Monday, August 17, 2015

The Under Guides Graphic Novel Podcast Vol III

Prison Pit of the Earth-Pig

The Under Guides Graphic Novel Podcast - Prison Pit of the Earth-Pig

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The Ill Mac, Mister Joe Fixit and Diabolu Frank return after nearly five months with black & whitesploitation! Fantagraphics Books represent at 0:38 with Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit, an adults-only sci-fi gorehound wrestling original graphic novel series, currently at five volumes with an animated adaptation of the first. Then at 22:17, Frank offers a second installment of our "Swords of Cerebus" ongoing feature, a look at the seminal Canadian barbarian aardvark self-published series that published 300 regular issues between 1977-2004, taken six at a time. Discussing the encroaching craziness of once-revered creator Dave Sim with Mac leads us to a tangent at 28:54 tracing the similar trajectory of Frank Miller from Sin City to Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman, Holy Terror and the upcoming The Master Race. 34:29 brings a theme song to our mail segment, which is so heavy with shop talk between Joe & Frank that it takes up most of the back half of the hour. It is within your power to join the conversation with our hosts:

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Under Guides Graphic Novel Podcast Vol II

Bedlam before the Swords of Cerebus

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Mister Joe Fixit and Diabolu Frank (with about fifteen seconds worth of Mac in various cameos) return to pimp four color fixes set off from the roads most traveled. This episode begins with a look primarily at the Image Comics series Bedlam with numerous Nick Spencer-related tangents such as Morning Glories and Superior Foes of Spider-Man beginning at the one minute mark. Brian Apodaca of the small press comic Zombie Outlaw drops by for a very brief plug thirteen minutes in. Then the boys go on an ADHD comics overview rapidly referencing comics from Vertigo, Image, Valiant, Marvel, Dynamite, Avatar, Epic, Dark Horse & Wildstorm, under such writers as Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Pat Mills, Jim Shooter, David Lapham & Si Spurrier. From ten seconds 'til 23 minutes, we begin our coverage of the earliest issues of Dave Sim's watershed independent comic epic Cerebus, part of a planned ongoing examination of the single longest lasting creator owned series in the history of North American comics. 32:14 brings our readin' & respondin' to y'r writin' on 'r prior podcastin'. [youtube] As you can tell, we love a fierce conversation and a pretty picture, so why don't you socialize with us, either by leaving a comment on this page or...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Under Guides Graphic Novel Podcast Vol I

Buying Image Comics on Minimum Wage

The Under Guides Graphic Novel Podcast - Buying Image Comics on Minimum Wage
Three decades long fans offer their views on "indie" comic books, which basically encompasses everything without a Marvel or DC logo. Join Diabolu Frank, Mister Joe Fixit and the Ill Mac "Illegal Machine" as they toss through titles from Image, Valiant, Dark Horse, First, Fantagraphics, IDW, Epic, Pacific, Slave Labor Graphics, Vertigo, Drawn & Quarterly, Avatar... basically everything in the shadow of the so-called "Big Two."

Kicking it 1990s style for the debut episode as we talk the launch of Image Comics, with an emphasis on early and recent material from Todd McFarlane's Spawn, Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, and Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon. Then, our spotlight original graphic novel is Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage Book One from 1995 for Fantagraphics Books, recently reprinted in the large Image Comics collection Maximum Minimum Wage. Also, a brief nod toward Love and Rockets.

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As you can tell, we love a fierce conversation and a pretty picture, so why don't you socialize with us, either by leaving a comment on this page or...

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Frank Review of "The Girl's Guide to Depravity" Season 2 (2013)

The Short Version? Sex. City Optional.
What Is It? Comedy-Drama
Who Is In It? Nobody you know.
Should I See It? Maybe.

Like most scripted original cable softcore series, The Girl's Guide to Depravity has a weird, sketchy history. Originally running from late February through May of 2012, the show stayed off the schedule for sixteen months, only to return with a rejiggered cast/sets/etc. What were the adventures of a couple of under-thirty professional women and best friends following the dating advice of the exalted but rarely seen Sienna switches to a trio that shuffles off the former co-lead in the season premiere. The show used to go out of its way to tell viewers it was set and filmed in Chicago, but it looks like Bucharest, Romania is now its primary locale. Basically, the series must have worked well enough to manage an extension, but not so well as to evade sweeping changes. How well does that work out? Let's see...

