Sunday, November 7, 2021

Forgotten Superheroes (vol.6): Ravage 2099 (pt 2)

(Sept. 1993)

When we last left the fallen bureaucrat turned-ecological avenger Paul-Philip Ravage, he'd escaped from Hellrock with his humanity intact, recruited Tiana (former secretary and Strong Female Deuteragonist) and Dack (recently orphaned Pint Sized Plucky Black Kid Sidekick), and broke into Eco Central to steal a digital disc containing detailed evidence of Alchemax's wrongdoing. 

What's next for this ragtag band of outlaws, brought together by fate? Will they remain on the run, fending off Alchemax's armored goons and high-tech assassins as they wage a covert war of sabotage and propaganda against the odious megacorporation?

You'd think so. This was the spike for which Ravage 2099 co-creators Stan Lee and Paul Ryan set up the book's successors, Pat Mills and Tony Skinner—who were also writing Punisher 2099 at the time. (There's a slim chance you recognize Mills from his involvement in the long-running British science-fiction anthology comic 2000 AD, probably best known for its recurring character Judge Dredd.) All Mills and Skinner had to do was survey Ravage's trajectory over the course of eight tightly plotted issues and harness the book's momentum to everyone's mutual advantage.

Instead, they elected to start again from scratch.


ACT 2: PAT MILLS, TONY SKINNER & GRANT MIEHM¹


At the beginning of issue #9, we're told via narration that Ravage fell ill after escaping from Eco Central. Since then he's been cared for by the Barrio decreds (as in de-credited), an off-the-grid community of the disenfranchised that practices a folk religion based on twentieth-century superheroes. The Barrio was introduced in Punisher 2099; possibly Mills and Skinner brought in characters from their other book as a convenient means of satisfying a demand of the plot without having to brainstorm new characters, but it's more likely that Marvel 2099 editor Joey Cavalieri encouraged them to do it. For all the problems of the Marvel 2099 line that prevented any individual titles but Spider-Man 2099 and maybe Doom 2099 (but only the Warren Ellis issues) from getting flushed out of the comics world's collective memory, the experiment's success establishing a sense of continuity in a shared world over a very short amount of publication-time deserves more credit than it usually gets.²

But we've gone off track here.

When Ravage regains consciousness in the Barrio shantytown, every wound on his body has closed up and every scar has healed—so no more snazzy cybernetic eyepatch. His lifeforce-fueled fire hands have burned out, too. In short order, Dack tells him it's been fun, but now that he's had time to think things over, he realizes he's probably too young to be an anticapitalist guerilla fighter. Tiana walks out too, grousing about how she wants to be the Strong Female Lead in her own story instead of taking the role of second banana in a man's.

Also, our hero has turned into a monster.

As it happens, the gene therapy Ravage received on Hellrock didn't prevent the radiation and poisons from mutating him, but set his metamorphosis on a different course. Rather than devolving into a pukey Mutroid, he somehow reverted to a cryptid ancestor of Homo sapiens: a beast-man with horns, claws, fangs, heightened senses, superhuman strength, and a healing factor.³ The fire hands? Erm, hmm...maybe that was just an outward manifestation of his metamorphosis in its first stages? Don't worry about it. The book has moved on and so should we.

You noticed that Tiana suggests Ravage not worry about the Alchemax disc. That might as well be advice for the reader, too. Though the next several issues bring up the disc from time to time, Ravage never puts its supposedly explosive contents to much use. It's no longer important.

What's become of the antagonists Lee arrayed against his new hero? Well: Deathstryk is shrinking in the rearview mirror. Mutroids are only mentioned as part of the exposition for Ravage's soft-rebooted origin story, and Eco goons suddenly refer to Hellrock as "Biozone One"—which we might read as an authorial or editorial step towards bringing Ravage's corner of 2099 AD into conformity with the rest of the line. A little less fantastical and a little more high-tech hypercapitalist dystopia.

Meanwhile, Anderthorp Henton—Ravage's original nemesis and erstwhile boss, who appeared in nearly every issue of the book during Lee's run—gets executed by his boss and replaced by Daryl King, the Fearmaster. If you've ever read Punisher 2099 (and you probably should), you might recognize him as Jake Gallows' bête noire. He appears in Ravage 2099 strictly in the capacity of a moonlighter, but it's another instance of how quickly and efficiently the Marvel 2099 books made clear to readers that each serial was part of a larger picture.   

