Strange Comic Books: Questprobe

Normally I blog about interesting or unusual comic books from the 1990s. Today’s entry actually concerns comics from the previous decade, the 1980s… but all of this will eventually lead to another “It Came from the 1990s” piece. So bear with me and enjoy the ride.

Back in the early 1980s Marvel Comics partnered with Scott Adams – no, not the cartoonist who eventually went full right-wing crazy, but the computer programmer & game designer – to create a series of text adventure computer games featuring Marvel characters. Adams, working with acclaimed writer & artist John Byrne, developed the concepts for the Questprobe series. In conjunction, Marvel Comics began publishing a Questprobe comic book series that was projected to run for approximately 12 issues, with a new issue coming out each time Adams released a new installment of the computer games.

Keep in mind that in the early 1980s personal computers were still very much in their infancy. The options available to programmers were extremely limited. I think this is very well illustrated by the letters column from Questprobe #3. Danny Bertinato of Gloucester, Ontario writes in to ask if the Questprobe games will be available for Commodore Vic-20. Adams responds with some bad news:

“QUESTPROBE requires a computer with a minimum of 16k of memory to run. The standard Vic-20 has only 5k of memory. Since very few people ever get the memory expansion to 16k for the Vic-20, I doubt we will ever put QUESTPROBE on the Vic-20. Sorry.”

Yeah, let that sink in. There used to be PCs with only 5 kilobytes of memory. And I make that observation while writing this on a brand-new laptop I purchased last month which has 8 gigabytes, a laptop that will, give it a decade or so, undoubtedly one day be just as much as an antiquated dinosaur as a Commodore Vic-20. It’s simultaneously amazing and frightening the lightning speed at which technology can develop.

Speaking of antiquated dinosaurs, my father’s first PC was an Apple 2E. Back in the mid 1980s I was 9 years old and just starting to get into comic books on a semi-regular basis. I saw the ads for the Questprobe games in Marvel books and I asked my father to buy it for me. I ran Questprobe featuring the Hulk on that Apple 2E… and I found it almost impossible to play. I just ended up going around in circles for hours, barely getting anywhere. It was definitely a frustrating experience.

I recently found a Walkthrough for Questprobe featuring the Hulk and looking at it there’s no possible way nine-year-old me would have been able to figure out the majority of this 38 years ago. Perhaps I was too young… but I also think the game was hampered by the sheer primitive nature of the PCs at the time.

UPDATE: There’s a website where you can play the text version of Questprobe featuring the Hulk online. I just spent half an hour going in circles. Almost four decades later this game is STILL impossible!

But enough about the computer games; I’m sure you came here for the comic books.

The Questprobe comic from Marvel only ran for three issues and was canceled when Adams’ company Adventure International went bankrupt in 1986. Each of the three issues corresponded to a released game, with the first issue featuring the Hulk, the second Spider-Man, and the third the Human Torch and the Thing. Adams was working on a fourth Questprobe game featuring the X-Men when Adventure folded; a corresponding fourth Questprobe comic book story starring the X-Men was completed and saw print in the anthology series Marvel Fanfare a year later.

The concept behind the Questprobe comics actually has a certain potential. In a far-distant region of the universe the mysterious alien Black Fleet is ravaging through space, destroying world after world. A utopian planet of scientists sees the Black Fleet inexorably approaching and wonders what, if anything, they can do. This civilization long ago abandoned violence, and most of its members have resigned themselves to destruction by the Black Fleet. But one of their number, Durgan the Philosopher, is determined to fight back, a stance that causes him to be labeled a mad heretic.

Undaunted, Durgan resolves to find a way to save his planet. Having studied the far-distant Earth, he has observed the numerous super-powered beings who populate the planet. Durgan creates the Chief Examiner, a dome-headed, cloaked construct that he dispatches to Earth to locate the most powerful super-beings, study them, and replicate their powers by getting them to pass through a black portal. (John Byrne apparently designed the Chief Examiner.)

There’s also some stuff going on with these mysterious, cosmic-powered “Bio-Gems” that are apparently parts of a larger entity, one that’s even more evil than the Black Fleet, but it’s fairly confusing how all of this was supposed to tie together. Perhaps if the games & comic books had lasted longer it would have become clearer.

The first issue of Questprobe, featuring the Hulk, was released with an August 1984 cover-date. It was written by Bill Mantlo, definitely an appropriate choice. Mantlo had previously done a stellar job taking licensed properties such as the Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight and developing them into highly intriguing ongoing comic book series for Marvel. He had also been writing The Incredible Hulk series since 1980, so was intimately familiar with the character.

Questprobe #1 has pencil layouts by Mark Gruenwald. Although he was much better known for his writing & editing at Marvel, Gruenwald did occasionally also draw, and he had a solid grasp of storytelling. The inking / finished artwork on issue #1 was by the legendary John Romita, who at this point was synonymous with the Marvel house style. Letters were by Joe Rosen and colors by George Roussos. The series editor was Bob Budiansky.

The first issue is a fairly basic story, one that is competently done and which establishes the premise in economical fashion. I’m sure that if I had bought it when it first came out in the Summer of 1984 it would have been perfectly geared to my eight-year-old sensibilities and I would have enjoyed it.

By the way, having seen on Wikipedia a photo of Adams taken in 1982, putting it side-by-side with Gruenwald & Romita’s art from this issue, it’s very obvious that Durgan’s appearance was modeled on the computer programmer.

And, yes, white guys really did used to wear their hair like that.

One last noteworthy item: The cover of the first issue features the blurb “by Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald and John Romita” which was practically unheard of in mainstream comics at the time.

Moving on to Questprobe #2 (January 1985) featuring Spider-Man, this one is written & penciled by Al Milgrom. That’s another apt choice, as Milgrom was the writer & artist on the Spectacular Spider-Man series at this time. I’ve always found Milgrom to be a good, solid, underrated artist, and I think he did quality work on the Spider-Man character. Looking at some of his layouts & storytelling for Questprobe #2, some of it is reminiscent of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko’s work.

Inking this issue was Jim Mooney, another talented artist who, among his numerous credits, had a lengthy association with Spider-Man during the Bronze Age. Milgrom & Mooney make a good art team. One of my all-time favorite letterers, Janice Chiang, worked on this issue, and George Roussos is back on colors.

Milgrom has always had a very offbeat sense of humor, which no doubt suited him to writing an irreverent character like Spider-Man. In this story he gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that the Chief Examiner has a remarkable resemblance to Spider-Man’s old enemy Mysterio. Hijinks ensue.

By the way, this story also gave me a newfound appreciation for Mysterio. I used to think he was a pretty stupid character, a special effects artist who wears a fishbowl on his head. But reading this issue Milgrom really sells the idea that Mysterio is highly intelligent and a master planner, and that he very effectively uses psychology & trickery to keep much more powerful adversaries like Spider-Man off-balance.

Questprobe #3 (November 1985) features the Human Torch and the Thing from the Fantastic Four. David Michelinie is perhaps an odd choice for the writer on this one, as he was already much more associated with Iron Man and the Avengers, and I don’t think he’s ever worked on a single issue of the Fantastic Four series. Nevertheless, Michelinie has always demonstrated himself to be a talented writer, and he ably steps in to handle the characters. He does a fair job, especially since he has to work around the inconvenient fact that the Torch and and the Thing never actually meet since at the time Ben Grimm had quit the FF and was hanging out on the Beyonder’s planet from the Secret Wars miniseries.

The artwork, on the other hand, is quintessential FF, with penciling by Ron Wilson, the regular artist on The Thing solo series, and inking by the legendary Joe Sinnot, the man who inked / embellished the Fantastic Four series for a decade and a half, from 1965 to 1981. I guess you could say that Sinnott as much as Romita helped define the look of Marvel Comics during the Bronze Age. Rick Parker lettered the issue and Julianna Ferriter did the coloring.

That brings us to the X-Men story that was originally intended for Questprobe #4 and which saw print in Marvel Fanfare #33 (July 1987). It’s written by longtime, groundbreaking X-Men writer Chris Claremont. “Shadows on the Soul” takes place during the time when the X-Men’s arch-nemesis Magneto was attempting to embrace Professor Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants, and the master of magnetism was reluctantly tasked with leading his former foes, much to the X-Men’s understandable skepticism.

Pencils are by one of my favorite artists, Power Pack co-creator June Brigman, and inking is by Terry Austin, who famously embellished John Byrne’s now-classic run penciling X-Men. Brigman and Austin have worked together a few times over the years, and they’ve always made a superb art team. Letters are by Rick Parker and colors by Glynis Oliver.

I’m wondering how far along this story was when the Questprobe series was canceled. “Shadows on the Soul” runs a few pages longer than the typical Marvel comic, so it seems possible that Claremont, having learned that his story would now be appearing in the advertisement-free Marvel Fanfare, expanded it slightly. Certainly the gorgeous wraparound cover by Brigman & Austin must have been commissioned specifically for Fanfare.

