Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Name is Slice



The name is Slice.


Check her out in Worlds Apart.





The lowdown on Slice is here.





Another image of Slice is here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Phil McDougall, a.k.a. the Sensational Sand Dollar

On page 7 of Worlds Apart, we meet a rather intriguing minor character. Just as the Trishy Tanaka Hostage Crisis starts heating up, Chet, the talking head from Lyon News, introduces a guest analyst to provide expertise and perspective on the unfolding horror: Phil McDougall, better known to the world as the sensational Sand Dollar.

Okay, you may be asking. Just who the heck is the Sand Dollar? And what would he possibly know about the superheroes and super-villains of the Trademark Universe?

The answer to this question lies in the history and career of two major Trademark heroes. The first, Airfoil, we’ve already met. The second, Beachcomber (later known as Aquarius), won’t be appearing in Worlds Apart per se. However, his influence in the Trademark Universe should be addressed.


The titanic Trademark Handbook provides this entry on the Beachcomber:

Beachcomber/Aquarius (Bobby Sands) An aimless drifter most of his life, Bobby Sands could claim one talent that set him above the rest -- hydrofoils. An ace-mechanic and pilot, Sands invented a revolutionary new hydrofoil system and started his own company, Aquarian Technologies, to profit from his ideas. Quickly proving a failure in the business world, Sands gladly accepted the buy-out offer from a large aeronautics firm interested in commercially marketing his innovations.

Suddenly finding himself a millionaire with no direction in life, Sands opted for early retirement in the quiet coastal California community of Lasher Beach. Envisioning an endless summer of bitchin’ waves, bikini-clad babes, and tinkering in his workshop, Sands slowly came to realize that Lasher Beach wasn’t truly the sleepy seaside town it first appeared to be. Run by a local crimeboss called Yellow Beard, Lasher Beach was actually a safe haven for drug smugglers, pirates, arms dealers, and other lowlifes.

Trying his best to steer clear of the local criminal element, Sands found himself slowly drawn into the brewing conflict between Lasher Beach’s law-abiding citizens and the unsavory thugs now in control of the town. One such thug was a brutish bully dubbed Phil the Enforcer, a brawny, red-headed brawler who walked around Lasher Beach like he owned it. On more than one occasion, Sands and Phil traded words and punches, with Sands typically coming out worse for it.

Then one night Bobby Sands’ life at Lasher Beach took a drastic turn. As Sands was testing out his newest invention, a hydrofoil bodysuit, he inadvertently stumbled across a major drug bust gone horribly and violently awry. As Sands quickly learned, his nemesis Phil the Enforcer wasn’t a thug at all, but rather an undercover DEA agent named Phil McDougall, who had been infiltrating Yellow Beard’s gang in an effort to bring it down. With Yellow Beard’s thugs getting away in high-speed motor boats, the good guys had only one chance to catch the fleeing murderers.

Bobby Sands chased the motor boats using his hydrofoil suit, and then battled the bad guys long enough for Phil McDougall to call in reinforcements and arrest the miscreants en masse. Angry that corrupt sources within the DEA had ratted him out to Yellow Beard, McDougall resigned his position and fell in with fellow retiree Bobby Sands.

With Yellow Beard’s boys still controlling much of Lasher Beach, Sands and McDougall took up the fight for law and order vigilante-style. Combining Sands’ mechanical genius and McDougall’s knowledge of explosives and weapons, the two would-be adventurers re-invented themselves as superheroes: the Beachcomber and the Sand Dollar. In addition to the ability to travel at high speeds over water, Beachcomber’s hydro-suit also converted its water jets and air jets into non-lethal weapons. For his part, Phil McDougall armed himself with a variety of sand-dollar-sized disks outfitted with various gimmicks: explosives, knock-out gas, Taser-like electro-shocks, etc.

After an inauspicious start, the “Beach Bums,” as they were known in the super community, fought a host of pretty unspectacular villains like Yellow Beard, Crowbar, and the Longshoremen. The duo didn’t vie with any truly powerful superbaddies until they tangled with Tempest, a madman possessing a trident power-staff that enabled him to control water. Completely out of their league, ‘Comber and Dollar were quickly beaten and taken prisoner. It was at this point that a friend of theirs, world Frisbee champion Larry Kramer, modified Sand Dollar’s disk arsenal into larger Frisbee-like weapons. Thus was born the hero Airfoil.

Together, the three Beach Bums ultimately defeated Tempest, and Beachcomber “inherited” the villain’s power-staff. Over the course of several years, as Sands’ proficiency with the staff grew, he became more and more powerful. Signing on for a stint with the Protectors, Beachcomber used the group’s training exercises to increase his control of the staff to godlike levels. Here he came under the watchful eye of the super-villain Pythoness, who gradually seduced Beachcomber with a hodge-podge of New Age mumbo-jumbo and mind control.

Under the influence of Pythoness, Beachcomber discarded his old identity to become the apocalyptic world-beater Aquarius. Convinced he could single-handedly reform the world in his image and usher in the Age of Aquarius, the former Beachcomber subsequently ran afoul of the combined might of the Protectors, Challengers, Irregulars, Fury Force, and United Front. Eventually, after repeated struggles, Sands saw the error of his ways and vanished into seclusion beneath the sea.

Being closer to Bobby Sands than anyone, Phil McDougall has seen firsthand how dangerous and corrupting super-powers can be. As a hero who has fought alongside the Protectors, Challengers, and hosts of others, Phil McDougall makes up in savvy what he lacks in power. Opinionated, bull-headed, and bit rough around the edges, the sensational Sand Dollar dispenses the kind of compelling, sound-bite-driven analysis that Lyon News loves.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Go Ask Marisol -- Slice!

Slice, a.k.a. the Living Razor, stands as a rather late Trademark creation, at least the Marisol Garcia version that appears in Worlds Apart. I first wrote a character called Slice back in the early ‘80s. (Let’s call her “Slice 1.0”) Basically a generic homicidal maniac à la Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (see my previous blog entry), she fought alongside Spree in the ranks of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung.

Sketching a rudimentary background for Slice 1.0, I conceived her as a teenage runaway turned psychotic sadist. Never a central member of Maniac’s minions, Slice 1.0’s biography only came to light in snatches of raving, misandrist dialogue. With her outspoken hatred for the male gender encapsulated in virtually every voice balloon, I imagined her primarily as a child of the streets who had lived her teenage years suffering under the domination of abusive men while doing anything possible to survive. (You can use your imagination here.)

My inspiration for such an urchin-turned-predatrix lies in myriad pop cultural icons that informed my youth and adolescence. The melding of two distinct archetypes -- the damsel in distress and the femme fatale -- became a staple of teenage exploitation entertainment like Go Ask Alice (1973), Born Innocent (1974), Switchblade Sisters (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976), Hardcore (1979) and, of course, the 1984 cult classic Angel. Earlier blogs regarding Spree and Mosquito have already revealed that I formed a bizarre kind of psycho-sexual fascination for “bad girls” during my teenage years. Even before I was exposed to Russ Meyer and neo-Nazi sirens, though, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the prurient personas of troubled, desperate waifs living on the edge.

I can pretty much trace my first exposure to ingénues in crisis with Go Ask Alice in 1973. How and why 8-year-old Mark Kozak was allowed to watch this trashy, over-the-top TV movie, I’ll never know. My sister was twelve at the time, and I’m sure my mom wasn’t really paying close attention as I absorbed the horrific plot complications besetting the main character. Besides, the cast boasted Andy Griffith, and I’m sure my mom never thought Sheriff Taylor would attach himself to anything less than wholesome.

A short time after digging Alice, I grooved on Born Innocent with Linda Blair. Once again, I’m amazed my mom let me watch such programming. This made-for-TV trash-fest boasts a graphic scene with a toilet plunger some twenty-odd years before NYC cops similarly assaulted Abner Louima with a broomstick. Then, in 1976, network executives struck exploitative gold again with Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, featuring the very fetching Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) forced into one compromising position after another.

With the advent of cable-TV in my household, I caught up with some major Hollywood entries in the teen exploitation sweepstakes: Taxi Driver, Switchblade Sisters, and of course Hardcore. By the time I got around to creating Slice 1.0, then, I was pretty much warped beyond redemption. For the next few years, Slice 1.0 remained a stock, two-dimensional psycho-babe; good for a few slashing, dashing fight sequences, but little else.

As explained in previous blogs, the Trademark Universe underwent some drastic overhauling when I began attending Ohio University in 1984. New influences, scholarly and social, re-informed and re-invented the characters conceived in my youth. With Buckshot’s college career essentially mirroring my own, most of my new stories centered on the hybrid hood turned hero. Needing a kind of counterpoint to Buckshot’s penitent journey, I returned to the ranks of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung and decided to re-envision one of my stock super-baddies.

Immediately, Slice leaped out at me. Unlike Spree and Mosquito, characters consistently developed to be in their mid-twenties, Slice occupied relatively the same age bracket as Buckshot (and myself for that matter). Bitten by the bug of multiculturalism and diversity, I discarded my previous portrayal of Slice as typically caucasian. Sporting a major crush on Miami Vice’s Saundra Santiago at the time, I lustily re-imagined Slice as Marisol Garcia, a teenage prostitute turned psychopath with an unspecified Hispanic/Latina heritage. Thus, Slice 2.0 was born circa 1984. In subsequent stories, I took the new character through a journey of her own, from sadistic psycho-bitch to soul-searching super-heroine.



For more on Slice, let us once more consult the Titanic Trademark Handbook:

Slice (Marisol Garcia) Formerly a member of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung, Slice’s entire body is encased in a permanent force-field, transforming her into a living razor. By concentrating, Slice can adjust the sharpness of her razor field, enabling her to easily cut through stone, brick, and even dense metals like a hot knife through butter. At its most acute level, Slice’s razor field has even severed molecular bonds. However, the energy spent on such an endeavor quickly exhausts her.

Gradually wooed over to the side of law-and-order by a persistent Buckshot, Slice originally attempted to go straight by abandoning Götterdämmerung and joining the Protectors. Immediately finding herself at loggerheads with Silver Streak and Hangman, however, Slice quickly left the group and struck out on her own.

