Ten years of new Doctor Who

On the 26th of March 2005 “Rose,” the very first episode of the revival of Doctor Who, was broadcast on BBC One.  Viewers were introduced to the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper in a script written by new series showrunner Russell T Davies.  That was exactly ten years ago today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ten years.

Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

Yes, I almost cannot believe that it has been exactly ten years since Doctor Who made its return to television screens after more than a decade and a half absence. TEN YEARS! If you had told me back in 2004 that just a year later Doctor Who would be returning, that the new series would run more than a decade, and that it would become a gigantic mega-hit not just in Britain but in America and numerous other countries, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are then years later and that is exactly what has happened. As Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was fond of saying, “Fantastic!”

I will readily admit that the first year of the revival was wildly uneven.  But even so, it contained a few genuine classics, namely “Dalek,” “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.”  Certainly the portrayal of the Doctor by Eccleston was brilliant.

Since then we have had David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all portraying the Doctor, each bringing something unique and wonderful to the role.  We’ve also seen the final fate of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, the revelation of the existence of the War Doctor portrayed by veteran thespian John Hurt, and even cameos by past Doctors Peter Davison and Tom Baker.  Oh, yes, and the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the much loved (and now much missed) Elisabeth Sladen.

Oh, yeah, and there’s been a whole bunch of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” enough to keep fans endlessly guessing… and arguing.

doctors-9-10-11-12

Obviously not every episode has been a brilliant success.  There have inevitably been a few stinkers over the past decade.  However, on the whole I believe that both Davies and his successor Steven Moffat have done good work keeping the series going, bringing it into the 21st Century.

Maybe it is just the nature of Doctor Who fans to complain, to argue “It isn’t as good as it used to be!”  But, honestly, I really do think that some of the all time greatest installments of the series have been produced within the past decade.  And I am eager to see what comes next.

So here’s to the next ten years of Doctor Who!  Geronimo, allons-y, and all that!

About that Batgirl variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque

Here is a short postscript to my discussion of Batman: The Killing Joke.   Getting back to what prompted my reconsideration of Alan Moore’s story in the first place, I am going to take a look at that Rafael Albuquerque variant cover that was originally going to be used by DC Comics for Batgirl #41.

Albuquerque’s piece, seen below, is certainly well illustrated.  However, it is also very disturbing, especially that expression on Batgirl’s face.  Albuquerque is obviously taking direct inspiration from The Killing Joke.  This cover is clearly meant to evoke memories of that story’s events in the audience’s mind, specifically the Joker’s brutalization of Barbara Gordon.

Batgirl variant by Rafael Albuquerque

If we do regard what the Joker did to Barbara in The Killing Joke as sexual assault, then this would be the equivalent of a scene depicting a rapist returning to torment his victim anew.  So, yes, I can definitely understand why a number of readers were very unhappy with the idea of this being published.

Should DC have cancelled Albuquerque’s cover?  I don’t know.  As I have commented before, people do not have the right to not be offended.  However, it seems that other people got offended at people getting offended by the cover, and things went pear-shaped.  Batgirl writer Cameron Stewart tweeted:

“Something to clarify, because DCs statement was a little unclear. @rafaalbuquerque did not get threats. People OBJECTING to the cover did.”

Yes, that’s right.  Albuquerque requested that DC not publish the cover because people who were protesting it were receiving death threats from certain individuals who wanted the cover to be published.  This is exactly like that Gamergate bullshit where you have a group of assholes hiding behind the cause of “journalistic integrity” in order to peddle their hateful misogyny.

You could argue that people were overreacting to Albuquerque’s cover.  If they were, well, the sane and responsible manner in which to respond to them is to calmly articulate your own perspective.  What you should not be doing is tossing around death threats.  Next time maybe just agree to disagree.  Stop acting like someone whose castle is under siege by an invading army.

Albuquerque himself had this to say:

“My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.”

Albuquerque is an incredibly talented artist.  Perhaps drawing this Batgirl variant was a misstep on his part.  However, according to Bleeding Cool he originally drew a less-extreme version but DC requested that he make it more creepy, resulting in the final piece.  I definitely must give Albuquerque credit for recognizing that it had become toxically divisive, that certain people were behaving reprehensibly, and requesting that DC pull the plug on it.

Anyway, moving along, Albuquerque and writer Mike Johnson currently have a new sci-fi miniseries entitled Ei8ht coming out from Dark Horse.  Go pick it up.  It looks good.

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about in on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was vainly attempting to start a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of his entire life.  But he is still very much sane.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain within a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening depictions ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

Irwin Hasen: 1918 to 2015

Irwin Hasen, one of the last of the artists of the Golden Age of comic books, passed away on March 13th.  He was 96 years old.