At times Marvel Fanfare was dismissed as a dumping ground for inventory stories. Perhaps it was, but it did enable work that otherwise might never have been printed to see the light of day. Besides the fact that Fanfare editor Al Milgrom had previously written & penciled Questprobe #2, giving him a personal interest in seeing the fourth issue finally get completed, it would have been a no-brainer to run this story. Uncanny X-Men was an absolutely red-hot series in the late 1980s, so running an X-Men story, especially one written by Claremont, the writer who helped propel the character to super-stardom, must have been an obvious choice for Milgrom.

And “Shadows on the Soul” is really good, probably the best of the four Questprobe stories, so I’m glad Milgrom got it printed. Claremont does fantastic work with Magneto and the Chief Examiner. In the previous three stories it was pretty much taken for granted that Durgan is doing the right thing trying to save his world, and the rest of his race are fools for wanting to adhere to their pacifism. Magneto, however, has a tremendous amount of skepticism for Durgan’s actions.

Magneto points out that in attempting to save his world by stealing the powers of other beings Durgan is in danger of becoming just as evil as the Black Fleet, and that there is also a nobility to his people being willing to die for their beliefs. And it makes complete sense for Magneto to be saying this because he’s walked the exact same path as the Chief Examiner. Again and again Magneto has done the wrong thing for ostensibly the right reasons, and in the end was left pondering if he actually did make things any better for mutantkind.

The whole Questprobe storyline did eventually, and quite unexpectedly, get picked up again several years later. Mark Gruenwald always enjoyed utilizing obscure continuity, and he was the layout artist for Questprobe #1 so of course he would have been familiar with the series.

In 1992 Gruenwald brought back the Chief Examiner and the Black Fleet in the pages of his series Quasar. Gruenwald even names the Chief Examiner’s world “Scadam” after Scott Adams. It was perhaps a perfunctory wrap-up, one in which Quasar himself plays no direct role, with the girlfriend Kayla Ballentine, the unwitting recipient of the awesome cosmic power of the Star Brand, being the one to finally destroy the Black Fleet.

But that’s a story for another time.

Fight Comics Featuring Senorita Rio by Lily Renee

In May 2021 I posted about the 100th birthday of the remarkable Golden Age comic book artist Lily Renee. Born in Austria into an upper middle-class Jewish family, the teenage Lily Renee Willheim was forced to flee her homeland in the late 1930s after the Nazis seized power. Eventually arriving in New York City in the early 1940s as refugees, the Willheim family found themselves squeezed into a tenement apartment. Among the various odd jobs Renee took to put food on the table, she was an artist for comic book publisher Fiction House.

After slipping into obscurity for several decades, Renee was rediscovered by comic book historians at the end of the 20th century. The now elderly Renee met her newfound fame with a great deal of bemusement. For her, her comic book career had been merely a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life, and she was understandably perplexed that her work from sixty years earlier was now receiving such interest.

Renee passed away on August 24, 2022 at the age of 101. While she is no longer with us, much of her work for Fiction House is being brought back into print for the first time in decades. Among these are the stories featuring the character she is most identified with, Senorita Rio.

The adventures of Senorita Rio appeared in the adventure anthology Fight Comics beginning with issue #19 (cover-dated June 1942) and ran through issue #71 (Nov 1950). PS Artbooks, who have been publishing a series of handsome volumes reprinted a diverse selection of Golden and Silver Age comic book material, recently collected the Senorita Rio stories together in three volumes.

The majority of Renee’s Senorita Rio stories are collected in Fight Comics Featuring Senorita Rio Vol 2, which PS Artbooks released in June of last year. I finally had a chance to pick it up right before the holidays last month. Vol 2 contains the stories from Fight Comics #35 to #50.

Senorita Rio is Rita Farrar, a glamorous Hollywood actress & stuntwoman who, after her fiancé’s death at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fakes her death so she could become a secret agent for the Allied Forces. Given her Latina heritage, her talents as an actress and her fluency in Spanish & Portuguese, Senorita Rio was sent on numerous undercover missions in Central and South America, pitting her against a succession of Nazi spies and fascist plotters. Following the end of World War II we see her tracking down Nazi war criminals who have fled to Latin America.

Rio stands out as one of the first strong female heroes of American comic books. She was tough, intelligent, beautiful, resourceful, and independent. Within the decade, as American mores became much more conservative and the Comics Code Authority was implemented, female characters regrettably became much more flighty, one-dimensional damsels in distress. So I look at the Senorita Rio stories as a valuable demonstration that prior to the mid-1950s there were some notable female protagonists.

The writer of the Senorita Rio stories is unknown, with most of them credited to the pen name of “Morgan Hawkins.” Truthfully, the plotting on these is fairly basic, and occasionally ridiculous, as was often the case with comic books in the 1940s. The stories are fun, just as long as you don’t hold the logic up to too much scrutiny.

No, the appeal here is definitely Renee’s artwork. Having received an extensive education in Europe, and regularly visiting the museums & art galleries of  Vienna in her childhood, Renee’s work is very much informed by a classical sensibility. Her layouts & storytelling are highly dynamic, inventive & unconventional, and her drawing is possessed of an ornate flair. Renee takes the rather boilerplate plots of “Morgan Hawkins” and transforms them into visual feasts.

To understand just how much Renee’s work would have stood out to the readers of the mid 1940s, I think it’s useful to compare it to her contemporaries. There are a pair of stories in this collection drawn by a young Bob Lubbers. While Lubbers would eventually establish himself as one of the best “good girl” artists in the industry, rendering beautiful, sexy women with aplomb, here he’s just starting out, and his art seems very rough & simplistic compared to Renee’s detailed, illustrative work.

Much of the original artwork from the Golden Age no longer survives. Fortunately several examples of Renee’s work on the Senorita Rio feature still exist, and a few of them are reprinted in this collection. It’s wonderful to be able to look at these, to see the fine details of Renee’s ink lines.

Fight Comics are among the public domain comic book series available to view on the website Comic Book Plus. Comparing the scans of the Senorita Rio stories on that site to this collected edition, it’s apparent that PS Artbooks did a quality job of maintaining the color tones of the original printings. So many older comic books that were published on newsprint, when reprinted on the slicker paper of collected editions, unfortunately end up being garishly recolored. So I appreciate that PS Artbooks made the effort to be as authentic to the original published appearance as possible.

Above is the Senorita Rio title page from Fight Comics #44 scanned from the original comic book on the Comic Book Plus website side by side with the reprint of the page from the PS Artbooks collection. As you can see, the colors on the reprint are very close to the original.

Now that PS Artbooks has finished collecting the Senorita Rio stories, I hope they will reprint some of the other features that Lily Renee worked on, such as “Jane Martin” in Wings Comics, “The Werewolf Hunter” from Rangers Comics and “The Lost World” from Planet Comics. As nice as it is to be able to read those stories on Comic Book Plus, nothing compares to having a physical copy in hand.

Star Trek reviews: Discovery season four

I spent the last three months watching the entire run of Star Trek: Discovery on Paramount Plus, finishing up last night. I thought the first season was good but uneven and padded out, the second and third seasons were great, and the fourth one was very good but again dragged in a few places. Here are some thoughts on the show in general and the fourth season specifically.

Discovery is a very character-driven series. One of the benefits of watching all the episodes to date in a relatively short period of time was that it enabled me to see just how much the various characters grew & developed. I feel the writers did a good job developing most of the cast.

From what I gather Michael Burnham played by Sonequa Martin-Green has proved to be a divisive character with some viewers. Her arc has certainly been highly unusual, to say the least. It was interesting to see Burnham at last become Captain of the Starship Discovery in the fourth season. I feel Martin-Green has done a solid job with the material given her, although at times she does perform her dialogue in what I can only describe as “a loud whisper” which comes across as odd to me. Still, she effectively carries the show most of the time.

Something I’ve noticed is that the writers aren’t at all shy about calling into question Burnham’s motives & actions and positioning other characters as adversarial counterpoints to her to push her to engage in some necessary self-evaluation.

Admiral Vance (Ohed Fehr) and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) are the two latest figures to do so. At first glance, given the parade of rogue Admirals and corrupt, self-serving politicians that have appeared in previous Star Trek series, one could be forgiven for thinking that Vance and/or Rillak were up to some nefarious purpose. But with both of them it eventually becomes clear that they are decent people attempting to do very difficult jobs under incredibly trying circumstances.

That’s a characteristic I’ve noticed about Disco. The challenge is often not some diabolical mastermind bend on galactic domination (although there have been a few of those); rather it is that you have different individuals who all want to achieve a greater good, but each of them disagrees, often drastically, as to the steps necessary to achieve that outcome, and everyone needs to work to find some sort of common ground within which to work together.

That’s certainly the case with Burnham and Booker (David Ajala) in season four. Both of them want to stop the mysterious Dark Matter Anomaly that is devastating the galaxy, but Burnham wants to try diplomacy, to reach out to the mysterious Species Ten-C to convince them to withdraw their creation, while Booker wants to attack it directly before it can cause any more harm. I found myself agreeing with Burnham’s approach, her desire to avoid escalating the crisis any further. But at the same time I have to admit, if I found myself in Booker’s shoes, with my home planet, my entire family, destroyed by the DMA, it’s quite likely I’d be making the drastic choices he did.

