Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Nightman and Wrath: A Sample of Malibu Comics' Ultraverse (1993-94)

This is undoubtedly the longest – mostly due to the insane amount of images added – post this blog should ever dare to post.  The smart thing to do would have been to cut it down and treat both titles in the more general sense, but I went whole hog and never intend on touching on either title ever again.

     Real comic book geeks can speak volumes about the various publishers, artists, and writers that have made a true impact in the field.  I am not one of those people.  Sure, I could tell you that Spawn is – or was – an Image Comics title, or that Robocop verses the Terminator came from Darkhorse (and I never read either of these).  I followed some of the X-Men and X-Factor story arcs that Marvel put out there.  But I tended towards less successful publishers.  That could mean following The Justice Machine from Comico to Innovation – I got started too late to be reading it from its days with Texas Comics or Noble Comics – or ElfQuest on WaRP graphics.  And in 1993 it meant I went and found a title from Malibu Comics to follow, and it was The Night Man.
     Now, one does not have to be an avid fan of the graphic arts to be a fan of Batman.  Because Batman is cool, right?  Unless we want to imagine him as Adam West or a member of the superfriends.  Or if we want to ignore that he is little more than an update on Zorro, because Zorro – I do not mean Antonio Banderas Zorro – is cooler than Batman.  Still, Batman is mostly cool, and he is a compelling superhero.  But is is also one with a lot of backstory and an established stable of villains.  What would someone do if they wanted a Batman-like character, starting from scratch, and done right?
     They would have picked up The Night Man.

Even in the first issue, the Night Man is on his way to refining his outfit and capabilities.  He doesn't start off with everything he needs, but he is also not a hero who is afraid to shoot a bad guy with a gun. 
There you go, the mission statement for a hero.  Motivation, cool inner monologue (or as cool as an exposition-laden monologue can be), and a reasonable explanation for wearing a cape.
     Debuting in October of 1993, The Night Man was not among the first titles in Malibu's Ultraverse.  In fact, the lead character gains his super powers as a result of an incident in an issue of The Strangers – a superhero team – some months prior.  Actually, it is a little bit of a misnomer to label the Malibu characters as superheroes and/or super villains.  The majority are Ultras, or beings that have exceptional or super powers who have to figure out just what to do with said powers. 
The Night Man returns to battle Mangle, a rather disturbing creation in his own right.  I have a feeling that the strip club advertising on the cover may have scared a few parents.
Issue #2 has no problem revisiting the premise of the character, a well used comic book cliché but one that works very well here.  It is nice to see a hero wonder if he has the right – or sane – motivations.
     Bay area jazz saxophonist Johhny Domino is one of those people.  He got a piece of shrapnel to the brain when a streetcar got all exploded near him, and this lead to his state at the beginning of the title.  First, Johnny got a fat settlement from the city of San Francisco (this allows him to come into his money in a more modern way than Batman, because who is interested in the son of wealthy industrialist in the early '90s?).  Second, his eyes are permanently, which allows him to see better in the dark but requires him to wear sunglasses during the day to protect his eyes.  The sleep center of his brain was (implausibly) destroyed, so he doesn't need any sleep – this allows him to operate day and night as musician and Ultra.
The Night Man makes an appearance in an issue of Freex, which ties-in to the Break-Thru storyline Malibu had – which, in and of itself led to more titles – and it does little to advance the story of the Freex.  A little odd, considering it is the more established title at the time.  Then again, Night Man is Malibu's answer to Batman, and I'd bet on Batman before I did on a team of teenage Ultras.
Baddie Mangle appealing to the Freex for help in the cross-over issue between The Night Man and The Freex.  Malibu took crossovers and storyline integration to a new – I'll say ridiculous – level with the Ultraverse.  It was truly impossible to follow any title character's story without reading at least 3-4 other titles.  And that was from the beginning, not 50-60 issues into a run.
     Most importantly, Johnny can hear evil thoughts, but this ability does not work on demand.  It is like a radio that only offers up a burst of sound when the listener is not paying any attention to it.  Johnny isn't motivated by some sense of revenge over what happened to his parents – his father is still alive – but by a need to stop the evil that he hears inside his head.  Again, an alternative to the Batman storyline that I think just works better.  The hero isn't a deeply troubled individual – a pro-social sociopath – but rather an individual who cannot stand by and let innocent people suffer if he can interrupt to plots and plans of whoever is behind the thoughts he has heard.
Sometimes the Night Man had to get physical with some otherwise innocent Ultras in order to get the bad guy.
Exactly!  A hero who has to compensate for a lack of Ultra powers with technology.  And who loses from time to time.  The Night Man continues to have a streak of Batman in him, but having to learn how to do his job along the way.  That was one of the nicer things about new titles – they allow the reader to see character growth and not just battle after battle against the stable of baddies.
Mangle's story of how he came to be.  It is clear that Malibu views the Billionaire Industrialist and Son very differently than DC comics does.  I cannot think of another mainstream label that introduced a psychopathic child into the mix, and in the case of The Night Man, it helped make the world feel more real and more mature.
     Johnny knows some martial arts, his father getting him involved in Aikido at the age of five.  And papa Domingo (Johnny whited-up his name to make it as a musician) is a private security officer (but this is treated more like there is a regular police force and a private security force, and both serve parts of the city), Johnny gets some level of access to police resources.  Still, at the start, Johnny is mostly guessing as to what it takes to make it as an Ultra.  He has no idea just what is out there waiting for him.
Even when Johnny Domino is working a gig, evil just seems to find him.  Good thing he carries his suit in his car and can become the Night Man with a few minutes notice.
Johnny's power doesn't work on demand, nor can he turn it off.  Essentially, he has an evil detector that won't quit.  Unfortunately, it only works on its own terms
      Out of the box, Johnny overhears thoughts of premeditated murder.  He investigates this exceedingly well for a jazz musician and identifies the man and his intended victim.  Johnny's rather straight forward plan is to confront the would-be killer right as he is about to commit the act – because he can't bring someone to justice for a crime they have yet to commit.  And he isn't exactly the law.  Unfortunately, things do not go as planned, Johnny gets a horrifying glimpse into what lies ahead for him as an Ultra.  Hero-ing ain't going to be easy.
Batman gets Catwoman as an adversary/love interest.  Yeah, well the Night Man gets a 4700 year old Celtic priestess named Rhiannon who murders people to stay young forever.  And she is all about getting down with our hero so long as he can be cool with who she is – a being that is just superior to the people she kills.

