Tony Isabella returns to Black Lightning with “Cold Dead Hands”

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.” – Rod Serling

I am very pleased to see writer Tony Isabella back on his signature creation, Black Lightning.  Jefferson Pierce, schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, was the first African American character to headline a solo book published by DC Comics.  Isabella previously chronicled Black Lightning’s adventures in the late 1970s, and again in the mid 1990s.  This new six issue miniseries Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is the first opportunity Isabella has had to return to Jefferson Pierce’s world in 20 years.  It was well worth the wait.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is actually something of a reboot to the character’s mythos.  All of the reality-altering events to have taken place in the DCU over the past two decades have provided Isabella with a chance to give Black Lightning a bit of a fresh start, keeping some elements of Jeff’s back story intact, revising and/or jettisoning others.

Jeff, as seen in Cold Dead Hands, has been a costumed hero for only a few years.  He is relatively young, and still single. Jeff is teaching at John Malvin High School, located in a predominantly black area of his hometown Cleveland.  An idealist who wants to make a genuine difference in his community, Jeff has made it his mission to help his teenage students achieve not just an education, but to also set aside hate & violence.

Jeff also works closely with Detective Tommi Colvalito, who he has known since they were children, and who he fondly refers to as “my sister from another mister.”  I was appreciative of the fact that Isabella established right off the bat that Tommi knows that Jeff is Black Lightning, avoiding the clichéd scenario of a hero’s close friend unknowingly pursuing them in their costumed identity.

The story opens shortly after the death of Jeff’s father, a veteran journalist.  Jeff has scarcely had an opportunity to mourn his father’s passing when a violent crime spree begins to engulf Cleveland.  Gangs armed with high-tech weapons are carrying out hold-ups across the city.

Jeff in his guise of Black Lightning attempts to stop this rash of robberies, a task made more difficult by the racial tensions inflaming the city, and by the fact that certain members of the police department resent that a black vigilante is, in their minds, upstaging them.  Matters are made even worse when Black Lightning is framed for murder by Tobias Whale, the mysterious crime lord responsible for arming the gangs.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 pg 14

In Black Lightning volume two, Isabella had Jeff describe Tobias Whale as “the single most evil human being I’ve ever know… an insidious and ruthless predator.”  Those remain the defining characteristics of the Whale in this new continuity.  Having scoured the country for technology left over in the wake of various failed alien invasions, the Whale has had his technicians reverse engineer the recovered artifacts, producing a lethal arsenal of “sci-fi guns.”

Tobias Whale is a monster obsessed solely with the acquisition of wealth and power.  He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even the members of his own family, to achieve his dreams of avarice.  Tobias explains to Black Lighting his vicious plan to flood first the city, and then the entire country, with the alien weapons…

“The frightened citizens will want to arm themselves against these guns, legally or otherwise. The NRA will demand the guns be available to all, and their toadies in Congress will agree. The gun manufacturers will spend millions, maybe billions, to make that happen. Eventually a great many of those millions will make their way to me. Once I lease my designs to those gun manufacturers, I will become richer and more powerful than entire nations.”

In addition to utilizing this miniseries to touch upon the epidemic of gun violence in America, Isabella also casts his gaze at the tragic rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, something that I do not believe has been examined anywhere near as closely as it ought to be.

As a white male, I cannot imagine what it is to be black in this country.  I simply cannot know what it must be like as a black man to walk down the street, knowing that any minute you might get shot and killed by a cop because you happened to be holding a wallet, or a cell phone, or a metal pipe, in your hands that was somehow mistaken for a gun, or because you were wearing a hoodie, or because you were moving in a “furtive” manner, and so on.  And I cannot conceive of the outrage and disgust that a black person must feel, witnessing again and again and again cops who have shot and killed unarmed black men getting off with, at most, a slap on the wrist.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 3 pg 17

Isabella is very concerned with the toxic effects of fear and bigotry on people, and upon society as a whole.  Us versus them, white versus black, cop versus civilian… fear plays a significant role in all of these exchanges.  And of course there will always be individuals such as Tobias Whale who will take every opportunity to fuel and exploit those fears for their own personal benefit.

