Godzilla 2014

I was watching Godzilla 2000 on the DVD early this afternoon.  As I was sitting through it, I recalled how much I’d enjoyed seeing it in the theater back when it first came out.  I’ve only been able to go to a few of the Godzilla films on the big screen, which is a very different experience from seeing them on a television set.  I started thinking that it was unfortunate that I’d missed out on the opportunity to catch the 2014 version of Godzilla in the theater.

And then, in a strange coincidence, maybe half an hour later, Michele was checking online to see what movies were playing in the area tonight.  It turned out Godzilla was actually still playing at Cinemart Cinemas on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.  Cue a quick hop into the shower and then a rush by the two of us to take the Q54 bus over there!

First things first: the 2014 remake of Godzilla is far and away a major improvement over the first  time an American studio attempted to adapt the property, back in 1998.  This time around, Godzilla is NOT a giant iguana who runs away from the military while laying eggs all over the place.  Nope, once again Godzilla is a titanic, city-smashing prehistoric reptile reawakened by atomic testing, a nigh-unstoppable force.  Yes, the design of the creature is tweaked somewhat, but it still recognizable, still a being that you will look at and say “Yep, that’s Godzilla.”

Godzilla 2014 movie poster

The movie opens with an extended prologue set in 1999.  In the Philippines, a mining expedition has unearthed a cavern containing an enormous dinosaur skeleton.  Exploring the cave, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) also discovers two mysterious egg pods, one of which has hatched.  Soon after, at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, a sudden & mysterious earthquake causes the entire facility to collapse, rendering the area radioactive, and causing the death of plant manager Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston)’s wife.

Fifteen years later, Joe’s now grown son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home to San Francisco after a tour of duty abroad as an ordinance disposal technician with the U.S. Navy.  Ford’s reunion with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and their young son is cut short when he finds out his father has been arrested for attempting to enter the quarantined Janjira area.  Joe is obsessed with the nuclear meltdown that killed his wife.  He is convinced that it was not caused by a natural disaster, and that the government is covering up the true reason.  Joe once again heads back to sneak into the quarantine zone, with Ford reluctantly accompanying him.  Investigating, they find the area mysteriously empty of radioactivity, but are eventually arrested for trespassing.  Taken to the site of the former reactor, they discover that a giant cocoon is in the center of the complex guarded by Project Monarch, a joint Japanese and American endeavor headed by Serizawa.

Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival, the cocoon begins to hatch.  An EMP wave knocks out all electronics in the vicinity, and a creature called a Muto, which looks across between a praying mantis and a reptile, emerges.  It demolishes the Monarch facility, fatally injuring Joe Brody, and then heads east.  Serizawa explains to Ford that the Muto is a prehistoric creature, a parasitic entity that feeds off radiation.  After hatching in the Philippines a decade and a half before, it destroyed the nuclear plant and spent the next 15 years soaking up the nuclear fallout.  Serizawa gets Ford to recount the information his father told him before he died, and he deduces that the Muto is now homing in on a signal from another of its kind.  Indeed, Serizawa learns that the other egg found in the Philippines, long stored away in the Nevada desert, has hatched, and that the second Muto, a female, is moving west in search of its mate.

The activity of the Mutos has also revived Godzilla, another prehistoric creature, one originally awakened back in 1954 which the American military attempted to covertly destroy under the cover of the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.  Serizawa now believes that Godzilla is the mortal enemy of the Mutos, and that the creature’s role is to destroy the parasites and restore balance to the natural world.

As the two Mutos converge, causing tremendous destruction and horrific losses of life, Godzilla finally emerges from the sea to fight them, with all three finally meeting in the heart of San Francisco.  All the while Ford attempts to make it home to his wife and son, while aiding the military’s efforts against the monsters along the way.

Godzilla 2014

The movie definitely has a very slow build to it, with the Mutos first appearing about thirty minutes in, and Godzilla himself not receiving a full reveal until an hour in, the halfway point of the film.  The story is very much concerned with developing the characters, probably to a degree not seen since the original Gojira back in 1954.  I think it does a decent enough job of that.  Yes, while the characters at times are still somewhat thinly drawn, on the whole they do fell rather more fleshed out than in the majority of big budget, special effects extravaganzas.  Elle Brody is probably the least-developed of the group, mostly standing around fretting about her son or running away from danger, serving primarily as Ford’s reason to make his way home.  But I guess Elizabeth Olson does her best with the material.

