I write comic book reviews that NOBODY has ever asked for!
Hey there, CBR! Back from doing a favor for a friend by writing a dozen "Retro Reviews" for a new site he's starting that he can throw in to plug holes when he gets behind on new stuff. They'll all eventually end up here from time to time after he uses them first.
Anyway. . .
Let's get into some Longbox Junk!
IF YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN THAT CANNOT TOLERATE ANY CRITICISM OF MATERIAL SPECIFICALLY WRITTEN TO SPREAD THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTIAN FAITH. . .DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW!
OR. . .
IF YOU ARE A NON-CHRISTIAN WHO SIMPLY CANNOT STAND THE DISCUSSION OF A CHRISTIAN MESSAGE IN ANY SORT OF MAINSTREAM CONTEXT. . .DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW!
Okay then. There's your trigger warning, folks.
Everybody in that's staying in? Let's do it!
That simple phrase can send a shudder down the spine of comic book lovers and collectors.
It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. On the one hand, it was a time of MASSIVE expansion in the comic book world, a true time of celebration for comic nerds everywhere as comic fandom hit the mainstream. On the other hand, the glut of comics fighting for the reader's dollar, combined with the rise of the comic speculator market, almost caused the catastrophic collapse of the entire industry.
Marvel Comics (as Marvel Entertainment Group) was one of the most notable casualties of the 90's comic industry implosion. . .being forced to file for bankruptcy in 1996. But Marvel didn't go quietly.
They tried to stop the inevitable in many ways during the years leading up to the end of Marvel Entertainment Group. . .they bet big on the trading card business (which collapsed after a baseball strike in 1994 and has never recovered), they tried running their own comic distribution network (which failed in a spectacular way), they leased out the movie rights to some of their most popular characters (an ongoing issue to this very day, especially for fans who want a GOOD Fantastic Four movie), and they teamed up with a variety of. . .interesting. . .partners on various publishing projects, all of which ultimately failed (probably the best known being with competitor Image Comics for the infamously awful "Heroes Reborn" initiative).
There were quite a few other reasons behind the fall of Marvel Entertainment Group, but the simple sketch above to set the scene should be sufficient for the purposes of this review. Simply put, Marvel could see Bankruptcy looming and were pretty desperately trying to avoid it. That's where this short comic series at hand comes in. . . as part of Marvel's getting in bed with some strange partners in the 90's.
Thomas Nelson is a Christian Publishing company that has been in existence since 1798(!). They are the world's largest publishers of bibles, and in the 90's they decided they wanted to spread the good word through the picha books they heard all the kids were collecting. They approached Marvel, and even though it was sort out of left field, Marvel was like "Well. . .we could sure use the money, so why not?"
And so "Illuminator" was born!
So. . .what Nelson wanted was a religious superhero, but with the Mighty Marvel flair. They wanted to sell religious comics on the rack with all the other comics right there in the comic shops, not just in religious book stores. They wanted to touch the hellbound souls of kids who would otherwise waste valuable bible study time reading crap like Spider-Man. Marvel was okay with that idea.
They ALSO wanted the comics to be double-sized AND feature no advertising. You can't see the price of these comics on the covers below. . .Marvel decided maybe it was better to put it on the back, and that was probably a good choice because each of these issues (except the last one) cost $4.99. In 1993.
The base-line cost for a comic book in 1993 was $1.95. Even other double-sized comics at the time (such as Batman: Seduction of The Gun, which had exactly the same double-size/no-ad physical format) cost about $2.50. Marvel didn't like this part very much. At the price point Nelson wanted, Illuminator would be almost impossible to sell.
You can probably see why this series only lasted 3 issues. It miraculously transformed from the flowing wine of a planned ongoing series to the trickling water of a 3 issue mini faster than you can say "Great wedding, Jesus!" and except for a few graphic novel projects with Nelson specifically for religious book stores, that was that for Marvel/ Nelson's extremely short experiment with religious comics in the 90's.
So. . .there's the background sketch, which I honestly find more interesting than the comics themselves. But we still have the comics at hand. They have an interesting story behind them, but are they any good?
Let's find out.
Yep. . .it's foil enhanced. Welcome back to the 90's!
