What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Battlestar? He was Captain America’s sidekick, back when John Walker was wearing the stars and stripes spandex and… What do you mean, who’s John Walker? You know. John Walker. The USAgent? US… Oh, I give up.
Battlestar was a shield-carrying super with some pretty cool moves. Although, as this issue of Captain America (issue 355, if you’re interested) illustrates, not everything goes according to plan when you’re a sidekick of someone who’s essentially a slightly rubbish knock-off of a much more iconic (and competent) character.
Issue 355 of Captain America is a curious beast. Written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Rich Buckler, it features a Captain America who is contacted by an old flame who wants him to investigate her runaway younger sister. Cap decides to visit Sersi to de-age (and de-power) himself so he can pose as a teenager and investigate a string of teen disappearances of which his ex’s sister’s is only the latest. Because obviously that’s what you would do in these circumstances.
Battlestar features in the issue’s B plot. He’s trying to figure out what’s happened to his old mentor, the aforementioned John Walker, who Battlestar initially thinks has been killed, but who eventually turns out to have been set up with a new identity and is now hanging out at the Avengers West Coast compound in LA. Not that Battlestar actually knows that. Instead, he tracks down Val Cooper (who could have told him but doesn’t – national security etc etc) and then decides to have a chat with the Falcon who is apparently in the phone book.
Unsurprisingly, Sam Wilson’s getting beaten up by members of the Serpent Society when Battlestar finds him. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, but, really, if you let the world know you’re a super-hero then you’re kind of asking for trouble, aren’t you?
First, we get a taste of Battlestar’s detective skills…
Then, he gets stuck in to some fighting, helping an out of costume Sam Wilson deal with a couple of weirdos who seem to be interested in the costume. That he’s not wearing. I’ve decided that Gruenwald’s writing is pretty entertaining precisely because he likes weird little details like this. Anyway, Sam skedaddles into the bathroom while Battlestar tries to get out of some unpleasant metal ribbons (he’ll probably want to use a different word when he’s filling in his Superhero Villain Encounter Self-Assessment Form) that one of the bad guys has wrapped him in. After a decidedly awkward encounter with the female supervillain in the loo in which Falcon taunts the villain for liking “rough trade” (look it up in the urban dictionary, I dare you), Falcon heads back into his apartment for these two panels…
Now, I kind of like this. First, there’s the fact that Falcon and Battlestar (I am resisting the urge to abbreviate his name to BS. I really am) are still involved in the action, the former rescuing his pet Redbird from those aforementioned ribbons and the latter still struggling with the bad guy. The “nngh” in the dialogue to indicate that Battlestar’s still engaged in some strenuous physical activity is a nice touch. So is the fact that Falcon has heard of Battlestar and they (kind of) bond over this. It makes me go all gooey inside.
Then this happens…
Words can’t quite explain how terrifyingly hilarious this is. I suspect that this is Battlestar getting just a little bit carried away in front of his new friend. Bearing in mind that he had the bad guy (just about) subdued at this point and Falcon was free to help him if necessary, I can’t see this as anything more than a horrible misjudgment on Battlestar’s part. And the banter is terrible. “I’m gonna see if you’re as hard as you say you are, Rock!” “Wha…? Wait!!” Again, it’s Gruenwald’s writing that makes this work (in a non-working sort of way). Battlestar thinking that there’s “no one below” after he’s already dived out of the window with a supervillain in tow just makes things immeasurably worse.
And the bad guy lands on his (admittedly helmeted) head. Of course, he does. Nothing can go wrong here. At all. No lawsuits. No brain injuries. No fractured skulls. Or broken necks. Nothing.
Plus, if you look closely, you’ll see that Battlestar’s elbow also takes at least some of the impact. Let’s face it. Neither of them have Superman levels of invulnerability; neither of them are coming away from this unscathed.
Except, of course they are…
Well, Battlestar is. In one of the best examples of “I oughn’t to have done that” outside of Lennie’s regrettably slow realisation that indulging in a spot of ad hoc coiffure management with Curley’s wife wasn’t a great idea, a moderately concerned Battlestar checks his foe’s limp body for damage and, finding a pulse and not finding blood, breathes a huge sigh of relief. “No blood.” We’re all good, then! Phew! Not having heard of things like internal hemorrhaging and swellings on the brain, Battlestar can get on with what he does best – fighting snake-themed villains with a moderate amount of success.
Before we look at that, though, it’s worth pointing out that, in the time-honoured manner of people all around the world who realise they’ve probably gone too far but don’t want to admit it, Battlestar lies to himself. That drop was way more than four storeys, buddy. Way more. I’m thinking at least six judging from that panel earlier.
Unfortunately, Battlestar doesn’t have time to wrestle with his conscience. Someone else wants a wrestle and it turns out to be yet another snake-themed villain who can expand his size at will and, consequently, goes by the name Puff Adder. Of course he does.
This leads to the most ignominious (and hilarious) moment of the comic (although a fifteen year old Captain America just saying no to drugs comes pretty close). Having withstood Puff Adder’s attack and holding him over his head in a classic wrestling move, Battlestar loses his grip – and his dignity – when Puff Adder expands his size, Battlestar can’t keep hold of him and our plucky hero gets flattened by the villain’s sheer weight. He then has to spend most of the fight looking on helplessly from underneath Puff Adder while the Falcon fights him. It is, indeed, embarrassing.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for Battlestar, a hero who, in a comic already brimming with bizarre twists and revelations, provides some truly classic entertainment.
And I haven’t really talked about the A plot yet. Maybe 15 year old Cap’s adventures in New York city and the YMCA will be the subject of a later blog post. Who knows?
Until then, make mine Mark Gruenwald!
This is going to be less a review and more an appreciation. It should go without saying that Kirby’s Marvel work is seminal, absolutely and fundamentally integral to the company’s success in the 60s. A lot of critical attention has focused (quite rightly) on his Fantastic Four run or his phenomenal sequence of stories featuring Thor. His work on Uncanny X-Men, though less successful, is still worth a look.
To me, Kirby’s work is remarkable for three things: character design, dynamism and the sheer, overwhelming fecundity of the artist’s imagination. All three are on display in this issue.