At least the script doesn’t attempt to hammer home its messages.  You might think that it is awfully convenient that Ford is an expert at ordinance disposal, which conveniently enables him to be inserted into most of the action.  But it actually does make sense that someone who lost his mother in a nuclear meltdown when he was just a child would grow up to want to save lives by rendering similar devices harmless.  A lot of other movies would have just come right out and said that, but here is just a possible subtext for a viewer to pick up upon.  Likewise, Serizawa carries around a broken pocket watch from Hiroshima that his father gave him, but it is commented upon in such a way that the audience isn’t bludgeoned over the head with the notion that humanity is warlike and destructive to the natural world, that we created an environment where Godzilla and the Mutos would thrive.

The movie also places the protagonists very much in the center of the action.  Typically, in most Godzilla films, the humans are off at a safe distance, watching the monster battles and resulting destruction unfold with a minimum of risk.  Here, the characters are right at the heart of the carnage, with buildings crashing down right on top of them, the threat of injury or death very much present.  The death of Joe Brody very much drives that home.  Though it is a real shame that Bryan Cranston’s character is killed off so early in the movie, this demonstrates that it is not just unnamed extras who are in danger.

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Michele and I did agree that the movie could have used more of one thing: Godzilla himself.  After all, the big guy is absent from half the movie.  His confrontations with the Mutos are only seen very briefly right up until the last 15 or so minutes, mostly because they are all being witnessed by people fleeing from the monsters.

Director Gareth Edwards appears to have made this movie with as much of an eye for realism as he could without sacrificing the undeniably fantastical elements of gigantic prehistoric creatures beating each other up.  Edwards obviously wanted a movie that told most of the story from the POV of the civilians on the ground and the soldiers in the trenches.  That means that we get a great many chaotic glimpses of giant monster feet or swinging limbs or swishing tails, buildings tumbling down, and crowds of people rushing about.  Oh, yes, and smoke… lots and lots of smoke!  Because, yes, if Godzilla and a couple of his rivals started tearing up a major metropolitan area it probably would cause poor visibility due to the fires and debris.  But as a moviegoer I wanted to be able to see the monsters much more clearly and not struggle to figure out what was taking place at times.

Nevertheless, I do appreciate that Edwards wanted to craft a movie that wasn’t mere disaster porn.  There are definitely too many of those, long on SFX & explosions and short on plot & characterization, with no real consequences.  Edwards went a bit too far in the other direction, focusing too much on the humans and not enough on the monsters.  But I cannot fault his intentions.

Certainly the depiction of Godzilla was well done.  The creature is not a villain, but neither is it heroic.  Rather, Godzilla is a force of nature.  Edwards also draws a certain parallel between Ford Brody and Godzilla.  Ford wants to get home safely to his wife & son, and to save people.  Godzilla, while he doesn’t appear particularly concerned with protecting humans, is seemingly not attempting to harm them, either.  Well, at least not deliberately, but if he has to demolish a few buildings in order to stop the Mutos, then that’s a small price to pay.  But, in the end, both Ford and Godzilla are willing to lay down their lives, the former to protect his family, the later a planet.

So, while not without flaws, the new Godzilla is nevertheless entertaining, thoughtful, and well-made.  I’m glad I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

New York Comic Fest 2014 Convention Report

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michele and I went to the New York Comic Fest last Saturday, which was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.  It’s interesting that there was a three-way duel of sorts between comic cons in the NY metro area that weekend.  In addition to the Comic Fest, there was also a mini-version of the NY Comic Con at the Javits Center, as well as a decent-sized show out on Long Island.

Michele and I hadn’t been out of the City since last year, so we chose to go to the White Plains show.  I actually grew up in different parts of Westchester, and it was nice to be back for a day.  Michele and I took the Metro North train up.  The County Center was about a 15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather to walk around.

Fred and Lynn Hembeck New York Comic Fest

The first guest whose table I went up to at the show was Fred Hembeck.  I’ve been a fan of Hembeck’s work for many years.  I’ve corresponded with him by e-mail and Facebook, and I got a cool re-interpretation of the cover to Captain America #291 done by him a few years ago.  But except for one time years back when I ran into him for about 30 seconds walking around a comic show in Upstate New York, I’ve never really met him.  It was great talking with Fred and his wife Lynn, who are both nice people.  Fred autographed my Spectacular Spider-Ham trade paperback, and he drew a cool piece in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

While I was at Fred’s table, Michele was nearby chatting with underground artist John Holmstrom.  The founding editor of Punk Magazine in 1975, Holmstrom’s has also worked on The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, High Times and a number of album covers.  Michele is a big fan of Holmstrom’s art, so she was thrilled to meet him.  He was nice enough to do a sketch for her.  Michele surprised me by buying me a vintage issue of Punk Magazine as a present.  It was issue #17, which featured the Singing Pimple comic strip.

