Overview

Quasar, the Cosmic Avenger

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The 1990’s, when grim n’ gritty was the in thing with comics writers desperate to show how adult their books were. It was a desperate, depressing time in many ways. And then, there was Quasar!

Quasar was not the most obvious choice to launch in a solo book. By 1989, he’d been around for over ten years, and was part of a legacy that stretched back a lot further, but he’d never been anything more than a minor character, a C list guest star. When Quasar #1 went on sale in September ’89, he hadn’t even been seen for some years. But, still, the book undeniably had something going for it, and it was mostly writer Mark Gruenwald.

Mark Gruenwald was a writer who loved comics, and in particular loved the complicated continuity which, for a time, made Marvel the single most complex and “realistic” fictional universe in existence. Though he’s better known for other things (such as his eight year run on Captain America), Quasar, starring a character originally created by Roy Thomas but who Gruenwald had already developed more than any other writer in the pages of Marvel Two-In-One, was the book where he was most able to indulge this passion, and its 60 issues are effectively one long love letter to the Marvel Universe!

The first  issue of Quasar is effectively an extended flashback, explaining how Wendell  Vaughn, a member of the super spy agency SHIELD who “lacks that fighting edge”, unwillingly ends up bonded to the Quantum Bands, alien wrist bands once worn by the  1950s superhero Marvel Boy, which enable the wearer to manipulate and project energy.

By the end of issue #3, the now footloose Wendell has also met the “cosmic entity” Eon, and learned that he is the latest in a long line of beings chosen to be “Protector of the Universe” (the last one had been the late Captain Marvel), has set himself up with a cover as a security consultant based in the same building as the Fantastic Four, and has been warned to expect the coming of a great threat from space. We’ve also met a supporting cast including Wendell’s scientist father, and secretary and love interest Kayla Ballantine.

Gruenwald packs more scene setting into three issues than many other manage in a years worth of issues, and it all feels quite natural and unhurried-he seems to be able to cram in ideas in a way which would make most books seem cluttered, without it ever feeling any such thing. Over the first six issues of Quasar, alone, we see several alien races, become involved in a multi-part crossover storyline (‘Acts of Vengeance’) and meet more than a dozen assorted superheroes and villains.

But the real draw of Quasar is not its status as party central for the Marvel Universe, but the fact that it is fun. At a time when  Marvel, and indeed comics in general, were overrun by gun toting, angst ridden, ultra violent antiheroes such as The Punisher, Ghost Rider and around two dozen groups of joyless, persecuted mutants with one word names, Quasar is an upbeat, old fashioned hero who enjoys his job and always tries to see the best in everyone. There are the obligatory moments of self doubt which have assailed every superhero since Peter Parker first donned his webs, but nothing ever gets Quasar down for long.

Gruenwald’s most celebrated work at Marvel was probably Squadron Supreme, a 12 issue series from the mid 80’s which  examined the likely consequences of people becoming superhumans, unencumbered by regular Marvel continuity by being set on a parallel Earth. The Squadron themselves were analogues of DC Comics’ Justice League of America, and were evidently favorites of the writer, as in Quasar # 13-16, he brought them back into the ‘real’ Marvel Universe as part of an ambitious storyline involving  cosmic entities The Stranger, The Watcher and The Overmind. The Squadron became recurring characters throughout the series, but those four issues are also notable for reintroducing more than 20 obscure characters from Marvel comics past, many of whom would reappear in later issues!

Gruenwald was a fan of more than just Marvel, though, and it showed. The 80’s incarnation of DC’s Starman was fleetingly seen in issue # 14, while #17 is Gruenwald’s tribute to another character sadly no longer with us. A lightweight, fun story, ‘Reborn to Run’ features a race between most of Marvel’s super fast characters to find “the fastest man alive”.

Though Quicksilver, the Whizzer and others acquit themselves well, the final winner is a blond haired amnesiac in the tattered remains of a red and gold uniform, who appears to be from another parallel Earth. When asked his name, he can only say that it’s “something like…Buried Alien”, but readers are left in no doubt that he is actually DC’s supposedly deceased hero, Barry Allen-the Flash! It was touches like this that set Quasar apart from other titles.

Unfortunately, while Quasar was never less than entertaining, and while Gruenwald continued to both utilize Marvel’s past in interesting ways (reintroducing characters from the ill fated ‘New Universe’ line of books, for one) and break new ground (outing Makkari of The Eternals as one of comics’ first gay superheroes) the early 90’s were a time when creators were being somewhat stifled by editorial interference.

Crossovers between titles, conceived purely to boost sales, proliferated, and ongoing storylines would be derailed for months at a time by the need to get a particular book involved. Quasar was not immune to this-‘The Infinity Gauntlet’, ‘Operation Galactic Storm’, ‘The Infinity War’, one after another they came, confusing readers and weakening the title’s unique identity.

After a quite respectable 60 issues, Quasar was finally canceled  in July 1994, its ending left somewhat open as Wendell Vaughn exiled himself to outer space to prevent an old enemy from harming his loved ones. Quasar the character has resurfaced several times since under other writers, but has never been as popular as he was under the guiding hand of his “godfather”, Mark Gruenwald. In the grim, gritty and slightly stifling Marvel Universe of the 90’s, Quasar was a breath of fresh air.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald, June 18th 1953-August 12th 1996.

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