There’s no better place to begin than with a nightclub housed in, of all places, a meat-packing factory. Strobe lights, house music, bodies bumping and grinding against each other in the darkness. This is primal. Overhead sprinklers turn on, the liquid rains down, dark and heavy, onto expectant faces and open mouths lit up wildly by the dancing multitude of lights. It’s blood, and there’s a lot of it. Teeth extend, howls are emitted and the feeding begins as wet bodies push against each other. This is savage. A figure steps out, and from ground level the camera slowly moves up and then pulls back to reveal the figure. The lights go up, the DJ stops and eyes adjust to the clinical whiteness of the room. “It’s the Daywalker,” someone says in the background. Wesley Snipes is dressed all in black, a long leather coat and sunglasses, cutting a striking image. He steps forward and smiles slightly. There’s no one cooler in the room.
It’s 1998. Blade has yet to be released, and in fact few are expecting it, let alone aware of the comic book origins for the film that would hit on Aug. 21 of that year. Marvel is a struggling brand. Less than two years earlier, Marvel Entertainment Group filed for Chapter 11, facing bankruptcy in the aftermath of several failed publishing initiatives, the loss of a number of its top artists to Image and an overall decline in the interest of comic books. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are recovering from a convoluted and controversial yearlong storyline, Heroes Reborn, that failed to reignite interest and relevancy of characters once considered staples of the brand. Marvel’s film prospects are even more dire. The last theatrical movie based on the company’s characters was the critically panned Howard the Duck (1986). Straight-to-video releases The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) didn’t fare any better. And then there was the matter of the unreleased The Fantastic Four (1994), later alleged by Stan Lee to be a scheme by Constantin Film Production to retain the rights. A muddled sense of continuity, unclear character direction saddled by endless events,and no movies was what Marvel fans could look forward to in the late ’90s. That is, until Marvel got its blood flowing again.
Marvel Entertainment Group was reborn as Marvel Enterprises in 1997, under the direction of Toy Biz co-owner Ike Perlmutter and his partner Avi Arad. In the ’90s, there was no better way to sell toys than to attach it to a movie. But before Marvel could take over the film world, it would first need to redefine the books they sold. Enter Marvel Knights, an imprint of mature comics starring Daredevil, Black Panther, Punisher and The Inhumans — characters whose own books had struggled or had been canceled years before. These were leftovers, characters few cared about, except for editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, who saw the opportunity to reinvent these characters for the 21st century through their indie company Event Comics. The idea of Marvel Comics contracting an indie publisher and giving them license to pick the creative teams to take over these books seems like an improbable situation today, but in 1998 it was a necessity in order to breathe new life into its brand. Marvel’s new approach to these comics — take bottom-rung characters, give them a 21st century sense of cool and highlight the simplicity of their backstories — runs parallel to their first successful film release, Blade.