Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Tedd Riccio is a comic book aficionado chock full of useful comic history knowledge. So why not tap into that knowledge for the betterment of you, the reader? Appearing weekly is a column by newly appointed Assistant Editor Tedd (just Tedd will be fine). This column is called “Hank McCoy (Before the Fur),” so be sure to keep your eyes open for his unique insights into comics. The whole comic book super-hero thing is a pretty interesting sub-genre of science fiction.

Kind of.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say, the whole sub-genre of comic book super-heroes is really just a conglomerate of ideas and themes taken from every other genre of science fiction.

I mean, I was always a big BIG fan of the whole integrated-universe thing that Marvel and DC pulled off. I loved the cameos, the references, just…the atmosphere. You know, if Batman was breaking up weapon smuggling at the docks than the guys he was after were inevitably packing advanced Lex-corp technology. Or the whole big extended-family thing Marvel had going on. Like Magneto’s mutant kids, never feeling quite comfortable with their former foes, don’t become X-men but Avengers instead. One of them, Quicksilver, has had an on again, of again, marriage with the Inhuman Crystal; Crystal in turn has had an on again off again romance with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch; Franklin Richard is frequently baby-sat by a mysterious women named Agatha Harkness who has sometimes helped tutor the mystically-inclined such as the Scarlet Witch (who the writers can never decide if her powers are mystical, or mutation, or whatever)…you get the idea.

The problem is, when you put the whole big integrate pictures together? It isn’t always pretty. Alien beings with god like powers, real Gods with alien-like powers, crime-fighter detectives, radiation mutated super-beings, cyborgs, robots, intergalactic police-forces, and anthropomorphic beings do not always a concise and well-written story make. But there are a few writers who can really pull this trick off and make it work. Make it feel like ‘oh yeah, of course an ancient Amazon demi-god, Dark Knight detective, and alien super-being are standing around having a conversation…the current situation would necessitate that they coordinate their efforts and work together’.

Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come is a good example of the kind of pop-culture master-piece that gets woven in this way. In some ways, growing up, I usually mistook a lot of the sophisticated concise story-telling that DC did as slow-moving and two-dimensional. I didn’t realize how even some of DC’s more cosmic characters had more human characterizations, more true-to-life adult issues, and frankly, more realistic depictions of violence and crime. The end result, at least I believe, is that it’s a little easier to tell a mammoth story like Kingdom Come because the core traits/ personalities of many of the character’s involved are well-defined and aren’t getting re-written and re-drawn by every hot and upcoming writer and artist that Marvel puts at the helm of the ship (while Kingdom Come does a lot of re-defining, I still think that’s the 1960’s Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Diana leading the story).

A frequently looked-over and amazingly under-rated attempt to provide the Marvel Universe with the same epic feel that the DC one walked away with in Kingdom Come is Jim Krueger’s Earth-X, Universe-X, and Paradise-X series. Tread lightly from this point in, dear reader- such story telling is very much the hard liquor of the Marvel Universe tomb of lore. Like I said, few people can tell a truly comprehensible story that spans the scope of the Asgardian plains, to a fully mutated American nation, to Atlantis, to the Watcher’s haven on the Moon, and more places. But somehow, Krueger makes it work.

Not only that, but Krueger has this amazing way of addressing some of the bizarre conventions that were idiosyncratic to comic books and making them part of the story. Why is there always another villain? Why do character’s die and come back, constantly? Why is the human race always looking for heroes but fearing them? He plays around with some of these cliché themes and actually uses them as the building blocks of bizarre existential revelations.

If the last paragraph sounded like I was writing a philosophy paper, I assure you it is only Krueger’s style rubbing off on me. I mean, questions about the nature of existence, time, and space get thrown around in this comic. Are you so sure that death is a ‘natural’ phenomenon? What if death was a genetic ‘flaw’ that the human race was never supposed to have?

Think about what I just wrote there. Does your brain hurt yet?

On the soft side of this series, each issue begins with a kind of whistle-stop tour of the Marvel Universe. Krueger sets the scene by giving you a re-cap of the origins of the character’s the story focuses on and many of their most famous struggles. Some of Krueger’s re-inventions of these characters can be painful- a disgruntled, middle-aged Peter Parker who doesn’t stop to help people in the street and a beer-bellied Wolverine are just a start. But he really shows off how well he gets a lot of the characters- I can’t say enough good things about how well he grasps the complicated persona of Tony Stark for example.

Some of the other revisions are just…well, bizarre.

Hulk has finally reached a point where he and Bruce Banner have separated into two physically separate, but mentally linked, entities. And I was definitively freaked out to see a Frank Castle reunited with his family in the afterlife and going so far was to SHOOT THEM HIMSELF in order to prove that they were all dead. And Franklin Richards…Galactus…they…he…you know what? I won’t even try to explain.

This is also very much the Marvel universe of the 1960’s and 70’s. This is the Peter Parker who wrestled with Gwen Stacey’s death, the Scott Summers whose father was a Starjammer, the Jean Grey who had clones, and the Magneto who bullied Toad unmercifully. There are references to storylines that you likely weren’t even alive when they were made up. The High Evolutionary ring a bell? Psycho-man and the micro-verse? Me neither.

Although there’s bound to be something that’ll make you jump up and say ‘HEY, I remember that!’. My favorite involves a now seemingly absent from cannon space-knight named Rom. Anyone remember Rom? He was this big white robot looking guy with this weird ray gun. He got marketed as a toy in the 80’s…and didn’t exactly take off. Eventually, Marvel lost the rights to the character and has been in litigation over it for some time (or so I hear). Rom’s back-story was fascinating though, playing up the whole robot-with-a-secret-heart-of-gold thing that was big in that decade. Rom’s primary antagonists, the Dire Wraiths, were…freaky.

Regardless of losing the rights to the character, Krueger spares no expense. While Captain America and a reborn child-like Mar-vell (the original Captain Marvel) travel through Limbo, a stranger wearing white armor and carrying a ray gun briefly rescues them from a pack of strange creatures. When Cap asks Mar-vell for the identity of the stranger, he replies only ‘Once, the greatest of the space-knights…’.

I love Krueger’s ‘shout-outs’ to other…things that marvel fans would know, too. Such references are sometimes more innate than overt- one chapter ends with a character pondering over the nature of existence, finishing with two words: ‘What if?’. Those of you who get it, get it.

If you’ve got a substantial amount of time on your hands and access to an internet database of marvel comics characters and storylines, Earth-X, Universe-X, and Paradise-X is a great read. And frankly? I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it’s something of a mental exercise in philosophy. If you don’t believe me, try digesting some of the Watcher and Machine Man’s conversations on the nature of time and death. Be warned- some of what you see in these comics are a lot less super-hero and a lot more dramatic fiction. Heroics are a little less flashy, a little more desperate in this incarnation of the marvel universe. The art is sometimes a little…claustrophobic, even strange. Most won’t find it appealing, but it lends a sort of something to the whole series. A kind of surrealness. All in all, great reading.