Thursday, September 24, 2009

Exiles

Malibu Comics/Ultraverse, issues #1-4, 1993, between 24 and 28 pages each, plus extra material, $ 1.95 or $ 2.50 each

Writers: Steve Gerber, Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, Chris Ulm
Pencilers: Paul Pelletier, R. R. Phipps
Inkers: Ken Branch, Scott Reed, Dave Simons
Colorists: Paul Mounts, Moose Baumann, Robert Alvord, Psychedelic Prisms
Letterers: Clem Robins, Patrick Owsley
Cover artist: Darick Robertson (issue #1)

Let’s be honest: This is terrible rubbish, mostly.

Exiles, launched by Malibu Comics as part of its Ultraverse imprint in 1993, is remarkable mainly because Steve Gerber (who was one of “The Eight Fathers of the Ultraverse”) ostensibly used it to express some of his ideas on superheroes. In concept, the series boils down to a thinly veiled X-Men knock-off. In terms of the characters and the plot, it boils down to a thinly veiled X-Force knock-off.

In fairness, it’s probably not Mr. Gerber’s fault.

To say that the deck was stacked against Exiles from the beginning would be misleading. There was, in fact, no more deck. The table had been overturned, and cards were missing; shots had been fired, people were lying on the floor bleeding, the house was burning and the fire department was suffering from a collective case of diarrhea. And that’s when the nuclear bombs went off.

Yet, somehow, Steve Gerber managed to be impossibly cheerful and optimistic in his approach to the material, by all accounts—not least his own, which can be found in an interview from 1993 that’s still available on the Internet, as well as his afterword to Exiles #4, both of which combine to paint a fairly detailed—and fairly gruesome—picture of the book’s gestation and road to publication.

It wasn’t Mr. Gerber who created the Exiles characters and concept, but Malibu Comics co-founders or employees Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich and Chris Ulm, and they did so well before the Ultraverse line was invented: Initially, Exiles was meant to be a standalone series at Malibu Comics. The three creators wrote the first issue together, and it made it fairly far on its way through the production chain, according to Mr. Gerber:

“The first issue of the book had been plotted, scripted in first draft, pencilled, and even partially lettered and inked before I ever became involved with it.”

And even when Mr. Gerber did take over the series, it was still not connected to the Ultraverse.

“I came aboard because Dave, Chris, and Tom were knee-deep in other projects […] and none of them had time to finish the Exiles book or write the series in the future. Later, as the Ultraverse was being created, we realized there was nothing in Exiles that inherently contradicted the world we were building, so the title became part of the line.

“It's different from the other titles in that there are actually four [five? –ed.] writers on the first issue. Dave, Chris, Tom, and Dan [Danko, another Malibu employee? –ed.] in collaboration wrote most of the first twelve pages. I made some minor changes on those pages, rewrote their draft for the next eight pages or so, and then replotted and rewrote the ending of the first issue. I think we've managed to stitch the styles together without many seams showing, but it's the only Ultraverse title that was put together in quite that way.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. According to the afterword, Mr. Gerber had already completed the scripts for the first two issues when he and editor Chris Ulm decided that Exiles #4 would be the end of the series, leading into Break-Thru, the first big-event title of the Ultraverse line. Add the number of artists, colorists and letterers involved, and it’s obvious that Exiles wasn’t going to be a classic. Even before the first issue saw print, the book was bound to be a gimmick-driven mess.

And, boy, is it ever.

If I had to guess, I’d say the project dates back to 1991, precisely—by all indications, one or more of its creators read Rob Liefeld’s New Mutants and X-Force comics, thought they were the greatest thing on Earth, and wanted to make a comic book that’s exactly like those. And everybody else involved in the project—prior to Steve Gerber’s arrival, mind you—was ready to oblige, probably because those comics they were out to imitate had sold shiploads of copies.

As a result, the names, designs and costumes of the characters appearing in this series are so astonishingly awful as to defy belief. Virtually the entire cast is utterly insufferable, and not in any way that makes me want to read more stories with them. The main villain is, remarkably, a Gideon rip-off—and shame on you if you even know what that means. He’s called Malcolm Kort, wears a suit, and his rendition suggests that the artist has never, in his life, seen what a man in a suit looks like. There’s a character named Deadeye (!), who looks exactly like Cable, only crappier. There are characters named Hot Rox, Bruut—and Supreme Soviet, who yells things like “Capitalist swine!” and “Now be silent, American wench!

