Zardoz: a Metaphor for America in 2020

Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, glancing through social media in my spare time, the mind wanders, and you start to think about things, make connections you might not have previously made.

 In 1974 a very strange science fiction movie titled Zardoz was released.  It was directed by John Boorman, and starred Sean Conney & Charlotte Rampling.  Spotting a photo on my Facebook feed of someone’s kid cosplaying as Conney’s character complete with an accompanying Zardoz prop head (yes really) got the wheels turning.  It suddenly occurred to me that Zardoz is actually an extremely accurate commentary on 21st Century America.

Here is a bare-bones description of the movie’s set-up…

In a post-apocalyptic future the Eternals, a group of wealthy, powerful elites ensconced in their remote luxurious estate, create a fake god with which to control the rest of the population, who are known as the Brutals. This deity, Zardoz, looks like a fearsome giant flying stone head.  It spreads the message to the masses that sex is evil and killing is good.  Zardoz commands a group of Brutals known as the Exterminators to give to it all of the food they have collected.  In exchange for this food Zardoz provides the Exterminators with an unlimited supply of firearms which they use to terrorize & subjugate the rest of the population.  Zardoz promises the Exterminators that when they die they will be transported to a heavenly Vortex and live forever.

zardoz

And, really, when I see all of these supposed “protestors” armed to the teeth storming state capitols demanding an end to the shutdown, they seem hell of a lot like the Exterminators.  In spite of their supposed “populist” message they are actually serving the wealthy elites who want to reopen the economy at any cost in order to maximize their profits.  These “protestors” are totally willing to sacrifice themselves, their families, their neighbors, and everyone else on the twin alters of unregulated capitalism and Christian fundamentalism, just so long as long as they can have all the guns they want and lord it over the rest of the working class, along with the promise that when they die White Heterosexual Republican Jesus will greet them in Heaven with open arms.

Of course Zardoz can be read as a warning about any sort of blind, unquestioning religious faith that asks you to sacrifice both your livelihoods and your lives to a god and its supposed human representatives.  Nevertheless, the movie feels especially on-target for what is taking place right at this very moment here in the United States.  So I guess John Boorman is actually a prophet.

It’s worth pointing out that the name Zardoz is an in-story clue that this supposed deity is actually a fake, a sham.  We eventually learn that “Zardoz” is short for “Wizard of Oz.”  I just wish more people would heed the movie’s warning.  Please, please DO pay attention to the man behind the curtain.  The great and powerful “god” is really an all-too-mortal charlatan.

This is how the world ends: Doomsday + 1

Four and a half decades ago, at the small Derby, Connecticut-based Charlton Comics, the company’s main writer teamed up with a young up-and-coming artist to create a striking post-apocalyptic sci-fi series that, though short-lived, is remembered to the present day.  The writer was Joe Gill, the artist was future superstar creator John Byrne, and the series was Doomsday + 1.

Doomsday+1 1 coverAbout six months ago I located copies of the original six issue run of Doomsday + 1.  They were fun, enjoyable comics.  The first issue was released 45 years ago this month, on April 8, 1975, so I felt now was a good time to write a short retrospective on the series.  That, and for obvious reasons of late I’ve sort of had the apocalypse on my mind.

In the opening issue of Doomsday  + 1 the end of the world is touched off on April 7, 1996 by power-mad Latin American dictator General Rykos.  On the verge of being overthrown, Rykos is determined to take everyone down with him.  He launches a pair of nuclear missiles, one at New York City, the other at Moscow.  The United States and Russia each believe they have been attacked by the other, and before anyone can figure out who is actually to blame, both nations have launched their atomic arsenals at each other, wiping out human civilization.

Hours before Rykos starts World War III, NASA launches a small spacecraft into Earth’s orbit on a scientific mission.  The three –person crew of the capsule is U.S. Air Force Captain Boyd Ellis, his fiancée, radiation specialist Jill Malden, and Japanese physicist Ikei Yahsida.  As a result this trio are saved from the apocalypse, but are nevertheless forced to watch helplessly from Earth’s orbit as the human race is destroyed.

The capsule remains in orbit for over a month, the three astronauts waiting for the radioactivity on Earth to drop.  Finally running out of food, they bring the capsule in for a landing on the uninhabited Greenland, which has been mostly spared from fallout.  However the heat of the nuclear weapons has melted the Greenland ice cap, releasing from suspended animation several prehistoric mammals.  Also freed from an icy slumber is Kuno, a Goth warrior from the Third Century.  Jill, a linguist, is able to communicate with the man out of time, and soon the hulking hairy figure has become a valuable ally.

Doomsday+1 1 pg 20

Over the course of the six issue series, the quartet explores the devastated Earth, hoping to find other survivors.  Along the way they have a series of strange adventures, encountering a mad Russian cyborg & his mechanical army, alien peacekeepers, an underwater civilization, human criminals, and visitors from a parallel universe.

There’s also a bit of what you might call a love triangle, or maybe a love quadrangle.  Boyd and Jill start out as a couple, prompting some jealousy from Ikei, who is also attracted to Boyd.  Kuno, upon meeting the group, is immediately attracted to Jill, and the two of them soon become involved, leaving Boyd and Ikei to then hook up, as well.

Joe Gill was an incredibly prolific writer who produced hundreds of stories for Charlton Comics.  He and John Byrne seemed to have a good creative rapport on this series, with Gill allowing Byrne a free hand to make changes to the scripts.

Looking at the art on Doomsday  + 1, it’s apparent that Byrne, in some of his first professional work, was already showing a great deal of potential.  Obviously he would get much, much better over the next few years, but already you can see his aptitude for dramatic layouts & storytelling, his ability to render both action & characterization.

Doomsday+1 2 pg 1

On the last three issues the artwork is credited to “Byrne Robotics.”  Many years later Byrne would re-use the name for his official website & message board.  I posted there to inquire about the “Byrne Robotics” credits on Doomsday  + 1.  Byrne explained:

“I used Byrne Robotics when a friend helped me ink backgrounds. (She’d lost her job so I gave her a temp job.)”

I also informed Byrne that I would be writing this blog post, and I asked if he had any thoughts about Doomsday + 1 that he would be willing to share.   He kindly responded:

“Thems were some old time comic books! If they’d been published in the Fifties, they’d not have stood out much from the crowd.

