Saturday, November 6, 2021

Forgotten Superheroes (vol.6): Ravage 2099 (pt 1)

Some years back, I went on an intense but incomplete Marvel 2099 binge, revisiting X-Men 2099 and reading Doom 2099, X-Nation 2099, and 2099: Manifest Destiny for the first time. It was a mixed bag, and filled with more coal than diamonds, sure, but the experience only deepened my affection for Marvel Comics' brief-lived stint at coordinated cyberpunk worldbuilding. Later on, I checked out Peter David's excellent Spider-Man 2099 and Pat Mills and Tony Skinner's satirically over-the-top Punisher 2099.¹ Like every 2099 title, their endings left a lot to be desired—but that's to be expected when an entire line of serials is suddenly and simultaneously cancelled.

I've held my nose and read 2099: World of Tomorrow in its bleak entirety. I've skimmed the pages of Ghost Rider 2099, and briefly glanced at the adventures of John Eisenhart in 2099 Unlimited and Hulk 2099. But until recently, I hadn't the nerve to explore what I understood to be one of the Marvel 2099 world's most fraught territories.

(December 1992)

So I finally checked out Ravage 2099.² I think I'm glad I did, because it's got to be one of the damned strangest capeshit comics to come out of the 1990s. I am writing this overview of the series for two reasons. First: in case somebody ever punches "ravage 2099" into a search engine and isn't satisfied with the glancing treatment in Wikipedia/Fandom articles and potboiler summaries by CBR freelancers, they'll find a somewhat better resource if they scroll the results long enough.

Second: I'm seriously weirded out by this comic book, and maybe writing about it will help me get over it.

Ravage 2099 stands alone in the Marvel 2099 line in that its eponymous protagonist doesn't take after a present-day (circa 1993) Marvel hero. Whereas Spider-Man 2099, Doom 2099, Hulk 2099, and X-Men 2099 feature future-shifted versions of Stan Lee originals, Paul-Philip Ravage is a Stan Lee original. That's right: Ravage 2099 is one of the last monthly books Lee ever wrote, and Ravage one of the last Marvel characters he had a hand in creating (with artist Paul Ryan).³ 

Lee's scripting the first eight issues of Ravage 2099 shouldn't necessarily be understood as a master of the comics medium sharpening his pencil and showing the kids how it's done. What we have here is an early nineties comic in a cyberpunk collection written by a seventy-year-old man who didn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Digging into the book thirty years after its publication, one finds an immiscible mixture of the gritty/edgy/shaggy antiheroism that infested early 1990s superhero comics with Silver Age dialogue, exposition, and nomenclature ("MONSTROUS MUTROIDS!") that would have already seemed antiquated to the young reader who plucked Ravage 2009 #1 fresh from the spinner rack.

I would have many more unkind things to say about the awkward anachronism of Ravage 2099 if, after browsing the book's first arc again, I could be entirely convinced it wasn't deliberate.


"Who's there?" begins Shakespeare's Hamlet. Melville's Moby-Dick introduces itself with the words "Call me Ishmael."

"POLLUTER! HALT AND SUBMIT!" reads the first word bubble in Ravage 2099. This is starting about as well as can be expected.

As the book opens, a man flees from a cyber SWAT team that eventually guns down. "Polluter punished without prejudice,"[??] the goons report back to HQ. Their boss is Paul-Philip Ravage, head of Eco.

Like any proper cyberpunk setting, Marvel 2099's United States has only a nominal government, and is really controlled by monopolistic megacorporations, the most powerful of which is Alchemax. Eco, an agency bankrolled by Alchemax, acts as a sort of pollution police.

I'll bet you already have questions. So what kind of polluters does Eco go after? Litterers? People who don't sort their recyclables? Diner managers who don't properly dispose of their used grease? Maybe? This isn't ever really explored. "DOUBLE THE CHEMICALS," the corrupt corporate villain tells a lackey in issue #7 after the investigative journalist is out of the room. So I guess the sort of thing Eco-Central deals with is industrial waste, since the script never brings up plastic straws and we never see anyone getting gunned down for flicking a cigarette butt into a storm drain.

