In the early 1990s the comic book industry bore witness to the explosive genesis of multiple superhero universes. This fusillade of big bangs was in part inspired by the exodus of Marvel’s crop of high-yield young Turks who saw beyond their publisher’s grift and struck out in 1992 to establish their creator owned publisher, Image Comics.
The glut of shared universes included Dark Horse’s Comics Greatest World, DC’s Milestone, Valiant and Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse in particular. Unlike the hot young talent amassed at Image, the Ultraverse was founded by a core of industry veterans including Mike W. Barr, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and James D. Hudnall—creators who had labored for much of their career under tightfisted work-for-hire contracts that excluded them from a market share of their creative output. Experienced at world building for other publishers, these seasoned creatives set about crafting their own brand, starting with a new classification for super folks.
Recall that back in the 1960s, Marvel and DC (AKA the Big Two) jointly trademarked the term “Super Hero” and “Superhero.” Being mindful of possible legal entanglements, the powered people of Malibu’s new imprint were dubbed “Ultras” and the Ultraverse was born.
The Ultraverse hit the ground running with bright and sparkly branding and a concise marketing campaign that spoke to a youthful target demographic hungry for comics, but alienated by the deep, near-impenetrable publishing history of the Big Two. An Ultraverse television ad shrieked: “They couldn’t be there in ’38 for the arrival of that Super Guy, or in ’62 for the launch of that Spider Guy, but they can be there now for the birth of the Ultraverse!”
Undoubtedly exciting to younger fans, the older, jaded Gen-X readership who’d been twirling spinner racks since the 1970s experienced some initial chagrin at discovering Malibu’s crew of veteran creators brought little to the table beyond retreads of their former glory. Books like Prototype, The Exiles, Sludge and Freex served up a cold platter of familiar characters and tropes that no amount of video games, action figures, live-action TV or animated series could make appetizing in the long run to the older fan set. “Same old thing in brand new drag,” as Mr. Bowie was wont to say. Such criticisms meant little to younger readers who wanted more than anything to claim a new universe for their own.
The 1990s was an era of brassy and oftentimes foolhardy campaigns to tempt comic collectors into parting with their money. Malibu’s Ultraverse was competing with multiple publishers offering scads of comics bagged with collectible cards and 3D, hologram, tyvek, lenticular motion or glow-in-the-dark variant covers. When the Malibu marketing team planned the introduction of James Robinson’s series Firearm in 1993, they set their sights on the most audacious and unprecedented gimmick yet; a two-part debut in the shape of a short film limited to 30,000 VHS copies and a zero issue.
Robinson was a rising star. Over at DC, he was earning raves for his Starman series and its Picket Fences-like take on the superhero set. Critics were in love with Robinson’s layered exploration of Opal City’s history and community.
As Screen Rant’s Richard Pulfer notes, “One of the most intriguing elements of DC Comics’ lore is its storied Golden Age past…Beyond the history, however, was the element of legacies and how they stretched and weaved in the modern age, and nowhere is this more evident than James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman.”
Robinson also had a gift for crafting authentic drama within his narratives. “Part of (Starman’s) appeal lies in how it in many ways resembles a novel rather than a comic,” says Panel Discussions blogger Corey Pung, “The series was big on character development, and there was more reading involved than usual in comics. Also–I find this refreshing–family plays a big role in the series. The superhero community is full of orphans or intergalactic exiles, thus bypassing family obligations for the heroes. Not so with Starman.”
Robinson’s Firearm was no less satisfying in that regard with storytelling that was invigorating and revealed the untapped potential for dramatic realism in superhero comics. Where Starman was about family and legacy, dramatic elements that DC, at the time, embraced, the Ultraverse was about the joyful shock of the new.
