Spawn and Savage Dragon and Ant! Oh my!

It’s been a while since I wrote to the Fin Addicts letter column in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon. Back in the 1990s when I was in high school & college I was a real letter hack, and I wrote to Larsen about his awesome comic book series on a semi-regular basis.  I was reminded of those days when The Unspoken Decade discussed Fin Addicts, nominating it for “Best Letter Column of the 90s.”  I decided to fire off an e-mail to Larsen about the recent Dragon / Spawn / Ant crossover in Spawn #265-266 and Savage Dragon #216-217.  And, hey, why not also do a blog post?

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Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen both gained prominence in the late 1980s on Amazing Spider-Man. At the time their work did possess a certain superficial similarity.  However, once they both had their own creator-owned titles at Image Comics, the differences between McFarlane and Larsen became readily apparent.  Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, Spawn and Savage Dragon were like night & day.

I followed Spawn for a few years, but eventually lost interest. Savage Dragon, in contrast, became my favorite ongoing comic book series, and I have never missed an issue.  I did enjoy the very odd crossover between the two titles back in 1996.  So if Larsen and McFarlane were once again going to collaborate on a team-up of Dragon and Spawn, of course I was going to buy the entire thing.

Larsen has actually been working on Spawn for the past year, starting with #258, but I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up any of those issues. When I did get Spawn #265, the first chapter of the crossover, it had been a couple of hundred issues since I read it, and it was interesting to catch up with Al Simmons after all this time.

The artistic collaboration between Larsen & McFarlane is very effective. The script for this and the next issue reads much more like McFarlane than Larsen.  In the 1990s McFarlane had this very somber, brooding quality to his scripting, and that is still present.  I personally prefer the oddball, comedic voice that Larsen utilizes in Savage Dragon.  But, as I said, the two series have very different tones, and works for one might not for the other.

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It was nice to see Spawn and Malcolm Dragon, the son of the original Dragon, meet for the first time. Back in the 1990s I liked that there was interconnectedness between various Image books.  From time to time Dragon or some of Larsen’s other characters appeared in one of Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee or whoever’s titles, and their characters would occasionally show up in his books.  That sort of “shared universe” thing is a lot less important to me today; I’m much more interested in the numerous interesting characters Larsen himself has created.  Still, on occasion it can be fun when a character from another series appears in Savage Dragon.

This crossover involves hordes of super-powered criminals & madmen running amok across the country. All of them have been give powers by Alzayah Stone, a religious fanatic who believes the End Times are approaching.  Spawn and Dragon are both recruited by Ant to stop Stone from creating any more monsters.

There’s a major disagreement between Malcolm and Spawn as to how precisely to deal with Stone. Malcolm, a police officer, wants to arrest him.  Spawn, a former government assassin, wants to kill him.  This quickly segues into an argument concerning the frequency with which police officers kill young black men, with Spawn accusing Malcolm of being a hypocrite.

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As much as I like Malcolm, I have to agree with Al Simmons here. Malcolm is young, idealistic and somewhat naïve.  He has also been very close friends with people in the Chicago PD for most of his life, even before he actually became a police officer.  Malcolm has never been a civilian outside that sphere, subjected to harsh scrutiny by suspicious cops.

I’m interested in seeing how Larsen continues to develop Malcolm in his role as a cop. The longer he remains with the Chicago PD, the more likely he is to encounter less-enlightened colleagues, cops who have let their authority go to their heads.  After all, back in the day, Malcolm’s own father had to deal with a few of those.  I also expect that Malcolm’s half-brother Kevin, aka Thunderhead, a reformed criminal, might have a less charitable opinion of the police.

Ant, the third member of this team-up, was created by Mario Gully in 2004.  Ant was published first by Arcana Studios and then by Image.  She has an odd look, even for super-hero comics.  She appears to be wearing a full-body skintight red latex catsuit topped with a pair of giant antenna.  Gully sold Ant to Larsen in 2012.

I’m not too familiar with Ant, having only read a couple issues of her comic.   Now that Larsen is finished on Spawn he’s planning to launch a new Ant series, where presumably he’ll delve into the her back story to bring new readers up to speed.  But in the meantime this crossover was a good way for Larsen to introduce the character to his audience.

