Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part two

The second half of Criminal Minds season eight wrapped up a few weeks ago, and it was definitely one hell of a ride.  The various subplots set up in early episodes all came to a head, beginning in the mid-season opener “Zugzwang.”  Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) had, over a period of months, been developing a relationship over the phone with Maeve (Beth Riesgraf), a geneticist who was in seclusion due to her being menaced by a stalker.  Just when it seemed that Maeve was in the clear, and she could finally meet Reid, the stalker finally surfaces in the persona of a very loony Michelle Trachtenberg.  Maeve is kidnapped, and is soon the tragic victim of a murder/suicide, killed right in front of a horrified Reid.  As a viewer, it was a real kick in the gut.  The socially awkward BAU agent finally found his soul mate only to have her cruelly taken away like that.  Maeve’s death would continue to haunt Reid for the remainder of the season.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) also went through the emotional wringer, as his past came back to haunt him.  In the episode “Restoration,” the BAU is investigating a series of brutal beatings in Chicago, and they soon realize that the UnSub is a past victim of Carl Buford, a sexual predator who molested dozens of teenage boys, including a young Morgan.  The BAU is forced to turn to the imprisoned Buford to get his help in narrowing down the suspect list, bringing Morgan face to face with his childhood tormentor.  That’s the interesting thing about Morgan.  On the surface, he appears to be this confident, happy, handsome guy who has it all.  But underneath all that there is this painful past which has led him to join the FBI in order to aid other people who have been victimized.

Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight.

Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight

Another member of the BAU with layers is Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), the BAU’s former communications liaison turned profiler.  JJ often comes across as having a very laid-back, casual demeanor.  But she is also a mother to a young son, Henry, a role equally important to her.  In the previous season, we saw hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, as she engaged in a vicious hand to hand fight with Tricia Helfer’s serial killer bank robber in order to keep Henry safe.  This season, another case hit home for JJ’s maternal instincts.  In “Nanny Dearest,” we learn that the BAU has been attempting to solve a case for several years.  Each year, a nanny and the child in her care are abducted by an UnSub.  The child is typically returned unharmed within 24 hours, but inevitably the tortured & drowned body of the nanny is found disposed of in Los Angeles on the exact same day of the year.  Hoping to prevent a new killing, the BAU fly out to LA, only to learn the latest abduction has occurred ahead of schedule, except this time the child has yet to be recovered.  JJ is reminded of her son, who due to the work schedule of herself and her husband, is often left with a nanny.  Following a number of leads, JJ and Morgan finally locate the UnSub, and a determined JJ kills the murderer in a tense shoot-out.

By far the biggest plotline of Season Eight was the emergence of the Replicator.  In the first half of the season, the BAU was being stalked by a mysterious figure, an individual who then began committing copycat killings of various cases the team had recently solved.  As the second half of the season progresses, the Replicator steps up his game, actively taunting the members of the BAU, as well as manipulating another individual into carrying out some of the killings.

As I mentioned in my write-up of the first half of the season, I was wondering if there might be some connection between the Replicator and A) the person stalking Maeve or B) the fumbled FBI investigation that nearly ended the career of Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) twelve years ago.  Well, I was wrong about the first connection, although the Replicator did take advantage of Maeve’s abduction to offer his first taunt of “Zugzwang” to Reid.  However, I was totally on target on the second point.

After nearly a year of build-up, I was hoping that the reveal of the Replicator wouldn’t be a let-down.  Criminal Minds definitely came up with pitch-perfect casting, as the BAU’s arch-foe is revealed to be portrayed by none other than Mark Hamill.  And if you thought he was creepy as the voice of the Joker on Batman: the Animated Series, here as the Replicator he is downright scary.

The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent turned serial killer John Curtis

The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent
turned serial killer John Curtis

Who is the Replicator?  He is FBI agent John Curtis, and a dozen years previously his career suffered a major setback as, along with Alex Blake, the blame for a botched investigation into a series of anthrax attacks was shifted onto him by Assistant Director Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson).  Curtis blamed Strauss for delivering this near fatal blow to his career, he was jealous of Blake for rebuilding her position in the FBI when he was unable to do so, and he resented the BAU for offering Blake a place on their team, something he felt he deserved much more than her.  All that set off his obsessive stalking of the BAU, and the replication of their cases, with the end goal of first humiliating and then killing them.

