In part five of our ongoing Marvel 2099 retrospective: Gerard Jones and Dwayne Turner debut Hulk 2099 and editor Joey Cavalieri tries to expand the Marvel 2099 line’s stylistic range with the 2099 Unlimited anthology.
Author’s Note: Click on the links below to read the Marvel 2099 retrospective columns:
- Leaving Proof 279 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 1: The Past Through Tomorrow
- Leaving Proof 280 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 2: On Spider-Man 2099 and Ravage 2099
- Leaving Proof 282 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 3: On Doom 2099 and Punisher 2099
- Leaving Proof 288 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 4: On X-Men 2099
- Leaving Proof 299 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 5: On 2099 Unlimited and Hulk 2099
- Leaving Proof 302 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 6: On Ghost Rider 2099
When seven of Marvel Comics’ most popular and highest-earning artists left the company in early 1992 to start Image Comics, not even their most enthusiastic supporters could possibly have foreseen the dramatic effect their move would have on the comics industry. Marvel Comics was left scrambling as the superstar illustrators of its X-Men and Spider-Man titles pulled up their stakes to pitch camp elsewhere, threatening to bring their legions of fans with them. While it didn’t exactly work out that way, the departure of the “Image Seven” can be considered the first toppled domino in a sequence that eventually ended with Marvel’s filing for bankruptcy protection in late 1996, an ignominious development for the company that seemed all but invincible five years earlier after blowing past all previous single-issue sales records with Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s multimillion-selling X-Men #1.
Inspired by the Image Comics founders’ overwhelming initial commercial success (critical acclaim, on the other hand, would be a long time coming), other top-flight artists associated with Marvel Comics soon began migrating to the upstart publisher to try their hand at the creator-owned comics game. One of these artists was Canadian illustrator Dale Keown, who had achieved some measure of comics fame as the penciler on The Incredible Hulk.
Keown’s contribution to Image Comics’ motley assortment of properties was something called Pitt:
No one can argue against the contention that Pitt was quite derivative of the Hulk in terms of the visual component of the character’s design. To be fair, though, Keown’s Pitt was not the first (nor the last) creator-owned comics property to take more than a little inspiration from an established Marvel superhero or supervillain—many of the early Image titles were lousy with the damn things. Pitt wasn’t even the first Hulk pastiche to appear in an Image Comics title. Maul, from Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S., was basically the Hulk: The character was a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who could transform at will into a superhumanly strong behemoth with a child-like intellect (note that Maul sported purple skin with green clothes, a reversal of the Hulk’s classic color scheme).
Still, it had to be particularly galling for Marvel’s braintrust to see perhaps the most popular Incredible Hulk artist since Sal Buscema leave the title only to make what looked like a not-substantially reimagined, off-brand version of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s gamma-powered green giant, especially when the first issue of Pitt, released with a January 1993 cover date, outsold any and all single issues of The Incredible Hulk in the Diamond Comics Distributors-served portion of the direct market that same year. Diamond ranked Pitt #1 as the 31st most preordered comic of 1993 while no issue of The Incredible Hulk even made it into the top 300 (other formerly popular Marvel titles that didn’t make Diamond’s top 300 for the year included Ghost Rider, Daredevil, New Warriors, and Guardians of the Galaxy). Outside of the perennial X-Men and Spider-Man-branded bestsellers, 1993 hit Marvel hard and was a harbinger for the bigger collapse that was to come.
Anyway, as we’ve previously established in an earlier post, the idea for the Marvel 2099 line came about way before Image Comics’ 1992 founding. The imprint wasn’t some knee-jerk response to the pressures brought upon by rapidly changing market dynamics. It was, first and foremost, an independently-motivated attempt to meld futuristic, politically-minded science-fiction with superheroes. That said, it does appear that the creation of Hulk 2099 was part of a concerted effort by Marvel Comics to go tit-for-tat with Image Comics and give its new rival a taste of its own derivative medicine. Just check out the Hulk 2099 development sketches by artist Dwayne Turner below:
(To anyone thinking that I might be reading too much into the similarities between Pitt and Hulk 2099, let me present to you Marvel’s Nightwatch, a superhero who also debuted in 1993 that bears a very striking resemblance to a certain Image Comics character created by Todd McFarlane.)
The similarities between Pitt and Hulk 2099 were largely superficial, though. The former had a rather complicated alien-human hybrid child soldier-turned-intergalactic refugee backstory, whereas the latter, for all its “extreme” 1990s design hallmarks, was still firmly rooted in the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde conceit of the Silver Age original.
Unlike previous Marvel 2099 characters, Hulk 2099 did not debut in a self-titled series. Instead, the character’s first canonical appearance was in 2099 Unlimited, an anthology series intended to spotlight preexisting Marvel 2099 characters in out-of-continuity stories and to serve as a proving ground for new Marvel 2099 creations.
2099 Unlimited #1 (cover dated July 1993) featured part one of a three-part Spider-Man 2099 story (written by Evan Skolnick with art by Chris Wozniak and Chris Ivy) paired with the inaugural instalment of the Hulk 2099 serial (story by Gerard Jones, illustrations by Dwayne Turner). The issue sold well, especially for an anthology comic (the anthology format had mostly fallen out of favor in North America by this point), eventually ranking as the 172nd most preordered comic of the year according to data from Diamond Comics Distributors.
