God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that you’re Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: You’re question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ‘em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #197

The latest issue of my favorite ongoing comic book series, Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen, is now out.  At issue #197, this long-running Image Comics series is rapidly closing in on the big two-zero-zero.  But, if you want to get technical about it, Larsen has actually reached that point with this issue.  Before he launched the ongoing Savage Dragon title, it was preceded by a three issue miniseries.  Which when you add everything up, makes Savage Dragon #197 the two hundredth issue written & drawn by Larsen.  Well, okay, there was also a zero issue, and maybe a few other things I’m forgetting at this moment.  But, whatever, you get the point!

Savage Dragon 197 cover

Ooooh, that’s a nasty-looking Malcolm Dragon on the cover to #197.  Whatever happened to him?  Well, in the last couple of issues, Malcolm was nearly killed by the Vicious Circle crime cartel.  He was found by a group of mutants living in Chicago’s lawless “Danger Zone” who hid him away from the Circle’s operatives.  However, the mutants also drugged Malcolm with the same mutagens that had been illegally dumped in the Danger Zone by Bellco Chemicals.  They hoped that Malcolm would ally with them to attack Bellco and retrieve their top secret cure, which would restore all of them to normal humans.  Unfortunately the mutants’ plan worked too well: Malcolm mutated and immediately went on a near-mindless rampage, killing nearly all of his captors.  And then his girlfriend Maxine arrived, accompanied by the Chicago PD.

As #197 opens, Maxine is desperately attempting to reason with Malcolm, to talk him down before he attacks both her and the cops.  Before she can get very far, though, the Vicious Circle, having finally located Malcolm, attacks in force.  However, the Circle agents are unprepared for the enhanced strength and unchecked brutality of mutated Malcolm, and what follows is a bloodbath.  This forces Dart, the Circle’s new leader, to step forward and tackle Malcolm herself, as Larsen, after months of build-up, finally presents a confrontation between the two.

Savage Dragon #197 seemed like a pretty quick read.  The main story clocks in at 20 pages.  That said, Larsen does offer up plenty of material.  There are Malcolm’s action-packed confrontations with Dart, the Vicious Circle, and Bellco Chemicals.  We also see the poignancy of the Danger Zone mutants’ desperate hope of once more becoming human, and Maxine’s concern for her boyfriend.  Larsen even manages to squeeze in a couple of instances of his trademark irreverent humor.  So, while the story moves along at a rapid pace, it still contains quite a bit of substance to it.

Savage Dragon 197 pg 6

The issue also contains a six page back-up, the first chapter of a new Vanguard serial written by Gary Carlson and illustrated by Frank Fosco.  “Homecoming” sees Vanguard, accompanied by his robot pal Wally, his girlfriend Roxanne, and the few surviving members of his race, return to his home world for the first time in years.  During the intervening time, Kalyptus was invaded by its arch-foes, the brutal Tyrrus Combine, who also decimated the original Dragon’s people, the green-skinned, finned Krylans.

It’s nice to see Carlson once again penning the adventures of Vanguard.  I enjoyed the two miniseries he wrote quite a number of years back starring the character, and the various back-ups in Savage Dragon where he subsequently had the opportunity to return to the adventures of Van, Roxanne and Wally.  Carlson and Larsen are long-time friends & collaborators, and they’ve always done a superb job at coordinating & intertwining their various stories & characters.  With “Homecoming” it appears that Carlson is picking up several subplots previously set up by both himself and Larsen, and utilizing them as a springboard to launch this new Vanguard arc.

Fosco is another frequent associate of Carlson, as well as a talented artist.  Fosco most notably illustrated the 23 issue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book written by Carlson that was published by Image in the late 1990s.  Fosco did good work on that series, and I’ve been pleased to see him subsequently draw a number of back-up stories in Savage Dragon.

Savage Dragon 197 pg 23

It’s great that Erik Larsen is still chugging away full speed ahead on Savage Dragon.  Larsen, along with such talented compatriots as Carlson and Fosco, make this book is a real pleasure to read.  I am definitely looking forward to seeing what they have in store for us next, especially with #200 right around the corner.

Not to sound like a broken record, but if you aren’t reading Savage Dragon then I highly recommend giving it a try.