As much as I liked the first two seasons of Disco, I really feel like the show came into its own with season three. Yes, Enterprise and Strange New Worlds are both great shows. But Star Trek has always been at its best when it has looked forward, not backwards. For the first two seasons Disco was a prequel to the original series, and as strong as it was it felt too beholden to past incarnations of Star Trek. Having Discovery and its crew jump forward 900 years to the 32nd Century has allowed Star Trek to go in completely different directions.

I think that’s very well illustrated with the long sought-after reunification of the Vulcan and Romulan civilizations, which has finally been achieved in the 32nd century. It’s also demonstrated with the character of the half-Cardassian, half-human Laira Rillak. In The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the Federation and the Cardassian Union were bitter foes; now a character who shares the dual heritages of those two once-implacable enemies is the President of the Federation itself.

I appreciated that Disco demonstrated that such change is possible, but also made it clear that it took a great deal of effort and a tremendous amount of time for those changes to be achieved, as well as showing that it is necessary to continually work to maintain that progress.

I also appreciated how Disco season four really leaned into the Star Trek mission statement “To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” It’s rare that Star Trek has presented genuinely ALIEN lifeforms. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked the original series: despite the limitations of the budget and the primitive special effects, it did attempt to present non-humanoid beings like the Horta, the brain parasites from “Operation – Annihilate,” Korob and Sylvia’s true forms in “Catspaw,” the Tribbles, the Melkotians from “Specter of the Gun” and so forth. Starting with The Next Generation the franchise became too dependent on bumpy-headed aliens.

It’s great to have Species Ten-C, a race that is so alien that we never even find out their real name. The Ten-C are totally non-humanoid, and the Universal Translators used by the Federation are completely useless in communicating with these extra-galactic beings. It takes concerted efforts by both sides to cross that seemingly insurmountable gap, and when it is bridged, it feels genuinely rewarding.

That’s also why I like Saru the Kelpien, played by Doug Jones. At last we have a regular character serving in Starfleet who looks genuinely alien. Jones gives Saru an “otherness” through his performance & movements, and the make-up is stunning.

Looking at some of the other regulars on Disco, I really want to discuss Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), the first same sex couple on a Star Trek series. That’s a development that was long overdue, one that both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were ultimately afraid to discuss. Stamets and Culber are both great characters. Like everyone else on the Starship Discovery, the two of them have some series issues (this has got to be the most dysfunctional Star Trek crew since DS9) and both characters are really performed well by Rapp and Cruz.

I appreciated how the two were introduced back in the first season. When we first meet Stamets he’s an arrogant, impatient egotist. We then meet Dr. Culber, who’s shown to be a caring, empathic individual. And then suddenly there’s a scene where Stamets and Culber are in their pajamas brushing their teeth side-by-side in their shared quarters. My reaction was basically “Oh, wait, they’re a couple? That’s cool.”

I like that it’s underplayed and just treated as an everyday occurrence that Stamets and Culber married. And the fact that they are in certain ways two very different people has enabled the writers to show all the work they’ve had to put into maintaining their relationship. Which, I suppose, goes back to that whole theme of working to find common ground that permeates Disco.

In any case, Stamets definitely went from being an annoying jerk to a warm, funny, nuanced character in fairly short time, and now he is one of my favorites.

Also great work in the writing and acting department with the character of Sylvia Tilly, played be Mary Wiseman. When we are first introduced to the babbling, insecure Tilly in season one it seems like she’s going to be the show’s comic relief. Instead she gradually grew to become one of the strongest characters on Disco, and by the end of season four she really had come into her own.

I’m looking forward to Disco season five next year because I really do enjoy the series. I’m glad to hear the episode count is reduced from 13 to 10. As I said before, season four had some pacing issues, so hopefully season five will have a leaner structure. I’m sure it’s possible to have a somewhat more streamlined season without sacrificing any of the excellent character work. I definitely want to see more development for the Discovery bridge crew, some of whom are still unfortunately underutilized.

By the way, as I alluded to before, I know there are some Star Trek fans who do not like Discovery. Some even seem to hate it with a red-hot passion! I understand; we all have different interests. I really don’t like Voyager, but I know there are Star Trek fans who do love it, and when they talk about that series, I hold my tongue because I don’t want to belittle anyone’s else’s entertainment choices. You can dislike something without attacking someone who disagrees with you. And I feel that right now there is so much Star Trek material out there that there’s something for everyone. It’s a great time to be a fan.

Comic book reviews: Dark Crisis: The Dark Army / War Zone / Big Bang

I didn’t get the recent Dark Crisis miniseries from DC Comics because, seriously, ANOTHER cosmic mega-crossover with the fate of all existence at stake? However, I did end up picking up a few of the specials that tied in with Dark Crisis because I liked several of the creators who worked on them.

Dark Crisis: The Dark Army is written by Mark Waid, Delilah S. Dawson & Dennis Culver, drawn by Freddie E. Williams II & Jack Herbert, colored by Adriano Lucas, lettered by Troy Peteri and edited by Chris Rosa. I got the variant cover by Werther Dell’Edera.

A massive battle is taking place between Earth’s heroes and the supervillain army under the domination of Pariah. Damian Wayne / Robin devises a desperate plan to sever Pariah’s control of the Dark Army. Unfortunately he can only afford to take a few heroes away from the battle, choosing Sideways, Power Girl and Dr. Light, with newcomer Red Canary tagging along, much to Robin’s annoyance. The quintet begin a jaunt across the multiverse via Sideways’ dimensional portals.

I thought The Dark Army did a fair job with the characters. Robin is arrogant, bossy, headstrong & condescending, just like his father Batman, but we get glimpses that Damian does admire the other heroes for their convictions, and that he does genuinely value his friendship with Jon Kent / Superboy. Probably the highlight of The Dark Army is the back & forth snark between Robin and the equally headstrong, much more experienced Power Girl, who you just know is not going to have much patience for Damian’s know-it-all attitude.

It was also cool to have Dr. Light play a significant role in the story’s resolution. I’ve always though she was an underutilized character. And given that she was first introduced in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it makes sense to have her as a central figure in a story with several callbacks to that classic miniseries.

During the grand tour of the multiverse, it was nice to see, however briefly, versions of Captain Carrot and Mary Marvel… or Mary Shazam, or whatever DC is calling her nowadays. I appreciated that Mary was wearing the white uniform Jerry Ordway gave her in The Power of Shazam, since I feel that always helped give her an identity somewhat distinct from her brother.

I’m not too enthusiastic about DC continuing to use Dino-Cop, though. The character is obviously intended as a cute nod to Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, but I feel he’s just too similar to Larsen’s creation to be showing up on a regular basis.

Freddie E. Williams II and Jack Herbert both do very solid work on The Dark Army. I’m a fan of Williams, so it’s always good to see his work. He draws a few really dynamic double-page spreads for this story. I’m unfamiliar with Herbert, but he has both a nice, slick polish to his work and a sort of atmospheric inking reminiscent of Mike Deodato.

The two artists have extremely different styles, but it’s not especially jarring going from Williams to Herbert and then back to Williams. The only exception to that is Herbert draws Robin as much taller & older-looking than Williams, to the point where Williams’ Damian almost feels like a different character from Herbert’s version.

The next special was Dark Crisis: War Zone. As with The Dark Army, it was a very character-driven issue, featuring several short vignettes spotlighting different heroes amidst the ginormous battle with Pariah’s army. Rafael Sarmento turns in a very striking cover.

“On Time” co-stars Iris West and Linda Park, and it was definitely a stroke of genius by Jeremy Adams to team up the wives of the second and third Flashes. The artwork by penciler Fernando Pasarin and inker Matt Ryan was solid. I would have enjoyed this one a lot more if it was longer than eight pages, though.

And that’s the weakness in all the segments in War Zone: none of them are really long enough to really give more than a cursory glimpse of the characters. There are five stories in this special, each of them eight pages, and I feel it would have benefited the book greatly to have cut out one of them and given two extra pages to each of the other four features.

The Green Lantern Corps story written by Matthew Rosenberg was another highlight. The interaction between gruff Corps veteran Guy Gardner and newcomer Sojourner “Jo” Mullein was well done. Rosenberg writes one of the better versions of Guy Gardner I’ve ever seen. Yeah, Guy is a gruff, arrogant hothead, but he also has the guts & conviction to back up his attitude, and when he sees that Jo can pull her own weight in a crisis he acknowledges that she has what it takes. Oh, yeah… leave it to Guy to use his ring to conjure up a chainsaw!

The offbeat artwork by George Kambadais and colors by Matt Herms was enjoyable. And I especially liked the distinctive, organic lettering by Troy Peteri.

“Birds of a Feather” follows on from Red Canary’s appearance in The Dark Army. Returning to the massive super-brawl on Earth, Red Canary meets her inspiration, Dinah Lance aka Black Canary. Delilah S. Dawson’s script gets some mileage out of the ever-revolving door of life & death in superhero comic books. Red Canary adopted her identity as a tribute to Black Canary after the later died… and here’s Dinah returned to life already, offering the following pithy explanation:

“Superhero stuff. Long story. But I can assure you it’s me, I’m not an evil twin, and I’m not secretly a zombie.”

