E-Man: the First Comics years, part one

During another recent stop at Mysterious Island (aka Roger’s Time Machine) I discovered that they had in stock the entire 25 issue run of E-Man published by First Comics between 1983 and 1985. I was already a huge fan of the original E-Man series by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton that Charlton had published a decade before, as well as the more recent specials released by Digital Webbing. So here was a good opportunity to pick up much of the material that I was missing. This is the first part of my look back at that First Comics run.

E-Man v2 1 cover

Okay, truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to read these issues. Erik Larsen, the super-talented creator of Savage Dragon, is a huge fan of E-Man. And he has commented in the past that he was not fond of the First Comics issues. During this time, Cuti was working on staff at DC Comics, which prevented him from returning to E-Man. Instead, the writing chores initially fell to Martin Pasko, whose work Larsen did not really like.

And, yeah, the first few issues of E-Man written by Pasko are a bit rough. Suddenly Alec Tronn and Nova Kane, who had previously started to become romantically involved, are now back to being platonic roommates, with Nova bringing home a different guy each night to sleep with. She is also suddenly upset about the fact that she has gained super-powers similar to Alec’s. Sloppy hardboiled PI Michael Mauser, instead of just being his usual rude, brusque self, is downright obnoxious, insulting Nova left & right. Oh, yes, and the ghost of Albert Einstein is narrating the book in a very thick accent.

Upon reflection, I did realize that Cuti and Pasko have very different styles of humor. Cuti’s work is undoubtedly on the subtler side. Pasko, on the other hand, is extremely blunt & heavy with his satire. I do think that Cuti’s approach works better for the characters, but Pasko, once you get used to him, does pen entertaining stories.

Pasko’s two-part tale in issue #s 2 & 3 is a heavy-handed parody of a certain popular group of mutants. Deranged scientist Ford Fairmont has been kidnapping teenagers and transforming them into real-life incarnations of his favorite comic book superheroes, the Unhappy F-Men. Mauser & E-Man are drawn into the case when they are hired to find one of those missing kids, Kitty, by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Porn… which makes their daughter Kitty Porn. Groan… insert rimshot! That said, Pasko does do a fair job satirizing Claremont’s purple prose. I’m a fan of those classic X-Men stories, but I still found this rather funny.  Anyway, things come to a head when Nova is also kidnapped and turned into Jean Beige, the Dark Albatross, before becoming completely depowered.

E-Man v2 5 pg 19

Probably the stand-out story of Pasko’s time on E-Man is issue #5, in which he takes his sledgehammer wit to the task of pummeling Scientology, and very effectively at that. “Getting Void” features the menace of the Psychobabbler, aka Elrod Flummox, head of the Church of Technolography.  And if you’re wondering what that “Pauline Blooper” bit on the page above is in reference to, be sure to do a Google search on Paulette Cooper or Operation Freakout.  It’s very disturbing stuff.

Paul Kupperberg scripts over the plots to Pasko’s last couple of issues, bringing with him perhaps a less heavy-handed touch, before Joe Staton himself takes over as writer. Staton’s first issue is #9, wherein E-Man and Mauser encounter the femme fatale Tyger Lili, who is in fact “Commander Zhong of the Grand Army of the Communo-Socialist Worker’s Party of Greater Macao.” Faster that you can say “better dead than red,” E-Man and Mauser are racing the prevent Tyger Lili from getting a hold of a miniaturized neutron bomb that’ll wipe out all life in the good old U.S. of A.

The next two issues are co-plotted by Pasko and Staton, with scripting by Kupperberg. This two part tale is an interesting look into Nova Kane’s previously unexplored origins. We witness the bumpy, unhappy journey she took from her younger years as Katrinka Kolcnzski of Barrentown PA to the geology student / burlesque dancer that we all know & love. It’s a rather poignant story which does good work developing Nova’s character.

Staton becomes the permanent writer on E-Man #12, which sees the return of Tyger Lili. The socialist seductress has joined forces with Big Al, a talking, cigar-smoking albino sewer alligator who dreams of conquering the world in the name of reptile-kind. Lili eventually realizes that Big Al has it in for all of humanity, and she quickly switches sides, freeing an entrapped E-Man so that the hero can stop the gigantic robot Gai-Tor from demolishing the city. It’s a very goofy story, but definitely a lot of fun.

E-Man v2 9 pg 6

Joe Staton’s artwork on these first dozen issues is very good. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about E-Man, the original Charlton issues were among some of his earliest professional work. A decade later, it is obvious that he has grown as an artist & storyteller, producing very strong, exciting, funny work on E-Man volume 2.

Perhaps because he was also busy as the Art Director at First, Staton did not do full artwork on E-Man after the initial five issues. Beginning with #6, Rich Burchett takes over the inking chores. I was already a fan of Burchett’s art from later at DC in the 1990s on various titles. Seeing his earlier work here was a pleasant surprise. He really complements Staton’s pencils, resulting in very nice artwork. Truthfully, even though I think Staton usually looks best when he inks his own pencils, after looking at these issues of E-Man I definitely have to put Burchett on the list of the top inkers to have worked with him.

