Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

American Flagg house ad

American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

American Flagg 11 cover

Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

American Flagg 3 pg 27

In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

American Flagg 3 pg 5

Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

American Flagg 2 pg 1

It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

American Flagg 1 pg 17

Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

American Flagg 9 pg 27

Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.

New Brooklyn Dreams: Dean Haspiel’s The Red Hook

Dean Haspiel’s new graphic novel The Red Hook Volume One: New Brooklyn is out from Image Comics.  It assembles together the web comic originally presented on the Line Webtoon portal, along with several shorter chapters that previously saw print in Dark Horse Presents, Psychotronic Comics and Savage Dragon.

The Red Hook cover

In the past I have observed that Dean Haspiel is a creator who appears to effortlessly leap back & forth between the spheres of independent and mainstream comics.  The Red Hook is an effective distillation of those two poles, an action-packed super-hero saga possessed of oddball indie sensibilities and a distinctive authorial voice.

The first segment, the three-chapter “Emotional Ebola,” introduces the titular Red Hook, real name Sam Brosia, a Brooklyn-born boxer turned masked thief, and his girlfriend / partner in crime, Ava aka the Possum.  Their vivacious romance brings to mind both the eccentric banter and tumultuous misadventures of Haspiel’s kooky couple Billy Dogma & Jane Legit, as well as the postmodern costumed escapades of Paul & Mae Patton from The Fox: Freak Magnet and Fox Hunt miniseries.  “Emotional Ebola” is a somewhat languidly-paced extended prologue, although Haspiel does seed it with tantalizing hints of both what has come before and what is just around the corner.

Events quickly accelerate with the “New Brooklyn” story proper.  The borough of Brooklyn, exasperated by the twin scourges of skyrocketing rents and gentrification, becomes sentient and physically secedes from America, literally breaking away from the other four boroughs.  (I’m sure the “Heart of Brooklyn” wasn’t at all happy about the whole Donald Trump thing, either.)  The residents of the newly independent island of New Brooklyn have set about establishing a new economy, one where art is a vital part of commerce.  The birth of New Brooklyn has also resulted in the manifestation of numerous beings possessing super-powers.

The Red Hook pg 35

Initially the Red Hook and the Possum attempt to continue with their usual second-story shenanigans, lifting priceless paintings and locking horns with rival criminal Benson Hurst.  However life soon takes an even more unexpected turn for the Red Hook, and Sam finds himself forced onto the path of altruistic heroism.  Initially both leery of and resentful towards this development, Sam eventually decides to embrace his new role, regarding it as an opportunity to amend for the past transgressions that still haunt him.

The Red Hook, and the larger New Brooklyn Universe, are very much an expression of Haspiel’s love for New York City.  A native Manhattanite, Haspiel was forced by rising rents to relocate to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, only to see that same pattern repeat itself a decade later, with various friends & fellow artists having to move out of the city entirely within the last several years, and numerous local businesses going under.

(Believe me, having lived in Queens for over a dozen years now, I can certainly relate!)

As Haspiel laments in his introduction:

“NYC is no longer interested in underwriting the avant garde and cultivating soothsayers. It got bamboozled by real estate developers more concerned with leasing empty spaces that hemorrhage money and often stay empty. An evil shell game of dog-eat-dog, while local bodegas and art spaces vacate and resurrect into a deluge of banks and all-purpose pharmacies, where cultural and culinary institutions of the past vex us with their historical significance like ghosts.”

Haspiel conceived the New Brooklyn Universe not just as a setting for fantastical stories, but as a representation of the cultural mecca that NYC once was, a mythic remembrance of a time when the city may have been dangerous & grimy, but also pulsed with life and vitality.

The Red Hook pg 59

Haspiel’s writing is simultaneously humorous, strange and poignant.  The plot is compelling, as are the characters.  Haspiel has always been great at scripting couples.  Sam and Ava’s romance possesses a tangible authenticity.

The artwork in The Red Hook Volume One is breathtaking and dynamic.  This is some of the best work that Haspiel has done in his entire career.