Comic book reviews: Dean Haspiel’s Fear, My Dear

Here’s another one for the “better late than never” category!  I’ve been waiting quite some time for Dean Haspiel to finally bring his rough & tumble love-struck brawling philosopher Billy Dogma back into print.  I finally got my wish when Z2 Comics published Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience earlier this year.  The volume collects two tales originally presented online at the ACT-I-VATE webcomix collective.

I picked up my copy of Fear, My Dear at this year’s MoCCA Arts Festival in April.  Why wait so long to review it?  Well, as with Dean Haspiel’s prior accounts of the romantic misadventures of Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, the stories in Fear, My Dear are not really linear narratives that progress from one plot point to another.  Rather, they are surreal chronicles replete with allegorical symbolism, possessing a significant emphasis on emotion and atmosphere.  Fear, My Dear is undoubtedly intriguing reading, but it certainly left me perplexed as to how to pen a coherent review.

I undoubtedly think that the two tales within this volume, “Immortal” and “Fear, My Dear,” are fertile ground for analysis.  As with many other works that are also not easily interpreted, I believe that Haspiel’s examinations of the dynamic between Billy and Jane are ones that will reveal further layers of meaning upon subsequent re-examinations by readers.

At its heart, the book is an examination of relationship between Billy and Jane, seemingly equal parts devotion and anger, an explosive cocktail of raw emotions percolating within each of them.  The stories, especially the second one, also delve into Billy’s mind and soul.  Haspiel addresses that oh-so-fine line that divides love and hate, the all-too-similar nature of the passion of love and the passion of violence.

Fear My Dear pg 14

For the most part Haspiel’s artwork is drawn within a four panel grind.  It is interesting to see how he frames the action within this strict structure.  Varying his layouts between close-ups, long shots, and everything in between, with numerous angles and perspectives, Haspiel demonstrates his strengths as a storyteller.  A single color is utilized for each segment, red in “Immortal” and yellow in “Fear, My Dear.”

Haspiel’s illustration is beautiful, as well as beautifully grotesque.  I’ve always found his art to be impressive, but this is undoubtedly some of his strongest work.

You can certainly see the influence of the two gods of Silver Age comic books, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in Haspiel’s work.  At times Billy brings to mind Kirby’s two iconic tough guys, Ben Grimm / The Thing and Sgt. Fury.  Jane somewhat resembles the curvy, wide-hipped, big-haired groovy gals that The King so evocatively rendered.  The “space-god” which is awakened by Billy and Jane’s tempestuous love recalls something from one of Ditko’s Doctor Strange stories.

Nevertheless, despite those clear influences, Haspiel possesses a style all his own.  Like all the best artists, he is inspired by elements from those who went before him, experiments with them, takes them in different directions, and creates something new & distinctive in the process.

Fear My Dear pg 87

Haspiel’s scripting for the Billy Dogma stories, the cadence of his dialogue, is undoubtedly unique.  In his introduction to this volume Haspiel’s long-time friend & associate Josh Neufeld describes it as “part hard-boiled slang, part beat poetry.”  That is a brilliant articulation that sums up Haspiel’s utilization of language.  I’m happy Neufeld made it, since that saves me the trouble of attempting to explain it in what probably would have been a much less coherent manner!

So, welcome back, Billy Dogma and Jane Legit.  It’s been a while, but it was well worth the wait.

Doctor Who reviews: The Eleventh Doctor #1

The Eleventh Doctor may be gone from television screens, but he is back in the pages of comic books, courtesy of the brand new ongoing series Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor published by Titan Comics. Written by Al Ewing & Rob Williams, illustrated by Simon Fraser, and colored by Gary Caldwell, the series is set during one of those periods of time when the Doctor was traveling without Amy and Rory (specifically between “A Christmas Carol” and “The Impossible Astronaut”). The first issue introduces a new companion: Alice Obiefune, a library assistant from London.

“After Life” opens on the mournful scene of Alice in a rainy churchyard, where she is attending her mother’s funeral. From that point on, it seems that life for Alice becomes ever bleaker: she is laid off from the library due to budget cuts, her few friends are all moving away, and her landlord wants to evict her so that he can build luxury flats (yep, gentrification totally sucks). Alice seems trapped in a downward spiral.

