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

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

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

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 cover

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 pg 14

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 3 pg 17

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 4 pg 6

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 5 cover

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

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

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E-Man and Nova: The 1990s and Beyond

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

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

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

E-Man 20th Anniversary Special

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

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

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

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

E-Man Comico special cover

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

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

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

E-Man Comico 3 pg 1

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

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

E-Man Alpha 1 pg 7

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 41 pg 12 E-Man

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

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

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

E-Man Recharged pg 17

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

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

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

Charlton Spotlight 6 pg 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter rides again!

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

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

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

Captain Kronos 1 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Kronos 1 pg 4

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Kronos 1 pg 22

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

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

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

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

Captain Kronos 2 pg 14

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

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

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

Peter Wyngarde: 1927 to 2018

Well-regarded British actor Peter Wyngarde, whose career spanned half a century, passed away on January 15th. He was 90 years old.

Peter Wyngarde 1993

There is some dispute regarding early details of Wyngarde’s life. It is known that his father was a British diplomat stationed in Asia before World War II.  When Shanghai was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, the fourteen year old Wyngarde was sent to an internment camp along with hundreds of other British citizens.  The next four years were brutal ones.  Wyngarde suffered from malnutrition, and at one point his feet were broken by his Japanese captors.  One of the few concessions the Japanese accorded their prisoners was allowing them to stage plays in the canteen.  This was the beginning of Wyngarde’s lifelong love of acting.

When the war ended Wyngarde was able to return to Britain. It took him some time to recuperate from his harsh ordeal, but afterwards he was determined to make a living as an actor.  He began appearing in theatrical roles in 1946, starting with bit parts and as an understudy, gradually working his way up to more significant roles over the next decade.  Beginning in the mid-1950s he also worked in television.  His breakthrough role was playing Sidney Carton in the BBC’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Continuing his theater work, and occasionally acting in movies, Wyngarde also made several noteworthy guest appearances on British television. He twice played villains on The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg.  In the memorable 1966 episode entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” Wyngarde portrayed the sadistic Sir John Cartney, the head of the kinky, hedonistic Hellfire Club, who were plotting an overthrow of the British government.  A year later he returned to the series in the episode “Epic.” This time he played Stewart Kirby, a washed-up Hollywood star involved in an audacious plot to film the murder of Emma Peel.  The role involved numerous costume & make-up changes for Wyngarde, and he approached it with over-the-top gusto.

In 1967 Wyngarde guest starred on The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic psychological spy drama. He assumed the role of the Village’s sinister Number Two in the episode “Checkmate.”

Peter Wyngarde The Prisoner

Wyngarde best-known role was the suave, womanizing Interpol investigator turned novelist Jason King. He originated the part in the ITV series Department S, which ran for 28 episodes between 1969 and 1970.  The character of Jason King proved very popular with viewers, and was spun off into his own series, which aired from 1971 to 1972.

Wyngarde was gifted with a deep, smooth voice and a striking presence. Portraying the sophisticated, charismatic Jason King, he was often clad in fashionable, impeccably-tailored suits.  All together this resulted in Wyngarde becoming both a sex symbol and a style icon in the early 1970s.

In a 1993 interview Wyngarde explained that he put a great deal of himself into the character…

“I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me. I was not going to have a superimposed personality. I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, used to go to the tailor with my designs. And my hair was long because I had been in this Chekhov play, The Duel, at the Duke of York’s.

“Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself. I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I am amazed I’m still here.”

Although Department S and Jason King had made Wyngarde famous, he subsequently chose to return to his first love, the theater. In 1973 he co-starred with Sally Ann Howes in a production of The King and I that ran for 260 performances.  This was followed by a number of other stage roles.

In 1980, in the campy Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon movie, Wyngarde played Klytus, the gold-masked henchman to Ming the Merciless. Wyngarde also appeared in the Doctor Who serial “Planet of Fire” in 1984, turning in a subtle, memorable performance.  The late 1980s and the 90s saw further work on the stage, as well as occasional television guest roles.

Peter Wyngarde Flash Gordon

It is a testament to how iconic a figure Wyngarde was that his likeness was immortalized in print in the early 1980s in the pages of the X-Men comic book series by the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Terry Austin.  The Avengers television episode “A Touch of Brimstone” inspired Claremont & Byrne to introduce their own version of the Hellfire Club, a cabal of ruthless mutant industrialists manipulating politics and the economy to their benefit, in the now-classic X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  One of the members of this Hellfire Club was the X-Men’s old adversary Mastermind, now in the guise of the evil, seductive “Jason Wyngarde,” modeled, off course, on Peter Wyngarde’s performance as Jason King.