Recently I had occasion to read for the first time in a number of years Daydream Lullabies, a trade paperback collecting Haspiel’s Billy Dogma stories that were written & drawn in the mid-to-late 1990s.  Haspiel was, of course, a good artist two decades ago.  However, comparing the material in Daydream Lullabies to his work in The Red Hook, it is readily apparent that Haspiel has grown tremendously over the past twenty years.  He is definitely an artist who has consistently grown, never sitting still, instead working to continually improve his craft.

The Red Hook is a one-person production, with Haspiel writing, drawing, lettering and coloring.  That last aspect is especially striking.  Haspiel’s color work for this graphic novel is vivid, his hues and tones effectively complementing his dynamically weird linework.

The Red Hook pg 114

Haspiel has clearly put a great deal of thought into the New Brooklyn Universe, having worked with several colleagues to devise it.  Among these collaborators is talented writer Vito Delsante, who pens a two page prologue for his own New Brooklyn Universe creation The Purple Heart, illustrated by Ricardo Venancio.

Another pair of creators who have dipped their toes into the New Brooklyn waters, so to speak are writer Adam McGovern and artist Paolo Leandri.  Their four-part Aquarian story recently ran as a back-up in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #229-232.  Having now read The Red Hook Volume One, which establishes the New Brooklyn Universe, I’m planning to re-read that Aquarian serial.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Dean Haspiel and his collaborators do next in chronicling the weird, wonderful world of New Brooklyn.  Hopefully future editions of The Red Hook, as well as the various companion series, will not be long in coming.

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.

May 28, 2018 Update: Oh, lord, this blog post actually received 4,717 views today!!! Somehow this post is the number one result that comes up when you type “savage dragon porn” into Google! Wow, there are a lot of sick people out there! I wish all of you rabid Savage Dragon porn aficionados would go out and actually buy the Savage Dragon comic book series! Erik Larsen could sure use the support!

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #225

This year Image Comics is 25 years old, which makes it very appropriate that Savage Dragon by Image co-founder Erik Larsen has just reached issue #225.

Larsen has written, penciled & inked every single issue of Savage Dragon in the last quarter century.  This 100 page anniversary issue is the culmination of a number of different character & story arcs that Larsen devised over the proceeding 25 years.

As a reader since day one, I found Savage Dragon #225 amazing.  It was a very rewarding read, featuring the final confrontation of the original Dragon with his long-time enemies Darklord and Mister Glum.

Savage Dragon 225 cover

In previous issues the diminutive alien dictator Mister Glum was attempting to find another alternate reality version of Angel Dragon who loved him.  Glum’s obsessive quest led him to the lair of the half-human, half-alien tyrant Darklord, who via time travel experiments had created thousands of alternate timelines.  Glum sabotaged Darklord’s machines, resulting in the destruction of these countless parallel Earths, with the inhabitants of the “main” Earth suddenly becoming inundated with the memories of their destroyed counterparts.  Glum’s crazed reasoning for inflicting this colossal damage upon the fabric of reality was that it would result in Angel Dragon absorbing the feelings of her deceased counterpart from another timeline who had loved him, and she would want to be with him.

I remember that after the merging of multiple Earths took place last issue, my first reaction was that this would have to be incredibly confusing & inconvenient for the average person.  I could just picture the mile-long lines stretching out from ATMs around the globe as each person attempted to sort through his or her now-overloaded memories of multiple existences to figure out what their PIN was on this particular Earth!

We do actually get a few brief moments of that sort of comedy in #225, although for the most part the alternate memories that the cast experiences are of a slightly more serious manner.  Maxine is furious with Malcolm now that she “remembers” that in different timelines he married her best friends instead of her.  It’s an utterly irrational, yet perfectly human, reaction, and even though Malcolm insists, quite logically, that he did not really cheat on her due to these events taking place in parallel realities, Maxine is still upset.

