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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Super Blog Team Up: The Death of Galactus

Welcome to the latest (and last?) edition of Super Blog Team Up.  My fellow contributors and I will be looking at various death-themed comic book topics, both literal or figurative.

In late 1999, Marvel Comics published the six issue miniseries Galactus the Devourer, written by Louise Simonson, penciled by Jon J. Muth & John Buscema, and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz.  The miniseries culminated with the stunning demise of Galactus.

Death of Galactus logo

Galactus and his herald the Silver Surfer were introduced in 1966 in Fantastic Four #48-50 by the superstar team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott.  Galactus was akin to a sentient force of nature, a god-like being who consumed the molten cores of planets for sustenance.  Finding these worlds for Galactus was the sleek Silver Surfer.  Whenever he could the Surfer would lead Galactus to lifeless or primitive planets, but from time to time Galactus would end up feeding upon a world occupied by sentient beings, resulting in their deaths.

Eventually the Surfer led Galactus to Earth. The blind sculptress Alicia Masters encountered the Surfer, and sensed nobility within him.  Stirring the Surfer’s long-suppressed emotions, Alicia inspired the Surfer to rebel against his master.  Eventually, with the help of both the Surfer and the cosmic observer known as the Watcher, the Fantastic Four were able to drive off Galactus.  Before departing, though, Galactus imprisoned the Surfer on Earth

After several years the Silver Surfer finally escaped his exile, and was once again free to roam the stars.  Eventually he returned to Earth, where he found Alicia mourning the apparent deaths of the Fantastic Four.  The Surfer and Alicia fell in love.

As the first issue of Galactus the Devourer opens, the Surfer and Alicia are still together.  The Fantastic Four have recently returned.  Ben Grimm, the Thing, is perturbed to see Alicia, his longtime girlfriend, in the Surfer’s arms, but is doing his best to respect her decision.  And then Galactus comes a-calling.

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The devourer of worlds has gone mad.  No longer desiring the energies of planets, he is deliberately seeking out worlds occupied by sentient beings, consuming their very life forces.  In a short time billions have already died, and Galactus’ now-insatiable hunger leaves many fearing that all life in the universe will soon be extinct.

Galactus is a character who was undoubtedly impressive and awe-inspiring when first introduced in 1966.  However, over the next three and a half decades he was brought back repeatedly, and much of his mystique diminished. In her miniseries Simonson restores much of the grandeur and menace to Galactus, once again showing him as an unstoppable, unrelenting force.

Simonson also uses this miniseries to examine the consequences of an earlier storyline from Fantastic Four by John Byrne, where a dying Galactus was saved by Reed Richards.  Subsequently the restored devourer consumed the Skrull home world.  Richards was placed on trial for genocide by a galactic tribunal headed up by Lilandra, former ruler of the Shi’ar Empire.  Reed was eventually found not guilty after Eternity, the personification of the universe himself, demonstrated that Galactus had a vital role to play in the existence of reality itself.

Now in the present, with Galactus out of control, destroying planets by the score, thoughts inevitably turn back to those earlier events, with several people wondering if Reed Richards should have let Galactus die after all.  Richards himself, although seemingly not regretting his earlier actions, nevertheless devotes himself fully to finding a way to stopping Galactus, even if it means the devourer’s demise.

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Unfortunately the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are unable to even hold back the maddened Galactus.  The Silver Surfer is forced to make a truly Faustian bargain: he must once again serve as Galactus’ herald, leading him to other inhabited worlds in order to guarantee Earth’s safety.

Searching for an alternative source of sustenance, the Surfer encounters his one-time love Mantis, who he has not seen in several years.  The pair tries to divert Galactus to a planet rich in primitive animal life, but Galactus angrily rejects this option, instead consuming a world the Surfer attempted to hide, one inhabited by gentle telepathic plant beings.  Mantis sadly announces that as long as the Surfer serves Galactus she must consider him an enemy, and departs to warn the rest of the universe.

The Surfer himself is forced to admit that he has absolutely no hope of reasoning with the insane Galactus, or even of directing him towards less-developed worlds.  Desperate, the Surfer leads his master towards the home world of the Shi’ar, hoping that the most powerful, advanced space civilization in the known universe will find a way to destroy the devourer.  He finds the Shi’ar expecting him, having been forewarned by Mantis, and is forced to fight his way to the capital.  At last he is able to convince Lilandra, who has once again been restored to the Shi’ar throne, to accept his help.