If you're looking for astute commentary on the purported zero-sum game between
economic prosperity and ecological stewardship, boy are you in the wrong place.

Obviously the biggest hazard to the environment is Alchemax itself—a corporation that makes Amazon look like a mom-and-pop bookshop and has "chem" in its name, for Pete's sake. The only way this premise would make a lick of sense would be if Alchemax installed Paul-Philip on the basis that he's too dumb to ever wonder if maybe the cadre of capitalists who control everything might be the ones responsible for producing the toxic runoff he's charged with investigating.

And, well, that is indeed the case. When an incredulous Paul-Philip hears that the polluters who always seemed to get killed by Eco Patrol goons before they can be questioned are actually corporate whistleblowers trying to expose Alchemax's crimes against the environment, he pays his boss Mr. Henton a visit and relates the totally idiotic and unbelievable story some punk just told him.

"He told me I'm a clueless figurehead and Eco is just a PR smokescreen that sacrifices convenient scapegoats in order to convince a stultified public that Alchemax isn't a bunch of rapacious capitalists despoiling the planet for their own gain. Isn't that just the silliest thing you ever heard, Mr. Henton?" (Not actual dialogue.) "Ha ha! Isn't it? Mr. Henton?"⁴

Henton decides Paul-Philip asks too many questions and must be dealt with...permanently. He puts in a call to Hellrock (more on that in a minute) and summons a Mutroid (more on them in a minute) to visit Paul-Philip in his office at night.

"I BRING YOU PAYMENT," the radioactive abomination says (actual dialogue), reaching into his coat and producing a parcel. "FOR SECRETLY HELPING US, THE LEGIONS OF HELLROCK, TO POLLUTE THE WORLD!"

What's in the parcel, anyway? Paper money isn't used in 2099 anymore. Maybe it's a stack of stolen credit cards or something. Why am I analyzing this?

To be serious just for one moment: even though Ravage 2099 reflects the popular concern for the environment that began ramping up during the 1980s, Stan Lee clearly finds himself out of his depth in trying to work the topic into a comic book. Of the two major villains he introduces in his "green" superhero book, one is a corporate fat cat who thinks of ecological damage as so many receipts for making a profit, while the other (whom we'll meet shortly) schemes to use toxic pollutants as an instrument of domination and genocide. Neither substantiates Ravage 2099's astroturfed reputation as a "political" comic book. 

The warlord Deathstryk would feel right at home on an episode of Captain Planet—the ludicrously bad kids' cartoon that taught a cohort of little couch potatoes that blame for the environmental crisis fell on a small rogue's gallery of malignant jerks who got their kicks from despoiling the planet, and made a muddleheaded effort to "raise awareness" and "empower" through cheaply animated superheroics, stultifying platitudes, and mixed messages. And Henton, presented as a corporate eco-criminal, reflects reality as accurately an East Asian communist villain with a Fu Manchu mustache appearing in a Silver Age comic. His "DOUBLE THE CHEMICALS" line is exactly as much information as we ever get with regard to Alchemax's environmental malpractice. What, exactly, are those chemicals being used to manufacture? Who's buying it? What's it used for? I mean—a comic book plot about, say, rainforest deforestation would just be a grotesque caricature of an actual and fairly urgent social quandary if it didn't at least touch upon the economic dynamics that drive slash and burn agriculture, right?

We probably shouldn't expect superhero comic books to address Serious Social Issues—but like any savvy sector of the culture industry, authors and editors are sensitive to what's trendy, even if what's trendy is discourse and sentiments regarding a complicated political problem they don't really understand, and for which their books are poorly formatted to handle except in the most perfunctory manner.⁵ Ravage 2099 imitates the noises of 1990s environmentalism movement the same way Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? tried to package the sounds and styles of 1960s counterculture. If either movement was really about something, you'd sure never guess it from consuming the comics and cartoons wearing the superficial tokens of its ethos.

