Comic book reviews: The Divided States of Hysteria

As we enter 2018, let’s take a look back on one of the best comic book series to be published last year.

The Divided States of Hysteria is written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana. The six issue series was published by Image Comics.

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Chaykin is a creator who is no stranger to controversy, but The Divided States of Hysteria definitely generated more than its fair share. In addition to excessive levels of violence & sex, the series broaches upon a number of divisive political, economic and societal issues currently facing the United States.  It also contains graphic depictions of hate crimes.

Set in a reality all-too-similar to our own, the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria opens one month after the President of the United States and most of the Cabinet have been assassinated in a failed coup d’état. CIA field officer Frank Villa is convinced that a massive terrorist attack is imminent, one that could push the already-destabilized nation into total chaos.  Frank is correct about the timing, but not the location, and to everyone’s horror a major American city is totally obliterated by militant Islamic suicide bombers armed with nuclear devices.

The vulnerable American government makes Frank the scapegoat for the failure to prevent the attack. His family dead, his career ruined, and his reputation in tatters, Frank receives an offer from Chandler Vandergyle, the CEO of River Run Inc, an amoral corporation that runs much of the nation’s prisons and security services.  Vandergyle wants Frank to organize & lead a covert unit to hunt down the heads of the subversive factions who conspired to carry out the terrorist attack.

Vandergyle knows the government is on the verge of collapsing, and the country is literally pulling itself apart, with numerous different ethnic, religious & economic groups engaging in violent acts against one another.  He hopes that a high-profile elimination of the terrorist leaders will shore up the Presidency and restore a degree of national stability, thereby enabling River Run to continue making obscene amounts of money.

Not having any other options, Frank reluctantly accepts the deal. He recruits a quartet of convicted murderers who are serving time in a maximum-security prison owned & managed by River Run.  Each of these four convicts has a tangential link to one of the terrorist organizations, and Frank hopes to utilize those connections, as well as the convicted killers’ aptitude for killing, to locate & eliminate the “bad actors” behind the bombing.

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Frank is a very flawed, damaged character. Even before the terrorist attack he was an arrogant, overconfident, womanizing asshole.  Shattered by his failure to prevent the bombing, Frank takes the assignment because he literally has no other choices.  He is flailing about in the dark, motivated by little more than a half-baked desire to make up for his immense error in judgment that resulted in millions of people getting killed.

The closest thing to a moral center in The Divided States of Hysteria is Christopher “Chrissie” Silver, a transgender prostitute who identifies as a woman. Unlike the other convicts, who are all mass murderers & serial killers, Chrissie has been railroaded into a life sentence for killing three homophobic men in self-defense.

Chrissie is a smartass and a flirt. She is very much motivated by self-preservation, but she also possesses a certain degree of empathy & morality.  She soon perceives that Frank is stumbling around in a fog of uncertainty, and quickly takes the initiative to save both their lives.

There had been criticisms of the early issues that Chrissie was a stereotype, that she was poorly depicted, that the transphobic attack against her was clichéd and exploitative. I can understand the reasoning behind these criticisms, and early on perhaps Chrissie is somewhat thinly written, Nevertheless, as the story progresses I think she becomes its strongest protagonist.

The mastermind who organized the various disparate terrorist groups to work together is Leo Nichols aka Leonid Nikolyukov, a Russian oil oligarch turned American venture capitalist and movie producer. Chaykin initially conceived The Divided States of Hysteria in early 2016, when it appeared that Hillary Clinton would likely be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea how far along Chaykin was in his work on the series when Donald Trump won the election under a cloud of foreign interference & voter suppression, but the character of Leo Nicols nevertheless feels like a response to that.

Nicols is a wealthy Russian autocrat who successfully manipulates both financial institutions & mass media to severely undermine the stability of the United States; he is very much akin to the real-life individuals who were behind the dissemination of divisive propaganda during the 2016 campaign and who are now undoubtedly pulling Trump’s strings.

Of course Chaykin has often been a very insightful & prescient author, going back to his work in the early 1980s on the groundbreaking American Flagg! at First Comics. So it is quite possible that all of the details of The Divided States of Hysteria were already worked out prior to November 2016.