Stan Lee had a lot of enthusiasm for the Marvel 2099 concept—after all, he elected to write one of its inaugural titles—but lacked a firm grasp of the concept of cyberpunk as it had developed in popular fiction. Henton, however, adhered to genre convention by being an untouchable corporate mogul who spent his leisure time cavorting in virtual reality simulations with drugged-up floozies. To somebody reading Ravage 2099 three decades later, Henton must be its most believable character: a literal comic book caricature, sure, but familiar enough to our twenty-first-century sensibilities not to register as an awkward artifact of the past. The flamboyant Fearmaster, on the other hand, comes across as very dated. Very nineties.

Under Lee's pen, Ravage 2099 was an odd crossbreed of Silver and Bronze Age comics. Although the book outwardly followed the fashions of the era that gave us Spawn, Knightfall, and Rob Liefeld, having Stan Lee at the helm prevented it from fully getting caught up in the tide of the moment. Lee rode the wave as best he could—I mean, he gave the name "Deathstryk" to one of its villains and had his hero shooting to kill—but it just wasn't his style.

As the authors of the 1990s' campiest grimdark superhero book (i.e., Punisher 2099), Mills and Skinner don't have that problem—if we're calling it a problem. Probably we shouldn't. At any rate, after Stan Lee takes his leave from Ravage 2099, it becomes a full-on purebred Nineties Superhero Comic: grim, gritty, gauche, growly.

Although the book becomes practically unrecognizable from its beginnings under Stan Lee once Mills and Skinner flip the place and get settled, its protagonist retains his distinctive gimmick: atavism. Whereas Lee told a story about about a polished, patrician bureau chief embracing a rude junkyard dog persona in rejection of his old allegiances, Mills and Skinner take the concept to an extreme. Ravage's regression to "savagery" no longer consists of dressing like a palette-swapped Snake Plissken and speaking in a phonetic transcription of colloquial English, but turning into a hairy prehistoric beast-bro and monologuing about the conflicted double consciousness of a civilized man who's also sometimes a wild animal for whom instinct is more reliable than intellect and the niceties of society are inane superfluities. (Deep!)

Ravage is become an expy werewolf, referred to by the media and corporate memoranda as "The Beast." He can switch from one form to another at will, though he's slower to revert back to human than to explode into Beast Mode. Too bad that both versions of Ravage are wanted criminals: Alchemax's espionage charges against him haven't gone away.

When Paul-Philip seeks refuge with his family, Mills and Skinner retcon his backstory we learn he was a corporate scion prior to embarking on a career at Eco Central. The Ravage family owns Green Globe PLC, an utterly generic corporation whose business model is anybody's guess.⁴ (They seem to be involved in finance to some degree?) Apparently Green Globe is a private company, since the shareholder meetings we're shown consist only of members of clan Ravage. That's probably the only explanation as any as to why Alchemax or Stark-Fujikawa haven't already bought them out and liquidated their asses. Er, assets.

In any event, Paul-Philip's father promises he can make his legal troubles disappear, and hands him the company reins. As Green Globe's new CEO, Ravage can now go about blackening Alchemax's eyes nice and legally by competing with them. In theory, anyway. Actually, the book rather forgets about Alchemax after the Fall of the Hammer crossover. (More about that in a sec.) Instead, Ravage directs his attention to Synthia, a warped mirror of McDonald's that sells addictive, nutrition-free hamburgers produced by seeding clouds with airborne bacteria and harvesting the sludge. 

The woman who looks disgusted by the father-son handshake is Ravage's sister, Miranda, whose aspirations of taking control of Green Globe abruptly sank with her brother's reappearance. Family drama and sibling rivalry become a minor subplot during this arc, as Miranda and her ambitious fiancé Alec scheme to oust him from the company. It's...well, it's something that happens in this book, that's for sure.

Jeez. Summarizing and composing snappy commentary about Ravage 2099's second act ain't easy. Mills and Skinner have written a dreadfully dull serial with no real main arc to give the narrative direction and thrust. It's all subplots. In this respect it resembles their other book—but Punisher 2099 is so batshit crazy that you can't help being entertained in spite of the plot doing the drunk man's walk for most of its run. This stretch of Ravage 2099, on the other hand, takes itself a mite too seriously. In a comic about a progressive CEO who turns into a monster and mauls other bigwigs who aren't so committed to social responsibility, even a modicum of restraint and reflection probably goes too far.    