“And they were fun. Joe Gill, the writer, gave me permission to change anything I wanted to, if I felt it improved the story. A real learning experience—like pretty much everything I did at Charlton.”

That is a common theme you hear from comic book artists who began their careers at Charlton Comics, that it was a really good training ground where they were given an opportunity to hone their skills, helping them gain the experience that later enabled them to obtain more high-profile, better paying work at other companies such as Marvel and DC Comics.

A few random observations about these six issues:

The scene on the cover to the first issue does not appear in the actual comic book.  No doubt it was Byrne’s homage to both the ending of Planet of the Apes and Jack Kirby’s cover for the first issue of his own post-apocalyptic comic book series, Kamandi.  Of course, there is a looooong tradition of artists utilizing the ruined Statue of Liberty as a landmark on disaster movie posters and on post-apocalyptic book covers.

Doomsday+1 4 pg 15

Issue #4, the one with the underwater civilization, has some lovely artwork by Byrne & his assistants.  The look of the beautiful, graceful Amphibian woman Meri almost seems like a composite of Snowbird and Marrina, two of the characters Byrne would introduce in Alpha Flight a decade later.

There is one aspect of issue #4 which I feel has perhaps not aged well.  We are told that the Amphibians, due to their inability to live in the depths of the oceans, created a second race, the Gill-Men.  Over centuries the Gill-Men became more vicious & belligerent, eventually turning on the Amphibians.  Unlike the Amphibians, the Gill-Men are large, monstrous-looking beings.  If you read between the lines, you might come away thinking the Gill-Men were created to be servants or slaves, and that they rebelled against their masters.  If that is the case, having them as very clear-cut villains, and making them grotesque compared to the elegant, humanoid Amphibians, feels sort of, well, racist.

Then again, it could be I’m just reading too much into this!  After all, in issue #6, our heroes meet the inhabitants of an alternate reality Earth, a civilization of “Beautiful People” who have created a highly advanced utopia.  However we quickly learn that this apparent paradise only exists because these Beautiful People have raided other parallel Earths, abducting their inhabitants to serve as slaves.  So in this case the supposedly more advanced, attractive culture is very much the villain.

Doomsday+1 5 pg 12 JillLooking at issue #5, our heroes are captured by a group of military prisoners who have seized control of an abandoned Air Force base.  Boyd and Kuno are tied up by the criminals, who intend to have their way with Jill and Ikei, the first women they’ve seen since the nuclear war.  Hoping to catch their captors off-guard, Jill and Ikei pretend to be compliant, going so far as to get dolled up in a couple of sexy outfits.  I noticed that the dress Byrne has Jill in resembles a couple of the outfits he would draw Colleen Wing wearing just a few years later in the pages of Iron Fist. (Yes, I do notice things like this!)

Doomsday + 1 was apparently cancelled on very short notice by Charlton, as there was a completed seventh issue ready to go when the ax fell in 1976.  Fortunately the story “There Will Be Time” did see print soon after, in black & white, in the 4th and 5th issues of the semi-professional fanzine The Charlton Bullseye.

At this point it appears Byrne was intended to take over as the full writer of the feature.  In “There Will Be Time” he lays the groundwork for a new direction, as the survivors encounter Stinson Tempest, a time traveler for the 40th Century who becomes stranded in the post-apocalyptic present.  It feels like there was a lot of potential to where Byrne planned to take the series, so it’s a shame it was cut short so abruptly.

Plus, y’know, it had dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs are always fun.

Charlton Bullseye 4 Doomsday+1

There is actually one other Doomsday + 1 story, although for many years it was believed lost.   Charlton Comics revived Doomsday +1 in 1978 as a six issue reprint title, picking up from the original numbering.  At first sales on the revival were good, and Charlton considered running new material.  Regular Charlton contributor Tom Sutton was commissioned to write & draw a story to appear in issue #13.  Unfortunately sales soon dropped, and the decision was made to once again cancel the book, with Sutton’s story never seeing print.

Doomsday+1 13 coverYears later the original unlettered artwork resurfaced, although Sutton’s script for it had gone missing.  Sutton passed away in 2002.  Eventually another Charlton veteran, the great Nicola “Nick” Cuti, working from Sutton’s art, wrote an entirely new script.  It speaks to both the clarity of the storytelling in Sutton’s artwork and to the immense talent of Cuti’s writing that this new script meshes almost seamlessly with pages drawn over three decades earlier.  “The Secret City” was then lettered by Bill Pearson and colored by Donnie Pitchford.  At long last it saw print in 2013 in issue #8 of Michael Ambrose’s excellent magazine Charlton Spotlight, published by Argo Press.

Looking at the artwork for “The Secret City,” it appears that Sutton’s original intention was to pick up after the events of Doomsday + 1 #6.  Cuti managed to work in references to the events of “There Will Be Time” in his script, definitely placing it after the survivors began working with Stinson Tempest.

As I’ve previously observed from my past looks at Cuti’s excellent writing on E-Man, he is really good at developing realistic characters & relationships.  We have no way of knowing how Sutton would have dialogued the series’ quartet, but Cuti takes the opportunity to add some realistic tension to the relationship between Boyd and Ikei.

Reading the original stories, Boyd is definitely a belligerent, trigger-happy individual, ready to start a fight at the drop of a hat (in fact Kuno the supposed “barbarian” often comes across as more careful & strategic-minded than Boyd).  In his script for “The Secret City,” Cuti has Ikei expressing disapproval for Boyd’s aggressive attitude, perceiving it as a perpetuation of the warlike mindset that recently led to humanity all but wiping itself out.  It definitely gives a certain subtlety & nuance to Sutton’s story, a pulpy affair that sees the quartet fighting against an army of Roman Legionnaire lizard men zipping around in flying saucers!

Charlton Spotlight 8 pg 19

So, for those of you who are interested in reading Doomsday + 1, where can you find these comic books?  Since this was some of John Byrne’s earliest work, near-mint copies of the first six issues tend to be expensive.  However, if you don’t mind your comics being a bit dog-eared, you can find less pristine copies for lower prices.  Issues #7-12 are reprints, so they’re probably not as much in demand, meaning that may be another way to get these stories without forking over a lot of money.

