Raptor! Tracer! Irish Wolfhound! Empyrean! Dreamkiller! Wildstreak! The Cadre! You could be forgiven for not knowing who any of these people are — but after the jump, we’ll look back at one of the oddest highlights of Marvel’s early-90’s output, and learn the terrifying (not really terrifying) secrets of the 1993 Marvel Annuals!
1993 had a lot of historical moments for the comic book industry. Still riding high on Image-era speculation, the industry churned out big move after big move. Superman died. Vertigo broke free of the rest of DC. Cable, Venom, and Deadpool got their own comic books. The Ultraverse and Milestone launched. 2000 AD handed the keys to Grant Morrison and Mark Millar for the “Summer Offensive.” Frank Miller returned to Daredevil on The Man Without Fear. Batman’s spine shattered. Image and Valiant locked into Deathmate. Mister Fantastic died. Wolverine lost his adamantium. Meanwhile, in their respective annuals, Marvel and DC expanded their universes: DC through Bloodlines, and Marvel through the auspiciously-titled “1993 Marvel Annuals.”
The idea was the same in both cases, although Bloodlines at least had a crossover throughline to it. Each annual published would serve as both a double-size adventure for its stars, but also an introduction to a new, exciting character. “I wasn’t high enough on the editorial food chain to know whether the concept originated in Editorial or Marketing,” says Evan Skolnick, a former writer and editor for Marvel who now works in the video game industry, “though if I had to hazard a guess I’d assume it was the latter.”
“The stated goal was to introduce this ‘new wave’ of Marvel characters and market them as the next big thing,” Skolnick continues. “Kind of like throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what would stick. And the ones that did stick might get their own series and so on. That was my understanding at the time, so I guess I bought into that hype, enough so that I took some characters I had been pitching for limited series and offered them up as part of this promotion.”
While no one I talked to was high up enough at the time to know where exactly the idea originated, it’s hard not to look at the project as a rushed response to DC’s Bloodlines. Even though Marvel pioneered Annual-based megacrossovers through events like Atlantis Attacks and The Evolutionary War, DC had the better set-up in ’93. No one looks back at Bloodlines and talks about what a wonderful, medium-changing event it was, but it still had a central narrative (about aliens using alien powers on people to turn them into new, marketable superheroes and supervillains), a separate trading card line, and a title — Marvel’s line had individual cards polybagged with each issue, but beyond that, nothing in common. Even if it wasn’t shoved out as a response to Bloodlines, Skolnick puts it best: “This particular promotion seemed a bit half-hearted, with poor follow-through… It’s unfortunate, but it felt like a marketing-driven event, and in my experience those rarely work out well creatively.”
CREATING THE CHARACTERS
In 1993, Marvel put out 27 Annuals. That meant that 27 creative teams had to be assembled, and 27 new characters conceived and designed. All this on top of the regularly scheduled monthly comics and other projects, and the editors had their work cut out for them. Of course, for some it was easier than others. “I had the advantage of being editor of Marvel Comic Presents, which gave me access to hundreds of writers and artists,” says Terry Kavanagh, who wrote and edited for Marvel and now heads MyBeanJar.com. “Virtually everyone working in the industry at the time had done or was in the midst of doing an eight-page story for me.”Continued below
Not that it was entirely smooth sailing for Kavanagh, who edited the Excalibur annual (about which, more later): “My first instinct, of course, would have been to use the series writer — either Chris Claremont or Alan Davis at the time, I believe. Most likely, they didn’t have the time available.” While some books got away with using their regular writers — Peter David on Incredible Hulk and X-Factor, Fabian Nicieza on X-Force and X-Men, Gerard Jones on Wonder Man, Roy Thomas on West Coast Avengers, Scott Lobdell on Uncanny X-Men, and so on — others were forced to recruit whoever happened to be available.
