THE FINAL IMPACT: LOOKING BACK AT DC’S IMPACT IMPRINT
The idea was for DC Comics to launch an entire new set of books aimed toward younger readers. The launch of these books would cross over from comic shops to the mainstream and try to attract the attention of those who might have never read a comic book before. The imprint was ‘Impact Comics’ which looked to refashion an older set of superheroes for the 1990’s. Two years later, the imprint would come to a grinding halt.
The year was 1987 and DC’s Director of Development Mike Gold was brainstorming with distribution chief Matt Ragone. During a series of conversations, the duo talked on and on about the severe lack of comic books aimed toward readers under the age of thirteen. “DC’s superhero fare was targeted towards readers older than that,” Gold remembers. “It was so severely interlocked – particularly at that time – that younger readers didn’t have the time, the attention span, or the financial resources to get involved in the mainstream superhero line.”
From these discussions an idea was brought forth to create an ‘entry level’ line of comic books for younger readers that would be available, first and foremost, at newsstands.
Gold continues, “Matt (Ragone) might have had the idea of an entry-level newsstand project in mind earlier, though. I wouldn’t be surprised. I know I wasn’t alone in advocating entry-level newsstand-oriented material, although not always necessarily superheroes. I wanted to see more promotion support for projects like Angel Love and Angel and the Ape as well.”
Gold would begin immediately to implement this new idea, putting together an editorial team to start the process of building this new universe. Writer Brian Augustyn would come onboard as one of the founding editors of the imprint. “Working with those of us in the development group at the time,” Augustyn says. “Mike determined that we should take an existing but unused character list and recreate them, as DC had previously done with the Charlton heroes [Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, The Question] and the Quality Characters [Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Freedom Fighters].”
Because of the time it would take to build the universe from scratch, the team started to scour older universes that had not seen print for quite a few years. The Gold Key characters, properties like Magnus, Turok, and Doctor Solar, were briefly looked at until DC began to eye the characters from the defunct Tower Comics line. The Tower Comics line, released in the sixties, held the stable of such characters like the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Dynamo, and Mentor. As DC pursued the property they found the characters deeply entrenched in ownership disputes and, because of this, unavailable to be acquired. Unable to clear the legal hurdles with the Tower characters, Gold and his staff eyed another superhero universe: The MLJ Superheroes.
These MLJ heroes were no strangers to the comic book game. MLJ Magazines would being publication way back in 1939 during a time period where comic companies were a dime a dozen. MLJ began publishing comic book anthology titles and one year later would debut its superhero cornerstone ‘The Shield’ in the first issue of Pep Comics. A multitude of characters like Steel Sterling and Black Hood were introduced, quickly building MLJ’s superhero stable. However it would seem that the heroes could not remain as popular as a character created in 1941, a teen by the name of Archie Andrews.
Archie and the humor comics that would follow would prove to be the demise to the superhero line with the company even changing their name from MLJ to Archie Comics. Over the years Archie would continue to revive their heroes again and again, premiering new heroes like the Fly and the Jaguar, but each time finding these titles would once again fall under a quick death. The last time the characters would be resurrected was in 1983 when Archie premiered its ‘Red Circle Comics’ line. Even with top talent working on these titles, the Red Circle line would call it quits a mere two years later.
Gold says, “We decided the old MLJ characters had more characters and more of a superhero look.” Negotiations started and soon a licensing agreement with Archie Comics was reached, a three-year deal for the characters with an option to renew beyond that. The new line was dubbed Impact Comics which, from Augustyn’s recollection came, “Out of thin air. Mike Gold wanted a short punchy name for the imprint, something with…impact. HEY, that might just do it!”
Three phases were called for in bringing the Impact Universe from idea to print. Gold, along with the editorial team, would first choose which editors, writers, and artists they wanted to help bring the universe to life. Gold’s second phase was sharing Impact Comics marketing philosophy with his new team, while having the writers and artists begin developing first draft proposals for their prospective series. With the proposals in hand, the entire Impact team, including DC President Jenette Kahn, Publisher Paul Levitz, and Executive Editor Dick Giordano, would gather for an editorial retreat to finish hammering out the setting, character relationships, and anything else that needed hashing out for the Impact Universe.
