Mighty Man flies again!

On more than one occasion I’ve commented that it’s really unfortunate that Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen isn’t a much better seller. There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that Larsen’s creator-owned series, which has been published for 25 years now by Image Comics, is a damn fine read. The second is that Larsen, within the pages of Savage Dragon, has created an enormous supporting cast made up of dozens and dozens of really interesting characters. Due to Savage Dragon not ever really being a massive hit, Larsen has only had a few opportunities to feature any of those great characters in spin-off titles.

It’s been quite a few years, but at long last we’ve finally gotten a new Savage Dragon spin-off: the Mighty Man special which came out earlier this month. It’s written by Larsen, drawn & colored by Nikos Koutsis, and lettered by Ferran Delgado.

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Mighty Man is Larsen’s homage to the original Captain Marvel created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck in 1939.  An artificial entity created by the mysterious mystic Fon-Ti, the Mighty Man form has passed from one human host to another for centuries.  Throughout much of the 20th Century it was possessed by Bobby Berman.  Eventually the now-elderly Berman was attacked by muggers while in his regular human form.  Dying, he transferred the Might Man entity to Ann Stevens, a nurse in Chicago.  For several years she fought alongside Dragon and the other super-powered defenders of the Windy City.  Then, in a twist no one saw coming, when Ann became pregnant the Mighty Man entity was somehow passed onto her unborn child Elizabeth.

This current Mighty Man made her debut in Savage Dragon #170 (March 2011). You can just imagine the chaos and confusion that occurred when a one year old baby suddenly found herself transformed into an invulnerable super-powered adult.

In the Mighty Man special, Betty is now seven years old. Realizing that her daughter is going to possess these powers for life, Ann has agreed to let her be trained by veteran crime-fighter SuperPatriot, who previously worked with the last two incarnations of Mighty Man.  Also pitching in to help are several of SuperPatriot’s teammates from the government team Special Operations Strikeforce.

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Larsen’s story and dialogue for the Mighty Man special are definitely comedic. He wrote a very fun, lighthearted story, which is appropriate, since I don’t think it’d be too enjoyable to see a pre-teen hero go all grim & gritty.  That’s one of the things I really appreciate about Larsen, he is a versatile creator.

This special is actually something of an informal Freak Force reunion. In addition to SuperPatriot, there are appearances by Ricochet, Barbaric and Horridus.  Freak Force was a fun Savage Dragon spin-off series which ran for 18 issues in the mid-1990s, and it’s always a joy to see those characters get back together.  Also appearing in this special are Malcolm Dragon, as well as Marsha Bradley, a teenager with electrical powers who is Malcolm’s kinda sorta half-sister (long story, don’t ask) who Larsen introduced just a few weeks earlier in Savage Dragon #222.

I’ve been curious what Larsen was going to do with all of his character who joined the SOS now that Trump has gotten into the Oval Office. I really couldn’t see SuperPatriot, who fought the Nazis during World War II, being all that thrilled with having to work for a guy who’s chummy with later-day National Socialists.  Indeed, when we see SuperPatriot on a mission with the SOS in this story, he’s exasperatedly venting to them “Christ, it makes me sick! Taking order from President Trump — How did it ever come to this?”

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This is a cool tie-in story that fans of Savage Dragon will enjoy, as is provides Larsen with the space to do some more character development for his supporting cast than he is usually able, to explore some story threads from that series, and set up a subplot or two for the future. At the same time, the Mighty Man special also works very well as a stand-alone story, and casual readers will enjoy it.

My only complaint is that the ending of the special is very abrupt. It really needed at least another page to properly wrap things up.

Nikos Koutsis is the regular colorist for Savage Dragon, and he’s also drawn a few back-up stories for the series. I enjoyed seeing him have an opportunity to draw a full-length issue.  Koutsis’ artwork is both cartoony and highly-detailed, which works very well for these characters.  His layouts are very dynamic.

