1986 was a significant year in my geeky evolution. Not only did it mark my belated introduction to Dungeons & Dragons (thanks to a deeply discounted copy of the Basic Set found in an Osco Drug clearance aisle), but it also brought a new set of geeky pals and a part-time job which made it possible to pursue my new hobby in earnest. And embrace it I did,rapidly branching out from dungeon crawling to post-apoc adventures (Gamma World), sci-fi exploration (Traveller) and superheroic slugfests (Marvel Super Heroes).
That last one was the most exciting — not just due to my long-standing comics fandom but also because it was the first RPG campaign where I got to be a player instead of getting saddled with my default role as gamemaster. Faced with exciting prospect of creating my Very Own Superhero, I did what I usually do when faced with a wide-open field of options in a game — I experienced a crippling bout of creative paralysis.
This was going to be my in-game avatar for who knows how many adventures. What if I got it wrong? I contemplated and rejected scores of possible templates before turning to my much beloved fallback for all things codified and superheroic, DC’s Who’s Who. The serialized directory and its pair of update miniseries were invaluable parts of my fanboy education. While it may have lacked the “serious” tone and presentation of the (equally important) Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Who’s Who had the advantage of DC’s richer history and deeper bench of bizarre characters. Plus, DC granted the Who’s Who artists a bit more dynamic latitude with their entries, resulting in illustrations that bore a closer resemblance to pin-ups than to OHOTMU‘s static-encyclopedic style.
It was in the second issue of the 1987 update that I found the inspiration I’d been looking for…
…in the form of Chroma, a minor Infinity, Inc adversary.
I won’t play too cool for school here. The big draw was Todd MacFarlane’s art, which was pretty damn exciting to the eyes of a 1987 fanboy with no awareness about what the next decade would bring. Here was a forgettable character based on Roy Thomas’s epiphany that the world “chromatic” can refer to both sound and color, one whose appearance suggested a Pride Week incarnation of Elric (now there’s a story I’d like to read), and yet MacFarlane was able to sell that concept and even make it look marginally badass.
I wasn’t reading Infinity, Inc at the time, and knew nothing about the character except what appeared in the Who’s Who entry, but I thought it was cool as hell. I set to work rolling up a thinly-disguised and shamelessly traced in-game analogue. His powers didn’t really grab me, however, so I gave him an arsenal of energy beams based on the different colors of the visible spectrum (a la Mandarin’s rings and DC’s later rainbow roster of Lantern Corps).
The Chromatic Man’s (really original, Teen Andrew) His first adventure pitted him against Marvel’s mutant-hating Mauraders. Why? Because the Maurauders’ MSH game stats had just appeared in a Dragon Magazine article and I wasn’t the only member of our role-playing group who suffered from a profound lack of imagination. The GM (or referee or whatever the hell the system called the overseer’s role) was unabashedly 80s revisionist when it came to the superhero genre, which was quite unsettling for those of us attempting to play things along Bronze Age lines. Every non-lethal attack we attempted to hurl at the villains was given a lethal and gory upgrade. When my attempt to disarm that one Maurader with the techno-overalls resulted in his being torn violently in half my character, we decided to call it a day.
(Side note: When we returned to superhero RPGs with Champions a few months later, the former GM insisted on playing Cyber-Eddie from the cover of Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time LP. I would not be surprised if he writes currently angry posts on Bethesda’s forums about why players should be able to kill children in Fallout 4.)
I forgot about Chroma for a good ten years, right up until the Great Back Issue Buying Spree put Infinity, Inc back on my fanboy radar. That rekindled interest faded fast — for reason I’ll get to shortly — but it did lead to the purchase of the two-part story that (dubiously) earned the character a full-page Who’s Who entry.
It was, to be charitable, not very good. Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that I wasn’t fourteen years old anymore, but it also didn’t help that both the writing and art sub-optimal even by standards of mid-1980s mainstream superhero fare. I have a great deal of affection for Roy Thomas’s writing and particular set of creative tics, but Infinity, Inc is a textbook example of something I should’ve liked better than I actually did. The theoretical allure of “legacy heroes plus Golden Age Easter Eggs” somehow evaporated between concept and execution, leaving a regrettably off-brand aftertaste.
For all the cover hype the character got, Chroma turned out to be a minor distraction in a story that focused more on the Infinitors’ intramural bickering and wordy callbacks to past and present subplots. It’s the Rascally One trying to recapture the narrative vibe of his brilliant Silver Age Avengers stories, but with just enough of the ol’ magic to remind you how dated that formula has since become — the “state fair circuit” applied to superhero comics.
The Infinitors take time out of their bickering routine to provide concert security for Earth-2’s biggest rock sensation….
…the phenomenal and weirdly rendered STONED HEADS! (That’s some really inspired work on Roy’s part, actually. Normally you’d have to get such sophisticated commentary about contemporary pop music from such highbrow works as CPO Sharkey or any given Mark VII production.)
Chroma zips down from outer space to crash the show and subject the audience to a re-heated reiteration of old Marvel “cosmic” tropes before getting cold-cocked by the super-surly Obsidian. This gives the team a new thing to bicker about while a cult of fans gather outside the hospital where Chroma is being examined by authorities. Chroma wakes up. The Infinitors battle him (and each other) for a few pages. An understandably bored Chroma rattles off some Klatuu-inspired boilerplate before mysteriously vanishing. More bickering and deeeeep thoughts follow.
If the above sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you have encountered the same exact plot a few dozen times before. And those were also probably written by Roy Thomas. It’s a pretty solid formula, but not one that could be given a fresh new spin by tossing in a rainbow-suited albino and the surly offspring of the Justice Society.
MacFarlane’s art, the thing that attracted me to Chroma in the first place, was also less than compelling. His work on Infinity, Inc and his Who’s Who renditions of the related characters occurred on either side of the transition between “fresh talent finding his creative voice” and “emerging stylistic superstar.” (It also didn’t help that he was saddled with some less-than-optimal inkers during his run.)
One thing that does stand out, however, are the odd artsy flourishes that marked his work on the series (and the Dr. Fate fill-in story he did on All-Star Squadron). There’s a heavy Walt Simonson vibe to his early work, full of innovative panel layouts and illuminated gutters that he abandoned once he hit upon his signature style. I can’t argue with the success that style has brought him, but it does make me ponder creative roads not taken.
At the very least, it would have spared the world the long running debate in Toyfare about whether the Angela action figure had nipples beneath her metal bra.
That bloody-minded gamemaster I talked about earlier? He later became a huge fan of Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn, in a turn of events that should shock no one.
As for Chroma, he vanished utterly from the DC Universe until 2013, when he was introduced to the NuDCU for the sole purpose of getting decapitated by Gorilla Grodd….again, a turn of events that should shock no one.