Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #5

When I found out that Sensation Comics #5 would feature Wonder Woman facing the dark New Gods of Apokolips, I was both anticipating it and feeling a bit apprehensive.  Jack Kirby created a set of amazing characters in his “Fourth World” stories, but they were also very personal works.  Subsequent stories featuring the New Gods have been very hit or miss.  There have been certain creators who had a good grasp of the characters, such as Walter Simonson, John Ostrander, Paul Levitz and John Byrne.  I definitely have to add Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman to that list based on their work in “Dig for Fire.”

Sensation Comics 5 pg 1

In past issues of Sensation Comics it has been apparent that sometimes 10 pages just is not enough room for some creators to adequately tell a complete story.  I’ve mostly been more satisfied with the tales that were 20 pages long.  So I was hoping that eventually there would be a 30 page story entry that would comprise an entire issue.  I finally got my wish with “Dig for Fire.”

Like most other stories to appear in this book, Bechko & Hardman’s tale is vague as to its place in continuity.  It appears to be set roughly in the post-Crisis, pre-New 52 era.  Hardman draws Darkseid with his original Kirby design.  I prefer that to the New 52 look, which is much too busy & complicated for my tastes.  As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy the continuity-lite approach of the series, which enables creators to tell stories without having to worry about what is going on in other titles, and to utilize a variety of approaches to the character.

When two Amazons who have been sent to observe Apokolips go missing, and Parademons begin to pop up on Paradise Island, Hippolyta dispatches Wonder Woman to investigate.  Knocking out a pair of arriving Parademons, Diana uses their Boom Tube to journey to Apokolips, where she disguises herself in their armor.  She makes contact with Luftan, a merchant who had previously served as a contact for the Amazons.  Luftan, however, informs the authorities of Diana’s arrival, and she is attached by the Female Furies.  Diana finds herself outmatched by the Furies, who are incredibly formidable opponents.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 6

Bechko & Hardman have a very good understanding of the world of Apokolips, and of its iron-fisted ruler Darkseid.  Often writers will make the mistake of depicting Darkseid as a god of evil, which he is not.  Darkseid as envisioned by Kirby is the god of fascism and totalitarianism.

Apokolips is a police state.  Its inhabitants hate Darkseid, but they also believe that he is omnipotent, an all-knowing, all-seeing being who will instantly be aware of the slightest act of disobedience and punish it in the harshest manner possible.  His rule is cemented as much by fear as it is by his actual power.  When the Female Furies inform Darkseid that they have apparently killed Wonder Woman, he is actually enraged at them.  He would much rather that they had captured Diana to be executed publicly; a spectacle to further enforce among his subjects the futility of resistance.

Wonder Woman is an excellent ideological opponent to Darkseid.  Diana believes in liberty and justice and in the self-worth & dignity of the individual, in enabling each person to strive to achieve greatness.  All of this is anathema to Darkseid.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 14

Barely surviving her run-in with the Female Furies, Wonder Woman rescues her fellow Amazons from their own executions.  Eluding pursuing Parademons and Dog Calvary, the three inhabitants of Paradise Island find a temporary refuge.  There Diana is shocked to learn what her sisters have been up to: they have obtained an incredibly powerful bomb, a “planet killer,” from Lexcorp which they intend to use to obliterate Apokolips, thereby preventing Darkseid and his minions from ever threatening Paradise Island.  Naturally enough, Diana is aghast at the thought of committing mass murder.

(I suppose that the closest real-world scenario would be if someone dropped a nuclear bomb on North Korea in order to take out Kim Jong-un and his inner circle.  Yes, that would eliminate them, but it would also result in the deaths of millions of civilians who were unfortunate enough to be living in that horrible country.)

Wonder Woman and the Amazons are captured, but not before the planet killer is deployed.  Diana manages to convince a skeptical Darkseid of the threat, and that she is the one to stop it.  Plunging deep into the fiery heart of Apokolips atop a “scavenger-bot” with only a heat suit for protection, Diana manages to retrieve the bomb before it detonates.  She returns with it back to the surface, where Darkseid uses his Omega Beams to destroy it, before turning them on the two rogue Amazons wiping them from existence.  Acknowledging that they had an agreement, Darkseid reluctantly allows Wonder Woman to depart.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 27

Bechko & Hardman do recognize that Darkseid, despite his tyrannical nature, also possesses pragmatism as well as a sort of code of honor, albeit a very individual one that he will readily bend to his convenience.  Although he probably could have killed Wonder Woman if he really wanted to, Darkseid chooses to honor their deal because she did aid him.  And perhaps he also would rather have Diana’s chaotic influence removed from his world as expediently as possible, without any more disruptions to his orderly rule.

By the disgusted, sulking look on Wonder Woman’s face on the last page, it certainly appears that Darkseid has come out completely unscathed, his rule totally unchallenged.  But then Bechko & Hardman show us two of his lowly subjects who had previously been paralyzed by fear of their ruler.  “An Amazon – an outsider – saved us. Even Darkseid knew it,” observes one of them, with the other responding “He did at that. And you know what? He’s not as tall as I thought he’d be.”  Without even realizing it, Wonder Woman did achieve a minor victory, eroding ever so slightly the perception among the people of Apokolips that Darkseid is all-powerful.

The artwork by Hardman in “Dig for Fire” is perfect.  He works very well in laying out pages that work in both the digital and print formats.  It’s a very tricky thing, I imagine, designing pages so that will appear as two separate images on the computer screen and as one single page in the print edition.  Hardman constructs several pages that work in such a way that the action is self-contained if seen in the digital format, but which also has the action flowing from top to bottom in the printed book.