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It was great to have Darklord return for this storyline.  He is one of my favorite Savage Dragon villains.  Not only does Darklord have a very cool design, but he also possesses an intriguing back story, with close ties to several other characters in the series, and a certain moral ambiguity to his motivations.  Larsen alludes to all of that, adding a melancholy tone to this issue’s brutal battle.  You get the impression that under different circumstances Darklord could have been a friend and ally to Malcolm, which makes it quite tragic that here instead he is an extremely dangerous menace who needs to be stopped at any cost.

(Mind you, I sort of don’t blame Darklord for going nuts and wanting to destroy the world in this issue. If I found out that the entire multiverse had been erased and the only remaining Earth had Donald Trump for its President, I would probably feel exactly the same way.)

I was genuinely shocked that the original Dragon died in #225, this time for good.  Truthfully, this is not at all out of left field, since Larsen has been laying the groundwork for the Dragon’s demise for quite a while now.  He spent a long time easing Dragon out of the spotlight, shifting the book’s focus over to his son Malcolm.  For the last few years Malcolm has been the series star, with the depowered, retired Dragon serving as a mentor to the young hero.

Finally killing off the original Dragon feels like a necessary step by Larsen.  It could be argued that Malcolm was never going to fully come into his own until his father died, because no matter how much the original Dragon was pushed into the background his presence in the book meant that there was always a possibility that he would regain his powers and once again become the main character.  Now that Dragon is permanently, irrevocably dead (well, as permanent and irrevocable as you can get in fiction) I’m looking forward to seeing where Larsen takes Malcolm, along with the rest of the cast, from this point forward.

In any case, Larsen offers up a poignant farewell to the original star of the book, which culminates in a scene which was first dangled before readers way back in issue #31.  Let’s just say that after this I need to give serious consideration towards adopting a belief in an afterlife where I will spend an eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models.

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There are several back-up stories in Savage Dragon #225.  My favorite was written by Larsen and illustrated by Nikos Koutsis, the team on the recent Mighty Man special.  SuperPatriot at long last gets sick of working for President Trump and quits the government’s Special Operations Strikeforce.  Due to the merging of alternate realities, SuperPatriot now has memories of his other self from the Earth that was seen in the first 75 issues of this series.  These inspire him to ask several of the other SOS members to join him in forming a new incarnation of Freak Force.  As a fan of the original Freak Force, I would love to see Larsen & Koutsis do a miniseries or special featuring this new team.

Frank Fosco, who’s worked on a great many back-up stories for Savage Dragon over the years, illustrates a moody tale featuring Malcolm going solo against a giant monster that emerges from Lake Michigan.  There’s also a very bawdy, comedic story starring Angel Dragon with cheeky (not to mention NSFW) artwork by talented newcomer Raven Perez.

Also, if you really want to see just how much Larsen has grown as both an artist and a writer in the past 35 years, this issue reprints the very first Savage Dragon story he ever published waaaaay back in 1982 in Graphic Fantasy #1, done when he was only 19 years old.

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Earlier I indicated that Savage Dragon #225 was tremendously rewarding for long-time readers.  That is not to say that it will be impenetrable for newer fans.  I was rather surprised that a handful of people were complaining that # 225 was not friendly to new readers. Larsen has given readers at least a couple of “jumping on” points on Savage Dragon in the last few years, which seems to be quite fair.  Marvel and DC pull “jumping on” issues out of their asses with alarming regularity, and it’s gotten annoying as all hell.

When I first got into comic books in the mid 1980s I began reading plenty of long-running titles without the benefit of any “new reader friendly” stories.  I really feel that Larsen includes more than enough exposition in his dialogue in each issue of Savage Dragon to bring everyone up to speed.  It’s not necessary to have a “First Issue in a Bold New Direction” like clockwork every 12 months.  Most intelligent readers who jump into an ongoing serialized narrative like Savage Dragon are going to be able to get up to speed pretty quickly.

I definitely must congratulate Erik Larsen.  Savage Dragon #225 is an amazing issue, one that both caps off all the great work he has done over the past 25 years and sets the stage for the series to continue forward.  Larsen is one of my all time favorite comic book creators, and I very much hope that he is able to continue Savage Dragon for a good long time.

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.

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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 Hippolyta 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.)

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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 Atlantis 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.