The first ten issues each have a bonus page in the back, parodies of those old Hostess ads that used to run in comic books back in the 1970s. These spoofs are drawn by a number of talented artists, among them John Byrne, Bruce Patterson, and Fred Hembeck. One of my favorites was in issue #5, written & drawn by Reed Waller, featuring his erotic funny animal character Omaha the Cat Dancer. Michele is a fan of Waller’s work, and had previously seen this piece when it was reprinted in The Complete Omaha Volume 2. So she enjoyed getting to see it in color.

E-Man v2 5 pg 30

As E-Man #12 ends, Nova has received a job offer in Chicago, to work as a hostess on a monster movie television show. Despite Mauser’s protestations, Alec decides to join the woman he loves, and the couple is off to the Midwest, leaving behind a melancholy PI who is surprised to discover he is going to miss them.

In the next installment (hopefully coming soon, time permitting, cross your fingers) we shall see what sort of misadventures await Alec Tronn & Nova Kane in the Windy City. And we’ll also find out just what sort of trouble Michael Mauser gets up to without those two to keep an eye on him.

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Steve Moore: 1949 to 2014

I was sorry to learn about the recent death of British comic book writer Steve Moore, who passed away at the age of 64 earlier this month.  Steve Moore was a longtime friend & associate of Alan Moore, so much so that they constantly had to remind people that they were not, in fact, related to each other.

Steve Moore was involved in the early days of the weekly sci-fi anthology series 2000 AD, penning several installments of “Tharg’s Future Shocks” in the late 1970s and early 80s.  In late 1979, he became one of the first writers for Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly for Marvel UK, penning a variety of back-up stories spotlighting the aliens & monsters of the television series.

With then up-and-coming artist Steve Dillon, Moore co-created two recurring characters in the comic book back-ups.  The first was Junior Cyberleader Kroton, introduced in “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman,” published in Doctor Who Weekly #s 5-7 (1980).  Unlike the rest of the Cybermen, when he was converted into a cyborg Kroton somehow retained his human emotions, his capacity for empathy.  Struggling with his unexpected feelings, Kroton eventually sided with the human resistance on the Cyberman-occupied world of Mondaran, helping them to escape to the unoccupied jungles of their planet.  However, realizing he was neither fully Cyberman nor human, Kroton elected to blast off into outer space, where he shut himself down.

Doctor Who 3 pg 19

The other character conceived by Moore and Dillon was Abslom Daak, the Dalek-Killer, originally featured in Doctor Who Weekly #s 17-20 (1980).  Although they shared a common enemy in the Daleks, Daak was the polar opposite of the Doctor.  Whereas the wandering Time Lord was eccentric, cultured, and sought to resolve conflicts with his intellect, Daak was a brutal career criminal, a cynic with a dark sense of humor and a death wish whose solution to any problem was violence.

On the opening page his debut Daak has been convicted of “23 charges of murder, pillage, piracy, massacre and other crimes too horrible to bring to the public attention.”  Given a capital sentence, Daak is offered a choice, “death by vaporization or Exile D-K.”  Dryly commenting that “vaporization doesn’t hurt,” Daak takes the second alternative.  Exile D-K involves sending an individual by matter transmitter into the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the fascist mutants from Skaro.  This suits Daak just fine.  Armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, including his beloved chain-sword, he is teleported a thousand light years across the galaxy to the planet Mazam, newly invaded by the Daleks.  There Daak plans to go out in a blaze of glory, violently taking as many Daleks with him as possible in an orgy of destruction.

Upon his arrival, however, Daak ends up saving the life of the stunningly beautiful Princess Taiyin.  Daak is all ready to do a reenactment of the ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Taiyin realizes this brutish warrior might just be able to help her escape.  Knocking the Dalek-Killer out, she transports the two of them away from her palace via sky-sled.  Once again attacked by the Daleks, Daak reiterates his hopes of achieving a spectacularly violent demise.  Taiyin reluctantly points him in the direction of the Daleks’ command ship and, against impossible odds, the two manage to destroy it.  Taiyin, who has begun to fall for Daak, asks him to stay on and help rebuild Mazam.  Before Daak can answer, Taiyin is shot from behind by one of the surviving Daleks, and dies in the Dalek-Killer’s arms.

Doctor Who 8 pg 28

Moore did an interesting job of developing Daak.  He starts out as a thoroughly unpleasant individual who is looking to cash his chips in.  Along the course of the story, Daak reluctantly comes to realize that he likes Taiyin, and perhaps he could have a future with her, a reason to go on living.  And then all that is cruelly yanked away from him in an instant with Taiyin’s death.  From that point on, Daak vows to “kill every damned stinking Dalek in the galaxy.”  Revenge and the almost impossible hope of somehow finding a way to revive Taiyin are Daak’s only reasons to go on living.  That final page is powerfully illustrated by Dillon.