There is also the seven issue miniseries The Doomsday Squad, published by Fantagraphics in 1986, which reprints the original six issues, as well as “There Will Be Time” in color for the first time.  Several of the issues feature brand new cover artwork by legendary artist Gil Kane, who provides his own unique interpretation of the characters.Doomsday Squad 6 cover

As for “The Secret City” by Sutton & Cuti, head over to the Argo Press website and order a copy of Charlton Spotlight #8.  The issue also features a 2012 interview with Cuti about his Charlton work.

Also, since Doomsday +1 might be the public domain (no one seems to know for certain who, if anyone, currently owns the rights to it) sometimes you can find full issues of the original series posted on blogs & websites.  The complete first issue can be read on The Bronze Age of Blogs, if you are so inclined.

One last item: Several years ago John Byrne decided to re-conceptualize Doomsday + 1 from the ground up.  The result was the four issue miniseries Doomsday.1 published by IDW in 2013.  As Byrne explained:

“I’ve been thinking for some time that I would like to revisit a post-apocalypse kind of scenario, such as was seen in my very first ‘dramatic’ work in comics, but this time without the more obvious fantasy elements of that original series (mermaids, alien robots, frozen mammoths, etc.),” said Byrne. “When bits and pieces of this new series first started to percolate around in my head, I knew almost at once the shape that ‘revisit’ would take; something in the ‘All-New, All-Different’ vein. And the first time I doodled some images of my ‘crew,’ I knew I was there!”

Doomsday.1 sees the Earth ravaged not by nuclear war but by a devastating solar flare.  The crew of the International Space Station watches helplessly as nearly the entire surface of the planet is devastated, with billions dying.  Following the disaster, the Space Station crew makes their way back to Earth, to the small area within the Western Hemisphere which was spared the worst of the solar storm.  Their search for other survivors soon brings them into conflict with the worst of human predators.

Doomsday Point 1 coverThis miniseries is extremely grim and downbeat.  I also think it’s one of the best things that Byrne has done in a number of years.  The somber subject matter very much suits the direction that Byrne’s artwork has developed in over the last couple of decades.  It also is a good fit for the darker sensibilities that he has shown in his writing since the early 1990s.  I’ve often felt that such material was not a good fit for mainstream super-hero series (I definitely was not fond of what he did to Donna Troy during his run on Wonder Woman) but it feels much more at home in his creator-owned projects such as this and Next Men.

I also appreciated the fact that Byrne writes the characters in Doomsday.1 as fairly intelligent & genre-savvy.  In other words, he doesn’t have them acting like idiots solely in order to advance the plot.

So in spite of the similar premises, Doomsday.1 is a very different book from its predecessor.  Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it.  It’s a genuinely riveting story.  It’s also an excellent way in which to see how Byrne has grown & developed as a creator, to look at how he depicted the apocalypse in 1975, and how he approached a similar scenario 38 years later in 2013.

Double the Dystopia for your Social Distancing

This morning on I posted the following on Facebook:

Okay, folks, help me out here. Which early 1970s dystopian sci-fi movie starring Charlton Heston should I be viewing while practicing social distancing from the coronavirus? Should I watch The Omega Man (1971) which sees a pandemic transform the world’s entire population into a horde of vampiric zombies? Or should I watch Soylent Green (1973) in which massive overpopulation and climate change threaten humanity with extinction, and the sheltered ultra-wealthy elites are preparing to screw over everyone else to ensure their own survival?

Charlton Heston dystopia

I was mostly joking / being sarcastic, but several people responded with serious recommendations of which movie was better.  So I then offered the following clarification:

Seriously, I cannot believe we ended up living in a timeline where The Omega Man and Soylent Green are taking place AT THE EXACT SAME TIME!  All we need now is for talking apes to show up to complete the Charlton Heston dystopian trifecta!

Comic book artist Roy Richardson responded to this by asking “Trump’s not a talking ape?”  I told him “That’s an insult to talking apes.”

However, thinking about it, Donald Trump does have at least two things in common with Doctor Zaius from Planet of the Apes, specifically a bright orange complexion and a severe aversion to the truth.

trump and doctor zaius

For those of you who think I am making light of the current crisis, well, as the saying goes, if I wasn’t laughing I’d be crying.

Seriously, words cannot describe my absolute disgust at how Trump has so utterly botched the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Yes, even with genuinely competent, intelligent leadership in place this would still have been a serious crisis.  But Trump, with his arrogance and greed and selfishness and petty jealousy, has made a bad situation much, much worse.

My abhorrence certainly extends to the Republican Party that for the last three and a half years has protected & enabled Trump’s nightmarish behavior, all the while taking each & every opportunity to line their own pockets at the expense of the people who they are supposed to be representing.  I hope there will one day come a severe reckoning for all these crooks, cowards and traitors.

So here we are, stuck in a world right out of various dystopian, apocalyptic works of fiction.  Where do we go from here?  Well, as I have said in the past, democracy is not a spectator sport.  We need to vote, we need to call our representatives and remind them of exactly who they are supposed to be working for, and once we can get back in the streets we need to protest.

voting is a bus

Some liberals and progressives have decried the mantra “Vote blue, no matter who.”  They claim there is little to no difference between moderate Democrats and the Republicans.  The thing that needs to be recognized is that real, lasting change does not occur overnight.  It does not happen in just one single election.  Sometimes it requires long, difficult years to achieve progress.  It took women decades of struggle to gain the right to vote.  African Americans have been fighting against racism, segregation and white supremacy for over two centuries.

Right now we are teetering on the edge of dictatorship.  We need to pull the country back from the abyss before we can even hope to successfully advance a progressive agenda.

To do that we need to all work together.  We can figure out how & when to put programs such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and all of that into effect after we save the country from irrevocably transforming into a fascist corporate-run religious theocracy.

I normally do not veer into such gravely serious territory on this blog.  However, this time I felt compelled to do so.  I just hope that the current crisis will finally serve as a wake-up call.

Because, good lord, if the world is going to resemble a science fiction franchise, I want it to be Star Trek and not The Hunger Games.

