It Came From the 1990s: Force Works #1-3

Welcome to another edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time I and my fellow SBTU participants will be looking at comic book “gimmick covers” from the 1990s.

The first gimmick cover was the silver foil cover featured on Silver Surfer #50, released by Marvel Comics with a June 1991 cover date.  It instantly sold out (14 year old me drove my parents nuts trying to find a copy) and was very quickly followed just a month later by Ghost Rider #15 with its glow-in-the-dark cover.  That issue also sold like hotcakes, and the age of the gimmick cover was upon us.  In the longstanding spirit of American capitalism jumping on a trend and riding it right into the ground, comic book publishers were very soon churning out gimmick covers an insane rate, until we were all very sick of them.

That brings us to the comic I’m spotlighting: Force Works, which debuted in mid-1994.  The first three issues were written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, penciled by Tom Tenney, inked by Rey Garcia, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Joe Rosas.

Force Works 1 cover

I really think this was moment when gimmick covers demonstrably jumped the shark, when the gimmick became so utterly ridiculous & impractical that you were just left shaking you head in bemusement.

What was the particular gimmick cover that Force Works #1 featured?  Why, it was none other than a pop-up cover!  That’s right, when you pulled the flap on the front cover up and back, it unfolded into a three dimensional display of the Force Works team fighting an army of alien Kree soldiers.

Here are some photos I took of my own copy, which demonstrates the cover in action…

FW1coverA

FW1coverB

FW1coverC

The major problem with the Force Works pop-up cover was that it could be really difficult to get the darn thing to fold back closed.  When you lowered the flap back down, that central pop-up of Wonder Man, fist raised in the air, struggling against the Kree, had a tendency to get tangled up in the other pop-up pieces, resulting in the thing being stuck halfway open as seen in the photo below.  Any efforts to straighten it out would have to be done very carefully, otherwise the whole thing might just get torn in half.

FW1coverD
HELP!!! HOW DO YOU GET THIS DAMN THING CLOSED?!?

So, ludicrous cover gimmick aside, what the heck was Force Works about anyway?  Spun out from the recently-cancelled Avengers West Coast series, Force Works was an effort by Marvel Comics to replicate the edgy popularity of the bestselling X-Men spin-off X-Force devised by Rob Liefeld in 1991 and apply it to some of the Avengers characters.  It’s fairly obvious that Force Works was also an attempt to capture the tone (and readers) of the various other red-hot paramilitary superhero series that Liefeld and the other Image Comics founders subsequently created in the early 1990s such as Youngblood and Brigade.

This scene from the first issue of Force Works sums up the series’ mission statement, with Iron Man pitching the concept to his fellow ex-Avengers:

“The universe has become profoundly more dangerous since the Avengers were first assembled. These days the Earth plays a far more active role in matters of galactic importance.

“The stakes are far higher, far more often.

“I believe that it is the duty of Earth’s Mightiest to use their powers proactively, to protect this planet’s interests… and, if necessary, pursue an aggressive policy of defense and security.”

Force Works 1 pg 6

Ah, yes, the “proactive” super hero team… It’s an idea that sounds good in concept, but seldom works well in execution, at least not at either Marvel or DC Comics, with their shared universes and their ongoing serialized narratives that rely on the illusion of change to maintain a basic status quo.

For example, you cannot have the Avengers becoming proactive, invading Latveria, overthrowing Doctor Doom, and locking him up in a maximum security cell for life, because he’s just too darn popular a villain, and in six months another writer or editor is going to want to use him in their book.

Additionally, the more “proactive” or “aggressive” superheroes become, the closer they end up veering into fascist territory.  I’ve touched upon this before, but this is an unfortunate result of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen being hugely successful, and comic books publisher then trying to apply the whole “grim & gritty” ethos to mainstream superheroes throughout the 1990s.  Yeah, Rorschach was a proactive, take-no-prisoners vigilante, but if you actually read the damn book it’s clear that Moore & Gibbons were showing us that he’s also a horrifying, insane monster.  But too many readers missed (or flat-out ignored) the subtext and just thought Rorschach was cool.  The publishers noticed that reaction and quickly jumped on that train.  Remember what I said before about taking a popular trend and running it completely into the ground?

Whatever the case, even though Iron Man intends for Force Works to be a “proactive, aggressive” team, it speaks volumes that their very first adventure is totally reactive, with first the Kree, and then the insect-like Scatter, attacking the Earth, instantly forcing the heroes into a defensive position.

