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He’s a Touchstone guy in a Walt Disney World

Inspired by Greg’s Comics You Should Own (initially at his own blog, then at Comics Should Be Good and now on Buzzscope) and Bob’s My Collection posts at Four Realities, I thought I’d do something in between – comics from my collection that I thought deserved mentioning, in this instance, Firearm.

Firearm was part of the Ultraverse, the attempt by Malibu Comics Entertainment to create a new superhero universe, very closely modelled on the Marvel universe. It was the ’90s; everyone was doing it. However, Firearm was different – the hero wasn’t an ‘Ultra’ (the Malibu term for a being with superpowers.)

Firearm was the codename for Alec Swan when he was working for the British covert operations department, The Lodge. He had resigned and become a private detective, based in Pasadena, a job that caused him to come into contact with Ultras. Most of whom he didn’t like, due to his previous experiences and probably because he was British – you know how some of us Brits feel about superheroes (Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, front and centre).

Firearm was also possibly the first series written by James Robinson. Robinson would go on to Starman (and WildC.A.T.S, Leave it to Chance and others) and eventually Hollywood (where he would ruin League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for comic book fans) but here are the beginnings of some of his tropes in comics: a love of old America, pulp fiction, film quotes, John Woo and first-person narrative.

Apart from the series having a lot of gunplay, the Woo connection is seen in the first four-part storyline, American Pastimes, which is Hard Target but with Ultras as the bad guys, the rich Sportsmen, who also happen to be cannibals. Swan talks directly to the audience as if narrating his tales, in a nod to hard-boiled fiction but not a duplicate, which can be a little strange at times, but works well for the series. Swan is a Brit in the US, like James Robinson, allowing for authentic English slang (for the most part) to be used to give colour to an interesting character, so you get ‘git’, ‘stone the crows’, ‘strewth’, ‘tossers’ and ‘bleeder’, and that’s just in the first issue. (There’s even a reference to Carry On Screaming in his cry of ‘Frying tonight!’ in issue #4 which isn’t completely appropriate of the situation but is funny if you’re a Brit raised on the national institution that is Carry On films.) There’s also Swan professing his love for Pasadena, a prelude to Jack Knight love of Opal City in Starman, and there are obscure oddities, like an album of Japanese prints that are a precursor to Jack’s obsession with bizarre stuff.

The art for the storyline is provided by Cully Hamner (unfortunately only layouts on issue 4), using perhaps too many lines (it was 1993, after all) but displaying his cool and funky style that was seen recently on top form in Warren Ellis’s Red. He can handle the talking heads which appear regularly in a crime book and excels in the action sequences. I would have preferred to see him do the covers, rather than Howard Chaykin, an artist I love, because although Chaykin can draw an eye-catching cover, I don’t think his visualisation of him is quite right. And Swan has blonde hair, which is a deviation from Chaykin’s normal protagonist, who always has dark hair and therefore caused a problem. That said, it’s impressive that the first four issues all have a Chaykin cover adorning them.

Issue 5 is a talky issue, where Alec meets Ellen for the first time, an Ultra but with wings that are too small to enable her to fly, and they spend most of it chatting on a rooftop. This is a nice quiet issue, which leads into a crossover with Prime, which comes back to issue 6, but gets finished in Prime #10, which is slightly annoying, especially as I didn’t buy it (and didn’t want to). Issue 6 has nice Hamner art, especially the last third which is devoid of narrative or speech bubbles, and uses a bit of Swan’s background with The Lodge, which sets up a storyline for a few issues later, but is ultimately forgettable.

Issue 7, with a nice cover by Weiringo, to mask the not quite as nice interior art of Kirk Van Wormer, is one of the lesser one-off stories, as Swan goes on the trail of a husband who has taken his daughter away from him, but it does allow for some enjoyable voiceover from Swan (in text made of lower case as well as upper case). Issue 8 sees Robinson doing a tribute to the loyalty of dogs, which is a bizarre concept for a story, but just about works in context.

Issue 9 sees a return to form, with Hamner back on art duties (inside a cool cover), that has some cool gunplay and Swan waxing lyrical about Pasadena again, as he tracks down ultras trying to get their hands on some jewels, with the story flipping backwards and forward between the final shootout and the investigation, filtered through with Swan’s distinctive voiceover.

Firearm #13 and #16Issue 10 and 11 are a two-parter, the memory of which probably instigated this post, as it has some stunning art from Gary Erskine. I’ve been moaning about how his art seems subdued in the otherwise enjoyable Jack Cross, when I know he has done better and here is a prime example. Written pre-Matrix, this issue sees Swan tricked into a computer environment by his former employers, The Lodge, where he ends up in a cyberpunky Glasgow, shooting the shit out of lots of people in suits. It’s a ripping read, with lots of insanely detailed and disfigured artwork from Erskine on fire. He really makes Swan look like he’s seen action, as he has always been great at drawing scarred people, whereas other artists tend to make him a little prettier, as he is the hero. There’s a double page spread in issue 11 when Swan first sees the computerised Glasgow that’s quite stunning, and his fight scenes bristle with violence and dynamism – he’s a bit like a messier Geoff Darrow.

Issues 12 through 18 are the Rafferty Saga, the big story that Robinson had been building up to all along, as interludes referring to it had been appearing as early as issue 6. Issue 12 starts off sweetly, as we see Swan asleep in bed with Ellen from issue 5, but then becomes viciously brutal, as Rafferty kills off most of the ultras we’ve met in the interludes, as well as some new ones. Ben Herrera provides some cool art, but it’s still a lot of death for one comic, and it’s billed just as the prologue.

