It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.

It Came From the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

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

Youngblood v2 3 cover
Everyone say cheesecake!

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

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

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

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

The immortal sorceress Diabolique has escaped from her frozen prison. She is an old adversary of Glory, the daughter of 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.)

Youngblood v2 3 pg 10

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

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

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

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

Glory 8 pg 10

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

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

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

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

Supreme 33 pg 16

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

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

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

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

Prophet Babewatch Special pg 12

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

Oh, yes, while Wells was busy monitoring Prophet’s adventures in France, he was attacked by another of Glory’s friends who was ensorcelled: Roman, amphibious monarch of the undersea kingdom of 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.

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

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

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

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