Female Furies: feminism vs fascism

I recently had the opportunity to pick up the trade paperback collection of the six issue Female Furies miniseries DC Comics published in 2019. Cecil Castellucci’s story re-imagines Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters from a feminist perspective, and reads very much as a response to the Trump administration. Sadly the main aspects of Castellucci’s story are still all-too-relevant, as the blatant sexism & misogyny that Trump helped to once again make socially acceptable still linger on strongly in conservative circles, and the GOP continues its war on women’s rights.

I had never considered Darkseid and his dystopian hellhole of a planet Apokolips to be suffused with toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, the “Fourth World” stories written & drawn by Kirby were highly political, with Richard Nixon serving as one of the main inspirations for the arch-villain Darkseid, a character who was the literal embodiment of fascism, and one of his lieutenants, the propagandist Glorious Godfrey, being directly based on evangelist Billy Graham.

And, whether he specifically intended it or not, when Kirby introduced Big Barda in Mister Miracle #4 (cover date Sept 1971) he was making an advancement in the depiction of women in American superhero comic books. There had certainly been strong, powerful women in comics before, most notably Wonder Woman. Big Barda, however, was among the first occasions when a male superhero’s love interest was shown to be an equal partner, as well as his physical superior. There really had not been a relationship like Scott Free & Big Barda in superhero comics up to that point. And to then reveal there were numerous other powerful women on Apokolips who were Barda’s peers… that was certainly highly unconventional for the early 1970s.

Whatever the case, I think it speaks to the strength & flexibility of the characters & stories that Kirby created fifty years ago that Castellucci can so effectively utilize them to craft a feminist parable that is relevant to 21st century American society.

I would prefer not to describe the plot of Female Furies in detail, as I highly recommend picking up the collected edition, and I do not want to spoil the specifics. In short, the miniseries depicts how Barda and the other Female Furies struggle to gain acceptance by Darkseid and his male lieutenants, all of whom believe women to be naturally inferior to man. The Furies are subjected to discrimination & sexual harassment by the patriarchy of Apokolips in their struggle for equality.

An interesting aspect of the story is how Castellucci demonstrates that a patriarchy often turns women against one another, making them their own worst enemies. When their teammate Aurelie is selected for “special training” with Darkseid’s lieutenant Willik, the other Furies assume that Auralie is sleeping her way to the top. In actuality Willik wants to “train” Auralie so that he can get her alone with him to force her to have sex with him. When Auralie attempts to explain to her sisters what is happening, they accuse her of lying.

The brutal drill sergeant Granny Goodness, the Furies matron, is shown to be politically ambitious, craving to hold the same high rank as Darkseid’s other, male lieutenants. She will do anything to achieve this, including throw her charges to the wolves. When the Furies protest against their treatment by the men of Apokolips, Goodness basically tells them to grin & bear it. She pushes them to succeed in the field so that their successes will reflect well on her, enabling her to amass personal power.

In the end, Barda realizes that the women of Apokolips must work together if they are ever to overcome their oppression:

“Apart? We are held back from our true potential. United? We’re unstoppable.”

I do think the one area where Castellucci’s message falls short is with Heggra, the former Queen of Apokolips, and Darkseid’s mother. Heggra is one of those people who, regardless of gender, comes across at thoroughly rotten & irredeemable. Heggra was the one who ordered the murder of her son’s first wife, the sorceress Suli, solely because Heggra disapproved of their marriage and believed that Suli would make Darkseid too weak and empathetic. If Darkseid is a monster, then it is at least partially due to the machinations of his mother. When the emotionally hardened Darkseid later orders his own mother’s murder, it is difficult not to feel that Heggra has reaped what she has sewn.

I did appreciate that Castellucci gave Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People a central role in the story. Beautiful Dreamer is a character who seldom receives any sort of spotlight or development. I liked how Castellucci showed Dreamer’s telepathic, hallucinogenic powers as playing a part in opening the Furies’ minds, and her faith & kindness demonstrates to them that there is another path for them to walk aside from the cold, totalitarian one of Apokolips.

Castellucci also presents an interesting characterization of Darkseid. Eschewing the terrifying cosmic menace that too many later writers have advanced, Castellucci returns to Kirby’s original conception of the lord of Apokolips. At heart, for all his incredible power, Darkseid is a coward, a miserable & unhappy being, and it is his own fears & insecurities that drive him to try to control & manipulate others.

At times Castellucci’s writing is bluntly unsubtle and her dialogue idiosyncratic. Perhaps on another project this might have been a defect. But the original Kirby stories were frequently operatic and allegorical, his scripting containing a particularly offbeat cadence. So Castellucci’s work here feels rather akin to Kirby’s own.  Perhaps the plot of Female Furies does not hold together as strongly as it could, at time meandering, but it is nevertheless a very passionate story in delivering its message.

The artwork on Female Furies is by Adriana Melo. She is a very talented illustrator & storyteller. Her previous work includes Star Wars, Birds of Prey, Ms. Marvel and Doctor Who. I’ve always appreciated how Melo has rendered female characters. She draws them as beautiful & sexy without ever making them exploitative. As I have observed before, I feel that women often excel at drawing female characters, because they understand the anatomy from firsthand experience, and know how women should stand and move. Melo’s work on this miniseries is very expressive, emotional and dynamic.

I also imagine it is no accident that Willik, a character originally introduced by Kirby, is redesigned in this minsieries by Melo to have a more-than-passing resemblance to the Disgraced Former Occupant.

The lettering is by Sal Cipriano & Carlos M. Manhual, and the coloring by Hi-Fi. The extremely striking cover artwork to the collected edition, originally used for issue #6 of the miniseries, is by line artist Joelle Jones & colorist Laura Allred.

The trade paperback also reprints Mister Miracle #9 (August 1972) by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer. It’s one of Kirby’s strongest Mister Miracle stories, as well as one of the main inspiration for the Female Furies miniseries by Castellucci & Melo. Half a century later Kirby’s work still holds up absolutely, demonstrating what a brilliant & groundbreaking creator he truly was.

I Am Pro-Choice

I have previously blogged about my feelings concerning the controversy surrounding abortion. Perhaps I was too ambivalent in my past statements. So let me state now, unequivocally, the following:

I am pro-choice.

I support the rights of women to have access to abortions. I believe that the decision to have an abortion is something that should be made solely between a woman and her physician. It is not the business of anyone else, especially the government.

Therefore I have been absolutely disgusted by the passage of a draconian, repressive law in Texas that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a law that criminalizes reproductive rights, that empowers private citizens to sue anyone who has assisted a woman in any capacity in obtaining an abortion, and that makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

I am horrified and frightened by this assault on reproductive rights, and I am a man. I can only imagine how the women of this country must now feel.

Why do I support a woman’s right to abortion? This statement by Dave Barnhart from 2018 articulates my reasoning far better than I ever could do so myself…

Republicans who claim to be “pro-life” and who actively seek to outlaw abortions have also done the following:

  • They have cut off women’s access to contraception & family planning services.
  • They have prevented poor pregnant women from obtaining access to affordable prenatal care.
  • They have repeatedly excused the actions of rapists, pedophiles & sexual predators.
  • They have blocked efforts to make it easier for families to earn a living wage.
  • They have attempted to present poverty as a moral failing, and demonized those who struggle to make ends meet.
  • They have spent the last decade attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, even though its repeal would result in millions of Americans losing health insurance.
  • They have opposed the use of mask mandates and vaccines which would prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • They have allowed corporations to pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, resulting in widespread illness & environmental degradation.
  • They have endlessly obstructed any & all efforts at reasonable gun control that would help to curtail the epidemic of mass shootings throughout this country.

Republicans are not “pro-life.” At best they are “pro-fetus,” and they certainly don’t give a damn about a child’s health & life once it is out of the womb.

Make no mistake, the law that Texas passed, and others like it, have NOTHING to do with protecting the lives of unborn children. This is all about controlling women, criminalizing their sexuality, returning them to a 19th Century status of second-class citizens.

And I absolutely guarantee you that all of those male Republican politicians who claim to be so concerned for the welfare of the unborn will make certain that their girlfriends and mistresses who they knock up will have quick & easy access to abortions.

We need to fight back against this terrible injustice. The Woman’s March is organizing protests in all 50 states to be held on October 2nd. I urge everyone who supports reproductive rights to participate, and to contribute to their cause. Thank you.

Star Wars reviews: The Bad Batch part two

The first season of Star Wars: The Bad Batch concluded on Disney+ last week. I previously took a look at the first eight episodes, and here’s my thoughts on the second half of the season.

