Ron Randall has drawn Superman. He has drawn Batman and Spider-Man and Hawkman and Deadpool and the Green Lantern. In his 30-something-year career, the Portland comic-book artist and writer has worked on dozens of major franchises for both Marvel and DC.
But the character Randall wants to be remembered for is not a beefy, big-name superhero in deltoid-hugging spandex. The 57-year-old artist hopes his legacy will be a morally complex, quick-witted and comfortably dressed female bounty hunter named Mercy St. Clair, whom he created in the mid-1980s for a then-little-known publisher in suburban Portland. Almost three decades later, he hopes the world is finally ready for her.
Mercy was born in a period of great change for both Randall and the U.S. comics industry. He had been living on the East Coast, where he broke through doing small pieces for major comics publishers. Eventually, he had a monthly assignment drawing DC's The Warlord, a hulking warrior in a loincloth and a winged helmet.
But Randall wanted to move back home to Portland. With The Warlord, he decided he had enough work and connections to risk it.
"[Back then] the comic-book industry was basically Marvel and DC Comics," Randall says. "If you aspired to be a comic-book artist—unless you were going to try to get work on Archie or something like that—that meant you were going to be moving to New York…and you were going to be drawing superheroes."
Today, Portland is a comics town. At downtown's Periscope Studio, where Randall has had his desk since 2002, he works alongside about 25 other professional illustrators, most several decades younger than him. But in 1985, the city had not yet attained nerdvana.
"The honest truth is I thought I was moving 3,000 miles away from the industry," he says.
In fact, Randall had returned to Portland at the perfect time. Small black-and-white comics publishers were starting up all over the country, and in Milwaukie, a comic-book store owner named Mike Richardson was setting up an outfit called Dark Horse Comics. Within months of Randall's return, the fledgling publisher made him an offer.
"Dark Horse made me the sort of offer that you don't get: They were willing to pay me money to do whatever I wanted for them," Randall says. "I was at least bright enough to realize that this was an offer that I wasn't likely to get very often, if ever."
Randall's own creation would not be a superhero. Instead, he was inspired by Westerns, science fiction and the Flash Gordon of his youth. Randall set his story in the 23rd century, centered in a gritty, crime-riddled city called New Gelaph and sprawling out into dusty Wild West frontiers.
His hero was a heavily armed female bounty hunter—a "trekker." She crashed through windows, commandeered flying cars, and sneaked through sewers to track down wanted criminals—all while trying to maintain a semblance of a social life. She wasn't a morally pure Superman type, but she wasn't the kind of relentlessly tortured soul showing up in Frank Miller comics at the time, either. And the only time Mercy wore skimpy outfits was to go to bed—her work clothes consisted of a billowy, white neck-to-ankle suit, with big shoulder pads and kneepads and a fetching purple cape.
The idea was ahead of its time: Randall had created a wise-cracking female ass-kicker and a sci-fi Western while Joss Whedon was still in college.
"Really, there was very little about it, especially at the time, that was considered commercial," Randall says. "It didn't have a male lead character—which even today is fighting against a current—but especially back then."
Trekker was exactly the kind of story Dark Horse had been looking for to set it apart from the competition.
"I think we were the perfect home for Ron to bring it to, because we were actually looking for things that were a little different to the standard fare," Richardson says. "I was looking specifically to find some heroines for our books and features, and Trekker was perfect."
"I always say it was received with great passion and enthusiasm by not enough readers!" he says with a laugh.
Dark Horse was pleased with the sales ("We had modest expectations for our books in those days," Richardson recalls), but by the end of the decade, Randall says, Dark Horse told him it was not making enough money on Trekker to continue paying him the rates it had been. Then supporting a young family, he moved on.
He put out a few one-off Trekker stories between other gigs in the '90s but ultimately decided that telling Mercy's tale in such a disjointed way was a disservice. So for more than a decade, Randall put all his original Trekker artwork and unpublished stories away in a closet.
It was a particularly unfortunate place to leave the story: Mercy's on-again, off-again cop boyfriend had just died taking a bullet for her, leaving the heroine in the depths of an existential crisis.
In 2011, she finally got a chance to move on.
"I'm sitting around at my studio one day, and I'm hearing people talking about how they're doing a Web comic, and this person's got a blog, and suddenly I realize: Oh yeah, there's this thing now, itâs called the Internet!â Randall says.
So at age 54, after working his whole career in pen and paper, Randall registered the domain trekkercomic.com and learned how to build a website. He set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, and started scanning and posting all the original Trekker stories online, one page per day. He called Richardson, and the pair decided to reprint the entire Trekker back catalog as an omnibus, released in August last year.
Randall also dusted off the outlines for the stories that never made it to print, and brought Mercy back to life once again. By the time he had finished publishing the original stories online, he was ready to start posting the new pages. In May 2013, Randall began rolling out the first new Trekker comic in 14 years.
Things in Mercy's world have barely changed since the 1980s. Randall has kept the costumes, characters and aesthetic exactly the same as the original in an effort to make a smooth transition between stories.
"I was absolutely not interested in doing anything like a reboot of the series," he says. "The character and the stories are pretty alive and clear in my head."
Though the comics are still identifiably '80s, the futuristic setting means they rarely feel dated, and there are surprisingly few computers and gadgets to expose their age. (Randall notes a rare faux pas in the original comics was a phone with a cord coming out of it: "I did not project and predict cellphones.")
Both Randall and Richardson are happy with how the omnibus has done commercially. And through hustling both on the Internet and at comics conventions across the country, Randall believes it is finding a new generation of readers—one that has a different attitude to female-fronted comics than audiences did in the '80s. He is hoping to see his first Mercy St. Clair cosplayers at conventions this year.
It probably doesn't hurt that Dark Horse is a much more powerful entity, now the third-largest comics publisher in the country, with its own movie and TV arm, and plenty of ass-whooping women on the covers of its comics.
"In the past, it's no secret that female characters were big-busted with tight costumes and made primarily for an adolescent male readership," Richardson says. "Now it's very different."
The biggest test for Trekker comes with the release of a trade paperback of the first new story, The Train to Avalon Bay.
For his part, Richardson believes the new book is "better than ever."
But regardless of sales, Randall says, this time he is determined to see Trekker through to the end.
"One thing about doing it yourself is, no one can fire you," he says, laughing. "So I'm going to keep doing them. But, of course, I want it to find the large potential audience that I'm convinced is there to really appreciate it and enjoy it.â