I love comics. I may like comics more than music. Probably, actually.
The thing is, whenever I hear musicians talk about comics, I tend to roll my eyes. Musicians always say they like comics, but then their justification of that is something dumb like “I read Archie when I was a kid” or “I loved Christopher Nolan's Batman”, two things that definitively prove you do not love comics. These people tend to talk about their shallow fascination so much they end up getting to put out a comic of their own, which is always horrible (huge exception extended to Gerard Way who was in a band I couldn’t care less about but is knocking comics out of the park. True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, read it). Then you hit the divide– either they want to talk exclusively about superhero comics and don’t care about artists like Jason, Box Brown, Brandon Graham or Yoshihiro Tatsumi, or else they only want to talk about Chester Brown and Seth and shit but couldn’t care less about the mind-blowing work of Brubaker, Bendis & Maleev’s Daredevil run or Rick Remender’s amazing turn on Uncanny X-Force. But, of course, that's fine; if you're a musician, why should you know about comics?
I should know about comics, because outside of dicking around on guitar with my band Tough Age I also work full-time at a comic book store in Vancouver, BC. Working in a comic shop gives you a great opportunity to read anything and everything you want, and I pretty much do just that– I read everything I can. Thus, when given an opportunity to talk comics, I became somewhat overwhelmed. What the hell do I write about? And what is list-able? People love lists. I am no exception. I thought about writing about Jack Kirby, but I felt I would really have nothing interesting to add to the books worth of content written about Kirby– he was called the King with good reason. Or I could bore everyone, but that’s not endearing, so no writing about the beauty of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley Sunday strips. After way, way too much time spent thinking about this I eventually I settled on the 1990s, and specifically Marvel Comics in the 90s. Whenever I meet people around my age who still actively enjoy and read comic books I am shocked, because we all had to suffer through the same horrible shit with the chromium covers, Clone Sagas, Electric Supermen of the Red and Blue varieties and Namor walking around in a ladies’ pantsuit, just to end up…pretty much right back there in 2013. Yet, like everything terrible you loved as a kid (except for Namor’s pantsuit), I can’t stop digging these characters no matter how hard I try. I don’t try that hard.
Alright, so, these are my Top 5 Marvel Comics characters of the 1990s:
5. NFL SUPERPRO
Here's a childhood story: My father was a customs broker, and he imported Diamond Comics, so as a kid I had access to pretty much every comic, for free, all the time. And still, with every comic known to man available to me, during the thousands of hours of reading in my impressionable years my number one memory remains the face I pulled when I laid eyes on NFL Superpro for the first time. Why? Well, let’s see:
Phil Grayfield is an NFL superstar who throws his knee out while saving a child from being hurt. Here you can clearly tell that the NFL is dictating content because Spider-Man's origin isn't some “God gave him magical powers after he volunteered at the soup kitchen” goody-two-shoes bullshit; typical Marvel characters have angst, they need to be a hero to absolve, not because they're Super Cops. Anyways, I digress: now that Saint Phillip's playing days are done, he becomes a sports reporter because, really, what else is he going to do with his Communications degree? Phil ends up interviewing some insane scientist who has spent millions of dollars building a bulletproof football uniform because… he's insane? Then a bunch of guys break in to the scientist’s place and burn priceless memorabilia because… they're insane? They literally have nothing to gain from it. Sure, they steal a few things, but whatever they take is peanuts against the Hall of Fame-worthy display in this psycho’s house. Also the scientist gets killed somehow, I don’t remember how. Now Phil is trapped in a burning house, the scientist is dead, and he goes and knocks over some chemicals because why not at this point? The chemicals and burning NFL merchandise give him powers. Let me write that again in case you missed it: HE GETS HIS POWERS FROM CHEMICALS AND BURNING NFL MEMORABILIA. I'm going to start winding it down now, because otherwise I'm just going to recap every single thing that happens in every single issue of NFL Superpro BECAUSE IT NEVER GETS LESS FUCKED.
NFL Superpro is often called the worst comic ever made, but the people who say that are even more batshit crazy than the comic itself because you read my description right? It clearly rules. How can you not want to read that comic, are you even human? Superpro had such ‘notable’ villains as Instant Replay (a time manipulator, duh) and a thousand other football-referencing losers, and I think he beat the shit out of Crossbones once. There was also a support team that included a guy named Almighty Dollar, who shot pennies out of his hand, and a huge fat guy named Girth. NFL Superpro was awesome.
Sadly, I don't think we'll ever see Mr. Grayfield again due to rights issues. I don't think it's as messy as the ROM situation is (more on that later), but you have to imagine anyone who spends more than ten minutes trying to sort out the rights for NFL Superpro would walk away feeling like they're fundamentally wasting their life.