SCRIPTS: Glenn Herdling
PENCILS: Craig Brasfield
COVER: Craig Brasfield
One night during summer camp, bullied teenager Andy Prentiss is given amazing light-based powers by a mysterious light in the forest. Back home, he's unsure of what to do with his new abilities until, at a party he's not supposed to be at, he witnesses a school drug dealer transformed into a sort of vampiric demon filling victims with despair before draining their life force and turning them into his slaves.
When the demon follows Andy home and threatens his family, Andy uses his powers to fight, but finds himself outmatched and badly beaten. Narrowly escaping "Nightfire" (as the demon calls itself) by taking sanctuary in a church, Andy meets the pastor (Gus, in the role of adult mentor to fledgling superhero) and comes to realize that his powers were given to him by God, and that only by having enough faith in Jesus will he have the strength to defeat Nightfire.
And so, armed with the power of God and faith in Jesus, Andy becomes the hero called "Illuminator" , who then destroys the demonic Nightfire and frees his slaves during an epic battle at a shopping mall.
Long story short: Jesus vs. Drugs. . .Jesus wins!
Hmmmmm. . .okay. It's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I can see that this was actually an honest effort by Marvel to bring a religious superhero set in their main universe to the comic shops and meant to be read by regular comic fans . Unfortunately, it's a bit disjointed in the way you can sort of see where the Marvel stops and the Nelson starts.
Most of the first half of the book is a fairly standard "average teen gains superpowers from a mysterious source." origin story in the Mighty Marvel mold. . .Then in the middle, you get a religious exposition dump about how faith in Christ can help anyone find the hero inside. . .Then it switches back to the hero now having found his purpose and defeating his enemy in an epic Marvel punch-fest garnished with plenty of light-based powers. . .and at the end of it all, we get more exposition about how Andy's journey into the faith of Christ has just begun.
The religious aspects of this comic are pretty strong and fairly pushy when they're present. But they quickly fade into the background when not being specifically addressed. It makes for a somewhat strange reading experience because this seems almost like two separate comic books that have been stitched together.
That said, this really isn't a bad comic at all. Unfortunately, it's not really that good, either. It sort of hits the middle of the road and cruises along at "average". Except for the religious aspects, the origin story isn't anything that hasn't been seen before. Andy's light-based power set (and to be honest, most of the look of the character) is pretty derivative of DC's Ray (which came out the year before). His initial enemy is forgettable drug addiction allegory cannon fodder for the writer and artist to show off Illuminator's powers on.
The art is fairly decent 90's mainstream superhero comic art. Like the story, it rides right down the middle of the road. It's not bad. . .there's a few surprisingly nice panels here and there, but it's generally pretty average. It tells the story, but doesn't try very hard to go beyond that.
There's some kind of confusing coloring issues as well. There are panels that aren't colored at all (or are only partly colored) scattered randomly through the issue, which makes me wonder if they're supposed to be like that or not. . .
Overall, I was surprised to see that this was an honest effort by Marvel and not just a cash in. The story and art are somewhat average, but neither one is bad. The religious aspects are pretty intrusive when being specifically addressed, but that's only a couple of places in the issue. It's not the strongest first issue I've ever seen, and the idea doesn't quite work, but I can see that there was some actual effort put into trying to do something different, so credit where credit's due for Marvel.
SIN-THESIS/ THE GIFT
SCRIPTS: Glenn Herdling
PENCILS: Craig Brasfield & J.B. Jones
COVER: Craig Brasfield
The second issue of Illuminator is split into 2 stories. . .
When pets and homeless people begin to come up missing, Andy Prentiss (AKA Illuminator) decides to investigate. Clues quickly lead to a local college and a professor of bio-engineering. Shortly after Illuminator arrives, he is forced to fight a huge tiger-like creature that his powers reveal to be some sort of human/tiger hybrid.
Since his sister attends the college, Andy talks her into letting him into Professor Baldwin's lab, but as they snoop, the Professor catches them. Andy manages to convince him that he's interested in Baldwin's research and learns that Baldwin is obsessed with the "Religion of Science" and that he's trying to create the perfect man through vivisection and gene splicing.