The Hulk 2099 story dealt with a premise that would have already been familiar to readers of the other Marvel 2099 titles: a corporate-type has a life-changing violent encounter that leads him to turn against the corrupt corpocracy that he previously supported, mirroring the same basic setup for the Spider-Man 2099, Ravage 2099, and Punisher 2099 titles. Beyond this, though, Jones also connected the new Hulk (who in his human alter-ego is a media exec named John Eisenhart) with the Hulk of the earliest vintage in terms of characterization. Like the Kirby-and-Lee original, Hulk 2099 was a true antihero who could even be described as something of an occasional villain, a throwback to the time before the Hulk as it inhabited the public consciousness was overwritten by the benevolent-but-misunderstood titan popularized by the popular Incredible Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
As with the original Hulk stories, the inaugural Hulk 2099 serial’s themes exhibited something of an anarcho-primitivist bent, with narrative tension being generated by the extreme contrast between John Eisenhart, a trend-chasing effete product of (future) modern civilization, and his monstrous counterpart, the outward physical manifestation of Eisenhart’s sublimated primal self. And just like the Kirby-and-Lee original, which aspect of the protagonist was the “good side” wasn’t actually as clear-cut as it initially seemed. Yes, Bruce Banner was a brilliant, sensitive man and the Hulk was an ill-tempered brute, but the former also used his intellectual gifts to create a weapon of mass destruction, while the latter just wanted to be left alone. By a similar token, John Eisenhart was a sophisticate while his Hulk 2099 persona was savage and crude, but the former could be sleazy and manipulative, while it could be argued that the latter was the genuine Eisenhart, stripped of all pretense and self-deceit.
Jones and Turner were onto something with Hulk 2099 and this was never more apparent in 2099 Unlimited #2 (October 1993), when the creative team seemed to be really getting into a groove balancing widescreen action with more philosophical concerns.
That wouldn’t last, though. Hulk 2099 co-creator Turner, who was also the artist on Wolverine at the time, was off the serial by the third instalment for reasons that remain unclear, replaced by Joe Brozowski (penciling under the name “J.J. Birch”). The serial had built up enough momentum to finish its initial six-issue run on a relatively strong note despite Turner’s departure, but one still wonders what might have been had he stayed on.
The Hulk 2099 serial would spin-off into its own standalone series in late 1994, still written by Jones but now featuring pencils by Malcolm Davis. By then, however, the bloom had long been off the Marvel 2099 rose. Even the popular Spider-Man 2099, X-Men 2099, Doom 2099, and Punisher 2099 titles were feeling the effects of the industry-wide downturn in comics sales. It didn’t help that the retooled Ravage 2099 had a similar manbeast/Jekyll-and-Hyde arrangement going on with its main character, making Hulk 2099 look somewhat redundant on the stands. In retrospect, the timing for the launch of the series couldn’t have been worse.
Hulk 2099 struggled to find an audience in the direct market right out of the gate, which was a shame. Jones’ updated, back-to-basics approach to the Hulk’s binary psychology would have probably found a lot of takers among Hulk fans who preferred the classic moral dualist interpretation of the character over the Freudian version that was concurrently being written by Peter David in the mainline Incredible Hulk series. The Hulk 2099 series lasted all of ten issues before the eponymous protagonist was shunted off to the 2000 AD: Apocalypse one-shot where he would get the axe alongside Punisher 2099 (Ravage 2099 had also been cancelled by this point, with the character being killed off in his series’ final issue).
And what of the 2099 Unlimited anthology series?
It, too, was cancelled after ten issues, but not before it could stake a legitimate claim as one of the most stylistically diverse and genuinely interesting comics Marvel published in the mid-1990s. Somewhat lost in all the hubbub to launch Hulk 2099 as a major addition to the main Marvel 2099 line-up were the shorter back-up stories that ran behind the main serial. These stories, which frequently featured all-new characters, showcased work by a wide-ranging set of creators that included the mononymous British science-fiction comics artist D’Israeli, EC Comics veteran Marie Severin, British comics writer Ian Edginton, American indie cartoonist Bob Fingerman, a young Warren Ellis, the talented Ernie Colón, underground comix scene fixture Ned Sonntag, animator and graphic novelist Kyle Baker, fine arts painter Rebecca Guay (who would go on to become a popular Magic: The Gathering artist), Star Trek novelist Michael Jan Friedman, and horror writer Nancy Collins.
These back-up stories were quite offbeat, painting a picture of the world of Marvel 2099 that hinted at something more than just the dark and grim corporate wasteland found in the pages of the imprint’s better-selling titles.
While the overall quality of the anthology was somewhat uneven on balance, the best stories were funny, bizarre, and action-packed all at once while providing incisive, contemporary social commentary. Indeed, one could make the case that 2099 Unlimited was the closest Marvel ever got to creating something like the UK’s venerable 2000 AD sci-fi anthology, and it is rather unfortunate that the comic never found a wider audience and doubly unfortunate that those stories have apparently never been collected and reprinted. The three 2099 Unlimited issues currently available on ComiXology only reprint the Evan Skolnick-penned Spider-Man 2099 three-part serial and not the full issues, and I’d argue that the Spider-Man 2099 story was probably one of the less memorable 2099 Unlimited anthology contributions. The silver lining to 2099 Unlimited‘s lack of renown, I suppose, is that back-issues are fairly cheap (with the exception of the first issue, which I often see selling online well above cover price for some reason), and the bargain-savvy reader can probably pick up the entire 2099 Unlimited run for under $20 at a comics convention or a comics shop desperate to make room for newer stock.