Bizarro Back Issues: The Unlikely Adventures of the Grand Canyon’s Own Superheroes (1995)
The '90s were a magical time for the world of comic books. Thanks to a massive boom in popularity, readership and, let's be honest here, sales driven by speculators who genuinely believed that copies of Superman #75 were going to pay for an early retirement in a solid gold mansion, the idea of jumping onto superheroes to capture kids' attention bled into plenty of other industries. It became a golden age of PSAs and promo comics, with everything from Christian weightlifters to national parks being cast in superheroic adventures.
That's right, everybody: National Parks. It seems that sometime in the mid-90s, someone decided that the natural grandeur of the Grand Canyon was having a rough time appealing to kids in an age of rap music and Super Nintendos, and that what America's greatest landmark needed was a team of vaguely heroic characters to explain why littering is bad: Chasm and the Eco Squad!
Created in 1995 by writer Mark Iacampo and artist Doug Smedley, Jr., Chasm and the Eco-Squad --- which included Chasm's psychic pet falcon, Phantom --- appeared in at least four issues of Canyon Comics Presents. The short-lived series was published by the Grand Canyon Association, the nonprofit that runs all the non-essential parts of the park's tourist industry, and as you might expect, it's mostly about all the cool stuff you can see if you visit, and how you shouldn't just throw your damn soda can everywhere or toss rocks off the side of the trail, you jerks.
Oh, and also how you might be attacked and eaten by a mind-controlled cougar. But we'll get to that part in a second.
The first issue is focused almost exclusively on Chasm alone --- with a guest appearance from Wolf and his magic katana, which is every bit as amazing as it sounds --- but the rest of the crew doesn't show up until the second issue. It also tells their origin story, and considering that it's referenced in the first issue, I got the idea that it might've been meant to be put out first, but that the Grand Canyon wanted to do some Avengers-style world building with solo heroes before they really expanded into the National Park Service Shared Universe.
Either way, here's the short version: A bunch of people got powers from Mother Nature, represented here as an actual ethereal woman who hangs out at the Grand Canyon handing out super-powers and magic swords to local college students and sketchy bounty hunters.
The powers themselves range from the very specific to an arsenal of bizarrely vague abilities that seem like they might've been drawn out of a hat. Rex, an amateur paleontologist, can turn into any dinosaur, something that helps out a lot in #4 when he gets sent back to the Mesozoic to see the Grand Canyon when it was just a shallow river, but Chasm gets super-strength, the ability to speak to animals, a psychically linked bird pal, and a crossbow that shoots "no ordinary bolts," which seem to be able to do pretty much anything.
As for why, well, there are bad guys out there who are, for some reason, just hell-bent on destroying national parks. There's Roughcutt, who has chainsaws for arms, Ardent, an arsonist who "blazes with EVIL and would see the whole WORLD afire with the hate that burns through her own veins," a yeti-lookin' dude named Wylde Beest who is "a creature of DEATH, the embodiment of MAN's desire to KILL."
And then there's Litterbug. He does not put trash in its proper receptacles.
He's kind of the chump of the bunch, to be honest.
The leader of the bad guys is a revenge-crazed maniac named Dr. Arachnid, and after the Litterbug's plan to turn the Grand Canyon into the Grand Landfill is dealt with in a shockingly violent fashion, he takes over for the second half of the first issue.
At its heart, this story is just a big PSA comic about some standard Dos and Don'ts of hiking at the Grand Canyon: A couple of kids get understandably excited about seeing all the glorious majesty that the park has to offer and run down the trail ahead of their parents with no water on a very hot day, making sure to not talk to strangers and stay the hell away from rattllesnakes. For a lot of national park mascots --- and I'm looking at you here, Smokey the Bear --- that would be the end of it, and the drama of two kids almost dying of heat stroke because they didn't have a properly maintained canteen would be the driving force of the story.
With Chasm, it's more about the cybernetic spider-man trying to murder everyone by having them mauled to death by a mind-controlled cougar.
I think it's safe to say that Dr. Arachnid is way better at this whole supervillain thing than Litterbug was.
Fortunately for Chasm, he's joined in this adventure by one of his Eco-Squad teammates, Wolf, whose last name I am pretty sure is "Erine." Thanks to his enhanced senses and razor-sharp katana, he's one of the most formidable members of the team, but his loner attitude makes him difficult to work with! Say what you will, but the Grand Canyon Association knew what the kids of the mid-90s were into.
And it's a good thing he's there, too, because after the two heroes stop a landslide that was caused by a couple of teens playing a game of "let's huck rocks over the side of the Grand Canyon" --- arguably the single most realistic thing that happens in the entire series --- he's able to cut off the mind-control collar with a familiar but legally distinct sound effect:
And with that, Arachnid's scheme for puma murders is foiled, and I think we all learn a good lesson about what we should do if we ever visit one of our country's most beautiful wonders: Drink plenty of water, stay with your parents, and stick to the established trails.
If you don't, you might end up meeting a couple of actual superheroes and watching them fight a mountain lion with a magic katana, and I'm sure nobody would want that!