Doctor Who reviews: The Tenth Planet

I’ve wanted to watch the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet,” originally broadcast in October 1966, for many years.  However, as the final episode has been missing from the BBC archives for almost four decades, I never had the opportunity until now.  The DVD release of the story features a reconstruction of that missing episode using the original audio track and brand new animation based on the Telesnap photos made by John Cura way back when.

Tenth Planet DVD

So, having finally had the chance to see “The Tenth Planet,” what did I think of it?  Well, to be perfectly honest, while I thought it was a good story, I did not necessarily think it was a great one.  I think that this serial, co-written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis, is significant for the precedents it set for the series as a whole.  One, it is the debut of the Cybermen, now regarded as the second most popular monsters after the Daleks.  Two, it introduced the concept that the Doctor is capable of undergoing a complete change in both his physical form and personality, as William Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode, an aspect of the series’ mythology that eventually enabled the show to last for half a century and counting.  Three, it established the “base under siege” story formula which would be so effectively used throughout Troughton’s three years portraying the Doctor, and which has been revived from time to time since then.

The concepts introduced by Pedler & Davis in “The Tenth Planet” are definitely innovative & creepy.  The idea of a parallel race of human beings that existed on Earth’s long-lost, wandering twin planet Mondas, who found themselves growing weaker and weaker and decided to resort to the replacement of body parts & organs to survive, is a really good one.  As postulated by Pedler & Davis, the Cybermen eventually succumbed to their own technology, becoming more mechanical than organic.  Even the alteration of their still-living brains to remove emotions was seen by them as an improvement.  In the end, the Cybermen did survive, but at the cost of their humanity.  In those scenes where the technicians of the South Pole Tracking Station are desperately attempting to save the doomed crew of the Zeus IV space capsule, there is something very tragic about the Cybermen’s complete inability to comprehend why these humans are expending all of their efforts & energy towards a hopeless task.

I also really like the designs of these early Cybermen.  The cloth-like face with an obviously humanoid head beneath it, the still-organic hands, and the rather bulky, clunky forms of their headgear & chest-units all point to beings who were once human and, over time, were gradually transformed into cyborgs by spare-part surgery.  There is something undeniably spooky about these Cybermen.  Derek Martinus, who overall does good work directing this story, certainly succeeds in making the Cybermen menacing figures, especially in the scenes set on the Antarctic landscape.

On the one hand, it’s a real shame that in subsequent appearances the Cybermen appeared much more robotic than they did here.  On the other, yeah, I can certainly understand why, given a bigger budget, the production team decided to streamline them.  These must have been incredibly difficult costumes for the actors to wear, and in quite a few shots you can actually see the Cybermen’s helmets held together by transparent tape.

Tenth Planet Cybermen

All that said, though, “The Tenth Planet” does have certain problems.  The pacing of this story is poor.  The first invading party of Cybermen is wiped out towards the end of the second episode.  In the third episode, we barely see the Cybermen at all.  Most of the third installment is taken up by the increasingly-deranged General Cutler ordering the launch of a super-weapon known as the Z-Bomb to destroy Mondas, even though everyone keeps warning him that the resulting explosion will probably expose the Earth itself to deadly radiation.  Making matters worse, Hartnell became very ill right before the filming of this episode.  So, via a body double, the Doctor passes out in the opening seconds of part three, and it falls to his companions Ben and Polly, played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, to try and thwart Cutler’s mad scheme.  Yes, that gives Ben a lot to do.  But poor Polly spends the episode looking after the unconscious Doctor and serving coffee to the tracking station staff (yeah, okay, this was written in the 1960s, but still).  The episode just seemed to drag on.

Then part four arrives, and suddenly events rocket forward.  The Cybermen re-invade the Snowcap base not once but twice in a plot to blow up the Earth with the Z-Bomb before Mondas absorbs too much energy & dissolves.  After that fails, Mondas does indeed go kaput, and the Cybermen, who were drawing their energy from it, disintegrate.  Ben rescues the Doctor and Polly from a now-abandoned Cyber-ship.  And to wrap it all up, once they get back to the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses and regenerates.  That’s a hell of a lot to cram into 25 minutes!

I think it is extremely unfortunate that Hartnell was absent for a large percentage of what was his last story.  Watching the first two episodes of “The Tenth Planet,” he is in top form, giving a magnificent performance.  You would hardly guess he was suffering from ongoing health problems and was on the verge of departing the series.  But then, sadly, it just falls apart.  Hartnell is completely absent from part three.  When he does return for part four, between the fact that he was still recuperating from bronchitis and the character of the Doctor is written as fading fast, Hartnell does not have too much of a presence in his final episode.

There are also some major flaws with the Cybermen.  The whole notion that Mondas needs to recharge itself by sucking up Earth’s energy, but that it will be destroyed if it drains too much, leaves the Cybermen looking rather incompetent.  They appear to have no plan for dealing with this, other than invading the Snowcap base and using the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth before that happens.  At least, I’m guessing that is why they landed at the South Pole in the first place, even though they don’t get around to attempting to utilize the Z-Bomb until the final episode.  And that presents another hindrance: the Cybermen need ordinary humans to prepare the Z-Bomb.  Why?  It turns out that, despite having replaced the majority of their organic material with artificial parts, making them super-strong, bulletproof, and immune to illness, the Cybermen are somehow much more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary human beings.  All that Ben and the Snowcap scientists end up having to do is don radiation suits, pull the rods from the base’s nuclear reactor and thrust them at the approaching Cybermen, causing the denizens of Mondas to instantly collapse.

I’m not saying that “The Tenth Planet” is a bad story.  As I explained at the outset, I think it is a good story with interesting ideas.  There are certain flaws that unfortunately keep it from being truly great, problems which perhaps Pedler & Davis could have ironed out if they’d had more time to fine-tune their scripts.  And, of course, there was Hartnell’s sudden illness, which caught everyone by surprise.  No one could have prepared for that, especially given the breakneck speed at which the show was filmed back in the 1960s.

