The 1980's were a time of great change in the American comic book industry with The Big 2 attempting to figure out how to survive the changing ground of the 1980's. In 1986, one of the most unique, brutal, and uneven Superhero comics would come out of Marvel Comics: Strikeforce Morituri (SFM). Featuring humans that willingly underwent a process to grain themselves superpowers, dubbed the "Morituri Process" to protect the Earth from the savage inhuman raids by an alien race known as the Horde. In this Forgotten Classic, FWS will be finally looking at this bold and surprising Marvel comic that was a part of my childhood and has left echoes within me since I first read it in 1986.
What was Strikeforce Morituri
The World of the Horde, Paideia, and Temporary Superheroes
Near the end of the 21st century, Earth was in a more peaceful state and the Paideia Institute was largely reasonable for that. All nuclear weapons had been eliminated and destroyed at this at point in Terran history along with a greater reduction in military spending. While the world was not yet fully united under a single government, the Paideia was closer than the UN ever got. Then the Horde showed up about four years before the events of the comic series and the world united under the Paideia due to the alien threat to pool their resources and cut down on the red tape. The threat that the Earth faced in 2069 was unlike anything else humanity had faced before, but the Horde were known and feared to other civilizations in the galaxy. The Horde (AKA the "Va-Shakk" in their own tongue) were a race condemned to their own dying homeworld. Due to tribal warfare, the environment was failing and it looked like the global civil wars would end the race. At this point, the Va-Shakk were not a spacefaring race nor possessed nuclear weapons. What gave them access to the stars was when a kind, friendly alien race, known as the "Tall Ones" came to the Horde homeworld. These golden-colored beings offered everything with kindness and asked nothing in exchange for their gifts save for the Horde to one day join a brotherhood among the stars. What the Tall Ones got was a blade to the throat and bullets in the belly.
In 2072, Dr. Kimmo Tuolema developed the most effective and terrifying weapon against the Horde: the Morituri Process. This 2-stage process allowed very specific young humans (about 5% of the Terran population) to become temporary superheroes with a new metabolism. The first stage of the transformation was to turn the volunteer into a superior physical human and the second process gifted them superhero powers. However, there were vast drawbacks. For one, the powers granted in the second process varied wildly and two, these powers emerged only during times of stress. Dr. Kimmo's lab used a stress room called "the Garden", based on the X-Men "danger room", to awaken their powers. Seriously, the comic references the characters saying the X-Men gave them the idea. The third drawback was the worst and most famous: the limited lifespan of those that undergo the Morituri Process. Everyone that takes the process dies within one year due to their metabolism breaking down and causing them to explode. Series creator, Peter Gillis had stated that no one was safe from the Morituri Effect...as it was called. The first five that went under the process were called the Black Watch, and only three survived out of the Garden. Their first and only mission was to attack the Horde Earth-side settlement/HQ at Capetown South Africa and killed the First-in-the-Field, the leader of the Horde operations on Earth. Two of the Black Watch were able to leave Capetown, but died when his Morituri Effect took over. In retaliation, the Horde nuked San Diego. Shortly after this, the comic book series would start with the First Generation of Morituri. When the series ended, it was with the 8th generation of Morituri.
The Historical Context of Strikeforce Morituri
Why is SFM is a Classic?
The American comic book industry was an odd place in the 1980's and it shows in the comics being produced and by whom. While the Big 2 pumped out familiar titles, like Superman, Batman, the X-Men; there were others putting out titles like Alien Legion, Rust, Concrete, The Terminator, and The Elementals. This is what made STM an classic: because of who published it. It was not Epic, Comico, First, or even Dark Horse...it was Marvel and STM was unlike anything before or since in the realm of Superhero comics. That is the primary reason that Strikeforce Morituri is a classic, because it is just damn unique. The "superheroes" of the Morituri are complex characters with a range of backstories and issues to deal with and all deal with their impending deaths differently. This causes religion to feature more than most comics I read back in the day and makes prefect sense. While most of us knew that Batman or Superman would be back next month, that was not true of the Morituri. They could be there for several issues or die in the first one. Largely this was due to the dreaded Morituri Effect. In addition, this made the current Morituri team ever changing and altering, who was the leader or the focus, altered based on who was live and who was dead. And who the team lost caused ripples in the team.
Their ticking time clocks made the Morituri impatient. They wanted to be out there killing Horde and that put them at odds with the Paidiea leadership. While the Terran society idolized the Morituri. even the point of comics, TV shows, and toys being made of them, there were those in the government that mistrusted them. This was a bold step for a Superhero comic and may have lead to its downfall...more on that later. No hero can be complete without an great enemy and the Moritrui were against a unique enemy in the Horde. These alien marauders were violent, materialistic, tribal, and unpredictable. The Horde were nothing to pity, the reader wanted them dead, but since they were interesting, you wanted more about them and their society. And that is just want Anderson and Gillis did. The way that the Horde are presented and the way that operate in a more tribal fashion was refreshing to the standard alien invades along with raids for trophies and not just the standard items or to eat us. The Horde took chocolate, movies, and slaves; causing the entire world to be under fear of being the victim of the next Horde raid. Both of these factors caused the comic to have an air of violence, brutality, boldness, and death that seems more realistic and compelling than the standard Avengers comic of the day. I was ten when I started reading my brothers SFM comics, it shocked and fascinated me. Another cool element that I enjoyed and I think makes SFM classic is the use of the in-universe comic book showing the hyped up deeds of the prototype Morituri: The Black Watch. It was brilliantly handled with different artist being used to have it look separate from the rest of the comic.
Why was SFM Forgotten?