Firearm tells the story of private investigator Alec Swan, a veteran of the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service and retiree of the Lodge, a secret British black ops squad. Lacking superpowers, Swan solves his cases through ingenuity and wit. In short, Swan checks all the boxes to qualify as a one-man army in the grander comics lexicon. Swan now seeks a less colorful life in Los Angeles where, through no fault of his own, he’s come to specialize in Ultra-related cases. A self-proclaimed “Touchstone guy in a Walt Disney World,” Firearm promised lo-fi stories set on the periphery of the Ultraverse’s bright lights and bombast.
But let’s get back to the video. The 30-minute short was directed by Darren Doane with a screenplay penned by Firearm creator James Robinson. The cast featured James Jude Courtney as Alec Swan opposite Joe Hulser as the demonic supervillain, Duet.
The film opens with an intriguing montage of title cards setting the stage for both the film and the Ultraverse itself: “The time is tomorrow. A small percentage of the human race has been transformed forever into something more than human. Ultrahuman. Ultras coexist in our society with powers and abilities beyond imagination. Misfits. Vigilantes. Warriors. Some are heroes. Some are not. All are dangerous.”
A voiceover from Swan sets the first scene in a Pasadena police precinct. Swan has been hired by Vera Watson; a famous talk show host who is being blackmailed by a “toe rag” named Charlie Cant. As luck would have it, Cant has just been busted on drug charges. Fortunately, Swan is pals with the arresting officer, and brokered five minutes alone with Cant to pump the perp for the whereabouts of his blackmail evidence. The tone is all very hard-boiled as Swan sips tea in an ante room lit by the horizontal slats of a venetian blind. In the next room, we are treated to the age-old good cop/bad cop scenario replete with actors emoting in the form of shouting and tabletop pounding. Cant is terrified. Duet, a human-demon hybrid hitman, is on his way and Cant is certain there will be blood and mayhem if he squeals.
Minutes in and the Firearm film reminds us it is not the product of an established film or television studio. Though well-paced, it is shot with all the sweaty sincerity of a film school final project. Earnest as it is, the acting is terribly uneven. In all fairness one must consider the performers are doing their best to mouth comic book dialog—scripting that seldom lands well upon the ear. Robinson can be credited for some of the most naturalistic comic book dialog of the day, but it’s unlikely he had an opportunity for a table read with his actors and it shows. The tinny dialogue is further compounded by a tremendous supply of rookie acting. Actors regularly demonstrate a lack of experience with their inability to listen to one another beyond anticipating their next line. Even if Robison was afforded the opportunity to workshop his words, many in the cast would remain hindered by a dearth in training.
James Jude Courtney’s acting as Swan is solid, but his English dialect is soft to the point of non-existent. Thankfully, viewers are spared a Kevin Costner-level atrocity, but left confused by Swan’s quaint usage of English idiom—he likes to call people toe-rag a lot—that lacks credibility without authentic pronunciation.
As Cant predicted, Duet arrives and there is blood and mayhem. The squad room erupts into a slo-mo ballet of flying bullets and ventilating bodies thanks to the overzealous use of big, juicy, poorly concealed squibs. Each time the film’s synthesizer score strikes a chord, our ears are stung into recalling this little flick is very much a product of 1990s filmmaking.
Swan enters the bloodbath and immediately begins dispensing steel-jacketed justice with his custom-built automatic machine gun. After firing several rounds at his adversary, Swan takes down Duet, who promptly disappears when the survivors look away.
In the aftermath Swan reveals Duet is actually a crook named Felix who made a pact with a demon. Now they share the same body, same brain and call themselves “Duet.” Cute. The merger also makes Felix invulnerable.
Later, an answering machine message left by one of Swan’s informants reveals Duet is working for someone in the movie industry. Swan also gets a perturbed phone call from his client Vera. Unfortunately, when Swan arrives at their appointed meeting, he finds a dead Vera sitting bolt upright in the diner booth.
Swan discovers Duet was hired by a shady film producer named Blake who sought to stop Cant’s attempts to blackmail him and Vera. It seems the two were once adult film industry moguls who now fear their past will ruin their current celebrity status. Blake claims he hired Duet to rough up Cant, but it got messy and many people, including Cant, were killed.
