The problem with these columns is that generally speaking, I decide what I’m going to write about well in advance so that our editor-in-chief can look it over and tell me whether or not I should go with something. This often means that I’ll select something based solely on reputation (or on its cousin, Wikipedia), without having read it that far in advance. After all, who wants to read about stuff everyone’s already read? This week, that bit me in the ass, as I’d selected Malibu’s Black September event on the strength of “it pretty much shot the Ultraverse in the kneecaps and then made it finish the the job itself.” I assumed that it was, you know, a crossover. My mistake. But there’s still enough here that’s fascinating.
Wait, no, sorry. I’m confusing “fascinating” with “confusing and fairly awful” again. Black September is, like some of the other stuff I’ve devoted space here to, so 90s it hurts, from the formless uber-kewl characters to the random team-ups and guest-spots to the assumption that Siena Blaze has any kind of drawing power whatsoever. There’s not much to summarize in terms of story content — and less that makes sense — but the history behind it all is one of the weirder stages of Marvel’s seemingly terminal decline in the 90s.
Malibu, as you might know, was the original home of Image Comics, who broke away once they found their own footing. Having lost Image, the Malibu brain trust decided to implement their own superhero universe, giving a small number of creators a broad degree of creative freedom in coming up with a varied product line (of similarly varying quality). While the content was often above-average in a market where “average” was eons beyond most companies’ grasp, what drew Marvel to Malibu was the production. Malibu pioneered the use of Photoshop to develop what would eventually become the status quo for coloring comic books (for a pre-Malibu example of digital coloring, look at the gaudy neon hues of Batman: The Killing Joke). They had it, Marvel wanted it, and the library of readymade, exploitable characters was just gravy.
So in 1994, Marvel bought Malibu, and then set about proving that it had no clue what to do with it. A crass parallel could be made to imperialist attitudes and colonialism; a more apt one could be made to that time the WWF bought WCW and did like a year of shows all about how the WWF and WCW were totally mad at each other for real you guys. Malibu comics increasingly featured guest stars from the sensible (Silver Surfer, traveler of the cosmos, exploring this new dimension) to the totally inane (Dane Whitman and Sersi doing anything, ever). To add some sense of weight to the constant intrusions into the Ultraverse’s space, a thoroughly unclear plotline was generated across a couple books, about how the Infinity Gems were lost in the Ultraverse or something, being hunted by Loki. By this time, though, no one really gave a crap about the Infinity Gems, because there had just been three annual crossovers about them and interest in Adam Warlock wasn’t even high enough to sustain his own team book.
The lead-in to Black September involved five issues, passed around like a hot potato between at least four writers. It really, really shows. It culminated in an UltraForce / Avengers crossover by Warren Ellis, who dutifully made a big fighty mess of it. He sort of tried, I guess, but by this point, after something like a year of spotty and incoherent build-up, Black September was more like a black hole, with Black Knight at its wholly uninteresting center. Loki was defeated, some other villain wielding the Infinity Gems was defeated, and this led to Black September itself: a reboot of the Ultraverse in the literal sense, with the Big Bang apparently happening all over again and history rewriting itself. Half the Ultraverse was cancelled, never to be seen again; the other half relaunched with all-black covers and “Infinity” issues (creating more of a funereal atmosphere than a picture of rebirth).
Four writers are credited with the single “Black September Infinity” issue; three with ‘concept,’ one of those again with ‘plot,’ and another person entirely with ‘script.’ What this issue does is add another perspective to the events of the above Warren Ellis issue — thus rendering it all even more hopelessly confusing. These relaunched Ultraverse titles, by and large, could rarely hang onto writers for more than two issues. In their “Infinity” issues, they seemed to operate solely to showcase Marvel guest-stars. Siren relied heavily upon Taskmaster and Diamondback (of all people); Prime’s debut issue was mostly about him teaming up with Spider-Man against the Lizard; Rune featured Adam Warlock; and the All-New Exiles were driven by the star power of their Marvel transplants: Juggernaut, Reaper (of the MLF), and Siena Blaze. The two books not to feature Marvel characters, Mantra and Night Man, instead radically recast their main characters such that long-time fans bailed in droves, getting the books cancelled in short order.
Under this new flag, the Ultraverse lasted about a year before collapsing in on itself. Most of the original creators and editors, finding Marvel resolutely uninterested in their wing of the product line, bailed. (Marvel, meanwhile, used Malibu-acquired property to get the Men in Black movie off the ground.) According to what the Internet knows, Marvel still owns all of the Ultraverse stuff, but apparently doesn’t use any of it because it would require paying royalties toward the properties’ creators. All this really just goes to show: real-life crossovers are just as messy and unsatisfying as the comic book ones.