Continually fighting the savage impulses hardwired into her hybrid brain, Slice’s journey to redemption has been much more difficult than Buckshot’s. Left to her own devices after deserting the Protectors, Slice regressed more than once to her old ways. Never comfortable as a super-villainess, though, Slice eventually fell in with Wolf and his loose confederation of unconventional heroes, the Irregulars. Since then, she’s been more or less a hero (unless you talk to Silver Streak, that is).

Weapons -- Her entire body.

Personal Items -- Marisol is a beautiful young woman who can never touch a normal man for fear of slicing him to ribbons. She has, however, managed a few relationships with men. During her Götterdämmerung days, she hooked up with Rival, as he was able to transform his skin into a substance invulnerable to her razor field.

Later, during her short stint as a Protector, Slice found some solace in the arms of the invulnerable Achilles. In typical Achilles fashion, however, the demigod soon tired of Marisol, and since then she’s been relegated back to untouchable status.

Inspired by Buckshot’s example, Slice makes a conscious effort to channel her aggressive emotionalism into more constructive pursuits, namely sculpting. For a brief period, Marisol even attended Ohio University with Buckshot, majoring in Art. Unfortunately, the structure and demands of university life didn’t agree with her, and Slice dropped out before attaining her degree.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Big Guy -- Achilles

I’ve never tried to hide my debt to the comic books of my youth. The Trademark Universe itself is one boy’s (now man’s) passionate homage to the creative writers and artists at Marvel and DC who inspired my youthful imagination. I can wholly understand if someone sees Worlds Apart for the first time and immediately starts matching up Trademark heroes and villains with their Marvel and DC analogs.

Obviously, Achilles owes much if not all of his character to Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian stalwarts, Thor and Hercules. If you want to call Achilles a Thor/Herc knock-off, well, knock yourself out. First, however, let me explain a little bit more about his genesis and addition to the Trademark Universe. You may find yourself second-guessing your first impression.

Before I knew the Lee/Kirby versions of Thor and Hercules, I knew Achilles. Myths and legends comprised 100% of my reading in the first and second grades. Well, maybe “reading” is a tad exaggerated. The Coe School library had some pretty cool children’s collections of Greek, Norse, and Arthurian tales. Paramount for a young Mark Kozak stood a pair of vividly illustrated compendiums: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths.

Reading contemporary reviews of the d’Aulaires’ two books, which are still available on Amazon.com I might add, the verdict is unanimous. These books, and especially the illustrations, make an impression on young readers that remain locked in their memories for the remainder of their lives. I thrilled to the d’Aulaires’ renderings of Hercules and Thor long before I saw my first issue of Journey Into Mystery or The Mighty Avengers.


When I first began creating my own comic book stories, then, the myths and legends I knew played as much a role in my characters as the DC Comics I venerated. My first quasi-mytho-legendary hero wasn’t Achilles, however. Instead, I roughed out some very raw stories featuring a time-transplanted hero of Arthurian persuasion, a certain flower of chivalry known as Sir Launcelot. I will address these early pre-Trademark efforts in subsequent posts.

The main point here is that I felt an instinctual need to combine myth, legend, and superheroics several years prior to discovering Lee & Kirby’s Thor. If I was “ripping off” anyone with my take on Sir Launcelot, Prince Valiant would be the victim. My childhood barber, Hank Janik of Hank’s Barber Shop fame, had a table filled with old comic books for his younger clientele: Prince Valiant, The Phantom, etc. To this day, I still remember those old, tattered funny books, which could have fetched hundreds of dollars at comic book conventions if they were in mint condition. Of course, I couldn’t follow the dense narrative in the Prince Valiant issues, but the artwork certainly captured my pre-literate fancy.

When I began reading Marvel comics a few years later, the Asgardian and Olympian gods immediately became some of my favorite characters. Given my love of mythology, I already knew quite a bit about the archetypes Lee & Kirby were reinventing. When I saw Tyre or Heimdall or Ares for the first time, I already knew who they were and what they represented. With every issue of The Mighty Thor, I marveled (no pun intended) at the cool, epic storylines spun from the fabric of the Norse and Greek myths I’d already internalized.


As I began conceiving the Trademark Universe, I knew my heroic pantheon would need to be peopled with gods and heroes of the same stature as Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian contingent. Not wanting characters merely identical to Marvel’s deities, I fashioned the Elementals, a subject I discuss in a previous blog. While the Elementals certainly provided me the super-powerful godlike entities I desired, I quickly realized they weren’t enough. Something was missing.

I discovered what I lacked when I began to conceive my first superhero team, the Protectors. Obviously patterned after the mighty Avengers, I faced the same problem Tony Stark encountered when he began creating his New Avengers several years back. As Stark explained to Ms. Marvel, the team needed a “Thor.” I, too, sensed the same dearth when I marshaled my prospective roster for the Protectors.

If my new team was truly to be The World’s Greatest Heroes, I needed a blockbusting representative from the myths and legends I loved. More importantly, the Protectors needed a Thor, a bedrock of raw fighting prowess about which the other team members could assemble. With super-tough-guys Thor and Hercules already taken by Marvel, I looked through my edition of Bernard Evslin’s Gods, Demigods, and Demons for MY Thor.

Theseus? Too obscure and not badass enough. Meleager? Talk about obscure! Atlas? Possibly. I flirted momentarily with Gilgamesh, but I couldn’t get past the unsavory elements of his character. Samson? No, that would bring the whole Bible into the mix, and I was trying to keep things simple. I toyed with the notion of Sir Launcelot again, but he was too woefully mortal.

I needed a guy who was going to kick ass and take names, the kind of hero a “normal Joe” super-baddy would flee immediately. My mind drifted to the Trojan War, to a certain invincible, hot-headed demigod prince who clashed with kings and gods head-on and never backed down from any fight. Achilles, Son of Peleus, would be my Thor. And, unlike Marvel’s somewhat watered-down characterizations of Hercules and Thor, my demigod would be torn from the pages of Homer himself, strutting and fretting upon the pages of The Protectors, dysfunctional warts and all.

Just recently I finished Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles. I find her take on Homer’s Achilles fairly spot-on: arrogant, immature, petulant, but still heroic in the final summation. Other epics and cycles of Greek mythology also deal with the figure of Achilles: the Aethiopis, the Achillead, the Cypria. In these works, however, Achilles is more superhero than human.

In the renderings of Achilles I read as a boy, authors like Bernard Evslin and Edith Hamilton drew their sketches from all these sources. When I created my own Trademark version of Achilles, I kept the superhuman aspects of the character, while also shading him with much of Homer’s three-dimensional elements. On the negative side, he would brood, feud, and often enter the blackest moods. On the positive side, he lived for the glory of battle, and a Protector could find no better comrade-in-arms if the chips were down.



For more on Achilles, let’s turn to the Titanic Trademark Handbook:

Achilles (No secret identity, but will often refer to himself in the third person as the Son of Peleus) The fabled Trojan War hero was resurrected by the Protectors in their battle against the mythic super-baddie Antaeus, son of Gaia. Achilles is a super-strong, relentless fighting machine whose body is invulnerable save for a small molecule-sized spot on his right “Achilles” heel. Needless to say, after spending a few millennia in a coma because of Paris’ lucky shot during the Trojan War, Achilles now wears a pretty sturdy pair of adamantium boots. But as we know in the super-biz... stuff happens.

Since his resurrection, Achilles has proven a staple in the Protectors line-up. Unlike Marvel’s Norse and Greek gods, however, Achilles did have to learn English. Luckily, fellow Protector Flurry, a virtual immortal herself, knew ancient Greek well enough to serve as the Son of Peleus’ translator and tutor.

Not the brightest of super-guys, Achilles still has problems with modern English at times, which causes him frustration. Anyone who’s read the Iliad knows this warrior-prince can be a real hot-head, too, and his three-thousand-year nap didn’t really cool him off much.

Weapons -- An invulnerable suit of adamantium armor forged by Hephaestus (not that he needs it much) and a battle sword that cuts through just about everything.

Personal Items -- Achilles is a bit of a womanizer who has cut a swath through the hearts of various super-heroines, most especially Flurry, Howitzer, Clarion, Driad, Maze, and Slice. He’s also walked on the dark side, bedding marquee villainesses like Morningstar and Paradise. Needless to say, none of these relationships fared very well, and the son of Peleus is still a confirmed bachelor.

Achilles’ best friend is the sometime superhero Cheetah, who has marketed his super-abilities into a lucrative Hollywood action-hero career. Both men are incurable womanizers who can dive off the libertine deep end if not properly supervised. Among the Protectors, Achilles is closest to Flurry and Airfoil. He respects Silver Streak, but still challenges his authority at times. One Protector Achilles does not challenge is Hangman, who basically gives the Son of Peleus the proverbial willies.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Unrepentant, Unrelenting Justice -- Hangman

I believe this will be the most difficult blog entry I’ve written to date. I’ve actually been putting this one off. In addition to being one of the original Trademark Universe creations, Hangman also stands as one of the most complex.



First, we have the vast array of influences that went into his conception. You can tell Hangman is the creation of a ten-year-old comic book geek because his myriad, disparate super-powers make him simultaneously invincible as a hero and unwieldy as a written character. With Professor X’s telepathic abilities and the Vision’s phasing powers, nothing can really defeat Hangman, and even at the tender age of ten I knew this.

So I fashioned weaknesses for him, disabilities borrowed from other favorites in the comic books I read. I always loved Matt Murdock’s blindness as a limitation for Daredevil. So I did DD one better, making Hangman not only blind, but deaf, dumb, and without the senses of smell, taste, or touch. He is, in essence, trapped inside his body. His only contact with the outside world occurs via mental telepathy.

At age ten, I had only a smattering of life experiences. So I really couldn’t wrap my mind around the kind of solitude, loneliness, and alienation a truly insensate human would bear. I tried, however, and my Hangman stories revolved around his isolation as much as his fight against super-villains.

As powerful as Hangman could be, he did possess some very obvious and exploitable weaknesses. Being a telepath with no other senses, he was entirely dependent upon the consciousness of his opponents and any other heroes or bystanders present. With no minds to read, Hangman’s only option was to render himself immaterial until the situation changed. Thus, in a mano-a-mano donnybrook versus robots or inanimate machines, Hangman was virtually worthless.

