Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Lone Ranger #1 Director’s Cut, take 2

Blogger's note: A few weeks ago, this review was lost in the depths of Microsoft Word and assumed lost forever. Today, inexplicably, the document was miraculously recovered. So, excitedly, I offer this post to supplement the original, abbreviated The Lone Ranger #1 Director's Cut review posted on March 10, 2007.

The Lone Ranger #1 Director’s Cut, 2007, Dynamite Entertainment
writer: Brett Matthews
artist: Steve Cariello
colorist: Dean White
letterer: Simon Bowland

Comic book fans are fascinated with origins. For those characters that have endured for decades, whose origins were presented as proverbial pilot stories to test their potential success, their beginnings have become modern mythology, evoking both compelling motivation and universal wonder. From the explosion of a planet to a radioactive insect bite, in just a few pages a good origin story sums up the seemingly timeless essence of a character that has lasted generations. When a popular character bursts onto the scene sans this origins sequence, his appeal is equally inspiring simply and ironically because we do not know where he came from. Even if we figure out what makes him tick, we don’t know why. We make the lack of origin the origin itself, if only to satisfy our reading experience. This enduring element in the comic book medium sums up the success in this reprint of The Lone Ranger #1 Director’s Cut.

If we fans really revel in knowing where our heroes come from, then this Director’s Cut reminds us that even origins have origins . . .

. . . usually as a writer’s script and an artist’s sketches. While directors’ commentary has become an integral and expected part of any movie’s DVD release, the concept is still a relatively new addition to comic book reprints, yet a natural one, as the integration of words and pictures is what makes the comic a comic in the first place. Add another layer of text, and I assert that the printed comic page becomes an even more exclusive interactive pop culture experience, drawing the reader in first to the sequential story, then to the thoughts and inspirations behind it. Writer Brett Matthews offers a page-by-page account of his script’s intentions – why a certain character says this or a certain scene is blocked that way – and the actual “page-play” (What else would you call a comic book screenplay?) is provided as a supplemental for easy reference, revealing the origin of the origin of the legendary Lone Ranger.

Admittedly, I’m not familiar with Lone Ranger lore. I know of Tonto and Trigger, perhaps the most ironic characters in modern fiction as acknowledged companions to a guy dubbed the Lone Ranger, but that’s it. In this first issue, I learned that the Lone Ranger was first John Reid, son of a proud but introspective Texas ranger. John acquires some education in the city but returns to his western roots to ride alongside his father and brother as a full-fledged officer . . . until the rangers are ambushed and assassinated. John lives but is nearly killed again by a passing gang when a certain Indian comes to his rescue. To be continued. Lone Ranger #1 was a relatively quick read sans director’s cut extras, exploring less of the Ranger’s lineage than his character, establishing John Reid as a tough but sentimental gunslinger orphaned by old-fashioned old west law and order. Like the heroes I’m more familiar with, the Lone Ranger’s origins are touched by tragedy but driven by courage.

Thanks to Matthews’ commentary, each scene is established as a critical stepping stone toward the Lone Ranger’s destiny, notes that even the art team weren’t privy to in his original script. For example, when Reid is left for dead and awakens to the marauding gang, the significance to the leader’s burlap-sack-obscured is described as “the moment [he] understands the power of masks. Maybe not consciously, but fundamentally.” I wouldn’t have made such an inference in a scene that seemed more intended for Tonto’s dramatic entrance, but again, the layers of text here unravel the layers of inspiration throughout this story. Another insightful sequence lies in Reid’s childhood, when his father returns from hunting a bounty. When his father confirms that he killed the criminal because he “was a bad man. He had it coming. That doesn’t make it a good thing,” John spends nearly all night sitting on a tree stump to ponder what that means. Then, in a statement that I’m tempted to liken as the Ranger’s power/responsibility or criminals/cowardly lot mantra, John affirms with his dad, “You cut the tree down to build the house. It doesn’t mean you don’t miss the shade.” His family’s tragedy notwithstanding, Matthews implies that this sequence is the origin of the Lone Ranger, if not physically than spiritually . . . and honestly, it’s the moment he captured me as a faithful reader.

I’d be unjust not to mention and praise this issue’s art team, as well. In his script, Matthews suggests wide, horizontal panels because “the West was wide,” and having grown up in Arizona, I’m pleased that Cariello and White didn’t settle for the cactus and tumbleweed stereotype. Beautiful sunset and sepia tones wash Cariello’s detailed, dramatic page layouts perfectly, and White’s “old film” filter effect to distinguish flashbacks from real time sequences fit the Ranger’s roots both in the old pictures and the old West. With a sketchbook and supplemental covers including John Cassaday’s work in the back of this issue, it’s as much an insight into the narrative beginnings of a comic as it is the visual.

Generally, comic books are misclassified as juvenile literature, but everybody could read a director’s commentary like this one, any general audience would understand the passion and detail that gets poured into meaningful series like this one – and make no mistake, it is a meaningful series. The Lone Ranger may be an old franchise, but its themes of rule and justice in the old West are the very origins of those same concepts in modern America, assuring us that order can be maintained even by a lone, determined law keeper. Further, as I implied earlier, the comic book reading experience is similarly singular. Any group can gather to watch a DVD, but in the case of a comic book’s commentary, while you’re holding it in your hands, the writer is only talking to you. You’re as critical to the comic’s integrity as its very story. It’s the origin of a beautiful relationship.

Shark-Man #1

Shark-Man #1, 2006, Thrill-House Comics
writers: Ronald Shusett & Steve Pugh
artist/letterer: Steve Pugh
additional layouts/art assistant: Garry Leach

Appropriately, Shark-Man #1 is the “fin” of A Comic A Day’s third quarter, not to mention yet another comic book with an animal in its title – a long-standing theme this month to commemorate the release TMNT. Fortunately, unlike yesterday’s Destroyer Duck, this issue’s hero only dresses up as his bestial namesake, reminding us that the animal kingdom has been an inspiration for the superhero community since their inauguration nearly a century ago. I wonder, if that bat hadn’t flown through Bruce Wayne’s window, what would superheroes really be like today? Would we have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let alone newer characters like Shark-Man.

All that is to say, I need not credit TMNT for these animal-oriented titles anymore.

Despite its eye-catching cover and action-packed opening act, Shark-Man is primarily a political comic book, an Aquaman-meets-Prison Break story about underwater urban espionage. Shark-Man, a.k.a. Alan Gaskill, is the founding father and benefactor of New Venice City, a modern Atlantis with a faithful populace until its governor accuses Gaskill of embezzling the city’s funds, and since we readers know Shark-Man is innocent, we can only assume that this conspiracy has trickled down from the government level. Gaskill’s secret “shark cave” is infiltrated and an entity calling itself the Shadow-King effortlessly kills the hero. Shortly thereafter, Gaskill’s son Tom (poorly established as an apathetic Jack Knight-like heir apparent to his father’s heroic legacy) finds his slain father just in time for the police to burst onto the scene and arrest him for the murder. Indeed, from the first few pages in which Shark-Man is too late to save a cruise ship from pirates to this last page frame job, this first issue is not this hero’s finest hour.

Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much. Shark-Man was left to the sharks from page one. The irony is absolutely delicious.

Normally, I would emphasize the obviously derivative nature of this story – in my synopsis I referenced both Batman imagery (I didn’t mention the Alfred-like character wearing the soothsaying helmet, did I?) and recent Starman lore in the critical propellants of the plot, a blatant sign that this series might write itself into a corner when it’s done ripping off other heroes’ dynamics. However, the fanboy in me is actually willing to discard these critical comments because . . . ah, I hate to admit it . . . Shark-Man has a cool costume. Yes, although I usually deconstruct my daily comic’s writing more so than its visuals, if only because of my inability to consistent scan my subject’s illustrations for reference, but this time, from the moment I pulled Shark-Man #1 from that fifty-cents bin, I was taken by the suit. The clothes make this hero, with its Rocketeer-esque shark helmet, shark jowls belt buckle, and shark-teeth talons, all menacing and super cool looking. Steve Pugh’s painting (perhaps with some digital filtering?) is in rare form, a solid cinematic story-telling style that captures the grand scope of this underwater adventure. Aqua-who? Namor the what? Those guys wear fancy swimsuits, nothing more. Shark-Man is a freakin’ superhero. ‘Nuff said.

