Comic book reviews: Elektra #100

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog before, in the last decade or so I really haven’t read much from either Marvel or DC Comics. When I do pick up something from the Big Two, it’s almost always because of who is writing or drawing it. I am much more interested in creators than characters, and have been for some time.

That’s how I came to purchase Elektra #100. Truthfully, I’ve never been all that interested in Elektra. I think the character worked well enough in her original appearances in Daredevil by her creator Frank Miller, and then he killed her off because he was finished telling her story… although he did later return to her to fill in the details of her history to good effect in the Elektra: Assassin miniseries. Of course, no one stays dead at Marvel Comics, and eventually she was resurrected and utilized in various different ways, some better than others, the majority of which I just didn’t even bother to read.

So why pick up Elektra #100? It’s written by Ann Nocenti, that’s why. I’ve blogged about Nocenti’s work on several occasions. I always find her writing to be thought-provoking and unconventional. So when I saw the previews of Elektra #100 and found out that Nocenti would be pitting Elektra against her own creation Typhoid Mary, the telekinetic pyrokinetic femme fatale who suffers from multiple personality disorder, I was definitely in. And it is an intriguing hook, having Daredevil’s two toxic ex-girlfriends facing off against one another.

There are definitely parallels between Elektra and Typhoid Mary. They are both seriously damaged women who were previously involved with Matt Murdock and who have worked as assassins for his arch-adversary Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. Nocenti compares and contrasts the two, putting Elektra, who has worked hard to distance herself from her violent past and turn over a new leaf, opposite Typhoid Mary, who time and again inevitably ends up getting drawn back into the Kingpin’s corrupt orbit.

“Twisters” is set “Weeks ago…” i.e. shortly before the recently-concluded Devil’s Reign crossover. Fisk is still the Major of New York City, ostensibly reformed while continuing to expand his criminal empire behind the scenes.  He dispatches Typhoid to look after Lady Midas, from whom he wants to acquire property in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Elektra, having assumed Daredevil’s role of the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, wants to “persuade” Midas not to sell out to the Kingpin. And so these two women inevitably come to blows.

Reading “Twisters” it occurred to me that there is, ultimately, only so much Nocenti is allowed to do with these two characters. Elektra will always be the woman with a tragic, violent past struggling to achieve redemption. Typhoid Mary will always be the mentally ill woman struggling to find balance between her violently different personalities, ever unable to lead a “normal” life.  That said, Nocenti still manages to produce an interesting, entertaining story featuring this pair while working in a fictional universe where Status Quo is God.

I’m not completely sold on Sid Kotian’s artwork. He seems to be working in the vein of Humberto Ramos, utilizing a style that is half cartoonish exaggeration and half Manga-inspired. It’s a bit chaotic and wonky, but I suppose that it fits a story focusing on Typhoid Mary’s continuing efforts to juggle her various personalities.

There’s definitely some interesting layouts & storytelling being utilized by Kotian in this story. Also, he does capture the athleticism of the two characters especially well.

I did like the coloring by Edgar Delgado, which suits Kotian’s work, creating some effectively atmospheric scenes. VC’s Clayton Cowles utilizes some interesting lettering for the captions featuring Typhoid Mary’s chaotic stream of consciousness.

There’s a short back-up by writer Declan Shalvey, artist Stefano Raffaele and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg that is more an exercise in establishing a mood, in visualizing the dysfunctional relationship between Elektra and Daredevil and in telling a coherent story. It does provide Raffaele with the opportunity to show off his storytelling skill and illustrate some dynamic, fluid pages.

Unfortunately, Marvel made a big booboo and printed the two halves of a great double page spread by Raffaele on opposite sides of the same page. Oops! But from the digital edition here’s the full image, in all its dynamic glory. Click on it to embiggen…

Additionally, there are a couple of short, humorous pieces by Chris Giarusso and Ty Templeton at the back of the issue.

