Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part two

Here is the second part of my look at Roger Slifer’s run on the DC Comics science fiction series The Omega Men.  (And here’s a link back to part one.)

Previously the tyrannical Citadel, which brutally ruled Vegan star system, was overthrown in an assault headed by Tigorr of the Omega Men.  As issue #8 opens, the inhabitants of Vega’s 22 worlds are celebrating their newly-won freedom.

Omega Men 8 cover

While the various members of the Omega Men begin to adjust to the idea of victory, the enigmatic human criminal Harry Hokum is working behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos.  He decides that the former figurehead leader of the Citidel would make an ideal puppet ruler.  Guiding him, Hokum quickly begins organizing the surviving Citadel factions, rebuilding the fallen alliance with amazing speed.

It is quite interesting to see what Slifer is doing in these issues.  It is a common theme in sci-fi and space opera to have a resistance movement fighting a desperate battle against a ruthless dictatorship.  What you see much less seldom is the eventual outcome of such struggles.  What happens after you overthrow the evil empire?

As was demonstrated on numerous occasions in the real world throughout the 20th Century, more often than not when a totalitarian regime is overthrown, it is not replaced by a stable democracy.  Instead, another dictatorship steps in to take its place.  Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran… all of them saw one form of oppression supplanted by another.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes.  And in cases where that did not occur, the other likely outcome was complete disorder.  Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya within the last decade and a half.

Slifer obviously wanted to look at how the Omega Men would attempt to stabilize the Vegan system which, after decades of Citadel rule, is now in disarray.  Tigorr was so concerned with topping the Citadel as quickly as possible that he did not consider what would happen next.  The result is that the Omegans are caught completely off-guard when the charismatic Hokum begins consolidating power.

Omega Men 8 pg 18

The new Citadel is, in certain ways, more dangerous than the old one.  As was previously revealed, the First Citadelian made his regime so totally vicious because he wanted to drag the entire Vegan system down to his level of violence & ruthlessness.  In contrast, Hokum is not interested in proving a point.  He wants to rule over a stable empire.  Instead of merely relying on brutality, he also utilizes guile and deception, weapons which are much more difficult to detect and to fight back against.

Slifer addresses the question of what freedom really means.  I think that here in Western society we take for granted that freedom is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Many of us do not give it too much thought.  But for other cultures and societies, freedom is a very different concept.

In the real world the question has often been asked of what to do when a tyrant is elected by democratic means.  If outside forces disapprove and decide to overthrow that dictator, in the process are they not taking away that country’s freedom to decide its own destiny?  Slifer has the Omega Men facing that very question when several Vegan worlds voluntarily join Hokum’s new Citadel, lured by promises of order & security.

The question is also explored on a more personal level by Slifer via the character of Broot.  He is still haunted by grief and uncertainty following the tragedy he unwittingly caused on his home planet of Changralyn.  Broot realizes that the lull in hostilities finally gives him the opportunity to search for his wife Kattayan, who was taken by the Gordanian slavers years before.

Broot tracks his wife to a harsh planetoid.  It is here that all of the children seized from Changralyn by the Gordaians have been taken, to spend the rest of their lives in brutal toil, mining valuable minerals under extremely dangerous conditions.

Broot is aghast to see these children relegated to this fate, and disgusted that they have embraced his society’s religion of extreme nonviolence, passively accepting their roles.  He is also shocked to discover that Kattayan has been teaching the children to follow that faith.

Omega Men 13 pg 9

At first Broot desperately wants to take his wife and the children away from their desolate existence.  He attempts to convey to them the vast possibilities of life:

“It is easy to choose the simple path, to take the path of least resistance in living your lives. But in the end they are empty lives, enriching neither yourselves nor your spirit. Each one of you needs to learn to look beyond your present lives, to the true potentialities of the universe. And of your true potentialities.”

In response, the children tell him that this is the only life they have known, that in their own way they are happy here, and that they do not know how they would exist in the vast universe outside.  Broot realizes that just as he will not allow others to dictate his own individual path, neither can he force these children to conform to his idea of freedom.  He has extended to them the choice to leave, and he must respect their decision even though he disagrees with it.

Slifer also focuses on Kalista, wife of the Omegan leader Primus.  After Tigorr’s victory over the Citadel, Kalista is preparing to resume her role of monarch of Euphorix.  She had only reluctantly given up the throne as part of a deal with the opportunistic Alonzo Dulak.

In exchange for Kalista letting him assume control of Euphorix, Dulak erected an energy shield around the planet, preventing the Citadel from conquering it.  Although this has spared her world the ravages of war, Kalista is nevertheless eager to resume her role as queen as quickly as possible, as she finds Dulak untrustworthy.  Indeed, we see that Dulak is quite the autocrat.  Under his rule Euphorix has adopted zero tolerance broken windows policing, as an unfortunate pair of litterbugs discover when they are summarily vaporized.

Once hostilities break out again, and the revived Citadel attacks the now-defenseless Euphorix, Primus and Kalista find themselves at odds.  Primus is determined the attempt to salvage the peace in Vega.  Kalista, however, is now primarily concerned with her home planet.  She informs Primus that she intends to raise the energy shield again, this time permanently, and that if he will not join her on Euphorix then she is ready to end their marriage.

Omega Men 12 pg 6

Kalista is faced with a painful dilemma, between her planet and her husband.  Although her ultimate decision to safeguard Euphorix and abandon both Primus and the rest of the Vegan system seems cold, it is clear that the decision is a difficult one for her.  As the queen of Euphorix, she genuinely regards herself as the servant of her people, and perceives it as her duty to protect them, even if it means sacrificing her happiness.  For Kalista, the freedom of her people is paramount to her own.

