In the mid-’90s Jim Shooter, once the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and later a founder of VALIANT comics created DEFIANT comics. Among those that went with him was David Lapham, an artist/writer who would go on to win multiple Eisner Awards for his independent comic work on his own Stray Bullets. Lapham would be the artist on the debut comic from DEFIANT, Warriors of Plasm, but before he did that, before anyone did anything at DEFIANT we could put in our hands and read, we got Mongrel.
We never saw him again. It’s no secret that the medium of comic books, at least in the United States direct market, is mostly dominated by characters that have been around for decades and come with not only a personal history but in many cases multiple histories. They’re great and are the foundation of the industry and fandom but I also love me some characters who pop up in the midst of these grander chapters; mere footnotes in the continuity of larger footprints stomped into many a secondary world.
Shooter was on QVC debuting the first issue and the DEFIANT line. While the network is nothing to sneeze at even now, consider its stature in what was still very much a pre-net world for consumers.
This blog, however, isn’t about DEFIANT or Plasm specifically. It’s a spotlight on one of the first, perhaps the first, character and item publicly released under the DEFIANT banner. The art is by David Lapham, who’d go on to win Eisner Awards for Stray Bullets and earlier worked under Shooter at VALIANT on numerous projects, most notably his run on Harbinger.
At DEFIANT Lapham penciled the aforementioned Warriors of Plasm, which for all real and public purposes was the first actual DEFIANT release both in comics and via the preceding card sets.
Except it really wasn’t.
If you’ve seen the litho before, you probably saw the version above (framed and signed by Lapham, limited to 1000 pieces) or an unframed unsigned version, which used to, at least for me, pops up less frequently before what I’d guess a massive warehouse find unearthed many hundreds of them and they can now be found for very cheap. It depicts “Mongrel” in a pretty kinetic, ass-kicking, scene from a pretty crazy ass — dare I say DEFIANT — perspective. Also, true to form, check out how simple and utilitarian the uniform/costume is, excluding the admittedly sweet holster. What may also catch your eye is the knife. While bladed weapons come in all shapes and sizes in our own world, I’m thinking that one such myself, a visitor of Plasm, may look at that design and draw alien conclusions as to its vintage.
Okay, so moderately nifty but who cares, right?
Lapham’s stature as one of my favorite artist of the ’90s conceded, what’s more interesting to me is the fact that this character, one of the first used to publicize DEFIANT, was perhaps never to be seen again. In an ad in Previews (June 1993 issue, which came with Plasm #0) for the litho, Mongrel is described as “one of the first DEFIANT heroes” and as “David Lapham’s masked adventurer”.
So what happened to Mongrel, and who is he?
Janet “Jay Jay” Jackson, a long time Shooter collaborator and frequently his art capo (I consider her the godfather of the ambiance that many fans of VALIANT have yet found a replacement in their hearts for) told me this in a conversation I had with her:
As far as Mongrel, the Legend of Copperhead goes… I don’t know if I have a copy of the script or not. I used to, but I lived in the same apartment for 26 years, accumulated too much stuff and had to put everything in storage when I moved. Now everything is in the basement of the new place, but it’s all still packed up. I’m sure Jim must have a copy, but it was written long before we used computers and as far as I know has never been scanned or transcribed. Somewhere I think I even have the ad that George Romero took out in Variety for the project. But even with Romero attached, the film never got made. I’m not sure how the Defiant Mongrel character relates, except for the name. Jim might remember. I’ll have to ask him. The original film script that Jim and George Romero co-wrote was very futuristic/sci-fi. It was a bit like Robocop, but without the cops and with a revolution going on. If I remember right. That was sometime in the 80’s and I haven’t read it since then.
Going by Jay Jay’s knowledge drop… Mongrel is sounding just a bit more on the side of awesome now, right?