Alicia, who previously acquired a suit of alien armor, has been trailing the Surfer.  Witnessing all of these events, Alicia returns to Earth, informing the FF and Avengers of what has taken place.  The two teams rocket off to the Shi’ar Empire, with Reed Richards continuing work on a plan he has formulated to stop Galactus.  Lilandra is skeptical that Richards, the man who once saved Galactus, will now help to stop him.  Desperation, however, wins out, and Lilandra places her forces at the Earth scientist’s disposal.

Richards directs both the FF and Avengers, not to mention the entirety of the Shi’ar military, to attack the approaching Galactus.  Not even this is enough to defeat the immensely powerful Galactus, with the alliance barely managing to hold him at bay.

In fact, Reed knew that there was little hope of defeating Galactus by force.  The attack is a distraction that enables the Surfer to penetrate Galactus’ immense World-Ship with a device constructed by Richards.  The device reprograms the World-Ship’s systems.  Whereas once the World-Ship systems converted the molten cores of planets into energy that Galactus could feed on, now the Surfer is able to turn those systems onto Galactus himself.

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The dying Galactus is momentarily restored to sanity and sadly addresses his former herald.  Galactus admits that he foresaw that one day he would go mad and lose all control of his hunger. One of the reasons why Galactus created the Silver Surfer was because he recognized that when the time came the Surfer would possess the nobility, the power and the knowledge to find a way to stop the devourer of worlds.  Galactus now warns that something else is coming, “a greater horror” that threatens the universe.  With that last pronouncement Galactus is transformed into pure energy, forming into a new star.

Later, on the Shi’ar home world, amidst the celebrations, both the Silver Surfer and Reed Richards cannot hide their concerns.  If Galactus did indeed have a purpose integral to existence, then what will the universe become without him?

In an interview given at the time the Galactus the Devourer miniseries was released, Louise Simonson revealed that she had definite plans for a follow-up story, one which would explore what exactly was Galactus’ crucial role in the cosmic scheme of things.  It would also reveal the menace that had driven Galactus mad. Regrettably she did not have the opportunity to write this follow-up miniseries.

Eventually, two years later in the pages of the regular Fantastic Four series, another writer explored these questions, and Galactus was restored to life to defeat the “greater horror” that he prophesized.

Even though Galactus’ demise was temporary (and, really, no one ever stays dead forever in the Marvel universe) the miniseries by Simonson remains powerful.  It is a wonderfully epic cosmic saga that also contains many intimate moments of characterization, especially in the exploration of the relationship between the Surfer and Alicia.

Galactus the Devourer is also effective in its compactness.  Simonson’s story is ambitious and sweeping, but it is told in full within the six issue miniseries.  No tie-in books or decompression; just a self-contained, complete story.  Marvel really could use a lot more “events” like this, rather than the bloated company-wide crossovers that have predominated in the two decades.

Galactus the Devourer promotional art

The artwork on the miniseries is outstanding.  The majority of Jon J. Muth’s work in the comic book biz has been on fantasy and horror titles; this is one of his rare forays into superheroes.  His work on the first chapter looks much different from “mainstream” Marvel comics, giving the opening of the storyline a haunting, eerie tone.

The remainder of the miniseries was laid out / penciled by longtime Marvel artist John Buscema, who was a superb storyteller.  Buscema commented on more than one occasion that he disliked drawing superheroes, but he undoubtedly was great at it.  In the late 1960s he did awe-inspiring pencils on the first ongoing Silver Surfer title, rendering wondrous space opera and horror material.  Over the next three decades Buscema would return to character from time to time, always doing great work.

I believe Galactus the Devourer was Buscema’s last time drawing the Silver Surfer before the legendary artist passed away in January 2002.  His work here is wonderful and breathtaking.  The final issue is stunning, with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Silver Surfer, Mantis, Lilandra, Gladiator, the Starjammers, and the entire Shi’ar Starfleet in desperate battle against Galactus.

(At first I was surprised that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard didn’t participate in the battle, but it then occurred to me that Buscema probably, and quite understandably, balked at drawing another two dozen costumed aliens in addition to the army of characters he had already been given!)

Of course I also enjoyed Buscema’s depiction of Mantis, one of my all time favorite characters.  He drew her on a couple of occasions in the past, and always rendered her as an alluring figure.

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The talented Bill Sienkiewicz provides inks / finishes for the entire miniseries.  His work is wonderfully atmospheric and expressionistic.  I love the collaboration between Buscema and Sienkiewicz.  Buscema embodied the traditional house style of Marvel in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, whereas Sienkiewicz was responsible for some of the most experimental, groundbreaking artwork published by Marvel in the 1980s.  The blending of these two distinct talents resulted in incredibly striking, effective art.