There are works created to shock and unsettle us, like seeing Dennis Franz’s ass in NYPD Blue back in 1993, and in some ways, Strikeforce Morituri was the same and really since. It was designed to be evocative and unsettle the reader with a take on the Superhero genre that was unlike anything else at the time. This comic was heavily hyped and solid well for Marvel and was praised at the time. Like most comic book buyers at the time, you normally bought one or two issues to try it out, and then you made a decision if it was indeed worth your allowance. While my brother made the decision to buy SFM every month until the end of the series, others did not. The shock and awe of the concept, for some, faded. That was true of when the original creative team of Anderson & Gillis departed for other titles and companies. Some did not continue to buy the comic after the radical shift in tone, setting, and overall story. Once the Horde were destroyed by the VXX-199, and the war ended, it was the end for most people buying the comic. After 31 issues, the party was over and while there was the limited series to follow up some ten years later after the end of the Horde War, it sold poorly and most fans dislike the tone, setting, art, and story. Another reason for SFM being forgotten is that the time period in which in came out. With no internet as we understand it today, Strikeforce Morituri was a product of its time, and unless you knew about it, heard about it, or saw in the back-issue bins; it remained hidden. Once the internet came to the level, we know it today, articles and message board posts began to discuss Strikeforce Morituri. Then Marvel reissued the series in 2012 in three trade paperback volumes and even the first issue as a standalone. This increased the visibility of the 1980’s series and there have been other mentions and projects....more on that down below.
The Tale of the Two Strikeforce Morituri
Within six issues of James Hudnall taking the conn, the Horde threat was basically neutralized by the new aliens coming to the "aid" of humanity in the form of the VXX-199 (who are quite inventive in concept). From issue 26 to issue 31, the story alters to be about a conspiracy within the one-world government, the Paideia, a new group of Morituri assassins developed to forward the conspiracy to assassinate the Prime Ministry of the Paideia and stage a coup to seize power after the Horde threat. At the end of the series, the coup plot is foiled by the current Morituri team, and the VXX-199 are set up as the coming threat. The epilogue sets up the next limited series as a more cyberpunk setting. One of the researchers of the comic has stated that it is possible that Hudnall moved the Morituri storyline to an early death to embark on the more cyberpunk theme. No one knows if Gillis had left Hudnall some notes or an outline to upcoming storylines...did Gillis have the VXX-199 in mind for the end of the Horde? Another uncomfortable angle is that since the VXX-199 ended the Horde threat, what was the sacrifice of the Morituri for ultimately? Was it a waste? To me, the involvement of the VXX-199 undercut the entire comic and its unique setting. Also adding to this, an Horde virus is found that could counteract the Morituri Effect and give the current the Morituri extended life beyond the "within on year" rule. This completely shatters the basic rules of the SFM comic that Gillis set down and a critical element of the comic. This changed the tone so completely that it spoiled the entire rest of the comic for me and many others. In one way that tone was altered was the one-world government of Paideia and the society it represented. In the Gillis-era, the world was united against the Horde and the Morituri were heroes. In the Hudnall-era, there are force within the Paideia being used to seize power after the Horde threat and the Morituri were twisted into assassins.
If SFM was so Great why did it end after 31 Issues?
It seems the going rate that some of the best comics only run for a short time then end, like Dynamo Joe. So, the question begs itself: if Strikeforce Morituri was so great why did the series end after just 31 issues? First, the basic nature of the concept of the temporary Superhero caused the structure of the characters and the team to alter all the time, sometimes even from issue-to-issue. This is direct contrast to the basic narratively structure of the classic Superhero comic that have all events orbit around the central characters. This model breaks down when it comes to the SFM series and that turned off some readers and ruined its long-term prospects. The lack of SFM being a longer series that ran for years also was hampered by its setting: the Horde War. Wars are mostly not forever (sorry Joe Haldeman!) and if you are centering your fictional universe around a war, it mostly will be limited. While creators find ways to extend a wartime setting for years (see Star Wars or Sgt. Rock), SFM project that the Horde War was coming to end due to the appearance of the Morituri. Some have argued that SFM should have been designed originally to be a limited series, especially given what happened after issue #20. When Gillis and Anderson left after issue #20, James Hudnall was installed as the writer and his reign over the SFM comic series changed some many of the core elements. From issue #21-#31, the artwork, writing, and the coloring changed for the worst, the Horde War was ended and Hudnall switched to a conspiracy involving the global government and some black ops Morituri team. Some people online have suggested that Hudnall wanted to change the world of Strikeforce Morituri the entire time to more of cyberpunk vide and without a one-world government. It remains unknown if Anderson and Gillis had stayed on as the creative team of SFM, how the comic would have progressed and if it would have remained on the stands longer than just 31 issues.
What About the Sequel "Electric Undertow"?!
The Impact and Legacy of SFM
At the time of release, there was much buzz around the concept of the comic and the sales were good along with the press. Many praised the setting and the “twist” on the Superhero genre. However, it did not spawn other similar comics at the time in the mid-to-late 80’s. Despite this, the people that read the comic back in the day remember it and some, like me, remember it as iconic and legendary. It was not just confined to us comic book geeks of the 80’s, but Hollywood came knocking for a movie and/or TV series. In 2002, the Sci-Fi Channel thought the basic concept of the comic would make a great TV series, which I agree given the Morituri Effect. With the amount of characters coming in and out, the television format would work well to allow the audience to feel the impact of the Morituri Process and the Effect on characters they get to know over several episodes. It was going to be titled “A Thousand Days”. From some of the information online, The 1,000 Day series may not have followed the format or central plot of the show. Given that the Morituri Process was best on people between 18 and early 20’s, this could have been designed and packaged to be aimed at younger viewers.
Next Time on FWS...