most important aspect of the work. A book such as The Demon has new villains and foes each issue, new obstacles to surmount. For good or bad (and many are not going to be action figures or cartoons any time soon) they were there. Jack acting as midwife to world after world from some unknowable higher power.
Casey’s primary contribution to the Cable Mythos is the Harbinger of Apocalypse, whose origins are actually steeped in Robinson’s final story (he was also responsible for Merryweather). The otherwise unnamed Victorian Era waif (he has a strange origin that still manages to feel unoriginal) provides the primary physical threat that hangs over the main story. No motivation, or real defining characteristics, just something for the hero to rail against. Another character, Blockade, is introduced as a MacGuffin for Cable’s Titanic Team-Up with his former beau Domino. I never got the feeling that this team could not create new characters but rather would not. I am not sure why as this was not the X-Market of today where all the good characters have their movie rights absorbed by 20th Century Fox.
There is also not a constant stream of creativity reflected with the use of classic characters. This is the SHIELD exactly as Kirby drew it back in the day. Same line work, same designs. The same goes for Klaw, Black Panther, and even the Master Man (in a Golden Age flashback story). I applaud the revisiting at a time when everyone else seemed to have no interest (had I read these at the time they would have been my first introduction to Kirby’s aesthetic) but I mourn the loss of opportunity. Who knows how much more enjoyable, and re-readable, this run on such an otherwise uninspired title would have been had the creators channeled the spirit of the man they honored instead of merely what they saw in his work?
Part of this is shown in the use of Apocalypse. Throughout the run there are vague allusions to a time, coming soon, when “Dayspring” will have the chance to complete his mission by ending the potential future reign of terror in the here and now. Presumably this was supposed to tie-in with The Twelve but if you remember reading that story you will probably also remember not caring all that much about what happened in it. Here Apocalypse haunts the background, hinting at a Master Plan and moving pieces into position. Anywhere else this would be just one more subplot but here the regularly overt character is reimagined as a subtle dark-skinned man in a suit. He arrives, seemingly from nowhere, with the reader and heroes knowing nothing of what he has planned.
When something similar to Apocalypse’s traditional form makes an appearance it is as a flashback (to far in the future) or when a character is describing him, as a threat hiding just out-of-sight waiting to usher in an eternal darkness from whence there is no escape. This teases a character who had been around for over a decade and lays the groundwork for an actual arc. Apocalypse, though never in on the action, appears as a genuine threat that Cable, heavy-hearted, must face or else face the doom of every single person he meets as well as each and every descendant they cannot possibly be aware of. For a character with more conflicting backstories than Hawkman, and an opponent that had been more Action Figure than realized person up until this point, this presentation made me genuinely interested in what would and could have happened next.
Kirby missed out on his chance to design Apocalypse (he did not stay on the original “X-Men” title, that he co-created, long enough to work on most of what is associated with that franchise) but here we see what may have been. If nothing else this is a version of a popular villain reimagined based on how Kirby approached his work in general, with the incredible scope of an endless world. There is a sense of dread permeating the way characters discuss Apocalypse that cannot be matched by all the times he has been shown monologuing about a Middle Schooler’s conception of Darwinism. Apocalypse (a character I love no matter what I seem to be indicating here) is often drawn as this mishmash of different concepts, none of which stand on their own.
Here we have a rather mundane man you would not look at twice and a walking natural disaster on par with any of the Cosmic Threats of old Marvel. The sense of scope has been retained and the character never risks becoming mundane. Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Jason Blood and the Demon. The works inspires your mind to fill in the gulf between the two and therein lies the beauty of what Kirby always did: Making the reader see the world for what it could be regardless of how it actually was. Joe Casey and José Ladrönn understood that more than most and while they worked with Nathan Summers they showed us what could be.