In issue #11 Slifer looks at the origins of Harpis and her now-deceased sister, the treacherous Demonia.  They were both prostitutes in an upscale bordello on the planet Raggashoon.  Harpis was extremely good at her job, bringing pleasure and comfort to her many clients.  But her existence then came crashing down as a result of the machination of the Citadel officer Komand’r, aka Blackfire, the older sister of Starfire from the New Teen Titans.  The sadistic Blackfire forces several of the prostitutes, including Harpis and Demonia, to undergo genetic manipulation, transforming them into concubines for her various alien lieutenants as a way of cementing their loyalty.

As written by Slifer, Harpis is very much a victim.  She is constantly being manipulated, either by her sister or by the Citadel.  Harpis relies on others for strength, unable to find it within herself.  In the present, severely wounded by the bounty hunter Bedlam and learning of her sister’s death, Harpis is completely distraught.

I wish that Slifer had made Harpis an emotionally stronger character.  I feel that her backstory has not aged well, and that three decades later, when assertive female protagonists are fortunately much more commonplace, Harpis’ weakness seems even more apparent.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge Slifer’s writing in this way.  After all, he did write Kalista as a strong individual.  As in real life, not everyone, be they male or female, is going to end up being assertive and independent.

Omega Men 11 pg 14

Lobo the bounty hunter returns to the pages of The Omega Men, this time as an ally of the Omegans.  Slifer appears to have recognized the character’s potential popularity early on.

Of course, given that Lobo was introduced as a brutal sadist, it would have been ridiculous for him to suddenly turn heroic.  The mercenary joins forces with the Omega Men because he feels that the Citadel did not uphold their end of their bargain with him.  Lobo also finds it highly amusing that the Omega Men, despite their disgust for him, are forced to enlist his services.  At the end of issue #9, Primus realizes that he has no idea how to effectively fight Harry Hokum’s new, manipulative incarnation of the Citadel.  Reluctantly Primus approaches Lobo and acknowledges “We need someone as twisted as they are.”  Lobo, of course, chuckles at this admission.

In these bleak stories, Slifer obviously realized that a certain amount of humor was needed in order to keep the series from becoming a depressing slog.  Lobo provides some of that humor, albeit once again of an extremely macabre type.  Slifer also continues to utilize the Omega Man known as Shlagen.  The goofy-looking yellow-hued member of the Omegans is a technician, not a warrior, and he is constantly finding himself in over his head.  Shlagen is definitely not the bravest of individuals, to say the least, and his reluctant, bumbling heroism certainly helps to lighten the stories.

Slifer also generates comedy via the interactions of Lobo and Shlagen, who are complete opposites.  Shlagen was the first character to encounter Lobo back in issue #3, and he only survived because the bounty hunter didn’t feel like killing him.  Since then, Shlagen keeps bumping into Lobo over and over again, much to the former’s alarmed consternation and the latter’s twisted amusement.

Omega Men 9 pg 9

If there is one significant weakness to Slifer’s work it is that he never seemed to find a way to balance out the huge cast of characters.  Various regulars disappear for several issues at a time.  I guess that not every writer can be a Paul Levitz or a Chris Claremont and excel at juggling large casts of characters and multiple plotlines.

The art team on The Omega Men #s 8-13 is penciler Tod Smith and inker / embellisher Mike DeCarlo.  They do excellent work throughout these issues, demonstrating genuine versatility.

Slifer’s stories featured some previously unexplored inhabitants and worlds of the Vegan system, and the art by Smith & DeCarlo really brings these exotic, alien creations to life.  They expertly illustrate the various action sequences.  They also do effective work rendering the quieter character moments.  And in the moments of comedy, they successfully bring Slifer’s humor to life.  Smith & DeCarlo are especially good at depicting Shlagen’s misadventures throughout these issues.

Slifer’s run came to an abrupt end with issue #13.  In the letter column, Slifer wrote “Because of irreconcilable differences between myself and DC, this will be the last issue of The Omega Men written by me.”

It is unfortunate that Slifer had to depart the book.  In his year on the series he did spectacular character development and world-building while telling exciting & challenging stories.  It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone from this point, exploring the fractured alliances of the Omega Men and the resurgence of the Citadel.  I wonder if he would have eventually revealed who Harry Hokum was , since the character literally showed up out of nowhere in issue #3.  At least in his final story Slifer was able to conclude the story arc he began with Broot a year earlier, providing the character with closure and peace of mind.

I regret that it took Roger Slifer’s recent untimely death to motivate me to re-read these first 13 issues of The Omega Men.  Looking through them, it is apparent that he was a talented, imaginative, thoughtful writer.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012.  Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz.  His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.

The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton.  They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger).  Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them.  Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series.  Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.

Omega Men 1 cover

When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor.  Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.

I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then.  Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions.  I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.

The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval.  Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy.  The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence.  He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.

Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself.  Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel.  The only thing uniting them is a common enemy.  They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.

The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr.  Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories.  The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter.  He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel.  Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.

Omega Men 1 pg 8

The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong.  Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for.  On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive.  What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches.  Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that.  Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy.  As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.

Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman.  Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful.  Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism.  They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.

Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace.  Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken.  The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians.  Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.

Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves.  Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all.  In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.

Omega Men 2 pg 8

Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths.  The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery.  When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered.  It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.

Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating.  Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel.  As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega.  Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.

Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel.  Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex.  Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…

“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression.  But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all!  Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”

The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it.  The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution.  The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.

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Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith.  The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself.  These revelations are horrific.

The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system.  One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”

Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence.  They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx.  One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate species will epitomize love or war.

(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story.  It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part.  It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part.  I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)

To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx.  The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her.  Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck.  The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.

Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood.  The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors.  She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings.  One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron.  The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people.  This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.

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Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust.  They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor.  Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian.  He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster.  The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that.  He tells the Omega Men…

“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls.  I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves.  And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others.  Just like me.”

With that the First Citadelian dies.  Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it.  As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.

Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject.  In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.

A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo.   The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3.  Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum.  Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix.  In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.

Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.

Omega Men 3 pg 13 Humbek

Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work.  If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck.  Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below.  Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex.  What do you want?  It was the early 1980s after all!  I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends.  It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.

Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence.  Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print.  Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines.  Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!

Omega Men 3 pg 15 Lobo intro

The artwork on these issues is certainly good.  I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments.  Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic.  On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts.  DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good.  His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences.  Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system.  His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences.  Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.

Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to part two.

God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ’em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

Comic book reviews: Rocket Girl #1-5

One of the new titles that I’ve been enjoying lately is Rocket Girl, which is written by Brandon Montclare and illustrated by Amy Reeder.  Last year’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue was such an overwhelming success that Image Comics decided to publish the book.  Rocket Girl #5 just came out, wrapping up the first story arc, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions hanging in the air, no doubt causing many readers besides myself very much anticipating the next installment of the series.

Rocket Girl is the story of Dayoung Johansson, a 15 year old who travels back in time from 2013 to 1986 to change history.  The 2013 that Dayoung comes from is not “our” present / future, though, but a world where the titanic corporation Quintum Mechanics has made tremendous technological breakthroughs, creating a world where glistening high tech skyscrapers, robots, and personal jet packs are commonplace.  In other words, it is a vision of tomorrow very much in keeping with the idealistic future envisioned in the pulp sci-fi novels & movies of the mid-20th Century.

Dayoung, though, is not content.  A member of the New York Teen Police Department, she sees the tremendous political and economic power being wielded unopposed by Quintum Mechanics.  And then an anonymous informant known only as “Joshua” informs her that Quintum came to power by sending technology back through time to the founders of the company in 1986.  Convinced that “crimes against time” have been committed, Dayoung sneaks into Quintum headquarters and utilizes their time travel tech to go back 27 years into the past and avert what she regards as the perversion of history.

Rocket Girl 5 cover

Brandon Montclare poses some intriguing questions in his scripts.  I constantly find myself wondering if Dayoung Johansson’s mission is justified.  Unlike so many other science fiction stories involving traveling in time to alter history, the 2013 seen in Rocket Girl is not some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic nightmare.  So far we have mostly just seen the members of the NYTPD and Quintum Mechanics, which makes it difficult to get a feel for what sort of life the average citizen has in Dayoung’s 2013.  But it doesn’t seem all that different from the “real” 2013.  Actually, it seems a bit more pleasant, with cool technology.  And you don’t seem to hear anyone talking about global warming, pollution or crime.

Yes, Quintum Mechanics appears to be a shadowy, amoral corporate entity with too much influence.  But what happens if Dayoung succeeds in undoing the apparent alterations to the time stream?  Rather than a world where Quintum is manipulating events from behind the scenes, we would have “our” 21th Century where the Koch Brothers and their like are pulling the strings of power.  It is not going to be a “better” world, just a different one with similar flaws and corruptions.

There is also the implication that the board of directors of Quintum actually want Dayoung Johansson to travel back to 1986, that her attempt to alter the past is a crucial part of the corporation’s rise to power.  Montclare is definitely playing around with the notion of temporal paradoxes here.  It’s mind-bending stuff.  We even see people from 1986 meeting Dayoung for what is, from their perspective, the first time, and then 27 years later running into her again, where she doesn’t know them because, in her personal time line, she hasn’t yet traveled back in time.

And that got me thinking… I would not be at all surprised if the mysterious informant “Joshua” turns out to be the 2013 incarnation of someone we have already been introduced to in 1986.  It would certainly be interesting if “Joshua” was revealed to be Annie, the idealistic pink-haired Quintum Mechanics scientist who quickly befriends Dayoung upon her arrival in 1986.  Because people do most certainly change over a quarter century, and the Annie of 2013 would not doubt have a very different view of the world than her younger self.

Rocket Girl 1 pg 9

Dayoung Johansson is a well-written character.  She is very much a teenager, impulsive and headstrong, full of a simplistic idealism about how she thinks the world ought to be, disdainful of anyone over 30.  I can look at Dayoung and recognize aspects of the sort of person I used to be when I was in high school.  Yeah, if you had given me a jet pack and a time machine when I was 15, I would probably have made a mess of the timelines in some sort of ill-considered attempt to “fix” history.

The artwork by Amy Reeder is fantastic.  As I’ve written before, I’ve been a fan of her work since I first saw it on Madame Xanadu several years back.  Reeder continually gets better as time goes by.  I was impressed by the Halloween Eve special she did in 2012, her first collaboration with Montclare (although they knew each other from when he was her assistant editor at Vertigo).  Reeder is now creating even more impressive work on Rocket Girl.

One of the most striking things about Reeder’s work is her stunning layouts.  She utilizes some very unconventional, dramatic storytelling techniques.  They are especially effective in the action sequences where Dayoung is kicking ass or rocketing around, zig-zagging all over the place.  Reeder definitely  imbues her still images with a genuine sense of dynamic action.

Rocket Girl 4 pg 10-11

Reeder is also especially skilled at rendering her settings.  I already knew from her work on Madame Xanadu that she excelled at depicting historical setting in lavish detail.  Here in Rocket Girl she both imagines a futuristic 2013 full of bright, streamlined technology, and she recreates the gritty urban sprawl of New York City in the mid-1980s.