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I felt the pacing of the final chapter in SD #217 was a bit off. Early on there’s a double page splash of Ant, Spawn and Dragon.  It looks awesome, but eats up a lot of space; perhaps it should have been only one page.  This would have freed up at least another page for the confrontation with Stone.  I think one moment in particular have been more dramatic as a full page splash (yeah I’m being deliberately vague here) and that in turn would have allowing more room for the end of the story, which felt rushed.

I later found out Larsen was factoring in how SD #217 would work in a trade paperback. Speaking with comicbook.com he explained that the Spawn issues would probably not be included in the collection that reprints #216 and #217.  That required him to write those issues in such a way that they could be understood by anyone who didn’t read Spawn.  I realize now why he utilized that two page splash in SD #217.  For anyone who will be reading this story in trade paperback form, they will not have seen Spawn #266, which means that big spread is the first time they will see Malcolm, Spawn and Ant together.  It made sense to draw it large & dramatic.  I don’t envy the sort of juggling act Larsen had to perform here.

My favorite parts of these issues were actually the ones focusing on the personal lives of Malcolm, his wife Maxine, and the three Dragon babies. I was literally laughing out loud at the hilarious opening scene in SD #217 with Maxine at the supermarket with the Dragon triplets.  The domestic comedy and drama of this series has always been something that separated it from so many other super-hero series.

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A year ago I was skimming through the Spider-Man issues Larsen wrote & drew in late 1991 shortly before he co-founded Image. The best aspect of those comics was the interactions between Peter and Mary Jane.  Larsen was one of the few creators who seemed like he wanted to explore the intricacies of their married life.

I’m very glad that Larsen took that same approach on Savage Dragon, devoting a good amount of space to the “off-time” of Dragon and his colleagues, and to the romantic relationships Dragon had over the years, i.e. the stuff folks do when they are not busy getting into super-powered brawls. Larsen has successfully continued that in the last few years with Malcolm and Maxine’s relationship.  The series continues to be an enjoyable read.

I can understand why Larsen decided to leave Spawn after one year. I’m sure it was fun for him to collaborate with McFarlane and try something different.  But at the end of the day it is clear that Spawn is still very much McFarlane’s baby.  In the long run I’m sure Larsen would rather devote his energies to his own characters in Savage Dragon, and towards getting the new Ant series up-and-running.

Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #10-13

Happy Halloween from the Hero Cats of Stellar City!

I have continued to enjoy the ongoing Hero Cats comic book series written by Kyle Puttkammer and published by Action Lab Entertainment. The latest four issues have been a lot of fun, as our team of crime-fighting kitties have traveled the world, and then arrived back home in Stellar City for a spooktacular Halloween.

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Hero Cats #10-12 features the three part “World Tour.” Puttkammer is joined by new series penciler Omaka Schultz, with inks by Ryan Sellers & Brandon Page.  When I first read #10, for a moment there I actually thought I had missed an issue.  Puttkammer opens the story in media res, with the Hero Cats aloft in a hot air balloon, accompanied by a little girl dressed as a princess.  By page two the balloon has crashed in the middle of the desert, near the town of Coyote Canyon.

I’m actually still trying to decide if the Hero Cats were somehow transported not just to the American Southwest but also back in time. Modern technology is completely missing from Coyote Canyon, and soon after the train out of town is waylaid by armed bandits.  Well, whether the year is 2016 or 1880, we are treated to an exciting throw-down between the cats and the gang of dastardly desperadoes.

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Although heading back to Stellar City, it is apparent that after returning the little princess home the cats somehow got detoured, as #11 opens in the aftermath of an airplane crash on an island off the coast of Africa. The cats encounter the warrior Malo who possesses the ability to talk to animals, and they join forces to combat a mystical menace that is seizing control of the island’s inhabitants.

The cats’ next stop on their way home is the Far East. They arrive in what appears to be Medieval Japan (more time travel?) where they assist a local feline heroine in rescuing a mystical cat who has been kidnapped by ninjas.  I’m not sure where the Giant Panda who’s hanging around the neighborhood came from; perhaps like the cats he’s another lost tourist?

In these three issues Puttkammer continues to develop the personalities of and relationships between the various cats. He does a good job at making this truly an all-ages book.  Young kids will enjoy the fun adventures of the cute cats, and for older readers there’s are interesting characters & story arcs.

Schultz is a fine addition to the series. He effortlessly juggles the cartoony elements and the highly-detailed real-world settings.