Force Works 2 pg 22

Another reason why Force Works #1 was derided by many readers, besides that gimmick cover, was that it pointlessly killed off longtime Avengers member Wonder Man.  And this was just a few months after Mockingbird, another well-liked Avenger, had been pointlessly killed off in West Coast Avengers #100, once again for no other reason than to have a shocking, dramatic event.  Those two deaths back-to-back really felt like a slap in the face to Avengers fans.

Wonder Man and Mockingbird did both eventually return from the dead.  So, yeah, by the 1990s we were already at the point where death in superhero comics had become a predictable revolving door, and no one honestly expected anybody to stay deceased permanently.

The first issue of Force Works also introduced the brand new character of Century.  In a lot of respects Century just totally screams Nineties.  He has a cool-sounding name that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who he is or what he does, he has a ridiculously over-detailed costume design, he uses a freaking axe called Parallax that allows him to teleport by cutting through the fabric of space, and he has an ultra-mysterious past that even he isn’t sure about because he’s suffering from amnesia.  Oh, yes, he also had an odd speech pattern.  Century is a walking, talking thesaurus, as seen in these various examples from just the first three issues…

Force Works Century

Honestly, Century should be incredibly annoying, because on the surface he seems to epitomize everything that was awful about comic book characters introduced in the 1990s.  But the thing is, I think he’s actually really cool and interesting, both visually and character-wise.  It’s probably because DnA don’t write Century as some sort of kewl badass, but rather as a stranger in a strange land, a lost alien who exudes a genuine vulnerability.

It also helps considerably that DnA had apparently decided right from the get-go exactly what Century’s past was supposed to be, and they wrapped up the mystery of his origins only a year and a half later, rather than frustrating readers by  leaving it as a long-dangling subplot.

Looking over the run of Force Works again last week, with the storylines involving Century, the Kree, the Scatter and other characters, I can actually perceive hints of the sort of really good “cosmic” and space opera storytelling that DnA would be doing only a dozen years later with the epic Annihilation event and the super-successful revival of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Force Works 2 pg 10

It’s definitely worth noting that unlike a lot of up-and-coming young artists who were thrown onto comic books in the early 1990s with a remit to capture the tone of the Image Comics founders, Tom Tenney does a credible job penciling these issues.  His work here is solid, showing quite a bit of potential.

Tenney’s career in comics was relatively brief.  Subsequently he worked for a number of years in the music industry, which was another of his passions. In the last few years he’s returned to comics, once again creating interesting work, which can be seen on Facebook.  He’s listed as contributing a variant cover to the second issue of the upcoming Force Works 2020 miniseries.  That’s right, Marvel is bringing Force Works back.

Another point in favor of Force Works is inker Rey Garcia.  I really enjoyed the work done on the series by the Filipino-born artist.  Like many of his fellow countrymen who previously worked in comic books, Garcia had a very lush, illustrative style.

When considering Garcia’s work on Force Works, it must be pointed out that the series had an insanely high turnover rate for pencilers.  Tom Tenney regrettably only drew the first four issues, and after that it was a revolving door.  During Force Works’ 22 issue run there were literally a dozen pencilers who worked on it… at least, I think the total was 12, but I might have missed one or two.  Whatever the case, Garcia inked nearly every issue of Force Works, which helped keep the look of the series somewhat consistent through all of those changes.

Force Works 3 cover

So there you have it, Force Works #1, one of the more ridiculous mainstream comic books to come out during the 1990s.  Nevertheless, when all is said & done, I remain fond of some aspects of the series.  All these years later I still like the character Century.  Also, I appreciate how Abnett & Lanning worked to make the Scarlet Witch into a stronger, more assertive character by having her lead the team, and show her standing up to Tony Stark who, let’s face it, can definitely be a control freak.  I still regard both Tom Tenney and Rey Garcia as talented, underrated artists.  I also think this series was a bit of a harbinger to DnA’s later, better work.

Still, though, I certainly don’t lament the lack of subsequent fold-out comic book covers.  That was just too much!

SBTU Chromium

Here are the rest of the Super Blog Team-Up: Chromium participants.  Please check them out. Thanks! (I will be adding links as they become active.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths: Adventures of Superman #500 (White Bag/Lenticular Cover/etc.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths (Podcast): Episode 33: Team Titans #1 (1992) Five Variant Covers… and five variant stories!

