Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman

Andy Mangels is quite possibly the world’s biggest Wonder Woman fan.  He is also a prolific author, having written prose fiction, non-fiction articles & books, and comic books for numerous publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image.  However, until now Mangels has never actually written any Wonder Woman stories.  At long last he can finally cross that off his bucket list with the publication of Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, a six issue miniseries co-published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics.

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The second half of the 1970s was a bit of a watershed moment for women in telefantasy, with two high profile series featuring female leads airing.  Wonder Woman starring the amazing Lynda Carter is rightfully regarded as one of the all time best adaptations of a comic book series for television.  The Bionic Woman may have been a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, but Jaime Sommers, portrayed by Lindsay Wagner, immediately established herself to be as brave and competent as her male counterpart.

Over the past two years DC has been publishing Wonder Woman ’77, which is set within the television continuity.  Dynamite, meanwhile, has released several Bionic Woman miniseries since 2012.  In retrospect, it was a natural fit to do a comic book series teaming up these two television heroines.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, initially issued as a six issue miniseries, is now collected in trade paperback.  Joining writer Andy Mangels are interior artist Judit Tondora, colorist Roland Pilcz, letterers Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis & Kathryn S. Renta, and cover artist Cat Staggs.  The collected edition features a painted cover by the ever-amazing Alex Ross.

Set in 1977, Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman opens with the government agencies the Inter-Agency Defense Command and the Office of Scientific Intelligence meeting to discuss a new terrorist threat, a sinister cabal known as Castra.  Of course, with the IADC and OSI working together, their two top agents, Diana Prince and Jaime Sommers, are soon paired up.  Jaime very quickly deduces Diana’s secret identity, and before long Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman are fighting side-by-side against the forces of Castra.

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It is eventually revealed that Castra is headed up by some of Diana and Jaime’s old enemies, who have pooled their resources to have another go at the world domination thing.  It’s been a few years since I watched the Wonder Woman show on DVD, and even longer since I saw reruns of The Bionic Woman on TV, so at first I was having some trouble recalling most of the rogues gallery making up Castra’s hierarchy.  Fortunately in issue #3 Mangels has the various ne’er-do-wells recounting their past exploits to one another, complete with footnotes referencing the original television episodes, which helped bring me up to speed.

Mangels clearly possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Wonder Woman.  He includes a great many references to the TV show, as well as working in nods to various characters & concepts from the rich mythology of the comic books.  He does the same for the Bionic Woman, somewhat obliquely referencing a number of episodes from the series.  You can pretty much understand the majority of Mangels’ story without needing to know what he’s specifically referencing.  Having said that, while I was reading went back & forth between Google and Wikipedia in an effort to figure out a number of them.  I later found out that Comic Book Resources had compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the miniseries’ Easter Eggs.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman is an enjoyable story.  I will admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first two chapters, which felt overly heavy with exposition, and numerous different characters were introduced at a rapid succession.  Beginning with issue #3, though, Mangels seems to have found his groove, and the rest of the miniseries a really fun, exciting romp.

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One of the things to keep in mind about genre television 40 years ago is that the technology really didn’t exist to be able to bring super-powered villains to life with any believability.  Instead both Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman faced a succession of Nazis, mad scientists, killer robots, spies, terrorists and mobsters, along with the occasional low-rent alien invasion.

Mangels sticks with this relatively grounded ethos for the Castra conspiracy in Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, albeit with the approach that he’s not bound by a television budget.  Instead of half a dozen thugs or a handful of android assassins, Mangels has Diana and Jaime teaming up with the Amazons of Paradise Island to fight an entire army of bad guys.

I also appreciated the quieter character moments in the miniseries.  Mangels did a nice job establishing the friendship between Diana and Jaime, as well as developing a number of the inhabitants of Paradise Island.  We seldom saw the Amazons on the TV series, so it was nice to have them get fleshed out here.  This is where I felt the callbacks to past episodes were most effective, because they helped to illustrate Diana’s passionate beliefs in both sisterhood and the possibility of redemption.

Additionally, I was happy that Max the Bionic Dog made an appearance.  I loved Max on TV.  He was adorable and funny.  I would always laugh when he would use his bionically-enhanced jaws to bite through chains and other stuff, complete with the iconic “Deeneeneeneenee” sound effect.  I tell ya, with that set of chompers, the OSI must have needed to give Max steel-plated bones to gnaw on!

