And now... obscure works by today's stars.

*But let me start by noting that I bought issue #2 (of 5) of Sam Kieth’s “Ojo” this week, and I really don’t have a lot to say. I did notice that Kieth now has a second helper for the art: Chris Wisnia, who doesn’t get the cover billing that Alex Pardee does. The end result looks great in b&w, and there’s a standout fantasy scene involving cute characters singing a song and floating through a hallucinogenic bathtub. The story (by Kieth alone) continues to be the best stuff he’s done since the first “Zero Girl”, avoiding his tendency toward literal psychoanalysis and awkward declarations of interior character feelings that would better be left inferred. It’s strong stuff, and that’s all I have.

Spawn #16-18

All the cool kids were writing issues of “Spawn” back in the halcyon years of early Image. Alan Moore. Frank Miller. Dave Sim. Neil Gaiman, most infamously. I’ve never read Miller or Gaiman’s work on the title. Sim basically turned the book into a non-continuity parable about creator ownership. Moore wrote a lot of “Spawn”. Four miniseries and a few scattered issues (one of them as an uncredited dialogue ghost, I believe). Most of them were an opportunity for Moore to have bloody fun; the “Violator” miniseries was practically “Evil Dead 2” in its gore slapstick. It was leagues away for Moore’s deepest, most challenging work. It was a chance to make some money by cutting loose and indulging in guilty superhero fun.

Grant Morrison swung in a little after the rest of the guest crew in late 1993-early 1994, tackling this three-issue arc with Greg Capullo (and three different inkers on various issues) doing the art while creator Todd McFarlane worked with Miller on the “Spawn/Batman” special. The result is a surprisingly traditional beat-‘em-up, with flashes of Morrison’s wit. It also deals with some pretty big twists to the Spawn universe, and I’ve gotta wonder how much of this was directly cooked up by Morrison, unless some of the revelations were already made in earlier issues which I haven’t read; I was a “Savage Dragon” kid myself at the time.

The U.S. Military, it is revealed, had intentionally sold out Al Simmons (now the escaped soldier of Hell known as Spawn) to demons in exchange for a large supply of psychoplasm, the very essence of Hell itself, which morphs its physical form as based on external thought. The military’s dose is currently locked into the form of Simmons’ memories: his hometown, his church, his proposal to his wife. The terribly evil Jason Wynn wants to develop weapons based on the stuff. Meanwhile, the forces of Heaven decide that Spawn is way too much of a pain in the ass to deal with anymore, so the upper levels of the Heavenly Bureaucracy green light an Anti-Spawn project. It’ll take a hard man to contain the power, and no less than the very wicked Mr. Wynn is involuntarily chosen to become the vessel to deliver the Blessed Payload of Divine Wrath. Meanwhile, Spawn is taunted by the legions of darkness with visions of the misuse of his memories in military experiments.

Since I’m not certain that spoiler warnings for early issues of “Spawn” are necessary, I’ll just go on to say that Spawn kicks Anti-Spawn’s ass (after the obligatory round of getting himself roughed up, to build 'suspense' I suppose) but he’s still pretty pissed, so he travels all the way to the military’s secret base and burns down his own memories, except for the thoughts of his wife, which he saves and delivers to her as a psychic gift, so she’ll know how much he always loved her. It’s quite sweet, at least as far as “Spawn” goes, and even gently nudges against the themes of perceiving reality that Morrison has engaged with from “Animal Man“ through “Seaguy”. But it’s only background here for superhero struggle against that classic villain type, the Evil Mirror. Fisticuffs come first for “Spawn”.

Skrull Kill Krew #1-5

Aside from his continuing efforts on “The Invisibles”, Morrison also worked throughout the mid-90’s on a wide variety of side-projects, several of them with Mark Millar, whom Morrison had begun collaborating with in 1993 during his latter tenure at “2000 A.D.” Morrison and Millar would later collaborate on “Aztek: the Ultimate Man”, plus issues of “Swamp Thing” (which Millar would later script alone) and “The Flash” (during the early months of Morrison’s run on “JLA”). But “Skrull Kill Krew”, which arrived in 1995, right in the middle of these years of collaboration, also represents Morrison’s first work for Marvel in the US (like Alan Moore, Morrison had done some work at Marvel UK in the earlier days of his career). It’s thus interesting from a historical perspective, even though it doesn’t have much of a reputation, which the story itself unfortunately lives down to.

