And so, when I found a complete run of the entire series for 20 cents a pop, I couldn't resist it. Six bucks was a small price to pay to settle one of the enduring mysteries of my childhood, even if it wasn't very good.
Little did I know I was uncovering one of the hidden gems of '80s comics. Strikeforce: Morituri is not just an enjoyable superhero series, it's also a fine work of SF with great art (under the original creative team, at least). I had forgotten, had I ever bothered to learn them as a kid, the names of the writer and artist who created the book: Peter B. Gillis and Brent Anderson. Anderson is the artist on Astro City, one of the best comics you'll ever read, and you can see the beginnings of his mastery of facial expression in this book. Gillis is probably a less-widely-known name, but I now know him as the author of some impressive stories in the '80s. His run on Micronauts was far more contemplative and intelligent than you'd ever expect a toy tie-in book to be. And he penned a storyline in Doctor Strange in which the Sorcerer Supreme dumps his long-time disciple-slash-girlfriend Clea because he needs to devote himself more fully to meditation and contemplation. I love the Lee/Ditko origins of the character, sure, but it was nice to see somebody ditching their Silver Age caricature of "Eastern mysticism" for something vaguely resembling the life of real-life mountaintop monks.*
Add to that list of Gillis's successes Strikeforce: Morituri, the story of a future Earth overrun by marauding aliens called the Horde. Not powerful enough to actually conquer the planet, the Horde are content to terrorize its inhabitants with random raids and arbitrary acts of brutality. Humankind is powerless to stop them until a scientist develops a technique that can give ordinary humans superpowers. The only catch is the "Morituri effect"-- within a year, the powers will kill their hosts. The setup leaves a lot of room for the characters to meditate on their mortality, and though at times it can be a bit much, Gillis is strong enough a writer that most of that hand-wringing comes across as honest rather than contrived, in large part because of solid characterization.
In my review of Gary K. Wolfe and Archbishop John J. Myers' novel Space Vulture, I mentioned the rarity of low-level religiosity in SF. There are plenty of alternate-universe monks and evil preachers, but very few normal folks who spend an hour a week in a church-- or, if there are, their authors don't mention it. Strikeforce: Morituri offers a nice exception to this in the character of Jelene Anderson, code-named Adept. The Morituri process gives her the ability to comprehend anything, from mechanical technologies to complex life-forms to abstract scientific concepts, if given enough exposure to them. She's also a Christian, and though the volume of her faith is perhaps a little bit louder than one usually sees in the real world (witness the cross motif on her costume), Gillis handles it with much more subtlety than most other writers would. It's an important aspect of her character, but it's not the only aspect of it, and it never becomes a punchline.
As the Morituri effect draws near, Adept's powers go into overdrive, her brain analyzing and processing concepts decades ahead of human science. And as her mind expands to near-cosmic levels, her faith remains strong, and she sees it reflected in all of her newfound understanding. Her final words before the Morituri effect kills her are: "I have seen thy hand in all things, my Lord, and I am filled with joy--" In Adept, Gillis paints a picture of faith blending with science to create a deeply unified understanding of the universe, and her final moments are among the series' strongest moments.
Things got a bit sloppier after Gillis and Anderson departed the book. Their replacements, writer James D. Hudnall and artist Mark Bagley (plus a rotating army of fill-in artists), had a hard time capturing the focus of the series' earlier issues. But there are still some fine SFnal concepts in those late issues, and some interesting exploration of the desire for revenge. The later team made a valiant effort to recapture the strength of the book's first dozen or so issues, but it was a losing battle-- indeed, things were losing steam before Gillis and Anderson left. Still, Strikeforce: Morituri is one of the more pleasant surprises I've found in the quarter bin: excellent superheroics, solid SF, and an intriguing picture of faith and science to boot.
*Gillis's successor on Dr. Strange was Roy Thomas, who had first written the character in the late '60s. He turned in some great stories on his second run, but the speed with which he jettisoned Gillis's monastic approach always bugged me a bit. He very much wanted a Dr. Strange who was both in the world and of it, which is about as far from Gillis's take as one can get.