Hello Worlds! Welcome to my very first post of Infinite Crisis on Multiple Secret Earths, where a fairly new reader of comic books reads old events for the first time. My name is Shelby, I’ve been reading comics on the regular for about five years. It was an event that brought me to the world of monthly comics (Blackest Night 4 Eva) and while reading current books has given me a very basic idea of past events, I am largely uneducated about books and stories from more than 5-10 years ago. My friend George, the man behind the curtain here at Retcon Chicago, was a fan of my writing over at the similarly-named-but-unrelated Retcon Punch! and wanted to hear my take on some of his favorite stories, so here we are!
Since this is my first post, gentle readers, let’s start with some business. First things first: what’s an event? In ComicBookWorldLand, an “event” refers to a large scale crossover, a story which affects a universe instead of individual books. Events typically have one main title which runs for 6-10 issues, and any number of single issues of separate titles which more closely examine the event’s effect on that particular character and story. Naturally, none of this is set in stone, but it’s a good starting point to understanding these sorts of stories. There are four aspects I keep in mind as I read these books: art/writing, accessibility, longevity, and any other unique qualities I find. BE ADVISED: I’m not going to shy away from SPOILERS while I’m discussing these stories. Probably not that big of a deal since I’m going to be talking about books which are at least ten years old, but consider yourselves warned.
By accessibility, I mean how easy is it to follow the story with limited background information; do I have to read 50 issues of Captain America and Iron Man to understand Civil War? Longevity refers to how well the story and art hold up. Sometimes stories are timeless, evergreen, forever relatable. Other times they’re so crammed full of 90s era references I need to dig out my old diary to understand the lingo. And finally, “unique qualities” a.k.a. “ whatever else Shelby thinks is worth talking about.”
One thing I won’t be talking about is ratings. I personally am not a fan of rated reviews. While a letter grade, number of pieces of popcorn, or what have you may make it easy to choose a movie to watch, I think ratings stifle discussion; I would much rather walk away having learned a new perspective instead of a weighted score from a stranger on the internet.
BUT ENOUGH GABBING LET’S TALK COMICS. Today we’re looking at the first wave of Amalgam books, a super weird thing which happened in the middle of 1997’s Marvel vs DC, the ultimate crossover which pitted universe against universe. Honestly, considering the competition between the Big Two these days, I marvel (pun 150% intended) that this event ever occurred at all. The Amalgam books were a series of unrelated one-shots that just smashed characters from the two publishers together to create something new and fun, Girl Talk style. Since these books don’t tell one over-arching story, I’ll give some quick plot summaries, followed by broader discussion; check the end of the post for creative team credits. You can read these in any order, but Doctor StrangeFate is a great place to start, as one of the few books to acknowledge the mashup nature of this universe.
I’m going to tell you all right now, the best part of these books is figuring out which DC and Marvel characters were used to form the Amalgam crew. Doctor StrangeFate represents the magical sides of the Big Two, with the obviously perfect combination of Doctors Strange and Fate. The good doctor is aware of the fact his universe exists as a construct of two others, which is why he’s out to stop Access, the only man capable of prying the two universes apart. StrangeFate calls upon a few of his agents to find Access: Frankie Raynor, Jade Nova; Bruce Banner, Skulk; and the White Witch Wanda Zatara. Flash Fact: This Bruce Banner turns into Solomon Grundy instead of the Hulk.
Next up, one of my favorites of the group, Super Soldier, the tremendously wholesome blend of Captain America and Superman. Back in the 40s, Super Soldier ended WWII by sacrificing himself to defeat Ultra-Metallo; 50 years later, Super Soldier’s been thawed just in time to face an old enemy AND a new one. I think this book is the cleverest of the lot, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.
