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Twenty Years Ago Today: Marvel Buys Malibu Comics

If you were on the staff of Malibu Comics, twenty years ago today you would have found this memo in your mailbox:

Marvel Buys Malibu

That memo from Malibu Comics President Scott Rosenberg was supposed to mark the end of the beginning for Malibu, but it ended up being the beginning of the end. Founded in 1986, Malibu had made their mark for a wide-ranging black & white comics publishing slate, before launching Image Comics and later publishing the Ultraverse, but by 1994 the handwriting was on the wall: Malibu needed to sell. Narrowly surviving the comics crash of 1993, Malibu was on borrowed time, and had for months been in secret negotiations to sell to DC Comics, before Marvel got wind of the deal and swept in to grab Malibu from their rivals, a largely-defensive purchase intended to protect Marvel’s comic book market share.

Marvel Buys Malibu

Few of the optimistic predictions of the “Employee Fact Sheet” would come to pass. Marvel would file for bankruptcy in 1996, and after a brief attempt to meld the Ultraverse with the Marvel Universe, Malibu Comics would shutter in 1997.

At its height, Malibu Comics employed approximately 150 full-time employees, including a film division, an interactive division, and offices in both California and England. They also provided work for hundreds of freelance writers and artists (including your humble narrator!). Malibu’s vast library of superhero properties — including the Ultraverse — passed on to Disney when they acquired Marvel in 2009. Disney has been mum on any plans to develop Malibu’s properties for film, but that didn’t stop us from identifying “Prime” Ultraverse candidates for the big screen!

Marvel Buys Malibu

It is interesting to speculate what might have become of Malibu had their sale to DC Comics gone through. DC’s purchase of Wildstorm in 1999 shows the company was able to support an autonomous west coast publishing studio, and many of Wildstorm’s people and properties remain a vital part of DC Comics to this day.

Malibu, on the other hand, has vanished into the halls of Disney, vaulted away like something from the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is there hope for the Ultraverse in an era when unknown properties like the Guardians of the Galaxy are a box office smash?

Keep the faith, Ultraverse fans! Wilder things have happened!

Ultraverse

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Top Five Ultraverse Comic Book Movie Properties

Longbox Graveyard #112

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest blog is a special treat — a look at the buried treasure that is the Ultraverse from two men who were there at the start! Along with a host of high-powered comics creators, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason played critical roles in the foundation of the Ultraverse, which might just be the greatest comic book universe you’ve never heard of! In an age where Marvel is bringing Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy to the movie screen, the time may be right for the Ultraverse’s return!

Take it away, Chris & Tom!

Hey, Disney executives and producers with a Disney deal in your hand or a desk on the lot — have we got some ideas for you! As you know, your Marvel Comics properties are all locked up and tied together to create a Marvel Movie Universe that mirrors the founding comic books.

Ultraverse!

But, if you look on the fringes of Marvel’s super-hero properties, you’ll find a few gems in the Ultraverse, a universe of comic books that Marvel purchased from Malibu Comics back in 1994. There are several titles that could be pulled out to start their own tentpoles separate from the Marvel Universe.

Here (in no particular order) are our top five!

Mantra

Mantra, Adam Hughes

Creator: Mike W. Barr, debut issue pencils by Terry Dodson

High Concept: Ancient Warrior Knight Reincarnated In The Body Of A Soccer Mom!

There’s nothing you guys love more than a body-switching movie. It’s been a reliable box-office performer ever since Freaky Friday. Sometimes, you have such a switch-crush that you’ll make two of them in the same year. In Mantra, an eternal warrior named Lukasz is killed but reincarnated into the body of a woman, Eden Blake. Now, you’ve got a manly-man warrior with the attitudes of a guy from centuries before stuck in the body of a single mom with two kids and an ex-husband. However you pitch it, it’s Highlander meets Switch and that’s either comedy gold or high drama.

Firearm

Firearm

Creator: James Robinson, debut issue pencils by Cully Hamner

High Concept: Film Noire Detective Hunts Super-Heroes

Too many super-heroes? That’s what the so-called pop culture critics say. Somehow four super-hero movies in one year is too much for them and they need more idiotic rom-coms or weepy historical dramas instead. If you’re one of “those” people, then Firearm is your antidote: he hunts super-heroes. He’s no angry vigilante, though. He used to be in a British secret agency called The Lodge, but he “retired” and moved to California to set up shop as a private eye. But his cases are far from normal and usually involve crossing paths with both good and bad super-heroes, including the super-hero serial killer called Rafferty.

