Wednesday, July 13, 2016

QUARTER-BIN HEROES : FAILED UNIVERSE / MIDNITE SKULKER

Even one black-and-white parody comic focused on taking shots at Marvel's then-fledgling New Universe seems like more than the oeuvre ever needed, but the year of 1986 saw to it that we'd get at least two of them.

THE MIDNITE SKULKER (Target Comics)
7 issues, 1986-1987

Not to be confused with Johnny Hart's Midnite Skulker -- a cloaked, graffiti-happy figure who marred the pristine walls of the comic strip landscape of the artist's prehistoric B.C. Also, not that you could. This Midnite Skulker relied almost exclusively on parody, putting most of its weight on revisiting Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns for its primary example, and generally populating the rest of its lineup with obvious caricatures of Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so on.

Here's Marvel's editorial crew. They are gnus. Commence laughing
The Skulker himself had been gathering mystical objects which turned him into a sort-of Fred-Hembeck-meets-Dr.Strange type figure. Adventure elements in the book never elevated much above a gentle hum and the parodies were more of a hindrance than a help -- interrupting the primary arc to introduce another thinly-veiled doppelganger slowed up what was basically a functional story (underneath unremarkable art, it's worth mentioning). Basically, the Midnite Skulker was its own worst enemy.

But that's the overview of the book. In specifics, it's the book's third issue (October 1986) which introduces the hero to the world of the Gnu Universe. It is ... and brace yourself, here ... the New Universe, but with gnus. I know, you didn't see that one coming, it took you by surprise. Please take a moment and gather your wits, you'll need them for the fast-paced journey awaiting you now.

Both of the books in this article will follow the same pattern; introducing the parodies of New Universe characters and taking some obvious lobs against the creative crew at Marvel Comics. With Skulker's creator E.Larry Dobias, though, the potshots seem impersonal. All young creators are encouraged to kill their idols, and the voodoo doll versions of the Marvel office editors seem to come complete with drumrolls and rimshots. An office of horned versions of Ann Nocenti, Eliot R.Brown, Archie Goodwin and Stan Lee shooting spitballs at each other doesn't have much in the way of satiric bite.

As for the inhabitants of the Gnu Universe, there's the on-the-nose Star Lantern (Starbrand), Troubleshooter and the Spitballs (In reality, Jim Shooter in "robot-armor made out of printing-press parts" teamed up with his editorial crew),  Narc (Merc), Just-Nice (Justice) and a few others, including a version of Nightmask which I don't believe got a name, but I would have gone with Gnu-tmask, I guess. If I had a deathwish.

By the time the Midnite Skulker is done introducing all of the New Universe hot-takes, the story is over without much in the way of conflict or combat. This is the danger of parody books, you never know when the rush to fit in all the snide asides is going to completely extricate the core from your story.



Failed Universe (Blackthorne Publishing) 
1 issue, 1986

Where Midnite Skulker's attack on the New Universe felt almost obligatory, Failed Universe (from writer Cliff MacGillivray and artists David Cody Weiss and Michael Kelley) practically seethes with personal injury.

Blackthorne was an interesting company, and either belongs in the "Quarter Bin Heroes" category more than any single other publisher ever or ... doesn't. Surviving primarily on licensed properties, reprint volumes, 3-D comics and parody books, Blackthorne managed to eke out a consistent top-five position among American comic book publishers and open up previously closed markets ... for about four years. That the quality among the books was wildly inconsistent never helped their case and, while a big and fateful licensing deal is theoretically what ended the company's lifespan, probably they weren't long for the racks anyway.

This is, like, a third of the jokes in this thing.
Still, that doesn't prevent Failed Universe from repeatedly making the claim that black-and-white indy comics were destined to go up-Up-UP in popularity while the dull, cynical machinations of the mainstream publishers were destined to go down in flames. I mean, sure, the New Universe fizzled after a few years, enjoying periodic rebirths, but I don't recall seeing Marvel subsumed beneath a tide of wildly popular black-and-white publishers. Also, it's big talk coming from the publisher which brought us California Raisins ... 3-D!

