Happy birthday to John K. Snyder III

As I recently observed, I’ve seen a number of very talented creators whose work I enjoy pass away in a relatively short period of time. With that in mind, I want to make more of an effort to recognize the contributions of those artists and writers who are still with us. It is definitely important to let creative individuals know how much we appreciate their work while they are still with us.

Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist & writer John K. Snyder III, who was born on July 14th, 1961, and to recognize him for his artistic contributions.

The first time I ever saw Snyder’s work was in 1990 when the revival of Classics Illustrated from First Comics released his adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Snyder’s eerie artwork, his storytelling & coloring, absolutely stunned me. I had only been reading comic books regularly for a short time at this point, but even so I could immediately recognize that here was a unique, distinctive talent. That adaptation really imprinted itself on my 14 year old mind.

Throughout the 1990s I often went to comic book conventions with my father where I searched out back issues from the previous two decades. Among the many great books I found at those shows were some of Snyder’s earlier works. I picked up a few issues of Timothy Truman’s great creator-owned series Scout which had been published in the mid 1980s by Eclipse Comics, and which featured Snyder’s first published work in the “Fashion in Action” back-up serial. Looking at the “Fashion in Action” stories, it’s apparent that Snyder really hit the ground running both as an artist and a writer.

Among the other comic books I picked up at those conventions were John Ostrander & Kim Yale’s acclaimed, groundbreaking super-powered political thriller Suicide Squad published by DC Comics. Snyder penciled several issues of that title, paired up with inkers / embellishers Karl Kesel and Geof Isherwood. Once again, Snyder did great work.

Throught the 1990s and beyond I saw Synder’s artwork in a number of places. He drew several striking, offbeat character profiles for the early 1990s looseleaf edition of Who’s Who In the DC Universe, a pair of covers for Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron for Dark Horse Comics, an astonishing, atmospheric three issue painted Doctor Mid-Nite bookshelf miniseries written by the incredible Matt Wagner, and covers of the three part “Morningstar” story arc that ran in Greg Rucka’s espionage series Queen & Country from Oni Press.

I got to meet Snyder when he was a guest at Cradle Con in Garden City, Long Island in June 2019. It’s always great when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and discover that they are also good people. That was definitely the case with Snyder. I purchased a copy of the Fashion in Action collected edition from him, and at long last finally had the opportunity to read the story in full. Snyder also did a really lovely drawing in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

Since then I’ve followed Snyder on Facebook and Instagram where he regularly shares the incredible new artwork that he’s been working on. In the last decade he’s done some amazing work.

Snyder painted covers of the Infestation event from IDW that crossed over the worlds of Star Trek, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Ghostbusters. He reunited with Matt Wagner on Zorro Rides Again for Dynamite Entertainment, drew several issues of Bloodshot: Rising Spirit for Valiant Entertainment, and wrote & drew a graphic novel adaptation of Lawrence Block’s noir novel Eight Million Ways To Die. He briefly had the opportunity to return to the world of Suicide Squad, depicting the most recent incarnation of the superhuman black ops team on a pair of variant covers for the Infinite Frontier miniseries. All these years later Snyder’s work continues to astonish me.

So, once again, happy birthday to John K. Snyder III. Wishing you many more to come.

Star Wars reviews: Obi-Wan Kenobi

The six episode Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries has come to its conclusion on Disney+. Quite a few other people have already posted in-depth reviews & analyses of the show. Since I’m a huge Star Wars fan, I did want to also share some of my thoughts on it, too.

1) Hello There

Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi was, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant casting decisions of the prequel trilogy. McGregor is an incredibly talented actor, and he admirably succeeded at evoking Alec Guiness’ performance while bringing his own particular take to the role.

McGregor continues to do quality work in this miniseries. He really brings to life an Obi-Wan who, a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, is suffering from depression and PSTD, crippled by the fall of the Jedi and by his own guilt at not having prevented Anakin Skywalker from turning to the dark side of the Force and becoming Darth Vader.

There are moments here where McGregor’s performance, solely through facial expression & body language, evocatively brings across the pain this man is feeling. Deborah Chow did a superb job directing McGregor and the other actors. That moment at the end of episode two, when Obi-Wan learns that Vader is still alive, is an absolute gut punch, with the devastation & horror on McGregor’s face communicating volumes.

Likewise, as Obi-Wan sets out to rescue young Leia Organa from the Imperial Inquisitors, McGregor effectively shows the character’s gradually journey back from the despair event horizon, eventually bringing him to the place where he finds peace & acceptance.

Besides, Obi-Wan’s infiltration of Fortress Inquisitorius and his rescue of Leia was absolutely riveting. Plus that scene where he discovers the “mausoleum” with the dead Jedi displayed as trophies was one of the most disturbing in the entire Star Wars mythos.

2) Retcons R Us

There was some skepticism among fandom over this show inserting a major encounter between Kenobi and Vader in the time between the prequels and the original trilogy. Honestly, though, Star Wars has been revising its history & backstory pretty much from the word “go.” Despite what George Lucas likes to claim, he did not intend for Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father right from the start. Luke and Leia being brother & sister was also a late development. So there’s a long precedent for this sort of thing.