  1. "The Girl On Girl Rule": Since last season, Rebecca Blumhagen has co-starred with Parker Lewis Can't Lose in a straight to video sci-fi thriller, and has in the pipeline a romantic comedy with Jaimie Kennedy and fourth lead in a Lily Tomlin vehicle. That's positively stellar compared to the currently unemployed actress Sally Golan, which bums me out. Sam may have gotten the web hits for her occasional awkward reverse-jailbait shagging, but Lizzie was the salvation of most episodes with her distinctive looks and steadier delivery of the goods. Lizzie may have been the less likable "bitch" character, but she was also the determined, motivated one who could cycle through boy toys and had a "story engine" through her legal career to create plots. Sam is the relationship girl, who is still in a relationship with the relationship guy from last season. All of Sam's plots last season were about her desperation to land a man, and as the meek "relatable" one, her carrying the show on her own spells trouble.

    The season premiere is extremely clunky, trying to pull off the effects and overall vibe of the series debut on a plainly smaller budget with two seeming Cousin Olivers wedged in. However, the soundtrack for the musical montage is good, and it soon becomes apparent that John Doggett and Monica Reyes might end up being Steve Urkels. Instead of bringing back Dirty Hot Guy, some French dude is introduced and incites Lizzie's exit. Sam has boring, badly scripted old people sex with the returning Jason (Jesse Liebman.) With the reliably porny neighbor Riley Steele quietly written out, the show desperately needed new blood. Playing to extremes, Tessa Harnetiaux's Megan is vastly more pathetic and clueless than season 1 Sam, while Megan Barrick's Jenna overshoots Lizzie, aiming for Sienna-level calculated depravity. That actually makes more sense for a series based on a tongue-in-cheek blog intended to guide young women in the ways of debauchery and revenge. Veteran writer Chloe Danger and director Alex Merkin maintain the tone of the first season, and once the messy business of the retooling is dispensed with, one hopes the cavorting shenanigans will see an uptick.

  2. The Do Me Rule: You have to give the show credit for having much greater conviction in its characters and stories than most Skinemax fare. Lizzie only has a cameo, but her presence (or lack thereof) still permeates every scene involving Sam and/or Jason. It matters that she was there and is now gone, so I suspect the producers want to keep the door open. I understand Sally Golan is an event planner and daughter of a billionaire, so this might all be on her.

    Moving on, the men appearing on this show have gotten sleazier, and therefore offer more excuses for guiltless abuse, as opposed to the more average-to-nebbish fellows last season. Time is being taken to organically insert the new characters into the ongoing narrative, which is appreciated. God, the new girls are white though. Like, deep European forest white where communism prevented immigration and commingling of the races white. It's also unfortunate that on-screen texting plays a major part in scenes, but the effects are so poorly executed as to be illegible. It's the first program I know of to recreate the tedium of sidelining a conversation to wait for your friend to finish playing with her phone.

  3. The Bar Sex Rule: I'm not sure the geeks or anyone else have won when even softcore shows start integrating heavy continuity into their narratives. There's callbacks to previous episodes this season, one from last season, and developing subplots. I'm not sure all this fucking soap opera is good for my fucking cable porn. Anyway, it's a nice enough episode, where the Barney Stimple type Dean (Nick Clark) gets a sort of comeuppance, but not before a decent few minutes of boning. The new trio of leads finally come together, not entirely organically, but it's progress.

    Megan should be my type, but as written, she's horrible. She hooks up with a guy who falls on the wrong side of believable metrosexuality while both praise a horrendous eurotrash dance song as "genius." I'm hating these two, and I have no faith in his having an actual boner. Speaking of boners, way to wait until the end of episode three to alleviate the main impediment of the series moving forward.

  4. The Morning After Rule: Oh, dear, God. Who wants lots of slow moving relationship stuff in their softcore? How about a show where there are two job locations spotlighting hateful dragon ladies, and the viewer sides with them over the spineless pseudosympathetic primary characters? Oh, and the hardbodies that get a sex scene with potential in the first half peter out quickly with lots of guilt attached. Yay? Rebecca Blumhagen has been co-writing these episodes, and that perhaps needs to stop.