Further, the political overtones of this book and the brief but compelling establishment of New Venice City’s legal infrastructure pose a more interesting potential for conflict than any superhero action offered in Shark-Man #1. Tom’s girlfriend is one of his father’s accountants, and the governor and police chief are both introduced as crucial characters we will undoubtedly see much more of in future issues. The Shadow-King is a special effect (and reminiscent of the Shade, another Starman reference) and nothing more, at least in the confines of these inaugural pages. If writers Shusett and Pugh dare to venture away from James Robinson’s Jack Knight and toward an allegorical Bush, Sr./George W. parable, what with the subtext of provincial legacy, this series could conversely pack quite a punch.

This issue’s dedication to Bill Finger explains the frequent illusions to DC’s canon, but further presents an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of comic’s founding fathers, those creators that established the superhero genre that thousands of fans know and love today. I’m specifically referring to the back-up story in yesterday’s Destroyer Duck comic, “The Starling” by Superman creator Jerry Siegel. When I saw Siegel’s name, I was instantly excited to read this story, to walk in on the ground floor of an idea by one of the pioneers of this industry. “The Starling” features an alien entity that comes to Earth, saves a woman from some rapists only to make passionate love to her himself, then leaves, calling his one-world-stand an “inconsequential tryst.” Yet, from the next issue blurb that teases “The Starling is Born,” we can only assume that the tryst was anything but inconsequential. Frankly, this first chapter was a glorified sex scene, the kind of erotic tableau that would’ve given Wertham a real run for his money, back in the day. I was unimpressed by how unimaginative the story was – although I can imagine that, when you’re the creator of Superman, your own shoes are too big to fill anymore. I wonder if new stories by the old masters are best left unpublished in favor of fresh takes like Shark-Man. Shark-Man is an old idea with contemporary twists – a true modern Bill Finger homage. Either way, this phenomenon reveals that creators from both yesterday and today are in an ongoing scramble for some semblance of an original idea. Oftentimes, when it comes to swiping one another’s inspirations, you can literally smell the blood in the water.

Again, with this review, the third quarter of A Comic A Day is complete, which means a quarterly report will be posted here sometime within the week. It’s the home stretch, now. April, May, June, then I’m done. Unlike Shark-Man, I don’t have anyone to receive my torch. I’m my own disgruntled heir, I guess. Is there anything fishy about that?

Friday, March 30, 2007

Destroyer Duck #2

Destroyer Duck #2, January 1983, Eclipse Comics
Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciller: Jack Kirby
Inker: Alfredo Alcala
Letterer: Tom Orzechowsku
Colorist: Petra Goldberg
“beak consultant:” Thom Enriquez

I’d hate to give any “Kirby classic” the “bottom line” treatment, but I have a limited amount of time today, and, really, a series called Destroyer Duck isn’t a literary conundrum that requires in-depth analysis. Left over from my TMNT inspired reviews, in a nutshell, Destroyer Duck is a story about the individual versus the corporation – it’s just, in this case, that individual is a duck. See, “Duke’s” best friend was murdered by the CEO of a large corporation, who now has it out for our grim gray mallard. Duke best sums up the nature of this conflict when he exclaims, “An’ tell the bums in the executive suite – they’ll be applyin’ for entry-level jobs in hell if they try this again!” Nice! Gerber offers a worthy sophomore effort to his classic Howard the Duck series, and Kirby’s pencils actually pop off the page when inked respectfully by another artist. Sure, they lose a generation of that Golden Age appeal, but at the same time Kirby’s look becomes relevant and successful for a new generation of readers.

You know, this book does require some in-depth analysis! Good thing Destroyer Duck would understand the importance of critical time management. When the henchmen that attack you are required to attend a mandatory workshop on the subject, every second against them counts!

(I'll incorporate my thoughts on this issue's content with tomorrow's post . . . somehow! Just put it on my bill. Eh, sorry, Duke.)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Unique #1

Unique #1, March 2007, Platinum Studios Comics
writer: Dean Motter
artist: Dennis Calero
letterer: Scott O. Brown
editors: Paul Cibis & Jim McLauchlin

Since childhood, we're told that we're unique. We're assured that we're one of a kind, that no one else on Earth is like us. You are a beautiful snowflake, and further you can grow up to be anything you want to be. Your uniqueness foreshadows your potential, and if you believe in yourself, you can change the world. We geeks know that this is not true. Sure, we may be one of a kind on this Earth, but, somewhere, our goatee-wearing doppelgangers are pursuing the urges we've consciously ignored. We've called them "what if stories" and elseworlds, but, really, they're just parallel universes, and as long as they exist, we'll never be unique. We'll never be anything than what this universe has relegated us to be.

Dean Motter knows this, and he's decided to do something about it.

Jon Geoffries is an insomniac that has been framed for embezzlement by his boss. His doctor has referred him for an experimental injection that will aid his condition, a peculiar temporary tattoo that will dissolve into his bloodstream and last ten sleep-filled days. Unfortunately, right after his first injection, authorities pursue Geoffries for those crimes he didn't commit, and just when they corner him, Jon . . . transfers. The scenery looks the same but the circumstances are different. In this new world, America's waking cycle is inverted; people wake and work at nighttime, and sleep during the day. Interestingly and somewhat humorously, Geoffries is arrested for curfew at four o'clock in the afternoon. When he sees his boss on television as a televangelist, then his boss's assistant as his legal counsel, he knows something is suspicious. Is he asleep, adrift in a dream world induced by his new medicine, or something else entirely?

Of course, it's something else entirely. A secret group of "timestream observers" (for lack of a better term) explains to Geoffries that different parallel worlds exist (duh, I said that already), and subsequently almost everybody has a varied incarnation on each of these worlds. Jon does not; therefore, Jon can exist in any of these worlds with little damage to the space-time continuum. (Motter doesn't explain the phenomenon quite like that, but that context makes the concept easier for we geeks accustomed to cybernetic mutants from the future or, ahem, Hypertime.) Apparently, Jon had sleepwalked through parallel worlds before, but now he's awake, presumably a side effect of his new tattoo. Suddenly, the authorities track Geoffries down and attack his new friends -- right before he transfers to yet another reality. For a three issue miniseries, Unique has an endless amount of potential.

Although I've summarized this forty-eight page issue rather comprehensively here (and for $2.99, that's not a bad deal), I didn't feel compelled to offer a spoiler alert, as much of this information has been leaked in promotional blurbs about the series anyway. This first issue is merely a concept piece, introducing readers to the idea and establishing characters' dynamics for two more issues of compelling plot . . . I hope. I've enjoyed Motter's past work -- Terminal City was really the first graphic novel I bought "cold," with no idea what it was about, and I was sold -- but I feel like he could've squeezed more story in this issue. Essentially, this issue is one long pursuit seasoned with plenty of ambiance, thanks to Calero's compelling visuals. Calero is one of a recent slew of artists that has successfully integrated line work with digital coloring to create a near cinematic effect in their panel design. Together, Motter and Calero have offered a character-intensive science fiction epic that dares to be unparalleled.

Still, if you're a geek like me, I know what you're thinking. Unique is just Sliders with a Quantum Leap sensibility. I'd understand your point, but while those old television series were primarily circumstance-driven, presenting viewers with different and engaging scenarios that vicariously challenged us through their protagonists, in Unique the protagonist is the challenge, a cosmic monkey wrench with the opportunity to change the world as we know it . . . and as our goatee-wearing doppelgangers know it. No matter what your mother told you, nobody else has that kind of potential. Nobody else is that unique. Yet, if this comic book can be compared to other works of media at all (even shows that can only be found on Sci-Fi Channel late night), ultimately, it isn't that unique, either. The next issue will truly tell.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Captain Nauticus and the Ocean Force #1

Captain Nauticus and the Ocean Force #1, May 1994, The National Maritime Center Authority
contributors unknown

And now a public service announcement from the National Maritime Center.