Hasen was born on July 8, 1918 into an upper middle class family in New York City.  In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his family lost their money in the Great Depression, and they had to move into a cramped two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  This unfortunate turn of events would actually lead to Hasen’s career as an artist.  The apartment was right around the corner from the National Academy of Design.  When Hasen was 16 years old his mother enrolled him there, where he studied for the next three years.

All Star Comics 33 cover

Hasen got his first job as a cartoonist at the boxing magazine Bang in 1938.  As he recounted decades later “I drew sports cartoons, and I had to compile out of town weekly boxing results, type them up, and draw each week’s top fighters for the covers.”

Shortly after, Hasen began working in the brand-new comic book industry.  One of his earliest assignments was the superhero The Fox, which he co-created with writer Joe Blair for MLJ / Archie Comics.  Although a rather obscure character for many years, recently The Fox has been the subject of a successful, offbeat revival by Dean Haspiel.

Most of Hasen’s work in comic books was at National Comics and All-American Publications, two of the entities that soon merged to form DC Comics.  At National, Hasen drew on his background as a sports artist to collaborate with writer Bill Finger in creating Wildcat, a prize fighter turned costumed crimefighter.  Wildcat’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, cover-dated January 1942.  Hasen was also one of the earliest regular artists to draw the original Green Lantern, who Bill Finger had co-created with Martin Nodell in 1940.

Wildcat from Sensation Comics 1

After World War II broke out, Hasen was drafted.  Due to his 5 foot 2 inch height, he was stationed State-side, and his work was featured in the Army newspaper Fort Dix Post.  Hasen also found the time to keep working within the comic book biz.  “During my furloughs into New York City, I would sit in full uniform at a drawing board in M.C. Gaines’ Lafayette St. offices of AA Comics, creating Wonder Woman covers, those Valkyrian images possibly nurturing my fancy for the women to come.”

After the war ended Hasen returned to comic books full-time.  In the late 1940s he was one of the regular artists drawing the Justice Society of America feature in All Star Comics.  As future comic book writer, editor & historian Roy Thomas commented in his 2001 introduction to All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 “the next year and a half of JSA stories would be some of their best ever.”  One crucial part of that according to Thomas was “the solid storytelling of Irwin Hasen.”  As would be seen in Thomas’ writing on All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, these stories would be a major influence upon him.

All Star Comics 35 cover

Certainly during this time period Hasen illustrated some of the most iconic cover images to ever feature the JSA.  His striking cover art for All Star Comics #33 (Feb/March 1947) had the ominous form of the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy looming over the imprisoned JSA.  All Star Comics #35 (June/July 1947) saw the debut of the time traveling fascist Per Degaton, who was devised by writer John Broome.  Hasen’s dramatic cover for that issue featured that villain warping the flow of history within an immense hourglass.  Hasen’s cover for #37 (Oct/Nov 1937) was also memorable, depicting the JSA’s greatest foes, joined together as the Injustice Society of the World, literally carving up a map of the United States.

Like most artists in the 1940s, Hasen regarded comic books as a job to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Certainly that is understandable, as the first few decades of the industry were far from glamorous, with most creators toiling anonymously in conditions that were almost akin to a sweatshop.  Hasen’s dream was to illustrate a newspaper comic strip, which in those days was regarded as a much more fashionable & lucrative position.

Dondi April 7 1957

Hasen finally achieved this goal in 1955 when he co-created Dondi with writer Gus Edson.  A five year old war orphan from Europe, the wide-eyed Dondi was adopted by an American soldier who brought him back to the United States.  The newspaper strip lasted until 1986.  It appears that Dondi was the project that Hasen was most proud of out of his entire career.

Later in life Hasen write & illustrated Loverboy, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about his lifelong bachelorhood, and his romantic relationship with a woman named Eevie in the 1970s.  It was both a humorous and poignant story.  Loverboy was published by Vanguard Productions in 2009.  The final four chapters of the book were a brief text autobiography of Hasen’s life complemented with various photographs & illustrations.  I recommend picking up a copy.

Loverboy pg 26

I was fortunate enough to have met Hasen several times throughout the years.  He was a regular at NYC-area comic book conventions.  It was always a pleasure to see Hasen at a show.  He was a real gentleman, full of life and energy, with a genuine sense of humor.

I acquired a couple a sketches from Hasen.  The first was a color illustration of his creation Wildcat.  The other was a black & white drawing of the Golden Age Flash, another of the characters he drew regularly throughout the 1940s, both in solo stories and in the adventures of the Justice Society.  You can view scans of them at Comic Art Fans.

Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con

Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con

Okay, this is a bit embarrassing… back in late 2010 I was unemployed.  I was having trouble finding work and had a lot of free time on my hands.  On a whim I looked up Hasen’s address & phone number and gave him a call.  I told him I was a fan and I asked if it would be okay to stop by for a visit.  He was surprised, but he graciously agreed.

I visited Hasen at his apartment on the Upper East Side, stopping by for about half an hour in the early afternoon.  He autographed my copies of All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 and 8, showed me some of the various interesting items he had acquired over the decades, and regaled me with a few stories.  I asked Hasen a couple of general questions about his career, and he humorously replied that I probably knew more about his work in comic books than he did!  Well, it had been a long time before for him.  Then I said goodbye and headed home, while Hasen went off to meet one of his friends at a local bar for a martini.  I gather that was a daily ritual for him.

That was the thing about Hasen: right up until the end he was full of life and energy.  I always thought that if anyone would live past 100 years old it would be him.  Well, he didn’t quite make it, but 96 years is a really good long run, especially as he appeared to have led a very rich, full life for most of that time.

Hasen certainly has left behind a memorable legacy, having worked on numerous memorable, classic comic book stories in the 1940s, and co-creating Dondi, a beloved comic strip that ran for three decades.

Comic book reviews: Satan’s Prep

It has sometimes been commented that high school is hell.  It can certainly be a very unpleasant experience; I can attest to that firsthand.  But eventually you do get out of it.  However, what if high school was literally Hell?  That is the premise of Satan’s Prep, a graphic novel written by Gabe Guarente and illustrated by Dave Fox, Luis Chichon & Tricia Van den Bergh.

Satans Prep cover

Trevor Loomis is an apathetic individual drifting through his teenage years.  He has led an unremarkable, underwhelming life.  Then one day, while plugging his guitar into a defective amp, he is electrocuted.  Through some sort of bureaucratic error his soul is sent to Hell.  There he set to spend an eternity attending St. Lucifer’s Academy for the Hopeless and Damned, aka Satan’s Prep.  His fellow classmates are other teenagers who died before their time, as well as various adolescent demons.

The torments of Hell are visited upon the human students of Satan’s Prep, courtesy of both the devil-spawned faculty and the demonic teenagers, who are the jocks and bullies of the afterlife.  Guarente’s story is rather like John Hughes meets Clive Barker.  This is a very dark comedy.

Trevor becomes the unlikely inspiration of the human students, who regard his stoicism & indifference in the face of the torments of the damned as “badass rebel defiance.”  Trevor, however, thinks he knows better:

“I don’t have the heart to tell Steve and the other guys the truth. That what they took for rebellion was really cowardice in disguise. Or, if not cowardice, complacency. I was a specialist at both in my other life.”

Of course Trevor then meets Persephone Plumm, a cute Goth girl who appears to be attracted to him.  Persephone tells Steve that when she was alive she suffered from immense depression.  After running away from home she walked into the path of an oncoming tractor trailer, dying and ending up in Hell.

Satans Prep pg 33

Persephone is the first person Trevor has ever really cared about.  But she then begins hanging out with the demon jock clique headed up by Moloch, an arrangement to keep them from pounding the tar out of Trevor.  Angry, he wants to find a way to get her back.  But then Trevor’s pal Steve suggests that Persephone might not be what she seems.  Perhaps she is a succubus, a deception by Hell sent to finally cause him to finally snap out of his lethargy & resignation and actually care about someone or something, just so they can then snatch it away from her.  As Steve explains it:

“It’s genius, actually. They give you hope, only to rip it away. Much more effective than ripping you limb from limb.”

Trevor is not quite sure what to believe.  Nevertheless he cannot help but care for Persephone, and hope that she really is what she seems.  And that spurs him on to organize his fellow human students into tying to finally stand up to the demonic tormentors of the school.

Guarente’s scripting on Satan’s Prep is very good, darkly humorous & sardonic.  But his plotting of the story is somewhat uneven.  Scenes and events could have flowed a bit more smoothly into one another.

Guarente never takes the time to explain exactly how most of the human students ended up at the school.  Trevor is supposedly in Hell because of a mix-up in the paperwork.  A guy named Miles who was a stuck-up, spoiled rich kid on Earth is presumably there because he was a total jerk.  But the rest of the humans really seem like they were given a raw deal.  Guarente could have developed them more fully.

I also thought the ending was a bit weak. It felt like Guarente wanted to have a story that was simultaneously self-contained and that left the door open for sequels. But I don’t think he quite pulled it off as successfully as he could have.

