By Charles EP Murphy
Last time, we looked at the chaotic history of the Archie Comics superheroes. The early days as pioneering Golden Age adventure tales, attempts to copy Silver Age DC and Stan Lee in the 1960s, serious and continuity focused in the 1980s, two different runs by another company, digital-first YA tales, grim and violent crime… Almost anything has been done because the Mighty Crusaders have a ‘name’ value but not enough ‘canon’ to them to say this take, this tone, this backstory is ‘the’ one.
But of course, that could have been different if one of those takes had caught on. And there’s takes that never got to happen at all…
As we discussed, the “Mighty Comics” run was only short-lived but was infamous with fans of the era for its attempts at high camp and so-bad-its-good pastiches of Marvel.
But why does it exist like that? Well, a letter in Amazing Heroes #59 (reprinted in The MLJ Companion) mentioned one theory a comic historian received from fellow historian and comic creator Mark Evanier (Groo The Wanderer): that it was all for merchandising, which in the Batman days meant TV rights.
“Now Archie’s “Mighty Comics Group” begins to make sense: not as a real line of books, but as the appearance of one. With such key points as scripting by the man who created Superman and some two dozen superhero characters “just like Batman”, TV producers wouldn’t have known the difference. Presumably they would have confused “Mighty” with Marvel. The actual content of the books was virtually irrelevant… even sales figures were unimportant.”
The MLJ Companion notes too that the company was very eager to get Archie Andrews and his chums on the telly – as it finally did with The Archie Show AKA The Archie s in 1968 – and this may partly explain the several stories where Archie became a superhero.
Could this scheme have worked? The Archies was produced by Filmation, who had already been making DC Comics cartoons since 1966, and they were looking for other properties to adapt. Their agent Irv Wilson approached Archie Comics in late 1967 but at that time, Lou Scheimer felt Saturday mornings were “polluted with adventure shows”– so for Mighty Crusaders to get picked up, Wilson needs to contact Archie Comics earlier. And that seems to be an entirely plausible point of diversion.
The resulting show would likely follow the comic format of high camp and play up the heroes’ various problems for comedy value. That’s what the product they’d be licensing did, that’s what Batman was making money doing, and that would differentiate Mighty Crusaders from Filmation’s other super-shows.
The end result of this will be Archie keeps the comics going at least until the cartoon is off the air, which may be a while if it does well enough to be syndicated & rerun. It also means the characters used will now be irrevocably associated with camp and comedy – it won’t matter that they were two-fisted avengers in the Golden Age if an entire generation has seen them as figures of fun. Batman could survive a campy turn because he had far more comics before and since, which Fly Man had not. Every subsequent appearance is butterflied overnight.
A potential bonus of this is that this will be a model that fits nicely into the Archie house style. If any Mighty Crusaders cartoon is syndicated, it would be with The Archie sand other such shows, meaning the Crusaders are part of Archie’s universe and easy to bring back. Fans may lament that the Shield is forever associated with bad puns and failing at his day job, but he’ll be in a lot of comics and that’s what would count more.
A side effect of this is Filmation will adapt Archie Andrews’ own comic earlier – Scheimer is clear in interviews that he saw the property as something different to anything else airing on Saturday mornings. That means they’re not adapting it when the teens have formed a band in the comics, and not when the Monkees are breaking up with their former producer and Filmation can thus offer him a new manufactured band with the advantage of not being real people. Thus, the resulting cartoon will be different and “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies isn’t a #1 hit on the 1969 US charts.
Who Watches The Crusaders?
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen is well known to have been based on the old Charlton Comics heroes, which DC had recently purchased. While they initially meant to use the actual characters, DC asked Moore to develop pastiches instead so their new purchase would be useable elsewhere. The Question became Rorschach, Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and so on. All of this meant Moore could take far more liberties, and did, and the result is one of superhero comics’ canon works.
But Moore told Comic Book Artist #9 that his initial thought was simply: “Wouldn't it be nice if I had an entire line, a universe, a continuity, a world full of super-heroes—preferably from some line that has been discontinued and no longer publishing—whom I could then just treat in a different way.”
And his first thought was the Mighty Crusaders, who he was aware of from the few copies that had made it to the UK in the 60s. As far as he knew, he says, nobody was doing anything with them, and that meant DC might be able to pick them up.