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The artwork by Judit Tondora is, for the most part, very nicely rendered.  She does a good job laying out the action sequences, as well as depicting the quiet conversational moments.  There is a real beautiful quality to Tondora’s work on this miniseries.

I imagine one of the more difficult aspects of drawing Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman would have been the likenesses.  These can be tricky.  Sometimes when an artist is working on a licensed property, the trick is not to draw a point-on photorealistic rendering of the actors, but to instead capture the personalities of their characters.  Of course, depending upon the owner of the property, the artist may be required to draw as photorealistic a depiction as possible, which isn’t always the best way to go.  Tondora clearly had her work cut out for her, since practically every character in this miniseries previously appeared on television.

The quality of Tondora’s likenesses on this miniseries is of a somewhat variable quality.  The two best depictions she does are of Lynda Carter as Diana and Lindsay Wagner as Jaime, which is very fortunate, since they are the main characters.

I felt that perhaps some of Tondora’s efforts on the supporting characters and villains were a bit less effective.  While she does a fair enough job at capturing the likenesses of Lyle Waggoner, Richard Anderson, Martin E. Brooks, Fritz William Weaver and John Saxon, the amount of detailed required to render them and the others in panel after panel often causes them to stand out a bit awkwardly amidst the action.  I am of the opinion that photorealistic depictions are sometimes more suited to cover artwork than interior sequential illustration.  I suppose it really depends upon the specific artist.

Really, my only major criticism of the artwork is that it was printed from Tondora’s uninked pencils.  This is a regular issue I have with Dynamite, as well as a few other publishers.  Some artists, no matter how detailed & finished their pencils are, really do need to be inked.  Unfortunately publishers who are looking to cut costs have opted to jettison the inking stage, often to the detriment of their published books.  As good as Tondora’s work is on this miniseries, I feel it could have been even better if she or a compatible artist had been allowed to ink it.

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The cover artwork by Cat Staggs was quite good.  My two favorites were issue #1 and #6.  The others were nice, although I the coloring on them was somewhat overwhelming.  Sometimes I feel Staggs’ artwork is more suited to black & white or grey tones than full color.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, like most other Dynamite series, was released with a number of variant covers.  The nice thing about “waiting for the trade” is that you get all of those variants collected together.  In addition to the Alex Ross variant which is used for the TPB cover, there are also some nice alterative cover images by Andrew Pepoy, J Bone, Aaron Lopresti, Bill Sienkiewicz and Phil Jimenez.

While I did have some criticisms concerning Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, on the whole I found the miniseries to be an enjoyable read with good artwork.  Mangels does leave a couple of his subplots unresolved at the end, setting the stage for a possible sequel.  Hopefully he and Tondora will have the opportunity to reunite on a follow-up miniseries in the near future.

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The Octobriana Revolution

One hundred years ago this month, the Russian Revolution took place, bringing into power Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.   Inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, the Soviet Union was ostensibly founded upon the rights of the working class; in reality the country’s new communist government soon became a monstrous dictatorship whose crimes rivaled that of the Tsarist autocracy that it had replaced.

As comic book writer & artist Bryan Talbot observed in 1999:

“The thing is, communism can never work in practice. It just doesn’t take account of human nature; the fact that most people are greedy, lazy, selfish, power-hungry or just too plain stupid to work for the benefit of everybody, not just themselves. All we ever had were perversions of this arcadian ideal; The tyranny of Stalin, the repression of the Chinese state.”

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Over the succeeding decades various dissident groups rose up within both the Soviet Union and in the Eastern European satellite nations seized after World War II. Among these were “reform communists” who thought it possible to steer the Soviet Union into a better direction.

One of these “reform communist” groups, supposedly, was the Progressive Political Pornographic Party, which formed in the 1960s. Apparently inspired by American underground comix, the PPPP created the character of Octobriana in their self-published periodical Mtsyry.  Octobriana was a beautiful Slavic super-human warrior woman who embodied the true, uncorrupted principles of communism and the Russian Revolution.

Or so the story goes, at least according to Petr Sadecky, a Czechoslovakian-born cartoonist who stated he had become involved in 1961 with the PPPP’s resistance cell in Kiev. As comic book writer & historian John A. Short explains:

“Sadecky claims that in 1967 he escaped to the West and managed to smuggle out copies of the Octobriana strips, photographs of the PPPP and other examples of the group’s work. He packaged all of this together into the book, Octobriana and the Russian Underground, which was released in a number of countries during 1971.”