And then, while morosely making her way through the streets of London, Alice’s entire existence is turned upside down when she abruptly see the Doctor chasing after a giant alien rainbow dog.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 1 pg 4

Ewing & Williams do a superb job with this first issue. They really have the Eleventh Doctor down perfectly, scripting both his rambling stream of nonsensical babbling as well as his insightful, empathic moments when you glimpse the wise, caring individual underneath all the seeming eccentricity. They also do excellent work introducing Alice, making her an engaging, relatable character, and setting up the beginning of her relationship with the Doctor. I am very much looking forward to seeing how the dynamic between the two of them develops in future issues.

Scottish-born Simon Fraser is a long-time Doctor Who fan, so this must be a dream job for him. I’ve always admired the way in which he illustrates people so distinctly. He really excels at making the characters in his artwork expressive, and in giving them natural body language. There is real emotion to his people. Fraser is able to imbue his figures with a range feeling, from pathos to joy. Likewise, he is equally adept at rendering his characters in scenes both comedic and dramatic.

Fraser’s depiction of the Eleventh Doctor is not so much a photo-realistic depiction of Matt Smith as it is something a caricature. But it definitely works. Fraser absolutely captures the personality and nuances of the Eleventh Doctor in his rendition.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 1 pg 11

And then there is the aforementioned giant alien rainbow dog. Or, as the Doctor explains: “It’s a Kharitite. ‘Joy-Beast.’ Native to the planet Vreular in the Fifth Galaxy. I think this one fell through a dimensional rift.” I love the Kharitite.

There are some things that just do not work in live action. You could have the biggest special effects budget in the world, and they would still look ridiculous. But if you put pencil to paper, draw them into a comic book, they look incredible. The Kharitite absolutely falls into that category. If the BBC was ever crazy enough to try to bring something like that to life on television, it would probably be a disaster, and audiences would be howling with derision. But in the pages of a comic, rendered by Simon Fraser, the Kharitite looks amazing and funny and brilliant. And it’s great when the Doctor Who comic books do stuff like that.

Gary Caldwell’s coloring is top notch, an integral part of the storytelling. The first three pages of “After Life” are completely in grey, mirroring the events and emotions of Alice’s life. The first hint of color is in the very last panel on page three, a tiny blue spec in the background that is the TARDIS. Then, turning the page, there is an inset panel in the upper right hand corner, a close-up of Alice’s face still in grey. But immediately below that is the splash introduction of the Kharitite, and it’s rendered in an explosion of color, as Alice’s existence collides with that of the Doctor.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 1 cover

Topping the issue off is a lovely painted cover by Alice X. Zhang. I am not familiar with her, but I already like her work. The preview image of her next cover also looks great, and I’m looking forward to seeing it full size when the second issue comes out.

All in all, Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor is off to a good start. If you are a fan of the show, this one is well worth picking up.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 2

Here is part two of my look at the excellent Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg and published by Archie Comics.  Click here to read part one.

Before continuing on to the final two issues, I first wanted to point out something that I forgot to discuss last time.  One aspect of Kupperberg’s writing that I appreciated was that in neither reality was there any sort of fairy tale ending.  Both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” worlds showed that once Archie and his true love were wed they was still plenty of drama and tension and relationship problems.  One marriage was not any better than the other.  Rather, both realities were far from perfect, each with good and bad, with hurdles to overcome.

Kupperberg did an excellent job at developing the characters through various dramatic plot twists, very much making them come alive.  I became quite attached to the cast in both realities, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  I would definitely say that Life With Archie was on a par with the superb work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Life With Archie 36 Francesco Francavilla variant cover

And so we now come to the final two issues of Life With Archie, featuring the death of Archie Andrews.  That’s not much of a spoiler, given the huge media coverage, plus the somber, atmospheric variant cover to issue #36 by Francesco Francavilla.  Wow, I tell you, that guy is prolific!  He seems to be doing work for nearly every comic book company in existence.

