I should confess now I don't read many comic books. I mean, ask me who Frank Castle is and I can tell you he's the Punisher, and I enjoy the I-Mockery Tales from the Longbox columns a great deal, but I've never tried to read and maintain a comic collection myself. From time to time I'd think about picking a series to follow, but would quickly abandon that idea when I was reminded of how there's currently 500+ issues of The Incredible Hulk, and almost 50 years of at least five Spiderman books, and a ton of alternate realities and crossovers and tie-ins and events. I'm sorry, but I don't have that kind of dedication, or space in my room for that matter.
So when I found out about the the Ultraverse, a collection of comics that only lasted about twenty-five issues each - some more, many less - because Marvel snubbed out its production studio, it sounded just right for me. My interest with it started with Prime whom I quickly latched onto the thick neck of and save the time he shoved me off and told me he wasn't really the caped superhero I grew so fond of but some punk heavy-metal rocker... thing, a pretense he quickly dropped and apologized for (but not as quickly as I wish he would have), he was a good friend. But what about some of his friends, like Hardcase and Mantra? What about Prototype, the Iron Man ripoff who Prime got into a fight with and became rivals with afterward? What was this Night Man person up to before he was an Ultraforce action figure alongside Hardcase, Prototype, and Prime? Who the hell was that Wrath character Samuels had Prime fight a VR simulation of, and what was Aladdin anyway? Well, with the help of an eBay seller who had complete collections of pretty much every Ultraverse character and miniseries, I set out to find out.
Hardcase / Tom Hawke
Hardcase was, I guess, meant to be the Ultraverse‘s flag character. While it’s not bad, it’s not hard to see why Prime and some other Ultraverse chracters became a lot more popular. The problem with Hardcase wasn‘t the core concept, but painfully slow, generic beginning, and just as the book gets on the road to recovery a Marvel crossover causes it a slow, painful death. But still, I have a lot of respect for Hardcase himself, mainly for putting an end to Rogue Prime.
Hardcase’s powers include super strength and defenses, so normal weapons can't hurt him. He can’t fly but he can jump like a human flea. He has accelerated healing and can speed it up further by chugging water, and doesn‘t need to breathe. He received these powers out of the blue one day in a phenomenon called the "Jumpstart Effect," in which a blast of energy from the moon gives random people super powers. He and three others who experienced it form a team known as the Squad, and go about doing superhero things, like stopping bank robberies. All's going swell when they have a run-in with a robotic Alien called NM-E (oh, “enemy,” hohoho) which tears them a new one. One guy is killed, the other blows himself up to blow up NM-E, and his girlfriend is left in a coma. Hardcase retires from the superhero business and becomes a movie actor, and is constantly kicking himself for what happened to his friends. When a police officer he gave an autograph to just minutes before is killed by an ultra villain, he returns to the superhero business.
But never mind all that, issues 2 through fucking 13, almost half of Hardcase's run, might as well be called “Ultraverse Choice, Guest Starring Hardcase.” There's some crap with "the man who was not a man" running around his fire cave naked and occasionally putting on some clothes to wreak havok on Hardcase, and "the alternate" running around her ice cave naked and occasionally putting on some clothes to go help Hardcase, but most of it is spent on Choice, a boring super powered woman with amnesia. Hardcase takes to caring for her and trying to help her relearn her past, and eventually taking her for a ride on his ironclad pony. It’s long, slow, dull, cliched, occasionally awkward (see below), and has a “big reveal” I can’t imagine any sensible person reading with a straight face.
But then Choice randomly vanishes, and with her out of the way Hardcase is finally able to pick up and start doing something worth caring about. He has a rematch with Hardwire, a maniac who can extend molecule-thin wires from his fingertips and cut through almost anything (not at all like Lady Deathstrike). Hardcase takes him out, but before he can heal up with some bottled water his old friend NM-E shows up, bigger and badder than before. And Hardcase is alone this time. NM-E proceeds to beat the ever-loving shit out of him and flamethrower his ass to the point he looks like a red Thing, and is about to blow HC's head off when a friend comes to the rescue.
A creepily drawn friend, who for some reason is wearing black where his blue should be and fingerless gloves, but what the hell, he’s a still friend, right?