The basis of the plot isn’t exactly rock-solid. Way back in an early issue of “Fantastic Four”, we first encountered the violent shape-shifting multi-chinned Skrulls; the FF handily defeated a group of them, leaving them stuck in the shape of peaceful cows through the magic of hypnosis. Then they managed to transform back to normal during the Kree/Skrull War, only to be returned to cow form at some point during the struggle, and placed under military custody. Then the military sent them to the slaughterhouse. Yep. With all the other cows. One would assume that upon capturing members of an alien race you’d not want to release them into the nation’s food supply, even if they are in bovine form, but the Marvel Military just isn’t that bright.

So the Skrull Meat winds up in Our Nation’s Hamburgers, and alien viruses are thus transmitted to unwitting fast-food consumers. The symptoms? A whole lot of superpowers, including shape-shifting and explosive energy and the ability to see Skrulls as they really are, but also madness and early death. A rag-tag group of victims, including a mysterious dread-locked leader, a UK white supremacist, a lesbian riot grrrl, a nervous California surfer, and America’s top supermodel join forces to slaughter as many Skrulls as they can before they all die. But their fatalistic battle is not the main conflict the book has going.

No, the big war is between the nihilistic intent of the story and Marvel’s 1995 skittishness toward extreme content. Reading through the series’ five issues, it’s clear that the book is supposed to be over-the-top violent fun, with endless waves of evil aliens getting wasted by ultra-cool (if fucked-up) anti-heroes. The book was even released under the dandy-sounding ‘Marvel Edge’ banner. But there’s little that’s edgy today in this comic; it’s a baby-step into the chilly waters of today's Marvel MAX line, where the characters can actually say dirty words and shed a lot of blood. But “Skrull Kill Krew” can’t do that. Instead, we have the hardcore killer hero screaming the word ‘witch’ a lot, which gets to be pretty funny in a totally unintentional way; he’s like a junior-high kid who really wants to be tough but he’s scared that his mom will yell if she catches word that he’s cussing. And then there’s the violence; a lot of Skrulls get killed, and even a few humans. But there’s mere drips of green alien blood, or whispers of black ink as they’re shot; it’s like the theatrical version of “Pearl Harbor” (oh yeah, we had a nice family outing to the theater that day to see it, my whole immediate clan) where people would be shot from on high with aircraft guns and they’d sort of shake around a bit and flop to the ground dry as a bone instead of being reduced to pulp. It’s distracting. Particularly a scene where a human gets killed and a character remarks “It took his head right off…” with a horrified expression, even though the victim in question only looks like he got a hearty slap across the lips. The book’s extreme intent is totally muffled by the restrictions of its time; I know the Comics Code had little-to-no authority by those years, but the very presence of its Seal of Approval on the cover is emblematic of the problem facing the book.

Beyond that, the comic occasionally feels hustled. Even ignoring the dodgy set-up, the book doesn’t seem to be thought through with much care. The team recruits the aforementioned surfer in California. They get to New York, and the guy is still ignorant of how to use his powers and clueless as to much of the back-story. So what the hell did they all talk about on the motorcycle ride across the nation (oh, did I mention they‘re a biker gang too)? In one issue, Skrulls are posing as the Fantastic Four, and apparently they can now copy the FF’s powers along with their looks. How? We’re informed that they’ve developed applicable 'alien technology' through a word balloon that was quite plainly added at a late date, since the letters are in a totally different font than anything else in the issue. Steve Yeowell, longtime Morrison artist on titles like “Zenith” and “Sebastian O” does the pencils, and his work sometimes feels rushed. Several panels in issue #3 appear with no backgrounds or color whatsoever, only foreground art. The result is a dashed-off feel in both creative departments.

There’s also an attempt to tie the book into the larger superhero community, which provides some of the story’s better material. Captain America is quite charmingly characterized as a kindly ultra-competent idealist, perfectly content to sit in an airport restaurant in full costume amusing little children while waiting to meet a vital diplomatic envoy. Baron Strucker of Hydra pops up for a brief attempt at conquering an Eastern European nation by, um, hijacking a plane and flying over with his troops. Presumably they’ll burst out and take the place over with whatever they can stock onboard. Maybe it’s not a very big nation. Anyway, he does get to deliver the series’ best laugh, badmouthing Dr. Doom by dubbing him a 'neo-liberal'. Classic.