Previously in Life With Archie, Kevin Keller’s husband Clay Walker was shot during an attempted robbery.  Fortunately he survived, but Kevin learned that the weapon used by the holdup man had been purchased at a gun show, circumventing background checks.  Kevin decides to run for the United States Senate on a gun control platform.  He is elected, but his controversial stance, plus the fact that he is gay, leads a deranged gunman to begin targeting gay victims.

As issue #36 opens, Kevin is preparing for a fundraiser at the Chocklit Shoppe, despite the urgings of the FBI to postpone the event until the shooter is caught.  Meanwhile, Archie is taking a jog through Riverdale, his thoughts also running through memories of his childhood & teenage years, as well as pondering the possible future he might have if he and his wife might one day have children.

Life With Archie 36 pg 3

Looking back on his past, Archie reflects on how he was always trying to decide between Betty and Veronica.  And, yes, they were the two girls who always meant the most to him.  There was the other occasional relationship, such as Cheryl Blossom or Valerie from The Pussycats.  But in the end, for Archie, it always came back to Betty and Veronica.  Those two were central to his life.  Kupperberg, via a flashback to a young Archie and school principal Mr. Wetherbee, implies that it was finally making a choice between the two that was necessary for him to grow up and become an adult.

That night, at the Chocklit Shoppe, waiting for the fundraiser to being, Archie and his old pals Jughead and Reggie are pondering how much things have changed, and the possibilities of the future.  It’s an interesting look at how, on one hand, these three have grown & matured over the course of the series and, on the other, how in certain respects they are still the same three goofballs that they’ve always been.

And then Kevin arrives, only for the gunman to reveal himself as the dishwasher at the Chocklit Shoppe.  The FBI agents attempt to grab him, but are hindered by the large crowd.  At which point Archie selflessly throws himself in front of Kevn, taking a bullet for him.  Lying on the floor, bleeding, surrounded by Betty and Veronica, Archie gasps out “I’ve always loved you” before succumbing to his injuries.

Life With Archie 36 pg 39

Issue #36 is supposed to be set in both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” realities, and Kupperberg does a good job at writing it in such a way that the events fit into each seamlessly.  Archie’s demise, even though we know it is coming, is nevertheless still very effectively scripted, a very tragic moment.  The artwork by pencilers Pat & Tim Kennedy and inker Jim Amash is very well done, giving Archie’s contemplations on life, and then the scene of his death, genuine drama and emotion.

Life With Archie #37, the final issue, is set one year later.  Kevin Keller is preparing for a ceremony memorializing Archie.  Since Kevin didn’t move to Riverdale until he was a teenager, he is speaking with those who knew him all his life, asking them to relate what sort of person he was.  Principal Wetherbee, Hiram Lodge, Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica reminisce on various times in the past Archie was someone who helped out people and was there as a friend when you needed him.  We see that going all the way back to his childhood Archie, despite his moments of silliness and mischief, underneath it all was a stand-up guy.

Life With Archie 37 pg 15

Kupperberg’s script is simultaneously wistful and optimistic.  Despite the sadness, his story is at heart a celebration of the joy of life, the importance of friendship, and the possibilities of the future.  As Wetherbee himself comments at the memorial, “The order of the day is not to dwell on tragedy, but to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.”

Once again, the team of Pat & Tim Kennedy and Jim Amash, this time working alongside penciler Fernando Ruiz and inker Gary Martin, do great work.  They all superbly bring the characters to life, expertly telling the story and imbuing it with emotion and poignancy, as well as moments of real fun and hilarity.

Life With Archie 37 pg 35

Some might wonder why Archie Comics decided to bring Life With Archie to an end at the height of its success.  But I think it was a good choice.  There is something to be said with going out on a high note.  After all, there are numerous long-running comic book characters who’ve had decades of continuous, unending stories without any resolution or closure that eventually end up retreading old ground.  Additionally, in the “mainstream” Archie Comics titles, the Riverdale gang will always be teenagers.  So it is nice to be able to find out what could happen to Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and the rest of the cast as they grew up, a storyline that has a definitive ending.

As with the previous issue, Life With Archie #37 had several variant covers, all of which I liked.  Of course I couldn’t pick up every single one.  I decided to go with the cover by Jill Thompson .  The creator of Scary Godmother drew a beautifully nostalgic piece that recreates some of the classic, iconic images of Archie Andrews’ life.