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With the Hero Cats finally making their way back to Stellar City, issue #13 detours into what I would classify as a “What If” or “Elseworlds” type of reality. We are introduced to a world much like the one seen in the previous dozen issues, only with several darker, supernatural twists to it.  Our feline cast is still present, but different.  For instance, Belle is an evil witch, Midnight is a vampire, and Rocco is a giant monster.  As for poor Ace, faced with a world overrun by zombies, he is the Last Cat on Earth.  I guess you could say that Ace is all alone against an onslaught of the Purring Dead.

“Hero Cats of the Apocalypse” is drawn by the art team of Sey Viani & Sarah Elkins. As with previous artists, they do a fine job handling the diverse tone of the book, drawing a story that is both cute and macabre.

While I did initially wish that Puttkammer had written a Halloween story set in the “real” world of the Hero Cats, it later occurred to me that perhaps this could serve as a prologue for a future story. We’ve previously seen the Hero Cats fight against villains from other dimensions.  So the possibility exists that at some point “our” Hero Cats might cross over into this other world where everything has gone terribly wrong and encounter their dark counterparts.  You never know.

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In any case, it was a bit of a treat to see Belle as a witch. Belle looks a lot like one of my cats, Nettie, a doll-face Himalayan.  Belle has slightly darker fur and brown seal-point coloring instead of grey, but other than that she looks a lot like Nettie.  My girlfriend Michele has always wanted to dress up Nettie for Halloween, but Nettie refuses to let us put any sort of costume on her.  One of Michele’s ideas was to give Nettie a witch hat.  At least now, courtesy of Belle in Hero Cats #13, I have an idea of how Nettie might look wearing one🙂

One last note… after missing him at the last two New York Comic Cons, this year I finally got to meet Kyle Puttkammer. I got a couple of issues of Hero Cats autographed, and had an opportunity to see previews of a few upcoming issues.  I’m definitely looking forward to them.

Steve Dillon: 1962 to 2016

This year has been awful. Too many incredibly talented people have died much too young in 2016.  Sadly yet another name has just been added to the list of creators who left us too soon.  British comic book artist Steve Dillon passed away on October 22nd at the age of 54.

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I first encountered Steve Dillon’s work in the mid-1980s when the back-up stories he had drawn in Doctor Who Weekly for Marvel Comics UK were reprinted here in the States. Two of the strips he worked on had lasting impacts on Doctor Who fandom.  “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman” ran in Doctor Who Weekly # 5-7 (1979) and “Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer” ran in # 17-20.  Both stories were written by Steve Moore.

“Throwback” introduced Kroton, a being who even after being converted into one of the ruthlessly logical Cybermen somehow retained his emotions. Kroton was a tragic character, neither human nor Cyberman, trapped between two worlds.  This was some of Dillon’s earliest work.  He had a tendency to draw characters crouching in overdramatic poses or gesticulating wildly.  But even at that point Dillon showed genuine potential.  He certainly possessed the skill necessary to give emotion & pathos to the physically expressionless metal form of Kroton.  The bottom three panels of that final page from Doctor Who Weekly #7 always give me an emotional punch in the gut.

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“Dalek Killer” featured the debut of Abslom Daak, a thoroughly unpleasant career criminal. Having been found guilty on multiple counts of murder & piracy, Daak is given two choices: execution by vaporization or Exile D-K.  The sneering Daak rejects vaporization because it’s quick & painless, and instead chooses Exile D-K, which involves being teleported to a world in the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the mutants from Skaro.

Armed to the teeth, Daak is beamed to the planet Mazam, newly conquered by the Daleks. Despite his fervent death wish, the ruthless & brutal Daak manages to survive, in the process liberating Mazam from the Daleks and winning the heart of its ruler Taiyin.  Tragedy strikes, however, when a lone Dalek survivor kills Taiyin.  The grief-stricken Daak’s suicide-run is now supplanted by a mission of vengeance, as he vows to “kill every stinking Dalek in the galaxy!”

Dillon’s artwork on this serial was amazing. This is only a year after “Throwback” and he had already improved tremendously.  Dillon succeeded in humanizing the thuggish, menacing Daak, making him a character both comedic and haunted.  That final page, with Daak carrying Taiyin’s lifeless body, is incredibly powerful & tragic.

