Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Underrated/Overlooked: Psionex

In most iconic super hero-super villain archenemy pairings, the two individuals or teams involved are bound by their stark differences, cracked mirror similarities, or in some cases a little bit of both.

Superman is the alien who is an everyman while Lex Luthor is the human who sees himself as above his fellow man. Spider-Man is the hopeful optimism of youth in the face of adversity battling old men like Doctor Octopus or The Green Goblin who have given up on altruism and are driven by greed. Batman is the imposition of order while The Joker is the embodiment of chaos. Doctor Doom is the intelligence of Mr. Fantastic without morality and civic unselfishness keeping him in check.

The New Warriors never really had an archenemy. Some might say it was The Sphinx, and in that case you could argue the dynamic was the young agents of change versus the timeless champion of inevitability, but he was really Nova’s bad guy first and foremost. If you look at the bad guys in other big Warriors storylines like Tai, the Poison Memories or the Dire Wraiths, they were all basically one and done adversaries.

Breaking it down to numbers, the villains who plagued the New Warriors the most frequently and were their opposite number at least in the sense of being a team of young people were Psionex, introduced in issue #4 of the original series and recurring for the remainder of the volume as foes to our heroes, reluctant allies against a larger threat like Terrax, and even Night Thrasher’s attempt at a rehabilitation project.

If there was a weakness to Psionex in their core concept, it was that they didn’t really stand for much of anything, whereas the Warriors had a very strong sense of identity. Certain buzz phrases would recur through all of that classic first Warriors series—“making hard choices,” “searching for the truth,” “the power of love over the love of power”—creating not only a clear mission statement for the good guys, but the potential for an antithesis that was never really filled outside of in part with stuff I mentioned like The Sphinx and other little cases.

The initial hook to Psionex was a simple one: They were unbalanced young people given super powers by Genetech, the faceless corporation who would bug the New Warriors because why not. As it said on the blurb of their introductory issue, “They were bred for one purpose: To destroy the New Warriors!” but aside from having powers that gave various members of the team trouble, you never got the whole “bred for one purpose” thing. This wasn’t like the Injustice League or Dark Avengers or some incarnations of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants where each member of the villain team was picked specifically to target an opposing player on the good guys; it was just a bunch of randoms with cool powers.

However, it’s in those powers and their relative inventiveness that Psionex raises a notch or two up in my mind. Fabian Nicieza clearly put some time into coming up with these guys’ abilities, and in an era where “generic energy blast” was the flavor of every month—I’m looking at you Acolytes—it was refreshing and appreciated.

Asylum was a mental patient who never spoke but had a body composed entirely of Darkforce matter that induced hallucinations in anybody she came into contact with; similar to Cloak but with a twist of mental imbalance. Coronary at first glance seemed like the team powerhouse, but who was actually a “bio-telepath,” capable of messing with people’s internal functions so as to make them vomit, give them a heart attack or do other nastiness. Impulse had an enhanced metabolism which gave him fairly generic heightened speed, reflexes and healing, but his crazy thrill seeker personality coupled with his gang background made him interesting and led to classic moments like him trying to take on Terrax singlehanded and getting his back snapped (he got better). Mathemanic not only had a great name, but the most bizarre and intriguing abilities, as he practiced “mathematical telepathy,” messing with statistical regularities so he could do things like forcing his foes to perceive interstellar measures of distance and thus not see what’s in front of them or slowing the passage of time by altering perceptions. Last but not least you had Pretty Persuasions, an exotic dancer with an energy whip who could increase and then draw power from the “erotic urges” of others, making her one of the most straightforwardly sexual characters in comics at the time, but in an odd “what you see is what you get” refreshing kind of way.

Psionex had their initial clash with the Warriors, then a rematch that ended with Terrax’s rebirth and a temporary truce/half the villains fleeing. Later, after Asylum dissipated during a fight with Nova, Firestar and Speedball, another New Warriors villain, Darkling, found her mask and took up her mantel, getting Psionex back together and attempting to make them into heroes who would use the excessive force the Warriors were unwilling to; this period showed some potential for the group to really forge their own place in the Marvel Universe—or at least in the New Warriors mythos—but while it made for a few good stories, they were heavily focused on Asylum, with the rest becoming more or less window dressing. After Asylum accidentally killed a child by inducing an unknown heart condition while trying to scare him straight, we got a pretty emotionally hard hitting story—Nicieza’s final issue—where Mathemanic tries to turn back time by affecting perceptions across New York City, but ultimately is convinced that he can’t undo what is already done.