Tenth Planet novelization

Perhaps “The Tenth Planet” was a learning experience for Pedler & Davis.  In their next two Cybermen stories, “The Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen,” there is a very apparent climb in quality.  In turn, Davis may have taken what he learned co-scripting those two serials and applied it ten years later when, in 1976, he novelized “The Tenth Planet.”  Yes, the plot holes of the televised version are inevitably still there, but they are much less obvious.  Indeed, Davis’ book has a very palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia & menace.

In the end, we can look back on “The Tenth Planet” as a crucial moment of major transition & experimentation for Doctor Who.  The series was taking a tremendous leap into the unknown via the recasting of the main character, the Doctor.  It was also introduced an enduring villain, as well as establishing a story structure that would be very effectively utilized over the next three years, leading to a number of now-classic serials.  By working though the difficulties of this particular story, the production team helped to guarantee the series a long and exciting future.

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Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #192

The much-anticipated Savage Dragon #192 finally came out this week, courtesy of Erik Larsen and Image Comics.  As Larsen himself admits in the letters page, this one took him a bit longer than usual, as he re-thought the course of the issue more than once.  No wonder, considering how significant an event it contained.

For a long while now, Larsen has been building up to a changing of the guard.  Since this series takes place in “real time,” everyone ages accordingly.  That, and Larsen certainly is not averse to killing off major characters.  So inevitably there was going to come a point where Dragon would get too old to be a superhero, or perhaps even die, and his son Malcolm would step into his shoes, becoming the series’ lead.  About two and a half years ago, in issue #169, I really thought that this event had taken place.  However, Larsen had left himself an avenue for reviving the Dragon.  And, indeed, within a few months he was back.  But now, finally, Larsen really has come to the crossroads with #192.  Dragon, previously convicted of murder for the crimes he committed under his Emperor Kurr personality and sent to death row, is seen on the cover apparently being led to the electric chair!

So, does he live?  Does he die?  If he does die, will his spirit spend the rest of eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models?  Read on and find out!  And, oh, yeah, SPOILERS!!!

Savage Dragon 192 cover

Previously, Dragon’s race, the Krylans, was decimated by the brutal Tyrrus Combine.  Dragon’s one-time lover Lorella, seemingly the only survivor, managed to make her way to Earth.  She was convinced that Dragon held the key to creating a new generation of Krylans.  You can probably figure out the rest.  Y’know, the birds and the bees?  Yep, that’s right.  Hmmm, given that Dragon is already in his mid-fifties, I just hope he can, um, keep up his end of the bargain, so to speak!

Of course, there was just one catch to all this: since Dragon was super-powered, every single time he (and his previous persona, Kurr) had ever impregnated a female, his offspring gained his super strength, resulting in all his mates having a very good chance of dying while giving birth.  Lorella rigged up a device that would remove Dragon’s powers, making him a normal Krylan, so that they could then get on with the business of safely making babies.  Of course, said device happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to an electric chair, and it gives Dragon one hell of a zap in the process.

Savage Dragon 192 pg 10

That Erik Larsen, he is such a tease!

Okay, there you are.  Dragon is now the equivalent of a normal human being, albeit one with green skin & a fin.  Which means that, even if he is able to get his conviction overturned and get out of jail, there’s no way he’s going to be able to return to slugging it out with supervillains.  So now it’s Malcolm’s show.

In an online interview, Larsen indicated that Dragon will still be sticking around, albeit as a supporting character, a mentor to Malcolm, likening him to the elderly Bruce Wayne seen in Batman Beyond.  And, wow, Savage Dragon #192 shows that Malcolm really is in need of some guidance when it comes to fighting crime.  Not only is he inexperienced, he’s also on the naïve side.  Between that, the majority of Chicago’s costumed heroes leaving town to join the Special Operations Strikeforce in Washington DC, and the sociopathic Dart having finally accomplished her goal of seizing control of the Vicious Circle crime cartel, I foresee some really rough times ahead for Malcolm!

Anyway, Larsen succeeded admirably in his misdirection, convincing everyone (myself included) that this really was the end for Dragon.  At the same time, he achieved his goal of permanently promoting Malcolm to the lead, while still keeping his dad around in some capacity.  Which is cool, because I enjoy the family dynamic between the two of them, as well as with Malcolm’s stepsister Angel.  Speaking of which, I hope she isn’t gone for long, and will continue to show up in the book.  As #192 demonstrates, Malcolm could probably benefit from some of Angel’s common sense.

Savage Dragon 190 pg 24

I’m glad that Powerhouse and Flash Mercury, who had unsuccessfully attempted to steer the Vicious Circle in a more benevolent direction, managed to survive Dart’s brutal purge by skipping town.  As seen in the back-up story in Savage Dragon #190 written by Larsen with art by Frank Fosco, the two of them joined up with the Medusa-esque Fever to become professional monster hunters.  As with Angel, I hope Larsen brings this trio back to Chicago at some point to help Malcolm out.

Speaking of back-up stories, I’m happy Larsen is continuing to run these.  He has a cast of what seems like several hundred characters, and obviously he cannot fit them all into the main feature.  So it’s nice that he and a few other folks are working on these short stories.  Issue #190 also had a new misadventure of those inept crime-fighters Kill-Cat and Kid Avenger, aka the Deadly Duo, with art by Scott James.  The next issue had James illustrating a tale of the perpetually late Max Damage penned by editor Gavin Higginbotham.  And in the current issue, there’s a flashback tale of the diminutive dictator from Dimension X, Mister Glum aka Ba-Goom, written & drawn by Simon Mallette St-Pierre.

Savage Dragon 192 pg 25

All in all, Savage Dragon #192 was a great read, a really well done transition issue by Erik Larsen.  I’m eagerly anticipating seeing Malcolm step up to bat in upcoming issues.  It looks like Larsen has some exciting, interesting stories planned for his series.