Shin Godzilla

Michele and I went to see Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence, last week in the theater during its limited US release. Toho has once again rebooted the movie series, with Godzilla’s inaugural attack on Japan taking place in the year 2016.  The film is co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno.  Shin Godzilla is probably the darkest, most serious Godzilla movie since the very first entry in the series, Gojira, back in 1954.

shin-godzilla-poster

Shin Godzilla is a very political movie. With the story told in an almost-documentary style, events unfold from the perspectives of the politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to deal with Godzilla’s rampage & the aftermath.

The film’s protagonist is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Young, ambitious, and definitely something of a rebel, Yaguchi continually chaffs at the innumerable regulations that have to be dealt with amidst Godzilla’s arrival, as well as the overly cautious attitudes of the senior political establishment.

There are quite a number of issues at play here as they relate to Japanese society. Yaguchi is uncomfortable with the traditional deference to seniority & rank, preferring instead to work with people possessing talent & ability, regardless of their age or social status.  His assembly of various scientists & technicians, who he affectionately describes as misfits & outsiders, into a group dedicated to stopping Godzilla is a definite attempt to cut through the red tape that he feels has entangled the rest of the government.

The push by Yaguchi for the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take a proactive role in protecting the country from Godzilla also has real-world echoes. Japan was forced to de-militarize after its defeat in World War II.  During the early years of the Cold War the country was entirely dependent upon the United States for protection.  This eventually led to the formation of the SDF, which has for much of its existence served a very limited role.  In recent years, seeing the potential threats posed by North Korea and China, certain voices in Japan have called for the full-scale rearmament of the country.

At the same time, though, we do see in Yaguchi a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He wishes for Japan to shake off American influence and to be able to defend itself, but he also cautions against the overconfidence that led his country into catastrophic defeat 70 years before.

shin-godzilla-attack

The United Nations ordering a nuclear strike on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla before the creature can reproduce & spread across the globe is certainly rooted in Japanese fears. Japan is the only country to have ever been attacked by atomic weapons.  Obviously one can argue that the United States had a very strong rationale for using the atom bomb to end World War II back in 1945.  Nevertheless, within the movie we see the Japanese characters genuinely horrified at the possibility that their country will once again be devastated by atomic weapons, that in order to stop Godzilla the entire city of Tokyo will have to be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Yaguchi and his team race against the nuclear strike’s impending deadline to devise an alternate method of stopping Godzilla. With time of the essence, they are forced to ask for the assistance of Germany in analyzing their data.  When the team realizes it needs another day to finish their plans, Yaguchi’s allies in the government lobby France to extend the countdown by 24 hours.  Finally, when the SDF launches the attack devised by Yaguchi’s team, they receive valuable assistance from the United States.

I do not think the choice of these countries is accidental. Japan, Germany, France, and United States; seven decades ago the first two were mortal enemies of the later.  Now, in the present, all four of them set aside their differences and work together against a danger that threatens the entire globe.  The movie demonstrates again and again that cooperation is essential in stopping Godzilla: government and private industry must to pool their resources, military and science must work side-by-side, and nations must come together as allies.

shin-godzilla-profile

This is a very unconventional entry in the Godzilla series. That’s not surprising, given Hideaki Anno’s involvement.  He is best known for his work on the incredibly offbeat & bizarre science fiction anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which left audiences very divided.  (Years ago, after watching the final episode of Evangelion, I literally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a loud “WTF?!?”)

The conflict between generations was a central one in Evangelion, with anxious teenager Shinji Ikari attempting to find his own way in life and assert himself again his cold, manipulative father. Aspects of this extremely dysfunctional relationship appear to have been translated into Shin Godzilla, in the disagreements between Yagushi and his superiors, as well as the larger theme of 21th Century Japan rebelling against the overbearing, paternalistic attitude of the country’s older generations and the United States.

Of course we cannot forget Godzilla himself. There is an effort by Anno, Higuchi, and their collaborators to ground the creature in reality.  Obviously there is a certain limit to how well this can be pulled off, since the concept of a giant radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur is, when you get right down to it, rather implausible.  Nevertheless the movie does succeed rather well at giving Godzilla a certain verisimilitude.

A constantly-evolving life form, when we first see Godzilla he is an aquatic creature that walks on four legs. This initial form is very much unlike the monster we are used to, which led Michele to whisper to me “Is that Godzilla?”  I must have been frowning when I whispered back “I don’t think so.”  The detail that really threw us off was the creature’s pair of comically large googly eyes.  As the creature shuffles onto land and begins toppling buildings, all efforts to appear formidable are totally undone by those ridiculous peepers.

shin-godzilla-big-googly-eyes

At a certain point the creature plops to a halt and right then & there evolves into a bipedal creature.  That’s when I realized that this really was Godzilla, even though he still had those big googly eyes of his.  Fortunately the creature quickly makes his way back into the ocean.

Later in the movie, when Godzilla returns to land, he has evolved further, and is much closer to his traditional form. Twisted & grotesque, this is a monstrous incarnation, one that lumbers unceasingly forward, smashing everything it its path.  An unstoppable engine of destruction, this Godzilla is genuinely terrifying, a quality that has been seldom present in the creature since the original Gojira.

Anno’s use of music by the late Akira Ifukube from older Godzilla movies is effective. Ifukube’s music was a vital part in establishing the tone and atmosphere in many of the past entries.  It demonstrates just how effective his scores are that they are still being utilized.

Much as his work on Evangelion was divisive among viewers, so too has Anno’s approach resulted in a polarization of opinion on this movie. Some found the detailed focus on the inner workings of government in crisis to be fascinating.  Others felt Shin Godzilla was dull, and they expressed difficulty in keep track of the innumerable bureaucrats.

My own opinion falls in-between these two extremes. The scenes of committee meetings and press conferences and scientific gatherings are well written & insightful, although at times they do get excessive and drag on.  These could certainly have been scaled back.  I think that at least 15 minutes of the movie’s two hour run time could have been trimmed without losing anything of real significance.