His depiction of Wonder Woman is strong and beautiful, determined and defiant in the face of adversity.  Hardman renders Apokolips as a sprawling industrial horror, replete with ragged, scavenging occupants, dank, dirty tunnels, and colossal machinery.  It truly is a grotesque, nightmare world.  Jordan Boyd’s subdued coloring works perfectly with the art in creating a grim, oppressive atmosphere.

Sensation Comics 5 cover

My only major criticism of Sensation Comics #5 is the cover.  On its own, yes, it is a nicely illustrated piece by artist Lawrence Reynolds.  However the style of the piece is very polished and clean, which is the complete opposite of the interior work.  Given that Bechko & Hardman story comprises the entire issue, it would have been better to have a cover that complemented the material.

Indeed, there’s really nothing on Reynolds’ cover that relates to the story within, except the image of Parademons that is reflected in one of Diana’s bracelets.  And what is Superman doing on the cover?  He is nowhere in this issue.  It would have been a better choice to have Darkseid in his place, and place Apokolips instead of Earth in the background.

Well, it is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  That’s certainly the case here.  I was very satisfied with Bechko & Hardman’s story, and I would be happy to see them work on the character of Wonder Woman again.

Sovereign Seven: “12th Night”

Chris Claremont is most prominently known for his extensive association with the X-Men franchise of comic books published by Marvel.  However, the prolific writer has worked on numerous characters and titles throughout the decades.  This was especially true in the 1990s.  After his 17 year run on Uncanny X-Men unfortunately came to an end due to disagreements with editor Bob Harras, in the succeeding decade Claremont was involved in a variety of projects.  Among these was Sovereign Seven, a title published by DC Comics that ran for 36 issues between 1995 and 1998.

Sovereign Seven 9 cover

Sovereign Seven was a bit of an odd specimen.  It was apparently set within the DC universe, and featured guest appearances by numerous established characters.  But the main cast who were co-created by Claremont & artist Dwayne Turner were copyrighted to Claremont.  In a way Sovereign Seven was off in its own sub-continuity, although occasionally some of the characters would pop up in books written by other creators, such as Mister Miracle and Genesis.  And the wrap-up in the final issue basically had Claremont ambiguously saying “Maybe all of this really did happen, and maybe it was all just a made-up story.”

Considering how notoriously mutable DC’s continuity has been over the past few decades, I’m content enough to regard Claremont’s Sovereign Seven stories as having been real events that took place in some corner or another of the vast multiverse.  Well, as “real” as fiction can get.  As Alan Moore famously observed, “This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?”

I’ve been meaning to do some sort of write-up on Sovereign Seven for some time now.  Despite its occasional uneven quality, as well as an abundance of Claremont’s dialogue ticks and favorite tropes (mind control, physical transformation, BDSM), it was on the whole an interesting, entertaining series.  I’d definitely love to pen an exploration of the complex, adversarial relationship between Rhian Douglas aka Cascade and her mother Maitresse.  But in the meantime, since it’s the holiday season, here is a look at Sovereign Seven #9, “12th Night” by Claremont, Turner & inker Chris Ivy.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 2 & 3

One of the brilliant qualities of Claremont’s work on the X-Men titles was that he wrote characters from diverse cultures & societies, examining how they interacted with each another and strove to understand their differences while finding common ground.  He took that to the next level in Sovereign Seven, as his cast members each came from different worlds, different dimensions.

Thrust together in their flight from the mysterious, insidious threat of “The Rapture,” these seven rulers & aristocrats found refuge on Earth.  Their new home was the Crossroads Coffee Bar, an inn & restaurant located in rural New England run by the enigmatic sisters Violet and Pansy.  The seven exiles had to learn about one another, as well as their new home world.  They also had to adjust from being heads of state & monarchs to assisting the two sisters with the much more mundane tasks of the day-to-day running of the inn.

Another aspect of Claremont’s X-Men writing is that in between major story arcs he would take an issue or two to tell more personal tales, or show the team during “downtime.”  That is also a technique that Claremont utilized in Sovereign Seven.  “12th Night” has the team between crises, helping out at Crossroads in preparation for the holiday celebrations, and having fun engaging in a snowball fight.  Claremont also utilizes this issue to touch upon Reflex’s religion.  The world, the culture, he comes from had its own version of Christmas, and he takes this opportunity to observe his faith.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 16

The most intense, isolated member of the team was undoubtedly Finale.  As the series unfolded, we learned of her tragic backstory, of the deep price the conflict with The Rapture enacted from her.  Claremont therefore uses “12th Night” to place her in more lighthearted circumstances.  Originating from a tropical water world, Fatale has never seen snow before.  Upon witnessing snowfall at Crossroads, an alarmed Fatale declares “The sky is falling!”  Claremont also allows her to briefly let down her guard.  Touched by a gift given to her by a new acquaintance, she allows herself to indulge in a movement of dance.  As Claremont describes it, “It is truly a sight of wonder and rare beauty to behold.”

As the holiday festivities unfold, Cascade cannot help but compare this to her past, the highly regimented existence she was forced to lead at the behest of Maitresse.  “We did nothing like this at home.”  Rhian, who is so used to living at the whim of her mother’s demands, is struggling find her own unique identity.  Also ever-present in her mind is the worry that her mother will find a way to follow her trail, escaping her other-dimensional prison.  Indeed, we see Maitresse attempting to enact just such a plan.