Prime

Prime, Boris Vallejo

Creator: Gerard Jones and Len Strazewski, debut issue pencils by Norm Breyfogle

High Concept: Boy Living In A Man’s Body

The big man of the Ultraverse, he’s Superman and Captain Marvel all in one. A boy named Kevin Green transforms himself into a super-hero by “building” a super-strong hero shell around himself. The shell is built from organic liquid skin that ejects from his body. And when he transforms back, the body withers and spits him out. But that’s not the best part — he’s super strong and has basically all the powers of Superman, but he’s controlled by Kevin, a 14-year-old boy, with a boy’s experiences and emotions. So the world’s most powerful super-hero is an inexperienced, hormonally-charged teenager. The teenager never goes away — he’s always trying to masquerade as an adult. Once again, that’s either comedy gold or high drama.

Rune

Rune, Barry Windsor-Smith

Creator: Chris Ulm and Barry Windsor-Smith, debut issue pencils by Barry Windsor-Smith

High Concept: Twisted Twilight

Rune was a walk on the dark side. Rune, an ancient energy vampire, had many guises through the history of mankind: alien, sorcerer, beast, god, devil. Now he is dying of cancer and only the blood and energy of super-humans can stave off imminent death. Rune has it all: secret societies, government conspiracies, teenage romance and a story that spans the history of humanity.

The Strangers

The Strangers, Rick Hoberg

Creator: Steve Englehart, debut issue pencils by Rick Hoberg

High Concept: Passengers Assemble!

Random passengers on a cable car get struck by energy and find themselves changed beyond recognition, with strange powers. Who becomes a hero? Who tries to hide? Who uses their newfound powers for evil? These are the questions that drive the strangest collection of super-heroes ever assembled. While suited to film, this property seems tailor-made for episodic television in the tradition of Lost or Under The Dome, with seemingly random characters thrown together, and then tested in the crucible of paranormal circumstances!

Malibu Comics Co-Founders

Malibu Comics Co-Founders Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Dave Olbrich, and Scott Rosenberg at their 2012 Comic-Con Reunion

Drawing from classic super-hero comics, hard science fiction, horror and epic fantasy, the Ultraverse was known for its epic premises and imaginative takes on classic tropes. Many of the best concepts could not have been realized as movies because the state of the art for CG was not up to the task in 1993, and the audience was not sufficiently literate in all things comics. Now, that’s all changed — comic books drive box office world wide and it’s about time the strange and wonderful corridors of the Ultraverse were explored on the silver screen!

Are you listening Disney?

About The Authors:

Chris Ulm was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the Editor-In-Chief of the Ultraverse, which was based on his original development. He co-created the Ultraverse title Rune with artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Chris Ulm is now CEO and co-founder of Appy Entertainment, a leading mobile games development studio.

Tom Mason was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the company’s Creative Director. He co-created the Ultraverse title Prototype with writer Len Strazewski. Mason is currently an Emmy-winning writer-producer in the big, wide world of television.

Thanks, Tom and Chris, for making your case why the Ultraverse is ready for its close-up! What do you think of their list? Did they forget your favorite Ultraverse character? Should Marvel go with their own C-list characters rather than develop these Ultraverse properties? Does the loyal devotion of Facebook’s Ultraverse group indicate the Ultraverse still has the capacity for mass appeal? Sound off in comments, below!

IN TWO WEEKS: #113 Ben Urich: Role Model in a Sea of Heroes

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

The Sun Shines On Malibu

The Sun Shines On Malibu

Thanks to all who participated in or attended my Malibu Comics Retrospective panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2012!

The event was even more dynamic than the above image would indicate!

Our far-ranging look back at Malibu Comics concentrated on the origins of the company, Malibu’s willingness to try something new, the company’s legacy of creator rights, and Dave Olbrich’s infamous “squirrel story” (which he had forgotten, until Tom Mason filled him in).

Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Dave Olbrich, and Scott Rosenberg, courtesy of the Longbox Graveyard Instagram feed

I was a little too ambitious with my agenda and the later days of Malibu — including the launch of Image Comics and the Ultraverse, and Malibu’s sale to Marvel — got short shrift. We continued the talk in the hallway outside the meeting room, but it’s safe to say we had more to say than we had time to say it in. Maybe we’ll reconvene for another presentation at a future show.

We didn’t get a chance to show it at the panel … but here are the television commercials used to launch the Ultraverse twenty years ago!

You can view the slides assembled by Chris Ulm for the panel over at Slideshare. Plenty of Malibu goodness there (and you can find most of those images at my Malibu Comics Pinterest gallery, too!)

You can also read about the panel over at Comic Collector Live and Bleeding Cool.

And a couple videos have turned up, first from YouTube, Part 1

Here is Part 2

There is also this video on Facebook.

Thanks again to all who attended or participated in the panel, and thanks to San Diego Comic-Con for hosting our retrospective!