From there Psionex joined up briefly with Night Thrasher and Rage before gradually receding into a background role in the Marvel Universe for the past couple decades, generally only showing up for cameos when Nicieza is writing a book like New Thunderbolts or part of huge villain armies in titles being penned by New Warriors fans like when Christos Gage had the reins of Avengers: The Initiative.

In addition to their powers, the other thing Psionex really had going for it was that Mark Bagley did a bang-up job on their designs. They really were a motley crew of misfits, as befit their status as nut jobs, with the nerdy Mathemanic looking like he belonged nowhere near a group that also included S&M bombshell Pretty Persuasions. Asylum’s lack of physical form anchored by that golden mask was cool, as was Coronary’s evolving crystalline shape—although the weird skirt he rocked at first was bizarre—and even Impulse’s fairly traditional super villain get-up had neat touches like the evil Spider-Man bug eyes or weird wrist gauntlet blades. Richard Pace would ramp up the exaggerated elements of Psionex during his all-too-brief run on New Warriors and breathe even more life into Bagley’s work.

But again, while Psionex had plenty of potential in the abilities and visual departments, their lack of personalities, individually or as a group, and no real direction hurt their lasting legacy. It wasn’t enough just to be crazy, particularly in the 90’s, and after that initial Genetech-sponsored fracas, it wasn’t even quite clear why they were always tangling with the New Warriors.

Still, there’s something there in Psionex, even if it’s just that they bring something different to the table in terms of abilities that go beyond the tired cocktail of super strength, mind powers and, yes, energy blasts. I’m not saying they’re ever going to anchor a line-wide crossover or anything, but maybe next time an Avengers writer needs to kill half a standalone issue that’s really about the heroes’ relationships anyways, rather than use the Wrecking Crew yet again, they give Psionex a shot.


Anonymous said...

I loved their slow and methodical recruitment in the early issues of NEW WARRIORS, building up the larger threat while the kids faced the Mad Thinker, Terrax and others.

Keith said...

I have to say Psionex was one of my favorite things in the New Warriors First run. But i think Mathmaniac was poorly underused considering his potential. But who really wants to get into math when your writing a comic. Great site guys....

Ben Morse said...

As you can probably tell from the original post, Keith, I totally agree with you on Mathemanic. Great name (seriously, I dig it), different look and persona, plus powers with so much potential. He's just waiting for a Dan Slott or Christos Gage to dust him off.

Keith said...

Funny story, I was so geeked about the new warriors when they came out. mind you i was like 12ish
(The Warriors First appearance is in an issue of Thor)
Fabian was at the comic book convention i was attending, I had him sign the Thor issue, not thinking to see if he wrote it.
So he signed it "Not yet but soon."

Anywho i also met Mark Bagley there as well, and everyone just wanted him to draw Wolverine. Those early 90's jerks.

Ben Morse said...

That's a great story.

Outlawmayhem313 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith said...

So just to be extra nerdy. I read Wizard from beginning to end. It saved me when there was no internet and I couldnt afford to buy comics so I would use it like cliff notes.. So was it sweet to work there or was it more work than fun? Sorry I had to ask.

Ben Morse said...

I had a blast during the time I worked there. Met so many of my good friends--including the other three guys on this blog--and had some amazing experiences. I still miss it (though I'm quite happy today, obviously).

Search the tags on this blog for Wizard and you'll find some fun stuff.

Keith said...

Did you guys get a lot of free stuff? I imagine you've talked to a bunch of awesome people, so two questions; 1. Of all the writers you've met, which ones smelled the worst. I always thought Chris Claremont looked a little pungent. (smelly = good)
2. Was there anything that someone gave you ( free stuff, headshots) that you either gave back or quickly gave to someone who you knew would like it?

Just stuff that crossed my mind.
Thanks for humoring me.

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