Doctor Who reviews: Prisoners of Time

Happy birthday to Who!

No, as of this writing, the highly anticipated Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is still a few days away from being broadcast.  However, another great celebration of a half-century of traveling in the TARDIS came to its conclusion today as the final installment of the twelve-issue Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time comic book series was released.  Published by IDW, written by Scott & David Tipton, and drawn by a line-up of amazing artists, Prisoners of Time features all eleven incarnations of the Doctor, numerous companions, multiple aliens & villains, and plenty of surprises.  It’s been an exciting, enjoyable romp through the rich history of the series.

As I detailed in my post The Big Bad of Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time Revealed, the mastermind behind the scheme to attack the Doctor in all his incarnations was none other than Adam Mitchell, previously seen on the television episodes “Dalek” and “The Long Game.”  After nursing a lifetime of bitterness & hatred towards the Doctor for abandoning him, Adam was finally able to assemble a cache of stolen alien technology and began abducting the Doctor’s companions from the time stream.  Along the way, he allied himself with the Doctor’s diabolical arch-nemesis, the Master, who did everything in his power to further enflame Adam’s long-festering resentment towards the Doctor.

So at last we’ve come to the grand finale in issue #12.  Now, as River Song likes to say, “Spoilers, sweetie!”

The Eleventh Doctor is a prisoner of Adam and the Master in their base in limbo.  Adam is threatening to murder all of the Doctor’s companions, offering him the impossible, torturous choice of saving one, just one of them.  In the grand tradition of Doctor Who cliffhangers, just when it seems that all is lost (and I have to admit, when I reached the end of the previous issue, I was really left wondering how the heck the Tiptons would resolve this) we are greeted to new arrivals, beautifully depicted by artist Kelly Yates (click to enlarge):

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 2 and 3

What follows is a fantastic finale as all of the Doctors and companions fight off Adam, the Master, and a horde of Autons.  As they’ve done with the previous installments of the miniseries, Scott & David did a brilliant job scripting this, getting the dialogue & cadence of each version of the Doctor just right.  Yates was pretty much dead-on with all the likenesses, and also did wonderful work pacing the story, finding room for literally dozens of characters without it ever seeming cluttered.

Along the way, the Tiptons did a great job at bringing Adam’s story arc to a close.  In the previous issue, drawn by Matthew Dow Smith, the Doctor had futilely attempted to convince his one-time companion that, whatever the legitimacy of his feud, it was a terrible mistake to ally himself with the Master, who was “pure unbridled evil.”

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 11 pg 17Now, in #12, the Master seizes the opportunity presented by the Doctor’s combined TARDISes, sending a wave of chronal energy through them in an attempt to not only destroy all the regenerations of his enemy, but to wipe out reality itself, so he may rewrite existence as he wishes.  And, for the first time, Adam is aghast.  As twisted and vengeful as he has become, he simply cannot conceive of committing such a monstrously vast crime.  The Master’s response shows just how utterly consumed by hatred, by the lust for power, he truly is.  Scott & Dave’s dialogue for the renegade Time Lord is doubly emphasized by Yates’ artwork, which demonstrates his sheer, burning insanity.  That bottom panel on page 11 is chilling.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 11In the end, the Doctors finally manage to appeal to Adam, and he turns against the Master, saving reality at the cost of his own life.  When I got to page 19, and saw Adam laying there dying, surrounded by the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh Doctors and Rose Tyler, um, well, I have to admit that for a second I really thought I was going to shed a tear.  Yeah, the story and artwork were just that moving.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 19As I said, there were so many brilliant artists who worked on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time.  Some of them have been intimately involved in illustrating the Doctor’s comic book adventures in the past.  For others this was, I believe, their first time.  And I really wish I had the space to post examples of all of their work on this series.  But for the record, this is the list: Simon Fraser, Lee Sullivan, Mike Collins, Gary Erskine, Philip Bond, John Ridgway, Kev Hopgood, Roger Langridge, David Messina & Giorgia Sposito, Elena Casagrande, Matthew Dow Smith, and Kelly Yates. (I encourage everyone to click on the links and go to those artists’ websites to view their wonderful work.)

Literally toping things off were the dozen covers by Francesco Francavilla which assembled to form one amazing image.  Here’s a picture of the complete illustration, courtesy of Scott Tipton, who posted it on Facebook a couple of days ago:

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time complete covers

As the Ninth Doctor was fond of declaring, “Fantastic!”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Francavilla is without a doubt one of the most talented artists to come onto the comic book scene within the last decade.

By the way, for those who missed out on picking up Prisoners of Time, IDW is releasing a hardcover collection of the entire series next month.  There you go, you have no excuse now.

In closing, I want to tip my hat to Scott & Dave, and their numerous artistic collaborators.  You all helped to make the series’ fiftieth anniversary that much more special.

Happy birthday to Richard Howell

I want to wish a very happy birthday to comic book creator Richard Howell, who was born on November 16th.  Not only is Richard a fantastic artist and a talented writer, but he is also a genuinely nice guy who I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions.

Looking back, I probably discovered Howell’s work when he was penciling Tony Isabella’s great Hawkman stories.  The two of them collaborated on the four issue Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries in 1985, which was followed the next year by a special and then an ongoing series.

Hawkman Special cover

Isabella had a great conceit for his storyline: Hawkman and Hawkwoman discovered that their fellow Thanagarians were covertly invading Earth. Unfortunately, Carter and Shiera Hall were forced to combat this infiltration completely on their own.  The Thanagarians possessed a device called the Absorbacon which enabled them to read the minds of anyone on Earth (the Hawks were immune because they were also from Thanagar).  So there was no going to Superman or the Justice League or anybody else for help.  Their only ally came in the unlikely form of their old enemy the Gentleman Ghost, who took it as a challenge worthy of his larcenous talents to “steal back” Earth from the Thanagarians (being dead, presumably they were unable to read his mind).  As a ten year old kid, I found this set-up majorly chilling & spooky, the idea that Carter and Shiera were seemingly all on their own, everyone else on Earth was compromised, and their one source of assistance was an untrustworthy villain.