I’ll be honest with you. Uncanny X-Men plays second fiddle to Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor and Amazing Spider-Man for a reason. Where FF and Thor manage to effortlessly conjure a pulpy sense of the sublime and Spider-Man is a wonderful character study of a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world, Uncanny X-Men is burdened with an overly earnest approach to teenage alienation whose characters’ overly respectful attitude to the patriarchal Professor X ensures that adventures are too tightly structured for the characters to develop or be realised effectively. Even the characters’ uniforms suggest a kind of conformity. There’s definitely a sense of Kirby’s imagination being constrained here. Issue 10 is a bit of an exception.
Issue 10 introduces Ka-Zar and the Savage Land to the Marvel Universe. Evidently influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (but still over a decade before its big screen adaptation), the issue sees Professor X uncharacteristically grant his graduates’ (not students at this point) request to pop down to the Antarctic for no good reason whatsoever. Having seen footage of a man in a loincloth, alongside a sabre-toothed tiger, wreaking havoc on a research base and having already established that the main in the loincloth is not a mutant, Professor X lets them go because… well, why not? Whatever his reasons (or lack of them) may be, the reader – and presumably Kirby himself – can breathe a sigh of relief as the creative gloves are off this issue and Kirby gets to show what he can do.
The plot is pretty standard fare. The team arrive in the Antarctic, find a mysterious tunnel that leads them to a primeval world, get attacked by savage swamp-men, rescue the too-powerful-to-actually-do-anything Jean Grey, destroy the swamp-men’s habitat in the process and then go home. Ka-Zar has a few moments as you might expect, but really there’s nothing particularly amazing here. Apart from the art and the little weird details that make everything else so much better.
The descent through the Antarctic tunnel is well done for a start; the team encounter a graveyard of gigantic bones which hints at the strangeness to come. Then they emerge from a cave and are immediately attacked by pterodactyls. Once that threat is dealt with both they and the reader are given a breather to take in the world to which they’ve travelled, a world where an ankylosaurus lumbers along underneath an archway of stone, while miniature horses get under Iceman’s feet. The sheer vibrancy of this bizarre world is fantastic to see.
It isn’t long, however, before the X-Men are attacked again, this time by barbaric-looking humans riding giant carnivorous avian mounts. Here, Kirby’s imagination rises to the challenge. The swamp men are not just savages on big birds; they are armed with rocks filled with volcanic gas and weird-looking bows that can fire four arrows simultaneously. They’re tactically astute enough to keep the X-Men busy while one of their number picks up a curiously inactive Jean Grey and whisks her off for a spot of human sacrifice.
The X-Men have to work with Ka-Zar to free her. The interesting thing is that there is no mention whatsoever of Ka-Zar’s Kevin Plunder identity. Indeed, Ka-Zar is barely able to string a sentence together at this point (although he nevertheless manages to make his feelings about his “no touch” rule very clear). Although Zabu is present, Shanna isn’t. This prototypical Savage Land is teeming with life, a good portion of which is unfriendly, but Ka-Zar cuts a rather lonely figure in his first appearance. This may explain why his social skills are so appalling. A misunderstanding leads to the obligatory fight between two groups of people who should really be working together (this issue comes right after the first X-Men v Avengers showdown, incidentally) and the fight is only stopped when “Maa-Gor, the Killer! Last of man-ape tribe!” makes an entrance and conveniently provides them with a common foe.
Once Maa-Gor is dispatched, there’s a really rather fantastic short journey to the swamp men’s sacrificial pyramid in which Angel’s encounter with a brontosaurus provides an impressive sense of the dinosaur’s sheer size. The Angel’s subsequent capture means that he’s added to the sacrificial running order, which adds to the sense of urgency and the feeling that the X-Men are really up against it. Particularly when the tyrannosaurus rex shows up.
Oh, come on, don’t even pretend that you’re surprised!
I’ve not done much research on this but I have the feeling that ritual sacrifice by dinosaur is one of the more inefficient methods of appeasing one’s dark, unknowable gods available to the aspiring acolyte. It certainly proves so here. Although Jean can’t manipulate her own bonds because they’re coated in pitch (really?!? Does this happen in any later X-Men books? It seems like the kind of thing Mr Sinister could do with knowing about), she can free Angel, although it is, to be fair, a close run thing. She has to mentally lob boulders at it to keep it away from the pair of them until she can turn her attention to Angel’s bonds. This sequence does raise the issue of why she can’t just lob an especially large boulder at the tyrannosaurus’ head and bash its brains out. There are, I suppose, a couple of answers to this. The first is that this is a kids’ comic and they might get upset at the sight of tyrannosaur brains in their favourite (well, second favourite, probably) comic. The second is that Jean’s a girl and has a specifically female damsel-in-distress role to fill. Don’t you worry, Jean. Emancipation (via becoming all-powerful, going mad, dying and being brought back to life, all while your former boyfriend marries someone who looks just like you) is on its way.
The last we see of the tyrannosaurus rex is its backside, by the way. This is the kind of thing that’s worth knowing. Not that you really notice because the next two pages are a gloriously throbbing actionfest of Kirby craziness, which includes Cyclops being upstaged by a herd of mammoths and Iceman rolling at least four swamp men into a snowball that actually only looks big enough to hold one of them comfortably. Having destroyed the swamp men’s village, the heroes hug and…
Ah, who am I kidding?
Ka-Zar gives the X-Men the brush-off and tells them never to come back to the Savage Land again. Which is obviously something they take to heart.
But, at least in the Savage Land no one (at the moment) cares if you’re a mutant or not. The complete absence of noble angst here is remarkably refreshing. Sure, Ka-Zar and the X-Men fight, but this isn’t because he’s an unthinking bigot and they’re super-powered mutants in a world that fears them, but because he’s alone in a prehistoric jungle deep below the antarctic wastes and both his social skills and grasp of the English language are extremely poor. I can live with that.
And you do get lots of Kirby weirdness here. Gas-filled rocks? Bird-riding enemies? Sabre-toothed tigers leaping across chasms? Maa-Gor the Killer? It’s all here and it all pulses with a vitality that, even 50+ years later, is breathtaking. Uncanny X-Men #10. A fine example of comic book storytelling. Enjoy!