Moving along, though.

Despite Paul-Philip protesting that he'd "never help a murderous Mutroid" (actual dialogue), an Eco squadron bursts in to execute him for betraying mankind and conspiring with Hellrock. Watching remotely as an unarmed Paul-Philip solos the entire squad, Henton resorts to plan B and detonates a bomb planted in the office. Paul-Philip grabs his trusty secretary Tiana by the waist and daringly leaps out the window just in time. Grabbing hold of one of the conveniently placed ledges that urban architecture in superhero comics practically bristles with, Paul-Philip pulls himself and Tiana to safety and the pair makes their escape.

Paul-Philip is disillusioned. Paul-Philip is angry. Paul-Philip has an origin story to consummate.

He sneaks out into the night and raids a junkyard for supplies: metal plating for makeshift armor, an old hubcap for a buckler, a lead pipe for a club and a chain for a whip, cogs for shurikens, barbed wire because nineties, and an antique garbage truck for a ride.

"I used to think violence was the last resort of a savage!" Ravage monologues. "I still do! But when the world's a jungle, the savage takes over!"

I take back what I said about Stan Lee earlier. Ravage 2099 #1 shows that the old man knew what he was doing. This guy made his career in the 1960s by composing the newsprint and dot-color analogue to the synthesized pop hook. The obviousness of the artifice and silliness of the concepts and dialogue notwithstanding, Lee's formula works. This is a tight and effective first issue. It's total schlock, sure—but if I didn't want schlock, I wouldn't be reading superhero comics. If my mother bought me this at a newsstand in 1992, I'd be on the lookout for issue #2.⁶

In his rebirth as an anti-corporate ecological revenger, Ravage embraces a kind of junkyard warrior atavism. He loses the business suit, unbinds his ponytail, and speaks more coarsely than before. Let's please not pay attention to how the new Ravage's emphatically "savage" speech patterns—elidin' present-continuous verbs, condensin' "you ain't" into "y'aint," n' jus' usin' other kinds o' improper English when he's talkin' atcha—make his word balloons look awfully similar to those of his Pint Sized Plucky Black Kid Sidekick, Dack. No, let's not.

Atavism is Ravage's one consistent gimmick. The other three titles that launched the Marvel 2099 line along with Ravage 2099 featured a cyberpunk Spider-Man, a cyberpunk Dr. Doom, and a cyberpunk Punisher—legacy properties given high-tech makeovers and dystopic recontextualizations. The original character of the bunch happens to be the man of the future who reinvents himself as a throwback to a less civliized era. It's just too cute not to have been deliberate. And to have his book written by somebody whose authorial sensibilities remained in the Silver Age? It's perfect. Just perfect.

So now this is where we follow Ravage as he wages a one-man guerilla war against Alchemax, right?  Mad Max versus the MegaCorps, right? Fighting the power, right?

Nah. Stan Lee sticks to what he knows.

Let's talk about Hellrock.

"Continent of Evil" will later be retconned as "garbage island somewhere off the East Coast."

Hellrock is the home of the Mutroids, a brutal society of former humans who were mutated into misshapen horrors and sexy freakgirls by the toxic environment. As established in Punisher 2099, prisons no longer exist in the world of the future—so Eco-Central has a policy of exiling polluters (the ones it doesn't execute on the spot, anyway) to Hellrock in the interest of poetic justice, I guess.⁷

The draconian ruler of Hellrock is the mighty and painfully nineties Deathstryk, who can kill with a single touch and has resolved to wipe out humanity ("the normals") by either killing them outright or feeding them Hellrock's signature brand pollution and turning them into Mutroids.

