Bizarro Back Issues: The Power Rangers Get Extreme (1996)
This week, Boom Studios --- which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a company I've done some writing for --- announced that they'd acquired the rights to Power Rangers with plans to launch a new series sometime this year. It's pretty exciting news, but at the same time, the news about a bunch of teenagers with (shockingly positive) attitudes coming to comics always gets me a little bit down, because it reminds me of one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of the franchise.
See, this isn't the first time that the Power Rangers have made an attempt at conquering the world of superhero comics, and there was a time when they only made it through one issue with a story that was more notable for the books that it advertised and never came out than what happens in the issue itself. The year was 1996, the comic was Power Rangers Zeo, and the man who had the license... was Rob Liefeld.
As far as I can tell, the partnership between the Rob's Extreme Studios and the Power Rangers only ever produced one comic book: Power Rangers Zeo #1, released by Image in 1996. I actually picked it up a few weeks ago at a convention without knowing it was suddenly going to become relevant again, and it's a pretty interesting artifact of its time.
The book itself is completely Robless, produced by the team of writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum and Todd Nauck, which, in retrospect, is kind of the perfect team for a Power Rangers book. The Bierbaums were, after all, best known at the time for their work on DC's Legion of Superheroes, and two years after this issue, Nauck would be launching Young Justice at DC, probably the era's best-known teen superhero title.
Admittedly, at the time, Nauck's style was a little more influenced by the studio's typical emphasis on super-jacked muscles for its heroes...
...but that's actually pretty typical of American Power Rangers merchandising. Just head out to the local store and check out the action figures --- that Red Ranger Legacy figure they did a year ago looked like friggin' He-Man getting ready to cosplay at Power Morphicon.
Either way, you could do a whole lot worse than giving a Power Rangers comic to that creative team in the mid-'90s, and they actually do a pretty solid job with it. The old saw about comics is that, compared to TV and film, there are far fewer limitations on what you can do. There's no special effects budget to worry about, no extra cost for packing a scene full of extras and no danger to pulling off the biggest stunts you can imagine, but with Power Rangers, there's a whole other layer of limitations for the show. They are, after all, building their show around existing footage --- in this case, footage from Choriki Sentai Ohranger --- and that's going to limit your options even if you're not dealing with a show that has a pretty rigidly defined formula.
Admittedly, now that I'm actually thinking about it, it would've been pretty awesome if the story was going along as normal and then suddenly the fight scene was lifted from a black-and-white manga that you had to read right-to-left, but I'm also pretty sure that would have been the worst possible decision they could've made if they were trying to go for the show's audience. So freed from the restraints of the show, the Bierbaums and Nauck actually do a pretty good job of doing something new by tying the story in Zeo back to the previous years of the show:
It's exactly the kind of thing that the show couldn't do, or at least that they wouldn't do until the big finale of Power Rangers In Space a few years later. It's a really compelling idea, especially when you throw in the fact that their first issue features the Rangers ostensibly teaming up with Rita and Lord Zedd, converting the Megazord into a rocketship, and then going to space to fight an entire army of bad guys on another planet with fighter jets and karate.
That's... that's like everything I've ever wanted in a comic, and they still have time for some romantic tension between Tommy and Kat.
He keeps calling her "Katherine," though, which seems weirdly formal, especially when you consider that she used to be an actual cat. It's a long story.
Anyway, while the art's definitely a product of its time, it's actually a pretty solid Power Rangers story --- well, the setup for one, anyway. Despite the promise of a thrilling battle for the power of the original Rangers that would continue in the next issue...
...as near as I can tell, that next issue never came out. And neither did the books that were promised in the ads after the story.
The most notable was, of course, a crossover between the Power Rangers and the Rob's own Youngblood, which had not one, but two issues advertised before it vanished into the ether of the late '90s implosion:
And that would have been amazing. I've mentioned before that I've grown into a genuine and unironic love of Liefeld's energy, and seeing him take on the Power Rangers would have been a sight to behold. It would've been the ultimate example of an American version of the concept, and I don't think I'm the only one who thinks so, either.
In fact, there was a recent show in Japan, an adult-oriented Super Sentai spinoff about fans who were able to transform into an "unofficial" team of Rangers through the power of deluding themselves into being heroes called Hikounen Sentai Akibaranger, and there's an episode where they find themselves fighting a couple of American "Powerful Rangers" who insist that the series is actually an American invention, not a Japanese one
And when the source material for the Powerful Rangers shows up, well, let's just say that the art style is pretty familiar, right down to that mist obscuring the feet.
There is, however, one last interesting piece of the puzzle in the pages of Power Rangers Zeo. It seems that Extreme's deal with Saban didn't just include the Power Rangers. Apparently it also included another title that didn't come out, one based on their attempt at capitalizing on the success of the Rangers by producing a similar show, Big Bad Beetleborgs, which would have featured the same creative team:
And folks, if y'all don't want to see a comic by Rob Liefeld where a bunch of kids get super-powers from an Elvis Genie who lives in a haunted house, then I don't even know what to tell you.