Another favorite of mine is Legends of the Dark Claw, the grizzled, crotchety mix of Batman (but not Bruce Wayne) and Wolverine. At his side, Sparrow, the sassy teen Robin/Jubilee. I never realized how badly I needed Hyena, the horrifying combo of Joker and Sabre Tooth, in my life until after I read this book. Interestingly enough, Bruce Wayne has his OWN Amalgam title, Bruce Wayne: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wayne has to lead his team against Lex Luthor, a.k.a. The Green Skull, but little does he know Selina Luthor, Lex’s daughter, is now in charge. Another very interesting story, Bullets and Bracelets, features Trevor Castle (Steve Trevor + Frank Castle, The Punisher), and Diana Prince trying to rescue their kidnapped son. By the way, that’s just Diana Prince: not Wonder Woman, and not combined with a Marvel character.
The Wonder Woman mantle is worn by someone else. Amazon gives us my favorite character in the Amalgam series, Ororo (a.k.a. Storm) as Wonder Woman. Seeing two of the most powerful women in comics merged into one character makes me tremendously happy, and happier still to see her defeat her foe Poseidon with words instead of violence. The other female-led book in the series is Assassins, starring the femmes fatales Catsai, which is Catwoman fused with Elektra; and Dare, the somewhat strange combo of Daredevil and Deathstroke. This book was a fairly run-of-the-mill big fight, until Catsai dropped a hint that maybe she and Dare were more than friends?
On top of that, there are rumors she and Dark Claw have a thing, which would make her not a lesbian but bisexual! Queer comic book characters are still a bigger deal than they should be NOW, let alone in 1997, I’m extremely surprised to find this here.
Next up is the campy fun Spider-Boy, which opens with the incorrigible Spider-Man/Superboy hero fighting Bizarnage, a mix which I really appreciate. The remaining solo title, Speed Demon, manages to feature ALL the Ghost Riders AND Flashes. At this point in comics history there had been two Ghost Riders (Johnny Blaze + demon, Danny Ketch + demon in a motorcycle) and three Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West). Speed Demon does some very intricate math to mush these characters together.
Jay Garrick - his soul = The demon Etrigan (and yes, he does speak in rhyme)
Blaze Allen + Etrigan = Speed Demon 1
Wally West + demon in a motorcycle = Speed Demon II
This makes me wish Amalgam could happen again, I’d love to see a third Speed Demon composed of Kid Flash and a demonic muscle car a la Robbie Reyes in Tradd Moore’s run of Ghost Rider.
The last three books in the series are team stories, all of which feature X-Men as part of the mix. The first adds the Teen Titans to create X-Patrol. This book has both the best amalgamated character name in the whole series (Shatterstarfire, so perfect) and one of the more obscure and cleverly used characters. Dial H.U.S.K references Dial H for Hero, a weird DC book where the main character spells HERO on a magical dial and just becomes a hero from another universe. In this particular case, she dials up a couple DC characters and one fantastic mix, Mary Marvel Girl. The next team combines Magneto and another DC deep cut, the Metal Men, to create Magneto and the Magnetic Men. Finally we have JLX, a Justice League/X-Men mashup which pits teammate against teammate, as the mutant members revolt against the human/alien/human-alien hybrid members.
I found the team books, JLX in particular, to be the weakest of the whole lot. They all suffer from problems of scope; in one single issue, the creative teams have to build a world, create multiple characters (JLX has 17 by my count), and establish a meaningful conflict. That’s A LOT to manage.
These books are tough to follow, and with such a large cast the game of “what characters did they use” becomes more distracting than fun. These are books where you’ll definitely get more out of them if you’re more familiar with the DC and Marvel character base; if DC hadn’t rebooted Dial H a few years back, that reference would have been completely lost on me.