When I saw Captain Nauticus #1, I had to have it. I've developed a fascination with corporate-sponsored comics, ever since I reviewed The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids and The Scrapyard Detectives back in August. Similarly, this month's Marvel/American Cancer Society comic book was a nonprofit blast from the past; however, my experience with issues like these precedes the A Comic A Day challenge. A few years ago, I received the first three issues of Chasm and the Eco Squad, a comic book published by the Grand Canyon Association. I lived in Arizona for ten years, but I've still never visited the Grand Canyon, so these crudely illustrated, ecologically minded issues were a vicarious visit, with a touch of superheroism with which ironically I'm all too familiar. Eco Squad was a fair balance of education and entertainment, just as The Scrapyard Detectives successfully shrouded a character-building message in a suburban jaunt akin to the classic Encyclopedia Brown series. So, the question is, does Captain Nauticus and his Ocean Force hold any water?

Captain Nauticus and the Ocean Force #1 is Star Trek meets Aquaman, as the survivors of an apparently ravaged underwater world pursue their enemy through the depths of space, navigating the final frontier in ships that blatantly resemble Starfleet issue. In a twist right out of Voyager, the enemy, a Black Manta wanna-be called Fathom, tries to escape through a black hole, but the Ocean Force follows, and both ships end up in orbit of a mysterious planet called Earth. (A planet, according to the OF's science officer, that is populated by "hoomens." Almost clever, if the mistranslation wasn't by nature merely a written one.) Fathom finds asylum in Earth's seas and tries to conquer them as he did on their native planet, and when the Ocean Force finds an old ship and subsequently a young survivor, the kid's technology empowers Fathom toward a "to be continued" scenario. Indeed, just when the good guys were about to achieve victory, the tides were turned.

While one might assume that this issue would promote a pro-ocean sanitation message, the only real connection Captain Nauticus shares with Earth is his ancestors' potential occupation of Atlantis, a mystery vaguely established for future issues, I assume. The real danger in this issue is one man, Fathom, and his steadfast evil toward water. Did Fathom have a traumatic aquatic experience as a boy? Some "drinking out of the hose" incident gone wrong? Interestingly, the creators of this issue successfully established a parallel between the depths of our oceans and the vastness of space -- the introductory and climatic scenes, which took place in these settings respectively, were similar in their adventurous scope. Apparently, a pseudo Enterprise has just as much maneuverability as a dolphin . . . oh, I didn't mention that the Ocean Force can turn into different sea creatures? Yes, this issue was a whale of a good time.

A word search and some information about the abyssal red zone trap fish conclude this issue, which doesn't ooze with the "for your own good" tone that fueled the Eco Squad yet offers a sense of validity in contrast to an otherwise story of pure fantasy, a relevancy that betrays shades of The Scrapyard Detectives. They're light shades, but shades, nevertheless. Honestly, this interstellar trek could have been told in a shorter format, squeezing in more content, with an art style that wasn't so obvious in its desperation to look cool, but . . . Captain Nauticus can rest assured that his mission was accomplished. He'll get around to defeating Fathom next issue, but in the meantime, Earth's children know a little bit more about their world's undersea kingdom. That was the point, I presume? Corporations like the National Maritime Center use comic books to broach youth in a way they undoubtedly couldn't without the medium, plain and simple. While these efforts usually aren't the best examples of what comics have to offer, they are perfect examples of exactly what they can do.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Iron Jaw #1

Iron Jaw #1, January 1975, Atlas Comics
writer: Michael Fleisher
penciller: Mike Sekowski
inker: Jack Abel
letterer: Alan Kupperberg
editor: Jeff Roven

"Iron jaw" isn't the unfortunate consequence of a regretful night in Amsterdam. Iron Jaw is the most macho comic book I've ever read. I'm not talking about tough guy macho, as I've recently analyzed in Cobb and The Fist of God, but barbarian macho -- the rare combination of strength and confidence one could only find in the heart of a warrior from a post-apocalyptic future. Meet Iron Jaw. He'll rescue your village from plunderers for the thrill of the battle and expect your women to thank him accordingly. He is the future of mankind.

In the spirit of The Mighty Samson, Iron Jaw takes place on a future Earth nearly destroyed by the recklessness of humanity. Tyrants rule with an iron fist, challenged by a band of rebels with steely resolve. Iron Jaw is in a class of his own, and from the first act of this introductory issue, in which he rescues a woman and her elderly father (who promptly dies anyway) from a band of marauders, one of whom escapes and tells his king of the warrior's skill, not to mention his distinctive birthmark that indicates his hidden royal lineage. When a young shepherd finds Iron Jaw and his new wench secluded in a cave, the kid reports the rebels' location to the king, who puts a bounty on their heads and soon sees them captured. Iron Jaw's sister visits him, and unaware of his origins, believes her to be a "last meal," and although she rejects his Luke/Leia-like advances, she leaves him a knife and he effortlessly escapes. Outside the castle walls, Iron Jaw remembers, "I knew I forgot something! My blond-haired wench is still imprisoned inside that dungeon! She is far too lovely for me to let her go so easily! I shall have to reenter the castle . . . and get her back!" Aw. What a hero, right?

Honestly, Iron Jaw #1 contains some of the best lines I've read in a comic book in a long time, and by "best" I mean "hard to believe they were ever really written." Dripping with savage hubris, seasoned with the kind of sexism that would only be acceptable in a future where survival trumps respect, Iron Jaw is a veritable fount of quotable wisdom, truly the stuff Seduction of the Innocent tried to dissuade. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

"It's a good thing I slew a deer this morning and ate its bloody heart . . . Nothing is as strong medicine for a warrior as the heart of a fresh-killed deer!"

WOMAN: D-Don't you even want to know why those soldiers were after us?
IRON JAW: No! But you are a woman, and so you will tell, because women are unable to keep silent!

"Freedom is a word used to recruit soldiers by those who have no gold to pay!"

"You are just like all women, never knowing what you really want!"

Finally, when sold out by the shepherd boy his woman's encouraged him to let live, "It is not your fault! It is mine! The fighter dies young who heeds the counsel of women!"

Yes! Obviously, the sharpest part of our hero's mouth is really is tongue! This guy would give even Dr. Phil a run for his money. "Man Camp" my iron jaw!

Seriously, this issue is attractively packaged as an inaugural Atlas Comic, with a beautiful cover by Neil Adams, fluid page layouts and art, and an informative pair of supplemental essays bringing up the rear, one about the future of Atlas and the other about Iron Jaw's future world. With big names like Adams, Mike Kaluta, Larry Hama, Klaus Janson, Steve Ditko, and Larry Leiber listed as contributors to the company, I wonder if Atlas preceded Image as the first Marvel splinter group, the publisher that sought its own identity on the backs of creators that carried other publishers for so long. Obviously, Atlas isn't around anymore -- perhaps the weight of the world was too much for them to handle -- but if Iron Jaw is any indication, they certainly tackled the effort like a man.

If you're going to bite off more than you can chew, you're going to need an iron jaw to do it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Unearthly Spectaculars #1

Unearthly Spectaculars #1, October 1965, Harvey Picture Magazines
contributors unknown

A Comic A Day has reviewed several Silver Age anthologists, including Space Adventures, Our Fighting Forces, and The Gunsfighters, each of which spotlight a specific genre of fiction rather comprehensively. In fact, each of these issues has been so exploratory with the potential of their respective genres that I'm often amazed that they are part of an ongoing series. From deadly space bubbles to ape/cat alien monsters, what else can an issue of Space Adventures offer? Yet every issue in these series had the unyielding responsibility to top the one that came before it, to expand the potential of its genre from the inside out. However, this issue of Unearthly Spectaculars is different. It's the first issue, with no pretense or expectation on the reader's part. At the time, in itself, such a comic was indeed spectacular and, forty years later, still evokes an unmistakable awe from just its very first page.

However, from a purely logistical standpoint, this issue's first page represents its unfortunately fatal flaw. Depicting a strange prowler, the last caption on this inaugural page says, "What does he want here?!! Why, the same thing you do, dear reader -- he want to see how this story turns out! All you have to do is turn the page!" So, with trembling anticipation, I, the dear reader, turns the page and . . . finds a full page ad for Goodyear Tires. Further, the ad is a comic strip complete with a large title caption, not unlike the subsequent page which rightfully begins this issue's first story. Visually, it's poor page planning and blatantly confusing; symbolically, it represents the neutered suspense that pervades the first and every yarn of Unearthly Spectaculars #1.