Unfortunately, Isabella departed the ongoing Hawkman title with issue #7 due to disagreements with editorial, and his successor wrapped up the invasion storyline in a rushed, unsatisfactory manner.  Nevertheless, the work that Isabella & Howell did do together was really great.  Howell really showed his versatility, rendering the Kubert-designed Hawks with their combination of high-tech & primitive weaponry, the science fiction designs for the Thanagarian invaders, and the supernatural aspects of the series.

Vision Scarlet Witch 1 cover

Around this time, Howell was also over at Marvel, penciling the twelve issue Vision and the Scarlet Witch series written by Steve Englehart.   This took place in real time, which meant that we saw Wanda get pregnant and, in the last issue, give birth to twin baby boys.  Unlike some, I was never terribly bothered by the notion that Wanda used magic to conceive children with an android.  (I was quite annoyed when a few years later John Byrne did a major retcon, wiping the twins out of existence, but fortunately Allan Heinberg eventually reversed this and brought them back into being as super-powered teenagers in the pages of Young Avengers.)

Howell did some really great work on this series.  The wide range of guest stars that popped up enabled him to render a significant portion of the Marvel universe.  A few years later, Howell again had the opportunity to draw the Scarlet Witch in the four chapter serial “Separate Lives” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents #60-63.  He also wrote, lettered, and colored the entire story, demonstrating he was a man of many talents.  Between that story and his work a few years earlier, I thought that Howell drew one of the most all-time beautiful, sexy depictions of the Scarlet Witch.  Years later, when I told him that, he modestly responded “It’s not difficult drawing a beautiful woman who was visually created by Jack Kirby and then developed into a star by Don Heck.”

Another group of characters who Howell drew really well were the Inhumans.  In addition to drawing their appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Howell penciled a “Tales of the Inhumans” short story written by Peter Gillis and inked by Sam De La Rosa which saw print in the back of Thor Annual #12, of all places.  I just found a copy of that comic about a year ago.  The splash page by Howell & De La Rosa is gorgeous.  Howell also penciled & colored a double-sized Inhumans Special written by Lou Mougin published in 1990 that delved into the history of the Royal Family immediately prior to their first appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Vince Colletta inked that one and despite his tendency to do rush jobs, especially in his later years, Howell said he was generally satisfied with how the art turned out.  If you want to check it out, that Inhumans Special was just reprinted by Marvel in a trade paperback along with their 1988 graphic novel written by Ann Nocenti.

Inhumans backup Richard Howell

In the 1980s, Howell also drew All-Star Squadron, the Green Lantern feature in Action Comics Weekly, various profile pics for Who’s Who, DNAgents, and his creator-owned Portiz Prinz of the Glamazons.  That last one first originated as a self-published project in the late 1970s.

Howell did some work on Vampirella for Harris Comics in the early 1990s.  He then co-founded Claypool Comics with Ed Via in 1993.  I first found out about Claypool several years later.  As I’ve mentioned before, I used to see artist Dave Cockrum quite often at conventions & store signings.  When I asked him what he was currently working on, he told me he was penciling Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool.  Since I loved Dave’s artwork, I had my comic shop order the current issue, which was #30.  I read it, and thought it was awesome.  The series was a supernatural comedy written by Peter David, with co-plots & edits by Howell.  I was soon following Soulsearchers and Company on a regular basis.

Claypool also published three other series.  There was the twelve issue Phantom of Fear City, written by Howell’s old collaborator Steve Englehart, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, an anthology featuring the campy, vampy horror hostess, and Deadbeats, a dark vampire soap opera written & penciled by Howell, with rich embellishments by Argentine illustrator Ricardo Villagran.  Howell acknowledges that Dark Shadows had an influence on Deadbeats, and series actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett & Lara Parker have each written introductions for the three trade paperbacks.

Deadbeats Learning the Game cover

It took me a while to get into Deadbeats, simply because I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires.  This was around the time that Interview With A Vampire and Vampire: The Masquerade were really popular, and I just thought the whole notion of the undead as these refined, romantic, aristocratic beings was so annoying & pretentious (you can just imagine what I think of all that Twilight nonsense nowadays).  And so I unfortunately assumed that Deadbeats was more of the same.

However, corresponding with Howell via e-mail, he wore down my resistance, and I finally picked up the first two TPB collections, “New In Town” and “Learning The Game.”  And I have to confess I loved them.  Yes, the vampires in Deadbeats were super-sexy (both the women and the men, got to give Howell points for fairness) but most of them were unabashedly evil, committing brutally violent killings in their quest for fresh blood.  There were also a few morally conflicted members of the undead, as well as some who had relatively benevolent agendas, such as the vampire king Hermano (no relation).  There was also a really interesting cast of humans who were batting against the vampires of Mystic Grove, led by teenage couple Kirby Collier and Jo Isles.  Anyway, once I was done with those two TPBs, I started following Deadbeats with issue #50.

One of my favorite covers from Deadbeats is #53, penciled by Howell, with lush inking by Steve Leialoha.  I don’t know who did the coloring, but it looks fantastic.  One of the subplots in Deadbeats concerned Kirby’s long-lost father Adam arriving in Mystic Grove and recruiting vampire hunter Dakota Kane in an attempt to track down the mysterious bat cult that had kidnapped his wife years before.  It turned out that sultry lounge singer Countess DiMiera, currently performing at Mystic Grove’s popular social spot the Bat Club, was a member of that secret society, as well as a conduit for their dark deity, Murcielago the Bat-God.