Shortly afterward, a gigantic alligator-like creature attacks the college football stadium. Illuminator defeats the creature, but realizes that Baldwin must be stopped from creating any more dangerous hybrids.
When Illuminator confronts the scientist, he is forced to battle the tiger and alligator hybrids, as well as a two-headed wolf hybrid. Even with his powers, he finds himself outmatched and forced to think his way out of the battle.
He manages to appeal to the creatures' human side and convinces them that, despite their new strength and abilities, they are abominations created by a madman trying to change God's plan. Devastated by the revelation of their Godless nature, the hybrids decide to destroy themselves, along with Professor Baldwin, by collapsing a building on themselves.
Afterwards, Andy has a long discussion with his mentor (Gus) about God's plan of creation, the separation of man and God, and the power of prayer to bridge that separation through faith in Christ.
Long story short: Jesus vs. Science. . .Jesus wins!
The divide between Marvel and Nelson is even more obvious in this story than in the first issue. Where the story in the first issue jumped back and forth, almost all of the religious aspects of this story are saved for the end, where they are extremely. . .how shall I say. . .missionary?
While most of this story is taken up by some halfway decent good old Mighty Marvel "Superhero vs. Man-Monster" battle action, the final few pages are more like what one would expect in those little illustrated tracts about why you're gonna go to Hell if you don't get right with Jesus left at Waffle House by a hardcore Evangelical as the worst tip ever. It's a pretty awkward shift in tone.
The story itself is pretty average, and isn't anything that hasn't been seen before (I think a similar story is how Captain America got turned into CapWolf), but it's not bad. The art remains pretty good, but not much more than that. There's still some odd coloring issues, where random panels are either partly colored or not colored at all. . .
After a one page interlude where one of the teenage girls that the drug-demon "Nightfire" made his slave (and was freed from his control by Illuminator in issue #1) searches for answers for her empty life and finds herself at a "New Age Crystal Healing" shop (To be continued, and probably won't end well), we move on to the second full story in this issue. . .
We start off with a flashback to Vietnam, where Any Prentiss' father is badly wounded and saved from death by a fellow soldier named Dale Johnson, who gives him a crucifix in the hospital while he recovers.
Flash forward to the present day near Christmas. Andy is trying to figure out what to get his father for Christmas and learns the story of his dad's old beat up cross he always wears. Andy decides that a great present would be to set up a reunion between his father and the man who saved his life.
Andy travels to a nearby town that was Johnson's last known address and, through some newspaper research at the local library (Remember when we didn't have the internet and had to do things the hard way? No? YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!), he discovers that the man who saved his father was arrested in the past for dealing drugs!
After a trip to the local Sheriff's office and some somewhat questionable use of his powers to pose as a ghost in order to frighten information out of a deputy (!?), Andy learns Johnson's address at a farm outside of town. He heads out and discovers Johnson and a group of thugs engaged in a drug deal for tons of that soul-destroying Devil Weed. . .The Reefer. . .MARIJUANA!
Andy uses his powers as Illuminator to attack them and bring the Godless dope peddler Johnson to justice, but once he brings everyone down, he quickly discovers that he ACTUALLY disrupted a DEA drug sting and that Johnson is an undercover Federal Agent. Oops.
Fortunately, the Feds were just getting ready to move in when Illuminator attacked, so no harm, no foul. . .except for the part where Andy revealed his identity to Johnson while he was fighting him (I think this was supposed to be setup for Andy to have a government contact in later stories that never happened).
Once everything settles down, Andy brings Johnson to his house for a tearful Christmas Eve reunion and a lesson in how the best gifts aren't bought from the store.
Long Story Short: Keepin' Christ in Christmas!
Okay. . .not a bad little story at all. I liked it better than the main story. The religious message here isn't nearly as pushy and intrusive as it was at the end of the opening story, and the part where Illuminator uses his powers to pose as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to scare information out of an unsuspecting Deputy was pretty funny, mostly because I'm fairly sure that's not exactly how God intended those powers to be used. . .
And that's it for issue #2 except for a couple of page count padding pinups, which are actually pretty nicely done except for the way they make the awkward teenage hero look like a hardened superhero warrior.