Rocket Girl is briefly going on hiatus, with issue #6, the opening chapter of the second story arc, scheduled to come out in September.  If you missed the first five issues, I recommend picking up the trade paperback which is due out next month.  It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking, fun read with incredible artwork.

Comic book reviews: Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014

“There’s one thing, do you see, that’s terrifying in this world, and that is that every man has his reasons.” – Jean Renoir

When I was a kid in the early 1980s, one of my favorite television shows was Battlestar Galactica. Along with reruns of Star Trek and Doctor Who, Glen Larson’s saga of the last desperate survivors of humanity was a must see for my young self. Of course, re-watching the series a couple of decades later as an adult, I did come to realize that there was very little in the way of real character development over the course of the series. There was also some pretty dodgy plotting going on.

That seemed to be especially true of the show’s main human antagonist, Count Baltar. Although very memorably portrayed by the late, great John Colicos, from the standpoint of existing as a believable character, Baltar was quite lacking. He never seemed to really have any sufficient motivation for betraying humanity to the Cylons, other than the fact that he was evil with a capital “E.” Along those lines, he also appeared totally naïve in believing that the Cylons would hold up their end of their deal, spare his life, and install him as the ruler of his own world.

(This, of course, is one of the reasons why I really enjoyed Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. As written, Dr. Gaius Baltar was an amazing character, a flawed, morally ambivalent individual who really grew over the course of the series. And he was so brilliantly played by James Callis.)

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 cover

Keeping this in mind, I was very much intrigued when I learned that the Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014, published by Dynamite Entertainment, would be an in-depth examination of the origins of Count Baltar. It also piqued my interest that the story was written by Robert Napton who also penned several enjoyable Battlestar Galactica miniseries published in the mid-1990s by Maximum Press (say what you will about Rob Liefeld, but he was probably the first person to generate new interest in the property in over a decade).

So, what makes Baltar tick? What leads a man to become the ultimate traitor, betraying the whole of humanity to a race of cold, ruthless machine beings? Not too surprisingly, he is a product of his environment & upbringing.

As revealed by Napton, we learn that Baltar was born on Cygnus, a harsh, lonely tylium mining asteroid. After his mother died, young Baltar was left to be raised by his father Sela, an angry, abusive, greedy alcoholic. Unfortunately, young Baltar inherited his father’s covetous nature and, dazzled by the wealth of the mine, attempted to make off with a piece of tylium. Quickly discovered, Baltar was brutally beaten by his father. The youth came to realize that Sela cared more for his tylium mine than his son.

Baltar’s destiny spiraled further into darkness when the Cylon Empire invaded Cygnus. Fearful of being dragged into a full-scale war, the human Colonies left the tylium miners to fend for themselves. Suffering under the brutal lash of Cylon occupation, Baltar’s existing contempt for and resentment against his father grew to encompass the whole of humanity, who he regarded as having turned its back on him.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 14

Thus Baltar set out on a lifelong course of collaboration and deception, of treachery and avarice, fueled by a burning desire for both self-preservation and power. Baltar can be regarded as a self-made man, climbing to great financial, social and political heights. And though these many accomplishments are built upon the bones of the innocents he used and discarded, from Baltar’s perspective his actions are perfectly justified and rational. As written by Napton, it makes perfect sense that this is an individual who ended up exactly as we see him at the beginning of the series’ debut episode.

And then Napton engages in a truly magnificent mind-frack (as the characters themselves might say). Inspired by the retconned ending of the series pilot, which famously undid Baltar’s apparent death earlier in the episode, Napton suggests a horrific revelation that leaves Baltar questioning both his sanity and his very existence. In the end, we might even be left feeling sorry for Baltar. And even if we cannot pity him, then at least we can understand him, and appreciate the tragedy of his existence, the squandered potential of his life.

The art on Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 is by Kewber Baal. I am completely unfamiliar with him, but he does superb work on this story. Baal absolutely brings Baltar to life, not just rendering an amazing likeness of John Colicos, but imbuing the character with all the arrogance, contempt, desperation, and fear that the actor had brought to the screen in his performance.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 3

Via some very effective layouts & storytelling, Baal also renders the Cylons as genuinely menacing, frightening figures. These mechanical tyrants truly seem like they are capable of conquering the entire galaxy, grinding all resistance beneath their heel. As opposed to, y’know, a bunch of tin soldiers who get blown to bits by a group of kids riding around on freaking unicorns… talk about an appalling example of Villain Decay! But I digress.

In any case, this was quite a good read. I hope that Napton has the opportunity to write further Battlestar Galactica stories at Dynamite. Based on the Annual, as well as his past work, he has a really good grasp of the characters, as well as some interesting thoughts on what sort of directions they can be taken in the future.

Comic book reviews: Grindhouse #1-4

I was born a decade or so too late to have been the target audience for grindhouse movies, the kind of sleazy exploitation genre films to have played in second-rate cinemas back in the 1970s and early 80s.  By the time I was old enough to explore New York City on my own, most of those less-than-venerable institutions had closed their doors.  However, I caught quite a number of their successors via direct-to-video and cable TV releases.  And in the last decade, there’s been a surge in nostalgic interest in those old cheese-fests, at least partly brought on by the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Already being something of a B-movie aficionado, I’ve seen a handful of those “classic” grindhouse flicks on DVD.  Most of them fall into the so-bad-they’re-good territory.  They’re campy and violent and quite often sexist.  But at the same time, it’s interesting to see what those filmmakers working on a shoestring budget could accomplish with imagination & ingenuity in those long-ago days before anyone with access to a laptop could easily whip up some CGI effects.