Futuristic/sci-fi Romero movie? Even though Jackson admits to only a possible tenuous connection, and perhaps only a superficial one, what shouldn’t be lost is that when considering the time, still a couple of years pre-Stray Bullets, Lapham was easily the most buzzworthy and recognizable regular artist in the DEFIANT stable. Even then I remember hearing or reading about Shooter invoking Frank Miller’s name when talking up Lapham — there was a reason why he was on the flagship DEFIANT title. Lapham was the artist they were kicking off a brand new line of comics with.
We still don’t have much to go on but this Mongrel lithograph seems to reveal a rather tame, more traditionally main street concept compared to the Ditko-aided creations involving the quantum physics of Dark Dominion or the world conquering, organic assimilating, aliens of Warriors of Plasm. It also kicks a lot of ass. What we have here is the DEFIANT Big Gun, in what was still an artist’s market, working on what at least appears to be a relatively, initially palatable high concept solo character maybe in the way a Bloodshot was for VALIANT.
This is not a knock. Bloodshot is an example of a character whose very being and blood is fundamental to the tapestry of his overall universe but could absolutely read as a title completely autonomous from everything else almost throughout its entire run.
You could easily have the questionable taste and not dig VALIANT but still have Bloodshot as your top monthly pull. Not only do I love Bloodshot, but both looking back and peering into Lapham’s immediate future we know his creative skill set includes, and perhaps most flourishes in, taking the generally accepted mundane and finding “genre” within — the horrors, mysteries, and what’s fantastic about everyday people. Lapham knows genres are constructs, and are at best each one of many extensions any single person is capable of at anytime — young liars or High Gore Lords alike.
Several possibilities concerning Mongrel have popped up at various times by various people over the years
One theory is that Mongrel could be — or could have been — one of the aforementioned Dogs of War duo, Shooter. Dogs of War, like many of the second wave of DEFIANT titles, was a spin-off featuring members of the involuntary human challengers of the unknown that are introduced in the pages of Warriors of Plasm. While the term “Mongrel” doesn’t have to be exclusive to dogs, it seems to be our association of choice, it’s also a term we associate with mixed breeds or hybrids in general.
The problem here is that solicitations for the Dogs of War title itself seem to be early enough to cause trepidation in this theory, unless we are supposing that Shooter was going to be in two titles, not including his central role in the early Plasm title itself. Though there are instances of the two titles being marketed concurrently, so it’s not totally crackpot. Jim Shooter has historically been very creative when it came to inter-connectivity in his world-building and if having a character that touches so many universe corners, it’s only right he’d be named Shooter.
At a now defunct site that was dedicated to DEFIANT, the proprietor of the site recalled an encounter he had with Georges Jeanty, the artist of Dogs of War. Among what was stated was that the final issue of the title was supposed to include a Shooter suicide story. He would jump off a building after having accidentally killed one of the members of The Good Guys team (who FYI are all children).
Mongrel could have been a new moniker used by Shooter after this event if he somehow survived the suicide attempt, and the name of a title featuring his solo exploits. For people who are familiar with the character, I think it’s easy to see how a character in Shooter’s mold could easily transition into his own title and was probably the most able of his former group to do so for a mainstream comic fan. For myself, I like to think Mongrel was the Shooter-to-be.
It fits, and I’d love to have seen Lapham transition the character we were introduced to in Warriors of Plasm and continue through Dogs of War, serving to create something that could be called a maxi-origin. The idea fascinates me more than slightly, having such a dramatic shift early for a foundational character in the universe and being able to experience the origin not only over time but in real-time. It would be like experiencing the origin of Batman, before you ever heard of the term “Batman”, not being told it later or via flashback — a true partner in the story, not just being told one.
As it is, we are just left with a dead character from a dead universe. This singular lithograph made me want to read the adventures of Mongrel. That’s not too uncommon a reaction to art in general but what’s striking to me is that for some reason, some how, I miss Mongrel.
That’s the power of cartooning and art and what the hell a splash is supposed to do.
Mongrel was and remains completely badass to me, a part of a universe I was heavy into, and although it was never played it somehow remained an important piece, even if only in my personal multiverse. So much so decades later I sought out the original art by Lapham to own.