Just a quick update, because time is a bit squeezed at present and I’ve got important things (like, well, marking) to do. A couple of novels and a curiously moving issue of Howard the Duck this time round.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist, a library loan that took me about three months to finish – which is about average for me. A colleague of mine, it turns out, once had to read this novel for his reading group and found it rather unappealing. I actually quite enjoyed it – enough to be tempted to pick up another Silva book in the future. This novel is about Silva’s Israeli art restorer-turned-spy Gabriel Allon who is, as is usually the case with these things, dragged out of retirement by the opportunity to settle old scores with a Palestinian terrorist who killed his family several years ago. So far, so predictable, I suppose, and it’s true that Silva’s plotting, with one or two exceptions, is not exactly ground-breaking. What is compelling, though, is his decision to portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a great degree of sympathy for both sides; he also displays a distinct coolness when it comes to describing action and a somewhat refined, at times lyrical, prose style that elevates this above your typical spy thriller. At times the novel seems to be straining against the boundaries of the genre, but it never quite manages to test them sufficiently to be particularly memorable. That said, it was enjoyable enough and, if you’re looking for a spy thriller, you could do a lot worse than pick this up.
The Witcher series of novels continues to impress; Andrezj Sapkowski’s second full novel The Time of Contempt sees Geralt of Rivia trying to protect his protege Ciri and prevent her from being used as a pawn in the increasingly murderous machinations of a variety of kings, a coterie of wizards and one particularly cunning emperor. If you’ve played the rather impressive games based on these novels, you’ll be aware of how rich and gritty the world of the novels is, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for Sapkowski’s storytelling which manages to plumb the depths of human baseness and take in the rarefied air of abstract philosophy sometimes in the same scene. In a genre swollen with bloated multi-volume Tolkien derivatives, Sapkowski offers something rather special – a fantasy world based fairly clearly on medieval Eastern Europe and a plot that is as much driven by the petty and short-sighted desires of men than it is by ancient prophecy. In short, this is good stuff, although, if you’re tempted to dip into his work, you might be better starting with his collection The Last Wish, which is so good I’ve read it twice and will doubtless do so again.
Howard the Duck. Alright, then. I like Zdarsky and Quinones’ run on the character, although it doesn’t really have much of the satirical madness of the Gerber run from the 70s. That’s not to say that there isn’t madness, mind you. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the current creative team’s gentle send-up of some of the more prevalent tropes of the Marvel Universe. Issue 2 of volume 2 (yes, Secret Wars is responsible for spawning yet more number 1s!), though, offers something rather unexpected – a touching tale dealing with female versions of Howard and Rocket Raccoon, cloned by the Collector when he captured Howard and Rocket during the first run. Expected to… ahem… keep our favourite duck and raccoon company during their long captivity, the two female clones strike up a close friendship and escape with the help of a Gatherer who should be keeping them prisoner but has formed a close surrogate parent bond with them. I won’t spoil the issue any further but I will say that it’s been a while since a comic book had quite the emotional impact that this one had on me. It’s nice to see that comic books still have the capacity to catch you unawares.
Well, that’s it for now. Be cool and awesome and wonderful.
Lemire and Deodato conjure 70s sci-fi magic, as the big purple bad guy’s solo series gets off to a strong start.
I was a kid in the 70s. Gawky, goofy, obsessed with Doctor Who. And, like, I suspect, most boys of my generation, World War II. The pervasive effects of the Second World War on popular culture in the UK during the 70s really can’t be overstated. In film and on TV, Britain and its allies defeated the Nazis and theirs with varying degrees of realism, drama and earnestness. As a boy, Commando and Warlord were my comics of choice. (Until Marvel finally got their act together, acquired the rights to Doctor Who and started publishing Doctor Who Weekly, of course.) Published by D C Thomson, Commando books were (and still are, for that matter) digest-sized, single-story comics offering intense blasts of action-peppered storytelling with art that ranged from almost frenzied rough lines to beautifully detailed realism. They were a staple of my childhood years, thanks largely to my grandmother faithfully buying an issue for me every week.
So, what on earth has this got to do with Thanos? Well, every so often, the newsagent’s would be sold out of Commando books, so grandma would buy me an issue of Starblazer instead – same format, same publisher, but mad sci-fi/science fantasy instead of gritty war stories. This first issue of Thanos reminds me rather powerfully of some of those 70s sci-fi comics. This is largely due to Mike Deodato’s (I guess he doesn’t need the Jr anymore) artwork, but Jeff Lemire does a fantastic job of creating an exotic, alien setting for his story – and in a wonderfully economical way, too.
I must confess I’m not what you would call a Thanos ‘fan’. I like the character, but have yet to read the original Starlin Infinity Gauntlet stories. The cosmic side of the Marvel universe remains something of a mystery to me. That said, Thanos #1 is a good place to dive in and immerse yourself in the madness. We start off with a rather nicely done bit of narration introducing us to the Black Quadrant, the moon from which Corvus Glaive rules his band of mercenaries (known as the Black Order), who in turn enforce his will throughout the territory that had formerly belonged to Thanos, Glaive having been Thanos’ right hand man when the ‘mad Titan’ had sat on the throne. Both Deodato’s art and Lemire’s words combine rather beautifully here; the images of the moon complex and tower, a group of Black Order mercenaries, and Glaive himself sitting on the throne surrounded by arcane tubing and wires echo are impressive both for their detail and ability to evoke the weird sci-fi comics of my childhood. Having explained that Glaive has usurped Thanos’ seat of power, no time is wasted in showing us Thanos returning and the entirely predictable carnage and devastation that follows. It is to Lemire’s and, particularly, Deodato’s credit that none of this violence feels remotely run of the mill. On the contrary, it is spectacular and dramatic stuff.