“We had preliminary bibles written beforehand,” says Gold. “They were revised after the meetings. Assignments had already been made and everybody showed up highly prepared, particularly Len [Strazewski] and Mark [Waid]. We discussed approach, audience, technique and shared elements, and put all that together into a universe. Len Strazewski came armed with a ton of market research that was extremely helpful. In many cases we tried to protect the essential elements of the characters while creating entirely new backstories and that universe glue, but in a few cases like the Web, we had more progressive ideas. I’ve seen elements of our Web concept used in a number of more recent comic books; that’s kind of fun.”
A look at the creative teams on the books shows the powerhouse talent that was assembled for Impact. Len Strazewski would write both The Fly and The Web with Mike Parobeck and Paul Fricke providing art on The Fly while Tom Artis and Bill Wray would draw The Web. William Messner-Loebs would team with David Antoine Williams and Jose Marzan Jr. to bring the new Jaguar series to life. Mark Wheatley and Rick Burchett were the creative force behind The Black Hood. Mark Waid and Tom Lyle would join forces on The Comet while Waid would join Grant Miehm and Jeff Albrecht on The Legend of the Shield.
“I was asked based on what some deluded folks perceive as my ‘sparkling wit’ to dialogue over the plots and pencils of Grant and Tom,” says writer Mark Waid. “At that point I’d just gone freelance and was happy to be aboard. It was fun. I certainly got a chance to hone my craft.”
“I was doing some work with Brian Augustyn doing some DC stuff and basically Brian and Mike Gold recruited me for Impact,” writer Len Strazewski recalls. “They were looking to put together a team of creators who had comic experience, but not known as huge names. They thought it would be fresh and they tried to make a go of it.”
The Impact Comics would not be forced to carry on the old origins and stories from the Archie Comics as the Impact creators free to re-imagine the heroes as they pleased. “Other than being Comics Code approvable, we had no real limitations from Archie,” says Gold. “They wanted a few public service things that were, in my opinion, good ideas such as making certain people wore seat belts while riding in cars. That might sound silly, but I think if you’re doing a line geared towards younger readers this is the sort of thing you should do. I’ve always admired Archie Comics’ commitment to public service.”
“We were figuring out what we wanted the characters to do, how we wanted the characters to act, what would be attractive,” says Strazewski. “We thought about, as comic fans, what we liked in the early days, what got us excited about reading about comics. Take that memory and take that knowledge of what we knew and turn it into something new. I had read the original Fly, which goes back to the original Simon and Kirby work. I think we thought of those comics very fondly. I don’t think we thought of them as being botched in any fashion, but we thought we could make this fresh and appealing for a young, new audience.”
Who exactly were these old characters that would be revamped and reintroduced in the Impact Universe? The Black Hood is a violent vigilante wearing an antique executioner’s hood, travelling from city to city fighting crime. The Jaguar is a young Brazilian woman living in America who channels her family’s mystical powers to become a fierce, feral avenger of evil. The Shield is a soldier/hero with a virtually indestructible suit of armor. The Fly is a high school student who creates his own superhero as a school assignment only to become the hero later thanks to a magical amulet. The Web is an organization that not only fought various villains but also kept watch on the various Impact superheroes. Finally, The Comet is a college student who just enjoyed being a superhero.
The final phase of Impact would soon follow, developing the final individual titles based on the first drafts. With all of the ducks in a row, the creators went forth to bring their creations to life. The first books to launch Impact would be Legend of the Shield and The Comet. Each subsequent month a new book would launch starting with The Fly, The Web, and then Jaguar. “We were trying to build a momentum slowly but surely,” says Augustyn. “We rolled the books out one a month for the first six months hoping that each book would help increase interest in the next. It mostly worked; each issue promoting and teasing the next releases. We were trying to replicate the way we all got into comics; you’d buy one comic, then see ads and cross-references to other books and characters, which led to the next book and so on. I remember that progress vividly and we were hoping to generate that same sort of building excitement.”
