Monday, July 21, 2014

First Issue Special #10: These weren't your Batman's Outsiders (DC, 1976)

Most comic fans know the Outsiders as a team formed by Batman after he had left the Justice League of America. But would you believe the original Outsiders were a group of freaks not meant to be seen among society? In fact, they really aren't even super-heroes, just hideously deformed creatures that will beat you up if you mess with one of their own!

Created by Joe Simon with artwork by Jerry Grandenetti, the original Outsiders first and only appearance was in First Issue Special #10. In the group is Amazing Ronnie, a four-armed cyclops, Mighty Mary, a woman with scales and huge fins for arms, Lizard Johnny, a reptilian, Hairy Larry, who is fused to the team's vehicle, and Billy, a baby-faced invulnerable kid with a huge head. Lead by Doc Scary, the group lives within a top secret bunker which resides underneath the hospital where Doc works.

The story begins as Doc Scary finds the group watching a news report about a freak causing a ruckus in town:

They hop into Hairy Larry's car and off they go to try and save the freak, complete with their own special theme song!

These Outsiders waste no time in attacking the mob that has captured Billy. Hairy Larry even runs a few people over!

Mighty Mary steps into the action using her beauty...and brawn!

After Billy is saved and the angry mob is basically dead, the story segues into a few origin tales. First up is Lizard Johnny, who was caught by a fisherman and brought to Doc Scary's hospital, where another Doctor decides that killing Johnny is the best way to go. Doc Scary disagrees...

Next is a background on Billy, who had been kept safely hidden away inside Mr. Lundy's Tailor shop, that is until a few burglar's decided to rob the place:

The intruders try to light Billy on fire, but what they don't realize is that the kid is invulnerable! Billy simply runs over them as he is engulfed in flames.

Next is the origin of Doc Scary, who initially was an astronaut involved in a crash on Venus. There he is revived by aliens, but I'm not so sure he's going to like the results...

The last story talks about the "strange things down below the medical center!", where we learn of the Outsiders' dwellings, and Doc Scary's penchant for flirting with beautiful nurses (who have no idea what he really looks like).

And once again Doc Scary finds the team ready to go rescue another freak...and put the beat down on the angry mob in the process! The strange thing about this comic was the Outsider's methods of dealing with the public. Instead of using their powers for good in an attempt to try and show people that they were more than just deformed freaks, they used them to hurt others only when one of theirs was in trouble. They were dangerous to anyone that opposed them, and used no discretion with their powers. Interesting.

Although this version of the Outsiders were never seen again (although they have a small cameo in Superman #692), the logo was retained for Batman's Outsiders, first appearing in 1983. Why they used the same logo style I have no idea, but I've always wondered what it would be like if Batman himself had recruited the freaks under Ronkite Medical Complex instead of the team members he initially had chosen. I think that could have been pretty awesome. It would have at least made for a great "What If" issue, but alas...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An attempt to save Swamp Thing during the Superhero craze (DC, 1976)

Make no doubt about it, the first Swamp Thing series featured a ten-issue run of wonderfully detailed artwork by the brilliant Bernie Wrightson. But when Wrightson and writer Len Wein left to pursue other projects, the series faltered and sales plummeted. At one point writer Gerry Conway took over for two issues, (#19 and #20) featuring a monster that had grown from the Swamp Thing's previously cut-off arm.

Those two issues provided a spark with readers, and in an attempt to save the series, DC asked Conway to return and introduced a new logo, calling it the "All-New!" Swamp Thing. Why destroy an iconic logo for this new one? It's simple. DC wanted the title to catch reader's eyes in the midst of the superhero craze. By 1976, traditional horror was on it's way out.

Titled "Rebirth and Nightmare", issue #23 introduced the "new" Swamp Thing as well as a new villain: Sabre. Once known as Commander John Zero, Sabre blames the Swamp Thing for losing his hand during an accident (now replaced by an actual Sabre), and thus his career. He now works for the Colossus Organization, who wants to capture Swamp Thing and try to revert him back to Dr. Alec Holland for his Bio-Restoration formula.

More new characters are introduced as the Swamp Thing heads back home to seek the help of his brother, Edward Holland. He is met by Edward's stunned girlfriend Ruth, who faints at Alec's grotesque sight.