The sense of grim inevitability these moments produce is important for the action that follows. Once Thanos arrives, Glaive chooses to try to defend ‘his’ throne – a decision that, I must admit, rather surprised me. I expected abject grovelling and some sort of guff about how he was keeping the seat warm for his newly returned boss. The fight that follows is brutal and short. Having destroyed the weapon from which Glaive takes his name and to which his life force is tied, Thanos gives his former lackey a choice: kill himself or let Thanos do it for him. And, as much as I can recognise that, yes, this is all a bit contrived and obvious, the moment when Glaive chooses the former option and plunges a shard of his shattered weapon into his stomach remains both dramatic and remarkably powerful. Thanos really is a scary guy.
The build-up to and depiction of the fight is broken up by the introduction of Tryco Slatterus, Champion of the Universe, who is hunting the Titan Eros, otherwise known as Starfox. Former Avenger Starfox is doing what Starfox does best – having romantic fun with a… ahem… diverse range of lovers. (Well, he does have euphoria-inducing powers…) The story here becomes just a tad predictable: mysterious, buff-looking, tough-talking chap turns up to whisk Starfox away from his life of self-indulgent pleasure. A combination of threats, snark and exposition ensues. The dialogue, for the most part, is serviceable enough, although I’m inclined to say that Starfox describing Tryco’s ship as a “space turd” is a genuine highlight. Tryco’s news that he’s been asked by Thane, Thanos’ son, to help him kill Thanos is intriguing enough and that sense of intrigue is deepened when Tryco reveals that there’s going to be one more member of the Thanos-killing team they need to pick up on the way back to Thane.
Speaking of which, the final section of the issue deals with Thane and Death discussing their plan to kill Thanos. This is some nice stage-setting. Anyone who’s even only superficially acquainted with Thanos knows the role of the girl Death in his origin and ongoing psychopathy. (If you haven’t read Jason Aaron’s Thanos Rising, you really should – and not just because of the quite amazing Simone Bianchi artwork either.) What she’s doing here with Thane (a character with considerably more moral scruples than his father) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the comic and the greatest source of uncertainty in the story so far. Is she to be trusted? Almost certainly not. Why does Thane trust her? I’m not really sure. Her issue-ending revelation, however, does appear to be genuine. Throughout her conversation with Thane, we’ve seen images of Thanos obviously in some sort of physical distress and the issue ends very dramatically on a full-page of him bleeding (purple blood, naturally) from his nose and mouth and looking almost pathetically shocked. “Thanos is dying” we are told. While this does raise the question of why, in that case, Thane wants to kill him, it is a pretty shocking way to end the issue and primes the reader nicely for the rest of this opening story arc.
On the whole, then, this is a very good comic book. We get to see all the major characters in action including Thanos at his most brutally powerful and, at the end, shockingly vulnerable. Lemire gets Starfox absolutely spot on and the relationship between Thane and Death is interesting. In this issue, he does pretty much exactly what any writer should with a first issue of an ongoing title. He provides action, clear characterisation and hints of an unfolding plot that is comprehensible and bold enough (the title character is dying, everyone!) to hook the reader. He is ably assisted, though, by Mike Deodato whose layouts and character work are simply phenomenal. The simple decision to frame some of the action in a rectangular border grid lends the whole comic an elegant but futuristic feel and the interplay of light and shadow is also very striking. In addition, Frank Martin’s colours are impressively alien; he uses a palette of dirty oranges and muted purples for the Thanos sections, that manage to feel strange without being garish. A strong, highly enjoyable issue, Thanos #1 is a highly promising start to what I hope will be a fascinating and exciting exploration of Marvel’s wider sci-fi universe.
 Who precisely is doing the narration remains a mystery to me. I did think it was Thane at one point, but I don’t think it is. Is this a sneaky return for third person narration? If so, I am a happy man.
I’m re-reading Jenkins and Lee’s The Sentry on the Marvel Unlimited app. This is partly because of Reggie Hemingway and Chris Sheehan’s just-released Weird Comics History podcast on the series. I wanted to read the comics again prior to listening to it. The first issue is beautifully drawn (Lee’s art is always amazing, always atmospheric) and the various Golden Age and Silver Age homages are great, too, but the issue as a whole is, because of its introductory nature, a little low-key. While those homages are enjoyable, they also break up the flow of the narrative to an extent that is a little jarring. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of this series and am enjoying revisiting it. While Robert Reynolds’ introduction is more than a little reminiscent of Micky Moran’s in Alan Moore’s Marvelman, Jenkins and Lee are taking a much more considered, deliberate approach here, hinting at the connections between The Sentry and his arch-nemesis The Void while also building up a clear sense of Robert’s rocky relationship with his wife, Linda. The links with the wider Marvel universe are hinted at rather than spelled out and, reading it again, I wonder if that was a bit of a mistake, as the story almost seems too isolated, too self-contained for a first issue that introduces (potentially) a major Marvel character. That said, there’s nothing in recent Marvel history that quite has that mix of psychological darkness and post-modern playfulness. I might blog about future issues as I read them.
The DC Holiday Special is pricey but rather fun. As is to be expected with an anthology title, the stories are variable in quality but all have something to recommend them. The linking narration from Harley Quinn is suitably funny and the artwork throughout is pretty good, with special mention going to Robbie Rodriguez for a breathtakingly breezy Flash story. That Flash story is perhaps the highlight of the issue for me with an ending that hits you right in the “feels” as a certain son of mine likes to say. The Green Lanterns and Batman/Superman stories run it close, though. The former is a rather strange, but nevertheless entertaining, take on the Christmas story of the Three Kings; the latter is an amusing game of one-upmanship between Damien Wayne and Superman, which is deliciously funny at times. Also worth a mention are the Constantine/Wonder Woman story and the Teen Titans story both of which feature some great art and character interaction. All in all, it’s an awful lot of fun and, although Christmas may have well and truly come and gone, if you can find it, it’s still worth picking up.