Moore continued Abslom Daak’s story in “Star Tigers,” which ran in Doctor Who Weekly #s 27-30 and 44-46.  The Dalek-Killer gains a battleship, the Kill Wagon, and a crew made up of exiled Draconian prince Salander, the Ice Warrior mercenary Harma, and the human criminal strategist Vol Mercurious.  The first few installments were again drawn by Dillon, with a young David Lloyd assuming art duties on the later chapters.

(There is an excellent interview with Steve Moore concerning his Dalek-Killer stories online at Altered Vistas.  Check it out.)

Moore intended to write additional installments of“Star Tigers.”  But he was then switched over to the main feature in Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly, scripting the adventures of the Fourth Doctor.  Here he was paired with regular artist Dave Gibbons.  In the mid-1980s, Moore’s Doctor Who work was reprinted in color in the American comic book series, which is where I first had the opportunity to read his various stories.

2000 AD 1194 pg 12

Moore also contributed numerous stories to the short-lived anthology series Warrior in the mid-1980s.  Among these were the adventures of the psychotic cyborg Axel Pressbutton and his sometimes-partner, the beautiful & deadly Laser Eraser.

Throughout the 1990s Moore worked as a writer and editor at Fortean Times, the British magazine of strange & esoteric phenomena.  He returned to the comic book field in the late 1990s, when he began writing “Tales of Telguth,” a  horror / fantasy anthology feature in 2000 AD with dark twist endings.  This allowed Moore to collaborate with a number of very talented artists such as Simon Davis, Greg Staples, Carl Critchlow, Dean Ormston, and Siku.

In the mid-2000s, Moore once again became associated with Alan Moore, working on several stories for Tom Strong, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Tomorrow Stories from the America’s Best Comics imprint.  These were illustrated by an all-star line up that included Paul Gulacy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Alan Weiss, Arthur Adams and Eric Shanower.  In 2008, Steve Moore wrote Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush for Radical Comics.

Tom Strong 34 pg 15

At the time of his death, Steve Moore was working with Alan Moore once again, this time on The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, to be released by Top Shelf.  Hopefully Alan will be able to complete the tome and it will see publication.

Steve Moore leaves behind a very impressive, offbeat, original body of work.  His two original characters from the Doctor Who comics, Abslom Daak and Kroton, became fan favorites.  Daak later encountered the Seventh Doctor, both in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and in prose fiction.  Kroton, after many years absence from print, reappeared to travel for a time with the Eighth Doctor.  So please raise a glass (or a chainsword) in his memory.

Comic book reviews: The Fox by Dean Haspiel and friends

Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox.  Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.

I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories.  Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes.  In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.

The Fox 2 pg 1

Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox.  Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero.  Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career.  Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to.  Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids.  But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.

Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid.  I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come.  Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable.  With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting.  The two make a hell of a team.  And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:

The Fox Irwin Hasen

“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”  Indeed.

Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield.  Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.

DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon.  At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman.  Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle.  But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.

The Fox 2 pg 25

One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence.  In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries.  But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.

Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon.  One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine.  Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.”  Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy.  And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.

Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth.  But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.

The Fox 5 pg 9

With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out.  DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid.  Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones.  That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past.  But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5.  Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue.  But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion.  The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box.  He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.

Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue.  After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman.  As always, his lettering is dynamic.  It’s an oft-overlooked art.

One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders.  In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom.  And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl.  For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!”  But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece.  That is how continuity should work.

The Fox 1 Freak Magnet cover signed

I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though.  Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants.  I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback.  Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.

All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done.  I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries.  I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.

Spotlight on Streaky the Supercat

It’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  No, it’s… Supercat?!?

Sometimes the Silver Age of superhero comic books, specifically the various series published by DC Comics, is considered by contemporary readers to be too silly.  Of course, in the last quarter century the pendulum has swung much too far in the opposite direction, with both DC and Marvel taking everything way too seriously.  They’re often afraid to have any sense of fun about their stories.  I really think you need to have a balance between those two extremes.  Anyone who follows my blog has no doubt noticed that I have very diverse interests, and my tastes run, as the saying goes, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

And so, even though there was a great deal of nonsense to DC’s books in the 1950s and 60s, I think there is quite a bit that’s fun & charming about those comics.  That includes Streaky the Supercat.

Making his debut in Action Comics #261 (Feb 1960), Streaky was designed by artist Jim Mooney, who in later years would say the character was one of his favorites.  Streaky was one of the only non-Kryptonian members of the “Superman Family” (there was also Comet the Super-Horse, but he’s much too weird to get into right now).  An ordinary Earth cat, Streaky was the pet of Supergirl in her civilian guise as Linda Lee.  In a failed attempt to find a cure for Kyrptonite, Supergirl accidentally created “X-Kryptonite.”  She carelessly tossed it away, but when Streaky later came across it, the substance imbued him with Superman-like powers.