So naturally my interest was piqued when the eight issue Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight series was announced by Dark Horse Comics.  Written by Alex De Campi, the series is comprised of a quartet of two-part tales, each an homage to the exploitation films of days past.  In the first four issues, we have a pair of over-the-top romps into sex, violence, sci-fi and horror entitled “Bee Vixens From Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares.”

Grindhouse 3 cover

“Bee Vixens From Mars” sees the women of a small Southern town taken over by an alien insect queen, transforming them into horny, bloodthirsty femme fatales linked to a hive mind.  With nearly everyone in the town either mutated or brutally slaughtered, it falls to Deputy Garcia and the owners of the local convenience store, Wayne & Sergei, to battle the alien infestation.

I really think that Alex De Campi’s background as a woman who has lived & worked on three continents allows her to write from a different perspective.  In interviews, she has commented that one of the more interesting qualities of grindhouse fare was that often the protagonists were women and/or minorities.  Yeah, a lot of those movies were “sexploitation” or “blaxploitation” or whatever you want to call them, meaning the main characters were probably on the stereotypical or one-dimensional side.  But it nevertheless did provide some sort of avenue for depicting heroes who weren’t white males.  In contrast, as De Campi points out, the majority of big studio action & genre pictures nowadays usually feature handsome, macho, WASPy men as the main characters.

In contrast, in “Bee Vixens From Mars,” we have Deputy Garcia, an older Hispanic woman with white hair and an eye patch, as the ass-kicking savoir of humanity.  Backing her up are Wayne & Sergei, a gay couple originally from Eastern Europe.  You have a small group of individuals who can be considered outsiders to the traditional, mainstream population as the heroes.

The art on “Bee Vixens From Mars” is by Chris Peterson.  I’m not familiar with him, but he does great work on this book.  Peterson really draws the hell out of the erotically charged, ultra-violent story.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely strong.

Grindhouse 2 pg 10

“Prison Ship Antares” is basically a women-in-prison story in outer space.  A group of hardened female convicts are sent away from Earth to settle Alpha Centauri, accompanied by their warden Kalinka and her contingent of cloned guards.  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really sound plausible, trying to colonize another planet with only women.  But that’s the situation De Campi sets up in order to tell her second zany tale.  I’ve seen far more nonsensical scenarios in actual B-movies, so whatever.

In any case, Kalinka turns out to be insane, a sadistic religious nut who believes she is the reincarnation of a samurai warrior.  She decides to “burn away the sinful parts” of her prisoners, gruesomely killing them with acid and fire.  The convicts, led by a gal by the name of Spanish Fly, realize that they had better seize control of the Antares, and quick, before they all end up dead or mutilated.

With a set-up like this, you might be concerned that the book would devolve into “lipstick lesbian” pornography.  But, aside from a couple of cheekily playful sequences, for the most part De Campi writes the inmates as realistic, well-rounded individuals, giving them a certain amount of personality & background.  There’s only so much development she can fit into a 48 page story, but on the whole these women come across as real people, rather than merely objects of titillation. They’re sexy, but intelligent and tough.

Simon Fraser is the artist on “Prison Ship Antares,” and I could not have thought of a better choice to illustrate this tale.  Fraser is the co-creator, with writer Robbie Morrison, of the Nikolai Dante feature in 2000 AD.  Dante was, in his early tales, sort of a ne’er-do-well rogue, a hedonistic adventurer who got involved in all sorts of wacky sexcapades.  The first couple of Dante stories I ever read were “The Movable Feast” and “The Cadre Infernal,” which were set in, respectively, a gigantic brothel on wheels and a BDSM club.  So, yeah, Fraser knows how to draw smut… and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  No, but seriously, Simon is a fantastic artist.  He really imbues his characters with a great deal of personality & individuality through facial expressions and diverse body types.

Truthfully, there is actually a lot more violence than sex in “Prison Ship Antares.”  Some of it is horrific.  Other parts are just plain hysterical, such as when the prisoners riot against the clone guards while singing the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Frasier does a superb job with that sequence.

Grindhouse 4 pg 7

There is another distinct quality to both of these tales.  Since each of them are stand-alone stories, sometimes it really seems up in the air whether or not various characters will live or die.  Without a status quo to adhere to, you half-expect De Campi to bump off one or more of her lead characters.  It really does keep the reader a lot more on edge.

The covers for the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight are by Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian.  Both of them have designed a couple of nice, striking pieces, sort of faux movie posters which also have a rather retro, pulp feel.

If you are a fan of genre films and B-movies, you’ll probably enjoy Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight.  It’s a fun, strange homage to exploitation films, with something of a tongue-in-cheek feminist slant given to the old genre formulas.  I’m looking forward to seeing what De Campi and her collaborators have in store for the next four issues.  It should be crazy.

Frederik Pohl: 1919 – 2013

I was sorry to learn that the long-time science fiction author Frederik Pohl had passed away.  He died on September 2, 2013, aged 93 years.  I haven’t read a huge amount of the prolific Pohl’s work.  But I found each of the five novels by him that I do have to be very interesting, insightful, and enjoyable.

I first discovered Pohl’s work via a gift from my grandmother.  I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and she gave me a pair of science fiction paperbacks: The Years of the City and Midas World.  I doubt that she had any idea who Pohl was, but she knew I really enjoyed sci-fi.  In retrospect, I think perhaps she was also trying to get me to stop watching so much TV and read more books.  As for why she chose those two, they were recently published, and the cover artwork must have caught her eye.

It actually took me nearly a decade to finally sit down and read both The Years of the City and Midas World from start to finish.  But once I did, I found them really great, with an engaging style of prose, three-dimensional characters, and a unique sense of humor.