The books I felt worked the best were the ones with the simplest character combinations. Super Soldier not only keeps things simple with its straightforward Superman plus Captain America universe, writer Mark Waid also manages to tell a clever story in not a lot of pages. After being found, the Super Soldier finds he’s inexplicably weaker than he used to be. Turns out, Luthor powered the bombs he built and sold during WWII with the Amalgam version of kryptonite, called “Kansas green.” The atmosphere was filled with fallout, so Super Soldier will forever have to contend with this loss of strength. That’s a tremendous opportunity for character growth; I wish there were more issues of this story, I want to see how Clark adapts to his new limitations. Instead of making a complicated universe for his story, Waid kept the mashup simple so he could tell a very complete story, which is why this book is one of the strongest and most easily approachable.
Some of these books suffer badly from that 90s-era Image style art: ridiculous muscles on the men, physics-defying breasts, waists, and costumes on the women, extra pouches, extra spikes, extra weapons, extra flair. It was a time of excess in comic book art, a time of SURGE and TO THE MAX and EXTREEEEEEEEEEME. Needless to say, it’s not a style I find particularly inspiring. Assassins is the worst offender, with a cover featuring one of the more ludicrous comic art phenomenons: the brokeback pose.
“Brokeback” is a phrase coined to describe the physically impossible stance required for a woman’s butt, breasts, and face to be pointing in approximately the same direction all at once. Between that, the thong leotards (HOW CAN THAT BE COMFORTABLE ENOUGH TO FIGHT CRIME IN), and general lack of understanding of how breasts look in clothing (hint: not individually wrapped), the visual depiction of women in these books is somewhat less than stellar.
There’s also a lack of diversity, a theme I know will be a common one as I read these older titles. Out of these 12 books only two star people of color: Amazon with Ororo and Assassins with Catsai, who’s Egyptian. I’m actually not completely certain Catsai’s intended to be a person of color, but at the very least she’s not just another white American. The creative teams share this lack of diversity. No female artists, a couple female inkers and colorists, and one female co-author. That’s it. I never thought about how spoiled I was to have “so many” female creators in comics these days, and this is in an industry which is still largely male-dominated. The sad fact of the matter is we’re only on the cusp of women and people of color having better representation, both in terms of characters and creators; these books definitely reflect how things used to be worse in that regard.
Despite those fallbacks this event is a lot of fun to read. There’s no need to read the Marvel vs DC event which spawned them, but the broader your knowledge of the DC and Marvel universe, the more fun you’ll have spotting which characters have been used to create the amalgams. These books may be difficult to find, however; DC and Marvel each put out a trade containing the six issues they published, but they’re both LONG out of print. It might be easier and cheaper to just buy the single issues on Ebay. Even though I never read these books when I was a kid, they definitely invoked a sense of nostalgia in me, made me think of watching X-Men and Spider-Man and the rest of my Saturday morning cartoon favorites. If you’ve read these books before and want to share your views of them, ask questions about things I didn’t go over, or have fun ideas for more amalgamated characters, leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear from you! Thanks for joining me here at Multiple Crisis on Infinite Secret Earths, I hope to see you next time!
Creative Team Credits
JLX: writers Gerard Jones & Mark Waid, penciler Howard Porter, inker John Dell
Assassins: writer Dan Chichester, penciler Scott McDaniel, inker Derek Fisher
Amazon: writer/penciler John Byrne, inker Terry Austin
Spider-Boy: writer/co-inker Karl Kesel, penciler Mike Wieringo, co-inker Gary Martin
Speed Demon: story Howard Mackie/James Felder, art Salvador Larroca/Al Milgrom
Doctor StrangeFate: script Ron Marz, pencils Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, inks Devin Nowlan
Magneto & the Magnetic Men: writer Gerard Jones, penciler Jeff matsuda, inker Art Thibert
Bullets & Bracelets: writer John Ostrander, penciler Gary Frank, inker Cam Smith
Super Soldier: Mark Waid and Dave Gibbons
Legends of the Dark Claw: writer Larry Hama, penciler Jim Balent, inker Ray McCarthy
X-Patrol: writers Karl & Barbara Kesel, penciler Roger Cruz, inker Jon Holdredge
Bruce Wayne: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: writer Chuck Dixon, penciler Cary Nord, inker Mark