Strange Comic Books: Doctor Strange #37

Yipes, I’ve been so busy with my temp job and other stuff the past week, I haven’t had an opportunity to write anything for this blog.  I also ended up going to visit my parents in Connecticut, since they were pretty insistent that I begin clearing out some of the boxes of comic books I had stored in their basement.  A few of the things that I took back to Queens I’m going to keep, but most of it I’ll try to sell or give away.  Hey, anyone interested in any Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man stuff from the 1990s?  Let me know!

Anyway, coincidentally I recently finished re-reading the Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1 collection featuring the original stories of Marvel’s master of the mystic arts by Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and friends that were originally presented in the pages of Strange Tales back in the mid-1960s.  Having re-experienced those early adventures of Stephen Strange, I decided to take home with me the various more recent issues of Doctor Strange from my collection, and read those.  Having just experienced those early Ditko/Lee tales certainly gave me a different perspective on the later material by such writers as Peter Gillis, Roy Thomas, David Quinn, and J.M. DeMatteis.  In any case, one of those Thomas-penned issues, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37, was a book I wanted to spotlight in Strange Comic Books for a while now.

Doctor Strange 37 cover

With a cover date of January 1992, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37 is from the writing team of Roy & Dann Thomas and J.M. Lofficier, with artwork by Geof Isherwood.  The issue has the memorable story title of “Frankensurfer,” which might bring to mind images of Boris Karloff in full monster make-up catching a wave off the coast of Hawaii.  But it is actually a sequel to the classic Silver Surfer #7, by Stan Lee & John Buscema, which saw Ludwig von Frankenstein, a descendent of the infamous mad scientist, created a duplicate of Galactus’ herald.

On his way home after the comic events of the Infinity Gauntlet crossover, Doctor Strange is seemingly attacked over the skies of Manhattan by the Silver Surfer.  Driving off his foe, the Sorcerer Supreme is extremely surprised to hear the fleeing Sentinel of the Spaceways declare his intention to return to Castle Frankenstein.  Perplexed, Strange decides, instead of pursuing, to engage in a bit of research.  He returns to his Sanctum Sanctorum and consults the Book of the Vishanti.  The mystic tome provides Strange with a detailed recounting of the long, twisted, and bloody histories of the Frankenstein families.  Along the centuries, we learn the history of the notorious creature constructed and brought to life by Victor Frankenstein.  The family’s run-ins with Dracula, Solomon Kane, the Invaders (a story which I covered in a previous blog post), Iron Man, and, of course, the Silver Surfer are related to Strange.

Finishing his research, Strange finally heads off to Castle Frankenstein.  There he encounters Victoria von Frankenstein, Ludwig’s daughter who has dedicated her life to making amends for her family’s terrible past.  Victoria and “the Children,” the deformed results of her father and grandfather’s terrible experiments, have been imprisoned in the castle dungeons by the “Frankensurfer.”  Victorian reveals this ersatz Surfer is actually Borgo, her father’s former assistant, who was horribly crippled during the events of the Lee & Buscema tale.  Managing to replicate Ludwig’s experiments, Borgo became a new duplicate Surfer, and has sworn vengeance on a world he feels has scorned him.  The Frankensurfer reappears, battling Strange anew.  During the fight, an innocent bystander is slain.  Borgo immediately recognizes her as the woman who cared for him after he almost died, one of the few people to ever show him kindness.  Horrified, the repentant Borgo uses his stolen powers to fly at full speed straight into the face of a nearby mountain, killing himself.

Doctor Strange 37 pg 5

As was later explained in a subsequent issue’s letter column, “Frankensurfer” had an interesting genesis.  It began life as a two part “Book of the Vishanti” back-up tale written by Roy Thomas and Jean-Marc Lofficier.  Afterwards, Roy and his wife Dann then wrote the twelve page story of Borgo the Frankensurfer to frame it, making the entire story an issue-long tale.  I think it works very well indeed.  Roy Thomas and J.M. Lofficier do an excellent job of taking material from a variety of comic books published by Marvel over the previous quarter century and weave it into a coherent, informative, intriguing faux-history for the notorious Frankenstein family.  And then Roy & Dann tie that in with an entertaining, haunting, tragic tale set in the present day, as Strange deals with the still-lingering legacies of the Frankenstein dynasty.

Of course, Roy Thomas is a veteran writer at Marvel, having written classic runs on numerous titles, among them Avengers, Conan, Fantastic Four, and X-Men.  So I always expect top-notch work from his pen.  As for J.M. Lofficier, with his wife Randy he wrote The Doctor Who Programme Guide.  Back in the early 1980s, when I was first getting into Doctor Who, in those pre-Internet, pre-DVD days, that two volume tome was invaluable in gleaming in-depth information about the early years of the series.  So when Thomas and Lofficier got together, you were pretty much guaranteed a tale that was both entertaining and extremely well researched.

The artwork by Geof Isherwood on “Frankensurfer” is just superb.  He has an illustrative style a bit reminiscent of the Filipino comic book artists.  I recall that when he came onboard as the artist on Doctor Strange in the early 1990s, it was a breath of fresh air.  When seemingly every other new artist wanted to do their riff on Liefeld, Lee, or McFarlane, here was someone with a much more classically influenced look to his work.  Although he had drawn a handful of the “Book of the Vishanti” back-ups, Doctor Strange #37 was actually Isherwood’s first regular issue on the title, and he stayed with the series until #59.  After that he moved over to Namor the Sub-Mariner, where he also did excellent work.