The classic The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is alluded to throughout this miniseries, with Jeff’s class staging a school play which is a thinly-veiled version of Rod Serling’s story.  At one point Assistant Principal Lynn Stewart tells Jeff that that another teacher has disparagingly referred to the school play as “SJW Theater,” and I chuckled.

Despite the manner in which some comic book fans have recently utilized the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative, the fact remains that for much of the history of comic books numerous creators have utilized the medium to advocate for progressive causes, and to rail against injustice.  Isabella has certainly been doing that for his entire career, and via his invocation of The Twilight Zone reminds us that Rod Serling was also doing so in one of the most popular television series of the 1960s.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very political work, blunt and honest in its addressing of the issues and crises of racism, gun violence, and the unchecked excesses of the police.  I am appreciative of the fact that DC Comics gave Isabella carte blanche to write about these controversial issues.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 4 pg 6

The main artist on Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is Clayton Henry.  He does good, solid work.  It is flashy, but at the same time solidly rendered.  I previously enjoyed Henry’s work on various titles for Marvel over the past decade and a half, so it’s nice to see him teamed with Isabella on this miniseries.

Also contributing to Cold Dead Hands is the underrated Yvel Guichet, who is the co-artist on issue #s 4-6.  Guichet is an underrated artist who has been in the biz since the early 1990s.  I fondly recall his early work for Valiant, and I’ve also enjoyed his more recent assignments at DC.

Additionally, the talented Ken Lashley drew the cover for issue #5, as well as a variant cover for the first issue.  Mark Morales inks Henry’s covers for #1, #2 and #4.

I think it’s worth noting that Isabella, the creator of the Black Lightning character, is white, but he has often worked with black artists.  That is especially the case on Black Lightning.  Trevor Von Eeden (the penciler on the original series), Eddy Newell (the artist on volume two), Clayton Henry, Yvel Guichet and Ken Lashley are all black.  Isabella has always strived to make Jefferson Pierce an authentically African-American character, and I think it’s wonderful that a significant part of that has involved collaborating with artists of color.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 5 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very effective miniseries, with passionate and insightful writing from Tony Isabella.  He does a fine job both in developing his characters and in broaching important issues facing American society.  His writing is complemented by dynamic work from talented artists.

I hope that Isabella will once again have an opportunity to return to Jefferson Piece in the near future, either to recount his continuing adventures, or to explore his origins in this new continuity.

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E-Man and Nova: The 1990s and Beyond

In the past I have blogged about E-Man, the wonderful and imaginative comic book series co-created by Nicola “Nick” Cuti and Joe Staton in 1973. E-Man, aka Alec Tronn, is a sentient energy being who wandered the universe for thousands of years.  Finally arriving on Earth, he befriended the beautiful and intelligent Nova Kane, an archeology / geology major at Xanadu University who moonlighted as a burlesque performer to pay her tuition.  Eventually gaining energy powers of her own, Nova joined Alec in defending earth against an assortment of bizarre villains and menaces.

E-Man ran for 10 issues in the mid-1970s, published by Charlton Comics. It was revived by First Comics in 1983, and that second volume lasted 25 issues.  Staton was the penciler for the entire First Comics run, but unfortunately Cuti was only able to write the final two issues.

After the cancellation of E-Man volume two in 1985, Staton retained the rights to create new stories featuring the characters. On several occasions over the past three decades he and Cuti have reunited to chronicle to further adventures of Alec, Nova, cynical private eye Michael Mauser, adorable koala Teddy Q, and the rest of the colorful gang.

E-Man 20th Anniversary Special

Subsequent to the First Comics run, Cuti and Staton returned to E-Man in a special published by Comico in September 1989, edited by Michael Eury.  In volume two Alec and Nova had relocated to Chicago.  Nova had lost her powers and had been hired as the host for the basic cable TV show Moppet Monster Matinee.  As the new special opens, Alec and Nova are back in New York City.  Nova is once again enrolled at Xanadu University, however she still has not regained her powers (a caption cheekily informs us this is due to her suffering from a bout of “Pasko Syndrome”).