For instance, the first tale, "The Visitor," presumably continues the story of that suspicious prowler, creeping around the grounds of one Frank Baldwin, who pursues the creep to the front steps of an unknown neighbor, a wheelchair bound woman embittered to the world. In an effort to protect her, Baldwin promptly falls in love with her and visits daily despite her blatant protests. Indeed, his trespasses would be safely classified as harassment nowadays, but when the stranger returns to torment them again, Baldwin's instinct to guard his forbidden love proves accurate, yet inadequate, as the prowler doubles back during pursuit and swipes the woman. When Baldwin returns to the home, he finds an ambiguous note that implies his love's effortless surrender and more mysteriously two sets of footprints outside her door. "Oh, no! Susan," Frank exclaims in horror, "Not you, too!" I'm not sure what the "too" means, as Susan's disappearance is the first real peculiarity of the story (Frank's instant infatuation not withstanding), and it's also the last. When Susan disappears, the story ends, with the crude explanation, "Will you ever see her? Perhaps, in another hundred years! That's how long it takes to journey to the star they call home!" Oh, she and the prowler were aliens of the same origin. How . . . spectacular.

The second story, boldly dubbed "Unbelievable Story," stars a stunt driver whose racecar reaches Mach 3 and is thus consumed by a black ooze, transporting the daredevil to an oddly plain yet heavily policed desert. The driver is arrested, tried for speeding, and sentenced to building a skyscraper in two days. Although the task is obviously impossible, the driver finishes the tower and continues to build, completing a New York-like skyline in mere days. Finally, consumed by fatigue, the driver plummets from a high support beam, watches his city disappear, then falls into a deep coma, during which he mutters this fantastic tale for others to behold. In the end, a reporter speculates whether or not the odd adventure is true: "I don't know! You see, his real vocation is architecture, and his firm is responsible for half the skyscrapers in Manhattan . . . his story, like his disappearance, is unexplainable!" If I had written this tale, I would've changed its title to "Unsatisfying Ending." 'Nuff said.

I should interrupt my page by page description of this issue to explain my critical tone. See, I enjoy these old anthologies for their nostalgic value, and oftentimes I enjoy the art, which, unlike today's works, seemingly have little to prove other than the validity of their story. Artists are anonynous and in it just to win it -- the minds of their readers, that is. However, in this issue's case, each peculiarity is initially introduced as a mystery that the reader may have the means to unravel if he studies the imagery and dialogue close enough, Encyclopedia Brown style. These last caption explanations are disillusioning, creating a sci-fi fable that almost isn't worth reading until that final moment of revelation.

I hoped the third yarn, this issue's cover story about the "Tiger Boy from Twilight" that "could be anything he wanted through incredible and mysterious will power," would offer a new hope. That awesome image of the tiger with a boy's face was the reason I purchased this issue in the first place. (Interestingly, I cannot find a #1 on the cover of this issue; that it is the first issue is a pleasant surprise!) Unfortunately, the Tiger Boy actually adopts that form in only a few panels, as the rest are dedicated to his mysterious ability to do anything he wants. While he accumulates wealth against his parents wishes (that's a red flag right there -- my kid would make me a throne made of Twinkies, for starters), he also saves the day, and in one moment proclaims a line that could trump my mainstay quote in the footer of this blog. Here's the scene:

SPECTATOR: The chimney stopped coming down! It's just hanging there -- in the air . . . defying the law of gravity, thank heaven!
TIGER BOY: No! Thank Paul Canfield! I saved your miserable lives!

Yes! Paul Canfield . . . oh, who is eventually revealed as an alien spawn banished from Jupiter and must choose between the flagrant use of his powers or a safe humble life on Earth. He choose the latter . . . but in the best last caption of this whole issue, we are promised further adventures of Tiger Boy. Wait, not Tiger Boy. Paul Canfield.

The last story is by far the best of the whole package. When an alien takeover grips the planet in terror, the wait staff at the Rex Cafe is wary of a stranger that swings by for a cup o' Joe. The new waitress seems quite taken by him and despite her coworkers' protests joins him on a taxi ride home. The waitresses call the cops, and when the authorities discover the twosome at the foot of a flying saucer, the man does indeed pull off a disguise . . . but not his! The damsel was actually the alien, playing dumb for conquering's sake, I presume! I enjoyed the campy twist and the final line, "I'm glad I didn't have to marry that creature! My wife would never have approved!"

So, despite all of the anthologies A Comic A Day has reviewed, Unearthly Spectaculars stands on its own in many ways. I'm not wondering what the next issue has to offer. I'm wondering why this issue didn't offer enough. Where these stories unearthly because of their alien roots, or because their writers just didn't have their feet on the ground?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Fist of God #4

The Fist of God #4, January 1989, Eternity Comics
writer: R.A. Jones
artist: Butch Burcham
letterer: Debbie Burcham
cover colorist: Bruce Timm

The Fist of God #4 evokes two past contributions to A Comic A Day, the first and most notable of which is the inclusion of two little letters on its front cover: "B.T." Yes, long-time readers may recall, back in January, I reviewed First Comics' Whisper #30, which I purchased simply because those familiar initials led me to believe that Bruce Timm may have played a more significant role in the production of that issue. Of course, he didn't, and like this issue, he simply colored the cover . . . but, hey, any Timm work pre-Batman: The Animated Series is worth discovering if only for its nostalgic value. (I'm still rummaging through my childhood keepsakes for those Masters of the Universe mini-comics he drew . . . Incidentally, I picked up Justice League Unlimited season two at Target for an affordable twenty bucks this weekend, and his interview of the series' inspirations with Mark Hamill is down right charming. But I digress.) As I've said before, you can really appreciate where someone is once you know where they've come from.

The second element of this issue that reminded me of ACAD's past is its starring character, Mick Taggert, an unapologetic tough guy. We analyzed the tough guy with Cobb #2, and while I'd rather not repeat myself, Taggert's story does offer a different aspect of the phenomenon: the hypocrisy of the tough guy. In the series synopsis on this final issue's inside front cover, Taggert is described as a "professional fighter -- until he killed a man." The implication to this statement is a modicum of personal guilt, a feeling of remorse that withstands the law but retains the solemn integrity of Taggert himself. Either way, dubbed the Fist of God, this issue finds Mick in Persia, where a false magician tricks a village into believing that their 200-year-dead king has risen from the grave. This magician has Taggert's girlfriend (who is also his brother's wife, but we're getting to that) hostage, so the observant Fist notices when the mystic switches the mummified king's body with a stand-in; the thin veil of smoke and mirrors is just enough to convince the desperate populace. Still, they watch with stunned immobility when Mick swings in, saves the girl, and beheads the fraud. Alas, though he saves her, he doesn't keep her; Taggert bravely remains behind when his brother's plane is too heavy to lift off. Truly, he's a tough guy to the end, when a caption reveals that letting her go is the "hardest battle he's ever fought."

Where's the hypocrisy, you ask? Well, admittedly, I don't know the entire story here, but assuming my presumption about Mick's origins are correct, and he regrets the initial murder that made him a fugitive, why would he so willingly and easily kill again? Even if the concept isn't true in this context, oftentimes the tough guy laments an accidental death when conversely he is too eager to act as judge, jury, and executioner toward his own enemies. While such wanton violence is an accepted staple in pulp fiction like The Fist of God, I'm merely confused by the ambiguity of morality on the part of our supposed hero. In the end, Taggert's capture betrays a touch of tragedy, as if the good guy should get to ride into the sunset, but if this guy's truly a hero, why shouldn't he boldly face the consequences of his actions, however just? Unfortunately, social justice isn't always the equivalent to the letter of the law. Perhaps the toughest part about being a tough guy is the tough decisions they have to make.

In this issue's letters column, writer R.A. Jones highlights a negative review of The Fist of God, and while I find its analysis to be a bit too critical, I did appreciate its observation of the unnecessary narration of nearly every scene -- heck, nearly every panel. The bold sequence in which Mick swings in to save the girl via a chandelier's rope (yes, like right out of an old movie) is neutered by the literal lingual play by play in each panel. The action clearly spoke for itself and the captions just took up space. In fact, the lofty narration struck me as indicative of a writer that couldn't let his creation go, that needed some fingerprint in every aspect of the storytelling process . . . like a mother with empty nest syndrome. Sometimes, the kid needs to learn those lessons on his own, or, in this case, sometimes the artists can cut their storytelling chops on a few silent panels, if you let them. Is Taggert the Fist of God so much as Jones is holding on to this work white-knuckled or what?