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In an era when many single issues of comic books cost four bucks and take less than ten minutes to read, I found The Divided States of Hysteria refreshing. Chaykin’s plotting is dense, his scripting diffuse.  It took me quite a bit of time to read each of the six issues making up this arc.  I also found the series to be richer upon re-reading the earlier issues.  It is a fairly complex story.

One might regard The Divided States of Hysteria as very cynical. Chaykin himself has commented that what many have taken to be cynicism he regards as skepticism.  The Divided States of Hysteria does articulate his skepticism for institutions, ideologies, organized religions and economic systems.

Chaykin demonstrates there really is no difference between a “terrorist” like Nichols and a “patriot” like Vandergyle.  Both are aspects of the so-called military industrial complex.  The only thing that separates them is that one profits from destabilizing the United States, and the other profits from controlling it from behind the scenes.  The rest of us are just poor schmucks like Frank and Chrissie who are subject to events beyond our control.

Chaykin’s skepticism is reserved not just for those on the right, but also on the left.  As he writes in his editorial in issue #6…

“The right isn’t going to get a white-European America back. The left will never get a table where everybody sits at the head. The damage that has been done by our rulers and their masters to our country, and thus by extension to the world, will not be repaired in the time I have left on this planet.”

In spite of the series’ earnest, angry tone of outrage, the first arc ends on what is, all things considered, a fairly upbeat note. Certainly the conclusion was much more optimistic than I had been expecting.

This is only my impression, but having read a fair amount of his work I get the feeling that Chaykin is one of those people who, even though he knows how utterly unlikely it is, nevertheless sincerely hopes that one day things might finally work out for the best.

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Chaykin does excellent work illustrating The Divided States of Hysteria. He expertly renders a large cast of characters in a multitude of settings.  At times I did find some of his layouts a bit confusing, the flow of action and the jumps from one scene to the next rather disjointed.  From time to time it can be a bit difficult to tell certain characters apart.  For the most part, though, Chaykin’s work as an artist here is effective.

Each of Chaykin’s covers for these issues are all very striking, a series of symbolic images that encapsulate the discord that has swept through the country, the clash of cultures and the atmosphere of fear. The color work by both Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana on these is striking.

Chaykin has worked regularly with letterer Ken Bruzenak since American Flagg! Bruzenak does a fine job on The Divided States of Hysteria.  In addition to his lettering of the dialogue & narration, Bruzenak also gives us a background “buzz” of electronic chatter and social media nattering.  This drives home the chaos & confusion brought about by the information, and disinformation, of the electronic age, driving home the omnipresent “noise” of the internet that often serves to distract or misinform the populace.  This “swarm” of data is juxtaposed with the ever-present drones populating the sky, signifiers of the twin intrusions of propaganda and a police state into our society.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a rich, complex, thought-provoking, deeply personal story from Howard Chaykin. The trade paperback collection is due out on January 10th.  I highly recommend it.

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Savage Dragon #228-229: Erik Larsen goes for the money shot

Previously in the pages of Savage Dragon from Image Comics, Malcolm, Maxine and their three kids all had to flee to Canada after Donald Trump ordered all aliens to be arrested & expelled from the United States. Malcolm and his family settled down in Toronto, and began the difficult process of building new lives for themselves.  That brings us to the latest two issues of Erik Larsen’s long-running series.

Of course, you could be forgiven if you had perhaps forgotten some of this given the, um, adult content presented within Savage Dragon #228 and #229.

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I actually didn’t have an opportunity to pick up these two issues until this week, although I’ve been damned curious about what was in them, given the message I received on Facebook on November 29 from Atomic Junk Shop columnist Greg Burgas…

“You’re a big Erik Larsen fan, right? Have you been reading Savage Dragon?  What’s up with the really weird porn in the latest issue?”

I can tell you up front that Burgas’ description of what goes on in Savage Dragon #228 is pretty damn accurate. The sex scenes in this issue, and in the next, were just a little too explicit for my taste, at least for this specific series.

I have been following Savage Dragon since the very beginning, so I am well aware that Larsen has often done very risqué material. Some of the sequences with Dragon and Rapture from early on immediately leap to mind.  However, I felt that the scenes in these two issues sort of crossed a line.  All the previous sex scenes in Savage Dragon were, at most, a “hard R.”  These two issues, however, definitely leaped head-first into “X-Rated” territory.