When we last saw Omega (Michelle Ang) she had been captured by ruthless bounty hunter Cad Bane (Corey Burton) who was acting on behalf of the Kaminoans. I was expecting the rest of the Bad Batch to have to come to Omega’s rescue. Instead, she nearly succeeded in rescuing herself, and then the arrival of Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) did indeed enable Omega to escape, requiring only a last minute assist from the rest of the Batch. Omega is definitely no damsel in distress.

It was surprising to learn that Fennec Shand had actually been hired by Kaminoan scientist Nala Se (Gwendoline Yeo) to protect Omega. Back during The Clone Wars animated series Nala Se had actually been one of the most ruthless of the Kaminoans.  She regarded the Clone Troopers merely as property, and helped the Sith cover up the true purpose of the Clones’ inhibitor chips, thereby indirectly assisting them in wiping out the Jedi with Order 66. So I am curious why Nala Se is now acting so benevolent and trying to save Omega’s life.

The next episode, “Common Ground,” sees the Bad Batch (Dee Bradley Baker) sent to rescue Avi Singh, a former Senator in the Separatist government, from the Empire, who are now occupying his  world. Echo, who was previously a prisoner of the Separatist military and who was experimented on by them, is understandably reluctant to help Singh. However, as was seen in several episodes of The Clone Wars, many of the Separatist’s civilian leaders did genuinely want what was best for their worlds, and just like the Republic’s Senate, were being used & deceived by the Sith. Such is the case with Singh, who is truly despondent at the thought of the Empire enslaving his people.

Singh is voiced by Alexander Siddig, formerly Dr. Julian Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, making him the latest actor to have roles in both franchises. I hope the character will return again in the near future. Perhaps he will become a founding member of the Rebel Alliance?

The next two episodes shifted the focus to a few familiar faces. Hera Syndulla was one of my favorite characters from Star Wars: Rebels, so I really enjoyed seeing a two-part “origin story” for her and her sassy astromech droid Chopper.

I thought Vanessa Marshall did an incredible job portraying a teenage version of the Hera, clearly making it the same character that she previously portrayed in Rebels, but distinct enough that it’s clear this is Hera at a much different time in her life. Marshall is definitely a talented actress. I really appreciated the fast friendship that develops between Hera and Omega, who plays a major role in setting the Twi’lek teenager on the path to eventually becoming an accomplished pilot and an leader in the Rebel Alliance.

I was genuinely surprised to learn that, due to the COVOD-19 pandemic, all of the actors in The Bad Batch recorded their parts separately, and that Marshall had no idea who Omega was or what she sounded like until the two Ryloth episodes were broadcast. Credit to Marshall and Ang for their performances, really making it seem like they were acting opposite one another in the studio, giving the two teenage girls a genuine friendship & chemistry.

By the way, it was interesting to watch these two episodes and then read the novel A New Dawn written by John Jackson Miller, which explores how Hera first encounters Kanan Jarrus. I really appreciate the thought Dave Filoni & Co have given to how Hera develops as a character throughout the years.

What I found really surprising about these episodes is that Hera’s father, the militant Cham Syndulla (Robin Atkin Downes), is shown as initially being willing to give rule by the Empire a chance. After the Clone Wars, he wants peace for his people, and his family. Unfortunately the fascist, duplicitous Empire is completely uninterested in acting in an honorable manner

I like how these episodes also continued to examine the reasons why the Empire chose to replace Clone Troopers with Stormtroopers. On the face of it Clone Troopers were much better soldiers. But as we previously saw in the Umbara and Fives arcs on The Clone Wars, the clones are intelligent beings who are capable of independent thought, of feeling compassion & loyalty, and of disobeying orders that they feel are morally wrong. The Bad Batch has further explored that.

It’s very obviously that without the inhibitor chips the majority of the clones would never have turned on the Jedi, and even with the inhibitor chips functioning we still see Howzer and other clones on Ryloth questioning orders. So from the Empire’s perspective it makes sense that they switch to Stormtroopers, who may be inferior, but who they can just draft wholesale from the populace and indoctrinate to be complete loyal and follow orders without question.

Anyway, props to Dee Bradley Baker for getting so much of Howzer’s internal struggle across vocally. And the animators did an amazing job at the very end when we see Crosshair’s expression, and rather than being gleeful at the idea of finally going after his former comrades, he looks genuinely ambivalent. The animation for the planet Ryloth was also stunning.

The next episode “Infested” was a heist-type episode, with the Batch and their manipulative employer Cid (Rhea Perlman) stealing a shipment of spice in order to pit wannabe crime lord Roland Durand (Tom Taylorson) against the Pyke Syndicate. This one was fun, although it did seemingly come across as unimportant. However, I do wonder if this was a setup for future developments, and if we will see Durand again in a larger role.

This brings us to the final three part story of the season. The Empire accelerates its plans to transition to Stormtroopers, bringing in the clone Gregor to train them. Rex asks the Batch to rescue Gregor, but that leads to Hunter being captured by the Empire. The rest of the Batch now must return to Kamino to save their leader, who is in the custody of their former comrade Crosshair.

The surprising development about Crosshair was his claim that his inhibitor chip was removed some time before (perhaps destroyed in the starship graveyard on Bracca?) and that he’s now acting of his own free will in working for the Empire. Unlike the rest of the Batch, who remain loyal to the principles of the fallen Republic, Crosshair regards himself as a superior being who has an important place within the Empire’s fascist system. The rest of the Batch are despondent at the possibility that their brother is willingly working for the Empire, and that he actually wants them to join him.

There’s a brief interaction between Crosshair and Tech where the later explains that Crosshair has always been like this, and his behavior actually makes perfect sense. It’s one of the very few times Tech has ever been developed at all this season. He remains the most thinly-drawn members of the Batch. I hope that next season he is actually given more material.

The Empire, having seized the Kaminoans’ cloaning technology and forcibly recruited Nala Se, destroys Tipoca City. The finale has the Batch struggling to escape the rapidly-sinking ruins. Truthfully I found this episode to be a bit drawn-out, consisting of an extended action sequence. Nevertheless, it does set the stage for the second season.

There were some criticisms that the first season of The Bad Batch was tonally inconsistent, alternating between light family fare and exceedingly grim, depressing violence. I think that description pretty much sums up the entirety of the Star Wars franchise! After all, in the original movie one minute R2D2 and C3P0 are engaging in their latest round of comedic squabbling, and the next the Death Star blows up Alderaan. Personally I’ve always found Star wars to be at its most effective when it can successfully shift its tone back & forth between comedy and drama.

So what happens next? Well, I guess we’ll have to wait until 2022 to find that out! A few bumps in the road notwithstanding, I did enjoy the first season of The Bad Batch, and I look forward to season two.

Ron Lim vs Rik Levins, or how a teenage Captain America fan experienced his first major disappointment

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 30 years since this happened. It was the Summer of 1991, and I experienced my first significant disappointment as a comic book fan. But first, a little background is necessary…

I’ve been a fan of Captain America from Marvel Comics ever since I read issue #278 and issue #291 when I was a kid. My father got me a one year subscription to the Captain America series in 1985, and I read those issues until they fell to pieces.

Captain America #378 by Ron Lim & Danny Bulanadi, one of the favorite issues of my teenage years

I was 13 years old in 1989 when I finally started reading the Captain America comic book on a monthly basis. This was when my father began taking me to the comic shop every week, so it became much easier to follow the series.

I really liked Kieron Dwyer’s pencils on Captain America. In 1989 Dwyer was still a young, up-and-coming artist, but even then you could see how much talent & potential he possessed.

A year later Dwyer was replaced as the penciler on Captain America by Ron Lim, whose work at the time I actually liked even better. Lim was the artist on the book from January 1990 to June 1991, drawing issues #366, #368 – 378, and #380 – 386. He was paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi on inks. Lim’s penciling on Captain America was absolutely dynamic, and I immediately became a HUGE fan of his work.

Some of the best work by Lim & Bulanadi was on the seven part storyline “Streets of Poison” that ran bi-weekly in the summer of 1990. Written by Mark Gruenwald, it involved the Red Skull challenging the Kingpin for control of New York City’s illegal drug trade, with Cap getting caught in the crossfire. Lim & Bulanadi drew some amazing action sequences as Cap fought against Bullseye and Crossbones.

Cap versus Bullseye from Captain America #374 by Lim & Bulanadi

So I was incredibly disappointed when Lim left Captain America and was replaced by Rik Levins with issue #387, which was cover-dated July 1991. I felt there was an immediate, steep decline in quality, and I was really upset 😭😭😭

(Keep in mind I was a teenager, and we all know how melodramatic they can be about really trivial things!)

Lim’s departure also coincided with long-time Captain America scribe Mark Gruenwald writing 1991’s six part bi-weekly summer storyline “The Superia Stratagem” which involved the female supremacist Superia gathering together an army of super-powered female villains on an island sanctuary and attempting to sterilize the outside world. A number of Cap fans, myself included, feel this storyline was the moment when Gruenwald jumped the shark.