Life With Archie 37 Jill Thompson variant cover

For those who missed out on Life With Archie during its original monthly run, the entire series is being collected in the Archie: The Married Life trade paperbacks. Archie Comics has four volumes out so far, which collects the series up to issue #24.  According to Amazon, book five will be coming out at the end of August.  I definitely recommend picking these up.  The stories by Paul Kupperberg and his various artistic collaborators are well worth experiencing.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 1

I’m sure that most everyone has heard the news that Archie Andrews, the popular redheaded star of the line of Archie Comics, has died… sort of.  That is to say, one version of Archie (okay, technically speaking two versions) is killed in the conclusion to the three year epic Life With Archie.  Running monthly since 2010, Life With Archie, written by Paul Kupperberg, chronicled two possible near future realities, one where Archie married Veronica and another where he married Betty.

The series actually spun out of a six issue run by writer Michael Uslan and artists Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith in Archie #s 600 to 605.  Uslan postulated two possible scenarios where Archie finally chose between his rival teenage sweethearts.  In the first one, which ran through #600 to 602, Archie proposed to and married sophisticated raven-haired socialite Veronica Lodge.  In the second one, in #602-605, Archie pledged his heart to sweet blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper.  The entire storyline was collected in the trade paperback The Archie Wedding.

The Archie Wedding cover

Following the success of this storyline, Archie Comics decided to publish an ongoing title set in these two alternate worlds.  In the pages of Life With Archie, Kupperberg and a line-up of talented artists chronicled the dual paths that Archie took in “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty.”  Kupperburg’s two tales were sprawling and ambitious.  He revealed how that one simple decision impacted the entire town of Riverdale and its much-loved inhabitants as they grew older, setting everyone on very different paths in these two realities.  It brings to mind the old saying about how a small pebble dropped in a lake will cause ripples that will emanate outwards and bounce off the shores in various directions.  By choosing Veronica in one world and Betty in another, Archie creates two very different sets of ripples that affect the rest of the cast in dramatic & unexpected ways.

My girlfriend Michele has been a fan of Archie Comics since she was a little girl.  She picked up the collection The Archie Wedding and enjoyed it.  When Life With Archie began shortly afterwards, she became a regular reader, only missing a handful of the issues over the next three years.  I read a number of these and I also enjoyed them.  Truthfully, I sometimes had some trouble following the story and character arcs in the two parallel worlds, and more than once I wondered aloud at how Kupperberg kept everything straight in his head.  Maybe he had some flowcharts or diagrams that he drew up?

A good example of how events could be both similar and different in these two worlds is with the character of Jughead Jones.  In each of them, not surprisingly, he ended up becoming the proprietor of his favorite hangout, the Chocklit Shoppe.  However, in one reality circumstances eventually lead Jughead to wed Ethel, and in the other he and Midge are married.

Life With Archie 16 coverOne event that took place in both realities was Kevin Keller, now a military veteran, married his boyfriend Clay Walker in Life With Archie #16.  The two had met after Kevin had been wounded on the battlefield and Clay was his physical therapist.  There was, unfortunately, somewhat of an uproar in the real world among certain “conservative” segments when the news of this was announced.  However, to their credit, Archie Comics still went through with it.  I certainly do not agree with every business decision that the company has made over the years.  But at least they seemingly do have an approach that can be considered “progressive,” and they recognize they possess a diverse readership.  In any case, it was a very nicely done issue, topped off with a lovely cover by Fernando Ruiz & Bob Smith.

An aspect of the series that I found intriguing was the role of Archie’s former rival Reggie Mantle.  In the “Archie marries Veronica” reality Reggie begins dating Betty.  In the “Archie marries Betty” world Reggie becomes involved with Veronica.  It is a bit sad to think that Reggie, who in both storylines is seen growing & maturing beyond his former snooty, sarcastic self, is left with the girl who Archie let get away.  The four of them really do have something of a bizarre love quadrangle going on.

