In the early 1990s, the comic book industry was going through a massive sales boom. Malibu Comics (founded by Dave Olbrich and Tom Mason, with Chris Ulm joining soon after) saw that boom firsthand when they were the initial publishers of Image Comics (Image wasn’t able to publish their own books right away). Malibu had recently merged with a video game company and thus, came into significant financing. So, its founders figured that they needed to create their own comic book universe: the Ultraverse! The creators they brought in for the venture were A-list, and included Steve Englehart, Mike Barr, Steve Gerber, James Hudnall, Gerard Jones, James Robinson and Len Strazewski, who all worked closely in plotting the course of this new universe.
The Ultraverse launched to great acclaim in 1993, but sadly, the comic book market took a major turn for the worse in 1994 and Malibu ultimately sold their company to Marvel by the end of that year. Marvel continued publishing the Ultraverse characters for a time, and even had some of their characters like Loki, Juggernaut and Black Knight cross over into the Ultraverse. In the end, though, sales at both companies were floundering and the Ultraverse was shuttered in 1996, never to return in comic books since. There was a lot to like about the Ultraverse, but these are the 15 things in particular that we still miss about the ill-fated publisher.
Prototype, created by Tom Mason and Len Strazewski, was a twist on the Iron Man concept. For years, Iron Man was publicly known as Tony Stark’s bodyguard. However, since he wasn’t actually Tony Stark’s bodyguard (but rather Tony Stark himself), there was never really any avenue to explore the notion of what it was like to be a corporate superhero and what that entailed. That’s where Prototype stepped in.
Like Iron Man, Prototype was an armored superhero who operated as the public face of the Ultra-Tech corporation. The original Prototype, Bob Campbell, had his arm torn off in battle and in the first issue we met his successor, Jimmy Ruiz. Ruiz, as it turned out, was an Ultra himself (“Ultra” was what they called people with superpowers in the Ultraverse, like DC Comics uses “Meta”) and could power the armor using his body, meaning his armor was much sleeker than Bob’s. Thereafter, Jimmy and Bob (who became a new armored hero known as Ranger) soon had to team up when they discovered that their employer was up to some shady business. Oddly enough, when Marvel relaunched the Ultraverse, Jimmy Ruiz was retconned out of existence and Bob Campbell was the only Prototype (his arm had never been torn off, either).
Created by Mike Barr with original artwork from Terry Dodson, Mantra had the sort of high concept that Hollywood dreamed of — a warrior named Lukasz was part of an ancient group known as “Twelve Knights of Archimage,” who served a good wizard (named Archimage) against an evil wizard named Boneyard. Any time one of the knights died, Archimage would just plant their minds into the body of a new person and they would continue their eternal fight. This continued until Archimage was betrayed by one of his knights and killed, along with the other knights. Before he died, Archimage made a desperate move, placing Lukasz’s mind into the body of a woman who had latent magical powers, as he was soon going to need all the protection that he could get.
Lukasz was now in the body of Eden Blake, a divorced single mother of two children. The inherent comedy was seeing an ancient warrior forced to handle a new female body and also deal with her kids (meanwhile, he was falling in love with Eden, who he would interact with inside her soul). The name Mantra came from the magic powers that Eden possessed. Interestingly, when Marvel relaunched the Ultraverse, Mantra’s powers were given to a blonde teenage babysitter.
Created by James Hudnall, Hardcase was one of the first superheroes in the Ultraverse, forming a team with some other early superheroes. They called themselves “The Squad,” and soon became extremely famous. However, tragedy struck when the team took on a powerful villain, who killed almost all of them, with only Hardcase remaining as The Squad’s only surviving member. Of his three other teammates, two died and one was comatose. He retired from being a superhero and instead became an actor, portraying himself in major motion pictures. When the Ultraverse officially began, Hardcase was pulled out of retirement to become a superhero once again.
