Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Valiant was robbed.
When you look at the six-issue Deathmate crossover between the 1990s Valiant and Image Comics universes and the industry crash it precipitated, it was Valiant that unfairly took the most damage. They put out their issues on time and did the best with what they were given. Their losses forced them to be bought out by Acclaim and their titles were revised to make them more viable for video game tie-ins. Yet Image, whose books were months late and heavily oversold, went on to launch numerous animated series, films, and toy lines. The fact that I can get an action figure of Rob Liefeld’s Shaft for six bucks on eBay while Archer and Armstrong remain confined to the printed page is an insult.
Considering that Deathmate’s cheerleader at Valiant was one of their financial backers, there was probably no way it would ever work out as a creative masterpiece. But a major issue popped up immediately due to Image’s multi-studio structure. Only Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio participated (and even then, Wetworks hadn’t debuted, so his characters wouldn’t be in it). That removed Image’s two best writer-artists, Erik Larsen and Jim Valentino, from the equation, along with Todd McFarlane, the biggest name at the company. More importantly, it meant that Image’s three major solo superhero titles -- Savage Dragon, Shadowhawk, and Spawn -- weren’t involved.
This left the team books to be divvied up and matched with the Valiant characters, and if you’ve ever read an Image team book, you can see the fatal flaw. Most of the characters blend into one another, with the gruff leaders, strong guys, silent loner guys, and poorly-designed women all blurring into basic shapes after a while. I can maybe name three Youngblood members off the top of my head and I’m at a total loss with Brigade. The only reason I know who’s in WildC.A.T.s and Cyber Force is because I’ve reviewed their books. Bafflingly, Gen13 made their debut in the crossover, which must have been completely alienating for both Image and Valiant readers.
It’s made clear that none of the Image writers know anything about the Valiant characters and vice-versa. They’re all thrown together in a multitude of underwhelming “invade the base" and “randomly attack each other" plots. Everything is set off by an incomprehensible sequence in the Deathmate Prologue wherein Solar’s girlfriend kills herself (or he kills her, it’s hard to tell), and then he combines with his future counterpart (I think) and meets Void, a member of WildC.A.T.s. They fall in love instantly, have sex, and their respective universes explode and combine. None of this is explained, nor are any issue references given so that we can know who these people are. And that was the part done by Valiant! The Image half just consists of disparate configurations of Image and Valiant characters with random philosophical ramblings on top.
This sequence, by the way, is infamous for Valiant’s Bob Layton having to fly out to Rob Liefeld’s house in California, where he sat on Liefeld’s porch until he finished drawing it. Then he inked it in his hotel bathroom.
Design-wise, the Image and Valiant characters are incompatible, a second fatal flaw. Turok gets turned into Nightwolf from the Mortal Kombat games in the Black issue, and as for Valiant’s take on Image . . . remember in the Tin Men of War review when I promised I would show you the silliest panel in all of comics? Well, here it is:
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Morgan Stryker simultaneously reaching out for a female teammate, cocking a gun, and holding his head, which I keep thinking looks like a facepalm. It’s the perfect metaphor to explain why these art styles just don’t mix. A rubric I use for many kinds of media is whether it makes me want to buy its merchandise. After reading Grendel, I searched for a figure of Hunter Rose because I was impressed by the character’s complexity. After reading Deathmate, I searched for the Stryker action figure for the sole purpose of recreating that exact pose. (Livewire, incidentally, is now a main character in Unity and one of Valiant’s most intriguing heroes, so at least she got an upgrade.)
Now we get into the last fatal flaw, and the reason why I refer to Deathmate as an “Uncollectable Edition." Instead of regular issues, each issue was given a color; naturally, these are chromium-printed around the edges. You could theoretically read these in any order -- a good thing, since Image’s contributions were many months late. In practice, it meant that there was no hope of having a cohesive narrative. I honestly can’t tell if these are supposed to be four alternate universes or one universe from four different perspectives. Because I’m a Power Rangers nut, I first read the issues in morphing order -- Black, Blue, Yellow, and Red. It didn’t make sense. Then I did them in publishing order; it still didn’t make sense. Then I just closed my eyes and randomly picked, and once more, no sense was made.
There’s no good way to collect Deathmate . . . and really, there’s no reason to do so. Image has progressed far past this point as a company, and Valiant is a completely different organization. Dozens if not hundreds of contracts would have to be signed to get a trade produced, from people like Liefeld, Layton, and some guy named “Anthony Bedard" who never really did anything after this. I actually met Tony Bedard at Miami Supercon last year and considered having him and Layton sign my Deathmate issues, but I was worried they’d kill me. The prologue and epilogue each cost $2.95 and each issue cost $4.95 . . . that’s an amazing amount with inflation considered, especially since each book feels like it’s halfway full of ads. I bought all six books for $5 in a bundle at a sale and I still feel ripped off.
Next week, Robert Kirkman saves Image with a book I’ve been meaning to review since I started writing for Collected Editions.