The key here would be how well this retcon got pulled off. I actually feel there was some wiggle room that allowed for it. Obi-Wan believed Anakin was dead at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but he’s aware Vader is alive in A New Hope, and when the two meet on the Death Star Obi-Wan shows no surprise at Vader now being a black-clad armored cyborg. At some point he must have learned that Anakin survived their duel on Mustafar and been radically transformed into a creature “more machine than man.”

And we get just that as Obi-Wan first comes face-to-face with his former apprentice on Mapuzo and utters an absolutely horrified “What have you become?” It’s another emotional gut punch, especially as we then see a badly out-of-practice Obi-Wan literally get raked over the coals by a vengeance-obsessed Vader.

Likewise, in their rematch in episode six, with the two on much more equal footing, we get an incredibly dramatic confrontation.

I try to look at this from the perspective of a younger fan. If you traveled back in time some 39 years to 1983 and said that one day we’d get to see a live action Star Wars television series featuring a stunningly fierce lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, with each of them hurtling entire chunks of a planet at each other, seven year old me would never have believed you.

So, yeah, maybe it doesn’t fit 100% neatly into established continuity, but it was damned exciting, and I’ll take that over being overly anal about the consistency of a fictional universe that, as I said, already has a long history of being inconsistent.

3) From a Certain Point of View

“Anakin Skywalker was weak; I destroyed him.”

That is what Darth Vader tells Ahsoka Tano in the Rebels second season finale “Twilight of the Apprentice.” I always found that to be one of the most heartbreaking lines in Star Wars. It really encapsulates all of Vader’s self-hatred & loathing for himself, revealing just how far he has fallen.

Vader says something similar in the final episode of this series. When Obi-Wan once again attempts to apologize for having failed his former student, Vader flat-out tells him “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did. The same way I will destroy you.”

This appears to be the first time that Vader finally admits to himself that everything horrible that ever happened to him is his own fault. And it does help explain how Obi-Wan gets to the point where he is at in the original trilogy, where he truly believes that Anakin is “dead” and gone forever.

4) The Circle Is Now Complete

I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoyed the prequels and found them underrated, and that certainly extends to Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker.

I admit, at first I was puzzled by the decision to have Christensen reprise the role, since he was fully encased in the Darth Vader armor, with James Earl Jones supplying the voice.

But then in episode five we get an extended flashback to a training duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin the days before the Clone Wars. It was an effective sequence, especially as the narrative cut back & forth between this past segment and the “present” where Vader is hunting his former master, and Obi-Wan is able to draw on his knowledge of Anakin’s impatience, impulsivity & need to visibly achieve victory to outwit him and get the members of “The Path” to safety.

And then in episode six when we see Vader’s helmet split open, revealing his scarred face to Obi-Wan, enabling Christiansen and McGregor to act opposite one another when we get to the all-important moment when Vader tells Obi-Wan that Anakin is dead.

5) Fear Leads To Anger, Anger Leads To Hate, Hate Leads To Suffering

There’s a moment in episode three where Yoda’s warning to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back very much came to mind. After Obi-Wan and Leia arrive on Mapuzo, a fearful Obi-Wan panics & becomes angry, believing they’ve been betrayed. So it falls to ten year old Leia to have to try to take charge, leading her to accept a ride with the seemingly-friendly Freck… who unfortunately turns out to be an Imperial sympathizer.

It can be argued that if Obi-Wan had not let his fear get the better of him, if he had been patient and waited then Tala would have arrived soon after & quietly taken them to safety, and everything that subsequently went wrong, all of the death & suffering, might never have occurred.

6) Make the Galaxy Great Again

The alien truck drive Freck, voiced by Zach Braff, comes across as a commentary on Trump supporters. Freck is a working-class alien, just the sort of individual we have seen exploited again and again by the Empire. Yet Freck, with the Imperial bumper sticker on his truck, his chumminess with Stormtroopers, and his fondness for “law & order” is very much siding with the oppressors.

When Freck turns in Obi-Wan and Leia, two people who want to genuinely make things better for people like him, it really evokes the phenomenon of voting against your own interests, of blindly swallowing propaganda, of treating liberals & progressives as “the enemy.”

(Gee, you’d think that, considering they co-starred in Garden State, Braff would’ve been more conciliatory to Nalalie Portman’s daughter 😊)

In contract to Freck we have Tala, portrayed by Indira Varma, an Imperial officer who joined up because she genuinely believed the Empire would make the galaxy a better place. Unlike Freck, Tala doesn’t have her head in the sand. She is able to face up to reality, to recognize that the government she serves is irredeemably evil, and as a result she now helps Jedi fugitives & force-sensitives escape the Empire.

7) “They were the only family I knew.”

I guess there has always been a small-yet-vocal subset in sci-fi and comic book fandoms who are angry & narrow-minded. Unfortunately social media really amplifies their voice out of proportion to their size. I was disgusted at all of the vitriol directed at actress Moses Ingram for her performance as Reva / Third Sister. Honestly, I feel Ingram did a great job with the role.