    This show feels like it's in damage control mode. Lizzie keeps phoning (or in this case, Skyping) in cameos to keep her presence felt. Rachel Ward (Chasty Ballesteros) is a newer character whose entire personality is formed out of Lizzie's working relationship with Jason and other "lesser" men. Megan is a more pathetic overacted spare Samantha, who has herself mostly drifted aimlessly. Jenna, who was already a combination of Lizzie and Sienna, has her screen time given to Rachel as she (barely) appears as gullible and passive while her boyfriend is off doing what he does. In the midst of all this, Sam's younger brother Charlie (Blake Lowell) moves in. Why the fuck are there so many new redundant characters crowding the air out of the room? If women are writing these shows, why isn't there more diversity in the personalities of the female characters? In a show with "depravity" in the goddamned title, why is everyone moping and muddling through boring couplings?

  5. The Get Under Another Rule: I started watching episodes from the first and second seasons consecutively, pitting them against one another, with the first season winning consistently. However, "he Bitch Rule" was one of the least appealing episodes of the first run, so there's a chance for a shake-up here.

    Not off to a good start, though. Jenna seemed like she was going to be the crazy cool vindictive "Girl," but she settled back into boring couples sex with her cheating longtime boyfriend Ben, making her the wrong kind of sucker for this type of program. Speaking of dull partners, Sam and Jason are still dealing with their issues, though I prefer Jason's handling. Megan continues to be borderline disturbing and squicky. It's up to newly introduced supporting characters Rachel, Charlie, Dean, and Jason's lesbian ex Amy (Nicole Rodenburg) to keep the show afloat. The unconvincing trio of girlfriends sure aren't making it happen. The episode ultimately pulls ahead of the pack through some peculiar but amusing creative choices and some of the most interesting sex scenes of the season late in the show.

  6. The Fuck Yes Rule: Bi-seasonal synchronization is proving detrimental to my viewing pleasure, as this episode continues the upward trajectory from last time, but I watched it after seeing "The Magic Pussy Rule," one of the best episodes of the entire series. Sally Golan and Rebecca Blumhagen had a rare, sincere chemistry by softcore standards that clearly cannot by replicated. The producers are wisely pushing the show to become more of an ensemble, here spotlighting Amy in only her second show appearance. I don't recall if we've seen any girl-girl action previously on this series, and while the sex scene doesn't quite click, I respect the handling of the new lesbian elements. I just wish the attempts at comedy landed, like, almost ever. There's some needed (though predictable) story progression, so that's a good thing.

  7. The Hos Before Bros Rule: The show appears to finally be settling after the upheaval of the first half of the season, but what it's settling for is more in line with an upscale Life on Top or Co-Ed Confidential than the low rent Sex & the City of season 1. There are a lot more characters offering greater opportunities and varieties for sex scenes, but they're all sub-sitcom shallow, though there still seems to be effort in the writing/acting/production values above the typical Skinemax fare. On the other hand, the illogical convolutions necessary to get out of them clothes seem like an awful lot of work when fellow network fare embraces a more laissez-faire (porny) attitude. Meanwhile the sex doesn't benefit from the added neurosis and dubious characterization. I mean HBO's Girls is one of the least sexy and most depressing things on TV, so having Sam's current beau be an Adam Driver cosplayer is a bit of a turn-off. It would almost be an improvement to return to the nondescript himbos she cycled through before Jason.

  8. The Basic Instincts Rule: This episode addresses some subplots, and by that I mean stuff that has gotten mentioned here and there progressed a smidge in a single story, not that there's some overarching narrative coming to fruition. This is a checklist of plot points on an email circulating the writing staff's mailing group, not Saucy Seinfeld. Probably the best possible coupling among the new characters was dismissed as a one-off, but it's not like we need another static relationship, and it's not like anyone cares about these people. In a nod to progress, the lesbian gets scenes of development in her coupling, but no sex, and her ambivalence counters her initial depiction as a free spirit injecting some pizzazz into the show. Perceptive Bear has hooked up with the only other gay guy on the show, Tyler the barkeep, but I'll allow it because he's the best character on the show whose name I can't recall, so he needs more screen time. I do remember Dean's name now though, because he kept appearing, even though he's a stereotypical womanizer whose main purpose is to aggravate the increasingly unsympathetic and uncharismatic Sam while delivering the eye candy for his nigh-episodic schtooping sessions (by which I mean he's done the deed in many episodes, not that his scenes make you want to hit the fast-forward button from tedium, like sex addict Ben's.) Something's gone terribly wrong when the "plucky" female lead is waging a workplace war against a slimy heel, and you don't know if you should root for her, because at least the cad isn't a total boor.