The Rafferty Saga begins proper in issue 13, where Swan is hired by the immensely rich dad of one of the ultras bumped off by Rafferty in the last issue. Rafferty then makes contact with Swan, telling him when and where the next hit will be, and developing the rules of the game that the two of them will be playing. Robinson is aiming for an updating of the Holmes/Moriarty conflict, with Rafferty saying how much alike they are. Swan goes to protect the next ultra to be assassinated, who his attacked by lots of goons in black, as we go into full Woo mode, even down to the ludicrous scene where Swan slides along peaches on the ground in a peach grove, allowing him to kill the remaining hired guns (and we’ll try to ignore the Arnie-like ‘I’m feeling peachy’ which pops up in the gunfight). This is nicely illustrated by Steve Carr, even if the first few pages are rather ugly. It all turns out to be misdirection, as Rafferty is the master criminal who has somehow poisoned his target.

Firearm #14 sees Alec in New York, where Rafferty has said he will kill two ultras. This leads to him saving Sludge, the Swamp Thing-like creature in the Ultraverse universe that lives in the Manhattan sewers, only for Rafferty to double-cross him with the choice of saving the sewers, leading to the death of another ultra. Meanwhile, the gunfight in the previous issue has lead to Swan becoming a media figure, as it is revealed that he is pursuing an ultra killer. Brian O’Connell’s art in this issue sways between capable and ropey, making you wonder why they couldn’t get a constant art team on the book.

The visual inconsistency is continued into issue 15, with Mike Edsey on art, which is a little rough in places. Another repeated aspect is the crossover with other Ultraverse titles. Rafferty appears in The Strangers #17, based on the cover art, and this issue sees the appearance of Night Man, a Batman-esque vigilante who doesn’t sleep and can see in the dark (or something; it sounds too bizarre to investigate further, especially as he is a late night radio DJ as well) and the group, Freex, who seem to be going for the X-Men vibe, who all live in San Francisco. This crossover is taken to the extreme when, on page 21, a footnote from Robinson tells you to read Freex #15 and Night Man #14, BEFORE turning over to the next page, which is perhaps the most bizarre instance of a comic company crossover I can recall. The story has problems in coping with this scale, which doesn’t really work well for the character of Alec Swan, with the exposition-heavy TV news segments disrupting the flow, Swan not doing anymore investigating and just reacting. The end sees him propose to Ellen over the phone, which is supposed to be sweet, but comes off a bit mawkish. Not the best book in the series.

Issue 16 sees a return to form. With a striking cover by Chaykin, and the stylish and assured pencils of Arne Jorgensen (in his early days as a bit of Quesada-clone), the history of Rafferty is revealed, sort of. It is told in a bizarre mix of voiceovers, as Rafferty tells his tale directly to the reader, only for another set of captions tell the true facts behind his version. It’s unclear whether the second voice is the author or something else, which makes for a strange read at times. Robinson links Rafferty back to his first storyline by having the remaining Sportsman being the funding behind Rafferty and, although not explaining the reasons completely, relates how Rafferty had an innate killing ability, honed and trained when he joined the army and ended up in special forces.

Firearm #17 sees Alec and Ellen get married, by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, naturally, and has that action film flaw of the master criminal doing something uncharacteristically stupid that leads to the final conflict with the hero. In this case, raiding the cathedral which is looking after the miracle baby that cures all illnesses (mentioned several times throughout different issues) in order to kill her, only for it to turn into a hostage situation, as he keeps ultras out by linking bombs to a device that detects ultra energy, and asks for Swan to come in alone.

Firearm #18 was the last issue for Robinson (last ever?) and sees the culmination of his ideas for Swan – a decent man who has done some unpleasant things, doing things for the right reason, whatever the odds. Walking into a place teeming with goons makes it seem highly unlikely that the hero would survive; one man against dozens are not good numbers, and the heroic bloodshed films of John Woo don’t usually have happy endings. Only, he is saving a baby that has the ability to cure people, so you know that Robinson can have his cake and eat it, by having Swan die bravely saving the child and have it reciprocated, for a happy ending. One of the reasons for Swan being such an interesting character is the voice that Robinson gave him, the English slang and the characteristics of a human being, which occupies a comic book version of the hard-boiled narrative without sounding corny. This is played to in the final issue, with the thoughts of Swan channelled through the gunplay action to full effect.

Firearm isn’t a perfect comic, by any means, with the changeable art and the necessity of interacting with the rest of the Ultraverse harming some of the storylines. However, a strong central character with a genuine personality, imbued with a love of the John Woo films, detective fiction and English slang (I wonder how many Americans knew what the insult was when Alec called someone a ‘merchant banker’?), made for an enjoyable series. Robinson seemed to develop the letter column style that would move into Starman, where he would want to chat about other things, not just the book to which you were writing, which made for a fuller experience (although, like Starman, that fell by the wayside too many times.) In it, he mentioned an annual with art by Hamner and Erskine that never saw light of day, unfortunately, as it would have dealt with the friendship between Alec and Ben, his cop buddy. In other material about Firearm, here is a two page story by Robinson and Chaykin in Ultraverse Origins, which provided some background on Alec Swan. There was also the video, billed as Firearm #0, which I have specifically not mentioned, as (a) I never got it and (b) it sounds an incredibly stupid thing, and the stills in the advert made it look like direct-to-video drek. But all you need to hunt down are the 18 issues to have yourself a good afternoon’s reading.

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