At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for editors at Marvel to be writers on the side. This was the case with a lot of the people involved in the ’93 Annuals, including Evan Skolnick, who wrote Excalibur and Deathlok, but also edited Ghost Rider (whose moody Chris Bachalo art is one of the product line’s high points). Different jobs had different goalposts. “As an editor I would have been focusing mainly on whether we were getting a good Annual story out of the deal,” says Skolnick, “while as a writer I was thinking beyond those lines, imagining that one of my characters would ‘catch fire’ once everyone saw it in print and would land a series.”
Not everyone was thrilled by the new-character initiative, though. Living legend Roy Thomas, then-writer for Avengers West Coast and current editor of Alter Ego, is candid about this: “I wasn’t wild about it, because I didn’t care much for making up characters I wouldn’t own. But perhaps there was some kind of rights given away with this batch of heroes… I no longer recall.” (Backing up this notion is Wonder Man penciler Gordon Purcell, who noted that he and writer Gerard Jones had received “some special rights” to the Hit-Maker character.)
Terry Kavanagh couldn’t have had a more different response. “One of the things I appreciated about writing for comics was that you almost never had to approach the beginning of a story as a blank page,” he says. “There were inevitably sub-plots dangling, crossover imperatives, editorial directives, or something that a writer was given to work off as a start. I appreciated that. It was a springboard for whatever story I wanted to cook up.” His new characters, the Cadre, appeared in the Web of Spider-Man annual — but nonetheless figured in as part of an ongoing storyline in the Kavanagh-penned Marc Spector: Moon Knight series. “The crossover elements between Marvel titles always appealed to me in a big way.”
For Skolnick, writing Excalibur and Deathlok was a shot at the big time when his writing career was just taking off. “As an up-and-coming writer with a penchant for pitching original characters for new series, I took the bait,” he says. “The Deathlok Annual I wrote was very much structured like a TV show pilot, and when you read it I think it’s pretty obvious it was intended to demonstrate how [an ongoing series featuring new character Tracer] would have worked.”
Roy Thomas says of designing the avian Avengers West Coast co-star, Raptor: “I don’t recall much about the process except that Dann [Thomas, Roy’s wife and AWC co-writer] and I argued about it. She came up with the name Raptor — from the birds of prey, no relation to the dinosaurs of the book and forthcoming Spielberg movie Jurassic Park, of which she was totally unaware… Only thing is, Dann had in mind more of a human pterodactyl. Neal Adams and I had done that with Sauron in X-Men a couple of decades earlier, so I didn’t want to go that route (even though Sauron himself would have been a human bat Ã la the later Man-Bat if we hadn’t felt the Code wouldn’t allow it). I made him a human bird instead… partly, too, since I was aware of Jurassic Park and didn’t want to have anything dinosaur-like (or rather, pterosaur-like) about our Raptor. Dann always felt I was wrong, but it was ultimately my decision.”Continued below
Coming up with the characters on the writers’ side was only the first step. After this, artists had to be assigned, and character designs given. This stage is where the rushed nature of the entire product line really shows, as artists were grabbed from every possible avenue. Wonder Man editor Fabian Nicieza poached penciler Gordon Purcell from DC. Up-and-comers were given big breaks: the Darkhawk Annual was Aaron Lopresti’s first-ever superhero cover, and artists like Audwynn Newman (Excalibur) and Aron Wiesenfeld (X-Men) got their first major assignments. Even legends like Jerry Bingham, who drew Batman: Son of the Demon and just recently illustrated the Batman: Retroactive: 1980’s one-shot, were pulled in. “Back then the Annuals were more a matter of ‘moment,'” Bingham says. “I was available.”
Of the artists I spoke to, none of them seemed to be aware of the product line’s focus — that is, the idea of introducing a new character in every book. “I didn’t know about that initiative until you just told me,” says Aron Wiesenfeld, penciler of the X-Men Annual, who went on to work for WildStorm and DC, before reinventing his career as a painter. Even though the Annual he drew introduced the character Empyrean, Wiesenfeld ended up designing a totally different character: X-Cutioner (“a human/machine hybrid with guns in his arms”), who appeared in the Uncanny X-Men annual drawn by Jason Pearson. “They didn’t give me any notes about him that I remember… it was more like, ‘there’s a new character in the script, so you will need to come up with how he looks.'”