While Ravage energetically digs through a garbage dump in order to effect his makeover, Deathstryk is idly mucking about with a chess set when his second-in-command, the prophetic Seeress, pays him a visit.

Wasn't I just saying something about a Fu Manchu mustache...?

"You're saying that this man I've never met and who has no conceivable reason to come here will one day become my greatest foe?" Deathstryk answers the Seeress when she repeats the warning in issue #2 (not actual dialogue). "Heck, why wait? Let's kidnap his faithful secretary and make an enemy of him right now!"

You know what? My hat's off to Stan Lee. That's just efficient plotting.

Deathstryk pulls some strings with Alchemax (naturally, they're all in cahoots) to have an Eco Patrol nab Tiana and put her on a one-way helicopter ride to Hellrock. Ravage stows aboard an Alchemax drone sub in pursuit and makes his way inland, mowing down droves of lumbering mooks like a proper antihero of the 1990s. His daring rescue attempt hits a bump when Deathstryk strips Tiana of her radiation-shielded gear. But Deathstryk is a sporting chap, and allows Ravage to take hold of Tiana and gives them a few minutes' head start as they flee.

Having dressed Tiana his own rad suit and escorted her back to the dock, Ravage stuffs her back into the drone sub—which, as luck would have it, is programmed to leave Hellrock in just a few minutes. The intelligent thing for Ravage to do at this point would be to park his ass in the sub with her and put some distance between himself and the radioactive island teeming with monsters who want his blood. But the heroic thing to do would be to send Tiana off by herself while he battles against impossible odds and slowly succumbs to radiation poisoning. Guess which he chooses?

I don't think that's how radiation poisoning works, Stan.

Wait. If Tiana's going to be picked up by a manned Alchemax "mother ship" vessel, won't the crew recognize her and just send her back to Hellrock?

Sorry, sorry. Sometimes I forget that it's schlock and you enjoy it less when you ask questions.

In case you're worried, I won't be summarizing all of Ravage 2099 in this much detail. But in order to appreciate just how far off the rails this book eventually goes, it helps to get an idea of the track it was originally on.

Ravage proves more than capable of fending off the packs of Mutroids hunting him across the island, but the environmental toxins take their toll. He finds an unexpected benefactor in a Mutroid named Ursell, a reclusive former scientist warped into a bug-like creature. Dragging Ravage into a secret underground laboratory, Ursell attempts to save him through gene therapy.

The treatment works—Ravage recovers and gains an immunity to Hellrock's poisons—but there are some unexpected side-effects.

Oho! It appears Ravage's origin story wasn't quite resolved after all! He had his shattering revelation, his momentous decision, and his hero makeover—but what he still didn't have yet was his own super power. Now his hand coruscate with Raw Kinetic Energy! Ursell fits Ravage with a pair of Special Molecular Gloves that will keep the flames in check, but warns that they'll only hold out for about an hour. Unless Ravage can muster the will to Control The Power in sixty minutes—with a Mutroid death squad hot on his trail—his flames will surely destroy him, along with anything else he touches!

...Looks like Stan Lee's losing the plot of his own book, doesn't it? (Note: that part about the control gloves giving out after sixty minutes? Totally forgotten by the next issue.)

My best guess as to why Lee determined that his scrappy, resourceful junkyard brawler needed Hands of Death in addition to everything else is that perhaps he looked over to Mills and Skinner's Punisher 2099 and got a little antsy about two of the four Marvel 2099 books featuring heroes without superpowers. Two vigilante types who get by with guns, fisticuffs, and blunt weapons? How will readers be able to tell the difference? One of them ought to have uncontrollable atomic fire hands.

Or maybe Paul Ryan just really wanted to draw Ravage shooting energy blasts, and Lee was happy to indulge him. I have no idea.

Now our new Hero of Tomorrow has his origin story, his costume, his mission, his arch nemesis, and his super powers. But there's still one thing missing. Something he needs to really set his face apart from the other men of action on the comic book rack...