Deadbeats 53 cover

I really loved Howell & Leialoha’s depiction of the sinister songstress on that cover (in hindsight, she might have reminded me of a more wicked version of Howell’s Scarlet Witch).  I asked Howell to let me know if he ever wanted to sell the original artwork.  He responded that he typically held on to all of his originals.  But a few years later he was kind enough to do a really nice sketch of the Countess and her disciples for me.  You can view that, and a few other beautiful pieces he has drawn for me, on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Richard+Howell&GCat=60

Unfortunately, due to low sales, in 2007 Diamond Distributors decided they would no longer carry any of Claypool’s titles (this is the kind of thing that happens when you are stuck doing business with a monopoly).  Deadbeats, Soulsearchers, and Elvira were all canceled.  Since 2007, Howell has continued the Deadbeats story as an online comic at the Claypool website.  I’m glad he’s been able to do that, but I really hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to collect those installments together in print editions.

As you can see, Richard Howell has had a very diverse career, during which he has written and drawn some amazing comic books.  I really enjoy his art, and I hope to see more from him in the future.  Happy birthday, Richard.  Keep up the great work.

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Remembering Dave Cockrum

I wanted to take a moment to remember one of my all time favorite comic book artists, Dave Cockrum, who was born on November 11, 1943 and passed away on November 26, 2006 at the too young age of 63.  Today would have been his 70th birthday.

A few days ago I wrote about how I became a huge fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and how Dave Cockrum’s significant contributions to that series played a major role in that.  In addition to successfully redesigning the majority of the team’s costumes, Dave created new team member Wildfire, villain Tyr, and occasional allies Infectious Lass and Devil-Fish.  Dave had ideas for quite a number of other new Legion members, including a certain blue-skinned, pointy-tailed fellow named Nightcrawler, but his editor Murray Boltinoff feared that the character was too strange-looking.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum

After Dave left Legion over a dispute concerning the return of his original artwork, he took the unused Nightcrawler with him to Marvel in 1975.  There, the character became one of the members of the mega-successful revamp of X-Men by himself and writer Len Wein.  Dave co-created Storm, Colossus, and Thunderbird with Wein.  Although he was not involved in the initial development of Wolverine, Dave was the first artist to draw him unmasked, giving Logan his now-iconic hair & facial features.

The overworked Wein departed from X-Men after only three issues, and Chris Claremont became the series’ new writer.  Chris and Dave collaborated very well together, and they were responsible for revamping Jean Grey into Phoenix, as well as introducing Black Tom Cassidy, Lilandra, the Shi’ar Empire, the Imperial Guard (who were sort of a parody of the Legion), and the Starjammers.  Dave also helped Chris out on his other ongoing assignment, Ms. Marvel, penciling two issues wherein he designed a fantastic new costume for Carol Danvers.  Although he did not draw their first appearances in the pages of Ms. Marvel, Dave was the designer of both Deathbird and Mystique.  In the case of the later, Dave explained in 2003:

“This drawing was done for fun and hung in my office until my partner Chris Claremont wandered in one day, saw her, and started to drool. ‘I want her!’ he said. He named her Mystique, gave her powers and added her to the Uncanny X-Men rogues gallery.”

Dave Cockrum's stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique.

Dave Cockrum’s stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique

Due to X-Men going to a monthly status, Dave left the series in 1977, and John Byrne became the new penciler & co-plotter.  Byrne & Claremont had a great, memorable run, producing many classic stories, but the two eventually parted ways in 1981.  Dave came back for a second run penciling Uncanny X-Men, paired with inkers Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek.  During this time, Chris and Dave collaborated on several great stories, including “I, Magneto” in Uncanny X-Men #150, which first revealed Magneto’s history as a survivor of the Holocaust, “Kitty’s Fairy Tale” in #153, and a flashback to Xavier and Magneto’s first encounter in #161.  Chris and Dave also introduced the insidiously evil alien monstrosities known as the Brood.

Dave once again departed Uncanny X-Men in 1983 to create his Futurians graphic novel.  He also wrote & drew an enjoyable four issue Nightcrawler miniseries that saw the swashbuckling Kurt Wagner bouncing from one strange dimension to another.  On more than one occasion, Dave had said that Nightcrawler was a sort of romanticized version of himself, so he must have enjoyed working on these issues.

Futurians #0

Futurians #0

Around this time, Dave took the creator-owned Futurians over to a small company called Lodestone Comics.  Unfortunately, they folded after publishing only three issues, leaving Dave’s fourth issue unreleased.  However, on a couple of subsequent occasions it was finally published, first in a trade paperback by Eternity in 1987 and then as a black & white issue by Clifford Meth’s Aardwolf Publishing in 1995.  That later edition also included a brand new five page story by written by Meth & drawn by Dave.

Dave remained a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and over the years he would return to the series to draw the occasional cover or short sequence, plus some profile images for Who’s Who in the Legion.  It was always a delight to see his work on the characters.

In the 1990s, Dave unfortunately had some trouble finding regular work.  He did get the occasional job from Marvel, DC, Valiant and Defiant.  One of my favorite stories that he drew was “Depth Charges” in Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3, written by Michael Jan Friedman, which features an aquatic alien member of the GL Corps.  Dave did fantastic work on that.  He was briefly reunited with Chris Claremont when he penciled a series of back-up stories for Sovereign Seven.  Dave also became the penciler of the really fun supernatural comedy Soulsearchers and Company which was co-written by Peter David & Richard Howell, and published by Claypool Comics.  Again, he did really great work on those issues.

Dave Cockrum's super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath, from Soulsearchers and Company #37

Dave Cockrum’s super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath,
from Soulsearchers and Company #37

For a number of years Dave and his wife, artist & colorist Paty, lived in upstate New York.  I would often see them at local comic book conventions & store signings.  They were both really nice, fun, intelligent people, and I’m glad I had so many opportunities to meet them.  During this time, I was fortunate enough to acquire a few pages of artwork that Dave had worked on, as well as a few sketches.  I’ve posted scans of those on the Comic Art Fans website.  Here’s a link:

http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=2441

During the last few years of his life, Dave was sadly plagued by ill health.  Clifford Meth helped raise money to assist in paying his medical bills, publishing The Uncanny Dave Cockrum…A Tribute through Aardwolf.  Numerous artists contributed drawings of Dave’s numerous creations, with the originals subsequently being auctioned off to raise further funds.