The character who Curtis directs much of his ire towards, Erin Strauss, is an interesting one.  Early on, Strauss was an ambitious, ruthless figure who often maintained an adversarial attitude towards the BAU.  As the series progressed, Strauss gradually mellowed, becoming more of an ally.  When it became apparent that Strauss was suffering from alcoholism, the members of the BAU helped her to both enter recovery and to save her career.  So the Strauss who the Replicator confronts is a very different woman from the person who threw Curtis and Blake to the wolves back in 2001.

Unfortunately, the vengeful Curtis takes Strauss prisoner and forces her at gunpoint to drink, destroying her hard-won sobriety.  Having taken her dignity, the Replicator then murders Strauss.  Hardest hit by this is David Rossi (Joe Mantegna).  Over the past year or so, there had been a number of hints that Rossi and Strauss had become involved, and it is confirmed here, as Rossi mourns and rages at the death of a woman he has come to care for.

The final episode of Season Eight really was riveting.  As events hurtled towards the confrontation between the BAU and the Replicator, I was wondering if the finale would actually end in a cliffhanger.  I also was seriously worried just how the BAU was going to outwit the Replicator, who all along was shown to be several steps of them.  I was a bit worried that there’d be some sort of cop-out, that he would conveniently make some sort of silly mistake at the last minute.  Fortunately that is not the case.

The Replicator very nearly does succeed in trapping most of the team in a room with a bomb rapidly counting down to zero.  However, he does make two slight miscalculations.  Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangness) manages to reboot her crashed computer network quicker than anticipated, enabling her to jam the countdown.  Rossi, who was earlier poisoned by the Replicator, also recovers sooner than expected, and the delay caused by Garcia gives him time to get the rest of the BAU out of the locked room.  A fleeing Curtis leads a pursuing Rossi back into the booby-trapped room, determined to take at least one of the BAU out with him.  In an act of poetic justice, though, Rossi has used Strauss’ one year anniversary coin from Alcoholics Anonymous to wedge open the lock.  Rossi makes his exit, leaving the Replicator to be blown up… probably.  Because, y’know, we do not actually see a body.

With the Replicator presumed dead, the members of the BAU gather at Rossi’s house to hold an informal memorial service, remembering the fallen Strauss, who in the end they counted as a loyal friend and colleague.

I thought the second half of season eight was quite good.  Despite the fact that the Replicator storyline was a major feature of the season, it did not dominate events, and we did get plenty of stand-alone episodes.  The mystery was resolved quite satisfactorily.  And I’m actually glad that Jeanne Tripplehorn will be returning in season nine.  At first, I wasn’t sure about Alex Blake, but in the end I warmed up to her character.

Richard Matheson: 1926 – 2013

Horror author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23th at the age of 87.  I was a pretty big fan of his work.  He wrote some incredibly imaginative, genuinely scary stories.

My first exposure to Matheson’s work had to be this anthology of short stories that someone gave me as a gift in the mid-1980s.  The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories collected together all of the previously published short stories that were subsequently adapted into episodes of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series.  Matheson was the co-editor of the book, and it also contained several of his stories.

The most famous of those was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the one featuring the monster on the airplane wing.  Originally written in 1961, it was filmed two years later starring a young William Shatner.  Of course I had heard all about this one previously, but I’d never actually had the opportunity to view it on television.  Reading the original Matheson story was quite a harrowing experience, so much so that a couple of years later when I finally did catch the Twilight Zone episode, I was pretty much biting my nails, dreading the upcoming moment when Shatner was going to whip open the curtain over the airplane window to find the monster’s face glaring right at him.  Inevitably the monster that my mind conjured up when reading Matheson’s actual story was infinitely more terrifying than the man in a panda bear suit that made it to television screens in 1963.  (Matheson reportedly critiqued the on-screen realization of his gremlin as “a surly teddy bear.”)  Nevertheless, the flawless direction by a young Richard Donner, combined with Matheson’s adaptation of his own material, made “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a truly scary episode.