The cover to Elektra #100 is by Dan Panosian. I am constantly amazed at just how much Panosian has grown & developed as an artist since he first entered the comic book biz over 30 years ago. His recent artwork looks nothing like what he was doing in the early 1990s. His cover for this issue is a basic pin-up type image, but it is still executed well. It’s a reminder to me that I really need to check out Panosian’s recent independent and creator-owned projects.

By the way, if you’re like me, and you’re wondering just how the heck Marvel arrived at there being 100 issues of Elektra, there’s a four page cover gallery inside. In addition to her various ongoing series, they’re counting Elektra: Assassin, and the Elektra Lives Again graphic novel, and the Root of Evil miniseries, and various other odds & ends. So now you know.

It was nice to see Nocenti playing in the Marvel sandbox again. I wish they would give her more work. Oh, well… as with Panosian, I really need to seek out her recent creator-owned projects. I just need more money and a much bigger apartment in which to keep all of these comic books!

Swamp Thing: 40 years later

Swamp Thing, the movie adaptation of the DC Comics character created by writer Len Wein & artist Bernie Wrightson, was released 40 years ago, on February 19, 1982. The movie was written & directed by Wes Craven.

Back in the early 1980s Swamp Thing seemed to be shown endlessly on HBO, and six year old me saw it multiple times during its run on cable TV. Truthfully, though, I hadn’t thought about the Swamp Thing movie in years… at least not until this week.

I started following the blog Superheroes Every Day which is taking an multi-part examination of every modern superhero movie ever made, beginning with Superman in 1978. Superheroes Every Day is extremely detailed, insightful, and more than a bit tongue-in-check. So, having spent a couple of months worth of daily posts looking at the first two Superman movies, Danny Horn is now up to Swamp Thing.

Reading Danny’s initial entries on Swamp Thing, I was surprised to learn that it is generally regarded as a not-very-good movie, that the production was extremely troubled, and that Wes Craven had an unhappy experience making it. As I said, I loved Swamp Thing when I was a kid, but the last time I had seen it was nearly four decades ago, and could I really trust my childhood memories? I mean, there’s plenty of stuff that I liked as a kid that I have no interest in as a middle aged adult.

I searched about a bit online late last night and found Swamp Thing on YouTube. Yes, it had commercials, and the closed-captioning was laugh-out-loud awful, but it was the complete movie, the picture was crystal clear, and the sound was perfect. Three out of five ain’t bad. So I watched it… and, y’know, all these years later I still enjoyed it. It’s not necessarily a great movie, but it’s a good, fun, entertaining one.

Before I go any further, I need to mention who produced Swamp Thing: Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. If you are a fan of superhero movies that second name should be a very familiar one. Michael Uslan has produced every single Batman-related movie since the 1989 one directed by Tim Burton. Uslan had actually purchased the movie rights to Batman in 1979, but it took him a decade to finally get a movie made. It’s probably difficult to understand if you were born within the last quarter century, but in the early 1980s NO ONE wanted to make a Batman movie. The campy mid 1960s television series was the general public’s predominant view of the character, and movie studios, including DC Comics’ very own owners Warner Brothers, were convinced a Batman movie, especially an attempt at a dark, serious adaptation of the character that Uslan envisioned, would be a huge, expensive flop.

Now this is the reason I love Uslan. He is a lifelong comic book fan, he taught the first accredited college course on comic book folklore, he wrote several stories for DC Comics during the 1970s, and he spent a decade in an uphill battle to get an authentic, true-to-the-comic-books Batman movie made because he loved the character that much. And while he was busy with that Sisyphean task, Uslan also acquired the movie rights to Swamp Thing, a comic book series that had debuted in 1971 to great critical acclaim & popularity, but which a decade later had fallen into obscurity, basically only remembered by fans such as Uslan himself.