Generally, The Fist of God #4 was an enjoyable issue with shades of Indiana Jones adventure. While I was reminded of previously reviewed comics through this issue's logistics, the story stood on its own as entertaining, and further Burcham's art was very well developed in many scenes, evoking similarities to the classic Marvel masters like Romita, Sr. or Buscema. I'd recommend it, but I'd also warn potential readers to remember the big picture. When God makes a fist, you better believe it'll pack a wallop.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac #6

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac #6, March 2003, SLG Publishing
by Jhonen Vasquez

I've always been frustrated with the fact that mainstream beliefs in the afterlife only offer two options: heaven, or hell. Real life isn't as black and white, rife with choices and opportunities that present a multitude of subjective consequences, so why would the afterlife be so condensed? The implication is that death makes things easier. Of course, we'll never really know until it's too late.

Unless you're Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

In this issue, Johnny is dead and inexplicably ends up in heaven, where he's treated to a guided tour of the paradise. Interestingly, whereas most would assume that the heavenbound would exude excitement, Johnny discovers a proverbial parking lot of complacency, of people just sitting, just staring. His guide (on loan labor from hell) assures him that these faithful are content, perhaps for the first time in their lives, as they've finally achieved an existence void of nagging desires and needs. Sure, they've achieved a "super-human" status, but ironically they feel no urge to use these powers. They're happy enough. Unfortunately, just by virtue of being in heaven, Johnny has these powers, too, and he instigates a head-exploding contest that rouses the dead if only for some moments. When God fails to answer Johnny's introspective questions, the dissatisfied homicidal maniac plummets to hell . . .

Where he's even more dissatisfied. The hellbent are in torment, but thanks to licking flames, rather the constant impression that they are being watched, and that they should look good. Further, hell is an ever-developing metropolis where the discontentment of mankind is in action; whole city blocks are abandoned and others are unnaturally congested. The devil offers Johnny some insight into his existence but promptly sends him back to life; apparently, it wasn't Johnny's time yet, and, after swinging by both options, such a time isn't much to look forward to either way.

I was surprised by how much I liked Vasquez's jagged little visuals. His page layouts seem intentional despite their cramped confinements, and while other artists that dabble in this kind of material often just surf their stream of consciousness, Johnny's creator has a direction, a method to all of this homicidal madness. Therein lies the potential of an otherwise mere "goth" book; while goth punks can enjoy its disturbed visuals and dark, quirky behavior, more casual readers like me can "get" its philosophical subtext. Vasquez tells his story in chapters, with weird little interludes that star characters reminiscent of Tim Burton's Oyster Boy book, and the breaks contribute to a suspenseful momentum that establishes the desired effect of interest. This could be a book for the ADD generation, tricking kids into investing in a larger story. While Johnny certainly isn't Dante, this issue told on a mythical scope that would help readers understand The Inferno more so than they might before the read.

Death is a mystery, especially to those that revel in it so, like homicidal maniacs. You would think that guys like Johnny would be experts, that they would know where they're sending their victims. I don't know if this realization comforts me . . . or scares the hell out of me.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Raphael: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1

Raphael: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1, November 1987, Mirage Studios
by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird with Lavigne

I think my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fever has finally broken. With a week's worth of Turtle-related comic books under my belt, mostly titles inspired by the lean, green fighting machines' success, and this morning's midnight premiere, I've shelled out all of the enthusiasm my inner child can muster for this beloved franchise. Oh, I'm not over the Turtles, mind, and in fact I may see TMNT again soon, but today's issue, an appropriate follow-up to yesterday's review, is the sheer icing on the cake of this week's culminating theme. The Turtles came, saw, and conquered . . . again. Sure, my fever broke, but these guys will always be hot.

The "Turtles Tracks" column in this issue of Raphael #1 is practically prophetic, and pop culturally ironic, as Eastman and Laird announce their brand new association with Palladium Books, who, as the new agency in charge of their characters' licencing, had just secured an action figure deal with Playmates Toys and the production of an animated series through Murakami/Wolf/Swenson. Yes, this admittedly excited editorial is indeed the threshold into the ground floor of the Turtles' inevitable mainstream success . . . Could Eastman and Laird have anticipated that a feature film wasn't too far ahead? That their humble half-shell heroes would burst from the pages of their respected independent comics to become household names, a veritable voice for a new generation? That, twenty years later, hordes of people pushing thirty-years-old would excitedly line up at midnight to see their creations computer-animated on the silver screen? They'd be shell shocked.

Even if they did, this issue, which I was thrilled to find in a dollar box a month ago and have been cherishing for this very day, the opening day of the Turtles' triumphant return to the big screen, is the last gasp of their grim 'n gritty graphics, a pre-Cowabunga classic that, decades later, still captures and conveys the carefree attitude these creators infused into their cutting edge comics. Their prophetic introduction aside, this issue sets the stage for the very concepts that fuel TMNT lore and establishes the imbalance of Raphael's inherent rage. In fact, interestingly, the cover of this issue parallels the first and last pages of Raphael TMNT Movie Prequel #1 . . . Coincidence? Further, in the lead story, Raph pursues one Casey Jones, who the Turtle dubs a violent vigilante -- the very role he adopts in yesterday's read. Apparently, these concepts have been brewing behind those bandanna-shrouded eyes for years. Finally, they've come to fruition.

Yes, the lead story introduces Jones, and after a slugfest in the park, he and Raphael form an alliance that, in my opinion, is the beginning of one of the most beautiful friendships in comics. Although Casey is initially bewildered by Raph's peculiar appearance, their hot-headedness and unquenchable thirst for justice bind them together even more than the love Casey shares with April. By the end of this issue, when, in an Eastman exclusive story, Jones and Raph defeat an organized gang of bank robbers, the two are comparing war wounds back at the pad, two friends bound by a battlefield camaraderie to which even the other Turtles aren't privy. I'm grateful this relationship was preserved in the latest feature film incarnation of the franchise. It's grounding -- as the gang's human buddy, Casey is the guy we really want to be.

Incidentally, I've always preferred Eastman's pencils over Laird's. While Laird's interpretation of their half-shell heroes is perhaps the most classic, the most cited when comparing the characters' to their more modern designs, Eastman's seemed to stem from a Miller/Simonson school, utilizing thin ink lines, and over the top pulp drama to maximize even the silliest story's tension. This issue's back-up yarn is a perfect example, even more so because of the Daredevil posters hanging in Raphael's room. Apparently, he's a fan, too.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Raphael is my favorite of the Turtles. Although all of their bandannas were red in the beginning, as a kid, since red was my favorite color, I was drawn to Raph over the others, and I felt like the short range of his sai weapons must've meant that he was the most skilled (and, at the risk of spilling a spoiler, I think TMNT reveals that I was right). Alas, a little older and a little wiser now, I realize that, without the contrast of the other Turtles, I might not have realized how awesome Raph really is. Therein, I truly like them all. Further, in contrast to the other titles I've read this week, theirs is the only franchise that has stood the test of time. Even before the toys and cartoons, the parodies and spin-offs paled in comparison to the Eastman and Laird library. Michelangelo has said it before: they love being turtles . . . and we love them for it.

Supplemental notes: Check out yesterday's review re-posted at Geek in the City, and tomorrow, my review of the TMNT film. Further, this month's Comic Buyers' Guide features an excellent artist about the titles inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' initial success, some of which I read this week. Now get to reading!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

TMNT Raphael Movie Prequel #1

TMNT Raphael Movie Prequel #1, March 2007, Mirage Publishing
writer: Murphy
artist: Fernando Pinto
letterer: Erik Swanson
cover artist: Santiago Bou

I couldn't resist it. As soon as I saw it, my inner child tugged at my pant leg, begging me to buy it for him, and I couldn't resist. I even told myself, you already have an issue to review for A Comic A Day, one related to your week-long series about comics inspired by (and celebrating the big screen return of) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so forget it. Don't waste the $3.25. That's, like, thirteen comics from the quarter bins. You don't even believe in those movie tie-in issues. You resisted them for Batman Begins, for Superman Returns. You don't need this one, either. You don't need it.

Then I looked from the watering eyes of my inner child to the stone cold eyes of Rafael on the cover of TMNT Raphael Movie Prequel #1 and folded like a cheap suit. I mean, it's Raphael, the coolest turtle of them all! How could I say no . . .