Doctor Strange 37 pg 21

If you can find a copy of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37, it’s definitely worth picking up.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t ever been reprinted, but I’m sure it can be located pretty easily on Ebay or at a comic book convention.  While you are at it, I’d recommend checking out some of the other issues of Roy & Dann’s run.  They did some good stories, both with Isherwood and, before him, the super-talented Jackson “Butch” Guice.

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Doctor Who reviews: The Name of the Doctor

The long-awaited finale of Doctor Who Series Seven has aired.  There was a hell of a lot of anticipation concerning “The Name of the Doctor.”  Would writer & showrunner Steven Moffat finally reveal the secret of Clara Oswald, the “impossible girl” who kept reappearing throughout time & space?

First off, a great deal happens in “The Name of the Doctor.”  Twelve hours later, I am still absorbing everything that happened in it, wondering about the consequences and implications.  But I will say this: Moffat certainly did a heck of a job with this one.

The Great Intelligence, now wearing the form of its deceased pawn Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), and utilizing its sinister, faceless servants the Whisper Men, kidnaps the Paternoster Gang.  The Intelligence leaves free Clara, who had been in a psychic “conference call” with the Gang and River Song, to lead the Doctor to the planet Trenzalore.  Although he wants to rescue his friends, the Doctor is extremely apprehensive.  He reveals to Clara that, at some point in his own personal future, he will die and be buried on that planet.

The Doctor crash-lands the TARDIS on Trenzalore.  It is a desolate planet, the surface covered with the gravestones of countless warriors who fell in a battle.  And on a hill is a massive monolith, the remains of his older self’s TARDIS, its time energies spilling out, distorting its dimensions, serving as the future Doctor’s tomb.  River Song (Alex Kingston), now the disembodied consciousness seen at the end of “Forest of the Dead,” is still in psychic contact with Clara.  Following instructions given by River, Clara leads the Doctor into a network of tunnels, hoping to avoid the Whisper Men.  Traveling underground, the psychic energies of the fallen TARDIS restores Clara’s memories of events from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” and she remembers the Doctor telling her how he had previously met two other versions of herself on the Dalek Asylum and in Victorian London.

The Doctor and Clara finally arrive at the TARDIS grave, where the Intelligence and Whisper Men are holding Vastra, Jenny and Strax captive.  The Intelligence wants the Doctor to open the doors to the tomb; the key is the Doctor’s real name.  If he will not speak it, the Whisper Men will kill the Doctor’s friends.  River, still invisible, and unheard by anyone, voices the Doctor’s name.  Inside the TARDIS, it is revealed that the Doctor’s corpse is a glowing “scar” of energy, a hole in the fabric of reality linked to the entirety of the Doctor’s past existence.  The Intelligence enters the scar, traveling back in time, infecting the Doctor’s past, altering his history, undoing all his victories.  The stars above Trenzalore begin to go out, and then both Jenny and Strax are erased from existence.  Vastra, still present, explains that all of the evils the Doctor thwarted, all the lives that he saved, all of it is being reversed, leaving the universe a much, much darker place.

Clara sudden realizes that she herself must plunge into the scar in time.  She is splintered into a million aspects all along the Doctor’s timeline, living an infinity of lives across time & space.  But this puts her in a position to displace the Intelligence in his history and undo the damage, unseen even of the Doctor’s numerous incarnations.  History and the proper state of the universe are restored.  The Doctor himself now jumps into his own time stream, and he is able to reintegrate Clara.  Before they can return to Trenzalore, though, Clara spots a shadowy figure, one she has not witnessed before.  The Doctor admits that this is a previously unrevealed incarnation of his, one who has forsaken even the name “Doctor.”  The figure turns to face them, and the credits roll.

The Name of the Doctor

Whew!  That was a hell of a ride.  First off, in terms of unraveling the mystery of Clara, Moffat did a top-notch job.  The revelation of how she became the “impossible girl” made perfect sense.  Jenna-Louise Coleman was absolutely fantastic in this.  Really, my admiration for her as an actress has grown by leaps & bounds over the last several weeks.  Truthfully, I initially found Clara to be an annoying character, just too smart and witty and competent.  But as Series 7B progressed, various writers developed her very effectively, and Coleman took the material and ran with it, turning Clara into a character I really liked.  When she sacrificed herself to save both the Doctor and the universe, I was genuinely upset, because I had no idea if this was going to be the last we would ever see of her.  And when the Doctor was able to restore her, I felt a real sense of relief.

Also, great work by Matt Smith.  As I mentioned it my review of last week’s episode “Nightmare in Silver,” his over-the-top lunacy was the weakest aspect of an otherwise good episode.  So I was relieved to see a very restrained, subtle, nuanced, emotional performance from him this time around.  Confronted by his inevitable demise, haunted by his past, and faced with the possibility of losing Clara, the Doctor had a great deal to cope with in this episode.  Smith certainly rose to the occasion.

This was one of the first times I could actually believe in the relationship between the Doctor and River Song.  Their exchange at the end of the episode felt emotionally genuine and real.  And when the Doctor kissed River, it felt real, like there truly was this incredible connection between the two.  Smith and Kingston played the scene very well.