Flaws aside, I found Shin Godzilla to be a good movie. After the underwhelming Godzilla: Final Wars back in 2004, Toho has done a good job at reviving the series with this new entry.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #2-4

The four issue miniseries The Rook by Steven Grant and Paul Gulacy published by Dark Horse recently concluded. I previously reviewed the first issue, so now I’m going to take a brief look at the remainder of the story.

The Rook 2 cover

Having been gifted the Time Castle by his older self, Restin Dane aka the Rook travels back from 2015 to the late 19th Century to seek out his great-great-grandfather Adam, the man who first discovered the secrets of time travel. Adam is, in fact, the unnamed narrator from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  In a paradoxical twist, Restin with his knowledge of 21th Century science plays a key role in his ancestor’s development of the first time machine.

Having related his experiences to his friend Wells (who of course goes on to describe them in his book), Adam returns to the far-distant future to lead the Eloi against the Morlocks. Resin follows after him in the Time Castle, only to discover that Adam’s mission has gone decidedly pear-shaped.  Adam also has, from his perspective at least, his first run-in with the sinister Quarb.

Grant sets up an interesting relationship between Restin and Quarb. The later is an incredibly long-lived being, having existed for countless thousands of years.  Restin, via time travel, has (or will have) encountered and fought against Quarb repeatedly throughout the millennia, but always in a non-linear manner.  It was Quarb who organized the “Rook Revenge Squad” (as I like to call them), the assemblage of Restin’s old enemies, in the first issue.  That was but one of the innumerable schemes that the immortal plotter has crafted over the eons.

I get the impression that Grant must have some flowcharts to keep track of the timelines of the various different characters, and the points at which they meet. I read issue #4 as soon as it came out last week.  Today I re-read the entire miniseries in one sitting.  A number of the connections and strands that Grant sets up in it suddenly became much clearer to me.

The Rook 3 pg 6

It’s interesting to see how events unfold. For now Grant leaves it up in the air if various occurrences are the result of time loops and predestination paradoxes, or if history actually is being rewritten by Restin’s actions.  As the Rook’s robot aide Man-Rs astutely observes in Dark Horse Presents #14, if you do alter the past then all of your memories of it, and all of the accounts in the history books, are instantly going to change, so you are never going to notice the difference.

Grant is definitely not doing the decompressed thing here. These four issues, plus the DHP prologue, are packed with plot and dialogue.  Considering that nowadays most 22 page “pamphlets” can be read in less than ten minutes, it’s a real pleasure to find a comic book that demands the reader’s attention to detail.

Once again the art by Paul Gulacy is amazing. As I’ve written on a few occasions, I am a huge fan of Gulacy’s work.  I really think he is such an underrated talent.  His storytelling and action sequences are among the very best in the field of sequential illustration.  Gulacy demonstrates his versatility, effectively depicting both Victorian London and the far distant era of the Eloi and Morlocks.  Jesus Aburtov’s coloring once again looks amazing over Gulacy’s art.

It’s worth mentioning that Grant imbues his stories with a certain amount of humor. Gulacy’s art very ably complements that quality.  His style is definitely hyper-detailed, but he also possesses the ability to render comedic scenes through exaggerated figures and facial expressions.  The encounter between Quarb and the Morlocks in issue #3 literally had me laughing out loud.

The Rook 3 pg 17

Grant and Gulacy are currently working on a second miniseries. I’m definitely looking forward to it.  The Rook was a great read, and I’m anticipating the further adventures of Restin Dane.

Dark Horse will be releasing a trade paperback of The Rook on May 25th. If you missed this miniseries then I highly recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #1

I’ve been anticipating The Rook miniseries from Dark Horse since it was first announced several months ago.  I was not familiar with the character, other than being aware that Restin Dane was a time traveling adventurer created by W.B. DuBay and featured in various Warren Publishing titles between 1977 and 1982.  Even so, the creative team for this revival of The Rook immediately grabbed my attention.

The Rook 1 cover

Steven Grant was the writer of the Punisher: Circle of Blood miniseries that helped to catapult the character into A-list status.  Grant has written a number of excellent, intelligent crime and horror series over the years.  In particular, I enjoyed his writing on The Damned and Mortal Souls, as well as his offbeat revamps of Challengers of the Unknown and Manhunter in the mid 1990s.

Paul Gulacy is an artist who I’ve blogged about previously.  After his breakout run on Master of Kung Fu, Gulacy went on to work on such diverse characters as Sabre, Batman, Valkyrie, James Bond, Black Widow, Terminator, Catwoman, and G.I. Joe.  I’m a huge fan of his work.

Even though The Rook is a pre-existing character, Grant & Gulacy have made Restin Dane entirely accessible to new readers.  An eight page prologue, “The Gift,” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #14.  The time traveling Dane arrives thousands of years in the past in the city of Ilion, where the inhabitants are celebrating the ending of a long war.  At first Dane is confused about his whereabouts… until he spots a giant wooden horse, and belatedly recalls that Ilion was another name for Troy.  Uh oh!

DHP 14 pg 5

“The Gift” was a solid introduction to the character of Restin Dane.  Grant gives us a good look at his personality and hints at his mission.  I felt that Grant packed in more plot and characterization into this short prologue than many writers nowadays manage to fit into a full-sized comic book.  It definitely left me intrigued and eager to read the actual miniseries.

Within the first issue, Grant again sets out essential information.  It is quickly established in that Dane originates from some point in the 21th Century, and that he is embroiled in a temporal feud with a sinister individual known as Lock.  With that, the story barrels ahead, presenting both action and mind-bending questions.

As a fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, I really appreciate the fact that Grant is exploring the nature of time travel, and the possible paradoxes inherent within it.  “The Gift” suggests that Dane, in attempting to alter events and prevent the destruction of Troy, instead causes history to unfold exactly as it was written.  The implication is that Dane always was going to arrive in the past to play that specific role in it.

Moving on to the first issue, Dane arrives in his own past in the year 2015, affecting people and events, including his own younger self.  I’m really curious to see what Grant does over the next three issues.  Only a couple of weeks ago I was touching upon the concept of the bootstrap paradox in another post.  Now I am wondering if Restin Dane’s timeline will be another example of a causal loop.  Hey, the cover logo does have an infinity symbol / Mobius strip contained within it!

Then again, perhaps Grant is playing with reader expectations and is actually going to go in an entirely different direction.  We shall have to see.

