Dinosaur Hunter Diaries #038: Somewhere in the chaos of Unreality…

Friday, June 5, 2020 at 8:00 am Comments Off on Dinosaur Hunter Diaries #038: Somewhere in the chaos of Unreality…

Deathmate: Black

Yet another crossover event, featuring Turok at his most unrecognisable yet!

At this point in the Valiant comics we’re at March 1994, but today I’m going to backpedal to September 1993 to catch up on an issue I’d skipped. It has no relevance to the ongoing storyline, Turok barely even features in it, and looking at it leaves a foul taste in my mouth… but I gotta spotlight it one way or another.

It’s Summer 1993, and Valiant Comics appear to be doing all right, their serialised stories carving a unique little niche in the comics biz. But you know who’s doing even better for themselves? Image Comics! Built on the reputations of its shit-hot artists like Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, it appealed directly to teenagers and everything they loved: Dynamic splash panels! Frightening anatomy! Comics tailor-made for selling posters or tracing in the margins of your maths notebook!
Image is more than a little emblematic of the ’90s comic scene and its… idiosyncrasies, shall we say. I’d wager a good chunk of comics blogging was built off taking pot shots at this era, but it can’t be said it didn’t sell, and to this day you’ll still find people willing to die on a hill to defend the honour of Youngblood or their favourite artists.

While the audiences for Valiant and Image could not be more dissimilar — Valiant built itself on its serialised adult dramas, while Image was very much focused on, well, its image — there were acquaintances at both companies, so why not have a crossover, right? Get the best writers and artists of both stables, chuck their collective rosters in a pot, and gold’s bound to come out of it, surely!
And so, Deathmate was forged.

from Previews Vol. 2 No. 5 (May 1993)
On the surface, DEATHMATE is the story of a chance meeting between image’s Void and one of the split-personas of Valiant’s Solar that literally has universe-shattering consequences. When Void and Solar touch, their contact sparks a violent chain reaction causing both the image and Valiant universes to merge with one another. The end result is a new universe wherein characters from both the Image and Valiant universes live side-by-side.

In the broader picture, DEATHMATE is about the commonalty between Image and Valiant and the many similarities both companies share. Both Image and Valiant are based on a natural enthusiasm for the creative process, as well as a love for the comics medium itself.
[DEATHMATE is] a chance for the creators and fans of both companies to get to know one another. Valiant fans who had never been exposed to image’s comics may find their curiosity piqued for the first time, and vice versa. And in the final estimation, that’s what DEATHMATE is all about — a chance for the fans to be part of one of the biggest comics collaborations ever.

Hopefully, it’ll be a whole lot of fun, too.
introduction from Deathmate Tourbook

Deathmate was pushed hard on audiences, and rightfully so if it was self-billing itself as “the biggest cross-over event in the history of comics”. It received buttloads of press in the likes of Previews and Wizard, hyping up the events of each issue and shilling all manner of merch between pages, including trading cards, t-shirts… and that’s not even mentioning the actual-factual Deathmate Tour, a bus packed full of Image and Valiant’s headlining artists that travelled cross-country to comic shops, culminating in a run-in with Aerosmith at the Wizard World Chicago convention! (not a total non sequitur; Aerosmith headlined in issue #19 of Shadowman)
The series itself certainly tried to deliver, with each double-length comic bursting at the seams with characters, finding excuses to fight each other, team up, double-cross each other, and whatever made the deluxe $4.50 price tag seem palatable.

What’s less palatable, however, is the story. In between the universe-threatening shenanigans set in place by Solar and Void, there’s a whole lot of guff that feels like small buttons in comparison — feuding factions, assassination attempts, and swathes upon swathes of characters who receive no introduction… and that’s if you can even keep up with the plot!
It juggles huge eclectic casts in every story, featuring multiple tales per issue… and no numbering on any of the issues! The stories between the Prologue and Epilogue are practically standalone, telling one-off adventures with next to no continuity between them. At least, as far as I can tell! Fan-made reading orders can be found online, but following them feels just as cryptic as going in blind.

You could talk for hours on the absurdity of Deathmate‘s execution, and people have — so much so that you’re lucky to even find out what the contents are like. But how is Deathmate: Black relevant to our interests?

In this universe, X-O Manowar, Mother May I and Superstar (from Image’s Cyberforce and Valiant’s H.A.R.D. Corps respectively) are tyrannical villains, ruling over St. Louis with an iron fist — that and power suppressors, preventing fellow super-powered individuals from taking a stand. That is, until Gen 13 attack the suppressors and raid Mother May’s transport, aiming to capture her and disrupt the balance of power.

