Strange Comic Books: Questprobe

Normally I blog about interesting or unusual comic books from the 1990s. Today’s entry actually concerns comics from the previous decade, the 1980s… but all of this will eventually lead to another “It Came from the 1990s” piece. So bear with me and enjoy the ride.

Back in the early 1980s Marvel Comics partnered with Scott Adams – no, not the cartoonist who eventually went full right-wing crazy, but the computer programmer & game designer – to create a series of text adventure computer games featuring Marvel characters. Adams, working with acclaimed writer & artist John Byrne, developed the concepts for the Questprobe series. In conjunction, Marvel Comics began publishing a Questprobe comic book series that was projected to run for approximately 12 issues, with a new issue coming out each time Adams released a new installment of the computer games.

Keep in mind that in the early 1980s personal computers were still very much in their infancy. The options available to programmers were extremely limited. I think this is very well illustrated by the letters column from Questprobe #3. Danny Bertinato of Gloucester, Ontario writes in to ask if the Questprobe games will be available for Commodore Vic-20. Adams responds with some bad news:

“QUESTPROBE requires a computer with a minimum of 16k of memory to run. The standard Vic-20 has only 5k of memory. Since very few people ever get the memory expansion to 16k for the Vic-20, I doubt we will ever put QUESTPROBE on the Vic-20. Sorry.”

Yeah, let that sink in. There used to be PCs with only 5 kilobytes of memory. And I make that observation while writing this on a brand-new laptop I purchased last month which has 8 gigabytes, a laptop that will, give it a decade or so, undoubtedly one day be just as much as an antiquated dinosaur as a Commodore Vic-20. It’s simultaneously amazing and frightening the lightning speed at which technology can develop.

Speaking of antiquated dinosaurs, my father’s first PC was an Apple 2E. Back in the mid 1980s I was 9 years old and just starting to get into comic books on a semi-regular basis. I saw the ads for the Questprobe games in Marvel books and I asked my father to buy it for me. I ran Questprobe featuring the Hulk on that Apple 2E… and I found it almost impossible to play. I just ended up going around in circles for hours, barely getting anywhere. It was definitely a frustrating experience.

I recently found a Walkthrough for Questprobe featuring the Hulk and looking at it there’s no possible way nine-year-old me would have been able to figure out the majority of this 38 years ago. Perhaps I was too young… but I also think the game was hampered by the sheer primitive nature of the PCs at the time.

UPDATE: There’s a website where you can play the text version of Questprobe featuring the Hulk online. I just spent half an hour going in circles. Almost four decades later this game is STILL impossible!

But enough about the computer games; I’m sure you came here for the comic books.

The Questprobe comic from Marvel only ran for three issues and was canceled when Adams’ company Adventure International went bankrupt in 1986. Each of the three issues corresponded to a released game, with the first issue featuring the Hulk, the second Spider-Man, and the third the Human Torch and the Thing. Adams was working on a fourth Questprobe game featuring the X-Men when Adventure folded; a corresponding fourth Questprobe comic book story starring the X-Men was completed and saw print in the anthology series Marvel Fanfare a year later.

The concept behind the Questprobe comics actually has a certain potential. In a far-distant region of the universe the mysterious alien Black Fleet is ravaging through space, destroying world after world. A utopian planet of scientists sees the Black Fleet inexorably approaching and wonders what, if anything, they can do. This civilization long ago abandoned violence, and most of its members have resigned themselves to destruction by the Black Fleet. But one of their number, Durgan the Philosopher, is determined to fight back, a stance that causes him to be labeled a mad heretic.

Undaunted, Durgan resolves to find a way to save his planet. Having studied the far-distant Earth, he has observed the numerous super-powered beings who populate the planet. Durgan creates the Chief Examiner, a dome-headed, cloaked construct that he dispatches to Earth to locate the most powerful super-beings, study them, and replicate their powers by getting them to pass through a black portal. (John Byrne apparently designed the Chief Examiner.)

There’s also some stuff going on with these mysterious, cosmic-powered “Bio-Gems” that are apparently parts of a larger entity, one that’s even more evil than the Black Fleet, but it’s fairly confusing how all of this was supposed to tie together. Perhaps if the games & comic books had lasted longer it would have become clearer.

The first issue of Questprobe, featuring the Hulk, was released with an August 1984 cover-date. It was written by Bill Mantlo, definitely an appropriate choice. Mantlo had previously done a stellar job taking licensed properties such as the Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight and developing them into highly intriguing ongoing comic book series for Marvel. He had also been writing The Incredible Hulk series since 1980, so was intimately familiar with the character.

Questprobe #1 has pencil layouts by Mark Gruenwald. Although he was much better known for his writing & editing at Marvel, Gruenwald did occasionally also draw, and he had a solid grasp of storytelling. The inking / finished artwork on issue #1 was by the legendary John Romita, who at this point was synonymous with the Marvel house style. Letters were by Joe Rosen and colors by George Roussos. The series editor was Bob Budiansky.

The first issue is a fairly basic story, one that is competently done and which establishes the premise in economical fashion. I’m sure that if I had bought it when it first came out in the Summer of 1984 it would have been perfectly geared to my eight-year-old sensibilities and I would have enjoyed it.

By the way, having seen on Wikipedia a photo of Adams taken in 1982, putting it side-by-side with Gruenwald & Romita’s art from this issue, it’s very obvious that Durgan’s appearance was modeled on the computer programmer.

And, yes, white guys really did used to wear their hair like that.

One last noteworthy item: The cover of the first issue features the blurb “by Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald and John Romita” which was practically unheard of in mainstream comics at the time.