I also felt that Richard E. Grant had a lot more to do this time around.  He seemed sort of wasted in the role of Simeon in “The Snowmen.”  But here, portraying the Great Intelligence itself, he was a suitably menacing villain.

The Whisper Men were downright scary.  When I first saw them, I thought they might be part of the Silence.  But they were quickly reveled to be the creations of the Great Intelligence.  They definitely make much more effective servants than its past tools, namely those robot Yeti who looked liked big, cuddly teddy bears, or the animated Victorian snowmen.  At the end of “The Name of the Doctor,” the Intelligence has seemingly been destroyed.  But if it does resurface again, I hope it will have the Whisper Men in tow.

Oh, yes, speaking of the Silence… was this what they were so worried about?  In “Let’s Kill Hitler,” it was stated that the reason why the Silence want to kill the Doctor is that he is destined to be asked the oldest question in the universe, at which point “Silence will fall.”  Later on, in “The Wedding of River Song,” it is revealed that this question is the Doctor’s identity, in other words “Doctor who?”  We were also told that the question would be asked on “the fields of Trenzalore.”  Well, that seems to be just what happens here in “The Name of the Doctor.”  The Great Intelligence asks the Doctor what his name is, and the question does get answered, albeit by River Song.  And as a result, the Intelligence infects the Doctor’s timeline, history is massively rewritten for the worse, and all the stars in the sky begin to go out.  That could very well be interpreted as silence falling across the universe.

In addition to tying in to recent continuity, there was a lot of other material in “The Name of the Doctor” for a long-time fan like myself to geek out to.  We saw both the Intelligence and Clara popping into various points in the Doctor’s timeline via the use of stock footage and some clever editing.  There is even a very brief scene set in the distant past on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, as the First Doctor steals the TARDIS, in the process running into one of Clara’s aspects.

Also in the episode, the Intelligence tells Vastra about the darkness in the Doctor’s being, of how he has a great deal of blood on his hands.  “He will have other names before the end: the Storm, the Beast, the Valeyard.”  Yep, the Intelligence mentioned the infamous V-word.  For those who don’t know, the sinister Valeyard made his debut in back in the season-long serial “The Trial of a Time Lord,” and was revealed to be a possible future incarnation of the Doctor, “an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation.”  Moffat has quite a few times explored the darker side of the Doctor, having both Amy Pond and River Song warning him of the importance of not traveling alone.  Given that, in the back of my mind I occasionally wondered if Moffat would ever return to the issue of the Valeyard.  Certainly this shows that he’s very aware of it.

John Hurt as The Doctor

And then we get to the end, with the revelation of an unknown incarnation of the Doctor.  Is he a future regeneration of the Doctor?  Or perhaps he is from the past?  He says that his actions were committed “in the name of peace and sanity.”  Could this have been the Doctor who fought in the last great Time War?  If so, is he actually the true Ninth Doctor?  And would that mean that the current version is actually not the Eleventh, but the Twelfth?  Which could mean that the Valeyard might be lurking around the corner?  Oh, man, so many unanswered questions to occupy my thoughts for the next six months, before Doctor Who returns for its 50th Anniversary special!

“Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.”  I try to avoid spoilers like the plague.  So I totally did not know this was coming.  What a shock.  I mean, since its revival Doctor Who has gotten some really prominent guest stars:  Simon Callow, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Dalton, David Warner, Diana Rigg.  And now John Hurt is going to be on Doctor Who.  Hell, John Hurt is the Doctor… somehow!  I have no clue how any of this is going to play out, but I’m really looking forward to finding out.

So that’s it for Series 7B.  It was a bit of an uneven set of episodes.  But, on the whole, I enjoyed most of them.  And it certainly ended on a high point with “The Name of the Doctor.”

Doctor Who reviews: Nightmare in Silver

I think expectations were pretty high for “Nightmare in Silver.”  After all, it was penned by acclaimed fantasy novelist & comic book writer Neil Gaiman, whose first Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” was very well received.  And this time around, Gaiman would be scripting the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen.  So, how does this one measure up?

Angie and Artie, the two mischievous children for whom Clara is a nanny, have more or less blackmailed their way onto the TARDIS.  The Doctor and Clara decide to take the terrible two to Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the greatest amusement park in the universe.  But once again the Doctor has arrived at the wrong time, and they arrive to find the park closed down and fallen into disrepair.  The only occupants are Webley, a carnival barker-type with a collection of oddities in his crashed spaceship, his companion Porridge, a chess playing dwarf, and an oddball platoon of troopers who have been exiled to the planet as punishment for having fouled up their last assignments.

Talking with Porridge (Warwick Davis), Clara learns that a thousand years before the human Empire had fought a devastating war with the Cybermen, one that finally ended with the destruction of an entire galaxy, and the seeming extinction of the cyborgs.  However, after a millennium of dormancy, the Cybermen are now ready to resurface.  It transpires that they had been secretly abducting visitors to Hedgewick and converting them into a hidden army.  The Doctor discovers their presence, but he is infected by their Cybermites, which attempt to upload the consciousness of their Cyber-Planner into his brain.  The Doctor and the Planner begin playing chess for control of the Time Lord’s body.  Meanwhile, the troopers, also learning of the Cybermen, prepare to detonate a bomb to destroy the planet.  Clara and Porridge have to try and stop this, and also hold of the approaching Cyber army, long enough for the Doctor to somehow outwit the Planner.