Those three aren’t the only heads of St. Louis, however — they have the WildC.O.R.P. at their disposal, composed of Ballistic, Ripclaw, and the Valiant one himself, Turok! He and Ripclaw are spiritual brothers, and, uh, they certainly take after one another. Turok ditches the jeans and jacket for a red domino mask, a techno headset and… some kind of chrome muscle shirt? It’s… definitely a look, and one that fits in with the outrageous Image-brand cozzies. I had to double-check there wasn’t a Deathmate toyline, because it looks tailor-made for an action figure.

image from sparkleplentyauctions
I should mention although this issue is absent from Upper Deck’s Deathmate trading card line, there was a promotional card (presumedly offered in the pages of Wizard) drawn by Mike Leeke depicting Turok in a slightly different outfit, dropping the goggles for a simple headband. It’s coloured in hues more fitting to his outdoorsy brand, but there’s something to be said for the outrageous blue, red, gold and brown colour scheme he’s got going on otherwise.

In any case, they fight back against the Gen 13 forces, but only one of them is truly a pawn of the Troika — Ripclaw finds virtue in their attackers’ actions, letting their leader escape and is distraught to see those they’ve captured slaughtered like cattle. To Turok, this is as good as betrayal.

Group leader Hotshot sentences Ripclaw to death, but Turok opts to fight him one-on-one. “Custom demands that I fight Ripclaw alone. It must be settled according to the laws of the Tribal nations!” Oof.
I should mention these two are paired up because Ripclaw is also a Native American, though every bio I can find just amounts to “he might be Apache, who knows.” It doesn’t seem like it’s a key part of his character, but more an excuse for him to talk about old rites and blood brothers nonsense. Would a white character get away with that kind of stuff? I mean, Ripclaw’s white — like, literally? But– ugh. Moving on.

The two duel, but Turok lands what appears to be the killing blow — an explosive arrow that leaves nothing but Ripclaw’s severed hand. Their ideologies may have separated them, but killing a brother doesn’t make it any easier… which is good, because Ripclaw actually survived, falling down a sinkhole where he met up with Voodoo, joined her in Gen 13, and is now helping them launch a strike against the Troika citadel!

Turok’s there to greet them, taking down fellow intruder Maul in only three shots, before facing off with Voodoo. He quickly gets the upper hand and has the perfect opportunity to lay the killing blow… but something feels off about this. Is it the right thing to do? Was his “noble but misguided brother” Ripclaw right this whole time? Has his adherence to duty and warrior’s honour clouded his perception of justice?

Well, he’ll never know, because Ballistic shows up and blows his guts open. Bye bye, Turok.

The fight wages on and the heroes overthrow Troika, vaporising all but three characters, before Prophet shows up to remind everyone that this story didn’t matter, the real battle that determines the fate of the universe is still to come in Deathmate: Epilogue!
… oh, and even the fate of the universe doesn’t matter because it was an alternate reality, or a figment of imagination, or something. Only Geomancer and the poor readers who spent twenty dollars to read all this have to live with the knowledge of what happened.

Deathmate: Black certainly delivers on blood and carnage, but the endless cacophony of dynamic panels and expository dialogue made my brain feel like it’s been through a blender. Every issue of Deathmate seems to throw you in the deep end, presenting a lofty carnage-strewn setting and a dozen characters to keep track of, making you feel like you’ve walked into the middle of a story arc.
No, that’s just how it is.
The constant murmurings of past battles and political upheaval may allude to similar-but-different events in both companies’ lore, but are only relevant to the events of that issue, and that issue alone. Once you acknowledge that, you can happily care a whole lot less.

from Previews Vol. 2 No. 5 (May 1993)
Despite its grand ambitions, Deathmate serves as an unfortunate relic of its time, and is still a haunting visage in the comics scene for a number of reasons, not just the fact there’s probably mountains of unsold copies still lurking out there. There’s all manner of horror stories associated with the ordeal, from late releases to tardy artists to even shocking omissions: you score an Image crossover and you don’t get Spawn?! There’s all manner of drama involved, and you can read all about it on other sites: you don’t need a johnny-come-lately like myself to regurgitate it for you.

The foolish optimist in me thinks there’s merit in the core concepts of Deathmate, of either a simple Image/Valiant crossover or the “Days of Future Past” approach they took. The prologue issue feels like an earnest extension of the Solar: Man of the Atom comic, one that maintains its sense of cosmic grandiose and human failings… but to carry that vibe when juggling a dozen different franchises would just be an ordeal. The Deathmate Tourbook proposes fans of either property might take a shine to characters they’d otherwise never be exposed to…

… but not only do the stories never slow down to let you appreciate any of its players, the culture clash is just too hard to overcome. Judging from forum threads and retrospective videos, Valiant fans look at the Image issues and are repulsed at the senseless action and tenuous grasp on anatomy, while Image fans look at the Valiant issues and scoff at its overwrought characters and flat art, regarding them as “your grandpap’s comics” in the words of Cartoonist Kayfabe. The audiences are just so scathingly disparate that even if the material wasn’t an oppressively jumbled mess, it has all the crossover potential of pop tarts and porridge.

At least Turok got a few pages to himself. That’s more than he’ll get in all future crossover events!

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