Reva, a former Jedi youngling, encapsulated just how dangerous & all-consuming the quest for vengeance can be. Reva joined the Inquisitors solely to get close enough to Vader so she could ultimately gain revenge on him for having slaughtered her friends & loved ones years before. So overwhelming was her desire to kill Vader that ANY price, no matter how horrible, seemed reasonable to Reva, even if it turned her into everything she hated.

In the end Reva is finally able to step back from the precipice. Before the final episode aired, a few viewers expressed the desire that she NOT reform, stating that that there have been too many redemption arcs in Star Wars and that some people simply cannot be saved from themselves. And that’s true. But Lucasfilm ultimately wanted this series to be a hopeful one, and so, having seen that Anakin was seemingly beyond redemption, it was important for Obi-Wan to witness someone else make the conscious choice to walk away from darkness.

8) Cry “Uncle”

Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have never been what you would consider three-dimensional characters. They exist in the original movie to basically be an impediment to teenage Luke’s dreams of the future. Owen comes across as unreasonably harsh & inflexible.

The final episode of this miniseries does a good job of fleshing them out. Underneath it all, they both love Luke, and they’re willing to risk their lives to protect him from Reva. It definitely adds some important nuance to the couple. It also helps explain why Obi-Wan left Luke with them in the first place. He knew they would care for Luke and, having witnessed the failings of the Jedi Order in raising Anakin, realized it was important for Luke to have a real childhood.

It also ultimately makes Owen and Beru’s off-screen deaths at the hands of the Empire in A New Hope all the more tragic. They were probably protecting Luke right up to the end.

9) The Sass is Strong with This One

Ten year old Vivien Lyra Blair does a good job playing young Leia. Working with child actors can be tricky, but Blair really pulls off the role, doing a good job playing off McGregor, as well as feeling like she could be a young Carrie Fisher.

Having Obi-Wan and Leia interact with each other at this point in the timeline is another one of those pesky retcons that the show manages to pull off.  You can argue that it’s rationalizing older plot & character beats long after-the-fact, but this story does explain why nearly a decade later Leia went to Tatooine to find Obi-Wan, why when Luke showed up on the Death Star and told her he was with Ben Kenobi her immediate reaction was an excited “Ben Kenobi? Where is he?” and why she eventually ended up naming her own son Ben.

I really did like the scene at the end where Obi-Wan told Leia about her parents; some viewers said it moved them to tears.

10) A Jedi with a Very Particular Set of Skills

I’m sure most of us were half-expecting it to happen, but it was still cool to see Liam Neeson return to live action Star Wars as the Force ghost of Obi-Wan’s old teacher Qui-Gon Jinn. Neeson had already reprised Qui-Gon when he voiced the character in The Clone Wars animate series, revealing how Yoda first learned that the fallen Jedi’s spirit lived on within the Force. But it was nevertheless great to see McGregor and Neeson share the screen again one more time.

Speaking of Jedi who’s names begin with the letter Q, the show had a very cool Easter Egg when Obi-Wan learns in episode three that his old comrade Quinlan Vos (created by writer John Ostrander & artist Jan Duursema for the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse) survived Order 66 and escaped to freedom along The Path.

11) “You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

Okay, so why didn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi kill Darth Vader when he had the chance?

Yes, obviously Vader couldn’t die here, because he’s still very much alive nine years later in Rogue One and the original movie trilogy. But I do think there should have been more of an explanation for Obi-Wan not finishing off Vader. Maybe the Grand Inquisitor and a bunch of Stormtroopers could have arrived at the last minute to save Vader, forcing Obi-Wan to flee? That might have made more sense.

I guess in-story Obi-Wan did not want to kill a foe who had already been defeated. He also might have felt that killing Vader wouldn’t have changed anything, because the Empire would still be in power, and Emperor Palpatine would have just found a new apprentice.

Whatever the case, it did feel to me like the one misstep in an otherwise well-done miniseries. Definitely could have used a bit of clarification.

Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but it was enjoyable. Hopefully we’ll continue to see further quality Star Wars content coming out soon.

It Came From the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up!  This time our theme is immortality.  I will be taking a brief look at the comic book character Ivar Anni-Padda, aka the Timewalker, the immortal time travel whose adventures are published by Valiant.

Truth to tell, I was already planning to do a piece about Ivar, since this month marks 25 years since the publication of Timewalker #1, which came out in August 1994. (Time really does fly!)  So when this installment of SBTU came along, it felt like synchronicity.

Timewalker 1 cover

Ivar the Timewalker is a free-spirited swashbuckling adventurer who over his thousands of years of life has crisscrossed across the ages.  Both his visual appearance and his immortality evoke Conner MacLeod from the original Highlander movie released several years earlier.  However, in regards to both his more lighthearted personality and his time traveling exploits Ivar seems to anticipate another immortal figure by more than a decade, Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood.

As I have mentioned before, the 1990s often have a bad reputation when it comes to comic books.  Yes, a lot of really bad comics came out in that decade.  However, there were also some really great ones, as well.  Some of the best were published by Valiant Comics, a great company that was founded in 1989 by Jim Shooter, and which in its early days saw significant contributions from talented creators Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton.  I really should have blogged about Valiant before now.  In the first half of the 1990s I avidly followed their comics.  I was especially a fan of Ivar, who eventually starred in his own series.