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Abslom Daak proved to be tremendously popular, and he has made numerous return appearances in Doctor Who comic books, most recently in The Eleventh Doctor series courtesy of Si Spurrier, Rob Williams & Simon Fraser. Daak even made it into the Doctor Who television series itself when his mug shot was seen in the 2014 episode “Time Heist.”

In the mid-1980s Dillon was a regular artist on the weekly British anthology series 2000 AD, drawing a number of stories featuring Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. He also worked on the short-lived but influential anthology series Warrior.

Beginning in 1990 Dillon began working at DC Comics, illustrating Tom Veitch’s offbeat stories in Animal Man. Two years later Dillon worked with writer Garth Ennis for the first time on the DC / Vertigo series Hellblazer, chronicling the dark supernatural adventures of  chain-smoking occult detective John Constantine.

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I recall that when I was in high school reading Animal Man and Hellblazer, I found Dillon’s artwork to be rather odd.  It was so very different stylistically from the tone of the flashy, ultra-dynamic work that had become prevalent in mainstream superhero books.  I really don’t think I even realized at that time that Dillon was the same artist who had drawn those Doctor Who comic book stories.  Nevertheless his work stuck in my head because it was so distinctive from ninety percent of what was out there.  It had what I would have to characterize as a starkness to it.

After wrapping up their run on Hellblazer, Ennis & Dillon collaborated on the Vertigo series Preacher, which ran for 66 issues between 1995 and 2000. Dark, brutal, sardonically humorous, and gleefully sacrilegious, Preacher became a critically acclaimed hit.  Underneath all the cynicism and gore, the succession of freaks, degenerates and psychopaths, Preacher was at its heart the story of the relationship between Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare.  Dillon ably illustrated all the sick weirdness that Ennis wrote, but he also brought to life Jesse & Tulip, made us believe in their love for one another.

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After Preacher wrapped up, Ennis & Dillon went over to Marvel Comics, taking over the Punisher. The pair transformed the then-moribund series into a ultra-violent black comedy.  Ennis also worked on a number of other Marvel titles, most notably a two year run on Wolverine: Origin with writer Daniel Wray.

I have always found Steve Dillon to be an incredibly effective comic book artist. As a non-artist it is perhaps difficult for me to articulate why this is so, but I am going to attempt to do so…

Dillon had a very straightforward, unvarnished style. He did not rely on overly-complex layouts.  He did not utilize excessive amounts of detail.  Dillon’s layouts and sequential illustration were crystal-clear and highly effective.  He absolutely knew how to create drama and tension.  Dillon could illustrate a multi-page sequence featuring nothing more than two characters sitting around taking over a beer and make it the most dramatic thing you could possibly imagine.

Dillon often illustrated stories that featured extreme violence. I think that it if often the case that when an artist who possesses an exaggerated or hyper-detailed style, violence comes across as cartoony or unrealistic or even glamorized.  Dillon, however, had a style that was very much grounded in reality, and so his scenes of violence and gore were starkly, shockingly brutal.

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I was fortunate enough to meet Dillon on a couple of occasions. The first time was in 1999, when I was traveling around Britain.  There was a big comic book convention in Bristol, England.  Dillon was one of the guests.  That whole show seemed to revolve around the bar, and most of the guests either had drinks at their tables or were actually doing signings at the pub.  As I recall, Dillon was at one of the tables in the pub drinking a pint.  He was kind enough to autograph an issue of Preacher for me, and to chat for a couple of minutes.  I commented to him that the “Until the End of the World” storyline that ran in issues # 8-12 has seriously freaked me out.  He smiled and responded, “I drew it, and it freaked me out, too.”  I had to laugh at that.

Years later, in 2009, I met Dillon again when he did a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe here in NYC. Once again he struck me as a nice, friendly guy, and he did a sketch for me of Herr Starr, one of the villains from Preacher.

I was genuinely sorry to find out that Dillon had passed away. He was a tremendously talented artist.  Judging from the comments on Facebook from people who were friends with him or worked with him over the years, he was much-loved by those who knew him.

Shin Godzilla

Michele and I went to see Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence, last week in the theater during its limited US release. Toho has once again rebooted the movie series, with Godzilla’s inaugural attack on Japan taking place in the year 2016.  The film is co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno.  Shin Godzilla is probably the darkest, most serious Godzilla movie since the very first entry in the series, Gojira, back in 1954.