Recently on his Facebook page, Meth announced the following: “In 2014, Aardwolf Publishing will release the final, never-before-published Dave Cockrum FUTURIANS comic, pencilled and written by Dave himself. We have a terrific assembly of comics’ stars participating, but we want EVERYONE to help us make this a HUGE success. Want to help? Artists are invited to contribute pin-ups of Dave’s Futurians’ characters, which we’ll include in the printed and/or digital book, and also use as Kickstarter perks. You’ll be in star-studded company–we promise. Please join us!”  I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I wish Meth great success in bringing this to print.  I’ll keep everyone updated once I learn more information about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Dave Cockrum was undoubtedly a superbly talented artist, as well as an incredible designer, who left an indelible mark on the comic book biz.  He left behind a rich legacy of wonderful artwork and colorful creations for us to enjoy.

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Curse of Validus

Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

Having read many of Levitz’s amazing Legion of Super-Heroes stories, this appears to be an inescapable conclusion.  He is a genius because he comes up with these absolutely amazing stories, and he also invests the members of the team with real personalities, making them three-dimensional individuals that you genuinely care about.  And he is evil because, having done such amazing work developing his cast, he then proceeds to put them through the wringer, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Legion annual 2 1986 signed

Of course, it is through this that Levitz has so successfully made the members of the team so beloved.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, we readers, having seen our heroes struggle through myriad trials & tribulations, very often emerging not-quite-unscathed, occasionally much for the worse, grew even more attached to them.  Levitz, as with other, earlier writers, showed that the teenagers of the Legion may have had fantastic powers, but they still had to struggle with hardships & setbacks, and that made them relatable & realistic.  That’s the winning formula that Stan Lee utilized at Marvel in the 1960s, and the various Legion scribes often managed to channel that same appeal.

(It’s probably no accident that some of my favorite DC Comics characters from the Silver and Bronze Ages are the more offbeat, flawed ones, such as the Legion, the Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, and the Unknown Soldier.)

One of my favorite of Levitz’s storylines from Legion of Super-Heroes is one that had a rather slow burn.  It involved the mysterious being known as Validus.  Introduced in Adventure Comics #352 (January 1967) by Jim Shooter & Curt Swan, Validus was a towering monster, a semi-intelligent child-like menace who projected mental lightning from his exposed brain.  He was one of the five villains the Legion reluctantly recruited to help them battle the Sun-Eater, a cosmic entity that threatened to destroy the entire galaxy.  In the end, they were successful, although Ferro Lad sacrificed his life, and the quintet of criminals banded together as the Fatal Five, becoming deadly enemies of the Legion.

Adventure Comics 252 pg 6

Fast-forward fifteen years.  Levitz and Keith Giffen have just finished their five-part epic “The Great Darkness Saga” which pitted the Legion against Darkseid.  After finally being defeated in Legion of Super-Heroes #294 (December 1982), the lord of Apokolips offered a parting taunt:

“I leave you my curse, Legionnaires… the curse of darkness growing within you, destroying you from within… and that which is purest of you shall be the first to go!”

About a decade and a half ago, when I picked up the back issues comprising “The Great Darkness Saga,” I had no idea what Darkseid’s curse as supposed to be or if Levitz (or any other writer) had ever followed up on it.  But then a few years later DC reissued the trade paperback collection, which also included Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 (1984), which was titled “The Curse.”

Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl are preparing for the birth of their child.  Meanwhile, on Sorcerers World, a group of Legionnaires are attempting to prevent followers of the evil sorcerer Mordru from reviving their master.  During the ritual, a shroud of darkness spreads all across the United Planets, including Medicus One, where Saturn Girl is going into labor.  Back on Sorcerers World, the Legion defeats Mordru’s servants, and the darkness dissipates.

Saturn Girl gives birth to a healthy baby boy.  However, she is a bit puzzled.  She was expecting two children, because on Lightning Lad’s home world of Winath, something like 99.999% of pregnancies result in twins.  And although Saturn Girl comments that twins are very rare on Titan, where she comes from, she then adds:

“It’s funny, though, when he was still inside me, I felt sure my telepathy was picking up baby thoughts sometimes, and I could have sworn I felt two separate babies’ thought patterns.”

And then we get to the final two pages of the Annual.  We discover that Saturn Girl did give birth to twins but, during the fall of darkness, Darkseid secretly transported away one of the newborns.

“They’ll never know that I have taken you… and if they had, they could not dream of what I shall do to you. You shall change, oh, change so much that they shall never recognize you. You will be mighty… but always in the cause of the darkness in which you were born. I consign you to the past, back through the years so that you shall meet them full grown before you have even been born. They shall never know you, child, or you them. And who knows, my little Validus, perhaps some day your own parents may even kill you? Thus is my curse fulfilled!”

Legion annual 2 pg 3

Yes, that’s right: Darkseid stole away one of the twin sons of Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl at the moment of his birth, so that they had no idea he existed.  The dark god then transported him back in time, in the process also mutating him into the tortured monstrosity Validus, who would become one of the Legion’s greatest enemies.  And he did so hoping that one day Validus would be slain in battle by his own parents, without their ever knowing who they had actually killed.

As I said, Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

I later found out that, in the years before all of this had been written, amongst early Legion fandom, there had been some speculation about just who or what Validus really was.  His unusual power of mental lightning had given at least one reader the idea that somehow perhaps it could be the son of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, who had been a couple in the series for a long time, and who a lot of readers hoped would eventually marry & have children.  Levitz decided to run with this theory, giving it the horrifying twist of all being caused by Darkseid.