4. ADAM X the X-TREME
I want to write so much about Adam X, but I feel like this Youtube video put together by my colleague says it better than I ever could. Let’s watch it together and we’ll compare notes after:
Yes, Adam X the X-Treme is fucking ludicrous. He was an elfish alien (kind of) with dreads and “tude” and he was practically a pacifist as far as comics are concerned. Adam X took all the pointy bits of Wolverine and the dumb hair of half of your first-year Screenwriting class and wrapped them up in the body of some douchebag who probably owns a bongo drum and plays it at the beach when you’re just trying to enjoy your day off without hearing anyone say the word ‘sheeple’ in a sentence. Now: BURN.
Aesthetically, Sleepwalker looks so good. So, so good. He's like a weird green alien looking guy in a purple hood, because purple and green seems to be a real Marvel favorite (see: The Hulk, Green Goblin, Impossible Man etc). Sleepwalker– and you'll forgive me if this is wrong, I'm doing this all from memory without relying on Internet searches– was some kind of dream policeman. He lived in your sleep, keeping nightmares from scaring you or something. Anyways, he apparently wasn’t very good at his job because he gets tricked by his arch nemesis ‘Cobweb’ (…) and ends up trapped in this dude Rick, who doesn’t seem that put out having Sleepwalker in his brain. Being stuck in Rick means Sleepwalker can only appear in the physical realm when Rick is asleep, and so this shit gets milked for the lamest dramatic tension and/or awful humour as many times as there are Sleepwalker issues/guest appearances. Nothing says ‘exciting comics’ like waiting for the main character to fall asleep. Bam Pow Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!
Besides only having the window in which Rick is asleep to make a difference– Sleepwalker will literally disappear mid-activity if Rick wakes up at all and he doesn't get a hall pass on bathroom visits– he also manages to have the single most ridiculously long list of power handicaps I can think of a superhero possessing. He loses power the farther away from the ground he is, which makes literally no sense at all, and he gets weaker the longer he's in the world. This means the clock starts ticking the minute Rick’s asleep and if Sleepwalker is separate from Rick for too long, he dies. Talk about co-dependency! Oh I also almost forgot the best part about Sleepwalker, which is that when he's exposed to certain types of light he trips balls, literally. He has severe hallucinations and pleasurable highs, so much so that he ends up getting addicted to the light and his irresponsible addict behaviour lands Rick in a coma. So Sleepwalker has to kick his drug of choice… light. I thought Marvel saved their after-school special content for garbage they gave us in assemblies like The Amazing Spider-Man: Chaos in Calgary (see cover below). On the plus side, this totally lends credence to Sleepwalker’s appearance resembling a ‘Take Me To Your Dealer’ blacklight poster in a Jedi robe.
One added bonus Sleepwalker story: One of my co-workers, who has worked at the shop for long enough to witness this, loves to tell the story about when Marvel gave a presentation to retailers about Sleepwalker that proclaimed it “Sandman done right”. Let's see how history backs that one up.
2. SCARLET SPIDER/KAINE
I struggled with whether to include Benjamin Reilly on this list. He’s sort of the obvious pick– like if someone asked you for a band recommendation and you said “The Beatles” like the piece of trash you are in that hypothetical scenario. But I’m sticking to it, if only because in this case, ‘The Beatles’ are an exact replica of Spider-Man, only with frosted tips.
I’ll spare you from reading about the Clone Saga in length here, but if you’d like to know more, there are literally thousands of hours on the Internet of material on the subject. It’s always trotted out as a low-point for comics, and while that’s fair to a degree, the horrible things (Gwen Stacy clones, Peter Parker’s robot parents) mostly don’t involve the Spider-Man clones directly. I maintain that pulling the Spider-clone out of a long-forgotten canonical Spider-Man comic is one of the better mind-fucks in comics history, it’s just a shame that such a clever idea was laid out like a rug you found beside a dumpster in the bad part of town.
For the purposes of this discussion and what you need to know, there were two notable clones. One of them was named Kaine. Kaine looked like the Undertaker in a full leather one-piece covered in something that looked like vine rot that hid everything except his Soundgarden-roadie haircut. This was because he had a hideous scar that ALSO looked like jungle rot on his face, which he was ashamed of yet still chose to mimic on his costume and gimp mask. To top it all off, he tied a bright purple tattered bib around his neck and called it a cape.
The other clone Ben Reilly, aka ‘The Scarlet Spider’, didn’t do much better. If these clones taught us anything it’s that the Spider-Man costume design was a total fluke and Peter Parker has a fucking abysmal sense of aesthetics. Scarlet Spider’s costume was a crimson-red onesie with even bigger, slightly jagged eyes, a big old belt that was the same damn colour as the onesie and big garish silver buckles on the legs matching the webshooters on his wrist. His webshooters were also ten times bigger than Spider-Man’s and in plain view, spoiling the mystery of whether they were scientific creation or super-power. Over top of all of this he wore his defining piece of clothing: a baby blue hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and a huge spider plastered diagonally across the chest. This is simultaneously the lamest and coolest costume of all time.