As the most experienced hero when the Ultraverse began (and a celebrity), Hardcase took on a leadership role within the Ultraverse. He helped form Ultraforce and became the group’s leader. Oddly enough, though, when Marvel relaunched the Ultraverse, Hardcase was erased from the universe entirely, despite the “Ultraforce” cartoon series of the time featuring him as their leader on the show.
One of the most unusual titles launched by the Ultraverse, “Rune” was created by Barry Windsor-Smith and Chris Ulm, and it was one of those rare comics that starred what was essentially a villain. Rune was a vampire-like alien who had come to Earth hundreds of years ago and had been worshiped as a god for years, as his worshipers supplied him with human sacrifices. His fangs would allow him to absorb the life energy of people. When Ultras came to prominence, Rune discovered that feasting on them (or more accurately, their powers) was particularly helpful for him.
Rune’s debut echoed Barry Windsor-Smith’s past success at Valiant, where he illustrated “Solar, Man of the Atom” #0 in a series of short stories within the pages of that hero’s titular book. At the Ultraverse, they took that gimmick a step further, with “Rune” #0 being serialized in all of Ultraverse’s comic books of the time. If you collected them all, you could redeem coupons from them all to get a single edition of “Rune” #0 (which just collected the serialized story into a single comic). Rune was one of the few characters to get a second volume when Marvel relaunched the Ultraverse. He fought both Adam Warlock and the Silver Surfer and even, at one point, got a hold of the Infinity Gauntlet!
“Exiles” was one of the few Ultraverse concepts whose creation mostly predated the Ultraverse itself, as Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich and Chris Ulm planned on doing an “Exiles” series at Malibu proper. They then brought Steve Gerber on to the project to adapt it into the Ultraverse proper. The comic soon became one of the most bizarrely memorable publishing stunts of the 1990s.
You see, the concept of the Exiles was that Dr. Rachel Deming cured a disparate group of people of a disease called the Theta Virus. Once cured, the surviving person gained superpowers. Deming decided to put all of the characters together as a superhero team, with a new member, young Amber Hunt, joining the team in #1. However, the whole thing was a play on the notion that someone (say, a Professor X) could bring together a group of random people with just shared powers (say, the X-Men) and then suddenly be able to turn them into competent superheroes. However, in “Exiles” #4, the team screws up big time and almost all of them are killed! It was then revealed that the comic was always going to be just a four-issue series, despite fake solicitations being released for future issues (a practice that is no longer allowed by Diamond Distributors). It was certainly a memorable way to end a series!
Created by Steve Englehart, the Strangers were literally just that — a group of strangers on a cable car in San Francisco (well, nearly strangers, two of them were friends already), which got hit by a bolt of energy that gave everyone on the cable car superpowers (as well as the driver of a nearby car, who was hit by the cable car after it was struck). Six of the cable car passengers decided to form their own superhero team.
Working with artist Rick Hoberg, Englehart really played with the idea of these people truly being random by having them come from all walks of life, including one of the earliest prominent gay superheroes, Spectral. Sadly, one of their members, Atom Bob, ultimately was driven insane and was revealed to secretly be the Strangers’ greatest foe! When Marvel relaunched the Ultraverse, the Strangers did not get relaunched with it (although there was nearly a “Strangers” animated series to follow up the “Ultraforce” cartoon).
Created by Steve Gerber, Aaron Lopresti (in one of his earliest comic book works) and Gary Martin, Sludge was basically a mixture between DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing, as Sludge was a corrupt cop who turned on his mob bosses and was killed while in the sewer. This being comics, he was re-animated by chemicals in the sewers and turned into a creature made out of — SPOILER ALERT — sludge. He also had the ability to burn human flesh.
Gerber already had success writing Man-Thing, but now he took on a new approach where Sludge, unlike Man-Thing, was sentient and thus knew how horrible it was that he would create cancerous tumors on anyone that he touched (his mind was also somewhat damaged, as he could not think of the correct word for things, like saying “compost” when he meant “company”). It was a wonderful mix of existential dread mixed into a universe of mostly bright and upbeat superheroes. That was one of the great things about the Ultraverse: it was willing to go in different directions with its shared universe.