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Galactus the Devourer remains an effective, enjoyable story with stunning artwork.


Death of SBTU

I hope everyone will take the time to read the other contributors to The Death of Super Blog Team Up.  Here is the full roster.  Enjoy!

It Came from the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

Comic books in the 1990s had a great many weird, cheesy, ridiculous storylines and gimmicks. It was a decade of excess & speculation, with innumerable new titles popping up, attempting to grab attention.  Even by the standards of the decade, though, one of the strangest stories was the “Babewatch” crossover that was published by the Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in late 1995.

Youngblood v2 3 cover

Everyone say cheesecake!

Extreme Studios was overseen by Image co-founder Rob Liefeld, who to this day remains a divisive figure in the comic book industry. On the one hand, Liefeld’s artwork has often been characterized by over-rendered pencils, wonky anatomy & minimal backgrounds, and his constantly hopping from one project to another indicates a serious lack of focus.  On the other hand, it is obvious Liefeld possesses both a genuine love of the medium and an unbridled enthusiasm for creating comic books.  Certainly he deserves credit for helping to establish Image, which eventually grew into one of the most important comic book publishers, offering a venue for innumerable creator-owned projects.

The books that Liefeld and his collaborators released through Extreme were, well, extreme. Youngblood and its numerous spin-offs were insanely larger than life, featuring a parade of big guns, bulging muscles, buckets of blood, and sexy bad girls.  It’s that last aspect that’s front & center in the “Babewatch” crossover, which sees the male members of the government super-powered team Youngblood and many of their allies mystically transformed into a line-up of lovely ladies.  Yes, really.

Co-plotters Eric Stephenson, Jim Valentino and Liefeld, working with penciler Todd Nauck and inkers Danny Miki, Karl Alstaetter & Liefeld, get the “Babewatch” ball rolling in Youngblood volume 2 #3. The issue is topped off with a comically curvaceous cover by Roger Cruz & Miki.

The immortal sorceress Diabolique has escaped from her frozen prison. She is an old adversary of Glory, the daughter of Lady Demeter, ruler of the Amazonians of the Isle of Paradise. (Suffering Sappho! I wonder how Liefeld avoided a call from DC Comics’ legal department!)  Diabolique wants revenge on Glory, her mother, and the rest of the Amazonians.

Diabolique possesses the power to control minds, but only those of males. Unfortunately for her, she has an extreme aversion towards men.  To get around this, Diabolique initiates the aforementioned mass sex change, which affects every male on Earth who has ever encountered Glory over the decades.  Diabolique then seizes mental control of the largest grouping of transformed heroes, namely everyone at Youngblood headquarters, and uses them to attack Themyscira the Isle of Paradise.

(No, really, I don’t know why Diabolique’s sorcery would work on men even after they’ve been transformed into women. What can I say?  I must have slept through Nonsensical Plot Twists 101 in college.)

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Stephenson understandably plays up the comedic aspect of this story. In one panel we see the transformed Youngblood members, with accompanying wacky dialogue, such as “My back is killing me” and “Um, I think I’ve got to pee.”  Thankfully there aren’t any arrows pointing to specific characters, so we’re spared finding out which smartass announces that this is “kind of a turn-on.”

I do have to say, even though the federal government is notorious for accepting lowball bids on military contracts, they must have actually gone with a firm that did quality work for Youngblood’s uniforms. That’s some really durable, stretchy spandex they’re wearing that’s holding in their, um, enhanced attributes.

Even though “Babewatch” ran through the entire Extreme line, it was actually a rather modest affair, with the central story only two parts, continuing into Glory #8. That second chapter is written by Jo Duffy, with the art team of Mike Deodato Jr, Carlos Mota & Emir Ribeiro.  Duffy is a veteran writer, having previously worked at Marvel from the late 1970s to the early 90s.  She brings a light, entertaining tone to the scripting of this chapter, which sees Glory teaming up with Youngblood’s actual female members Vogue, Riptide and Masada to repel Diabolique’s invasion of the Isle of Paradise.

I’m a fan of Duffy’s writing. She did good work during her two year run on Glory, bringing interesting plots and characterization to a series that could easily have been a mere T&A fest.  Even though “Babewatch” was a majorly goofy concept, I really enjoyed Duffy’s wrap-up of the story in issue #8.

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The rest of the “Babewatch” tie-in issues that month saw the various other now-female Extreme characters having their own side adventures. This led to at least a couple of odd twists.

