Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.
Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.
Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.
Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.
For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.
And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!
Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.
The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.
Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.
I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:
“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor. I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊
“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”
The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.
Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.
The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).
The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell (see what they did there?) ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire war between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.
Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.
Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.
Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.
It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.
Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.