In the Trademark Universe, Hangman played a similar role as the Specter in DC comics. He occupied an almost godlike position among the pantheon of super-beings I’d created. He single-mindedly dispensed justice regardless of any complications arising from emotion, affection, or human compassion. Even at the tender age of ten I realized what kind of complications might arise from such omniscient vigilantism.


Telepaths and Thoughtcrimes

I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm at age nine. My older sister was reading the book for school, and I borrowed it when she was finished. Much of the brilliance of Animal Farm resides in its accessibility to readers of all ages. I read the allegory on its surface, a fantastical fable about rebellious farm animals. Kind of a twisted take on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons.

When I find an author I like, I never stop at one work. I quickly discovered that Orwell had written another very popular classic, 1984. So I checked it out of the North Olmsted Public Library and tackled it with youthful naïveté.

Whoa.

I’d love to say I understood the novel completely at nine years of age. But that would be a lie. What I did take away from 1984 was the concept of Thoughtcrime or Crimethink. When I developed the character of Hangman, the concept of Thoughtcrime immediately occurred to me. As an almost omniscient telepath, Hangman would actually be able to detect criminal tendencies in perpetrators BEFORE they acted. He would in essence, then, be in the unique position to be a TRUE thoughtpoliceman.

I loved the concept and the conflict it presented. Here we have Hangman, a hero who KNOWS someone is innately bad PRIOR to the commission of any bad act. So what can he do? What should he do? What limits should be placed on such power? How would the rest of the world view a hero who punishes people BEFORE they do wrong?

I addressed these very same questions in the first several issues of the Hangman comics I wrote. In the first such story, Hangman simply appears in a dark alley just as a novice rapist is crouched in the shadows, sizing up his inaugural victim, a pretty oblivious young lady. Telepathically, Hangman tells the would-be rapist he knows the evil in his mind. He tells the sicko he has but two choices: turn himself in to the authorities for treatment or face punishment for his deviant proclivities. The terrified and rageful rapist does what comes naturally.

Knife slashing, the would-be rapist lashes out violently towards the ghostlike man in the creepy hood who has invaded his mind. The fight isn’t much of a fight at all. Being able to read the rapist’s mind and anticipate his every move, Hangman quickly and violently dispatches the miscreant. Ironically, the rapist’s intended victim hears the ruckus in the alley and rushes to the defense of the very man who sought to despoil her. This noir, neo-gothic scene is Hangman’s first taste of the bitter ironies of thoughtcrime-fighting.

With subsequent stories, I explored the early stages of Hangman’s career. I briefly detailed his origin (covered below), and crafted tales revolving around the practicality and morality of dispensing pre-emptive justice. Using his telepathic abilities to identify prospective criminals before they acted, Hangman first attempted to counsel future felons against crossing the line of the law. If these “bad seeds” refused -- or worse yet resisted his authority -- Hangman showed no compunction against rendering them catatonic with a telepathic lobotomy.

Needless to say, such extreme measures put Hangman’s vigilantism squarely at odds with the law, and it wasn’t long before he attracted the attention of S-1, the governmental agency entrusted with policing super-beings. Thus, the hunt began, and many early issues found S-1 protecting the very scum that Hangman pursued. It was during this time that Hangman first encountered Silver Streak, the hero who would later convince the telepath to give up his solitary existence and take up the mantle of a Protector.

Now that we’ve briefly explored the creative influences and thematic considerations behind the Hangman, let’s turn to the Titanic Trademark Handbook for a closer look at his character and origins:


The Hangman (Christopher Sword). Miles Sword was a billionaire with a dream. He wished to create a male heir with genetically-hardwired telepathic abilities which could be passed on to future generations. In this way, Sword believed, his descendents would be able to perpetuate indefinitely the vast business empire he had built.

Enter a dark and mysterious stranger, a man who simply refered to himself as Mr. Cain. Cain promised Sword he could fashion such a child from a frozen embryo. When completed, the embryo was implanted inside Tilda Sword, Miles’ blushing young trophy wife, and the proud parents waited for the birth of their wonder child. As Tilda blossomed with her pregnancy, the baby’s telepathic abilities became apparent. Mother and father could sense his every incubating thought and feeling. Cain had delivered upon his promise. Their child would be everything they dreamed and more.

But alas, when baby Christopher Sword was delivered, a gruesome discovery was made -- he was a deformed mutant. He possessed no exterior senses via his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or skin. In addition, baby Christopher continually altered his density without warning, transforming from solid flesh and blood into an immaterial, ghostlike state.

The Swords were horrified. Cain promised them he would be able to fix baby Christopher, and he began creating a series of mentally-integrated mechanical devices that eventually allowed Christopher to move his limbs freely, control his density, and interact at least somewhat with the world outside his insensate body.

From the moment of his birth, baby Christopher could only truly sense the world through his unparalleled psychic abilities. As an infant, he instinctively learned to eat by phasing food into his digestive tract. As he grew older, he was able to move and grasp objects with the assistance of the special gloves and boots designed for him by Cain, and then later modified and perfected by his brilliant older half-sister, Kristin. These devices, coupled with his own mutant physiology, gave him super-strength and unparalleled physical coordination and stamina. While growing up, Christopher Sword telepathically taught himself every conceivable fighting technique, mastering these martial arts by reading the minds of the world’s greatest practitioners.

Thus, in a fight, the Hangman is virtually unbeatable. He enters his opponents’ minds and knows their every move before they make it. He has trained himself to control his body while viewing it from the outside, much like a video game player operates a computer-generated character. His psychic abilities also allow him to enter the mind of any bystander, human or animal, which subsequently provides him strategic perspectives from myriad angles.

Being dependent upon telepathy in a fight, Hangman does not fare well against robotic or non-sentient opponents, a weakness duly noted and exploited by his enemies. When this happens, Hangman typically renders himself into an immaterial state, where he is virtually untouchable. Even in his phase state, though, he is still susceptible to electric shock, radiation, and other EM wavelengths.

Hangman spends his off-time strapped into his psi-filter, probing minds all over the planet in search of evil-doers. When he encounters super-baddies, he gets a lock on their location and then heads off in pursuit. Once he enters the outside world, he phases himself completely and travels directly towards the source of the evil, oblivious to everything else.

Weapons -- Hangman is armed with a high-tech hangman’s noose constructed of virtually indestructible cable. The Hangman also operates out of a secret lair lined with a special alloy which shields him from the random thoughts of the universe. Amid the vast array of sophisticated computer equipment at his disposal, Hangman’s psi-filter allows him to psychically probe the outside world in search of evil-doers. His entire crimefighting arsenal is the handiwork of his older half-sister, Kristin, one of the Trademark Universe’s ranking technological wizards.

Personal Items -- Most if not all of Hangman’s early childhood memories are repressed due to savage physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by his father and mother. The extreme depravity he experienced as an infant and young man conditioned Christopher Sword to be unrelenting and unforgiving in the face of any and all evil. One of Hangman’s first acts as a vigilante saw him punishing his abusive parents, rendering them catatonic with a fierce mental assault.

Hangman can be exposed to the outside world for only limited amounts of time before becoming exhausted by the telepathic background noise. Thus, he avoids human contact at all costs. In his early career, he confided only in his sister, Kristin. She herself is resentful of her brother’s dependency on her, and the situation has caused tension between them in recent years.

Since forming the Protectors with Silver Streak, Hangman has been forced to adjust his personality and his perspective to a more social and sympathetic outlook. His ability to read the minds, and hence the darker thoughts, of his teammates puts him somewhat at odds with Buckshot’s aggression, Clarion’s lust, Airfoil’s immaturity, and Achilles’ arrogance. Although loyal to his Protector teammates, Hangman reserves real friendship for Silver Streak and Flurry, the only members he truly respects.

Several years prior to the events of Worlds Apart, while fighting the super-villain Mandroid, Hangman peered into the villain’s brain and discovered images of his wife, Doreen. The images were so strong and Hangman so exhausted that he began to meld minds with the criminal and fall in love with his wife. Beating Mandroid to a pulp until the villain was brain-dead, Hangman then entered the Mandroid’s lifeless shell, in effect possessing the villain’s body. Hangman then left his own body in his secret lair and assumed Mandroid’s life: wife, kids, the works.

This ruse lasted for several months until the Protectors launched a search for the missing Hangman at Kristin’s insistence. Finding Hangman’s comatose body inside his lair, the super-team tracked down “Mandroid” to Hangman’s adopted suburban home. Obviously, Hangman had great difficulty convincing his teammates he was actually Christopher Sword and NOT the Mandroid. Only when his “wife” Doreen intervened did the Protectors finally believe Hangman’s story. Although he’d never confessed the truth to Doreen, both she and the children had known from the outset that something was different about the head of their family.

Suddenly realizing the horrific fraud he’d perpetrated, Hangman gave up his retirement with Doreen and resumed living inside his atrophied body. With physical and mental therapy provided by his teammates, Hangman built himself back to peak strength, and returned to the super-biz a wiser yet even more emotionally-isolated man.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Breakneck R.I.P.

If you’ve already checked out page 21 of Worlds Apart, then you know the bad news.

Breakneck is dead, his self-triggered nuclear holocaust absorbed by Hellfield and vented into the Flame Universe from whence our resident Fire Elemental hails. (For more on Hellfield’s powers, please see my previous blog entry). What starts as a BANG instantly becomes little more than a whimpering pile of ashes at Hellfield’s feet. The shocked looks on the faces of Breakneck’s Götterdämmerung comrades says it all.

Maniac’s hybrid minions have come to Fantasy Land fully expecting to die. In true terrorist fashion, the prospect of plunging headlong into eternity never scares them. It inspires them. Like all fanatics, they thrill to thoughts of departing this world in a harrowing blaze of homicidal glory.

Yet somehow the anticipated apocalypse hasn’t only been delayed; it’s been denied... with extreme prejudice. Suddenly Breakneck, their field general and Maniac’s BIG GUN, has been dispatched by one of the “second-stringer” Irregulars as little more than an afterthought. The tide of terror has changed.

It is now Götterdämmerung’s turn to be afraid... very afraid. While never terrified of facing death on their own terms, Breakneck’s untimely demise signals not only the end, but the failure of Götterdämmerung’s mission. Reality sets in. They aren’t facing the Protectors anymore. Not only have the rules of engagement changed, but even the very nature of the game itself.

