I was chatting here with a friend last week about the “Aliens,” “Predator” and “Aliens vs. Predator” comics produced by Dark Horse Comics in the 1990’s. While Marvel, DC and Image Comics all specialized in their superhero universes, Dark Horse tended to corner the market on hot properties in science fiction and horror. (The company actually did try to compete by launching its own superhero line, but its unsuccessful “Comics’ Greatest World” universe lasted a mere three years.)
Dark Horse acquired the rights to the biggest science fiction movie characters of the first half of the decade, including “Aliens,” “Predator,” “Terminator,” “Robocop,” and “The Thing.” It also produced great books in other genres too, like Frank Miller’s legendary “Sin City” series, Matt Wagner’s brilliant “Grendel,” and “Indiana Jones” comics. (I never actually saw “Indiana Jones” on the shelves; the two retailers in my smallish Virginia college town never carried it.)
Perhaps strangely, I don’t remember any regular ongoing series for “Aliens,” “Predator” or “Aliens vs. Predator.” Instead, the company published limited series on an ongoing basis.
Dark Horse had been a young company back then — it had started only four years earlier, in 1986. But I’ll be damned if the people running the company didn’t know their stuff. Not only did they snatch up big-name properties, they did a great job in producing consistently high-quality “Alien” and “Predator” books. (Maybe “Aliens: Genocide” wasn’t as good as the other series, but it was really more average than flat-out bad.) I honestly don’t know how they managed to publish such uniformly excellent comics that drew from a variety of creative teams. The “Big Two,” Marvel and DC, produced their share of mediocre comics — even for tentpole characters or major storylines. (See the “Batman” chapters of DC’s “Knightfall,” for example, or Marvel’s “Maximum Carnage” storyline for Spider-Man.)
Was Dark Horse’s track record better because their target audience was adults? Did they just have really good editorial oversight? Or did they maybe share such oversight with 20th Century Fox, which had a vested interest in its characters being capably handled? I’m only guessing here.
I’ve already blathered on at this blog about how I loved “Aliens: Hive,” so I won’t bend your ear yet again. An example of another terrific limited series was “Predator: Race War,” which saw the title baddie hunting the inmates of a maximum security prison. And yet another that I tried to collect was “Aliens vs. Predator: the Deadliest of the Species.” The series had a slightly annoying title because of it was a lengthy tongue twister, but, God, was it fantastic. I think I only managed to lay hands on four or five issues, but the art and writing were just incredibly good.
Take a gander at the covers below — all except the first are from “The Deadliest of the Species.” I think they are some of the most gorgeous comic covers I’ve ever seen, due in no small part to their composition and their contrasting images. And I’ve seen a lot of comic covers. I think the very last cover you see here, for Issue 3, is my favorite.
I would have loved to collect all 12 issues … I still don’t know how the story ended. (It was partly a mystery, too.) But at age 19, I absolutely did not have the organizational skills to seek out any given limited series over the course of a full year.
In fact, this title may well have taken longer than that to be released … Dark Horse did have an Achilles’ heel as a company, and that was its unreliable production schedule. Books were frequently delayed. To make matters worse, these were a little harder to find in the back issues bins. (I don’t know if retailers purchased them in fewer numbers or if fans were just buying them out more quickly.)
I suppose I could easily hunt down all 12 issues of “The Deadliest of the Species” with this newfangled Internet thingy. But part of being an adult is not spending a lot of money on comic books. Maybe I’ll give myself a congratulatory present if I ever manage to get a book of poetry published. Yeah … I can totally rationalize it like that.
I talked about Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” in last week’s Throwback Thursday post; these are some very early issues of a few of Image Comics’ other titles when the company launched in 1992. I remember snapping them up in earnest when I was 19 years old — as I said last week, it was exciting for a comics fan to see a new company challenge the “Big Two,” Marvel Comics and DC Comics, with a new superhero universe.
I and other ambitious collectors also grabbed these off the shelves because we naively expected they all would one day be very valuable. (Investing in comic books is a little more complicated than that — they’ve generally got to be in extremely good condition to fetch high prices.)
The first Image comics were a mix of good and bad. If memory serves, Jim Lee’s “WildC.A.T.s” was very good; Rob Liefeld’s “Youngblood” was less so, but was at least interesting. The art and writing for Jim Valentino’s “Shadowhawk” was truly mediocre. That didn’t stop me from buying a few issues, though — the novelty of these new books just gave them too much appeal.
There were a lot of creative things going on with early Image titles. Some of the new characters were pretty neat. I remember being partial to Youngblood’s “Diehard” for some reason, along with the WildC.A.T.s’ “Grifter.” (The former has the red, white, and blue full bodysuit; the latter has the trenchcoat and pistols.) And I definitely liked WildC.A.T.s’ “Warblade.” He’s the guy below with the ponytail and the shape-changing, liquid-metal hands. He was a favorite of mine despite the fact that he seemed to borrow a trick or two from the newly iconic liquid-metal terminator. (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” had hit theaters a year earlier.)