I definitely enjoyed this Mighty Man special. It was a lot of fun.  I really hope that Erik Larsen has further opportunities to publish more Savage Dragon spin-offs in the near future.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

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Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

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One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

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Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

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I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Comic book reviews: Midnight of the Soul

One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin.  I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing.  So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul.  Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.

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Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950.  The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran.  Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD.  During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold.  All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock.  His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him.  Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve.  In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.

Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles.  Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan.  Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.

Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley.  Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping.  She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer.  Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.

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Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone.  The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole.  And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable.  Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.

On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels.  Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels.  Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives.  Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her.  Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.

As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel.  Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before.  Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.

Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot.  Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.

Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing.  Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.

Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor.  At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.

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Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society.  He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras.  Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.

Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork.  The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life.  That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.

Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling.  He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative.  As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill.  Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next.  There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork.  He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful, sexy women.  Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!Black Kiss and Satellite Sam.  Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.

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The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov.  He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone.  Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.

Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now.  Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist.  I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul.  His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Miguel Ferrer: 1955 to 2017

I was sorry to hear that actor Miguel Ferrer and passed away on January 19th at the much too young age of 61.

Born on February 7, 1955, Miguel Ferrer was the son of actor / director Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney.  Ferrer’s original aspiration was to work as a musician, but in 1975 his friend Bill Mumy offered him a part in an episode of the TV series Sunshine.  Ferrer caught the acting bug, and remained in the profession for the rest of his life.

One of Ferrer’s early roles was a 1981 episode of Magnum P.I.  Ferrer played, in a flashback, a young Navy ensign stationed in Hawaii shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with his father Jose Ferrer then playing the same character in the present day. I always thought that was such a wonderful casting decision.

The role that really put Ferrer on the map was playing sleazy corporate executive Bob Morton in the dystopian sci-fi movie Robocop (1987).  In interviews, Ferrer always acknowledged that he was grateful to that movie for really getting him noticed, enabling him to subsequently have a successful career as an actor.

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Ferrer was often cast as villainous or quirky characters.  He was seldom seen in starring roles, but he worked regularly, a ubiquitous presence in both movies and television for three decades.  Notably, in the early 1990s Ferrer portrayed cynical FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld in David Lynch’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and he also appeared in the 1994 TV miniseries adapting the Stephen King novel The Stand.

From 2001 to 2007 Ferrer appeared on Crossing Jordan, playing Dr. Garret Macy, the mentor and boss to loose cannon Medical Examiner Jordan Cavanaugh, portrayed by Jill Hennessey.  Crossing Jordan was a series that I watched regularly, and I loved the chemistry between Ferrer and Hennessy.  Macy was something of a brooding, low-key figure who had the unenviable task of reigning in and covering for the headstrong, anti-authoritarian Jordan.   Macy, a divorcee and recovering alcoholic with a teenage daughter, had a lot of baggage, and Ferrer brought the character to life in a very affecting performance.

Interviewed in 2009 by the A.V. Club, Ferrer had positive memories of working on Crossing Jordan:

“It was great. I loved that. Six years on the same show, working on the same lot. Got to go home and see my kids every night. They weren’t always awake, but I saw them. I loved that there were no out-of-control egos on the set. I loved working with the same people for six years. You develop a sure hand, and you learn how one works and likes to work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had a ball.”

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Ferrer, along with longtime friend Bill Mumy, was a science fiction and superhero fan.  The two of them collaborated on a few comic book projects in the late 1980s.  They co-wrote the six issue miniseries Comet Man, published by Marvel Comics in 1987.  A dark, bizarre blending of superheroes, sci-fi, and horror, Comet Man was eerily illustrated by future superstar Batman artist Kelley Jones, inked by Gerry Talaoc, and featured striking covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Ferrer, Mumy and Jones re-teamed in 1990 to wrap up the Comet Man storyline in a four part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  A decade later writer Peter David, who was friends with Ferrer and Mumy, used Comet Man during his acclaimed run on Captain Marvel.