I’m not sure if the book feels more like Millar or Morrison. It certainly strikes me as a dry-run for Morrison’s vastly superior “Marvel Boy” (my review here), what with the amoral superpower violence and the struggle against 'established' Marvel Heroes. But by the time “Marvel Boy” rolled around, Morrison was able to tailor his madness to the restrictions of the Marvel Knights line, and perfect the means of chortling at Major Characters (solution: alternate universe). That’s probably the best way to look at “Skrull Kill Krew”, as a beta test. It also shares with “Marvel Boy” an abrupt end to the plot: hints are planted regarding future storylines, but the book never made it past issue #5. It was also never collected into trade form, leaving its future discovery to hardcore Morrison and/or Millar fans eager to chart their respective paths to Marvel superstardom and prepared to feel thankful that their House of Ideas output would get a lot better than this.

Heartburst (Marvel Graphic Novel #10)

I got a water-damaged copy of this for $1, and it provided me with the happiest moment of my life. You’ll see.

As you probably can recall, Marvel put out a whole lot of 'Graphic Novels' in the 80’s, basically oversized Prestige Format-style comics, with an often generous level of content freedom. There’s enough blood and sex in this book to put in on the level of a period “Heavy Metal” story, which it strongly resembles. Actually, it may have been originally presented in (or at least intended for) Marvel’s “Epic Illustrated” magazine, seeing as how it’s neatly divided into three 16-page chapters.

Released in 1984, it’s an early work by Rick Veitch, preceding his art duties on Alan Moore’s seminal “Swamp Thing” run at DC, and his own later Epic solo miniseries, “The One“. The story is a typical little sci-fi war satire, with some neat touches. Young Sunoco Firestone is an acolyte of the dominant religion among Earth’s long-traveling space colonists, which is based entirely around mid-20th century television broadcasts which have just recently made their way this far out into space; the colonists believe them to be the mysterious word of God (known as the Sponsor, as in “Now for a word from…”) and many people have become quite powerful by interpreting the Divine Meaning behind these cryptic snatches of forgotten ephemera. The colonists have invaded a planet of humanoid green-skinned natives known as the Ploo and are busy converting them via gunpoint to the puritanical ways of twin-bed sitcoms. But Sunoco finds himself strangely attracted to a beautiful Ploo girl... and meanwhile, Earth has developed a highly experimental (though much faster) means of interstellar transportation, based on portals that are controlled by the human heart, so they send an envoy who finds herself faced with the unfortunate task of informing the colonists that their deeply held generation-spanning religious beliefs are a scientifically disproven load of horseshit. She‘s dubbed a madwoman and jailed as a heretic, particularly when she becomes outraged at the forcible sex re-education/genocide of the Ploo.

Quite a lot of ground is covered in 48 pages, as Sunoco and the envoy and the Ploo girl form a romantic triangle, all-out war breaks out, and Sunoco (naturally) discovers the secret heart-fueled power within him, which just might provide the key to re-connecting everyone and establishing peace. And in true “Heavy Metal” fashion, he is also educated in the ways of love by both female characters (the only two in the book, by the way), who disrobe on multiple occasions. Each. Again, in only 48 pages, which says a lot for the book‘s narrative economy.

If you’re familiar with the broad, violent satire of “The One” or any of Veitch’s King Hell Heroica books, you’ll get to bask in realization that such the aesthetic stretches right back to Veitch’s beginnings. The art, however, is a little slicker than Veitch’s later work, which emphasizes the lumpiness and grotesquery of his casts; even the somewhat sweeter “Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset” (still the best non-Alan Moore series ABC put out) exerts a misshapen caricature menace, which is absent from the glossy pages of this smoothly colored tale, although the violence gets quite graphic when it’s time for battle.

As a coming-of-age story, the book works pretty well when judged on the level of sex-and-violence prone sci-fi. Veitch’s satirical work has always been hit-and-miss for me; he’s prone to wandering off on tangents, like the seemingly endless training brutality of “Brat Pack”, which deflates the near-brilliant parody of the phone-in death of Jason Todd that opens the book. Forced to compress itself, “Heartburst” doesn’t have the room to wander away, although it’s not quite as effective or as unsubtly sophisticated as Roarin’ Rick’s later works. It also ends on a note of hope, which joins it with Veitch’s other satires which despite their ugliness retain confidence in the arrival of Something Better.

Oh? The happiest moment of my life? Well, the book’s pages were occasionally a little clingy, given the damage. It was mostly easy to get around. But two pages in particular were simply intent on clinging together. I tugged and tuged, and finally the death grip was released. And what, you ask, was revealed by those sticky sheets?

The alien girl’s big full-frontal scene.

The gears in my head clicked around for a bit. And soon I was wearing a smile not wholly unlike that of Jonathan Pryce at the end of “Brazil”.

It was much better than my first kiss.