After an ominous encounter in the woods with an entity calling itself Triage, a being who promises to bring great strife to the Sovereigns, Cascade returns to Crossroads.  There she is pleasantly surprised to find a holiday party thrown in her honor.  At long last, however briefly, Rhian allows herself to relax and enjoy herself in the company of friends.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 22

“12th Night” is a lovely tale.  Claremont very effectively utilizes the holiday season as a vehicle for exploring his large ensemble.  His florid prose is well-suited to generating a seasonal mood, and to delving into the inner workings of his creations. The artwork by Turner & Ivy very much captures the festive, spiritual atmosphere of the Crossroads community.  In particular, their two page spread at the beginning of the issue is beautifully rendered.

Sovereign Seven was an enjoyable title.  Claremont told some interesting stories working with several very talented artistic collaborators.  He did excellent work developing a unique cast of characters.  It has been at least a couple of years since I’ve read the series in its entirety.  I’m looking forward to revisiting it in the near future and offering up some commentary on this blog.

Come in, Cuba: some thoughts on Obama’s recent initiative

I’ve been thinking over the recent announcement by President Barack Obama that he is moving to normalize the United States’ relations with Cuba after more than a half century of isolating Fidel Castro’s Communist regime.  Looking at this action from a wider global and historical perspective, it is a policy shift that makes a great deal of sense.

It should be readily apparent that the United States’ previous efforts to topple Castro have failed.  The fumbled Bay of Pigs invasion, multiple assassination attempts, support for various radical anti-Communist groups, an economic embargo that has been in place since 1963… none of it has worked.  Even a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the major political & economic supporter of Cuba, nothing has changed.  Castro is like the Marxist version of John Gotti; he is the Teflon Communist.

There is an argument to be made that isolating Cuba diplomatically and economically has actually enabled Castro to remain in power, to keep his oppressive regime in place.  It has prevented the influx of outside investment and culture that would over time have chipped away at his iron grip, that giving the Cuban people a taste of economic freedom and access to information about the outside world would result in a clamor for greater liberty.  This is a pattern that has repeated throughout the globe in a number of other countries.  In addition, by continuing to isolate Cuba long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the United States has enabled Castro to paint himself as the victim, to lay all of his nation’s economic woes at the feet of imperialist, fanatical American capitalists.

Obviously the major stumbling block to normalizing relations with Cuba has been the small but politically influential Cuban-American population in Florida, many of whom fled from the island in the wake of Castro’s take-over.  A swing state in nearly every presidential election, no candidates in either party have been willing to risk losing Florida’s 29 electoral votes by appearing soft on Cuba in the eyes of a population of politically active exiles and their descendants who more than half a century later still regard Castro as the devil incarnate.

I readily admit that I have no conception of what these people have had to endure.  They were forced to flee their homeland when Castro came to power, to settle in a foreign country and start their lives from scratch.  It is understandable that all these decades later they still despise Castro, and dream of the day when he finally drops dead so that they can return home.

Certainly I have no sympathy for Castro himself.  He promised to free Cuba from the grip of the corrupt, oppressive Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a military coup.  However, once Batista was overthrown, Castro threw in with the Soviet Union.  He became as much of a tyrant as Batista, seizing control of private industry and suppressing civil liberties in the name of “the workers’ revolution.”  Castro allowed the Soviets to station nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, an act that nearly led to World War III.  Despite the subsequent thawing of the Cold War and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro has never backed down, never offered any concessions or reforms, maintaining his hard line approach to the obvious detriment of his people.

I am not saying that the United States was a saint in those days, as the government and private industry colluded to influence foreign policy in numerous foreign spheres in order to prevent any possible encroachment by Communism.  But certainly the United States was the lesser of two evils, as the Soviet Union and Red China were undoubtedly brutal totalitarian regimes.

Barack Obama

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change in Cuba as long as the United States maintains its own inflexible approach.  More and more people seem to be recognizing this.  Over time there has been a shift in public opinion, both throughout the general population, and in the Cuban-American community in Florida.  The children & grandchildren of the original refugees, as well as more recent exiles from the island, are much more open to the idea of negotiating with Castro’s government, perceiving that where force and rhetoric have failed, diplomacy and economic investment may very well weaken their adversary, open the way to reforms, and enable them to finally re-connect to their familial homeland.

Some critics of Obama’s actions have stated that he is reckless and irresponsible in negotiating with a dictatorship, that it is immoral to do business with a totalitarian regime which oppresses its citizens.  To that, I have one thing to ask: Am I to assume that none of you have ever purchased any products with the words “Made in China” stamped on them?

The United States and American-held private corporations do billions and billions of dollars in business with the People’s Republic of China each year.  Yet China is an extremely tyrannical nation.  Political dissidents are regularly imprisoned, and free speech & religious expression are brutally suppressed.  It has been alleged that in 2013 China executed 2,400 prisoners, an appalling figure.  Yes, China has one of the worst records on human rights in the globe, yet we have absolutely no compunctions about doing business with them.

So why not re-establish relations with Cuba?  Why not open our doors, and wallets, to our neighbor 90 miles to the south?  Especially since in this case there is much more of a chance that positive reforms might occur.