Credit where credit is due, my girlfriend found the sex scenes in these two issues to be “creative.” She was nevertheless surprised to see material this damn pornographic in Savage Dragon.

And no, really, I don’t think I can share examples of Malcolm & Maxine’s bedroom Olympics here on this blog, because I would rather not risk getting booted off WordPress!

Okay, fine, I suppose I can post this one panel, which is, believe it or not, the least explicit from the entire sequence…

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Roger, the owner of the comic book shop where I bought these issues, was a bit upset because he was worried that someone under 21 might see these issues and he could then possibly get in trouble. Roger pointed out that the only indication that the series is for an adult audience is the “Rated M / Mature” notice which is in tiny letters under the UPC code on the back cover.

I can sympathize with his view. Considering how reactionary and intolerant people in this country have the potential to be, especially nowadays, I can sadly envision a situation where some 14 year old buys these issues, the kid’s parents discover exactly what is inside, and next thing you know they are on Fox News screaming that comic books are corrupting the children of America, and then poor Roger’s comic shop is being inundated with protestors.

I think that the possibility of such a nightmare scenario could be greatly lessened from occurring if that “Rated M / Mature” notice, or something like it, appeared on the front cover at a significantly larger font size, so it is immediately obvious that the book is for 18 and over, or 21 and over, or whatever. I really do not want to lecture Larsen about acting responsibly, but I believe that it would be a prudent decision for him to do what is necessary to protect not just himself but the stores that carry his product from possible negative consequences.

But, to coin a phrase… Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? 😛

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All of the sexual shenanigans aside, I did like these two issues. The best aspects of them for me were how Larsen wrote Malcolm and Maxine’s marriage, and their misadventures raising the three kids, and how Malcolm’s half-brother Kevin has also now moved to Canada, and he’s pursuing a relationship with Maxine’s widowed mother, and the weirdness that is “milk in a bag.”  As I have mentioned in previous reviews of this series, I love all this interpersonal comedy & drama that Larsen dishes out, and at this point actually find it much more interesting than most of the action sequences.

As for those fight scenes, I did think the battle between Malcolm and Seeker was a bit pointless (why was Seeker going after Dragon again?) but it did serve the purpose of causing Maxine to realize that Malcolm could actually die, leaving her alone with the kids, so it did play into their ever-developing relationship in a major way. I also chuckled at Malcolm practically breaking the fourth wall to inform the old guy that the Seeker had last appeared in issue #106.

The fight with the “Sludge” guy in the next issue did feel somewhat more relevant. It did feel very open-ended, with Sludge abruptly deciding to run away, but Larsen will probably be bringing the character back at some point.  I was rather amused that Sludge was apparently going after Billy Batson’s old boss from WHIZ Radio.

Savage Dragon 228 Paul Hoppe pinup

On a final note, I enjoyed the pin-up by Paul Hoppe that appeared in #228. Hoppe is a good artist, and he lives in the area, in Brooklyn.  His cool, wacky self-published comic books Journey Into Misery and Tales To Behold are often for sale at the comic book shop that I go to, Mysterious Time Machine at 418 6th Avenue by West 9th Street in Manhattan.  To bring things full circle, that’s where I buy Savage Dragon.  I guess it really is a small world after all.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman

Andy Mangels is quite possibly the world’s biggest Wonder Woman fan.  He is also a prolific author, having written prose fiction, non-fiction articles & books, and comic books for numerous publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image.  However, until now Mangels has never actually written any Wonder Woman stories.  At long last he can finally cross that off his bucket list with the publication of Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, a six issue miniseries co-published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics.

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The second half of the 1970s was a bit of a watershed moment for women in telefantasy, with two high profile series featuring female leads airing.  Wonder Woman starring the amazing Lynda Carter is rightfully regarded as one of the all time best adaptations of a comic book series for television.  The Bionic Woman may have been a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, but Jaime Sommers, portrayed by Lindsay Wagner, immediately established herself to be as brave and competent as her male counterpart.

