In 1993, Marvel tried to gain a foothold in the creator-owned comics market with a new initiative under its Epic Comics banner. The Heavy Hitters line featured an impressive roster of creators that included Joe Kubert, 2000 AD co-founder Pat Mills, and comics firebrand Howard Chaykin.
Author Sean Howe’s account of the four years leading up to Marvel Entertainment’s December 1996 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story makes for very compelling reading. It’s a tale of hubris, naked greed, and betrayal featuring a cast of shady junk bond traders, clueless executives, disgruntled comics pros, foil cover-obsessed comic collectors, and myopic retailers caught up in the madness of the speculator bubble, all seemingly oblivious to (or in denial of) the signs of its impending collapse. It’s a debacle from which the American comics industry has yet to fully recover.
One of the key events in the timeline was the abrupt departure of the artists from seven of Marvel’s most popular titles. Citing dissatisfaction over Marvel’s lack of a revenue sharing system for comics creators, Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), and Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy) banded together to formally establish Image Comics in early 1992, first as an independent division of Malibu Comics, and later, as a standalone publishing concern.
This could not have come at a worse time for Marvel since editor Bob Harras had just handed the reins to its cornerstone X-Men franchise to Lee, Portacio, and Liefeld, a move that embittered long-time writers Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men) and Louise Simonson (New Mutants, X-Factor) and led them to leave the company to work for cross-town rival DC Comics.
The exodus of marketable creators didn’t stop there. Fan-favorite up-and-coming artists Dale Keown (The Incredible Hulk), Sam Kieth (Marvel Comics Presents), and Jae Lee (Namor the Sub-Mariner) soon revealed that they would be debuting Image Comics projects of their own. Larry Stroman (X-Factor), Mark “Tex” Texeira (Wolverine), and Art Thibert (X-Men, Cable)—popular artists whom Harras had strategically positioned to mitigate the loss of superstar creator wattage on some of its top X-Men titles—were also migrating to Image Comics.
It wasn’t just young artists who were leaving Marvel for what seemed to be greener, creator-owned pastures: Frank Miller and John Byrne, two of the strongest creative draws for Marvel in the previous decade, had aligned themselves with Dark Horse Comics, joining former Marvel freelancers Mike Mignola and Art Adams to become the headliners of its Legends imprint. Former Marvel staffers and freelancers flocked to start-ups such as Valiant Comics (co-founded by former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter) and Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse collective.
An equally disturbing development was the fact that a lot of ascendant writers were seemingly bypassing Marvel altogether on their career paths. On DC Comics’ newly launched Vertigo imprint, a fresh wave of writing talent recruited by editor Karen Berger and led by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and Rachel Pollack was serving up an alternative to the overheated superhero antics that were all the rage during the early 1990s.
Marvel’s response to all this was to reinvigorate its Epic Comics imprint. Launched in 1982 and originally helmed by editors Archie Goodwin and Al Milgrom, part of Epic Comics’ unofficial remit was to keep Marvel freelancers and staffers from being lured away by indie comics outfits by offering them a platform for their creator-owned work (it wasn’t exactly successful on this score—Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, Epic Comics’ first and most popular original ongoing series, eventually moved to First Comics in 1986). By 1993, much of Epic Comics’ shine had faded due to a seeming lack of editorial and publishing direction after Goodwin left Marvel for DC Comics in 1989. To help counter this perception, Epic Comics executive editor Carl Potts helped engineer the Heavy Hitters brand for the new generation of creator-owned Epic Comics titles.
As its name implied, the Heavy Hitters line-up featured some fairly big names in the comic industry, chief among them the legendary Joe Kubert, who revived his 1950s caveman adventure comic Tor as a a four-issue miniseries featuring all-new material.
In addition to Kubert’s Tor, the following titles were also published as part of Epic Comics’ Heavy Hitters line (most had at least one issue with the de rigueur foil-embossed cover and collectible trading card):
Alien Legion: One Planet at a Time (three issues) by Chuck Dixon, Hoang Nguyen, and Scott Hanna; and Alien Legion: Binary Deep (one-shot) by Chuck Dixon and Alcatena: A continuation of Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz, and Frank Cirocco’s Alien Legion (one of the more successful Epic Comics titles from the early 1980s).
Brats Bizarre (four issues) by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner, Anthony Adhikary, Colin Fawcett, Duke Mighten, and Paul Scott: An anti-authoritarian superhero satire from 2000 AD writers Pat Mills and Tony Skinner that originated in the UK comics anthology Toxic!. Of a piece with Mills’ work on the Epic Comics-published Marshal Law and to less of an extent, Mills and Skinner’s collaboration on Punisher 2099.