Another Epic Collection worthy of consideration is Avengers: Judgment Day, which features the conclusion of Roger Stern’s really very under-rated tenure on the book in 1987. The main meat of the collection is the story that follows up the Under Siege storyline which has itself been collected in an Epic Collection of its own. The art is mostly from the rather excellent John Buscema and the issues feature the team having to cope with the implications of a brain-damaged Hercules and a visit to Olympus to deal with an enraged Zeus who blames the Avengers for his son’s condition. It’s slightly bonkers stuff, but Stern’s skill has always been in playing the silly stuff straight and relying on interaction between the characters to provide the levity and/or drama. And this is certainly the case here. This isn’t quite the seminal Avengers team for me, but it’s close – Captain Marvel, Black Knight, Hercules, Captain America, The Wasp and a magically-weakened Thor. The Wasp hands over the chairmanship to Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) during this run and CM proves to be a very good choice. The collection also includes the Avengers/X-Men mini-series and the Emperor Doom graphic novel. As is always with these collections, it represents exceptional value for money and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Underwater apes, an insane crystalline warrior and a whole load of dragon puke feature in this highly enjoyable and stunningly gorgeous story.
After an absurdly entertaining (and entertainingly absurd) issue which ended with Arkon, our straight-man hero, being captured by the underwater-dwelling monkey-men of Apelantis, you might expect issue 2 to feature escape attempts and/or some Planet of the Apes-style social commentary and/or the reuniting of Arkon with the rather impressive dragon he encountered in issue 1. And you would be partly right.
There is indeed an escape attempt.
First, though, I think we need to revel in some inner monologuing of a kind that balances adroitly on the dividing line between homage and parody. “They took my dragon. They took my sword and battle-bolts. They took my map. But they did not take my life. The fools. I am Arkon, lord of the warlords. And so begins my destruction of the kingdom of the Water-Apes.” That Arkon is uttering this over a gorgeous double page spread that emphasises just how large and impressive Apelantis is, to the side of which is set a much smaller panel in which a bound Arkon is being led in chains to a dungeon, highlights both his determination and, perhaps, just how out of touch with reality our ‘lord of the warlords’ is. Aaron is a damned good writer and I’m inclined to think that at least part of the attraction of writing a book like Weirdword and a character like Arkon must lie in the opportunity presented to send up, albeit lovingly, the kind of rugged, individualistic hero that Arkon is meant to be. That would certainly seem to be the case here.
After attempting to break out of his stone-walled prison by literally banging his head against a wall, Arkon is interrupted by a voice from the next cell who suggests they escape together and turns out to be Warbow, hero of the Crystellium and character from the short-lived Crystar comic of the 1980s, an appearance that might well give my comic-buying school friend from that decade a jolt of excitement were he still buying comics. But I digress. Aaron handles this exchange remarkably well. Warbow for most of this section is an eye seen through a gap in the wall, an urbane and civilized voice speaking to an Arkon who, despite his wanderings around Weirdworld, persists in believing that Warbow is weaker than he is. He is disproved in dramatic and amusing style as Warbow punches through the wall (he’s escaped numerous times, but needs someone to help him get through the city’s upper levels). Arkon agrees to help him and the story moves into the kind of carnage that, in the hands of Mike Del Mundo, becomes a thing of beauty.
“The water swirls with blood and gore and animal screams. But all I see around me are the streets of Polemachus.”
Del Mundo’s Arkon is an avatar of focused brutality, the centre of a double page spread that presents underwater combat as a strange ballet of grace and desperate violence. Around our barbarian hero swirl the bodies of defeated apemen; directly in front of him is another apeman, its face contorted into a grimace, its hands brandishing a wicked looking harpoon. In the background, Warbow is fighting his own battle. The artwork is busy, but also astonishingly pretty to look at. It’s more than just the air bubbles that indicate the action takes place underwater. The positioning of the dead or wounded apemen, and the clouds of blood dispersing through the ocean do too. It is impressive stuff.
In the following page, Arkon is depicted wrestling a final apeman, but while the action is bloody and visceral, the accompanying inner monologue simply reiterates Arkon’s almost monomaniacal determination to find his home. Arguably, it is this obsession that makes the character worth reading about. Certainly, he is not a laugh-a-minute wisecracking superhero in the vein of Spider-Man, nor is he an especially complex figure. Instead, Aaron is using him as a straight man, a muscle-bound foil for Weirdworld’s craziness. His determination to find his home, however, means that Arkon never quite descends into the realm of Conan-parody, although he does skirt it perilously at times. We never stop feeling some sort of sympathy for him, though. His anguish at losing his map of Weirdworld is compelling and leads to the next step of his tortuous journey; Warbow promises to give Arkon his own map, provided he helps the crystalline warrior rescue his prince from the prison that holds him. Arkon doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.
Before we see him embark on this new side-quest, we have a couple of pages with Morgan LeFay, ruler of Weirdworld and current ‘owner’ of Arkon’s erstwhile mount. Again, del Mundo’s art is phenomenal. The power and ferocity of the dragon is shown clearly as it tosses its ogre handlers around and, in at least one unlucky case, biting them cleanly in two. LeFay is made of sterner stuff, however, staring the dragon down, not flinching at its phlegm, slobber and body part-filled bellow. We don’t get to see Morgan tame the beast, but that’s not really the point. In facing down the dragon, she proves herself every bit as determined as Arkon and the following panel’s depiction of her riding the creature, soaring through a blood red sky, only reinforces the impression that she will be a formidable antagonist for our surly warrior king.
Her leaving on that maiden flight is handy for Arkon and Warbow because it gives them an opportunity to infiltrate Le Fay’s stronghold and find Warbow’s prince who is being held within it. This builds up to a sequence that is both funny and disturbing. Arkon assumes that the prince will be held in the prisons, but Warbow tells us that he’s held in the vault, the significance of which becomes all too apparent once they fight their way to the vault and find out that Warbow’s ‘friend’ and prince is now a bag of collected gemstones. Del Mundo does a great job of depicting Warbow’s insane delight on discovering his friend and there’s a nice sense of the disturbingly absurd when he lifts up the bag and introduces Arkon to his friend. Arguably the narration is just a little heavy-handed here, but having a partner whose sanity Arkon doubts raises the stakes just that little bit more and reminds us that Weirdworld really is a place that can’t be trusted.
Issue 2 of Weirdworld, then, ends as it began – in adversity and solitude for our main character and in a gobsmacking reminder that Weirdworld is a dangerous, unpredictable place. But, it is entertaining too and the sense of Aaron and Del Mundo having a lot of fun with both the character and the setting is very clear and, to be fair, deeply infectious. The art is, at times, breath-taking and the dialogue is never less than snappy and engaging. In short, this is a great comic.
