It Came from the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

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

Youngblood v2 3 cover
Everyone say cheesecake!

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

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

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

There is also a variant cover by Liefeld & Jonathan Sibal featuring Youngblood team leader Shaft… and I shall leave it to the discretion of the individual reader to decide if at this point “Shaft” is still an accurate moniker or not.

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

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

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

Youngblood v2 3 pg 10

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

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

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

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

Glory 8 pg 10

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

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

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

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

Supreme 33 pg 16

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

Prophet was initially presented in Youngblood volume 1 as a deeply religious man who was transformed into a super-soldier during World War II and then kept in suspended animation for the next five decades. Just imagine a Bible-quoting, gun-toting Captain America who fights alien invaders, and you more or less have the original incarnation of Prophet.  Of course, as his storyline progressed, we later found out that Prophet also did a whole bunch of time traveling (yes, that again) via technology provided by his creator Doctor Wells.

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

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

Prophet Babewatch Special pg 12

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

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

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

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

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

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

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.