Jul 10, 2012

It Came From the Dollar Bin: Brute Force

I have finally returned from drafting a novel, working on an urban fantasy lesbian romance comic book script, self-pubbing some *cough* other short fiction, and playing far, far too much Dungeons & Dragons to give you more...

You're sure this isn't Transformers?
It Came From the Dollar Bin!

In honor of this week's eagerly anticipated Transformers Regeneration One #81, I present a comic published by Marvel with characters and concepts created by Bob Budiansky, a script by Simon Furman, and art by José Delbo. Transformers? Oh no. (You can tell because the colors aren't by Nel Yomtov.) I'm talking about a book that got a whopping four issues out of its initial 4-issue limited series, a toy comic with no actual toy to tie in to...Brute Force! Read on for a look at Marvel's short-lived foray into creating their own toyetic non-superhero IP, including an interview with series writer Simon Furman.

Maximals, vehicle mo- wait.
The most striking thing about Brute Force really is how much it looks and feels like a toy comic in the vein of Transformers and G.I. Joe. With no apparent ties to the mainstream Marvel universe, the story follows a team of five animals - Soar the eagle, Lionheart the lion, Wreckless the bear, Hip Hop the kangaroo, and Surfstream the dolphin - who have been given human-level intelligence and powered armor by environmentally-minded scientist Doctor Randall Pierce. They're initially put into action to try to rescue another modified animal, a gorilla who is destined to become a part of rival animals-in-suits team Heavy Metal, from the clowns who ape-napped him, but they soon find themselves fighting polluters, toxic waste monsters, militant terrorists, and a walking shark with sawblade wheels.

And yes, I literally mean clowns, and it's the comic's opening scenes of clown-costumed thugs with automatic weapons that sets the tone for the series as a whole. At a time when preteen-skewed toy comics like Transformers and G.I. Joe were being replaced by the slightly younger Archie Comics adventures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Brute Force overshot the mark a little with a complex story of corporate backstabbing, greed, and environmental responsibility. Had it come along five years earlier it might have caught on alongside the slew of other toy-based IPs, had it come along three years later when Marvel bought Toy Biz it might have actually gotten the plastic immortality to which it clearly aspired, and had it come along once environmental responsibility was properly on the pop culture radar it might have lasted more than four issues.

But let's turn things over to the series writer, Simon Furman, who was generous enough to dig up his old notes to answer some questions for me:

Jen: Two of the issues credit the characters to a Charles Viola. Who was Charles Viola? Was he someone at Marvel, an outside IP developer, a random schmuck who wandered in off the street...?
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SF: Here’s how I remember the genesis of Brute Force. It was 1989/1990, and by this point I was writing Transformers for Marvel US. I had five or six issues under my belt, and maybe I’d impressed Bob Budiansky, the previous writer on Transformers, because he came to me and asked if I’d like to write this new brand-style comic they were developing in-house called Brute Force. It may even have happened while I was living & working in NYC, and hanging around the Marvel offices. It would fit the timeframe. Now Bob would know better than me, but my recollection is that Brute Force was kind of a reaction to all the hard work Marvel had put in to flesh out series like Transformers and GI Joe and probably a slew of other 80s toy lines. Rather than be handed a toy line and create the back story for it (and ultimately own nothing of it), Marvel (possibly spearheaded by Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco, but it could equally be that Bob took the idea to Tom) decided to create their own toy-friendly IP – Brute Force. The idea was, the comic would spin out into toys and an animated show that Marvel actually owned the rights to. I think Bob did all the hard work on developing the characters and underpinning story. I can’t remember offhand if Jose (Delbo) did the initial designs or Bob did (as he’s a very talented artist in his own right), or a combination of the two, but really Bob was the driving force behind the project. So Charles Viola? I have no idea. Some kind of pseudonym perhaps?
Yes, that IS a shark with sawblade wheels.
Jen: Brute Force seems like a blatant toy line/cartoon tie-in comic, except there never was a Brute Force toy line or cartoon. Was something like that planned? Was the comic created to tie into something that was canceled, or was it meant to be the first part of a new IP?
SF: So what happened to Brute Force? Well, the four-issue series ran its course, but the expected rash of toy/TV/game licensees for the IP/brand never materialized. Not sure why. Personally I thought it was a very solid, well-realized toy-friendly concept. But maybe it arrived at exactly the wrong time. The 80s toy/action figure/comic boom that ultimately spawned Brute Force was kind of over, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers were more the taste of the toy-buying pre-teen, with their more overt action/violence and manga-inspired martial arts feel. And early home computer consoles were also making an appearance. And if anything, Brute Force was a little ahead of its time in terms of its eco-friendly tone and stance. And eclipsed by the concurrent Captain Planet and the Planeteers. It just, to me, fell between two stools.
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Jen: The ads for Marvel's other comics that ran in Brute Force suggest it was intended to be part of their stable of children's titles. You're known for writing Transformers, ostensibly a “kid's comic”, with no real regard for target age groups, and Brute Force shared that tendency toward complicated storylines of trust and betrayal. Were you given a target age group for Brute Force? If so, did you pay it much attention?
SF: Here’s the thing again of Brute Force possibly falling between two stools – this time ‘age-group’. It probably should have been pitched much younger. Aimed at 5-6 year-olds. Because yeah, the storylines and themes were quite sophisticated, but intelligent animals in suits would have maybe suited a younger demographic better. I can’t remember why Brute Force wasn’t put under Marvel’s Star Comics group (which catered for the younger comics reader), but I think all along Marvel wanted Brute Force to hit that Transformers/GI Joe demographic, but of course they’d moved and tastes had changed. Overall, I think Brute Force was a great idea that just missed its ideal window. 
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  1. To give credit (or blame) where credit is due, I believe then-Marvel Editor in Chief Tom DeFalco was the primary mover behind the Brute Force concept. As Simon correctly states, it was Marvel's attempt to create a franchise that it would own and then be licensed to toy companies and the like for further exploitation. All Marvel would then have to do is sit back and collect those fat licensing fees; I believe those checks are still in the mail. As editor, I'm sure I contributed a few ideas to the development of Brute Force, but I really don't remember what they were. The wing on the letter "B" of the logo looks like something I would have come up with...