Tom Derenick illustrates this meeting of the Canaries. I really enjoy Derenick’s work; he was the primary reason why I bought War Zone. He definitely does a good job on this story. I believe Derenick’s most recent ongoing assignment was the recently-cancelled Teen Titans Academy, and I hope DC gives him another series to draw soon. “Birds of a Feather” was another story that I really wish had been longer.

Rounding out my Dark Crisis purchases is Big Bang, which was far and away my favorite of the three specials. Big Bang is the epilogue to the whole event, establishing that the multiverse has at long last been restored to an infinite number of alternate realities for the first time since the first Crisis series back in 1986.

Well, honestly, I thought the whole “Hypertime” thing already did that in the late 199s, but that never seemed to stick, and for the last decade or so DC’s had the whole “52 alternate Earths” going. So it’s nice for them to (again) remove that limit and give us a literally unlimited number of parallel Earths. Let’s just hope this time they keep it that way and don’t flush it down the toilet again two or three crossovers down the road!

Anyway, Big Bang opens with Barry Allen, the Flash of the Silver Age, declaring “I’m looking for the man who murdered me.” With the multiverse restored, Barry is concerned that the cosmic menace known as the Anti-Monitor, the entity who caused his death back during Crisis on Infinite Earths, is out there, somewhere amidst the myriad alternate realities. Accompanied by Wallace West, the new Kid Flash, Barry begins exploring the multiverse, searching for any sign of the Anti-Monitor.

I got into DC Comics in the early 1990s, so for me Wally West is MY Flash. I didn’t see the point of bringing back Barry because writers such as Mark Waid did a fantastic job establishing Wally as a worthy hero who at long last stepped out from his predecessor’s shadow. Having said that, I feel Waid did a good job on Big Bang writing Barry. I guess no matter who the Flash happens to be, Waid has a really affinity for writing the Fastest Man Alive.

I got Big Bang because it was penciled by Dan Jurgens, whose work I have really enjoyed since he was one of the primary creative forces on the Superman books in the early 1990s. Waid’s story, with Flash and Kid Flash exploring the multiverse, provides Jurgens with the opportunity to draw numerous alternate Earths and their superpowered occupants. That includes Earth-27, with its dinosaur Jurassic League.

Barry and Wallace eventually do locate the Anti-Monitor, who unfortunately attacks them before they can retreat. Barry is left in a desperate struggle to keep off-balance the awesomely-powered being who once took his life. Wallace uses the opportunity to recruit some of the multiverse’s greatest heroes against the Anti-Monitor. Of course Jurgens does a fantastic job illustrating this epic struggle.

It was cool to see the Victorian-era Wonder Woman from the Elseworlds graphic novel Amazonia and the future Superman from the Batman Beyond reality among this gathering of heroes. And even though I’m not especially thrilled with DC continuing the America’s Best Comics characters without Alan Moore, I still liked the cameo by Tesla Strong.

What I really liked about Big Bang is that it demonstrated you can have this sort of monumental cosmic conflict without padding it out across innumerable issues. Waid’s story is one-and-done and is therefore much the stronger for it.

Jurgens is inked on Big Bang by Norm Rapmund. I would have preferred Brett Breeding, Jurgens’ old inking partner from Superman, but Rapmund still does a fair job. (At least we got to see Jurgens and Breeding reunited on the recent The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special.) Coloring is by Federico Blee, lettering by Troy Peteri, and editing is by Paul Kaminski, Brittany Holzherr & Dave Wielgosz.

Big Bang ends with a two-page text listing of many of the Earths in the restored multiverse. Waid is an absolute master of continuity, so if anyone was going to be able to put this one together it would be him. I had a fun time perusing it, and I was glad to see the Atomic Knights returned to continuity on Earth-17.

The one thing that I did not like about Dark Crisis: Big Bang was the cover. As with every DC release nowadays, Big Bang had several covers. The main one is by Mikel Janín showing Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman from Earth-118 getting smooshed together, or something. You have a story featuring the multiverse’s greatest heroes in an epic battle against the Anti-Monitor and THAT is the cover you come up with? Three editors on this book and none of them thought to have Jurgens, or any artist who specializes in big superhero action scenes, draw the story’s big set piece for the cover?

I feel that’s one of the drawbacks of EVERY issue having variant covers. There’s such a focus on coming up with all the different covers that there isn’t that effort to create that one single dramatic image that’s going to sell the book.

I ended up instead getting the Big Bang variant cover by Ariel Colon. It’s still not all that dramatic, but with the characters from various different realities being featured on it at least it brings across the whole “restored multiverse” theme of the story. Plus it has Dinosaur batman on it. How can you say “no” to Dinosaur Batman?

There was at least another Dark Crisis tie-in, The Deadly Green, that I missed, which I’ll probably try to find, since it features some Justice Society related characters.

For the most part I enjoyed these three specials. Yes, there was room for improvement on each of them, but for tie-ins to a big, overblown crossover they were certainly enjoyable. I just hope that some of the new heroes and alternate realities seen in them get the spotlight in the future.

It Came from the 1990s / Star Trek reviews: Untold Voyages

Here’s a twofer for you, an installment of It Came from the 1990s and a Star Trek review.

In my last blog post I looked at Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was originally released back in December 1979. So today I’m going to discuss a comic book series which serves as a sort of follow-up to that movie. Star Trek: Untold Voyages was a five-issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 1998. Untold Voyages was written by Glenn Greenberg, penciled by Mike Collins, inked by Keith Williams, colored by Matt Webb, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos and edited by Tim Tuohy.

Marvel had previously held the license to publish Star Trek comic books immediately following the release of The Motion Picture. Their Star Trek comic book ran for 18 issues between 1980 and 1982 and was unfortunately not especially well-received. (Apparently Marvel could only use elements that appeared in The Motion Picture, and anything from the actual television series was off-limits.) The license was soon acquired by DC Comics, who between 1984 and 1996 published a number of highly regarded Star Trek comics.

Marvel ended up picking up the license for a second time in 1996. Although they once again ended up holding it for only three years, during this brief period they released several Star Trek books of a high quality. A major aspect of this appears to have been that the terms of the license were much more flexible than they had been in the early 1980s, providing the writers with greater creative freedom.

Untold Voyages is set in the gap between The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, during a new five year mission for Captain James T. Kirk and crew of the Starship Enterprise. Each issue is set during one of the five years of that mission. As the series progresses we gradually see the transition of the Star Trek universe from the tone of the first movie to that of the second. As critic Darren Mooney observes on the m0vie blog, Greenberg’s stories serve to bridge Gene Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer’s very different visions of the Star Trek universe.

Greenberg is a longtime Star Trek fan, and if anyone was suited to write a Star Trek series set in the aftermath of the first movie it was him. As he recently stated on Facebook concerning The Motion Picture:

“This was not my first exposure to Star Trek, but it IS what sparked my great interest in the series.”

I asked Greenberg how the Untold Voyages comic book series came about, and he explained its origins:

“Was hanging out in the office of my fellow Marvel editor, Tim Tuohy, who was editing some of the Star Trek titles. I mentioned that he should consider doing something in the post-TMP era, and we jokingly called it The Grey Pajamas Saga. But ideas started pouring out of both of us, in terms of what could be done with such a project, and before I knew it, Tim was telling me to go home and write up a pitch for him. Which I did.”

Reading Untold Voyages, Greenberg’s fondness for both this particular period, and for Star Trek as a whole, is readily apparent. I really feel that he successfully captures both Roddenberry’s optimistic, utopian awe that permeated the original television series and The Motion Picture and the more grounded, skeptical view of the future that Nicholas Meyer introduced to it with The Wrath of Khan. Greenberg successfully balances these two approaches in much the same way that later episodes of The Next Generation and much of the run of Deep Space Nine also did, resulting in some intelligent, thought-provoking stories.

I don’t want to get into too many specifics about Untold Voyages because I’d rather encourage Star Trek fans to seek it out for themselves. The issues can be found on eBay at affordable prices. The miniseries was also reprinted in Volume 120 of the massive Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection published by Eaglemoss Collections several years ago.

I will say that probably my favorite issue was the second one. The title “Worlds Collide” has two very distinct meanings in Greenberg’s story. In the “A plot” an alien planet is threatened with destruction as an asteroid hurtles towards it, leading Kirk and Dr. McCoy into a very heated argument over the Federation’s Prime Directive, and whether they should or should not interfere and attempt to save the world’s inhabitants.

In the “B plot” Spock is serving as a mentor to the young, troubled Saavik. Greenberg utilizes the half-Romulan backstory for Saavik that was filmed for The Wrath of Khan but ultimately never used but which was later explored in several prose novels and the DC Comics series. He effectively parallels Spock and Saavik, each of them only half-Vulcan, each in their turn struggling to find their place, and their identity, in the rigidly logical Vulcan society.

Another stand-out issue is the fourth one. “Silent Cries” sees Lieutenant Commander Hikaru Sulu briefly assume command of the Enterprise. Greenberg wrote this story to show the event that helped place Sulu on the path to eventually becoming captain of the Excelsior several years later.