During the course of the story a bizarre device known as the Reality Arranger causes a number of bizarre surrealistic transformations to sweep through the Big Apple.  Eventually reality is stretched past the breaking point and snaps, although the universe very quickly recreates itself from scratch, with the side effect of Nova once again possessing her energy powers.

We are never given an explanation for how everyone ended up back Manhattan. If you want, you can just assume that Nova decided to leave Channel 99 and return to school to finish her degree.  Alternately, Staton himself suggests that readers can regard the effects of the Reality Arranger as responsible for the sudden shift back to NYC.  In any case, the Reality Arranger, and the remaking of the entire history of the world, is a convenient “get out of jail free” card to hand-wave away any continuity discrepancies between the non-Cuti material published by First and the subsequent stories written by Cuti once he returned to the series.

Co-starring with Alec and Nova in the Comico special is Vamfire, the diva-ish negative energy “sister” of E-Man who was birthed from the same star. Vamfire was created by Cuti & Staton back during the Charlton days, but her debut story remained unpublished until a decade later, when it finally appeared under the First banner.  Initially conceived as a green-skinned Vampirella type, here in her second appearance she is redesigned by Staton to have a more punk rock look.

E-Man Comico special cover

The special did well enough that Comico published a subsequent three issue miniseries in early 1990, edited by Shelly Roeberg. By this point E-Man had definitely become an ensemble title.  E-Man himself barely appeared in the first issue of the miniseries.  The majority of the action is given over to Michael Mauser, Nova Kane and Teddy Q working to save Vamfire after her physical form is accidentally splintered into numerous twisted fragments due to a mishap in a carnival house of mirrors.

The second issue shifts the focus back on Alec as he attempts to find his way back to the star Arcturus, the “mother” that gave birth to him millennia earlier. Having lost his way, Alec stops on the planets Targasso and Landano for directions, on both worlds discovering troubled civilizations.  For me this story really demonstrates that E-Man is not a comedy or a parody series, but rather a fairly serious book that nevertheless possesses a sense of humor and a tone of fun.  I think that was something that was regrettably lost in some of the early issues of the First Comics run.  Cuti is the writer who really does the best job at balancing the drama and humor on E-Man, and as much as I do like some of the First issues, the series wasn’t quite the same without him.

In the third issue of the Comico miniseries Alec at long last finds his way to Arcturus, only to discover that his “mother” really is just “a ball of burning gasses.” I found it to be a bit of a sad moment, that Alec travelled over 215 trillion miles only to learn that he really doesn’t have an actual parent.  However he quickly gets over his disappointment and speeds back to Earth.  It becomes apparent why Alec cares so much for our world: it is the only home he has ever really had, and Nova is more than just a girlfriend; she is his family.  Unfortunately a horde of Lovecraftian entities follow E-Man back to our world, leaving him and Nova with quite the alien infestation to combat.

E-Man Comico 3 pg 1

Three years later Cuti & Staton once again returned to E-Man, this time at Alpha Productions. Published in October 1993, the Twentieth Anniversary Special was inked by Chuck Bordell and edited by Christopher Mills.  This story introduces Eco-Man, who is actually a hippie environmentalist who was murdered decades earlier by motorcycle thugs in the employ of criminal industrialist Samuel Boar.  Resurrected by radiation and lightning, the super-powered Eco-Man sets out with a militant zeal to save the environment from polluters.  He is joined by Vamfire, who is instantly attracted to him.

There was a second E-Man special published by Alpha in March 1994 titled E-Man Returns, but I don’t have it. Seriously, I’ve been looking for a copy of it for several years without success.  It never seems to show up in the back issue bins or on Ebay.  I’m guessing it didn’t have a very large print run.  If anyone has an extra copy for sale please let me know!