Rudy Nebres New York Comic Fest

Also at the show was Filipino-born artist Rudy Nebres.  I am a huge fan of his amazingly detailed, superbly rendered art, especially his work on Vampirella over the years.  I brought along several books to get signed, including the two issue horror miniseries Maura that was published by Berserker Comics in 2009.  Nebres’ pencils for it were exquisite, some of the best work of his entire career.  I was really happy to get those autographed.  I wish I’d had the funds to get one of his amazing sketches.  Fortunately I’ve obtained a couple of pieces by him in the past.

I was thrilled to see Steve Mannion and Una McGurk again at the convention.  The two of them recently tied the knot.  It was nice to be able to congratulate them in person.  I finally picked up a copy of Steve’s Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights special, which I missed finding in the stores when it came out last December.  I just wished I’d remembered to bring him a bag of Pirate’s Booty Popcorn as a present!

Steve Mannion and Una McGurk New York Comic Fest

Another creator at the show who I’d never met before was Paul Kupperberg.  Michele has really been enjoying the Life With Archie series that Kupperberg has been writing for the last three years.  That’s the great magazine-sized publication from Archie Comics that has the two possible futures where Archie marries Veronica and Betty, and we see what happens to the inhabitants of Riverdale as a result of each of those choices.  I’ve also read Life With Archie from time to time, and it is really well written.  Michele had Kupperberg autograph some of those for her.   He also signed my copy of the first issue of The Charlton Arrow, as well as Action Comics #598, the first appearance of Checkmate, the covert ops organization he co-created at DC Comics in the late 1980s.

Paul Kupperberg New York Comic Fest

I also had the opportunity to meet Peter Gillis, who wrote some great stories in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s.  I’m a fan of his work and so, once again, it was cool to get a few things autographed.  I also saw Don McGregor and, as I mentioned before, bought a copy of the Sable 30th Anniversary Edition from him.  Other creators at the show were Josh Neufeld, David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Basil Gogos and Joe Martino.  I got to see Bronze Age legend Herb Trimpe once again.  It’s odd, in that I’ve met him at a number of conventions in the past, but I didn’t have a single issue of Incredible Hulk signed by him, even though that’s the character he is most identified with.  So this time I remembered to bring my copy of Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which Trimpe autographed for me.

Longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil was at Comic Fest.  For most of the day he was on different panel discussion.  I did manage to catch him after the “Batman at 75: Then and Now” panel, when he was signing at his table for a little while.  There was a looooong line, and the person waiting in front of me looked and acted almost exactly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  Yeah, just the sort who gives comic book fans a bad name!  But I finally got to the front of the line and had a couple of Batman trade paperbacks signed by O’Neil.  I really wanted to ask him some questions, but I didn’t want to hold up the line.  At least I got a photo with him.

Ben and Denny O'Neil New York Comic Fest

All in all, New York Comic Fest was a nice convention.  Michele and I both had fun there.  It was very casual and laid-back, with some great guests and panel discussions.  It did appear that attendance was a bit low, probably due to those other competing two shows in the tri-state area.  I hope that the organizers had a successful convention, because I would certainly like to see New York Comic Fest return in 2015.

My only original art acquisition that day was the cool Beautiful Dreamer sketch by Fred Hembeck.  Well, I was on a budget, and also shooting for quality over quantity.  I was certainly happy to have obtained it and, as I said, to have finally met Fred.

Beautiful Dreamer Fred Hembeck

Mid-afternoon Michele and I left the County Center.  We took a walk down Central Avenue, and went to visit my grandparents, who live in White Plains.  Again, the weather was pleasant, so even though it was a bit of a long walk, it was good to get some fresh air.  I’m happy that I was able to see my grandparents, since they’re up there in years nowadays.

And then it was back to the train station to catch the train home.  We didn’t want to stay too late in White Plains.  After all, we had to get home to feed the cats.  Nettie and Squeaky can be quite demanding when it comes to food, you know.  Never keep a cat waiting if you can avoid it!

All photos courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  Thanks, hon.

Comic book reviews: Detectives Inc. “A Terror of Dying Dreams”

Michele and I took the Metro North train up to White Plains on Saturday for the New York Comic Fest at the Westchester County Center.  It was a fun convention with a line-up of talented creators as guests.

Among them was writer Don McGregor, who penned some very influential, groundbreaking stories in the 1970s and 80s.  I’ve met McGregor on a couple of occasions previously, but it was still good to see him again.  I purchased a copy of the Sabre 30th Anniversary Edition from him, which has been on my “want list” for a while now.  I mentioned to McGregor that several years back I had written an online review of another of his works, his Detectives Inc. graphic novel, “A Terror of Dying Dreams.”  McGregor responded that he’d be interested in reading that, and I told him that I’d try to re-post it on my current blog at some point in the near future.