A hero just has to protect his definite article.
     As the Night Man, Johnny has to learn how to determine who is dangerous and who he can help.  For the most part – remember, he is gifted with the ability to hear evil thoughts – he is spot on in his assessments.  He may fight the Freex, but he quickly figures out that they aren't a danger to anyone (in this regard, Johnny is a much better judge of Ultras than Wrath) when they are left alone.  Johnny wants to work outside the law but serve the law.  Why?  Because he is Malibu's answer to Batman, and that is what Batman does – more or less.
The Night Man gets to fight the villainous team TNTNT.  Except they don't work together well as a team.  And, in typical comic book fashion, they get an abbreviated introduction letting the reader know who they are.  Still, they are tied to the central continuity of the Ultraverse.  As a filler enemy, TNTNT isn't that bad.
The Hunts.  In the Ultraverse, the Billionaire and Son are not going to make the world a better place.  They are going to control it.  And they don't much care for the notion that there are people in the world with powers who don't answer to them.  Papa Hunt sends TNTNT after the Night Man because the hero put the billionaire on a watch list.  That would make Nixon proud.
Johnny Domino doesn't have the kind of resources Bruce Wayne does.  But he doesn't let his DIY approach to being a costumed hero get in the way of getting the job done.  He vocabulary could use some work, but I think most heroes would say learn how to win the battle first, then step up to cunning barbs and snappy banter.
     The Night Man read like a more mature – but not "adult themed" – title in 1993 and 1994 than most of what I had read from Marvel and DC.  It tried to maintain a sense of internal consistency and tone.  The Night Man fought the really dark and dangerous things that aren't visible in the light of day (figuratively).  He was the one who would get saddled with the serial killers in addition to the billionaire sadists – father and son – who sponsored or built enough baddies to keep him busy many times over.
The Night Man gets to fight a werewolf.  This is actually a pretty cool story line, but there is a slight problem in that the same man backing the werewolf – J.D. Hunt – has some robot-like creations named the NuWare Wolves...and those already battled with the Night Man.
Eddie Domingo – Johnny's father – gets some harsh treatment from the werewolf.  You have to know that the Night Man isn't going to take kindly to that.
     By the time The Night Man reaches issue #7, he has established a primary enemy in J.D. Hunt.  He also has the love/hate/fear thing going on with Celtic priestess Rhiannon.  Still, the Russian werewolf was the coolest adversary introduced.  He is cocky, arrogant, and has a last name that sounds like apocalypse – a treat for people playing the White Wolf Werewolf RPG.  He gets to do his killing. It seems like the Night Man can't keep everybody safe; he can only hope to limit the evil that can be wrought against regular people.
The conclusion of the werewolf plot-line.  Sort of.
Yes, The Night Man made full and regular use of the comic book onamonapeias, but "Klunt" is not the most unfortunate one ever used.  Now, how would you expect the werewolf to react to an uppercut to the snout?
This is the verisimilitude that most comic books lack.  Werewolf part aside, any real smoker is going to be more upset over losing the smoke than getting punched in the face.
I prefer this method for dealing with a werewolf.  Sure, the Night Man carries a gun and could have just loaded up on silver bullets.  But shocking one into submission has the right mix of non-lethality and sadism that makes for a good vigilante.
     Well, if the werewolf went and ripped the Night Man apart, there wouldn't be a title anymore.  What Johnny relies on – more than his own preparations or carrying the right gadgets – is for his adversaries to underestimate him.  He has a good learning curve, and most of the things he fights aren't used to fighting an Ultra.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that Johnny can devote an insane amount of time to the gym to really bulk up (*cough* steroids *cough*) to be able to match the muscle of a werewolf or freak wearing an exoskeleton.
Season two of the Ultraverse finds The Night Man still dogged by J.D. Hunt.  It doesn't help that the Billionaire sets his sights on busting the werewolf out of jail.  On a side note, it may be a good idea to not keep any captured werewolves where you would put the regular criminals.
Always reassuring to know that writer Steve Englehart has a plan for the story.  The Night Man's villainous love interest hasn't forgotten about him, and the readers are glad because of it.
Child abuse.  You don't see it in a lot of comics.  Actually, you may; I honestly don't read enough to judge.  But the scene conveys the inhumanity of J.D. Hunt, and it gives the reader a bit of pleasure at seeing little Guy take one in the chops.
The other side of the father-son relationship: Eddie Domingo goes vigilante to help out Johnny.  Sure, both involve violence, but in this case it isn't directed against the innocent or each other.
     Other than Death Mask – from the first issue – the Night Man cannot really get away from his adversaries.  J.D. Hunt has enough money and clout to keep Johnny from being able to put him behind bars.  Rhiannon has enough experience to avoid getting caught; she does want the Night Man so she keeps coming 'round.  This makes sense, but it starts to feel as though writer Englehart embraces the style of other comic book labels a little too early. 
Issue #10 finds the Night Man moving into his secret base at an amusement park – this actually ties-in to an on-going story – and J.D. Hunt trying to find a way to make a better killer robot.  But the main story here is that another person from the cable car incident gets Ultra powers...after he gets killed.