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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 😛

Mighty Man flies again!

On more than one occasion I’ve commented that it’s really unfortunate that Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen isn’t a much better seller. There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that Larsen’s creator-owned series, which has been published for 25 years now by Image Comics, is a damn fine read. The second is that Larsen, within the pages of Savage Dragon, has created an enormous supporting cast made up of dozens and dozens of really interesting characters. Due to Savage Dragon not ever really being a massive hit, Larsen has only had a few opportunities to feature any of those great characters in spin-off titles.

It’s been quite a few years, but at long last we’ve finally gotten a new Savage Dragon spin-off: the Mighty Man special which came out earlier this month. It’s written by Larsen, drawn & colored by Nikos Koutsis, and lettered by Ferran Delgado.

Mighty Man special cover

Mighty Man is Larsen’s homage to the original Captain Marvel created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck in 1939.  An artificial entity created by the mysterious mystic Fon-Ti, the Mighty Man form has passed from one human host to another for centuries.  Throughout much of the 20th Century it was possessed by Bobby Berman.  Eventually the now-elderly Berman was attacked by muggers while in his regular human form.  Dying, he transferred the Might Man entity to Ann Stevens, a nurse in Chicago.  For several years she fought alongside Dragon and the other super-powered defenders of the Windy City.  Then, in a twist no one saw coming, when Ann became pregnant the Mighty Man entity was somehow passed onto her unborn child Elizabeth.

This current Mighty Man made her debut in Savage Dragon #170 (March 2011). You can just imagine the chaos and confusion that occurred when a one year old baby suddenly found herself transformed into an invulnerable super-powered adult.

In the Mighty Man special, Betty is now seven years old. Realizing that her daughter is going to possess these powers for life, Ann has agreed to let her be trained by veteran crime-fighter SuperPatriot, who previously worked with the last two incarnations of Mighty Man.  Also pitching in to help are several of SuperPatriot’s teammates from the government team Special Operations Strikeforce.

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Larsen’s story and dialogue for the Mighty Man special are definitely comedic. He wrote a very fun, lighthearted story, which is appropriate, since I don’t think it’d be too enjoyable to see a pre-teen hero go all grim & gritty.  That’s one of the things I really appreciate about Larsen, he is a versatile creator.

This special is actually something of an informal Freak Force reunion. In addition to SuperPatriot, there are appearances by Ricochet, Barbaric and Horridus.  Freak Force was a fun Savage Dragon spin-off series which ran for 18 issues in the mid-1990s, and it’s always a joy to see those characters get back together.  Also appearing in this special are Malcolm Dragon, as well as Marsha Bradley, a teenager with electrical powers who is Malcolm’s kinda sorta half-sister (long story, don’t ask) who Larsen introduced just a few weeks earlier in Savage Dragon #222.

I’ve been curious what Larsen was going to do with all of his character who joined the SOS now that Trump has gotten into the Oval Office. I really couldn’t see SuperPatriot, who fought the Nazis during World War II, being all that thrilled with having to work for a guy who’s chummy with later-day National Socialists.  Indeed, when we see SuperPatriot on a mission with the SOS in this story, he’s exasperatedly venting to them…

“Christ, it makes me sick! Taking order from President Trump — How did it ever come to this?”

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This is a cool tie-in story that fans of Savage Dragon will enjoy, as is provides Larsen with the space to do some more character development for his supporting cast than he is usually able, to explore some story threads from that series, and set up a subplot or two for the future. At the same time, the Mighty Man special also works very well as a stand-alone story, and casual readers will enjoy it.

My only complaint is that the ending of the special is very abrupt. It really needed at least another page to properly wrap things up.

Nikos Koutsis is the regular colorist for Savage Dragon, and he’s also drawn a few back-up stories for the series. I enjoyed seeing him have an opportunity to draw a full-length issue.  Koutsis’ artwork is both cartoony and highly-detailed, which works very well for these characters.  His layouts are very dynamic.

I definitely enjoyed this Mighty Man special. It was a lot of fun.  I really hope that Erik Larsen has further opportunities to publish more Savage Dragon spin-offs in the near future.