Over the past two years DC has been publishing Wonder Woman ’77, which is set within the television continuity.  Dynamite, meanwhile, has released several Bionic Woman miniseries since 2012.  In retrospect, it was a natural fit to do a comic book series teaming up these two television heroines.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, initially issued as a six issue miniseries, is now collected in trade paperback.  Joining writer Andy Mangels are interior artist Judit Tondora, colorist Roland Pilcz, letterers Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis & Kathryn S. Renta, and cover artist Cat Staggs.  The collected edition features a painted cover by the ever-amazing Alex Ross.

Set in 1977, Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman opens with the government agencies the Inter-Agency Defense Command and the Office of Scientific Intelligence meeting to discuss a new terrorist threat, a sinister cabal known as Castra.  Of course, with the IADC and OSI working together, their two top agents, Diana Prince and Jaime Sommers, are soon paired up.  Jaime very quickly deduces Diana’s secret identity, and before long Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman are fighting side-by-side against the forces of Castra.

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It is eventually revealed that Castra is headed up by some of Diana and Jaime’s old enemies, who have pooled their resources to have another go at the world domination thing.  It’s been a few years since I watched the Wonder Woman show on DVD, and even longer since I saw reruns of The Bionic Woman on TV, so at first I was having some trouble recalling most of the rogues gallery making up Castra’s hierarchy.  Fortunately in issue #3 Mangels has the various ne’er-do-wells recounting their past exploits to one another, complete with footnotes referencing the original television episodes, which helped bring me up to speed.

Mangels clearly possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Wonder Woman.  He includes a great many references to the TV show, as well as working in nods to various characters & concepts from the rich mythology of the comic books.  He does the same for the Bionic Woman, somewhat obliquely referencing a number of episodes from the series.  You can pretty much understand the majority of Mangels’ story without needing to know what he’s specifically referencing.  Having said that, while I was reading went back & forth between Google and Wikipedia in an effort to figure out a number of them.  I later found out that Comic Book Resources had compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the miniseries’ Easter Eggs.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman is an enjoyable story.  I will admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first two chapters, which felt overly heavy with exposition, and numerous different characters were introduced at a rapid succession.  Beginning with issue #3, though, Mangels seems to have found his groove, and the rest of the miniseries a really fun, exciting romp.

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One of the things to keep in mind about genre television 40 years ago is that the technology really didn’t exist to be able to bring super-powered villains to life with any believability.  Instead both Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman faced a succession of Nazis, mad scientists, killer robots, spies, terrorists and mobsters, along with the occasional low-rent alien invasion.

Mangels sticks with this relatively grounded ethos for the Castra conspiracy in Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, albeit with the approach that he’s not bound by a television budget.  Instead of half a dozen thugs or a handful of android assassins, Mangels has Diana and Jaime teaming up with the Amazons of Paradise Island to fight an entire army of bad guys.

I also appreciated the quieter character moments in the miniseries.  Mangels did a nice job establishing the friendship between Diana and Jaime, as well as developing a number of the inhabitants of Paradise Island.  We seldom saw the Amazons on the TV series, so it was nice to have them get fleshed out here.  This is where I felt the callbacks to past episodes were most effective, because they helped to illustrate Diana’s passionate beliefs in both sisterhood and the possibility of redemption.

Additionally, I was happy that Max the Bionic Dog made an appearance.  I loved Max on TV.  He was adorable and funny.  I would always laugh when he would use his bionically-enhanced jaws to bite through chains and other stuff, complete with the iconic “Deeneeneeneenee” sound effect.  I tell ya, with that set of chompers, the OSI must have needed to give Max steel-plated bones to gnaw on!

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The artwork by Judit Tondora is, for the most part, very nicely rendered.  She does a good job laying out the action sequences, as well as depicting the quiet conversational moments.  There is a real beautiful quality to Tondora’s work on this miniseries.

I imagine one of the more difficult aspects of drawing Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman would have been the likenesses.  These can be tricky.  Sometimes when an artist is working on a licensed property, the trick is not to draw a point-on photorealistic rendering of the actors, but to instead capture the personalities of their characters.  Of course, depending upon the owner of the property, the artist may be required to draw as photorealistic a depiction as possible, which isn’t always the best way to go.  Tondora clearly had her work cut out for her, since practically every character in this miniseries previously appeared on television.

The quality of Tondora’s likenesses on this miniseries is of a somewhat variable quality.  The two best depictions she does are of Lynda Carter as Diana and Lindsay Wagner as Jaime, which is very fortunate, since they are the main characters.