Over in Supreme #33, Eric Stephenson, with penciler Joe Bennett and inker Norm Rapmund, was continuing the ongoing storyline of the recently-introduced younger, amnesiac Supreme, who was working with the teenage sidekick Kid Supreme. Both are affected by Diabolique’s spell.  Soon, however, Supreme realizes that there’s more than just this going on.  After flying around the globe to clear her head, she returns home, now clad in an outfit that emphasizes her, um, physique.

Announcing that she was never actually Supreme, the woman launches into Basil Exposition mode. Long story short, as a result of time travel, a battle with a mysterious alien foe, telepathy, body-swapping, and explosion-induced amnesia (whew!) Supreme’s daughter Probe from the year 3000 AD briefly came to believe that she was her father.  But thanks to Diabolique’s spell, Probe regained both her memories and her true gender.

In this instance the change caused by Diabolique remained permanent, and going forward Probe became known as Lady Supreme, because of course there’s always room for another sexy babe in the Extreme universe!

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Of course, if you think what happened with Probe / Lady Supreme sounds odd, then please consider Prophet. Unlike the rest of the Extreme books, the ongoing Prophet series wasn’t interrupted by “Babewatch,” instead receiving a Prophet Babewatch Special.  Liefeld had recently scored a coup in hiring popular creator Chuck Dixon to write Prophet volume 2.  This special was undoubtedly a concession to Dixon to avoid interrupting his inaugural story arc, although he did end up also writing it, with pencils by Joe Bennett & Manny Clark.

Prophet was initially presented as a deeply religious man who was transformed into a super-soldier during World War II and then kept in suspended animation for the next five decades. Just imagine a Bible-quoting, gun-toting Captain America who fights alien invaders, and you more or less have the original incarnation of Prophet.  Of course, as his storyline progressed, we later found out that Prophet also did a whole bunch of time traveling (yes, that again) via technology provided by his creator Doctor Wells.

As the Babewatch Special opens, Prophet is once again in stasis in Wells’ lab. Diabolique’s spell is cast just as Prophet is transported back in time by Wells.  Now a woman, the semi-amnesiac Prophet arrives in Orleans in the year 1429, where she commences to lead the French against the occupying English forces.

I’m sure that if you have even a passing knowledge of French history you can see where this is going. Yep, that’s correct, the transformed Prophet is none other than… Joan of Arc!  Hey, did you know that Joan fought against the English while clad in a fashionable suit of armor that showed of her bare midriff and thighs?  I certainly didn’t!  Who says comic books aren’t educational?

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Prophet of Arc spends the next two years leading the French armies, until history inevitably unfolds as written. Captured by the English in 1431, Prophet / Joan is burned at the stake, although in actuality he’s snatched from the flames at the last instant by Wells, returned to the present day, where he once again becomes a male.

Oh, yes, while Wells was busy monitoring Prophet’s adventures in France, he was attacked by another of Glory’s friends who was ensorcelled: Roman, amphibious monarch of the undersea kingdom of Neuport. (Imperious Rex!  I’m surprised Marvel’s lawyers weren’t also ringing up Liefeld!)  Diabolique’s spell fortunately ends before Roman can harm Wells.  Afterwards the scientist asks if there were any effects to the spell other than the physical change in gender, and Roman admits “Only an incredible urge to watch… what do they call them? Soaps!”  (Groan!)

Reading these issues 22 years later, I’m surprised that I found them enjoyable.  If Liefeld, or anyone else for that matter, had attempted to do this story at Marvel or DC, I would have hated it.  But since Liefeld owns Youngblood and Glory and the rest, I can just shrug and tell myself that these are his characters, so if he wants to do ridiculous stuff like this then it’s his business.  I sort of look at “Babewatch” as the comic book equivalent of an entertaining Summer action blockbuster movie, except that you don’t have to pay 15 bucks for a ticket, and you can bring your own popcorn.

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

Looking at the artwork on these issues, there’s some rather poor anatomy, especially for the female characters.  Balloon breasts, arched narrow waists, elongated legs, thrusting behinds; all of the excesses that plagued the depictions of women in comics in the 1990s are on display.  Yet many of the creators who worked on these issues, as well as the other Extreme Studios books, would later grow & develop into very talented artists.  Just a few years later Todd Nauck, Mike Deodato, and Joe Bennett were all doing work that blew their efforts here out of the water.  I do have to give credit to Liefeld and Stephenson for helping them and a number of other artists get a foot in the door.

Of course, there is one other compliment which I can offer “Babewatch,” namely that no matter how cheesy it was, at least it didn’t have David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson. Although I wouldn’t be too surprised if they managed to sneak into the Glory and Friends Bikini Fest special.

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