The most amazing character in the bunch is called Bloodbath, though, and, judging from the blurb on the cover of issue #2 (“Featuring BLOODBATH”), the name alone was expected to be a selling point. Bloodbath is the bad-guy version of Shatterstar, basically. He wears looong plaits, a purple jumpsuit and shoulder pads with spikes. And his power is that he’s got a bleeding chest wound from which he’s not dying. I’m not kidding. Hence, presumably, his codename: Whenever he hits the tub, it’s gonna be a bloodbath. Or something.

There are all kinds of impossible design elements in all kinds of impossible colors and variations: shoulder pads; green; cartridge belts; orange; spikes; shoulder pads with spikes; purple; bandoliers; plaits; green sprite boots with petal-shaped brims and spurs.

It’s not, despite all indications to the contrary, a parody, I should point out. These people are dead-serious—at least initially. And to emphasize that point, they depict lots of blood, dead people and other dead things, plus lots of sound effects like “KAWOMP,” “KPUNKT,” “Bwa-DOOM” or—my favorite—“TUPPITTUPPITTUPPITTUPPIT.”

Not surprisingly, the first issue, most of which existed before Mr. Gerber became involved with the project, is easily the worst of the bunch. It largely consists of ultra-violent, badly choreographed, badly drawn fight sequences with terrible dialogue—next to this stuff, Jeph Loeb looks like David Mamet in comparison. The storytelling—they need arrows to indicate the order of the panels in the first issue—gets marginally better after that, but Exiles still isn’t anybody’s finest hour.

That said, it looks like the creators start to enjoy themselves in the final issue, at least: Something clicks, and Mr. Gerber and his collaborators suddenly embrace the sheer ridiculousness of the material with a visible amount of glee and creative zip. There’s even an effort to imbue some of the characters with genuine personalities—right in time before everything’s blown up and half the cast bites the dust.

Because the big gimmick of the series, of course, was that Malibu and the creators had led everybody to believe that Exiles was going to be an ongoing monthly title. They’d even put out fake solicitations for the next couple of issues, I think, and if the afterword is any indication, it seems to have worked. Mr. Gerber seems very proud of that. “I don't believe anything quite like this has ever been done in comics before,” he says in the interview quoted earlier, and he’s probably right.

In retrospect, though, what’s left of the coup is little more than a gimmick. It’s kind of like what Chris Claremont, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum did in 1975 when they killed off Thunderbird three issues into the “All-New, All-Different X-Men” run, only more drastic—because, this time, it’s almost the entire team that dies, and the series along with it. But it’s hard to care about characters who are dressed like the Exiles, talk like the Exiles and spend their time doing the things that the Exiles do.

The intriguing part of the book is that, despite all its shortcomings, its take on the superhero concept seems to be coming from the same place as Mr. Gerber’s 1970s work at Marvel, roughly: Once again, the costumed Übermenschen not only utterly fail to accomplish anything, but they make things infinitely worse. Whenever they act, violence is the result. And, as we also know from Sub-Mariner, The Defenders and Omega the Unknown, violence has consequences: things break; blood is spilled; people get hurt; people die.

Remarkably, whatever Mr. Gerber thought of superheroes when he co-created Omega, his work on Exiles, fifteen years later, does not suggest that his opinion had changed much in the interim.

Conceptually, you can see why the project may have appealed to him, certainly. But this time, the progressive nature of the material doesn’t come from the characters. Rather, it’s rooted in the fact that the series officially came with a built-in self-destruction mechanism. The superhuman characters in Exiles fail, ultimately, just like the superhuman protagonist in Omega fails. But unlike Omega the Unknown, which fails at an arbitrary point dictated by sales and management, Exiles fails at a point dictated by the creators.

That’s kind of noteworthy, after all, I suppose, and it’s definitely a point of interest for anyone tracing the development of Steve Gerber’s work in the superhero genre. Given the quality of the material that resulted from his theoretical approach in this case, though, Exiles is probably not going to be of much interest to anybody else.

Grade: D-

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