E-Man Alpha 1 pg 7

The early 1990s was sort of the Wild West for creator-owned comics. Independent companies sprung up and went bust faster than you could say “speculator market.”  Eventually the entire comic book biz experienced a huge implosion.  Given the chaos and unpredictability of this period, it’s not too surprising that Cuti & Staton were unable to get E-Man off the ground again permanently.  Nevertheless, the few stories they did create in that decade were well done, and of course Staton still retained the rights, meaning that they could always hope for another opportunity down the road.

There is actually one other noteworthy E-Man appearance from the 1990s. Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen is a huge fan of the original Charlton run.  In a way his creator-owned series Savage Dragon has a similar tone to E-Man, containing deadly-serious stories punctuated by bizarre humor, with the focus not so much on fight scenes as it is the relationships between the various oddball characters.

Savage Dragon #41 (September 1997) is the wedding of Barbaric and Ricochet from Larsen’s spin-off series Freak Force. A whole bunch of creator-owned and independent characters were guests, among them Femforce, DNAgents, Vampirella, Hellboy, Destroyer Duck and Flaming Carrot.  Larsen took this opportunity to have his old favorites E-Man, Nova Kane and Teddy Q appear at the wedding.

Savage Dragon 41 pg 12 E-Man

Jon B. Cooke is another fan of E-Man, as well as the various other unusual series Charlton Comics published. Cooke devoted two issues of his magazine Comic Book Artist, published by TwoMorrows, to examining the work of the talented creators who were at Charlton.  The theme of CBA #12 (March 2001) was “Charlton Comics of the 1970s.”  Cooke interviewed both Cuti and Staton for this issue.  Staton illustrated a brand new cover featuring Alec Tronn, Nova Kane, and the various bizarre horror comics hosts from the Charlton titles.  In addition, Cooke was able to have Cuti & Staton contribute a brand new two page E-Man story “Come and Grow Old With Me.”  This short tale focuses on the wonderful romance between Alec and Nova.

The next time E-Man and friends would appear would be five years later. Cuti & Staton yet again reunited for the E-Man: Recharged special, published by Digital Webbing in October 2006.  The vibrant, effective coloring was by Matt Webb.

E-Man: Recharged holds a special place in my heart. In 2006 I was already a huge fan of Staton’s artwork.  I had a passing awareness of the E-Man series, having heard it mentioned from time to time by Larsen and others, and having seen the cameos in Savage Dragon #41.  I was curious about it, but this was the first time I ever saw an issue of E-Man for sale.  In a remarkable coincidence, the very same day E-Man: Recharged came out I also found a copy of issue #7 from the original Charlton series in the comic shop’s back issue bins.  Between those two books I instantly became a fan.

E-Man Recharged pg 17

Recharged was a great introduction to E-Man and friends, with Cuti & Staton having Alec, Nova, Mauser and Teddy Q encounter the nefarious Brain From Sirius for one last epic confrontation. I couldn’t wait to see these characters again.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long.  There were two further E-Man specials from Digital Webbing, Dolly in September 2007 and Curse of the Idol in November 2008.

Additionally, another E-Man story surfaced in late 2008. “Future Tense” by Cuti, Staton & Bordell had been written & drawn in the early 1990s for Alpha, but never saw print.  In the years since the script had gone missing.  By studying the artwork Cuti was able to reconstruct the story and write a brand new script a decade and half later.  It was finally lettered by Bill Pearson, another Charlton alumni, and saw print in issue #6 of the magazine Charlton Spotlight edited by Michael Ambrose and published by Argo Press.

“Future Tense’ has E-Man and Nova encountering the Time Traveller from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine. The couple travel forward with him to the far-future year of 802,701 AD and attempt to finally resolve the terrible conflict between the Eloi and the Morlocks, with events taking several surprising turns.

Charlton Spotlight 6 pg 9

As you can no doubt discern from these various E-Man revivals, there are a lot of fans of the old Charlton comic books out there, including a number who have helped Cuti & Staton in their efforts to continue chronicling the adventures of E-Man and Nova. Among those number is Mort Todd, a dyed in the wool Charlton fanatic.  Todd is the editor in chief of Charlton Neo, which over the past few years has been involved in reviving a number of titles and characters that were previously published by Charlton, often working with the original creators.  Of course Todd made sure to approach Cuti and Staton.

