Sunday, June 24, 2007

Emergency! #1

Emergency! #1, June 1976, Charlton Publications
writer: Joe Gill
artist: Byrne Robotics
editor: Geo. Wildman

If you live in Southern California, or pay attention to news stories with nationwide appeal, you'd understand its residents' wariness toward itself law enforcement and emergency personnel. With headlines about Sheriff Lee Baca allegedly giving celebrity inmate Paris Hilton preferential treatment and about the unfortunate, bloody death of a patient on the floor of the Drew King Medical Center waiting room, one might be hard pressed to remember when police officers, doctors, firefighters, and paramedics were genuine folk heroes worthy of television shows like Emergency! Admittedly, I've never watched an episode of Emergency!, though I imagine it would only run on TV Land anyway, but based on the first issue of its Charlton Comics adaptation, I get the impression that this television series (so, subsequently, its comic book series) honored its law enforcement and first response team protagonists. From the eye-catching watercolor cover by (Joe?) Staton, depicting firefighters harrowingly saving an unconscious victim from a burning building, we the readers instantly understand the dichotomy of their mission; while their faces betray their own fear, they act anyway, which is a true mark of heroism. Who saves even Superman can't feel a little fear flying into fight now and then?

Fortunately, since this is the first of my seven last reviews of my consecutive year-long A Comic A Day personal challenge, and thus a strategic choice, this issue offers two opportunities for analysis: one, as the aforementioned adaptation of a TV series, albeit one I haven't seen, so two, a comparison piece for an comic adaptation of a show I love, The A-Team. Yes, Mr. T has made a few appearances here already (and earned a mention as one of my "man-crushes" in my recent LiveJournal posts), but only recently did I acquire three of Marvel's The A-Team books -- cheaply, I might add. While '80s nostalgia is in full swing with both TMNT and Transformers in theaters this year, some back issues will forever be relegated to the twenty-five cent bin. Honestly, just finding those comics, on the heels of acquiring all five seasons of the original TV show on DVD no less, was priceless.

But I digress. First, Emergency! #1 was a compelling comic book, with a dramatic first page splash of an ambulance hitting the street in response to, well, an emergency. Dual plotlines converge when a warehouse fire is traced to a hospital victim with radiation burns; the warehouse's owner is initially suspected because of his abnormal cache of radioactive material, all of the drums are legally registered. So, some attention falls on the mystery burn patient, who ends up eluding a prolonged hospital stay and seemingly has a rap sheet for numerous crimes, including theft and arson. Paramedic John Gage takes the case, which is initially befuddling since plenty of police officers are around to help, but his emphasis on the potential biohazard of his suspect permits some suspension of belief. Really, I would imagine that investigations like this are tangled in red tape, and only in retrospect did I realize that the media and their inherent exploitive skepticism of "the process" were absent supporting characters, but that speaks to the contemporary pop culture standard of celebrity and law enforcement. Much like this review, Emergency #1 hits a wall when Gage learns where his suspect might be hiding, and for several pages he talks about hitting the joint:

"He hangs out with a bunch of punks at Leo's Grill."

"I've got an idea where he might go, Dixie!"

"Unless I miss my guess, Davin will head for his buddies -- and that means Leo's Bar and Grill!"

"I'm sure he's hanging out at a place called Leo's Grill."

"I hope Davin is in Leo's Bar and Grill."

That's four pages' worth of anticipation that builds to a conversation Gage and an officer have with Davin when they finally find him at, yes, Leo's Bar and Grill. While his punk friends offer some resistance that leads to a climatic shoot-out, a moment of poignancy concludes this investigation when the nurse beholds a dying-from-radiation-poisoning Davin and muses, "Why do people wreck their lives like this?" Though she might have been pondering the nature of crime in general, we the readers never really find out why Davin himself was such a fiend for radium chloride . . . his motive is never revealed, and in fact never really called into question! Perhaps it's just that valuable -- apparently it has the ability to poison punks, and potentially good crime stories.