There you, go, superheor.  Just move some of the old boxes an d be prepared to dust and clean, and you can make use of this room we aren't using.  Every comic book hero should have a lair, and this seems more realistic than building a Batcave.  "Pud".  That has to be the most unfortunate comic sound effects that one could add, and The Night Man does it in issue #10.
"Pud".  That has to be the most unfortunate comic sound effects that one could add, and The Night Man does it in issue #10.
     One of the very minor story-lines had to do with the disposition of the amusement park where Eddie Domingo works security (he also does security at high end society functions).  A rich man wants to buy it to build an estate, reasoning that because his family owned the land for most of the 19th Century, that is where his mansion should go.  Johnny's critique of him – very fitting given his locale – is that men like this learned their business ethics under Reagan and Bush, meaning that people don't factor into their business decisions.  In issue #10, Johnny creates a secret lair for the Night Man at the amusement park.  This doesn't get much attention later, but it is somewhat encouraging that Johnny stops operating out of his apartment.
The Night Man goes up against one part of TNTNT, but much of the story is given over to the spirit that was bound to an old suit of armor and now finds itself in a robot.  It is here, at issue #11 that I start to worry about the filler coming a little too early in the run.
This is page sixteen.  Page fifteen looks exactly the same.  Now, there is filler in terms of story or action and then there is just filler – ink wasted giving the reader nothing but a solid black panel for the page.  This is worse than anything Kremin did in its first two issues.
See that dollar sign?  Yeah, I took that to mean that Malibu just wanted more of my money.  Hostile Takeover was a cross-title storyline that did little for the Night Man.  Sludge – a thoroughly uninteresting take on the Hulk – just wastes space; I think he is just included because the story moves from the West Coast to the East Coast.  Actually, I didn't care for any of the other Ultraverse characters listed here so this wasn't a selling point.
     As much as Johnny isn't out to kill, he isn't above it.  He carries a gun as his ultimate weapon.  He is okay with kicking guys out of a jet airplane rather than taking measures to subdue them and keep them alive.  Still, he doesn't go looking to kill.  He considers himself a good guy who just has to do the dirty work.  He hears the evil thoughts of others and cannot walk away from what he has become since putting on the costume and becoming the Night Man.
First of all, Malibu, the twelfth issue is not the anniversary issue.  The Night Man debuted in October 1993 and this issue was September 1994.  Who counts eleven months for an anniversary?
Hey, do you remember when Spin magazine was a thing?  Well, you do have to be of a certain age, but Spin magazine used to exist.  And for some reason, Malibu comics thought it would be a good idea to expand their reach by offering a free issue of Rune in an issue.  This ad ran in The Night Man #12.
The good news?  Rhiannon is coming back.  The bad news?  You need to go out and buy at least two other titles (if memory served, the total storyline took place in nine different seven that were not part of the title I was following).  No, I didn't buy Solution or Prototype.   I just wanted the Night Man to get back to his stories.
     Then the worst of all possible scenarios happens.  The Night Man gets hijacked by stories that are more related to other titles.  Or serve to launch new characters.  This isn't ten or fifteen years into the title.  It isn't on its fourth or fifth author.  As good as the Malibu titles looked, and as strong as the stories were in the better issues, the desperate need to cross promote titles really turned me off.  I kept hoping the master story would get back on track.  J.D. Hunt, the werewolf, and Rhiannon were worthy adversaries who merited multi-issue stories at a time and I never felt cheated to see them continuing to be a presence in the background.  I wanted more of that.
The good news?  Evil priestess Rhiannon is back.  The bad news?  She doesn't look all sexy and alluring on the cover and the new penciler doesn't do the title justice.  Decent story in the issue, though.