Making this story even more ridiculous was the fact that at one point Cap and his ally Paladin, to infiltrate the island, disguise themselves as women. Yes, really. Yes, it was as ridiculous as you can possibly imagine.

What a drag! That infamous scene from Captain America #391 by Rik Levins & Danny Bulanadi

Now, I honestly don’t know if “The Superia Stratagem” would have been any more readable if Lim had been penciling it instead of Levins. I just feel that Levins didn’t have the strength as an artist to pull off making it work. It’s also worth pointing out that Lim was still penciling the covers for “The Superia Stratagem” and they were actually quite good.

The differences between Ron Lim and Rik Levins always stood out for me when I compared these very similar sequences from Captain America #266 and #297, as seen below. The first is penciled by Lim, and it’s got so much energy, with Cap having this determined look and gritted teeth as he comes swinging into action. The second one is by Levins, and Cap just has this really bland, bored expression on his face, and from his body language it feels like he’s performing a gymnastics routine rather than fighting for his life.

A comparison of Ron Lim and Rik Levins penciling similar action sequences

I hope none of this comes across as disrespectful to Levins. I did eventually develop a certain appreciation for him. I think his work on Captain America improved, beginning with the very bizarre-yet-entertaining “Man & Wolf” storyline (yes, the one that brought us Capwolf, a subject for another time), and his last year & a half on Captain America was quite good.

I also later discovered Levins’ work on Femforce and Dragonfly and other AC Comics titles, and it was so much better. I think Levins’ contributions to AC Comics were much more personal for him (he created several characters and wrote a number of the stories) so there was probably a greater investment in it, whereas Captain America was just a paying gig. (And, yes, Levins’ work for AC Comics is also a subject for another future blog post.)

A definite improvement: Captain America #410 by Levins & Bulanadi

It’s also definitely worth noting that Levins holds the record for drawing the most consecutive issues of Captain America, having penciled #387 to #422, a total of 36 issues. That even beats out Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby, who actually only penciled 24 consecutive issues of the series (#193 to #214 plus Annual #3 and #4, for those keeping track).

Levins passed away in June 2010 at the much too young age of 59. In retrospect, I now consider him to be a very underrated talent, as well as a consummate professional, someone who was able to turn in good, solid work month after month. The closest Levins ever came to missing a deadline was when M.C. Wyman had to pencil the second half of Captain America#414. This in comparison to all of the high-profile “hot” artists were constantly dropping the ball and turning in late work in the early 1990s.

Having said all of that that, I nevertheless have to confess: All these years later I STILL keep hoping that one day Ron Lim will get asked to draw the monthly Captain America series again. He has occasionally returned to the character. Lim penciled the final issue of the “Heroes Reborn” run in 1997, and I can honestly tell you that I was absolutely thrilled when I picked up that issue and found he was the artist. More recently, in 2019 Lim drew the Avengers: Loki Unleashed special written by Roger Stern and, again, I snatched that baby off the shelves. It was so great to see Cap and the rest of the Avengers drawn by Lim once again.

Avengers: Loki Unleashed demonstrated that Ron Lim still draws an amazing Captain America

So if Marvel ever does give the assignment of drawing Captain America or Avengers to Ron Lim, yeah, I would definitely jump onboard to buy those comic books!

I actually met Ron Lim a couple of years ago at East Coast Comicon , and I had the opportunity to tell him that him leaving Captain America was the first time I ever experienced a crushing loss over a creator leaving a series. He explained that intially the plan was just for him to take a short break from Captain America so that he could finish penciling the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries after George Perez had to drop out halfway through. However, Marvel then asked Lim to pencil the follow-ups Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, so he never did have a chance to return to Captain America.

I made sure to let Lim know that as an adult I understood that from a career perspective it made perfect sense for him to move over to a high-profile project such as Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels. I think Lim found my anecdote amusing, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I was such a huge fan of his work.

Wild Thing #1 cover by Ron Lim & Al Milgrom, signed by Lim… yes, I actually enjoyed this series!

Oh, yeah, having finally met Ron Lim at East Coast Comicon, what did I get signed by him? Was it an issue of Captain America or one of the Avengers-related books that he drew? Nope! It was Wild Thing #1. Yeah, I completely forgot to bring any of Lim’s work to the show to get signed, so I picked up Wild Thing #1 from one of the comic dealers. (I bought Wild Thing when it first came out in 1999, but those comics were among the ones that I got rid of when I sold off most of my collection several years ago.) At that point in time I just wanted to have Lim autograph something he drew, since I’m still a huge fan, and nowadays I care much more about creators than characters. I guess that just shows how much my priorities have changed since the Summer of 1991.

It now occurs to me that this is the perfect example of how unique our experiences as fans can be. Most other readers probably didn’t do much more than blink when Lim was replaced by Levins. But for me, I was at just the right age to really connect with the combo of Gruenwald & Lim on my absolutely favorite character, and when Lim then left the book it really felt like the apple cart was turned over, so to speak. I can now understand how it was such an unsettling experience for quite a number of fans ten years before when John Byrne left X-Men, or two decades earlier when Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics entirely. So, yeah, it’s definitely a matter of individual perspective.

Stuart Damon: 1937 to 2021

Actor Stuart Damon passed away on June 29th at the age of 84. I was surprised that not much mention had been made of his death as he was well-known by both fans of British telefantasy and American soap operas. So I thought it worth putting together a short remembrance.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Stuart Damon was born in Brooklyn NY on February 5, 1937. He attended Brandeis University, from which he graduated in 1958. Damon’s career began in 1962 as a theater actor on Broadway, and this led to him being cast in the 1965 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella alongside Lesley Ann Warren. Broadcast on CBS on February 22, 1965, Cinderella was for several decades the highest-rated non-sports special to air on that network, and it provided Damon with a huge career boost.

Damon moved to Britain later that year, and over the next decade he appeared in a number of television and theater productions in the UK. Most notably, Damon co-starred with Alexandra Bastedo and William Gaunt on the spy-fi series The Champions that aired for 30 episodes on ITV between September 1968 and April 1969.

In the pilot episode of The Champions secret agents Craig Stirling (Damon), Sharon Macready (Bastedo) and Richard Barrett (Gaunt) infiltrate a bioweapons laboratory in Communist China. Fleeing by airplane, they crash in the Himalayas, and nearly die, but are rescued by an advanced hidden civilization. The super-science that is used to save the three agents also endows them with a variety of paranormal abilities such as enhanced strength, ultra-fast reflexes and ESP. Returning to Geneva, the three agents use these abilities protect the world from a variety of fascist and terrorist menaces, all the while striving to keep those powers hidden from their superiors.

Although it was filmed on a shoestring budget, The Champions was well-written, and the three leads did a good job carrying the fantastical premise. All these years later it is still well-regarded.

Interviewed in 2011 about his time on the series, Damon stated:

“My character grew because I grew as an actor. I’ve always taken my work very, very seriously. In all the years I’ve been an actor I’ve never worked one day on anything without being excited to be there and determined to do the best job I could. So I was just always trying to improve and to be creative and as imaginative as possible when playing Craig Stirling. Like anything else, the more time you spend acting the better you get at it.”

During his time in the UK Damon also guest-starred twice on the science fiction series Space 1999. In the November 1975 episode “Matter of Life and Death” Damon brielfly appeared as Eagle pilot Parks. Then, in the two-part story “The Bringers of Wonder” broadcast in April 1977 Damon plays Guido Verdeschi, the brother of Moonbase Alpha’s security chief Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt)… although Guido, along with all of the other members of the supposed rescue expedition from Earth, turn out to be blobby one-eyed telepathic radiation-consuming aliens!

After returning to the States in 1977 Damon was cast as Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the soap opera General Hospital. Damon would play the role for 31 years. The morally ambiguous Quatermaine, a kindly, benevolent doctor who in his off-time attempted to murder his wife on several occasions and who did actually succeed in bumping off a couple of other characters, as well as committing sundry other crimes, was very popular with viewers.

Damon finally departed General Hospital in February 2007 when his character was killed off. Damon would later reprise Quartermaine in several episodes, alternately, in a dream sequence, as a ghost, and as a hallucination. (Soap operas are, I think, only slightly less ridiculous than superhero comic books!)

Damon was nominated for a Daytime Emmy on several occasions for his performance as Alan Quartermaine. He finally won the award for Best Supporting Actor in 1999 due to a storyline in which Quartermaine, following surgery, became addicted to painkillers.

I have to confess, offhand I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single episode of General Hospital from start to finish. That said, it strikes me that appearing as a regular on a television series for three decades straight is one heck of an achievement.