Nightmare in Silver

One of the main aspects of “Nightmare in Silver” that Gaiman apparently wanted to focus on was the Doctor turning evil, courtesy of the Cyber-Planner invading his consciousness.  Unfortunately, I really feel that this was the weakest aspect of the episode.  I do not know if it was Gaiman’s writing or Matt Smith’s acting, but the possessed Doctor was terribly over-the-top.  The Cybermen are supposed to be emotionless and logical.  So why would the Cyber-Planner, in the Doctor’s body, leap on top of a table and exuberantly declare that from now on he wants to be known as Mister Clever?  Matt Smith really ought to have been this cold, sinister figure, not a campy lunatic.

I did feel that Clara was much better served by the events of “Nightmare in Silver.”  With the Doctor off fighting for control of his body, it was up to everyone’s favorite Impossible Girl to organize the punishment squad into an effective line of defense against the Cybermen.  I think my girlfriend became an instant fan of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character.  “She’s cocky,” Michele declared to me, before adding, with admiration, “but she’s also confident.”  Coleman definitely had a good outing in this story.  And she had an especially nice rapport with Warwick Davis.

Ah, yes, Porridge.  What a fantastic character!  I am a big fan of the movie Willow, so it was great to see Warwick Davis show up on Doctor Who.  Gaiman did a superb job scripting Porridge, making him at turns humorous and introspective, and Davis played the part perfectly.  I’d love to see Porridge again at some point in the future.

The Cybermen themselves were pretty well represented.  I do like the slight redesign, streamlining the look they’ve had since they first returned to the show in 2006.  The voices are also an improvement.  And, yeah, they are pretty damn frightening, converting people on-screen, moving super-fast, detaching a variety of body parts which can act independently to attack people, and continually upgrading to become impervious to weaponry that is used against them.  I’ve read a few people complaining in reviews that Gaiman made them too much like the Borg.  Well, the Cybermen have been around since 1966, predating the Borg’s introduction on Star Trek: The Next Generation by a good 23 years.  You could make a very convincing case that the Borg are pretty much the Cybermen on a bigger budget.  So of course there are bound to be certain parallels between the two.

On the whole, I felt “Nightmare in Silver” was a pretty good episode, with lots of great concepts.  The only thing that really let it down was the plotline involving the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner vying for control.  This definitely should have been played much more seriously, instead of in the tongue-in-cheek manner that it actually was.  But despite that misstep, Gaiman did a pretty good job working with the Cybermen.  This was probably their strongest outing since they made their nu-Who debut in the “Rise of the Cybermen” two-parter back in 2006.

Remembering comic book artist Dave Hoover

I was reminded by Facebook that today, May 14th, would have been the birthday of artist Dave Hoover.  Tragically, Hoover passed away on September 4, 2011 at the much too young age of 56.  I was always a fan of his artwork, and so I wanted to write a few words to remember this talented individual.

Hoover, who came from an animation background, entered the comic book field in 1987.  One of his first assignments was for DC Comics, where he penciled Wanderers, a spin-off from Legion of Super-Heroes written by Doug Moench which lasted 13 issues.  After that, Hoover had a year-long run on Starman, paired with writers Roger Stern and  Len Strazewski and inker Scott Hanna.Captain America 437 signed

Moving over to Marvel in the early 1990s, the character who Hoover probably became most identified with was Captain America.  He penciled the Star-Spangled Avenger’s monthly title for a year and a half, drawing Mark Gruenwald’s final stories on the title.  Unfortunately, I think that Gruenwald, after nearly a decade on the book, was running out of steam at this point in time, and these issues of Captain America are not especially well regarded.  Nevertheless, Hoover’s art on these was certainly good.

Starman 27 coverHoover also drew Cap in the pages of a four issue Invaders miniseries.  This was an exciting World War II adventure penned by original Invaders scribe Roy Thomas, and Hoover’s artwork was a perfect match for it.

While at Marvel, Hoover also drew the Night Thrasher: Four Control miniseries, as well as numerous fill-in stories.  He worked on issues of Wolverine, Punisher, Quasar, and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, plus stories featuring She-Hulk and Iron Fist in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents.

In an animation-inspired style, Hoover was the penciler on several issues of Uncanny Origins, wherein he got to recount the early histories of several of the X-Men, as well as Firelord and Venom.

One of my favorite issues penciled by Hoover was Excalibur #40, “The Trial of Lockheed.”  Writer Scott Lobdell revealed the previously untold origin of Kitty Pryde’s little purple alien dragon.  Hoover’s art style was perfectly suited for this whimsical story.Excalibur 40 cover

After the comic book industry had its major downturn in the mid-1990s, Hoover returned to the animation field.  He still occasionally worked on comic book material, such as “The Parchment of Her Flesh,” a story that appeared in the fantasy anthology The Forbidden Book, published in 2001 by Renaissance Press.  Hoover also drew a number of illustrations inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the mid 2000s, Hoover very effectively remade himself as a “good girl artist,” drawing numerous cute, sexy illustrations of women which he posted in his gallery on Comic Art Fans.  I really enjoyed his work in this vein.  Unlike a lot of “bad girl” artists, Hoover drew beautiful females in a tasteful manner.  There was a charming playfulness to his pin-up drawings.