I will admit that I have been unimpressed with many aspects of Obama’s foreign policy.  While a more nuanced, intellectual approach is a relief compared to George W. Bush & Dick Cheney’s reckless cowboy diplomacy and saber-ratting, Obama’s policies have often been unfocused, tentative, or overly optimistic.  However, this appears to be one of his more sensible initiatives.  With so much chaos and conflict throughout the rest of the globe demanding our attention, it makes sense to tone down the rhetoric and attempt a more peaceful approach to dealing with an adversary who no longer represents any real threat to us.

Having said all of this, I am pretty damn disgusted at the declaration by Daily Kos that “Only crusty, bitter, old, out-of-touch Cuban-Americans still support embargo.”  In addition to being an incredibly crass &  insensitive remark, this is exactly the sort or arrogant, smug posturing that gives Liberals a bad name.  So just cut the crap.  How about attempting to offer a reasonable, thought-out rebuttal to people you disagree with instead of insulting them?

Savage Dragon hits the big 200

The much-anticipated 200th issue of Savage Dragon came out this past Wednesday, published by Image Comics.  Written & drawn by Erik Larsen, along with regular collaborators Gary Carlson & Frank Fosco, plus a number of talented guest creators, this 100 page extravaganza features several tales of Malcolm Dragon, his step-sister Angel, their father the original Dragon, and their wacky & weird supporting cast.

Savage Dragon 200 front cover

The main story opens with Malcolm’s girlfriend Maxine moving in with him.  Several issues back it appeared that Malcolm and Maxine were going to break up, as her parents wanted her to settle down with a nice Chinese-American boy.  After being set up on innumerable blind dates, Maxine finally reached the breaking point and left home to be with Malcolm.

I’m happy that Maxine remains a part of the regular cast.  She is an interesting, fun, assertive character.  On his Facebook page, Larsen has commented that he really enjoys writing Maxine.  It certainly shows in his stories, as he chronicles the offbeat relationship between Maxine and Malcolm.  Larsen gives the two characters good chemistry.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 1

After the two of them hop into bed for some fun between the sheets, things took a turn for the bizarre.  Angel shows up to announce that the original Dragon has been kidnapped from jail by the Vicious Circle crime cartel in order to ransom him for their imprisoned leader Dart, who Malcolm captured a few issues ago.  Despite the fact that she is the one who originally set them up, Angel is surprised to find her step-brother and her best friend getting it on.  And then Maxine tosses a curveball and suggests that they try a threesome.

Um, okay… I did not see that coming.  It is more than a bit unusual.  Yes, I do realize that Malcolm and Angel are not actually related, and it’s been very strongly implied in the past that there was some attraction between the two.  But to actually see Larsen go there and throw Maxine into the mix is, um, sort of strange.  Okay, yeah, all three of them are in their late teens, so it makes sense they’d be horny and willing to experiment.  At least Larsen does it semi-tastefully, and we do not actually see anything taking place, just an exterior shot of the building with some suggestive word balloons placed in the picture.

Okay, boys and girls, just use your imaginations here!

Okay, boys and girls, just use your imaginations here!

After their romp in the sack, Malcolm and Angel head out to rescue Dragon.  They pretty much deliver a major beat-down to the Vicious Circle.  No wonder the Circle wants Dart back so badly; without her leadership they’re pretty damn useless nowadays.  In fact, even though Dragon was recently de-powered, he manages to defeat the goons who were holding him hostage, since he still retains all of his fighting skills from his years as a police officer, bounty hunter, and government agent.  Malcolm and Angel catch up with him at a local watering hole, where he’s having a cold one before turning himself back in to the authorities.  When the police get there, though, they have some bad news: somehow Dart has managed to stage a jail-break all on her own, and is once again on the loose.

This was pretty good, although I do wonder if the whole threesome thing is going to cause some problems between the characters in the future.  After all, Angel is currently involved with the Golden Age Daredevil, her teammate on the Special Operations Strikeforce.

The coloring by Nikos Koutsis was nicely done.  My only complaint is that Malcolm’s coloring was off in several places.  Instead of his usual dark green, he was colored as grey on several pages.  I hate to nit-pick.  Other than that, good work.

Savage Dragon 200 back cover Vanguard

Gary Carlson & Frank Fosco contribute the latest chapter of their ongoing Vanguard serial.  Van, Wally, Roxanne and friends explore the now-desolate Kalyptan home world.  A couple of years ago it was revealed that the decades-long war between the Kalyptans and the Tyranneans had finally ended.  The Kalyptans’ robot servants betrayed them to the Tyrrus Combine, resulting in the almost total decimation of Vanguard’s people.  Now we finally find out exactly why the Servitors switched sides: they were convinced to do so by an old enemy of Vanguard’s first seen quite a number of years ago in another story by Carlson & Fosco.  Truthfully, I barely remembered who this guy was… it’s been years since I’ve looked at those issues.  At least Carlson includes enough expository dialogue, plus a footnote referencing those comics, to enable someone like myself with foggy recollection to fill in the blanks.  Whatever the case, the Vanguard back-ups continue to entertain, and I hope that they will remain a feature in Savage Dragon for a while longer.

Among the guest creators who contributed to Savage Dragon #200, the most notable is industry legend Herb Trimpe.  On more than one occasion Larsen has stated that he is a fan of Trimpe’s work.  Trimpe drew the very first comic book that Larsen ever bought as a kid, Incredible Hulk #156.  As Larsen himself stated on Twitter, it was “a dream come true” to collaborate with Trimpe.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 25 Trimpe pencils

Larsen and Trimpe actually work together on two stories in issue #200.  The first one, “Out of Time,” has Trimpe penciling a plot by Larsen, who then inked & dialogued the story.  This flashback tale has cyborg scientist Rex Dexter sending the still-powered Dragon and the then-young Malcolm back in time to World War II in order to retrieve future technology which has been stolen by the Nazis.

