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.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

Nicola “Nick” Cuti: 1944 to 2020

Longtime comic book writer, editor & artist Nicola Cuti passed away on February 21st.  He was 75 years old.

E-Man 1 cover smallCuti, who was known to his friends as “Nick,” is best known for co-creating the superhero / sci-fi comic book series E-Man with artist Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  I’ve blogged about E-Man on several occasions.  Although I did not discover the series until 2006, I immediately became a HUGE fan.  The combination of Cuti’s brilliant, clever, imaginative writing and Staton’s animated, cartoony artwork resulted in a series that was exciting, humorous, poignant and genuinely enjoyable.

However, there was much more to Cuti’s lengthy career than just E-Man.  He was a versatile creator.

A longtime science fiction and comic book fan, Cuti began self-publishing his own black & white comic book series Moonchild Comics in the late 1960s.  The three issue series featured the outer space adventures of the voluptuous wide-eyed Moonchild the Starbabe.

Cuti was a huge fan of the legendary Wallace Wood, and on a chance telephoned the artist.  Woody agreed to look over Cuti’s portfolio, and he asked the young creator to work as one of his assistants.

Moonchild Comics
Moonchild Comics #2 by Nicola Cuti, published by San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1969

While he was at Woody’s studio Cuti learned there was an opening for an assistant editor at Derby, Connecticut-based publisher Charlton Comics.  Tony Tallarico, an artist who was doing work for Charlton at the time, urged Cuti to apply.  Cuti interviewed with editor George Wildman, who offered him the job.

In an interview conducted in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, Cuti described his role at Charlton:

“Basically, I was the production department, myself and another guy by the name of Frank Bravo… The two of us handled the entire production department which meant that when artists would send in completed stories, we would look over the artwork, proofread it, and if there were any spelling mistakes, we corrected them. And if there were any pieces of artwork that had to be corrected for one reason or another, we would do that.”

Cuti also worked as a freelancer for Charlton, writing numerous short stories for their various horror anthologies throughout the 1970s. In addition to Staton, Cuti collaborated with a diverse line-up of artists that included Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Wayne Howard, Sanho Kim, Don Newton and Mike Zeck.  Cuti was a regular writer on the licensed Popeye comic book that Charlton published, as well as penning several stories for their Space 1999 comic book adaptation.  He also worked on Charlton’s romance titles.  As he would later explain in the interview with Comic Book Artist, one of the highlights of working for Charlton had been the opportunity to write for diverse genres, to tell various different types of stories.

Haunted 36 pg 11
“The Night of the Demon” by Nicola Cuti and Tom Sutton from Haunted #36, May 1978

In addition to his work at Charlton, Cuti was also a regular contributor to the black & white horror magazines from Warren Publishing.  Regrettably I am not all that familiar with Cuti’s writing for Warren, although I am sure that he did quality work there, just as he did for Charlton.  I encourage everyone to head over to fellow WordPress blog Who’s Out There?  Last year Gasp65 spotlighted the crime noir story “I Wonder Who’s Squeezing Her Now?”  Co-plotted by Cuti & Wallace Wood, scripted by Cuti, penciled by Ernie Colan, and inked by Woody, the story was originally written & drawn in 1971, finally seeing print in the fifth issue of the Warren anthology title 1984 in February 1979.  Cuti’s scripting on this tale, especially the ending, demonstrates what a thoughtful and intelligent writer he was.

In the early 1980s, following the demise of both Charlton and Warren, Cuti worked as an assistant editor for DC Comics.  In 1986 he moved to California and began working in television animation, a field he remained in for almost two decades.  Beginning in 2003 he worked on a number of independent films featuring characters he created such as Captain Cosmos and Moonie.

It is regrettable that Cuti was never able to establish himself as an especially successful comic book writer outside of Charlton and Warren, because he was, as I said before, an incredible writer.  Fortunately he established both a creative rapport and a friendship with Joe Staton early on, and over the succeeding decades the two men periodically reunited at several different publishers to chronicle the further adventures of E-Man, his girlfriend & crime-fighting partner Nova Kane, and scruffy hardboiled private detective Michael Mauser.  Cuti and Staton really did have a wonderful creative collaboration, and I definitely enjoy their work together.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 pg 2
The origins of E-Man and Nova Kane, as retold by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1, 2017

Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet Cuti, although I was able to correspond with him on Facebook.  From everything I have heard from those who did know him, he was a genuinely good person.  After his passing numerous heartfelt tributes were penned by his friends and colleagues.

I am going to quote in full longtime DC Comics editor Paul Levitz’s lovely tribute to Cuti on Facebook:

“You can learn something about a creator’s personality from their work, but it isn’t always a completely reliable guide. If you read Nick Cuti’s work you’d get the feeling that this was a man with a generally positive outlook on life. His characters were playful, joyful even. But you’d still be underestimating the cheerful glow that Nick broadcast.

“As an editor, he ignored the moribund state of Charlton Comics and recruited talent who would go on to be industry leaders—John Byrne, Joe Staton, even my buddy and prolific DC scribe Paul Kupperberg broke into pro ranks at Nick’s hand and encouragement. And he created—with Joe Staton —Charlton’s last great series, E-Man, a hero who charm reflected Nick’s own.

“At DC for a number of years he was a relentlessly cheerful presence, and a guardian of the old humor treasures from our vault, making them available to a new audience.

“As a cartoonist he could blend smiles with sexy, and give us his Moonchild.

“The announcement of his death today after a battle with cancer leaves the world with less smiles…and hopefully his spirit in the world of his starry children.”

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 cover smallOn his own blog my friend Nick Caputo wrote a detailed retrospective of Cuti’s career which I hope everyone will check out.

If you are unfamiliar with Nicola Cuti’s work, I hope this will prompt you to check it out.  A lot of the Charlton comics can be found relatively inexpensively in the back issue bins at comic conventions and shops that carry older back issues.  Most of the E-Man comic books are also relatively affordable.  The original Charlton series, which ran for 10 issues, was reprinted by First Comics in the miniseries The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser.  Cuti wrote the final two issues of the E-Man run published by First in the mid 1980s.  Between 1989 and 2008 various E-Man and Michael Mauser comics by Cuti & Staton were released through Comico, Apple Press, Alpha Productions, Digital Webbing, and Argo Press.

Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton’s final E-Man and Nova story was serialized in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1-3, which can be purchased through Mort Todd’s Charlton Neo website, along with a number of other cool titles. As I’ve said before, I am glad Nick and Joe had one last opportunity to reunite and bring the curtain down on these wonderful characters.

Thank you for all of the wonderful stories throughout the decades, Mr. Cuti.  You will definitely be missed by all of your fans, friends and colleagues.

Comic book reviews: Femforce #188 and Superbabes #2

I’ve written about Femforce, the comic book series published by AC Comics, a couple of times in the past. It’s a fun, entertaining series that doesn’t often get the attention it deserves, so I’m happy to put in a good word for Bill Black, Mark Heike and their various collaborators.  Now that AC is once again publishing Femforce in color for the first time since 1995, as well as having launched the spin-off title Superbabes, well, I couldn’t think of a better time to revisit the series.