Damon himself seemed very fond of the role. In a 2010 interview he explained his approach to playing Quartermaine:

“What I tried to do as an actor is I tried to make the character as complete as possible. I wanted to make sure that this character had an edge, that he wasn’t Mr. Good Guy or Mr. Bad Guy — he wasn’t back or white, he was gray. I wanted to make him someone you didn’t mess with.”

Doctor Who reviews: The Sara Kingdom Trilogy

“There are many sorts of ghosts, Jo. Ghosts from the past, and ghosts from the future.” – the Third Doctor, “Day of the Daleks”

On the Big Finish Audio group on Facebook it was mentioned that actress Jean Marsh turned 87 years old today. Marsh, who was born on 1 July 1934, has had a very lengthy and storied career. Among her many, many roles, she appeared a few times on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Way back in 1965 Marsh appeared in episodes four through twelve of the Doctor Who magnum opus “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by Terry Nation & Dennis Spooner, script edited by Donald Tosh, and directed by Douglas Camfield.  Marsh portrayed Sara Kingdom, an agent of the Space Security Service in the year 4000 AD.  Sara was initially depicted as an icy, ruthless operative who followed orders zealously. When the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen, informed Sara that fellow SSS agent Bret Vyon was a traitor, she believed it.  As far as she was concerned, Chen was her superior, and totally above reproach.  Sara confronted Bret and shot him dead.

Unfortunately, what Sara did not know was that Chen was collaborating with the Daleks and a number of other aliens civilizations in a diabolical scheme to conquer the entire galaxy.  Bret learned of Chen’s treason, and so he had to be eliminated.

Soon after gunning down Bret, Sara tracked down the Doctor and Steven Taylor, ready to dispatch them in a similarly ruthless manner.  Fortunately, the Doctor was able to convince Sara of the truth about Chen and his alliance with the Daleks.  Sara was utterly devastated.  Bret, it turned out, was her brother, and her unquestioning adherence to orders led her to kill him in cold blood.

Determined to thwart Chen, the man who manipulated her and betrayed her trust, Sara joined the Doctor and Steven on the TARDIS as they sought to stop the Daleks’ scheme.

At the conclusion of “The Daleks ’ Master Plan” the Doctor managed to turn the Daleks’ doomsday weapon, the Time Destructor, against them, destroying their invasion force.  Tragically, Sara was caught in the Time Destructor’s field, and rapidly aged to death.

In 2008, over four decades after she had portrayed Sara Kingdom on television, Marsh was given the opportunity to reprise the character in Doctor Who audio stories produced by Big Finish. The spin-off range The Companion Chronicles were adventures narrated by various individuals who had traveled with the Doctor throughout the years. The trilogy of Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System featured Sara Kingdom. The three audio stories were released in November 2008, July 2009 and July 2010.

When author John Peel had novelized “The Daleks’ Master Plan” in 1989  he inserted a six month gap between the events of episodes seven and eight.  Peel liked the character of Sara Kingdom, and he stated that this gap could provide other writers with an opportunity to tell stories of Sara’s travels with the Doctor and Steven.

The events recounted in of Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System are set during that six month period.  But, if Sara is dead, how can she be narrating the stories?  Well, it turns out we are listening to Sara’s ghost… sort of.  Author Simon Guerrier comes up with a very unusual and inventive way to bring Sara back in these this trio of audio adventures.

Marsh is an amazing actress.  It cannot have been easy for her to reprise a role she had played 42 years before.  Especially since of the nine episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” Marsh appeared in only two (episodes five and ten) are still known to exist.  So she definitely did not have much material to reference.  Nevertheless, despite this obstacle, Marsh is positively brilliant in these three audio stories.  She does an amazing job slipping back into the character’s shoes.

As William Hartnell, the actor who portrayed the First Doctor, passed away in 1975, there was obviously no way he could have contributed to these productions.  But Guerrier’s dialogue sounds exactly like what the Doctor would have said.  And Jean Marsh, when speaking the Doctor’s lines, manages to capture the cadence and personality of Hartnell’s speech patterns.

The framing sequences of the trilogy are set on Earth in the far, far distant future, after some unnamed cataclysm has sent humanity back to a primitive technological level.  Robert, who is sort of a cross between a detective and a priest, is sent to investigate Sara’s “ghost.”  It is to Robert that Sara recounts her adventures.  Robert is played by Niall MacGregor.

Home Truths, the first installment of the trilogy, is a very introspective story.  Guerrier really gets into Sara’s head, and we learn a great deal about her.  The grief she feels at having killed her own brother is palpable.  Marsh narration imbues Guerrier’s script with deep, moving emotion.

The setting for Home Truths is a super-advanced computerized house, one that appears to be haunted.  Guerrier effectively uses Clarke’s Law, i.e. any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  He also broaches upon the theme of how our technology advances far faster than our ability to control it or use it wisely.  And he focuses upon how each and every one of us has dark thoughts & urges buried in our unconscious.  Home Truths reminded me a bit of the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, with its “monsters from the id.”

The Drowned World, in contrast, is a more action based story.  The Doctor, Sara, and Steven arrive on an endangered asteroid mining colony.  Sara is really thrust to the forefront, as we see her steely determination that no one else dies on her watch.  Confronted with almost certain death, she refuses to give in, standing her ground and holding off the alien menace until everyone else gets to safety.

The story has a very 1960s feel, reminiscent of the “base under siege” formula utilized a number of times on the show.  Admittedly, the aliens in The Drowned World would probably have been impossible to achieve with Sixties special effects.  But they are good creatures to use in the audio format, where all that’s required is the listener’s imagination.

At the end of The Drowned World, Robert brings his gravely ill daughter to the house, asking Sara’s to use the house’s incredible abilities to cure her.  As The Guardian of the Solar System opens, we learn that Sara has healed the young girl, in return for Robert agreeing to remain in the house for the rest of his life, to keep Sara company.  Now, many years later, after his daughter has grown to adulthood and left the island the house is built upon, Robert requests that Sara finally allow him his freedom.  She agrees, but first wishes to tell him one last story…

While Sara was traveling with the Doctor and Steven, the TARDIS materialized within the bowels of a titanic clock that was warping the fabric of time & space.  Exploring amongst the maze of giant gears and chains, watching a towering pendulum swinging back & forth, they observed a group of tired, stooped old men shuffling amidst the gantries and walkways of the cyclopean clockwork mechanism.  The trio soon discovered that they are back in Earth’s solar system.  Even more pertinent to Sara, she learns that they have arrived approximately one year before the Daleks’ massive plot went into action.  And, on a more personal note, one year before Sara killed her brother.

The TARDIS travelers are arrested by the Space Security Service.  Recognizing Sara as a fellow SSS agent, their captors bring her to a separate interrogation room.  And there Sara comes face to face with her brother, Bret Vyon.  Nearly hysterical at seeing him alive, Sara begins to wonder if it is somehow possible to change history, to alter the events that will occur in the next year, events that will culminate in her shooting her brother down in cold blood.

Sara’s attempts to explain that she has traveled back in time are met by disbelief by Bret.  Between her emotional outburst at seeing him alive again, and Bret knowing that prolonged exposure to the forces within the humongous clock can cause mental disorientation, Bret finds her tale of time travel unbelievable.  Then Sara learns that she has another opportunity to alter history, for an important figure happens to be visiting the clock facility: Mavic Chen himself.  And Sara manages to gain an audience with him.

Coming face to face with Chen, the man she hates most in the world, Sara is forced to keep her calm.  She attempts to steer the conversation in a way that it might influence Chen might act differently in a year’s time.  All the while, she has to carefully sidestep mentioning any information that would indicate to Chen that she is aware of his alliance with the Daleks.  In the process, she learns the terrible secret of the clock, and a possible explanation for what led Chen to collaborate with the Daleks in the first place.

Guerrier once again does a superb job writing Sara.  He puts her through an emotional wringer, having her forced to see Bret alive once more, and then attempting to reason with Chen, a man she knows will very shortly betray Earth.

Likewise, Guerrier captures the character of Mavic Chen perfectly.  Chen is a master politician with a magnetic personality.  He is also incredibly good at reading people and knowing what to say to get them to act as he wishes them to, without them ever realizing they have been manipulated.  He hides his arrogance and ravenous hunger for power beneath a benign concern for the well-being of the solar system.  Even Sara, knowing what Chen’s future actions will bring, finds herself being convinced and won over by his carefully-phrased arguments.

Chen is an interesting, albeit terrifying, figure.  Judging by his role in the The Guardian of the Solar System audio play, what I’ve seen of him in the three episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” that are known to have survived, as well as John Peel’s two volume novelization, Chen is undoubtedly a sociopath.  He is a charismatic and persuasive individual who casually uses and then discards people.  Chen is ready to betray the Earth, and then in turn double-cross the Daleks, so that he can assume total control of the entire galaxy, without a thought given to the countless lives that will be lost due to his machinations.