Edward arrives soon after and tries to attack the monster. Alec lifts Edward by the fist, and makes a painful announcement:

Now I can't be sure, but I believe this is the first time the Swamp Thing actually talks. Conway explains that the Swamp Thing's vocal cords are not accustomed to human sound, and talking is very painful for him. Edward and Ruth listen in as Alec reveals what had happened to him.

Edward searches and eventually finds a cure for the Swamp Thing in this nice splash page by Nestor Redondo:

The cure involves another bomb similar to the one that changed Alec into the Swamp Thing. As the bomb explodes, Sabre attacks out of nowhere. He tracked Swamp Thing using a hidden tracking device on the monster.

Swamp Thing fights off Sabre, but the bomb cure worked...he is now changing back to Alec Holland! Now weak, he is unable to fend off Sabre's attack until the sight of an injured Ruth sets him off, and the fight ends as the flames engulf both Alec and Sabre.

A cured Alec Holland emerges from the lingering flames as the issue comes to an end.

The story continues in issue #24, titled "The Earth Below". Although David Anthony Kraft took over writing duties, Gerry Conway is credited for the plot.

A cured Alec Holland is now plagued by nightmares as Ruth attempts to comfort him:

Meanwhile, Thrudvang the Earth-Master, another bad guy working for the Colossus Organization, is on a rampage nearby.

Thrudvang is able to track down Alec, since he still has the tracking device embedded into his shoulder. What happens next probably should have been a horror story straight out of a Red Asphalt video. But since this is a comic, Alec escapes relatively unscathed.

Alec can only imagine what he could have done to Thrudvang if he were still the Swamp Thing, and finds an unconscious Ruth nearby.

A battered and bruised Alec Holland is somehow able to escape Thrudvang's wrath while holding Ruth over his shoulder.

Ruth wakes up and rewards Alec's efforts with a kiss...but wait! Isn't she Edward's girlfriend, Alec's own brother? WTF? In any case, the moment is squashed as Thrudvang appears yet again!

Alec lures the Earth-Master onto a rope bridge, and cuts the ropes just in time to see Thrudvang fall to his doom. Why Alec didn't fall with him, we'll never know. The issue ends as Alec embraces Ruth and wonders how he will survive now that he is not the Swamp Thing. He really should be thinking about that explanation to Edward that he just stole his girlfriend, but anyways...

And that was it, the series was kaput. I would have liked to see how that Hawkman vs. Swamp Thing battle would have played out. Did it appear in another comic? If anyone has that answer, please let me know. Swamp Thing would not be heard from for another six years until The Saga of the Swamp Thing in 1982. The iconic and original logo returned.

The second series was created by an entirely different team who completely ignored the story-line seen in these two issues. In fact, these issues have essentially become retconned, as it has since been established that Holland and the Swamp Thing are actually two physically separate entities. Also, Alec Holland never had a brother who was a professor, so Edward no longer exists. So I suppose that explains why Alec put the moves on Ruth.

It was interesting to see what kind of plot twists the assigned writers did to try to save this series during the final issues of it's first run. From aliens teleporting the Swamp Thing to another planet, to old people possessed by demons, to evil robot dogs, to the issues seen in this post...they tried everything.

I admit it's not easy to make a muck-encrusted monster fit into a normal comic book genre, so they get credit for trying. It wouldn't be until Alan Moore's debut as writer for Swamp Thing #20 in 1984 that the series would finally take off. That run is well worth reading for sure. Moore nailed it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Futurians: Dave Cockrum's Forgotten Franchise - Part Two (Lodestone, 1985)

Welcome to Part Two of our look into Dave Cockrum's Forgotten Franchise...The Futurians!

After witnessing the success of Marvel Graphic Novel #9, Marvel offered Dave his own monthly Futurians series. Dave chose instead to release the series under a small independent company called Lodestone Publications. This gave him the ability to not only do a series that he created, but with characters that he would own himself. He was given full creative control, more money, and the freedom to publish racier content. The first issue would release in October of 1985.

The new series picked up right where the Marvel Graphic Novel had left off. The Inheritors had been defeated, but a new threat had risen from the fallen Meteors that were pulled down by the Sky-Gripper.

