Uncollected Editions #3: Firearm by James Robinson (Malibu Comics)

Monday, January 17, 2011

[Continuing our "Uncollected Editions" series by Paul Hicks]

It was June 1993 and the comic industry thing to do was create a new shared universe. The guys at Malibu Comics called theirs the Ultraverse. From the get-go they did some smart things, engaging talented writers to structure the universe, create some history and texture, and then populate it with licensable characters. The writers included veterans such as Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and Mike Barr as well as newer writers like James Hudnall, Gerard Jones, Len Strazewski and the mostly unknown pre-Starman James Robinson.

The Ultraverse launched, starting small with a handful of titles, introducing comic readers to names like Prime, Hardcase, Mantra and The Strangers. These books were pretty good superhero fare, each with a distinctive feel. The line slowly expanded and September 1993 saw the debut of something very special: James Robinson's Firearm.

It looked like a standard early '90s bad-ass big gun book. It wasn’t. It was in fact, a character-driven P.I. book, more in common with Powers than Punisher. Violent, but never mindless, it was a comic for reading and savouring.

The star of the series was Alec Swan, a rumpled and scarred ex-pat Brit living in Pasedena, LA. The high-concept: despite being a regular bloke he was always embroiled in cases with super-powered freaks, or Ultras as they’re known in this comic-book universe. The name "Firearm" was a leftover call-sign from his days with mysterious British spook outfit, the Lodge. It’s not a name Swan ever used in introduction, but one other people called him, much to his chagrin. It was accurately descriptive in that he did carry a big gun, but Robinson seemed to delight in making him constantly lose it in action, just when it would be most necessary. Swan was far more John MacLean than James Bond, more likely to be bloodied and desperate, than suavely using a gadget to save his skin. Robinson showed much of the flair that he applied in his next series, Starman. Both had extremely accessible lead characters with particular tastes and vulnerabilities.

The stories were full of action, with mysteries and shady character’s worthy of a classic P.I. novel. Another of the delights of this series was Alec Swan’s inner monologues. His running commentary was often witty, populated with cool cultural observations and slyly addressed to the readers. Swan’s tastes in films, food, cars, books and architecture were all covered, in a way that made you feel like you were getting to know a friend. He also constantly referred to earlier missions that sounded all the more alluring for never being related in full. After a few issues I would happily have read 22 pages of Swan buying groceries, as long as we got to hear his thoughts. An example from two pages of a shootout in issue # 9:

Pasadena.

Let me tell you about Pasadena. And if all you out there in Podunk, Middle America are asking why should you care about my town, I say . . .

. . . Hey, Droopy, where are your manners? I’d listen if you wanted to tell me about your one whore, one diner, one gas station dump you call home.

‘Sides you got another of my mindlessly violent exploits to look at, at the same time, so what’s your problem?

James Robinson was open in his influences on the series. He wanted to capture the energy of John Woo Hong Kong action films. Remember this was 1993 when Woo was a cult director famous for The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow II and especially Hard Boiled, and definitely not the disappointing American debut Hard Target. Robinson's used the Woo stock ingredient of spectacular gunfight mayhem and combined it with wry monologues. The concoction was unique at the time and is still compelling today.

Issues #1-4 made up the "American Pastimes" arc, a missing person case that leads Swan to a very nasty secret society of ultra-powered snobs. Issue #2 was a highlight with Swan having to deal with the lantern-jawed super-celebrity Hardcase. Their few pages together had the seeds of a great buddy movie scenario. Cully Hamner (Question co-features, Black Lightning: Year One) was the artist of the first story and he showed a great deal of flair in everything from his composition of a car chase/gun fight to character’s chatting in an art gallery. Howard Chaykin provided the covers in his appropriately chunky style. Another frequent cover artist of note was painter Dan Brereton.

Issue #5 was a simple, yet very important story as Swan talks to a suicidal young woman. It is small on action, but really shows the compassionate side of Swan. It’s similar to the Christmas issue of Starman, where the lead character takes the time to get involved in someone’s problems and try to help. It’s a type of real heroism that is far too rare in comics. Kirk Van Wormer provided the art. Hamner returned for issue #6, part of a crossover with Prime #10. Entertaining without the other issue, strangely enough the meeting of these two characters left far more impression on Prime in his Ultraverse flagship series, than it did on Firearm.