It seems like Larsen plotted this out at least partially as an homage to Trimpe’s work on Incredible Hulk.  Aside from the fact that they are both big and green, the Dragon and the Hulk are actually very different characters.  That said, Larsen obviously could not resist plotting out a tale for Trimpe to draw that has Dragon tossing around tanks and smashing up an army, much as Marvel’s jade giant used to do when Trimpe was illustrating his adventures back in the Bronze Age.  It’s definitely a fun story, and I enjoyed seeing Trimpe inked by Larsen.

The second collaboration between Larsen and Trimpe, “The Contest,” has them swap roles.  Larsen’s pencils are inked by Trimpe.  This story, set in the present day, sees Mister Glum, the diminutive dictator from Dimension X, attacking Dragon in prison.  Glum believes he finally has an opportunity to crush Dragon now that his old foe is de-powered.  Of course things certainly do not go well for Glum, who is basically the size of a stuffed animal.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 62 Trimpe inks

This is a pretty wacky story, truthfully.  But it does provide a nice example of how important an inker is to the final look of the artwork.  Larsen’s work inked by Trimpe is rather different than when Larsen inks himself.  Larsen did something similar exactly one hundred issues ago, when he had several different inkers such as Terry Austin, Tim Townsend, Mike Royer and John Beatty contribute the embellishments to each chapter of #100.  The results were certainly interesting and fun.

It is odd to see that Glum and the alternate reality version of Angel are still together during the events of this issue.  It’s weird that Angel is still completely devoted to Glum, who despite his comedic appearance and bumbling nature is quite insane.  I wonder if there’s some form of Stockholm syndrome at work here.  It’s no wonder that Dragon wants to get this other incarnation of his step-daughter away from the tiny tyrant and try to restore her to her right mind.  I hope that’s something Larsen will follow up on in the future.

Among the other back-ups, “Taken” featuring the Special Operations Strikeforce was another favorite.  Ever since all of these heroes moved from Chicago to Washington DC to work for the government I’ve missed seeing them show up.  It was cool when Larsen utilized them as the cavalry in Savage Dragon #199.  So I’m happy that they got a story of their own in #200.  This one is written by Larsen, with series colorists Nikos Koutsis and Mike Toris contributing the pencils and inks.  Their style is an interesting mix of cartoony and detailed.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 49

I really wish this one had been longer than eight pages!  I wanted to see more of SuperPatriot, who is one of my favorite supporting characters.  He has such an awesome design, although I bet those highly detailed shape-shifting giant gun arms of his can be a real chore to illustrate!  Likewise, after several years of will-they-or-won’t-they, we finally have Angel and Daredevil becoming a couple, which I wish could have been given more space.

I realize that Savage Dragon already has that great Vanguard back-up feature.  But it would be nice if that slot could occasionally rotate, and we could have stories featuring SuperPatriot, Angel, Daredevil, and some of the other members of the SOS.  Larsen has a veritable army of cool characters.  He’s admitted on a few occasions that it can be difficult to find the space to fit them all in.  I really wish that Savage Dragon was a gigantic best-seller, so that it would be economically feasible for Larsen to once again publish a few spin-off miniseries, as he was able to back in the mid-1990s.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 69

Speaking of those innumerable characters, a pretty obscure one, Lightning Bug, also has a back-up tale in #200.  Written by Savage Dragon editor Gavin Higginbotham, with layouts by Ron Frenz and finished art by Scott James, “Bad Hair Day” sees one-time criminal Lighting Bug re-considering her ways as she tangles with the magenta-tressed Wildhair.  Higginbotham has previously written a few humorous, fun back-up stories, so it was nice to see another one by him.  James’ artwork is very nice, another example of a style that is sort of oddball but meticulous.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Frenz’s name in these pages.  I’m a long-time fan of his work, and I’d certainly enjoy having him contribute to this series again.

Congratulations to Erik Larsen on reaching this milestone issue.  I look forward to many more from him.

Squeaky the Stressed-Out Cat

Our cat Squeaky is definitely one of a kind.  I’ve blogged about Squeaky before.  Michele and I took her in when her previous human abruptly decided that he had too many cats.  Since Squeaky wasn’t getting along with the others he wanted to drop her off at a shelter.  That probably would have literally been the death of her.  Squeaky is extremely shy and sensitive, plus she had health problems at the time, so she would probably have been put to sleep.

Michele told me that in her former home all the other cats beat Squeaky up whenever she tried to come out to eat, and so she was often hiding behind a radiator.  She was even too scared to use the litter box, and so she scratched out a hole in the back of a sofa and used that instead.  In the five and a half years since we adopted Squeaky she has definitely come out of her shell, though. She was incredibly frightened when we took her in, but now she is more at ease.  She was incredibly skinny and unhealthy, but now she is round and healthy.  Squeaky seems happy.

Squeaky photographed by Michele Witchipoo

Squeaky photographed by Michele Witchipoo

That said, she is a quirky cat.  Even after being with us for all this time she is still very jittery.  Loud noises cause her to run & hide, her tail completely fluffed up.  Squeaky still doesn’t like tall men standing near her.  I am 6 feet 2 inches, and when she sees me walking towards her she runs away.  She has no problem with me when I am sitting down or lying in bed.  Actually she is very affectionate at these times, and she loves for me to pet her or brush her fur.  But the instant I stand up she bolts.  Michele believes that Squeaky is still traumatized from whatever craziness went on where she used to live.  I think that there must have been a lot of noise & chaos there.

