Back in the mists of time, the mid-eighties, Marvel Comics came out with their very first mini-series. These were finite stories with a set number of issues, a mainstay of comics today, but at the time something pretty radical.
Marvel’s first two minis were ‘Wolverine’, and anybody that’s been reading comics for longer than five minutes knows how that turned out, and their second, lesser-known title, Hercules: The Prince of Power.
Hercules had been kicking around Marvel since the late sixties, mostly in the Thor comics and as a member of the Avengers. Fans seem to like his happy-go-lucky, live-for-the-moment approach to being both a God and a super hero, but Marvel could never seem to find a formula to work for him enough to get his own title.
Bob Layton, a fan favorite from his work on Iron Man found a way to challenge Hercules, give him his own corner of the Marvel Comics universe to play in, and spotlight how he is very different from the other gods populating comics, but no less heroic and noble, just in his own special way.
In a vaguely defined future, Hercules returns home to Mount Olympus, and almost immediately gets in trouble with his Dad, Zeus.
Zeus has had enough, at 3,000 years old, he thinks it’s time for his son to grow up, and so he exiles Hercules from Olympus.
Knowing that Hercules is considered a bit of a hero and celebrity on Earth, Zeus instead decides to banish him to the depths of space, where there are whole planets full of beings that neither know nor care who Hercules is, and there are things out there whose power would dwarf even that of a god, and that should slap some humility into the Prince of Power.
Accepting his punishment with his usual knuckle-headed cheerful optimism, Hercules borrows Apollo’s magical chariot and is on his way.
He soon encounters a spacecraft, piloted by the Colonizers of Rigel, a race of short, lemon yellow explorers.
They present Hercules with a Recorder. Not the musical instrument, but a person-shaped robot that the Colonizers scatter across the universe, to gather information for them.
So, Hercules gains a sidekick and a charge account good anywhere in the civilized galaxy. This way we avoid any nit-pickiness about how Hercules deals with money during his travels.
Soon after, Hercules learns his first ‘life lesson’ of this mini. What is nicely done in this story is how it presents a series of learning experiences, during which Hercules has to stop and think about his behavior and actions, but all these lessons are presented as humor-filled, science fiction adventures. We aren’t hit over the head with a message, but each lesson works as part of the story. Nothing feels forced.
Part two features a ‘damsel in distress’ story, with a cute twist and the introduction of a running gag involving the Recorder. This particular damsel will later return in the sequel graphic novel, ‘Hercules: Full Circle’.
The last two parts of this story tell one big story, in which Hercules protects a race of snails that are considered the most famous brewers of alcoholic drinks in the galaxy, from a race of religiously fanatic bug-men that sacrifice whole planets to their ‘God’.
One great action scene later, Hercules has saved the world and we all breath a sigh of relief.
And then the bug-men’s God shows up, and we head into the grand finale. Now, I don’t want to blurt a lot of details out about the finale, as I thought it was a clever surprise. I will just say it has some great action scenes, a resolution between Hercules and the ‘God’ that tends to divide fans into love it/hate it (I loved it and didn’t find it forced or out of character) and then has a nice wrap-up that ends with a few jokes, but has a touch of the bittersweet.
All in all, a nice solo story for a character that I always liked and was glad he was finally getting a chance in the spotlight.
Now, some of you are probably asking ‘Sure, he likes the writing, but how’s the art?’
It’s Bob Layton; do you really have to ask? The art is clean and solid and every background has a beautiful sci-fi look to it that creates a world that feels real and fantastic at the same time.
Now this four-issue story has only recently been collected in a trade paperback, but you can still get all four issues cheaply, so it all depends on what format you prefer.
There was a sequel four-issue mini-series, followed by the graphic novel ‘Full Circle’, mentioned earlier.
For completest, there was also a three-part story in the anthology ‘Marvel Comics Presents’ and just last month, Layton put out the first issue of a new Hercules mini series ‘Twilight of the God’ that looks to be wrapping up the whole saga.
All in all, while ‘Hercules: Prince of Power’ does have a place in comic book history, it never had the huge impact for the character that other ‘try-out’ projects did. It did help to cement his characterization of the charming knucklehead that he is portrayed as to this day and accomplished what all good comic stories should: it gave us an enjoyable read with great art.