Originally announced in 2015, the new E-Man and Nova story at long last saw print as a three part serial in the anthology series The Charlton Arrow volume 2 #1-3 ( Sep 2017 to Jan 2018).  Matt Webb once again provides the coloring.

Cuti and Staton are both now in their 70s, and Staton is very busy drawing the daily Dick Tracy newspaper strip.  Given those facts, Staton explained “I’m approaching this three-parter as the final E-Man story.”  Indeed, Cuti & Staton utilize the occasion to spotlight a large number of E-Man and Nova’s supporting cast, and to bring closure to certain elements.

“Homecoming” sees Nova, accompanied by E-Man and Teddy Q, returning to her hometown of Hawleyville, PA to visit her parents & younger sister Anya. Nova is surprised that a large casino, Peccary’s Pen, has opened in the quiet town.  Suspecting that something odd is going on, she convinces Alec that they should investigate.  Anya, who works as the casino’s bookkeeper, soon learns that her boss is actually Nova and E-Man’s old foe Samuel Boar, allied with another of the Brains from Sirius.

Boar, in an attempt to manipulate Anya, arranges for her to gain “bad luck” super powers. Anya, who was jealous of Nova’s fame & abilities, sides with Boar.  Nova attempts to save her sister’s soul, while Alec brings in old friends the Entropy Twins, Eco-Man and Vamfire to help out against the new Brain.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 pg 6

This three-parter is a lot of fun. Cuti’s story serves as a nice coda to over four decades of E-Man and Nova adventures.  Staton works in a more simplified, cartoony style akin to the one he has been utilizing for the past seven years on Dick Tracy.  At first it was a bit of a jolt to see these familiar characters drawn this way, but I soon got used to it.  If this is indeed the final outing of E-Man and Nova by Cuti & Staton, then they go out on a high note.

While it’s regrettable that E-Man was never a long-running, super-successful comic book series, we are at least fortunate that Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton had several different opportunities to return to their creation over the decades, each time crafting fun, enjoyable stories.

My upcoming article in Back Issue #104

I am excited to announce that I have written an article that is being published in issue #104 of Back Issue magazine, which ships on May 9, 2018.

Edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows Publishing, Back Issue has been running since 2003. As per the TwoMorrows website, “Back Issue celebrates comic books of the 1970s, 1980s, and today through a variety of recurring (and rotating) departments.”

I have been reading Back Issue since it first debuted.  Over the past 15 years Eury has assembled a talented line-up of writers to examine numerous interesting and diverse topics concerning the comic book medium.  It is a genuine honor to now be counted among their number.

Supplementing its informative articles, Back Issue also features a wonderful selection of rare and previously-unpublished artwork by numerous talented creators.

Back Issue 104 cover

Here are the specifics regarding this upcoming issue…

BACK ISSUE #104 (84 FULL-COLOR pages, $8.95) is the FOURTH WORLD AFTER KIRBY issue, exploring the enduring legacy of JACK KIRBY’s DC characters! The Return(s) of the New Gods, Why Can’t Mister Miracle Escape Cancellation?, the Forever People, MIKE MIGNOLA’s unrealized New Gods animated movie, the Fourth World in Hollywood, and more. With an all-star lineup, including the work of JOHN BYRNE, PARIS CULLINS, J. M. DeMATTEIS, MARK EVANIER, MICHAEL GOLDEN, RICK HOBERG, WALTER SIMONSON, and more! Cover by STEVE RUDE, re-presenting his variant cover for 2015’s Convergence #6. Edited by MICHAEL EURY.

The article I have written for Back Issue #104 is “Return To Forever: The Forever People Miniseries” which examines the six issue Forever People revival that DC Comics published in 1987. For this piece I have interviewed writer J.M. DeMatteis, penciler Paris Cullins, inker Karl Kesel, and editor Karen Berger.

