Comic book reviews: Femforce #188 and Superbabes #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considering that nearly all of the characters in Femforce and Superbabes are women, many of them revealing skimpy, skintight costumes, inevitably there is a fair amount of T&A.  For the most part I find this is tastefully done, at least compared to quite a few other comic books out there.  The characters are also drawn with somewhat more realistic anatomy and physiques than you often find in female-centric superhero comic books.
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I guess my only major quibble with Femforce is that the team line-up is very WASPy.  Nearly all of the characters are white.  I think a major factor in this is due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, these characters either originated back in the 1940s, or were developed by Bill Black beginning in the late 1960s.  Unfortunately back then there was much less of an interest in diversifying the casts of comic books.

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

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

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

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

Comic book reviews: Femforce #162

Femforce #162 is the 30th anniversary issue of AC Comics.  I cannot say that I’ve been following the company since the beginning.  But I have been a Femforce fan for a dozen years now, and I’ve bought a whole bunch of back issues from before 2001, so, yeah, I guess I qualify as a long-time fan.

In any case, it’s great to see an independent publisher last this long, especially when so many other small press publications have been forced to fold up their tents.  So, my hat is off to AC publisher Bill Black, his long-time collaborator Mark Heike, and the line-up of talented creators who have been working with them.

Femforce #162 cover by Brad Gorby
Femforce #162 cover by Brad Gorby

Issue #162 is topped off with a beautiful, trippy cover by Brad Gorby featuring Synn, Nightveil, and She-Cat.  As Black acknowledges inside, it really doesn’t have much to do with any of the actual stories in this issue.  But it is certainly a very beautiful piece of art by Gorby, who I have always felt was a super-talented artist.

The main story in #162 is the two-chapter “The Commandos Are Coming,” penciled by Eric Coile, and written, inked & lettered by Black.  The Black Commando, paramour to Femforce stalwart Nightveil, has returned to Earth and, once more seemingly insane, has apparently attacked the woman he loves.  As Ms Victory and Synn pursue the fleeing Commando, the rest of the team attempts to revive their fallen comrade.  However, all of them soon learn that one of Nightveil’s most bitter enemies is actually behind these events.

“Golden Years,” the issue’s second story, takes place concurrent to the main tale.  It is written by Heike, with pencils by Rock Baker, Heike & Black, and inks / finishes from Jeff Austin.  While Femforce is off attempting to solve the mystery of the returned Black Commando, Ms Victory’s husband Paragon is in a face-off with the angry, violent Rad.  Ms Victory’s daughter Jen is furious at her house having been destroyed last issue, and she’s more than willing to take it out on her step-father, who she has never had a good relationship with.  But the fight between Rad and Paragon is interrupted by a startling revelation.

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Ms Victory confronts Black Commando

Both “The Commandos Are Coming” and “Golden Years” will be very rewarding reads for long-time Femforce fans.  In the first story, a lot of old angers held by Ms Victory come bursting forth while she is facing the Black Commando.  We learn that, all these years later, Joan Wayne still blames the Commando for causing her to go insane & become the first Rad, an event that knocked over a whole row of tragic dominoes.  In Joan’s absence, the government forced her daughter Jen to assume the mantle of Ms Victory, which led to the disintegration of her marriage and the death of her son, and culminated in Jen becoming the second Rad.

Likewise, in the Rad / Paragon story, once again Jen is casting the blame for her tragic existence solely on her mother’s shoulders.  But when Paragon reveals previously-untold facts about Ms Victory’s past to Rad, it forces Jen to admit that her mother never had a perfect existence, and that she might have been unfairly targeting her as the cause of all her ills.  Considering how long Rad’s resentments against her mother and step-father have been simmering, it was refreshing to see her begin to come to an understanding about Ms Victory, and to reconcile with Paragon.

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Rad and Paragon engage in family therapy… superhero style

This is why I’m such a fan of Femforce.  Black & Heike have given the characters rich back stories, creating an engaging continuity.  And they’ve invested their cast with very real personalities, causing you to care about them.  At the same time, I think Black & Heike do a good job at making the series accessible to newer readers.  There were certain past events referenced in #162 that I was unaware of, but the scripts presented them in such a way that I was quickly brought up to speed.  I love that the book still has the editor’s notes pointing you to specific back issues, something that unfortunately has fallen out of style at Marvel and DC.

There were several back-up stories in Femforce #162.  My two favorites were illustrated by Andre St. Amour.  He works in a really cool animated style.  Of the two stories, the one I enjoyed more was “The Evil That Time Forgot.”  It’s an unconventional team-up story, as it sees Laura Wright, the sorcerer Nightveil, travel back in time to 1942 and team up with her earlier non-magical self, the pistol-packing vigilante Blue Bulleteer, to battle a Lovecraftian horror.  The story had a real sense of fun about it.

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Laura Wright is beside herself: Blue Bulleteer meets Nightveil

The second story drawn by St. Amour is “Nosey,” written by Mark Holmes.  She-Cat is assigned to the Middle East to help battle a pair of super-powered terrorists.  Holmes’ tale was also rather enjoyable.  I found it just a bit odd that She-Cat would be fighting a couple of female super-human extremists, as most Islamic fanatics are very misogynistic.  So even in a comic book it seems a bit odd that terrorists would work alongside a pair of women.  That detail aside, I did like the story, and I hope that Holmes does some more writing for AC.  Certainly the artwork by St. Amour was, once again, fantastic.