Of course, it wouldn’t be very exciting or fulfilling if Prime simply flew in and trashed the thing, so instead he uses himself as a meat shield to give Hardcase time to recover, and lures it to a faraway spot in the woods. But Prime is eventually broken down, leaving Kevin Green in his birthday suit up against it. NM-E is about to toast Kevin, when Hardcase comes back, partially healed thanks a drink of sea water, although he quickly gets flamethrowered back to a red rock. Incidentally, this marks the second time Hardcase saved Prime’s butt and just barely missed seeing he was really thirteen years old (the first was back in the Prime Gross and Disgusting).
Prime’s out of commission, so it’s back to Alien vs. Hardcase. But even though Prime was taken down he still took a lot out of NM-E, giving Hardcase the chance to give it a lesson on thermal stress, and tear it apart with its own scythe.
Hardcase thanks Prime for saving him, but Prime mopes that he should have gotten the rest of Ultraforce. Like, duh, Prime. You got to Hardcase just in time, and if you had gone after the rest of Ultraforce he would have already been toast when you all got there. But then Hardcase vanishes like Choice did, and just as his book was getting up to speed it slams face-first into a wall with an arrow and "Detour to Godwheel" painted on it.
Which brings me to a problem I’ve had with the Ultraverse since Prime; it’s a twisted mess of overlapping stories. On one hand, yeah, it’s neat that all these characters exist in the same world and are free to interact with one another. But on the other hand, it means I get to the end of Prime 8 which ends with Prime storming off to rescue Mantra while 9 opens with Kevin seeing Mantra off and walking into his house, and am told to go read a Mantra book to find out what happened between the books. I’m sure this wasn’t so bad in 1993 when you could drive to a comic shop and pick up the necessary book, but nowadays the only way for me to find out what happened between Hardcases 4 and 5 is to go on eBay and order the Strangers book it said to read (or the entire Strangers set), then wait a week for it to arrive because none of the comic shops around here carry Ultraverse books.
Before I move on...
Does anyone else find this as absurd as I do? How many Americans would say "saved my bacon," even back then? And why would Prime not think he saved Hardcase back there? Or is he just confused by this meat rescuing thing, thinking Hardcase is thanking him for literally saving his bacon? And for Pete's sake, Prime, does he LOOK all right? At least Hardcase's description of how he felt was intentionally amusing (I think).
So two weeks later, I have the Godwheel miniseries. I'll address it later, but let me just say I could have finished Hardcase without it and the only thing I wouldn't have understood was where Hardcase got the Prototype mask, but the reason was pretty ridiculous and certainly wasn't worth having some of Mantra spoiled to me. As if that wasn't interest breaking enough, Choice comes back, reveals to Hardcase she's pregnant, and to celebrate the two of them strip naked and make out. Then Hardcase is sent back to Earth while Choice whines that she didn't get to kiss Hardcase goodbye. For pete's sake, wasn't the sex enough?
And now, Hardcase is coming to its end as Hardcase sets out on his quest to take out Rex Mundi, aka "the man who was not a man" aka that guy who likes to run around a fire cave au natural. And man alive, these last issues are BORING. Most of it is Hardcase making contact with a bunch of people trying to get information on Mundi, with the several plot points which would turn into holes because Hardcase was cancelled before any of it could be explained, namely this M.Bison guy in black who calls himself Hardcase's son. Most of the final issue is Mundi vomiting his life story Metal Gear Solid style, then the last few pages are a hasty wrap-up that borders on insulting.
At the center of that oatmeal mush is a small blob of Inane Orange. An Infinity Gem from the Marvel universe falls to Earth, conveniently at Hardcase's feet. The Gem allows him to control time, which he uses to save the Squad from NM-E. The events play out like a kid's fantasy, in that he goes back to fifteen minutes before NM-E's attack to warn the Squad who listen to him without question and everything comes out fan-dabby-dabulous. Except the Squad ends up dying anyway, Loki has the Time Gem, there's now two Choices flying around trying to kill each other, and Hardcase is back to looking for Mundi like the Infinity Gem never happened. Hardcase goes back in time towards the end of #26 once more to undo saving the Squad and thus all the side effects it brought upon, which raises the question of why this shit was even brought up in the first place, except for a Marvel crossover and a means for Hardcase to get out of Mundi's tentacle rape prison.
Black September pulled Hardcase from reality and landed him in a limbo dimension which while sad, was probably a more merciful fate than what happened to some other Ultras, especially...