 

Comic Reviews by Walt:  The ’90s Revisited: Shiny Covers

 

Source Material: Spider-Man Torment (issues 1-5) by Todd McFarlane

 

Super-Hero Satellite: 70s-80s Photo Covers: A snapshot of pre 90s era of gimmicks, the evolution of a trend through the years

 

ComicsComicsComics: Daredevil 319-325 Fall from Grace Gimmick covers and a new costume

 

The Telltale Mind: Worlds Collide – The Intercompany Crossover

 

Between The Pages: Guerilla Marketing

 

DC In The 80s – Justin and Mark’s 5 Most Memorable DC “Gimmick” Covers

 

Comics In The Golden Age (Mike) – Fawcett’s Mighty Midget comics

 

Unspoken Issues – Darkhawk #25

 

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog Connected Covers gimmicks – New Teen Titans 37/Batman and the Outsiders 5

 

When It Was Cool: The Blight of the Pollybagged Comic Book

 

Pop Culture Retrorama: Glow In The Dark Covers

 

Black & White and Bronze Comics Blog – Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1968: Stan Lee’s foray into the magazine format

2020 Visions: Machine Man and Iron Man

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion, today I am taking a quick look at the comic book adventures of Machine Man and Iron Man in the distant, far-off future year of, um, uh, 2020 AD… Okay, yeah, I can’t believe it’s 2020 already, either!

Machine Man mini 2 pg 22

Machine Man was created by none other than the legendary Jack Kirby himself, debuting in, of all places, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series, which had been inspired by the film / novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  First known as Mister Machine, aka X-51, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey #s 8-10 published in mid 1977.

Mister Machine was a robot who gained sentience, with one of the mysterious alien Monoliths from the movie playing a role in his evolution towards becoming almost human.  Following the cancellation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book, the character, renamed Machine Man, received his own ongoing series in early 1978.  Kirby wrote & penciled Machine Man for nine issues, with Mike Royer providing inks.

Machine Man mini 1 cover smallBy late 1978 Kirby had become disenchanted with mainstream comic books, and he left Marvel Comics to go into the animation field.  The storyline begun by Kirby in Machine Man was concluded by writer Roger Stern and penciler Sal Buscema a few months later in Incredible Hulk #s 234-237.  This was followed by a revival of the Machine Man ongoing series, picking up from the original numbering, with another Silver Age legend, Stave Ditko, as the artist.  Issue #s 10-14 were written by Marv Wolfman, with Tom DeFalco then writing #s 15-19.

In the early 1980s Machine Man made the occasional guest appearance here and there.  He was once again given the spotlight in 1984 with the Machine Man four issue limited series, set three and a half decades in the future, in the year 2020.  Tom DeFalco returned to wrote X-51’s future adventures.  The first three issues had pencils / breakdowns by Herb Trimpe, with finished art & colors by Barry Windsor-Smith, an unusual pairing that nevertheless worked very well.  BWS took over the full art chores for Machine Man #4, also co-plotting that final issue.  Michael, Higgins, Diana Albers, Janice Chiang and Jim Novak lettered an issue apiece, and the whole thing was edited by Larry Hama.

DeFalco’s story is set in a dark industrialized dystopia where corrupt corporations have seized political power (so, yeah, not too different from our actual real-world 2020, amiright?) and bands of anarchist scavengers hope to find a free, independent existence under the radar.  One of these groups of Midnight Wreckers, searching through a dumping ground belonging to Baintronics Inc, discovers a box containing the dismantled Machine Man.  Evading the Baintronics security forces, the Wreckers return to their base and re-assemble Machine Man.

Machine Man mini 1 pg 12

Baintronics is run by Sunset Bain, an industrialist & socialite who moonlighted as the masked arms dealer Madame Menace, clashing with Machine Man on more than one occasion back in the day.  Now in 2020 she is allied with Miles Brinkman, a former US Senator who is another old foe of X-51.  Brinkman had previously waged a McCarthy-esque campaign of fear-mongering against Machine Man, hoping to ride a wave of robotphobia to greater political power.