Along those lines, Hoover was the artist on the first few issues of a comic book based on the Charmed television series that Zenescope published in 2010, along with a handful of stories for their Grimm Fairy Tales anthology.  He also worked on Paula Peril, a series about a sexy, intrepid reporter who always seemed to get tied up by the bad guys during the course of her investigations.

Courtesy of Dave Hoover’s gallery on Comic Art Fans, here is an example of his good girl art, a jungle girl pin-up drawn in 2009…

Dave Hoover jungle girl

I was fortunate enough to meet Dave Hoover on a few occasions.  He was a guest at the 2001 Pittsburgh Comic Con, and a few years ago made a surprise appearance at one of the Big Apple shows here in NYC.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed his work and get one of his Captain America issues autographed.  I also purchased a nice pin-up he had drawn of Cap with his teen protégé Free Spirit, as well as one of the original pages of artwork from his run on the series.  I really wish I’d been able to get a commission done by him, maybe of Cap’s girlfriend Diamondback, who he drew so well.  But the opportunity just never seemed to come up.

In any case, here is a scan of that Captain America & Free Spirit illustration I acquired from Hoover.  Sorry I don’t have a better quality pic of it.Free Spirit Captain America Dave Hoover

If you are not familiar with Dave Hoover’s amazing art, I certainly urge you to seek his work out.  His Invaders miniseries was collected as part of the Invaders Classic Vol. 4, and most of his Captain America issues are contained in the two Fighting Chance trade paperbacks.  You can find pics of many of his pin-up drawings online.  And it’s well worth a search through the back issue bins to search out some of the other comic books that he illustrated.

Doctor Who reviews: The Crimson Horror

Things have been really busy, and I didn’t have an opportunity to watch last week’s Doctor Who episode, “The Crimson Horror,” until this afternoon.  Thank you, DVR!  So here, at last are my thoughts on it.

The year is 1893.  Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are in Yorkshire, investigating a rash of mysterious deaths that have left people colored blood red, the eponymous Crimson Horror.  The last victims of this strange ailment were investigating Sweetville, a model community that has been organized by Mrs. Gillyflower and her blind daughter Ada as a supposed refuge against the coming apocalypse.  Jenny, posing as a convert to Gillyflower’s movement, infiltrates Sweetville.  There, hidden in a locked room, she finds none other than the Doctor, himself a victim of the Crimson Horror.  He is still alive due to his alien physiology, but mostly paralyzed and in terrible pain.  Jenny manages to get him into a revival unit in the factory and, restored to his usual eccentric self, the two go in search of Clara.  She, along with most of the other recruits to Sweetville, has been frozen in suspended animation.  Gillyflower intends to unleash a prehistoric plague to wipe out humanity, and then revive the assembled population of Sweetville to form a “perfect” community on the now-desolate Earth.

The highlight of “The Crimson Horror” was the casting of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling as Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada.  Writer Mark Gatiss had been working in a play with Stirling and, learning that she had never acted opposite her mother, drafted this episode exactly with that in mind.  I quite liked Stirling’s previous Doctor Who performance in the Big Finish audio play “Trail of the White Worm.”  So it was nice to see her make the leap to an actual television episode.  And, of course, Diana Rigg was amazing.  Even at age 74, she’s still a real firecracker, and can probably out-act most people in the profession who are a third her age.  Gatiss really came up with an interesting, complex, troubled mother-daughter dynamic for Rigg and Sterling to act out in this story, and both play their roles extremely well.

No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you'll look just like Patrick MacNee.

No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you’ll look just like Patrick MacNee.

It was an interesting choice to have the Doctor and Clara absent from the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode, having the story told from the point of view of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.  I did enjoy seeing Jenny, portrayed by Catrin Stewart, getting to work solo for some of the episode, and then do a bit of ass-kicking, coincidentally or not coming across much like a later day Emma Peel.  She’s certainly a credit to Dame Diana’s proud legacy of tough, independent women.

I enjoyed the whimsical, retro flashback sequence as Jenny is brought up to speed by the Doctor on how he and Clara got involved in the Sweetville investigation.  There is this faux-grainy film stock intermingled with still photos.  Very effective, and it suits the mood of the story perfectly.

As I mentioned in my review of “The Snowmen,” the character of Strax the Sontaran was rather annoying, and his constant use as comic relief fell flat.  I found him much more acceptable in “The Crimson Horror,” probably because he actually got to do stuff, rather than just stand around acting silly.  And when Strax was humorously oblivious or belligerent, it just seemed to work better.

The thing is, once the Doctor gets revived, bam, Matt Smith pretty much steals the show.  It felt like the Paternoster Gang was pushed off to the side in the second half of the episode.  So, I spent the early part of “The Crimson Horror” wondering where the Doctor and Clara were, and the later part hoping that Jenny, Vastra, and Strax would pop up again.  It was maddening.  We certainly didn’t see nearly enough of Madame Vastra, as played by the wonderful Neve McIntosh.

That was the episode’s major weakness: there were just too many characters fighting for screen time.  I really wish that this one could have been longer.  “The Crimson Horror” had a hell of a lot of potential, with solid writing and acting.  There were definitely a lot of great scenes.  But at the end it just felt like too much had been left out due to time constraints.

This is why I would so much like to see the Paternoster Gang receive a special or miniseries.  It would be great to see them step out from the Doctor’s shadow.  I definitely think that there is a hell of a lot of potential to Vastra, Jenny and Strax.

