Monday, August 15, 2011

Back to the Future: Marvel 2099

We’ve still got 88 years to see if “Shock” catches on as a curse word or a religion gets organized around Thor, but already Marvel’s 2099 line of comics—despite only lasting six years—has proven groundbreaking in its own way.

The 2099 imprint kicked off in 1992 as a look at the possible future of the Marvel Universe with four core titles centered around three new versions of familiar characters and one all-new creation: Spider-Man 2099, Punisher 2099, Doom 2099 and Ravage 2099. It was an interesting mix with Marvel’s most recognizable figure, one of the most popular stars of the 90’s, a classic villains featured as a protagonist for the first time ever and a wild card co-created by none other than Stan Lee.

All four pillars of 2099 were a mixture of familiarity and experimentation. Miguel O’Hara, aka Spider-Man, was a scientist and a wisecracker like his predecessor, but notably older and with a darker edge, his humor coming in the form of cynicism rather than quips and his motivation having as much to do with revenge and survival as responsibility. The new Punisher, Jake Gallows, emerged from virtually the same circumstances as Frank Castle—his family being killed by criminals—but lived in a world where corruption generally trumped law and thus coming off far more sympathetic in his violent approach to justice than his counterpart. Doom’s origins were tinged in mystery, as he claimed to be the original bearer of the name, but in this time he acted more as a hero than a tyrant. Paul-Phillip Ravage—showing that Stan Lee had weaned somewhat off his alliteration addiction by the 90’s but not completely—was a corporate CEO forced into a life of fugitive vigilantism when he questioned his corporate masters and was framed for murder.

As far as my personal experience, I sampled Spider-Man 2099 and would check in occasionally, but wasn’t a regular reader. I bought the first issue of Punisher 2099—the first Punisher comic of any kind I ever purchased, I believe—and was intrigued, but for whatever reason did not get #2. I didn’t pick up any of the early issues of Doom 2099 or Ravage 2099, despite the concept of Doom as a hero and a new Stan Lee creation grabbing my attention at least in passing.

X-Men 2099 was the book that brought me into the imprint—as detailed here—as I was buying anything X-Men at the time and also loved the work of artist Ron Lim. When the five titles crossed over in “Fall of the Hammer” I got every chapter, which prompted me to buy a few more issues of Spider-Man 2099 as well as at least one non-Stan Lee-written Ravage 2099, but I disengaged quickly and then stuck with X-Men until Lim left before departing myself.

There were many additional points I contemplated checking out more 2099—when Doom took over America or when he got deposed and half the original characters got killed—but I never took that leap. It’s only now, having read a bit more of the imprint in trade and random issues as well as having the whole of its span to step back and look at, that I can see how prescient 2099 was in many ways.

Building the world of 2099 was not that unlike building the original Marvel Universe in the Silver Age must have been, with distinct and disparate characters linked together by their shared world. Where Stan Lee and his collaborators used the familiarity of New York City and little touches like newspaper headlines and cameos, the founding fathers of 2099 created an elaborate and thought out landscape where corporations became king and the comfortable heroes we knew were elevated to mythic proportions as avatars of an idyllic age. Big business as the ultimate villain and embodied by Alchemax, the company where Miguel O’Hara worked and came into his abilities, took central root in Spider-Man 2099, but played a major part in Ravage, influenced the creation of the Punisher, and would eventually show up in Doom, X-Men, Hulk, Ghost Rider and the rest. The Thorite religion was first touched upon by Jake Gallows, but would again spread across 2099 and serve as the core of its first crossover.

By 1992, the idea of an editorial office coordinating multiple titles was not a new one, as the X-Men fielded a minimum of four books at any given time and regularly crossed stories from one to the other. A fledgling imprint where characters shared aspects was not groundbreaking either, given the New Universe a few years earlier, Valiant hitting its stride and Milestone around the corner. Yet the cohesive future world imagined by 2099 and the ways in which the series within seemed to mesh so naturally and remain able to still stand on their own certainly merits some kudos.