But enough foreshadowing. The next few pages will bear out the fates of Maniac’s minions. For now, let us turn our attention to the first casualty among their ranks, Breakneck.

When we first meet him, Breakneck has taken teenage starlet Trishy Tanaka hostage, vowing to rape her on international TV before detonating a nuclear bomb that will not only level Los Angeles but perhaps destroy our solar system as well. As the Protectors and the Irregulars soon learn, Breakneck is not open to negotiation. It isn’t a matter of IF he will initiate a catastrophe, but rather WHEN. Before his short-lived reign of terror is snuffed out by Hellfield, Breakneck even drops trou in a depraved attempt to coerce oral sex from a sickened and stupefied Achilles.

Obviously, this guy has issues. So just who the heck is he, anyway?

For the answer to this, I will once more turn to the Titanic Trademark Universe Handbook.



Breakneck (Dante Taylor) The field commander of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung, Breakneck possesses savage super-strength that increases exponentially as he gets angrier and angrier. At its peak, Breakneck’s strength puts him in Achilles’ class or maybe even a tad stronger. Such exertion does take its toll on him, however, and the more energy Breakneck expends, the longer it takes him to recharge.

Dante Taylor began his criminal career as a small-time hood, stick-up man, and carjacker with a penchant for sadistically beating and savagely raping the victims of his extortions and robberies -- be they female or male. One such episode, the carjack-kidnapping of a married couple and their three small children, landed Dante in prison with a life sentence and no chance of parole.

In prison, Dante resumed his sadistic sexual attacks on his fellow inmates. When a fifteen-year-old Todd Harper found himself sentenced to Taylor’s cell block, Dante devoted all his attention to breaking in the “new meat.” Harper was able to defend himself, however, and the two developed an enmity that extended beyond the prison walls. (See my previous blog entry on Buckshot)

As one of the prison system’s most violent and unrepentant inmates, Dante made the perfect subject for Darius Kilhausen’s experimental “rehabilitation program.” When Kilhausen’s subjects developed hybrid super-powers, Dante organized the massive breakout that eventually led to the creation of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung. Taking the name “Breakneck,” Dante Taylor assumed a leadership role in Maniac’s shock troops, ranking as Kilhausen’s favorite right behind Maniac’s prodigy, Buckshot.

Even while they both served Maniac, Buckshot and Breakneck hated each other. In many ways, Buckshot’s loathing for Breakneck is what first separated him from Götterdämmerung and inspired his quest for redemption. So keep this in mind as you chuckle at the pile of ash that marks the final culmination of Breakneck’s criminal career.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas & Comic Book Heroes

I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately. Actually, that’s not entirely honest. Put bluntly, it’s more like writer’s constipation. I’ve thoroughly digested my subject matter, and I feel it quivering at the ends of my hands awaiting sweet release. However, for one reason or another, I just can’t seem to push out the words. Hence my rather scatological analogy (and yet another bad pun … uggh).

So I’m going to temporarily skip my treatise on the character developments of Hangman and Achilles and write something a little more in keeping with the holiday season. Hopefully, this is the diversionary diuretic I need.



Many who get to know me are surprised -- no, make that SHOCKED to learn that I love Christmas. Being a card-carrying cynic and skeptic (yes, I do actually carry a card), I’m not a particularly sentimental person. My fascination with religion and religious symbolism is rooted in scholarship not spirituality. Yet despite my deep and abiding agnosticism, I am very proud to admit that I love Christmas. I love the story, the symbolism, the songs, and the sense of brotherly love and charity that envelopes our society in a sweet, albeit short-lived season of sanity.

If the world celebrated the Christmas spirit three hundred and sixty-five days a year, ten years a decade, ten decades a century, and ten centuries a millennium, I truly believe my worldview would be fashioned from simple faith rather than chaotic doubt. Doubt is the bedrock of my being. Doubt is why I am neither a believer nor an atheist. In a world governed by uncertainty, I approach any kind of fundamentalism with a jaundiced eye. As far as the celebration of Christmas, however, I side squarely with town square manger scenes, bell-ringing soldiers in the Salvation Army, schoolchildren singing “Silent Night,” garish lawn displays, and Linus Van Pelt’s annual recitation of Luke 2:8-14.

Since I was old enough to listen and understand, I’ve always approached the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of a great narrative. Given my early love of mythic, legendary, and comic book heroes, this should come as no surprise. The Nativity is one of the world’s great Origin Stories. Right up there with King Arthur, Superman, and Momotaro. Would-be world beater Herod is hunting down all infants and toddlers in order to exterminate the newly-born King of the Jews. Meanwhile, the baby Jesus is born with no protection in absolute abject poverty. Throw in the shepherds, wise men, and a heavenly host, and you’ve got a tale that kept young Mark Kozak on the edge of his seat.

My childhood memories of Christmas were built around this narrative. The music of Christmas, which I love to this day, reverberates with this gripping story. The symbolism of Christmas -- manger scenes, trumpet-blowing angels, ornamental stars, presents for loved ones -- also resonates with the key elements of this grand adventure. As a child, I played with the lifelike figurines from my Grandmother Kozak’s manger display the way I played with my Mego action figures of Spider-Man, Captain America, and Green Arrow. Feeling that Matthew and Luke left out a lot of the details, I made up my own stories and my own characters revolving around the Nativity.

When I see Christmas attacked today, I react viscerally. Mind you, I am NOT uninformed. I know WHY non-Christians resent the public display of the holiday. Many are well-intentioned souls who truly do believe that the public celebration of Christmas is a kind of cultural torture of non-Christians by an insensitive, bullying majority. Then there are die-hard atheists who just hate anything that smacks of “bible-thumping, patriarchal, theocratic superstition.”

Like I said, I get it. Okay. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in this country (myself included) don’t believe in the literalism of the Bible in general or the historical details of the Nativity in particular. We all know this. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Wiccanism, and Atheism aren’t big secrets any more. However, if the celebration of Christmas is oppressing you, that’s YOUR problem.

I mean, I hate Dancing with the Stars and rap music, two cultural phenomena that occupy A LOT more space in our cultural landscape than Christmas, but you don’t see me petitioning local and national governments to outlaw them. No, I’m not trying to belittle a non-believer’s right to dissent. I’m not saying non-Christians should keep quiet about their non-belief during Christmas or any other season.

Quite the contrary.

Talk and educate all you want about your particular faith or lack of it. Christmas is the perfect opportunity to do so. Just STOP attacking manger scenes and school Christmas pageants like Carrie Nation on a rampage at the local saloon. Attempting to outlaw the public celebration of Christmas makes you look ridiculous to the majority of Christmas-loving Americans (like me) while simultaneously ginning up the very “bible-thumping” base you seek to silence.

Meanwhile, as the battles wage in the Christmas war, I’m going to sit back, drink my eggnog, decorate my tree, sing along with my Harry Connick Christmas CD, wrap my carefully-chosen presents, and wish everyone I know a Merry Christmas -- whether they want me to or not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

One Righteously Bad Mutha -- Wolf

I’m finally going to devote a full blog entry to the creation and character of Wolf. As leader of the Irregulars, Wolf is the driving force behind the action of Worlds Apart. Among the heroes and villains that populate the Trademark Universe, Wolf may be my favorite super-citizen. The story of his origin is a marriage of myriad pop-culture influences working in tandem with my need to explore ideas of justice, morality, race, and redemption.

Influence #1 - Blaxploitation

My dad took us to a lot of drive-in movies when we were young. Normally, my mom insisted we see some wholesome Disney fare. Occasionally, my dad was able to talk my mom into letting us see more adult-themed movies. I saw Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes at the drive-in. I also saw the entire early James Bond series. My most vivid drive-in memory, however, was a movie called Slaughter.

Being a native Clevelander, my dad was a huge Browns fan. This meant he was also a huge Jim Brown fan. When Jim retired from football and began making movies, my dad made sure he saw Brown’s first effort, a blaxploitation classic entitled Slaughter. I’m not sure what year we saw Slaughter at the drive in, or what summers we also saw Shaft and Hammer. What I do know is that by 1976 I knew enough about the plots and conventions of ‘70s blaxploitation films to be enthralled with the “street life” world of pimps, prostitutes, numbers runners, street gangs, and the eternal struggle with “the Man.”

Influence #2 – The Black Panthers & Black Muslims

As a boy, I was acutely aware of the very real presence of racial discontent in our country. Given my family background (which I’ve covered in previous blogs), I watched the evening news with the eye of someone twice my age. Civil rights protests marred by violence, scowling black militants, pro athletes like Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor converting to the Nation of Islam -- the nightly news images both thrilled and scared me.

By the time I was 9 years old, I knew all about the inhumanity of slavery and the scourge of Jim Crow. I understood why Black leaders were angry and demanding redress. I wanted Black Americans to succeed in their struggle, to be happy and treated with justice and respect. Decades before Rodney King’s famous quote, I myself asked: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Influence #3 – The Falcon and the Black Panther

After my first comic book convention in 1973, (covered in my previous blog entry) I attended similar events with my dad on a regular basis. Sometime before 1975, I picked up some Fantastic Four and Avengers comics featuring T’Challa, the Black Panther. I immediately loved the character, a brilliant scientist who was also one of the Marvel Universe’s most fearsome fighting machines.

During the same timespan, I ended up discovering the now legendary Captain America #117 in a stack of my brother’s discarded comics. This issue featured the first ever appearance of Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, a man who would soon join Cap as the co-star of the retitled Captain America and the Falcon. Once again, I was taken with the unique personality of a Black Superhero.


1976

I’d created the Trademark Universe months earlier. My first Black superhero, Brigade (later known as the Retaliator), debuted a few months after my first wave of heroes: Skater, Hangman, Beachcomber, Son of Liberty, and the Optimist. With Brigade/Retaliator’s face obscured by his helmet, I felt the need to create a more visible and upfront Black superhero.

My initial attempt occurred in a Skater story. While investigating the nefarious puppet-masters behind an inner-city riot, Skater came across a street-based mystery man who called himself Black Wolf. An obvious rip-off of Black Panther and Falcon, Black Wolf’s imagined costume combined T’Challa’s early costume (circa Avengers #53) and Falcon’s original, wingless, groovy, green-and-yellow get-up. Needless to say, Black Wolf possessed the standard super-soldier powers -- heightened speed, strength, and reflexes -- in addition to ferocious fighting ability.