Points go to Failed Universe for keeping its parodies largely on the point of litigation, profit and opportunism: Sue-Force is a team of psychic lawyers who can summon a near-omnipotent being called "F.Lee Belly" (because he's fat, you see, and a lawyer, making it a double-layered joke), their version of Starbrand's power-granting tattoo is a big dollar sign, their Mark Hazzard is merely a Jerk and not a Merc (although pains are taken to mention his by-the-books big-screen paramilitary cynicism) and so on. On the other hand, there's a lot of pissing-your-pants gags and a few tepid broadsides involving ethnic stereotypes. The future of the industry, folks!

Many points for prescience go to Failed Universe, however, for making a silhouetted Mickey Mouse the mysterious figure which launches everything by giving their Starbrand his magic tattoo. How they saw that one coming is beyond me.

The thing about these targeted satires is the question, as it frequently is, of "who was this for?" The varying levels of smugness -- minor in the case of Midnite Skulker, weaponized in the case of Failed Universe -- seem to suggest it's an audience in an echo chamber, a group of dissatisfied cynics whose efforts to make their own stories are sidelined by an apparent need to howl at the gates of the empire they're meant to surpass in excellence and originality.

Or maybe everyone loves a piss-pants joke, that's also a possible motive.

3 comments:

Norman Rafferty said...

Oh wow, someone else actually read "Failed Universe". XD Your criticisms are on point.

If Failed Universe had any purpose, it's had one joke that's stuck with me for these 30-odd years.

There's a point that makes fun of the X-Men-type stylings of DP7, where their parody characters are all told to take a moment to have deep thoughts about their motivations.

And one character, holding an axe, simply says, "I can't think of anything introspective and revealing. All I want to do is kill!"

I still think of that joke, every now and then, when I see a modern "edgy" character, who doesn't really have any purpose other than to fill a roster.

Thanks again for doing what you do.

freeman333 said...

I also want to thank you for this article, because it answered one of the lingering questions from my childhood. When I was a kid, my dad owned a used bookstore, and I spent many hours hanging around reading the random issues of comics that showed up on his comics stands. Many of them were single issues in the middle of runs, so I almost never had any idea who the characters were, what the stories were, or why anything was happening. Didn't stop me enjoying them, though.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, one of those comics I picked up at some point was the issue of Midnite Skulker set in the "Gnu Universe". At the time, I had no idea what Marvel's New Universe was, so the entire point of the parody was utterly lost on me; even so, a few of the images from that comic were so deeply imprinted on my brain that in all the years since, I've had vague memories of them, but without any idea what comic they were from. (Somewhat sadly, those images did not include the Midnight Skulker himself, and while seeing his image on that cover you posted jogged loose the fact that he uses that medallion of his to...do something...at some point...during the comic, I still can't remember a danged thing about him.)

The few things I remember from that comic were: the image of a "magic event" in the atmosphere causing a deluge of magical energy that empowers various heroes (such as Star Lantern) and triggers various other events (an image I liked enough to use in some of my own story ideas), a character drawn as an all-black silhouette who is able to interact with the panel borders in the comic (including reaching around them to grab a character in a different panel during a fight, if memory serves), and, most potently, a character whose powers are activated (re-activated?) due to the "magic event", who looks in a mirror which cracks, and thinks "Oh no! I've become a leech again!"

It's that last image that resonated the most powerfully for me, for some reason, and which stuck the strongest in my memory. To my young mind, that line represented a history behind the character that someone (just not me) would know, which would give that reference significance. That really struck me, because the notion that the characters we see in a given story have a history that may predate the reader, and which suggest OTHER stories buried in some backlog just waiting to be uncovered, has always interested me. It's one reason I like resources like the Marvel Universe Appendix site, because you can track a character from their most recent appearances back to their earlier ones, which may have taken place during an entirely different generation of readers.

That's a lot of words to say "thanks for posting this", and for finally giving me the chance to figure out just where those images that have been with me for so long actually came from. Cheers!

Matt Celis said...

Had a Midnite Skulker comic book way back when. Remember nothing about it but the name, which until now I remembered as correctly spelled.

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