William Shatner just can't seem to get away from those Star Trek fans looking for an authgroph

William Shatner just can’t get away from those Star Trek fans looking for an autograph

Another of Matheson’s great works was his 1954 novel I Am Legend.  In the book, Robert Neville is the last man on Earth… but he is not alone.  Every other human being across the globe has been infected by a plague which has transformed them into vampires.  Neville spends the novel struggling to survive an unending onslaught of the undead, as well as the threat of madness & despair that threatens to engulf him in his solitude.  I Am Legend is an extremely bleak, downbeat, apocalyptic novel.  It is regarded as having been a major influence on the horror field, particularly the zombie sub-genre.  The book has been adapted into three different movies: The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price (1964), The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston (1971) and I Am Legend starring Will Smith (2007).  I haven’t seen that most recent one, but the Price version is quite atmospheric and remains pretty faithful to the original novel.  The Heston version plays much more fast & loose with the material, and at times is sort of cheesy, but still entertains.

(As a side note, The Omega Man, with its scenes of Charlton Heston running around toting a machine gun, shooting at anything that moves, does almost come across as his audition tape for President of the NRA.)

Matheson also penned the chilling, atmospheric novel Hell House, which was published in 1971.  Hell House details an attempt by a group of parapsychologists and psychics to investigate the infamous Belasco House, which is described as “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.”  All of the previous individuals who have sought to explore the mysteries of Belasco House have met with either death or insanity.  Matheson wrote the screenplay for the 1973 film version The Legend of Hell House, another one which I have not had the opportunity to see.

Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser

Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser

Hell House was adapted into a graphic novel by writer Ian Edginton & artist Simon Fraser, which IDW published in 2005.  I have to admit, I hadn’t actually read Hell House before that point in time.  But I was a fan of Fraser’s art, and intended to get the IDW book, so I picked up the original Matheson novel in order to read it first.  Edginton & Fraser did a very good job on their version.

In addition to adapting his own writings for film & television, Matheson wrote screenplays based on others’ works, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Fritz Leiber.  Among these was the script for The Devil Rides Out, based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.  Released in 1968, and starring Christopher Lee, it is definitely one of my favorite Hammer films.

 All this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Richard Matheson’s prolific pen.  If you are not familiar with his work, I encourage you to seek out some of his writings.  Hell House and I Am Legend are both extremely haunting, unsettling reads.

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests.  Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.

I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton.  But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.

At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before.  This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.

Kneel before Zod... oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

Kneel before Zod… oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events.  An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.

As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers.  Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god.  Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes.  They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him.  Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.

Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324.  Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!

Fantastic Four 323 pg 2 Mantis

Mantis wasn’t at all happy after she got another parking ticket.

Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna.  Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character.  First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.”  Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him.  Yipes!  Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.

Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away.  The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial.  The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis.  Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers.  However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo.  At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.

As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close.  The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive.  Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with.  The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.

Fantastic Four 325 pg 15

A potted view of plant politics.

The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.”  Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body.  A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.

As I said, strange!  But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing.  Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts.  Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.

In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial.  He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest.  I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers.  Personally, though, I enjoyed it.

Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four.  At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.

Fantastic Four 324 cover

Talk about hanging by a thread.

The artwork on these issues is also very good.  Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe SinnottFF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325.  All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.

I also have to point out the lettering.  John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues.  Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.

The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.

Fantastic Four 324 pg 17 Kang

Kang’s weaponry courtesy of the BBC prop department.

Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually seen them in over a decade.  So this was the first time I ever had the opportunity to look at them since I finally read the entirety of Englehart’s original Mantis stories via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB.  Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325.  That said, they are still very strange comic books.  But, of course, strange in a good way.

Comic book reviews: Vescell #8

This past Free Comic Book Day, I discovered a very cool erotic sci-fi / supernatural comic book titled Vescell, which is published by Image Comics.  The book is written by Enrique Carrion and drawn by John “Roc” Upchurch.  Carrion was signing at Carmine Street Comics, and I picked up a copy of the latest issue, #7.  Although the purple prose was flying fast & furious in Carrion’s script, and I was a bit confused about the backstory, I did really enjoy the issue.  Soon after I found copies of #s 1, 4 and 6 as well, which I also enjoyed.  And issue #8 came out a few weeks ago.