I am a long-time fan of Jack Kirby groundbreaking work on the “Fourth World” titles in the early 1970s, as well as the various revivals that have been attempted over the subsequent decades. The return of the Forever People to print in the late 1980s is one that has not, as far as I am aware, been previously examined to any significant degree.  I found it an enjoyable assignment to delve into the origins of this miniseries, and to offer an examination of the ways in which the changes in American society since the early 1970s were explored by DeMatteis through his writing in this series.

Back Issue 104 pg 53

In addition to my article, within the pages of Back Issue #104 you will find “Forever Your Girl: A Beautiful Dreamer Art Gallery.” This will feature several of the wonderful pieces that I have obtained in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook from some of the top artists in the comic book biz.

Back Issue #104 can be previewed and ordered on the TwoMorrows website.  The magazine is available in both print and digital editions.

http://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=133&products_id=1354&zenid=ca3f3bca4d34017b5c057b4d36a5195e

The Diamond Comic Distributors Order Code for Back Issue #104 is FEB181869.

I hope everyone will show their support.  Thank you.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter rides again!

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is an odd entry in the Hammer Studios horror oeuvre. After a couple of decades of movies featuring middle-aged scholars struggling against monsters and supernatural menaces, Captain Kronos introduces a young, handsome, aristocratic swordsman as its hero. The movie was written & directed by Brian Clements, who previously had a prolific career in British television.

Clements is probably best known for his decade-long association with the spy-fi series The Avengers, and he brought much of the energy & ingenuity of that show to Captain Kronos. The movie was a deft blending of swashbuckling action and gothic horror.  Clemens had conceived of Kronos as a possible franchise for Hammer.  Unfortunately the movie was not released for two years after its completion in 1972, and its theatrical run was limited.  Between that and Hammer being on its last legs, there would be no further cinematic adventures for Kronos.

Over the next few decades, however, the movie would go on to become a cult classic, gaining numerous fans. I saw it on television twice in the 1990s, and thought it was amazing.  I’ve re-watched it several more times since it was released on DVD in 2003.

Captain Kronos 1 cover

I definitely agreed that Kronos had the potential to helm an ongoing series. Obviously others also felt the same way, and the character has at long last been revived by Titan Comics in a four issue comic book miniseries written by Dan Abnett, illustrated by Tom Mandrake, colored by Sian Mandrake, and lettered by Simon Bowland.

Set in the mid-1600s, the first issue opens with Kronos and his fellow vampire hunters Grost and Carla pursuing the undead fiend Porphyr across Eastern Europe. This chase leads the trio to the town of Serechurch, which is beset by a plague of vampirism.  The town elders ask Kronos to rid them of these monsters, and the swordsman, eager to continue his vendetta against the undead, agrees.

Abnett does a good job writing a fast-paced story. There are several exciting action sequences in the miniseries.  Much as Clemens did in the original movie, Abnett also effectively utilizes a certain amount of humor in order to offset the horror and violence of the plot.

The characterizations of Kronos, Grost and Carla are tweaked to various degrees. Clements merely hinted at Kronos’ immense obsession in one scene, and for the rest of the movie depicted him as a level-headed strategist.  Abnett, however, re-casts Kronos as a brooding monomaniac who charges in to danger.  Grost is no longer quite Kronos’ close friend, but rather a mentor who is alarmed at his protégé’s rash actions.  Carla has evolved from Kronos’ girlfriend and inexperienced assistant to a very adept vampire hunter in training.

It is certainly possible to see these as logical extrapolations of the characters. One can imagine Kronos, after repeated encounters with the forces of darkness, and the loss of a number of people who were close to him, eventually becoming harder, more obsessed and rash.  Grost, the level-headed scholar, would be alarmed to see this change, and would probably feel that stern admonitions would work better than heartfelt pleas at bringing the Captain to his senses.