Warning Skater to “stay off my turf,” Black Wolf grudgingly accepted the established hero’s aid in bringing the hate-mongering culprits to justice. Subsequent Skater stories featured more and more of Black Wolf. Constantly butting heads, the two heroes-cum-adversaries relentlessly patrolled the city along different paths. At some point, Wolf inexplicably dropped the “Black” portion of his alter ego and started dressing more like Shaft than a superhero. As I continued developing his backstory and private life, I slowly realized that my one-time supporting player presented a far more compelling character than the more straightlaced Skater.

I should pause here to remind everyone that I was an eleven year old suburban white kid trying to create “real” black characters based solely on pop culture archetypes. In other words, my efforts were unintentionally offensive, being rife with stereotypes. The more I wrote Wolf, the more various elements from the blaxploitation genre colored his character.

An advocate of “street justice,” Wolf had no qualms about befriending or assisting neighborhood denizens of questionable character in pursuit of the greater good. His crash pad boasted a bevy of big afro-ed, bare-midriff-showing, black beauty queens with names like Delilah, Cleopatra, and Nefertiti. Whenever Wolf got called into action, he would invariably be roused from a large bed amid two, three, or even four of his “does.” These same women constantly provided Wolf with “walking around money,” although no mention was made of how they earned the “dough.” Never openly labeling these women as prostitutes, even I could read between my own lines.

Within the working world of the super-biz, Wolf garnered the reputation as a notorious “player.” (Yes, thanks to countless blaxploitation films, I knew the word DECADES before it entered popular parlance.) Clarion, Maze, Howitzer, Gypsy, Lioness, Diatom, Pythoness, Kali, Paradise -- Wolf loved and left almost every superheroine and super-villainess in the Trademark Universe. His torrid affair with the equally libidinous Clarion provided the Trademark Universe’s first interracial romance. In the made-up letters section I wrote for Silver Streak’s comic book, fan reaction split straight down the middle between admiration and outrage.

When Tony Lewis and I finally decided to go ahead with Worlds Apart, I had a decision to make. I could “whitewash” Wolf to be more in keeping with modern, politically-correct sensitivities. Or I could keep him the way I developed him, blaxploitated warts and all.

Needless to say, just a few panels of Worlds Apart make clear that I’m going with my instincts and presenting Wolf as originally conceived. My reasoning, whether good or bad, will become evident as the story progresses and the Irregulars plunge headlong into a world they never made.

Now, for those of you wondering just how Wolf came to find himself cavorting around with the likes of Silver Streak and Hellfield, let’s turn to Wolf’s entry in the Titanic Trademark Handbook (Please note, much like Buckshot, Wolf’s origin story was developed and embellished over almost a decade of stories. The entry below encapsulates the final, revised version of Wolf’s origin):


Wolf (Archibald Turrentine) Wolf’s origin actually begins two hundred years before his birth. American patriot and Revolutionary War vigilante Jonathan Masters, a.k.a. the Son of Liberty, gains extraordinary physical abilities by ingesting an herbal concoction formulated by his slave, Brown Tom, a former tribal medicine man. This recipe is passed down as a well-guarded secret among Brown Tom’s kin for three generations. The “miracle elixir,” as Masters called it, finally vanished after the death of Brown Tom’s great-great-grandson, Moses, a slave to the Turrentine family during the mid-1800s.

One hundred years later, geneticist Dr. Linus Turrentine spends his spare time obsessively researching the lost family formula after finding mention of it in recently uncovered journals. After a decade of trials and errors, Linus finally stumbles upon the right combination of herbs. Dubbing his rediscovery the Meta-Vitamin, or Metamin for short, Turrentine hypothesizes that the Metamin acts as a catalyst of sorts, spurring the human body to utilize 100% of the energy stored in foods. Turrentine’s first guinea pig is his own son, Archibald, a star high-school athlete, who begins taking the supplement with extraordinary results.

With heightened reflexes, speed, stamina, and strength, Archie becomes the most highly-recruited high school athlete in the country. With so many offers pending, Archie fails to register for any of the colleges and universities before getting drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. As a soldier, Archie is beloved by his fellow grunts and hated by anyone in authority. Archie fights the war “Archie’s Way,” and his bravery on the battlefield is only equaled by his contempt for the bureaucrats and pencil-pushers making the command decisions. As a fitting conclusion to his military career, Archie bears the singular distinction of being awarded the Medal of Honor while simultaneously being dishonorably discharged.

Resurfacing at UCLA in the late 1960s, Archie’s consciousness is seized with radical new ideas of civil rights, social justice, and struggle against the elitist ruling class. Against his father’s wishes, Archie abandons his college athletic career for a life of radical and revolutionary activities. During one such protest, Archie stumbles upon one of his revolutionary idols secretly colluding with FBI agents in an effort to destroy a fellow black activist and political rival.

Disillusioned once again, Archie retreats to Harlem, retiring from active life to own and manage a health food store based upon the herbal remedies of his forebears. Joining Archie from home, his brother Robbie provides the brains behind the operation. A brilliant chemist who inherited Linus’ scientific gifts, Robbie keeps Archie supplied with the Metamin while cooking up a variety of other herbals and medicinals that soon find him running afoul of the local drug pushers in the neighborhood.

As his Harlem neighborhood consumes itself with violence and criminal activity, Archie turns a blind eye to the social blight, preferring instead to keep to himself, his pet dog Wolf, his books, his yoga, martial arts, and countless female companions. When Robbie runs afoul of a notorious drug kingpin, Archie provides him no support, preferring to stay uninvolved despite pressure from his brother and threats from local thugs.

Failing to read the writing on the wall, Archie is utterly devastated when gang members ransack his store, kill his brother and his main squeeze, Cleopatra, and kidnap his dog, Wolf. Setting out to find his dog and wreak vengeance, Archie stumbles across the gang’s hideout, kicks ass, and ends up incinerating their entire operation. Archie is unable to save his dog, however. He finds its corpse being eaten by one of the gang’s killer guard dogs.

Overwhelmed by grief and shame for his apathy, Archie takes to the streets as a vigilante, taking the name Wolf in honor of his fallen pet. It is during one of his initial forays that he encounters the man who will be both his greatest influence and his most bitter rival, Silver Streak. Fighting the Klan, the FBI, the Army, and anyone else who represents “the Man,” Wolf’s constant nonconformity to superhero norms eventually drives him deep underground. Here he remains for a good fifteen years until finally emerging to face the outstanding charges against him.



In a highly publicized trial that sees almost every superhero (and some super-villains) in the Trademark Universe testifying for either the prosecution or the defense, Wolf is eventually found not guilty on all counts, save one manslaughter charge: the accidental killing of a vicious National Guard commander. To this charge, Wolf voluntarily pleads guilty, resigning himself to whatever fate awaits him.

In an enlightened sentence, the judge places Wolf on probation, requiring him to carry out his community service by becoming a mentor to super-powered felons who have expressed the desire to reform and go straight. Forming a kind of superhero halfway house, Wolf’s loosely-knit squad eventually forms the basis of the world’s most iconoclastic super team, the Irregulars.

Comprised of members who have grown frustrated with the legal limitations shackling mainstream super-teams, the Irregulars present a constant chaotic presence in the super-biz. As their single-minded general, Wolf’s no-holds-barred approach to social justice makes him one of the most dominant and controversial forces in the super-biz.

Weapons -- Wolf possesses night-vision goggles which allow him to see in relative darkness.

Personal Items -- A deeply committed radical and champion of social justice, Wolf is probably, along with Silver Streak, the most ethical (and at times self-righteous) hero in the game. He does have one major skeleton in his closet, however. His long-estranged son, Jacob, who has been taking the Metamin since birth, is the super-villain Caracal.

As leader of the Irregulars, Wolf must constantly put on a stern all-business demeanor to keep his less-than-disciplined troops in line. Although he knows that any of his teammates could kill him without batting an eye, he still manages to intimidate them, commanding their obedience and respect.



Friday, November 27, 2009

Eddie "Iron Man" March Meets Luke Cage -- Retaliator

I went to my first comic book convention in 1973 when I was eight years old. The event took place in the Grand Ballroom at the Statler Hotel in downtown Cleveland. My dad took me. Although not a huge comic book fan, he loved nostalgia from his youth, and amid the boxes of “funny books” he found a treasure trove of souvenirs from old radio shows and movie serials.

Surrounded by what seemed like millions of comic books, I clutched the $10 bill my dad had placed in my hand. Today, $10 wouldn’t buy squat at a comic book convention. In 1973, however, $10 purchased me so many comics I actually struggled with my goody bag on the way out of the hotel. The fact that my dad gave me $10 -- which would be roughly $50 today -- wasn’t lost on me. I knew I had to spend my money wisely.

With half my funds, I purchased some virtually mint Adventure Comics (featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes), Flash, and Justice League of America issues. At that time bagged issues in excellent condition ranged from 50¢ - 60¢. With the rest of my funds I bought 100 assorted coverless comics for 5¢ a piece.

For a kid who just loved comic books, it didn’t matter that “collectors” considered coverless comics as worthless junk. My grab-bag of goodies provided a treasure trove of rapturous reading. The majority of titles were DC, and I spent hours poring over pages of Hawkman, thrilling to the exploits of Adam Strange and Green Lantern. By this time, I’d begun reading the more challenging Marvel comics my brother collected, and I was very excited that almost a third of the books were already-familiar titles like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

In this cornucopia of comics, I first discovered my favorite series from that era, Captain Mar-Vell. I was also introduced to Iron Man and Marvel’s predominant black superhero at the time, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. The lone Iron Man issue happened to be the classic Invincible Iron Man #21. In it, Shellhead “retires” from the super biz and hires a successor to be Iron Man, veteran boxer Eddie “Iron Man” March, who also happens to be African American. At the end of the story, Eddie almost makes the ultimate sacrifice, and Tony Stark realizes he must never forsake the responsibility of being Iron Man again. To this day, Iron Man #21 still ranks as one of the most influential comics in my life.