DC bought Charlton in 1983, the same year Archie was starting the Red Circle Comics imprint – after John Vincent Carbonaro has been working with them. Archie Comics were reportedly unsure about dipping their toes into the direct market, so if Carbonaro hadn’t approached them in 1981 and become a known figure they could work with, this may not have happened. And as we know from OTL, Archie would be happy to license their characters out to DC if they weren’t using them.
So, what happens then? The resulting Mighty Crusaders series would be shocking and controversial, and influence many other comics. But it wouldn’t be Watchmen: the plot, the themes, and the famous nine-panel-grid structure all came during development. If this is an ongoing story, it also won’t be a ‘maxiseries’ that turns out to be the perfect shape for a trade paperback that will sell gangbusters forever and ever in bookstores. The exact influence it will have will be different.
No Watchmen also means no issue between Moore and DC when he feels the company have screwed him out of ownership – he would never expect to own Mighty Crusaders. This would delay his departure from the company, which may mean Twilight of the Superheroes, discussed in a previous article, is back on the cards.
What would the plot be? Moore’s original idea was:
“The 1960s-'70s rather lame version of the Shield being found dead in the harbour, and then you'd probably have various other characters, including Jack Kirby's Private Strong [the short-lived 1959 Shield revival], being drafted back in, and a murder mystery unfolding. I suppose I was just thinking, "That'd be a good way to start a comic book: have a famous super-hero found dead." As the mystery unravelled, we would be led deeper and deeper into the real heart of this super-hero's world … It didn't matter which super-heroes it was about, as long as the characters had some kind of emotional resonance, that people would recognise them, so it would have the shock and surprise value when you saw what the reality of these characters was.”
This is similar to part of Watchmen, but there’s no character with supreme powers, no inspiration from Steve Ditko’s objectivist politics, and very different archetypes in the cast. The murder of the Mighty Comics Shield, an unemployable sad sack who was the son of a Golden Age legend, will lead to a different type of story than the murder of a far-right jackboot. Lancelot Strong being cited as a character could mean he’ll be taking Rorschach’s role as investigator – and investigating the murder of a man who used the same costume and name as him, no less. The idea of a once-famous superteam who turned out to be grubby and have odd, venal reasons for being heroes will be kept but instead of the wartime era Minutemen, it would be the 1960s Crusaders, which leads into themes of the 60s counter-culture and baby boomers getting older.
And three characters stand out as people Moore would mine a lot of material out of: the Web, middle-aged man in a fractious marriage trying to recapture his glory days; Fly Man, a young child and orphan who transforms into an adult superhero and is still doing it now his alter ego is an adult (shades of Marvelman abound); and the original Shield, who knew J Edgar Hoover and did work for the FBI, and Alan the anarchist would surely have views onhat.
The outcome of this is that the Mighty Crusaders will be famous heroes with a fanbase – but a fanbase specifically for the Moore/Gibbons revamped version. Any adaptation in other media would lean towards that, and so would future runs. That could potentially see them sold off to DC, as it would no longer fit Archie’s brand. And that means they inevitably become DC Universe characters, possibly very soon due to Crisis on Infinite Earths, with the 1960s Crusaders filling in the timeline gap between the Golden Age and Superman appearing in 1986…
Spectrum Is Green
In 1989, Archie Comics editor-in-chief Scott Fulop decided it was time to try again with the superheroes in the direct market. He planned for this Spectrum Comics sub-imprint to bring back the Fly, the Fox, Jaguar, and the Shield, as well as the Hangman – a vigilante as brutal as that implies – and Mister Justice, a royal Scottish ghost turned superhero. Creators contacted were a mix of big names and rising stars. And as Fulop told The MLJ Companion, they were going to be “keeping just their names and concepts, throwing the rest out the window”.
So far, so sensible.
But Spectrum Comics was going to be aimed at the direct market readers who’d bought Watchmen, Frank Miller, Mike Grell’s urban vigilante revamp of Green Arrow, and the like. The Hangman was a crime-horror whose hero may be a dead man, out for vengeance on the gangster Kadaver who deals a drug made from murdered people.The Fly, under Scott Englehart and Michael Bair, would seem to be redoing the old Kirby-and-Simon origin where young Troy is given magic superhero powers by an emissary of the alien Fly People – but it’s a trick to open the way for alien invasion, and the powers kill the bearer. Each issue features a new Fly in a race against time to stop the invasion. Rising star Jim Valentino told MLJ Companion that some notes for The Fox were reused for his Image creation ShadowHawk – a back-breaking, HIV positive urban vigilante.