  9. The Wingwoman Rule: Blair! Perceptive Bear is Blair. It even rhymes. Oh, and Amy is the lesbian. I thought it was kind of dehumanizing to just call her the lesbian. Yes, she's several episodes into a storyline about her anxiety over moving in with a girl she's only known a few weeks that takes up approximately 90 seconds per episode, and her only other appearances have been as a barmaid serving her "friends" with minimal dialogue, and she's had two instances of showing her tits for totally arbitrary reasons plus one tepid love scene, so all signs point to her being a stereotypical committee inclusion instead a character any of the writers want to deal with, but that's no excuse to define her solely by her sexual preference. She's Amy the Token Lesbian. I can probably remember that.

    What was this episode about? Oh yeah-- after my shit talking, the show really is advancing a variety of established storylines seemingly toward a resolution by season's end. Ben struggles with his sex addiction while Jenna stands way too firmly behind him. Megan might actually be formulating some sort of personality as she and Charlie prove less casual than either thought. Sam's passivity has been falling away between her conflicted relations with Jason and not-Adam Driver, but more so because of her professional and personal rivalry with Dean combined with the stress of her girlfriends' needs. Sam could no longer carry the show as Sam, so she's filling the personality and motivational vacuum left by Lizzie. Blumhagen can't carry it off as well as Golan did by half, but it's better than Sam continuing to float along. There's a couple of sex scenes if I recall correctly-- no wait, three. They're all kind of fucked and unappealing, but they come somewhat naturally from the stories. But, umm, what I said about lowlife Dean being a better character than Sam this season? Developments here embolden that dicey proposition. Sam is behind the most depraved initiative of the show's history, but it's really not cool, y'know'wa'a'mean?

  10. The Breakup Sex Rule: Holy shit, this show is becoming zany! Zany is good. It's fun and bubbly and entertains during the refractory period. The writers are also carrying their storylines along, with continuity and complications that keep things interesting. One problem I had with the first season was its "you can watch any episode in any order without it mattering much" nature, which is fine if you're just doing crappy softcore, but nobody writes reviews for that stuff that don't involve a picture scale of various stages of penile erection as its primary critical measure. They still need to figure out what to do with The Lesbian Amy though, because her dull story isn't going anywhere and feels like an intrusion on the better material surrounding it. Also, since this season has been at least partially defined by my increasing dislike of Sam, I'll add that she has another sex scene that is practically interchangeable with any other Sam sex scene throughout the series. It's funny, as Megan started out as entirely pathetic, but has worked her way up to replacing season one Sam, except Megan's sex scenes are much more diverse in practice and partners. Plus, Sam cockblocked Megan and Charlie, which was a better pairing than any other in the series. Megan's become a better Sam than Sam, while Sam's a much worse Lizzie, so I'm at the point where the character could be jettisoned and it would only improve the show.

  11. The Back Door Rule: Hannah Fierman's Pill Pusher Patty was great in the first season, so I resented Christina Collard's replacement Pill Pusher Penni, but she ended up in five times as many episodes. That's bound to wear you down if the actor is any good at all, so while I miss Patty's intensity and near psychic intuition, Penni's bizarre behavior and chemistry with Tyler won me over. Sam and Ryan's screwball romcom plot makes me not hate both those characters. I don't know why they saved all the good music for later episodes, but I really enjoy the soul and jazz numbers that enhance the lovemaking and even comedy bits. Rachel and Jason remain among my favorite characters, though I was bummed that this was easily Chasty Ballesteros' worst material of the season, and hope that was an aberration. Regardless, I'm liking the series again, and now that it's got so many decent characters to work with, I'm hopeful a third season wouldn't be as disrupted by a single actor's departure as this one.