That actually does a good job defining Ben Reilly in general– everything sucked and was pretty rad at the same time. For a while, the status quo was that he was the real Peter Parker, and the one everyone had been reading about since the first time the clone appeared in 1975 was, in fact, the clone. MIND BLOWN. As a pre-teen reading that, I thought it was the coolest thing ever- they got me! But of course, nobody else liked it, because it meant the stories they had been reading all those years ‘didn’t count’, a whiny argument that will bug me until the day I die because if you read it and you like it that’s all that counts, man. Comics readers are always so concerned with this shit, and sometimes I’m no exception (WALLY WEST, DC, YOU FUCKS). This kind of long-standing change just doesn’t fly in mainstream comics, which are by their base nature perpetually stuck in the second act for generations and generations. You know they will never send a Spider-Man movie into theatres without Peter Parker as Spider-Man in the comics– this is actually rearing its head again as Dan Slott’s cool Dr. Octopus-as-Spider-Man storyline comes nearer and nearer to bits inevitable end when the next film comes out next year. But for a brief, shiny while we got to have our cake and eat it too– Ben Reilly was Peter Parker, and Peter Parker was Spider-Man. Ben ended up taking back the Spider-Man identity and rebuilding his life in New York for a time, and it was cool, but it was never as cool as when he dressed up like a dancer on Fame and beat on a roid-rage leather daddy clone of himself. Also, Venom was around sometimes and he wasn’t a legless Flash Thompson. Ah, those were the days.
Darkhawk is literally in my top 5 comic characters ever and I sincerely couldn’t tell you why.
I can tell you, however, that he has my favorite bad origin story in the history of the medium. It’s like a combination of the meaningful, character-driven prime of Marvel’s hero’s journey with some vintage Fawcett-style deus ex machina bullshit shoved in. Darkhawk’s real name is Chris Powell, and he becomes Darkhawk after witnessing his father, a policeman, accepting a bribe from the mob. The pathos! The drama! Chris learned everything about justice from his father, only to see it come crashing down! Of course, he witnessed all this in an abandoned amusement park shortly before finding a mysterious amulet that turns him into Darkhawk. Yep.
Finding an amulet in an old amusement park would have been lazy for the 1940s, when they literally would have spat on you for buying a comic book if you were over the age of twelve. I don’t know how or why it was thought up, signed off on, written down, illustrated and then published as the origin of a character they presumably wanted to be relevant, but it was, and you reap what you sow guys.
The weirdest thing about Darkhawk was years into the run when it was revealed that the armor Chris wore wasn’t actually just a suit; in fact, every time Chris used the amulet, he was switching places with the Darkhawk armor, which was actually a robot stored on a ship somewhere called ‘null space’. Also, the armor had been created by some intergalactic crime lord for purposes that escape me. I remember being really disappointed in this for a number of reasons: one, I had always viewed Darkhawk as kind of spooky. Maybe that’s just the mystical amulet in an abandoned amusement park talking, but I always skewed him to being like some weird Robot Jox outpost of Marvel’s monsterverse– he lines up a lot more in my mind with supernatural characters like Daimon Hellstrom and Man-Thing than the Nova Corps or Starjammers.
Secondly, and to bring the poor guy up again, the dramatic shift to being a boxy space robot just made Darkhawk seem like ROM. ROM was Marvel’s first boxy space robot back in the 1980s, and he has since been endlessly tied up in license wars with Hasbro since ROM was, first and most famously, a toy. The shift gave Darkhawk a context that just made him flat-out dull. His Spider-Man aping armpit-wings weren’t cool anymore, they were just part of his ripoff ROM outfit, but with two important differences– a mystical amulet and a slightly larger face slit!
All the same, I love Darkhawk more than some members of my own family. Chris was more relatable than most of the alter-egos of the period, and the original armor design still has a simple, almost-but-not-quite elegant charm. I have a figure of him in my bathroom for crying out loud! I just can’t shake that dude. Maybe if I cut through this abandoned amusement park….
So, you say, you thought this article was about things I liked? Yes, correct. Despite everything I just wrote, I LOVE all of this nonsense– In fact, I love it precisely because of everything I just wrote. Marvel’s main 616-universe was a ludicrous place in the 90s, a place where people got powers from burning chemicals and NFL memorabilia or an amulet they found in an abandoned amusement park. They were clones, or imperfect scarred clones, or addicted to light. They rode skateboards and set people’s blood on fire, they… well, a lot of them rode skateboards actually. It was the best of times. That’s all.
Tough Age's self-titled record is out now and streaming on Mint Records.