There you have it: that's the status quo of Ravage 2099 for about a year of publication-time. By day, Paul-Philip Ravage serves as Green Globe's chief executive, trying to keep the family business ethical and honest without inhibiting its ability to compete in a cutthroat market. By night, he stalks the city as The Beast, threatening the executives of the unscrupulous, plundering Synthia corporation to change their ways, and then murdering them when they refuse. Every now and then a supervillain shows up—usually some manner of corporate killer robot, enhanced assassin, or genetically tricked-out maniac—and Ravage fights them while monologuing about The Way of the Beast in the narration boxes.

Even though editor Cavalieri spares no effort in drawing the continuity of the Marvel 2099 line into a coherent narrative composite, the authors of these books bring very different attitudes to the concept of comic heroes in a dystopic world of tomorrow. Peter David's Spider-Man 2099 and John Francis Moore's Doom 2099 and X-Men 2099 give the impression of having drawn inspiration from Blade Runner, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson novels, and maybe Akira. Mills and Skinner's vision of the future, however, takes after the cynical satire of Robocop and Demolition Man. Ravage might live in the same world as Miguel O'Hara, but life in his New York is somewhat...kookier.

Animal products in 2099

Psychology in 2099

Agriculture in 2099

Agriculture in 2099 (cont.)

Cuisine in 2099

Fundamentalist terrorism in 2099 ("GROW YA OWN EAT WELL")

Religious marriage ceremonies in 2099

Population control in 2099

Nunchucks in 2099

The only other thing that warrants mention from these issues of Ravage 2099 is its intersection with The Fall of the Hammer, Marvel 2099's first and only linewide crossover.⁵ Nobody will ever rediscover and hail the event as a forgotten masterpiece (it's not exactly brilliant), but we can read it as an indicator of the state of the Marvel 2099 experiment around the time of its one-year anniversary, and of the complexion of mainstream American comics circa 1993.

We should probably go over what The Fall of the Hammer event is all about, and try to be quick about it.

In 2099, the Barrio community and small popular cults revere the memory of figures from the "Lost Age of Heroes," like Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, etc. After the cascading complications of corporate foul play result in Miguel O'Hara having his DNA spliced with a spider's and putting on an old Dia de los Muertos jumpsuit and mask to conceal his identity from an Alchemax bounty hunter, New York's downtrodden hail him as a prophet. Over the following weeks, and completely by coincidence, Jake Gallows inherits Frank Castle's diaries and adopts the name and mission of the Punisher, Dr. Doom resurfaces in Latveria, and rumors circulate of a beast-man who protects the Barrio from corporate crackdowns. Society's lower echelons shudder with anticipation of a New Age of Heroes that will bring liberation from the tyrannical oligarchy that has the world in its stranglehold.


Sounds a little self-congratulatory, doesn't it? Sales of the Marvel 2099 line had already begun to dip, but apparently nobody involved with the books was worried about it. Judging from the in-world rhetoric about a dawning renaissance of superheroics, the creative teams and editors must have felt pretty bullish about the future of the project. Maybe the books couldn't match the numbers of the various X-Men and Spider-Man monthlies, but as long as Marvel was riding high, the company could continue to subsidize a few niche titles. After all, it wasn't as though the comics industry in the United States was sitting on top of a speculative bubble on the verge of bursting, right...?

The members of Alchemax's board of directors regard these portents with dismay. A resurgence of superheroes endangers their authority and credibility. Assembled by Alchemax's reclusive CEO, the malevolent Avatarr (yeah I know it's stupid), the company's executives confer on an appropriate response. Should they launch a sweeping PR campaign to burnish their image and persuade the public of the hazards of vigilantism? Reform their business practices? Have the heroes discreetly assassinated?

Of course not. That's thinking too small. Alchemax responds to the crisis by constructing an enormous floating city, populating it with members of the Church of Thor (2099's most populous religious domination), and using alien nanotech to convert ordinary humans into facsimiles of the absent Asgardian gods to live among the faithful in the new "Valhalla" and perform superheroics on the ground to divert attention from the undesirable do-gooders. And also to have their proprietary Aesir kill the new heroes when they inevitably get involved. And also to intentionally build a flaw into Valhalla that will cause it to fall out of the sky and devastate a swath New York for some reason. 

I began to type something about how utterly convoluted and unbelievable this is, even for a comic book plot—but then it occurred to me that if Elon Musk tweeted his intention to do precisely the same thing, I wouldn't bat an eye, and legions of weird nerds would be up all night blasting detractors for daring to suggest the plan will result in anything other than a boon for humanity and a windfall for shareholders.