Et voilà! A cybernetic eyepatch! Now we've got a Marvel Super Hero for the ages!

After escaping from Hellrock, Ravage's next adventure has him busting into New Atlantis with Dack in order to rescue Tiana from the sinister science of The Fishmen! Because why not?

Seven issues in, Marvel 2099's premiere green hero's got his origin story, his motivation, his costume, his superpowers, a burgeoning rogue's gallery of corporate polluters and toxic waste monsters, a cybernetic eyepatch, and an entourage: Dack (Pint Sized Plucky Black Kid Sidekick) and Tiana (Action Babe/Damsel In Distress/Former Love Interest/But Is She Really Over Him?). It's all coming together, isn't it?

All that remains in order to bring the book's first arc to a close is a return to Alchemax HQ to confront the corrupt executive who conspired with Hellrock to frame Ravage. While Henton mutters a thinly veiled threat about the emergence of new superheroes being a top agenda item at the next board meeting, Ravage and friends escape under fire with a classified CD-ROM disc containing detailed evidence of Alchemax's malfeasance.


So far we've looked at Ravage 2099 issues #1 through #8. Stan Lee is billed as writer in issues #1 through #7. In issue #8, only the plot is attributed to Lee, while credit for the script is given to Mills and Skinner, co-authors of Punisher 2099. In issue #9, sole writing credit goes to Mills and Skinner (who will stay on until issue #32 of 33), while penciller José Delbo fills in for Paul Ryan. Grant Miehm will become the regular artist as of issue #10, and will stay on for the next year's worth of issues.

I can't say why Lee passed the book off to another team. Had he intended from the start to limit himself to the work of setting up the new property? Did he realize that writing a monthly serial wasn't as much fun as he remembered? Maybe his other obligations prevented him from committing the time and attention he felt the book needed? [Postscript: according to an interview with Paul Ryan on, the third theory is the correct one.]

Anyway, this is common practice in the American comic book industry. Happens all the time. Sometimes the editors feel like a book needs to be taken in a new direction; sometimes the creative talent wants to move on to a different project. Typically, comic writers inheriting a title from another creative team take care to ensure a smooth transition in which the characters remain consistent and the ongoing plot grows organically from what came before. However, some change is to be expected.

After taking over Ravage 2099, Mills and Skinner conclude that our hero needs no sidekicks weighing him down—and so they summarily write Tiana and Dack out of the book. Ravage's burning hands of destruction don't work for them, either: as of issue #9, he loses his energy powers. The cybernetic eyepatch? Nixed. Ravage's guns, clubs, and chains? They're out. Maybe they were concerned that Ravage's modus operandi was too similar to Jake Gallows' in Punisher 2099.

Also, they apparently felt the book would be much improved if Ravage gave up the cyberpunk Mad Max shtick altogether and became a werewolf instead.

...I think this is a good stopping point for today.

1. Judging from the letters page at the end of each issue, few of Punisher 2009's regular readers were in on the joke.

2. Through definitely-not-legal scans, I admit. Ravage 2099 will never be collected in a paperback or digitized for sale on Comixology. In theory, I could have tracked down all thirty-three issues and bought them used and cheap on the secondhand market, but would you? 

3. No relation to the scumbag former congressman.

4. Okay, okay, fine. If we're sticking to facts, this is actually the moment where Paul-Philip demonstrates his integrity by trying in earnest to investigate an allegation that, if proven true, will mean his entire career is a lie.

5. Conversely, socially conscientious authors of superhero rags with an understanding and passion for a social issue who use their platform to tell stories involving their cause célèbre virtually always come across as pedants or "virtue signalers." Chris Claremont was one of the few comics writers who could walk that tightrope.

6. Would I pay five or six dollars for it today? Questionable.

7. Instead of being incarcerated for twenty years, a felon simply receives an injection that takes twenty years off his life, and is then free to go. Be careful what your political slogans wish for, I guess.

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