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Evidence would later crop to indicate that the PPPP did not actually exist and that Sadecky had actually stolen artwork created by Czech cartoonists Zdeněk Burian, Bohuslav Konečný and Miloš Novak.  Nevertheless, despite the highly dubious nature of Sadecky’s claims, and the probable theft he engaged in, Octobriana gradually took root in the underground comix community throughout the 1970s.

By virtue of the fact that Octobriana was supposedly created by a group of dissident communists, and by Sadecky disappearing from public view following the publication of his book (reportedly passing away in 1991), the character instantly became part of the public domain.  That meant that anyone who wanted to use her in their own comic books could do just that.

The individual who really brought Octobriana into the public consciousness is British creator Bryan Talbot. He had first learned of Octobriana in the very early 1970s, and was immediately intrigued by the character.  He saw Octobriana as representing both “the pure spirit of communism” and “sexual liberation, both in the sense of sexual equality and of free love.”

Between 1978 and 1989 Talbot crafted his sprawling mulitiversal sci-fi political thriller The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.  Talbot used Octobriana as a supporting character in the early chapters of his saga.  The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was reprinted here in the States by Dark Horse in the early 1990s.  Talbot’s rich, detailed, illustrative art style resulted in a stunning, iconic depiction of Octobriana, particularly on the cover of the third Dark Horse issue.

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Two other comic book creators who became intrigued by Octobriana were John A. Short and Stuart Taylor. Between 1996 and 1997, through their Revolution Comics imprint, Short & Taylor released a five issue Octobriana miniseries.  Blake O’Farrell and Darrell Andrews illustrated the miniseries.  Bryan Talbot contributed artwork for the first issue’s cover.

The narrative of each issue was split in two. Taylor wrote a serial set in the late 1960s, which saw Octobriana leading an underground movement against the oppressive Soviet forces.  The Sixties narrative concludes with Octobriana captured by the authorities.  In the second half of each issue, written by Short, events jump forward three decades to the present.  The still-young Octobriana at last escapes from her Siberian prison to fight against her old Communist foes who following the collapse of the Soviet Union have become powerful figures within the Russian Mafia.

A year later Taylor, paired with penciler Dave Roberts & inker Mark Woolley, continued the present-day storyline in the two issue miniseries Octobriana: Filling in the Blanks, published by Artful Salamander. In addition to Cold War mad scientists and Russian mobsters, this time Octobriana also found herself at odds with alien invaders who had arrived on Earth in the meteor that devastated Tunguska nine decades earlier.

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In 1999, Short published Octobriana: Underground Tales, which via several text pieces chronicled the character’s history, both in the real word and in her fictional adventures.

The special also included three new short comic book stories. In the first of these, Short mixed fact & fiction to craft “The Legend of Octobriana,” which linked the past and present day segments of the Revolution Comics miniseries.  Short also wrote “Made in America,” which had art by Craig John, which saw Octobriana encountering characters from Short’s creator-owned series Armageddon Patrol about a group of cynical, jingoistic American superheroes fighting in the Vietnam War.  Taylor, Roberts & Woolley returned to provide a piece that bridged the gap between the first miniseries and Filling in the Blanks.  Also included was a reprint of one of the bizarre stories from Octobriana and the Russian Underground.

Short again returned to the Russian she-devil in 2001 via his new company Alchemy Texts with the Octobriana 30th Anniversary Special. Topped off by a striking cover by Shaun Bryan, the Special contained two new, wacky stories written by Short, with artwork by Bryan, Andy Nixon and Rehaan Akhtar.

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Although the most notable of Octobriana’s appearances, the comic books listed above are far from comprehensive. Due to her public domain nature, Octobriana has popped up in numerous other places, in various incarnations & permutations, as different creators have adapted & interpreted her.

Short himself continues to chronicle the adventures of his version of Octobriana, teaming her up with other female heroes to oppose Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and assembling a comprehensive look at the character’s history into the book Octobriana: The Underground History, published by Kult Creations.

I first discovered Octobriana via Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Short’s Underground Tales, and immediately found her intriguing. The amazing visual of a sensual & strong revolutionary, the bizarre circumstances of her creation, and the utilization of her by numerous comic book creators across the globe made her a compelling figure.

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In 2008 Talbot was a guest at a comic book convention in New York City. I asked him if he could do a drawing of Octobriana for me.  He was kind enough to draw a very nice piece for me in one of my convention sketchbooks.  I was thrilled to obtain an illustration of Octobriana from the artist who did one of the definitive interpretations of the character.