Superbabes 2 coverFemforce features a team of female superheroes.  The series has been in continuous publication since 1985, a good 35 years.  The Femforce line-up is made up of a combination of heroines who were originally published in the Golden Age of Comics and newer characters developed by Bill Black.  Leading the team is the now-immortal Ms. Victory, aka Joan Wayne, a scientist who developed a serum for super-powers during World War II.  At her side is former socialite Laura Wright, who initially fought crime as the masked vigilante Blue Bulleteer, and who later was recruited by the extra-dimensional sorcerer Azagoth to be his disciple, becoming the sorceress Nightveil.

Among the other longtime Femforce members are the hot-headed She-Cat, who gained her powers from the malevolent cat deity Sekhmet, the alien scientist Stardust from the planet Rur, the ditsy Synn, a former hippy and go-go dancer who possesses incredible mental powers but whose intellect was damaged due to long-term drug use, and Tara, an ardent environmentalist who has the power to grow giant-sized.

The most recent releases from AC Comics featuring the characters are Superbabes #2 and Femforce #188.  I enjoyed both issues.  They have a tone to them that is very reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s superhero comic books from Marvel.

Superbabes #2 is written & drawn by Mark & Stephanie Heike, with letters by Alex De Luca, and a cover by Johannes Vick & the Heikes.  “Heads I Win, Tails You Ooze” sees Gorgana and Wampyr, two old foes of Femforce, escaping from the government-run Colorado Complex.  Femforce is called in to try to recapture their adversaries, who have fled to a nearby ski resort.  It’s a bit of a goofy story, but nevertheless fun.

Superbabes 2 pg 8

The main story in Femforce #188 is “Crimson Prologue.”  It is written by Bill Black, penciled by Eric Coile, and inked / colored / lettered by Black.  The focus falls on one of the team’s deadliest enemies, the evil sorceress Alizarin Crimson, who is planning yet another attempt to destroy Femforce and conquer the Earth.  We learn that it was Alizarin who was responsible for the disappearance of Nightveil’s incredibly powerful Cloak of Darkness several years earlier.  Alazarin launches her first strike against Femforce and their allies, leading to a cliffhanger ending.

Femforce 188 coverThe back-up feature in #188 is the final chapter of a flashback story set during the 1980s featuring a team-up of Nightveil and the Sentinels of Justice.  It is written & drawn by Black.

There’s always been a lot of overlap between these two teams.  A few Femforce members also having been on the Sentinels roster, and several of the Sentinels are long-time supporting characters.  Although the Sentinels of Justice only had their own title for a short time in the mid 1980s, Black is obviously very fond of the characters.  It’s nice that he’s able to work on back-up stories featuring the team, keeping them in the spotlight.

One quality I really enjoy about the Femforce and Superbabes titles is that here is a whole lot of continuity and ongoing subplots.  Both the Heikes and Black frequently tie in current events to a lot of the older storylines from the past 35 years.  However, they always do this in such a way that there is ample exposition with which to bring readers up to speed.  Even though I don’t own copies of every single AC comic book ever published, I’ve never felt lost, because there is always enough information given when older events are alluded to.  Plus these books have footnotes!  I really miss having those in Marvel and DC’s comics.  They’re really helpful if you want to seek out the issues where those old stories took place because they tell you exactly which ones to seek out.

Considering that nearly all of the characters in Femforce and Superbabes are women, many of them revealing skimpy, skintight costumes, inevitably there is a fair amount of T&A.  For the most part I find this is tastefully done, at least compared to quite a few other comic books out there.  The characters are also drawn with somewhat more realistic anatomy and physiques than you often find in female-centric superhero comic books.
Femforce 188 pg 1

I guess my only major quibble with Femforce is that the team line-up is very WASPy.  Nearly all of the characters are white.  I think a major factor in this is due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, these characters either originated back in the 1940s, or were developed by Bill Black beginning in the late 1960s.  Unfortunately back then there was much less of an interest in diversifying the casts of comic books.

That’s not to say that there have never been any non-white characters in Femforce.  One of the team’s members in stories set during World War II was Rita Farrar, aka Rio Rita, a Latina adventurer & secret agent.  In present day stories Rita’s granddaughter has worked with Femforce on a number of occasions.  The team’s longtime government liaison was General Roberta Strock, an African American woman.  And I’m sure there are a few other characters who I can’t recall offhand.

That said, in the future it would be nice to see a bit more diversity within the regular Femforce line-up.

Femforce 188 pg 19

One last note: I’m glad that Femforce is back in color for the first time in a quarter century.  I understand that the economics of a small company publishing in a difficult market necessitated this.  However, I often thought the blacks printed much too dark in the B & W artwork, and that there weren’t enough grey tones, at times making it a bit difficult to make out some of the details or the flow of action.  I hope that going forward the book sells well enough that it car remain in full color.

I encourage anyone who is a fan of Bronze Age comic books to give Femforce a try.  I think issue #188 is a really good jumping-on point.  If you can’t locate it at your local comic shop then check out the AC Comics website, where current issues, as well as a lot of older ones, are available for purchase.

It Came From the 1990s: NFL SuperPro #6

Tonight is Super Bowl LIV (that’s 54 for you non-Roman types) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs… and I’m not watching.  Sorry, but football is not my thing. I’ve never been able to figure out the rules of the game, no matter how often I try to watch it.  Besides, I have always found the Super Bowl a real test of endurance, given that it’s a 60 minute game stretched out to four hours by innumerable commercial breaks and a typically-vapid halftime shop.

NFL Superpro JuskoAlso, I am soooo not a fan of the NFL, who have continually tried their hardest to push aside Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice & police brutality, but who are more than happy to make Michael Vick a Pro Bowl caption, in spite of his conviction for running a dog-fighting ring.  Add to that the whole dealing with pot-smokers more harshly than wife-beaters, and the attempts to sweep traumatic brain injuries under the rug, and I have little use for the NFL.  No wonder the rest of the world plays soccer instead!

And now that I have probably managed to get the entirety of football-loving America violently angry at me, let me welcome everyone to another installment of my occasional feature It Came From the 1990s.  This is where I take a look back at various odd, unusual or noteworthy comic books that were published during that decade.  Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, hey, I might as well cast my glance at NFL SuperPro #6.  Published by Marvel Comics, it inadvertently became one of the most controversial comic books of the 1990s.

What was NFL SuperPro about?  I’m a bit lazy, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

“NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series published by Marvel Comics, centered on Phil Grayfield, an ex National Football League (NFL) player who survives a freak accident and wears a near-indestructible football uniform. Produced in collaboration with the NFL and written by Fabian Nicieza and artist Jose Delbo, the series started publication in 1991 and ended after 12 issues.”

The character made his debut in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Edition special released by Marvel in January 1991.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this book is the painted cover by the incredible Joe Jusko.  I supposed it’s a toss-up over which was a career highlight for Jusko, painting this cover or the one he did for the Nightcat special.

(Okay, in all seriousness, this is a good reminder that when you are a freelance artist, even one as acclaimed as Jusko, you sometimes need to take on assignment that are a bit, um, unusual, because at the end of the day it’s money in the bank.  Ditto for everyone else who worked on NFL SuperPro, and who were just trying to pay their bills.)NFL SuperPro 6 cover

Several months after the Super Bowl Edition an ongoing NFL SuperPro series was launched which, as indicated above, lasted for a year.  And that brings us to issue #6, cover-dated March 1992.