  2. Ah! Thank you for that clarification, Bob! I'd personally send some licensing fees your way for that shark on a T-shirt. :)

  3. Um, my uncle is Charles Viola, and no it's not a pseudonym. It had been brought up before about how he worked with Marvel on the Brute Force comics, but I can't remember what exactly he did, though it was significant.

  4. I think I can answer a few questions, the first one being “Who is Charles Viola?” That would be me.

    It’s not surprising that few comic fans know who I am. What little I’ve done in the comic field has been for very young readers. I wrote Heathcliff stories for Marvel’s Star line; The New Kids on the Block for Harvey Comics; and The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Yogi Bear for Archie Comics.

    In late 1989, as a designer in the toy business with a background in television, I approached Marvel with some ideas that could work as comics, cartoons, and toys. Marvel was interested in going in that direction at that time and so I met with Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco and publisher Judy Fireman to show them some concepts.

    They both liked a dolphin character I had created who had a bionic suit that allowed him to move about on land and operate equipment. He could communicate with people via a translator that converted his dolphin squeals into human speech. Tom De Falco wanted me to create a line of similar animal characters and vehicles and so the project was born. He brought in Bob Budiansky, who was the editor for Transformers, and Sid Jacobson, who was the editor of Marvel’s Star Comics. The five of us met over the next few months to develop the concept and we ended up creating a team of animal heroes whose main mission it was to protect the environment.

    During the time we were developing the concept, Marvel, which had recently changed ownership, also changed direction. In addition, Marvel’s licensing department was not interested in using their time and resources to promote unknown characters, when it was so much easier for them to market well-known properties like Spiderman and The Hulk.

    Marvel released a four-issue mini-series to test the market reaction, but we knew ahead of time that sales would be slim because the line was really aimed at the younger market who watched Saturday morning cartoons and bought toys, not for the age group that generally bought comics.

    With a changing company, an unenthusiastic licensing department, and unimpressive comic sales, the project never stood much of a chance.

    I think it may have been the right idea at the wrong time. Interest in the environment has grown stronger today than it was back then. So has awareness of animal intelligence and the possibilty of communicating with animals using advances in computer technology. With Marvel’s prominence now in movies and with the perfection of computer animation, the Brute Force characters could really come alive today in a way that they couldn’t back in 1990. Look at Rocket Racoon for example in Guardians of the Galaxy.

    I do find it interesting that, even though only four issues of Brute Force were published, it’s still being talked about nearly a quarter century later.