In a world where both the injustices of unregulated capitalism and toxic misogyny are rampant here in the West, and the ghost of Soviet authoritarianism has arisen anew in Russia to subvert & destabilize the world’s democratic institutions, Octobriana is a more timely character than ever. I am certain that we have not seen the last of her.

Thirty years of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Thirty years ago this month, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted with the two hour premiere “Encounter at Farpoint” co-written by D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry. Set nearly a century after the original Star Trek, the series featured a brand new crew headed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) exploring the galaxy aboard the starship Enterprise-D.

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To be perfectly honest, The Next Generation took a bit of time to find its footing. In the years since the original series aired in the late 1960s, series creator Gene Roddenberry had frequently been lauded by fans for his utopian vision of the future.  It would be fair to say that perhaps Roddenberry bought too much into his press.  When it came time for him to devise the structure of TNG, he approached his role not as a writer or a storyteller but as a philosopher presenting his ideology for humanity’s salvation.

In the first season of TNG, Roddenberry had the Federation presented as a post-scarcity socialist paradise where currency had been eliminated, conflict was all-but-unknown, and human beings had reached mental & emotional maturity. The crew of the new Enterprise was intended to be practically perfect… which seriously hampered the dramatic possibilities of the show.  In those early episodes, each time there was a crisis Picard would calmly convene a meeting of his senior staff to reason out a solution.

Trust me when I say that I very much look forward to the day when humanity matures enough that when an emergency occurs our response will be to form a committee to peacefully resolve the situation. Having said that, it is a fact that dramatic fiction thrives on conflict, and the conflict-free ethos of that first season of TNG often rendered the show cripplingly dull.  As someone who had become a fan of the original show via reruns and the movies, I watched most of the first season on TNG, but I was underwhelmed by it.  When the second season began to air in late 1988 I had pretty much lost interest in the show.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1990… I was 14 years old and going to day camp, where I met two cool teenage girls, Meelise and Renee, both of whom also had an interest in science fiction.  We all spent a lot of time hanging out.  As I recall, Meelise and Renee both mentioned that they were fans of TNG.  Thinking back to that first season, I expressed the opinion that it was a pretty disappointing show.  Meelise insisted that is had become much better.  She lent to me a few VHS tapes on which she had recorded a number of episodes from the recently-completed third season.

I remember taking those tapes home, watching them, and being genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed those episodes. Not only had the plotting gotten better, but the writing for the main characters had all improved tremendously.  Then I got to “The Best of Both Worlds” written by Michael Piller, the riveting season finale which ended with the shocking cliffhanger of Captain Picard assimilated by the seemingly-unstoppable cybernetic Borg.  I was hooked.  That September I was glued to the TV set when “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” aired, and I remained an avid viewer of TNG up until the series finale was broadcast in May 1994.

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With the benefit of both hindsight and a greater knowledge of the behind-the-scenes workings of the show, as well as recently binging on TNG episodes on Netflix over the last few months, I can see that there was a actually a gradual increase in quality even before season three. Most of the first year is still very underwhelming, but late there were several episodes that offered a glimpse of the series’ potential.  Despite some rough edges, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” “Heart of Glory,” “Symbiosis” and “Conspiracy” each offered the promise that TNG had new & interesting things to say.

It was actually in the second season that the first truly great episode of TNG aired. “Measure of a Man” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass was a challenging, thought-provoking piece that all these years later remains eminently watchable, one of the best episodes of any Star Trek series ever made. Obviously inspired by the material presented them in this script, Patrick Stewart as Picard and Brent Spiner as the android Lieutenant Data both turned in extremely strong performances.  Later that year another amazing episode, “Q Who” written by Maurice Hurley, featured the eerie, tension-filled introduction of the Borg.

I mentioned in my look back at the original Star Trek that, outside of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the characters were underdeveloped. Picard and Data were the characters to receive the most time in the spotlight on TNG.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  Stewart is one of the strongest actors ever to appear in the regular cast of any incarnation of Star Trek.  It was a genuine stroke of genius casting him as Picard, and it made sense that the show would often focus on the intellectual, cultured Captain.  Data, an android struggling to understand what it was like to be human, to try to grasp the intricacies of emotion, was also a compelling character, well portrayed by Spiner.  Again, it was an understandable decision to anchor a number of episodes around Data’s character.