A call from Duet lures Swan back to the precinct where we find the hybrid demon has miraculously found the time to kidnap Cant’s girlfriend and drag all of his victims out of the morgue and prop them up around the gory squad room. Swan and Duet tussle, Duet gets the upper hand, and the scene goes to black.
Jump cut to Swan dangling from a noose, his toes barely tapping the seat of an office chair. Like any good hard-boiled PI, Swan buys time by verbally sparring with his adversary. As Swan frees a blade secreted up his sleeve, Duet is offered a moment to monolog in best James Robinson fashion:
“I feel like a god. Can you believe I actually thought you were some kind of threat? Time came, you wandered in here like some kind of fool, leaping to the wrong conclusions –obviously wrong conclusions and I take you down 1-2-3. You and your big gun. It’s easy to make you out into something more than you are…more than human. A tattered human. So unlike a god, so unlike me.”
Duet reveals the assembled cadavers are jurors in a macabre, mock trial to rule on Swan’s worth as a hero. Duet taunts Swan, questioning his valor and capacity as a White Knight. “If I’m a coward,” says Swan, “Then let Felix come out and let’s Cha-Cha-Cha.” Felix accepts the challenge.
Duet’s beetle-browed demon face fades away, and Felix resumes control. Slicing his bonds, Swan stabs Felix in the neck but isn’t stealthy enough. Felix re-demonizes, becoming Duet once more. While Duet licks his wounds, Swan escapes with Cant’s girlfriend.
End scene. The story is continued in Firearm issue #0 included with the videotape. Roll credits.
Following Firearm, director Duane Doane’s creative output tended toward right-leaning narratives with his resume including collaborations with Kid Rock and Kirk Cameron on the feature film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Additionally, Doane directed numerous music videos for Grammy award-winning pop star Jason Mraz and documentaries like Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs Douglas Wilson and The Free Speech Apocalypse. He never directed a fantasy or superhero-related property again.
Thanks to his great physical stature, actor James Jude Courtney moved on to success with the Halloween franchise, portraying the murder machine Michael Myers in Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills (2021).
Issue #0 of Firearm opens with Swan infiltrating a Hollywood prop warehouse to retrieve Cant’s hidden blackmail material, now turned evidence. Mike Wieringo and Rob Haines’s artwork is deft and a treat for the eyes. The artists’ interpretation of Swan is scruffier and more weathered than his screen appearance, while Robinson’s writing gives the character a working-class poise lost to the video. With Firearm #0, Robinson confirms Swan is a Noir-style detective, but without the hardboiled nihilism or pervading existential dread of Chandler or Spillane.
The reader is immediately won over by Swan’s interior monologue. As he moves through the prop warehouse, Swan muses over the 3 Stooges and Abbott and Costello horror spoofs he loved as a kid. We discover Swan cultivates a healthy fondness for both highbrow and lowbrow culture, not too unlike Robinson’s Starman protagonist, Jack Knight. Swan is a character as much at home dissertating on the virtues of Frank L. Baum’s Oz books as he is quoting from George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde.
We soon learn that Duet has slaughtered Blake, leaving his son devastated, but no less hungry for justice. Swan finds out Cant’s blackmail plans didn’t involve Blake’s seedy past in the porn industry, but his current career as a producer of snuff films. Swan tracks the film crew to a private airfield hanger and learns the snuff films are actually part of a Satanic ritual with Blake’s son as the current sacrifice. The filmmakers summon the demon god Hakeldama while Duet waits in the wings. Before the demon can fully materialize, Swan swings into action, spraying bullets at the hooded coven and camera crew alike. Duet takes center stage, absorbs Hakeldama’s dissipating essence and transforms into a steroidal version of his former self complete with horns and cloven feet. Swan and the Duet are about to go head-to-head when the police arrive, and Swan’s adversary attempts to retreat. The enlarged demon is too big to squeeze through the hangar door, in desperation Duet changes back to Felix. Swan shoots Felix point blank, killing him.
