By Jarrod Jones. It never should have happened. But it did.
Marvel Comics was months away from kissing financial solvency goodbye, suffering the debilitating storm of Chapter 11 (which might, now that I’m thinking about it, explain Spider-Man: Chapter One), while its Distinguished Competition became self-consciously event happy, casually maiming, defaming, or otherwise murdering their top-tier heroes in the name of a cheap buck. It’s also important to recall that, back in those days, superheroes were put through quite an ordeal of aesthetic abuse, having their outfits adorned with pouches, thigh-straps, and 100% more piping. (Oh, god. The piping.) Artists felt the need to scrawl their entire ding-dang signature on a weathered scroll placed at the bottom right corner of their needlessly cross-hatched covers. Also Spider-Man was called “Ben Reilly”. It was, if nothing else, a darker time.
So DC and Marvel, either in an act of sheer fan appeasement or a last-ditch effort to sell themselves back into relevance, decided to combine their considerable assets for a cosmic brawl of sophomoric proportions: DC Versus Marvel was a jamboree that reeked of corporate desperation (they left the outcomes of such battles as Superman/Hulk, Lobo/Wolverine, and Wonder Woman/Storm up to the readers), but it had hidden ambitions that would resonate far longer than their little smash-em-up ever could. From the havoc of the biggest of publicity stunts came a universe that never should have happened: The Amalgam Universe.
It got tremendous points from fans, if not for creativity then almost certainly for audacity: it featured seemingly disparate heroes smashed together into hastily assembled hybrids, characters like Shatterstarfire (Shatterstar, and, um, Starfire), Manderinestro (The Mandarin, and, yup, Sinestro), and Thanoseid (whose existence, as Darkseid and his pale Marvel counterpart, Thanos, should have rendered the whole damn thing moot). But for every act of numbskullery (such as Doctor Doomsday), Amalgam boasted a glimmer of promise (like Spider-Boy).
Here are DoomRocket’s picks for the most perfectly realized heroes from the weird, wonderful, impossible-to-forget Amalgam Age of Comics. No, you’re not going to find Dark Claw here (the hell was up with that costume, anyway), and no, you’ll find nary a sign of Lobo the Duck. (I know. I’m a monster.)
Bruce Wayne: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Imagine for a moment that Amalgam was never a thing, that somehow, someway Marvel Comics somehow poached DC’s biggest cash cow for their very own. Can’t imagine the Caped Crusader swinging around an Avengers-infested NYC? That’s fine; the most organic method with which to implement Bruce Wayne into the MCU would be to stick him in S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway. Chuck Dixon and Cary Nord’s interpretation of such a scenario was a loving blast of Sixties-era Marvel nostalgia, charged with a Steranko-fueled wit and verve. And it was quite something to see young Mr. Wayne in such a surrounding. In fact, it almost fit him too perfectly.
Mary Jane Watson, The Insect Queen. If there was one indelible moment within the Amalgam Universe, where everyone could agree that, yeah, we could all do with another month or so of this, it was the last page of Spider-Boy #1, where the day was done, the foe was vanquished, and all we had time for was one killer cameo before the final page fell. Karl Kesel and Mike Wieringo’s Spider-Boy was a damn good time, a bright and largely silly account of what would happen if the Superman and Spider-Man mythos had converged. Villains like Bizarnage and King Lizard (which, use your imagination) kept us turning the pages, but it was one glance at Mary Jane Watson, The Insect Queen that had us begging for Spider-Boy #2.
Thorion The Hunter. It makes so much sense, you almost wish Marvel had never given Jack Kirby a reason to leave. We all know the legends of the Fourth World (particularly how they were the realization of the greatest Thor saga never told), but it’s quite another thing to behold it from such a glorious angle. Maybe it helped that John Romita Jr.—who would go on to render one of my favorite, all-time runs on The Mighty Thor—was on art chores, or perhaps it was Keith Giffen’s knack for all things Kirby that I loved this blend of Thor and Orion so much. Pissy attitude? Check. Giant-ass hammer? Double check. If the second run of Amalgam Comics had a single showstopper, it was Thorion of the New Asgods.
Sparrow. Don’t look at me like that. If there was one character that survived the Batman-meets-Wolverine melting pot that was Legends of the Dark Claw, it was this amalgamation of Frank Miller’s Carrie Kelly and Jubilee. No, I don’t know why Jim Balent drew her fingers so long. I don’t know why Jim Balent made most of his artistic decisions back in those days. But I do know that his design of the character—Dick Grayson era-Robin duds, jangly earrings, giant visor artfully sitting over the black strands of her hair—was enough to make me want more out of Amalgam Comics, especially when you remember that her two appearances (in Legends and Dark Claw Adventures) didn’t exactly give her much to do.
Challengers of the Fantastic. I dunno what it was. Maybe it was the high-octane Tom Grummett art, or maybe it was that, in a single issue, Challengers of the Fantastic introduced not four, not ten, but twenty-three different characters mixed from DC Comics and Marvel. Walking around as if they actually had a right to exist. Reading through Karl Kesel and Grummett’s debut issue gave me the hot, Kirby-era Marvel sweats like crazy. (Especially since I was inclined to appreciate their output, given their otherwise pretty-damned-okay Superboy run.) Now that the Fantastic Four are shoved off into the periphery, do you think we could have a sequel, please?
Super-Soldier. Leave it to Mark Waid and Dave Gibbons to provide us with what has to be the most imaginative assembly of comics’ two most iconic characters. Everything about Super-Soldier shouldn’t work—it’s an amalgam that should be as goofy and predictable as Dark Claw—but it does in spite of itself. A case can be made about the innate silliness of either Superman or Captain America’s uniforms, and yet when you blend them together, seen through the prism of Gibbons’ thoughtful work, Super-Soldier looks damn-near timeless. I wish there was a library filled with Omnibuses (omnibi?) crammed full with his adventures.
Doctor Strangefate. I can’t believe someone did it, but there exists a human being who found an accessory to go with the Eye of Agamotto. Look at this guy. Who knew that Stephen Strange, the helmet of Fate, and Professor Charles Xavier would make such an intriguing-looking (and obviously formidable) character? From this well-executed alchemy came one of Amalgam Comics’ most gorgeous books, as Kevin Nowlan supplied inks over José Luis García-López’s stupendous pencils. The results of their efforts made a book that appeared as though it always existed, and contained characters with decades of backstories dedicated to them. There may be enough corporate blocks in the road towards Amalgam Version 3.0. But there’s no conceivable reason why Strangefate shouldn’t live again. Reassemble Marz, García-López, colorist Matt Hollingsworth and letterer Chris Eliopoulos, and you’ll have magic on your hands.
Agree? Disagree? What were YOUR favorite (or least favorite) characters from the Amalgam Age of Comics?