  12. The Breaking and Entering Rule: Okay, it's taken me, like, a year to finish watching this season and do the write-ups. I even reread my season one review, and I'm pretty sure I never credited Sam's current love interest Ryan (Jesse Pepe) or that scene stealing Perceptive Bear Blair (Jeff Takacs.) Feels good to make that happen. While I haven't been super diligent or anything, it seems like Chloe Danger wrote most of the season, and Alex Merkin directed much of it, through good and bad. I did credit The Lesbian Amy (Nicole Rodenburg,) who has been resigned to being a sounding board for Sam and receiving only one sex scene half a season ago. That character was treated shabbily, and her wretched, exasperatingly padded non-narrative blessedly resolves. Rachel's sex scenes are half as good with Jason as with anyone else, but at least they're still solid enough, and the one in this episode has an especially nice song playing over it. I even tried to Google it up through the lyrics, which is more effort than I usually expend on these reviews. Jenna turned out to be a total snooze of a character, so I'd hate to see the commendable sleaze Dean end up with her, but I'll admit that they get up to fun shenanigans in the later episodes. Could have done without the plot point that hinges on an unreadable onscreen text. Megan continues to have problems, but she's getting better, while Sam predictably sputters. The forced drama of the last scene was a drag. Say, the credits confirm the show still has a Chicago unit, so good for them. Maybe I should find that song while I've still got the credits on my DVR...

    Jasmine Ash - Light On | Listen for free at

  13. The Coming Together Rule: That last dangling plot point is used to wrap up the season, and it involves the camera lingering on Chasty Ballesteros' bare ass while making Sam deeply uncomfortable. Go on... I'm with you on this. Speaking of uncomfortable, Dean proving a better relationship guru than Sienna doesn't feel like the right way to go on a "Girl's Guide" show, but I like Dean so much better than "the rules" that I'll stay aboard. He might even redeem Megan, who gets another good lay, quietly serving as the show's MVP in that department. Pill Pusher Penni on the other hand gets trampled over as the season winds down. It would be best to get Patty back for season 3 after this. There's a lot of attempted humor in the back half of the episode that doesn't come across, and even with some important reunions in the finale, the closing feels cheap and tacked-on. It doesn't help that Sam and Ryan and some sort of coupling mandate dominates.

Two seasons in, and I'd have to say this is a show where I'd cherry-pick maybe three episodes a year to tepidly recommend to anyone. Things wrap here much the same way they did with season one-- the promise of a show that had good moments and hopefully has its shit together to fully deliver next time. However, season two was a hot mess, and who knows when or if season 3 will happen with what component parts. My recommendations would be that if you're going to have gay characters as more than comic relief, don't be afraid to let them do some gay shit. Get a stronger, more appealing mentor figure if you're going to keep the "rules" aspect, but it would be okay to toss that crap. If Lizzie isn't a season regular again in S3, she'd be perfect as a recurring guest star in this capacity, showing up to set the "Girls" straight in times of trouble. Much better than making them seem like bimbos spouting slut scripture that doesn't legitimately play. Rachel could also serve in that role, though preferably in the regular cast. Jenna needs to develop past a featureless victim who gets revenge. Maintain Megan's progress. Seriously consider downgrading Sam's screen time, as that character was a weak link that dragged the whole show down. Work on your skin-fu for better depravity in a show that never lives up to the title. Finally, for goodness sake, please write the leading female characters with the diversity and verve of the male supporting cast, who routinely outshine the presumed subjects of the damned program. That last one is a rule the show may well live or die by.

"The Girl's Guide to Depravity" Season 2 Extended Promo from Rive Gauche Television on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Seventh Circuit Court of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Appeals For All Anyone Cares #18

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (1966)
Dynamo #1
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2014)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Hey look, another classic Tower issue in my possession! However, I didn't read any of these stories prior to picking up the second volume of DC's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, so no rosy glow of nostalgia here. This issue had a lot to live up to after the exceptional prior edition, and at least at the start, it seemed like it would meet the standard set there.

The opening Woody Dynamo story had a swell hook, our downtrodden hero reflecting on his being wanted for treason. That would have been a good engine to run a longer story, or even to launch the Dynamo solo series that came out the same month. Too bad they kept things short and simple, a cute ten page yarn that wraps up easily. The story is interrupted by an ad for the "Commander Abdominal Supporter Belt," but that girdle isn't fooling anyone.