Longbox Graveyard author Paul O’Connor flanked by Horace Austin (left) and Keith Callbeck (right) — thanks for attending the panel, guys!

Malibu Comics Retrospective At San Diego Comic-Con!

Malibu Comics Retrospective At San Diego Comic-Con!

Thursday programming for San Diego Comic-Con has been announced, and Longbox Graveyard will be there!

Please come see the panel I am hosting:

Thursday 7/12 2:00-3:00 Malibu Comics Retrospective— This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Ultraverse, just one legacy of Malibu Comics, the groundbreaking independent publisher that also brought us Image Comics, Men in Black, and hundreds of original, creator-owned properties. Malibu founders Scott Rosenberg (president, Malibu Comics), Dave Olbrich (publisher), Tom Mason (VP, Marketing), and Chris Ulm (editor-in-chief) offer a lively discussion hosted by comics blogger Paul O’Connor (www.longboxgraveyard.com). Learn about Malibu’s place in comics history and their forward-looking attitude toward creator’s rights. Hear the war stories, ask your questions, and see rarities from the Malibu vaults. Room 32AB

I hope to see you there — join us for the secret history of Malibu, and then please come on up after the panel to say hello!

(And if you have any burning questions for the Malibu brain trust, offer them in the comments section, below, and I will see if I can work them into the panel).

celebrating twenty years of the Ultraverse and Malibu Comics!

Gerber’s Baby

Longbox Graveyard #34

Last week I wrote about Steve Gerber’s Defenders, a 1970s comic that was as singular as it was strange. That book stuck with me as a kid, and partially inspired by Steve’s crazy work, I would go on to have a comic book writing career of my own. My time in comics was unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but one of the highlights was working (however briefly) with Steve on his original creation, Sludge.

Having helped launch Image Comics, the Malibu Comics brain trust had first-hand evidence that an original superhero universe could carve out a chunk of a Marvel and DC-dominated market. In 1993 they decided to go for it in a big, splashy way with the Ultraverse, an all new, full-color superhero line co-created by some of the bigger name writers in the business, like Steve Englehart, Mike Barr … and Steve Gerber.

For my own part, I was pretty burned out as a comic book writer by the time the Ultraverse came around, and I wouldn’t have had the name value to participate in the launch even if I had been up to the task. But it was obvious that the Ultraverse was going to be the only game in town and I worked hard around the edges trying to land a book. Once the line matured and deadlines started to slip, I managed to secure a couple fill-in assignments for Ultraverse inventory stories.

One assignment was a two-parter for Rune, which I’ve already examined here on Longbox Graveyard. Another was a fill-in story for Steve Gerber’s Sludge.

There are folks who still remember the Ultraverse, but there isn’t a lot on the web about Sludge. Sludge was a corrupt New York cop named Frank Hoag who was killed after finally standing up to the mob, then rose again as the sewer-monster, Sludge. He lurked in the shadows, was virtually indestructible, melted flesh with his touch, and revealed his inner struggle through story captions demonstrating his torturous thought process.

Challenged by Malibu Editor-in-Chief Chris Ulm to create an original monster comic series, Steve Gerber said that the concept for Sludge came to him during an epiphany at the Arizona conference where the Ultraverse was born. Despite his past association with Man-Thing, Sludge wasn’t Gerber trying to out-do himself with another swamp monster, or an attempt to fill a certain niche in the Ultraverse line. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to jump to those conclusions, but for Gerber, at least, Sludge was its own thing.

Marketing challenges aside, anyone thinking Gerber would under-serve his own creation as “just another swamp monster” was barking up a very wrong tree. One of the things I learned from Steve was how the first responsibility of a creator is to respect his own work. If you go into a job thinking it is a lesser assignment or a knock-off or a joke or whatever, then you can’t possibly do a good job. More to the point — why are you wasting your creative time doing that kind of work?

Steve was completely locked in on Sludge, as he was with all of his work. He walled out the world, didn’t care if people thought the character was another Man-Thing, didn’t care if the book was selling well, didn’t care if the Ultraverse was going to stick or not. Actually, saying Steve “didn’t care” gives entirely the wrong impression. In my experience, Steve did care — passionately, deeply, maybe too much — about every aspect of his work. What I mean to say is that Steve did his best to keep those external and possibly negative influences from impacting the work. It was pride, and professionalism, sure, but it was more than that. I think it was a kind of idealism, all the more impressive for a writer who had been chewed up by a nasty fight with Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck. Another creator might have expected Malibu to “pay for his divorce,” but Gerber seemed to put that earlier heartbreak behind him, and put the energy into his work.

Or maybe Steve just had a mature understanding that getting even ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere.