Looking down at Felix’s lifeless body Swan muses, “Yeah, Funny. My main old enemy becomes an afterthought, him and his demonic power. He’s here. He’s deadly. He’s dead. All in a minute. Yeah, funny. For sure. Next time I want humor though, I think I’ll rent a video. Bud and Lou maybe or the Three Stooges.”
At 18 installments, plus a 0 issue, Firearm’s run was frustratingly brief but no less entertaining. Stories ranged from a cadre of psychotic cannibal Ultra’s forcing Swan to partake in a variant of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, to a virtual reality scenario surprisingly prescient of the Wachowski’s Matrix Trilogy still four years into the future. All substantial stories, but decidedly smaller in scope in comparison to the great Sturm und Drang of the Ultraverse as a whole.
In a comic book marketplace where key genre selling points were hyper-sexualized heroic figures with tiny feet, swollen extremities, pauldrons and pouches—lots of pouches, Robinson’s Firearm was a refreshing, man-on-the-street take on the anti-hero. Swan was a humble, unassuming character and the closest thing the Ultraverse had to an Everyman. Sadly, Firearm didn’t stand much of a chance as the comic’s debut was simultaneous to the death knell of Malibu Comics and the demise of the Ultraverse.
Image Comics’ arrival was as galvanizing as it was explosive with the nascent company quickly garnering a double-digit market share. At this time Marvel and DC had gone from a friendly clubhouse competition to being bitter competitors, a stance the arrival of Image only helped to invigorate. Marvel and DC determined the most efficient way to bolster their portfolios was not to squeeze out the competition but to consume them. In 1994 Marvel and DC both set their sights on Malibu. DC, believing they were handicapped by legacy characters and an impenetrable history, was impressed with the Ultraverse’s ability to impact the market with so many fresh, new characters. Fearing the possibility of DC and Malibu’s combined market share, Marvel stepped up to the bargaining table with an offer Malibu could not resist. The deal took place within 30 days.
For months following the merger, the public was led to believe the ruse that Marvel purchased Malibu in order to incorporate the independent company’s state-of-the-art digital coloring process. “There were a lot of rumors, but none of them made any sense,” says Marvel writer and editor Tom Defalco. “If you were interested in computer coloring, all you had to do was buy up-to-date computers. They also said the Malibu stuff appealed to an older audience than we did. That was bull. Nothing they said made any sense to me.” The truth was Marvel wanted to be number one and would eat anyone in their way, and they did.
Following a tepid attempt to weave together the two universes, Marvel canceled the entire Ultraverse line in 1995 with the promise of a forthcoming reboot. The publishers planned a crossover event called Black September in an effort to relaunch several of the Ultraverse’s most popular titles like Prime, Mantra andRune, but Firearm was absent from the meager ranks. By the end of 1996, in the shadow of their Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Marvel canceled all Ultraverse titles. Thanks to a tangled web of contractual obligations to multiple creators spanning video game, film, television, and merchandising rights, any future revival of Ultraverse characters has proven a quagmire into which no one wishes to slog.
Looking back, one has to admire the chutzpah of the Malibu marketing team. Their outside-the-box gimmickry in debuting Firearm as a live action video was unprecedented and had all the moxy of 1950s B-Movie mogul William Castle’s efforts to mine box office gold. If the man who rigged joy buzzers into theater seats for The Tingler had published comics in the 90s, Castle would have no doubt thrown himself into this particular stratagem with great gusto. Sadly, time has rendered the grand dreams of Mr. Castle and the Malibu Ultraverse mere footnotes in pop culture history.
In the expanded lore of the Marvel Universe, the Ultraverse now lingers in a reality called Earth-93060. Rumors are readers will be allowed to visit again one day, though borders are still closed. Hopefully Alec Swan still resides in that Earth’s version of Pasadena, reading Frank L Baum, watching Abbott and Costello, quoting Shaw and Wilde and doing his best to negotiate life as a Touchtone guy in a Walt Disney world.