Image comics were quite different than those produced by Marvel and DC. (As I explained last week, Image was formed by artists who revolted against their prior employers’ unfair, work-for-hire payment policies — their new company gave them complete creative control over their characters.) Despite the popularity of Image’s new books, however, they sometimes appeared to have been developed without some needed editorial oversight.
The violence and gore was often far more graphic. And Image’s creative decisions ranged from the inspired to the strange to just being in questionable taste. (It all depended on your disposition, I guess.) WildC.A.T.s, for example, portrayed Vice President Dan Quayle as being possessed by an unearthly “Daemonite.” (Damn, those Daemonites were wicked-cool bad guys, and Lee Illustrated them beautifully.) Shadowhawk’s signature move was breaking the spines of criminals. He was also HIV-positive, the result of some gangsters’ reprisal — they captured him and injected him with infected blood. The character thereafter spent some of his history trying in vain to locate a cure for AIDS. (This was 1992, just after the epidemic became fully entrenched in the public’s anxieties in the 1980’s.)
My interest in these titles eventually waned, though I did still pick “Spawn” up when I had the money. The Image universe was densely crowded with new characters, and it was just too much information to sustain my interest. (Seriously, look at the first couple of covers below.) I spent far more money on DC’s various “Batman” and “Green Lantern” titles. And if I wanted edgy comics, I had discovered the various incarnations of Matt Wagner’s “Grendel” that were available through Dark Horse Comics. Those boggled the mind.
But Image comics did burgeon into a great success, even if these early titles have since been retired. “Spawn,” of course, is still being produced. And today the company’s wide range of books includes Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead.” It’s hard to imagine either of the Big Two picking up Kirkman’s gory epic masterpiece … so I suppose we have Image to thank for the TV show.
I remember greedily snapping up the first two issues of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic in the spring of 1992. Comics fans were excited about it — it was the de facto flagship title of the newly created Image Comics, which was bringing its own ambitious interconnected comic book universe to the shelves to compete with “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.
There already was a competitive third major comic publisher — Dark Horse Comics. But it had no successful superhero titles or shared universe; it instead was known for science fiction and horror comics. I also remember seeing comics back then from the short-lived Valiant here and there — or maybe it was mostly ads in the Comic Shop News. I didn’t know a single soul who read them, though.
McFarlane was nothing short of famous in the comic book fan community, after his broadly popular work on “Spider-Man.” (I still love his unique style.) And “Spawn” had an absolutely subversive flavor to it. Its title anti-hero was nothing less than an agent of hell, and the comic revolved around hell, sin, damnation and various demons. There was also far more violence and gore.
“Spawn” felt subversive, too, because of the impetus behind its creation. Image Comics was launched by a group of artists who were unhappy with Marvel’s failure to grant them creative control over their work (or, according to the artists, proper merchandising royalties). They included McFarlane, and fan-favorite artists Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, among others.
I don’t pretend to know how justified their complaints were, as I was only a fan and not an industry insider. But they sound right … I’ve always heard that major comic companies have historically screwed over their creative talent with restrictive “work-for-hire” payment arrangements. (This is why Stan Lee, creator of so many of Marvel’s first heroes, is not absurdly wealthy.) The start of Image seemed to fans like their favorite artists rebelling against the status quo, and that was kind of exciting.
Some of McFarlane’s acrimony with Marvel was pretty overtly expressed in the pages of “Spawn.” There was a weird, slightly confusing plot digression early on in which McFarlane editorialized heavily about creator-owned characters … Spawn actually visited a kind of purgatory where various leading Marvel and DC heroes were imprisoned. It seems in retrospect like a labored and self-indulgent metaphor, and it detracted from the title’s story. But the college kids then reading “Spawn” had never seen anything like it. It was interesting at the time. (Bear in mind, please, that this was before the Internet.)
I started picking it up regularly. I was going to the comic shop that was on … George Street, I think, in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. There were only two comic shops in the downtown area in the early 1990’s — this one, and a seedy shop across from the Hardee’s on northern Princess Anne Street, in a tiny corner of a ramshackle, abandoned hotel. There was a categorically unpleasant, batshit-insane woman staffing the latter – she was nasty to everyone who entered, and accused them of touching the merchandise. (That part of Princess Anne Street has since been improved – I think the huge hotel building has since been renovated.)
As the “Spawn” title progressed, its fandom became firmly entrenched. The art truly was fantastic, and of course it remains an incredibly successful group of comic properties today. Over time, McFarlane’s critics also grew in number … no matter how gifted he was as an artist, fans said he wasn’t a terrific writer. (And I do get what they’re saying.) I will say this — the “Spawn” comics I was reading were a thousand times better than that weird movie adaptation in 1997. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of that, but they were terrible bits and pieces.
I still think I’d have a great time perusing my back issues.