There were also some odd shenanigans going on with scientific genius Dilton Doiley traveling back and forth between the two realities.  I really didn’t follow the series close enough month-to-month to fully understand precisely what was going on.  However, aside from that one subplot, Kupperberg eschewed from fantastical elements and stuck to events that were grounded in reality.

Life With Archie 12 cover

Art-wise, it was interesting and cool to see Norm Breyfogle’s work on a number of issues of Life With Archie.  Breyfogle is generally considered to be the best Batman artist of the late 1980s through the mid 1990s.  He did really amazing work on the various ongoing titles and specials of that time.  Unfortunately since then Breyfogle’s work has been somewhat sporadic, as he has not really had too many ongoing books to work on.  More recently he’s once again been doing great work for DC Comics on Batman Beyond.  Before that gig finally came his way, Breyfogle was working at Archie Comics.  I really enjoyed his art on Life With Archie.  It was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.

The last several issues of Life With Archie have boasted some really great variant covers by several great artists, including Stephanie Buscema, Dean Haspiel and Robert Hack.  One of my favorites was Chad Thomas’ “sci fi variant” for #35, which depicts Jughead as “The Beast That Won’t Stop Eating!”

Life With Archie 35 variant cover

Having taken a cursory overview of the entire Life With Archie series, in my next installment I will be looking at Paul Kupperberg’s two part conclusion to his dual sagas, and the tragic demise of Archie Andrews, as featured in issue #s 36 and 37.  Stay tuned!

 

The Young Ones: a bunch of complete bastards

After hearing of the recent untimely death of British comedian Rik Mayall last month at the age of 56, Michele and I re-watched the television series that he was most associated with: The Young Ones.  Originally running for two six-episode seasons in 1982 and 1984 on the BBC, The Young Ones became an influential cult classic.  Michele likes to say that it is her all time favorite television series.  She first saw it when it aired here in the States in 1985 on MTV.  Myself, I caught a few of the episodes in the mid-1990s when it was on Comedy Central.  While I enjoyed them somewhat back then, watching the series in its entirety on DVD definitely gave me a real appreciation for it.

The Young Ones DVD

The Young Ones was co-written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, with additional material by Alexi Sayle.  It featured the bizarre, nonsensical, and grotesquely over-the-top misadventures of four university students from Scumbag College who were rooming together in North London:

Rick (played by Rik Mayall) was a would-be anarchist revolutionary who would go on endlessly about the evils of Margaret Thatcher and the oppression of the people, while treating everyone else about him with disdain.  He regarded himself as “the people’s poet,” the so-called “voice of a generation,” although in reality he was a self-important egotist who was full of crap.

Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) was a loud, psychotic, alcoholic punk metal-head who considered Rick “a complete bastard.”  Despite being an ultra-violent imbecile, Vyvyan was studying medicine at Scumbag College.  I suppose the blood & guts appealed to him.

Neil (Nigel Planer) was a perpetually depressed hippy pacifist who had constant verbal & physical abuse heaped upon him, and who was always expected by the other three to cook dinner, even if they were too broke to buy groceries.  Neil alternated between preaching the virtues of such causes as vegetarianism & environmentalism, and moping about bemoaning the fact that everyone hated him.

Mike (Christopher Ryan) was a suave con artist who was always scheming to make money.  On several occasions referring to himself as “the cool person,” Mike believed he was a real ladies’ man, although on various instances he was spotted sleeping with an inflatable sex doll.

Rounding out the regular cast was Alexi Sayle, who portrayed a variety of characters, including the various members of the Balowski Family.  Sayle’s performances were often a satire on British societal stereotypes, with him sending up the popular image of the working class, or merely rambling on in a stream of consciousness manner, via some cleverly nonsensical monologues.

The Young Ones

There were appearances on The Young Ones by a number of talented actors and comedians.  Some of them were already established at that time, and others were up-and-coming.  Among the various guest stars to appear on the show were Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Frost, Terry Jones, Patrick Newell, Helen Lederer, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson.

Each of the episodes featured a musical performance, which was always worked into the plot somehow or another, even it was just that week’s band just standing around the living room or out in the street while the action unfolded about them.  Some of the musical guests were definitely on the obscure side, such as Amazulu and Rip Rig + Panic.  Others were better known, as in Motorhead, The Damned, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness (who appeared twice).  There was one episode, “Flood,” that instead of music had a lion tamer performing in Mike’s room, and that incongruous appearance ended up being a key aspect to the resolution of the plot, such as it was.