I’ve often lamented that, due to the realities of television writing & production during the 1960s, outside of Kirk, Spock and McCoy the Enterprise crew were undeveloped. Therefore, it’s good to get a story like this that spotlights one of those other characters. That’s always been a strength of the tie-in media of comic books and novels, it’s enabled writers to flesh out Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and the rest of the ship’s crew.

“Silent Cries” also has one of those great moral quandaries that Star Trek is so wonderful at addressing. I’ve always appreciated the series for how it can challenge our assumptions and ask us to reconsider our views.

The artwork on Untold Voyages is very well done. Mike Collins & Keith Williams do a superb job rendering the characters, the technology, and the different alien worlds. I’ve observed before that drawing likenesses in licensed comic books can be incredibly tricky. If the artist is too faithful to the actors there is a danger of the characters not seeming real, instead looking like they were traced from a photograph. It can be more important to capture the personality & body language of the characters than the actual appearances of the actors who portray them. Collins & Williams do an admirable job rendering the rest of the Enterprise crew.

Collins also has a long association with Doctor Who Magazine as one of the artists on its ongoing comic book feature, so he clearly has a great affinity for drawing actors’ likenesses as well as sci-fi elements. I’ve always liked Collins’ work, and I think he’s somewhat underrated, especially compared to a number of his contemporaries who also made their debuts in the British comic book industry during the mid-1980s.

Collins’ layouts & storytelling on Untold Voyages are very strong & dramatic. Williams is a superb inker, and he does a great job on the finishes here.

Going back to “Worlds Collide” I appreciated that Greenberg & Collins created a totally non-humanoid alien species. It’s long been a running joke that in Star Trek most aliens look like human beings with bumpy foreheads or funny ears. Obviously the primary reason for that is the constraints of time, money & technology in creating truly alien lifeforms on live television. But none of that applies to comic books, where the only limitations are the talent & imagination of the artist.

Oh, yes, I cannot discuss Untold Voyages without mentioning Matt Webb’s vibrant colors. The mid to late 1990s was often a crapshoot when it came to comic book coloring as creators struggled to adapt to the brand-new computer coloring technology that was being utilized. There was a lot of gaudy coloring during this period. But Webb did superb work on this miniseries. The coloring is striking without being overwhelming. I love what he does with the warp speed effect.

As I’ve said before, one of the reasons why I like doing these It Came from the 1990s blog posts is that they allow me to spotlight some of the great comic books that came out during a decade that often gets a bad reputation. There are a great many underrated gems from the 1990s, and Star Trek: Untold Voyages is one of them. If you’re a Trekkie it’s definitely worth seeking these out.

Star Trek reviews: The Motion Picture

This month is the 43rd anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which premiered on December 7, 1979. The movie was helmed by veteran director Robert Wise. The screenplay is credited to Harold Livingston, based on a story by Alan Dean Foster, although there were a number of other writers involved in the protracted task of bringing the movie from concept to completion. Over four decades later TMP remains a highly contentious subject among Star Trek fans.

My own personal experience with TMP was that I had only seen it all the way through, from beginning to end, a few times, and always on television. Hey, I was only three years old in 1979, so I was too young to catch it in the theater! In general I found it to be fairly underwhelming.

A few months ago Michele and I finally got our first wide screen television. Over the years some people have argued that TMP works much better on a big movie theater screen than on TV. Since a widescreen television is closer to a “big screen” than I’ve ever had before, I figure it was time to watch TMP in a manner as close to the original experience as possible. In early September I streamed the 4K Ultra HD (high definition) version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition on Paramount Plus. And, honestly, it WAS a brand-new experience for me.

I realize that part of that is also due to the fact that in the late 1970s TMP was an incredibly rushed production, and what ended up on movie screens was little more than a rough cut. Twenty years later Robert Wise was finally given the opportunity to conduct some badly-needed additional work on TMP, resulting in The Director’s Edition that came out in 2001. The 4K Ultra HD version further improves on the picture quality & special effects.

After I finished watching this version of TMP, I had to admit the movie was pretty darn cool. It definitely looked much better on a wide-screen television. This was the first time I really was able to take in the incredible visuals. Also, at 46 years old, I certainly had much more of an understanding and appreciation of the cerebral, philosophical nature of the story. So, yes, certainly the most enjoyable viewing of TMP that I’ve ever had. Here are some of my thoughts about the movie:

First off, whenever I watch the opening credits of TMP my mind automatically starts thinking “Why are they using the theme music from Star Trek: The Next Generation?” Yeah, yeah, I know… TMP came out eight years before TNG made its debut. But TNG was essential viewing for me when I was a teenager, so that theme song is very familiar to me, and I probably never watched TMP from beginning to end until after TNG finished up its run in 1994. Consequently whenever Jerry Goldsmith’s opening theme plays I just automatically think of Picard and Riker and Data and all that.

I understand that for a lot of fans in 1979 what Goldsmith produced was just too different from the already-iconic Star Trek theme composed by Alexander Courage. But the Goldsmith piece is well done, so it makes perfect sense that it was later repurposed for TNG, something that I feel helped that show establish its own distinct identity in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if the Courage theme had been used.

Moving on to the movie itself, that opening scene with the redesigned Klingons (sporting their bumpy foreheads & armor for the very first time) is actually a pretty good way to set up the central crisis. The Klingons were the closest the original Star Trek series had to a “big bad.” So it’s an effective method of establishing just how incredibly powerful & dangerous V’Ger is by having a trio of badass-looking Klingon battle cruisers get effortlessly obliterated in the very first scene. I guess this is an early example of what would later be known as The Worf Effect, which of course takes its name from TNG’s own resident Klingon warrior.

For years I had wondered why Wise had included that extended sequence of James T. Kirk in a shuttlecraft slowly, lovingly admiring the redesigned Starship Enterprise. This was but the first of several sequences that I feel works much better on a larger, wider screen. It really does look impressive.

It’s also important to remember the context. In 1979 Star Trek had been off the air for ten years. Yes, it had been in endless syndication during that time, but this was the first live-action Star Trek in a decade. It was also the very first time the series was ever seen on the big screen. So it makes sense for Wise to really take as much time as he did to spotlight the Enterprise, which literally had never been seen like this before.

I do have to give William Shatner credit for really selling this scene, for showing Kirk’s understated yet nevertheless palpable joy at once again seeing his beloved Enterprise. Shatner would have been looking at a blank wall or something when that scene was filmed, with only Wise’s direction and his own imagination to go on, but he totally sells it. Shatner has an admittedly well-deserved reputation for being a large ham. But given the right material and a strong director he could turn in powerful, subtle performances, and he did good work in this movie.

I still do think the new Starfleet uniforms and interiors of the Enterprise are “Meh.” I don’t know what it was about the 1970s that resulted in such a preponderance of subdued beiges and greys in fashion & decor, but all of it makes the future seen in TMP very bland. The red uniforms that were introduced three years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan were a vast improvement.

It feels like new characters Will Decker and Ilia, played by Steven Collins and Persis Khambatta, should be more important, that their ultimate fates should be genuinely dramatic. But neither character is given enough material to really develop within the confines of movie’s roughly two hour runtime. I believe Ilia does get slightly more emphasis in The Director’s Edition — apparently a scene showcasing her empathic abilities was absent from the theatrical cut — but it’s only a slight improvement.

I think both characters had potential, but there just was not enough time in an already-packed movie to develop either of them sufficiently. So I can understand why series creator Gene Roddenberry essentially recycled them in TNG, with young, ambitious Will Decker becoming young, ambitious Will Riker and the empathic Deltan Ilia becoming the empathic half-Betazoid Deanna Troi. A weekly television series certainly afforded more of an opportunity to explore the characters and their complex relationship.

For me the standout element of TMP was Leonard Nimoy’s superb performance as Spock. I feel TMP is essential viewing for Star Trek fans because it is a crucial moment in the character arc of the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock. In the original series Spock was a figure torn between two worlds as he struggled to reconcile his rigidly logical Vulcan heritage & training with his very emotional human heritage.

The first time we see Spock in TMP he has returned to his home planet where he attempts a Vulcan ritual to at last purge himself completely of emotion, only to meet with failure. He then telepathically senses the approach of V’Ger, a being possessing “thought patterns of exactingly perfect order.” And so Spock rejoins the Enterprise because he believes this mysterious entity may contain the solution he has sought for so long.

When Spock subsequently mind melds with V’Ger he confirms the entity is indeed a being of pure logic… yet for all its phenomenal power & knowledge V’Ger’s existence is incredibly barren. Spock discovers that logic alone has not been able to provide V’ger with true meaning & purpose:

“V’ger has knowledge that spans this universe. And in all this order, all this magnificence, V’ger feels no awe…no delight… no beauty… no meaning… no hope…”

For the first time Spock realized just how empty the path of pure logic can be. This really carries over through the remaining appearances in the Star Trek franchise, where he is finally at peace with himself, having at last found a balance between his logical Vulcan and emotional human sides.

