Brand Echh: Mighty Crusaders #1

As we’ve spoken about before in the past, the opening up of the Direct Sales marketplace in the 1980s inspired a whole lot of different companies to enter the field with their own wares, competing for a piece of this lucrative non-returnable sales market. One of these was Archie Comics, who were persuaded to take another stab at super heroes. But historically, Archie has never had the will to follow through with their super hero properties–the company is well aware that its bread-and-butter is the more wholesome and universal escapades of namesake Archie Andrews and cohorts. So time after time over the years, Archie would trot out the same play: they’d bring back the super hero characters that they’d published in the 1940s, make a lot of big promises about how great the material was going to be, then swiftly get out of the super hero business when the immediate sales results weren’t titanic. And that’s pretty much what happened with this iteration of the MIGHTY CRUSADERS.

The person behind the resurgence and roll-out of the new Red Circle line of super hero books (Archie chose not to use their actual name in conjunction with these titles at the outset, for fear that it might be tainted by the material. After not too long, they relented, and the new Crusaders titles were published under the Archie Adventure Series title) was Rich Buckler, a super hero artist who’d worked at both DC and Marvel and who was looking to branch out and take more control of both his career and his material. Buckler was popular, although he was also known for swiping poses and even whole images from other artists, most regularly either Jack Kirby or Neal Adams. Still, if you wanted a Jack Kirby or Neal Adams look on a particular super hero, Rich Buckler was your man. He was an experienced artist and freelancer, but it seems as though he wasn’t really cut out for an editorial position.

There are all sorts of different sides to the story of this 1980s Red Circle/Archie Adventure Series launch, told by folks who were involved: Buckler himself, John Carbonaro, who had bought the rights to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and hoped to publish them through Red Circle, David Singer, who came in as an editorial helper but who maneuvered to become a more important player in the industry, and Archie mainstays such as Victor Gorelick. I’m going to attempt to side-step as much of the he said/she said here as possible. It’s probably enough to understand that the Red Circle line was likely foredoomed to failure due both to the inexperience of the main people charged with putting the books together and the relatively weak desire of the company to be in the super hero game in the first place. So let’s talk about the comic itself.

This first issue of MIGHTY CRUSADERS (sometimes referred to using the much more unwieldy monicker ALL-NEW ADVENTURES OF THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS) was a pretty good looking package when it arrived on spinner racks both in the Direct Sales market and on mainstream newsstands in 1983. Buckler had thrown himself into this first release, choosing to write and illustrate it himself, with veteran Frank Giacoia finishing Buckler’s pencils. It looked like a Marvel or DC super hero book, one chock-full of new super heroes who largely hadn’t seen the light of day in close to two decades. In a move that has fouled up any number of entry-level publishers, Red Circle chose not to start slow and build their line, but rather to release a bunch of titles all at one, to carpet-bomb the marketplace. This approach bit them in the behind as, even when their initial offerings were strong, subsequent issues got rockier and rockier as lesser talent had to scramble to create the material under difficult conditions.

Still, just the appearance of a whole line of new super hero books was exciting–and it was ledd off by this first issue of MIGHTY CRUSADERS. Buckler made a decision that is understandable in the context of 1983 and what the fan-audience of that era seemed to react to the best: he decided that he would attempt to keep all of the disparate continuity of the characters intact from their 1960s (and earlier!) stories. What this meant is that the first issue of MIGHTY CRUSADERS was like diving into a deep tank of Roy Thomas-style history that was typically only casually alluded to. I mean, right off the bat, the reformed Crusaders team has two separate characters who are both called the Shield, with different powers and wildly convoluted backstories. It wasn’t very welcoming to new readers, and while there’s an excitement to the slow reveal and putting the pieces together over time, this is really no way to introduce a bunch of characters to a new audience.

It also maybe doesn’t help that the story is a bit of a tonal mish-mash. Buckler attempts to play everything very straight and serious, in the mode of the self-important super hero stories of this era. But he’s also working with characters such as his main villains, the Brain-Emperor and Eterno the Conqueror, who are hold-overs from the campy 1960s and whom no amount of simply trying to play straight will make seem any less silly.

Still, Buckler knew what he was trying to do: an Avengers of the Archie heroes (specifically a Roy Thomas AVENGERS) and in that regard, he largely succeeded, at least in this first issue. Thereafter, though, as recounted earlier, each following issue got a bit shakier. Deadlines started to be missed and fill-ins popped up in the middle of ongoing continuities, sometimes as quickly as issue #2. The launch was, it must be said, a complete mess, although some nice work was done in it. Buckler and his team were able to draft in the services of both some famous comic book greats such as Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko and Alex Toth as well as exciting newcomers like Jim Sherman. But the storylines were all over the place, and a buyer never quite knew what he was getting when purchasing a Red Circle title.

The whole Red Circle/Archie Adventure Series experiment lasted for about two years before sinking once more beneath the waves. But the characters would return again and again over the years, never quite hitting the zeitgeist in a way that would make them a successful ongoing concern.

Buckler closed out the issue with a quintet of pages showcasing the origins and backstories of his assorted heroes. He got some bad press for these in that they were rife with swipes from the original stories, in particular the origins of the Fly and the Shield, which had been drawn initially by Jack Kirby.

4 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Mighty Crusaders #1

  1. I came in on the Crusaders a little later when the connections with the old stuff were a little less. I didn’t realize how much the first issues had drawn on the Silver Age.
    TwoMorrows’ MLJ Companion suggests the repeated reboot/failure cycle works to their advantage in some ways: every generation since the 1980s has seen them on the stands but there’s never been a definitive interpretation that constrains future reboots.

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  2. I was around 11 or 12 when I got this issue. I knew the orginial Shield from pics in the Overstreet Price Guide & trade press. I learned he predated Captain America, in “Pep Comics”, I think. I was into seeing Rich Buckler draw him, since I knew that name & his skills from many fine “Superman” & “Action Comics” covers, & from his work on “All-Star Squadron”.

    Tom’s right in saying some of the villain’s names sound dated, so their context would need updating. And he’s right about so many new superhero lines that tried the “go big or go home” approach, only to end m up doing both. Going home as a result of going big.

    These days I’d start with only the Shield. He’d have been active since WW2, but this isn’t a continuation of the old continuity. And he’d be resurfacing after being under the radar for 10 years. I’d lean on some of the Ennis/Parlov stuff, without the cursing & sex. But the sobering, disillusioned POV, & some espionage. Ennis’s “Unknown Soldier’ is an influence. Ed Brubaker, too.

    No red tights. The mask would be seperate (like in the initual comics) from a steel mesh vest, in that familar design based on the shield in the Seal of the United States. He’s invulnerable, so no sleeves. Blue SWAT-style cargo pants. Combat boots. White hair to show his age. (Mar-Vell’s initially white hair was very striking above his mask & white eye-lenses).

    “Brain Emperor” sounds like it’d have to be an internal code name for a clandestine ringleader who had long ago been either the champion or showrunner of an old TV game show of the same name. Their use of the title would never be public knowledge.

    Same for the Eraser. Who sounds like telepathic assassin, or a group of them, called Erasers.

    Inferno also sounds villainous to me. Other Red Circle heroes could be introduced over time. More diverse, as recent incarnations have been.

    But the moniker “Mighty Crusaders” would be reserved for a decidedly subversive, destructive team, not representing the best of the American ideal. And so the Shield would see them as an affront, & adversarial.

    That’d be my approach for it in 2022.

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