Moving on to Questprobe #2 (January 1985) featuring Spider-Man, this one is written & penciled by Al Milgrom. That’s another apt choice, as Milgrom was the writer & artist on the Spectacular Spider-Man series at this time. I’ve always found Milgrom to be a good, solid, underrated artist, and I think he did quality work on the Spider-Man character. Looking at some of his layouts & storytelling for Questprobe #2, some of it is reminiscent of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko’s work.

Inking this issue was Jim Mooney, another talented artist who, among his numerous credits, had a lengthy association with Spider-Man during the Bronze Age. Milgrom & Mooney make a good art team. One of my all-time favorite letterers, Janice Chiang, worked on this issue, and George Roussos is back on colors.

Milgrom has always had a very offbeat sense of humor, which no doubt suited him to writing an irreverent character like Spider-Man. In this story he gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that the Chief Examiner has a remarkable resemblance to Spider-Man’s old enemy Mysterio. Hijinks ensue.

By the way, this story also gave me a newfound appreciation for Mysterio. I used to think he was a pretty stupid character, a special effects artist who wears a fishbowl on his head. But reading this issue Milgrom really sells the idea that Mysterio is highly intelligent and a master planner, and that he very effectively uses psychology & trickery to keep much more powerful adversaries like Spider-Man off-balance.

Questprobe #3 (November 1985) features the Human Torch and the Thing from the Fantastic Four. David Michelinie is perhaps an odd choice for the writer on this one, as he was already much more associated with Iron Man and the Avengers, and I don’t think he’s ever worked on a single issue of the Fantastic Four series. Nevertheless, Michelinie has always demonstrated himself to be a talented writer, and he ably steps in to handle the characters. He does a fair job, especially since he has to work around the inconvenient fact that the Torch and and the Thing never actually meet since at the time Ben Grimm had quit the FF and was hanging out on the Beyonder’s planet from the Secret Wars miniseries.

The artwork, on the other hand, is quintessential FF, with penciling by Ron Wilson, the regular artist on The Thing solo series, and inking by the legendary Joe Sinnot, the man who inked / embellished the Fantastic Four series for a decade and a half, from 1965 to 1981. I guess you could say that Sinnott as much as Romita helped define the look of Marvel Comics during the Bronze Age. Rick Parker lettered the issue and Julianna Ferriter did the coloring.

That brings us to the X-Men story that was originally intended for Questprobe #4 and which saw print in Marvel Fanfare #33 (July 1987). It’s written by longtime, groundbreaking X-Men writer Chris Claremont. “Shadows on the Soul” takes place during the time when the X-Men’s arch-nemesis Magneto was attempting to embrace Professor Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants, and the master of magnetism was reluctantly tasked with leading his former foes, much to the X-Men’s understandable skepticism.

Pencils are by one of my favorite artists, Power Pack co-creator June Brigman, and inking is by Terry Austin, who famously embellished John Byrne’s now-classic run penciling X-Men. Brigman and Austin have worked together a few times over the years, and they’ve always made a superb art team. Letters are by Rick Parker and colors by Glynis Oliver.

I’m wondering how far along this story was when the Questprobe series was canceled. “Shadows on the Soul” runs a few pages longer than the typical Marvel comic, so it seems possible that Claremont, having learned that his story would now be appearing in the advertisement-free Marvel Fanfare, expanded it slightly. Certainly the gorgeous wraparound cover by Brigman & Austin must have been commissioned specifically for Fanfare.

At times Marvel Fanfare was dismissed as a dumping ground for inventory stories. Perhaps it was, but it did enable work that otherwise might never have been printed to see the light of day. Besides the fact that Fanfare editor Al Milgrom had previously written & penciled Questprobe #2, giving him a personal interest in seeing the fourth issue finally get completed, it would have been a no-brainer to run this story. Uncanny X-Men was an absolutely red-hot series in the late 1980s, so running an X-Men story, especially one written by Claremont, the writer who helped propel the character to super-stardom, must have been an obvious choice for Milgrom.

And “Shadows on the Soul” is really good, probably the best of the four Questprobe stories, so I’m glad Milgrom got it printed. Claremont does fantastic work with Magneto and the Chief Examiner. In the previous three stories it was pretty much taken for granted that Durgan is doing the right thing trying to save his world, and the rest of his race are fools for wanting to adhere to their pacifism. Magneto, however, has a tremendous amount of skepticism for Durgan’s actions.

Magneto points out that in attempting to save his world by stealing the powers of other beings Durgan is in danger of becoming just as evil as the Black Fleet, and that there is also a nobility to his people being willing to die for their beliefs. And it makes complete sense for Magneto to be saying this because he’s walked the exact same path as the Chief Examiner. Again and again Magneto has done the wrong thing for ostensibly the right reasons, and in the end was left pondering if he actually did make things any better for mutantkind.

The whole Questprobe storyline did eventually, and quite unexpectedly, get picked up again several years later. Mark Gruenwald always enjoyed utilizing obscure continuity, and he was the layout artist for Questprobe #1 so of course he would have been familiar with the series.

In 1992 Gruenwald brought back the Chief Examiner and the Black Fleet in the pages of his series Quasar. Gruenwald even names the Chief Examiner’s world “Scadam” after Scott Adams. It was perhaps a perfunctory wrap-up, one in which Quasar himself plays no direct role, with the girlfriend Kayla Ballentine, the unwitting recipient of the awesome cosmic power of the Star Brand, being the one to finally destroy the Black Fleet.

But that’s a story for another time.

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