Initially in the Valiant universe it was established that there were two immortal brothers: Gilad Anni-Padda, aka the Eternal Warrior, and Aram Anni-Padda, aka Armstrong.  The two were polar opposites.  Gilad was a fierce & ruthless warrior who worked in the service of the mystic Geomancers who sought to safeguard the Earth.  Aram, on the other hand, was an alcoholic hedonist, a millennia-old party animal who in the present day had established a friendship with the mortal teenage monk Archer.

In early 1993 we finally met the third brother, Ivar.  Archer & Armstrong / Eternal Warrior #8 was a double-sized issue combining the two ongoing series.  It features Armstrong telling Archer the true story of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, who in the Valiant universe were actually Gilad, Aram and Ivar.

Written & penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, inked by Bob Wiacek, colored by Maurice Fontenot, and edited by Bob Layton, “The Musketeers” relates how in France in the early 18th Century the Geomancer Angelique D’Terre foresaw the events of the French Revolution and attempted to forestall them.  Working with Gilad, she ruthlessly maneuvered to replace King Louis XIV with his secret twin brother, the so-called Man in the Iron Mask.

However, inverting the events of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, in this reality Louis is merely an incompetent moron, whereas his brother Henri is a brutal monster.  Belatedly realizing that replacing Louis with his brother will make a bad situation infinitely worse, Angelique and Gild are able to undo the switch, but not before Henri has raped & murdered D’Artagnan’s fiancée.  Ivar is completely disgusted at Gilad’s machinations, and at what the failed scheme has cost their friend D’Artagnan.

Archer Armstrong 8 pg 29

Sooon enough we meet Ivar again, this time in then-present day London, England, within the pages of Archer & Armstrong #10-11 by the team of Windsor-Smith, Wiacek & John Floyd, and Fontetot.  Ivar is attempting to access a “time arc” that will at long last take him back to Egypt in 37 BC, back to the side of his beloved Queen Nefertete.

Armstrong arrives to visit his brother, with young Archer in tow.  The trio is soon ambushed by a group of time-displaced civilians from across the centuries who have all ended up in 1992, and who believe Ivar is responsible for abducting them.  Armstrong, however, informs them that he is to blame, that his efforts to find a way to return Ivar to Ancient Egypt inadvertently drew all these people from across the ages.  Fortunately the nuclear-powered Solar arrives to inform Armstrong that an old foe of his is tearing up Los Angeles looking for him.  Solar is able to use his powers to re-energize Armstrong’s time portal, which he uses to send all of the abductees back to their proper time & place.

Solar offers to finally send Ivar back to 37 BC.  Faced with the possibility of finally being reunited with “Neffi,” Ivar is actually nervous.  Letting down his guard, revealing for once the cost he feels immortality has exacted, Ivar explains to his brother:

“It’s been, like… three thousand years since I last saw Nefertete, man — and I’ve lived a zillion lifetimes since… I’m not the same guy she loved back then… I’m afraid that I may have… changed too much for her to accept me again.”

Armstrong tells Ivar that if he has changed in the millennia since he’s seen Neffi then it’s probably for the better.  Encouraged, Ivar enters the time portal.  Unfortunately F7, a robot from the 41st Century who has grown attached to Ivar, leaps in right after him, hoping to join him in Ancient Egypt.

Archer Armstrong 11 pg 19

When we next see Ivar it is in Magnus Robot Fighter #33 (Feb 1994) in a story plotted & penciled by Jim Calafiore, scripted by John Ostrander, inked by Gonzalo Mayo and colored by Mark Csaszar.  Due to F7 jumping into the time arc, he and Ivar instead end up in North Am in the year 4002 AD.  Unfortunately since F7 has been away the Earth has been invaded by the sentient alien robots the Malevs.

F7 quickly comes under the control of the Malevs, who scan his memory and learn about Ivar.  The Malev Emperor realizes that if it can capture Ivar and replicate his powers, the Malevs can travel back in time to prevent the births of Magnus and Rai, thereby ending the resistance against the invasion before it even began.

Ivar, understandably annoyed at once again being in the wrong place at the wrong time, encounters Magnus.  Soon discovering exactly who Ivar is, Magnus realizes he needs to keep the time traveler out of the Malevs’ metal clutches long enough for another time arc to materialize.  At long last one does open.

Hopping on a sky cycle while the Robot Fighter is being overwhelmed by Malev soldiers, Ivar promises that he will send help.  He then flies into the time arc, and for a minute it looks like Magnus is going to be killed, until literally out of nowhere Rai and his allies arrive to save him, with a mystified Rai explaining the nanites in his blood told him to come to here, that somehow the nanites knew Magnus needed help at this exact time & place.

And elsewhere in time, now in a vast barren desert, in an example of what Doctor Who would later describe as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey,” Ivar records a journal entry:

“Time jump report, supplemental. Make note – the next time I see Bloodshot, have him program the information about Magnus into his nanites. Have to be careful so that Bloodshot himself doesn’t learn too much about his own fate. If I understand all this correctly, the nanites will compel the man known as Rai to go to Magnus’ aid.”

