RETRO REVIEW: Deathmate Black (September 1993)
Or – “The Straw That Broke The Speculator Camel’s Back.”
It’s time, Faithful Spoilerites. For all the guff I give the likes of Skateman, Super Green Beret and Legends of the Dark Knight, there are nonetheless very few comics in the world that I dislike not just for what they ARE, but for what they represent. Today, we are going to venture into the world of a book that isn’t just bad, it’s the perfect symbol of what went wrong with an entire decade. Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!
There are some pretty pictures.
It’s better than the other issues.
Every single thing wrong with 90′s comics.
Even the good parts are awash in dreck.
Writer(s): Brandon Choi/Eric Silvestri
Artist(s): Brandon Peterson/Brett Booth/Marc Silvestri/Jeffery Scott/Scott Clark/Greg Capullo/Jim Lee/Whilce Portacio
Inker(s): Scott Williams/Sal Regla/Alex Garner/Trevor Scott/John Dicksenson/John Tighe/Rich Johnson
Colorist(s): Joe Chiodo/Wendy Fouts/Paige Apfelbaum
Letterer: Mike Heisler
Editor(s): Robin Lane/Deborah Marvin/Cynthia Sullivan
Publisher: Image Comics/Valiant Comics
Cover Price: $4.95
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00
Previously in Deathmate: In the early part of the 1990s, the comics industry was in the midst of one of its periodic boom times, with books skyrocketing in value on the secondary market, and hotshot creators spurring excitement about comics. The advent of Image Comics was a huge game-changer, but other independent companies were on the scene as well, including Valiant Comics, enjoying success by building a universe around revived Gold Key Comics properties from the 1960s. When Image and Valiant announced the crossover of their universes, fandom responded with excitement, as the combination of Image’s visual dynamics with Valiant’s deep and thoughtful writing seemed like a sure thing. The first issue of Deathmate posited a meeting between Valiant Comics Solar and Image Comics Void in a timeless energy spiral outside of the known universe. They immediately fell in love, and their embrace created a new world, one that combined their home realities into one, but one which was consuming itself, doomed to destruction. Can the heroes combine their efforts in order to save both their worlds? And, more importantly, will the readers care?
It begins, as all 90s comics seemed to, in the first person…
So… many… WOOORDS. Still, it’s good to see that the book comes out of the gate swinging, ready to give us something that fights the stereotype of Image Comics that they’re all substance and flash with no thought in the writing. Unfortunately, though, this first page barrage of infodump doesn’t give us any real explanation of who the characters are, expecting that a reader will be familiar with ALL the Valiant and Image heroes from the get-go. Even as someone who was reading the majority of Valiant product in 1993, I couldn’t have told you who all these guys were, and 20 years out, it might as well be written in Swahili. Worst of all? This issue is narrated by Fairchild, in her first appearance, but seemingly takes for granted that we already know her deal. The Troika (consisting of two Valiant Heroes and an Image villain) are stunned when they’re suddenly attacked by an unknown quantity, the heroes called Gen 13!
Bang zoom pow biff sock with the fighty-fighty! For all the talk of how new comics were modern and different from the old fogies at Marvel and DC, these heroes follow the oh-so-70s rule of announcing themselves and speaking to the next person by name, making sure that the fans understand who is whom. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that part, as it’s a useful writing tool in an issue that falls prey to a lot of writing problems. Case in point: You know what’s wrong with an alternate universe setting?
People can (and almost always do) die in meaningless ways. Remember, Grunge made his first appearance on page 3, so his death on page 8 doesn’t really carry a whole lot of weight, other than manufacturing awkward drama. Valiant’s Turok and Image’s Ripclaw, seemingly bonded by their Native American backgrounds, have acted as twin enforcers of the Troika in this world, but moments after seeing Grunge murdered, Ripclaw turns on his brother. Their battle is kind of offensive, actually, as they swear upon Great Spirits and such, and use their 90s-style stereotypical dialogue against one another (Turok calls their clash “the war dance”) until one arbitrarily blows the other up…
It almost doesn’t matter which, to be frank. Their friendship, their conflict and their entire UNIVERSE is presented in short-hand, a string of clichés that can only be resolved in death by meaningless combat. It’s the big problem with Deathmate as a series (if a string of barely coherent one-shots can be assessed and named as such) in that the stakes just don’t matter. Of course, rumors of Ripclaw’s death are somewhat premature, as he is saved by a mysterious woman who lives in the sewers. Of course, every character who appears in Deathmate has a secret…
…which, in this case, appears to be “implants.” And also magic, which she uses to reveal the nature of their reality, and the threat to it, allowing him to join the underground band of rebels, made up of WildCATS, Gen 13 and Cyberforce characters, all of whom operate under the secret leadership of Ballistic, who was a member of a The Troika before faking her death. Which begs the question, if there used to be four of ‘em, why were they called The Troika? Six pages of dialogue follow to explain why they MUST succeed.
That, by the way, is not a joke. Literally six pages of dialogue with the characters standing around (and a couple more references to Ripclaw’s “Great Spirit), then Warblade returns from the dead, and then they make a full-frontal attack against the unstoppable forces that have enslaved their world and clearly have them utterly outgunned.
Oh… my… god. Voodoo… I… Seriously, I can’t think of anything to say that will be funnier than that utterly ludicrous pose, especially given that she’s dressed as a disco bondage kung-fu hooker. That ponytail, by the way, is why I will never forgive Brett Booth. For ANYTHING… Ballistic kills Turok by blowing out his spine with a high-powered machine gun (on panel), Ripclaw and Warblade viciously murder hundreds of warriors, and the rebels make their way to The Troika’s hidden sanctum.
Luckily, everybody injured on this page dies horribly in an explosion on the next one, so we don’t have to deal with their mutilation in combat. Suddenly, Warblade’s resurrection is proven to be a whole undercover villain routine, and he murders Ripclaw! Then, for some reason, Voodoo decides to give an extemporaneous speech…
The Troika is taken down in just a few pages, and their holding cells opened, which allows Union (an Image hero) to escape with his not-a-Green-Lantern powers, and set off to fix the broken timelines…
For all the silliness of Fairchild’s issue ending pseudo-philosophical babble, it’s at least more entertaining to read than the endless exposition of the rest of the book. None of the Deathmate issues was particularly good from a writing standpoint (the prologue was just embarassing with its florid prose explaining that Solar and Void wanted to existentially bang one another), but even if this is the more readable book of the set, it’s still very bad. The worst part, however, came in the aftermath. While Valiant’s half of the crossover shipped on time, Image’s half (including this book) were ridiculously late. Since pre-orders were in the realm of 700,000 issues, there were a LOT of people waiting for these books, and when the delays began, the people who had pre-ordered drifted away. This series was poorly conceptualized, poorly executed, and when the final chips had fallen, completely inessential to even the most compulsive fans of either company. Even as the first appearance of vaguely notorious heroes Gen 13 (now part of the New 52 relaunch), this book is still routinely sold in dollar bins, and is to date the ONLY comic in Retro Review history to be valued at less than cover price. Deathmate Black isn’t an atrocity or an abomination, it’s just an aggressively mediocre ill-thought-out book, with no redeeming value in terms of art or story, and as such earns no stars. Given that Deathmate and the people responsible for it nearly ended the entire comics industry, it frankly doesn’t deserve any better.