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 Lady Demeter, ruler of the Amazonians of the Isle of Paradise. (Suffering Sappho! I wonder how Liefeld avoided a call from DC Comics’ legal department!)  Diabolique wants revenge on Glory, her mother, and the rest of the Amazonians.

Diabolique possesses the power to control minds, but only those of males. Unfortunately for her, she has an extreme aversion towards men.  To get around this, Diabolique initiates the aforementioned mass sex change, which affects every male on Earth who has ever encountered Glory over the decades.  Diabolique then seizes mental control of the largest grouping of transformed heroes, namely everyone at Youngblood headquarters, and uses them to attack Themyscira the Isle of Paradise.

(No, really, I don’t know why Diabolique’s sorcery would work on men even after they’ve been transformed into women. What can I say?  I must have slept through Nonsensical Plot Twists 101 in college.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon Carter is living the American Dream

The last couple of years for the Fourth of July I’ve blogged about the most prominent patriotic comic book superhero, Captain America.  This time I wanted to do something a little different.  I’m taking a look at a character who was inspired by Cap: Shannon Carter aka American Dream, who was created by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz.

A-Next 4 cover

American Dream was introduced in A-Next, one of the titles that comprised the short-lived “MC2” line at Marvel Comics.  These all spun out of What If #105 (Feb 1998), the debut of May “Mayday” Parker, the teenage daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in a reality where she was rescued after being abducted by Norman Osborn.  What If #105, which was set approximately 15 years in the future, had Mayday becoming Spider-Girl.

What If #105 was a big hit, and in late 1998 the MC2 books started.  Most of them unfortunately did not last long, although the Spider-Girl series written by DeFalco had a very lengthy run.

A-Next introduced “the next generation of Avengers.”  In this timeline, after a catastrophic battle in a parallel reality (yeah, another one) the Avengers disbanded.  A decade later, due to the scheming of the Asgardian god of evil Loki, a new team of Avengers assembles.  Yipes, that is always happening to Loki!

Shannon Carter is first briefly seen in A-Next #1 by DeFalco, Frenz & Brett Breeding as an unnamed tour guide at Avengers Mansion.  Two issues later we learn her first name and see her assisting Edwin Jarvis in setting up the support network for the new Avengers.  At the end of that issue Shannon returns to her apartment where three figures wait in the shadows.  She tells them “I have good news, my friends! Our long wait is over! We’ll make our move tomorrow – and these new Avengers will never know what hit them!”

Well that sounds ominous!  However, in A-Next #4 by DeFalco, Frenz, Breeding & Paul Ryan, we find out that these four actually intend to join the Avengers.  For the first time we see Shannon in costume as American Dream and properly meet her comrades Freebooter, Bluestreak and Crimson Curse.  This is also where we find out Shannon’s last name, and it is immediately apparent that she is intended to be a relative of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

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DeFalco & Frenz intended the “Dream Team” to be a tribute to the “Kooky Quartet” introduced way back in Avengers #16 in 1965.  The cover to A-Next #4 is even a nice homage by Frenz & Breeding to the Jack Kirby cover of that classic issue.

By the way… Bluestreak really needs watch those wandering hands!  Maybe the Avengers should be required to attend a seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace?

I immediately took a liking to American Dream.  Frenz did a superb job designing her, effectively modifying the classic style of Captain America’s uniform into an eye-catching, dramatic costume for a female character.

So who exactly is Shannon Carter?  A few issues later DeFalco confirms that she is a relative of Sharon, who at this point is deceased.  DeFalco would briefly touch upon her origin in Spider-Girl #32 (May 2001) before elaborating upon it in detailed flashbacks within a five issue American Dream miniseries (2008) illustrated by Todd Nauck & Scott Koblish.

Shannon’s father was a cousin of Sharon Carter.  When she was only a child Shannon’s parents were killed in a horrible car accident, and Shannon herself was seriously injured.  The orphaned Shannon was adopted by her aunt, Sharon’s older sister Peggy.  Peggy, hoping to motivate the mourning, depressed Shannon, gave her Sharon’s diaries to read.  Shannon, inspired by reading the experiences of Sharon and her boyfriend Captain America, finally entered physical rehabilitation and began the long, arduous road to recovery.

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When she could once again walk, the diaries also motivated Shannon to train relentlessly, and she eventually became a skilled athlete.  Shannon wanted to follow in the footsteps of both her Aunt Sharon and Captain America.  Seeing her niece’s determination, Peggy introduced her to Clint Barton, formerly Hawkeye, who began instructing her.  It was at Clint’s dojo that Shannon would meet the other future members of the Dream Team.

Clint originally envisioned Shannon taking on the identity of Nomad, but she informed him that she wished “to evoke the image of Captain America.”  Clint warned her that “Wearing the flag is like painting a bullseye on your chest” but Shannon was undeterred.  She assumed the role of American Dream, which would soon lead to her joining the new Avengers.