Magnus Robot Fighter 33 pg 6

Having completed his report, Ivar wonders where exactly he has gotten to this time.

Both Ivar and the audience would learn the answer in the Timewalker Yearbook #1.  Published in early 1995, this annual was plotted by Jon Hartz, scripted by Kevin VanHook, penciled by Elim Mak, inked by one of my favorite artists, the talented Rudy Nebres, and colored by Eric Hope.

Offhand I didn’t recognize the name Jon Hartz, so I asked VanHook about him on Facebook.  I also told VanHook that Timewalker was one of my favorite Valiant characters. He responded:

“Jon was our head of marketing. He was also very creative and had a hand in building the character of Timewalker.

“I always liked Timewalker. I didn’t get to do a lot with him, but I enjoyed the character.”

Opening in the same place & time that Magnus #33 ended, the Yearbook has Ivar still exploring the vast desert on his sky cycle.  A loud rumbling and dust storm on the horizon comes towards him, and in the next instant Ivar is nearly overrun by thousands of stampeding dinosaurs, followed by an immense tidal wave.  Ivar belatedly realizes the desert he was in was the Mediterranean Basin, and the titanic deluge of water is the Atlantic Ocean flooding over the Gibraltar Straight to create the Mediterranean Sea.

Of course, it is now generally accepted that the cataclysmic flooding of the Mediterranean Basin actually occurred approximately 5.3 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs died out.  But, hey, I’ll let this one slide, because the spectacle of charging dinos makes for a dramatic moment, and Mak, Nebres & Hope certainly do an incredible job of depicting it.

Timewalker Yearbook pgs 2 and 3

Just in the nick of time, another time arc opens as the massive wave reaches Ivar,  bringing him to a New York City rooftop in April 1992.  This very wet & violent arrival brings Ivar to the attention of the ruthless Harbinger Foundation, which dispatches several operatives to investigate.  That, in turn, results in the Foundation’s rivals the H.A.R.D. Corps also wanting to bring in Ivar for questioning.  The Foundation’s team of Eggbreakers captures Ivar, but he is quickly rescued by the Corps.  Ivar finds himself in another one of those lovely time paradoxes when he addresses the Corps’ leader:

Ivar: Listen, Gunsliger… I know we’ve never really gotten along…

Gunslinger: Gotten along? I don’t even know you, buddy.

Ivar: That’s right… not yet.

Gunslinger: What?

Three pages later Ivar learns exactly why Gunslinger later doesn’t like him when the time traveler blows up the wrecked sky cycle in order to escape.  And two months later, waiting to catch another time arc in the Rocky Mountains, Ivar humorously reflects on the paradox…

“Have to remember to look up when I met Gunslinger. I think it was ’94 or ’95… Too bad I can’t warn myself that he’s going to slug me!  Oh, well… I’ll deserve it!”

I like the idea that Ivar kept a journal of his travels. Considering he had lived for thousands of years and he was constantly bouncing back & forth in time, it was a good way for him to keep track of his innumerable experiences.

Going back in time, at least publishing-wise, we finally get to the first issue of Timewalker.  The series spun out of Valiant’s company-wide crossover The Chaos Effect.  A dark necromantic power from the end of time follows Ivar back to 1994, where it consumes the planet’s electrical energy.

I found The Chaos Effect to be sort of an underwhelming storyline.  Whatever the case, at least it led to Ivar finally receiving his own solo book.

Chaos Effect epilogue

Ivar spends most of The Chaos Effect unconscious, but he wakes up in time for an epilogue written by Bob Hall, penciled by Don Perlin, and inked by Gonzalo Mayo.  Once again meeting Magnus, this time in the present day, Ivar shares some slightly tongue-in-cheek insights into his experiences as a time traveler:

“History’s all relative, anyway. If history describes something a certain way, and you go to the time where it happened, then you were always there… so it probably turned out the way history describes just because of you. You may as well just show up and have fun.

“Beyond that, carry condoms, a flashlight and matches, beware of the drinking water, make loud noises to scare off bears and humans, and take chewing gum. Every era likes chewing gum.”

With that Ivar leaps into the next time arc, and into the pages of his own series.

“Ivar the Traveler” is by the team of Hall, Perlin & Mayo, with colors by Stu Suchit, and editing by Layton.  Ivar’s latest journey through time deposits him in Briton during the time of the Roman occupation.  The time traveler ends up trying to fight off a group of drunk, violent Roman soldiers who are doing the whole “rape & pillage” thing, including one who spots Ivar and shouts “You!!! I told you if I ever saw you again I’d kill you!”  Of course, Ivar hasn’t met this fine fellow… yet!

Cursing the perils and paradoxes of time travel, Ivar attempts to fight off the soldiers.  And then another time arc opens, scooping up Ivar.  Looking around, the time traveler spots a Nazi patrol, and realizes he is in Europe during World War II.

Successfully infiltrating the Nazi forces, Ivar eventually ends up encountering the captive Professor Weisenfeld and his young son.  Pretending to interrogate the scientist, Ivar explains how he has come to be there:

“In 1998 you have a grandson named Mack. He’s a friend of mine and he’s fixing my tachyon compass… He told me that when I land here I have to rescue you. Otherwise he doesn’t get born and my compass doesn’t get fixed.”