There's a lot of good to be said about the Lightning strip. The returning Warp Wizard has a power that believably checks a super-speedster, unlike making rain or champion boomerang throwing. Mike Sekowsky depicts the villainy well, with a particularly suffocating countdown to doom. Steve Skeates' dialogue pops, but if I had to finger a problem, it would be with the writing. This is the second time Skeates has used the same villain in two consecutive installments of the strip, and for every inventive turn taken, there's something dumb that has to happen because the script said so. All in all though, Lightning is one of the book's most consistent entertainers.

"Subterranean Showdown" was weird. The art was credited to George Tuska, but he's barely recognizable. There's a bunch of continuity references in the story, but characterization is way off. Dynamo is an over-eager sexist nitwit, Kitten Kane is a useless coward, and NoMan is cavalier with the life of a fellow agent. The return of Dynavac has potential that is squandered, and a whole new one-time power is invented for an agent to wrap things up. A Dynamo pin-up is repurposed into an ad for his spin-off book, and then Iron Maiden gets her own lovely dossier page by Wood and Dan Adkins. Next up are full page ads for Fight The Enemy and Undersea Agent, then a letters column. An editorial reply noted "Lightning has become tremendously popular."

I guess I spoke too soon about John Giunta taking over Menthor, as he was moved to NoMan after only two months, though it's understandable once you get to the last story of the issue. Before that though, Bill Pearson offers a histrionic Invisible Agent under circumstances that are understandable but uncomfortable with regard to characterization. NoMan basically flips out over the human opportunities he's lost in becoming a supposedly tireless agent. The good is that this is an unusual story for its time which sets NoMan apart from other companies cookie cutter crimefighters, but on the other hand, it kind of invents NoDickery. Giunta appears more comfortable with this character than Menthor, though perhaps the inks of Sal Trapani helped.

Finally, the big one, likely the most highly regarded and oft-noted T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents story ever: Menthor in "A Matter of Life and Death!" by Dan Adkins with additional layouts/inks by Wally Wood that render the Steve Ditko pencils barely recognizable as such. It's funny that nobody ever mentions the Ditko part, but you can see it in the body language and the more exaggerated Subterraneans. The story does a good job of pointing out the mishandling of the property to date, including the need for added security measures after John Janus had the Menthor helmet stolen, what, three times in seven issues (with one retrieval spanning two issues?) Where he was once a double agent for the Warlord, that promising angle was forgotten after the second issue, so a new confrontation plays out as straightforward as it would with any other Agent. There's no internal conflict in Janus anymore, and while his physical prowess is again highlighted, it's not enough to get the job done. Dynamo is often compromised, but where he always ultimately works out a "no harm, no foul" remedy, Menthor was only ever a guy in an Atom costume with a less novel gimmick than shrinking. With this story, he serves a higher purpose, and though it's slightly clunky, that only helps to offset the infamous turn it takes toward the end. The somber tone isn't what I read the book for, but this story was a trailblazer that kept its promises.

As I'm sitting here comparing my Archive Edition to my lower grade original copy with light brown pages, I've got to say how much I appreciate DC's superior reproduction. Solid blacks replace grays, muddy flat colors are made both more vibrant and more subtle... unlike many other garish modern reprints I could point to, the Archives work entirely in service to improving the presentation quality of these stories over their initial run. Kudos! By the way, you're only missing out on ads for 200 toy soldier "comic flats," learning to play guitar, and hypnosis.

Dynamo #1 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Say, yet another issue I own the original of but have never read before, and like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 this one also has an ad for a "Magic-Scope" on the inside cover and an engaging Dynamo splash page by Wally Wood! Running across the lunar surface while being strafed by a flying saucer? Sold! Shame my opinion on the "traitor" story bares out here. A good chunk of the first portion of this yarn was dominated by NoMan, and considering this is the first story in a new ongoing series, none of the characters are properly introduced to a potential new audience. On the other hand, it was fun to see a tale like this from before man had actually walked on the moon, where the technology and concerns about failure of same are contemporary and realistic. At the same time, matters felt drawn out, there's too many arbitrary developments, and the menace remains shrouded in mystery. If it wasn't for the glorious art, this would have been a sorry way to launch a new book.