Probably the strongest aspect of Satan’s Prep was the artwork by Dave Fox, who illustrated the cover and the first half of the book.  Fox is a really talented artist.  His characters are very expressive and full of personality.  He was the designer of the visuals for the book’s cast, and he draws them all incredibly well.  I was especially amused by his depiction of the school principal Cerberus.  The guardian of the underworld’s middle head is urbane and well-articulated, while his other two are savage and rabid.  And fitting a giant three-headed dog into a suit & tie is quite a sight.

Satans Prep pg 17

Fox’s use of gray tones in his artwork is very effective.  It definitely gives the story real atmosphere.

It’s regrettable that Fox couldn’t illustrate the entirety of Satan’s Prep.  Having the second half of the book drawn by two other artists breaks up the flow of the story somewhat, as well as results in some of the characters’ visuals being a bit uneven and off-model.

I certainly do not want to disparage the work of either Luis Chichon or Tricia Van den Bergh.  They both appear to be talented artists.  It is just that both of their styles are quite different from Fox’s work, as well as from each other.

I did like the coloring by Aya Ikeda-Barry on Satan’s Prep.  She colored almost the entire book (Matthew Petz is listed as the co-colorist on chapter three, so I’m not certain about the division of labor there).  Having Ikeda-Barry coloring the majority of the story probably gave it a bit more consistency of tone & atmosphere across the work of the three different artists than in might otherwise have had.

Oh, yeah, I wish the size of the lettering could have been larger.

Although a somewhat rough production, Satan’s Prep was still a good read, and it’s worth a look.  If there is a sequel, hopefully Guarente will take his experiences writing this and improve upon his craft.  His work shows definite potential.  Likewise, ideally a follow-up will have a single artist illustrating the entire story.

I blame Orrgo the Unconquerable for this weather

I’m looking out the window right now and all I see is snow.  Yep, more snow.  I am so sick of snow.

Winter is a funny thing.  When it’s late December you think to yourself “Wouldn’t it be nice to get a little snow, have a White Christmas for once?”  It usually doesn’t happen.  But then January rolls around and you start getting snow… and more snow… and still more snow.  So much snow that by the time you hit March and you’ve spent most of the last month suffering from a bad cold you’re literally shaking your fist and crying out “No! Not more snow! When is this winter going to end?!?”

I’m starting to think that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for all of this snow.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

Orrgo the Unconquerable is one of those numerous oddball monsters who first appeared between the mid 1950s and early 60s in stories published by Marvel Comics before they began their groundbreaking superhero revival in late 1961.  These were pretty formulaic affairs which involved some seemingly-unstoppable menace from beyond threating the whole of humanity, until the day is saved in a convenient last-minute (and often left-field) twist.

What caused many of these monsters to stand out were the bizarre designs they were given by artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, plus the offbeat names that writer / editor Stan Lee gave them.  That’s certainly the case with Orrgo.

Orrgo first appeared in Strange Tales #90, cover-dated November 1961 (the same month as Fantastic Four #1) in a story illustrated by Kirby and inker Dick Ayers.  According to the Grand Comics Database, the story was probably plotted by Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber.

An alien invader of seemingly-unlimited power, Orrgo sets out to conquer the Earth.  All of humanity’s weapons are totally powerless against him.  As seen above, he even freezes the city of Washington DC in a sold block of ice.

Eventually Orrgo decides to hypnotize the entire planet into obeying him.  Having defeated humanity, Orrgo then returns to the circus where he first arrived on Earth and takes a nap under a tree.  Well, even when you are an “unconquerable” menace, I expect that it is still a bit of work to crush whole worlds under your heel, and you eventually need to get some shut-eye.

Pow! Right in the kisser!

Pow! Right in the kisser!

Unfortunately for Orrgo, while he is catching some zzz’s, and the Earth’s population is in a hypnotic trance, the circus gorilla Jo-Jo breaks loose, furious that he hasn’t been fed.  Sensing that Orrgo is somehow responsible for his missing meals, the gorilla smashes the slumbering alien conquerer in the head, killing him.

Yeah, I did mention those last-minute, left-field resolutions, didn’t I?!?

You can read the entire story “Orrgo the Unconquerable” from Strange Tales #90 on The Golden Age blog.

Anyway, this is comic books, and no one ever stays dead forever.  Along with various other “pre-hero” monsters, Orrgo (or at least another member of his race) has been brought back on a few occasions by Marvel.  Most notably, Orrgo resurfaced in the bizarre yet fun Defenders revival by Kurt Busiek & Erik Larsen that ran from 2001 to 2002.  Orrgo was summoned by that supremely weird group of villains known as the Headmen, who used him to temporarily take over the world.

A mesmerizing comic book!

A mesmerizing comic book!

So, yeah, given his penchant for fast-freezing entire metropolitan areas, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for this awful winter weather.  To which I can only say… knock it off buddy, before I send another gorilla to bop you on the noggin!

Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.