Alright. Just a quick update. I’m working on a review at the moment, but I won’t get it finished for a few days, so I just wanted to throw a couple of recommendations at you.
First, if you haven’t picked up Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s The Autumnlands yet, what on earth are you playing at? Busiek has long been a favourite comics writer of mine and this book from Image is magical stuff. The central premise – a bunch of intelligent anthropomorphised animals living in the distant future reaching back through time to recover a ‘hero’ in order to help them restore magic to the world – is hook enough, but Dewey’s art is just phenomenal. Those animals simply throb with life and pathos; Dewey does an incredible job of bringing Busiek’s thoughtful and often subtle characterisations to life. The Autumnlands is the best Busiek I’ve read in a long long time. (Mind you, I’m not reading his new Astro City at present, so I’m very much open to being corrected.) As is usual with Image books, the first trade is available at a special introductory rate. I highly recommend it.
Secondly, if you haven’t checked out Marvel’s ongoing Epic Collection series, then, again, you probably should. Each volume clocks in at around 450 pages, features extras like editorials and concept art, and aims to present a pretty comprehensive archive of a particular hero or group. I finished reading the first Moon Knight one Bad Moon Rising a few months ago. This was a particularly interesting example of the line. Moon Knight’s origin was not something I was familiar with and this volume collects not only his first appearance as a mercenary-turned-hero in Werewolf By Night but also guest stints in The Defenders, Marvel Two-in-One and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man. As you might expect, the quality is variable, but once the collection begins including the back-up strips from the Hulk! magazine, creators Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz really hit their stride and both the character and the storytelling itself start to shine. (The story in which Moon Knight is pitted against his unhinged brother is particularly impressive.) The Epic Collections are coming out at a fair clip. My advice is to choose a character or three and stick with them. You’ll end up with a nice quality collection of reprints of your favourite Marvel characters from the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. If I had the time, I’d give you a complete run-down of the volumes released by Marvel so far, but it’s easy enough to find on the net in any case. Doctor Strange, The Defenders and Daredevil have all had excellent releases this year, though. Again, highly recommended stuff.
A blood-drenched Japanese tragedy with plenty of bite, this one-shot from 2011 is worth seeking out.
I must confess that I know very little about the current state of the vampire clans in the Marvel universe. I’m currently working my way through the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula on Marvel Unlimited and I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Hulk vs Dracula Fear Itself mini (also written by Victor Gischler) a few years ago. I am also aware that Dracula is (although perhaps not anymore) dead, if the title of the Death of Dracula trade paperback collection on my shelf is anything to go by. Beyond that, it all gets a little sketchy.
The decision to make the literary figure of Dracula a part of the Marvel universe and then give him his own comic series must rank as one of the strangest but most richly productive decisions made by the company’s editors in the 70s. Dracula has gone through a number of revisions and iterations in the intervening years until we see him now as almost a supernatural supervillain reigning over his kingdom through sheer power and the careful political balancing act of managing the ambitions and expectations of a number of rival vampire clans or sects.
This is the situation at the start of Throne of Blood, when Dracula is approached by a member of Claw Sect for background information on Raizo Kodo, a renegade vampire who has somehow escaped the Claw Sect and whom the clan want killed. What follows is Dracula recounting Raizo Kodo’s origin story precisely as Kodo has, at some earlier point, related it to hm. It is a tale which is, as both the title and cover suggest, set in feudal Japan and steeped in both blood and tragedy.
It’s a bold move naming your story after an Akira Kurosawa film based on perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent play, but both writer Victor Gischler and lead artist Guran Parlov are more than equal to the task.
Raizo’s story starts with him and his brother Ryuhei approaching the camp of Jakkaru, a mysteriously powerful warlord who has grown in influence and now threatens the Kodo clan. In the first page of the story proper, Gischler uses dialogue and first person narration economically to set up the fateful confrontation that is about to take place as well as make clear the mutual respect the two brothers have for one another. What is striking, however, is the art which portrays the brothers’ progress through the bucolic landscape in wide swathes of yellow and light brown. When the conversation moves on to the second page, we are presented with a two-thirds of a page image of the brothers looking down on Jakkaru’s camp. It is impressive, not just for Parlov’s art, which presents the sheer size of the camp and thus the scale of the task facing the two brothers, but also for Lee Loughridge’s colouring of the camp in a lurid yellow, punctuated only by thin, wavering white wisps of camp smoke. The colour yellow is, of course, a strangely ambiguous one, associated with value and brightness but also sickness and corruption. While the yellow here could represent golden corn fields, the productive farmland of the Kodo clan which Jakkaru is threatening, the sense of interpretative uncertainty remains.
Disguised as peasant farmers, Raizo and Ryuhei infiltrate the camp but get challenged by Jakkaru’s elite guard when they try to enter his tent. The resulting combat is short but entertaining. On entering Jakkaru’s tent, however, both the mood and the colour palette changes. Gone are the bright yellows and greens of the external camp setting. Instead we are given dull reds, dirty pinks and muted midnight blues. Jakkaru is considerably more formidable than his guards. The ensuing combat is powerfully drawn and narrated. The brothers have to work together and it is Raizo’s reckless bravery that provides the opening for what should be a final killing blow.
But, of course, it isn’t, because Jakkaru is a vampire and, although sticking your katana through someone’s chest is generally a great idea, unless it’s made of wood in this instance, it won’t make a bit of difference. With a grim sense of inevitability, we see Jakkaru rise from the ground and bite Ryuhei in the neck. If the combat that preceded this moment was desperate, what follows it is downright grim. In a nice serendipitous twist, Raizo is so freaked out by what’s happening that he grabs a wooden practice sword from the rack by mistake and, noticing that it actually seems to have some effect, rams it through Jakkaru’s back and out the other side. While Jakkaru is… ahem… dismayed by this development, Raizo decapitates with him with a normal sword, thus ending his threat to the Kodo clan for good.
Readers who have been paying attention, though, will be worried about that bitemark on Ryuhei’s neck. And with good reason.
