MMM/Ultraverse: The Strangers were Heroes before Heroes was cool

This is the first in a series of Ultraverse spotlights, and fittingly we kick off with a comic about the start of a new age of super-heroes! Writer Steve Englehart was good enough to chime in on some of his favorite creations.

Imagine a world just like our own. Normal people living normal lives. Then one day a rare celestial event occurs, and dozens of people learn they have super-powers.

Sounds like the plot of Heroes? They were The Strangers, the team that jumpstarted the age of the Ultra in 1993!

Background:

Malibu Comics was a growing force in the industry in the early 1990s.

They were producing licensed comics like Tarzan, Alien Nation and Star Trek, were distributing indie hits like Rust and Evil Ernie, supporting early American manga series like Ninja High School, sold translated manga like Captain Harlock and perhaps most importantly, helped kick-off Image Comics.

Chris Ulm and Malibu set out to create a writer-centered line of super-hero comics, and they found some of the industry’s best. Avengers and Batman-veteran Steve Englehart was approached at a San Diego Comic Con about the idea, and he what he found in the Ultraverse was a place to try out new ideas.

One of the first, was The Strangers.

The story:

“I wanted to explore a large, diverse group of normal people who were suddenly super-powered. Each had a different power – some useful, some not – but the idea was the normalcy of these people suddenly thrust into a new form of existence, in our real world.”

In this case, that meant a bolt from the blue would “jumpstart” super-heroes, starting with a group of literal strangers in downtown San Francisco.

There were 63 people in the vicinity of the cable car (and one unfortunate guy driving by) when a strike of apparent lightning struck. They didn’t realize it, but each one had been granted a power. Now they had to figure out what to do with it.

“Some early Marvel heroes had done something similar, but as individuals – and as a group, the FF consisted of trained astronauts – but I don’t think a large group of normal people had been done before. Several other series have done it since, of course. And the other factor was, this WAS the normal world; there were no superheroes in the Ultraverse before the Strangers were created, so they had no templates to draw upon. That was the coolest part of the UV – everybody in that world had to make it up as they went along.”

That meant the book could include teenagers, college students, nursing home residents and sci-fi staples like androids (or gynoids) and subspecies of humanity – anything was game.

But this was part of a larger universe, so with that in mind, The Strangers helped kick off the concept of a universe in which “Ultras” (super-humans) were starting to come out of the woodwork.

“I just thought that if I had the Jumpstart in STRANGERS, which essentially began the Ultraverse, it would be silly to have a second event as well. So I tied Johnny to that event, and since they all lived in San Francisco, their paths crossed from time to time. Their most overt crossing took place when I tied their ANNUALs together, and that happened because I needed a lot of space to tell the huge story I was into.”

The Strangers’ origin tied into several other Ultraverse mainstays, and their story became a central part of the Ultraverse.

They even got an animated spotlight in the Ultraforce animated series.

Abilities:

Each Stranger was unique, and each had distinct powers. This could be anything from rearranging atoms to super-speed.

A few Strangers were not part of the Jumpstart event, or started out as something more than human before the jolt, but all were affected in some way.

Why haven’t the characters shown up again?

And that’s the tricky part. The Ultraverse – including The Strangers – was purchased by Marvel Comics about a year after the comics first hit comic shelves. Marvel initially put a big effort into promoting the books, even sending Marvel favorites like Juggernaut and the Black Knight over to the Ultraverse to support the heroes there, but after the various series were cancelled, the characters have been practically persona non grata.

Englehart feels Marvel is hesitant because of contractual obligations to Ultraverse creators, but he wants to see a return of to the stories.

“I have argued that 90% of something is better than 100% of nothing, but Marvel does not want to set the precedent.”

How could the characters be brought back?

“In 2000, Marvel asked me to bring the major characters of the UV into the Marvel U, and I decided to call THEM ‘The Strangers’ because they would entering a new U just like the original group had – and this U would be even stranger because it was an established U full of superheroes, none of whom knew the UV heroes, and vice versa. I was really interested in guys who had proved themselves but had no cred in the MU, and who had no idea who Spider-Man was and so accorded him no cred. The meshing of the two U’s would have been amazing.”

For whatever reason, the series didn’t materialize, but Englehart hopes the characters have their day again.

“That group I put together of the top UV characters was really strong, and none of them duplicated existing Marvel heroes. They would be a whole lot better than trashing the existing Marvel heroes to create ‘new’ groups.”

“They could publish the UV tomorrow if they wanted to. […] My solution was to bring them right into the MU, so that’s obviously my favorite. DC’s Earth-1 to Earth-5000 have nothing on the UV when it comes to conflicting realities.”

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3 comments

  1. I like dThe Strangers but I always remember one of the characters turning to Zip-Zap and saying, without sarcasm, “you’re really into fashion, aren’t you?”

    For those who don’t know, THIS is what Zip-Zap was wearing at the time:

    Bottom left. In the shades. And the shorts. And the overcoat. Yeah.

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