Audwynn Newman, who designed the Khaos character for the Excalibur Annual and shared penciling duties with Chris Marrinan, reports a similar experience. “This was my first real gig and I wasn’t aware at all about all the new characters coming on board in each Annual until you mentioned it,” Newman says. “That just shows how absolutely desperate for work I was, because even though I was a lifelong comic fan from childhood, I had no idea about that at all.”
No one seemed to receive much in the way of notes from editorial on how to design the characters — with the exception of Bingham. “If I recall correctly, I may have had [Nocturne, from the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual] a bit more naked, and was asked to cover her up some. But that was it.” Gordon Purcell’s Hit-Maker design was accepted quickly, with just a bit of fiddling with his jewelry. (Strangely, though, Purcell’s design was given an inexplicable recolor. Hit-Maker was supposed to have a red band across his face, but the colorist changed it to yellow: “No idea why,” says Purcell. “Red would look better.”)
“I just pulled out the comic to look and see if it would stir up any memories,” says Aaron Lopresti, who drew the Darkhawk Annual and has gone on to a fruitful career in comics (currently writing and drawing his own character, Garbageman, in DC’s My Greatest Adventure). “I am not sure I even designed [Dreamkiller, the Annual’s new character]. It really doesn’t look like something I would have come up with… it seems logical that Marvel would have had a more experienced artist design the character and then just give it to me to draw. Even now, I am not all that comfortable designing new characters. There is a lot of pressure trying to design something that not only you like, but the readers will think is cool as well. Although I will say the new villain I designed for JLI turned out pretty good (shameless plug).”
CASE STUDY: EXCALIBUR ANNUAL #1
Of the creators who worked on the ’93 Annuals, I had the fortune of nearly assembling a complete set — with the exception of co-penciler Chris Marrinan, I was able to get in touch with everyone who had a major creative role on Excalibur Annual #1. From the testimony of Terry Kavanagh (editor), Evan Skolnick (writer), and Audwynn Newman (co-penciler), the process of creating one of these Annuals is more or less laid bare.Continued below
At the time, Alan Davis was both writing and drawing Excalibur, which didn’t leave much room in the schedule for penning an additional thirty-page story. “Perhaps Evan Skolnick had pitched an interesting Excalibur story to me for [anthology title Marvel Comics Presents], or pitched the character Khaos for MCP,” Kavanagh says. “Not sure.”
Evan Skolnick’s recollection is much more definite: “I pitched my ideas to the editors of Excalibur and Deathlok and they liked them enough to hire me for the gigs; it was that simple.” Davis didn’t even need to be dealt in. “There was no coordination with the series’ regular writers,” Skolnick says, “mainly because I wrote standalone stories that did not intersect with their continuity or plans.”
Excalibur Annual #1 introduced Khaos, a “royal dark elf” from a war-torn alternate Earth. After being stranded on our world, Khaos teamed up with Excalibur, a UK-based offshoot of the X-Men, and was even offered membership on the team. He declined, preferring to seek adventure elsewhere. (He was never seen again.) “I’ll freely admit that the Khaos character was an exercise in self-indulgence,” says Skolnick. “Somewhere on a blog at some point a comics fan very astutely identified him as a ‘Mary Sue’; a character that’s an embarrassingly idealized stand-in for the writer himself as he inserts himself into an existing fictional universe. Khaos was indeed that, because he was a close adaptation of the Dungeons and Dragons character I played during my high school and college years. What can I say? I was young!”
Audwynn Newman was given the task of designing the armored elven warrior, as part of his first big Marvel project. “I got involved because Evan Skolnick was an editor at Marvel at the time, and saw my Iron Man sample pages and Savage Sword of Conan splash pages,” Newman recalls. “Evan liked the style and how I did some of the armor… as far as Khaos’s design, I was given a very rough sketch that Evan had done and was told to make him look stylish and imposing.” Skolnick’s original sketch apparently had short hair, but Newman added long flowing hair for “added cool factor” (“I remember being into McFarlane at the time”).