DeForest Kelly isn’t given nearly as much to do in his role of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. For the most part Bones is his typical curmudgeonly self. But occasionally there are glimpses of the humanistic warmth that lies beneath his irascibility.

When Kirk drags McCoy back into service early on, there’s a great exchange between the two that really establishes the later character:

Kirk: Well, for a man who swore he’d never return to the Starfleet…

McCoy: Just a moment, Captain, sir. I’ll explain what happened. Your revered Admiral Nogura invoked a little-known, seldom-used “reserve activation clause.” In simpler language, Captain, they DRAFTED me!

Kirk: They didn’t!

McCoy: This was your idea. This was your idea, wasn’t it?

Kirk: Bones, there’s a… thing… out there.

McCoy: Why is any object we don’t understand always called “a thing”?

I’ve always appreciated that last line, as it gets right to the heart of what I feel is one of the central tenets of Star Trek: exploring the unknown, seeking to understand that which seems different & frightening.

I also appreciated how in TMP we see how McCoy is the one person who won’t put up with Kirk’s bullshit. Bones readily perceives that Kirk, tired of riding a desk at Starfleet Command for the past two and a half years, exploits the V’Ger crisis to take back command of the Enterprise, in the process trampling over Decker, who was supposed to be the new captain, and the doctor has absolutely no qualms on calling Kirk out on his behavior.

As for the rest of the Enterprise crew… uh, yeah, they really don’t get all that much to do, unfortunately. But I’m sure that it in 1979 it was awesome to see all of them back together. And I appreciated that Christine Chapel and Janice Rand, now promoted to Doctor and Transporter Chief respectively, were among the characters who returned. One way in which the original series is a product of its time is that there were very few prominent regular female characters. So it was good to have Majel Barrett and Grace Lee Whitney appear here, however briefly.

I certainly can’t write about TMP without discussing V’Ger itself… or Voyager 6, as it is revealed to be in the climax of the movie. V’Ger does look absolutely spectacular, and I suppose I can forgive those looooong tracking shots the immense living machine. And in the 4K Ultra HD version we finally get to see exactly what V’Ger looks like.

It’s certainly a legitimate criticism to point out the similarities between V’Ger in TMP and Nomad from the original series episode “The Changeling” broadcast in 1967; they’re both space probes from Earth that merged with incredibly advanced alien technology, becoming immensely powerful beings that threatened the galaxy while seeking out their “Creator.” But whereas Nomad was merely a dangerous foe for Kirk to defeat, V’Ger is ultimately the equivalent of a lost soul, one that is finally helped onto the next step of its evolution by the Enterprise crew.

As I said at the outset, as an older and (hopefully) more mature viewer I now appreciate that the crisis in TMP is ultimately resolved peacefully, and everyone involved emerged with a better understanding of themselves and each other.

So, looking at Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it’s a good yet flawed movie. It had a lot of potential & ambition, but regrettably it sometimes falls short. It sacrifices some of the warmer, human aspects of the show to focus on Big Ideas. At times the movie’s pacing is a bit too languid. I like TMP, but I also agree that the next entry, The Wrath of Khan, is much stronger and ultimately helped to save the Star Trek franchise. I do feel that if you put the two movies side by side it demonstrates the diversity of the series, in that there are a lot of different types of stories you can tell. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of Star Trek’s greatest strengths.

My upcoming articles in Alter Ego and Back Issue

I am happy to announce I have two articles being published within the next couple of months. The first is in Alter Ego #179 and the second is in Back Issue #141, both of which are from TwoMorrows Publishing. I’ve written for AE and BI before, and it’s great to once again be contributing to these two fine publications.

Alter Ego #179 is scheduled for release on December 21st. The article I wrote on artist George Klein will be appearing in this issue. The main theme of AE #179 is “Celebrating the 61st Anniversary of Fantastic Four #1—’cause we kinda blew right past its 60th.” Klein is generally believed to be the uncredited inker on the first two issues of Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics in 1961, and so AE editor Roy Thomas saw this edition of his magazine as an ideal opportunity to publish my piece on the artist.

George Klein worked in comic books from the early 1940s to the late 1960s. He was very talented, but sadly he passed away in 1969 at the much too young age of 49. As a result Klein is nowhere near as well-known as he might have become if he had lived longer. There was very little information out there about him. I’m grateful that Roy Thomas provided me with the opportunity to write this article, which enabled me to research Klein’s life and to speak with his surviving family & colleagues about the man and his work. Hopefully I’ve been able to present a more detailed portrait of this often-overlooked creator than has previously been available.

Back Issue #141 is scheduled for release a month later, on January 18th. The theme of this issue is “Spies and P.I.s” and I was afforded the opportunity by BI editor Michael Eury to write an article on sloppy, diminutive private detective Michael Mauser.

Followers of this blog will perhaps recall that I previously did a few pieces looking at the career of Mauser co-creator artist Joe Staton and his incredible work on the cult classic comic book series E-Man with writer Nicola Cuti, first at at Charlton Comics and subsequently at other publishers. Mauser was introduced in the pages of E-Man and over the past half century he has both been a regular fixture in that series through its various revivals and been periodically spun out into his own solo adventures. I feel that Staton did some of the very best work of his career on the E-Man and Michael Mauser stories, and it was a pleasure to be able to interview his about the character of Mauser.

I also had the opportunity to speak with artist Rick Burchett about his work on the E-Man series published by First Comics from 1983 to 1985, during which time he also contributed to the comedic hardboiled adventures of Mauser.

Alter Ego #179 and Back Issue #141 are available for pre-order from the TwoMorrows Publishing website, both in physical and digital editions. Alter Ego and Back Issue can also be ordered through Previews World.

I hope everyone will pick up copies. Thank you all for your time & interest.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Wonder Woman #204

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Wonder Woman #204 Facsimile Edition from DC Comics. “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” was written & edited by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Don Heck, with possible inking by Dick Giordano. It was originally released 50 years ago this month, on November 7, 1972.

I had previously seen excerpts of Wonder Woman #204 online and read some commentary about it. I featured a couple of panels from it in my review of the recent Nubia: Queen of the Amazons miniseries. But this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read this story in it’s entirety. And I have to say, this is one of the most insane comic books I have ever read.

I wish Alan Stewart had bought this issue when it had come out, because it would have made one heck of an installment of his blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books! (Alan did do a write-up on Wonder Woman #202 a few months ago, so you can read that.) Therefore I figured I might as well offer up my own commentary here on this blog.

Wonder Woman #204 sees the title character reacquire her iconic costume & superpowers after the four year “Diana Prince” direction overseen by Denny O’Neil & Mike Sekowsky that had begun back in issue #178, cover-dated Sept-Oct 1968. And, as changes in creative directions can go, “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” is about as sudden & drastic as you can possibly get.

Robert Kanigher is a creator who has simultaneously been praised and reviled. His work on DC’s war titles is frequently lauded as classic, as is his collaboration with the incredible Joe Kubert on the Ragman character. In contrast, Kanigher’s two decade long run writing & editing Wonder Woman from 1947 to 1967 is often regarded as at best mediocre, at worst downright awful. Kanigher himself apparently was not a pleasant individual to know.

The opening sequence to Wonder Woman #204 really demonstrates Kanigher at his most cruel & petty, as he has a very thinly veiled stand-in for fellow DC editor Dorothy Woolfolk murdered as part of a horrific shooting spree by a deranged sniper. This bloodbath also results in the sudden, brutal death Diana’s mentor I Ching and causes her to suffer complete amnesia, resulting in the erstwhile Amazon instinctively returning to Paradise Island, thereby managing to completely sweep aside the status quo from the previous four years in just a few short pages.

Around this time journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem had been advocating DC to restore Wonder Woman’s costume & powers. It’s been suggested that DC editorial & management regarded Steinem as a convenient excuse to hit the reset button as they were apparently becoming apprehensive with the increasingly political direction of the series, with the new writer, acclaimed science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delaney, planning to address the abortion controversy in an upcoming story. Whatever the actual case, Delaney only got to write two issues of Wonder Woman, #202 and #203, before Kanigher returned to the series.

Like, seriously, WTF DC Comics?!?

Mind you, even if Delaney had been able to remain on Wonder Woman and take the book in the direction he wanted, for all we know the actual results might have been cringeworthy. One need only look at #203 with its “Special! Women’s Lib Issue” blurb splashed atop a cover drawn by Dick Giordano of a bound & gagged young woman with her breasts thrust out provocatively to realize that even the more progressive voices at DC in the early 1970s could still be horrifically tone deaf.

That said, bringing Kanigher back to Wonder Woman after a four year absence is a head-scratcher. I really have to puzzle at what resulted in him becoming writer & editor again. The entire reason why the whole non-powered, white jumpsuit Diana Prince direction had come about in the first place was to try to save the series from cancellation after 20 years of increasingly mediocre stories by Kanigher.

I myself read a number of the Silver Age Wonder Woman stories Kanigher did with the art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito when they were reprinted in the first Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman collection published in 2007, and I found them to be very bland & instantly forgettable. (Say what you will about utterly dysfunctional Superman stories edited by Mort Weisinger during the same two-decade period, at least those were memorably bizarre.) So why give the book back to the guy who nearly tanked it in the first place?