DeFalco has an interesting approach to the future incarnations of Bain and Brinkman.  At this point they have basically won, having amassed tremendous political & financial power, yet they are seemingly unable to enjoy their spoils, having grown old & tired, reduced to worn-out shadows of their former selves.  And once they learn that Machine Man has been reactivated they are consumed by uncontrollable paranoia that this former adversary will seek to destroy them.  The pair are defeated as much by their own failings as they are by Machine Man and the Midnight Wreckers.

Machine Man mini 3 pg 12

DeFalco shows that Machine Man is actually more human than either Sunset Bain or Miles Brinkman, who in their fear and panic project upon him their own ugly motivations of hatred and vengeance.  Machine Man, as well as his onetime love, the silver robot Jocasta (rebuilt by Bain to be her aide, but ultimately serving as her conscience), are more capable of feeling compassion and expressing forgiveness than their human foes.

The miniseries introduced Arno Stark, descendant of Tony Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.  Arno is an amoral mercenary, and he is more than happy to accept an assignment from Sunset Bain to hunt down & destroy Machine Man.  Iron Man clashes twice with Machine Man, and in both encounters he is defeated by his robot opponent.

Machine Man mini 4 pg 11

This leads into the events of the Iron Man 2020 special, which was published a decade later, in 1994.  It was co-plotted, by Bob Wiacek & Walter Simonson, scripted by Simonson, penciled & inked by Wiacek, with Will Rosado penciling the second half of the book over Wiacek’s layouts.  This was one of the all-too-infrequent penciling jobs by Wiacek, who is best known for his work as an inker / embellisher.  Rosado, who was early in his comic book career, also did good work here. The special was lettered by John Costanza and colored by Christie Scheele.Iron Man 2020 cover small

As a tie-in, Marvel re-issued the Machine Man miniseries as a two double-sized issues.  That was certainly helpful to me, as I hadn’t been reading comics regularly in 1984, and so missed the original release.

The Iron Man 2020 special opens very soon after the events of the miniseries.  Much like Bain and Brinkman before him, Arno Stark is a haunted man: haunted by his defeat at Machine Man’s hands, haunted by the burden of keeping the financially weakened Stark Enterprises afloat, and haunted by the seeming impossibility of living up to the legend of his ancestor, Tony Stark, the original Iron Man.  As the old saying goes, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

Desperate to save his company, Arno accepts an offer from Marcus Wellington, one of his biggest competitors.  Arno is hired to rescue Wellington’s daughter Melodi, who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is being held for ransom.  Arno dons his Iron Man suit and sets course for the terrorists’ island stronghold.  Of course, as is often the case with corporate machinations, the situation is much more complicated than it initially appears, and Arno soon finds himself in the middle of more than one double cross.

The end result of these events are that they push Arno Stark towards, well, not necessary becoming a hero, by any means, but at least to start walking a slightly less avaricious, brutal path.

Iron Man 2020 pg 35

Hey, everyone loves a good redemption story.  Certainly Wiacek & Simonson make this one more believable than most by showing that it’s only just the beginning of Arno Stark’s path away from villainy.

I’ve met Bob Wiacek on a few occasions at comic book conventions.  A decade ago at a February 2010 show he did a drawing of Iron Man 2020 in my villains sketchbook.  It is a distinctive costume, a sort of retro future look, almost steampunk with those big gears, and he renders it well.

Iron Man 2020 by Bob Wiacek

I didn’t want to get into too many specific details about either the Machine Man miniseries or the Iron Man 2020 special, because I think they are both worth tracking down and reading.  Marvel published an Iron Man 2020 trade paperback in 2013 collecting both, along with several other stories.

Also, for those interested in Machine Man’s various Bronze Age incarnations (the original Kirby stories, the Ditko-drawn revival, and the 1984 miniseries) I recommend checking out Back Issue #25 from TwoMorrows Publishing.  “Call Me Mister… Mister Machine!” written by Allan Harvey is offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info concerning Machine Man’s adventures in the 1970s and 80s.

And of course, since it’s now 2020 in the real world, Marvel Comics is bringing back Arno Stark.  It seems that Tony Stark is going to die (what, again?!?) and Arno, who in “mainstream” Marvel continuity is Tony’s long lost twin brother (yes really!), will become the new Iron Man… at least until the inevitable resurrection.  Still, with writing by Dan Slott & Christos Gage, it sounds like it could be a fun ride.

Once again, happy new year to all of you.  Let’s hope 2020 is a good one. Or, as the Midnight Wreckers might have put it, “YAH-ZOO!”