Armagideon Time

Even the most casual readers of DC’s late 1980s output will likely have memories of the numerous house ads for the company’s equally numerous flood of “mature readers” titles unleashed during that period.

As I’ve mentioned before, sildenafil this wave of material resulted from a confluence of trends. On the publisher’s side, generic the direct market boom demonstrated that there was an audience for more “sophisticated” (as compared to some dudes in spandex waxing expositional and beating on each other for 22-odd pages) fare, while the critical and sales success of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns stoked a hunger for similarly huge hits.

On the aesthetic side, the direct market’s freedom from the Comics Code Authority combined with the possibility (real, theoretical or imagined) of a greater degree of creator ownership offered writers and artists the chance to break away from the mainstream superhero template and spread their creative wings — a longstanding desire expressed across many a Comics Journal interview from the years leading up to that era.

There is a crucial distinction between “having a story to tell” and “having a good — or even profitably mediocre — story to tell” which tended to get lost in the imitative euphoria of a booming market bubble. Given the opportunity to work outside the established confines of the dominant “all-ages” superhero model, the vast majority of creators rushed to embrace the equally hoary cliches associated with the fantasy and sci-fi genres.

Watchmen and Dark Knight were — at their core — superhero tales, but distinguished by exceptional levels of consideration and craft. In contrast, there’s an unmistakable sense that the folks behind DC’s late 1980s direct market sci-fi and fantasy books assumed shifting genres and tossing in bits of “mature” content (read: sex scenes and cuss words) was innovation enough…despite the end results resembling a farm league version of what Heavy Metal had been presenting the past decade and change.

The bulk of these works slipped past my teenage self at the time, save as a vaguely memorized house ads or “non-continuity” tagged entries in DC’s Who’s Who directory. My delvings into that particular sump came later, during my bulk back issue purchasing days of the mid-1990s when I attempted a forensic reconstruction of the funnybook scene of youth.

I was aided in my quest by a local shop’s handy gimmick of bundling entire runs of quarter bin books into a depressingly affordable packages, and one of those polybagged sets was the complete run of Lords of the Ultra-Realm

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, maybe Wikipedia’s description of the property will help jog your memory:

Lords of the Ultra-Realm is a six-issue comic book limited series that was created by Doug Moench, illustrated by Pat Broderick, and published in 1986 by DC Comics, followed by a 1987 special issue.

The comic was about a fictional realm that was based on medieval and modern stories. The realm was ruled by princes and some were evil and some were good. The comic was based on some legends and stories that was from myths. The comic contains dragons, wizards, knights, and princesses like medieval times. There was some controversy upon publication of the 1987 Special because of themes of incest.[citation needed]

Really, what more could I add to that painstakingly detailed write-up?

Well, I suppose I could offer a few more details.

Upon returning to the United States after thirteen years of captivity by and suspected collaboration with the Viet Cong, champion-boxer-turned-special-forces dude Michael Savage (no relation) finds his homeland transformed into an unfamiliar place where young street toughs hang out in shitty dives and hookers roam the streets of Manhattan with impunity. (Because these things simply did not exist in NYC prior to 1973, let me tell you.)

During a fight with some punk rockers (led by a magically disguised avarar of Wrath) at a local videogame arcade, Savage is hurled through a mirror and emerges in a mystical universe where godlike embodiments of humanity’s best and worst aspects are engaged in an unending battle. Savage’s arrival was no accident, as he had been tapped to replace the slain Falkon, Lord of Bliss, and restore balance to the so-called Ultra-Realm.

After getting a suitably metal makeover…

…Savage-Falkor sets about his vague quest to kill everyone who crosses his path while his journalist no-quite-ladyfriend and a couple of his buddies from the boxing gym roam the globe searching for answers to what happened and the rest of the avatars spout plotpoint gibberish devoid of any reader context.

Oh, and a minature slave girl embeds herself in Savage’s shoulder for some reason.

In the end, Savage murders all the other avatars, assumes the role of the Ultra-Realm’s godhead, and recreates his former siblings as male-female pairs in order to better preserve the status quo — a doomed move intended both to illustrate the futility of humanity’s quest to master its emotions and to set the stage for the psuedo-sequel tale contained in the Lords of the Ultra-Realm Special.

Get all that? No, you didn’t — because your sick little minds are still mulling over the incest “controversy” mentioned at the end of the Wikipedia quote.