Seeing the new heroes of the Marvel 2099 line banding together for the first time and struggling against a common danger, one wonders how many readers in 1993 considered what a bizarre pantheon of popular idols these people make. Miguel O'Hara might be a Spider-Man, but decidedly isn't of the "friendly neighborhood" variety. Homicidal sadist Jake Gallows makes Frank Castle look well-adjusted. Ravage tears cops and businessmen to shreds. Doom is Doctor friggin' Doom. The X-Men are a desert commune following a charismatic leader with messianic pretensions. Whether we read this as gauge of the general brutality and depravity of the world in 2099 or of the degree to which purveyors of superhero serials were convinced that big bucks were to be made in selling the grim and gritty, cool but rude antihero archetype, we're probably right.

The Fall of the Hammer does little to alter the course of Ravage 2099's overarching plot (such as it may be), although it does restore Tiana to relevance. Paul-Philip's former secretary, yearning to become a Strong Female Protagonist, signs on to become Alchemax's new Hela. After the grafting procedure is complete, Tiana talks like Hela, thinks like Hela, has some manner of spooky death powers like Hela, and gets the usual suite of unaided flight, super strength, and enhanced durability.


Earmarked to fight and kill Ravage on Valhalla, Tiana/Hela brawls with him for a few pages, until the man she once loved plays the hoary old "if you want to kill me, I'll let you kill me" mind trick. In a crisis of hesitation, Tiana realizes she's perhaps not quite the Strong Female Protagonist she'd hoped to become, and flies off in tears. She escapes the Valhalla debacle alive, gets to keep her Aesir powers, and learns to control the emergence of her Hela personality. Afterwards, she returns to private life and earns a comfortable living taking commissions to fly out into the ionosphere and clear satellite debris from orbit. (If only this were the end of her story.)


This lackluster period in Ravage's career comes to an end (and not a moment too soon) after the moodiness he feels when pretending to be completely human and his increasing preference for his time in Beast Mode leads him to get careless about who sees him transform from one to the other. Eventually, his family confronts him about the allegations that he leads a double life, and he shows them his alter-ego. Everybody screams, office security is brought in, and Paul-Philip's father tries to kill him. Very poignant. Just like a Eugene O'Neill drama.

Ravage renounces his family in a rage, determines to remain permanently in Beast Mode, and flees into the city's shadows. This all goes down in issue #21. Oftentimes, a superhero comic at this point in its run would reserve a such a big change to its status quo for the "milestone" issue #25. In this case, the pivot toward a new direction couldn't possibly wait another four months.



ACT 3: PAT MILLS, TONY SKINNER & JOE BENNETT

Understanding the urgency of taking Ravage 2099 somewhere more interesting, Mills and Skinner give our hero a new goal and send him out of the city and into the provinces in issue #22. The book needs a rejuvenated sense of purpose, novel conflicts, and room for its protagonist to grow, and a change of scenery will provide ample opportunity to tick off all of these boxes.

Also, they figure that Ravage ought to give up the avenging were-beast routine and become the Incredible Hulk instead.

NEXT: It gets weird.


1. Just for the sake of giving credit where it's due, a couple of the excerpted panels here were penciled by José Delbo, who filled in for Paul Ryan on issues #8 and #9 before Grant Miehm took over.

2. It's said that the Marvel 2099 writers appreciated Cavalieri and loved working with him so much that when he was laid off in 1996—the year of the Great Comics Crash—Peter David, Warren Ellis, and others all quit their books in protest. The knowledge that they were on a sinking ship must have been a factor, too.

3. Ravage's ability to shrug off a barrage of gunfire, walk away after getting run over by a train, and survive having his flesh burned off predates Wolverine's. It wasn't until the 2000s that X-Men writers began treating Logan's mutant power less as speedy wound healing and more as a de facto invincibility factor—though I somehow doubt that Ravage 2099 was their inspiration.

4. The use of the PLC (public limited company) designation is how we know Mills and Skinner are from the UK, even if we've never glanced at their Wikipedia pages. Wonder how Marvel 2099 editor Cavalieri didn't catch this.

5. Issue #15, containing The Fall of the Hammer's second chapter, is the only issue of Ravage 2099 that can be purchased for digital viewing on ComiXology. Presumably it appears less for the sake of commemorating Marvel 2099's sole crossover than for filling a gap that would otherwise exist in the chronology of Spider-Man 2099. (Thirty-three of its forty-six issues are currently available for digital purchase.)

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