[Retrospect] Forgot about Blade?

How the frontrunner to comic books mainstream success keeps getting overlooked

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Written by Adrian Care

I sat in a cinema in 1998 with a few friends not knowing I was watching the catalyst that would change the reception of comic books in years to come.

See the thing is, nobody really cared about Blade.

I’m not saying that because I didn’t care. I mean, his back issues were cheap, they didn’t talk about him in comic shops, he wasn’t boosting sales on covers, guest-starring significantly, or cashing in on the anti-hero trend. He wasn’t featured at all in Wizard until 1999. He couldn’t even claim cult status.

I mean only hardcore fans; a very niche collective gave a damn about Eric Brooks.

Blade debuted in 1973’s The Tomb of Dracula #10. He was created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. Following his debut, he was used sporadically throughout the ’70s.

But I’d be reluctant to say he was a runaway hit or that it caught fire. Not beyond the popularity of horror/monster/exploitation comics in the ’70s. Not in any remarkable way.

I remember when heroes got darker in the ’90s, Marvel pushed Blade and some of its other supernatural characters in this niche little quasi-imprint called Midnight Sons. The most prominent thing I remember about Blade in this period? His appearance on the Nightsalkers trading card in Skybox’s Marvel Universe Series 4 set.

midnight Sons

He didn’t even have his own card. I thought he was 90’s era Luke Cage with swords when I was a kid.

Oh, I caught him in 1996 on an episode of the Spider-Man cartoon as well. I thought he was Tombstone and they changed the colouring and gave him swords.

He just didn’t grab me.

Vampires? Like…he’s just a Vampire hunter? Come on. There are cooler vigilantes.

Vertigo was doing better things with supernatural comics, Image was outdoing everyone with violent, weapons grade heroes. Marvel wasn’t going all-in on anything except the X-men and Spider-man books. What was cool about a dude with swords who fought vampires?

But Wesley Snipes?

Wesley Snipes was cool. Nino Brown in New Jack City? “Am I my brothers’ keeper” Wesley Snipes? Simon Phoenix from Demolition Man? Passenger 57? White Men Can’t Jump? The Fan?

THAT guy was cool!

Wesley Snipes thought Blade was cool. I mean, he thought Black Panther was cooler. But a Black Panther film wasn’t getting made. See it was the mid-90’s. The Batman franchise was starting to tank. Marvel’s track record film-wise had been straight-to-video or fleeting through cinema’s versions of Captain America, The Punisher, The Fantastic Four and Nick Fury. Nick Fury had David Hasselhoff starring in it. David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury. ‘Nuff Said.

Low production values, little studio support, no big-name interest. Fans hadn’t come from the underground to pour their heart and passion into the movies yet. Kevin Smith was the only prominent fan-boy flag-waver at the time. The technology wasn’t there and if it was, nobody was spending it on a comic book film (unless it had Jim Carrey in it).

Comic book movies were box office poison.

But Wesley Snipes thought Blade was cool.

And David S. Goyer thought Wesley Snipes was cool for Blade. And David S. Goyer had a pitch for Blade.

Who was David S. Goyer? We’ll come back to him. But he had this pitch for a movie called Blade. It was about a half-human, half-vampire who hunted vampires. “All their strengths, none of their weaknesses.” New Line Cinema liked it. Stephen Norrington directed it. It came out on the 21st of August 1998. Its worldwide gross was over 130 million dollars from a 45 million-dollar budget.

It was cool.

Wesley Snipes was cool in it.

Blade was cool now.

It had mainstream appeal. Cool special effects. Great action. Quotable one-liners. A good cast of not-quite-superstars which added to its edginess. A cult song that, much like the movie’s famous nightclub bloodbath scene, exploded onto dancefloors, raves, and parties worldwide. Public Domain’s Operation Blade (Bass in the Place) was one of THE techno songs of the pre-2000s.