Action Comics 373 pg 7

Here’s a page from “The Battle of the Super-Pets,” which originally appeared in Action Comics #277 (June 1961).  Streaky, jealous of the attention that Supergirl is giving to Krypto the Superdog, begins a rivalry with the Kryptonian canine.  To avoid the inevitable property damage, Supergirl takes them off-world to resume their contest on a small planetoid.  You can see from the artwork that Mooney really invested Streaky with a great deal of personality.  As someone who loved cats, he must have known all about feline “cattitude.” (I scanned this from a reprint of the story that ran in the somewhat more affordable and easy to locate Action Comics #373, a giant-sized special which collected together several earlier Supergirl tales).

Although Streaky was never a major fixture of the “mainstream” DC titles, he eventually went on to make appearances in stories that were, appropriately enough, geared towards a younger audience.  Streaky was one of the main characters in the Krypto the Superdog animated series which ran from March 2005 to December 2006.  Streaky has also popped up in the Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures comics by Art Baltazar & Franco Aureliani.

It was probably inevitable after Michele and I adopted our two cats Nettie and Squeaky that I would become a fan of fictional felines.  And that includes Streaky the Supercat.  Although not a major theme for me like Beautiful Dreamer, I have obtained a few sketches of the heroic housecat.

streakycohn

Scott Cohn is a versatile artist who has worked on such comic books as Army of Darkness, Ben 10, Justice League Unlimited and Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  He has also done licensing artwork for various properties, including the Krypto the Superdog series.  So I asked him to do a sketch of the animated version of Streaky.  Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to get some other sketches by Cohn. He does nice work.

streakyharris

Independent creator Alisa Harris has self-published several comic books.  One of these, Counter Attack, is a whimsical look at the antics of her cats Fidget and Moe.  Harris recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the hardcover publication of The Collected Counter Attack!  I’m looking forward to receiving a copy in the mail later this year.  Harris has drawn a couple of cat sketches for me, including this cute Streaky.

darkseid vs streaky franco

When I met Franco Aureliani at the 2013 New York Comic Con, of course I had to ask for a drawing of Streaky.  I requested that he draw “Streaky vs. Darkseid,” because the lord of Apokolips is a frequent fixture of Tiny Titans as the evil lunch lady.  Franco knows his cats very well, because faced by Darkseid’s menace Streaky simply can’t be bothered and decides to take a nap.

Last but certainly not least is my girlfriend, the beautiful and talented Michele Witchipoo.  I was friends with Michele for several years before we started dating.  During that time, she began self-publishing two comic book series: Psycho Bunny features the misadventures of an antisocial alcoholic rabbit living in Astoria, Queens, and Babalon Babes is a collection of sexy pin-up girl illustrations.  Over the past decade Michele has really developed as an artist.  She is constantly creating better and better work.

Streaky Silver Age Witchipoo

Michele has loved cats since she was a little girl, and grew up with them.  When I first told her about Streaky the Supercat in 2009, she did this charming drawing of the Silver Age version of the character for herself.

streaky animated witchipoo

A couple of days ago, I mentioned to Michele that I was going to do a blog post about Streaky.  She insisted that she wanted to do a brand new illustration of him in my convention sketchbook.  Michele decided to draw the animated version of Streaky this time.  And here he is, attempting very much to look like the Cat of Steel.  Michele definitely captured Streaky’s personality in this piece.  The “super tuna” was certainly a cute touch.

Perhaps I’ll get other Supercat sketches in the future.  I have to see which artists I run into at conventions.  I just hope that Nettie and Squeaky don’t mind.  They tend to get jealous, but that’s cats for you!

Attack of the Rocket Cats

One of the women I work with usually gives me her newspaper in the afternoon, once she’s done reading it at lunch. Friday afternoon, she handed me the day’s edition of the New York Post.  Now, the Post is really not my thing, since I find it to be a sensationalistic right-wing rag. I much prefer the Daily News which, as a sensationalistic left-wing rag, is at least somewhat more palatable.  But, anyway, I took the Post so I’d have something to read while waiting for the subway going home. And, browsing through the pages of the paper, I came across this item:

Rocket Cats article

Okaaaay!!!  Yes, according to University of Pennsylvania researcher Mitch Fraas, it seems that the early 16th Century artillery master Franz Helm actually proposed the creation of feline-deployed WMDs.  He even had full-color illustrations prepared to demonstrate these meowing marauders in action.

Doing a little bit of a Google search, I found a similar article in the UK newspaper The Guardian, which stated…

“Circulated widely and illustrated by multiple artists, Helm’s manual is filled with strange and terrible imagery, from bombs packed with shrapnel to missile-like explosive devices studded with spikes.”

Ah, the brilliantly twisted ingenuity of the human mind!

That said, I am not quite sure how exactly Helm arrived at the notion of placing an explosive pack onto the back of a cat and then sending it off to blow up an enemy installation.  There seem to be certain practical issues that he did not consider, such as equipping the gunpowder pack with a long enough fuse to make certain the tabby time bomb did not detonate while still in your vicinity, or a method of ensuring that your kitty commando actually headed off to the intended target.  And, of  course, as any cat owner will tell you, most felines do not like to be picked up. It is difficult enough to wrangle a domestic cat so that you can brush its fur or give it a bath (I speak from experience here).  So the possibility of successfully snatching up a stray cat and strapping a ticking bomb to it without getting your eyes clawed out seems terribly unlikely.