“The Kachinas Sing of Doom” was written by Buzz Dixon, penciled by Jose Delbo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Evelyn Stein.  The cover was penciled by Rob Tokar & Ron Frenz, with inks by the legendary Joe Sinnott.

Phil Grayfield, in his role as a sports journalist, is doing a story about ice skating champion Laura Eagle when she is attacked by a trio costumed as Hopi kachina figures.  The kachninas, who are armed with such ridiculous weapons as nunchucks and a chainsaw, are ostensibly after Laura because she has turned her back on the Hopi to become an athlete in the “white man’s world.”  However, in a twist straight out of Scooby Doo, the kachinas are actually a group of non-Indians in the employ of corrupt businessman Tyler Gaunt.  Gaunt has his thugs dress up as kachinas in an attempt to discredit a group of Hopi political activists led by Laura’s sister who are opposed to Gaunt opening a casino on their tribal lands.

When this issue was published the real-world Hopi tribe was reportedly very unhappy, and found it offensive.  This almost certainly had to do with the villains dressing as kachinas, which are important figures in the Hopi’s faith.  Even though in this story the kachinas were unmasked as Caucasian villains, it seems likely that, given how frequently Native Americans have been poorly depicted in American popular culture over the decades, the Hopi were just annoyed at elements of their culture & faith being appropriated.  Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Laura having traumatic childhood memories of the kachina ceremonies.

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 2

As per both the Recalled Comics website and Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed on Comic Book Resources, Marvel responded to the Hopi’s complaints by pulling the comic from sale.  However, by the time they made the decision the next issue had already shipped to stores, rendering the whole thing a bit meaningless.

The thing I find most surprising about all this was that, if the numbers in the news item seen on Recalled Comics are accurate, NLF SuperPro #6 had a print run of over 70,000 copies.  That’s just insane!  Last year there were issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman that sold less copies than that.  Really goes to show just how insanely inflated comic book sales had become in the early 1990s.

By the way, one of the aspects of NFL SuperPro that was often derided by readers was that Phil Grayfield was, to quote Buzz Dixon, “certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box.”  That can certainly be witnessed in this scene from issue #6…

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 13

*Shakes head sadly* Oh, Phil, what are we going to do with you… well, other than bring your comic book to a merciful end in another six issues?

At one point The Chicago Sports Review described NFL SuperPro as “perhaps the worst comic book ever created,” although I don’t think it’s nearly as deserving of such hyperbolic vitriol as some other comics which were more risible or embarrassing.  All these years later I think most comic book fans look back upon it with a shrug of bemusement.

Still, if you were to choose one image to perfectly sum up NFL SuperPro, well, this panel from issue #10 certainly does the trick…

NFL SuperPro head thump

Believe me, Phil, we’re all asking exactly the same thing!

It Came From the 1990s: Force Works #1-3

Welcome to another edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time I and my fellow SBTU participants will be looking at comic book “gimmick covers” from the 1990s.

The first gimmick cover was the silver foil cover featured on Silver Surfer #50, released by Marvel Comics with a June 1991 cover date.  It instantly sold out (14 year old me drove my parents nuts trying to find a copy) and was very quickly followed just a month later by Ghost Rider #15 with its glow-in-the-dark cover.  That issue also sold like hotcakes, and the age of the gimmick cover was upon us.  In the longstanding spirit of American capitalism jumping on a trend and riding it right into the ground, comic book publishers were very soon churning out gimmick covers an insane rate, until we were all very sick of them.

That brings us to the comic I’m spotlighting: Force Works, which debuted in mid-1994.  The first three issues were written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, penciled by Tom Tenney, inked by Rey Garcia, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Joe Rosas.

Force Works 1 cover

I really think this was moment when gimmick covers demonstrably jumped the shark, when the gimmick became so utterly ridiculous & impractical that you were just left shaking you head in bemusement.

What was the particular gimmick cover that Force Works #1 featured?  Why, it was none other than a pop-up cover!  That’s right, when you pulled the flap on the front cover up and back, it unfolded into a three dimensional display of the Force Works team fighting an army of alien Kree soldiers.

Here are some photos I took of my own copy, which demonstrates the cover in action…

FW1coverA

FW1coverB

FW1coverC

The major problem with the Force Works pop-up cover was that it could be really difficult to get the darn thing to fold back closed.  When you lowered the flap back down, that central pop-up of Wonder Man, fist raised in the air, struggling against the Kree, had a tendency to get tangled up in the other pop-up pieces, resulting in the thing being stuck halfway open as seen in the photo below.  Any efforts to straighten it out would have to be done very carefully, otherwise the whole thing might just get torn in half.

FW1coverD
HELP!!! HOW DO YOU GET THIS DAMN THING CLOSED?!?

So, ludicrous cover gimmick aside, what the heck was Force Works about anyway?  Spun out from the recently-cancelled Avengers West Coast series, Force Works was an effort by Marvel Comics to replicate the edgy popularity of the bestselling X-Men spin-off X-Force devised by Rob Liefeld in 1991 and apply it to some of the Avengers characters.  It’s fairly obvious that Force Works was also an attempt to capture the tone (and readers) of the various other red-hot paramilitary superhero series that Liefeld and the other Image Comics founders subsequently created in the early 1990s such as Youngblood and Brigade.

This scene from the first issue of Force Works sums up the series’ mission statement, with Iron Man pitching the concept to his fellow ex-Avengers:

“The universe has become profoundly more dangerous since the Avengers were first assembled. These days the Earth plays a far more active role in matters of galactic importance.

“The stakes are far higher, far more often.

“I believe that it is the duty of Earth’s Mightiest to use their powers proactively, to protect this planet’s interests… and, if necessary, pursue an aggressive policy of defense and security.”

Force Works 1 pg 6

Ah, yes, the “proactive” super hero team… It’s an idea that sounds good in concept, but seldom works well in execution, at least not at either Marvel or DC Comics, with their shared universes and their ongoing serialized narratives that rely on the illusion of change to maintain a basic status quo.

For example, you cannot have the Avengers becoming proactive, invading Latveria, overthrowing Doctor Doom, and locking him up in a maximum security cell for life, because he’s just too darn popular a villain, and in six months another writer or editor is going to want to use him in their book.

Additionally, the more “proactive” or “aggressive” superheroes become, the closer they end up veering into fascist territory.  I’ve touched upon this before, but this is an unfortunate result of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen being hugely successful, and comic books publisher then trying to apply the whole “grim & gritty” ethos to mainstream superheroes throughout the 1990s.  Yeah, Rorschach was a proactive, take-no-prisoners vigilante, but if you actually read the damn book it’s clear that Moore & Gibbons were showing us that he’s also a horrifying, insane monster.  But too many readers missed (or flat-out ignored) the subtext and just thought Rorschach was cool.  The publishers noticed that reaction and quickly jumped on that train.  Remember what I said before about taking a popular trend and running it completely into the ground?

Whatever the case, even though Iron Man intends for Force Works to be a “proactive, aggressive” team, it speaks volumes that their very first adventure is totally reactive, with first the Kree, and then the insect-like Scatter, attacking the Earth, instantly forcing the heroes into a defensive position.