The original episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” do not delve too deeply into the political climate or structure of Earth’s government in the year 4000.  However, there is a certain quasi-fascist atmosphere present.  We are not told if Mavic Chen was elected Guardian of the Solar System, appointed to the position, or seized power in a coup.  But it is quite clear that he holds tremendous authority, and there are not any apparent political checks & balances against him.  The agents of the Space Security Service possess a “license to kill,” and throughout “The Daleks’ Master Plan” we see them typically shooting first and asking questions later, if at all.  The members of the SSS appear to possess an unquestioning obedience to orders, which is what led Sara to so easily kill her own brother.

When Terry Nation created the Daleks, he used them as a blatant allegory for the Nazis.  It has been suggested over the years by various reviewers that the Earth government Nation presented in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” was also a metaphor for the Third Reich, albeit a much more subtle one, a form of fascism that had successfully hidden itself under the cloak of democracy.  Is it mere coincidence that the SSS is just one letter longer than the common abbreviation of the Nazis’ Schutzstaffel?   More than one commentator has noted that Nation recycled and fleshed out the political atmosphere of this story in his dystopian space opera Blake’s 7, which presented a tyrannical, fascistic “Terran Federation” brutally stamping out liberty and free will.

In The Guardian of the Solar System, Guerrier extrapolates on the seeds planted in “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”  The old men kept tending to the clock are apparently political prisoners or dissidents.  Sara unequivocally states that the SSS have been trained to follow orders to the letter, to not ask any questions.  SSS operations are routinely classified for reasons of security, so that each agent is left in the dark about what missions their fellow operatives have been assigned to.  The organization is run like a well-oiled machine.

In the gargantuan clock, Sara sees a metaphor for herself.  She was just a mere cog in a vastly complicated mechanism, completely unable to alter her destiny.  And when her attempts to alter history fail, that merely reinforces that helpless self-appraisal of her role in the scheme of things. In an anguished cry, Sara hollers “There isn’t any choice!  There’s never any choice!”

Guerrier plays with the possibility of a predestination paradox in The Guardian of the Solar System.  At the end of the audio play, Sara Kingdom is convinced that her attempts to alter history may very well have instead caused those events to take place.  This reinforces Sara’s feelings of being a cog in a machine, bereft of free will, this time not just in Mavic Chen’s government, but in the vast scope of history itself.

However, Guerrier deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether events were preordained.  Both Sara and the listener are kept in the dark as to whether Mavic Chen was already a part of the Dalek conspiracy prior to the events of the story, or if it was Sara’s actions throughout that led him to collaborate with Earth’s enemies.

Once again, as in the previous two parts of this trilogy, Jean Marsh is absolutely incredible as Sara Kingdom.  A thousand years after her mind had been copied into the computer of the mysterious house, Sara is still tortured by her actions, by the massive guilt she feels for unquestioningly following orders and killing her brother.  Unaware that Chen was exterminated by Daleks once his usefulness had run out, and that her original self died thwarting the Dalek invasion, the “ghost” of Sara has been left for a millennium with no closure.  In a way, the original, “real” Sara met with a more merciful fate.  Yes, she died a horrible death when the Time Destructor was activated, but at least now she is at peace.  The copy of her, however, the “spirit” possessing the house has been left for a thousand years with unresolved guild and unanswered questions.  Marsh brings across all of this torment and anguish with palpable emotion in a riveting performance.

Niall MacGregor also does a fine job as Robert.  It is no accident that Robert is a sort of priest, because Sara is quite clearly confessing her sins to him, in search of absolution.  Robert can only try to point out the good that Sara has done during her travels with the Doctor, the lives she has saved.  He regards her as a heroine who has repeatedly been ready to sacrifice herself to save the innocent.

Guerrier ends The Guardian of the Solar System on a striking note.  Sara, who has argued to Robert that she has never had any choice, is finally presented with a clear-cut opportunity to change, to decide her fate.  Restored to corporeal, mortal form by Robert, who has taken her place as “the ghost in the machine” of the house, Sara is now free to choose what she wants to do next.  And, granted this freedom for the first time, she is left undecided.  What happens when someone whose whole life has been mapped out for them is given the gift of choice?

The trilogy was directed by Lisa Bowerman, best known for playing Bernice Summerfield in the Big Finish audio plays.  Bowerman did a superb job, getting riveting performances from Jean Marsh in all three stories.

Each disk included brief behind the scene interviews.  I enjoyed these, as they provided Marsh’s thoughts on reprising the role of Sara.  Interestingly, Marsh indicated she would be open to playing Morgaine from “Battlefield” in an audio story.  Considering the end of that story left her fate up in the air (how exactly does one “lock up” a powerful extra-dimensional sorceress?) there could be potential in having her return in a Big Finish sequel.

In any case, these were very good productions.  I’ve always liked the character of Sara Kingdom, based upon viewing those two episodes from “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and reading the novelization.  It was great to have her appear in new stories.  Sara was so unlike the majority of female companions from the 1960s, who would usually scream their lungs out when confronted by the monster of the week.  She was sort of a futuristic Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, tough as nails and no nonsense, but with a caring, sensitive side buried under her hard exterior.  Sara was very much ahead of her time.

I was glad that Simon Guerrier brought back Sara Kingdom in these three audio plays.  Marsh subsequently portrayed Sara in several other Big Finish releases. I had hoped we might get a story in which the revived Sara would travel the Doctor in one of his later regenerations, as there’s the potential for some poignant drama out of a reunion of the two.  How would the Doctor react to Sara’s return, and how would Sara cope with the knowledge that her original self had died long ago on Kembel?  Would the Doctor be able to grant the absolution that Sara had sought for so long?  The storytelling possibilities are tremendous.

Of course, it’s quite possible that Marsh, now 87 years old, has retired from acting, in which case the likelihood of her returning to the role of Sara Kingdom once again is very remote. But at least we did have the opportunity to hear her perform in several memorable Big Finish productions within the past decade and a half.

Star Wars reviews: The Bad Batch part one

We are now halfway through the first 16 episode season of Star Wars: The Bad Batch on Disney+, which makes this a good time to look at the animated series so far…

A group of experimental and defective clone troopers created by the Kaminoans, the Bad Batch made their debut last year in the seventh and final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  When I first heard these characters were getting their own series I was skeptical. My first impression of them was that they were a set of broadly-drawn stereotypes, i.e. the level-headed leader, the brainy intellectual, the big, angry strong guy, the brooding lone wolf, and the battle-scarred veteran. I really didn’t know if they could carry a series on their own.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how good the premiere episode “Aftermath” actually was. It definitely went in directions that I wasn’t expecting, and left me looking forward to seeing more.

I think the game changer was the introduction of Omega, a young female clone created by the Kaminoans as part of a mysterious experiment. Plucky teen sidekicks can be a tricky feat to pull off, but The Bad Batch succeeds admirably. Omega is just the right mix of clever and innocent. Her presence also pushes the Batch members into unfamiliar territory. Now, instead of a military squad, they are a family, and they have to raise Omega. That really changes the dynamic of the show.

Omega definitely has had a visible impact on Wrecker, the aforementioned big, angry strong guy. Wrecker was previously my least-favorite member of the Batch, but Omega’s presence has really brought out another side of the character. Wrecker is really just a big kid; consequently he and Omega establishing a sibling-like bond which is actually really sweet & funny. I loved the bomb disarming sequence with the two of them at the beginning of this week’s episode.

The Bad Batch has been exploring a number of questions Star Wars fans have had for quite some time: After the Clone Wars ended, what exactly happened to the clone troopers and the droid armies? How did the Republic transform into the Empire? What were the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance? I like that The Bad Batch is exploring these topics, and getting some pretty good stories out of them in the process.

“Cut and Run,” the second episode of The Bad Batch, sees the return of AWOL clone trooper Cut Lawquane, his wife Suu and their children, who previously appeared in The Clone Wars episode “The Deserter.” I was happy to see them again. Cut and his family are actually the perfect characters to appear at this point.

Back in “The Deserter” Cut was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Captain Rex that the clones were only being used, and that it was more important that they find their own purpose, instead of fighting & dying for the Republic. The audience, of course, knew Cut was actually correct, because we knew how the Clone Wars would end in Revenge of the Sith. So it’s nice to return to Cut, to a point where the rest of the characters have realized that he was right, that the clones were nothing more than pawns used by Palpatine / Darth Sidious to eliminate the Jedi.