It reinvigorated the waning popularity of tribal tattoo art for at least a few more years. People stopped wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses for a minute and started hunting down Black Flys/ Micro Flys instead. One more year later this, and The Matrix, would probably push sales of longtail leather jackets through the roof as well.

Look, maybe I’m overselling it a bit. It wasn’t Bat-mania of 1989. It wasn’t a cultural phenomenon. It was closer to a sleeper hit. But it didn’t end in 1998. It spread its reach right up until today.

For starters, it had a Stan Lee cameo that was eventually cut. Stan the Man played a cop, a walk-on role after the bloodbath in the club. This would have been the kick-starter of what would become a beloved staple of any Marvel (and one DC) film up until 2019. The famous Stan Lee cameo.

David S. Goyer (told you we’d come back to him, didn’t I?) would go on to write the other two installments in the Blade Trilogy. He’d direct the third, Blade: Trinity. He’d have a further hand in Batman Begins, Blade: The Series, The Dark Knight, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Godzilla, Constantine, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and TV’s Krypton.

David S. Goyer was clearly a huge comic book fan. So much so that after Blade, he would team up with co-writer James Robinson on the excellent JSA relaunch at DC. James Robinson would depart the book, but Goyer would work with Geoff Johns on the title. Johns would go on to have a storied and brilliant writing career as a DC mainstay and eventually CCO of the company.

Around the time of Blade, Marvel had began to sell off its movie rights to various studios. Famously, Fox bought the X-men and Fantastic Four rights. Universal had the Hulk. Sony had Spider-man. Well, Blade’s success prompted studios to consider what they were doing with these properties. Blade preceded the X-men movie. The X-men franchise preceded Sam Raimi’s Spider-man. Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films earned huge money. Studios had begun to put creators who were fans onto the properties and invest serious money into the pictures.

Comic book movies got better.

The X-men and Spider-man movies featured a producer amongst its credits by the name of Kevin Feige. Now referred to by many as “Our lord and saviour,” Kevin Feige who would develop a real talent for maximizing the success of lesser-known heroes like Blade, only on a bigger scale with Guardians of the Galaxy. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

In 2002, Blade got a sequel. Again, written by David S. Goyer, but this time directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Blade II doesn’t get the love that Blade gets in hindsight, but it’s a cool film. The story and action are great. The soundtrack is an awesome hidden gem with Hip Hop and Techno collaborations. Blade II has Donnie Yen in it. Nothing with Donnie Yen can ever be considered a failure. Oh, some dude called Norman Reedus is in it too. He’d go on to be kind of a big deal in the also-kind-of-a-big-deal show The Walking Dead. Ron Perlman is cool in this, too. You know Ron Perlman. Sons of Anarchy badass, played Mike Mignola’s Hellboy in two movies directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Wait. Did I gloss over him the first time? I did, didn’t I. Again, Blade II was directed by recent Oscar winning director Guillermo Del Toro. (Del Toro would use Mike Mignola on this film as a concept artist).

The third and final part of the trilogy was released in 2004. As mentioned, its directed by David S. Goyer.  It features a pre-Prison Break and pre-The Flash Dominic Purcell as the main antagonist, WWE Superstar Triple H as a henchman, Jessica Biel in her only comic book appearance to-date, and Ryan Reynolds in the first of five comic book adaptations that would culminate in his signature role as Deadpool.

The movies would also spawn a short lived tv series starring Sticky Fingaz of grimy rap group Onyx, and a rock-solid Manga animation as well.

The movies would see Marvel capitalize on the exposure by releasing Blade projects sporadically over the years, reflecting how he was used after debuting in 1973. In the movies, he was a box office draw, but in the comics, he couldn’t get anything longer than a limited series or a brief run in a solo ongoing.

Then Jason Aaron decided his solid gold Avengers run was missing a day walker.

“Hey Blade, how’d you like to join the Avengers”

“Get me my swords.”

And with that Blade is back.

Will the MCU follow suit?