The Ninja Turtles have an almost hypnotic hold on our generation, don't they? With three television series (yes, I could that weird live action series with the female turtle Venus), three live action feature films, and countless comics and action figures under their initialed belts, these heroes in a half-shell are arguably the most successful independently published comic book franchise to date, and as I've said before, their creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are our modern Seigel and Schuster, venturing into a shaky industry with an even shakier concept. The Turtles may have spawned an onslaught of gimmicky creator-driven projects since, with an emphasis on those books that have sought to mimic the Multi-Adjective Personified Animal motif, but nothing beats the original. Unlike real turtles, these lean green fighting machines were quick to capture the hearts of our generation.

That said, Raphael is the best one. No argument there, right? Ever since the infamous theme of their original cartoon series succinctly established each of the Turtles' personalities, I knew Raphael was destined to be my favorite. Remember: "Leonardo leads/Donatello does machines/Raphael is cool but crude/Michaelangelo is a party dude?" Raph is the only Turtles with a potentially negative intonation in his description -- "cool BUT crude," like its a bad thing. He's the bad boy, even emphasized after the lyric by his snide comment, "Gimme a break!" His shell has a razor edge, man! Forget those sais, 'cause you need to watch out for that razor sharp wit! As a young geek, I took some comfort in the fact that I liked the "cool" one, and I no doubt developed my defensive sarcasm thanks in part to Raphael's "crudeness." The jocks can have Michelangelo. He's going to live with Splinter 'til he's thirty.

TMNT Raphael Movie Prequel is the first of five prequel issues and establishes that the half-shell heroes are about to spend a year apart, as Splinter decides to send Leonardo on a pilgrimage around the world. Don and Mike are excited for their brother but Raph thinks the "daddy's boy" is a bit overrated, as Leo seems to prefer battling Triceratons from outer space over the muggers from their very neighborhood. (The inclusion of Triceratons is a much appreciated effort to connect this incarnation of the Turtles with Eastman and Laird's original volumes.) So, Raphael begins a vigil over Harlem and (Warning! Spoilers ahead!) in fact meets a retired hero that used to do the same. The old man takes Raph in his confidence if only for a conversation, because the poor guy is robbed and shot just minutes after Raph splits. The dying hero bequeaths his hidden outfit and equipment to the Turtle, inadvertently answering Raphael's introspective inquiry about how he can help his downtrodden neighborhood. At the end of this issue, although Raphael doesn't don the outfit, he and Casey Jones (Yes!) are standing atop a roof, ready to leap into action. I presume the film will fill in the rest.

Interestingly, TMNT didn't reboot the Turtles franchise for a new generation, as floundering big screen adaptations have tended to do lately (i.e. Batman, Bond, potentially Star Trek), but instead took the Superman Returns approach, letting the passage of time work in its favor, letting the character marinate in their own maturity and expanded audience potential. Although I doubt we'll see Triceratons in the movie, their very presence in a movie prequel comic implies that everything that came before is in play now, that the brothers' split is the natural step to all that pre-established continuity. I agree. The brothers' inevitable reunion, and the sheer cutting edge medium of their CGI-animated incarnations, will be enough to rope in the kids that only know the Turtles from Hot Topic T-shirts. Further, Fernando Pinto's art combines the campy expressiveness of the cartoon series with the gritty violence of the original comic books, while adding his own touch of illustrative class, creating a modern synthesis that appeals to old and new school alike. The Turtles have actually stood the test of time, the veritable onslaught of fictional fads that could've ruined their chemistry forever. Yeah, living with a shell makes you a little durable, I guess.

So, do I regret the purchase? Actually, yes. I regret purchasing TMNT Raphael Movie Prequel because now I'll have to buy the other five issues. (The fifth issue is reserved for either April or Splinter, I presume.) I'll make my inner child take out the trash and earn it. I know he will. Anybody that can be that faithful to a franchise is bound to be rewarded . . . in this case, the reward is the viability of the franchise itself. Long live Turtle Power!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Samurai Squirrel #2

Samurai Squirrel #2, 1987, Spotlight Comics
writer/penciller: Kelley Jarvis
inkers: Brian Waters & Tom Ahearn
letterer: Kurt Hathaway
consulting editor: Neil Hansen
managing editor: Jim Main
editor/publisher: Richard Maurizio

Despite their similar titles, Samurai Squirrel is not related to yesterday's Samurai Penguin. In fact, each of the comics I've read in celebration of the forthcoming TMNT release have been sequentially establishing the true potential of the Turtles' lineage. Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters was simply unoriginal parody, while the aforementioned Samurai Penguin told a story all its own, yet retained a satirical subtext that prevented it from achieving its own merit, particularly when one of the penguin characters broke the fourth wall and talked to the readers for the sake of a static gag. Samurai Squirrel actually abandons all of this baggage by positioning itself on another world -- radioactive origins and obligatory relationships with humans simply aren't necessary. Indeed, this samurai is scurrying up his own tree.

In this second issue, the Samurai Squirrel, an albino rodent known as Nato-San, has ventured into the lair of the giant spider Silverback to rescue a captured baby bird. The "heroic nut-eater" defeats the arachnid and returns the birdling safely in exchange for aerial transportation to the City of Sorrow, Nato's next stop in his quest to avenge his brother's death. There, a restaurant owner laments that his daughter could be kidnapped if he cannot pay the taxes demanded by the local mob, the same fiends that may have killed Nato's brother. The Samurai Squirrel agrees to help, which betrays an interesting theme throughout this issue. If our hero's journey toward revenge is frequently interrupted by the dire circumstances of the common man, er, animal, he may never achieve satisfaction, despite his unrivaled ability to aid others facing similar tragedies. Truly, such strife isn't expected of a story starring a bunch of talking animals.

Indeed, creator Kelley Jarvis appears to utilize this genre to its utmost, telling a coming of age allegory about life and death, revenge and destiny. Although I understand that this chapter was primarily transitional, from the establishment of her characters and their challenges to the climax of her first story arc, I appreciated its sheer momentum; Nato-San is rarely in one place for very long, and, further, his journey reveals the wonder of his mysterious world. Despite the seriousness of Nato's mission, Jarvis establishes a true sense of innocence, and while her illustrations aren't visually overwhelming, the raw confidence of her art reveals what a Ninja Turtles spin-off would feel like as an unashamed fantasy. This issue is as much about nature as it is a natural leap from what Eastman and Laird offered in their original gritty urban fairy tale.

However, and interestingly, both Samurai Penguin and Squirrel, while retaining the "martial arts animal" motif, abandoned the group dynamic/brotherly banter that made the Turtles so accessible by all. Even kids "too cool for comics" dug Michelangelo's athletic edge and love for pizza! Like a true samurai, this squirrel is in it alone, thus readers have only one opportunity to connect with him on any meaningful level. Perhaps this is why Jarvis puts her hero in the path of needy civilians, to assert an availability to all. Alas, the test of time has revealed the true success, or lack thereof, of these efforts. Still, at least the Samurai Squirrel can proudly claim that he was the sole master of his destiny, with a self-sufficiency that honored his masters and bested his peers. A real ronin rodent, whose story was simply too tough a nut to crack.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Samurai Penguin #3

Samurai Penguin #3, 1987, Slave Labor Graphics
writer: Dan Vado
artist: Mark Buck

This may be the year of the teen-aged mutant ninja turtle, but 2006 was definitely the year of the penguin, with an abnormal series of feature films dedicated to the drama and/or adventure of penguin culture. Adorned in their perpetual tuxedos, penguins have always been fascinating creatures, birds but ironically grounded, residing in a part of the planet most life couldn't endure. They're natural protagonists as both the subject of wildlife study and the foil of fiction, and Samurai Penguin bottles all of that potential into a surprisingly entertaining story. If anything, originally published in 1987, this series was ahead of its time in the penguin popularity department!

This third issue features a group of Arabian soldiers lost in the South Pole that have decided to feast on the local penguin population to survive. Unfortunately for them, the local penguin population is protected by a peculiar brand of warrior, namely the Penguin Samurai, who attacks the group individually and surreptitiously, baiting and defeating the Arabians' leader just in time for American reinforcements to rescue yet arrest them. Although the penguins are personified and talk openly, the humans are oblivious to their intelligence, and, interestingly, much of this issue is dedicated to the ignorance and foolishness of these desperate soldiers, both Arabian and American. While the Samurai Penguin defeats them physically, writer Dan Vado exposes them satirically, producing a comprehensively desired result.