Force Works 2 pg 22

Another reason why Force Works #1 was derided by many readers, besides that gimmick cover, was that it pointlessly killed off longtime Avengers member Wonder Man.  And this was just a few months after Mockingbird, another well-liked Avenger, had been pointlessly killed off in West Coast Avengers #100, once again for no other reason than to have a shocking, dramatic event.  Those two deaths back-to-back really felt like a slap in the face to Avengers fans.

Wonder Man and Mockingbird did both eventually return from the dead.  So, yeah, by the 1990s we were already at the point where death in superhero comics had become a predictable revolving door, and no one honestly expected anybody to stay deceased permanently.

The first issue of Force Works also introduced the brand new character of Century.  In a lot of respects Century just totally screams Nineties.  He has a cool-sounding name that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who he is or what he does, he has a ridiculously over-detailed costume design, he uses a freaking axe called Parallax that allows him to teleport by cutting through the fabric of space, and he has an ultra-mysterious past that even he isn’t sure about because he’s suffering from amnesia.  Oh, yes, he also had an odd speech pattern.  Century is a walking, talking thesaurus, as seen in these various examples from just the first three issues…

Force Works Century

Honestly, Century should be incredibly annoying, because on the surface he seems to epitomize everything that was awful about comic book characters introduced in the 1990s.  But the thing is, I think he’s actually really cool and interesting, both visually and character-wise.  It’s probably because DnA don’t write Century as some sort of kewl badass, but rather as a stranger in a strange land, a lost alien who exudes a genuine vulnerability.

It also helps considerably that DnA had apparently decided right from the get-go exactly what Century’s past was supposed to be, and they wrapped up the mystery of his origins only a year and a half later, rather than frustrating readers by  leaving it as a long-dangling subplot.

Looking over the run of Force Works again last week, with the storylines involving Century, the Kree, the Scatter and other characters, I can actually perceive hints of the sort of really good “cosmic” and space opera storytelling that DnA would be doing only a dozen years later with the epic Annihilation event and the super-successful revival of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Force Works 2 pg 10

It’s definitely worth noting that unlike a lot of up-and-coming young artists who were thrown onto comic books in the early 1990s with a remit to capture the tone of the Image Comics founders, Tom Tenney does a credible job penciling these issues.  His work here is solid, showing quite a bit of potential.

Tenney’s career in comics was relatively brief.  Subsequently he worked for a number of years in the music industry, which was another of his passions. In the last few years he’s returned to comics, once again creating interesting work, which can be seen on Facebook.  He’s listed as contributing a variant cover to the second issue of the upcoming Force Works 2020 miniseries.  That’s right, Marvel is bringing Force Works back.

Another point in favor of Force Works is inker Rey Garcia.  I really enjoyed the work done on the series by the Filipino-born artist.  Like many of his fellow countrymen who previously worked in comic books, Garcia had a very lush, illustrative style.

When considering Garcia’s work on Force Works, it must be pointed out that the series had an insanely high turnover rate for pencilers.  Tom Tenney regrettably only drew the first four issues, and after that it was a revolving door.  During Force Works’ 22 issue run there were literally a dozen pencilers who worked on it… at least, I think the total was 12, but I might have missed one or two.  Whatever the case, Garcia inked nearly every issue of Force Works, which helped keep the look of the series somewhat consistent through all of those changes.

Force Works 3 cover

So there you have it, Force Works #1, one of the more ridiculous mainstream comic books to come out during the 1990s.  Nevertheless, when all is said & done, I remain fond of some aspects of the series.  All these years later I still like the character Century.  Also, I appreciate how Abnett & Lanning worked to make the Scarlet Witch into a stronger, more assertive character by having her lead the team, and show her standing up to Tony Stark who, let’s face it, can definitely be a control freak.  I still regard both Tom Tenney and Rey Garcia as talented, underrated artists.  I also think this series was a bit of a harbinger to DnA’s later, better work.

Still, though, I certainly don’t lament the lack of subsequent fold-out comic book covers.  That was just too much!

SBTU Chromium

Here are the rest of the Super Blog Team-Up: Chromium participants.  Please check them out. Thanks! (I will be adding links as they become active.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths: Adventures of Superman #500 (White Bag/Lenticular Cover/etc.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths (Podcast): Episode 33: Team Titans #1 (1992) Five Variant Covers… and five variant stories!

 

Comic Reviews by Walt:  The ’90s Revisited: Shiny Covers

 

Source Material: Spider-Man Torment (issues 1-5) by Todd McFarlane

 

Super-Hero Satellite: 70s-80s Photo Covers: A snapshot of pre 90s era of gimmicks, the evolution of a trend through the years

 

ComicsComicsComics: Daredevil 319-325 Fall from Grace Gimmick covers and a new costume

 

The Telltale Mind: Worlds Collide – The Intercompany Crossover

 

Between The Pages: Guerilla Marketing

 

DC In The 80s – Justin and Mark’s 5 Most Memorable DC “Gimmick” Covers

 

Comics In The Golden Age (Mike) – Fawcett’s Mighty Midget comics

 

Unspoken Issues – Darkhawk #25

 

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog Connected Covers gimmicks – New Teen Titans 37/Batman and the Outsiders 5

 

When It Was Cool: The Blight of the Pollybagged Comic Book

 

Pop Culture Retrorama: Glow In The Dark Covers

 

Black & White and Bronze Comics Blog – Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1968: Stan Lee’s foray into the magazine format

2020 Visions: Machine Man and Iron Man

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion, today I am taking a quick look at the comic book adventures of Machine Man and Iron Man in the distant, far-off future year of, um, uh, 2020 AD… Okay, yeah, I can’t believe it’s 2020 already, either!

Machine Man mini 2 pg 22

Machine Man was created by none other than the legendary Jack Kirby himself, debuting in, of all places, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series, which had been inspired by the film / novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  First known as Mister Machine, aka X-51, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey #s 8-10 published in mid 1977.

Mister Machine was a robot who gained sentience, with one of the mysterious alien Monoliths from the movie playing a role in his evolution towards becoming almost human.  Following the cancellation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book, the character, renamed Machine Man, received his own ongoing series in early 1978.  Kirby wrote & penciled Machine Man for nine issues, with Mike Royer providing inks.

Machine Man mini 1 cover smallBy late 1978 Kirby had become disenchanted with mainstream comic books, and he left Marvel Comics to go into the animation field.  The storyline begun by Kirby in Machine Man was concluded by writer Roger Stern and penciler Sal Buscema a few months later in Incredible Hulk #s 234-237.  This was followed by a revival of the Machine Man ongoing series, picking up from the original numbering, with another Silver Age legend, Stave Ditko, as the artist.  Issue #s 10-14 were written by Marv Wolfman, with Tom DeFalco then writing #s 15-19.

In the early 1980s Machine Man made the occasional guest appearance here and there.  He was once again given the spotlight in 1984 with the Machine Man four issue limited series, set three and a half decades in the future, in the year 2020.  Tom DeFalco returned to wrote X-51’s future adventures.  The first three issues had pencils / breakdowns by Herb Trimpe, with finished art & colors by Barry Windsor-Smith, an unusual pairing that nevertheless worked very well.  BWS took over the full art chores for Machine Man #4, also co-plotting that final issue.  Michael, Higgins, Diana Albers, Janice Chiang and Jim Novak lettered an issue apiece, and the whole thing was edited by Larry Hama.