Reportedly Dorothy Woolfolk, one of the very few female professionals working in mainstream comic books half a century ago, was supposed to be the new, permanent editor of the Wonder Woman series, a decision that would have undoubtedly pleased Steinem. But whatever happened at DC resulted in Woolfolk only editing issues #197 and #198. Which makes the opening page of #204 even more egregious, as it really comes across like a huge middle finger by Kanigher to Woolfolk at his having snatched away her job.

Okay, Kanigher had been previously been harshly mocked in the pages of Wonder Woman #188 as the cross-dressing pickpocket “Creepy Caniguh” but that was all on Mike Seknowsky, who wrote, penciled & edited that issue. So it feels like Kanigher was taking out his ire on the only woman in the room when he had “Dottie Cottonman” murdered in #204.

Of course, all these decades later, with nearly everyone involved having subsequently passed on, there’s no way to know what actually occurred behind the scenes.

Thankfully Kanigher’s second stint as writer & editor on Wonder Woman was much shorter than his first, coming to an end after a mere eight issues with #211.

Putting all of this aside, the reason for the publication of this Facsimile Edition is that it’s the first appearance of Diana’s long lost sister Nubia. But despite her appearance on the cover she almost feels like an afterthought in Kanigher’s brutal deck-clearing exercise. Nubia did feature more prominently in the next two issues, though, so I guess it was a decent set-up for the character’s story.

On the plus side, artist Don Heck did very solid work on this story. Heck is, without a doubt, an incredibly underrated artist. Superheroes really were not his forte, and so the more that genre dominated the medium the more he unfortunately found himself having to work on material that did not suit his artistic strengths.

Having said that, Wonder Woman was probably a better fit for Heck than almost any other ongoing series published by either DC or Marvel in the 1970s. Heck always did draw very attractive women (he did incredible work on romance comics) so Wonder Woman was definitely a good book to assign to him.

Heck’s cover for issue is #204 is very dramatic. He especially outdid himself in Diana’s underwater battle with the shark, the flashback sequence in this story featuring the origins of the Amazons and Diana, and with the brief duel between Diana and Nubia. All the classical Greek and mythological material was such a great fit for his artwork.

Heck’s art was the main reason why I purchased this Facsimile Edition. His work on this issue almost sort of manages to redeem the story, because no matter how tacky Kanigher’s writing gets, Heck consistently delivers a professional job.

Heck had already drawn Wonder Woman #199 a few months earlier, and he then drew the next two issues after this one. He did the occasional fill-in issue for the series during the late 1970s and early 1980s before becoming the regular Wonder Woman penciler from 1983 to 1985, paired with writer Dan Mishkin. During that three year period Heck produced, if not especially dynamic art, then at least good, solid work that effectively told the story. The work by Mishkin & Heck immediately before the justly acclaimed post-Crisis revamp of Wonder Woman by George Perez is, I think, underrated, and I hope one of these days it gets reprinted.

I find the circumstances in which Wonder Woman #204 was produced to be far more intriguing than the actual issue. It’s certainly a good reminder that the American comic book industry has often been beset by clashing egos, unprofessional behavior and contradictory agendas. I love the medium of comic books, but the business of it can be cutthroat as all hell!

Comic book reviews: Black Adam – The Justice Society Files

I’ve been so busy I haven’t had an opportunity to do too much blogging. I finally have a chance to take a brief look at Black Adam – The Justice Society Files, a series of four double-sized comic book specials released by DC Comics as prequels to the live action Black Adam movie.

I’m probably not going to have the opportunity to do a full-length review of Black Adam itself, so I’m also going to include some thoughts on the movie itself.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Hawkman cover by Kaare Andrews

The Justice Society Files specials spotlight Hawkman, Cyclone, Atom Smasher, and Dr. Fate, the members of the Justice Society of America who appear in the Black Adam movie. A fifth story is the serial “Lost & Found” running through the back of all four issues. That story alternates between Teth-Adam & his family in ancient Khandaq when it was under the oppressive rule of King Ahk-Ton, and Professor Adrianna Tomaz & her teenage son Amon in present-day Khandaq as they seek to prevent the high-tech crime syndicate Intergang from acquiring specimens of the mystic metal eternium.

I already touched upon Black Adam – The Justice Society Files a couple of months ago in my blog post “Hawkman is now black… and that’s okay” but here are some further thoughts.

The writing on the four specials is not especially complex or in-depth. Co-writers Cavan Scott & Bryan Q. Miller admirably achieve the task of introducing the characters, situations & concepts that are then developed in-depth within the actual Black Adam movie. It’s perfectly acceptable work, fun & entertaining, and it achieves its goal of generating interest in the movie. That was certainly the case with me. Prior to reading these specials I really didn’t have much interest in seeing Black Adam in the theater. But afterwards I was definitely looking forward to seeing the live action version of the Justice Society previewed in these comics.

I feel the major draw on these specials is the high-quality artwork. Kaare Andrews certainly does an outstanding job on all four covers. His drawing of of Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam on the Hawkman cover is absolutely dead-on in capturing the actor’s distinctive likeness.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Hawkman written by Cavan Scott, penciled by Scot Eaton, inked by Norm Rapmund, colored by Andrew Dalhouse and lettered by Rob Leigh

Hawkman is penciled by Scot Eaton & inked by Norm Rapmund. Cyclone is drawn by Maria Laura Sanapo. Atom Smasher is drawn by Travis Mercer. The credits are unfortunately missing from the Dr. Fate special, but according to the official DC Comics website the artist is Jesús Merino. The “Lost & Found” back-up story is drawn by Marco Santucci.

The work by Sanapo on Cyclone is my favorite. That was actually the first issue I bought, and I got it for her art. I enjoyed the comic, and I also saw that Sanapo’s husband, the equally-talented Santucci, was drawing the back-up serial, so I decided to purchase the other three specials. Eaton & Rapmund, Merino also do quality work. Merino certainly drew a good depiction of actors Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Mercer’s work on the Atom Smasher special, though. It was a bit too loose and manga-inspired for my tastes. Although I suppose that sort of suited the more comical tone of this particular story. However Mercer did utilize some effective layouts & storytelling.

My only other major complaint was that I thought Dr. Fate’s helmet looked ridiculous without eyeholes! But that’s totally down to the costume & visual effects designers of the movie itself. The artists on The Justice Society Files had to work with what they were given.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Cyclone written by Canan Scott, drawn by Maria Laura Sanapo, colored by Arif Prianto and lettered by Becca Carey

Editing all four books was Michael McAlister, with Katie Kubert as senior editor. I have to say, it brought a smile to my face to see Kubert, the granddaughter of legendary artist Joe Kubert, editing a book featuring Hawkman, a character her grandfather drew so memorably over the decades.

Moving on to the actual Black Adam movie, I enjoyed it. Honestly, I do not get the hate I’ve heard from some people. It was a fun movie with a good balance of action, drama & comedy. As a long-time Justice Society fan it was great to see Dr. Fate and Hawkman in live action. Absolutely, positively a huge improvement over Batman V Superman. If the people in charge of the DC superhero movies keep making enjoyable flicks like this I will definitely be happy.

Yes, the whole “heroes fight each other over a misunderstanding / overinflated egos before teaming up against a common foe” thing has been done on numerous occasions, but at least it’s fairly well executed here.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Atom Smasher written by Canan Scott, drawn by Travis Mercer, colored by John Kalisz and lettered by Rob Leigh

Dwayne Johnson is an actor not exactly known for his vast range, but he was perfectly cast as Teth-Adam. Given that he spent years working to get the Black Adam movie made, he obviously has an affinity for the character. And he certainly looks a great deal like him. Johnson definitely brought to life the ruthless anti-hero developed by Jerry Ordway, David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns in the pages of The Power of Shazam, JSA and 52.

As with a lot of others, I feel that Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate pretty much stole almost every scene he was in. I love how he brought a combination of somber gravitas and wry humor to the role. Subsequently reading an interview with Brosnan about his work on the movie, I was really struck by what he had to say:

“Well, Kent Nelson had a wife. Inza was his wife. In my books, he is a widower. And so, my wife Keely (Shaye Smith) – I love watches, and she gave me a beautiful Blancpain 15 or 20 years ago. And the inscription is, ‘Time flies on love’s wings.’ And so I thought it was very fitting to wear it as a time piece for this character. And the wedding ring is my wedding ring. And there’s a silver amulet on my right wrist that is Heidr art, which is the (Nordic) mythology of the whales. You know, those three objects became Talismen for me. I don’t normally wear them in movies.”

Considering Black Adam is a slam bang popcorn flick, I was impressed that Brosnan took the time to research the character of Dr. Fate and then invested such subtle, personal touches towards informing his performance. It really demonstrates that he took the role seriously.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Dr. Fate written by Cavan Scott, drawn by Jesús Merino, colored by Ulisses Arreola and lettered by Rob Leigh

I’m going once again address on the live action version of Hawkman being black, since actor Aldis Hodge himself discussed it in an interview last year:

“I think about the representation aspect of that, because I didn’t grow up watching superheroes that look like me. I remember in my early-teens maybe we came into Spawn and Blade, and that was awesome. So, to know that young kids are going to be able to see that and see opportunity, and have an awareness that I didn’t have at a young age about what they can accomplish, that really is fantastic.”