And while we don’t know anything about the plot of The Shield, we do know Rob Liefeld was tapped to draw it – and Fulop really, really wanted him to do it.
What killed Spectrum Comics? It wasn’t lack of interest from the direct market. Kelley Jones, since the artist for Sandman: Season of Mists and Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, told Companion that the orders were far higher than expected, which was attributed to previews of his moody, horror-based art. “They were able to get 400,000 orders … The next week I was told it was cancelled as of then because the art was too horrifying to the publisher.”
Valentino had heard the same story from Fulop, “they had no idea what they were getting into and put a halt to it when they found out” – while company co-owner Mike Silberkleit put out a press release at the time, titled “Archie Comics takes a stand against excessively violent comic books”. He said “the result did not meet our standards”. This meant eating a $25,000 production loss.
In MLJ Companion, Jon B. Cooke notes that Silberkleit was extremely worried in ’89 that the industry was going too far with darkness, violence, and sex, and told New York Times Magazine “I’m always afraid that someone’s going to come down hard on the industry”, as had happened in the 1950s. But what really tipped the scales, according to contemporary reports from Washington Post and Amazing Heroes, was that news of Spectrum Comics reached the evangelist group Focus on the Family, and their newsletter told concerned parents to write to the Code. One hundred letters showed up, urging stricter censorship (and one ‘concerned citizen’ wrote he hoped to meet Code administrator Dudley Waldner in Heaven)
One hundred letters from a group that wouldn’t buy the comics anyway – and may not even buy regular Archie’s Pals and Gals– may not seem much, but it was enough to panic a man who remembered the 50s, and (as a Marvel executive told Washington Post at the time) probably was getting cold feet when the last two superhero outings had failed. Why risk the company for that?
This makes Spectrum Comics easy to bring into being: Focus on the Family doesn’t notice it, or less people write in, or Silberkleit thinks those 400,000 pre-orders for The Hangman make it worth the risk. But it does mean it’s harder to keep Spectrum Comics going, as Archie Comics may panic as controversy builds and junk the line. Most likely, this doesn’t last very long. The few titles already in the works may come out and that’s it. The comics will likely be held up as good work, and Archie junking them so soon after junking Red Circle may doom any real interest in their superheroes. Why bother caring if Archie Comics won’t?
One big impact will be on Impact (ho ho) – even a short-lived Spectrum Comics means DC won’t look to the Crusaders, as the brand isn’t good for all-ages now, and will instead want to license another fallow series. DC had already looked at Gold Key’s old heroes and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. The Agents were tied up in legal fees and Gold Key’s rights owners were holding the rights until Jim Shooter’s future Valiant Comics got their funding, due to professional ties Shooter had at the company. So Impact needs to find something else, and where is there? Does it not happen at all?
But there’s a bigger change for 1990s comics than even that, and it’s that Liefeld and Valentino would be working at Spectrum.
If Liefeld is doing The Shield, Liefeld likely isn’t available to take art duties on The New Mutants. That means he won’t use ‘Marvel method’ – where the artist works off an outline and the dialogue comes later – to massively alter it and bring in all new characters like Cable. That means no X-Force, one of the biggest hits of the early 1990s. Liefeld will likely get himself over to Marvel Comics anyway, as will Valentino, but what title will become his signature one?
And if you delay his explosion onto the mainstream, do you delay the point where Image Comics is created? Part of the reason it started when it did was that Liefeld had a falling-out with Marvel when he tried to do an independent comic with a big X in the logo.
Even delaying Image by a few months has massive repercussions. The Sequart documentary The Image Revolution (2016) reveals the founding four – Liefeld, Valentino, Todd McFarlane, and Erik Larsen – made their first move when McFarlane and Liefeld were going to a comic art auction. They used that trip to have the four collectively quit and to see if they could get any other ‘name’ artists to leave with them. That led to Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, and Marc Silvestri being brought in because Lee was in town then, Portacio shared a studio with Lee, and McFarlane happened to bump into Silvestri. It would be very easy for a different group of artists to be assembled. Does Kelley Jones become part of the original Image crew due to his big sales from Hangman and knowing Liefeld & Valentino through Spectrum?