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Shin Godzilla is a very political movie. With the story told in an almost-documentary style, events unfold from the perspectives of the politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to deal with Godzilla’s rampage & the aftermath.

The film’s protagonist is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Young, ambitious, and definitely something of a rebel, Yaguchi continually chaffs at the innumerable regulations that have to be dealt with amidst Godzilla’s arrival, as well as the overly cautious attitudes of the senior political establishment.

There are quite a number of issues at play here as they relate to Japanese society. Yaguchi is uncomfortable with the traditional deference to seniority & rank, preferring instead to work with people possessing talent & ability, regardless of their age or social status.  His assembly of various scientists & technicians, who he affectionately describes as misfits & outsiders, into a group dedicated to stopping Godzilla is a definite attempt to cut through the red tape that he feels has entangled the rest of the government.

The push by Yaguchi for the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take a proactive role in protecting the country from Godzilla also has real-world echoes. Japan was forced to de-militarize after its defeat in World War II.  During the early years of the Cold War the country was entirely dependent upon the United States for protection.  This eventually led to the formation of the SDF, which has for much of its existence served a very limited role.  In recent years, seeing the potential threats posed by North Korea and China, certain voices in Japan have called for the full-scale rearmament of the country.

At the same time, though, we do see in Yaguchi a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He wishes for Japan to shake off American influence and to be able to defend itself, but he also cautions against the overconfidence that led his country into catastrophic defeat 70 years before.

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The United Nations ordering a nuclear strike on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla before the creature can reproduce & spread across the globe is certainly rooted in Japanese fears. Japan is the only country to have ever been attacked by atomic weapons.  Obviously one can argue that the United States had a very strong rationale for using the atom bomb to end World War II back in 1945.  Nevertheless, within the movie we see the Japanese characters genuinely horrified at the possibility that their country will once again be devastated by atomic weapons, that in order to stop Godzilla the entire city of Tokyo will have to be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Yaguchi and his team race against the nuclear strike’s impending deadline to devise an alternate method of stopping Godzilla. With time of the essence, they are forced to ask for the assistance of Germany in analyzing their data.  When the team realizes it needs another day to finish their plans, Yaguchi’s allies in the government lobby France to extend the countdown by 24 hours.  Finally, when the SDF launches the attack devised by Yaguchi’s team, they receive valuable assistance from the United States.

I do not think the choice of these countries is accidental. Japan, Germany, France, and United States; seven decades ago the first two were mortal enemies of the later.  Now, in the present, all four of them set aside their differences and work together against a danger that threatens the entire globe.  The movie demonstrates again and again that cooperation is essential in stopping Godzilla: government and private industry must to pool their resources, military and science must work side-by-side, and nations must come together as allies.

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This is a very unconventional entry in the Godzilla series. That’s not surprising, given Hideaki Anno’s involvement.  He is best known for his work on the incredibly offbeat & bizarre science fiction anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which left audiences very divided.  (Years ago, after watching the final episode of Evangelion, I literally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a loud “WTF?!?”)

The conflict between generations was a central one in Evangelion, with anxious teenager Shinji Ikari attempting to find his own way in life and assert himself again his cold, manipulative father. Aspects of this extremely dysfunctional relationship appear to have been translated into Shin Godzilla, in the disagreements between Yagushi and his superiors, as well as the larger theme of 21th Century Japan rebelling against the overbearing, paternalistic attitude of the country’s older generations and the United States.

Of course we cannot forget Godzilla himself. There is an effort by Anno, Higuchi, and their collaborators to ground the creature in reality.  Obviously there is a certain limit to how well this can be pulled off, since the concept of a giant radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur is, when you get right down to it, rather implausible.  Nevertheless the movie does succeed rather well at giving Godzilla a certain verisimilitude.

A constantly-evolving life form, when we first see Godzilla he is an aquatic creature that walks on four legs. This initial form is very much unlike the monster we are used to, which led Michele to whisper to me “Is that Godzilla?”  I must have been frowning when I whispered back “I don’t think so.”  The detail that really threw us off was the creature’s pair of comically large googly eyes.  As the creature shuffles onto land and begins toppling buildings, all efforts to appear formidable are totally undone by those ridiculous peepers.

