Ask Chris #253: Access the Amalgam Age Of Comics
Q: I found Bruce Wayne: Agent of SHIELD in a box of 50-cent comics. Great idea or terrible one? Fun new direction or misread of the character? -- @Keith_Frady
A: Oh, that one was a great idea, but not for the reasons you might think. See, Keith, what you have stumbled across is neither a misread of the character nor is it a bold new direction. You've just found yourself a piece of the Amalgam Age of Comics.
Originally published in 1996 and 1997, the Amalgam books were quite possibly the strangest mainstream superhero project that ever happened: A not-quite-series of 24 comics that mashed up Marvel and DC characters into weirdly amalgamated versions that were actually produced by Marvel and DC, and that frequently made absolutely no sense at all. And, as you might expect from the fact that this all happened when I was 14, I loved it.
The whole thing came as a strange byproduct of DC vs. Marvel, a series that itself is probably worth discussing as the exclamation point on an entire era of comics. It's one of those moments where it feels like you can put the pin on the calendar --- in the same way that I feel like you can definitively mark the end of the Silver Age with late 1970 and Jack Kirby's arrival at DC, I kind of feel like DC vs. Marvel was the book that ended the '90s.
Not the decade, you understand --- there were obviously four more years to get through before that would happen - but for the idea of "the '90s," that aesthetic that always comes to mind when we hear those words. If the early part of the decade was marked by those million-selling books and the rise of the annual Events that were geared at spiking sales, then the last half of it feels like something completely different. The launch of books like JLA, and Marvel's successful gamble at dragging itself out of bankruptcy, don't really feel like they belong alongside stuff like Extreme Justice and the launch of Image, you know? And for me, DC vs. Marvel feels like a pretty good place to mark the turning point.
What it all comes down to is that in an era that was defined by the Event, from The Death of Superman to Mutant Genesis to Knightfall, DC vs. Marvel was probably the biggest Event that could possibly happen, at least in concept. It's a similar idea to the one that I always talk about with Crisis On Infinite Earths: for all its flaws, it actually did what it said on the cover and changed everything forever.
DC vs. Marvel did the same thing. OK, it didn't change things forever --- it didn't change anything, other than to add a few new sentences to the Superman vs. Hulk argument that had been going on for thirty years --- but it delivered on a promise. It wasn't just two characters or even two teams meeting each other, it was an all-out brawl between two entire universes, and they let the fans pick the winners! That's huge!
I'm also pretty sure that was a mistake --- the voting part, anyway. I mean, it's generally a pretty bad idea to let us decide anything, even if it did give someone, somewhere, the flickering hope that Lobo could win a popularity contest against Wolverine. It's probably just best to let Kurt Busiek decide these things, which I suspect is why nobody really talks about DC vs. Marvel anymore and we all just agree that JLA/Avengers is the best possible version of that story.
Anyway, somewhere along the line, someone figured out that while the big fights between the characters were definitely the thing that was going to bring in readers, the unique opportunity provided by mashing up the two universes in the way that you have to do to get those fights actually provided you with a completely different opportunity: Taking that idea to the next level by mashing up everything.
Which is what they did.
The basic idea of Amalgam Comics --- so named because presumably "Combined Comics" was a little too on the nose - was that they'd take a Marvel character and a DC character (or a team) and mash them up into one. Iron Man and Green Lantern, for instance, became Iron Lantern.
Most of them followed that simple convention of just mashing up the names, too --- my personal favorite was Shatterstarfire - but occasionally, you'd get a book where they'd try to mash up the concepts and give them a new name, like Storm and Wonder Woman combining to form Amazon, and the truly inexplicable Wonder Woman/Punisher book, Bullets and Bracelets. Also, it's worth noting that while most of them were a simple A + B mashup, you'd also get one like Speed Demon, which combined the Flash, Ghost Rider and the Demon, or Dr. Strangefate, who was secretly Charles Xavier for reasons I still do not understand. Anyway.
It's a simple idea, but it's one that definitely grabbed my attention, even though I wasn't all that interested in DC vs. Marvel itself. These, however, twisted things into something that made me want to check them out, and what really made it work was how they were presented.
All the books were #1 issues (because why wouldn't they be), but they were created under the premise that these were just relaunches of titles that already existed, right down to having letter columns full of missives from fake fans talking about their favorite Spider-Boy stories from the past. As a result, instead of getting the origin of Iron Lantern or Thorion of the New Asgods, you're just getting that month's issue. They're presented as though you already know who these characters are, and they've even got cliffhanger endings to get you excited for the next issue --- which, of course, does not exist.
Unsurprisingly, Batman was popular enough to be featured in more than one title, despite the fact that doing more than one mashup of a single character doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The one you found, Chuck Dixon and Cary Nord's Bruce Wayne: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., was a pretty simple What If...-style story about Bruce Wayne being recruited by the government and fighting a mashup of Bane and Nuke, but the other, Legends of the Dark Claw, was next level bonkers.
It's been a while since I read it, but the one thing I really remember from Larry Hama and Jim Balent's take on what Wolverine would be like if he was Batman --- aside from Sparrow, the super-rad Jubilee/Robin mashup that I will defend to this day --- was that in his secret identity, Logan was an artist who made a ton of money selling paintings that looked like his claws. That is fantastic, to the point where I've never been able to decide if it's the best thing about Amalgam or the worst, but either way, the character was popular enough (again, no surprise there) to get a follow-up the following year in the form of Ty Templeton's Dark Claw Adventures, an "animated style" take on the character that I remember liking a lot.
Everything about the character just clicks into place perfectly, and it's got a twist to the plot that plays with familiar elements in a way that makes you really want to see the consequences for the characters, which might be the best thing you can say about a comic that was only ever meant to have one issue. They even sidestep dealing with it a year later by making the follow-up, Super Soldier: Man of War, a flashback book set in the Golden Age. It's well worth tracking down.
And unfortunately, "tracking down" is exactly what you'll have to do. Four paperbacks --- two each for the '96 and '97 runs of the Amalgam books --- were put out in the '90s, but other than that, there's not much there. Since the characters are all jointly owned by Marvel and DC, and since the competitive relationship between the two companies likely means that nobody wants to sit down and hassle with the legal stuff, getting a new version or a digital release doesn't seem very likely. Even so, it's not a tough run to put together if you're curious.
But maybe that's for the best. The thing that made me so obsessed with the Amalgam books back then was this idea that they were things that definitely should not exist, right down to frequently having names that no one would ever give to a character if the simpler (and pre-existing) options weren't already taken. Having the entire series wind up in dollar boxes as something that you can only find by stumbling across it and trying to get your head around why they exist actually seems pretty perfect.
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