Additionally, I felt this episode was a good illustration of creeping fascism. It is very rare that people go to sleep in a free democracy and wake up the next day in an absolute dictatorship. Usually the process is much more gradual, some might even say insidiously gradual (yes, deliberate choice of wording there), with liberties slowly being eroded and freedoms surrendered bit by bit.

Here we see the nascent Empire acting in a seemingly-reasonable way to make its citizens feel that, hey, these new “chain codes” are actually a great development and everyone should be happy to have them. Only a handful of people realize that the chain codes are how the Empire is going to keep track of and monitor the entire populace of the galaxy.

“Cut and Run” also did excellent work showing Omega’s first experiences on an alien world, and Hunter having to adjust to being a parental figure rather than a squad leader.

The Bad Batch also brings back Trace and Rafa Martez from the final season of The Clone Wars. While I felt the four episode arc with the Martez sisters on that show was padded out, I nevertheless thought it was a very necessary one, because it showed the Clone Wars from the point of view of the average person on the street, and caused Ahsoka to realize just how badly the Jedi had become disconnected from the people they were supposed to be protecting.

So I’m glad to see the sisters return in episode six, “Decommissioned.” It once again allows for these events, the transformation of the democratic Republic into the fascist Empire, to be seen from the POV of ordinary people.

Some people were writing off “Decommissioned” as “filler.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to write off something as filler because you often don’t know if it’s actually setting up something for a big payoff later. I mean, when I was watching Rebels, I initially thought the space whale episode was just a throw-away story… and then two seasons later we got to the series conclusion, and it became hugely important.

The Bad Batch also returns to the subject of the “inhibitor chips” which caused the clone troopers to carry out Order 66 and execute the Jedi. I know some fans didn’t like the inhibitor chip retcon. However, reiterating what I’ve said before, I think that once The Clone Wars became an ongoing animated series it was an essential change. It enabled Dave Filoni and the other writers to develop the clones into actual three-dimensional characters and still have a plausible reason for why they would then immediately turn on the Jedi the instant Sidious told them “Execute Order 66.”

In the way, the clone troopers were just as much victims as the Jedi were, having their free will stolen from them, forced to betray their oath of loyalty, turning them into murderers. That’s definitely the case here, with Crosshair being the only member of the Batch to have his chip activate, turning him against his friends. Throughout the next several episodes the audience, if not the Batch themselves, were aware that the chips were bombs just waiting to go off, and it was shown that Wrecker’s was bothering him for several episodes, before becoming active in “Battle Scars.”

“Battle Scars” also elaborates on the effect the inhibitor chips have on the clones, first through Rex’ recalling his experiences during Order 66, and then by Wrecker’s chip activating. As they each explain to the other members of the Batch, they were aware that they were being controlled and made to act against their will, but they were completely powerless to do anything about it. That is just horrifying.

Anyway, I’m glad that The Bad Batch got the business of the chips getting removed out of the way in “Battle Scars” because I really don’t know how much more suspense I could have taken, wondering each week if Wrecker or one of the others would get activated and turn on everyone else.

The voice acting on The Bad Batch is impressive. Dee Bradley Baker returns to voice the clone troopers, including all of the members of the Bad Batch. Baker has always done an amazing job at giving the physically-identical clones individual personalities with his performances. He’s definitely upped his game with the members of the Batch, all of whom sounds different from one another. If you didn’t look at the credits you might think they were each of them was being portrayed by a different actor. This video on the Entertainment Weekly website of Baker going through the voices of each of the Batch members really demonstrates his talent.

New Zealand actress Michelle Ang also does a good job voicing Omega. I was surprised to learn that Ang is actually 37 years old. She does a convincing job making Omega sound like a genuine teenager.

Fennec Shand, the highly skilled assassin played by Ming-Na Wen on The Mandalorian, appears in episode four, “Cornered.” Fennec has been hired by someone (the Kaminoans?) to retrieve Omega. Wen returns to voice this younger version of her character. That’s definitely an advantage of animation: it allows you to play a character in live action who is your own age (57 in Wen’s case, although she certainly doesn’t look it) and then voice the same character in stories set three decades earlier.

Likewise, in the debut episode we briefly see young Jedi padawan Caleb Dume, who a decade and a half later, having adopted the alias Kanan Jarrus, is one of the main characters in Rebels. Freddie Prinze Jr. returns to voice Dume, and does a credible job at performing a teenage version of his character.

Andrew Kishino, who voiced the younger version of guerilla fighter Saw Gerrera on The Clone Wars, returns to the role. Here we see Gerrera immediately transitioning from fighting the Separatists to fighting the Empire, as unlike most of the galaxy he is immediately aware that Palpatine has set himself up as a dictator.

Cory Burton once again voices Cad Bane, that incredibly dangerous and ruthless bounty hunter with a fondness for wide-brimmed hats. Seriously, the second this guy showed up in today’s episode I was like “Uh oh!” Burton has stated that he used Peter Lorre’s voice as inspiration of Bane, and it definitely always results in a creepy performance.

The format of The Bad Batch is effective, with each episode being mostly self-contained, yet nevertheless setting up and advancing various different subplots that arc throughout the entire season. The most recent episode, “Reunion,” does end on a cliffhanger, though, with Cad Bane having captured Omega, and the rest of the Batch being pursued by Crosshair and the Empire. And now I have to wait a week to find out what happens next!

Dave Filoni, head writer Jennifer Corbett, supervising director Brad Rau and everyone else involved have done a fine job with these first eight episodes of The Bad Batch. The stories are well written, the characters are engaging, and the quality of the animation is fantastic. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with the second half of the season.

(For some great detailed reviews of the individual episodes of The Bad Bach, I recommend heading over to the blogs Star Wars: My Point of View and Star Wars Thoughts.)

Happy 100th birthday to Lily Renée

Today is the 100th birthday of Golden Age comic book artist Lily Renée, who was born on May 12, 1921.

Lily Renée Wilheim was born in Vienna, Austria to an upper middle class Jewish family. Renée had an interest in art & illustration from an early age, drawing as a hobby and visiting art museums. As she recounted in an interview conducted by Jim Amash in 2008 for Alter Ego from TwoMorrows Publishing:

“I drew clowns, ballerinas, tigers, and scenes that depicted what you would see in theatres. My parents took me to the theatre, where I saw some ballets, and I also went to dance classes. When I was older, I went to the opera twice a year with my school.”

In 1939 the 14 year old Renée was forced to flee Austria a year after the Nazis occupied the country in the Anschluss. Renée was placed by her parents on a Kindertransport (Childern’s Transport) ship which was part of the movement that helped thousands of children escape from Nazi-controlled Europe ahead of World War II. She arrived in Leeds, England, and went to stay with a family in nearby Horseforth whose daughter she had previously been corresponding with.  Unfortunately the family that took her in believed they were getting an unpaid servant. The next year and a half was a difficult period for Renée as she struggled to survive in a foreign country, not knowing if her parents were alive or dead.

Jane Martin in Wings Comics #35 (July 1943)

Finally in 1941 Renée received a letter from her parents explaining that they had escaped to the United States. She hoped to join them, but her efforts were hindered by the British authorities. By now World War II had broken out, and Renée was suspected of being an “enemy alien” due to her possessing an expensive camera that had belonged to her family. She attempted to sneak out of the country, but was caught; however an anonymous stranger intervened and negotiated her release, and she was able to travel to New York City by ship.

Life in New York City in the early 1940s was a struggle for the Wilheim family, who had been left completely bereft. Crammed into a small apartment alongside other refugees, they attempted to make ends meet. Renée took on various artistic odd jobs to help out, such as painting wooden boxes, illustrating catalogs for the Woolworth’s department store, and modeling:

“There was somebody named Jane Turner, a very well-known fashion illustrator, who liked the way I moved, so she asked me to model for her at home in a lovely townhouse. The clothes were sent from the department store, and I was dressed in all these elegant dresses while she would draw me. Then I would go home in my old, outmoded clothes, and that was weird.”

Jane Martin in Wings Comics #35 (November 1943)

Renée’s mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper from comic book publisher Fiction House looking for artists. Renée had no knowledge of or interest in comic books, but she applied for the position in order to help her family. It was low-paying, unglamorous work, and Renée was uncomfortable working alongside the mostly male staff of Fiction House, many of whom would make crude comments to her, but she stuck with it out of necessity.

Despite the fact that Renée understandably saw comic book illustration as a means to an end, a way to pay the bills and put food on the table, she nevertheless produced exceptional, beautiful work during her short career in the field. Her pages were also distinctive for the highly unusual layouts and panel shapes she utilized.