Newman looks back at that first assignment fondly. “Up to that point, I had never drawn a page per day, which is the bare minimum rate you can draw at to do a book a month… [I] can still look back at the work and not cringe. All too often, you get behind or forget about how hard you worked to get that job, and lose some of that hunger, so I look back at that work and remember when I wouldn’t stop at anything to reach a goal. That was one of my bucket list dreams… to have my name in print in a Marvel comic book.” He keeps some of the pages in his office at New Art Studios today.
Though Skolnick may cringe at Khaos, he doesn’t have any very strong regrets. “We editors and writers did the best we could with it given the circumstances,” he says, “and I’m not sure there’s much I would have done differently… apart from doing a better job of disguising my Mary Sue moment!”
INSIDE THE PAGES, AND WHAT CAME AFTER
Each Annual was 64 pages, which gave enough room for a double-size main story and some backup material besides. That, plus the style of the time — where stories were more exposition-heavy than today’s fare — meant that every story provided a more or less complete origin for the character being introduced. In some cases, a character even went all the way from origin to ending — such as Eradikator-6, the Punisher foe co-created by 2000 AD‘s Pat Mills(!), who celebrated being one of the sensational character finds of 1993 by being murdered. The Flame, co-star of the Thor annual, ended his debut by leaping into a pit of mystic fire. Charon, from X-Factor, was dragged by demons into Hell.Continued below
Other characters set up plotlines that went nowhere. In Namor, the Sub-Mariner Annual #3, the Assassin — a sexy geisha murderbot — was revealed to be the creation of then-mysterious X-Men foe Apocalypse, but never figured into his schemes ever again. The Face Thief, from Iron Man, was created to be an antagonist for techno-ninja side characters the Masters of Silence, and I think you can guess how many comics about the Masters of Silence you’ve read in the past 20 years. Night Terror, from Ghost Rider, was a CIA-trained vampire who drained memories as well as blood — and was one of a thousand plot hooks cast out by writer Howard Mackie that were never resolved during his run on the title.
Some characters, like Evan Skolnick’s Tracer (from Deathlok Annual #2), were created with big things in mind. “I’m very proud of that character and that Annual, and to this day I regret that more wasn’t done with him,” Skolnick says. “I believe the idea for the Tracer came to me after seeing how [1980’s Captain America writer and legendary Marvel editor] Mark Gruenwald decided to handle ‘cleaning up’ the Marvel Universe of lame, third-string villains.” Finding Gruenwald’s villain-shooting Scourge of the Underworld a bit too trite, he resolved to improve the concept: “I thought that the idea of two-bit villains and heroes being systematically hunted down would be a great concept for an entire Marvel series.” Tracer went on to appear in a single issue of Spectacular Spider-Man a few years later.
Other creators had more modest ambitions for their new characters, and more trying circumstances. Roy Thomas worked on the Avengers West Coast Annual, even though the series was about to be cancelled: “I was never told AWC was endangered until I was suddenly told the book would end in an issue or so and a new title called Force Works would be launched without my participation. At this point I simply swallowed my rage and kept working.”
The subplots and characters that did gather steam beyond the set of ’93 Annuals showed only modest gains. X-Cutioner menaced the X-Men a couple times, and his brutal attack on Colossus in the Uncanny X-Men Annual was used as part of a tenuous justification for giving the character psychological issues. Kyllian (one of two Celtic-inspired heroes) debuted in Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Annual #3 and guest-starred in the main Doctor Strange title until a new creative team cycled in. Annex, from Amazing Spider-Man, gained his own mini-series. Adam X, the X-Treme, pops up throughout the X-Men universe whenever someone needs to use a character name like “Adam X, the X-Treme” as a punchline. Only Legacy, from the Silver Surfer Annual, went on to truly great things — after changing his identity to Captain Marvel, he starred in one of the most acclaimed ongoing series of the 2000’s.
