Superhero comics hit puberty in 1992, violently sprouting massive muscles, bosoms, and guns, with 'tude to match. The characters and the industry alike seemed volatile and overstated. DC Comics' "Death of Superman" stunt sparked a mainstream media frenzy. Even as the X-Men were everywhere, Marvel Comics grappled with the defection of its money-printing young stars—including X-Force creator Rob Liefeld—to Image Comics, which permanently shook up the work-for-hire market with a creator-owned revolution.
Many of today's leading creators also came of age around the early nineties, like Chris Sims, who moved from Sumter, South Carolina, to Research Triangle Park last year. After years of self-publishing his comics with writing partner Chad Bowers and working as a columnist for Comics Alliance, Sims hit the mainstream in 2015 with X-Men '92, an exuberant throwback that drew as much on Fox's popular nineties animated series as Marvel's comics.
After hitting such a sweet spot in the nostalgia cycle, the only conceivably more "nineties" thing to do would be to write a Deadpool (born in '92) graphic novel with the antihero's polarizing creator, Rob Liefeld, whose art is widely thought to simultaneously represent the best and worst traits of nineties aesthetics. So, of course, Sims and Bowers did that; Deadpool: Bad Blood came out in May. (Their next project is Ash Vs. the Army of Darkness, another class of '92 ringer.)
But don't let it be said that Sims is stuck in '92. He and Bowers are also currently penning Swordquest for Dynamite Entertainment, based on a series of Atari video games from the eighties and, more important, on the unfinished real-world contest associated with them, in which you could win real versions of the games' mythical treasures, worth tens of thousands of dollars.
All these stories are steeped not only in nostalgia but also in layers of fascinating cultural sediment, and we recently sat down with Sims at Scratch to sift through them. This condensed transcript hits the big beats about the allure of nineties X-Men, the redemption of Rob Liefeld, and the fate of the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.
But if you dig this kind of stuff, you have to check out the epic, detail-laden, for-geeks-only director's cut on the INDY arts blog.
INDY: How did X-Men '92 come about?
CHRIS SIMS: I had been on good terms with an editor at Marvel named Jordan White; we actually do a Sailor Moon podcast together now. [laughs] At San Diego Comic Con in 2014, he was like, Hey, we're doing this event coming up called Secret Wars and I can't tell you what it's about, but we really want you to do something related to nineties X-Men stuff. At the time, I was writing an episode guide for the nineties animated series—though this comic couldn't exactly be the nineties animated series, because Fox owned the rights.
We had a hard time, like, OK, it's not season six of the animated series, so what can it be? Ninety-two was the first year after seventeen years of Chris Claremont [writing the X-Men comic books], the year the animated series began, the year of the arcade game, the year X-Men had the Pizza Hut tie-in.
We did our best to re-create the feel of those books. We found out that there's a lot of people for whom that is the X-Men, and me and Chad were those guys, too. I was ten in 1992, and one of the big, guiding things for me is that when I was a kid, I couldn't get every issue of X-Men. I had to piece together what I knew from issues on the rack, a couple of back issues, and trading cards. I always had this feeling—and this is one of the things that made X-Men both super appealing and terrifying—that I would never read enough comics to know what was going on.
So, when we did X-Men '92, in my head there was also an X-Force '92 and X-Factor '92, but you never see those books, so things go really fast. I didn't want to lose anyone, but I did want them to have that overwhelming feeling. I've seen some reviews that say it goes a little too fast, but that was by design. I wanted to have less of the specific bits and pieces of the era and more of the feeling, and for me, that was it: Wait, what's happening, who's this?
It got your foot in the door at Marvel, which brings us to another very nineties topic: Deadpool and Rob Liefeld.
I'm the guy who had a really public coming around on Rob Liefeld. I loved him when I was a kid. There was an episode on the Sci Fi channel show The Anti-Gravity Room in 1996 where Kevin Smith was the guest and reviewed Rob Liefeld's Captain America. He didn't like it. I wrote a paper in school rebutting that review.
Then, in my twenties, as a snarky comics blogger, I made the jokes; I was kind of a Liefeld hater. But, and you can probably still find it at Comics Alliance, I had this public awakening, like, You know what, Rob's good, actually!
I read interviews with Rob and that's what cracked the code for me. He was talking about how he had editors telling him he didn't deserve to be selling as many comics as he was. I don't know how you tell someone that when it's happening specifically because of him.
He brought stuff to the table with an energy and style that, even if it's not your taste, you kind of have to give him that—that he did it. Rob was a millionaire when he was twenty-one. If I had half that money at twenty-one you couldn't tell me anything; I'd be the worst! [laughs]
Tell us about Swordquest. Unless they've read the novel Ready Player One, a lot of people probably don't remember the crazy story about the contest.
This is a real-world story, something that actually happened.
There was so much money in video games in the early eighties and Atari was dominating the home console market. The idea was to do four games with a different comic packed in with each game. You would go through these games, and, as you solved a puzzle, you'd get two numbers, like thirteen and seven. So you'd go to page thirteen, panel seven, in the comic, and there'd be a hidden word.
You'd put all the hidden words together to make a phrase, and if you sent in the right phrase you got entered in this contest to win what were about $200,000 in prizes. And the thing was, it's the same stuff you were looking for in the game. In Swordquest: Earthworld, you were looking for the Talisman of Ultimate Truth, and if you won the contest you would actually get it: a gold, jewel-encrusted talisman worth $14,000 in 1982 money.
The big prize for all four games was the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, this $50,000 silver, jeweled sword. But in 1983, the video game market crashes, which in Japan is called "the Atari shock" because it was so associated with Atari. You've heard about the E.T. cartridges buried in the desert; that was all part of it. They no longer have all this money to spend, and the third game is released as mail-in only. The fourth game never comes out.
Three of those prizes were awarded. One was melted down; I think the guy payed for college with the gold but kept the jewels. But the sword was never given out.
Where did the sword wind up?
There's a rumor that it hung in the CEO's office for twenty years. There's a rumor it was stolen. There's a rumor that the Franklin Mint, who produced all the things, still has it in a vault somewhere. It was this weird, prototype ARG [alternate reality game], and I love the idea of you actually questing for the thing you're looking for. At the end of Super Mario Bros. you don't meet a princess, and at the end of The Legend of Zelda you don't get the Master Sword.
So our story [in Swordquest] is about a guy who played the game as a kid and was obsessed with getting that sword. Now it's thirty-five years later and he still feels this missed opportunity Something happens to him that sets him on this path of a real-life sword quest. I think that's something people can relate to: When you're tallying it up at the end of the day, what do you wish you had done and what would you do to fix it?
It's one of the most weirdly personal things we've ever done. We're basically treating it like a creator-owned property. We run everything by Dynamite and they run it by Atari, so it's not like we're slipping it past them, but they've both been very supportive of how we want to tell this personal story that has nothing to do with this game.
Do you have any qualms about getting pegged as the retro guy?
It's already happening. [laughs] There was a review, and it was a very good review, but it said Chris Sims and Chad Bowers have made names for themselves writing preexisting IP. But you can say that about, like, Mark Waid. Batman's a preexisting IP.
I'm OK with it. Honestly, we love the things we loved when we were kids, but everything we do, even if it has an old-school feeling, we try to bring a modern sensibility. I think a lot of comics are based on taking those ideas you loved in the past and figuring out what makes them work today, and I think we've done that, so I don't mind being a guy who loves the stuff he loves.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Retro Rampage"