Vescell 8 cover

Vescell is set at some point in the future (I think it is the future) some years after our Earthly reality became linked with a dimension known as Abdehenna, aka the Banerealm.  Set in the metropolis known as Icarus City, the protagonist of the title is Mauricio “Moo” Barrino.  A former police detective, Barrino is now an agent for Vescell, a multinational company which specializes in “V-trans” procedures, the transferring of a person’s mind & soul from one body to another.  Vescell is run by Barrino’s amoral aunt, and at times he finds that his desire to remain an honorable individual is at odds with his employers’ unscrupulous business practices.  That said, Vescell’s chief competitor is Cybercan, a truly ruthless corporation that engages in a fair share of blackmail, extortion, and violence.  So, at the very least, Barrino can regard himself as an agent of the lesser of two evils.

Barrino’s partner is a size-changing fairy named Machi who possesses a voracious appetite for food, especially pancakes.  The two have an unrequited love, made necessary by the fact that if they consummate their relationship Machi will lose her powers.  Barrino is also romantically involved with a woman named Avery who is trapped in the Banerealm, and can only be summoned back to Earth mystically for a very short time.  Avery seems to have a shady past, and a number of people have warned Barrino that if he continues his relationship with her, it will undoubtedly end badly.

Vescell 8 pg 11

In the newest issue, Barrino and Machi are asked by their friend Artaya to assist a woman in finding a new soul.  In a previous issue of Vescell, the artificial intelligence named K.A.T.I. was transferred into the body of a living woman.  K.A.T.I. wishes to truly be a mother to her host body’s young daughter, but without a soul she can only approximate human emotions.  Now obviously a soul isn’t something you can just go out and buy at your local K-Mart, but they can be found in the Banerealm.  A reluctant Barrino agrees to take on the mission, joined by Machi and Artaya.  The trio is joined by the Doc, who is an expert on mystic lore, and by Lieutenant Vega of the Paranormal Authority Agency.  Vega is suspicious of Barrino after her run-in with him back in issue #4, and is there to make sure he keeps his nose clean.

After a cross-dimensional journey via an ocean liner / dirigible, the group arrives in Abdehenna.  At first the quest to obtain a soul seems to be going smoothly.  But then Barrino spots his girlfriend Avery, still stuck in the Banerealm, in the arms of her old lover.  Next thing you know, the air is heavy with testosterone, followed almost immediately by a rain of bullets, as Avery’s demonic beau Nephestus & his gang have a shootout with Barrino & his allies.  And so the rest of Barrino’s quest is spent with his rival dogging his heels, ready to put a bullet between his eyes.

On the whole, Vescell #8, “The Heart of the Soulless,” was quite good.  Carrion and Upchurch have a really nice collaboration going.  Carrion pens some very dialogue-heavy sequences, which is great, because it means that it takes more than five minutes to read an issue.  As for Upchurch, his storytelling is extremely solid, and he does an excellent job “directing” the various talking heads sequences, giving them a great deal of drama.

Vescell 8 pg 33

Because Vescell #8 was a double sized issue, the art chores were split up among three people: Upchurch, Lorenzo Nuti, and Dave Acosta.  Upchurch drew the first half, Nuti contributed two pages in the middle of the book, and Acosta finished up the issue.  I really wish Upchurch could have drawn the entire book.  No offense to Nuti or Acosta, but their work, while nice, was just too loose and sketchy, at least compared to Upchurch.

Additionally, in the second half of the story, Carrion’s scripting became a bit sparse, with a number of pages that contained very little dialogue.  And, after a gradual build-up over the first half of the book, his plot then seemed to be rushing to get to a finale.  The pacing just seemed off on the later part of the issue.

“The Heart of the Soulless” does come to a somewhat hasty, abrupt conclusion, as Barrino completes a key part of his quest to acquire a soul.  The bottom of the last page indicates that the story will be continued in a trade paperback.  I have not been able to locate any information about when that is being released.  Hopefully soon, because despite a few missteps, I did enjoy Vescell #8, and I am definitely looking forward to finding out what happens next.  And I certain hope the series is able to continue beyond that.  Carrion is a talented writer who has devised a very intriguing world populated by interesting, multi-faceted characters.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Regeneration

I think that last week’s announcement that Matt Smith will be departing from Doctor Who at the end of the year must have caught a fair number of people by surprise, me included.  Up until that point, it seemed a pretty sure bet that Smith would be playing the Eleventh Doctor for at least another full season.  The news that he would only be around for two more stories – the 50th Anniversary special and the 2013 Christmas story – before regenerating, was actually quite disappointing for me.