By contrast, the Luke Cage offering in my grab bag (#5: “Don’t Mess With Black Mariah”) didn’t quite suit my eight-year-old tastes. The villain of the story, Black Mariah, was a huge, obese black woman with no super-powers. The whole tale seemed ridiculous. A superhero like Cage should be able to punch a fat lady through a wall. Story over. Still, I found something fascinating about Cage’s “for hire” mentality.

Looking back on that first comic book convention, I truly believe my $5/100-comic grab-bag might be the most important and significant monetary investment of my life. A short time after losing myself in all those stories, I began imagining the heroes that would later populate the Trademark Universe. One of my first creations owed his very identity to both Iron Man #21 and Luke Cage #5.


In fourth grade social studies, we read about the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791. I remember the historical account intrigued me. If Haiti’s slaves were able to revolt, why weren’t U.S. slaves able to do the same? Needless to say, I admired the Haitian slaves who had been able to break the chains of slavery themselves.


Several weeks after creating the Trademark Universe in 1975, my ten-year-old self experienced the vague notion that something was missing. Although I didn’t know the word back then, I surmise now that I was experiencing a lack of “diversity” in my characters. Fabricated upon the three-dimensional “realistic” concept of Marvel Comics, the Trademark Universe seemed more like the two-dimensional monochromatic world of DC Comics in its inception. Skater (later Silver Streak), Hangman, Beachcomber, Son of Liberty, the Optimist, Vendetta -- my league of extraordinary white gentlemen exposed a certain paucity in my creative powers, not to mention my social consciousness.

The solution came to me immediately. The Trademark Universe needed a black superhero. I recalled Iron Man #21 and the character of Eddie March, a black prize fighter who became the first substitute Iron Man. I also mulled over the origin and character of Luke Cage, an innocent convict who loans his body out to a corrupt government in exchange for parole. Comingling these two influences with my fascination with the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791, I created the Trademark Universe’s first “black” superhero: Brigade, a.k.a. Timothy LaPierre, a.k.a. the Retaliator.

For a short while, Brigade, who quickly took the name Retaliator (see below), sufficed as the TU’s sole superhero of color. However, as I gradually realized, my first black American hero really wasn’t a BLACK hero because no one could see the color of his skin beneath his helmet. In other words, I’d somehow created a black hero that no one knew was black.

I resolved this dilemma in two ways. I created a story arc where LaPierre’s identity (and thus his race) became public, and I created a second black superhero whose skin color and racial identity presented no ambiguity whatsoever: Wolf. (Much more on Wolf in my next blog entry.)

For more information regarding Retaliator’s origin and career, I will once again cite the Trademark Universe Handbook I provided to Tony Lewis when we originally decided to make Worlds Apart a reality.


Retaliator (Timothy LaPierre) A black American professional boxer of Haitian descent, Timothy LaPierre boasted not only a Golden Gloves championship but an Olympic gold medal by age 18. Known as “The Haitian Machine,” hard-hitting LaPierre had a penchant for putting down his opponents in the first round. Finally, after battling through dozens of professional fights, LaPierre got the title shot of his dreams against Heavyweight Champion Malcolm “Bruiser” Bruno. LaPierre’s dream, however, quickly turned into his worst nightmare.

Viciously race-baited by Bruno during the pre-fight weigh-in, LaPierre entered the ring determined not only to beat Bruno, but to punish him as well. As the fight started, Bruno’s racially-charged taunts enraged LaPierre, throwing the young challenger off his fight. Bruno even managed to land a hard uppercut that sent LaPierre to the canvas, something that had never happened to the young boxer before.

As a dazed LaPierre pulled himself together, Bruno stood over him, jeering and spitting down on him. Struggling to his feet, LaPierre found himself strengthened by a cold, merciless rage. As the fight resumed, LaPierre overwhelmed the champion, unleashing a flurry of punches that made the onlookers gasp. As the coup de grace, the Haitian Machine delivered a devastating knockout blow to Bruno, a punch so hard it broke Bruno’s neck, killing the champion instantly.

Needless to say, pandemonium broke loose inside and outside the ring. Amid the chaos, LaPierre found himself being drugged and hustled out of the ring by mysterious men in black suits, who then dumped him into a waiting black helicopter. Hours later, LaPierre regained consciousness and found himself being held in a top-secret underground research facility. During a relentless interrogation, LaPierre discovered where he was and who was holding him. The installation belonged to the U.S. government’s top-secret S-1 Operations Bureau.

S-1 Operations, LaPierre soon learned, constituted a top-secret agency entrusted with policing America’s super-powered citizens, heroes and villains. S-1’s primary objective at the time was the recovery of a valuable piece of re-engineered alien technology: a visor mask which enabled the wearer to view the world in slow motion, as well as see through walls and perceive surroundings with 360 degrees of peripheral vision. The visor had been stolen by a man named Matt Carpenter, a.k.a. the Optimist, an investigative reporter turned super-powered vigilante.

Faced with the prospect of criminal prosecution for the death of Bruno, LaPierre was offered a position with S-1 in order to pay his debt to society. To combat the Optimist, S-1 designed a suit of battle armor projected to be ten times more effective than the Optimist’s visor. However, they had been unsuccessful thus far finding a man with the reflexes and physical abilities required to control the armor. After studying LaPierre for months, S-1 believed they’d found their super-soldier.

Undergoing rigorous training with S-1’s battlesuit, LaPierre was given the codename Brigade and dispatched to retrieve the Optimist’s visor. After hunting down the Optimist for weeks, LaPierre slowly realized the truth behind Matt Carpenter’s actions. S-1 abused their authority while breaking countless laws, and Carpenter, as the Optimist, had only been fighting to expose S-1’s corruption. What finally turned LaPierre against S-1, however, was knowledge that S-1 operatives had actually been the ones to kill Bruno in the ring. S-1 had framed LaPierre for the slaying in order to secure his cooperation.

Disenchanted with his employers, LaPierre divulged the information to Silver Streak and the Protectors while bringing suit against S-1 and the federal government. For their part, the Protectors swore to protect LaPierre until his trial, and for a brief time he signed on with them, still under the name Brigade. S-1 tricked the Protectors into leaving Brigade alone at Protectors HQ, however, and with the team absent, S-1 moved in to silence their rogue agent once and for all.

Needless to say, Brigade survived the assault and lived to fight many more days. Tricked into believing that the Protectors betrayed him to S-1, Brigade left the group, relocated to Haiti and went into “business” for himself as the Retaliator, “a superhero who looks out for number one.” Retaliator works for anyone (except criminals) who pays his fee: $10,000 a day plus expenses -- in cash. Essentially given asylum by the Haitian government because of his super-powers and duel citizenship, Retaliator constantly flaunts his outlaw status in the States by crossing the border with impunity. During one such mission, Retaliator fell in with a ragtag bunch of marginalized superheroes led by another black superhero, Wolf. The resulting partnership led to the creation of the Irregulars.



Weapons -- Originally designed by S-1 from back-engineered alien technology, Retaliator’s suit is one giant weapon giving him super-strength, speed, and invulnerability, as well as the ability to fly, survive the vacuum of space, and fire high-intensity energy blasts. Years after first donning the armor, Retaliator’s suit received an upgrade with even more advanced alien technology during an off-world adventure. Presently, Retaliator is one of the Trademark Universe’s most powerful heroes.

Personal Items -- Retaliator’s pariah status in the superbiz makes establishing any close contacts nearly impossible. Quite simply, his motto of always “looking out for number one” means even his teammates don’t completely trust him. A year before the events of Worlds Apart, LaPierre met and married Somali supermodel Ayanna, and the two have a baby girl. LaPierre’s status as a family man governs his actions at the opening of Worlds Apart, where he very un-superheroically leaves the battle with Breakneck to save his own family. Such unpredictable and nonconforming self-interest is emblematic of Retaliator’s character and career.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Possibly the Vilest Trademark Villainess -- Mosquito

In my last blog, Running the Race, I offered my take on the topic of race in general terms. For the next three blog entries, I’m going to explore this topic in more specific terms, namely how my childhood views on race influenced the development of three very prominent characters in the Trademark Universe: Mosquito, Retaliator, and Wolf.

When I was a child, I spent quite a bit of time on Cleveland’s near west side. My father grew up on Trowbridge Avenue in a largely Czech neighborhood between Fulton Road and West 41st Street. While I was growing up in suburban North Olmsted, my grandmother and aunt still lived in that old house. When my parents took a vacation every year, my siblings and I spent a week in the old neighborhood familiarizing ourselves with the landscape of my dad’s youth.

One of the local landmarks in Cleveland’s Czech community was the Ceska Sin Sokol Hall on Clark Avenue. My grandmother took us there many times for weekly suppers featuring traditional Czech food. Coincidentally, right across from the Ceska Sin stood another Cleveland landmark, this one not so community friendly: the Cleveland headquarters for George Lincoln Rockwell’s National Socialist White People’s Party.

Whenever my grandmother took us to the Ceska Sin, I invariably turned a curious, horrified eye across the street towards the run-down storefront brazenly brandishing the swastika. Admittedly, the place held a sick fascination for me. Given my upbringing as the grandson of a prominent civil rights activist, I knew a lot more about racist ideology than your typical lily-white pre-teen suburbanite.

Even now, I remember being astounded how blatantly these American Nazis advertised. I couldn’t believe they operated so openly, and no one -- not cops, nor protestors, nor well-meaning vigilantes -- shut them down. I also noted, with a kind of smug satisfaction, that I never saw anyone entering or exiting the storefront. Perhaps these racists could operate legally in our country. But they still boasted no members.

I was disabused of this naïve notion on a warm spring afternoon when I was twelve years old. During one of those yearly sojourns in the old neighborhood, I found myself stopping at the Ceska Sin with my aunt and grandmother while they ran errands. As they talked inside the hall with friends, I ventured outside onto the street. Immediately, my eyes riveted to the ramshackle building across the street.

Something was different about the headquarters this day. Something very different.
Unlike the previous times I’d studied the dormant storefront, the headquarters that afternoon buzzed with people and activity. A small squad of uniformed men stood outside the large black swastika hand-painted across the boarded and barred windows. Sprinkled among these armbanded brownshirts, a handful of teenagers strutted up and down the sidewalk shouting slogans like “White Power” and “Send Them Back to Africa!” while passing out pamphlets.