And as if this story wasn’t already wibbly wobbly timey wimey enough, a minute later the Eternal Warrior bursts into the prison, leading to the following exchange:

Ivar: Gil, what are you doing here?

Gilead: You told me to come! 1934, you told me to show up here, don’t you remember?

Ivar: No! I haven’t done that yet!

Good thing for Ivar that Gil wasn’t still holding a grudge over their argument back in 18th Century France!

The brothers fight their way through the Nazis.  Gil leads the Professor, his son, and the other prisoners to safety while Ivar holds off the goose-steppers.  Ivar is shot, but another time arc materializes, and he leaps into it. His destination: the year 1854, during the Crimean War.

Ah, but that’s a story for another time… so to speak!

Timewalker 1 pg 19

The ongoing Timewalker series lasted for 15 regular issues, plus the aforementioned Yearbook, as well as a Zero issue featuring Ivar’s origin that came out a few months after the series ended.  I definitely enjoyed it.  Ivar’s adventures were an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama.

Perhaps I’ll do a retrospective on the rest of Timewalker at a later date.  But, honestly, it’s such a great series, I recommend seeking out the back issues.  Trust me, you’ll probably have a more enjoyable time reading the actual comic books than you would having me yammer on about them at this blog!

Valiant unfortunately experienced difficulties in the second half of the decade.  In 1994 they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment, who I feel pushed the company to expand too fast.  Then the market imploded in the mid 1990s, leading to the cancellation of the line.  Acclaim did restart a handful of the series in the late 1990s, as well as creating a few new titles, but those did not last long.  At that time Acclaim appeared to have much more of a focus on developing video games based on the Valiant characters than in actually publishing quality comic books.

The Valiant universe was eventually re-launched in 2012 by a new group of owners under the Valiant Entertainment label.  Over the past several years the company has had a reasonable amount of success.  Among those rebooted characters has been our pal Ivar.  Ivar: Timewalker ran for 12 issues between Jan and Dec 2015.  The entire run has been collected into three trade paperbacks.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read those yet, but they are definitely on my “want” list.  Hopefully I will get to them soon.  After all, unlike Ivar, and the other subjects of this edition of SBTU, there’s only a limited amount of time available to me.

So many great comic books, so little time!

SBTU Immortal

Here are links to all of the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.  I hope you will check them out.  Thanks!

(Some of these links will not be active for another day or two, so if they are’t working right now then check back again soon!)

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

Superhero Satellite: SBTU Presents IMMORTAL: Peter Loves Mary Jane

Comics Comics Comics: The Immortal Dr. Fate

Between The Pages: Big Finish: Doctor Who’s Finest Regeneration

The Unspoken Decade: Archer and Armstrong: Opposites Attract

DC In the 80s: Forager – The Second Life of a Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal: The 1992 Miniseries

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode 26 – Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

Vic Sage of Pop Culture Retrorama Podcast: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella “Roses For The Dead”

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man, the Immortal Foe of the Challengers

Magazines and Monsters: Kang/Immortus: Marvel Triple Action #17, 1974: “Once an Avenger…”

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT – Jupiter Ascending commentary

 

Star Wars reviews: Jedi Aayla Secura

I’m continuing the countdown to the debut of The Force Awakens in December with another look at entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today’s post spotlights Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura published by Dark Horse in August 2003.  It was written by John Ostrander, drawn by Jan Duursema & Dan Parsons, and colored by Brad Anderson.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura cover signed

Several months have passed since the Battle of Geonosis.  The Clone Wars, the war between the Republic and the Confederacy, has spread throughout the entire galaxy.  Republic supply convoys are being ambushed in space by Confederacy raiders.  The Jedi T’ra Saa receives a holocomm message from Senator Elsah Sai Moro from the planet Devaron.  Elsah informs T’ra that the raiders are operating from Devaron and are being assisted by a member of the government.  Before the Senator can name the culprit, she is assassinated on-camera.

Soon after a trio of Jedi arrive on Devaron undercover: Aayla Secura, Tholme, and the mysterious Dark Woman.  Unfortunately the Dark Woman is recognized by Elsah’s killer, Aurra Sing.  Years before, the Dark Woman was Aurra’s teacher, but the young Jedi-in-training was kidnapped by space pirates, and she turned to the Dark Side.  Now a bounty hunter and assassin, Aurra hates the Jedi with a burning passion.  Aurra informs her employer, Senator Sai’Malloc, that the three visitors to Devaron are Jedi and that she intends to kill them.

Sai’Malloc does not want more murders on her hands and reluctantly admits her collaboration to Aayla.  By this time, however, Tholme and the Dark Woman have already fallen into a trap laid by Aurra.  To save her fellow Jedi, Aayla is forced to fight the deadly bounty hunter.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 8

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite writers on the Star Wars comic books from Dark Horse was John Ostrander.  The penciler he most frequently worked with on these stories was Jan Duursema.  Having previously penciled issue #92 of the original Marvel Comics series in late 1984, Duursema became a regular contributor to the Dark Horse titles a decade and a half later, making her one of only a handful of creators to have worked on both SW runs.