I first worked with Steve as the editor and writer of Ultra Monthly. The idea behind Ultra Monthly was that it was a news magazine from inside the Ultraverse — it told the story of the Ultraverse through news stories and “photographs,” relating only what an outsider would be able to divine about the super-powered derring-do of the Ultraverse. I guess it was kind of like Marvels, except that Ultra Monthly was a news magazine, and not a comic (and we didn’t have a couple guys named Busiek and Ross on board, either). Anyway, the point was to show a “street” level view of the Ultraverse, but it was also to promote the characters in the line, and that proved especially challenging for characters that lurked in the shadows of this new fictional world.

I don’t think I ever got a Sludge story into Ultra Monthly. Each creator had to sign off on anything I did with their characters, and Steve was adamant that Sludge was a legendary figure, like Bigfoot, and he just shouldn’t appear in the magazine. My pleas that Bigfoot was a frequent cover boy for the National Enquirer (and that, after all, I was just trying to promote Steve’s book) fell on deaf ears — Sludge appearing in the news, even fictional news, didn’t fit Steve’s concept of the character and he wouldn’t budge. The only people who saw Sludge were the guys he killed and the down-and-out bums who shared an alley with the monster. Sludge was Gerber’s baby, and Steve was true to his character even if it ultimately might hurt his sales.

I don’t know as Steve remembered me from Ultra Monthly, but when Malibu decided it was time to commission inventory stories to fill gaps when Ultraverse deadlines were missed, Steve didn’t object to my taking a crack at Sludge. But neither did he make it easy. As was the case with my Rune story, I first had to submit a concept, and later a full plot — more preliminary work than I would have done on a book of my own. To avoid conflicting with the book’s continuing continuity, I decided to do a flashback story about Frank Hoag’s earliest days on the police force. I wanted to find out what had turned rookie Frank Hoag into the corrupt cop we saw get gunned down by his mafia masters in Sludge #1.

I sweated over my plot, sent it into Malibu, and kept my fingers crossed. I still have the notes Steve sent back:

Notes for Paul O’Connor RE: Sludge Inventory issue “Shadow of a  Chance”

Too many liberties are taken with the character of Sludge rather than dealing with the difficulties the character presents.

Examples:

*Sludge is not driven by vengeance. Ever. He considers it a waste  of time. He could be driven by rage or anger (a thin but important line) or even by his selective urge to see justice done.

*Sludge’s recollections seem perfectly clear throughout the story. They wouldn’t be. His confusion doesn’t automatically go away when he thinks about the past. Another way should be found to do the flashbacks … Maybe they should come from Emily, and not Sludge — may not work either, just a thought.

A lot of time is spent describing the characters’ emotions in almost Wagnerian terms. While that is okay where Emily is concerned, Sludge doesn’t engage in much pathos or talk at length about his feelings (or anything else). Fire the guy walking around in the Sludge suit and put the REAL Sludge at the center of the story.

Think about it, mull it over, think about it some more.

Doing the math, I notice Steve was about my age now when he offered me that direction. I wonder if I would be as helpful to writers trying to work under my direction today?

Being as I was a hack writer who just wanted to get paid and get onto the next book, Steve’s notes drove me crazy. But I could respect the way Steve was protecting his creations. It was a message that stuck with me and I credit it as an early drop of water that started to erode the rocks I had piled atop myself in what was to date a miserable career as a writer and creator. I took Steve’s notes to heart, re-wrote my plot, received approval, and wrote the full script. It was my work, under Steve’s strict direction … so my story isn’t exactly a lost Steve Gerber Sludge script (for that you need to go here), but it is kinda sorta the next best thing.

the man himself!

My Sludge script was never published, though I’m sure I was paid for it. I don’t think it even had an artist assigned. Reading it again, after all these years, it seems to me a nice piece of writing, but not so great a comic book script. Too much of the action is internal, and too much relies on a fill-in artist being able to wring convincing and sometimes subtle emotions out of the characters. While it would have been nice to get another story into print, this tale really is better experienced in the mind — its unlikely the story would have been improved by pencils. I’ve put the script up for your review HERE — give it a read and see what you think.

I lost touch with Steve after submitting my script. We were never close — our relationship was limited to these few Ultraverse jobs — but I always liked Steve, and admired the man and his work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Steve gave me a gift in that he helped me understand how hard it is to do quality work (a lesson Lorne Lanning would finish drilling into me during my years at Oddworld Inhabitants). Steve also demonstrated how to be professional and dignified as a creator, even if “all” you are writing about is a talking duck or a mucky sewer monster. I was saddened when Steve passed, both because I enjoyed his work as a fan, and because of our brief professional association. The comics world — and the world as a whole — was a better place when Steve Gerber was in it.

Thanks, Steve!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #35 Beneath The Longbox Shortbox

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