After I read “The Curse” I was in shock.  Once again, I had no damn clue if this was ever resolved anywhere.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came across a copy of Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 3 Annual #2 (1986).  The dynamic cover by Steve Lightle featured Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Validus, with the dramatic blurb “Darkseid’s Curse Fulfilled?”  This had to be it!

legion-annual-2-pg-4

“Child of Darkness, Child of Light” is written by Levitz, with artwork by veteran Legion artist Curt Swan (who drew Validus’ debut two decades earlier), as well as a prologue & epilogue penciled by Keith Giffen.  The issue opens with a flashback to Validus’ shocking origin, his transformation at the hands of Darkseid.  It then leaps forward two years.  Validus has inexplicably reappeared.  He is seemingly attacking planets at random, moving freely through space via Boom Tubes generated by the mad Daxamite teenager Ol-Vir, who worships Darkseid.

It turns out that Validus is following the telepathic trail of his twin brother Graym, without consciously realizing who he is searching for.  This eventually leads Validus and Ol-Vir to Winath, where Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are vacationing with Graym.  The titanic Validus seizes the tiny infant.  Lightning Lad believes his son is about to be killed by this terrifying being, and is ready to use lethal force to prevent this.  For a moment, it really does look like Darkseid’s hope of manipulating Lightning Lad into unwitting infanticide is really going to succeed.  However, Saturn Girl, who had tried to use her telepathy to make contact with Validus and calm him down, finally realizes that he is her lost son.

With the shadow of Darkseid towering over the landscape, Saturn Girl demands, and then pleads, with the lord of Apokolips to restore her son to normal.  And Darkseid, who is a god and wishes to be worshiped, actually agrees, and shows mercy.  Validus is transformed back into a healthy, human baby boy.  As Levitz’s narration explains:

“One jest has failed, yet another may serve. Let the children live, if the mother is wise enough to acknowledge the power of the darkness.”

Legion annual 2 pg 37

I have to admit, Swan draws the hell out of this sequence.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his style, although I definitely recognize that he was a very solid artist who did good, dependable work  at DC for decades.  But his storytelling here is just amazing.  The sight of Saturn Girl, at first defiantly standing up to Darkseid, and then giving in to her grief and falling to her knees, with his shadow looming over her, is extremely well “directed,” driving home the dramatic impact of Levitz’s scripting.

Legion Annual #2 is, I think, among the high points of Levitz’s mammoth eight year run on the series in the 1980s.  As with so much of his other great writing, it contains both awesome spectacles and moments of genuine, moving characterization & emotion.  It also demonstrates what sets Levitz apart from many of his peers.  After running Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and their children through an emotional gauntlet, he shows that there can be a happy ending.  Yes, there is great darkness (no pun intended) but there is also light and life.  It is a quality to his writing on Legion of Super-Heroes that has been consistent throughout the many incarnations of the team he has chronicled, that has made his work so poignant and enjoyable.

How I learned to love the Legion

Back Issue #68, the most recent edition of the excellent magazine edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows, took an in-depth look at the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 80s, topped with vintage 1973 art by the late, great Dave Cockrum.  I really enjoyed it, and was inspired to write about how I myself became a fan of these champions of justice from a thousand years in the future.  In comparison to some readers who have been fans of the Legion for many decades, I’m a relative newcomer.  And it was a rather long, convoluted road that led me to becoming a devotee.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, I was almost exclusively into Marvel.  I’d pick up an issue published by DC here or there but, really, Marvel was my thing.  Then, in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out and, with the massive accompanying hype, I began picking up a few of the actual comics.  I enjoyed those Batman stories, and quickly moved on to the Superman books, buying the then-current issues by such talents as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, as well as catching up on the recent John Byrne stories via back issues.  Those, in turn, led me to several other DC books including Legion of Super-Heroes.

Let me be honest: 1990 was probably not an ideal time for a virtual newcomer to the DCU to pick up the Legion cold.  The title was still experiencing the aftershocks of Crisis of Infinite Earths (you can see my blog post “Should Superman Kill?” for a rundown on the entire Pocket Universe retcon of Superboy and the Legion’s history).  In addition, a new Legion ongoing had recently started.  Helmed by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Keith Giffen and Al Gordon, this book had leaped forward half a decade into the future from the end of the previous volume.  During that gap the Legion had disbanded & scattered across the galaxy, the United Planets had been plunged into a massive economic depression, and EarthGov had been covertly taken over by the alien Dominators.  So even though I did rather enjoy the handful of Legion issues that I picked up around that time, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what.

As I would find out years later, it also did not help that there were behind-the-scenes creative conflicts, with the editors of Superman laying down edicts that Superboy could not be referred to any longer, and neither could Supergirl, and a bunch of other stuff.  Editors Mark Waid & Michael Eury (yep, him again), Giffen, Gordon and the Bierbaums did their best to come up with ways to work around all this, such as substituting Mon-El for Superboy and creating the character of Laurel Gand to take Supergirl’s place in the Legion’s history (for a detailed rundown on all of this, check out the excellent article “Too Much Time On My Hands: The History of the Time Trapper” by Jim Ford in Back Issue #68).

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

One source of information that assisted me immensely was the latest edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe which was edited by a certain Mr. Eury.  There were a large number of entries for Legion characters in that 16 issue incarnation of Who’s Who, and it really helped me figure out up from down.

Anyway, all the various tortured retcons eventually caused the entire Legion history to be totally rebooted from scratch.  And then several years later it got rebooted again.  None of this did anything to motivate me to follow the series regularly.

So what finally did make me a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes?  It was two gentlemen by the names of Dave Cockrum and Jack Kirby.

Dave Cockrum is nowadays best known for co-creating the “All-New All-Different X-Men” with Len Wein in 1975, and then going on to pencil two runs on the series, paired with writer Chris Claremont.  Back in the 1990s, Dave and his wife Paty lived in upstate New York, and so I often would see them at local conventions & store signings.  I became a huge fan of Cockrum’s work and, in the process, I learned that right before he came over to Marvel to revamp X-Men, he had had a short but extremely influential stint on Superboy, a title which in the early 1970s was the home of the Legion as a back-up feature.