All in all, Femforce #162 is a really good issue, with some entertaining stories.  I’m certainly looking forward to seeing in future issues how Black and Heike develop the plotlines that they’ve set up here.

One last thing: perhaps the $9.95 price tag on Femforce seems a bit expensive.  Keep in mind that AC Comics is an independent publisher struggling to succeed in a difficult market.  And, as far as value goes, I would much rather pay $9.95 for a 76 page issue of Femforce than three or four bucks for a 22 page comic from Marvel or DC that takes less than 15 minutes to read.  So, yeah, I definitely see Femforce as being well worth the price of admission, and I encourage others to check it out.

Comic book reviews: Femforce #160

I have to be honest: about 13 years ago, when I first heard of the comic book series Femforce, published by AC Comics, I initially wrote it off as yet another “bad girl” comic book, sight unseen.  Of course, I soon after learned three significant facts about the series.  One, it had begun publication in 1985, several years before the whole bad girl anti-hero movement had kicked off.  Two, many of the characters in Femforce actually dated back to the 1940s, and had been revived by publisher Bill Black.  Three, in the early 1990s a number of issues of Femforce had been penciled by Silver Age artist Dick Ayers.

That last item that really caught my attention.  I’m very fond of Ayers’ artwork.  In addition, I’ve met him and his wife Lindy at a number of conventions over the years.  I figured that if Ayers was involved with Femforce, it had to be worth checking out.

A local comic shop happened to have a box full of early Femforce issues, along with a few other AC Comics titles, such as Nightveil and Sentinels of Justice, which I was able to buy up pretty inexpensively.  I quickly got caught up on the series, and I found it was a fun title with interesting, well-developed characters.  Yes, the female protagonists were all sexy women, but they were drawn in a retro “good girl” style that wasn’t exploitative.  More importantly, Bill Black and frequent collaborator Mark Heike developed personalities and rich back stories for their cast of lovely ladies.

femforce 160 cover

In the last few years, due to the difficulties in distributing & selling independent titles, Black and Heike have altered the format of Femforce somewhat.  It is now a quarterly 80-page title priced at $9.95 with shorter stories by an assortment of creators.  I have to admit, I do miss the days when the series had full-length stories featuring the entire team, with Black and Heike themselves as the driving forces behind the series.  But I can understand why changes needed to be made, and I’m glad that the book continues to exist in some format.

The latest issue, Femforce #160, is topped off by a cover by the very talented Eduardo Barreto, whose work I’ve always enjoyed.  Tragically, Barreto passed away at the much too young age of 57 in December of last year.  This must have been one of the last pieces he drew before his untimely death.  It really is a lovely cover, featuring images of team members She-Cat, Stardust, and Ms. Victory.

Inside, what really impressed me, as always, was the artwork.  I’ve gotten so tired of much of the material at the “Big Two,” Marvel and DC.  You either have over-rendered work with ridiculous amounts of crosshatching, or you get Manga-inspired styles with poor storytelling.  These have pervaded through much of Marvel and DC’s products.  What I like about the artwork on Femforce is that it’s clean-cut.  The penciling reminds me of such 1970s & 80s artists as Ron Wilson, Alex Saviuk, and Alan Kupperberg, who have clear, solid storytelling abilities.  The inking is reminiscent of the Filipino school of illustration, with its rich embellishments.  I’m a huge fan of that style, as well, so I like the combination of the two.

My only real criticism of the art is that at times the blacks do print somewhat dark.  It would be lovely to see some gray tones & shading.

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The stories in Femforce #160 are all on the short side, each a solo tale of one of the team members.  I guess the problem I had with these is that none of them really felt like the events in them had any significance to them.  The two exceptions were the Synn and Nightveil stories, but each of those had this real dream-like quality, and at the end you weren’t entirely certain what did and did not occur.  Having said that, the Nightveil episode appears to be a set-up for future events, and so I have to wait and see what that leads to.

There was also a Stardust solo story in #160 that was good.  The story by Eric Johnson, although a bit on the slight side, was fun.  I was certainly impressed by the dynamic artwork by Chris Allen and Scott Shriver.

As I mentioned earlier, I am more of a fan of the longer tales featuring several of the ladies of Femforce working together on a big case.  I’m thinking specifically of “Full Circle” a 42-page story written by Mark Heike that ran ten issues ago.  That was divided up into shorter chapters, with a different art team illustrating each segment.   I felt that worked extremely well.

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One definite improvement to Femforce is that the Gargantarama flip book has been dropped.  I never understood the appeal of all those giant women.  Yeah, I don’t mind if Tara the Jungle Girl would sometimes develop the power to grow to be 50 feet tall, or that Femforce would occasionally fight a six story tall female menace.  But devoting almost a third of the book’s page count to a flip book featuring stories of giant women was excessive, in my opinion.  In #160 we do get one giant woman tale, and that’s just enough for me.

Anyway, putting humongous females aside, Femforce is a fun comic with cool characters and fantastic art.  I’m happy that Bill Black and Mark Heike have been able to continue to publish this series.

I definitely recommend taking a look at the AC Comics website, where there is a huge selection of Femforce back issues & trade paperbacks available.  AC has also released a number of old sci-fi and horror movies & serials onto DVD and has them for sale.  There’s some interesting, rare material being offered.  AC has even produced several low-budget direct-to-DVD movies based on the Femforce characters.  You can really see the fondness that Bill Black has for his characters & stories, devoting all that time & creative energy into bringing them to life.