I pause now because I’m about to make a confession in the next few paragraphs that I’ve never disclosed to anyone. So please, remember, I was twelve years old at the time. And go easy on me.

As my gaze swept over the gaudy, unseemly spectacle of a mini Nazi rally, my eyes focused like the proverbial laser beam on one of the hate-spouting street urchins. She must have been about 14 or 15 years old. She had long black hair, pale white skin, wide doe eyes, a face like Pamela Sue Martin, and a pair of cantaloupe-sized breasts that strained against the black swastika emblazoned across her blood-red t-shirt. To say I was drawn to her would be like saying a fly is drawn to a pile of horse manure.

In what can only be described as a hormone-induced trance, I sauntered stiff-legged across the street, barely breathing as I approached the object of my early-adolescent adoration. As the old expression goes, she saw me coming from a mile away. She walked towards me with a big smile on her face, her out-stretched hand offering me a black-and-white illustrated pamphlet formatted like a small comic book. She then asked me a question for which she obviously knew the answer: “Hey, do you like comic books?”

“Uh... yeah...” I stammered, unable to talk through the arousal coursing through my dilated blood vessels. “I love comic books.”

“Do you love the white race?” she pressed as she pressed the comic book in my hand.

“Yeah...”

“Good. You’ll love this comic book. It’s all about what you can do to stand up for our race against all the niggers and kikes.”

“Okay, cool.” I just kept staring at her, stupefied by her face and breasts. “What’s your name?”

“Anne.” She wasn’t walking away, so I thought maybe something about me had impressed her.

“My name’s Mark.” I paused. “I hate niggers, too,” I suddenly blurted in a desperate attempt to convince her to be my girlfriend... FOREVER!

“It’s not just the niggers. Remember. It’s the Jews, too. They control the blacks and are using them to destroy our race. The Jews are the real problem. Without the Jews we could beat the niggers down no problem.” She smiled, and I knew she was about to leave me... FOREVER! “Remember, White Power!” she crowed before swiveling her impossibly perfect posterior back into the brownshirted phalanx.

I walked back to the Ceska Sin, flushed with shame and lust. I folded up the comic book and stuffed it into my back pocket only moments before my grandmother and aunt exited the hall. Unbelievably, they looked at me the same way they’d always looked at me. Obviously, the egregious nature of my hate crime branded me with the Mark of Cain. Without any discussion regarding what I’d been doing outside the hall, we drove back to their house. A short time later, in the privacy of their basement, I slid the comic book out of my back pocket and lost myself amid the poorly-drawn panels.

Through the haze of memory, I recall the short black & white comic being all about a white kid getting bullied by black students at school. As a victim of bullying myself, the tale drew me in on a purely guttural level. The comic recounted how the poor white kid fought back against his black oppressors until finally triumphing and becoming a hero for the white race. Many years later, while scanning the internet for a presentation on hate literature, I came across what I think must be the same comic, White Power Comes to Midvale.

Gazing upon those panels some thirty-odd years later, I can’t believe I once responded so viscerally to the amateurish script and mediocre artwork. For some reason inexplicable and unfathomable to my twelve-year-old self, I found the comic not only thrilling but stimulating (if you get my drift). Yes, I’m absolutely mortified to admit for the first time in my life that I not only proclaimed my hatred for the black race in order to impress a girl, I also... uh... pleasured myself while reading a race-baiting comic and thinking of Anne, the Teutonic Temptress.

So what does all this have to do with Trademark Comics in general and Worlds Apart in particular? Well, the experience with Anne and her racist comic book inspired the creation of perhaps the Trademark Universe’s most despicable villainess, the Mosquito. When I first created Maniac’s Götterdämmerung, one of my initial hybrid shock troopers was based explicitly (pun intended) on Aryan Anne.


Mosquito, as originally conceived, came to Maniac’s ranks through a neo-nazi skinhead gang. Transformed into an insectoid freak with wings, super strength & reflexes, and an organic exo-skeleton, Mosquito also possessed the power to drain blood from her victims, which in turn further amplified her own formidable prowess. Immediately, she became one of my “go-to” baddies, especially in racially-charged Silver Streak and Wolf stories where she provided the perfect bane for the ever-squabbling heroes.

Due, no doubt, to the pangs of guilt and self-loathing born from my shameful encounter with Anne, I instantly rendered Mosquito in terms of the grotesque. Her ghoulish outward appearance thoroughly complemented her abhorrent inner nature. Subconsciously, I guess, I was attempting to strip away any sense of the misplaced attraction I’d cast in the direction of Aryan Anne, her real-life inspiration. Even among Maniac’s über-evil yet racially-diversified Götterdämmerung, Mosquito’s virulent, uncompromising white supremacy cast her in the role of pariah. As Buckshot once commented, “You know you’re really a sicko when even Spree doesn’t hang with you.”


Despite my best efforts to make Mosquito completely unappealing, I continually found myself drawn to her character as a means of exploring my own confusion, fear, and fascination with issues of race in American culture. As I filled notebook after notebook with Trademark tales, Mosquito stories became my darkest and most violent offerings. My multi-issue arc chronicling Mosquito’s involvement in the Rhodesian civil war shocked even myself as I reread my words. The things Mosquito said and did, her actions as well as her motivations, pushed the proverbial envelope well beyond the borderline between good and evil. Of all my super-villains, Mosquito singularly possessed the unique ability to bring out not only the worst but also the best in Trademark heroes and villains.

In the opening of Worlds Apart, we see Mosquito in all her racist rancor. Her confrontation with Silver Streak displays the essence of her evil. Gripping two pretty teenagers in her horrific clutches, she forces the ultra-moral hero to make a Sophie’s Choice, of sorts, between a pair of victims, one black and the other white. Tony Lewis’ artistic depiction of Silver Streak’s utter paralyzing horror is worth a hundred voice balloons.

Later on, as the plot of Worlds Apart develops, we will see other, even more horrifying instances of racial hatred and racial violence being perpetrated upon innocent victims. Such disturbing unexpurgated content found its way early into my Trademark stories. Even at the tender age of twelve and thirteen, I was tentatively exploring the limits of my own imagination and capacity to fictively deal with the evil I’d encountered within myself that warm spring afternoon on Clark Avenue.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Running the Race

In my previous blog concerning Silver Streak, I mentioned the character Wolf and how I created him as a kind of political and racial counterpoint to the ultra-conservative, pro-establishment, and very white Silver Streak. I’ve also discussed in another blog entry, Moral Clarity, my family’s involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, ‘60s & ‘70s. The issue of race relations in America has always fascinated me, and that fascination, in turn, wove itself into the creation of the Trademark Universe as well as my other writing.

Over the years, I’ve been told my views on race are naive, provincial, and/or uninformed. I’m neither surprised nor angered by that assessment. I grew up in North Olmsted, Ohio during the 1970s. We could count the number of African American families living in our suburban community on one hand. Although I do recall going to school with a smattering of Asian and Hispanic Americans, only one distinctive color ran through my childhood and adolescence: white.

Some would say my lily-white past disqualifies me from writing anything substantive regarding race relations or racism in the United States. I can respect that. What follows may explore the most wrong-headed assessment of the white/nonwhite divide ever conceived. So please, let me apologize beforehand. I can only write from my own experiences. To do otherwise would simply be disingenuous.

I formed my seminal opinions concerning race relations and racism from a combination of complementary and often contradictory influences. In my entry Moral Clarity, I briefly explored my mother’s background as the daughter of a somewhat controversial minister strongly committed to the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement. I grew up, then, with an acute awareness of the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as a fair amount of knowledge regarding the historical plight of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Japanese-American internees, migrant farm workers, and other disenfranchised and exploited minorities.

Coupled with my mother’s philosophical commitment to equality and social justice, I also learned a great deal about the practical, day-to-day aspects of race from my father. My dad is a professional jazz musician, and I grew up loving jazz and idolizing jazz icons the way most normal kids revered rock musicians and star athletes. Considering that jazz music was invented by black Americans and most of its pioneers and innovators were African Americans, any notion of white superiority among professionals is absurd.

More than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Christian shattered similar barricades with Benny Goodman’s band in the mid-to-late 1930s. Whereas social commentators and historians still extol the cultural significance of Goodman’s actions, musicians take a much more pragmatic view of the decision. Being able to hire excellent black musicians simply meant band leaders were able to fill their chairs with the best talent they could find, black or white.

In other words, as socially just as Goodman might have been, he didn’t hire Teddy Wilson because he was black. Goodman hired Wilson, and later Hampton & Christian, because they could PLAY.

PERIOD.

During my youth, when my dad and I listened to recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, or Frank Rosolino, the issue of their race wasn’t only irrelevant; considering it would have been inconceivable. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

PERIOD.

For example, Buddy Rich was, by many accounts, a tyrant, bully, and four-star jerk. (Just listen to this if you don’t believe me.) He also happened to be one of history’s greatest drummers and bandleaders. The thought that any musician would discount Buddy Rich because of his personality is ludicrous.

Similarly, Charlie Mingus had a reputation for bi-polar meltdowns and punching out his sidemen. When musicians talk about Mingus’ bad temper, they never discuss his race. They just talk about what an asshole he could be. In the same breath, they’ll also talk about what a great bassist, composer, and bandleader he was. Who Mingus or Rich were had NOTHING to do with their music. Anyone who judges any musician by anything other than the music isn’t a musician, and frankly not worth considering.

Growing up, I heard lots of stories from my dad regarding race in the music business. He told me how his father, a brilliant piano player, took him to see pianist Art Tatum when my dad was still a young boy. Tatum was performing in the upstairs living room of a black family living in one of the racially-segregated neighborhoods in Cleveland. Although my father and grandfather were the only whites in attendance, they were welcomed warmly into the home without any attention paid to race. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

As a teenager, my dad regularly ventured to jazz clubs that were deemed “colored.” He sat and listened to the music, struck up professional friendships, and never experienced any discomfort whatsoever. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

Trumpeter Red Rodney travelled with Charlie Parker’s band in the ‘50s and was forced to pass as an albino black man because of white racial prejudice and strict segregation in the South. Although Benny Goodman had broken the color barrier north of the Mason-Dixon Line years earlier, Jim Crow still dominated the southern US until the 1960s. Musicians still laugh at the ignorant “white power structure” represented by this story.