I felt that perhaps some of Tondora’s efforts on the supporting characters and villains were a bit less effective.  While she does a fair enough job at capturing the likenesses of Lyle Waggoner, Richard Anderson, Martin E. Brooks, Fritz William Weaver and John Saxon, the amount of detailed required to render them and the others in panel after panel often causes them to stand out a bit awkwardly amidst the action.  I am of the opinion that photorealistic depictions are sometimes more suited to cover artwork than interior sequential illustration.  I suppose it really depends upon the specific artist.

Really, my only major criticism of the artwork is that it was printed from Tondora’s uninked pencils.  This is a regular issue I have with Dynamite, as well as a few other publishers.  Some artists, no matter how detailed & finished their pencils are, really do need to be inked.  Unfortunately publishers who are looking to cut costs have opted to jettison the inking stage, often to the detriment of their published books.  As good as Tondora’s work is on this miniseries, I feel it could have been even better if she or a compatible artist had been allowed to ink it.

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The cover artwork by Cat Staggs was quite good.  My two favorites were issue #1 and #6.  The others were nice, although I the coloring on them was somewhat overwhelming.  Sometimes I feel Staggs’ artwork is more suited to black & white or grey tones than full color.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, like most other Dynamite series, was released with a number of variant covers.  The nice thing about “waiting for the trade” is that you get all of those variants collected together.  In addition to the Alex Ross variant which is used for the TPB cover, there are also some nice alterative cover images by Andrew Pepoy, J Bone, Aaron Lopresti, Bill Sienkiewicz and Phil Jimenez.

While I did have some criticisms concerning Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, on the whole I found the miniseries to be an enjoyable read with good artwork.  Mangels does leave a couple of his subplots unresolved at the end, setting the stage for a possible sequel.  Hopefully he and Tondora will have the opportunity to reunite on a follow-up miniseries in the near future.

The Octobriana Revolution

One hundred years ago this month, the Russian Revolution took place, bringing into power Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.   Inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, the Soviet Union was ostensibly founded upon the rights of the working class; in reality the country’s new communist government soon became a monstrous dictatorship whose crimes rivaled that of the Tsarist autocracy that it had replaced.

As comic book writer & artist Bryan Talbot observed in 1999:

“The thing is, communism can never work in practice. It just doesn’t take account of human nature; the fact that most people are greedy, lazy, selfish, power-hungry or just too plain stupid to work for the benefit of everybody, not just themselves. All we ever had were perversions of this arcadian ideal; The tyranny of Stalin, the repression of the Chinese state.”

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Over the succeeding decades various dissident groups rose up within both the Soviet Union and in the Eastern European satellite nations seized after World War II. Among these were “reform communists” who thought it possible to steer the Soviet Union into a better direction.

One of these “reform communist” groups, supposedly, was the Progressive Political Pornographic Party, which formed in the 1960s. Apparently inspired by American underground comix, the PPPP created the character of Octobriana in their self-published periodical Mtsyry.  Octobriana was a beautiful Slavic super-human warrior woman who embodied the true, uncorrupted principles of communism and the Russian Revolution.

Or so the story goes, at least according to Petr Sadecky, a Czechoslovakian-born cartoonist who stated he had become involved in 1961 with the PPPP’s resistance cell in Kiev. As comic book writer & historian John A. Short explains:

“Sadecky claims that in 1967 he escaped to the West and managed to smuggle out copies of the Octobriana strips, photographs of the PPPP and other examples of the group’s work. He packaged all of this together into the book, Octobriana and the Russian Underground, which was released in a number of countries during 1971.”

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Evidence would later crop to indicate that the PPPP did not actually exist and that Sadecky had actually stolen artwork created by Czech cartoonists Zdeněk Burian, Bohuslav Konečný and Miloš Novak.  Nevertheless, despite the highly dubious nature of Sadecky’s claims, and the probable theft he engaged in, Octobriana gradually took root in the underground comix community throughout the 1970s.

By virtue of the fact that Octobriana was supposedly created by a group of dissident communists, and by Sadecky disappearing from public view following the publication of his book (reportedly passing away in 1991), the character instantly became part of the public domain.  That meant that anyone who wanted to use her in their own comic books could do just that.