And delaying Image Comics has a knock-on effect on the comic market crash – their debut helped supercharge the speculator market and brought in other companies, and it also led to storylines like Death of Superman as Marvel and DC tried to keep up. The market is due for a crash, but it may take a different shape, hurting different companies, coming after different storylines. If it butterflies away Marvel buying Heroes World Distribution so it can distribute its own comics, that butterflies away another major upheaval and Diamond Distribution gaining a monopoly…
Sonic The Hedgehog Presents…
Around 1998, Jim Valentino came back to Archie due to their Sonic the Hedgehog comics, covered previously, – his sons, like all right-thinking 90s kids, were big Sonic fans. Doing several stories for them (including a crossover with Image Comics!) meant he had a working connection to the editors. This led to conversations between him,Soniceditor Justin Gabrie, and editor & long-time Mighty Crusaders fan Paul Castiglia about an attempted revival of the Crusaders.
Castiglia had overseen a feature of the company’s new website that was devoted to the superheroes and informing young readers about their old exploits, and would oversee various ‘Know Your Heroes’ PSA features in comics that recapped various origins in the Batman: The Animated Series art style. (Allegedly these were to help kids remember to know emergency numbers and not at all for trademark reasons) Once Valentino got involved, things took shape.
The comic would have seen Castiglia and Valentino as creators and a brand new team: the Shield and Jaguar would be the senior members, alongside gambling-themed vigilante Black Jack, the Comet’s daughter, and a new Steel Sterling, “a Hulk-sized farm boy” as Valentino put it, all in the DCAU style. This never reached the formal proposal style as, in Valentino’s words, “the publishers didn’t want to do it, having been bitten every time they entered the super-hero arena”, and Gabrie felt Archie wouldn’t license it to Image Comics after the failure of Impact.
But what if Gabrie had asked his bosses if they’d license it to Image and they’d agreed?
It’s a new Image superhero comic by Jim “ShadowHawk” Valentino and also features names recognisable to nostalgic teenage Impact fans, so it’s going to sell at least moderately good numbers. It may sell enough to have spinoffs, and to justify renewing the license, which means it becomes the first Crusaders take since the days of The Fly to run for more than two years. This becomes the Crusaders take as it’s the only one to stick and the only one younger readers have seen.
Castiglia has mentioned to MLJ Companion that he has “very specific ideas for a Crusaders re-launch” and these would surely come up. A known idea is that one team member would leave and form their own splinter team. In the world of comics, that can mean spinoff titles. And as long as sales stay good enough to justify a license, Image’s Crusaders will continue to come out. New-to-Image creators like Robert Kirkman may end up working on it on their way to big things.
It’s also possible that Archie sees these sales and tries to get the license back so they can have them sales. They might then utterly biff it and once again, a new take on the Mighty Crusaders is killed. They might also not biff it. If not, we would see at least one superhero comic coming out from Archie each month, just another part of the Archie Adventure Series with Sonic the Hedgehog. Likely some of the creators on Sonic end up on Mighty Crusaders too – in OTL, artists like Steven Butler and James Fry did help with “PSA” strips of the Crusaders. As in OTL, this means Ian Flynn is going to end up on the Crusaders if he’s around and pitching for Sonic.
These two outcomes are pretty tame alternate timelines – ‘a comic comes out, it sells, it keeps coming out’ – and promises nothing more than consistent all-ages superhero comics. But kids need consistent all-ages material to become adult comic fans and creators. If Mighty Crusaders is still being published in 2020, the writers and artists may be some of the young fans from 1998.
This article is about the Mighty Crusaders, but it could have been about the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, or the Gold Key characters, or various pulp heroes like Ms Fury, or the IPC adventure heroes like the Steel Claw and the Leopard of Lime Street. The industry is littered with characters that did okay in the past and whose revivals have not always worked as well commercially, or at least not for long.
But they’re properties with names and maybe –maybe– they’ll make money. As of the time of writing, Rebellion is several years into a revival of those IPC adventure characters. It may work, it may not. Maybe another stab at the Mighty Crusaders in a few years will work, at least for long enough.
If it doesn’t, what we’re left with is a microcosm of the US comic market and its shifting trends and tastes – from high camp to gritty urban violence to young-adult cartooning – and the next revamp of the Crusaders may tell us what the comic trends of 2020 are…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.