Anyway, yeah, while “The Crimson Horror” did have certain problems, on the whole it was quite good.  Not a perfect episode, by any means, but certainly not a bad one, either.  I guess I’d say it was above average.  That said, I wouldn’t mind watching it again, which is always a good sign.

Memories of Ray Harryhausen

Another childhood hero gone.  I just found out that legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, passed away on May 7th at the age of 92.

The first film I ever saw which Harryhausen worked on was actually his last one, Clash of the Titans.  I was six years old in 1981.  When Clash of the Titans came into the theaters, it totally blew me away.  I kept asking my father to take me back to see it again.  I must have seen it in the theater at least half a dozen times.

Since I was just a kid, I didn’t pay any attention to the film’s credits.  So the first time I found out about Harryhausen was several years later, in 1988.  The science fiction magazine Starlog printed an extensive interview with him, complete with numerous photos from his various films.  I realized that not only had Harryhausen done the special effects for Clash of the Titans, he had also worked on numerous other sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades.  Some of these I had seen on television, such as Mighty Joe Young, which he worked on in 1947 as an assistant to stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, as well as some of his later solo efforts, namely Mysterious Island (1961) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

That article in Starlog pointed the way to many of Harryhausen’s other great movies, which I began searching out on television and video cassette.  My father, who had grown up watching a lot of those Harryhausen classics in the movie theater, often would join me in front of the TV, sometimes tracking down those films on VHS for me.  I remember watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) with him.  Now that I think about it, when my father first saw those films in the movie theater when he was a kid, he would have been pretty much the same age I was when I saw Clash of the Titans.  Maybe when you are six years old it really is a magical age.

Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans

Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans

It might be difficult to explain to younger people in this age of super-realistic CGI, but back before the advent of computer animation, stop-motion effects were the best way to create monsters and aliens in a super-realistic fashion.  And the master of giving life to these tiny, detailed puppets & models, imbuing them with emotion and subtle gestures, was Ray Harryhausen.

Stop-motion animation required the utmost patience, as well a tremendous skill.  The process involved moving the model a minute amount, shooting one frame of film, moving the model a bit more, shooting another frame, and repeating the process numerous times until you had several minutes of footage.  And at the end, after all those long days of work, hopefully you had something that looked natural and alive, rather than awkward & jerky. Well, I tell you, Harryhausen’s creations definitely possessed a smoothness & fluidity.

The sequence at the end of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts is considered one of the greatest achievements of Harryhausen’s career.  Having killed the Hydra and obtained the Golden Fleece, Jason is making his way back to his boat the Argos.  Jason and two of the Argonauts stay to hold off the forces of the vengeful King Aeetes while the rest of the crew retreat to their vessel.  Aeetes takes the teeth of the slain Hydra and sprinkles them on the ground, in effect sowing them.  And the bitter fruit that sprouts up are “the children of the Hydra’s teeth,” seven skeletal warriors.  Aeetes bellows “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” and the undead soldiers charge.  We then have an absolutely amazing fight sequence, as Harryhausen seamlessly integrates the live action footage of the three actors with his stop-motion animation of the seven skeletons.

(If you do a search on YouTube, I’m sure you can find the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts posted there.  If you haven’t seen it before, it is definitely well worth viewing.)

The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts

The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts

I had long often hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to meet Harryhausen, so I could let him know just how much enjoyment his films brought me.  Unfortunately, that’s now never going to happen.  But I do know that in the 1980s and 90s, appreciation for Harryhausen’s work grew by leaps & bounds in sci-fi fandom, and a great many other people did have the chance to tell him how much his work meant to them.  This included a number of individuals who went on to become very successful filmmakers in their own right, among them Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and John Landis.  So I’m glad to know that Ray Harryhausen lived a long, productive, happy life, and that he was received recognition for his amazing creative accomplishments.

Free Comic Book Day 2013

Yesterday I headed into Manhattan for Free Comic Book Day, which takes place on the first Saturday in May each year.  The past few years I’ve gone to Jim Hanley’s Universe, and while I always had a good time there, it seemed like I kept missing out on the really cool promo issues because the store ran out of them early in the day.  This year, I decided to change things up.  I went over to Manhattan Comics, a cool store on 23rd Street near the Flatiron Building.

Arriving at Manhattan Comics in the early afternoon, I was happy to see that they still had a huge selection of FCBD issues.  There was a limit of three free books per customer.  Here is what I got:

Atomic Robo – I am a pretty fan of Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener’s super-cool, fun, intelligent, witty series about a crime-fighting robot originally built by Nikola Tesla.  Atomic Robo teams up with the Action Scientists of Tesladyne Industries to combat all manner of bizarre foes.  Each year Clevinger & Wegener have put out a FCBD special issue, and I finally succeeded in picking up the latest one.

Molly Danger – This is a brand new series written & illustrated by the super-talented Jamal Igle published by Action Lab Entertainment.  I’ve followed Igle’s work on various titles for a number of years now, and I’m thrilled that he’s now working on a creator-owned series.  I’d read on Facebook that Molly Danger would be making its debut on FCBD, so I’m thrilled I was able to pick up a copy.