The individual who really brought Octobriana into the public consciousness is British creator Bryan Talbot. He had first learned of Octobriana in the very early 1970s, and was immediately intrigued by the character.  He saw Octobriana as representing both “the pure spirit of communism” and “sexual liberation, both in the sense of sexual equality and of free love.”

Between 1978 and 1989 Talbot crafted his sprawling mulitiversal sci-fi political thriller The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.  Talbot used Octobriana as a supporting character in the early chapters of his saga.  The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was reprinted here in the States by Dark Horse in the early 1990s.  Talbot’s rich, detailed, illustrative art style resulted in a stunning, iconic depiction of Octobriana, particularly on the cover of the third Dark Horse issue.

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Two other comic book creators who became intrigued by Octobriana were John A. Short and Stuart Taylor. Between 1996 and 1997, through their Revolution Comics imprint, Short & Taylor released a five issue Octobriana miniseries.  Blake O’Farrell and Darrell Andrews illustrated the miniseries.  Bryan Talbot contributed artwork for the first issue’s cover.

The narrative of each issue was split in two. Taylor wrote a serial set in the late 1960s, which saw Octobriana leading an underground movement against the oppressive Soviet forces.  The Sixties narrative concludes with Octobriana captured by the authorities.  In the second half of each issue, written by Short, events jump forward three decades to the present.  The still-young Octobriana at last escapes from her Siberian prison to fight against her old Communist foes who following the collapse of the Soviet Union have become powerful figures within the Russian Mafia.

A year later Taylor, paired with penciler Dave Roberts & inker Mark Woolley, continued the present-day storyline in the two issue miniseries Octobriana: Filling in the Blanks, published by Artful Salamander. In addition to Cold War mad scientists and Russian mobsters, this time Octobriana also found herself at odds with alien invaders who had arrived on Earth in the meteor that devastated Tunguska nine decades earlier.

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In 1999, Short published Octobriana: Underground Tales, which via several text pieces chronicled the character’s history, both in the real word and in her fictional adventures.

The special also included three new short comic book stories. In the first of these, Short mixed fact & fiction to craft “The Legend of Octobriana,” which linked the past and present day segments of the Revolution Comics miniseries.  Short also wrote “Made in America,” which had art by Craig John, which saw Octobriana encountering characters from Short’s creator-owned series Armageddon Patrol about a group of cynical, jingoistic American superheroes fighting in the Vietnam War.  Taylor, Roberts & Woolley returned to provide a piece that bridged the gap between the first miniseries and Filling in the Blanks.  Also included was a reprint of one of the bizarre stories from Octobriana and the Russian Underground.

Short again returned to the Russian she-devil in 2001 via his new company Alchemy Texts with the Octobriana 30th Anniversary Special. Topped off by a striking cover by Shaun Bryan, the Special contained two new, wacky stories written by Short, with artwork by Bryan, Andy Nixon and Rehaan Akhtar.

Octobriana 30th Anniversary Special cover

Although the most notable of Octobriana’s appearances, the comic books listed above are far from comprehensive. Due to her public domain nature, Octobriana has popped up in numerous other places, in various incarnations & permutations, as different creators have adapted & interpreted her.

Short himself continues to chronicle the adventures of his version of Octobriana, teaming her up with other female heroes to oppose Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and assembling a comprehensive look at the character’s history into the book Octobriana: The Underground History, published by Kult Creations.

I first discovered Octobriana via Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Short’s Underground Tales, and immediately found her intriguing. The amazing visual of a sensual & strong revolutionary, the bizarre circumstances of her creation, and the utilization of her by numerous comic book creators across the globe made her a compelling figure.

Octobriana sketch Bryan Talbot

In 2008 Talbot was a guest at a comic book convention in New York City. I asked him if he could do a drawing of Octobriana for me.  He was kind enough to draw a very nice piece for me in one of my convention sketchbooks.  I was thrilled to obtain an illustration of Octobriana from the artist who did one of the definitive interpretations of the character.

In a world where both the injustices of unregulated capitalism and toxic misogyny are rampant here in the West, and the ghost of Soviet authoritarianism has arisen anew in Russia to subvert & destabilize the world’s democratic institutions, Octobriana is a more timely character than ever. I am certain that we have not seen the last of her.