DeFalco’s story is set in a dark industrialized dystopia where corrupt corporations have seized political power (so, yeah, not too different from our actual real-world 2020, amiright?) and bands of anarchist scavengers hope to find a free, independent existence under the radar.  One of these groups of Midnight Wreckers, searching through a dumping ground belonging to Baintronics Inc, discovers a box containing the dismantled Machine Man.  Evading the Baintronics security forces, the Wreckers return to their base and re-assemble Machine Man.

Machine Man mini 1 pg 12

Baintronics is run by Sunset Bain, an industrialist & socialite who moonlighted as the masked arms dealer Madame Menace, clashing with Machine Man on more than one occasion back in the day.  Now in 2020 she is allied with Miles Brinkman, a former US Senator who is another old foe of X-51.  Brinkman had previously waged a McCarthy-esque campaign of fear-mongering against Machine Man, hoping to ride a wave of robotphobia to greater political power.

DeFalco has an interesting approach to the future incarnations of Bain and Brinkman.  At this point they have basically won, having amassed tremendous political & financial power, yet they are seemingly unable to enjoy their spoils, having grown old & tired, reduced to worn-out shadows of their former selves.  And once they learn that Machine Man has been reactivated they are consumed by uncontrollable paranoia that this former adversary will seek to destroy them.  The pair are defeated as much by their own failings as they are by Machine Man and the Midnight Wreckers.

Machine Man mini 3 pg 12

DeFalco shows that Machine Man is actually more human than either Sunset Bain or Miles Brinkman, who in their fear and panic project upon him their own ugly motivations of hatred and vengeance.  Machine Man, as well as his onetime love, the silver robot Jocasta (rebuilt by Bain to be her aide, but ultimately serving as her conscience), are more capable of feeling compassion and expressing forgiveness than their human foes.

The miniseries introduced Arno Stark, descendant of Tony Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.  Arno is an amoral mercenary, and he is more than happy to accept an assignment from Sunset Bain to hunt down & destroy Machine Man.  Iron Man clashes twice with Machine Man, and in both encounters he is defeated by his robot opponent.

Machine Man mini 4 pg 11

This leads into the events of the Iron Man 2020 special, which was published a decade later, in 1994.  It was co-plotted, by Bob Wiacek & Walter Simonson, scripted by Simonson, penciled & inked by Wiacek, with Will Rosado penciling the second half of the book over Wiacek’s layouts.  This was one of the all-too-infrequent penciling jobs by Wiacek, who is best known for his work as an inker / embellisher.  Rosado, who was early in his comic book career, also did good work here. The special was lettered by John Costanza and colored by Christie Scheele.Iron Man 2020 cover small

As a tie-in, Marvel re-issued the Machine Man miniseries as a two double-sized issues.  That was certainly helpful to me, as I hadn’t been reading comics regularly in 1984, and so missed the original release.

The Iron Man 2020 special opens very soon after the events of the miniseries.  Much like Bain and Brinkman before him, Arno Stark is a haunted man: haunted by his defeat at Machine Man’s hands, haunted by the burden of keeping the financially weakened Stark Enterprises afloat, and haunted by the seeming impossibility of living up to the legend of his ancestor, Tony Stark, the original Iron Man.  As the old saying goes, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

Desperate to save his company, Arno accepts an offer from Marcus Wellington, one of his biggest competitors.  Arno is hired to rescue Wellington’s daughter Melodi, who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is being held for ransom.  Arno dons his Iron Man suit and sets course for the terrorists’ island stronghold.  Of course, as is often the case with corporate machinations, the situation is much more complicated than it initially appears, and Arno soon finds himself in the middle of more than one double cross.

The end result of these events are that they push Arno Stark towards, well, not necessary becoming a hero, by any means, but at least to start walking a slightly less avaricious, brutal path.

Iron Man 2020 pg 35

Hey, everyone loves a good redemption story.  Certainly Wiacek & Simonson make this one more believable than most by showing that it’s only just the beginning of Arno Stark’s path away from villainy.

I’ve met Bob Wiacek on a few occasions at comic book conventions.  A decade ago at a February 2010 show he did a drawing of Iron Man 2020 in my villains sketchbook.  It is a distinctive costume, a sort of retro future look, almost steampunk with those big gears, and he renders it well.

Iron Man 2020 by Bob Wiacek

I didn’t want to get into too many specific details about either the Machine Man miniseries or the Iron Man 2020 special, because I think they are both worth tracking down and reading.  Marvel published an Iron Man 2020 trade paperback in 2013 collecting both, along with several other stories.

Also, for those interested in Machine Man’s various Bronze Age incarnations (the original Kirby stories, the Ditko-drawn revival, and the 1984 miniseries) I recommend checking out Back Issue #25 from TwoMorrows Publishing.  “Call Me Mister… Mister Machine!” written by Allan Harvey is offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info concerning Machine Man’s adventures in the 1970s and 80s.

And of course, since it’s now 2020 in the real world, Marvel Comics is bringing back Arno Stark.  It seems that Tony Stark is going to die (what, again?!?) and Arno, who in “mainstream” Marvel continuity is Tony’s long lost twin brother (yes really!), will become the new Iron Man… at least until the inevitable resurrection.  Still, with writing by Dan Slott & Christos Gage, it sounds like it could be a fun ride.

Once again, happy new year to all of you.  Let’s hope 2020 is a good one. Or, as the Midnight Wreckers might have put it, “YAH-ZOO!”

Star Wars reviews: The Rise of Skywalker

The reviews and reactions to the new Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker have been extremely mixed.  In a way, that is to be expected, because this movie is intended to be the conclusion of the decades-long saga that has unfolded through the eight previous “episode” installments of the franchise.  Episode IX had an extremely formidable task to fulfill and, let’s face it, there was almost no way writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio could possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations.

Here are some of my thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker.  Call it a review, an analysis, or just the ramblings of a 43 year old fan, and (as always) feel free to disagree.

SW TROS

1) Star Wars is for kids

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since my father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980 when I was four years old.  In the early 1980s I was absolutely mad about Star Wars.  I had a whole bunch of the action figures, and I would make up my own adventures.  The three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi felt like an eternity to my young self.  Finally it arrived in the theaters.  My father took me to see it, and I absolutely loved it.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long argued that the series is really intended for kids.  I believe there is some truth to this.  Yes, there are quite a few elements to the movies that older viewers can appreciate & enjoy.  But at its heart Star Wars is basically a space opera, the big budget descendant of the old movie serials featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, high tech fairy tales set in outer space.

As an adult, watching first the prequels from Lucas and now the sequels from Disney, I have always endeavored to try to remember that I was a kid when I saw the original three movies, and to mentally bring myself back to that place.

Seven year old me would have absolutely loved The Rise of Skywalker.  It was a really fun, exciting movie.  There were a lot of parts that I genuinely loved, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that left me gasping in awe.

Having said that, I am an adult, and there were several aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that my older sensibilities found to be flawed or problematic…

SW TROS Finn Rey Poe

2) Rey of sunshine

Two of the best parts of the sequel trilogy have been the characters Rey and Finn, played by Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  Both are great additions to the mythos.

In the previous installment, The Last Jedi, it was revealed that Rey’s parents were basically nobodies, and she was not the heir to any kind of family legacy.  This was a crucial aspect of the movie’s main theme, that the Force was not just for the Jedi, that anybody had the potential to access it, no matter who they were or where they came from.

