The 90s are widely considered to be one of the worst decades for the comic book industry, that being said, I am an avid believer in the gems that can be unearthed from that time period. You may have to dig through a lot of bad to find them, but sometimes, like in today’s example, a book can look like it should be promising, but flake out quickly and crumble for multiple reasons that are not the obvious ones.
A friend of mine came to me about a comic that he read in his youth, talking about how great it seemed, but he was never able to find the other issues. Now though, through the power of eBay, he was able to find the rest of the bundle. Once he finished reading it, he decided that I had to as well. So for the viewing pleasure of my audience and the comics society, I present:
In 1992 Marvel came together with Thomas Nelson Publishers—a large producer of Christian-themed materials—for the jointly owned Nelson Comics imprint. Other than a graphic novel style adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Illuminator comics are some of their best known content, and the only series to make it past one issue. This joint venture only lasted until 1994, and it looks like Thomas Nelson is the holder of the blame for that one. The publisher wanted to do larger issues that were in a mini-graphic novel format and were insistent that the books not have advertisements. As anyone can guess, not having ads cut into the title’s profits. This led to the books being quite expensive for the time, costing the reader $4.99. This may not sound bad for a comic now days, but it’s still asking a lot due to the fact that it was an unknown property without a major writer/artist team creating it. Insisting on these things can be seen as a big factor of why the Nelson line of religious-themed comics was so short lived.
The book was created by Glenn Alan Herdling and Craig Brasfield. Herdling was a writer on several other Marvel titles, but he also did the Beavis and Butt-Head comics, which seems like an odd fit when discussing this title. The art is not bad for the time and made good use of color and exaggerated facial expressions. It is the design of the main character that seems to divide readers, as it is incredibly 90s with the jacket and biker helmet, but I kind of like it—simple and versatile. Though this is the one area I thought some color various or more detail would have helped.
There are three issues of Illuminator that were printed, with a fourth solicited and a fifth rumored, but those never saw the light of day. The first issue is the best of the three with a strong opening and a classic origin story where an unimpressive kid gets powers with little to no explanation. His abilities are mostly based around flight and being able to project bright light, as the title suggests. There is a pretty quick turnaround for him figuring out his powers that I thought could have been explored more, but I was glad to see that he was not overpowered and unstoppable, but felt like a vulnerable, relatable character at multiple points.
Andy Prentiss is the main character, and he was lacking a bit in personality. I’m not sure what I expected from a person who says his favorite pastime is research, but the biggest failure in his personality is how bad he sucks at insulting his enemies. Spider-Man he is not. Actually, the dialogue and word choice throughout the whole series was a hokey and bad to be honest.
The second issue had two stories that both had a cool premise involving mutated were-creatures and drug operations. These are not all standalone stories either, as I was surprised to see that the Traci Austin character arc stretched over all three books. Illuminator was also given support by being written into the existing Marvel Universe, having the references to the X-Men, and one character even mentions visiting a spot where some of Xavier’s student’s fought and died. Andy also mentions Superman in a quirky insult and his friends wear Captain Planet and Ren and Stimpy t-shirts to round out all the references.
Last but not least is the fact that Illuminator is heavily centered on religion. Andy’s powers actually grow and falter depending on his faith in God. The first issue brings it in subtly at first but then yells it blatantly at the end with a mention of the character coming to Jesus. The second issue actually takes time to show the characters praying and has the big religion versus science story, where the villain actually states, “man created God.” It is taken to the next level with Andy fighting a more blatant demon in the third issue. There are general moral problems as well as life lessons, like dealing with drinking, peer pressure, and family issues. The books also do some odd stuff though, like piss jokes and having the character pose as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to intimidate a cop.
The religious aspect of Illuminator seems to be what it is remembered for the most, because the series really is a bit overpowering in the second and third issues. The inclusion of the character’s Christianity was not the problem for me, as much as how everything had to come back to it. Having a few comics that did not use it would have helped, allowing the talks about God to feel like a theme rather than a blunt instrument. For those wanting positive depictions or comic book characters with religion, Daredevil, Nightcrawler, and the new Ms. Marvel all do it well. Looking past that though, even if Illuminator had continued, I cannot say I would have read much more of it. There were a lot of other problems that hurt it also, which I have shown above, although I admit that it could have continued on for sure. This is one I wanted people to be aware of though, as it is an interesting lesson in joint promotion projects and comics branching out in experimental periods.