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TNG nevertheless did make an honest attempt to flesh out and develop the other members of the crew of the Enterprise-D, with varied amounts of success. It took the show’s writers longer to find the voices of certain characters.  The female members of the crew were definitely ill-served at times by the plots of certain episodes.

However, in spite of these hiccups, there were some interesting relationships between the characters. One of my favorites was the deep friendship that Data and Geordi LaForge shared.  Certainly any time you put Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton opposite one another you were almost guaranteed to have a really great, funny, warm scene.  All these years later re-watching the show, a smile inevitable breaks across my face when Data and LaForge are paired up.

Besides, when I was a kid I watched Reading Rainbow all the time, so I really enjoyed seeing LeVar Burton on TNG.

Although not as successfully executed, another relationship that had potential was the one between First Officer William Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes, and Counselor Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis. Riker and Troi were ex-lovers, and were now serving together on the Enterprise.  This brought about the inevitable “will they or won’t they” tension, which could have been clichéd, although it seemed to work in this case since Frakes and Sirtis did possess a certain amount of chemistry.

I suppose part of the reason why Riker and Troi never worked as well as they could have was because the writers seemed to struggle with both of those characters. Riker was supposed to be a Kirk-type figure, charismatic and romantic and ambitious, but the dynamics of the show established by Roddenberry required that the First Officer couldn’t be too much of any of that, especially ambitious, because otherwise he could have ended up as a rival to Picard, a challenge to the Captain’s authority.  At times Riker was a study in contradictions, and over the years a lot of fans, using the bits of characterization scattered across seven seasons, have tried to work out their own personal head canon to explain his behavior.

Troi at times fared even worse than Riker. As I said, the writers had trouble giving the female characters strong scripts, and so Troi would get saddled with one implausible romance of the week after another, or get take over by aliens, or other weird stuff.  Troi possessed telepathic powers of empathy, which in theory should have been useful, but again the writers frequently had trouble utilizing this.  Often the Counselor was reduced to telling Picard such near-useless statements as “Captain, I sense hostility and deception coming from the other ship.”

As with certain other elements to TNG, there was potential to both Riker and Troi, but unfortunately the show did not develop either of them as well as it could have. I think that much of the appeal of Riker and Troi is down to Frakes and Sirtis, who both did the best they could with the material they were given.

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There was also an interesting relationship between Picard and Doctor Beverly Crusher, who was played by Gates McFadden. Picard and Crusher also had shared history that predated their assignments on the Enterprise, and even though they had never been romantically involved there was an undeniable mutual attraction.  I do think it was to the benefit of the show that Picard and Crusher were usually written as colleagues who were very close friends, and the writers mostly avoided trying to nudge them into a relationship.  Crusher was typically written as a competent professional, which was good to see, although over the course of the series she really didn’t receive too many quality episodes which spotlighted her character.

While on the subject of Beverly Crusher, I should mention her son Wesley, who was played by Wil Wheaton. Initially written as a teen whiz, the character was apparently a fictionalized version of Roddenberry himself.  Unfortunately in the first couple of seasons the show went out of its way to try to make Wesley the smartest person in the room, and many viewers absolutely hated him.  In later seasons, when Wesley was a semi-recurring presence on the show, the writers definitely gave Wheaton much better material to work with, and the character became more interesting & likable, at least in my estimation.

One cannot discuss TNG without mentioning Worf, played by Michael Dorn. The first Klingon to serve in Starfleet, Worf had been orphaned at a young age and adopted by humans.  Much of what he knew about Klingon culture he learned from books, and his idealized view of his people as proud, honorable warriors often came into conflict with the reality of a once-mighty militaristic society infested with political infighting, corruption and treason.  The solemn, brooding Worf was very much a character who was caught between two worlds, too human to be accepted by most Klingons, and too Klingon to fit in with most humans.  Often alone, Worf struggled to discover his own path, to find a way to live up to his own personal standards of Klingon honor and duty while serving in Starfleet.

Probably the most enigmatic member of the Enterprise crew was Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Ostensibly the bartender of the ship’s Ten Forward lounge, Guinan was a centuries-old alien with nebulously-defined powers whose home planet had been destroyed by the Borg.  Guinan often imparted sage advice to the crew during various personal crises or ship-wide emergencies.  On paper Guinan sounds like the sort of character who could quickly become annoying. However, Goldberg played the character with just the right combination of gravity and mischievous charm that in her occasional appearances Guinan was usually quite charming.