After I got home, I suddenly realized, via Facebook, that the very next day, June 15th, was his birthday.  Well, obviously that called for me to speed things up a bit!  So please consider this review a birthday tribute to the talented Don McGregor.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams cover

McGregor’s first Detectives Inc. book, “A Remembrance of Threatening Green,” was published by Eclipse Comics in 1980.  It was illustrated by Marshall Rogers.  “A Remembrance of Threatening Green” introduced McGregor’s private investigator team of Bob Rainier and Ted Denning.

Several years later Eclipse published McGregor’s second Detectives Inc. saga.  This time McGregor was paired with a past collaborator, the legendary Gene Colan (they had previously worked together on Ragamuffins and Nathaniel Dusk).  “A Terror of Dying Dreams” saw the return of Rainier and Denning, now working side-by-side with social worker Dierdre Sevens.  “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reprinted as an oversized black & white book by Image Comics in 1999.  I purchased a copy of that from McGregor back in 2001 at one of the Big Apple Comic Cons, where I got it autographed by both him and Colan.  More recently, in 2009 the two Detectives Inc. graphic novels were collected together in a lavish hardcover volume by IDW.

“A Terror of Dying Dreams” opens simultaneously on our three protagonists: Bob Rainier, Ted Denning, and Dierdre Sevens.  Each is poised at a threshold.  For Rainier, it is the gaudy entrance to a Times Square strip club.  For Denning, it is an elevator in a hospital.  For Sevens, it is the front door of an old friend’s house.  By opening the story in this manner, McGregor does a marvelous job of juxtaposing these three people’s individual circumstances, at the same time setting the stage for an examination of each.

Rainier, divorced and gloomy, sulks along the alleyways of adult entertainment, vainly attempting to convince himself that he can easy his loneliness.  Denning rides the elevator to a waiting room, where he meets with his father, and the two discuss old times, all the while waiting for news of Denning’s ailing mother.  And Sevens comes to pay a visit on Leila, a friend who asks for her advice, but who is ultimately unwilling to leave her abusive husband.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 1

The paths of this trio soon intersect.  Rainier and Denning are, of course, partners in a private detective agency.  Sevens hires the pair to follow Leila’s brutal husband Doug, hoping they will uncover evidence of Doug in a compromising situation, something that she might use to finally convince Leila to leave him.  Rainier and Denning go to work, with Dierdre in tow, and they soon find evidence that Doug, in addition to abusing his wife, is also cheating on her.  Of course, as with the best of detective fiction, this apparently simple case ends up leading them into a much larger scandal.  And with that comes plenty of twists and danger.

(And if you expect me to reveal any more about the plot, forget it!  This is one graphic novel you really ought to read for yourself, so I certainly do not want to spoil it any further.)

McGregor is probably best known for his cutting edge work with the characters of Killraven and Black Panther at Marvel in the 1970s.  With the former, he took what started as a rather clichéd, uneven post-apocalyptic sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and transformed it into an epic, soul-searching saga.  His interpretation of the later character had a significant influence on subsequent writers’ depictions of T’Challa, the noble but troubled monarch of Wakanda.  I admit that when I was younger I did find McGregor’s scripting on those stories, as well as his later works, to be somewhat ponderous.  Looking back, I see that he was one of a handful of individuals in the comic book industry during the Bronze Age striving to craft dialogue and narration that possessed genuine sophistication and palpable atmosphere.

Certainly I did not have any problems with McGregor’s scripting on “A Terror of Dying Dreams.”  McGregor’s prose is very well suited to this genre.  Mystery and detective fiction has always relied on strong narration and description to establish a particular mood, as well as to delve into the characters, their backgrounds, and how they relate to each other and the world in which they exist.  As I noted earlier, this is exactly what McGregor does with Rainier, Denning, and Sevens at the story’s opening and again throughout the entirety of the story.  McGregor’s story is as much about these three individuals as it is about the solving of a mystery.  His introspective writing superbly brings these characters to life, and establishes the realities they live in.  While still occasionally heavy, for the most part McGregor’s narration is strikingly appropriate.

I’ve also found that this is one of those great stories with so many layers to it that you can re-read years later when you are at a different point in your own life and get something new out of it.  Looking at “A Terror of Dying Dreams” in 2014 as someone in his late 30s who has gone through a number of changes and life experiences in the past decade, I certainly have a different perspective on McGregor’s story and characters than I did when I first read it in my mid 20s back in 2001.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 21

Gene Colan’s work on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is superb.  His art style, with its unconventional layouts and extensive use of shadows, is perfectly suited for a story such as this.  On occasion, I have found Colan’s work to be rather jarring, at least as far as some of the superhero stories he drew.  His style is perhaps a bit ill-suited to that genre, and is more appropriate for mystery, suspense, and horror.  The fact that Colan was so successful with Daredevil over the years was no doubt due to that character’s firm grounding in reality, set amidst the grim urban locales of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.  Likewise, Colan’s work on both Tomb of Dracula and Doctor Strange was memorable, with his haunting, eerie, disturbing depictions of unearthly, supernatural phenomena and macabre menaces.