8. Commercials and other TV spots
As noted earlier, Malibu Comics had a good deal of financing at their beginning, as investing in a new superhero company made a whole lot of sense to business people in the early ’90s. Malibu used that money in some innovative ways. One of these was by actively marketing their new superhero line of comics in a fashion that DC and Marvel almost never did, namely through television commercials!
The commercial spots worked on the main notion that drove the early 1990s speculator market, which was the idea that Superman’s first appearance in 1938 was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Spider-Man’s first appearance in 1962 was worth tens of thousands of dollars, so who knows what the first appearances of the Ultraverse characters would be worth 50 years later?
Since it was headquartered in California, Malibu Comics also tended to be seen as “the” comic book company for the entertainment industry. That was something that the company fostered, and they were very open to celebrities visiting whenever they felt like it. This led to the memorable episode of the hit sitcom “Mad About You,” where Eric Stoltz played an ex-boyfriend of Helen Hunt’s Jamie Buchman, who had turned her into the comic book villain, Queen Talon.
7. Lord Pumpkin
Created as a concept by Dan Danko and brought to life by Steve Gerber, Aaron Lopresti and Gary Martin in the pages of “Sludge,” Lord Pumpkin was one of the coolest villains of the Ultraverse. He originally existed in a magical kingdom within the Godwheel. The story goes that, in this kingdom, there lived a nice king and queen, who had a disturbed young prince. He would torture animals and even blinded one of his servants. So, the king and queen had the royal wizard create a playmate for their son. The wizard came up with an animated pumpkin who could not die.
Well, the prince took advantage of that fact by routinely torturing his pumpkin friend, chopping him up with an ax and other horrific actions; of course, the pumpkin would heal and it would start anew. Eventually, Lord Pumpkin had enough and killed the boy, then the king and queen, and anyone who else who wanted to mess with him. He took over the whole kingdom and eventually made his way to the reality of the Ultraverse. Lopresti’s design for Lord Pumpkin was excellent and the character became the main villain of the Ultraforce cartoon series and was a major part of Marvel’s relaunched Ultraverse.
The creation of the Ultraforce was based on the fact that Ultraverse did not have a superhero team that would be easily adaptable into a comic book series and a line of toys. So, the Ultraverse came up with their version of the Avengers; the Ultraforce consisted of the major heroes of the Ultraverse, who would help police the rest of the world’s Ultras. George Perez was the original artist on the series, which was written by Gerard Jones. When Marvel purchased Malibu, Black Knight of the Avengers came into the Ultraverse and ended up joining Ultraforce, soon becoming leader of the team.
During Marvel’s relaunch of the Ultraverse, there was an excellent “Ultraforce/Avengers” crossover by George Perez and new “Ultraforce” writer Warren Ellis (the series is perhaps best remembered for having a bunch of independent comic book characters also guest star in the crossover, like Joe Quesada’s Ash and Serigo Aragones and Mark Evanier’s Groo). Ellis did a great job on the relaunched “Ultraforce” series, although he had to restrain himself a bit. The point, remember, was to come up with a comic that could work as a Saturday morning cartoon to be accompanied by its own line of toys. So, the normally cerebral Ellis had to make sure that the book could be read by kids; in the end, being Warren Ellis, he did a great job!
The best villain in the Ultraverse was Rafferty, the sadistic Ultra serial killer created by James Robinson. The initial “Firearm” series saw the hero take down a group of rich guys who funded the hunting of former servicemen (they would then eat the victim). The remaining members of the group began to fund Rafferty instead. Rafferty was a psychotic killer who was forced to join the army to get away from the mob, who put a price on his head. While there, he became a brilliant killer, but his team was taken down by a group of Ultras. He was the only member of his unit to survive, which made him obsessed with killing Ultras.