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At a certain point the creature plops to a halt and right then & there evolves into a bipedal creature.  That’s when I realized that this really was Godzilla, even though he still had those big googly eyes of his.  Fortunately the creature quickly makes his way back into the ocean.

Later in the movie, when Godzilla returns to land, he has evolved further, and is much closer to his traditional form. Twisted & grotesque, this is a monstrous incarnation, one that lumbers unceasingly forward, smashing everything it its path.  An unstoppable engine of destruction, this Godzilla is genuinely terrifying, a quality that has been seldom present in the creature since the original Gojira.

Anno’s use of music by the late Akira Ifukube from older Godzilla movies is effective. Ifukube’s music was a vital part in establishing the tone and atmosphere in many of the past entries.  It demonstrates just how effective his scores are that they are still being utilized.

Much as his work on Evangelion was divisive among viewers, so too has Anno’s approach resulted in a polarization of opinion on this movie. Some found the detailed focus on the inner workings of government in crisis to be fascinating.  Others felt Shin Godzilla was dull, and they expressed difficulty in keep track of the innumerable bureaucrats.

My own opinion falls in-between these two extremes. The scenes of committee meetings and press conferences and scientific gatherings are well written & insightful, although at times they do get excessive and drag on.  These could certainly have been scaled back.  I think that at least 15 minutes of the movie’s two hour run time could have been trimmed without losing anything of real significance.

Flaws aside, I found Shin Godzilla to be a good movie. After the underwhelming Godzilla: Final Wars back in 2004, Toho has done a good job at reviving the series with this new entry.

Fifty years of Star Trek

Star Trek made its television debut 50 years ago this week, on September 8, 1966, when the episode “The Man Trap” aired on NBC.

(For the pedantic-minded, yes, “The Man Trap” was number six in production order, and the actual first episode of Star Trek should have been “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but NBC decided to instead debut the show with a “monster of the week” first episode. And that’s not even getting into the matter of first, unused pilot episode “The Cage” which wasn’t broadcast in its entirety until 1988.  Okay, I’ll stop now!)

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I wasn’t born for another decade, in June 1976, but in the early 1980s when I was a young kid I regularly watched reruns of Star Trek on Saturday evenings on WPIX Channel 11. I was a science fiction fan, and the show was such a thrill for me.  At the time, the concept of an ongoing sci-fi TV series that aired a “new” episode every single week was just so revolutionary.  It’s almost inconceivable these days when there are numerous genre shows on the small screen, but when I was a kid Star Trek was literally one-of-a-kind.

(It’s really no wonder that a couple of years later I also became a huge Doctor Who fan once I discovered repeats airing Monday to Friday on PBS stations.)

I honestly don’t remember my first episode of Star Trek. I have very fuzzy memories of a young me watching Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn (“Arena”) and of Kirk and Spock communicating with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark”), but I certainly couldn’t swear with any certainty that either of those was my absolute first exposure to the show.  The point is that as far back as I can recall, I was watching Star Trek, and enjoying it.

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It is interesting to have re-watched many of those episodes over the past decade and a half, to revisit them with adult eyes. Some of them are still classics, while others have not aged well.  And, no, I am not referring to the low budgets or the dodgy special effects.

When you are six years old “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” probably seems an insightful examination of racism; when you’re in your 30s it comes across as a heavy-handed, clunky allegory. When you’re a kid “A Private Little War” strikes you as a tragic tale of good men forced into conflict; when you’re an adult you realize that it’s actually a  defense of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the decade after Star Trek’s original three season run concluded, its creator Gene Roddenberry was a regular of the sci-fi convention circuit, and he worked hard to propagate the myth that the series was extremely progressive and forward-thinking. This was true to a degree, but certainly not as much as Roddenberry would later claim.  As with any series that was crafted by a number of different writers, Star Trek’s politics were all over the place.  Roddenberry himself could be maddeningly inconsistent, at times genuinely liberal, and at others decidedly right-of-center.

The show is, in hindsight, not nearly as diverse as it could have been, with the three lead characters of Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy all played by white males. There is a good deal of  sexism & sexual titillation in many episodes.  Yes, Star Trek did show men and women serving alongside each other in a military organization.  But most of the females in Starfleet were relegated to secondary roles.  The women of Star Trek were often characterized as emotional & irrational, and many of them were clad in extremely revealing outfits.