Squeaky sometimes reminds me of the cat Mooch from the comic strip Mutts by Patrick McDonnell.  Like Mooch, Squeaky is a rather idiosyncratic cat who loves to eat.  Reading the strip in the newspaper often brings to mind our own black & white kitty cat.  That’s especially the case when McDonnell does a strip about Mooch’s love of food.

Mutts September 3 2014 by Patrick McDonnell

Mutts comic strip September 3, 2014 by Patrick McDonnell

It must have been because she was starving for all of those years before we adopted her, but Squeaky is obsessed with food.  We normally feed her at 7:00 in the morning.  Well, starting around 5:00 AM she starts meowing incessantly.  She’ll jump on the bed and scratch up the furniture.  She wants food immediately, and she doesn’t want to wait.  When we finally open a can of wet food and feed her, she dives right in.  Nettie also eats at this time, but she likes to pace herself.  She’s a small cat, and has a tiny tummy.  So she’ll have several bites and walk away for a while.  Unfortunately Squeaky will then try to eat out of Nettie’s bowl, and we have to put it on top of the refrigerator until Nettie is ready to eat again.

Around 10:00 AM Squeaky starts meowing for dry food.  We’ll usually give her and Nettie some an hour later.  She’ll devour that right away.  Dinner time for the cats, when they get the rest of the canned food, is at 3:00 PM.  Well, come 1:00 in the afternoon Squeaky will start meowing sadly, pretty much non-stop, circling about in a worried manner.  She really seems to be convinced she isn’t going to get fed.

Of course, every time Michele and I have something to eat, Squeaky must inspect it to see if it’s something she would like.  If it is, she’ll either give us a wide-eyed pleading expression, or she’ll simply try to snatch some of our food with her paw or mouth.  She is incredibly persistent.

This all inspired Michele to draw a cute, funny illustration entitled “Squeaky Loves To Eat.”

Squeaky Loves To Eat by Michele Witchipoo

“Squeaky Loves To Eat” by Michele Witchipoo

Poor Squeaky.  She can get very stressed out sometimes.  This just goes to show that animals can be very much like people.  If an animal experiences trauma when it is young, that can affect them for the rest of their life.  I definitely think that happened to Squeaky.  She still appears to be coping with some of the stuff she went though before we adopted her.  She seems like a very sensitive soul.

Sometimes I will explain Squeaky’s story to people as a cautionary tale, to demonstrate that it is very important for us humans to treat our four-legged friends with kindness.

Having said all this, I do believe Squeaky is now much happier.  She has food and two humans who love her.  She eventually got used to Nettie trying to play with her, and the two cats are now close.  Squeaky also gets to play, something she never could in the past.  Occasionally she will play-fight with her toy mousies.  But much more often she will grab one of Michele’s pencils, pens or markers in her teeth, carry it off while yowling, and then wrestle with it, chasing it about the apartment as it rolls all over the place.  A good chunk of Michele’s art supplies go missing in this manner.  We often find pens under the bed, or buried in the blankets, or hidden under the rug, or in the laundry pile.

I am glad that Michele and I were able to give Squeaky a much better home than she once had.  She is a very affectionate cat.  Despite her sometimes-unconventional behavior, she really does brighten up our lives.

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #3-4

I have definitely been enjoying Sensation Comics starring Wonder Woman.  Like many great fictional creations, Wonder Woman is a character who is open to different interpretations.  Throughout her 73 year history she has played the roles of warrior, hero, feminist, diplomat, peacemaker, and goddess.  Sensation Comics, with its diverse selection of creators presenting stories of Wonder Woman set throughout the different DC Comics continuities, or outside of continuity altogether, are able to examine Diana’s various aspects, and take numerous interesting & different approaches to the character.

The covers for Sensation Comics #3 and #4 really epitomize this.  Ivan Reis & Joe Prado’s intense image for issue #3 depicts a fierce Wonder Woman engaged in close combat with armored mythological beasts.  It very much captures Diana’s role as a warrior.  In contrast, issue #4 features a vibrant, beautifully serene image of Diana gracefully gliding through the clouds.  This one is by Adam Hughes, who was the regular cover artist on the Wonder Woman comic book from 1998 to 2003.  This piece certainly demonstrates that Hughes is much more than merely an artist who draws sexy women, that he is an accomplished illustrator who can create powerful, evocative images.

Sensation Comics 3 and 4 covers

The first story in Sensation Comics #3, “Bullets and Bracelets” written by Sean E. Williams and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage, postulates a world where Wonder Woman is not just a superhero but also a rock star headlining a band.  There’s an interesting scene after her concert ends where Diana is approached by a man who shouts “Slut! You’re corrupting our children! Go back to where you came from!”  A second man then yells back “Shut up, man! Some of us like the way she dresses! She’s hot!”  Diana, clearly annoyed at both of them, responds “I hate to break it to you both, but I dress this way because I want to, not to provoke or impress you.”  Wonder Woman has a lot on her mind and, instead of accompanying everyone on the tour bus, decides to go for a walk.  She encounters two young girls who are huge fans of the band, and joins them for a bite to eat, learning about who they are.