I didn't care much for Tek Knight or his story, but this sequence really worked for me.  Maybe because it has the perfect meshing of comic book style and D&D imagery.
The spurting heart in Rhiannon's hand rings true.  So does the choice of clothing – for the situation.  But the sex kitten look robs her of her presence and menace.  Wish the regular artist had handled this issue.  I mean, does she look like the woman on the cover of issue #5.
No, dear reader, the Night Man is not over.  His psychopathic love interest just had the engraved on the headstone that marked her escape route to the subway tunnels.  Very comic book, but I thought it worked here
     So back comes Rhiannon.  Rather than just confronting her, Johnny tried to out maneuver her.  I would point out that isn't necessarily good thinking seeing as how Rhiannon has been plotting murder – and getting away with it – for a long time.  Still, she is a vicious and alluring opponent.  Were it not for the fact that she has an attraction to the Night Man, I would wager she would just kill him and move on.  And there is something so cool about the woman having the power and the male hero struggling to keep up with her, all the while battling his attraction to her.
The battered, falling apart cover of my issue #14 of The Night Man.  Not sure how it got all damaged, but it has been about seventeen years.  Some level of damage should be expected.
     Issue #14 keeps up with Tek Knight (he was becoming the B character in The Night Man), brings two members of TNTNT into the fray, features two panels of a character named Executioner, and has at least two Ultras die in it...with the revelation that Prime – a character who would anchor the animated television show that Marvel/Malibu had for the Ultraverse – has been murdered.  It has much more action than the typical issue of The Night Man.  But it feels too involved with trying to work the big picture continuity than let the Night Man have his own story, and that didn't make me happy.
We've reached the last of The Night Man issues I am going to address.  And not just because I didn't want to go looking for the other issues I own.  No, this was actually a pretty good place to leave the story, which is a shame because it was less than two years into the run.  Sadly, The Night Man would last only eleven more issues and then be gone forever.
For the second issue in a row, the quality of the artwork looked worse.  That is a huge problem for a comic book.  The story has some reward for loyal readers (and seriously, at issue #15 I'm guessing that most people following The Night Man were pretty loyal) but arrives at its points too easily.
     Where this remembrance of The Night Man ends is with issue #15.  It had the worst art of any Malibu comic I had seen, which meant that the holes in the story couldn't be smoothed over with fancy drawing.  The baddie in the story is too much of a stand-in for The Joker (in appearance...and a little bit of the madness) for my tastes.  Why he is all crazy because of events that involve the Night Man, his introduction seems to be more in line with how Marvel or DC would handle the story.  The on-going story about the amusement park is advanced – it is going to be sold – but without any character interaction.  All in all, this issue felt like a failure to the promise that was so bright at the beginning of the run. 
Wrath issue #1.  Do you know what they never explain?  Why is the government agent in charge of going after the guys & gals who look like superheroes decked out as one himself.  The components of the suit and what it does are explained, but whoever did the flair wasn't going for a G-Man look.
Wrath bounding through the forest on his way to a nuclear power plant.  Seems to me that I'd send more than one agent to investigate what kind of Ultra activity is going on at a Pennsylvanian nuclear power plant.
     Wrath was a whole different kind of comic within the Ultraverse.  I am of the firm belief that the story should have been handled as a hundred page graphic novel rather than an on-going monthly title.  Too often, the plot points of Wrath are repeated to keep them in the minds of readers.  Taken one month at a time, that is fine; read consecutively in one sitting, it comes across as weak and wasteful.  Still, there was a lot about the title that was appealing.
Wrath teams up with Mantra to battle an alien.  He is supposed to bring "her" in but decides that imprisoning her wouldn't help anyone.
1) This is closer to how I imagine I would color scheme the outfit for a government agents, and these are the renegades.  2) There is something about how comic books draw women in the superhero spandex that immediately takes me back to the mindset of a fifteen year old.  As an adult, there is absolutely nothing sexy about it, but as an adolescent, it evokes both danger and sex.
     Thomas Hunter was Wrath, a government agent tasked with containing the Ultra threat.  Some Ultras were good, some bad, and some were just people.  To the government, those categories were 'works with us', 'needs to be captured and detained', and 'tag for monitoring'.  Why take on such a dangerous task?