Okay, admittedly, four years ago, when David Tennant announced that he was leaving Doctor Who, I also felt let down.  I honestly thought that no one could possibly fill the shoes of the actor who had given the best portrayal of the Doctor since Tom Baker.  And, y’know, Matt Smith’s first year on the series almost confirmed my fears.  It was a wildly uneven set of episodes.  But by the time 2011 rolled around, it was clear that both Smith and showrunner Steven Moffat had found their feet.  Since that time, I’ve really been thrilled by the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures, so much so that, once again, I find myself asking that very same question: why can’t he stay around for just a little bit longer?

For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!

For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!

Thinking about Smith’s departure has got me reminiscing about the whole regeneration thing in Doctor Who.  It is a truly brilliant concept, one conceived way back in 1966 by script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd as a means to replace the ailing William Hartnell.  The Doctor’s ability to renew himself in such a drastic manner has enabled the series to last an amazing half century, with a number of truly talented actors playing the main role.

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone in the viewing public has been surprised by a change-over in actors, as the BBC publicity machine inevitably announces each forthcoming recasting with much fanfare.  I expect that, in Britain at least, the first and last time anyone might have actually been surprised by the Doctor changing was when “The Tenth Planet” was broadcast in October 1966, and Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode.

It was a different story here in the States, at least for a while.  In the early 1980s, before the Internet, news about Doctor Who was much more difficult to come by.  Heck, when I first began watching the series on my local PBS station in 1983, as far as I knew Tom Baker was the one and only actor to have ever played the role of the Doctor.  After catching a handful of his episodes here and there, I finally figured out what channel & time the series was airing, and began following it each weekday night at 6:00 PM on WLIW Channel 21, beginning with “The Horns of Nimon” episode four.  Yeah, not an auspicious start, I know, but when you’re seven years old you can be a lot less critical of these things.

I quickly became a fan of the series, watching the entirety of what I now know was Season Eighteen.  And, after several weeks, there came a very odd four part story titled “Logopolis” which ended with the Doctor plunging hundreds of feet off a space telescope where, sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his friends, he somehow transformed into a young blonde-haired man.  And at that point I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on!

That next night, sitting through episode one of “Castrovalva,” I was very unsettled.  As the altered Doctor seemed to be losing his mind, I kept wondering why they had gotten rid of the guy with the curly hair.  And, once this blond-haired fellow began unraveling the Doctor’s trademark scarf, yep, I was utterly horrified!  Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and three nights later, by the end of episode four, I was thinking to myself, “Maybe this new guy will work out after all.”

Who needs a scarf? Not me!

Who needs a scarf? Not me!

It must have been a few weeks later that I finally started to understand that this was something that had happened on the show before.  I was at the local Waldenbooks, where I discovered that there was an entire line of Doctor Who novels adapted from episodes of the television series.  And on a lot of the covers were individuals other than Tom Baker.  I realized there must have been other versions of the Doctor before him.  This was soon after confirmed for me when “Earthshock” aired on WLIW.  In episode two the Cybermen viewed archival footage of their past encounters with the Doctor, and we saw not just Baker, but also Hartnell and Troughton.

Inevitably I did become a big fan of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.  Looking back on it, as David Tennant would say a number of years later, he was my Doctor.  So, eventually, “The Caves of Androzani” episode four aired on PBS, and the Fifth Doctor, seemingly dying, announced “I might regenerate. I don’t know. Feels different this time.”  And, once again, my jaw dropped.  Oh, no, I thought, now Peter Davison was leaving the show!  Darn it!  Next thing you know, the Doctor has become this very brash fellow who, with a smirk, in response to a confused Peri’s question about what has just happened, informs her “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”

And, as an aside, yes, once I was able to view Colin Baker’s episodes, I ended up becoming a fan of his Doctor, as well.  As I have said before, he gave such an underrated performance on the show.  Nowadays, it’s a real joy listening to the Big Finish audio plays where he reprises the Sixth Doctor.

But, getting back to my original point, this was the very last time I was surprised by the Doctor regenerating.  I think that, unless you live in a cave without an Internet connection, it’s just impossible not to know ahead of time that so-and-so is leaving the series.  This means that, even though Matt Smith’s departure will not be airing for another six months, we know he is on his way out.