This lack of follow-up can be drawn back toward two factors. For one, most of these characters just aren’t very engaging. For another, the stories that they starred in are even less so. It could be that the characters were just never given a chance — but they’re symptomatic of the climate of mainstream comics in 1993, where characters were pumped out by the dozen just to try and figure out which one might generate some buzz. What readers and speculators wanted in 1993 was morally ambiguous, glaringly macho, absurdly violent, and occasionally humorous characters like Cable, or Venom, or Deadpool. The 1993 Annual characters, by comparison, didn’t have much separating them from any other group of Marvel characters. So they withered.
“I enjoyed drawing the [Wonder Man] Annual a lot. It was the first time a writer asked me what I wanted to draw (I said the Beast, a favorite character),” says Gordon Purcell. Everyone I talked to seemed to find some fond memory amidst their work on the ’93 Annuals, or something that keeps them from looking back in abject horror.Continued below
“I was satisfied with both [Web of Spider-Man and Excalibur],” says Terry Kavanagh. Audwynn Newman feels the same about his contribution.
As far as Dreamkiller goes, Aaron Lopresti isn’t fond of the look the character ended up with: “I would say it really looks dated. Very 90’s looking. A lot of the costume elements don’t make any sense. They are just arbitrarily put together to try and create something cool-looking and relevant to the era.”
“I was the editor of the viciously satirical Marvel Year-in-Review ’93 and we really tore these newbies to shreds,” Evan Skolnick says, stipulating, “mine included!” (Tom Brevoort and Mike Kanterovich are credited with the Annual-mocking feature in Year-in-Review, and they got it a bit on the nose: “You know that sinking feeling you get when some Dungeons & Dragons freak tries to tell you every detail of the latest ‘adventure’ he had when playing?”)
“I think [artist] Dave Ross did a great job with Raptor,” says Roy Thomas, “but a guy with a bird’s head has trouble looking quite right, I suppose. Maybe we should’ve made him less birdlike. I do know that [editor] Nel Yomtov, although I don’t recall his saying anything to me about it, took a real dislike to Raptor, and word got back to me that he had vowed that Raptor would never again appear in any comic he edited. I could’ve cared less, but I just felt it was another example of a Marvel editor playing to the peanut gallery of other Marvel editors, rather than to the character himself.” Even if Raptor never appeared in another Marvel comic ever again, though, “Dave actually used the Raptor design for a character all his own a few years back, and more power to him.”
“It was without a doubt the worst book I ever drew!” says Aron Wiesenfeld of X-Men Annual #2. “The ironic thing is that it was also the book that sold the most copies, just because it was X-Men. I was just starting out, so my skills were pretty raw… I ran out of time two-thirds of the way through. Marvel was very disciplined about making sure everything came out on time, so they told me to just send in layouts for the remaining third of the book, which were only rough sketches on printer paper. The inking was clearly rushed too, so it was just a total disaster. Fortunately for me it was sold pre-wrapped in a plastic bag, so people didn’t know what a piece of shit they were buying until they got it home!” It wasn’t all bad for Wiesenfeld, though: “A few years later they made an action figure of the guy I designed [X-Cutioner], which was very cool.”
“I’m okay with how it turned out (and I’m generally a pretty harsh critic of my own past work),” says Jerry Bingham. “I liked the story and the new character, and I always like when I can contribute something besides panel work. Nocturne was an interesting character. It added an element of the ‘classic style’ horror story to the Spider-Man canon that I enjoy. I wish the company would have done more with her.”
“Years later,” Bingham continues, “[when] I went to work for Stan Lee Media, I took a copy of the book and asked Stan to sign it for me. He must not have understood that I actually worked on the book and signed something to the effect that I was just another fan asking for his signature on Spider-Man. Oh, well. Glory short-lived.”
Thanks to Jerry Bingham, Terry Kavanagh, Aaron Lopresti, Audwynn Newman, Gordon Purcell, Evan Skolnick, Roy Thomas, and Aron Wiesenfeld for their gracious donations of time and memory. Special thanks to Flynn Nicholls for the banner.