Looking at the Swamp Thing movie in 2022, I consider it to be a relatively faithful adaptation of the series as it existed in the early 1980s prior to Alan Moore’s radical revamp of the character in 1984. In Wes Craven’s screenplay the Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a brilliant scientist working on a bio-restorative formula who is transformed into a super-strong humanoid vegetable creature (Dick Durock) after his laboratory in the swamp is attacked by saboteurs led by a thug named Ferret (Don Knight). In the movie Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is Alec’s sister rather than his wife, government security agent Matthew Cable becomes Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), and rather than being an elderly sorcerer / mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) is the corrupt industrialist behind the saboteurs. But all of the basic, essential pieces are there.

Just as importantly, Craven plays it completely straight. As I said, at this time the Batman television show still loomed large in the public consciousness, and the average moviegoer saw superheroes as silly, with the accompanying “Biff! Bam! Pow!” nonsense. Craven, however, wrote & directed a serious, gritty, intense, intelligent sci-fi / horror movie, and he got solid, quality performances out of all the actors.

There is also a certain poignant, contemplative quality to Craven’s script, seen through Alec Holland / Swamp Thing’s love of the natural world and his relationship with Alice Cable. It’s actually quite surprising. Before this, Craven had helmed the brutal horror exploitation movies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and subsequently he created the supernatural slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street and the horror movie satire Scream. So it’s really interesting to look at Swamp Thing and see Craven really stretching himself creatively, producing a genre film that manages to be both philosophical and soulful.

And, hey, all that aside, there’s tons of action in Swamp Thing. I doubt six year old me really picked up on the subtler aspects of Craven’s script, but I definitely enjoyed watching the transformed Alec wade through Arcane’s seemingly never-ending army of mercenary thugs. Even better, at the end of the movie Arcane ingests the formula that created the Swamp Thing, transforming into a ferocious monster who engages Alec in a brutal battle-to-the-death in the swamp.

The suit for the Swamp Thing incarnation of Alec Holland looks great. It must have been absolute torture for Dick Durock to be wearing that heavy rubber costume in the middle of a hot, muggy swamp. But the end result is that the character looks almost exactly like he was envisioned by Bernie Wrightson, as seen by the side-by-side images above.

I appreciate that Craven wrote Alice Cable as an intelligent, competent, assertive woman who repeatedly attempts to hold her own in the face of overwhelming odds. The only reason why Swamp Thing needs to keep rescuing her is because she unarmed, exhausted, and outmatched 20 to 1 by the sadistic Ferret and his mercenary thugs. Adrienne Barbeau did a great job playing the character.

Another aspect of Swamp Thing that I feel has aged well is the reimagining of Arcane as a handsome, sophisticated, cultured man of wealth, a dangerously charismatic sociopath with delusions of grandeur.

It occurs to me that the movie version of Arcane actually presages the post-Crisis version of Lex Luthor by several years, foreseeing Superman’s own arch enemy being reimagined into a respected captain of industry who secretly controls the criminal underworld. And much like the revamp of Luthor into a corporate raider by John Byrne & Marv Wolfman, the movie version of Arcane has a staff of stunningly beautiful women slavishly devoted to him, following him with literally a cult-like fervor.

I certainly appreciated how the script establishes that Holland’s formula doesn’t actually create anything, in merely enhances the qualities that already exist in a subject. So, yes, it turned Holland into a walking plant, but it enhanced his strength, his intelligence, his nobility, all the positive attributes he already possessed. The egomaniacal Arcane with his aspirations to divinity is convinced that the formula will transform him into a literal god; instead in an extended, graphic sequence Arcane’s appearance is reshaped to match his true inner self, and he becomes a hideous monster.

Quite a few viewers, as well as Craven himself, were disappointed by how the transformed Arcane ended up looking. Honestly, though, when I was a kid I thought it looked awesome, and forty years later I still think it holds up. The best description I can come up with for Arcane’s monster form is an amphibious werewolf.

I know some people have suggested that the movie should have tried to have Arcane transform into something like the grotesque, twisted, elongated form that Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson gave the mad scientist when he returned in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974) as seen below on the cover for that issue.