I liked this development.  Unfortunately others did not.  Following Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens there had been a ridiculous amount of speculation on social media about who she really was.  There were some really insane theories put out there tying her to established characters.  So when Rian Johnson revealed that Rey was no one in particular, these people lost their collective minds, seeing this as a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately Abrams either disagreed with Johnson’s approach, or was pressured by Disney to reverse this because of the supposed fan backlash.  So in TROS we find out Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.  Watching the scene where this is revealed, in my head I could almost envision Disney shouting to the audience “Okay, okay, stop yelling at us! Fine, Rey isn’t a nobody! She’s actually Papatine’s granddaughter! Are you happy now?!?

This felt like an attempt to placate angry fans, with the story falling back into the well-trod, traditional structure of myths & fairy tales.  I don’t think it was necessary.

Having said all that, Ridley does her best with the material. She really shows just how shocked & horrified Rey is at discovering she’s kin to the most evil being in the galaxy.  Ridley definitely sells the character’s inner turmoil, as well as her struggle to leave her heritage behind and become her own person.  Obviously the theme of “transcending your family’s dark legacy” was already done with Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, but Ridley nevertheless does a good job showing Rey’s journey through this difficult process.

I’ve also enjoyed the character arc of Finn through these three movies.  He really grows during the course of the storyline.

When you think about it, Finn is a brave, extraordinary individual.  When he was only a child he was kidnapped by the First Order and conscripted into their Stormtrooper army.  Despite years of indoctrination by his fascist masters, Finn was able to retain a conscience, to recognize what the First Order was doing was wrong.  More important, he found the strength to actually do something about it, first by deserting their ranks, and then by standing up to his former masters, actively fighting against their tyrannical cause.

TROS continues Finn’s development.  He is a much more confident figure than he was in the previous two movies.  Additionally, the idea that potentially anyone, no matter what their background, can use the Force is basically transferred from Rey’s character to his, and it is revealed that Finn is Force-sensitive.

Another important development for Finn occurs when he meets other ex-Stormtroopers who have also fled the First Order.  Boyega’s really does a good job of showing just how much it means to Finn to find others like him who have broken free from the First Order’s brainwashing and are now fighting against it.

SW TROS Kylo Ren vs Rey

3) Ren faire

One of my favorite online bloggers / reviewers is Darren Mooney.  He is an intelligent, insightful writer.  Even when I disagree with him, I find his arguments & reasoning to be well-constructed and thought-provoking.

Two months ago Mooney wrote a piece entitled “The Rise of Skywalker Can Correct Return of the Jedi’s Failings.”  One of Mooney’s criticisms of ROTJ is as follows:

“Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but possibly accurate.  Now, none of what Mooney argues ever occurred to me when I was seven years old watching ROTJ.  Indeed, in 1983, having only seen Vader’s very limited actions in the original trilogy, killing the Emperor to save his son did appear to be a genuine act of redemption.

However, in the decades since, having witnessed Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side depicted in detail in the prequels, actually seeing the atrocities he committed in Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, the Rebels animated series, and the comic book stories set during these periods, you might very well find yourself asking if turning against the Emperor in ROTJ to save Luke really does balance the scales, if it is truly enough for him to earn redemption.

So I had what Mooney wrote in mind while watching Kylo Ren’s arc unfold during TROS.

Leia uses the Force to connect with Kylo Ren, dying in the process.  A distracted Ren is mortally wounded by Rey, but she immediately uses her own Force energy to heal him.  After his mother’s sacrifice and Rey’s act of mercy, it’s clear that Ren no longer wants to continue down the terrible path he is on.  At the same time, he is fully aware of all the horrible crimes he has committed, including the murder of his father, and he is afraid that, with all the blood on his hands, he does not have the strength to change.

Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo really is haunted, especially when he reaches this turning point.  The conversation between him and his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is both well-written and subtly performed.  I appreciated that it was left ambiguous if Ben is truly communicating with his father’s ghost, or is actually struggling with his conscience within his own head.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, Ben’s ultimate act of redemption does feel more genuine than Vader / Anakin’s did.  Yes, Ben turns against the First Order and stands side by side with Rey in opposing the Emperor.  However, he truly redeems himself after the battle is over, Palpatine has been destroyed, and victory has been achieved.  Rey has been killed, but Ben uses his own life energy to revive her, sacrificing his own life.  His final act is not killing an enemy, but selflessly saving the life of a friend.

SW TROS Leia

4) Farewell to a Princess

One of the obvious obstacles that faced Abrams & Terrio in making TROS was Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death in December 2016.  Early plans for the movie would have had General Leia Organa as one of the main characters; obviously all of those plans had to be scrapped.  Abrams & Terrio were left with about eight minutes of unused footage from TLJ featuring Leia, which meant that they had to write the story around that.

To their credit, Abrams & Terrio do a good job of smoothly incorporating the footage of Fisher into the movie.  None of it feels forced.  If you were watching the movies and had no idea how real life events had dictated the production you might be left wondering why the character of Leia had so little screen time, but there wasn’t anything there that leaps out to indicate that Daisey Ridley was acting opposite footage of Fisher that was shot two years earlier.

5) Cavalcade of cameos

It was good to have Lando Calrission return to the series. I had a huge smile when he first appeared on screen.  It certainly seemed like Billy Dee Williams was having a blast playing the character again.  I think Lando’s character was pretty well served by the screenplay, so his presence wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia to please older fans.

We also see a glimpse of Wedge Antilles during the final battle, although in that case it was unfortunately just a cameo.  It would have been nice if Denis Lawson’s character had gotten a bit more screen time.  I realize Wedge was a minor character in the original trilogy, but he became a major figure in the X-Wing comic books & novels from the old Expanded Universe.

The most surprising appearances by older characters were during Rey’s confrontation with Palpatine.  Rey taps into the Force to give her strength, and she hears the voices of a number of Jedi Knights, both from the previous movies, as well as from the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, certainly a cool nod to those characters.

SW TROS Lando

6) United we stand

The Rise of Skywalker is much less overtly political than The Last Jedi.  Nevertheless, there is a message to the movie.

We meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) a smuggler Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) knew from his pre-Resistance days operating on the fringes of the law.  Speaking of the threat posed by the First Order, Zorii tells him:

“They win by making you think you’re alone… There’s more of us.”

This is later demonstrated when Lando organizes a fleet made up of ships from numerous planets to stand against the Emperor’s armada on Exegol.  On their own, none of the ships from these disparate civilizations would be able to stand up to the First Order, but united together they are a match for Palpatine’s forces.

Without getting into too many specifics, the point here is that the far left, liberals, moderates and centrists need to set aside their differences and work together to fight against fascism.  Once that is accomplished then we can sit down and hash out compromises for our various positions, but until then we must present a united front.

Also, the whole subplot with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turning out to be the spy in the First Order giving information to the Resistance feels timely.  Considering what a smug, sadistic creep he it, at first Hux would appear to be the last person you would expect to help the Resistance, at least until he explains to Fin and Poe: “I don’t care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose.” Yes, that is perfectly in keeping with Hux’s petty, selfish nature.  I was instantly reminded of the numerous anonymous leaks out of the Trump Administration, as well as the backstabbing and scheming that has taken place over the past three years as the grifters and opportunists have jockeyed to grab power.