"A Day in the Life of Dynamo" seemed off to me. I'm used to Mike Sekowsky on Lightning, and he doesn't feel right on Dynamo, plus his work is buried under Frank Giacoia's inks. The story aims for humor but misses, coming off jingoistic and diminishing a host of prior villains in rapid succession. "Back to the Stone Age" was much better, with a more comfortable, funny script and great art by Reed Crandall and Wood. The team-up of Demo and Dr. Sparta didn't amount to much, as it was Sparta's gimmicks, cast, and characterization that carry most of the tale, but so long as it was a good one, right?

Dynamo had a few different ads from the mother book, including one for its seventh issue and Undersea Agent #4. I have one or two issues of the latter, but I wish someone would reprint them. I'd have rathered DC put them in their Archive Editions instead of the cheaply available upscale format Deluxe series, but maybe IDW will include them in their otherwise redundant current series of trade collections. Also, there's ads for a seven foot replica "Polaris Nuclear Sub" that fired torpedoes, and a life-sized, personally autographed pin-up of David McCallum for $1.

Thanks to Steve Ditko doing full pencils, the layouts on "Dynamo meets the Amazing Andor" are clearly his, despite heavy handed inks from Adkins & Wood. This is a highly unusual story for the line, as it begins twenty years previous, prior to the formation of T.H.U.N.D.E.R., and offers an honest to gosh superhuman. Also, we learn here that there's a whole council of Warlords with a "Mighty Overlord," and individually named Subterraneans. Also, as I guy who's read more revivals than original issues, I'm familiar with prominent mentions of Andor, but had never read an actual story with him. He seems to be like the original Amazing Man taken to the nth degree, which makes him a serious badass who's still vital as an adversary at story's end. He also seems like an attempt to revisit the original Menthor premise and hopefully better see it through this time. My guess is that subsequent publishers held Andor in reserve for later storylines that never materialized in the face of swift, unexpected cancellation. I'll be surprised and disappointed if he doesn't turn up again in the Tower run. My only complaint is that Kitten Kane has forsaken all of her feminist credibility since the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad lost their feature, with Alice Robbins being a more capable, reputable damsel in distress.

Finally, a Weed solo strip, returning to the lighthearted mundanity that's been missing from the Tower comics! After being beaten over the head with the Guy/Kitten relationship dramatics of the '80s series, it's jarring but nice to see Gilbert go out on a date with some random Olga chick. Hey buddy, you may be dying one speeding mission at a time, but you're not dead yet! If that doesn't work out though, room can be made for Weed! John Giunta can't draw sports cars, but he's a fair fit for "Mr. William Wylie" (in case there was any doubt that he was Wallace Wood's analogue.) Nice to see the Agents in a fun story, and even Menthor is redeemed somewhat by a villain who would have been a natural in his strip showing up all of his fellows at once.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7
(DC, 2011, $2.99)
I don't understand the thought process of modern writers. This book presumably licenses the rights to the lyrics of the Dion song "The Wanderer," which "plays" in full on a radio across several pages of a flashback that gives way to more pages of a domestic scenario. Then there's a sequence of violence, and the whole thing is bookended by a page each of basic context. None of it involves much dialogue. Even if this were the storyboard for a movie, that's maybe two minutes worth of finished film. Gave Mike Grell some work, at least.

I assumed the five page back-up strip was drawn by Paul Smith until the credits revealed it was actually Nick Dragotta, which should be taken as a compliment. The strip revisits a dynamic that dated back to the '60s comics and informed the lead story. It's so much more enjoyable and full than the Grell story that by rights they should have switched page lengths.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
I seriously thought that with IDW behind it, this volume of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents might reach and exceed the longevity of the Tower original. Instead, I finally realized they had quietly canceled the book with the eighth issue only after it had gone months without new solicitations. It's not like they had the smartest business plan anyway, reprinting the old comics that DC had already reprinted in readily available Archive Editions, only marginally cheaper and with questionable extras (vintage ads? Whoopee.) DC caught the edgy Nick Spencer just as he was getting noticed, while Phil Hester is a veteran without any heat doing a fairly traditional super-hero book. Coupled with the licensing fees for Radiant Assets, LLC, whoever the hell they are, it's no wonder the ongoing turned mini-series double quick.