Comic book reviews: Midnight of the Soul

One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin.  I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing.  So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul.  Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.

Midnight of the Soul trade paperback

Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950.  The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran.  Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD.  During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold.  All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock.  His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him.  Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve.  In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.

Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles.  Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan.  Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.

Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley.  Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping.  She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer.  Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.

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Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone.  The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole.  And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable.  Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.

On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels.  Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels.  Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives.  Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her.  Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.

As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel.  Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before.  Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.

Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot.  Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.

Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing.  Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.

Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor.  At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.

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Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society.  He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras.  Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.

Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork.  The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life.  That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.

Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling.  He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative.  As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill.  Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next.  There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork.  He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful women.  Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!Black Kiss and Satellite Sam.  Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.

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The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov.  He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone.  Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.

Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now.  Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist.  I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul.  His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Spawn and Savage Dragon and Ant! Oh my!

It’s been a while since I wrote to the Fin Addicts letter column in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon. Back in the 1990s when I was in high school & college I was a real letter hack, and I wrote to Larsen about his awesome comic book series on a semi-regular basis.  I was reminded of those days when The Unspoken Decade discussed Fin Addicts, nominating it for “Best Letter Column of the 90s.”  I decided to fire off an e-mail to Larsen about the recent Dragon / Spawn / Ant crossover in Spawn #265-266 and Savage Dragon #216-217.  And, hey, why not also do a blog post?

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Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen both gained prominence in the late 1980s on Amazing Spider-Man. At the time their work did possess a certain superficial similarity.  However, once they both had their own creator-owned titles at Image Comics, the differences between McFarlane and Larsen became readily apparent.  Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, Spawn and Savage Dragon were like night & day.

I followed Spawn for a few years, but eventually lost interest. Savage Dragon, in contrast, became my favorite ongoing comic book series, and I have never missed an issue.  I did enjoy the very odd crossover between the two titles back in 1996.  So if Larsen and McFarlane were once again going to collaborate on a team-up of Dragon and Spawn, of course I was going to buy the entire thing.

Larsen has actually been working on Spawn for the past year, starting with #258, but I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up any of those issues. When I did get Spawn #265, the first chapter of the crossover, it had been a couple of hundred issues since I read it, and it was interesting to catch up with Al Simmons after all this time.

The artistic collaboration between Larsen & McFarlane is very effective. The script for this and the next issue reads much more like McFarlane than Larsen.  In the 1990s McFarlane had this very somber, brooding quality to his scripting, and that is still present.  I personally prefer the oddball, comedic voice that Larsen utilizes in Savage Dragon.  But, as I said, the two series have very different tones, and works for one might not for the other.

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It was nice to see Spawn and Malcolm Dragon, the son of the original Dragon, meet for the first time. Back in the 1990s I liked that there was interconnectedness between various Image books.  From time to time Dragon or some of Larsen’s other characters appeared in one of Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee or whoever’s titles, and their characters would occasionally show up in his books.  That sort of “shared universe” thing is a lot less important to me today; I’m much more interested in the numerous interesting characters Larsen himself has created.  Still, on occasion it can be fun when a character from another series appears in Savage Dragon.

This crossover involves hordes of super-powered criminals & madmen running amok across the country. All of them have been give powers by Alzayah Stone, a religious fanatic who believes the End Times are approaching.  Spawn and Dragon are both recruited by Ant to stop Stone from creating any more monsters.

There’s a major disagreement between Malcolm and Spawn as to how precisely to deal with Stone. Malcolm, a police officer, wants to arrest him.  Spawn, a former government assassin, wants to kill him.  This quickly segues into an argument concerning the frequency with which police officers kill young black men, with Spawn accusing Malcolm of being a hypocrite.

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As much as I like Malcolm, I have to agree with Al Simmons here. Malcolm is young, idealistic and somewhat naïve.  He has also been very close friends with people in the Chicago PD for most of his life, even before he actually became a police officer.  Malcolm has never been a civilian outside that sphere, subjected to harsh scrutiny by suspicious cops.

