Marvel Frontier Comics – Marvel’s Forgotten Foray into Mature Comics

“Dear Frontiersmen…”

In the latter half of the 1980s, it became clear that comics weren’t just for kids. Thanks in huge part to the extraordinary mainstream success of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, publishers were more aware than ever of the vast potential of comics for older readers. The big two both had their own homes for these more mature comics, Epic at Marvel and DC’s Vertigo. But there was another imprint that no one seems to know about. From Marvel’s ill-fated UK branch, came Marvel Frontier Comics. These stories are an attempt by Marvel to capitalise on the early 90’s success DC was enjoying with Vertigo titles like Hellblazer, and mined a lot of the same horror and fantasy themes.

Ultimately, the imprint wasn’t to last. And all that remains is one hefty volume collecting every comic from its run. According to the foreword in the collection, they sold pretty well, with the individual issues shifting some impressive numbers. But since the stories were abruptly cut short, the characters haven’t been seen in official Marvel continuity for nearly 30 years. So I’m going to be taking a look at the collection as a whole and diving into each story. They’re definitely of their time, but they’ve held up surprisingly well.

Mortigan Goth: Immortalis #1–4

Kicking off this collection is the four-issue story of Mortigan Goth – a man from the 15th century who made a deal with the devil. As the title suggests, he’s immortal. This is an interesting story, one reason being that it’s the only one to heavily feature characters from the wider Marvel universe. The devil in question is Mephisto, and one of the story’s supporting characters is Dr Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme himself. The obscure Marvel UK character Spitfire is also prominently featured. I’m guessing Strange in particular was used as a sort of gateway into the cosmic and supernatural world of Mortigan Goth. It’s easier jumping into this tale of new characters if you’re familiar with some of the elements.

1 - Mortigan Goth
Mortigan Goth makes a deal with Mephisto over a game of chess.

Apart from these direct ties to the Marvel universe, this one feels like a story ripped straight from the pages of Hellblazer. The way hell is drawn and presented here by Mark Buckingham (riffing on Dante’s famous circles of hell) feels like something John Constantine would encounter. And the way Mortigan is a sort of lone wanderer, drawn to help people even though he’s a bit of an outcast, feels very much like my favourite trench-coat occultist. But there are some things worth checking out here, and I enjoyed the story quite a bit actually. The origins of Mortigan, and how he gained his immortality, is an enjoyable look at the tricky nature of the devil and the age-old Faustian pact. Even if it’s not particularly original, with more than a few elements cribbed from The Seventh Seal, it’s gorgeously put down on the page. And there are some gruesomely impressive supernatural moments. Seeing Strange decapitate a half dozen vampiric school children with a battle axe is admittedly pretty fantastic.

And Mortigan himself is a really intriguing character in his own right. Mephisto stole his soul (in this world, his soul is seen as being a ghostly replica of himself) and tortured it for all eternity in the worst parts of hell. And by the time the comic wraps up, it’s teasing a showdown versus Mortigan and his corrupted soul, his decaying counterpart. And then it just ends. Really abruptly. I guess that’s how readers at the time felt too, but it’s a shame. And Mortigan seems to have been ignored ever since – except for a pretty interesting appearance in an otherwise dire 2010 Wolverine story. And I’m guessing this will be the same for the rest of the characters in the collection. But these four issues are an enjoyable trip into the supernatural, and lay out the groundwork of what exactly Frontier Comics was trying to be.

2 - Mortigan Goth
Doctor Stephen Strange taking out a class of vampire schoolchildren. In the background is Tony, the ghost/comic relief.

On its own, there are enough interesting things here to recommend to Marvel fans, thanks in no small part to the appearance of Marvel heavyweights Mephisto and Doctor Strange. I also think Mortigan himself is a character with a lot more tales to tell. But for the time being, and forgetting the abrupt ending, these issues are sufficiently standalone.

Dances with Demons #1–4

The next run is interesting. After his estranged grandfather is killed by an evil spirit named Manitou, James Owl becomes the new “Ghost Dancer”. This is a Native American gate-keeper, protecting the secret worlds. It also gives him the ability to transform into a massive blue guy, which brings with it a host of other ill-defined powers. And that’s the problem with this story. It’s attempting something massive, with presumably being to expand on these elements. Sadly, they never got the chance. And the comic now feels like an unfinished reminder of what could have been.

4 - Dances with Demons
One of James Owl’s ancestors in their Ghost Dancer form. As seen in James’ vision quest.