Mantra / Eden Blade / Lukasz
Mantra is an interesting counterpart to Prime. While Prime is a teenager running around in a man's body, Mantra is a man running around in a woman's body. Lukasz is a warrior of Archimage, which I initially thought was just "Archmage" which would have been a lot easier to pronounce, and with several others he fights a nigh eternal battle against the forces of... *sigh* Boneyard, and every time he falls in battle - which has been quite a lot - Archimage reincarnates him. The catch is Archimage can't wait for him to grow up, so he's placed in a full-grown body and kicks the current owner out when he takes over. But one night, one of Archimage's soldiers betrays him, resulting in his capture by... *ugh* Boneyard (I will never complain about "Skeletor" ever again) as his goons take out his soldiers one by one, with the mercenary Warstrike delivering what everyone believes to be Lukasz's final death. Archimage is able to reincarnate Lukasz one more time, but this reincarnation is a little different from his other thousand or so.
This makes for some amusing moments throughout the run, like Lukasz trying to apply makeup, or when Eden's friend take "her" to a chippendale club and Lukasz is going batshit. It also makes for some awkward and confusing moments, like when Lukasz is unable to fight off a potential attacker, and makes a proposal for said man to have his way with him in return for sparing his life, and I'm not sure what exactly he's proposing there. It's also going to make it difficult for me as to what to refer to the main character as: "he," "she," "Lukasz," "Eden," or "Mantra," so bear with me as I'm sure I'll keep changing, okay?
Best of all, Eden Blake has children, something Lukasz doesn't have the slightest idea how to deal with. But Lukasz soon meets someone he knows only too well.
Lucky for Lukasz, Warstrike feels pretty bad about what he did and comes in peace. I first met Warstrike when I read Godwheel, and despite how menacing he looks on Mantra and Warstrike #1s (he has his own book which I'll get to later), he actually seemed like a big, blonde, gun-toting teddy bear, which had me wondering why he was a mercenary. He also has some weak psychic power, which is how he knew who Lukasz was and where to find him.
And either Warstrike feels REALLY bad about what he did to Lukasz or he has the hots for Eden Blake or more likely a mix of the two, but he sort of becomes Lukasz's guard dog. He whips out his twin uzis to fight baddies off Lukasz's back, and bails him out of a wedding with BonennnnNNGGGHHH. Despite all Warstrike does for Lukasz he eventually tells him to get lost, and after a fight with a Wile E. Coyote parody and a trip to the moon, finds himself a new partner.
This is let down somewhat by the Mantra #7 artist drawing Prime like a monkey.
By the way, I'm probably heading into hypocrite territory, considering I said back up in Hardcase I was a bit peeved to have some of Mantra spoiled to me by Godwheel and I'm about to be dropping those same spoilers. But then again I was reading the actual books instead of a fan overview of them, and if this bothers you... I dunno, hit Back or something.
Afterwards Kevin goes on to be recaptured by Samuels and eventually having his sanity snap and turn into Rogue Prime, while Mantra has a rendezvous with Warstrike, has her clothing swiped by Boneyard's wives who were once Archimage's wives, fights Boneyard alongside the Strangers, and visits a civilization where men and women live in two seperate cities. I forget who governs the male city, but the city of women is run by Topaz who later links up with Ultraforce, I guess in Mantra's place. The two genders only hook once every two years to engage in "The Great Madness" and I don't know if that's the most hilarious pet name for an orgy ever or the most disturbing.
And then there's Mantra's favorite, a knight in iron armor - iron negating magic - who is Eden's ex-husband possessed by Thanasi, the traitor who got Archimage kidnapped and landed Lukasz in bras. Somewhere along the line a magic hippie woman disguises herself as Eden and tries to marry her ex-husband, Eden's daughter finds out her mother is Mantra, and Thanasi ends up in a handicapped guy's body. Yeah, it was easy for me to summarize Hardcase since most of his book can be summed up as "nothing happens." But I had trouble with a book that actually moves with Prime, and I'm having that trouble again with Mantra.