This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

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There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

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It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

In Case You Missed It

I am very grateful to Hannah Givens for linking to my blog in her recent In Case You Missed It post on her excellent blog Hannah Reads Books. Hannah is a very intelligent, insightful blogger, and I have always enjoyed her writings.

I will let Hannah explain how In Case You Missed It works…

So, that’s the idea of the ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Tag: Go through the past two years of your blog and pick the five posts you most want people to read. Then tag your favorite blogs to do the same — people you’ve lost touch with, new discoveries you’d like to get to know, however you want to do it. Feel free to link back to me, I’d love to see it spreading!

Great idea, Hannah! I’m definitely happy to participate.

In Case You Missed It

Here are five blog posts I’ve written within the last two years with which I was very satisfied:

  1. Our Family by Victor Pemberton – I wrote this piece shortly after my girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away. Pemberton has written a number of excellent historical novels examining family life in England during the first half of the 20th Century. Michele’s mother enjoyed his books, which reminded her of her childhood in Liverpool.
  2. Batman Co-Creator Bill Finger – A brief look at the life & work of legendary comic book writer Bill Finger, who in late 2015 at long last received official recognition as the co-creator of Batman.
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – My review of the much-anticipated first Star Wars movie to be produced by Disney.
  4. Black Lightning Strikes Twice – I take a look at the long-awaited trade paperback reprinting the original Black Lightning comic book written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden in the late 1970s, the first DC Comics series to star an African American superhero.
  5. Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing – Diversity in comic books is important. I examine this from a personal perspective, as I look back at how Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, was finally revealed to be Jewish.

Here are the excellent blogs that I am tagging:

  • Witches Brew Press – My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s wonderful blog about art & music.
  • The Unspoken Decade – Dean Compton’s enjoyable look at the comic books of the 1990s.
  • the m0vie blog – Darren Mooney writes fascinating reviews that examine moves & TV shows within the wider cultural context.
  • Three Cat Yard – The wonderful adventures of housecats in suburbia, with many beautiful photographs.
  • iBLOGalot – J.R. LeMar looks at comic books , TV shows and movies, as well as political & social issues.

I hope everyone will check these out! If I’ve posted a link to your blog, I hope you will also be able to do your own In Case You Missed It post.

 

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #225

This year Image Comics is 25 years old, which makes it very appropriate that Savage Dragon by Image co-founder Erik Larsen has just reached issue #225.

Larsen has written, penciled & inked every single issue of Savage Dragon in the last quarter century.  This 100 page anniversary issue is the culmination of a number of different character & story arcs that Larsen devised over the proceeding 25 years.

As a reader since day one, I found Savage Dragon #225 amazing.  It was a very rewarding read, featuring the final confrontation of the original Dragon with his long-time enemies Darklord and Mister Glum.

Savage Dragon 225 cover

In previous issues the diminutive alien dictator Mister Glum was attempting to find another alternate reality version of Angel Dragon who loved him.  Glum’s obsessive quest led him to the lair of the half-human, half-alien tyrant Darklord, who via time travel experiments had created thousands of alternate timelines.  Glum sabotaged Darklord’s machines, resulting in the destruction of these countless parallel Earths, with the inhabitants of the “main” Earth suddenly becoming inundated with the memories of their destroyed counterparts.  Glum’s crazed reasoning for inflicting this colossal damage upon the fabric of reality was that it would result in Angel Dragon absorbing the feelings of her deceased counterpart from another timeline who had loved him, and she would want to be with him.

I remember that after the merging of multiple Earths took place last issue, my first reaction was that this would have to be incredibly confusing & inconvenient for the average person.  I could just picture the mile-long lines stretching out from ATMs around the globe as each person attempted to sort through his or her now-overloaded memories of multiple existences to figure out what their PIN was on this particular Earth!