Williams and Sauvage’s story is a nice one, well written and beautifully illustrated.  Sauvage’s Diana is very beautiful, dignified and human.  Williams’ script examines how Diana is a role model for many young women, a figure of female empowerment.  As I saw it, this story is examining the idea that women should not feel that they need to exist as an adjunct to men, fulfilling the roles expected by them.  And, really, that is true of all people, women and men.  We should primarily be happy with ourselves first, with who we are, before we set out to try to impress or please other people, be they our significant other, relatives, employers & co-workers, or society at large.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 5

The second tale in #3 is “Morning Coffee” by writer Ollie Masters and artist Amy Mebberson.  Early one morning in London, the larcenous Catwoman raids the vaults of the British Museum.  The police call in Wonder Woman, who is currently living in the city.  Diana, who hasn’t yet had a chance to grab her daily cup of joe, is mildly perturbed at having to deal with this.  Easily catching the cat-burglar, Diana is left to watch over Catwoman until the properly equipped authorities arrive to transport her back to the States.  Diana takes custody of Selena and brings her along to a local café, hoping to finally get her caffeine fix.  It is there that the second part of Catwoman’s scheme goes into effect, much to Diana’s consternation.

The story by Masters is charming and fun.  His tale fits perfectly into the 10 page long space allotted to it.  Mebberson’s artwork is very cute.  She gives the characters some really fun, comedic expressions and body language.    One thing I have noticed about the stories from Sensation Comics, as well as the other digital-first titles that DC publishes, is that the art is designed primarily to fit on a computer screen.  10 published pages equals 20 pages on the computer.  This limits the storytelling choices available to the artists.  Sometimes I think there are artists whose strengths are not nearly as well suited to strong layouts, and given the confines of the digital format they do not do work that is as strong.  Mebberson’s work, however, fits perfectly in with this format.  She clearly knows how to lay out a story, and the flow of action & narrative is unhindered by the requirements within which she is working.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 14

Split between Sensation Comics #3 and #4 is a humorously bizarre story written & illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez.  “No Chains Can Hold Her” has Wonder Woman battling the robot armies of the alien Sayyar, who has joined forces with the Justice League’s old foe Kanjar Ro.  The two extraterrestrial tyrants manage to take mental control of Diana and pit her against Supergirl.  Also drawn into the mix is Mary Marvel, who is accidentally yanked through an other-dimensional portal.

I am a huge fan of Gilbert Hernandez’s work with his brother Jaime on Love and Rockets.  It is fantastic that they have been able to sustain a successful three decade long career on a creator-owned title.  Having said that, I do enjoy when Gilbert or Jaime make the occasional foray over to Marvel and DC, because it is so much fun to see those mainstream superheroes filtered through their independent sensibilities.  I fondly recall Gilbert’s offbeat six issue stint writing Birds of Prey in 2003.  So I’m happy to see him on a Wonder Woman story.

Hernandez’s writing on “No Chains Can Hold Her” is rather minimal.  That is very much in line with his work over the last several years, where his main concern has been less with crafting complex plotlines than it has been in creating a particular mood or atmosphere.  Hernandez’s art on this story evokes both the work of Wonder Woman’s original Golden Age artist H.G. Peter and well as the Silver Age house style of DC, with Supergirl and Kanjar Ro drawn in their early 1960s incarnations.  Mary Marvel has a Bronze Age look that evokes a bit of Kurt Schaffenberger.   Much as they did in the 1970s, Mary and rest of the Marvel Family, along with their adversaries, even reside off in their own separate reality, Earth-S presumably.

Hernandez endows Diana with an exaggerated muscular physique reminiscent of his Love and Rockets character Petra.  Certainly it is miles away from some of the contemporary DC artists who unfortunately draw Wonder Woman with the body of a supermodel.  Hernandez’s approach is an interesting interpretation of the character that suits the tone of his story.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 5

Following on in issue #4 is “Attack of the 500-Foot Wonder Woman” by writer Rob Williams and artist Tom Lyle.  Diana is teamed up with the Atom, Hawkman and Hawkwoman against the shape-changing Thanagarian criminal Byth, who is wrecking Gateway City.  So that she can combat Byth, who has transformed into towering lizard creature, Diana temporarily grows giant-sized with the Atom’s assistance.

This story was a bit underwhelming.  It felt very rushed, and Williams would no doubt have benefitted from an additional 10 pages to give it room to unfold more naturally.  I have not seen new work from Lyle in quite some time, so his return to the comic book biz is welcome.  His art on this story did feel a bit cramped, though.  I think that he may have been constrained by the aforementioned digital-first format.  When you have a giant Wonder Woman fighting a Godzilla-like monster, BIG is the way to go.  But between the short length of the story and the half-page format, Lyle isn’t allowed to go too large with his layouts or do any splash pages.  Given the constraints I think he did the best work he could.  This story wasn’t bad.  It certainly had potential.  But it could have been stronger, both in terms of writing and art, if it had been longer.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 21

Rounding out Sensation Comics #4 is “Ghosts and Gods,” written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.  As with the Hernandez story, “Ghosts and Gods” is an insanely entertaining mash-up of a number of different eras and styles.  The Golden Age incarnations of Wonder Woman and Etta Candy team up with Silver Age character Deadman to retrieve the Purple Healing Ray that has been stolen from Paradise Island by Bronze Age villain Ra’s al Ghul.  Yes, really!  All that was missing was Etta enthusiastically shouting “Woo Woo!”