Likewise, it is not surprising that General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) takes the first opportunity available to shoot down Hux in cold blood.  Later, after Kylo Ren abandons the First Order, Pryde quickly & eagerly switches his allegiance to the Emperor. There is no loyalty or honor in the First Order, only a craving for power at any cost.

7) Bursting at the seams

There was enough material in TROS to fill at least two movies.  That resulted in some rushed scenes, and certain characters getting short shrift.

The most notable instance was Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran.  Rose was a central figure in TLJ, but she spends most of TROS sidelined.  Maybe it was that there were too many characters.  Maybe it was because Rose was created by Johnson, and Abrams didn’t have much interest in her.  Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate, because following the release of TLJ both the character and the actress were subjected some truly vile racist and sexist attacks on social media.  Even if it’s inadvertent, Rose’s diminished screen time here feels like Disney kowtowing to toxic fandom.

Another area where there wasn’t anywhere enough development was with the mysterious Knights of Ren, who were first briefly glimpsed in TFA.  They finally show up in TROS, but they’re just a bunch of faceless, nameless mooks who silently follow Kylo Ren around for most of the movie and then, after he turns away from the dark side, unsuccessfully try to kill him.  And that’s it.

SW TROS Rose

8) Let’s get Sidious for a moment

The return of Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was certainly one of the most noteworthy aspects of TROS.  Even though he was spectacularly killed off at the end of ROTJ, it does feel appropriate to bring him back.  While Darth Vader is, thanks to Ralph McQuarrie’s design and James Earl Jones’ vocal performance, the most iconic villain of the whole SW saga, it is the Emperor who is the true Big Bad of the first six movies.  So if TROS was to be the conclusion of the Skywalker family story then it makes sense for the ultimate evil of the saga, Darth Sidious, to play a key role.

The Emperor’s return doesn’t make much sense in-story (more on that below) and the actual mechanics of his resurrection are left extremely vague.  When Kylo Ren threatens to kill him, Palpatine merely responds “I have died before. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”

Later on a member of the Resistance suggests a few possible explanations, one of which is cloning.  Perhaps this was a nod to the now out-of-continuity comic book miniseries Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy, published by Dark Horse in 1991, which saw the Palpatine return in a cloned body.  (Likewise, the ancient Sith planet Exegol might be inspired by Korriban, which appeared in several of the Dark Horse SW series.)  Whatever the process the Emperor returned to life, it was apparently not perfect, as he spends the entire movie looking even more ancient & wizened than before, hooked up to an elaborate framework of life support machinery.

The Emperor’s plans are also left vague, other than a general “conquer the galaxy again” type of thing.  He seems to alternate between wanting Kylo Ren to kill Rey so that she can’t oppose him, and getting Rey herself to kill him so that his spirit can transfer into her younger body.  Towards the end of the movie Palpatine seems ready to abandon both those plans when he suddenly discovers he can drain energy directly from Rey and Ben to restore his own body.

However dodgy the plotting is, it was good to have McDiarmid back as the Emperor.  He’s played the role on & off for over three and a half decades now, and he effortlessly slips back into the Emperor’s foul persona, turning in an evil, twisted performance, once again making Palpatine the man we all love to hate.

The resolution of the battle between Rey and the Emperor was also well done.  Rey is faced with a seemingly-impossible conundrum.  If she kills the Emperor his spirit & powers will inhabit her body.  If she doesn’t kill him than he still has more than enough life in him to live long enough to destroy the Resistance.

In the end Rey wins by turning the Emperor’s own power against him.  She uses her lightsabers and the Force to deflect the Emperor’s lightning bolts back at him, in effect causing him to kill himself. As Yoda advised in TESB, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

SW Dark Empire 2 pg 18

9) Making shit up as we go along

It’s pretty obvious that bringing back the Emperor in TROS, revealing that he created Snoke and was controlling the First Order from behind the scenes all along, was something that Abrams & Terrio came up with pretty late in the day.  There’s absolutely no indication of any of this going on in either TFA or TLJ.  A revived Palpatine hiding away on Exegol and preparing a massive fleet of Dark Side Star Destroyers capable of obliterating entire planets, and using the First Order to keep everyone occupied in the meanwhile, doesn’t make much sense, because the previous two movies already showed the First Order wiping out the New Republic and making good progress in seizing control of the entire galaxy all on its own.

Over the past few years several people have suggested that it was a mistake to have the First Order be simply the Galactic Empire with a new coat of paint.  It would have made more sense to have the First Order be some sort of insurgent group organized by Imperial war criminals who had escaped justice, a subversive entity undermining the New Republic via terrorist attacks.  That seemed like it would have been good idea before TROS came out.  It would have made even more sense now that it’s actually been established that the First Order was always intended by Palpatine to be a diversion while he rebuilt his forces in secret.

All of this speaks to Disney’s failure to plan this trilogy out ahead of time.  It was a mistake to have the writers / directors working in isolation, with no general overarching plan.  Abrams did TFA, then passed the ball to Johnson to do TLJ, and who in turn was supposed to hand it off to Colin Trevorrow to do TROS before that fell through due to “creative differences,” with Abrams getting brought back late in the day to wrap things up.

Honestly, this has been a problem with Star Wars throughout much of the series’ existence: it was made up on the fly.  Despite what Lucas later claimed, it seems pretty obvious that the original was intended to be a stand-alone movie.  Otherwise Lucas would not have asked Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a story that could be filmed quickly & cheaply, using as many existing costumes & props, just in case Star Wars happened to do well enough for a second movie to get the green light.

It was only when Star Wars unexpectedly became a gigantic runaway success that Lucas really committed to the whole nine episode storyline, and even there he continued to make it up as he went along, working with several other writers.  For example, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were still separate characters in the early drafts of TESBThe early plans for ROTJ were for only Darth Vader to die, and for the Emperor to escape at the end.  That was supposed to set up the next trilogy, which would see the Empire rebuilding, and Luke searching for his twin sister, who was hidden away at the opposite end of the galaxy. Unfortunately while Lucas was starting work on ROTJ his marriage fell apart, and he was in such a bad place emotionally he decided to just bring everything to a close with that movie.  So suddenly both Vader and the Emperor died, the Empire was defeated, and Leia was implausibly revealed to be Luke’s sister.

This meant that three decades later, when Disney decided to finally make that third trilogy, they found themselves having to undo the final, decisive defeat of the Empire in ROTJ.  So all of a sudden the First Order appears out of nowhere, and the New Republic is quickly wiped out, in a really blatant resetting of the status quo.

Looking at all of the movies, it’s clear that the ones that are most internally consistent are the prequel trilogy, all of which were written & directed by Lucas.  Say what you will about the scripting or the acting or whatever, the fact is that Lucas appears to have plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, and stuck to that plan throughout the making of all three movies, resulting in a trilogy that actually does feel like a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney really should have looked at the missteps that Lucas made with the original trilogy, and the successes that he did actually achieve with the prequels, and planned the entire storyline for their trilogy out right from the start.  Instead they just rushed into it without any concrete idea of where they were going, and it shows.

SW TROS Emperor

10) To make a long story short… Oops, too late!

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about The Rise of Skywalker, so let’s cut to the chase.  I enjoyed it.  It had some really great action sequences, as well as some genuinely good, moving character arcs & developments, and felt like a pretty good emotional conclusion to the overall saga.  Nevertheless, it also had a lot of flaws.  It was good, but it could have been better.