Lukasz finds Eden is still alive within him, and the two talk almost nightly in his dreams. Over the year Lukasz possesses Eden for, the two fall in love, which makes Luke even more anxious to save Archimage and get back into a male body so he can put more into Eden's than his soul. But Eden's already accepted she'll never have her life back, and is only hanging around until Lukasz agrees to take on her life and take care of her kids. Lukasz insists she'll get her body back and after Boneyard is no longer a problem he'll become Eden's new husband, although moans that he doesn't deserve that kind of life after all the men he's ruined over the past 1500 years.
Too bad for Lukasz ol' Boney tricks him out of his ticket back to manhood.
I already knew Lukasz kills Archimage from Godwheel which probably accounts for most of the indifference I met this scene with, but simply put, Archimage was a prick. He declared himself on the side of good, yet Boneyard wasn't the one sending his soldiers to possess men with wives and children to have their daddies run off and get killed (or maybe he was, and just didn't call himself the good guy for it). And best of all, before Boneyard's illusion spell kicked in and he got beheaded, Archimage told Luke the real reason he put him in Eden's body was to prepare her for HIS possession of her. Fuck you, Archimage.
Lukasz is still determined to find a way out of Eden's body and back into one with its weight where he's used to it, and after another Prime crossover about as pointless, nonsensical, unnecessary, and some other means words as Prime 2.5, a psychic Ultra who can evolve and devolve at will manipulates her boss at some bioscience place into creating a "fully functioning" (if you know what I mean) replica of Lukasz's first body. An unexpected intervention occurs when this Ultra transfers Lukasz's mind to the body, wherin Thanasi takes over Eden as Lukasz leaves, and dubs himself Necromantra. Then they're both transported off to the Godwheel, where Boneyard is killed by Necromantra and Rune (a vampire who I believe has cancer) scares Thanasi out of Eden's body.
Have I yet mentioned Godwheel was shit? For crying out loud, when Argus uses Rune's Star Stones to look for potential champions, Prime is still Rogue even though he's Final in the Hardcases and Mantras prior to them getting teleported to Godwheel!
After all that crap is done with, they're teleported back to earth, finally do their dance, and Eden becomes nine-months pregnant overnight and gives birth to a girl the next day. And guess who their daughter is possessed by and quickly grows up into.
Except back before he killed Archimage, Lukasz made a deal with some people called the Tradesmen to get entry to Boneyard's court in exchange for the next child Eden's body birthed. They sounded pretty powerful, because even Boneyard wanted to stay on their good side. Shouldn't they should have appeared and carted off Necromantra? But either Writer's Alzheimer's or the Marvel takeover kicked that in the head, and we get something a bit depressing. Eden doesn't know how to use her magic, Lukasz can't stop Necromantra the way he is, and the only choice is for Lukasz to reenter Eden's body and defeats Necromantra. It seemed like everything was just back the way it was, with Luke and Eden sharing the body.
I guess I should mention now that as well as magic, Mantra has this spiffy cloak that works like an interdimensional gateway. It absorbs attacks that hit it, she can hide trinkets in it, and once she dropped a bad guy in and he got spat back out ice cold dead. Awesome. But what's not-so-awesome is Eden's daughter gets tricked into diving in. When Lukasz gives chase he finds a mismatched world where Japanese dojos stand next to Taj Mahal-things, and the horizon curls upwards, and some other funky shit.
And it was at around this point I realized Eden died when Lukasz retook her body to fight Necromantra.
The world is actually some vacation spot/collection of crap Archimage collected from around the world and its different time periods, from buildings to artifacts to soldiers. And then there's the caretaker who tells Eden's daughter he won't hurt Mantra if she promises to be her wife (Yes, the little girl, not Mantra) Slaying said pedophile causes this alternate universe to implode, and with Eden's daughter in arms Luke finally accepts his new life as a woman and a mother.
21 and 22 are retarded and serve only to set up Black September and the aftermath thereof, and aren't worth reading or talking about.
Black September hit Mantra pretty hard. While it slapped Prime across the face and spat in Hardcase's, it drugged Mantra and raped her. Some dipshit at Marvel decided it would be a good idea to make Mantra a high school cheerleeder, a girl named Lauren Sherwood who appeared in Mantra for all of one panel before her "proper introduction" in issue 21. They thought by doing this they'd make Mantra more appealing to the readers in a case of trying to fix something that wasn't broken. I applaud the fans for all giving it the finger, and the "new and improved" Mantra only lasted seven issues. And if you think I'm going to bother reading them, guess again.