As a younger viewer I was passing familiar with Wyngarde from Flash Gordon and Doctor Who. However, it was in the 1990s via the internet that I first learned of how Claremont & Byrne had paid homage to the actor in their X-Men run.  The full Jason King series was finally released on DVD in 2007 here in the States, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  I subsequently viewed episodes of Department S, which was also an enjoyable show.

I was definitely a fan of Wyngarde’s work; he had such a wonderful presence on screen, and a rich, memorable voice.

Peter Wyngarde Mastermind

Peter Wyngarde as the suave sleuth Jason King, side-by-side with X-Men villain Mastermind in his guise as “Jason Wyngarde” as rendered by John Byrne & Terry Austin in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

Following Wyngarde’s passing last week his agent and manager Thomas Bowington declared:

“He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen. As a man, there were few things in life he didn’t know.”

Wyngarde was a private man, and wary of the press. He seldom gave interviews.  Last year he spoke at length to Tina Hopkins for The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society blog.  It is an informative and insightful piece that goes into the details of Wyngarde’s life & career.

Baby Boomers and the Bomb

In the last several years there has been much examination of the role that Baby Boomers played in shaping the dysfunctional America of the 21st Century.  I think at long last I have finally wrapped my head around an aspect of the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation that led to the creation of the screwed-up world we are living in today.  I actually owe this to comic book  writer Alan Moore.  The blog Dork Forty is examining Moore’s proposal to DC Comics in 1987 for a dystopian saga, Twilight of the Superheroes.

In his proposal, Moore wrote…

“What I want to show is a world which, having lived through the terrors of the Fifties through the early Nineties with overhanging terror of a nuclear Armageddon that seemed inevitable at the time, has found itself faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud or nine hundred.”

Previously I have had a great deal of trouble understanding how the Baby Boomers could go so wrong.  How could a generation that grew up in one of the most economically prosperous, technologically advanced eras to ever exist go on to tank the economy, become violently anti-science, ignore inconvenient facts like climate change and elect politicians who severely destabilized the institutions of this country, threatening the prospects of numerous future generations, all for short-term economic gains?

I have heard it suggested that because Baby Boomers grew up in a time of prosperity and growth, with no financial hardship, no Great Depression or mass-unemployment, they developed the assumption that things would always be that way.  I think that definitely played a role.

However, the Cold War also undoubtedly also played a major part in shaping the self-centered, sort-sighted psyche of the Baby Boomers.  As Moore observes, for a period of several decades, between the 1950 and the 1980s, the possibility of nuclear war was very real.

mushroom cloud

So on one hand you have a generation that were basically handed everything on a silver platter, benefitting from previously-unseen levels of economic growth and technological advancement, living lives of comfort and affluence previously unknown to most of people in the world.  On the other hand, that same generation grew up being reminded on a daily basis that any minute those dirty Commies might drop the Bomb on us, kicking off a nuclear war and wiping out all life on Earth.

In a way, it is not too surprising that so many Baby Boomers went on to live selfish, self-centered, me-first existences, making no allowances for others, or for the long-term future of the country and the planet, because on some level they probably did not expect there to be a future.  This is a generation that lived each day as if it was their last because they genuinely believed it could be the last, that any minute civilization could end.  Now all these years later they are unable to escape that fatalistic mindset, to wrap their collective heads around the possibility that humanity could conceivably have a future.

I wonder if that is why so many older voters who voted for Donald Trump are perfectly fine with him playing chicken with North Korea.  Maybe the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse is something they lived with for so long during their formative years that it actually now seems much more palatable than facing the difficult work of actually having to deal with complex, long-term crises such as climate change, rapidly-changing job markets, and wealth inequality.

I do realize that there is more to this issue than just Cold War psychology.  I am also leaving out the existence of racism in America, which has warped the thinking of a great deal of the populace for many decades.  As well, there are the issues of an increasingly multicultural society and the fight for women and the LGBT community to gain equal rights.  Certainly, we cannot overlook the tendency of many people to want to find simple answers to complex solutions, and to look for scapegoats for society’s problems.

For all I know I could be completely wrong on this issue.  I just thought it was worth pondering.  Feel free to let me know what you think.

Comic book reviews: The Divided States of Hysteria

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

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

DSOH 1 cover

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

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

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

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

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

DSOH 1 pg 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSOH 2 pg 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSOH 2 pg 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 228 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 228 pg 8 panel 4

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

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 228 pg 15

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 228 Paul Hoppe pinup

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