Ostrander and Duursema were quickly paired up at Dark Horse and became an effective team.  One of their first collaborations was “Twilight” in Star Wars #19-22.  It introduced Quinlan Vos, an amnesiac Jedi tempted by the Dark Side, and his Twi’lek apprentice Aayla Secura.  Over the next several years Ostrander & Duursema did excellent work developing the characters of Quinlan and Aayla, as well as the brooding Tholme and the beautiful tree-like T’ra Saa.  Ostrander & Duursema examined the upheavals all four experienced as the Jedi were drawn into the conflicts and politics of the Clone Wars.

One of the threads Ostrander & Duursema wove in and out of the Republic monthly and the Jedi quarterly book was Quin’s continuing struggle with the temptations of the Dark Side.  By the time of Jedi – Aayla Secura, Quin had apparently defected to the Confederacy, falling under the sway of Count Dooku.  In fact Quin was working deep undercover as a double agent, so deep in fact that the handful of Jedi who knew the truth, as well as the readers, were constantly left questioning if Quin really had gone bad.

Quin had previously saved Aayla from becoming a pawn to a Dark Jedi, and she now wishes to go after her old teacher to return the favor.  Tholme, one of few to know the truth of Quin’s scheme, forbids it.  Consequently throughout this issue Aayla finds her memories returning to her past instruction by Quin, and the bond of friendship they shared.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 25

Ostrander compares and contrasts Aayla Secura and Aurra Sing.  Both of them were kidnapped and subsequently tempted by the Dark Side while they were still Padawan learners.  Quinlan refused to give up on his pupil, pursuing Aayla across the galaxy to locate her and bring her back to the light.  On the other hand, Aurra’s teacher was the Dark Woman, who was so fanatical about observing the Jedi’s code of avoiding attachments that she even gave up her real name.  When Aurra was abducted, the Dark Woman simply resigned herself to her student’s loss since she never allowed herself to develop any sort of emotional attachment to her.  Aurra’s subsequent corruption, her transformation into a sadistic killer-for-hire, is at least partially due to the Dark Woman’s negligence.

An interesting bit of characterization by Ostrander is Senator Sai’Malloc.  Like many politicians, she is not genuinely evil, merely weak and greedy.  She had only intended to line her pockets with Confederacy money, and to gain favor with them, so that if they emerged as the victors of the War she would be in a position to use them as allies.  But as Sai’Malloc’s involvement with the Confederacy grew, her crimes snowballed out of control.  Eventually, in order to keep her role a secret, she resorts to murder.  It is a very believable, realistic depiction of how corruption gradually eats away at a person.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 29

The pencils by Duursema are incredible.  She draws some amazing action sequences.  The fight between Aayla and Aurra is absolutely dynamic, a ballet of violence.  Duursema also excels at the quieter scenes of characterization.  The flashbacks to young Aayla being taught by and developing a friendship with Quinlan are very effective.

I really like Dan Parsons inking Duursema’s pencils.  They began working together with Republic #50 and have been an art team ever since.  I had previously enjoyed Parsons’ work writing & drawing his creator-owned series Aetos the Eagle and Harpy.  His detailed inking has a very dark tone to it, simultaneously very slick & polished and rough & gritty.  Parsons’ early art reminded me somewhat of Michael Bair.  Parsons’ inking gave Duursema’s pencils an atmosphere that was appropriate for the grim, moody tales of war and espionage that Ostrander was writing in the Star Wars comics.

The coloring by Brad Anderson is also very effective.  It is vibrant yet subdued, somber when necessary without becoming muddy.  Again, it works well at creating an atmosphere in these stories.

Aayla Secura Attack of the Clones

Aayla Secura has the distinction of originating in the Expanded Universe and then appearing in the actual movies.  George Lucas, while he was in the middle of making Attack of the Clones, saw Dark Horse artwork featuring Aayla and, struck by her appearance, added her to the movie.  She was portrayed by ILM production assistant and actress Amy Allen.

Aayla subsequently appeared in Revenge of the Sith where she was one of the numerous Jedi killed by the Clone Troopers during Order 66.  Between the comic books by Ostrander & Duursema and the movies, Aayla had definitely became a fan favorite, and many, myself included, were upset at her demise.

I wonder if Aayla’s popularity and the reaction to her death helped inspire Lucas to create Ahsoka Tano, another female teenage alien Jedi.  She also became popular among Star Wars fans and, unlike Aayla, survived the events of the Clone Wars.

The majority of the Dark Horse material is apparently now non-canonical, but don’t let that dissuade you.  If you cannot find this one via back issues or the now out-of-print trade paperbacks, I’m sure that Disney-owned Marvel will eventually be repackaging it.  All of the issues by Ostrander & Duursema are well worth reading.  They are among the best entries in the entire Expanded Universe.