Uglydoll Comics – My girlfriend Michele loves the ultra-cute Uglydoll stuffed toys, so I got this one for her.  Yeah, okay, I think they’re adorable, as well.  VIZ Media will be releasing an Uglydoll graphic novel in August.  The FCBD issue also had a Hello Kitty back-up by Jacob Chabot.  Once again, Michele loves Hello Kitty, so that was a pleasant surprise.  Actually, our cat Nettie looked a lot like Hello Kitty when she was a little kitten.

Uglydoll FCBD

Manhattan Comics was having a huge storewide sale.  Everything was 40% off.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m actually trying to get rid of stuff to make more room in the apartment, I would have probably gone crazy snatching up comics and graphic novels.  As it is, I picked up several back issues.  I also bought the latest issue of Iron Man, which features the return of the classic team of David Michelinie & Bob Layton for a special story arc.  I expect I’ll be blogging about that once the whole storyline has been released.

There were several comic book creators doing signing at Manhattan Comics for FCBD.  Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder arrived at the store at three in the afternoon.  I’ve been a fan of Reeder’s exquisite artwork since she was drawing Madame Xanadu several years ago.  Reeder & Montclare created the Halloween Eve one-shot, which was published last October by Image Comics.  I was never able to find it when it first came out, so I was happy to see that they had copies for sale.  Reeder also did a really lovely sketch in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.  I’m looking forward to their next collaboration, which is in the works.

Molly Danger FCBD

Afterwards, I headed down to the Greenwich Village.  A couple of employees from Manhattan Comics had decided to start up a comic book store of their own.  Carmine Street Comics is sharing space with a small independent book shop.  They’re located about a block off of Bleecker Street.  That made it a cinch to locate, which was a huge relief, since I usually get hopelessly lost in the West Village!

There were some good trade paperbacks for sale at Carmine Street Comics, as well as an interesting assortment of independent back issues from the last couple of decades.  There wasn’t anything that especially leaped out at me that day, but I’ll definitely be stopping back there again.  I certainly wish them the best of luck.  It seems like a nice little spot.

A number of small press & independent creators were signing at Carmine Street Comics for FCBD.  Enrique Carrion was there with copies of his series Vescell, which is published by Image Comics.  Vescell seems to be a risqué supernatural espionage series.  Flipping through a couple of the books, it seemed pretty interesting, and the artwork by John Upchurch was really nice.  So I decided to give it a try, and I bought a copy of issue #7.

Atomic Robo FCBD

It seems like a lot of people come out for Free Comic Book Day.  Maybe it is just the promise of free stuff drawing people, but hopefully some of them will actually become interested enough in what they see to try picking up some stuff.  Yeah, I do like to complain about Marvel and DC’s current output.  But the fact is, as I have said before, there really is so much great independent and small press material out there.  And with any luck, FCBD succeeds in putting the spotlight on some of it.

Oh, yeah, and be sure to buy Molly Danger when it comes out in July, okay?  Jamal Igle is amazing.

Comic book reviews: Absolution, by Christos Gage

“When I say of the righteous that he will surely live, and he relied on his righteousness and committed injustice, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered, and for the injustices which he committed he shall die.” – Ezekiel 33:13

I’ve been a fan of Christos Gage’s work since I saw The Breed, the noir vampire detective film he wrote with his wife Ruth Fletcher Gage.  The two also penned episodes for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  When Gage began working in the comic book field, I picked up some of his books, starting with his 2005 Deadshot miniseries.  Since then, he has worked on a diverse selection of titles for a number of publishers.

One of my favorite books that Gage wrote was Stormwatch: Post Human Division, a title set in the Wildstorm universe that was really a police procedural with superhero trappings.  Regrettably, his run on the series only lasted a year, but during that brief time Gage wrote some interesting stories with colorful characters.

Back in October 2009, I met Gage at the Wizard World Big Apple Comic Con.  He suggested that since I had been a fan of Stormwatch, I should take a look at Absolution, a new miniseries he had written that was being published by Avatar Press.  I picked up the prequel zero issue, read it, and was instantly hooked.  And so I proceeded to follow the main six issue series.

Absolution 0 cover

I’ve been hoping that Gage would have the opportunity to write a sequel.  Finally, it was announced that Absolution: Rubicon would be coming out later this year.  I thought this would be a good time to look back on the original miniseries.

Absolution is the story of John Dusk, a costumed crimefighter in a world where superhumans are relatively rare, and those who fight crime are members of organized law enforcement.  The majority of the criminals who Dusk and his super-powered colleagues deal with are “normal” humans.  But that is not as easy a task as you would think.  Dusk encounters, on a daily basis, the scum of humanity: serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and wife beaters.  Even worse, when he does fight “supervillains,” most of them are violent sociopaths.  (Imagine some of the ultra-twisted Unsubs from Criminal Minds, but with super powers.)

And, unlike Batman or Spider-Man, who can just beat the crap out of bad guys and leave them tied to the nearest lamppost, Dusk, being a member of the police, is required to do things by the book.  He has to arrest lawbreakers and bring them in to face trial in an imperfect criminal justice system almost exactly like our own in the real world.

The strain of eight long years on the job, seeing innocents mutilated and murdered, watching criminals get paroled or acquitted only to commit crimes anew, has finally gotten to Dusk.  When he sleeps, he has nightmares about crime scenes.  When he has sex with his girlfriend, all he can see are the faces of female homicide victims.