The Rook 1 pg 2

The artwork by Gulacy in the DHP prologue and in the first issue of the miniseries is amazing.  He superbly renders the historical setting of the Trojan War and early 19th Century Spain, as well as the hi-tech and fantastic elements.

Gulacy is one of the best action artists in comic books; his fight sequences are dynamic.  He definitely knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.  I was also struck by Gulacy’s designs for Lock’s sinister coterie of assassins against whom Dane is pitted in the first issue.

Last but certainly not least, the rich coloring by Jesus Aburto suits Gulacy’s artwork very well.  It definitely works to create a genuine atmosphere.

I enjoyed the debut issue of The Rook and am looking forward to reading the next three installments.  A sequel by Grant and Gulacy is reportedly already in the works.  I certainly recommend this miniseries.  The first issue is still on sale, and it is also available digitally.  I hope everyone will check it out.

Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

Monsters Who’s Who

It can be a mixed experience revisiting a piece of your childhood, equal parts joy and surprise.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction and horror and monsters ever since I was a kid in the early 1980s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was definitely a geek.  I didn’t have many friends; instead most of my free time was taken up by books and movies and cartoons.

The school library at Davis Elementary in New Rochelle had a handful of books about monsters, the kinds from movies, the ones from myth, and the supposedly-real creatures hiding just out of sight.  These were a real pleasure for me, a momentary escape from the tedium of homework and book reports.

One of the books from the library was Monsters Who’s Who, published in 1974 by Crescent Books.  It was a huge illustrated encyclopedia containing profiles on a diverse selection of strange, scary beings… at least that’s how I remembered it.  I hadn’t seen that book in literally decades, but last week on a whim I decided to see if it happened to be on Amazon.  Much to my surprise there were quite a few used copies available dirt cheap.  I ordered one for a mere 84 cents… plus $3.99 shipping & handling.  You have to laugh when postage is more than four times what you’re paying for the book!

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight...
I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…

The book arrived in the mail, and with it were a couple of surprises.  The first was that it had a completely intact dust jacket.  I’d never seen the cover before; the school library copy was missing the jacket.  It’s actually a rather nice illustration.

As for the second surprise… hey, wasn’t this book much bigger?!?  When I was a kid Monsters Who’s Who seemed immense!  My memory of it was that it was a huge, thick volume.  Instead the reality is that it measures 11 by 8.5 inches and is only 122 pages.

Oh, yeah, after all these years I’ve finally learned just who wrote Monsters Who’s Who.  Seriously, there’s no author credit inside the book itself.  But the front flat of the dust jacket reveals that it was penned by none other than Dulan Barber!  Um, wait… who?!?  That has got to be a pseudonym.

Okay, putting aside my unreliable 30 year old memories of Monsters Who’s Who, it actually is a neat book.  I’m not at all surprised that I was so interested in it when I was a kid.  It contains a really diverse selection of subjects.  Yes, the write-ups are for the most part extremely short.  But the photos & illustrations are great.

Among the absolutely-fictional entities profiled in Monsters Who’s Who are such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Godzilla.  A variety of mythological creatures including the Chimera, the Hydra, Medusa, the Sphinx and the Unicorn are also found in these pages.  Third, there are the real and possibly-real beings, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Some of the profiles of mythical beasts are accompanied by very old artwork.  Very few of them are credited, regrettably, but they are certainly beautiful.  And occasionally you have an odd piece like this one…

Who's a good doggie? Who's a good boy?
Who’s a good doggie? Who’s a good boy?

This might have been the first occasion when I heard of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Greek underworld.  Even at eight years old I found this illustration to be not so much fearsome as forlorn.  All three of Cerberus’ heads wear a sad expression, as if they want nothing more than to receive a nice tummy rub!

There are also a few comic book characters, specifically from the pages of Marvel Comics.  I had forgotten that Monsters Who’s Who was the first time I ever learned of the oddball Incredible Hulk character known as the Bi-Beast.  The Hulk himself also has a profile in the book.

Actually, the writer plays very fast & loose with the term “monster.”  The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (spelled as “Spiderman”) have entries in this book.  Admittedly this does make a certain amount of sense.  The early Marvel universe devised by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was definitely a weird, unsettling place populated by strange beings which did not neatly fall into the categories of “good” and “bad.”

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

There were also a few profiles of Doctor Who monsters!  Seriously, the timing of me discovering Monsters Who’s Who in the school library was perfect.  I’m not totally certain, but I think it was in 1984 when I was eight years old.  I had just started watching Doctor Who on PBS station WLIW Channel 21 only a couple of months before, first seeing the final season of Tom Baker and then the beginning of Peter Davison’s run.  Finding this book right on the heels of that helped me understand that the show had been around for quite a few years, and that the Doctor had fought some interesting monsters in the past.  I remember wondering if any of them would ever show up in the episodes I was now watching.

It must have been only a week or so later and I was at home one weeknight watching Doctor Who.  The TARDIS had landed in some dark caves.  A bunch of soldiers armed with ray guns were searching for something, not realizing that they were being hunted by these two mysterious androids.  Next thing you know the soldiers had come across the Doctor and his companions.  After the usual misunderstanding where they assumed the Doctor was their enemy, they joined forces when those androids showed up and started shooting.

And then the episode came to a completely shocking cliffhanger ending when the beings controlling the androids were revealed… at which point my eyes jumped out of my head.  Silver robot-like creatures with handles on the sides of their heads?  There’d been a photo of them in Monster Who’s Who, hadn’t there?  Oh, how I wished I had the book beside me at that moment!  The next day at school during lunch I broke land speed records getting to the library, grabbed Monsters Who’s Who off its bookshelf, and flipped rapidly through it.  Yes, it was them!  It was the Cybermen!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!
Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

That was my very first Doctor Who related geek-out.  Obviously it left a major impression on me to remember it so vividly 32 years later.  I know I was equally thrilled when that night episode two of “Earthshock” aired on WLIW and contained actual clips from old Doctor Who stories.

