Giant, floating mountains that have eyes. Intelligent apes who live underwater. A demolition derby where every Ghost Rider races and kills each other over and over again. Please, Marvel Comics, put some of this tomfoolery in your big fall relaunch next to the new Wolverine.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at the majority of their publishing line nowadays but Marvel Comics has a legacy of releasing outre, non-superhero work. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, titles like Epic Illustrated, Marvel Premiere and Marvel Preview/Bizarre Adventures were the epicenters for experiments with pulp, sci-fi and science-fantasy storytelling. Some of these tales did feature superheroes but took them out of their regular villain-centric, modern-day serials and placed in them in more divergent and personal stories.

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That doesn’t happen much anymore but the newest crop of Secret Wars tie-ins harkens back to the days when Marvel took a few more risks with its output. It’s a little ironic that comics tieing into Marvel’s blockbuster crossover event—usually the most ideologically conservative kind of superhero offering—has some callbacks to the funky weirdness of years past. This week, it’s evidenced in Ghost Racers and Weirdworld.

The former rounds up all the characters to ever use the name Ghost Rider and makes them rivals in a recurring deathmatch viewed by millions of people on the patchwork planet of Battleworld. Robbie Reyes—the latest person to operate as Ghost Rider in the mainline reality—is the undefeated babyface champion in the Ghost Racers competition but all of the previous cursed characters get little moments where their personalities shine.

So, Johnny Blaze is still a hot-tempered daredevil, Danny Ketch a grungy gearhead and so on, even though they’re in a different reality. Creators Felipe Smith and Juan Gedeon cannily stitch together a pastiche of inspirations from pro wrestling, racing and auto shows as the backdrop for a seedy, grindhouse-inspired drama that’s still light enough to be an adventure cartoon for older kids.

On the other end of the spectrum, Weirdworld #1 by Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo shouts out the days when Marvel published Conan, Kull and other savage-barbarian characters. The star of this first series is Arkon, a science-fantasy warrior who’s shown up in Avengers and X-Men stories over the years. The blood-and-guts monarch finds himself away from his native dimension and spends his time fighting across the trippiest district of the makeshift planet, a place where the flotsam and jetsam of the old multiverse has wound up.

The Robert E. Howard/Frank Frazetta-inflected flavors that Aaron put into his Thor: God of Thunder series is in full flower here. You can tell that he has a lifetime of love for these genre conventions and it feels like that affection really deserves a place in the Marvel Universe that’s coming in the fall. Del Mundo’s watercolor-style approach makes this story feel like a relic from ancient times, but still deftly zeroes in on the drama and facial expressions that gives the sequences import.

These two titles underscore how idiosyncratic Secret Wars is as a crossover, despite having some of the same architecture of similar events in the past and present. Even though it’s the means through which more interconnected superhero fare will enter the Marvel Universe—done in a way that seems primed to feed Marvel’s filmed entertainment business—Secret Wars itself isn’t of a piece with that stuff. It’s fitting that the first issues of Ghost Racers and Weirdworld go outside the bounds of cape-and-tights punch-em-ups in their transmogrifications of familiar characters. Marvel’s yet to announce the full extent of their coming relaunch but it’d be great if even a few titles felt as untethered and unexpected as these two.


Contact the author at evan@kotaku.com.