Impact Comics original marketing scheme would call for the books to not only be sold through the standard comic book outlets, but also try to revive some older comic outlets like newsstand retail store sales while trying to venture into new venues like hobby stores and mall kiosks. This would be all part of Impact’s aim to attract those new young entry-level comic book readers. While this plan had been laid out early, those working with Impact would find that they would not find much support toward reaching those goals. Instead of finding their way to these new outlets, the Impact books would find themselves primarily shipped to comic book stores.
The editorial team would also face obstacles right from the start. “Matt Ragone left DC for a similar role at Marvel and the project got orphaned,” Gold relays. “The new marketing/distribution Vice President told Dick Giordano and me that he wouldn’t support the line, so therefore it was a big mistake and we should kill it before the first issues ever came out. The newsstand drive, which was central to the entire concept, never happened. That’s the way it is in the corporate world. At that time, an editor or two decided to start looking elsewhere to protect their careers, but the creative teams held together nicely.”
“I don’t want to sound like a bitter person, but I think DC dropped the ball,” Strazewski states. “Mike had a very strong concept, marketing concept as well as a creative concept, and had expected more support from DC. I think the final blow for the line was that retailers were just starting to get swamped with content; they were trying to rely on the big companies for marketing advice.
Strazewski continues, “The retailers were calling the retail representative at DC and saying, “Hey guys I have X dollars to spend on comics. Should I try some of these new comics? Should I try some of these Impact books or should I buy some more Superman?” And in typical DC way they supported their cornerstone characters by saying, ‘Order my Superman!’ Mike felt a little abandoned by that and I think a lot of us from the Impact creator group felt like we weren’t getting a fair shot.”
The books would launch with decent numbers in the beginning and would stay healthy for awhile. The characters in the books would also begin to interact with each other, with the first Annuals of the core books leading to some unofficial team-ups. The last solo Impact series would also begin. Mark Wheatley’s The Black Hood would start off with a bang, with the main character being killed off right away in issue one and replaced with a teenager who would stumble upon the hood.
“I thought the first year was great,” says Strazewski. “I liked working with Brian Augustyn, I liked working with Mike. I particularly liked working with Mike Parobeck. Parobeck and I knew each other, we both came from Chicago. He was absolutely brilliant. I wrote scripts and Mike would get it from the editor. He would just do pencils and we would meet at a restaurant called Leona’s in Chicago. He pulled these pages out and put them on the table. I’d look at them and they were extremely fresh they just came alive. I’d look at individual things and say, ‘Mike this is so cool, where did this come from?’ He’d look at me like I was crazy and he’d say, ‘It was in your script.’ I’d look back at those scripts and say, ‘Yeah, sure!’ I’d never conceive visually like Mike did. I’d say something simple like ‘The Fly ducks behind the corner of a building’. Parobeck would conceive this in such a way that the character looked totally at play, flying upside down, zipping around. Sure, I’ll take credit for it because it’s brilliant, but it was his visualizations at work.”
Before the first year of the books would end, preparations began to launch The Crusaders, a team book that would bring together the heroes of the Impact Universe. A seven-part crossover would run throughout the core books as the Impact heroes would take on a villain looking to take over the world, starting with New York City. When the crossover was completed the adventure would continue into the first three issues of the new Crusaders book.
“I remember that Mike Gold wanted to wait on Crusaders,” says Augustyn. “He wanted to increase interest in the characters and to avoid rushing to the obvious. He was right. By the time the book finally came out, the readership was demanding it.”
While Impact fans demanded the Crusaders, sales on the line were starting to hurt. “Due to the distribution and marketing limitations, we never got sales that compared with mainstream fare. The idea was to build an entirely new line for an entirely new audience, so in addition to the newsstand support we needed; Impact also needed a steady hand and a lot of time. It took Marvel awhile to become truly successful. The Impact line did generate an enormous amount of mail, I was told more mail than the rest of the DC books combined. That mail obviously came from our target audience, so I think there was good reason to think that with time and distribution/marketing support it might have succeeded.”
Another problem the Impact line faced was that of many years of back continuity. Though the line rebooted the MLJ heroes there was still the problem of the characters still having entirely too much back-story. DC combated this by releasing a 3 Volume Impact Who’s Who, helping to explain who exactly all these characters were and where they came from. Some felt this helped add more confusion for what was supposed to be a beginner’s line.