In the afterword to the zero issue, Gage notes “I knew from writing for the TV show Law & Order: SVU that real life sex crimes officers are forced to transfer to a different department after a certain amount of time, because no sane human being can see what they do and keep it together for long.”  Such is the case with John Dusk.  He is completely burnt out, and the healthiest thing in the world for him to do would be to simply quit.  Unfortunately, he isn’t able to.  As one of only a handful of superhumans on the police force, he is desperately needed.  After killing a suspect Dusk is flat-out told by his supervisor “If you were a cop, you’d be on administrative leave while this is investigated. But it’s not like we can replace you.”

Dusk believes there is no way out.  He is haunted by the victims he couldn’t save, and feels helpless to protect the innocent.  So finally, in secret, he begins using his superpowers to kill criminals in cold blood.  For the first time in months, he can sleep peacefully.  He once again feels like he is making a difference.  And even though Dusk knows what he is doing is against the laws he has sworn to uphold, he finds he cannot stop.  In fact, he starts to gain satisfaction from the killings.  In effect, Dusk becomes a serial killer whose victims are criminals.

Absolution 1 wrap cover

Gage writes Absolution in what I found to be a deeply ambivalent tone.  It really offers a challenge to the reader.  On the one hand, we are unsettled that Dusk is taking the law into his hands and committing murder.  On the other hand, his victims are scum, the worst of criminals, and we feel a definite satisfaction at seeing Dusk dispense his own brutal form of justice.

In other words, we don’t know whether we should be disgusted by John Dusk’s actions, or if we ought to be cheering him on.  Gage leaves us wondering if we were in Dusk’s position would we be doing the exact same thing.

Unfortunately, all actions have consequences, and Dusk’s vigilante killings eventually have the indirect result of causing innocent people to suffer.  Dusk did not intend for this to happen, but if not for the choices he made, it would not have occurred.

This brings me to the reason why, despite my sympathy for Dusk, and the revulsion I have for the scum he kills, I find him very disturbing.  Dusk may have the best intentions in the world, but he is only human.  Can he truly say with one hundred percent certainty that each and every criminal he killed deserved to die?  One of Dusk’s victims runs a dog fighting ring.  Yes, that’s a pretty lowlife activity, certainly deserving of punishment.  Even so, killing that guy did seem a bit extreme.

I also keep thinking about hypotheticals.  How soon before Dusk gets sloppy and bystanders get caught in the crossfire?  Or, worse yet, he makes the ultimate mistake, and kills someone who is actually innocent?

That is one of the main reasons why we have regulations governing the police, why there is a system of trial by jury, why suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty and have the right to legal representation: because human beings make mistakes.  Sometimes the police do arrest innocent people by accident.  Even the most scrupulously honest police officer who does everything by the book is not immune to error.  And power can make cops and prosecutors arrogant, overconfident, and even corrupt them.  It’s human nature.

Would we really want a draconian criminal justice system made up entirely of John Dusks?  In the pages of Absolution, the majority of the public supports Dusk’s actions.  But if each and every police officer had the freedom to execute whoever they felt deserved to die, I doubt we would feel very safe.  In fact, I expect we’d be living in fear of those who were supposed to be protecting us.

Yes, we have a deeply flawed criminal justice system badly in need of fixing.  But I would still rather live here in the United States than, say, Communist China or the old Soviet Union, where authority figures such as John Dusk were the rule rather than the exception.

Gage also implies that Dusk’s motives are not as pure as the driven snow.  Once his actions come to light, Dusk is approached by Happy Kitty, an adrenaline-junkie hitwoman.  When asked what she wants, Happy Kitty simply states “Let’s go play.”  An angry Dusk answers “When hell freezes over. I don’t kill for fun.”  Happy Kitty merely laughs at this and bounces off, leaving Dusk to mutter to himself “Not like her. Never like her.”  You have to wonder who he’s trying to convince.

Absolution 4 pg 4

The conclusion of Absolution was left open-ended by Gage.  That was initially disappointing, as I’d been hoping for a story with more closure.  But it did leave things open for the upcoming sequel.  John Dusk is a complex, disturbed individual who bears further examination.  I look forward to seeing what occurs in the new miniseries as he continues in his self-appointed role of judge, jury, and executioner.  What happens if he crosses paths with his former law enforcement colleagues?  Will he fight, perhaps even harm, his old friends to prevent them from halting his crusade?  And, if Dusk does make a tragic mistake, and someone innocent dies, what then?  There is plenty of territory for Gage to explore.

In the end, Gage accomplishes on Absolution what would probably be difficult for a mainstream superhero series from DC or Marvel.  He makes the reader think, and poses questions that truly do relate to the real world, questions with no easy answers.

The art on Absolution is courtesy of Roberto Viacava.  He did some fine work on this miniseries.  This is undoubtedly an odd comparison, but Viacava’s style reminded me of Mike McKone crossed with Steve Dillon.

As with a lot of Avatar titles, Absolution was released with a number of variant covers.  My favorites were the impressive, hyper-detailed wrap-around pieces by Juan Jose Ryp.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Geoff Darrow.  The regular covers by Jacen Burroughs were also quite good.

Avatar collected Absolution into a trade paperback back in mid-2010.  I took a look on Amazon, and it’s still available for purchase.  It’s a good way to get caught up on the story so far before the new miniseries comes out in a few months.