It has often been noted that Colan, who passed away in 2011, was a somewhat difficult artist to ink, due to his very distinctive style, as well as his aforementioned use of shadows and darkness.  Of the numerous inkers who tackled Colan’s pencils over the years, I think there was only a handful that really did him justice.  Colan himself stated on more than one occasion that that Tom Palmer was the artist who did the best work inking his pencils, an opinion shared by many fans.  I certainly agree with that assessment, and I would also add George Klein, Frank Giacoia, Bill Everett and Al Williamson to my list of favorite Colan inkers.

More significantly, though, I think that the dark, shadowy nature of Colan’s pencils probably made his stories a challenge to color.  I suspect that some colorists unwittingly end up obliterating the fine detail of Colan’s work.  In the past decade, it has been something of a revelation seeing many of his stories reprinted in black & white within various Marvel Essential collections.

The art in “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reproduced directly from Colan’s uninked pencils, and the book is black & white.  The result is crisp and stunning.  Colan’s work has never looked better.  Visible is the intricate detail of his work, the subtle gradations of shadow and lighting that he utilizes.  The emotions of McGregor’s characters are vividly brought to life by Colan’s illustration of their facial expressions and fluid body language.  The many and varied settings, from the time-faded boardwalks of Brighton Beach to the glitz of midtown Manhattan, the seedy trappings of Times Square, and the suburban gentility of Dobbs Ferry, are all brought to life by Colan’s talent.  The scenes of action and danger are dramatically rendered, all the while retaining a definite realism and believability.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 27

This was the type of genre that Colan excelled in.  It is a pity that during his career he did not have many opportunities to work on tales of noir-tinged mystery.  His collaboration with Don McGregor on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” and a handful of other projects enabled readers to view Colan’s skill and talent at work on different genres.  And the black and white, uninked format allows for the full impact and detail of his art to be experienced.

Sequential illustration is, ideally, the synthesis of words and images.  Within “A Terror of Dying Dreams” this is nearly flawless.  McGregor’s writing and Colan’s art complement each other.  The majority of McGregor’s script is dialogue.  Those narrative passages that he does write are usually at the beginning of each chapter, set alongside or between captionless establishing shots by Colan.  McGregor clearly had confidence in Colan, trusting that the art and the dialogue will work together to communicate what is taking place.  He does not clutter up the panels with captions that state what the reader can plainly see. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an outstanding example of what can occur when a talented writer and a skilled artist who are working together recognize each other’s strengths.  The result is a balance between story and art, with neither overwhelming the other.

And, simply put, Detectives Inc. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an enjoyable, intelligently written graphic novel with superb artwork.  As I said before, I certainly recommend it.  The book is one of the highlights of both Don McGregor’s and Gene Colan’s careers.

Valkyrie by Paul Gulacy

A few weeks back I did a review of the Valkyrie miniseries by Chuck Dixon, Paul Gulacy & Will Blyberg that Eclipse Comics published in 1987.  In short, I’d really enjoyed “Prisoners of the Past,” which had both an exciting & thoughtful story and superb artwork.

While I was putting together that post, I came across the official website of Paul Gulacy.  I’ve been a fan of Gulacy’s work ever since high school.  I discovered his art through the Coldblood-7 and Shanna the She-Devil serials he drew in Marvel Comics Presents, as well as his amazing work on the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight arc “Prey” with writer Doug Moench and inker Terry Austin.

As someone who collects original comic book artwork, I’d long hoped to one day get something by Gulacy, be it a page of published art or a convention sketch.  I really didn’t think I’d ever be able to obtain a commission, though.  I just assumed that Gulacy was such a popular, busy artist that he’d have a long list of commission requests, and that he’d be charging a significant amount to do them.  But looking over his website back in late April, I saw that he was currently between projects and available for a short time to do commissions.  There were several examples of recent pieces he’d done for other fans & collectors, and they looked great.  I figured I had nothing to lose by asking, so I e-mailed Gulacy for his prices.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gulacy’s commission rates were very reasonable.  So I decided to go for it, because I had no idea when he’d be free again.  I sold off a few pieces of published artwork that had been in my collection for several years to raise the funds, and mailed off a check to Paul.  I requested that he draw Valkyrie.