Further blows editorial and creator wise would come quickly down the pipe. Gold would leave Impact shortly before the launch of the Crusaders and Augustyn would leave the Imprint for greener pastures. “I had been promoted and transferred to editing for DC’s mainstream universe and Mike left DC, both departures taking place at the height of Impact’s run. Thus, the books fell to less experienced, less invested editors. Several of the original creators had moved on fairly quickly and the books started experiencing a rapid succession of other writers and artists.”
To make up for the loss left by Gold’s departure, Impact would find itself with a new editor by the name of Jim Owsley (known to today’s comic readers as Christopher Priest). Owsley vocalized DC’s disappointment in the slipping of sales and a plan was put forth to shake up the entire Impact line. Along with Owsley, another number of new editors would join the line.
“Once Tom Lyle left The Comet, I was offered the series,” remembers Waid. “Christopher Priest was aboard as the new go-to guy and he was swell. No pressure ever to do anything other than tell the best stories I could think of. Owsley was extremely hands-off. Extremely. Insanely so. In fact, I can’t swear that he’s read the entire run of The Comet to this day.”
Not everyone’s experiences with the new editors would be pleasant, “At one point on The Web, an editor rewrote stuff without notice,” notes Strazewski. “He assigned fill-in issues without contacting me and there was no need for a fill-in issue, it was just because he had a deal with some freelancers. I found out that The Web was cancelled when I called the production manager and said, ‘I haven’t heard anything about this issue.’ He said, ‘Oh the next two issues are fill-in issues and then the books are cancelled.’
Not all of Strazewski’s experiences were bad, “At one stage on The Fly we were working with Paul Kuppenberg and he was a really great guy. I think Paul was sensitive to the characters, he was sensitive to me, and he cared about what we were doing.”
A plan was put forth to retool the Impact line, starting with sending the Crusaders into space. Following this space launch all of the individual Impact titles would have been cancelled except for the Crusaders title, which would follow the Crusaders going through different dimensions trying to make their way back home. When the team finally got back to Earth, some of the titles would then be restarted.
Unfortunately for fans and creators alike, the well-laid plans would not launch exactly as planned. Though Waid and Augustyn would plot out the Crusaderstitle a number of issues past the dozen mark, the decision was made that the Crusaders would also be cancelled along with the rest of the titles before the launch of the mini-series Crucible.
To accommodate the sudden cancellation, Waid and Augustyn would drastically change the plot of the final issue of the Crusaders to try and give some sort of closure before the relaunch. Waid doesn’t remember that last issue fondly. “Crusaders #8 is one of the worst things I’ve ever (co-)written. I don’t remember why, though, but if you make me actually go back and look at it to find out, I’ll kill you,” Waid kids.
All of the titles would soon enough release their final issues, with Crucible being released ninety days later. The Crucible mini-series would then be the lone book to setup the new Impact universe, commonly referred to as Phase Two. The premise of the book was to show what was going on back on Earth while the Crusaders were lost in space. Because The Crusaders were off planet at the time of the series, Crucible focused on the Black Hood, a new Shield, and the Comet continuing the good fight. Waid and Augustyn would co-write the book along with Joe Quesada and Chuck Wojtkiewicz providing the artwork.
“Though Crucible was envisioned as the opportunity to reinvigorate the line and get it back on track, I believe the pressure was such that it had to be a seriously huge hit,” says Augustyn. “Crucible’s sales were probably merely okay, but certainly not as sensational as they needed to be. I think that in general, both inside DC and out, it was seen as too little and too late. It was decided at the last minute that the books would not come back for that third year and we were instructed to wrap things up quickly, if not exactly neatly.”
Faced with the new decision not to carry on with the relaunch, even though the first issues of the new Phase Two comic books were already near completion, Waid and Augustyn found themselves once again back-to-the-writing-board, quickly rewriting the final issue of Crucible. Instead of launching the new titles the plot was adjusted to try and give the entire Impact universe some sort of closure. Crucible #6 would be released as the final Impact comic book.