The Years of the City and Midas World are not, strictly speaking, actual novels.  Each of them is a collection of linked shorter stories.  The Years of the City, via a quintet of novellas, examines the future of New York City, beginning in the present day (i.e. the late 20th Century) and ending a few centuries later.  Each of the five tales is told via the perspective of the man or the woman on the street.  Through their eyes, we see the massive urban decline and renewal that NYC experiences over an extended period of time.

By the way, while the cover artwork is striking, the illustrator did take a bit of artistic license.  Yes, in the later installments of Pohl’s book, Manhattan Island does indeed get covered by a giant transparent dome.  Fortunately, though, the Outer Boroughs do not end up utterly destroyed!

Frederik Pohl The Years of the City

Midas World is a much more cynical look at Earth’s future by Pohl.  The unchecked spread of capitalism and production results in widespread consumerism, as people struggle to keep up with each other’s lifestyles.  Consumption has become a psychological obsession for many people.  (Hmmm, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)  Meanwhile, a population of robot workers gradually gains emancipation.  As time goes by, the majority of humanity departs Earth to find a new future in outer space, leaving the planet to the robots, who are now happily charting their own destiny.

On my own, I picked up Pohl’s novel Black Star Rising.  Set in the late 21th Century, the backdrop is that the United States and the Soviet Union have wiped each other out, leaving Communist China to pick up the pieces.  And then a mysterious alien spaceship appears, its occupants demanding to speak with the President of the United States.  This is a major problem, since America has not been an autonomous nation in nearly a century.  The story is told from the perspective of Castor, a worker from a collective farm in Mississippi.  Chosen by the Communists to play the role of “President” in order to appease the aliens, Castor finds himself on a journey off-planet.  The farmer comes to believe that the aliens may the key in liberating North America from Chinese rule, but cooler heads perceive that these beings might also inadvertently cause the destruction of humanity.

Probably my favorite work by Pohl was his 1977 novel Gateway, which later became the first installment of his “Heechee saga.”  The narrator is Robinette Broadhead, who served on an ancient space station built by the long-vanished Heechee aliens.  The troubled Rob, now back on Earth, recounts his experiences on Gateway to a computerized psychiatrist who he has nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink.

Cannibalizing the technology of the Heechee, humanity has been using Gateway as a base from which to explore the universe.  Due to the limited understanding of the Heechee’s spaceships, these are often risky, sometimes fatal expeditions, and the motivation for embarking on them is the dangled promise of great financial reward.  Pohl describes it as “the ultimate game of Russian roulette.”  Rob is a really intriguing, flawed, realistic character, and Pohl does superb work developing him.  There is one moment where Rob attempts to explain his frustration at his existence to Sigfrid:

“When I sit down to the feast of life, Sigfrid, I’m so busy planning on how to pick up the check, and wondering what the other people think of me for paying it, and wondering if I have enough money in my pocket to pay the bill, that I don’t get around to eating.”

God, this just hit so totally at home for me!  Throughout my life, I’ve always had this awful feeling of disquiet.  I am such a neurotic, always fussing about the details, about “what if” and “if only” that I can seldom enjoy the moment.  Then I read this beautifully phrased metaphor by Pohl, and it summed up all of my feelings perfectly.

Frederik Pohl Gateway

The last of the five books by Pohl that I’ve read was The Space Merchants, which he co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952.  As with Pohl’s later works, The Space Merchants features a satirical, scathing look at a near-future Earth overrun by rampant capitalism, consumerism, and advertising.  A massive gulf of economic inequality exists between a rich minority and the impoverished majority.  (Again, sounds really familiar!)  The protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, is one of the “haves” who, in the course of various corporate intrigues, finds his identity stolen, forced to assume a subservient role as one of the “have nots.”  These events cause Mitch to drastically reconsider the world-view and principles which he previously held as sacred & infallible.

Looking back on Pohl’s work, it is apparent that he was a very prescient writer.  Yes, in The Years of the City, he did see that there could possibly be an optimistic future if humanity reassessed its priorities.  However, if it did not, and Western society continued upon a path of unfettered capitalism and rampant materialism, it would eventually lead to a very dire state of affairs.  We can certainly see some of Pohl’s fears on display in this current climate of economic inequality and the obsession with the acquisition of fame and material possessions, of coming out ahead of everyone else, no matter what the cost.

There are a number of writers, as well as artists, who I have enjoyed tremendously, but who I unfortunately never got to meet before they passed away, never got to tell them how much their work meant to me: Kirby, Clarke, Bradbury, Harryhausen, Matheson, and so on.  Fortunately, Frederik Pohl is one of those rare exceptions.

I forget the exact year, but it was probably in the mid-1990s.  I went to the I-CON science fiction convention at Stony Brook, Long Island for the first time.  One of the guests was Frederik Pohl, and I was definitely looking forward to meeting him.  At the time, I’d only yet read The Years of the City, Black Star Rising, and Midas World, and of those three books, the first two had gotten pretty dog-eared from me dragging them over the place throughout the years.  So, since Midas World was the least dinged-up volume, I brought that one along with me, hoping to get it autographed.

Once I was at the convention on Saturday morning and I looked at the program, I was disappointed.  I saw that Pohl was scheduled to do a signing on Sunday.  Unfortunately, I was only going to be there for that one day.  He was, however, also going to be on a panel discussion that afternoon.  I figured that if I didn’t get to meet him, at least I would be able to hear him talk about his work.  Regrettably, I don’t remember the details of that panel.  But afterwards, Pohl seemed to make a quick exit via the back door.  I left the building through the front entrance.  Lo and behold, a few dozen feet away, there was Pohl, standing by himself, smoking a cigarette.  I wasn’t sure if he would want to talk to me, or if he preferred to be by himself, but I decided to give it a try.  I walked up to Pohl and politely explained that I knew he wasn’t scheduled to do a signing that day, but I was a huge fan of his work, and since I would not be at the convention tomorrow, could he please autograph one book for me?  He sort of hesitated for a second, and then nodded.  I handed him my copy of Midas World, and he signed it.  I spent about 30 seconds or so telling Pohl how much I had enjoyed his various books and then said my goodbyes before I wore out my welcome.