Overall, I found the second issue to be more of a mixed bag than the first. I still give credit to Marvel for actually attempting to make this idea work for regular comic fans by including plenty of monster-ific action and making no indication on the cover that this is a religious-based superhero, but I can definitely see where their partner (Nelson) had their hand in things with a full-on Christian Missionary assault at the end of the first story that was a pretty jarring change in tone and was just sort of cringeworthy in presentation. The rest of the issue was okay. Not bad, but definitely not worth 5 bucks.
And finally. . .
THE CHANNEL MASTER/ EPILOGUE/ CLUELESS
SCRIPTS: Glenn Herdling, Renee Witterstaetter & Charles Moore
PENCILS: Fred Haynes, Ed Murr & Randy Green
COVER: Craig Brasfield
The final issue of Illuminator is split into 3 stories. . .
THE CHANNEL MASTER
Coming off of the "interlude" between the two stories in the previous issue, we follow teen girl Traci Austin, formerly a drug-addicted slave of the demon Nightfire (from issue #1) as she falls under the influence of "New Age Crystal Healer" Ed Kelly. . .AKA "The Channel Master", who promises to heal her broken soul through the power of crystals.
Enter our hero, Andy Prentiss. . .AKA "Illuminator" as he searches for the missing girl through the many New Age stores of Nashville, Tennessee. . .apparently a hotbed of foul occult practices in the 90's. . .BUT I DIGRESS!
He follows her trail to the Channel Master's shop, but is himself tempted by a vision shown to him in a crystal, and only through the power of prayer is he able to resist the sweet siren call of the ungodly crystal! Thus fortified, Andy reveals himself as Illuminator and dupes Channel Master into believing he's a spirit of crystal.
Channel Master prays for demonic help and it arrives in the form of "Gunther", a kind of hybrid demon/crystal being that senses the Godly nature of Illuminator's powers and attacks. Illuminator defeats Gunther by using his own flying crystal shards (infused by Illuminator with the power of God's light) against him, and then turns his attention to Channel Master.
Unfortunately, Channel Master is fortified with a mighty Dark Power and fairly easily defeats the unprepared hero, who wakes up surrounded by an unholy cult of Crystal worshippers who unknowingly are in thrall to the TRUE power behind New Age teachings, that's right. . .SATAN!
Traci, now known as "Chakra" shows Illuminator visions of beautiful worlds within the crystals, but Illuminator calls upon his faith in Christ to resist temptation and turns Chakra's powers against her, giving her a glimpse of heaven that reduces her to tears with its beauty.
Illuminator tells her that if she continues down her dark path, she will never see heaven again, and that's enough to break the Channel Master's spell on her. Illuminator destroys Channel Master's crystal wand and makes his escape with Traci.
Later, Channel Master begs for his life before HIS master. . .Mr. Small (AKA Satan), but Small has no mercy and traps Channel Master inside a crystal, then decides that perhaps Illuminator is worth paying a bit of personal attention to in the future (more setup for later stories that never happened).
Long story short: Jesus vs. New Age Teachings. . .Jesus Wins!
This was a pretty interesting story to me. Not that it's great or particularly well-written, because it's about as average as the rest of the stories in this strange little series of comics, but that's sort of a given at this point in the Illuminator game.
It's interesting because of the enemy. . .New Age Teachings and Crystal Healing to be specific. I never realized that Evangelical Christianity (which seems to be the religious bent being promoted here) found the New Age Movement to be such a dangerous and evil thing.
I've always thought that New Age stuff was a pretty harmless way for college guys to get girls high and in bed, and a way for people who love looking in the mirror at their reflection can worship themselves. . .neither of which is a great thing, but SATAN?
One wonders what sort of enemies Illuminator would have gone up against if this series had continued. . .Evolution? Wiccans? Atheists? Mormons? Video Games? It seems like Marvel was doing their best to accommodate Nelson's direction, but I wonder how many more "theme" enemies there were on the list.
Strange enemy choice aside, like I said above, the story itself is about as average as can be. The religious aspects of it aren't nearly as intrusive as they were in the main story of the second issue, and sort of fade into the background when not being specifically addressed. . .which I think is probably the best route this series could have gone. There's some decent fight scenes to be had, but nothing to write home about.
