Bizarro Back Issues: The Strange Saga of Combo Man (1996)
If you were reading comics in 1995, then there’s a pretty good chance you saw Combo Man. I suspect that for anyone around my age, just the sight of the ad above is enough to trigger a massive wave of nostalgia for that very, very specific time when Lady Octopus was debuting and we weren’t sure just whose side the Scarlet Spider and his hoodie were on. If, however, you were doing something better with your time than reading about the Clone Saga or how Adam X (THE X-TREME!) might be the fabled third Summers brother, a little explanation might be in order.
Combo Man was originally created as the focus of a weird little advertising campaign and contest built around Combos™, a snack food that I still crave with all my soul on road trips and exactly zero other times. To celebrate the revolutionary combination of flavors (pretzels and “cheese,” together at last!), Combo Man was built out of slices of Marvel’s most prominent characters, one stacked on top of the other. And really, that doesn’t quite fit — if you’ve ever eaten a Combo, you know that there’s a center of delicious FlavorPaste™ with a cracker wrapped around it. So really, it should be, like, Wolverine’s Adamantium skeleton wrapped in Captain America’s serum-enhanced muscles underneath Hulk’s gamma-irradiated skin under Iron Man’s armor with Ghost Rider’s hell-cursed leather jacket on top. But for some reason, they decided to go for a version that didn’t require a totally gross-looking cutaway.
I was just about the right age to demand that my knowledge of comics be tested, and I remember obsessing over this guy trying to figure out which piece belonged to who. Most of ’em are pretty easy — even if it took me a minute to realize that he has all the navel-related powers of ’90s Armored Daredevil — but I’m still not quite sure whose thighs those are supposed to be. And those feet — wait, are those Gambit’s dumb metal boots?!
Oh man, they are! Finally, I have conquered Combo Man.
Unfortunately, it’s about 17 years too late to claim my prize, which is a real shame. I’m not much of a hat guy, but there’s a pretty good chance I would’ve made an exception for this:
Or if I was really lucky, I could’ve claimed the ultimate prize: The Combo Man varsity jacket:
There is a time in my life where I would have been unironically psyched beyond all reason to own a coat with genuine leather sleeves and a fully embroidered back piece featuring an advertising mascot that possessed all the powers of Venom’s crotch, the Human Torch’s knees, and Carnage’s funnybone. And that time is September 5, 2013.
Now, the fact that this jacket exists (and can currently be purchased on eBay for a cool hundo) isn’t the weird part. The whole idea was, after all to raise brand awareness and get kids interested in the x-treme flavor combinations of two snacks at once and getting 14 times the pitching power of just putting a single X-Man on a can of Chef Boyardee, and there’s no better way to do that than with a jacket that’s sure to get noticed, if only because nobody had ever actually seen the Silver Surfer’s shins in the medium of embroidery before. The crazy part is that they actually did a comic about this dude.
Combo Man #1 was put out in ’96 as a tiny little eight-page ashcan-sized jobbie, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the primary reason for this was the order form on the back that allowed radical snackers to fork over five bucks for a Combo Man t-shirt left over from the original contest. That said, the story is just crazy enough to be hilariously entertaining, and that really shouldn’t be a surprise: It was drawn by Hector Collazo, probably best known his work as an inker on various Marvel titles of the time, but it was written by legendary writer and editor Mark Gruenwald.
You know, the guy who wrote Squadron Supreme and had a ten-year run on Captain America? That’s who they got to tell the origin story of Combo Man.
And that might actually be the craziest thing about it: It is definitely an origin story in the classic Marvel Style, eight pages that set up Combo Man, explain how he got his powers and pit him against a villain, as though we are ever going to see him again. Although honestly, it would not surprise me if Gruenwald had a 12-issue arc planned out for this dude.
So here’s how it goes down: young Rick Wilder is being initiated into a gang of teenage ne’er do wells, and he’s given the task of breaking into a chemical laboratory where his teacher moonlights in order to steal a copy of the midterm. Apparently nobody in this gang got the memo that in the Marvel Universe, breaking into a chem lab is just asking for trouble, but if you’re willing to risk the Punisher for the sake of your GPA, I guess you’re liable to do anything.
Despite his unsavory deeds, Rick’s basically a good kid, which we know because the very thought of doing crime is making him indulge in a little nervous eating:
Combos™: The Flavor You Need To Get Through A Night Of Crimes!
It’s worth noting that Rick has a bag full of comics featuring all the Marvel superheroes, even though he definitely exists within the Marvel Universe. That’s not entirely out of the ordinary (Marvel Comics exists within the Marvel Universe and has since Lee and Kirby showed up in Fantastic Four back in the ’60s, and Captain America used to have a day job drawing Captain America), but later you see an issue of Punisher, and after all those stories about John Byrne having to follow the FF so that he could accurately report their stories, I really want to know about the dude who got that gig.
Also, Rick eats one Combo™. One. Who does that?
Anyway, as you might expect, this also happens to be the night that AIM is raiding the chem lab:
Because why wouldn’t they be?
Rick gets zapped with Vaguely Defined Comic Book Energy, and since he’s carrying a bag of Combos™ and a stack of Marvel Comics, he gets all the powers of all the Marvel characters at once, combining into one superhero.
But alas, the transformation is only temporary, and is triggered every time he eats a Combo™. Since he only had the one bag — or at least, I assume he only had the one bag, he might’ve had a whole case of ’em stuffed in there — Combo Man is theoretically limited in however many times he can transform. Personally, I am legitimately hoping that someone at Marvel is building a crossover around this right now. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Age of Ultron had ended with someone finally opening that last hermetically sealed bag and popping a Combo™ to transform?
For now, though, he fights the Super Adaptoid:
And seriously, as dumb as this comic is, that’s kind of awesome. The kid with the powers of every Marvel character fighting against the evil robot that also has those powers? C’mon. It’s pretty great.
Combo Man manages to trounce the Adaptoid pretty handily with the interesting strategy of just hitting him really, really hard, and our story is brought to a close. We have now seen the power of Combos™, and if we’re lucky, we’ve even learned a little something.
To be honest, I kind of want to go for a drive so I have an excuse to eat those things now. But more than that… I still really, really want that jacket.