Honestly, I don’t remember any controversy being discussed at my local comic shop or in any of the fan publications I read at the time of its release. That sort of incident would imply that anyone bothered to notice that Lords of the Ultra-Realm existed and had the infinite patience to decipher the nigh-impenetrable nonsense which passed for the Special‘s narrative.

The entire concept was little more than a high density accretion disc of borrowed themes and concepts — a dash of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle and its associated philosophies, a touch of Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, a reworking of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld aimed at adolescent (mental or actual) male demographic, and bushels of low-hanging fruits gathered from every other tree in the heroic fantasy orchard.

Between the contrived and highly derivative setting and the roster of hyperliteral archetypes with goofy names, what readers ended up with was an “adult” iteration of a licensed toy comic minus the actual toyline.

It’s clear from both the overblown Who’s Who entry for Lords of the Ultra-Realm and the work itself that Moench put a good deal of work into creating the lore for his fictional universe. But like a dungeon master who devotes the bulk of his time to meticulous world-building and not enough to narrative, he assumed that the end user would necessarily be as intimately familiar with and personally invested in the litany of fantasy babble as its creator was.

It’s an assumption that rarely pays off in prose works where a writer can have the luxury of devoting hundreds of pages to pitching the backstory. Within the restricted confines of a six-issue miniseries, it comes off as unreadable nonsense which does not favor for either the setting or the story.

It’s a sad state of affairs when freedom from flipping burgers is laterally interpreted as the freedom to slosh together supa-dupa-chupa-bowls. Visionary without vision, imaginitive without imagination, Lords of the Ultra-Realm is a hopeless mess of stale ideas and shoddy execution which has earned a place in the mythic realm of Nobody’s Favorites.

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5 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Realm of confusion”

  1. Prankster

    “It’s a sad state of affairs when freedom from flipping burgers is laterally interpreted as the freedom to slosh together supa-dupa-chupa-bowls.”

    Well put. I think this is one of the big reasons comics have often muffed their chances to expand their scope outside the mainstream, or the corporate hegemonies: whenever creators are gifted with genuine freedom, they tend to retreat to the same kind of stuff they’d been doing under the aegis of the big two, except maybe a bit edgier, or else they’d essentially rip off whatever was popular in genre fiction at the time. It seems like the 70s were a time that could support a lot of independent creators (I may not have the full picture here, but it certainly seems like there was a bit of an explosion of indie comics in that decade, based on some of the relics they left behind), but the result tended to be trite sword ‘n’ sorcery and space opera. Even some of the legitimately good stuff by established creators, like Wally Wood and Gil Kane, didn’t really shatter the boundaries of what was possible. The 80s did actually see some legitimately creative stuff out of the black and white boom, some of which lasted, but there was also a mountain of crap that’s been forgotten. The early 90s, well, we all remember what happened there.

    Ironically, I feel like there’s some very creative and original stuff floating around the margins of the comics world these days, creators who actually do have the potential to think outside the box, and a much blurrier sense of genre boundaries; it’s just that the current market makes it incredibly hard to support yourself as an independent creator and requires everyone to get a job at Marvel. So basically an inversion of the situation I was just talking about.

  2. Monzo

    Sid’s expression looks more Billy Idol than Vicious to me, but what do I know?

    Also: “Shatragon”? Really?

    Also also: so what was the deal with the incest, anyway?

  3. MRPRSN

    12 year old me was pretty into Pat Broderick. I may have eaten this one up for the art alone.

  4. Kid Kyoto

    I have fond memories of the art on this, I think it’s one of those books I hunted down on basis of the Who’s Who entry.

    Yeah, the incest… IIRC the mini series ends with all the various lords being split into male and female halves. Then the special is set years later and one of the good females has an affair with one of the evil males and it follows their kid.

    or something…

    And the kid’s human world counterpart was the product of incest.

    Or something…

    Yeah, this book really didn’t stick with me did it.

  5. E.T.Smith

    I similarly picked up a full run of Ultrarealms in the voluminous quarter-bins of the 90′s. My overall impression was it was trying to come off as deep and meaningful, but once I brushed past the self-designated Big Concepts, social issue buzwords and stentorian exposition, it was all pretty two-dimensional. The art wasn’t even that good, a lot of frilly flash on top of mediocre composition. The worst part though was the unsophisticated Right Wing Conservative subtext of the series. Savage is a hard man who knows you can only deal with punks and scum by beating their heads in, leaders have to be bastards because everyone else is, and one of the main villains is a goulash of homosexual stereotypes (cross-dresssing, drug-usisg, pedophile) who’s gayness is the sole reason he’s a villain.

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