Rocket Cats color illustration

Obviously Helm’s contemporaries felt the same way regarding the drawbacks inherent in successfully creating a weaponized felis catus and tabled the discussion.  After all, there is a glaring dearth of recorded instances of rocket cat attacks in the annals of European history.  Good thing, too; I doubt the SPCA would have approved.

That said, there are two things that we can learn from this.  One, the phrase “military intelligence” has always been an oxymoron. Two, even as far back as five centuries ago, long before the creation of Facebook, people still liked sharing silly cat pictures.

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Doomed Legionnaires

Among the myriad characters to have appeared in the adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes over the decades, there exists a quartet that seem tied together by tragedy, almost as if fate itself meant for them to meet with terrible destinies.  I speak of Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid, who were conceived by Jim Shooter, making their first appearances in Adventure Comics #346 (July 1966), published by DC Comics.

Adventure Comics 346 cover

Jim Shooter was all of 13 years old when he became the Legion’s new writer.  He came from an impoverished background, and entered the field to help supplement his family’s meager income.  One of the strengths that Shooter brought with him, in addition to his fertile imagination, was that he knew how real teenagers think and act.  He helped bring a certain authenticity to the super-powered teens of the 30th Century.  His first published story, for which he also supplied the rough pencil layouts, was in fact the two-part tale that ran in Adventure Comics #s 346-347, which saw the four young heroes he created inducted into the Legion.  The finished artwork was courtesy of Sheldon Moldoff, Curt Swan & George Klein.

Karate Kid, although he had no actual superhuman abilities, was a highly trained martial artist who had mastered a form of “super karate” which enabled him to go toe-to-toe with much more powerful opponents.  Princess Projecta had the ability to create incredibly realistic illusions.  Ferro Lad was a mutant who could turn his body into a form of living steel, gaining super strength & invulnerability.  Nemesis Kid possessed the talent to instantly develop the ability to combat any foe or danger.

Just as Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid had finished being admitted into the Legion, the militaristic alien Khunds (also a Shooter creation) made clear their intention to invade Earth.  The team, including the four newcomers, was dispatched across the globe to guard the planet’s defenses.  However, one by one the “electro-towers” protecting Earth were destroyed by sabotage.  It quickly became apparent that one of the new Legionnaires was in fact a traitor working with the Khunds… but which one?  At first the evidence seemed to point to Karate Kid.  But as Superboy stepped forward to accurse Karate Kid, the true double agent was revealed to be Nemesis Kid.

Adventure Comics 347 pg 13

The Khund invasion was thwarted, but Nemesis Kid used his adaptability power to teleport away, evading capture.  He would go on to become a long-time foe of the team, both as a solo menace and a member of the Legion of Super-Villains.  And out of that first encounter would grow a long-running enmity between Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid.

Soon after, tragedy once again struck the Legion.  Editor Mort Weisinger had directed Shooter to more or less rip off the then-current movie The Dirty Dozen.  To his credit, Shooter conceived a two part story that was quite original & dramatic.  In the pages of Adventure #s 352-353, the cosmic entity known as the Sun Eater was detected approaching the United Planets.  Capable of consuming entire galaxies, the Sun Eater was too formidable a menace for even the Legion to defeat.  They were forced to enlist the aid of five of the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals, offering them amnesty in exchange for their services.

Superboy, Cosmic Boy, Princess Projecta, Sun Boy and Ferro Lad set out to confront the Sun Eater, accompanied by the newly-formed Fatal Five.  One member of that quintet of criminals, the cyborg Tharok, conceived a strategy to combat the inhuman menace.  Although this battle plan failed, the attack by the Legion and the Fatal Five managed to weaken the Sun Eater, as well as provide Tharok with the data needed to construct an Absorbatron Bomb.  If detonated at the core of the Sun Eater it would destroy the entity.  Unfortunately whoever delivered the bomb would almost certainly die in the act.  Superboy was ready to sacrifice himself, but Ferro Lad punched the Boy of Steel, grabbed the bomb, and flew into the heart of the Sun Eater.  The bomb did indeed succeed in destroying it, but at the cost of Ferro Lad’s life.

Advenure Comics 353 pg 20

In real life, Shooter hadn’t initially planned to kill off his creation.  In fact, he wanted to reveal Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire.  However the conservative Weisinger forbid him doing this, supposedly fearing it would affect their sales in the South.  As a result, when conceiving the Sun-Eater two-parter, Shooter realized the ending necessitated someone dying, and so he chose Ferro Lad.  In any case, despite a very brief tenure on the team, Ferro Lad became something of a fan favorite due to his brave, heroic sacrifice.