Paired with talented artist Steve Leialoha, Ferrer and Mumy created the very odd superhero parody Trypto the Acid Dog, which debuted in a 1988 comic published by Renegade Press.  Additional Trypto stories by Ferrer, Mumy & Leialoha came out in the 1990s via Atomeka Press and Dark Horse.  Recently commenting on their collaboration, Leialoha revealed that the visual for Trypto was based on Ferrer’s own dog Davey.

Given how wonderfully bizarre Ferrer’s comic book work was, I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame that he didn’t write more.  Of course, this was around the time when his acting career was really taking off, so I certainly understand why he chose to focus on that.

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Some of Ferrer’s roles were actually comic book related.  He played Vice President Rodriguez in Iron Man 3 (2013).  Miguel also did a great deal of voiceover work, much of it for animated series based on comic books.  Among the shows he voice-acted on were Superman: The Animated Series, The Batman, The Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice, the latter of which had him in the recurring role of immortal conqueror Vandal Savage.  One of Ferrer’s last roles was voicing Deathstroke in the direct-to-DVD animated adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.

In addition to being a talented actor and writer, Ferrer had a reputation for being a genuinely nice guy.  In interviews he always came across as down-to-earth and laid back.  In recent days Bill Mumy, Kelly Jones, Steve Leialoha and Peter David have all reflected on his passing; each of them described him as a good friend possessed of a wonderful sense of humor.  It sounds like Ferrer will be very much missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Star Wars reviews: Rogue One

The new Star Wars movie Rogue One was enjoyable. While I liked The Force Awakens, I nevertheless felt that Disney played it very safe with their first installment since acquiring the franchise.  Rogue One, in contrast, does attempt to stretch out in different directions.

Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire. Despite the fact that it is set immediately before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, Rogue One successfully expands what previously felt like well-explored territory.

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1) Rogues Gallery

The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a woman in her early twenties who has spent most of her life on the run from the Empire. When she was only a child Jyn’s mother was killed, and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hauled off to work on the construction of the Death Star by the ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsen).  Jyn is recruited at gunpoint by the Rebel Alliance, which hopes she can lead them to her father.  Grim, brooding Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, the sarcastic K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are assigned to accompany Jyn in tracking down Galen.

2) Darkness Falls

Rogue One has been described as the darkest entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think some people are overlooking Revenge of the Sith, which was hardly a laugh-fest, the point is that Rogue One is a very gritty movie by the standards of the franchise.

Whereas the original trilogy focused on the main figures of the Rebel Alliance, this is the story of the men and women fighting in the trenches against the Empire. Yes, they are motivated by the idealism of the Alliance, but after long years of conflict they are also driven by ruthless pragmatism.

When we are introduced to Cassian Andor, he is meeting with an informant, who tells him of a defecting Imperial pilot in possession of a message from Galen Erso. Unfortunately Andor and his informant are discovered by Stormtroopers.  To prevent the Empire from learning about the existence of the defector, Cassian, showing little hesitation, shoots his informant in the back and flees.

As ruthless as Cassian can be, he is positively tame compared to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a militant member of the Rebel Alliance. Having spent nearly two decades fighting against the Empire, Gerrera is scarred, physically and mentally, consumed by paranoia.  His followers utilize guerilla tactics, launching attacks against Imperial forces in heavily populated areas.

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3) Parallel Lives

Jyn Erso is, in a way, a reflection of Luke Skywalker. In the opening scene Jyn and her parents living on an isolated farm, in hiding from the Empire.  There are definite similarities between this and how we first met Luke in A New Hope.  We even see Jyn’s mother with a glass of blue milk!

Luke, of course, was bored by the uneventful life of a farmer, and yearned for adventure. He couldn’t wait to leave and explore the galaxy.  Jyn, in contrast, spent a decade and a half scrambling about the galaxy, afraid and alone.  Instead of craving excitement, she yearns for safety and normality.  Having seen her mother gunned down by Stormtroopers and her father dragged off in chains, she would no doubt give anything to regain the quiet life on the farm she once shared with her parents.