Valkyrie commission by Paul Gulacy

Valkyrie commission by Paul Gulacy

Well, this is what arrived in the mail this week.  It looks amazing.  Gulacy decided to improvise a bit, tweak Val’s appearance, give her a slightly more modern look.  I was surprised, but pleasantly so.  It’s a very beautiful, sexy illustration with lots of energy to it.

I had a good experience with this.  Having heard plenty of horror stories from other people about artists who took years to finish a commission, this was effortless.  From the time that Gulacy received my check in the mail to the time that he shipped out the finished artwork it must have been a little over a month.  And it probably would have been even quicker, but Gulacy already had two other commissions to do ahead mine, and he also was a guest at Comicpalooza in Texas.  So, yeah, very quick turn-around.  I definitely recommend getting something done by him.

I’d actually ended up raising extra money in my art sale, and so I took the opportunity to pick up something else.  It turned out that comic art dealer Anthony Snyder had a number of older pages by Gulacy for sale, including several from Valkyrie #3.  And, again, they were reasonably priced.  I purchased the next to last page of the issue.  It has Val returning home after her trial in the Soviet Union, her thoughts turning to Davy Nelson III, the son of the original Airboy, with whom she has fallen in love.

Valkyrie #3 page 23 by Paul Gulacy & Will Blyberg

Valkyrie #3 page 23 by Paul Gulacy & Will Blyberg

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I love about Paul Gulacy’s work is that, yes, he draws incredibly sexy woman, but he never lets that get in the way of telling the story.  He doesn’t just toss in a bunch of gratuitous pin-up shots.  Instead, he concentrates on creating solid, effective, dramatic layouts.  Gulacy did nice work on this very character-driven page, giving Val a wishful, contemplative expression.  His pencils are effectively inked by Will Blyberg.

Fun fact:  I showed a picture of this page to Chuck Dixon on Facebook.  He responded by telling me that when Gulacy originally handed in the uninked pencils, instead of drawing an image of Airboy on the right side among the clouds, he drew the Three Stooges.  Nyuck nyuck!

Gulacy is, as of this writing, still available for commissions.  If you are interested, he can be contacted through his website.

Fine print section:  The character of Valkyrie is in the public domain.  The above commission artwork is trademarked (® or TM) and copyrighted (©) 2014 by Paul Gulacy.

Strange Comic Books: Captain America “The Drug Wars”

In previous editions of Strange Comic Books, I’ve looked at certain comics that had varying degrees of oddness.  However, this latest entry really is an especially bizarre item.  Published by Marvel Comics, the Captain America: The Drug Wars special is mind-bogglingly weird.

Captain America Drug Wars cover

A little background first: if you went to school in the 1980s and early 90s, you might remember that Marvel and DC used to work with various government agencies and private companies to publish what were the comic book equivalent of Public Service Announcements or After School Specials.  These were distributed to schools around the country, and featured popular superheroes in stories educating students about drug addiction, teen pregnancy, child abuse, asthma and, um,  tooth decay… yeah, what can I say, not all childhood dangers are created equal.  As you can imagine, none of these comic book PSAs offered what could be regarded as particularly subtle or nuanced examinations of complex societal problems.

Captain America was one of the characters to appear in these.  There were not one but two specials entitled Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs that were created by Marvel in the early 1990s.  I was reminded of these recently when someone mentioned them as part of a discussion on Comic Book Resources about the “Streets of Poison” story arc.  Cap is perhaps not the most judicious of choices to use as a spokesperson to convince kids not to use drugs, considering he gained all his physical abilities via the Super Soldier Serum.  Though, to be fair, Steve Rogers volunteered for Operation Rebirth because he selflessly wanted to help protect the world from Fascism rather than, say, break the record for most home runs in a season of baseball.  I’m sure you can see the difference between Cap and Barry Bonds.

Oddly enough, the first of these specials was sponsored by Guardian Life Insurance, who less than a decade before had been depicted in Captain America #291 as an evil corporation scheming to rip off supervillains in a massive life insurance scam.  I guess Guardian wasn’t one to hold a grudge.

Captain America Goes To War On Drugs 1 cover

According to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators, the cover for the first special, seen above, was penciled by industry legend John Romita and inked by Jose Marzan Jr.  Yep, that certainly looks like Romita’s work.

These two specials were, unsurprisingly, about as heavy-handed as you can get in terms of depicting drug use in a negative light, and in hammering home, over and over, the “just say no” message.  But obviously that was their point.  In the end they were well-intentioned propaganda devices that clumsily but earnestly were hoping to protect teenagers from turning into dope fiends, or something like that.