The art also remains fairly average, with an artist change that makes our bullied teenage superhero look burly and musclebound. It's better than the original artist in a few ways (action scenes and creature design) , but worse in others (faces), so it sort of evens out.
2 days after his encounter with the evil Crystal Healing cult of The Channel Master, Andy is having a discussion with his mentor (Gus) about the nature of Christian love for the sinner and nonbeliever that is interrupted by Traci Austin. . .the teenage girl he rescued from the evils of drug addiction AND New Age Crystal healing.
It seems she's ready to discuss being a friend of Jesus before some ungodly Evolutionists get their hooks in her (Just kidding. . .maybe. This WAS the last issue after all, who knows what the next enemy to attack her would be if this went on longer).
This short little piece is a bit confusing. I'm thinking it was to set up a love interest/ongoing damsel in distress for Andy. I'm not really sure why it wasn't a part of the main story. Maybe because there's another artist on it. . .and it's probably the worst art in the series. There's no excuse or way to say it other than it's just plain BAD.
Moving along. Let's finish this thing up!
This short, final Illuminator story focuses on Andy Prentiss' mother thinking about the many changes her son has gone through and his strange behavior since returning from summer camp, with her thoughts reflected against scenes of her son as a hero out of her sight.
And so we come to the end of the short superhero career of the Illuminator. This Coda to finish off the final issue of what was supposed to be an ongoing series, but turned into a mini-series feels tacked on, to say the least. It's actually pretty pointless and the issue should probably have ended with the Epilogue above. . .but I guess there was some page count that needed padding out, so we got a well-worn "It's almost like he's got something to hide." parental point of view story.
The art on this one isn't quite as bad as what was in the Epilogue entry, but it's still pretty bad. It feels very rushed and looks like something from a lower-tier comic company like Valiant instead of something coming from one of "The Big Two". It's so rushed and tacked on that they didn't even bother to color the last page at all. . .
Overall, this issue just feels. . .sort of sad. The main story is decent, but the rest of it feels rushed and tacked on to finish up what WAS expected to continue on.
There are story elements. . .Satan deciding to take interest in Iluminator in the main story, Traci Austin taking an interest in Christianity (and by extension, Andy) in the Epilogue. . . that were obviously meant to be explored in later stories that never happened. Also, unlike the other two WAY overpriced issues, this one came with a $2.95 price tag. . .still too much, but an obvious course correction that was too little, too late.
An extremely weak ending to a series that had some potential.
Illuminator is a series that I find interesting more for its potential than the actual finished product.
What came out of the short Marvel/Nelson partnership to create a religious superhero able to be sold in regular comic shops is a pretty unremarkable comic series with average writing and art that ended quickly and in an extremely weak way. That's what we have here.
BUT. . .
It could have been more than what we got. There was a solid idea behind this comic that failed in execution. What I find most interesting about Illuminator is that Marvel was actually putting some effort into the project. I don't think it was ever going to be a series that would become a big hit, but I think that handled a bit differently, Illuminator MIGHT have been a character that would still be turning up here and there in the Marvel Universe on different teams to this day as a decent supporting character.
The problem here, as far as I can see, was with Nelson. They wanted double-size comics with no ads at a price point of $4.99 in 1993. Even the BEST effort by Marvel wouldn't have been able to save this series at that price. There was too much distance between the concept of a religious superhero that could have a place on the rack next to Spider-Man and a price point that was more than TWICE that of Spider-Man.
I have the feeling that if Nelson would have just let Marvel do their thang and priced these comics at $1.95 for 22 pages of fun like every other floppy out there, Illuminator would definitely have lasted more than a measly 3 issues.
But that's not what happened. And so Illuminator disappeared into obscurity.
I find it a damn shame and nothing but wasted potential, because truthfully these comics aren't bad. They aren't great by any measure, but they certainly aren't the worst comics I've ever read. They're pretty average, but they ARE kid friendly and they have a good message if you happen to fall on the more Evangelical side of the Christian dial.
If you spot Illuminator in the bargain box, give it a look, if only to think a moment about the wasted potential for something truly different in mainstream superhero comics sitting in your hand.
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