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 at 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.
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…
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.
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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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