Of course, that was the thing about The Young Ones.  The episodes did not have much in the way of straightforward plots, but were rather more like a series of jokes and gags that were somewhat loosely strung together.  There were also a number of random asides tossed in that had little or nothing to do with the rest of the episode.

The humor ranged from sophisticated and intellectual to crass, vulgar, gross, tacky and utterly lowbrow.  Copious amounts of cartoonish violence were regularly inflicted upon the characters.  The Young Ones was the sort of anarchic mish-mash of comedic insanity that could have easily collapsed into an incomprehensible, unfunny heap.  But the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers and writers instead resulted in a set of a dozen episodes which were hysterical and laugh-out-loud funny.

The series often broke the fourth wall, with characters directly addressing the audience to deliver jokes or monologues.  The most extended example of this was in the episode “Sick.”  Halfway through the episode the quartet are alarmed to learn that Neil’s parents will be coming to visit, and they desperately start attempting to clean up the house, hoping to look at least somewhat more respectable.  The audience’s expectation is that Neil’s middle class parents are going to be upset that he is living with a trio of disreputable individuals in a shithole of a building.  Instead, we quickly find out that they are furious Neil is starring in such a shameful, trashy television show as The Young Ones, with his father critically commenting “It’s a waste of a licensing fee! Pardon my French, but why can’t you be in one of those decent situation comedies that your mother likes?”

Re-watching The Young Ones, Michele began to suspect that it could have been a major influence on Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy.  She has a good point there, and I would not be surprised to learn that she’s correct.

The Young Ones Vyvyan

Our favorite episode of The Young Ones is undoubtedly “Bambi.”  I really enjoyed that one even back when I first saw it in the mid-90s.  Seeing it again on DVD, it was hilarious.  The housemates attempt to wash their laundry for the first time in over three years, leading to the anthropomorphic machine at the launderette to violently spit out the load, loudly proclaiming “No way!”  Vyvyan then utters one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the series: “This calls for a very special blend of psychology and extreme violence.”  Fooling a lecherous washing machine into thinking they have actress Felicity Kendall’s underwear, the four of them stuff their clothes into it, only to belatedly realize that they don’t have any money to put into it.  Returning home, they vow to never wash their clothes again and become the dirtiest students in the whole world.  When Mike comments “Hey, now there’s a challenge,” Neil suddenly remembers that the four of them have been selected to represent Scumbag College on the television game show University Challenge.  Cue a mad dash to the railway station, with Motorhead providing incidental music.  I won’t say any more about the episode.  Trust me, if you haven’t seen the it, it’s well worth watching.

It might seem odd, at least to an American audience, that The Young Ones was so influential while only lasting a mere 12 episodes.  But actually I think the British method of producing television, with shorter seasons, is a good one.  I really think that too many American shows stretch their resources thin making 24 episodes a year.  The end result is that you usually end up with several really good installments, a number of merely average ones, and at least a few stinkers.  But if you have half that number, or less, the writers can really focus their energy on crafting several high-quality scripts, the various members of the production team can better allocate their time & resources into filming them, and the actors aren’t overworked.  Looking at the run of The Young Ones, not a single one of the episodes is a dud.

The Young Ones Rick

It certainly is a shame that co-star and co-writer Rik Mayall died so young.  Michelle posted a nice tribute to Mayall on her own blog.  Looking at his work on The Young Ones, as well as other projects he was involved with over the years, it is apparent that he was extremely talented.  Mayall had a genuine gift for comedy, delivering lines in just the right way, offering up the most insane facial expressions, and excelling in dynamically bizarre physical comedy.  Yeah, I would go so far as to say that he was a genius.

If you aren’t familiar with The Young Ones, check it out.  There are plenty of clips from the series posted on the internet, as well as the actors’ appearances in the 1980s reprising their roles elsewhere.  For all twelve episodes, plus some informative extras, The Young Ones: Extra Stoopid Edition DVD set came out in 2007 and is still available.