Carla is the most-changed of the trio. The sweet, kind Gypsy girl has become a tough, take-no-crap fighter.  I appreciated that Abnett gave Carla much more agency in this story than she had in the movie.  At times, though, I felt perhaps he did go too far in changing her.

That said, via her dialogue in this miniseries we can conclude that Carla’s first meeting with Kronos was a transformative experience. She became aware of both the existence of the supernatural and of the wider world outside of her tiny village home.  Already cognizant of the very limited choices available to women in the 17th Century, and now awakened to the dangers posed by vampires & their ilk, Carla obviously decided that the best opportunity she had to both gain independence and acquire the skills necessary to survive in a very dangerous world was to join Kronos and Grost on their quest.

Abnett does fortunately still retain some of Carla’s innocence and inexperience. Upon arriving at Serechurch, she thinks to herself that it is the “biggest place [she’s] ever seen” and wonders “Is this what a city looks like?” In the next scene, entering the hall of the town council, Carla is awed by the wealth on display, whispering to herself “Is that gold? The ceiling’s painted with gold.”

Captain Kronos 1 pg 4

The one real criticism I have concerning Abnett’s writing is that at times his scripting is a bit too present day, especially in his humorous banter. Early in the second issue Kronos goes off to scout the town quarter occupied by the vampires. Carla, fearing that he will do something rash, tells Grost “Let’s hope Kronos doesn’t do anything too Kronos before we’re ready.”  That line feels more like it belongs in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in a Hammer Horror period piece.

There is also a running gag throughout the miniseries where one of the three main characters will curse and another will respond with a chiding tsk tsk of “Language.” It’s funny the first couple of times, but after that not so much.

On the artwork end of things, Tom Mandrake is certainly a very appropriate choice to illustrate Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Mandrake has a great deal of experience working on horror-related series, such as his acclaimed collaboration with John Ostrander on The Spectre at DC Comics and his work with Dan Mishkin on the grotesque miniseries Creeps from Image Comics.  Mandrake superbly renders both the supernatural elements and the fast-paced action in Abnett’s plots for Captain Kronos.

Mandrake’s storytelling is very effective on this miniseries. It works equally well in the action sequences and in the quieter moments when characters are conversing.

One thing I noticed regarding Mandrake’s layouts is that many of the pages are constructed to contain tiers of three to five panels stacked vertically. I don’t recall Mandrake employing this device before.  I am curious if he made this choice in order to evoke the widescreen frames of a movie.  It is an interesting creative decision, one that does suit this story.

Captain Kronos 1 pg 22

As I have observed before in other reviews, when working on licensed properties it can be a tricky proposition for an artist to capture the likenesses of actors. Sometimes going too photorealistic can actually be jarring, with characters who look like they were traced from photographs, which can really take the reader out of the story.  It is usually more important for the artist to depict the personalities of the characters.

To wit, Mandrake’s renderings of the main trio in Captain Kronos do not look especially like actors Horst Janson, John Carson and Caroline Munro; however they do feel like the characters of Kronos, Grost and Carla, if you understand what I mean.

Sian Mandrake is obviously going to be very familiar with her father’s artwork, with knowing what works over it and what doesn’t, and she does an excellent job coloring it. The subdued palette she utilizes works well in the service of the story, with the occasional bright splash of color for blood or fire consequently standing out.

The only quibble I have concerning the coloring is that Sian gives Carla reddish-brown hair. A darker color, something closer to black, would have more closely evoked the look of actress Caroline Munro.

Captain Kronos 2 pg 14

Despite a few missteps in the writing, I really did enjoy the Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter miniseries. I definitely would like to see a follow-up from the same creative team. There is a great deal of potential to these characters, and to the world they inhabit.

My dream would be to see Kronos encounter the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. In real life actor Christopher Lee was an expert fencer, and so it would be very appropriate to have his iconic depiction of the lord of the undead cross swords with Kronos.  There is also the infamous Karnstein family, who were actually alluded to in the movie.  They would make appropriate adversaries for Kronos to meet in combat.

Really, there are a lot of possibilities, and I hope that the character returns soon.

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.

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.

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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.