After starting out erasing pencil lines on inked artwork and drawing backgrounds, she began regularly illustrating the adventures of aviatrix Jane Martin beginning with Wings Comics #31 (cover-dated March 1943) from Fiction House. Another of the features Renée worked on was The Werewolf Hunter beginning in Rangers Comics #16 (April 1944):

“Eventually, they tried me out on a feature, which was one that nobody wanted to do: “Werewolf Hunter.” I made it into something else because I didn’t want to draw wolves. I talked to the writer and convinced him it should be about magic, where people change into other creatures, not werewolves. So we did that, and it became quite popular.”

The Werewolf Hunter in Rangers Comics #24 (August 1945)

Starting with Planet Comics #32 (Sept 1944) Renée also began drawing the post-apocalyptic sci-fi / fantasy feature The Lost World.

The character Renée would become most associated with was Senorita Rio, a glamorous Hollywood actress & stuntwoman who, after her fiancé was killed during Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, faked her own death so that she could become a secret agent for the Allied Forces, fighting against the Axis Powers behind enemy lines.

Introduced in Fight Comics #19 (June 1942), Senorita Rio was created by artist Nick Cardy. Renée began drawing the feature with Fight Comics #35 (Dec 1944) and she quickly established herself as the definitive artist at depicting Senorita Rio’s thrilling, exotic adventures combating Nazi spies and fascist agents throughout South America. Renée was the regular artist on the Senorita Rio feature for the next three years.

Senorita Rio in Fight Comics #41 (December 1945)

As she would explain in 2006 when interviewed by Trina Robbins for The Comics Journal, the Senorita Rio feature became a source of escapism for Renée from her difficult existence:

“And I just wanted to say with all these comic strips and also this name Senorita Rio, it’s sort of like a fantasy. Senorita Rio got clothes that I couldn’t have, you know, she had a leopard coat and she wore these high-end shoes and all of this and had adventures and was very daring and beautiful and sexy and glamorous and all of that.”

It was also cathartic for Renée, a beautiful young woman whose existence had been upended by Nazi oppression, to draw the adventures of a character who looked much like herself fighting against the scourge of fascism:

“I could live out a fantasy, if only on paper. It was a form of revenge.”

Due to her signing her work for Fiction House as “L. Renée” or “L.R.” for a number of years it was not known that she was one of the early female artists in the comic book field.

Senorita Rio in Fight Comics #50 (June 1947)

In 1947 Renée married artist Eric Peters, another refugee from Vienna who had fled the country after his political cartoons earned the ire of the Nazis. In 1948 Fiction House relocated outside of New York.  Finding work at St. John Publications, Renée and Peters worked together illustrating several issues of Abbott and Costello Comics. Renée and Peters proved very adept at drawing the comedic misadventures of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Regarding the division of labor between them, Renée explained:

“[Eric] drew the Abbott and Costello characters, and I drew the girls, and did all the inking.”

Renée also drew stories for the various romance titles published by St. John. It was at St. John that Renée began signing her work with her full name.

Renée left comic books in the early 1950s, moving into freelance illustration, textile design and jewelry design, all of which at the time were regarded as much more respectable fields. She wrote two children’s books. After her husband passed away in 1990, Renée began taking classes at Hunter College, which inspired her to write several plays.

Abbott and Costello Comics #6 (February 1949)

Renée’s work in comic books was rediscovered in the early 2000s when one of her granddaughters contacted comic book creator & historian Trina Robbins. In 2007 Renée was a guest at the San Diego Comic Con and was nominated to the Friends of Lulu Hall of Fame. An illustrated biography, Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer, written by Robbins and drawn by Anne Timmons & Mo Oh, was published by Graphic Universe in November 2011.

Renée’s signature character Senorita Rio lives on, having been revived in 1985 by Bill Black of AC Comics to be one of the founding members of the all-female superhero team Femforce. AC has also reprinted a number of the Senorita Rio stories drawn by Renée. Fantagraphics reprinted several stories drawn by Renée in The Comics Journal #279 (Nov 2006).

The comic books published by Fiction House and St. John have entered the public domain and can be read on the Comic Book Plus website. The Grand Comics Database appears to have a fairly comprehensive listing of the stories Lily Renée drew. If you have not seen her beautiful, detailed artwork before then I definitely encourage you to view it online.

Lily Renée is a remarkable woman who showed great fortitude in surviving tremendous hardship during her teenage years. I am glad that she eventually was able to make a new life for herself here in the United States, and that she has lived long enough to see her beautiful comic book artwork be rediscovered to be appreciated by new generations of fans.

An interview with comic book artist Keith Williams

When I first got into comic books in the second half of the 1980s, and continued reading them as a teenager in the 1990s, one of the names I would frequently see in the credits was Keith Williams. He worked on numerous series: Alpha Flight, Transformers, Action Comics, Web of Spider-Man, Quasar, Robocop, Sensational She-Hulk, U.S.Agent, Ravage 2099, The Mask, Star Wars, and so on.

Keith is one of the various comic book creators who I have been fortunate enough to get to know on social media. He has always come across as a genuinely good person. Given Keith’s lengthy career, I felt it would be interesting to speak with him about his work in the medium.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between April and May 2021.

A recent photo of Kieth Williams at a comic book convention

BH: Hello, Mr. Williams. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with the basics. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?

Keith Williams: Thank you for asking, Ben. I was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 16, 1957. My grandma gave me my first comic. It was Batman issue 184. I must have been 9 years old at the time. I always loved comics after that. I enjoyed watching astronauts fly into space, and for a while I wanted to be one.

BH: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan from 1976 to 1980. How did you find that educational experience?

Keith Williams: It was wonderful! The main reason I went SVA was because Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit, was teaching there. My major was in Cartooning and Will brought fun and a lot of knowledge about the art and business sides of comic books. The other classes were fine and rounded out my art experience. I still have great friends that I talk to from my time there.

Sectaurs #6 (May 1986) written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Steve Geiger, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Janet Jackson

BH: I understand you entered the comic book field as a background inker in the early 1980s. How did that come about, and which artists did you assist?

Keith Williams: I knew Howard Perlin from high school, working on school shows together. He introduced me to his father Don Perlin. At the time he was the artist on Ghost Rider. I had shown him my inking samples. He saw that I had potential and took me under his wing. He mentioned my name up at Marvel when they were looking for a background inker for Mike Esposito. I was hired and have been working in comics ever since. Besides Mike Esposito there was Joe Sinnott, Bob Wiacek, Andy Mushinsky, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Vince Colletta, John Byrne, Bob Hall and a few more.

BH: Why did you decide to focus on inking?

Keith Williams: I focused on inking because I learned that I was better at it. I had great people to learn the skills of inking from. Inking became my foot in the door.

Alpha Flight #19 (Feb 1985) written, penciled & figures inked by John Byrne, backgrounds inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Andy Yanchus

BH: At Marvel Comics, you were also the first person to join Romita’s Raiders, the art apprentice program initiated by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and run by art director John Romita. What specific sort of work did you find yourself doing as one of the Raiders? How do you feel it helped you in terms of honing your skills and preparing you for a career as an artist in the comic book industry?

Keith Williams: As a Romita Raider, I, and the other Raiders were art correctors. We would fix storytelling if the panels didn’t flow correctly. If a character was wearing the wrong costume we would correct it. Assist John sometimes in cover design. John Romita was the Art Director at Marvel [and] everything would go through him meaning pages of art and he would assign us to fix things that needed fixing. While we were there as Raiders, we received a master class on how to create a comic.

BH: What was your first credited work in comic books, and how did you get assigned that job?

Keith Williams: My first credited work [was] Sectaurs for Marvel, 1985. I inked over Steve Geiger, another Raider. I think I started on issue 4. Mark Texeira moved on and they needed a new art team. It was a mini-series which ended on issue 7. I got the job because I was lucky enough to be in the office at the time.

Avengers West Coast #53 (Dec 1989) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: In late 1984 you became John Byrne’s background inker beginning with Alpha Flight #19. You provided background inks on several issues of Alpha Flight, and when Byrne moved to Incredible Hulk for his all-too-short run you accompanied him. After Byrne left Marvel for DC Comics where he oversaw the successful post-Crisis revamp of Superman, you were his background inker on Action Comics in 1987. How did you come to do background inking for Byrne? What was the experience like?

Keith Williams: Mark Gruenwald, one of the editors at Marvel, came up to me and asked if I was interested in working with John Byrne on Alpha Flight as a background artist. Of course, I said yes. It was a great experience.

BH:  It’s noteworthy that Byrne saw that you were credited on all of those stories as the background inker, something that at the time was not expected, much less required. Do you find that this helped your career? Certainly as a young reader it was probably the first time I noticed your name.

Keith Williams: John put my name on the cover of the books and my name was right beside his in the credits. I would also get pages from the books we did. No other inker had ever done that for a background artist or would expect that to be done for them. I will always be grateful to him for doing it. He helped my career because of it.