The Futurians are sent to investigate, and along the way they meet a few other heroes, Doctor Zeus, Hammerhand and Ms. Mercury. Jack O'Finagle also shows up, an old man who seems to know everything about everyone and drops a few hints to help the team out. These characters are some of Dave's earliest character designs, so it is neat to see them introduced here.

Eventually the Futurians discover that an infestation of incredibly powerful giant worms called F'Wyrrn have landed on Earth, consuming everything in their path...heroes included!

As powerful as the Futurians are...the giant worms' power is tenfold. I mean these things are just unstoppable. Avatar is finally able to bring one of them down by beating it into a pulp, but there are hundreds of them.

The team later finds out that the F'Wyrrn are using humans as hosts for implanting their eggs, and all hell breaks loose as the worms attack and begin to kidnap some of the team members...for breeding!

This arc is a lot more fun than the first, as the characters become fleshed out and the story is a bit more entertaining and easier to follow. A dramatic moment occurs when the team tries to find Mosquito's family home, only to find it destroyed by a meteor in the previous arc. This moment brings Mosquito to tears, and the team leaves the area...not realizing that Mosquito's sister is still alive under the rubble!

They eventually discover the worms nest underground, and a morbid discovery is made as several team members have been implanted with eggs!

The kidnapped Futurians are saved, and the origin of the giant worms is discovered after Silkie shares a psychic bond with one of them. The plan is to consume the entire planet, then move on to the next one.

The military decides to just drop an A-bomb on the worms, which is just going to annihilate whatever was left of Manhattan. Mosquito's sister Sylvie finally escapes the rubble, thankful to be alive...only to find a nuclear bomb about to drop from overhead. Sylvie screams in terror as the nuclear blast envelopes her skeleton, and issue #3 comes to an end.

In 1986, before issue #4 saw the light of day, Lodestone Publications would go out of business after several major distributors failed to pay sizeable past-due invoices. The Futurians were kaput. But luckily fans would get one more final glimpse into Cockrum's creation as issue #4 would later appear in The Futurians Graphic Novel #2, published by Eternity Comics in 1987.

Issue #4 continues as the A-bomb is dropped, but fails to kill off the F'Wyrrn. They just grew bigger! As the battle rages on, Werehawk endures a furthur metamorphosis of sorts as he evolves into a giant griffon, which the team end up having to take down.

Chaos in full effect, Vandervecken makes an emergency call to Sunswift for help. He also gives the team a stockade of Molecular Scrambler guns which seem to help take a few worms down.

Sunswift enters the battle only to succumb to the powerful force of the molecular scrambler guns, resulting in a huge explosion. Critically injured, Sunswift must return to her daystar  to survive. She rushes out into space and falls unconsious as her body just barely makes it into the Sun. Filled with Solar Wrath, Sunswift blazes out of the Sun and conjures a mighty vortex that sucks the entire island of Manhattan into space, dropping them on Jupiter.

And that was it for the Futurians. Aardwolf re-published issue #4 (as #0) in B&W in 1995, to test the waters for a possible new series, but that never came to light. It was in this issue that Dave pondered his mistake in signing on with Lodestone:

"Unfortunately, I let myself be lured away from Marvel and did the series for an independent publisher who promised pie-in-the-sky money. If I'd stayed with Marvel, we might be publishing Futurians #250 or something by now. Instead, I went with the independent, occasionally called Lodestone Publications, and my run only lasted three issues."

Dave Cockrum passed away in 2006 due to complications with diabetes. In 2010, Dave Miller released Avatar, a three issue mini-series featuring the Futurians. I have yet to read it. If you can get your hands on The Futurians Graphic Novel #2, I would highly recommend it.

In closing, the Futurians have become something of an enigma to me. The fact that these characters are very much like the X-Men has me wondering just how inspired Dave had become after his run on Uncanny in the 70's. Did he invision Phoenix evolving into a being such as Sunswift? Did he see Colossus as more of a leader type of character, as Avatar was? Did Wolverine annoy him, much like the wisecracks of Blackmane? Or did he see Werehawk as an extension of what Thunderbird could have become? So many questions we'll likely never know.

One thing is for certain -- The Futurians were clearly Dave Cockrum's love letter to the Uncanny X-Men. And that is something that shouldn't be as easily as forgotten.