Dragon Lines (four issues) and Dragon Lines: Way of the Warrior (two issues) by Ron Lim: A martial arts adventure comic inspired by the Chinese myths of the Monkey King. Lim was popular with the superhero comics-reading segment of the market given his visibility as the artist on “event” comics like Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity Crusade but that popularity didn’t translate into a breakout success for his creator-owned work.
Feud (four issues) by Mike Baron and Mark Nelson: A political science fiction fable that revolves around the conflict between four warring alien species. Mark Nelson (of Dark Horse Comics’ Aliens‘ fame) illustrates all manner of extraterrestrial shenanigans.
Law Dog (ten issues) by Chuck Dixon and Flint Henry: An action comic set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Big guns, ridiculously muscled meatheads, and well-endowed women wearing fishnet stockings. Fun in spots, but Dixon’s on-the-nose attempts at political humor is an acquired taste.
Midnight Men (four issues) by Howard Chaykin: According to artist-writer Chaykin, a comic about a hero motivated by “guilt, shame, and moral responsibility.” Solid work with shades of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, but somewhat unmemorable overall.
Offcastes (three issues) by Mike Vosburg: Inventive speculative fiction comic that tackles the themes of organized religion, democracy, and gender politics. Wouldn’t have been out-of-place as a 2000AD or Heavy Metal serial. One of the better original comics to bear the Heavy Hitters logo.
Sachs & Violens (four issues) by Peter David and George Pérez: A young lingerie model and her Vietnam War veteran photographer/lover attempt to break up a pornography ring. With its muddled moralizing and the protagonists’ awkward May-December romance, this miniseries is something of a creative misfire from the all-star duo behind the acclaimed Hulk: Future Imperfect.
Spyke (four issues) by Mike Baron and Bill Reinhold: Fast-paced, pulp-styled adventure comic; Reinhold’s brilliant art is a key highlight.
Terrarists (four issues) by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner, and John Erasmus: More Mills/Skinner superhero commentary, this time with an environmentalist slant. Would have probably found more traction with readers given its themes, but Erasmus’s hyper-stylized art probably turned off fans of more conventional-looking superhero comics.
The Trouble with Girls: Night of the Lizard (four issues) by Gerard Jones, Will Jacobs, Bret Blevins, and Al Williamson: A cheeky, sexy, action-comedy featuring the continuing (mis)adventures of protagonist Lester Girls, a character who had previously appeared in various The Trouble with Girls comics published by Malibu Comics, Eternity Comics, and Comico in the late 1980s.
Untamed (three issues) by Neil Hansen: A rather ponderous martial arts-themed action comic. Originally solicited as a four-issue miniseries but forced to a hasty conclusion with its third issue cancellation.
War Man (two issues) by Chuck Dixon and Juan Zanotto: An amoral arms dealer turns vigilante after getting caught up in some political assassination shenanigans. A mediocre Golan Globus B-movie in comics form. Or Dixon exploring (unintended) self-parody territory—Dixon’s a reliable action comics writer for the most part, but War Man‘s alpha male philosophizing is terribly grating stuff.
In addition, Epic Comics also published a Heavy Hitters Annual and a Law Dog/Alien Legion crossover one-shot entitled Law Dog and Grimrod: Terror at the Crossroads by the Alien Legion: One Planet at a Time team of writer Chuck Dixon and Hoang Nguyen.
Despite the name recognition and veteran experience of its assembled talent as well as some genuinely good comics (Tor, Brats Bizarre, Feud, Offcastes, Spyke, and The Trouble with Girls remain entertaining upon repeat reading over twenty years after their original publication), the Heavy Hitters initiative failed to catch on in a big way with readers and was summarily canceled—along with most of the Epic Comics catalogue—in 1994.
Part of this could be chalked up to unfortunate timing. By the time the first Heavy Hitters titles debuted in 1993, the American comics bubble was well on the way towards its inevitable implosion and it could be that Marvel lacked the wherewithal to see the imprint through its early struggles. But the line’s failure could also be framed as a case of Marvel’s reputation—deserved or not—as a publisher where characters were vastly more valued than creative talent catching up to it. The company still had two of the period’s most popular corporate properties in the X-Men and Spider-Man, but after years of rancorous editor-freelancer disputes and public squabbles over the issue of proper compensation of work-for-hire contractors, it seemed that readers weren’t ready to take the publisher seriously as a destination for creator-owned comics.
Marvel would rehabilitate its image in the post-bankruptcy years and woo back many of the talents who left or avoided it during the 1990s, but it would be ten years after the cancellation of the Heavy Hitters line before Marvel would try its hand at publishing creator-owned comics again. Marvel renewed its commitment to publishing creator-owned material with the 2004 launch of the Icon Comics imprint, but despite the crossover multimedia success of Icon-published titles like Kick-Ass (by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.), Powers (by Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming), and The Secret Service (by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons), for now and for the foreseeable future, it seems that the creator-owned comics field remains primarily the domain of independent publishers.