Sensational She-Hulk #33 (Nov 1991) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Jim Novak and colored by Glynis Oliver

BH: Later on you had the opportunity to do full inking over Byrne’s pencils on Avengers West Coast #53 in late 1989 and on several issues of Sensational She-Hulk in 1991. How did you like that experience? As a reader, I felt you did a good job. Looking at that Avengers West Coast, in particular I was very impressed by the detailed, intricate inking you did on the sequence with Immortus in an alternate timeline where Queen Elizabeth I was executed instead of Mary, Queen of Scots. The storyline in She-Hulk where she ends up in the Mole Man’s subterranean kingdom and fights Spragg the Living Hill also had a lot of interesting, detailed work by Byrne. You did a fine job embellishing all those caves and rocky textures.

Keith Williams: Actually, working fully on John’s pencils, scared the daylights out of me. As an artist, you always feel there is still so much to learn. Am I ready? I guess I was. All of the background inking got me ready to do full inks with John and I loved making his lines come to life.

BH: Jumping back a bit, you and penciler Alex Saviuk became the regular art team on Web of Spider-Man with issue #35, cover-dated March 1988. How did you get that assignment, and how did you find it working with Saviuk? You stayed on Web of Spider-Man through issue #85 in early 1992, so I’m guessing it was a good experience. Of course, as you were a freelancer, I’m sure you were also grateful to have a regular monthly assignment.

Keith Williams: Jim Salicrup was the editor on the Spider-Man books at the time. He must have seen my work here and there in the office and tried me out. I worked over Steve Gieger on an issue of Web of Spider-Man and then worked with Alex. I guess he saw something in us working together and we stay together for almost five years.

Web of Spider-Man #35 (Feb 1988) written by Gerry Conway, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: Speaking for myself, I find Saviuk very underrated. I feel he was overshadowed by Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man, which at the time was in the spotlight. I think that was a shame, because you and Saviuk were doing good, solid work month after month on Web.

Keith Williams: Alex is a great artist. I feel he’s up there with Romita in style. It was very enjoyable working with him.

BH: You worked on a wide variety of titles throughout the 1990s, inking a diverse selection of pencilers. I wanted to briefly touch upon the work you did for Dark Horse. You inked Doug Mahnke on The Mask Strikes Back and Bill Hughes on Star Wars: Droids, both of those coming out in 1995. Any particular thoughts on those two jobs? Mannke and Hughes both seem to have detailed penciling styles, so I wondered how you approached inking them.

Keith Williams: Doug Mahnke’s style on The Mask was different than any I‘ve encountered. It was zaniness stuffed into reality. Bill Hughes had more of a cartoon style which fit into the loony situation the Droids were put in. I try to go with the flow of the penciller. With Doug it would be more of a hard edge, using crow quill Hunt 102 pen point nibs. With Bill it more of a softer look. I used a Winsor Newton Series 7 No. 3 brush and a Gillotte 290 flexible pen nib.

The Mask Strikes Back #1 (Feb 1995) written by John Arcudi, penciled by Doug Mahnke, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Lois Buhalis and colored by Gregory Wright

BH: In 1994 you became the regular inker of The Phantom newspaper strip written by Lee Falk, inking George Olesen’s pencils. You were on the strip until 2005, when Olesen retired. Had you previously been a fan of The Phantom? Although it isn’t especially popular here in the States, it has an absolutely huge following in other parts of the world such as Sweden and Australia.

Keith Williams: I wasn’t really a fan of The Phantom. That was because it wasn’t in any of the newspapers in New York. I did learn to like it. The Phantom has a great cast of characters.

BH: I’ve heard working on a daily newspaper strip described as a grueling, endless treadmill run. What did you think of the work? How was it different from monthly comic books?

Keith Williams: I really had no idea what it was like to put out a six day strip every week. There was no time for a real vacation. So, even when I would go away on a trip, the Phantom would be with me. I’m not really complaining, because it was always better to have work than not. It was different than a comic book because, working on dailies, you only had as much as three panels to work on for a strip.

Star Wars: Droids #6 (Oct 1995) written by Jan Strnad, penciled by Bill Hughes, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Steve Dutro and colored by Perry McNamee

BH: Finally, what have you been working on in the last decade and a half? Do you have any new projects coming out soon?

Keith Williams: Actually, I got to work for Marvel again with the help of Ron Frenz in 2019. It was a 10 page story in Thor the Worthy. Other than that, it’s been conventions and commissions for me.

BH: If people are interested in hiring you for commissions, what is the best way to get in touch with you?

Keith Williams: You can DM me on Instagram or Facebook: keithwilliamscomicbookart. You can also email me at keithwilliamscomicbookart@gmail.com.

The Phantom pin-up penciled, inked & colored by Keith Williams

BH: Thank you very much for your time!

Keith Williams: Glad to do it.

Jim Steinman: 1947 to 2021

“I’ve been called over the top. How silly. If you don’t go over the top, you can’t see what’s on the other side.” – Jim Steinman

Acclaimed composer, lyricist, record producer, and playwright Jim Steinman passed away on April 19th. He was 73 years old.

Steinman was known for his epic musical compositions. Some might call them operatic, while others would probably prefer to describe them as melodramatic. Myself, being someone with a fondness for the epic, grand soundscapes, really enjoyed his work.

Steinman’s career began in the late 1960s, but he first gained widespread recognition when he composed Bat Out of Hell, the 1977 debut album of Meat Loaf. Bat Out of Hell became one of the best-selling albums of all time. I have to confess, Bat Out of Hell initially escaped my attention for one very good reason: I was all of one year old when it came out, so I was obviously a bit too young to be able to appreciate Steinman’s lyrics & compositions and Meat Loaf’s vocals.

However, by the time their long-awaited follow-up, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell was released in September 1993, I was absolutely the perfect age to listen. This was right at the beginning of my senior year in high school, and “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was being blasted across the airwaves. Meat Loaf belted out these incredible, soulful vocals. The duet at the end between Meat Loaf and Lorraine Crosby aka “Mrs. Loud” topped off the dramatic, atmospheric ballad.

The epic music video for “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” directed by Michael Bay, with its eerie, Gothic romance imagery, was in heavy rotation on MTV in late 1993. Yes, kids, this was back in the bygone days when MTV actually played music videos!

I bought Bat Out of Hell II soon after it came out, and I totally played that album to death! Seriously, it was one of those albums I would listen to from start to finish, not skipping any tracks. Steinman and Meat Loaf really seemed to catch lightning in a bottle with this one, with nary a dud on the track list. Even track 7, “Wasted Youth,” a bizarre monologue spoken by Steinman himself, was weirdly entertaining.

Steinman also worked with Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, and The Sisters of Mercy, writing some incredibly stirring songs for those artists. Many of those songs became huge hits.

Growing up in the 1980s, the Bonnie Tyler song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983) was a regular presence on “light FM” radio stations. I always liked it, although it wasn’t until a decade later that I learned Steinman had written & produced it. Of course, as soon as I found out, I could immediately see his lyrical and acoustical signatures all over it. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was later covered as an electronic dance track by Nicki French in 1995, again becoming a hit.

The power ballad “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was written by Steinman in 1986. Inspired by the Gothic romance novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was first recorded in 1989 by Pandora’s Box, a female group assembled by Steinman in the late 1980s. Elaine Caswell provided the lead vocals.

The video for “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Russell.  Steinman wrote the script for the video, and he drew inspiration from Russell’s own recent work on the “Nessun Dorma” segment from the 1987 compilation opera movie Aria. Russell’s video for “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” could be described as an apocalyptic S&M orgy, with leather-clad demons and angels fighting over the soul of a woman (portrayed by Caswell) who hovers between life and death after a fiery motorcycle crash in a graveyard.

“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was covered by Celine Dion on her 1996 album Falling Into You, with Steinman once again producing the track. Dion’s version became a worldwide hit. Andrew Lloyd Weber reportedly told Steinman that he thought it was “the greatest love song ever written.”

The video for Dion’s cover of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was directed by Nigel Dick. It was much more in the line of traditional Gothic romance than the Pandora’s Box version had been, but it was certainly no less grandiose. Set in a sprawling mansion, the music video was shot on location in the 200 year old Ploskovice summer palace of the Austrian Emperors, and at Barandov Studios in Prague, Czech Republic.

“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was later covered again in 2006. This time it was performed as a duet by Meat Loaf and Marion Raven. The producer on this version was Desmond Child rather than Steinman.

Steinman later wrote Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which featured a number of his iconic compositions. The show opened in February 2017 at the Manchester Opera House. It subsequently was staged in London, Toronto and New York City. Tours in the United States, Australia and the UK were planned, but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jim Steinman career has been described as “wholly unique” by Rolling Stone. He leaves behind a rich musical legacy of incredibly dramatic, iconic songs.