In fact, Vado and artist Mark Buck offer a caricature of President Reagan that would've betrayed inspiration from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but I wonder if Samurai Penguin #3 wasn't published too soon to benefit from that legendary series' influence. I often resist researching any given issue's origins before posting these reviews, so with no month offered before this issue's 1987 copyright, it's possible that the use of the Gipper is an example of great minds thinking alike, or evidence that Reagan's presidency was so pop culturally palpable that artists couldn't resist incorporating him into their stories. Either way, his cameo in this tale is our entry point into its relevance, and, coupled with the contrasting bravado and insecurities of the American officials, establishes a light-hearted political commentary that adds a richness to an otherwise simple parody book.

The artwork of Mark Buck deserves some specific attention, as well, as his confidence with and mastery of the varied ink line adds a dimension to these pages that effectively saves them from their own muddied grayscale. Again, the use of certain techniques convey an influence from the Miller school of drawing -- i.e. "the floating nostrils," as I call them -- but the observation may simply expose an oversensitivity on my part to the natural artistic inclinations of that era. In one panel, Buck demonstrates perfect expressive caricature, in another, amusingly exaggerated cartooning, which speaks to this issue's balance of humanity and personified nature. While much of this issue boasts a satirical tone, Buck obviously takes his work seriously . . . thus, new readers like me do, too.

Interestingly, in the letter column, Samurai Penguin #3 continues a "four adjective and a noun name that comic contest," the very premise that inspired this string of reviews before the release of TMNT this Friday. Conversely, Samurai Penguin doesn't fall under these strict guidelines, because, while it marries a specific genre of fiction to an animal character, it doesn't bother with an unnecessarily long descriptive title. It could have, since the Samurai Penguin's friends are goofy little arctic fowls (dubbed a "Greek chorus" by letter writer/Incredible Hulk scribe Peter David), but the creators chose to emphasize their concept's strengths. Samurai skill. And a penguin. In so doing, their relationship with the Turtles ends and the title's own identity begins.

Perhaps no one year can be attributed to the penguin. Perhaps we've been living in the era of penguins all this time, and Samurai Penguin has just been on the ground floor on this remarkable animals' seemingly endless celebration. At least the penguins are always dressed for it.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters: The Lost Treasures #1

Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters: The Lost Treasures #1, 1993, Parody Press
contributors: Mark Lewis, Mark Martin, Kevin Harville, Bryan Robles, Don Chin, Parsonavich

This year has been and yet still promises to be a rewarding one for those of us who embraced comic books in the late '80s and early '90s. Ghost Rider, Silver Surfer, and Venom have jumped from those old memorable issues we read over and over again as kids to become big screen phenomena, and along with the less mainstream 300, have been embraced as household pop culture icons. However, while these characters are both physically and intrinsically appealing to a new, wider audience, everyone can look forward to another comic book film adaptation with level, premeditated enthusiasm -- you don't have to be long term collector to get excited by those four letters: T. M. N. T.

Yes, the heroes in a half-shell haven't swung onto the big screen in over a decade (although many will attest that their last effort was forgettable, anyway), and although their return is credited to another combination of letters -- CGI -- the box office can rest assured that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will attract a multi-generational audience once again. I mean, the Turtles have successfully maintained an audience of young and mature fans alike for years, not to mention both geeks, with their sci-fi flare, and jocks, with their "Cowabunga, dude!" war cry. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are the Simon and Schuster of our generation; the chemistry of their creation and its readership sparked a franchise with timeless potential. Truly, the Turtles aren't returning to the big screen as much as they're simply taking it back.

That said, since the Turtles' debut in the early '80s, a legion of imitators have swarmed the indie comic book scene in an attempt to capitalize on the multiple-adjectives-meets-personified-animal genre. A Comic A Day has dabbled in these efforts before, i.e. Fish Police and Space Beaver, but with the anticipated release of TMNT this Friday, I've decided that this week would be an excellent opportunity to dive into the trend flippers first, to examine why these sophomore projects didn't boast the same mass market success as the Foot Clan kicking original. Every review this week will star an adjective-meets-animal title (and in fact, two of these books will share the same adjective), culminating in an original Ninja Turtles issue I've been patiently harboring just for this occasion. Never let it be said that A Comic A Day doesn't try to achieve some practicality in all of this madness.

Needless to say, today's title is by far the most derivative, if not completely plagiarist in its premise. Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters are the apparent brainchild of Don Chin, who, in this issue's introduction, claims that he "came up with [the Hamsters] during a biology class." One of the "lost treasures" in this very book reveals Chin's creative process, which, as far as I can tell, consists of tweaking the titles of popular comic books to tout some Mad Magazine like parody appeal . . . except Mad Magazine is funny. (Okay, I confess that I chuckled at the idea of MSG Agents, a riff on DNAgents, but phone-ins like "Geriatric Glowing Gas-pumping Geckos" is merely an exercise in thesaurus-based alliteration.) While the Turtles are named after artists, a seeming touch of class to Eastman and Laird's otherwise dark urban tales, the Hamsters are named after action stars -- Chuck, Clint, Bruce, and Jackie -- a completely effortless move on Chin's part. I suppose my opinion is pretty palpable here; although this title can hide under the imprint Parody Press, the lack of imagination that permeates from this title isn't a parody but actually the piggybacking of another franchise's success. Therein, the comparison to Mad is unjust, because while Mad uses culturally common images on its covers, the magazine itself has retained an individual identity that distinguishes it from the material it satirizes.

Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters is as creative as my latest comic book: Plagiarist Piggybacking Parody-Pushing Publishers. Their names are Stan, Jack, Jim, and Rob. What do you think?

Although I didn't care for the very premise of this issue, I must confess a fondness for the cover artist, Mark Lewis, who not only drew this anthology's first installment but also signed this copy I've acquired, personalizing it to a Lyle, to whom he wishes "all the best (really!!)." I wonder why someone would abandon this issue to a quarter box; despite its derivative content, Mark Lewis is the issue's saving grace. The cover is well rendered, the Hamsters appearing as lovable cartoon characters that look more from the realm of Bucky O'Hare than the deformed creatures that star in this ish's other stories. In his two-page contribution, Lewis draws Chin stuck at the drawing board, until he concocts "Big Name Artists Draw the Hamsters!" What ensues is a series of panels capturing the Hamsters in the style of Kirby, Miller, Liefeld, Barks, Moebius, Dave Stevens, Keith Giffen, and Picasso (?), many of whom are personal favorites of mine. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Hey, isn't that exactly what you disliked about this title in the first place?" Indeed, but firstly, Lewis has the talent to recreate all of those styles effectively, and further, I assume his strip is an equally slighted jab at Chin himself. The implication is that the only idea the guy can muster is to ride the coat tails of someone else. Yes, these pages represent everything I don't like about this issue, but that's why I like them so much.

Surely, the rest of this issue isn't even worth reviewing. While some moments capture the raw spirit of the indie comics scene, the title as a whole is ultimately deflated. Don't get me wrong; I like good allegorical parody, but Chin's punchlines are one panel wonders. He actually has room and potential to do something with these characters, to use his sequential storytelling style to coin original concepts, using these rodents to only occasionally parody the flaws and exaggerations of the Turtles' mythos . . . but he simply chooses otherwise. Further, his artist clutters the page with unnecessary cross-hatching and line width, creating a dense layout that assaults the eyes as quickly as the writers' overdone dialogue. Overall, this issue is an excellent example of how less can be more.

Needless to say, Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters was a disappointing start to this week's TMNT celebration. From what I remember of Fish Police and Space Beaver, their similarities with the Turtles ended with their obscure titles; their creators sought to capitalize on the trend while contributing something of their own. Unfortunately, the Hamsters have little to contribute. While I hope the rest of this week will go uphill, any residual frustration is oddly comforting in that it assures the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' place as a successful franchise and a great group of characters. Any generation of readers and viewers are lucky to have the Turtles around . . . we were just lucky enough to get in on the ground floor. Heck, some of us were so on the ground floor, we were in the sewer.