As I’ve said before, representation matters. Black Adam has a fairly diverse cast, both in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of the characters and the actors who are portraying them, and the majority of the movie is set in the Middle East.

I found it interesting that Black Adam actually presented a very direct criticism of American foreign policy. Intergang has been occupying Khandaq for two decades when the story begins, oppressing its people, looting its wealth. Yet it is only after Teth-Adam returns and begins violently fighting Intergang that the Justice Society is sent to Khandaq to intercede, because the United States is suddenly worried that this incredibly powerful, brutal superhuman will upset the global status quo. A furious Adrianna Tomaz (played by actress Sarah Shahi) angrily points out that hypocrisy to the team of superheroes.

I feel that the conflict between Hawkman’s “heroes don’t kill” stance and Black Adam killing, well, pretty much everyone in sight works because the story took the time to show there’s a certain validity to both their points of view. I like that the movie acknowledged there are certain moral ambiguities without cynically, depressingly attempting to deconstruct superheroes for the umpteenth time.

Black Adam – The Justice Society Files: Hawkman “Lost & Found” Chapter 1 written by Bryan Q. Miller, drawn by Marco Santucci, colored by Michael Atiyeh and lettered by Rob Leigh

To a certain degree the movie also subverts the whole “superhero as savior” trope. Towards the end it’s stated that the people of Khandaq do not need a hero; what they actually need is freedom. No single individual, no matter how powerful, can save a country or a world. What is necessary is for all the people to stand up and fight alongside one another for life & liberty.

So, yes, I found Black Adam to have a surprising degree of depth, while also being a slam-bang action flick.

Now if only they’d given Dr. Fate’s helmet some eyeholes! Oh, well, maybe next time. So bring on the Justice Society movie, please.

Kevin O’Neill: 1953 to 2022

In the last several months a number of very talented comic book creators have passed away. To my regret I have unfortunately not had enough time to eulogize all of these losses. But I really wanted to take some time to put together some thoughts about British artist Kevin O’Neill, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 69.

Words like “unique” and “distinctive” get tossed about a great deal when discussing artists. But I truly believe those adjectives apply to Kevin O’Neill. He was a creator with an incredibly bizarre, hyper-detailed style who composed some genuinely dynamic & offbeat compositions in his work.

Probably the first time I saw O’Neill’s work was on “Legend of the Dark Mite” which appeared in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38, published by DC Comics in 1992. The insanely surreal “Legend of the Dark Mite” was written by Alan Grant, another singular talent who sadly also passed away this year.

I did a blog post about “Legend of the Dark Mite” about a decade ago. It was one of those stories that really lodged itself in my subconscious. And I immediately recognized that O’Neill was a striking, offbeat artist with a distinctive sense of humor.

I subsequently learned about the Green Lantern Corps story “Tygers” written by Alan Moore that O’Neill illustrated in the mid-1980s. “Tygers” was rejected by the Comics Code Authority, and when DC Comics requested clarification about what precisely the CCA was objecting to in the story, the response from the Code was that O’Neill’s entire style was objectionable. DC published “Tygers” without the CCA seal of approval in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 in 1986, a definite rarity in mainstream comics at the time.

The point at which I really became a fan of O’Neill’s work was in the late 1990s. Three things occurred in quick succession.

The first of these was the two issue Savage Dragon / Marshall Law miniseries published by Image Comics in 1997. I bought this one because I was a huge fan of Erik Larsen’s character. I hadn’t previously been familiar with the brutal superhero satire Marshall Law which O’Neil had co-created a decade earlier with Pat Mills, and this was certainly one hell of an introduction!

I feel that Savage Dragon, as another violent, bleakly comical creator-owned series, is far enough removed from mainstream superheroes that Mills & O’Neill were able to make the crossover with their character work quite well. I certainly enjoyed O’Neil’s absolutely insane artwork on Savage Dragon / Marshall Law.

The second event was that I spent six months in London, England, where I was able to purchase a number of back issues and collected editions of the weekly science fiction anthology series 2000 AD.

Among the 2000 AD material I discovered was Nemesis the Warlock, a sci-fi / dark fantasy series created by O’Neill with writer Pat Mills in 1980. Nemesis the Warlock revolved around the bizarre alien agent of chaos Nemesis and his struggle against the genocidal xenophobic tyrant Torquemada, who sought to “purify” the universe of all non-human lifeforms.

O’Neill designed the incredibly weird-looking Nemesis, the brutal Torquemada, Nemesis’ associate the beautiful freedom fighter Purity Brown, and the entire look of the world & technology of the series. Earlier today I took a glance though the first Nemesis the Warlock collected edition for the first time in a number of years, and the artwork & designs by O’Neill are even more strikingly dynamic & unsettling that I remembered.

O’Neill was the primary artist on the first and third “books” of the Nemesis the Warlock saga. Unfortunately, after drawing the first two chapters of Book Four for 2000 AD in 1984, O’Neill was forced to seek better-paying work in the American comics market. The equally-talented but stylistically very different Bryan Talbot took over as the artist on the feature.

A decade and a half later the tenth & final installment of Nemesis the Warlock, was serialized in 2000 AD, and O’Neill returned to the feature to illustrate the last chapter, which featured the long-awaited final confrontation between Nemesis and Torquemada.

At the time it was really great to be able to read the collections of the early Nemesis the Warlock “books” and to then get to follow “The Final Conflict” weekly in the pages of 2000 AD. O’Neill was in fine form as he reunited with Mills to bring the saga to its epic conclusion.

The third & final event in the late 1990s that cemented my interest in O’Neill was that the first The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by O’Neill, it was published by the DC Comics imprint America’s Best Comics in 1999. So soon after thrilling to O’Neill’s work on Nemesis the Warlock, I also got to see his art on Moore’s mash-up of disparate Victorian literary works.

I have to confess that I’ve never been a huge fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A significant part of that is due to the fact that the majority of the frequent literary, historical, musical & cultural references and allusions Moore made throughout the varies LoEG series went completely over my head. And I was actually a Literature & Communications major with a minor in History in college!

Nevertheless, I thought O’Neill always did absolutely stunning, and frequently unsettling, work on LoEG. And whatever my feelings about the often-oblique quality of Moore’s writing on the series, I was nevertheless glad that, after his disputes with DC Comics reached a final tipping point, he & O’Neill were able to take the series to Top Shelf Productions in 2009, where the two of them subsequently produced several more gorgeous volumes over the next decade. I bought the Century trilogy specifically for O’Neill’s artwork, with the intention of taking my time reading each of them in order to more fully parse the content & context of Moore’s scripts.

I consider myself very fortunate to have met O’Neill on a couple of occasions.

The first time was in November 2007 at Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan. O’Neill was doing a signing to promote the release of the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. He was drawing sketches inside the book for everyone who bought a copy, and I requested Mina Murray.

While I was waiting on line to meet O’Neil I skimmed through the first chapter of Black Dossier. One of the things I was struck by was Mina’s characterization in that segment.

In the first LoEG series, Mina sought to be independent, but ended up finding herself in situations where she had to be rescued by her male teammates. One particular instance was in chapter six. Cornered on an airship by Professor Moriarty, an unsettled Mina attempts to reason with him as one intellectual to another. Moriarty’s response is to contemptuously sneer to his underlings “Throw this smelly little lesbian over the side.” It falls to Allan Quartermain to distract Moriarty and his men, at which point Mina is finally able to sabotage the airship.

In contrast, in the opening segment of Black Dossier, a macho, swaggering British secret agent named “Jimmy” (obviously an ultra-obnoxious extrapolation of James Bond) attempts to sexually assault Mina… at which point she proceeds to give him a serious @$$-kicking.

I was struck by how much more assertive Mina was and so I asked O’Neill to sketch her. I even pointed this out to O’Neill, and he agreed that she had grown & developed as the various series had progressed. He did a great job sketching Mina holding the eponymous Black Dossier.

I met O’Neill again in June 2009 when he was a surprise guest at Big Apple Comic Con. I had just started a “villains” theme sketchbook. I really wanted to get a diverse selection of characters, not just the usual Marvel and DC baddies. So I asked O’Neill to draw Torquemada from the Nemesis the Warlock serials. Pretty much everyone else at the show was asking O’Neill to draw characters from LoEG, and I got the impression that he was pleasantly surprised that I requested one of his other characters. I asked O’Neill if he remembered how to draw Torquemada. He proceeded to quickly knock out a great sketch, leading me to observe, “Well, I guess you still do know how to draw him.”

Both times I met O’Neill he came across as a good person who made time for his fans. He was an amazing artist with a genuinely distinctive style, and he will definitely be missed.

I recommend reading the tributes assembled by 2000 AD and Down the Tubes for a comprehensive look back at Kevin O’Neill’s life & career, with a large selection of his incredible artwork.