4) Old Friends

It was nice to see a few familiar faces in Rogue One. Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, a role he originated in the prequels.  Genevieve O’Reilly once again portrays Mon Mothma.  Nearly all of her scenes from Revenge of the Sith ended up on the cutting room floor (although they later appeared as extras on the DVD) so I’m glad she got some actual screen time here.  C3PO pops up long enough to utter one of his characteristic complaints.  Darth Vader also appears, once again voiced by James Earl Jones.  Via unused footage from the first Star Wars movie, Rebel pilots Red Leader and Gold Leader both participate in the Battle of Scarif.

Saw Gerrera is actually a character who originated in the Clone Wars animated series, and Forest Whitaker is set to voice him in upcoming episodes of the Rebels series, which is set a few years before this movie. Speaking of Rebels, there is also a brief glimpse of grumpy astromech droid Chopper, and The Ghost is part of the Alliance fleet.

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5) Let’s Get Digital

A contentious element for some fans was the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin via digital effects. I felt that this started off quite effectively, but the more scenes that Tarkin appeared in, the more artificial he appeared.  It is understandable that Tarkin, who was originally played by Peter Cushing, had to be included in Rogue One in some capacity.  His omission would have been rather glaring, given his position as the commander of the Death Star.  Perhaps it would have been better to have used him in less scenes, or in a couple of instances have him communicate with his subordinates via hologram transmission.

I have heard, however, that casual viewers, people who were not huge Star Wars fans and who hadn’t seen the original movie in a number of years, did not realize that Tarkin was a digital effect. That makes sense.  If you go in knowing that Peter Cushing passed away back in 1994, of course you’re going to focus on how realistic Tarkin appears in Rogue One.  But if you don’t really remember the character from the first movie, you’re probably not going to pay as close attention.

In the final seconds of Rogue One we also see Princess Leia, looking as she appeared in A New Hope, via a digital recreation of a young Carrie Fisher. It is such a brief shot that the movie just about pulls it off.

6) Less Is More

Darth Vader is one of those characters who I have often felt is best used sparingly. He is such an iconic figure that overexposure both decreases his menace and results in fuel for parody.  I think it was a mistake for Marvel to publish an ongoing monthly Darth Vader comic book series.

Vader has two short scenes in Rogue One, and as result has much more of an impact. He first appears about halfway through the movie, with Krennic showing up at the Sith’s fortress to voice his anger at his authority being usurped by Tarkin.   An impatient Vader abruptly dismisses Krennic’s complaints, sending him on his way.

We don’t see Vader again until the very end of the movie. The Rebel fleet has received the Death Star plans and are about to retreat from Scarif when Vader’s star destroyer abruptly emerges from hyperspace, attacking them.  Boarding the Alliance flagship, Vader attempts to retrieve the plans, brutally cutting his way through the Rebel soldiers.  He is a terrifying, seemingly-unstoppable figure.  It was the first time since I was a little kid that I found Vader to be genuinely scary.

(I think I was actually muttering “Oh shit!” under my breath when I was watching that scene.)

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7) Plugging A (Plot) Hole

Unlike some Star Wars fans, I never really saw the Empire seemingly overlooking the exhaust port in the Death Star as a glaring plot hole.  It’s very obvious from the final battle in the original movie that the exhaust port is heavily defended, and scoring a direct hit on it is nearly-impossible.

Nevertheless, over the years various people have complained “How can the Empire have missed such a huge vulnerability in their giant planet-destroying weapon?!?” Rogue One provides an answer.  Galen Erso realized that whether or not he assisted the Empire in building the Death Star, sooner or later they would find someone who could get the battle station to function properly.  So he pretended to be browbeaten into submission by Krennic and went to work on the Death Star, which enabled him to sneak a weakness into it: the exhaust port.  Not only is this a nice explanation, it also adds an extra dimension to Galen, revealing that he never completely gave up defying the Empire, that he saw his forced servitude as an opportunity to subvert them from within.