We do actually get a few brief moments of that sort of comedy in #225, although for the most part the alternate memories that the cast experiences are of a slightly more serious manner.  Maxine is furious with Malcolm now that she “remembers” that in different timelines he married her best friends instead of her.  It’s an utterly irrational, yet perfectly human, reaction, and even though Malcolm insists, quite logically, that he did not really cheat on her due to these events taking place in parallel realities, Maxine is still upset.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 7

It was great to have Darklord return for this storyline.  He is one of my favorite Savage Dragon villains.  Not only does Darklord have a very cool design, but he also possesses an intriguing back story, with close ties to several other characters in the series, and a certain moral ambiguity to his motivations.  Larsen alludes to all of that, adding a melancholy tone to this issue’s brutal battle.  You get the impression that under different circumstances Darklord could have been a friend and ally to Malcolm, which makes it quite tragic that here instead he is an extremely dangerous menace who needs to be stopped at any cost.

(Mind you, I sort of don’t blame Darklord for going nuts and wanting to destroy the world in this issue. If I found out that the entire multiverse had been erased and the only remaining Earth had Donald Trump for its President, I would probably feel exactly the same way.)

I was genuinely shocked that the original Dragon died in #225, this time for good.  Truthfully, this is not at all out of left field, since Larsen has been laying the groundwork for the Dragon’s demise for quite a while now.  He spent a long time easing Dragon out of the spotlight, shifting the book’s focus over to his son Malcolm.  For the last few years Malcolm has been the series star, with the depowered, retired Dragon serving as a mentor to the young hero.

Finally killing off the original Dragon feels like a necessary step by Larsen.  It could be argued that Malcolm was never going to fully come into his own until his father died, because no matter how much the original Dragon was pushed into the background his presence in the book meant that there was always a possibility that he would regain his powers and once again become the main character.  Now that Dragon is permanently, irrevocably dead (well, as permanent and irrevocable as you can get in fiction) I’m looking forward to seeing where Larsen takes Malcolm, along with the rest of the cast, from this point forward.

In any case, Larsen offers up a poignant farewell to the original star of the book, which culminates in a scene which was first dangled before readers way back in issue #31.  Let’s just say that after this I need to give serious consideration towards adopting a belief in an afterlife where I will spend an eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 21

There are several back-up stories in Savage Dragon #225.  My favorite was written by Larsen and illustrated by Nikos Koutsis, the team on the recent Mighty Man special.  SuperPatriot at long last gets sick of working for President Trump and quits the government’s Special Operations Strikeforce.  Due to the merging of alternate realities, SuperPatriot now has memories of his other self from the Earth that was seen in the first 75 issues of this series.  These inspire him to ask several of the other SOS members to join him in forming a new incarnation of Freak Force.  As a fan of the original Freak Force, I would love to see Larsen & Koutsis do a miniseries or special featuring this new team.

Frank Fosco, who’s worked on a great many back-up stories for Savage Dragon over the years, illustrates a moody tale featuring Malcolm going solo against a giant monster that emerges from Lake Michigan.  There’s also a very bawdy, comedic story starring Angel Dragon with cheeky (not to mention NSFW) artwork by talented newcomer Raven Perez.

Also, if you really want to see just how much Larsen has grown as both an artist and a writer in the past 35 years, this issue reprints the very first Savage Dragon story he ever published waaaaay back in 1982 in Graphic Fantasy #1, done when he was only 19 years old.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 48

Earlier I indicated that Savage Dragon #225 was tremendously rewarding for long-time readers.  That is not to say that it will be impenetrable for newer fans.  I was rather surprised that a handful of people were complaining that # 225 was not friendly to new readers. Larsen has given readers at least a couple of “jumping on” points on Savage Dragon in the last few years, which seems to be quite fair.  Marvel and DC pull “jumping on” issues out of their asses with alarming regularity, and it’s gotten annoying as all hell.

When I first got into comic books in the mid 1980s I began reading plenty of long-running titles without the benefit of any “new reader friendly” stories.  I really feel that Larsen includes more than enough exposition in his dialogue in each issue of Savage Dragon to bring everyone up to speed.  It’s not necessary to have a “First Issue in a Bold New Direction” like clockwork every 12 months.  Most intelligent readers who jump into an ongoing serialized narrative like Savage Dragon are going to be able to get up to speed pretty quickly.

I definitely must congratulate Erik Larsen.  Savage Dragon #225 is an amazing issue, one that both caps off all the great work he has done over the past 25 years and sets the stage for the series to continue forward.  Larsen is one of my all time favorite comic book creators, and I very much hope that he is able to continue Savage Dragon for a good long time.