I think that in the 21st Century we often take for granted the immense amount of information that we have at our fingertips.  Just hop on any computer, or turn on your smart phone, and within minutes you can Google any subject or look it up on Wikipedia.  You can download old movies and television shows with little effort.  It’s very easy to forget how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet age, when discovering a book like Monsters Who’s Who was like unearthing a geek goldmine.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start with one of those “when I was your age” tirades.  I am not that bad.  Well, at least not yet!  Nevertheless it is nice to recall some of my more pleasant childhood memories.  Just me and some monsters taking a stroll thru the past.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part two

Here is the second part of my look at Roger Slifer’s run on the DC Comics science fiction series The Omega Men.  (And here’s a link back to part one.)

Previously the tyrannical Citadel, which brutally ruled Vegan star system, was overthrown in an assault headed by Tigorr of the Omega Men.  As issue #8 opens, the inhabitants of Vega’s 22 worlds are celebrating their newly-won freedom.

Omega Men 8 cover

While the various members of the Omega Men begin to adjust to the idea of victory, the enigmatic human criminal Harry Hokum is working behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos.  He decides that the former figurehead leader of the Citidel would make an ideal puppet ruler.  Guiding him, Hokum quickly begins organizing the surviving Citadel factions, rebuilding the fallen alliance with amazing speed.

It is quite interesting to see what Slifer is doing in these issues.  It is a common theme in sci-fi and space opera to have a resistance movement fighting a desperate battle against a ruthless dictatorship.  What you see much less seldom is the eventual outcome of such struggles.  What happens after you overthrow the evil empire?

As was demonstrated on numerous occasions in the real world throughout the 20th Century, more often than not when a totalitarian regime is overthrown, it is not replaced by a stable democracy.  Instead, another dictatorship steps in to take its place.  Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran… all of them saw one form of oppression supplanted by another.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes.  And in cases where that did not occur, the other likely outcome was complete disorder.  Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya within the last decade and a half.

Slifer obviously wanted to look at how the Omega Men would attempt to stabilize the Vegan system which, after decades of Citadel rule, is now in disarray.  Tigorr was so concerned with topping the Citadel as quickly as possible that he did not consider what would happen next.  The result is that the Omegans are caught completely off-guard when the charismatic Hokum begins consolidating power.

Omega Men 8 pg 18

The new Citadel is, in certain ways, more dangerous than the old one.  As was previously revealed, the First Citadelian made his regime so totally vicious because he wanted to drag the entire Vegan system down to his level of violence & ruthlessness.  In contrast, Hokum is not interested in proving a point.  He wants to rule over a stable empire.  Instead of merely relying on brutality, he also utilizes guile and deception, weapons which are much more difficult to detect and to fight back against.

Slifer addresses the question of what freedom really means.  I think that here in Western society we take for granted that freedom is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Many of us do not give it too much thought.  But for other cultures and societies, freedom is a very different concept.

In the real world the question has often been asked of what to do when a tyrant is elected by democratic means.  If outside forces disapprove and decide to overthrow that dictator, in the process are they not taking away that country’s freedom to decide its own destiny?  Slifer has the Omega Men facing that very question when several Vegan worlds voluntarily join Hokum’s new Citadel, lured by promises of order & security.

The question is also explored on a more personal level by Slifer via the character of Broot.  He is still haunted by grief and uncertainty following the tragedy he unwittingly caused on his home planet of Changralyn.  Broot realizes that the lull in hostilities finally gives him the opportunity to search for his wife Kattayan, who was taken by the Gordanian slavers years before.

Broot tracks his wife to a harsh planetoid.  It is here that all of the children seized from Changralyn by the Gordaians have been taken, to spend the rest of their lives in brutal toil, mining valuable minerals under extremely dangerous conditions.

Broot is aghast to see these children relegated to this fate, and disgusted that they have embraced his society’s religion of extreme nonviolence, passively accepting their roles.  He is also shocked to discover that Kattayan has been teaching the children to follow that faith.

Omega Men 13 pg 9

At first Broot desperately wants to take his wife and the children away from their desolate existence.  He attempts to convey to them the vast possibilities of life:

“It is easy to choose the simple path, to take the path of least resistance in living your lives. But in the end they are empty lives, enriching neither yourselves nor your spirit. Each one of you needs to learn to look beyond your present lives, to the true potentialities of the universe. And of your true potentialities.”

In response, the children tell him that this is the only life they have known, that in their own way they are happy here, and that they do not know how they would exist in the vast universe outside.  Broot realizes that just as he will not allow others to dictate his own individual path, neither can he force these children to conform to his idea of freedom.  He has extended to them the choice to leave, and he must respect their decision even though he disagrees with it.

Slifer also focuses on Kalista, wife of the Omegan leader Primus.  After Tigorr’s victory over the Citadel, Kalista is preparing to resume her role of monarch of Euphorix.  She had only reluctantly given up the throne as part of a deal with the opportunistic Alonzo Dulak.

In exchange for Kalista letting him assume control of Euphorix, Dulak erected an energy shield around the planet, preventing the Citadel from conquering it.  Although this has spared her world the ravages of war, Kalista is nevertheless eager to resume her role as queen as quickly as possible, as she finds Dulak untrustworthy.  Indeed, we see that Dulak is quite the autocrat.  Under his rule Euphorix has adopted zero tolerance broken windows policing, as an unfortunate pair of litterbugs discover when they are summarily vaporized.

Once hostilities break out again, and the revived Citadel attacks the now-defenseless Euphorix, Primus and Kalista find themselves at odds.  Primus is determined the attempt to salvage the peace in Vega.  Kalista, however, is now primarily concerned with her home planet.  She informs Primus that she intends to raise the energy shield again, this time permanently, and that if he will not join her on Euphorix then she is ready to end their marriage.

Omega Men 12 pg 6

Kalista is faced with a painful dilemma, between her planet and her husband.  Although her ultimate decision to safeguard Euphorix and abandon both Primus and the rest of the Vegan system seems cold, it is clear that the decision is a difficult one for her.  As the queen of Euphorix, she genuinely regards herself as the servant of her people, and perceives it as her duty to protect them, even if it means sacrificing her happiness.  For Kalista, the freedom of her people is paramount to her own.