Ryuhei is weakened and Raizo manages to get himself and his brother on a horse and escape the camp evading the arrows of Jakkaru’s enraged minions along the way. The dialogue between Ryuhei and Raizo on their homeward journey is brief but it is enough to make clear the close friendship between the two of them. That it takes place in the context of panels whose yellows are more muted than those on the outward journey hints at the sickness already taking root in the family. The brothers’ final approach to their family home is beautifully rendered by Parlov and Loughridge. The brothers are in the foreground and their home is laid out before them in a valley that looks wonderfully bucolic. But the yellow is in the foreground, almost as if threatening to engulf the two brothers, and its vigorous but subtly sickly colour is considerably more vibrant than the dull greens and browns of the valley. The sense of threat, of inundation, is palpable.
Over the next few pages we are introduced to Raizo’s family and servants, all of whom come across as well-rounded and well-scripted characters – although, for purely plot reasons, Raizo’s father is far too dismissive of everyone’s fears about Ryuhei and his mysterious listlessness. Time passes and things become more tense. We meet Suzume, Raizo’s betrothed for whom he clearly has strong feelings. But his desire to get to the root of what is happening in his family leads him to leave it and embark upon a three day ride to Jakkaru’s castle.
These panels are yellow-drenched works of art, eerily atmospheric and positively throbbing with foreboding. Gischler’s narration is suitably gothic, too. Raizo says he feels an “oily dread oozing over [him]” as he makes his way through the deserted village on his way to the castle. He is not, of course, wrong. On entering the castle (a sequence that is suspenseful in a wonderfully economical way), Raizo is attacked by Jakkaru’s erstwhile servants, a pathetic bunch whose unwillingness to act on their suspicions about their master is presented as being as immoral as their lord’s depraved violence. We get an intriguing reference to a Dutch trader which suggests that the curse of vampirism is imported to Japan rather than flowering there independently, but Jakkaru’s origin story is not really the main focus of this section. Instead, it is Raizo’s understanding of what must be done that is important in carrying the story forward. Jakkaru’s servants act as a stark warning to him of the perils of inactivity, of the failure to grasp the nettle of duty no matter how painful it may be.
And so we move on to the comic’s final act. Raizo, still wrestling with the obligation that has been made clear to him in the last few pages, prepares for his final visit to his ancestral home, determining to start his assault in daylight.
What follows is some wonderfully atmospheric art. The panel featuring Raizo’s mother and father waiting for him in the blue-grey light of the house’s dim interior is genuinely chilling; the moment in which Raizo kills both his undead parents is shockingly kinetic by contrast, all parallel lines of speed and force, punctuated by simple almost abstract splashes of red. Raizo’s decision to set fire to the house means that the yellow returns with a vengeance, this time angrier and somewhat darker. Its ambiguity remains, though, and, although Raizo is surprised by Suzume’s sudden appearance and biting of her lover, the reader most assuredly is not. Raizo dispatches Suzume quickly enough, the beheading rendered in silhouette and thus giving it a distinctly surreal air. The following confrontation between Raizo and Ryuhei, though, is considerably more brutal and grounded.
I’m not sure how I feel about the Raizo/Ryuhei fight resolution. To be fair to Gischler, having established vampires as a more physically powerful foe, it makes sense to have Ryuhei stopped from killing Raizo by a falling beam of burning wood. The subsequent decapitation is satisfying enough, but, by this point, almost a formality. Now that Raizo himself has been bitten, what happens to him is actually more important.
And Gischler portrays that very well. Raizo sits under a tree, about to kill himself with a stake through his own heart and finds he simply cannot do it. The opportunity for ending the curse passes as the vampirism takes hold of Raizo’s body and mind and the legend of one of the more important members of the Marvel vampiverse is born.
There’s a nice coda to finish off the framing sequence with Dracula himself authorising Raizo’s death, while a few panels later opining that it will be very difficult to enact. It is to the credit of Gischler, Parlov and Loughridge that surely very few readers will disagree with his assessment. The comic does an excellent job of introducing Raizo Kodo and presenting his tortured background in both an exciting and sympathetic way. Topped off by a simply magnificent, brutally visceral cover from Bryan Hitch, the comic is highly enjoyable in its own right. Vampires may be a relatively obscure corner of the Marvel Universe, but they are more than capable of producing compelling, dramatic and thoroughly involving stories. This is most certainly one of them.
There’s little doubt which of the big two comic book companies won the battle of the universe-changing crossovers in 2015. With its long, patient build-up, its glorious hype and its sumptuous artwork, Marvel’s Secret Wars kicked aside DC’s Convergence with an effortlessness bordering on contempt to claim the coveted crown. To be fair, the two events were conceived in very different ways. Convergence only happened to facilitate the company’s move from New York to Burbank and it was never going to have the impact of Secret Wars or, for that matter, the company’s own Crisis On Infinite Earths. For DC, Convergence was an adjustment rather than a straight reboot. Secret Wars, on the other hand, was epic. Not only was the main series compelling in its own right, but the numerous spin-offs and ancillary titles that accompanied it afforded creators the opportunity to indulge their imaginations in some pretty wild ways.
Which is why we’re talking about Weirdworld issue 1.
Weirdworld has its origins in the black and white 70s comic magazine Marvel Super Action and it popped up in various anthology and showcase titles over the years. This iteration of the setting is interesting because it features Arkon, a character who predates Weirdworld by a few years, having first made his appearance in Avengers #75. Arkon is one of those characters who’s appeared as a guest star (or villain) in various comic titles over the years. He’s a barbarian type, a science fantasy hero in the mould of John Carter or Eric John Stark, albeit not one originally from Earth. Here he is still ruler of the world of Polemachus but he is stuck in Weirdworld and has no idea of how to get back to his lost kingdom – despite his crudely drawn (and hilarious) map.
In the first few pages of issue 1, we see Arkon fight off an attack from something that looks like a cross between a shark, an octopus and a packet of liquorice all-sorts. The splash page tells you everything you need to know about a comic that is essentially a head trip through the imagination of both writer and artist. Arkon battles valiantly against a huge squidshark that towers over him, while one of its fellows waits for a piece of the action in the background. The surreal details of the leering monster – particularly its pink crystal teeth – provide ample warning that this is not going to be your average comic book.