Time passed, and Shooter left the Legion.  During the intervening years, under other writers, Karate Kid and Princess Projecta went on to become well-established members of the team.  The two characters also fell in love.  Then, nearly a decade later, in 1975, Shooter made a brief return to the series.  It was at this point that he was able to delve into the background of his futuristic master of the martial arts.

In the pages of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Shooter, paired with artist Mike Grell, revealed the origin of Karate Kid, aka Val Armorr.  In “The Lair of the Black Dragon” Karate Kid learned he was the son of the infamous Japanese criminal Kiraku Nezumi, aka the Black Dragon, and an American woman named Valenina Armorr, who died shortly after giving birth to him.  Karate Kid’s mentor, known only as the Sensei, had in his youth himself been a super-hero.  He and the Black Dragon were arch-enemies.  After many years, the Sensei finally killed the Black Dragon in combat, only to learn of the existence of his foe’s infant child.  The Sensei raised Karate Kid as his own son.  Now a teenager, Karate Kid was approached by the Black Dragon’s followers, hoping the truth of his parentage would turn him against the Sensei.  Instead, Val fought to protect the Sensei.  He explained “The Black Dragon gave me life… but you gave me more: ideals and moral values!”  As far as Val was concerned, the Sensei was his true father.

Superboy Legion 210 pg 18

More time passed.  Paul Levitz became the writer on Legion of Super-Heroes, embarking on a multi-year run during which he penned a number of now-classic stories.  One of his long-running subplots was the complicated relationship between Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  After a tumultuous courtship, Val and Jeckie at last married.  Unfortunately, their happiness would be short-lived.

During Levitz’s partnership with penciler & co-plotter Keith Giffen, Legion became an especially popular title.  It received a brand new series in 1984.  To start it off, in the first five issues Levitz and Giffen brought back the Legion of Super-Villains, expanded in ranks and headed by Nemesis Kid.  The one-time traitorous LSH member embarked on a dual quest to lead his fellow criminals in the invasion of Princess Projecta’s home planet of Orando and to kill as many Legionnaires as possible.

The Super-Villains attacked Orando, shunting the entire planet into another dimension, in the process capturing several members of the LSH.  This included the newly-married Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  In Legion #4, Val managed to free himself and his teammates, but then told them “Hold it – you guys go on ahead – I have a personal score to settle.”  With that he headed off to face his long-time rival Nemesis Kid.

In a brutal fight, Nemesis Kid used his adaptability to match Val’s martial arts, delivering a bloody beating.  But the hero refused to give up, continually getting up again and again to face his foe.  Despite his willpower, Val ended up sustaining severe injuries.  Realizing he was mortally wounded, Karate Kid grabbed his flight ring, bid farewell to Jeckie, and flew up into the sky, using the last minutes of his life to damage the orbiting technology that had snatched Orando into limbo.

Legion v3 4 pg 22

Giffen, who was absolutely not a fan of Karate Kid, was the one who had originally suggested killing Val.  Levitz, in contrast, really liked Karate Kid, but he decided that dramatically it was a good idea because the character was popular and so his death would be unexpected as well as possess an emotional punch.

In the letters page of issue #4, Levitz addressed Val’s death: “A long-time favorite character of this writer (who even scripted Karate Kid #1 as his first LSH-related assignment over eight years ago), we’d like to think his death in battle against Nemesis Kid was foreshadowed from the day they both joined the Legion in Adventure Comics #346.”

By this time Giffen had actually gotten burned out drawing Legion.  Up-and-coming artist Steve Lightle took over as penciler with issue #3, working from Giffen’s thumbnail pencil breakdowns on his first couple of issues before taking full creative control of the storytelling.  Unlike Giffen, Lightle was a big fan of Karate Kid, and he was hardly thrilled that in only his second issue on the book he would have to draw the character’s demise.  Nevertheless, given how much he cared for Val, Lightle set out to make his death as dramatic as possible.  He certainly did amazing work penciling Karate Kid’s last stand.

The final confrontation between the Legion and their evil counterparts took place in issue #5, as Princess Projecta sought to avenge Karate Kid’s death.  At first Jeckie hurled all manner of horrific hallucinations at her husband’s killer, but Nemesis Kid immediately adapted immunity to her illusions.  Unfortunately for him, while he was busy doing that, he could not adapt to fight a normal human woman physically.  A vengeful, driven Projecta reached out and in a moment of cold fury broke Nemesis Kid’s neck, slaying him.

Once again, Lightle does amazing work penciling this sequence.  The panels where he zooms in on Projecta’s icy eye, and then cuts to Nemesis Kid’s horrified expression, really drive home that this is a woman who will not be stopped.  On the next page, as Projecta grabs Nemesis Kid by the neck, the “camera” pans down to Karate Kid’s fallen form, leaving the execution to occur off-panel.  Sometimes what takes place out of sight has much more of an impact.  (Click on the scan below for a close-up look at these two pages.)

Legion v3 5 pg 14 & 15

With her husband avenged and the LSV defeated, the widowed, mournful Projecta resigns from the Legion, and assumes her place as Orando’s ruler.  In a later interview, Levitz stated that he eventually would have brought her back somewhere down the road.  But it was clear that, at the time, this would have been the last we saw of Jeckie, at least for the immediate future.