It’s also interesting to look at the range of creative voices when it comes to the writers responsible for the 2099 books and impressive how in step such a varied group was. You had the already veteran Peter David on Spider-Man, relative rookie John Francis Moore on Doom—and later X-Men—the British duo of Pat Mills and Tony Skinner on Punisher, and of course Stan Lee on Ravage. Chuck Dixon and Len Kaminski would be among the others to dip their toes in the 2099 pool, and Warren Ellis made some of his first major contributions to American comics with a run on Doom 2099 that would revamp the entire line. It’s a testament to editor Joey Cavalieri that he was able to mesh these disparate voices into a comics symphony.

Speaking of the Ellis-helmed Doom 2099, it led to the kind of line-wide overhaul we see frequently today, but was not common practice in the mid-90’s. Ellis revealed Doom to conclusively be the original and then had him take over the United States, sending ramifications through every 2099 title—the whole imprints was renamed “2099 A.D.” standing for “2099 After Doom”—from the Punisher becoming his enforcer as leader of a reconstituted S.H.I.E.L.D. to the X-Men receiving their own West coast “Utopia” nearly two decades before it was trendy. Major characters like The Punisher, Ravage and The Hulk met their end when Doom got ousted from office and every title again underwent seismic changes (this is about the time I jumped off, as I was getting out of comics for a bit altogether).

Looking back, while Doom conquering America is the type of thing that would never fly in the Marvel Universe circa 1994 or so, it made for a great story 15 years later with Norman Osborn in a similar—albeit fairly different—position. I’m not saying Dark Reign was a retread of After Doom—beyond the surface similarities there’s far more different than the same, and the basic trope is a pretty well-worn one—but 2099 was in some ways Marvel’s testing ground of the early-to-mid 90’s; the place you could try stuff out and go wild with familiar but not identical toys, not totally unlike the Ultimate Universe of today.

2099 would only really have a four-year golden age, then two years of false restarts and final epilogues—after a tidal wave destroyed most of the world, Miguel O’Hara eventually found a frozen Captain America, restarted the Avengers, then became a figurehead who secretly had Thor’s hammer while the formerly dark corporate future became a paradise—but it left an indelible mark. Alternate reality storylines nearly always make a detour to 2099. Events by Robert Kirkman and Brian Reed have put new spins on the line. Miguel O’Hara frequently makes appearances in toy and video game form, including the upcoming Spider-Man: Edge of Time. And Jesse Thompson sent me this Jason Young cover of an old issue of Ravage 2099 that got me thinking about all this in the first place.

Despite a limited amount of time in the proverbial sun, 2099 made its mark and lingers as an influential and trendsetting imprint more than we likely even realize. There were also some darn good comics in the bunch that are probably not too hard to get your hands on.


Adam Tracey said...

I didn't read any of the 2099 comics except for a stray X-Men 2099 just to see how they stacked up against the main continuity team. But I DO remember that Spider-Man 2099 cover being everywhere! I'd imagine you'd be hard pressed to find a comics fan alive in the 90s who doesn't immediately recognize that cover.

KP said...

I own every issue of Spider-Man 2099 – my first experience following a Peter David mega-arc (see also: Aquaman, X-Factor). For whatever reason, I never had any interest in following any of the other books outside maybe 2 issues of Doom and the Spider-Man starring 2099 Unlimited where the Hulk started. Crazy enough, I had a subscription to the Spidey book during its later years, and my last issue delivered was David's last (which essentially was the end of the book...or should have been). I have an inkling that most of the creators quit at the end in protest after Joey C was fired from Marvel during (or near the era of) the bankruptcy stuff.

In any event, there used to be a website dedicated to 2099 that had all of Joey's original notes for the "rules" of the cyberpunk-style corporate stuff that had to be followed in each book, but I can't recall what it is.

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