And so it proves.
Although Aaron’s opening dialogue gambit (“I will find it.”) indicates that the story is going to be a fairly straightforward quest narrative, the art tells an entirely different tale. There is nothing straightforward about Weirdworld.
And, while Aaron’s script understandably takes something of a back seat to Del Mundo’s astonishing art, it still manages to throw us genuine surprises. Shortly after realising that he’s actually on a floating island, Arkon either attempts to commit suicide or at least genuinely considers it. His despair is, despite the bright colours around him, palpable. Only the sudden arrival of an escaping dragon, dragging its would-be captors behind it, saves him. There then follows an extraordinary sequence in which Arkon attempts to ride the beast while dispatching its ogre handlers (who are, to be fair, just hanging on for dear life at this point) and avoiding anti-aircraft fire from their comrades on the ground. It is an artistic tour de force; Del Mundo’s art is breathtakingly kinetic and, if Arkon’s line “Arkon has come and death flies with him!” is a just a little melodramatic and hackneyed, I’m not particularly prepared to castigate Aaron for getting carried away. It is a genuinely blood-stirring moment.
The moral centre (if that’s the right term) of the book is made starkly clear as Arkon throws his sword through an ogre’s head. “I will not give in to a world of monsters. Even if I must become one.” This may be a quest narrative, but it is not one concerned with the niceties of higher ethics, but rather with the almost primal desire to return to the familiar, where one is safe and reality is both knowable and, to some extent, predictable. It is an Odyssean quest for home and, despite the gorgeous artwork and rich colour palette, it remains a grim one.
Having gained a mount (and a frighteningly impressive one at that!), Arkon lets his guard down to “enjoy the view”. Needless to say, Weirdworld punishes such laxity and his dragon is hooked by a lure shot up from beneath the ocean’s surface in a suitably bonkers inversion of traditional fishing. The book almost ends with both dragon and rider trapped beneath the waves in a huge net, menaced by intelligent apes wearing breathing apparatus. It is a fittingly bizarre and disturbing image. Del Mundo’s art is fantastic here, the out-of-focus net reinforcing the sense of helplessness as the apes move forward menacingly. (And the lead ape has mismatched eyes, too. Which is even creepier.)
This being an ongoing comic book, though, the last word is left to the villain revealed on the final page – none other than Morgan Le Fay, whose brooding, scheming arrogance is portrayed beautifully by Del Mundo. The comic leaves us, then, with a taciturn hero in mortal danger and the main villain finally revealed. It’s effortlessly engaging stuff and leaves this reader, at least, desperate for more. To use a cliché, the art is worth the cover price alone, but, really, the whole package is captivating and compelling both in its single-minded hero and its, well, weirdness. Highly recommended.
… there’s no foe like Doom.
I’ve not been hibernating, honestly!
The job has been busy and I just simply haven’t had much time to update the blog. (Oh, and I became a grandfather, too! That’s been interesting.) I’m going to try and do something about that over the next couple of weeks. There’ll be some reviews hopefully, although I will actually have to finish some books first. There’ll definitely be some fiction and there may even be some political/cultural stuff. Who knows?
In the meantime, here’s some Silver Surfer…
Last birthday, my son (I may have mentioned him already) who is something of a comic aficionado himself gave me the first Silver Surfer Epic Collection. It is, as you might expect, rather good. I’m going through a bit of a Kirby phase at the moment. My teenage disdain for his Super Powers era style has given way to a sort of awestruck wonder at Kirby’s storytelling powers and a deep sense of shame that I could have ever been that ignorant. Rather than focusing on the whole collection (which would be difficult, because – yes – I still haven’t finished it), I’m going to look at a particular moment which, I think, highlights just how good the creative team on the title at this point were.
As is invariably the case with 60s Marvel, issue 57 of the Fantastic Four, which starts the second story arc in the collection, crackles with ideas, invention and the kind of over-the-top grandiose dialogue that was typical of the era. It’s also genuinely funny, not least when the Silver Surfer is summoned to the picturesque residence of Doctor Doom.
At this point, following his dramatic introduction during the FF’s first encounter with Galactus, the Surfer is essentially exiled to wander the Earth and has decided to stop off in Latveria. Whether he already knew that he was visiting the homeland of Doctor Doom is unclear. It’s the meeting that’s important ultimately and the Lee/Kirby partnership delivers us a really rather intriguing scene between two of the most iconic characters they have ever created.
That the Surfer, for all his power, is an ingenu, largely ignorant of the political machinations of people like Doom means that the reader, while generally sympathetic to the Surfer’s moral viewpoint, is considerably more aware of the threat posed by Doom than he is. The subsequent underlying tension in the scene is handled very well. Doom starts off by trying to flatter the Surfer, but the Surfer ignores this and cuts right to the heart of what Doom is all about: “Why do you rule other humans? What quality of leadership do you possess that so sets you apart?”
Doom’s answer is brilliantly disingenuous and is deliberately shown to be false by the creative team a couple of pages later. Having earlier proclaimed himself to be a “servant” to his people, Doom dismisses the Silver Surfer’s offer to rebuild the portion of Doom’s castle that he’s just destroyed as a way of demonstrating just how powerful the ‘power cosmic’ can be. (Technically it’s Doom that destroys it – the Surfer has merely built the weapon that he uses. Actually, that’s pretty clever, too, now I think about it. Rather than just displaying his power with a generic blast, the Surfer builds a weapon out of thin air whose simplistic and lightweight design completely belies its effortless destructiveness. This kind of approach has already been used in Fantastic Four in the form of the Ultimate Nullifier, a potentially universe-ending weapon that can fit in the palm of Reed Richards’ hand. A similar idea is used in the first Men in Black movie for a more explicitly comedic effect.) Doom responds by saying that the Surfer doesn’t need to exert himself. He’s got “serfs” for that kind of thing.
This moment is deliciously ironic, but also a great example of Lee and Kirby at the heights of their power. It’s memorable, genuinely amusing and reminds the reader that, while Doom’s literal mask (almost) never comes off, the self-aggrandising arrogance of the character can never be concealed for very long.