I really think Disney should step back for a bit, learn some lessons from the missteps of this new trilogy, and take the time to decide exactly what they want to do next with Star Wars.  The franchise still has a ton of potential to tell all sorts of stories, but it’s the kind of property that cannot be approached half-assed, that needs a certain amount of thought & planning.  I wish them luck, because I would love to one day see Star Wars return better than ever.

Star Wars reviews: Allegiance

Star Wars: Allegiance is a four issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics.  Allegiance is written by Ethan Sacks, drawn by Luke Ross, colored by Lee Loughridge, and lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles.  Cover artwork is by Marco Checchetto.  The miniseries is set between the events of the movies The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.

SW Allegiance 1 cover

Back in 2015 Marvel published Shattered Empire, which was set after Return of the Jedi, in order to explore into some of the events that eventually led to The Force Awakens.  Marvel did not do one of these linking miniseries bridging The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi since there’s only a day or so between the two movies, which really doesn’t give much room to tell any stories of significance.  I suppose Marvel could have done a story about the Resistance packing up their base on D’Qar, but maybe they figured they’d be pushing their luck trying to stretch that out into a four issue miniseries.

In any case, The Last Jedi ended with the Resistance down to one ship and a couple of dozen people.  I’m sure a lot of people were left wondering what the heck was going to happen next, how the Resistance could possibly recover from their devastating losses to again pose any sort of impediment to the First Order.  I definitely was!  It certainly seemed there would have to be some gap in time between TLJ and the next movie during which the Resistance reorganized.

Indeed, Allegiance sees the Resistance attempting to acquire new ships, weapons, recruits, and allies.  Unfortunately the First Order is trying to prevent this by ruthlessly destroying any planet that give aid to the Resistance, or that has spoken to the Resistance, or possible has even simply heard of the Resistance.

The First Order’s action here are not surprising, given that it is ruled by Kylo Ren, a spoiled, entitled brat with no impulse control whose first instinct is to lash out at anyone that pisses him off, and who is served by such deplorable sycophants as General Hux, a petty sadist who is looking for an excuse to bully others.  The writing by Sacks and artwork by Ross depict the First Order’s actions in a very brutal a light, never glossing over their evil.

SW Allegiance 1 pg 5

The original plan for The Rise of Skywalker was to have General Leia Organa as one of the main characters.  The unfortunate death of actress Carrie Fisher in December 2016 obviously prevents this.  Reportedly Leia will appear in TROS via several minutes of unused footage from TLJ, but her role will no doubt be limited.

Keeping this in mind, it feels like the Allegiance miniseries sets out to rectify this by focusing on Leia, giving the character one last opportunity to  step into the spotlight and play a central, important role in the SW narrative.

Rey and Rose Tico are supporting characters in this story.  Rey is basically trying to figure out how to handle the burden of now carrying the legacy of the Jedi squarely on her shoulders.  Rose is fully on board with the Resistance movement.  It seems likely both women will have a lot of screen time in TROS, so Sacks understandably limits their roles here, instead focusing on Leia.  That said, Rey does get a couple of good action sequences, which are well-rendered by Ross.

Leia, accompanied by Rey, Rose Tico, Chewbacca and C-3PO, travel to the planet Mon Calamari to mourn the passing of her longtime comrade-in-arms Admiral Ackbar, as well as to ask for new ships for the Resistance.  Given how perfunctory Ackbar’s death was in TLJ, it was good to see Leia take the time to pay tribute to the character here.

Ackbar’s son Gial wants to help the Resistance, but others on Mon Calamari, witnessing the First Order’s violent crackdown on anyone who has aided them, and remembering the Empire’s brutal occupation of their planet, are extremely reluctant to offer assistance.

It is to Sacks’ credit that he offers no easy answers, demonstrating that sometimes people are only left with different bad choices.  Avoid fighting evil in an attempt to protect yourself and you may only be postponing your own subjugation.  Actively fight against evil and you will be placing not just yourself but your family and friends and neighbors squarely in the crosshairs.  Our own real-world history unfortunately has all too many examples of this bitter choice having to be made.  During World War II, the Nazis routinely responded to the actions of resistance groups throughout Europe by brutally massacring civilians.

The Mon Calamari do eventually provide ships & personnel to the Resistance, but at a very clear cost to them.  The miniseries ends on a very grim note, with the First Order descending on the planet, ready to exact retribution on the planet’s civilian population.

SW Allegiance 2 pg 12

The B-Plot of Allegiance is Poe Dameron, Finn and BB-8 searching for a cache of New Republic weapons while avoiding a gang of mercenaries who want to claim the bounty the First Order has placed on their heads.  This provides a more fun, light, humorous storyline to balance out the somber A-Plot of Leia on Mon Calamari.

Sacks does a good job of scripting both Poe and Finn, having the two play off each other as they sort of bumble their way through their heist.  They get some humorous exchanges.  I laughed out loud at one particular moment…

Finn: This is shaping up to be the easiest mission we’ve ever had.

Poe: Why… why would you say something like that? Don’t you realize that’s just asking for trouble?

The miniseries has really nice artwork by Luke Ross.  He is an artist who has definitely grown immensely since he entered the comic book field in the mid 1990s.  He started out with a very Image Comics inspired style on New Gods and Spectacular Spider-Man.  A decade or so later he worked on several issues of Captain America.  I found his work there impressive.  Now, in the present, looking at Ross’ art for Allegiance, it is obvious he has continued to improve, turning in art that is even better.

Ross does a great job with the likenesses here.  As I’ve said in the past, I think likenesses on licensed comic book series can be a real balancing act.  You don’t want to go too photorealistic, because that can seem too posed & artificial, standing out from the rest of the art.  I feel it’s more important to capture the essence of the characters, their personalities and mannerisms, than it is to exactly capture the features of the actors.  Ross certainly does that here.

SW Allegiance 3 pg 6

Marco Checchetto has worked on several previous SW comic book series, including the aforementioned Shattered Empire.  His covers for Allegiance are beautiful.  The four covers link together to form one larger image, an impressive montage of the new trilogy’s characters.

Of course when Marvel collected Allegiance into a trade paperback, they put out four different editions, one with each cover.  They don’t seriously expect us to buy four copies of the same collected edition, do they?  I hope not.  I mean, it’s not like Disney to engage in a shameless Star Wars money grab, is it?

SW Oranges

AHEM!!!  Well, looking on the bright side, the multiple trade paperback covers do allow you to buy whichever one has your favorite image.  And if you really want to put them all side-by-side to get the full picture by Checchetto, just look for copies of the original single issues.  Or, y’know, do a Google search online for the complete image…

SW Allegiance covers

As a longtime Star Wars fan I enjoyed Allegiance.  I did go into it recognizing that obviously too much could not actually happen in Sacks’ story.  The big character and plot developments are being saved for The Return of Skywalker.  Nevertheless, it is an entertaining, thoughtful story that works well to bridge the two movies.  It is also an excellent opportunity to have the quieter, more subtle character moments that sometimes get lost in the action-centric pace of the movies.  At the very least Allegiance serves as a nice spotlight on Leia Organa, helping to bring some closure to a character many of us grew up watching on the big screen.