Still, if Emergency! was intended to attract a wider audience to its native TV show, I say mission accomplished. If I catch it on my DirecTV preview guide, I'll definitely select it, if only to see if live action holds up to the intensity of adapted graphic storytelling.

Interestingly, when I first read this issue, I missed the artist credit as "Byrne Robotics." Indeed, this comic features some of John Byrne's earliest work in the industry, and though his signature is initially obscured by his attempts to capture the likenesses of the television series' cast, further examination reveals some traces of his work, even by today's standards. I confirmed these facts on Wikipedia but couldn't find Emergency! on Byrne's own bibliography at Byrne Robotics. Could he be ashamed of this work, even with its blatant support of our nation's law enforcement and EMT officers?

However, the A-Team proved just a few years after Emergency!'s heyday that one need not be on the right side of the law to enforce it. Until I read their Marvel Comics adaptation, I never realized that their hoarsely asserted backstory from the opening credits of their TV show (sans season five, by which time they'd jumped the shark with a techno remix of their signature theme song) was the broadcast equivalent of Marvel's one or two sentence origin synopses at the top of their title pages in the '70s and '80s. No wonder The A-Team makes for such a marvelous read! Credited as the art director, John Romita obviously went to great lengths to make sure that the A-Team was drawn the Marvel way, and though "average Joe" characters like Murdock and Face lose some similarity to their actors' likeness in the transition, definitive characters like Hannibal and B.A. are on point. In fact, in some panels, Hannibal's cocky smirk looks more like something from the pages of a Mad Magazine spoof strip, but I understand that this comic book series parallels the show's first season; Hannibal's character developed a real gravitas in seasons two and three, especially in the episode "Deadly Maneuvers." Again, but I digress.

What Emergency! #1 lacked in the motives department Marvel's The A-Team makes up for in spades. In fact, having read issues #1 and #2, while some of the "mysterious" motivations are too transparent to truly illicit intrigue, others are a bit too far-fetched for my liking. For example, in the first issue, B.A. insists that his old friend has nothing to do with a diamond heist despite evidence to the contrary, and later we learn that his old buddy is in fact an FBI agent working undercover. Seriously, I saw it coming a mile away. Then, in issue #2, when two Asian brothers, co-creators of a multi-million dollar video game company (in 1984?) hire the A-Team to find their kidnapped father of two years, Pops reveals that he kidnapped himself to start a cult bent on ancient Japanese traditions. Oh-kay. That's a plot so mundane I would have saved it for season five.

But, hark, what's this? A potential The A-Team/The Greatest American Hero crossover? When B.A.'s old buddy reveals that he's an FBI agent, he explains that he and his partner Bill Maxwell have been on the case for awhile. Die hard fans (like me) will recognize Maxwell's name as the "spook" that discovered the alien super suit with Ralph Hinkley in the '80s series The Greatest American Hero! We never actually see Bill, but the reference isn't that surprising considering both TV shows were products of Stephen J. Cannell Productions. Was Marvel hinting at a possible Cannell-verse? Unfortunately, fans never saw such a crossover really come to fruition. I guess that's what fan fiction is for.

Unlike Emergency #1, which caught my eye because of the Charlton bull's eye and that Staton cover, I can't imagine folks that didn't watch The A-Team were suddenly inspired to do so because of the Marvel comic book, which, based on its cover imagery, was just another Mr. T vehicle in the early '80s anyway. Seriously, a Saturday morning cartoon and a cereal weren't enough for the Baracan one? Actually, by issue #2, the interior story featured more of the others' trademarked personalities, which was a relief for comprehensive fans like me . . . and I did develop a greater understanding of what comic book adaptations need to tick. Fortunately, both of these series had that critical ingredient: character. Though a bit bland and repetitive at times, Gage is a heroic figure, determined in his quest while realizing the big picture, as well. If only the character of contemporary law enforcement would be so highly regarded. Nowadays, the television emphasis is more on the legal process, thanks to successes like Law & Order and Boston Legal. When it comes to cops, perhaps because of those controversial headlines, they reserve the right to remain silent. Who can blame 'em?

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