Subsequently, I had always hoped that I’d have the chance to meet Pohl again, and let him know how much Gateway had meant to me, how I had really identified with the character of Robinette Broadhead.  That was not to be.  But I am very grateful that I did have that one opportunity to talk to Pohl at I-CON all those years ago, however brief it was.

The myth of the fake geek girl

The last few months on the Internet, one of the more interesting, as well as controversial, debates has revolved around the notion of “fake geek girls.”  One of the major aspects of this has concerned the phenomenon of attractive women cosplaying as sexy female comic book characters at comic book conventions.  There has been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not these ladies are “real” fans.  I’ve had some general thoughts about this percolating in my mind for a while now, but I didn’t really take the time to organize them into any coherent form.

Then a few days ago on Facebook, someone posted a rather humorous image. Someone had created a meme featuring a girl cosplaying as “steampunk gender swapped Joker in a Willy Wonka hat,” stating that this lady was “trying too hard.”  Right next to it was a screen capture from a message board where someone else astutely pointed out that this gal was portraying an actual comic book character, Duela Dent, and that the next time someone accused someone else of being a “fake geek” they ought to do their research first.

Open mouth, insert foot.
Open mouth, insert foot.

I think my initial reaction to this was along the lines of “Oh, shit, the guy who created that first meme got totally pwned! Ha ha!”

(Credit where credit is due department: I just learned that the responses on the right, and the final image epically putting down the ill-informed douche who created the original meme, were assembled by Lizzie Taz Scism, a cosplayer herself and a friend of the lady who was garbed as Duela Dent.)

So I was at my temp job today, doing a whole bunch of data entry.  My mind began wandering, and it somehow conjured up the memory of the above image.  This started a whole row of mental dominos tumbling for the next couple of hours, leading to this blog post.

Please keep in mind, in addressing the “fake geek girl” controversy, I really do not want to make any sort of sweeping generalizations concerning any aspects of fandom.  That is why, as with my other recent post, Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who, I am attempting to frame this solely from my own individual perspective and experiences.  I think a lot of people have been dancing around a certain aspect of the reason why these accusations occur, so I’m just going to come right out and confront it head on.  If I offend anyone, I really do apologize.

When I was growing up, I was painfully shy and socially awkward.  I had few friends and mostly kept to myself.  When I wasn’t busy reading science fiction novels or comic books like Captain America, Batman, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was watching reruns of Doctor Who and Star Trek, plus innumerable cartoons.  I had a hell of a lot of action figures.  In other words, I was a major geek.  And the other kids at school knew it.  Throughout most of my public school years, I was taunted on a daily basis, repeatedly called a “nerd.”  I was fortunate enough to avoid getting beat up most of the time.  But, as some people observe, words can be just as painful as physical blows.  And a few times in high school I did get punched in the face.  Once, someone even hit me in the head with a football during gym class.

Significantly to my young self, a great deal of the taunting and mockery seemed to come from the girls in school.  I don’t know, maybe it was my young imagination, but practically every single girl I went to school with seemed to find it especially enjoyable to torment me with those mocking cries of “nerd.”  And when I hesitantly attempted to befriend any of those girls, or even tell them that I thought they were pretty, well, that just encouraged them to redouble their efforts to make my school life unbearable.

By the time I was in high school, it appeared to me that most of the popular guys were the ones who played school sports, or who were in the band or orchestra.  And they were also the guys who always seemed to be going out with one cute girl or another.  I couldn’t think of a single kid I knew who was into stuff like sci-fi or comic books and who had a girlfriend.  The girls seemed to automatically gravitate to the jocks or the musicians.

In my college years and my twenties, I began to gradually come out of my shell.  Even so, I really did not date much.  Most women still seemed to be attracted to the athletic type, or guys who were in bands, or just plain “bad boys.”  I did befriend a few comic book artists who I ran into regularly at NYC comic cons.  Hanging out with those guys at parties and bars, I did notice that a lot of women did think that it was really awesome and cool if a guy was an artist who made their living drawing comic books.  But if you actually read the damn things, well, the ladies still found that pretty unappealing.

Next person to say I'm not a real fan gets decapitated!
Next person to say I’m not a real fan gets decapitated!

So, yeah, in the last several years, when I’ve started to see female cosplayers become more and more prevalent, attractive women dressing up in sexy superhero costumes, there is a part of me that cannot help thinking “What the fuck is going on?!?”  I mean, it seemed like every single cute girl in school made it their mission to inflict as much misery upon me on a daily basis, and that they found guys like me completely unappealing.  So what the hell were all these women now doing hanging out with all those “nerds” and “geeks” that they had derided years before in their teenage years?  Why were they at comic book conventions dressed up as Wonder Woman and Power Girl and Black Widow and Witchblade, when based on all the evidence of my experiences they ought to be on the arm of some jock at a football game, or swooning while their hard-living musician boyfriends belted out tunes on the stage of a trendy nightclub?  And there’s inevitably that extremely paranoid, neurotic, irrational part of my thinking that ends up concluding that the reason why these women are cosplaying as sexy superhero babes is for some sort of ulterior purpose.