Of course, we still do not know who has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor… at least not yet.  I’m sure the news will be announced any day now.  Just as I’m also sure that I’ll do my usual shtick of bemoaning that the new guy isn’t as good as Matt Smith was, at least until I see him in a few episodes, at which point I’ll probably become a huge fan.  And so it goes!

Strange Mails

I got a package in the mail today containing some inexpensive comic book back issues that I purchased on Ebay last week.  Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m trying to get rid of stuff, not accumulate more of it.  But when I was over at my parents’ house a few weeks ago to get some boxes of comics that I was planning to either sell or give away, I also made sure to take home a handful of issues that I wanted to hold on to.  Among those were Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #s 60-62 and 69.

Let’s cast a glance back at far-off 1993… twenty years ago, believe it or not!  After several years of Roy Thomas writing Doctor Strange, the book underwent a radical shift.  The series moved under the “Midnight Sons” umbrella of titles, just in time for a massive and (admittedly) rambling crossover titled “Siege of Darkness.”  And as this change-over was taking place, brand new Doctor Strange editor Evan Skolnick came up with the mad genius idea to set Faust: Love of the Damned co-creator David Quinn loose on Marvel’s master of the mystic arts.

I was in high school when all this was going on, so I seriously doubt I had ever even heard of Faust at that point.  I don’t think I would actually even read an issue of David Quinn & Tim Vigil’s erotic horror magnum opus until I was in my twenties, and it would be several years more before I became a hugely passionate fan of the book.  So when Quinn came aboard Doctor Strange in the autumn of 1993, I had no idea who he was.  I certainly did not know what to expect.  Those few issues of Doctor Strange written by Quinn that I did pick up back then seemed majorly bizarre, as well as somewhat confusing.

Doctor Strange 64 cover

Looking back on it, a couple of things occur to me.  First, I believe that if Quinn’s Doctor Strange run had been published even a few years later, I would have had a much greater appreciation for it.  By that time, I was well on my way out of the Marvel/DC/Image superhero niche, exploring a number of independent and small press titles.  Second, keeping in mind just how homogenized so much of Marvel’s output was in the mid-1990s, as the company attempted in myriad ways to somehow duplicate the titanic success of some of the early Image Comics titles, it really was a gutsy move on Skolnick’s part to recruit an edgy independent creator like Quinn to helm a long-term property such as Doctor Strange.

Fast forward back to 2013.  A couple of months ago I came across a very well written blog post by a Gary M. Miller wherein he detailed his picks for the top ten greatest Doctor Strange stories.  Among his choices was Quinn’s run on the series.  And soon after that, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I re-read my copy of Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 1, which collected the original Strange Tales stories by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee.  So once I had the chance to dig through all those comics in my parents’ basement I thought to myself, “Hey, why not take another look at those David Quinn issues?”  Reading Doctor Strange #s 60-62 last week, I really enjoyed them, and I immediately decided I wanted to pick up the rest of the run.  I was able to order copies of issues #s 63-68 and Annual #4 pretty much for cover price.  Hopefully I’ll get the rest of Quinn’s issues at a later date.

Doctor Strange 67 cover

Once I am able to read the entirety of Quinn’s run, perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to write up another post detailing the specifics of his issues.  For now, though, it is worth pointing out that not only is the writing on these comics top-notch, so is the artwork.  The first several issues are penciled by Mel Rubi and inked by Fred Harper.  Rubi would go on to work on a variety of titles, refining his style along the way.  Several years back he had a lengthy run illustrating Red Sonja for Dynamite Entertainment.

At the time he was inking Doctor Strange, Harper was also doing some great work drawing the Ghost Rider and Vengeance features in the bi-weekly Marvel Comics Presents anthology series.  A couple of years later, I met him at a convention, and we soon became friends.  Fred has such a unique, atmospheric style, and I love his inking over Rubi on these issues.

Another artistic contributor well worth mentioning is Mark Buckingham, who contributes several extremely striking covers.  Soon after, Buckingham would go on to become the series’ regular interior artist, as well, working on the book for the next few years until its cancellation in 1996.

That’s the nitty-gritty.  I’m definitely looking forward to digging in to these issues.  Should be quite interesting.  I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Strange Comic Books: Aquaman #42

In the latest edition of Strange Comic Books, I’m taking a look at the very eerie Aquaman #42, published by DC Comics in March 1998.  This issue came out towards the end of writer Peter David’s superb four year stint penning the adventures of the King of the Seven Seas.