The Phase Two portion of Impact Comics would have started off with a revamp of the entire line spinning off from the results of Crucible. The relaunch would have included American Shield by Augustyn, Waid, Steve Carr, and Daryl Skeleton, Mark of the Black Hood by Augustyn and Chuck Wojtkiewicz, and Wrath of the Comet by Waid and comics legend Dave Cockrum. Each book would also feature a “Steel Sterling” back-up feature by Gene Ha and Paul Kupperberg. Josh Sterling, another MLJ hero, would appear in the Crucible and was to receive the morphing powers that made him Steel Sterling, but the plans to receive those powers were scrapped when the book was rewritten.
“We only found out that Phase Two had been scrapped about the time that issue three of Crucible shipped,” says Waid. “Augustyn and I had written new first issues for Wrath of the Comet, The American Shield, and Mark of the Black Hood. They had been pencilled and lettered but, in the end, DC didn’t foresee enough profitability to renew the Archie Comics license, and in retrospect, I can’t say I blame them.”
While the line was officially cancelled, DC actually kept the character rights for a number of years after cancellation. “The folks at Archie told me DC had actually exercised their option clause on the characters after the line had been cancelled,” says Gold. “Since that cost DC a renewal fee, I assume that they had reason to take this action. The Archie people said they were actually anxious to get their properties back and I guess DC kept them tied up for another couple years. Certainly, DC didn’t make any moves towards launching a line for younger superhero readers, although they did launch their newsstand-driven Cartoon Network line Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, etc.”
The rights would eventually find their way back to Archie Comics.
Recently Archie Comics decided to resurrect some of their superhero line though the heroes have not been given there own titles. Instead, heroes like Jaguar and Comet have been relegated to guest-star status in books like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Archie’s Weird Mysteries. However, sites like The Mighty MLJ (www.mightymlj.com) have continued to carry on the Impact legacy by summing up all the titles ever produced featuring the Mighty Crusaders characters over the past sixty years. Rights to ‘The Fly’ and ‘Lancelot Strong’ would also find their way back into the hands of creator Joe Simon. Under a deal with Archie, Archie Comics would get full reprint rights but Simon would have sole control over future use of the characters.
With the rights to the books back in Archie Comics’ hands it’s doubtful that a resurrection of any sort will happen for the Impact Comics universe, at least with DC Comics. However Archie Comics, holding the trademarks to the characters and copyrights to the Impact stories, would be able to reprint any and all of the Impact Comics. Since DC Comics does own the actual film, Archie would only have to reimburse DC for the film costs. As Archie has begun releasing trade paperbacks of some of the adventures of the Mighty Crusaders from the 1960’s, it is entirely possible that they could bring together some Impact trade paperbacks as well.
While the Impact Universe lasted just two years many fans today are being drawn to the books thanks to the talented creators who are now ‘big names’ in the industry. “I’m always amused when any project that was initially unsuccessful reaches an audience years later,” says Gold on those who are just discovering the Impact titles today. “At stores and conventions these days, I get more questions and comments about the Impact line than I do anything else in my comics career…”
“Do they still hold up today?” questions Mark Waid. “I bet Black Hood is as good as it was then and it was by far the quality star of our line. That was a damn fine book.
Gold agrees, “Outside of singling out Black Hood as my favorite, I won’t comment on individual performances other than by saying that under the circumstances almost each and every one of those writers and artists involved in the initial launch did very good work on an extremely professional basis. I’m still pretty close to many of the Impact writers and artists. Mark Wheatley and I recently worked together on a project, Len Strazewski and I get together several times each year, and I see many of the others at conventions and we keep in touch by e-mail. I greatly miss Mike Parobeck, he was one of the great talents of the last decade.”
Parobeck passed on July 2, 1996, less than a week before his 31st birthday.
“It was a great experience,” says Strazewski on the experience as a whole. “Things come and go, projects have beginnings, they have ends, and you remember the good stuff. Impact was a wonderful project. The characters were fun, the people were fun, the direction, the way it was put together by trying to create a sense of teamwork and collegiality between the creators. If Archie wants to publish them now I certainly think they are saleable characters. I’d certainly love to work on the Fly again.”
Impact will always be remembered for its amazing cast of characters made even better by an amazing cast of creators. Only time will tell if Archie Comics will reprint the Impact Comics line or resurrect their superhero universe once again.
Ryan McLelland would like to give special thanks to Bradley Cobb and Rik Offenberger for their assistance with this article.