Of course, to quote poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”  A year later, in Legion #14 (September 1985), Levitz & Lightle introduced the mysterious Sensor Girl.  Levitz originally intended Sensor Girl to be a post-Crisis incarnation of Supergirl, placing her incognito to work around the editorial mandate that she was dead / retconned out of existence.  However, the powers-that-be at DC soon told Levitz that his idea was a no-go.  Forced to change course mid-stream, Levitz eventually revealed Sensor Girl to be Princess Projecta.  But that’s a story for another time.

Getting back to where we started, the four “doomed” Legionnaires introduced way back in Adventure Comics #346 exemplify what makes the Legion so great.  From that one story, Shooter, Levitz and other writers took those characters on engaging, moving, epic story arcs that resonated with readers.  As I’ve written before, the amazing thing about the Legion is that you become so invested in these characters, their lives, their loves, and their tragedies.

(I have to offer an acknowledgement to the excellent book The Legion Companion, written by Glen Cadigan and published by TwoMorrows in 2003, as the source for much of the background info contained in this blog post.  It is currently out of print, but if you can find a copy it is well worth picking up.)

Doctor Who reviews: The Moonbase

On more than one occasion Colin Baker, who played the sixth incarnation of the Doctor, has observed that if it was not for Patrick Troughton’s portrayal of the Second Doctor, the Doctor Who series as we know it might never have existed.  If Troughton had not been able to sell the audience on the idea that the Doctor could completely change, taking on not just a totally new appearance but an entirely different personality, yet at the same time still be the same character previously played by William Hartnell, then the show would never have lasted half a century.

I believe that Baker is absolutely correct.  Nowadays the concept of regeneration, of a new actor coming in to play the Doctor every few years, is taken for granted by fans of the series.  But back in 1967, if Troughton had not given such a brilliant performance as the new Doctor, and won the audience over, the show probably would have been canceled.

For a number of years Troughton’s crucial contributions to Doctor Who became overlooked due to the fact that the majority of the serials he appeared in were either missing or incomplete.  Fortunately within the last quarter century a number of those previously-lost episodes have been rediscovered, and others have been recreated using the original audio tracks (recorded back in the day by avid fans) combined with brand new animation.  Younger fans now have the opportunity to view stories which have not been seen in decades.

Moonbase DVD

One of the recent DVD releases to feature Troughton’s Doctor is “The Moonbase,” a four episode serial written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis broadcast in early 1967.  It is only the fourth story to feature Troughton, and I think that it marks a major turning point in the series.  Episodes two and four have been in the BBC archives for quite a number of years, and I’ve viewed them a few times previously on the Lost In Time DVD set.  With episodes one and three now recreated via animation, it is finally possible to view the story in its entirety, which gives a much better feel for its significance.

It can still be a bit difficult to understand the evolution of the Second Doctor.  However, going by the soundtracks, photographs, surviving footage, and novelizations of his first three stories, it seems that Troughton did take time to find his feet.  Early on his Doctor was very comical, wearing strange hats and assuming oddball disguises.  With “The Moonbase,” Troughton finally settles into the role.  It is here that the Doctor solemnly states his now-iconic mission statement:

“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”

From this point on, the Second Doctor is still humorous, but it is more often with the goal of distracting people or making villains underestimate him.

Looking back on my review of the Matt Smith episode “Cold War” last April, I see that I described the Eleventh Doctor as “an oddball with a steely determination beneath the babbling and flippancy.”  That also sums up the Second Doctor very well indeed.  Smith really did find quite a bit of inspiration in Troughton.

So, what is “The Moonbase” about, anyway?  Unexpectedly landing the TARDIS on the Moon in the year 2070, the Doctor and his companions Ben, Polly, and Jamie find that the weather-control center for the Earth is experiencing both a mysterious plague and unexplained technical difficulties.  They soon discover that the Cybermen are behind this crisis, with the goal of seizing the weather-manipulating Graviton and using it to wipe out all life on Earth.

“The Moonbase” is something of a retread of Pedler & Davis’ inaugural Cybermen story, “The Tenth Planet.”  However in most respects this serial is a marked improvement.  Morris Barry’s direction is top notch.  One of his most memorable sequences is the opening of episode four, with an army of Cybermen marching across the surface of the Moon.  The pacing of this story is much stronger.  The characters are better developed.  Unlike the unhinged General Cutler from “The Tenth Planet,” the Graviton’s commander Hobson (the excellent Patrick Barr) may be stern and short-tempered, but in a crisis he knows how to keep his head and rally the staff working under him.  The Cybermen costumes, while they do look rather more robotic, unfortunately betraying much less of the creatures’ organic origins, are better designed and built, at least from the practical aspect of actual actors having to wear them in a hot, cramped studio.  And unlike “The Tenth Planet,” which saw the Doctor unavoidably sidelined for much of the action due to Hartnell’s ill health, in “The Moonbase” the time traveler is front & center in the story.