No, where things get odd is when Marvel decided to reprint the  two Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs stories as Captain America: The Drug Wars in 1994 and sell it in comic book shops.  They even had a brand-new cover for it, courtesy of S. Clarke Hawbaker.  (Whatever happened to S. Clarke Hawbaker, anyway?  I always enjoyed his work.)

And then we get to the actual material within Captain America: The Drug Wars.  The first story is more or less straightforward, with Cap trying to help out a teenage athlete named Mitch who has become addicted to drugs.  Yes, straightforward, except for the fact that Mitch gets his supply from an alien drug dealer.  Really!  But the extraterrestrial narcotics smugglers are more or less a side issue.  As Cap wisely points out, it doesn’t really matter who Mitch got the drugs from, but rather what the drugs are doing to him, like, say, causing him to accidentally knock out people with his fastball during high school baseball games.  Oops.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 9

To be fair, veteran comic book writer Peter David does a good job scripting a story that has a Very Important Message without it becoming too cringe-worthy.  And there’s some pretty good artwork courtesy of Sal Velluto & Keith Williams.

It’s only in the second installment that the proceedings become insanely anvilicious.  Cap, still working on tracking down the drug ring seen in the prior chapter, has joined forces with the teenage superhero group the New Warriors.  Following the criminals to their lair, Cap and the New Warriors find it defended by a quartet of super-powered teenage criminals with the names Weed, Crack, Ice and Ms. Fix, collectively known as the Drug Lords… no, I am not making this up!  And then Silhouette of the New Warriors unmasks the hooded mastermind lurking in the shadows.  Yep, it’s those pesky alien drug pushers, the Tzin, once again.

The Tzin leader and the Drug Lords escape by teleporting to an orbiting spaceship.  We soon see that the Drug Lords may have gained their powers through the use of narcotic substances, but (of course) this has also turned them into addicts.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 18-19

Back on Earth, Silhouette pays a visit on her friend Dorreen, only to discover the teen dance prodigy is using drugs to relieve the pressure she’s under.  This is all observed by Ms. Fix, who has been trailing Silhouette.  Ms. Fix realizes that Silhouette, who uses crutches, wants to regain full mobility, and tries to tempt her into joining the Drug Lords.  Silhouette surreptitiously summons Cap and tricks Ms. Fix into teleporting them all to the Tzin spaceship.  During the fight the ship gets trashed, and the Drug Lords’ supply goes up in flames, causing them to turn on their alien masters.  Cap, Silhouette, and Dorreen (who somehow also managed to end up on the ship) teleport back to Earth before everything goes boom.  Wrapping things up, Silhouette offers to help Dorreen overcome her addiction.

The writer on this half of the book is George Caragonne, who penned a handful of stories for Marvel in the early 1990s.  What makes Caragonne’s association with this anti-drug comic especially odd is that soon after he became the editor of Penthouse Comix.  And then a year after that he committed suicide.  Yeah, all joking aside, that was a really awful end for him.

Having the story focus on Silhouette was a good decision on Caragonne’s part.  As so effectively established by writer Fabian Nicieza in the ongoing New Warriors series, Silhouette was a former athlete who became partially paralyzed, but who continued to actively fight crime, not letting her disability hold her back.  So she was an ideal character to utilize in attempting to show that you do not need to fall back on mind-altering substances when adversity strikes.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 34

This second part is penciled by A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran, with inking by Greg Adams.  I have to say it looks very beautiful.  Doran and Adams probably could have phoned it in if they wanted to, given the somewhat hokey, throw-away nature of the story.  Instead they turned in some real quality artwork.

It’s worth nothing that, by collecting those two PSAs as Captain America: The Drug Wars, those stories became an official part of Marvel canon.  I kid you not.  The Tzin even received a profile page in the Captain America: America’s Avenger handbook-style special in 2011.  I’m still waiting for someone to bring them back.  Because when you think about it, the Tzin actually had a somewhat more plausible scheme for conquering the Earth than most other alien invaders.  If you really are that hell-bent on attempting to take over the Earth, which has several thousand superheroes living on it and has successful driven off the Skrulls, Kree and Galactus on multiple occasions, then there are certainly worse schemes to hatch than getting the teenage population of the planet addicted to drugs.  Sounds like Marvel’s next big crossover if you ask me!

Comic book reviews: Rocket Girl #1-5

One of the new titles that I’ve been enjoying lately is Rocket Girl, which is written by Brandon Montclare and illustrated by Amy Reeder.  Last year’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue was such an overwhelming success that Image Comics decided to publish the book.  Rocket Girl #5 just came out, wrapping up the first story arc, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions hanging in the air, no doubt causing many readers besides myself very much anticipating the next installment of the series.