The man running Project W tries to get Wrath killed so he can move on to Project Patriot.  That does seem like how the government would run a program like this.
     Well, Hunter's father was injured in an incident involving Ultras and Thomas is trying to keep that from happening to other people.  And he wants some degree of revenge.  People need to pay for what happened to Daddy.  He is the lone person responsible for this in Project W, the people with whom he trained having gone rogue and turned criminal.
The Freex make an appearance in Wrath.  It does little for either title.  The Freex received similar treatment in The Night Man, but their story was handled better there.  For some reason, I have both the regular and mass market versions of Wrath issues #4-6.
     Complicating matters is the fact that Hunter's boss wants to kill him.  Oh, and the fact that in addition to the power of being able to sense Ultras, Hunter is slowly developing powers of his own.  He finds out that the people the government sends him out to capture are just trying to get by in a world that views them as freaks – such as the Freex – or dangerous beings to be despised.  Hunter discovers his own humanity in coming to understand it in those he is assigned to capture.
Wrath, even with limited powers, defeats all of the Freex.  Guess all that training he does comes in handy.  But he doesn't bring them in because they are just a bunch of scared kids trying to be left alone.
First, look at the music.  Really?  This guy is a top-level government scientist running Project W.  Second, other than trying to make an end-run around his own boss – and hiring people to kill Wrath – the reader doesn't get to learn about the enemies this man had that caused this to happen.  I guess they were holding on to it for a much later date.
     All in all, Wrath has that straight forward a story.  There isn't enough at inception to make it into a long running title.  Sure, it is obvious that Hunter's conscience will grow and he will chafe at his orders more directly, but it takes too long to get there.  The minor story in Wrath has to do with Hunter's relationship with his girlfriend and how she feels neglected because he is always out of town on government business and can't talk to her about it.  That is fine and plausible to boot, but it is also a story that could be resolved in a six issue run.  Teasing it out just felt like a cheat.  What was worse, Wrath was already a character in progress when he gets his own title but there is no mention as to what titles he had appeared in.  The reader who can't track those issues of whatever titles down join the story in media res, which isn't how it was intended.
When you have your hero beating up training droids, you are either doing the X-Men in the danger room or you didn't get enough notice as to what this month's issue is about. 
Thomas and Kris get four whole pages to work on their relationship.  That's not a knock on the writing; I like that Wrath took the time to build up the emotional element of the characters rather than just let them muse about it while they were prepping for a fight.
     The artwork for Wrath was consistently good until issue #7.  The writing is consistent, but repetitive.  It certainly wasn't as mature as The Night Man, but it did touch on themes that were appealing to someone caught between adolescence and adulthood.  Still, as I moved away from comic books in 1995, I didn't find myself missing Wrath.  I think I got as much out of it as I needed, and it didn't have the same level of cool that The Night Man did.
A new team starts writing and drawing Wrath in issue #7 and it just doesn't work.  It looks much more cartoonish, and it definitely lacks the emotional weight the title had been building.  The entire issue is about introducing a new villain, but the set-up to get there just doesn't work.  A reliable way to ruin a good story is to change who is telling it, and that is exactly what Wrath did.
     I miss both titles, because I think both had the potential for greatness (though Wrath should have been planned out better if it were to be a monthly).  And I miss Malibu Comics.  It was a great alternative to the established houses that didn't seem to want to develop their character within the monthlies.  Keep in mind, I'm not a comic book geek – I could be wrong about how audacious Marvel and DC were in the early to mid 1990s. 
     Sure, Marvel had purchased Malibu in 1994.  But it promised to keep the Ultraverse going and to support the titles in a manner that Malibu had been unable to do.  Instead, Marvel quickly, and mostly quietly, shut down the Ultraverse.  The writers and authors apparently didn't want to work for Marvel, so maybe their was no way to keep it going anyway.  Marvel did back two television shows – one animated and one live action – but neither were good matches for the original material.