My point citing these anecdotes is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist among musicians. Of course it does. Prejudice exists everywhere. However, among true professional musicians, prejudice doesn’t factor into who gets hired or who is admired. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

I was raised, then, by a combination of influences. From my mother, I acquired a philosophical belief in racial equality, and from my father a practical sense that someone’s race should never be a factor in determining their worth. Needless to say, all these high-minded ideals remained fairly easy to maintain considering I didn’t really know any black Americans in real life.

Like many white suburban kids from my era, the only African Americans I encountered appeared in movies, television, and comic books. Luke Cage, the Falcon, Black Panther, Mal Duncan -- these were the “black” friends of my childhood. Other forays into Black popular culture included blaxploitation movies, TV characters like Terry Webster from The Rookies, and myriad professional athletes. As grounded as I may have been in the ideals of racial equality, my young mind still couldn’t help gravitating to the stereotypes presented by Superfly, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Spearchucker Jones, and Christie Love.



Needless to say, my creations in the Trademark Universe reflected these stereotypes. Before Wolf, I created Retaliator, my first African American hero, who was actually more an anti-heroic cross-pollination between Luke Cage and boxer-turned-substitute-Iron-Man Eddie March (Iron Man #21). With his face hidden behind a helmet, however, Retaliator wasn’t in-your-face black, and most in the Trademark Universe never even knew his race.

A short time later, I wrote a Silver Streak story featuring an openly black hero I dubbed “Black Wolf.” Based primarily on Falcon & Black Panther, Black Wolf owed much of his personality to the street-smart “Black Superman” archetype promulgated by movies such as Shaft, Super Fly, and Hammer. Black Wolf spoke like these blaxploitation bad-asses, and during his down time he surrounded himself with a bevy of Christie Love & Foxy Brown lookalikes.

I loved the character immediately. I actually found him easier and more fun to write than Silver Streak, the star of the book. Without explanation, I quickly dropped the “Black” from his name, and simply referred to him as Wolf. He came to co-star in the book just as Falcon co-starred with Captain America. Unlike Cap & Falc, however, Wolf and Silver Streak were never partners or friends. They fought crime in the same city, and thus continued crossing paths and butting heads. It was a blast to write, and I’ll be talking about Wolf himself in greater detail with a later installment.

Over the years, as I grew to know and befriend Americans of every race, my take on Wolf and other minority Trademark characters grew slightly more complex. But, truth be told, Wolf, Retaliator, Slice, et al have remained pretty much as I created them, stereotypical warts and all.

As Worlds Apart develops, please pay attention to my portrayal of race, race relations, racism, and racial stereotypes. These themes play a prevalent role in the coming pages, just as they have throughout my life. Although you may disagree with my ultimate conclusions, I hope you respect my honesty. For me to write Worlds Apart any other way would be, as I said before, disingenuous.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Flash Meets Captain America – Silver Streak

When I first started reading comic books, I immediately decided my favorite superhero was the Flash. Not only did he have the best super-power -- super-speed IS the ultimate power, bar none! -- he also had the coolest costume: red bodysuit with yellow lightning bolts -- and I just loved those wings on the side of his head.

Whenever my dad brought home comic books for me, I always prayed the stack would include a Flash comic. My favorite adventures involved Kid Flash and/or Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash from Earth-2. I also loved when Flash would race Superman.

Even at the tender age of five, I admired how DC editors navigated between the horns of the “Who’s Faster?” dilemma. Flash was actually a microsecond faster than Supes, but Flash didn’t have Kal-El’s limitless endurance. In other words, Flash beats Supes in a dash; Supes beats Flash in a marathon. That made total sense to me.

Needless to say, when I first began creating prototypical superheroes based upon DC antetypes, my seminal “Adam” was a blatant Flash rip-off. He bore the appellation Blue Bolt. His costume? A navy blue bodysuit highlighted by white lightning bolts. His teenage partner called himself Blue Streak and wore a white bodysuit offset with blue lightning bolts.

As recounted before, my taste in comic books drifted from DC to Marvel a few years after I created my initial DC-esque characters. My favorite Marvel character was Captain Mar-Vell, originally because of his green and white costume, and then later because I dug the whole “hero who’s actually a villain” conflict. Alongside Mar-Vell, I also idolized Captain America, especially after reading a reprint of a Cap story that originally appeared in Tales of Suspense #59.

In this short feature, a gang of thugs breaks into Avengers Mansion because the only Avenger on duty is Captain America. Since Cap possesses no awesome super-powers, the crooks assume he’s a pushover. Naturally, Cap kicks all their butts in true Cap fashion. This single story made me a Cap fan forever. Shortly afterwards, as I followed his stint in the Avengers, I grew to admire his unflinching morality and staunch adherence to ethical behavior. Somewhere along the way, I also noticed that Cap, like the Flash, also had a pair of wings on his head mask.

Coincidence?

When I first began crafting the Trademark Universe, then, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that my initial creation came out as a combination of the Flash and Captain America, with a nod in costume design to Captain Mar-Vell. Originally deemed Skater, my first hero was a super-speedster who streaked about on a pair of “super skates.” In addition to super-speed, he also possessed a super sense of right and wrong. Unwavering in his pursuit of law and order, Skater became the Trademark Universe’s Captain America.

As originally conceived, Skater stood as your basic super-patriot. Recovering from a career-ending injury, Olympic speed-skating champion and hockey star Mark Hunter found himself recruited by the U.S. government to become its first Super Secret Agent. Repairing Hunter’s damaged legs with space-age surgical techniques, the government convinced him to lace up a pair of high-tech skates and a friction-resistant jumpsuit. The skates allowed Hunter to skate over any flat surface and defy gravity at near light speeds. Thus was born the Skater!

Okay, I know “Skater” is a stupid name. I knew it even when I created it. I just couldn’t think of anything better, so the name stuck. Years later, I tried new names -- Defender, Silver Skater, Blue Streak -- before settling on Silver Streak.

During his long and storied career, Silver Streak helped found S-1 Operations, a government agency policing superheroes, as well as the Protectors. Things weren’t always easy for Silver Streak, however. As my life and ideals changed, Mark Hunter’s initial backstory transformed over several retellings, while my original Trademark hero experienced many character-defining pitfalls and hardships.

Two years after first creating Silver Streak, I came to realize the potential for personal conflict posed by his unflinching law-and-order mentality. As a kind of moral counterweight to the lily-white Silver Streak, I created my first black superhero, Archibald Turrentine, b.k.a. Wolf. At the time, I didn’t know that I was juxtaposing SS’s conservatism versus Wolf’s liberalism. I just liked the idea of these two ultra-moral superdudes constantly arguing the issues of the day as they fought their own interpretations of evil.


Of course, I owed my original inspiration to DC’s revolutionary Green Lantern / Green Arrow series. However, truth be told, I actually think my take was even better because my heroes were divided by race in addition to politics.

Wolf first appeared as a character in Skater stories. The more Wolf stories I wrote, the more I developed his backstory, thereby generating more ideas concerning Skater’s true origin. Unlike Archibald (Wolf) Turrentine, Mark Hunter -- the ultra-patriot -- never served in Vietnam. Hunter was too busy winning gold medals and serving the military in a PR capacity, making stateside speaking appearances and filming TV ads. After completing the terms of his enlistment, Hunter went into the world of professional sports while Turrentine slogged in the bush, finally being dishonorably discharged after refusing to obey orders in a massacre incident reminiscent of Mai Lai.

Needless to say, Skater and Wolf started off on the wrong foot, and their relationship never improved. Years later, when Skater, now calling himself Silver Streak, spoke out against the tactics used by “rogue” heroes like Wolf and Retaliator, Wolf retaliated by banding these like-minded heroes together and deeming them the Irregulars. The action at the onset of Worlds Apart clearly demonstrates the conflict between Silver Streaks’ “Law & Order” Protectors and Wolf’s “By Any Means Necessary” Irregulars. I’ll be delving deeper into the ramifications of the Silver Streak vs. Wolf conflict in a later blog dealing with Wolf.

For the remainder of this entry, I’ll refer to Silver Streak’s entry in the original Trademark Universe Handbook I drafted for Worlds Apart co-creator & artistic force, Tony Lewis:


Silver Streak (Mark Hunter) Highly skilled in all forms of hand-to-hand combat, Silver Streak excels in kickboxing. He is also a top-notch gymnast and acrobat both in and out of his skates.

A staunch patriot and the quintessential “good soldier,” Silver Streak remained oblivious to much of S-1’s “darker” shenanigans while acting as its titular head. During his tenure as S-1’s CEO, Silver Streak unwittingly functioned as the unit’s public face while other less reputable forces saw to the agency’s actual workload. Only later did Silver Streak learn of S-1’s “Black Ops” activities, at which point he resigned from the agency in every capacity.

Severely disillusioned, Hunter “retired” from the super biz, taking his skates with him and travelling the country “in search of the years he’d lost.” His self-imposed exile ended when confronting the threat that led to the founding of the Protectors. Since then, Silver Streak has served as the group’s leader on numerous occasions, generally splitting the duty with Flurry.

Weapons -- Silver Streak’s skates create ice-like surfaces over any flat, semi-smooth surface: concrete, brick, even grass. The skates allow him to defy gravity by skating at ninety-degree angles and upside down. At top speed, SS can approach light speed, thus allowing him to dodge high-energy and laser blasts. The laser-sharp blades of his skates can also be formidable weapons, seeing as Hunter is an expert kick-boxer.

Personal Items -- At times, especially in his earlier days, Mark Hunter’s boyscout-like faith in the “American Way” made him a little unrealistic when dealing with the super biz’s numerous shades of gray. His simple, straight-forward, unrelenting morality, however, has been a positive force in reshaping the lives of several former superbaddies, most namely Buckshot and Slice.

At one time romantically interested in Flurry, Silver Streak stepped aside without ever pronouncing his love when he learned that his old Cold War mentor and comrade, the Spring, loved the exotic elemental, too.

Despite their obvious differences, Silver Streak and Hangman have become close allies over the years. In fact, it was Silver Streak’s endorsement of Hangman that convinced the government to cease treating the hero as a threat, thereby allowing Hangman to be co-founder of the Protectors.