Rocket Girl is the story of Dayoung Johansson, a 15 year old who travels back in time from 2013 to 1986 to change history.  The 2013 that Dayoung comes from is not “our” present / future, though, but a world where the titanic corporation Quintum Mechanics has made tremendous technological breakthroughs, creating a world where glistening high tech skyscrapers, robots, and personal jet packs are commonplace.  In other words, it is a vision of tomorrow very much in keeping with the idealistic future envisioned in the pulp sci-fi novels & movies of the mid-20th Century.

Dayoung, though, is not content.  A member of the New York Teen Police Department, she sees the tremendous political and economic power being wielded unopposed by Quintum Mechanics.  And then an anonymous informant known only as “Joshua” informs her that Quintum came to power by sending technology back through time to the founders of the company in 1986.  Convinced that “crimes against time” have been committed, Dayoung sneaks into Quintum headquarters and utilizes their time travel tech to go back 27 years into the past and avert what she regards as the perversion of history.

Rocket Girl 5 cover

Brandon Montclare poses some intriguing questions in his scripts.  I constantly find myself wondering if Dayoung Johansson’s mission is justified.  Unlike so many other science fiction stories involving traveling in time to alter history, the 2013 seen in Rocket Girl is not some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic nightmare.  So far we have mostly just seen the members of the NYTPD and Quintum Mechanics, which makes it difficult to get a feel for what sort of life the average citizen has in Dayoung’s 2013.  But it doesn’t seem all that different from the “real” 2013.  Actually, it seems a bit more pleasant, with cool technology.  And you don’t seem to hear anyone talking about global warming, pollution or crime.

Yes, Quintum Mechanics appears to be a shadowy, amoral corporate entity with too much influence.  But what happens if Dayoung succeeds in undoing the apparent alterations to the time stream?  Rather than a world where Quintum is manipulating events from behind the scenes, we would have “our” 21th Century where the Koch Brothers and their like are pulling the strings of power.  It is not going to be a “better” world, just a different one with similar flaws and corruptions.

There is also the implication that the board of directors of Quintum actually want Dayoung Johansson to travel back to 1986, that her attempt to alter the past is a crucial part of the corporation’s rise to power.  Montclare is definitely playing around with the notion of temporal paradoxes here.  It’s mind-bending stuff.  We even see people from 1986 meeting Dayoung for what is, from their perspective, the first time, and then 27 years later running into her again, where she doesn’t know them because, in her personal time line, she hasn’t yet traveled back in time.

And that got me thinking… I would not be at all surprised if the mysterious informant “Joshua” turns out to be the 2013 incarnation of someone we have already been introduced to in 1986.  It would certainly be interesting if “Joshua” was revealed to be Annie, the idealistic pink-haired Quintum Mechanics scientist who quickly befriends Dayoung upon her arrival in 1986.  Because people do most certainly change over a quarter century, and the Annie of 2013 would not doubt have a very different view of the world than her younger self.

Rocket Girl 1 pg 9

Dayoung Johansson is a well-written character.  She is very much a teenager, impulsive and headstrong, full of a simplistic idealism about how she thinks the world ought to be, disdainful of anyone over 30.  I can look at Dayoung and recognize aspects of the sort of person I used to be when I was in high school.  Yeah, if you had given me a jet pack and a time machine when I was 15, I would probably have made a mess of the timelines in some sort of ill-considered attempt to “fix” history.

The artwork by Amy Reeder is fantastic.  As I’ve written before, I’ve been a fan of her work since I first saw it on Madame Xanadu several years back.  Reeder continually gets better as time goes by.  I was impressed by the Halloween Eve special she did in 2012, her first collaboration with Montclare (although they knew each other from when he was her assistant editor at Vertigo).  Reeder is now creating even more impressive work on Rocket Girl.

One of the most striking things about Reeder’s work is her stunning layouts.  She utilizes some very unconventional, dramatic storytelling techniques.  They are especially effective in the action sequences where Dayoung is kicking ass or rocketing around, zig-zagging all over the place.  Reeder definitely  imbues her still images with a genuine sense of dynamic action.

Rocket Girl 4 pg 10-11

Reeder is also especially skilled at rendering her settings.  I already knew from her work on Madame Xanadu that she excelled at depicting historical setting in lavish detail.  Here in Rocket Girl she both imagines a futuristic 2013 full of bright, streamlined technology, and she recreates the gritty urban sprawl of New York City in the mid-1980s.

Rocket Girl is briefly going on hiatus, with issue #6, the opening chapter of the second story arc, scheduled to come out in September.  If you missed the first five issues, I recommend picking up the trade paperback which is due out next month.  It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking, fun read with incredible artwork.

Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

Master of Kung Fu 33 pg 1

The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

Rom Spaceknight 65 pg 17

Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.