Yes, that worked brilliantly in a comic book, especially with Wrightson’s macabre, hyper-detailed art style. But there’s absolutely no way I can see Wes Craven and his crew pulling that off in live action, not in a movie made in the days before CGI was a thing and whose entire budget was a mere $2.5 million… that’s only about $8 million in 2022 dollars! We’re talking super-low budget here! Sorry, but what the costume & special effects folks came up with for Arcane while filming in 1981 was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

And, really, that’s how I would sum up the entire movie. Given the circumstances — a miniscule budget, an extremely difficult location shoot, behind-the-scenes creative struggles, all within an era in which movie adaptations of comic books were barely taken seriously — it’s practically a miracle that Swamp Thing turned out as good as it did. Wes Craven, the actors, and the crew all did a fantastic job of taking what could very easily have become a huge disaster and creating an enjoyable, quality movie.

So, yeah, after all these years later I still like Swamp Thing.

Nehemiah Persoff: 1919 to 2022

On April 5th prolific character actor Nehemiah Persoff passed away at the age of 102. Given his lengthy career and his long life, I wanted to share a few highlights about the man and his work.

Persoff, who was Jewish, was born on August 2, 1919 in Jerusalem, in what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. When he was 10 years old Persoff immigrated to the United States with the rest of his family.

Persoff initially trained as an electrician at the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York City, from which he graduated in 1937. However he was possessed of a love of acting, and when drafted into the United States Army during World War II he was part of an acting company that entertained soldiers overseas.  In 1947 Persoff was accepted into the Actors Studio in Manhattan, and a year later he began his professional career.

Nehemiah Persoff in The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” (1959)

As with many foreign-born actors in the American movie and television industry in the mid 20th Century, Persoff was cast as a wide variety of ethnicities & nationalities, and frequently portrayed villainous roles.  Most notably, between 1959 and 1962 Persoff guest starred in six episodes of the Prohibition era crime drama The Untouchables, three of those featuring him as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, financial advisor and bagman to Chicago mob boss Al Capone.

Another of Persoff’s memorable television appearances was The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” written by Rod Serling and broadcast in December 1959. He played Carl Lanser, a ruthless Nazi U-boat captain who is now doomed to spend all of eternity trapped on the British cargo liner he ordered destroyed in 1942.

Among the other genre roles Persoff was cast in were brilliant South American scientist Professor Moreno in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977), the supreme leader of the totalitarian Eastern Alliance in the Battlestar Galactica episode “Experiment in Terra” (1979) and Palor Toff, a very odd-looking alien merchant & collector of rare items in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Most Toys” (1990).

Nehemiah Persoff in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977)

As he grew older, Persoff was afforded more opportunities to portray sympathetic roles, and was often cast as characters who shared his own real-life Jewish heritage, something that was of great personal importance to him. He played a Jewish refugee fleeing from Nazi oppression in the 1976 historical drama Voyage of the Damned and portrayed Rebbe Mendel, the father to Barbara Streisand’s character in the 1983 musical Yentl. Persoff later gave voice to another Jewish patriarch, Papa Mousekewitz, in the 1986 animated movie An American Tail and its three sequels.

Persoff’s acting career lasted thru 1999. After suffering from a stroke he retired, but he then took up watercolor painting, on which he spent the next two decades. He also wrote an autobiography, The Many Faces of Nehemiah, which was published in 2021.

Persoff met his future wife Thia during a visit to Israel in 1951. They married later that year and remained together until her own passing in 2021.

Interviewed in 2008 by James Rosin for Films of the Golden Age, Persoff reflected on his lengthy acting career and his continued creative endeavors as a painter:

“It was a wonderful sixty years, but at this time in my life, I love solving problems on the canvas; trying to find the beauty and essence of a subject. It’s a fascinating, challenging, yet calming and most fulfilling process, finding colors that like each other, not only the basic colors, but the infiinite variations, starting with a fresh canvas and suddenly seeing it come alive. That gives one a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. I feel very fortunate in being able to continue my creative life; but this time without the tension, frustration and conflicts of an acting career.”