In issue #11 Slifer looks at the origins of Harpis and her now-deceased sister, the treacherous Demonia.  They were both prostitutes in an upscale bordello on the planet Raggashoon.  Harpis was extremely good at her job, bringing pleasure and comfort to her many clients.  But her existence then came crashing down as a result of the machination of the Citadel officer Komand’r, aka Blackfire, the older sister of Starfire from the New Teen Titans.  The sadistic Blackfire forces several of the prostitutes, including Harpis and Demonia, to undergo genetic manipulation, transforming them into concubines for her various alien lieutenants as a way of cementing their loyalty.

As written by Slifer, Harpis is very much a victim.  She is constantly being manipulated, either by her sister or by the Citadel.  Harpis relies on others for strength, unable to find it within herself.  In the present, severely wounded by the bounty hunter Bedlam and learning of her sister’s death, Harpis is completely distraught.

I wish that Slifer had made Harpis an emotionally stronger character.  I feel that her backstory has not aged well, and that three decades later, when assertive female protagonists are fortunately much more commonplace, Harpis’ weakness seems even more apparent.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge Slifer’s writing in this way.  After all, he did write Kalista as a strong individual.  As in real life, not everyone, be they male or female, is going to end up being assertive and independent.

Omega Men 11 pg 14

Lobo the bounty hunter returns to the pages of The Omega Men, this time as an ally of the Omegans.  Slifer appears to have recognized the character’s potential popularity early on.

Of course, given that Lobo was introduced as a brutal sadist, it would have been ridiculous for him to suddenly turn heroic.  The mercenary joins forces with the Omega Men because he feels that the Citadel did not uphold their end of their bargain with him.  Lobo also finds it highly amusing that the Omega Men, despite their disgust for him, are forced to enlist his services.  At the end of issue #9, Primus realizes that he has no idea how to effectively fight Harry Hokum’s new, manipulative incarnation of the Citadel.  Reluctantly Primus approaches Lobo and acknowledges “We need someone as twisted as they are.”  Lobo, of course, chuckles at this admission.

In these bleak stories, Slifer obviously realized that a certain amount of humor was needed in order to keep the series from becoming a depressing slog.  Lobo provides some of that humor, albeit once again of an extremely macabre type.  Slifer also continues to utilize the Omega Man known as Shlagen.  The goofy-looking yellow-hued member of the Omegans is a technician, not a warrior, and he is constantly finding himself in over his head.  Shlagen is definitely not the bravest of individuals, to say the least, and his reluctant, bumbling heroism certainly helps to lighten the stories.

Slifer also generates comedy via the interactions of Lobo and Shlagen, who are complete opposites.  Shlagen was the first character to encounter Lobo back in issue #3, and he only survived because the bounty hunter didn’t feel like killing him.  Since then, Shlagen keeps bumping into Lobo over and over again, much to the former’s alarmed consternation and the latter’s twisted amusement.

Omega Men 9 pg 9

If there is one significant weakness to Slifer’s work it is that he never seemed to find a way to balance out the huge cast of characters.  Various regulars disappear for several issues at a time.  I guess that not every writer can be a Paul Levitz or a Chris Claremont and excel at juggling large casts of characters and multiple plotlines.

The art team on The Omega Men #s 8-13 is penciler Tod Smith and inker / embellisher Mike DeCarlo.  They do excellent work throughout these issues, demonstrating genuine versatility.

Slifer’s stories featured some previously unexplored inhabitants and worlds of the Vegan system, and the art by Smith & DeCarlo really brings these exotic, alien creations to life.  They expertly illustrate the various action sequences.  They also do effective work rendering the quieter character moments.  And in the moments of comedy, they successfully bring Slifer’s humor to life.  Smith & DeCarlo are especially good at depicting Shlagen’s misadventures throughout these issues.

Slifer’s run came to an abrupt end with issue #13.  In the letter column, Slifer wrote “Because of irreconcilable differences between myself and DC, this will be the last issue of The Omega Men written by me.”

It is unfortunate that Slifer had to depart the book.  In his year on the series he did spectacular character development and world-building while telling exciting & challenging stories.  It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone from this point, exploring the fractured alliances of the Omega Men and the resurgence of the Citadel.  I wonder if he would have eventually revealed who Harry Hokum was , since the character literally showed up out of nowhere in issue #3.  At least in his final story Slifer was able to conclude the story arc he began with Broot a year earlier, providing the character with closure and peace of mind.

I regret that it took Roger Slifer’s recent untimely death to motivate me to re-read these first 13 issues of The Omega Men.  Looking through them, it is apparent that he was a talented, imaginative, thoughtful writer.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012.  Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz.  His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.

The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton.  They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger).  Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them.  Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series.  Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.

Omega Men 1 cover

When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor.  Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.

I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then.  Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions.  I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.

The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval.  Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy.  The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence.  He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.

Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself.  Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel.  The only thing uniting them is a common enemy.  They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.

The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr.  Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories.  The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter.  He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel.  Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.

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The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong.  Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for.  On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive.  What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches.  Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that.  Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy.  As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.

Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman.  Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful.  Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism.  They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.

Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace.  Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken.  The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians.  Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.

Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves.  Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all.  In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.

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Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths.  The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery.  When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered.  It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.

Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating.  Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel.  As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega.  Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.

Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel.  Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex.  Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…

“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression.  But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all!  Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”

The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it.  The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution.  The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.

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Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith.  The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself.  These revelations are horrific.

The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system.  One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”

Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence.  They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx.  One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate species will epitomize love or war.

(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story.  It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part.  It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part.  I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)

To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx.  The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her.  Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck.  The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.

Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood.  The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors.  She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings.  One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron.  The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people.  This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.

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Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust.  They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor.  Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian.  He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster.  The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that.  He tells the Omega Men…

“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls.  I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves.  And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others.  Just like me.”

With that the First Citadelian dies.  Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it.  As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.

Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject.  In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.

A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo.   The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3.  Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum.  Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix.  In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.

Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.

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Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work.  If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck.  Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below.  Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex.  What do you want?  It was the early 1980s after all!  I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends.  It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.

Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence.  Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print.  Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines.  Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!

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The artwork on these issues is certainly good.  I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments.  Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic.  On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts.  DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good.  His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences.  Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system.  His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences.  Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.

Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to part two.