The next few issues were stand alone stories of different types of cases. They provide changes of locale for Swan as he got involved in a super-powered custody case, tracks a murderer into Sasquatch territory and gets stuck in a gunfight in a parade float warehouse. Worthwhile reads, all. Also of note is James Robinson’s very enjoyable personal handling of the letter column that began in issue #8. It became a forum to share recommendations of books and movies, not just discuss the series.

Issues #10 and #11 were a cyberpunk two-parter with the distinctive art of Gary Erskine. Set in England and a virtual Glasgow, Swan is blackmailed to return to his old employer, the brutal Lodge. We really see the crap that Swan left behind; the associations that make him dislike England, and especially why he changed occupations.

Issue #12 was a turning point in the series. It sets up the entire "Rafferty Saga" which ran from issue #13 through to #18. Rafferty is Swan’s Moriarty and Robinson sets the stakes high with his debut. Rafferty’s role as a non-powered serial killer of ultras is still novel today. He outwits Swan repeatedly, killing multiple targets under the hero’s watch. Within the "Rafferty Saga" there were an abundance of guest stars from other books, but Robinson had good reason for all of the inclusions and still kept a firm hand on the plot.

As much as I adore this series it did have some problems. The artists changed far too frequently, and while Cully Hamner did more than any others, he only pencilled six issues. Some of the other art teams provide strong work, but others appeared rushed.

Of special mention was the Firearm #0 special, a two-part tale told first in a live action video and concluded in a comic. This was a mixed bag, with the half-hour video clearly suffering from a low budget. Robinson has mentioned in interviews the director’s disdain for his input on casting, accents and story detail. The comic suffers from none of that and artist Mike Wieringo provides flair and spectacle that is sorely missing from the video. Even today, however, this still stands as an unparalleled effort in comic marketing.

Firearm came to a sad end in issue 18. This was when Marvel finalized their purchase of Malibu. Many of the other Ultraverse series limped along before being dissolved in an extremely messy frenzy of crossovers with Marvel Universe. James’ last contribution was a three-part backup tale in the thematically unrelated Codename: Firearm issues #0-2. This story was most likely issue #19, split into three parts, started by Cully Hamner and completed by Gary Erskine.

Robinson wisely got out of the Ultraverse, finishing his series in a satisfying conclusion to the "Rafferty Saga," and never beginning a run on the team book Ultraforce that he was linked to. Hero Illustrated Magazine (now there's a blast from the past! -- ed.) published details of an unfinished Firearm annual, again with Cully Hamner, which would have explored Swan’s Lodge days some more, and set up future plot lines.

Thematically the series was about maturity and moving beyond mayhem and violence for its own sake. The Alec Swan in issue #1 is not quite the same man in issue #18, he has different priorities and expectations from life. A similar theme was more overtly present in Robinson’s epic Starman, where maturity takes Jack Knight away from the heroic life. Perhaps a bit of meta-commentary on James’ part about outgrowing super-hero comics, if they purely exist for no good reason.

If you enjoyed Starman, Firearm will definitely give you the same satisfaction. Look for it in the back-issue bins, most likely to be cheap and neglected.
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5 comments:

  1. Timely article.
    was looking for the Ultraverse collections today..now I realize that there wasn't one...was exactly looking for The Man called A-X by Wolfman & McManus....not Ultraverse but a Malibu production under the Bravura imprint...with others like 'BREED, STAR SLAMMERS, DREADSTAR & STRIKEBACK....the only Ultarverse title I remember reading was SLUDGE

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  2. I didn't realize Man Called A-X started with Malibu. Anyone know what, if any, relationship there was between the Malibu and DC series story-wise? How did DC get the rights?

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  3. The Bravura imprint was specifically for creator owned books, which is why that material can be reprinted if a company is willing to negotiate with the creators. The Ultraverse had fairly generous creator percentage deals which is why Marvel have not utilised the characters since purchase or reprinted any of the stories as collections. There were two Ultraverse collections back in the day (before Marvel) - Prime: Prime Time and The Strangers: Jumpstart. Prime Time had an Alex Ross cover and was released in HC and tpb.

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  4. CE, I didn't realize DC has the rights to the Man called A-X. Please explain as to how & where the character has been in use...I loved the character...

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  5. I don't know much about Man Called A-X beyond the name, so let me direct you to Marv Wolfman's site, where he talks more about it:

    http://www.marvwolfman.com/site/MAN_CALLED_AX.html

    Cheers!

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