The Hamsters? They belong in the gutter.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Grrrl Squad #1

Grrrl Squad #1, March 1999, Amazing Aaron Productions
writers: Robert Brewer & Aaron Warner
artist: Aaron Warner
grayscaling: David F. Kleeberger

What characterises the empowered woman? Confident sexuality and assertive professionalism? High moral standards and determined initiative? Watch The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll and tell me if that's the empowered woman. Listen to the understandably embittered rants Cindy Sheehan and tell me. For the first time, America has a serious contender for the first female President on deck and we still don't know what the empowered woman looks like . . . because if it looks like a Pussycat Doll, Hilary Clinton certainly is not it.

In Grrrl Squad, the crew at Amazing Aaron Productions makes an offering we should consider -- one that combines all of the real world archetypes I've mentioned. It's a valiant effort, if already a bit dated.

Mayhem is an agent of the Grrrl Squad (Guerrilla Reconnaissance, Rescue, and Retaliation Legion), locked in a seemingly endless feud against Lady Malice and her HYDRA-like henchmen. With their James Bond-like weapons expert and their impossibly multi-leveled diesel truck base, it's all an obvious SHIELD spoof, complete with the Head of the Grrrl Squad sporting an eye patch. Still, their top agent retains an identity all her own, flaunting a sexuality through her skin tight action suit, yet asserting some political significance in her role as secret ops specialist. This issue is sheer set-up, offering an opening act of action-oriented proportions (again, with that Bond-like explosive teaser), an establishment of the critical players, and a lead-in to the next issue entertainingly enough, but the momentum comes from Mayhem herself, so compelling a character that all scenes evolve around her in some way.

I suppose that's one thing all women have in common, from Presidential hopeful to Pussycat Doll: the world evolves around them.

As an independent publishing effort, I must confess, Grrrl Squad #1 reminds me of the first few comic books published by my own K.O. Comix, what with its full color cover and grayscale interiors. Aaron Warner's art get better with every page, although the some of the pages are a bit pixelated, an unfortunate side effect of the grayscaling process, I presume. The front and back covers reveal the true potential of Amazing Aaron comics -- his artwork is truly suited for and benefits from full color production. My only real criticism is that more doesn't happen in this issue -- while it's a great pitch for the series, I don't want concept. I want story. The first act lasted too long, and another subplot could really flesh out the book's depth . . . unless the focus is really exclusively intended for Mayhem only. Funny -- I would've benefited from these criticisms in K.O.'s early days, too.

So, Grrrl Squad #1 suggests that guns and Heli-Chevys make for an empowered woman. They certainly show off some power, that's for sure. Ultimately, and unfortunately for many indie publishing efforts like Amazing Aaron Productions, like a Pussycat Doll or Presidential candidate, the true test is staying power. The truly empowered woman is one that evokes the reaction, I'd like to see you again. For the Grrrl Squad? I'd call her.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Green Skull

The Green Skull, 1995, Known Associates Press
by Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm

In yesterday's post, I celebrated St. Patrick's Day by reviewing The Mask: The Hunt for Green October #1, likening the Mask's emerald hue to the inevitable envy one might feel at its ability to unleash its wearer's inhibitions. Just like most folks do on this sacred of Irish holidays. Today, with Known Associate Press' The Green Skull, I've observed a similar parallel; in his introduction, Joe Zabel explains his inspiration to draft a mystery about "filthy rich people." Yes, people with plenty of green. See, St. Patrick's Day is for everybody!

The green wealth in this issue is also its namesake. the green skull, in the possession of "the world's most paranoid billionaire," who promptly, mysteriously disappears from his own heavily locked and guarded bedroom. When author Raymond Fish is hired to chronicle the conundrum, he explains to his girlfriend Delphinia Morgan that he's solved the disappearance and to demonstrate quickly disappears himself. In the billionaire's underground cavern, the billionaire gets the drop on Fish and holds him hostage while Delphinia (dressed in a sexy cat suit for a masquerade party) recovers his green skull safely. Apparently, a secret society of fellow billionaires dubbed the March 14th Group (missed it by three days!) wants the deaths-head . . . and they get it from the helpless Delphinia. Fortunately, when they storm their caverns, Fish and the billionaire overcome them, then drown them. Although the green skull is lost, the group is no longer a threat, and I guess all live happily ever after.

Oh, and the billionaire obviously staged his own disappearance by constructing a hideaway compartment in his vault-like bedroom door, so that when folks opened it to check on him, he could slip through a trap door outside. Why the trap door wasn't just under his bed or something is too inane an inquiry, I guess, but the revelation made for a nice post-action wrap-up of this story.

Actually, this story was a pleasant read all the way around. I liked the creators' succinct, witty dialogue and brief, relevant snippets of characterization, and with the introduction explaining their intentions, the backdrop of vapid upper class narcissism was well played and even socially significant. The art was clean and fluid, as well, boasting an independent look touched with confidence and skill. Further, the extensive supplemental essay/letters section in the back of this issue reveals an insight into the industry and their form. These comprehensive extras solved any mystery of these creators' ability to contribute to the medium.

So, did Zabel and Dumm pull off a mystery about high society? Absolutely. What's more mysterious is how those folks celebrating St. Patrick's Day can spend so much green, despite their relatively mid to low society lifestyles? Let's see Zabel and Dumm tackle that one. Good luck.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Mask #6 (The Hunt for Green October #1 of 4)

The Mask #6 (The Hunt for Green October #1 of 4), July 1995, Dark Horse Comics
writer: Evan Dorkin
artist: Peter Gross
inking assistants: Barbara Schultz & Karen Platt
letterer: Pat Brosseau
colorist: Matt Webb
editors: Mike Richardson & Greg Vest

Let's be honest. Although this is only St. Patrick's Day Eve, because St. Patty's Day falls on a Saturday this year, celebrations have already begun. People are already chugging green beer and clogging the streets, having a grand old time I'm sure they'll regret in the morning . . . except for us geeks, who toil away on the Internet. So I read The Mask: The Hunt for Green October #1 to celebrate. At least I know I won't be throwing it up in the morning.

I can't explain the odd numbering sequence of this book. The cover boasts a #1, but the inside publication information opts for the description I offered above. It's the first installment of this arc, that's for sure, and that's all I care about.

Like many others, my only experience with the Mask is the Jim Carrey movie from over a decade ago, and while I wasn't blown away by the superhero slapstick (Mystery Men was funnier), the concept was intriguing enough to peak my interest -- not to mention the interests of America, thus warranting a second Mask film starring my favorite rapper Jamie Kennedy. Haven't seen that one, though. Irregardless, many casual views probably assume that the Mask mythos were fitted to match Carrey's exaggerated comedy performance. If this issue is any indication, Carrey's agility and enthusiasm merely made a Mask movie finally possible. It's really a chicken/egg dilemma.

Which doesn't affect my appreciation for this issue in the slightest. I like it. While the Mask may be perceived as a gloried special effect, unleashing an id most writers cannot justify in other genres or even with other characters, this issue asserts the Mask as a champion for social injustice. The latest wearer is a humble pawn shop keeper, who lost his wife and the illustrative use of his hands thanks to casino mogul Nelson Hathaway. His daughter is rendered mute by the trauma, and his struggle to make ends meet is only matched by his desperation to make her happy again. When someone pawns the mask and he, like the other weirdos that play dress up in their own home, puts it up to his face, chaos ensues, yet when the dust settles after a night on the town, we see some method to the Mask's madness. The Mask is indeed a hero. It's the means to that end that are suspect, is all!

This issue is masterfully illustrated, as well, which isn't a surprise considering the mainstream appeal this title adopted after its feature film namesake swept the box office. Dark Horse wouldn't put a dark horse on this one. Detailed background, expressive characters, and the successful synthesis of the supernatural and mundane secure a quality tale of the Mask.

I don't know why this arc is called "The Hunt for Green October," if it isn't just some Mad Magazine style parody. I mean, the mask is green . . . is that it? Green is an appropriate color for it anyway, as green represents both envy and fertility -- the blossoming of spring. The Mask elicits the raw growth of its wearer's inhibitions, while admittedly evoking a jealousy in those that behold its potential. Okay. I'm jealous. Who wouldn't want to just cut loose every once and a while, eh?

I guess that's what St. Patrick's Day is all about, nowadays. Putting on a mask and letting yourself loose on the town. You know, on second thought, I think I'll pass. I want to remember what I do tonight.