Back in the present (well, the MC2 present, which is a decade and a half ahead of the regular Marvel Earth, but whatever) in the pages of A-Next #4, on their first mission as Avengers, the Dream Team encounters the Soldiers of the Serpent.  A new incarnation of the white supremacists the Sons of the Serpent, the terrorist Soldiers are as fanatical as their predecessors in their racist mission to “cleanse” the country.  American Dream proves herself a worthy successor to Captain America, defeating the Serpents’ leader while delivering a passionate rebuke:

“It’s over, Serpent! You’ve lost! Your cause is a sham, and you’re a disgrace to this country! You preach hatred, claiming to represent true Americans, but nothing could be further from the truth! America has always embraced its diversity! Our very differences help make us all stronger! I, for one, am proud to help defend this country from monsters like you!”

It is definitely a stirring speech worthy of Steve Rogers himself.  DeFalco’s scripting for Shannon in this scene is of course still extremely relevant to our country, especially in light of the events of the past month.

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American Dream quickly becomes a mainstay of these new Avengers.  Several issues later, in A-Next #10-11 by DeFalco, Frenz & Al Milgrom, the team journeys to the dystopian nightmare world where the original Avengers fought their final battle.  In this reality the Red Skull assassinated Hitler and led the Nazis to victory in World War II.  In the present day the Skull’s successor Doctor Doom seeks to expand this fascist empire to all other alternate realities.

After helping to thwart Doom’s plans a decade before, Captain America stayed behind to organize a resistance movement against the totalitarian regime.  At first Cap is unhappy to meet these new Avengers and orders them to return home, fearing they will be killed.  American Dream and the rest of the team refuse and they join Cap in his assault on Doom and his super-human Thunder Guard.

Doom is narrowly defeated, with Crimson Curse apparently sacrificing her life.  Before returning home, these new Avengers are finally given a nod of approval by Cap.  America Dream gains the shield of that Earth’s Cap, who was killed decades before by the Skull.

A-Next ended with issue #12, but American Dream has continued to pop up since then.  Like many other denizens of Earth-982, she and her teammates would show up from time to time in Spider-Girl.  One noteworthy story was the six part “Season of the Serpent” by DeFalco, Frenz, Pat Olliffe, Al Williamson & Sal Buscema that ran in issue #s 54-59 (Jan to June 2003).  During that arc Spider-Girl, who has been fighting against the Soldiers of the Serpent and their leader the death-god Seth, joins American Dream on a brief trip back to the alternate Earth to enlist the aid of Thunderstrike and the original Captain America.

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American Dream is among the numerous characters to appear in the miniseries Last Hero Standing (2005) by DeFalco, Olliffe & Koblish, and its follow-up Last Planet Standing (2006).  She is one of the heroes who plays a vital role in preventing Galactus from destroying the entire universe.  This led into the Avengers Next miniseries (2007) by DeFalco, Ron Lim & Koblish.  Months before, during Last Hero Standing, Captain America had been killed by Loki, and Shannon finally realized the enormity of following in his footsteps.  A major theme of Avengers Next is her uncertainty if she and the rest of the team are capable of living up to the original Avengers.

A year later Shannon received a solo outing in the aforementioned American Dream miniseries, which I enjoyed.  DeFalco did a good job delving into Shannon’s past.  He also showed her present-day attempts to establish a private civilian life while also serving as an iconic member of the Avengers, something that Cap himself also struggled with often.

I know that among certain readers DeFalco’s writing is an acquired taste.  He has a very Silver Age style to his work.  At times he tries a bit too hard to make his dialogue humorous or dramatic, resulting in rather corny or stilted scripting.  Nevertheless, considering how many writers want to do superhero comic books that are “realistic” or “dark,” often with variable results, there is definitely a refreshing, fun quality to DeFalco’s more traditional approach.

The art by Nauck & Koblish on American Dream was fantastic.  I was already a fan of both artists before this miniseries came out, so it was great to see them work together.

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American Dream has also popped up in stories by other writers.  She was one of the literally hundreds of alternate reality Avengers to make cameos in the sprawling, epic twelve chapter Avengers Forever series (Dec 1998 to Feb 2000) by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino.

A decade later Stern had the opportunity to write a story that properly co-starred American Dream when Captain America Corps was published in 2011.  It was illustrated by Phillippe Briones with covers by Phil Jimenez.  This five issue miniseries featured several incarnations of Cap from various time periods, namely Steve Rogers from 1941, U.S. Agent and Bucky Barnes / the Winter Soldier from the present day era, American Dream from Earth-982 and Commander A from the 25th Century.  The Elder of the Universe known as the Contemplator gathered them together in order to thwart Cap’s old foe Superia, whose reckless attempts to alter history threatened to unravel all of reality.

I have always enjoyed Stern’s work on Captain America.  Stern’s short run with John Byrne & Josef Rubinstein on Cap’s solo series is justifiably referred to as classic, and his longer run writing Avengers in the mid-1980s is also extremely well-regarded.  Since then Stern has occasionally had the opportunity to return to the character, such as in this Captain America Corps miniseries.  It was a really exciting read.  It was great to see Stern team up American Dream with Steve and Bucky.

Captain America Corps 4 cover

Offhand I don’t recall if American Dream has appeared in the last several years.  Hopefully at some point she will show up again.  I would certainly be happy if DeFalco had another opportunity to write her and the other Avengers of Earth-982.  Of course, sooner or later Marvel ends up reviving any & every character that they have ever published (just look at all of the parallel universes and old crossovers that are being revisited within the current Secret Wars mega-event).  So cross your fingers that one day we will see Shannon Carter return.