Star Trek TNG Borg

TNG introduced a number of key concepts to the Star Trek universe. Probably the most iconic was, of course, the Borg.  Instantly memorable, the cybernetic juggernaut of the Borg Collective was perhaps too effective as an adversary.  They were such a powerful, formidable foe that, as cool as they were, it was immediately apparent that they needed to be used extremely sparingly, lest they suffer from villain decay.  TNG was mostly able to avoid this, as the few appearances of the Borg after “The Best of Both Worlds” saw individuals or rogue, underpowered divisions of the Collective popping up here and there.

It was a smart decision hold back on once again utilizing the full might of the Borg until the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact.  It might have been a good idea for the concept of the Borg to have been put to rest after that, to have them go out on a high point.  Unfortunately they became a reoccurring adversary on Star Trek: Voyager, with the inevitable diminishing results.

At least the writers recognized that TNG needed another adversary that could be used regularly. The ultra-capitalist Ferengi had already been introduced in the first season, but they had landed with a dull thud, never once working as serious villains.  They were very quickly reduced to comic relief, although several years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do a decent job at developing them into a semi-believable culture.  The Klingons, with their political in-fighting, could occasionally be brought in as bad guys, with treasonous factions plotting against the Federation.  Likewise, another adversary from the original series, the Romulans, returned.  They were fairly effectively utilized, with a tense state of cold war existing between the Federation and the Romulans.

Finally, in the Season Four episode “The Wounded” scripted by Jeri Taylor, we were introduced to the Cardassians. A fascist, expansionist empire governed by the military, the Cardassians were involved in a lengthy, bloody war with the Federation.  “The Wounded” opens shortly after the signing of a peace treaty between the two sides, although it quickly becomes obvious that the Cardassians are utilizing the lull in conflict to secretly re-arm.  The Cardassians presented the writers of TNG with an opportunity to explore the less-idealistic, more pragmatic side of the Federation.  Over the course of the second half of the series, we see the Federation and Starfleet making certain decisions that, from both a moral and tactical perspective, are ill-advised, all out of a desire to avoid another full-blown conflict with the Cardassians.

TNG also introduced the Bajorans, whose planet had been brutally occupied by the Cardassians. Both the Bajorans and the Cardassians would become central, key elements of the Deep Space Nine spin-off, where each of their societies would be intricately developed by the writers.

Star Trek TNG The Wounded

If I had one criticism of TNG that remained consistent throughout its seven year run, it was the writers’ annoying overreliance on techno babble to resolve their plots. It would always drive me up the wall when the Enterprise would solve an emergency by bouncing a particle beam off the deflector dish, or transmitting a phase-shifting tachyon pulse into a planet’s atmosphere, or some such nonsense.  I realize that the show wanted to be more cerebral than the original Star Trek, but if you have to make up a bunch of technical-sounding gobbledygook in order to avoid a fist fight or a shootout then you’re really just cheating.

In certain respects, TNG remains very much a product of its time. The show was produced when one of the primary goals was to re-sell the series over and over in syndication.  This meant cranking out as many episodes a year as possible.  Nearly every season of TNG contained 26 episodes, which required a breakneck production schedule.  Even from the point when the show got noticeably great with season three, there were inevitably a few duds each year.  By the sixth and seventh seasons, with DS9 simultaneously being made, I think the production crew on TNG was beginning to get burned out, and the number of underwhelming episodes began to increase.  The level of quality never dipped too low, but it’s apparent that it was the right call to end the series after seven years, while the good still outweighed the bad.

Looking back on Star Trek: The Next Generation three decades after its debut, it remains a study in contradictions. It was produced at a time when television was approaching a crossroads, when genre shows were slowly beginning to gain popularity in the general public, when serialization and long-form plotting were just beginning to gradually creep into the medium.  At times TNG was clearly looking forward while nevertheless remaining firmly rooted in the established traditions of television production.  Perhaps TNG never quite lived up to its potential, but it was a crucial stepping stone that enabled both the Star Trek franchise, as well as genre television as a whole, to leap into first the 1990s and then the 21th Century.

This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

Jack King Kirby

There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

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It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

Remembering Victor Pemberton

British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail.  Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.

Victor Pemberton Fraggle Rock

Victor Pemberton and Sprocket

Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence.  Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London.  He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”

One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.

In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable.  Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground.  Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.

Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel.  Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery.  The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient.  And it  has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide.  Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.

Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast.  Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage.  This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.

The Slide

In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.”  Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.

Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.

THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?

VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.

THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.

VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.

THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?

VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.

THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.

VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.

THE DOCTOR: Eh?

VICTORIA: I mean old.

THE DOCTOR: Oh.

VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.

THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.

It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.

Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968.  Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode.  Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it.  Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target.  When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.

“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.

Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure.  It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.  Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.

Doctor Who The Pescatons

After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.

In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization.  The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.

Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc.  As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall.  Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.

When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:

“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”

One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987.  These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words.  In his response he noted:

“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times.  After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”

In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years.  He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.

In Case You Missed It

I am very grateful to Hannah Givens for linking to my blog in her recent In Case You Missed It post on her excellent blog Hannah Reads Books. Hannah is a very intelligent, insightful blogger, and I have always enjoyed her writings.

I will let Hannah explain how In Case You Missed It works…

So, that’s the idea of the ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Tag: Go through the past two years of your blog and pick the five posts you most want people to read. Then tag your favorite blogs to do the same — people you’ve lost touch with, new discoveries you’d like to get to know, however you want to do it. Feel free to link back to me, I’d love to see it spreading!

Great idea, Hannah! I’m definitely happy to participate.

In Case You Missed It

Here are five blog posts I’ve written within the last two years with which I was very satisfied:

  1. Our Family by Victor Pemberton – I wrote this piece shortly after my girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away. Pemberton has written a number of excellent historical novels examining family life in England during the first half of the 20th Century. Michele’s mother enjoyed his books, which reminded her of her childhood in Liverpool.
  2. Batman Co-Creator Bill Finger – A brief look at the life & work of legendary comic book writer Bill Finger, who in late 2015 at long last received official recognition as the co-creator of Batman.
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – My review of the much-anticipated first Star Wars movie to be produced by Disney.
  4. Black Lightning Strikes Twice – I take a look at the long-awaited trade paperback reprinting the original Black Lightning comic book written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden in the late 1970s, the first DC Comics series to star an African American superhero.
  5. Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing – Diversity in comic books is important. I examine this from a personal perspective, as I look back at how Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, was finally revealed to be Jewish.

Here are the excellent blogs that I am tagging:

  • Witches Brew Press – My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s wonderful blog about art & music.
  • The Unspoken Decade – Dean Compton’s enjoyable look at the comic books of the 1990s.
  • the m0vie blog – Darren Mooney writes fascinating reviews that examine moves & TV shows within the wider cultural context.
  • Three Cat Yard – The wonderful adventures of housecats in suburbia, with many beautiful photographs.
  • iBLOGalot – J.R. LeMar looks at comic books , TV shows and movies, as well as political & social issues.

I hope everyone will check these out! If I’ve posted a link to your blog, I hope you will also be able to do your own In Case You Missed It post.

 

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #225

This year Image Comics is 25 years old, which makes it very appropriate that Savage Dragon by Image co-founder Erik Larsen has just reached issue #225.

Larsen has written, penciled & inked every single issue of Savage Dragon in the last quarter century.  This 100 page anniversary issue is the culmination of a number of different character & story arcs that Larsen devised over the proceeding 25 years.

As a reader since day one, I found Savage Dragon #225 amazing.  It was a very rewarding read, featuring the final confrontation of the original Dragon with his long-time enemies Darklord and Mister Glum.

Savage Dragon 225 cover

In previous issues the diminutive alien dictator Mister Glum was attempting to find another alternate reality version of Angel Dragon who loved him.  Glum’s obsessive quest led him to the lair of the half-human, half-alien tyrant Darklord, who via time travel experiments had created thousands of alternate timelines.  Glum sabotaged Darklord’s machines, resulting in the destruction of these countless parallel Earths, with the inhabitants of the “main” Earth suddenly becoming inundated with the memories of their destroyed counterparts.  Glum’s crazed reasoning for inflicting this colossal damage upon the fabric of reality was that it would result in Angel Dragon absorbing the feelings of her deceased counterpart from another timeline who had loved him, and she would want to be with him.

I remember that after the merging of multiple Earths took place last issue, my first reaction was that this would have to be incredibly confusing & inconvenient for the average person.  I could just picture the mile-long lines stretching out from ATMs around the globe as each person attempted to sort through his or her now-overloaded memories of multiple existences to figure out what their PIN was on this particular Earth!