This review is dedicated to Jan Duursema’s daughter Sian, who convinced John Ostrander not to kill off Aayla at the end of “Twilight,” therefore leading to many more wonderful stories featuring the character.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about it on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was futilely attempting a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of Gordon’s entire life.  But the Commissioner is still very much in possession of his sanity.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain part of a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

Happy birthday to Luke McDonnell

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist Luke McDonnell, who was born on July 19, 1959.  McDonnell did a fair amount of work for both Marvel and DC in the 1980s and 90s.  He has this rather gritty, atmospheric style that I have always enjoyed.  I guess if I had to make a comparison, it is a bit like Gene Colan.  I have always appreciated McDonnell’s work for possessing a distinctive appearance that set it apart from many of his contemporaries.

Some of McDonnell’s most well-known work was as the penciler on Iron Man in the early 1980s, during a lengthy story arc written by Denny O’Neil.  It had previously been established by David Michelinie & Bob Layton in their excellent “Demon in a Bottle” storyline that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.  At the conclusion of it, with the help of Bethany Cabe & Edwin Jarvis, Stark had put down the drink.

Of course, the thing about addiction is that there is no cure.  Recovery is an ongoing process, and you need to actively work one day at a time to maintain your sobriety.  When O’Neil came on as the writer of the series, he had one of Stark’s business rivals, Obadiah Stane, manipulate events from behind the scenes so that Stark suffered a number of personal & professional setbacks.  The result was that Stark fell off the wagon in a major way, going into a serious downward spiral that eventually resulted in him losing his entire fortune to Stane.  For a while there, Stark hit rock bottom, roaming the streets of Manhattan, homeless & drunk, before beginning the long, difficult climb back to recovery.  In the meantime, Stark’s best friend James Rhodes had to take on the identity of Iron Man, joining the Avengers and opposing Stane’s schemes.

Iron Man 182 cover

Luke McDonnell penciled the majority of this three year long arc.  His unflinchingly moody artwork was the perfect fit for this dark tale of Tony Stark’s fall & redemption.  One of those issues, #182, was recently voted the number seven position in The 25 Greatest Iron Man Stories Ever Told at Comic Book Resources.  Looking at the cover to that issue, you can see the stunningly dramatic power of McDonnell’s artwork.

I actually bought most of these Iron Man comics from out of the back issue bin.  The very first Iron Man issue that I ever read as a kid was #194 (May 1985), which featured dual tales of Stark and Rhodes.  By this point in time, Stark had regained his sobriety and constructed a makeshift set of armor.  Following a battle with a Godzilla-like creature, he plunges into the ocean, and we see him desperately trying to avoid drowning.  Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes, still in the regular Iron Man armor, while helping out Hank Pym with some experiments, is trapped in a bizarre alien dimension.  McDonnell did an excellent job at illustrating the parallel predicaments of the two Armored Avengers.

Iron Man 194 cover

After departing from Iron Man, McDonnell became the regular artist on Justice League of America.  I think that his work on JLA was definitely underrated, probably because he was chronicling the adventures of the rather unfairly maligned “Justice League Detroit” team.  In any case, JLA was soon cancelled to make way for the new Giffen & DeMatteis “bwah-ha-ha” version.  Luckily, McDonnell quickly moved over to a brand new title that was seemingly made to order for him.

Debuting in 1987, Suicide Squad was penned by the super-talented John Ostrander.  Once again, McDonnell’s artwork was an absolutely perfect fit.  With its premise of convicted supervillains drafted by the government to perform covert black ops missions, featuring amoral characters and political intrigue, McDonnell’s moody style was just right in establishing a dark, noir, suspenseful atmosphere.  McDonnell also penciled & inked the 1988 Deadshot miniseries written by Ostrander & his wife Kim Yale which spotlighted the Squad’s resident sharpshooter with a death wish.

(The first eight issues of Suicide Squad, along with Secret Origins #14, were collected in the 2011 trade paperback Trial By Fire.  Definitely pick up a copy.)

Suicide Squad TPB

In the 1990s, McDonnell continued to do work for DC, penciling issues of Armageddon: Inferno, Eclipso and Green Lantern: Mosaic.  He also drew a trio of stories for Marvel’s alternate reality series What If…?   Unfortunately, as with a number of other good, solid artists, by this time I think McDonnell’s  particular style was sort of falling out of favor, with editors preferring either “flashy” work along the lines of Liefeld and McFarlane, or Manga-inspired work.  He seemed to be getting fewer and fewer gigs.  The last couple of stories I recall seeing him do were Atom Special #2 in 1995 and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #115 in 1999.  As always, McDonnell did his usual excellent work on both assignments.

I have been fortunate enough to meet McDonnell on a couple of occasions in the past.  I think the last time was about 14 years ago.  Back then, my primary original art focus was in obtaining sketches of Captain America.  I asked McDonnell for a sketch of Cap and, wow, did he do an absolutely amazing one.  I would love to get another sketch from him.  I’d probably ask him to do a drawing of Deadshot in my supervillains-themed sketchbook.

Captain America Luke McDonnell

Nowadays, I believe that Luke McDonnell is doing coloring work for IDW’s Popeye comic books.  I’m glad to see he is still employed, but I definitely hope that one of these days he has an opportunity to return to the drawing board.

In any case, happy birthday, Luke!  Hope there’s many more to come.