Prior to David’s work on Aquaman, I really had very little interest in the character.  I was a fan of David’s work, though, having very much enjoyed his writing on Incredible Hulk and X-Factor at Marvel, as well as his Star Trek novels.  Even so, when he began writing Aquaman for DC, I was only mildly interested.  True, having Arthur Curry, aka Orin, grow a beard & adopt a cool new costume made a nice change of pace.  An even more dramatic change was having his left hand eaten by a swarm of piranha and replaced by a honking big harpoon!

But despite all that, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I started picking up Aquaman on a monthly basis.  That’s when Jim Calafiore became the regular penciler.  I had loved Calafiore’s artwork on Magnus Robot Fighter for Valiant Comics.  So the combination of David’s writing and Calafiore’s art was irresistible.

Aquaman 42 cover

Aquaman #42, “Necessary Poisons,” is co-plotted by Peter David & Jim Calafiore, with a script by David.  Calafiore’s interior pencils are inked by Peter Palmiotti, with Mark McKenna doing the brushwork for the cover.  David spends a good portion of this issue advancing his major subplots.  Triton, son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, is still dealing with a humiliating defeat handed him by Orin, one made even more bitter by his divine father’s criticism.  Over in the undersea city of Poseidonis, Aquaman’s chief advisor Vulko, after years of urging Orin to be a more assertive ruler, is now upset that the King of the Seas has done just that,  regarding his actions as heavy-handed & imperious (i.e. Orin is no longer consulting with Vulko when making decisions).  Tempest is wondering what role he ought to play in guiding the city’s political future.

While all this is going on, a brutal assassin for hire named Lawrence Huff, aka the Sea Wolf, has just committed his latest contract killing at sea, slaying a man named Albert Munson.  One of Aquaman’s dolphin friends comes across the corpse in the water and summons him.  Arriving at the murderer’s boat, Orin pulls the killer overboard.  Upon contact with the water, the Sea Wolf violently transforms into a ferocious aquatic werewolf.  During their struggle, Aquaman gazes into the gaping hole where the Sea Wolf’s left eye ought to be, and is horrified to behold the faces of hundreds of trapped souls, screaming out in agony.  (Click to enlarge.)

Aquaman 42 pg 15 & 16

Realizing that the Sea Wolf isn’t anything even close to a living being, Orin impales the monster with his harpoon, destroying him, and setting free all of the souls who were trapped.  Orin departs, leaving the Sea Wolf’s corpse to be recovered by the authorities.  However, a short time later, unseen by anyone, the Sea Wolf revives.  In a chilling final twist, the Sea Wolf is now guided by the soul of its last victim, Albert Munson, who, like Lawrence Huff before him, is cursed to hunger for the souls of other human beings.

Brrrr!  That was seriously creepy.  David and Calafiore came up with a very strange, original variation on the werewolf concept.  As I understand it, the Sea Wolf had previously appeared in the series Young All-Stars, working for the Axis Powers during World War II.  I haven’t seen any of those issues, but from what I gather, he was simply an amphibious lycanthrope.  It was David and Calafiore, in the pages of Aquaman #42, who revamped him as a soul-devouring supernatural entity.

The artwork in this issue by Calafiore & Palmiotti is just amazing.  They really make the Sea Wolf a horrific, scary figure.  And that scene when we view all the souls of his victims is just so eerily rendered, a very striking, dramatic moment.

Interestingly enough, that last aspect of “Necessary Poisons” very much reminded me of a completely different story.  “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” written by David Morrell, originally saw print in the 1988 horror anthology Prime Evil edited by Douglas E. Winter.  It was later collected in Morrell’s short story collection Black Evening.  “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” is definitely one of the scariest, most unnerving stories I’ve ever read, and it has stuck with me all these years.  So it is no surprise that Aquaman #42, which (no doubt coincidentally) contains a very visually similar sequence, also looms large in my memory.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the four issue Time and Tide miniseries, none of Peter David’s Aquaman issues have yet to receive the trade paperback treatment.  So if you want to read this issue, you’ll have to search out a copy in the back issue bins.  Keeping that in mind, David’s entire 46 issue run of the series is well worth seeing out.