Writer Simon Jowett admits in the foreword that the comic was written on the fly and that the result is a comic that is a lot “looser” than others from around the same time. He goes on to say that the Dances With Demons that we have here reads like “a preparatory sketch” for a bigger tale (one that he would never get to tell). And honestly, that is the best way to approach it; as the first chapter of something unfinished. Unlike other stories presented here, Dances With Dragons is less self-contained. It definitely feels like the beginning of something, and less like a complete story on its own. With that in mind, however, it lays the groundwork for something very interesting, diving into a colourful and startling world of Indigenous Futurisms that I still don’t think has been attempted elsewhere.

The art for these issues was done by Charlie Adlard, someone who has become quite well known in the world of comic books thanks to his work on The Walking Dead. The art here isn’t nearly as polished as his later work — with some facial expressions looking very strange indeed — but it’s colourful and vibrant.  And you can see how his art will develop into what it became. There’s just too much to take in at any one time, visually and conceptually.

Over the four issues we’re presented with a lot of Native American folklore and it feels like everyone involved has done their research. And, like Mortigan Goth, elements have been pinched and borrowed from these sources. A lot of the story, especially when it comes to the many secret worlds, refer back to Hopi mythology. Basically, in Hopi beliefs, there are multiple worlds. As each world falls to corruption and the wickedness of man, we move onto the next one. The first three have already been and gone (Tokpela, Tokpa, and Kuskurza). These are the secret worlds accessible by Ghost Dancer. We’re on the fourth world now, Túwaqachi. Having a good look at research online did help me to understand the story better, but that should never be a requirement. Especially considering the comic came out in the early 90s and popping on Wikipedia wasn’t an option.

3 - Dances with Demons
James’ father becomes a victim of skin-changer Manitou – one of a few inventively gory moments.

So overall, Dances With Dragons is a bit of a letdown. Not through any fault of its creators. There’s just little reason for it to exist, as it’s not substantial enough to act as a standalone story. And unlike Mortigan Goth, which mined a whole host of literary and historical references, but did it with restraint, there’s just a little bit too much going on here.

Children of the Voyager #1–4

This story is probably the best in the collection, and the one that takes the most inspiration from DC’s Vertigo line. The main character’s burn-out in a trench-coat schtick reminds me of John Constantine, and the four issues delve into supernatural and psychological horror that wouldn’t look out of place in that world, or the world of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It presents us with an ageless entity named the Endless Voyager (or “He Who Walks”,  “The Body Magician”, “Eternity’s Bastard”). This being was banished from its dimension and has been trapped on earth for millennia. To get back, it has been creating human versions of himself, little more than slow-witted empty husks, to try and understand humanity before collecting his creations and absorbing them along with their memories and experiences. Every now and then, these creations gain a soul. Our protagonist is one of these unlucky few.

5 - Children of the Voyager
Sam Wantling enters the eccentric home of Harriet Homerstone.

Sam Wantling is a well-respected horror writer, suffering from nightmares and hallucinations of the Voyager. He’s an interesting protagonist in the context of this collection because he’s just a normal guy. He’s not got any special powers or abilities, he’s just a man. And I think it’s this idea of the ordinary world versus the extraordinary and cosmic world that makes this story so intriguing. In similar stories (like the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Hellblazer, as I previously mentioned) we’ve seen that the appeal is watching normal ordinary people go up against unfathomable forces, at least that’s where a lot of the horror comes from. And Children of the Voyager is a horror comic, both psychological and cosmic.

It’s also worth mentioning the supporting characters here, namely the witch Harriet Homerstone. Sam seeks her help in his struggle against the voyager. Descended from a long line of witches, the eccentric Harriet guides Sam (and the reader) into the world of the supernatural and the horrific. She is the real hero here, and it’s really great seeing a woman of colour taking on most of the heavy lifting. As writer Nick Abadzis mentions in the foreword, this was pretty unheard of at the time. It’s shame she never appeared again in the Marvel universe because I think she offers a distinct and alternate point of view from Marvel’s other supernatural experts.

The art from Paul Johnson is exquisite here too. I’m unsure if the pictures I’ve included properly convey how beautiful this comic really is. I’ve managed to track down an interview with Paul, and it’s clear how passionate he was about the project, describing it as the project he is most proud of. It’s dark to look at, but deceptively intricate and detailed. It’s a bit like Dave McKean’s art, but more human and accessible. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get crazy by the end, and Johnson is as good at exploring the cosmic as he is at accentuating the mundane. This is all helped by Abadzis script. His descriptions of the cosmos as the Voyager flies through the layers of dimensions and heavens is really original.