8) This Issue: Everyone Dies!

Going in to Rogue One, I was half-expecting that most, if not all, of the new characters would die. After all, none of them were ever seen or even referred to in the original trilogy.  On the other hand, there was a part of me that really didn’t think that Disney would pull the trigger, and at least a few of the Rogues would escape to fight another day.

But, no, they all die. No cheats, no last-minute reprieves, no cop-outs.  Jyn, Andor, and everyone else die in the Battle of Scarif, all of them sacrificing their lives to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance fleet.

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9) Nail-Biting Suspense

You might think that a movie with such a foregone conclusion would be a bit dull. Of course the Rebels are going to steal the Death Star plans; anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that!

Rogue One, however, is so well done that I nevertheless found myself constantly on the edge of my seat. Gareth Edwards does an amazing job directing the movie, making it an exciting, riveting experience.

10) Be Careful Not To Choke On Your Aspirations

There are times when Rogue One’s reach exceeds its grasp. During the first 15 minutes the narrative jumps all over the place, switching between different characters on different planets, leaving me somewhat confused.

Several of the characters also felt underdeveloped. Saw Gerrera feels like he’s being built up to have a major role, only to suddenly get killed off halfway through the movie.  We aren’t given any real insight into why Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook has decided to defect to the Rebellion, other than he was somehow inspired by Galen.  Two of the Rogues, Chirrut Imue and Baze Malbuus are interesting characters, but we get very little background on them.

Jyn could also have used more development. She spends the first half of the movie very reluctantly working with the Rebels, but in the second half she has suddenly become the loudest voice in attempting to galvanize the Alliance to fight against the Empire.  Yes, Jyn has seen the Death Star in operation up-close, and she also doesn’t want her father to have died in vain.  But it still feels like a rather abrupt jump from one position to the other.  The movie could have done a slightly better job at explaining how she came to change her mind.

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11) A House Divided Against Itself

There has been some debate the last month over whether or not Rogue One is a political movie. I think that all great art (and even some mediocre art) can have a message, even if it might not have specifically been intended by the creators.  If there is a political lesson to be gleamed from Rogue One, one that can be applied to our real world, then perhaps it is this…

The Rebel Alliance that we see in this movie is a very diverse group, made up of cultures and species from numerous worlds. Unfortunately that means they have varying viewpoints and agendas, and as a result are often working at cross-purposes.  They all seek the same ends, stopping the Empire, but they disagree on the means.

Mon Mothma is hoping for a political solution to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire; she wants Cassian and Jyn to rescue Galen so that he can provide testimony about the Death Star to the Imperial Senate. That mission is immediately, and secretly, countermanded by General Draven, who pulls Cassian aside and orders him to assassinate Galen.  Other members of the Alliance, learning of the Death Star, are ready to capitulate, believing that they have no hope of winning.  And then there is Saw Gerrera, who is labeled an “extremist” by the rest of the Alliance, a man who dismisses his former colleagues as too moderate and ineffectual.

On the other side is the Galactic Empire. In spite of the individual ambitions of men like Tarkin and Krennic, the jockeying for influence, in the end they all share the same goal: the subjugation of the galaxy through force and terror.  Whatever their individual aspirations, they are nevertheless ready to work with colleagues who they may dislike for the promise of great power.  The members of the Empire are unified in their ambitions for control over others and their willingness to embrace utter ruthlessness.

It does not matter how noble the Rebels may be, how lofty their goals are.  Until the various factions that make up the Alliance set aside their differences, resisting calls for ideological purity, they remain unable to fight the monolithic Empire. It is only at the end, when the Rebels are unified on a common course of action, working together to achieve their goals, that they are finally able to become an effective opposition against the Empire’s tyranny.

Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

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The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

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The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who just happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith a central aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

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The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

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Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

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I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.

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.