In 2000, DC published Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 10, which reprinted the majority of Cockrum’s work on the series.  I picked it up, and I instantly fell in love.  It was immediately apparent that Cockrum had really played a crucial role in reviving the Legion.  If you look at the first few stories in that Archives volume, the ones written by E. Nelson Bridwell & Cary Bates and drawn by George Tuska, they’re decent and entertaining, but nothing especially memorable.

Then Cockrum comes along, paired with Bates, and over the next few stories you can see a real shift.  Cockrum started to draw the Legion members as slightly older, so that they were in their late teens, and he designed new uniforms for them, ones that were more fashionable & risqué.  You could almost say he sexed up the Legion, although by today’s standards what he did is quite mild & innocent.  (My favorite was Cockrum’s costume design for Phantom Girl, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to get a nice sketch of Tinya by him.)  Cockrum revamped the technology, the look of the future, drawing a lot of inspiration from Star Trek.  Cockrum’s art also contained this energy and dynamic quality.  He really knew how to tell a compelling story, to draw exciting layouts and detailed sequences featuring multiple characters.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum. (Click to enlarge!)

Cockrum may have got me to pick up that hardcover collection, but it was Bates’ writing that really hooked me.  He did an amazing job scripting the numerous members of the Legion, making them seem like real people who were teammates and friends and occasionally romantic partners.  I really got invested in this group of super-powered pals.

Cockrum’s stay wasn’t very long, lasting from 1972 to 1974, but by the time he left, the team had taken over the covers of Superboy, and the book was unofficially titled “Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.”  Cockrum’s replacement was newcomer Mike Grell.  I enjoyed Volume 10 of the Archives so much, I picked up the next one, which has the beginning of Grell’s run, paired with both Bates and Jim Shooter on writing duties.  Obviously Grell has grown by immense leaps & bounds since the mid-1970s, but even back then you could see a great deal of talent & potential in his wonderful Legion art.

I also mentioned Jack Kirby.  As far as I know, the King of Comics never drew the Legion.  However, one of his most significant creations would play a major role in the annals of the team’s lore, courtesy of Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen.

“The Great Darkness Saga” originally ran in Legion of Super-Heroes #290-294, published in 1982.  A mysterious, shadowy “Master” and his “Servants” are ravaging the United Planets, stealing various objects & sources of mystical power, in the process even taking down longtime Legion foes Mordru and the Time Trapper.  After four issues in which the Legion has been beaten back by these mysterious beings, the identity of the “Master” is finally revealed: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.  Using the immense magical energies he has stolen, Darkseid teleports the planet Daxam to a yellow star and seizes mental control of its now-superhuman occupants, giving him an army of a billion beings with the strength & abilities of Superman.  What follows is a titanic battle across the whole of the galaxy, as the Legion calls in practically every single one of their reserve members & allies to try and halt Darkseid & his enslaved pawns.

Darkseid’s identity was well-hidden back when “The Great Darkness Saga” was first published.  In hindsight, you can see that Levitz & Giffen sprinkled in several clues for those who were really paying attention.  Of course nowadays Darkseid’s role is very well known.  So, as a huge fan of Kirby’s New Gods, I was absolutely interested in reading this now-classic story in which Darkseid was the villain.  “The Great Darkness Saga” was definitely an epic adventure.  At the same time, Levitz invested his script with a number of personal, quiet moments and pieces of characterization.  Once again, I really got interested in these people, in finding out more about them.

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

“The Great Darkness Saga” had not one, but two, epilogues, which appeared in Legion Annual #3 (1984) and Annual #2 (1986)… the series restarted with a new #1 in-between these two, which explains that odd numbering!  Having failed in his quest for universal domination, Darkseid sought to achieve a more personal, hurtful victory.  And what he did was genuinely horrifying.  But more on that (hopefully) in a future installment!

In any case, between the work of Cockrum, Grell & Bates in the 1970s and “The Great Darkness Saga” by Levitz & Giffen in the early 1980s, I really became interested in Legion.  I picked up several of the previous Archive editions, which contained the work of Edmond Hamilton, John Forte, Curt Swan, and a very young Jim Shooter.  I also searched out many of the Legion issues that Levitz wrote in the 1980s working with artists Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque.  It was all really good stuff.  And when the pre-Crisis continuity of the Legion was more or less restored several years back, I picked up the new stories by Levitz and Geoff Johns.  But, again, I’ll talk about that another time.

Silver Age artist Nick Cardy, who recently passed away, had a brief connection to the Legion.  In addition to his runs illustrating Aquaman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans, Cardy created stunning, dramatic covers for numerous DC titles throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Superboy.  This meant that once the Legion took over as the regular cover feature in 1973, Cardy had the opportunity to draw the heroes of the 30th Century.  And he did so beautifully, composing a number of striking images for the title, until Grell took over the cover chores two years later.  Probably my favorite Legion cover by Cardy is Superboy #203.  He does a superb job, depicting the menacing Validus looming over the unsuspecting Legionnaires.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Within that comic, behind Cardy’s fantastic cover, was “Massacre by Remote Control.”  This featured the tragic death of Invisible Kid, who sacrificed himself to save his teammates from the near-mindless monstrosity Validus.  It’s a very moving, emotional story by Bates & Grell.

And that, in turn, goes back to why I’ve come to be such a fan of the Legion.  Writers such as Bates and Shooter and Levitz really had the ability to get readers to care for the characters in the series.  Over the decades, those characters have grown and developed, been in and out of relationships, seen great triumphs and terrible failures.  And sometimes, sadly, members of the Legion would fall in battle, such as what happened to Invisible Kid, or when Shooter & Swan showed us Ferro Lad bravely giving his life to stop the apocalyptic menace of the Sun-Eater.  When incidents like this happened, it really did affect the reader.  It’s no wonder that the Legion has such an amazingly dedicated fanbase.