Moonbase Polly animated

I also found that “The Moonbase” made much better use of the character Polly (Anneke Wills).  Yes, in the first half she is relegated to tending to the injured Jamie in the medical unit and serving coffee.  But in episode three it is Polly who figures out a way to fight the Cybermen, mixing together a cocktail of chemical solvents to spray at their chest units, which destroys their artificial organs, killing them.  When Ben (Michael Craze) attempts to convince Polly to stay in the medical center, arguing that fighting the Cybermen is “men’s work,” she has none of that, and charges into battle with a fire extinguisher full of chemicals.

If “The Tenth Planet” was the first “base under siege” story in Doctor Who, then it was “The Moonbase” that refined the formula.  Heck, the word “base” is actually part of the title, and in episode three Hobson tells his staff that they are “under siege.”  So there you go!  In any case, the basic structure would be repeated throughout Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor.  Even in modern Doctor Who this formula has been effectively utilized from time to time, namely in “The Waters of Mars” and “Cold War.”

A humorous aspect of this story comes out of the scripts having been written before the last minute decision was made to have Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) join the TARDIS crew at the end of “The Highlanders.”  This meant that Pedler & Davis had to write Jaime in at the eleventh hour.  Their solution was to have Jaime suffer a concussion early on in the story, and then spend the next two episodes lying semi-conscious in the medical center. And whenever a Cyberman pops into the room, the delirious Jamie thinks it is the ghostly “Phantom Piper” come to claim his soul!

There are, admittedly, a few faults to “The Moonbase.”  The Doctor supposedly conducts an incredibly thorough investigation in an attempt to find the cause of the plague.  He examines everything: food, water, clothing, boots, hair, and I don’t know what else.  The result is that he comes up completely empty-handed.  Then five minutes later another crew member dramatically keels over after drinking a cup of coffee and the Doctor realizes the Cybermen have poisoned the sugar.  Um, if he tested everything, how did he miss that the first time around?

I’m also trying to figure out what the deal is with the Cyberman who every so often pops out of the closet in the back of the medical center, snatches up a plague-infected crewman, and drags him back inside.  Each time this happens, a few moments later when someone goes to search the closet it’s empty.  Where the heck do the Cyberman and his captive go?  It’s like they vanish into thin air.  Yes, the Cybermen have dug a hole under the lunar surface into the underground storeroom of the base.  But we never find out how they do their disappearing act in the closet.

I’m also not too keen on the notion that the Cybermen are somehow inordinately affected by gravity, forcing them to infect the staff with a virus, take control of their minds, and use them to operate the Graviton.  So, tallying things up, that already gives the Cybermen three major vulnerabilities in just two stories: radiation, chemical solvents, and gravity.  (At least we’re still a couple of decades off from the point where you could kill the Cybermen by bouncing gold coins off their chest units!)

It’s also stated at a few times that all of the Cybermen died nearly a century ago when their home planet Mondas was destroyed, which is why initially Hobson doesn’t believe Polly when she says she’s seen them.  Apparently there was going to be dialogue in episode three where the Cybermen explained they were part of a group that departed from Mondas some years before its destruction.  Supposedly the scene was filmed but was then cut because the episode was overrunning, even though there was other less vital material that could have been edited out instead.  The result is that viewers are never told how the Cybermen survived.  At least Gerry Davis restored that piece of exposition when he novelized “The Moonbase” as Doctor Who and the Cybermen in 1974.

Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Well, aside from a few weaknesses, this is a solid story.  And the DVD extras are of a high quality.  First off, the animation used to recreate the two missing episodes looks fantastic.  I was watching this with Michele, and she was impressed, especially with the lifelike, nuanced animated versions of the characters.  Her specific comment was “Nice facial expressions.”  Troughton did much of his acting with his features, expressions and body language, so it is a lovely detail that the animators were able to restore that aspect of his performance.

There were, regrettably, only a few participants available for the making of feature “Lunar Landing” due to the fact that many of the cast and crew are no longer among the living.  Nevertheless, it is still an informative segment with some revealing information.  All these decades later Anneke Wills possesses very detailed memories of the production.  It was interesting to hear her explain that director Morris Barry, who she describes as “tough” and “highly disciplined,” played a crucial role in getting Troughton to tone down the comedic aspects of his performance and portray “the darker, more serious side of the Doctor.”

“The Moonbase” may not be the best Cybermen story of the 1960s.  I consider their next appearance, “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” to hold that honor.  But, as I’ve said before, I think Pedler & Davis were on a learning curve, and you can see the improvement from one story to the next, with “The Moonbase” improving on “The Tenth Planet,” and then “Tomb of the Cybermen” improving on that.  Certainly “The Moonbase” was a vital step in establishing the characterization of the Second Doctor, as well as setting the stage for many of the now-classic serials that would be produced over the next two and a half years.  And all that, in turn, helped to propel Doctor Who into a long and successful series that still resonates with today’s viewers.