We do actually get a few brief moments of that sort of comedy in #225, although for the most part the alternate memories that the cast experiences are of a slightly more serious manner.  Maxine is furious with Malcolm now that she “remembers” that in different timelines he married her best friends instead of her.  It’s an utterly irrational, yet perfectly human, reaction, and even though Malcolm insists, quite logically, that he did not really cheat on her due to these events taking place in parallel realities, Maxine is still upset.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 7

It was great to have Darklord return for this storyline.  He is one of my favorite Savage Dragon villains.  Not only does Darklord have a very cool design, but he also possesses an intriguing back story, with close ties to several other characters in the series, and a certain moral ambiguity to his motivations.  Larsen alludes to all of that, adding a melancholy tone to this issue’s brutal battle.  You get the impression that under different circumstances Darklord could have been a friend and ally to Malcolm, which makes it quite tragic that here instead he is an extremely dangerous menace who needs to be stopped at any cost.

(Mind you, I sort of don’t blame Darklord for going nuts and wanting to destroy the world in this issue. If I found out that the entire multiverse had been erased and the only remaining Earth had Donald Trump for its President, I would probably feel exactly the same way.)

I was genuinely shocked that the original Dragon died in #225, this time for good.  Truthfully, this is not at all out of left field, since Larsen has been laying the groundwork for the Dragon’s demise for quite a while now.  He spent a long time easing Dragon out of the spotlight, shifting the book’s focus over to his son Malcolm.  For the last few years Malcolm has been the series star, with the depowered, retired Dragon serving as a mentor to the young hero.

Finally killing off the original Dragon feels like a necessary step by Larsen.  It could be argued that Malcolm was never going to fully come into his own until his father died, because no matter how much the original Dragon was pushed into the background his presence in the book meant that there was always a possibility that he would regain his powers and once again become the main character.  Now that Dragon is permanently, irrevocably dead (well, as permanent and irrevocable as you can get in fiction) I’m looking forward to seeing where Larsen takes Malcolm, along with the rest of the cast, from this point forward.

In any case, Larsen offers up a poignant farewell to the original star of the book, which culminates in a scene which was first dangled before readers way back in issue #31.  Let’s just say that after this I need to give serious consideration towards adopting a belief in an afterlife where I will spend an eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 21

There are several back-up stories in Savage Dragon #225.  My favorite was written by Larsen and illustrated by Nikos Koutsis, the team on the recent Mighty Man special.  SuperPatriot at long last gets sick of working for President Trump and quits the government’s Special Operations Strikeforce.  Due to the merging of alternate realities, SuperPatriot now has memories of his other self from the Earth that was seen in the first 75 issues of this series.  These inspire him to ask several of the other SOS members to join him in forming a new incarnation of Freak Force.  As a fan of the original Freak Force, I would love to see Larsen & Koutsis do a miniseries or special featuring this new team.

Frank Fosco, who’s worked on a great many back-up stories for Savage Dragon over the years, illustrates a moody tale featuring Malcolm going solo against a giant monster that emerges from Lake Michigan.  There’s also a very bawdy, comedic story starring Angel Dragon with cheeky (not to mention NSFW) artwork by talented newcomer Raven Perez.

Also, if you really want to see just how much Larsen has grown as both an artist and a writer in the past 35 years, this issue reprints the very first Savage Dragon story he ever published waaaaay back in 1982 in Graphic Fantasy #1, done when he was only 19 years old.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 48

Earlier I indicated that Savage Dragon #225 was tremendously rewarding for long-time readers.  That is not to say that it will be impenetrable for newer fans.  I was rather surprised that a handful of people were complaining that # 225 was not friendly to new readers. Larsen has given readers at least a couple of “jumping on” points on Savage Dragon in the last few years, which seems to be quite fair.  Marvel and DC pull “jumping on” issues out of their asses with alarming regularity, and it’s gotten annoying as all hell.

When I first got into comic books in the mid 1980s I began reading plenty of long-running titles without the benefit of any “new reader friendly” stories.  I really feel that Larsen includes more than enough exposition in his dialogue in each issue of Savage Dragon to bring everyone up to speed.  It’s not necessary to have a “First Issue in a Bold New Direction” like clockwork every 12 months.  Most intelligent readers who jump into an ongoing serialized narrative like Savage Dragon are going to be able to get up to speed pretty quickly.

I definitely must congratulate Erik Larsen.  Savage Dragon #225 is an amazing issue, one that both caps off all the great work he has done over the past 25 years and sets the stage for the series to continue forward.  Larsen is one of my all time favorite comic book creators, and I very much hope that he is able to continue Savage Dragon for a good long time.