  1. I don't know what happened to the pictures? But wow, I'm coming back to read this in a little bit, I'm halfway through and I don't have enough time, seems like a great job so far! :).

  2. I have no idea what happened. It looks okay now, but we'll see if that lasts.

  3. Pictures came through when I took a look at it, Blogger can be... funny... sometimes.

  4. It isn't is my Google account. Apparently all of the pictures associated with it were deleted sometime yesterday after I finished the work for the post. So it just wreaked all kinds of havoc on most the posts.

    I have no idea how that happened. I didn't do it, and I would like to think a hacker would be more malicious than just that.


  5. I enjoyed the Ultraverse comics (and apparently read a lot more of their titles than you did). However, the entire line suffered from wanting to be "edgy" (a common theme in the 90's), and the quality dropped when Marvel swooped in with a purchase to remove the competition.

    The other attempt to start a new comic universe was Impact comics ( It was an imprint of DC, that rebooted the old Archie comics universe. It was done surprisingly well, and the best of the comics was the Black Hood. Definitely worth a look, if you can find it.

  6. Well, Casey, I didn't have a lot of money at the time. 1993-94 was my freshman year of college (and there was a fair amount of that time that I did concentrate on school...just not enough).

    I guess I kind of think of Malibu's efforts to be edgy to be tied to the launch of the Ultraverse -- they needed to be noticed.

    I remember Impact as a label, but I didn't follow any of the titles. I see if I can dig up the Black Hood and give it a look.

  7. If you visit Denver and have some time to kill, I can dig out my entire collection of Impact AND Ultraverse from my boxes in the basement. I think they were lucky enough to survive our flooding a few years ago...