In a sweeping epic, Rafferty would criss-cross the United States, killing Ultras. Alec Swan had been hired by the father of one of Rafferty’s victims, so he soon became the object of Rafferty’s obsession. Rafferty would taunt Swan all along the way, challenging him to stop him. The “Firearm” series ended in a battle to the death between the two rivals.
4. Night Man
Steve Englehart already had one of the great Batman runs on “Detective Comics,” so he had a lot of experience in writing dark heroes when he created Night Man for the Ultraverse. Johnny Domino was a lot like Englehart’s previous creation for Valiant, Shadowman, in that they were both jazz saxophone players. Domino actually gained his superpowers in the first issue of “Strangers,” as he was the guy whose car was hit by the cable car. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the brain and it ended up erasing his need for sleep. He now had the ability to read people’s minds and tell when they were evil. He could also see in the dark, so put it all together and he was a natural superhero.
Night Man was one of the few solo Ultraverse series to continue after the Marvel relaunch. Amazingly, after the company shut down, Night Man was actually optioned and made into a syndicated TV series in the late 1990s, in a period where there were very, very few comic book related TV programs out there.
Created by James Robinson, Howard Chaykin and Cully Hamner, the debut of “Firearm” was an example of just how unusual Malibu was at the time. “Firearm” #0 took place in a joint story. Half of it took place in a short video and half of it took place in a comic book (with early Mike Wieringo art!). It introduced us to Alec Swan, a former British special operative who gained the nickname “Firearm” for his proficiency with guns (plus his special gun that was supplied to him by his secret British agency, the Lodge). After he retired, he moved to California and became a private investigator.
Swan was, in a lot of ways, a precursor to Robinson’s “Starman” series, as Swan and Jack Knight had a lot in common. Both were unusual men in the world of superhero comics. “Firearm” was likely the best Ultraverse series and it holds up very well today.
The most memorable Ultraverse character was Prime. He was created by Gerard Jones, Len Strazewski and Norm Breyfogle, who was wooed by Malibu Comics from DC Comics, where he had previously been a star artist on “Batman.” Prime was a modern update of the Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel idea, which saw young Billy Batson transform into Captain Marvel, Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. Kevin Green was a teenager who had this sort of liquid goop secrete from his body that would form a body around Kevin’s — this body was the idealized image of a superhero known as Prime.
Prime was clearly Ultraverse’s star character. He even had his own video game! If ever there was a character who would get adapted into a movie, it would be Prime (although, as mentioned earlier, Mantra also would be a really easy adaptation). Jones and Strazewski did a great job balancing the upbeat nature of the title along with some modern problems, including social issues, such as identity politics and sexuality.
1. Ellen Swan
As noted before, “Firearm” was probably Ultraverse’s best book, and the one issue of “Firearm” that stood out among all the others (besides, of course, the joint video #0) was “Firearm” #5, which was titled, quite strangely, “Said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork.” The title references a famous mural on the wall of a hotel in Pasadena, California (where Alec Swan was based).
In the issue, Swan was headed home when he met Ellen, an Ultra with small wings on her back. A lot of Ultras had been driven crazy by an event on the moon (part of a crossover called “Break-Thru”) and Ellen’s Ultra boyfriend was trying to convince her to try to fly to the moon. Despite her wings, she wasn’t really able to fly, but she figured she might as well try to do so, since she preferred death to being an Ultra (her wings were connected to her spine, so removal of the wings might paralyze her).
Alec, though, talked her out of jumping, partly through hitting on her. She eventually became his girlfriend and, towards the end of the series, his wife (had the series continued, Robinson suggested that they might have become a husband and wife detective team, like Nick and Nora Charles). The issue stood out as the perfect example of how delightfully offbeat the Ultraverse could be at times (“Firearm” in particular). Here was this major company-wide crossover, and the whole issue was just a hero trying to talk a woman from jumping off a roof, while he hits on her! “Firearm” is one of the great “lost” classics of the 1990s.
What is your favorite memory of the Ultraverse? Let us know in the comments section!
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