I am sure some of you are wondering, what sort of underhanded motives could possibly cause a woman to dress up in a revealing, skin-tight spandex outfit?  Well, let me put it this way: there are a lot of comic book and sci-fi fans who have a lot of money.  I used to work in downtown Manhattan.  There was this one comic shop that was literally two blocks away from Wall Street. And every Wednesday, aka “new comic book day,” at noon, like clockwork, a whole bunch of businessmen & stockbrokers would come flooding in and spend a ton of money.  Even more telling, many people I know in the original comic art hobby will regularly drop several thousand dollars on a single piece of artwork.

Let us say, then, that you had a childhood similar to mine, full of awkwardness & insecurity, marked by a lack of friends, especially female friends.  And from all of your experiences in the past, it seemed like every girl you came across regarded comic books and sci-fi as things only a loser would be interested in.  Now you are an adult, still a fan of those same things, and suddenly there are all these hot babes parading around in sexy, revealing outfits at comic book conventions.  Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to wonder if maybe some of these women are in fact “fake geek girls” who are looking to sink their claws into a well-off, socially inexperienced guy and milk him for all he’s worth.  It is probably not a logical reaction.  Hell, as I said, it veers dangerously into paranoia.  But from a certain perspective it makes sense that some guys are afraid of this.

Even after all this time, I still haven’t overcome a lot of these types of fears.  I mean, I’ve been in a relationship with Michele for five years now, and a lot of the time I cannot help thinking to myself “What the hell does she see in me?”  I mean, she’s attractive, outgoing, funny, intelligent and clever.  She’s also a talented artist who has been published nationally.  Guys seem to flirt with her all the time.  She could probably have anyone she wants.  And I’m a depressed, moody, neurotic, short-tempered geek who suffers from mood swings who spends half the time either acting like a crab-ass or isolating from people.  So why is she still with me?

Pondering all of this, I have to conclude that two major factors come into play (and, yes, here I am going to risk engaging in generalizations).  The first is that that, after all these years, many adult comic book fans, myself included, still suffer from insecurities that linger from their childhood.  Sometimes those traumas aren’t easily overcome.

The second is a fear of female sexuality.  Let’s face it, not just comic book fans, but the majority of men, at one time or another, have done their thinking with their crotch and not their brains.  Men can do extremely stupid things when motivated by lust.  And so there are plenty of men (again, not just limited to geeks) who worry that a sexy woman is going to take advantage of that and use their eroticism to control them.

On that later point, I think that ties in with society’s misogynist desire to sexualize women yet, at the same time, control them, turn them into non-threatening objects.  But that’s opening a whole other can of worms, and you could write entire books on that subject.

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a
Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a “fake geek girl” gets a mallet upside the head!

You may well ask where the hell I am going with all this.  Well, my point is that, growing up, many of our peers, because of their narrow-minded views & biases, prejudged and labeled us, put us down as unworthy of their respect.  I believe that when we as adult comic book fans allow the baggage of our pasts to influence our perspectives, to judge a wide swath of female fans as “fake geek girls,” we are doing the exact same thing that was previously done to us.  I realize now that just because you didn’t happen to go to school with any girls who were into comics or sci-fi doesn’t mean that they weren’t out there.

Fandom is full of diversity.  It is made up of an entire spectrum of fans that enjoy many different things.  It is a mistake to offhandedly dismiss any one of those groups simply because of our own preconceptions.  And, yeah, that includes female cosplayers!

UPDATE:  Here is a link to an extremely intelligent article by Laurie Penny of New Statesman that actually addresses some of what I wrote about above.

http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire

I wish I had been able to read this a year and a half ago when I first wrote this post.  Perhaps then I would not have made assumptions that had little to no basis in reality, and would have had a better understanding of an alternate perspective on this issue.  But I guess that is the important thing, that you learn from your experiences & mistakes and going forward don’t repeat them.

Roswell 66

Today is the 66th anniversary of the infamous Roswell UFO Incident.  Apparently on July 8, 1947 something came crashing down in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.  I say “something” but a lot of people believe that it was an alien spacecraft.  Since then, the military have repeatedly insisted that it was an experimental high-altitude surveillance balloon.  But many people refuse to believe that, and to this day, there is this widespread belief that the government has a flying saucer stashed away in Area 51.

area51

To be perfectly honest, I actually believe the government in this case.  Why, you may ask?  Well, most people have come to expect that the government is going to lie.  If the military wants to cover up some sort of experimental surveillance device that was being used to spy on the Soviet Union or maybe even on actual Americans, just come out and say that that’s what it was.  Because so many people are going to assume that the government is lying, and believe it was actually a spaceship.  And the more the government insists that, no, it really truly was a hi-tech balloon, the more people are going to dig in their heels, stamp their feet, and argue that it must have been a flying saucer.  It’s so beautiful in its simplicity: tell the truth to get people to believe a lie.

I think the government has so many better things to cover up than the existence of extraterrestrial life.  War profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan, un-Constitutional surveillance of American citizens, indefinitely detaining suspects without trial, corporations buying politicians to pass laws making big business immune from prosecution & lawsuits, tax cuts for the wealthy while social programs for the poor are gutted; all of this are the things that we should be paying attention to.  But instead, the conspiracy-minded are running around harping about how a freaking UFO crash-landed six and a half decades ago.

(*Huff puff!* Okay, I promise to get down from my soapbox now.)

Oh, well, on the bright side, the whole Roswell Affair has supplied genre fiction with more than sixty years of raw material for churning out tales of alien invasions and government conspiracies.  If you don’t take this stuff too seriously, it can be very entertaining.  You have everything from Independence Day and The X-Files to Lilo & Stitch and Coneheads.  And that Google Doodle game where you play a crash-landed alien trying to re-assemble his flying saucer is pretty darn cute!  Just don’t spend too much of your spare time rooting around the deserts of the Southwest searching for little grey men from outer space.