I’m interested in seeing how Larsen continues to develop Malcolm in his role as a cop. The longer he remains with the Chicago PD, the more likely he is to encounter less-enlightened colleagues, cops who have let their authority go to their heads.  After all, back in the day, Malcolm’s own father had to deal with a few of those.  I also expect that Malcolm’s half-brother Kevin, aka Thunderhead, a reformed criminal, might have a less charitable opinion of the police.

Ant, the third member of this team-up, was created by Mario Gully in 2004.  Ant was published first by Arcana Studios and then by Image.  She has an odd look, even for super-hero comics.  She appears to be wearing a full-body skintight red latex catsuit topped with a pair of giant antenna.  Gully sold Ant to Larsen in 2012.

I’m not too familiar with Ant, having only read a couple issues of her comic.   Now that Larsen is finished on Spawn he’s planning to launch a new Ant series, where presumably he’ll delve into the her back story to bring new readers up to speed.  But in the meantime this crossover was a good way for Larsen to introduce the character to his audience.

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I felt the pacing of the final chapter in SD #217 was a bit off. Early on there’s a double page splash of Ant, Spawn and Dragon.  It looks awesome, but eats up a lot of space; perhaps it should have been only one page.  This would have freed up at least another page for the confrontation with Stone.  I think one moment in particular have been more dramatic as a full page splash (yeah I’m being deliberately vague here) and that in turn would have allowing more room for the end of the story, which felt rushed.

I later found out Larsen was factoring in how SD #217 would work in a trade paperback. Speaking with comicbook.com he explained that the Spawn issues would probably not be included in the collection that reprints #216 and #217.  That required him to write those issues in such a way that they could be understood by anyone who didn’t read Spawn.  I realize now why he utilized that two page splash in SD #217.  For anyone who will be reading this story in trade paperback form, they will not have seen Spawn #266, which means that big spread is the first time they will see Malcolm, Spawn and Ant together.  It made sense to draw it large & dramatic.  I don’t envy the sort of juggling act Larsen had to perform here.

My favorite parts of these issues were actually the ones focusing on the personal lives of Malcolm, his wife Maxine, and the three Dragon babies. I was literally laughing out loud at the hilarious opening scene in SD #217 with Maxine at the supermarket with the Dragon triplets.  The domestic comedy and drama of this series has always been something that separated it from so many other super-hero series.

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A year ago I was skimming through the Spider-Man issues Larsen wrote & drew in late 1991 shortly before he co-founded Image. The best aspect of those comics was the interactions between Peter and Mary Jane.  Larsen was one of the few creators who seemed like he wanted to explore the intricacies of their married life.

I’m very glad that Larsen took that same approach on Savage Dragon, devoting a good amount of space to the “off-time” of Dragon and his colleagues, and to the romantic relationships Dragon had over the years, i.e. the stuff folks do when they are not busy getting into super-powered brawls. Larsen has successfully continued that in the last few years with Malcolm and Maxine’s relationship.  The series continues to be an enjoyable read.

I can understand why Larsen decided to leave Spawn after one year. I’m sure it was fun for him to collaborate with McFarlane and try something different.  But at the end of the day it is clear that Spawn is still very much McFarlane’s baby.  In the long run I’m sure Larsen would rather devote his energies to his own characters in Savage Dragon, and towards getting the new Ant series up-and-running.

Love and marriage for Savage Dragon

Valentine’s Day is here, which makes this a good time for me to look at the three most recent issues of Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen from Image Comics, as Malcolm Dragon marries his high school sweetheart Maxine Jung Lai.

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As you can see from the cover to Savage Dragon #209, Maxine is very pregnant. Malcolm did use protection, but he soon discovered that his super-strength extended to his, um, reproductive processes.  Those condoms didn’t stand a chance!  And now I’m reminded of that old essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by science fiction novelist Larry Niven.  Fortunately Malcolm and Maxine had already been thinking about getting hitched, but the pregnancy did result in those plans getting pushed forward ever so slightly!