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I doubt it’s any accident that one of the things that everyone remembers about Star Trek are those green-skinned Orion “slave girls” portrayed by Susan Oliver and Yvonne Craig.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with being sexy.  But as they say, everything in moderation.)

It is also unfortunate the most of the crew of the Starship Enterprise was underdeveloped. By today’s standards Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov are very one-dimensional.  But that was an inevitable reality of the model of American television in the late 1960s.  Watch any prime-time drama from that era and you will see that it is made up of stand-alone episodes that are primarily driven by plot, with extended story arcs and long-term characterization nonexistent.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, Star Trek was still groundbreaking. It was the unexpected beginning of a decades-long franchise, one that in its various incarnations over the next 50 years would genuinely become more and more progressive.  The original series was the necessary foundation upon which all of the subsequent TV series and movies were built.

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Even today, fifty years later, there aspects of the original Star Trek that still hold up. The lead trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works very well, due to the genuine chemistry that existed between actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.  You definitely see these three men as colleagues who, despite their differing world views and their often passionate arguments over ideology & methodology, possess a genuine rapport & friendship.

I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are a Freudian Trio.  Kirk is the ego, the leader.  Spock is the superego, reason.  McCoy is the id, emotion.  Whatever the case, it made for compelling drama.

The writing on Star Trek could also be very good. Despite his flaws, Roddenberry certainly devised a wonderful concept, and his plots could be intelligent & imaginative.  Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana are the two writers who probably deserve the most credit for taking Roddenberry’s vision and developing it into a compelling, nuanced three-dimensional universe.  Other talented writers who contributed quality plots & scripts to Star Trek are George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad and Jerome Bixby.

The costumes, props, sets and models created for Star Trek were also striking & original. The designs conceived by Matt Jeffries and Wah Chang are now iconic.  The Enterprise itself, the crew’s phasers & communicators, the Klingons’ cruisers, aliens such as the Gorn and the Salt Vampire; all are instantly recognizable.

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For a television show that lasted a mere three years, constantly teetering on the edge of cancellation, the original Star Trek has had a seismic impact on popular culture. It has simultaneously served as escapist fantasy while providing a lens through which to explore the social & political controversies of the last half century.

Of course there’s also plenty to say about the Star Trek movies, and The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, and so on, but I think I’ll save those for another time.

By the way, one of my favorite WordPress blogs is the m0vie blog. Among the numerous reviews, its author Darren has written some incredibly detailed, insightful, thought-provoking analyses of the Star Trek franchise. I encourage everyone who is a fan of the series to check it out.

Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.  Gruenwald had decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

Captain America 350 pg 44

In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

Captain America 371 pg 1

In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead to the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

Captain America 443 pg 20

A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.

Happy July 4th from the Avengers

Here’s wishing everyone in the United States a very happy July 4th.  For those of you elsewhere in the world, I wish you all the very best, as well.  I hope that one day “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes a reality no matter who you are or where you live.

To celebrate, I am posting a scan of this wonderful Avengers pin-up.  It was published in the Avengers: The Ultron Imperative special that was released in late 2001.  Described on the credits page as an “Unused Avengers promotional drawing,” it depicts Avengers members Hawkeye, Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch celebrating American Independence Day.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are immigrants from Europe who came to the United States in search of freedom from intolerance and the opportunity for a new beginning.  So they definitely deserve to be here as symbols of the American Dream.

Avengers July 4th Don Heck

The pencils on this piece are by Don Heck.  A good, solid, often-underrated artist, Heck worked on numerous comic book titles in a career that stretched over four decades, from the 1952 to 1993.  Among his credits were stints penciling Avengers for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.  Yes, that includes the time period when “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” were the headlining members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Heck passed away at the age of 66 in 1995, so this drawing was obviously done a number of years before it was published.  Given the subject matter, perhaps it was left over from the Bicentennial in 1976.

Inking / embellishing this pin-up is the ever-amazing Jerry Ordway.  As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Da Ordster.  Ordway has gone on record with his appreciation for Heck referring to him as “a truly underappreciated artist.”  I expect that he enjoyed having the opportunity to ink this piece in 2001.

The coloring is by Tom Smith, who was the regular colorist on the monthly Avengers series at this time.  He definitely did a very nice, vibrant job on this piece.

Thanks for taking a look!