Kleid’s story is a fun, exciting romp.  The art by Haspiel is fantastic.  As I’ve observed in the past, Dino has always been great at evoking different artistic eras in his work, and he successfully renders these various characters interacting with each other.  Haspiel is also a superb storyteller who very much knows how to lay out a page.  He clearly had no problems working within the digital-first format, and the action flows very smoothly.  I guess my only complaint (if you can call it that) is that this story wasn’t longer.  It was so enjoyable I would have been thrilled if had gone on for another 10 pages.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 26Despite a few minor hiccups, Sensation Comics #3 and #4 were very good.  If you are one of those readers who is dissatisfied with the current approach DC has towards the character of Wonder Woman then Sensation Comics is certainly a recommended alternative.  There really is something for everyone is this series.

Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #1-2

Michele and I like to joke that our cat Nettie Netzach is secretly a superhero, that when we aren’t around that she moonlights as the dynamic Netzach Wondercat.  So when I found out that there was an actual comic book series about crime-fighting felines, Hero Cats, of course I had to pick it up.

Hero Cats 1 tri-fold variant cover

Hero Cats #1 Tri-Fold Variant Cover (click on it to see super-sized version)

I actually learned about Hero Cats back around this year’s New York Comic Con.  I wasn’t able to go to the convention, but Jim Hanley’s Universe was having a signing event to tie in with it.  One of the guests was Marcus Williams, penciler of Hero Cats.  I looked at his work on Facebook, and thought it was fantastic.  Unfortunately I ended up not being able to go to the JHU signing either, due to a last-minute emergency.  But shortly afterwards I found the first two issues of Hero Cats for sale at Forbidden Planet and Midtown Comics.

Hero Cats is released by Action Lab Entertainment, the publisher of many fine comic books, including Molly Danger by Jamal Igle.  Hero Cats is written by Kyle Puttkammer, penciled by Marcus Williams, and inked by Ryan Sellers.  It is a fun, adorable, exciting series about six cats who have joined forces to protect the human population of Stellar City.

In the first issue, we are introduced to this group of brave felines by Cassiopeia, an orange tabby.  Growing up a stray alongside her brother Bandit, a black & white kitty, Cassiopeia was a literate feline who would read the books & magazines sold at the newsstand above which the two of them lived.  One day Cassiopeia spotted a signing by Lillian C. Clark, her favorite author, at the book store across the street.  Waiting outside for a chance to meet her, Cassiopeia was adopted by Lillian, and the two become very close.

Hero Cats 1 pg 8

Lillian’s niece Amelia was an astronaut, and her spaceship became lost on a mission to study a comet striking Mars.  Lillian knew how upset Amelia’s astronomer husband Stanley and their daughter Suzie both were.  Realizing that Cassiopeia would be of great comfort to Stanley and Suzie, she gave her cat to them, pretending that with her book signing schedule that she could no longer care for her.

Around this time humans in Stellar City started manifesting super-powers.  Some, naturally enough, became criminals.  Cassiopeia decided to fight against these villains, joining up with five other cats:  Midnight, Belle, Rocket, Rocco and Ace.

Unknown to Cassiopeia, her humans have also gained powers, and have both adopted costumed identities to fight crime.  Stanley is Galaxy Man and Suzie is Cosmic Girl.  In short epilogues illustrated by Tracy Yardley we get to view the events of each issue from their point of view.

Hero Cats 1 pg 25

Puttkammer invests each of the six crime-fighting kitties with distinct personalities and perspectives.  The artwork by Williams & Sellers very much brings this band of brave felines to life.  Through the combination of script and art these cats are each unique individuals, with their own charming quirks.

Having introduced the cast of cats in the first issue, Puttkammer takes to time to explore their personalities, and examine how they interact with one another.  Belle and Ace are arguing about whether or not it was a good idea to allow Cassiopeia to join the team so soon.  Belle believes that Cassiopeia is untrained and should not be fighting alongside them.  Ace says he has full confidence in Cassiopeia.  Belle responds that she believes Ace’s feelings for Cassiopeia are affecting his judgment.  The two of them also end up debating the merits of human crime-fighters such as Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl, as well as discussing the latest threat to Stellar City: an irresponsible teenager known as Johnny Arcado who is bringing video game monsters to life.

The entire team gathers, and they set out to stop Johnny Arcado, who lives in the house next door to Belle’s human.  Soon enough the cats are fighting Johnny’s computerized creations.  Cassiopeia proves herself to the team when her ability to read enables her to instruct Ace on how to operate Johnny’s alien-augmented arcade machine.  Ace uses it to create a giant robot to crush the monsters.  Meanwhile in the epilogue we see Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl dealing directly with Johnny Arcado himself, all of them unaware of the crucial role Cassiopeia and her four-legged friends played in thwarting the threat to Stellar City.

Hero Cats 2 pg 11

If you like both cats and comic books then Hero Cats is highly recommended.  Puttkammer is a writer who is successful at crafting stories that are genuinely all-ages.  His scripts are genuinely fun, as well as intelligently written so that they do not talk down to younger readers, with a level of sophistication that will appeal to adults.  The artwork by Williams & Sellers is both cute and dynamic.  The cast of cats are all so wonderfully expressive.

According to the official Hero Cats website, issue #3 is currently available.  I’m definitely looking forward to picking it up.  You can order copies of all three issues through the website, along with plenty of other cool goodies, including issues of the Galaxy Man series and some cool t-shirts.