6 - Children of the Voyager
The Endless Voyager (AKA The Body Magician, Eternity’s Bastard, He Who Walks)

This imprint may have been meant for mature readers, but more importantly it gave writers a chance to be a bit more daring, no longer stuck to the conventions of comics. Be this a throwaway line about the main character’s sexuality (in Hellblazer, John is bisexual), to having less conventional heroes like Sam and Harriet here, or just fewer restrictions on the stories they could tell. Things can be weird. Stories don’t have to end with a massive superhero punch-up, they can be more psychological or abstract. And while my first love was the action-packed superhero comics of my childhood, these clever and unconventional stories really demonstrate the power of comics. And it’s imprints like Frontier, Vertigo, Epic, or DC’s Black Label where these interesting ideas seem most at home.

Johnson also mentions in that interview that he hopes the comic doesn’t get forgotten. I also really hope it is remembered, as the wonderfully unusual masterwork that it is. It’s worth seeking out this collection for this comic alone.

Bloodseed #1–2

Where to begin with this one? Despite some interesting ideas — and the overall story here is quite original — Bloodseed is a demonstration of nineties excess. It’s got that sort of gross Heavy Metal look to it that I don’t particularly care for, and every character is muscled to ridiculous proportions or half-naked – the character designs are very much a product of their time. So that’s the first impression when you start the story. And then it doesn’t get much better from there.

On a distant planet, a race of sentient apes (working for a crew of dinosaurs who fled the earth) are building the perfect warrior; Bloodseed. This warrior is imbued with fake memories and the desire to kill its own kind. Then, along with its clones/brothers/sisters, Bloodseed is set loose on the planet. I can only think there must have been an easier way of telling this story. As it stands, it’s jumbled and confusing. And the art is often so confounding, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at – though there are some pretty cool creatures designs and some atmospheric locations.

7 - Bloodseed
Bloodseed eventually finds some clothes. But look at his arm! I find this artwork super gross.

I think a big problem with Bloodseed is that it’s only two issues. It was meant to be four, like the other stories here, but was cut to two two-issue runs, the second of which never saw the light of day. So a lot of the confusion comes about because we’re only getting half the story. Like with Mortigan Goththe story ends on a cliffhanger mid-fight. Unlike that other story, it wasn’t as fun getting there. The story wants to be like the pulp tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but updated to a flashy 1990s techno future. But it doesn’t ever really gel. I’ll admit that the end of the second issue is intriguing, with the revelation that the dinosaurs of earth never went extinct, they just left to explore the stars. But it doesn’t save it.

Out of all the stories, I can see why this one was cut short. To gain a readership I feel like these stories need to do more to grab you. And even though it picks up a bit as it continues into issue two, you never really get away from that sense of confusion as a result of this messy tale.

So Marvel UK’s dip into the pool of bizarre comics was a mixed bag. Children of the Voyager is outstanding and I highly recommend giving that series a read, especially if you can get your hands on the original copies or a digital edition.  Mortigan Goth: Immortalis is worth a read too, especially for Marvel fanatics. But Dances With Dragons is a little under-cooked, and I highly doubt it had the potential to go on much further than the four issues we see here. The same goes for Bloodseed. And based on the two snippets from the Frontier annual (each story here also has a short page epilogue from that annual, included at the end), the future of the imprint was as random and bizarre as the collection we have here.

I think the problem was letting people do what they want, with little oversight. I’m all for creators spreading their wings and really pushing the envelope, but what we ended up with was an imprint that felt messy and unfocused overall. It’s not clear what it wanted to be. Violent pulp or psychological horror, it might have been better with a direction in mind. Or perhaps it’s a result of the comics industry in the early 90s, flying too close to the sun as a result of their recent attention and acclaim. Either way, I’m glad that Marvel is preserving this small, bizarre part of their legacy. If nothing else, it’s a time capsule into a time when comics were really coming into their own. They weren’t just about heroes in spandex. All of a sudden, comics could be mature and adult. The collected editions could sit proudly on the shelf of a bookshop, side by side with acclaimed novelists. And I can’t blame Marvel UK for wanting a piece of the action.

Jack Bumby


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