Of course Maxine still has to worry about a super-powered fetus kicking its way out of her womb, something that occurred nearly two decades earlier with Malcolm’s own mother Rapture. Indeed, as we see in these three issues, this turns out to be a very real, fatal concern for Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend Tierra.  I remember commenting several months ago that the sexual shenanigans between Malcolm, Maxine, Tierra and Angel were like something out of a cheesy porno flick.  However, as we see here, Larsen is continuing to follow up on the very serious consequences of this act of reckless teenage sexuality.

Larsen scripts Maxine as an irreverent smart-ass. She’s very well suited to be with Malcolm, whose life is just plain crazy.  The banter between the two of them is wonderful.  Larsen gives them good chemistry.  Malcolm and Maxine make a great couple, and I look forward to seeing how Larsen continues to develop their relationship.

Savage Dragon 210 cover

In the next issue Malcolm and Maxine head off for their honeymoon, only to find themselves in yet another bizarre misadventure. They run into a very old foe of Malcolm’s father, as Larsen dusts off a baddie from the very first year of his run on Savage Dragon.

I love the cover for issue #210. There are so few comic book covers like this anymore.  That style of cover artwork unfortunately became unfashionable in the late 1990s, replaced by pin-up or poster types of images.  Yeah, those can be pretty to look at, but they very seldom tell you anything about the stories inside.  They don’t grab you attention and make you want to pick up the comic book to find out what the story is behind it.  Fortunately in a number of respects Larsen remains an unapologetic traditionalist, and Savage Dragon has often featured cover artwork that jumps out at you.

Issue #210 also has a humorous six page back-up written by Larsen featuring Flash Mercury, Powerhouse and Fever doing their professional monster hunters thing. The talented Frank Fosco, who most recently illustrated the Vanguard serial, provides some excellent artwork.

As I’ve observed before, Larsen has a huge cast of characters, and the back-ups are a great way to give some of them the spotlight.  I hope there will be more in the future. I’ve heard that series editor Gavin Higginbotham is eager to write some new ones.  And, hey, speaking for myself, I’d love to pitch one!  How about something looking at Horridus as a single mom / crime-fighter trying to make ends meet after the death of her husband Rex Dexter?  Ever since seeing Horridus in mourning at Rex’s grave in issue #208 I’ve been wondering what happens to her and her daughter.

Savage Dragon 211 cover

In issue #211, now that Malcolm is out of high school and married, it’s time for him to get a full-time job. He follows in his father’s footsteps, joining the Chicago police department.  Much of the material from #211 originally appeared in the Savage Dragon: Legacy special that came out as part of last year’s Free Comic Book Day.  Larsen adds several new pages and re-scripts some dialogue to reflect various events and developments that he either changed his mind about in the succeeding months or wanted to keep secret between then and now.

Issue #211 has a “1st Issue In A Bold New Direction” blurb, just as issue #193 did two years previously. It’s nice that Larsen devises jumping-on points from time to time.  Since Savage Dragon has been running for 23 years, it’s good to have periodic issues that bring newer readers up to speed, and that refresh the memories of long-time fans such as myself.

Larsen’s scripting in Savage Dragon often has something of an exposition-heavy quality to it. While at times this means his dialogue does not sound quite natural, it nevertheless ensures that important events are recapped for readers on a regular basis.  That’s certainly an asset in #211, as Malcolm explains his somewhat convoluted origins.

Notice something else? Despite these two “Bold New Direction” issues, both times Larsen resisted the urge to re-start the numbering on Savage Dragon with a brand new issue #1.  Honestly, I am sooooo sick of Marvel and DC doing that.  Perhaps that might result in a temporary bump in sales.  But at the same time, a new first issue can actually present a jumping-off point for readers whose interest in a series is wavering.  That’s certainly been true for me on a few occasions.

Whatever any case, I’ve barely read anything the Big Two have published in the last several years. And as I’ve stated a few times on this blog, Savage Dragon is my favorite ongoing comic book series.

Right before Savage Dragon #211 came out I recently took the opportunity to re-read issues #193 to 210 in one sitting. Larsen did very good work during this two year period, writing and drawing some entertaining, weird, humorous stories.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he now proceeds onward from #211.