Last issue ended on a cliffhanger that cut to the core of the team's lore, and I wonder how far in advance Hester knew he needed something big enough to draw the volume down. After reading the Dr. Sparta story in Dynamo, I wonder if the kid here was originally supposed to be Wilbur and his elder Sparta. While the script was well done, in retrospect it's odd that Hester referenced an Undersea Agent and introduced an all new Lightning (did he ever get named?) plus revisited John Janus and Dr. Sparta in these last issues only to return the story to the ancient towers that dominated the first four issue arc. This issue was exceptionally busy with turnabouts and cross-cutting. I continue to enjoy Roger Robinson's art, especially his use of tones little seen since computer coloring took over shading. I have some issues with changes Hester made, but seeing the potential of the book and some smart decisions that were made, I'm sorry to see it go so soon.

I'll have to stop complaining about the Subscription variant covers, because at least they offer a choice. If I recall correctly, the gorgeous Jerry Ordway variant I got was used in the solicitations, whereas I don't believe the standard Roger Robinson was, and that's a whole lot more businessman crotch than I'm game for.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Zero Vol. 1: “An Emergency” (2014)

Back in 1993, when Brian Michael Bendis was a nobody who styled his name with an "Æ" because he was insufferable, he produced a two issue mini-series through Caliber called Fire. It was an Americanized version of La Femme Nikita, like Point of No Return, but if the boyfriend were the spy. It was all about secret training facilities that churned out amoral cutthroat agents who were kept in the dark and fed shit by their ruthless superiors who would pit them against one another or leave them to rot somewhere as it suited their agenda. Twenty years later, Zero is just like that, except with more Bond-influenced Steranko sci-spy elements, like a less sexy version of Fraction, Ba & Moon's Casanova from a few years ago. I bring all this up because the cover of the Zero trade paperback has all these hyperbolic blurbs about how it is "changing comics" and "takes the spy genre to a new level" and yeah, shut up, no it doesn't. Let's just enjoy this for what it is.

What I like about Zero is that after I've done so much bitching about the lost art of single issue storytelling, this collection of the first five issues of the ongoing series tells five complete if interdependent tales. They span from the beginning of this century through 2038 and numerous locales around the globe. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, usually one with very few credits in the field, creating an appropriate disorientation and unfamiliarity as our protagonist is dropped into one extremely dangerous situation after another. It's a showcase not only for a variety of imagery, but also for Ales Kot's ability to write to each. That diversity also means individual readers are going to enjoy some stories more than others, and there is a consistent, oppressive tone of brutal conflict and general doom that is perhaps less appealing. At the end of the book, Zero is still basically a cypher intended to function within each story's demands, so there isn't exactly anyone to root for or become invested in. Still, it's a worthwhile experiment within the industry, and enjoyable single serving fictions that I might continue with, so long as the next volume doesn't fall on a month with too many other treats to try.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Revolutionary War (2014)

In 1988, my half-brother visited his grandparents in Ireland, they made a trip to London, and he brought me back a souvenir copy of Dragon's Claws #2. It seemed like a rare and exotic artifact, but as it turned out, the Marvel UK series was being distributed concurrently in the U.S. direct market. We both had access to comic shops in 1989, and between us collected the entire ten issue series. I doubt it would read exceptionally well today, but at the time its gritty, violent dystopian future of death sport and government malfeasance was exciting to a teenager gravitating toward more aggressive fantasies. Death's Head had a few single page comic strips and a guest appearance in the book, and I liked him, so I picked up The Life and Times of Death's Head trade paperback when it turned up at a B. Dalton Booksellers a year or so later. It was an interesting read, given that the character had debuted in Transformers and Doctor Who comics that weren't licensed for republication, but there were a lot of nudge-nudge/wink-wink asides packed in to reference them. My brother also bought a few issues of Knights of Pendragon, but I don't think it clicked with either of us.

A revamp mini-series, Death's Head II, was solicited in 1991 but delayed until 1992. Very influenced by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the story was action-packed time travel liquid metal nonsense drawn in a more commercial take on the Biz style, perfect for the times. I was hooked, and when Marvel UK rolled out a new wave of titles to exploit the speculator boom, I sampled the majority of them. Hell's Angel had art by Dragon's Claws Geoff Senior which I enjoyed very much, but none of the bleak humor of the prior series and tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. The Death's Head II ongoing series initially retained the flashy art of Liam Sharpe, but lost all its momentum from the mini-series due to tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. Warheads was closer to the vibe of Dragon's Claws with its dimension hopping mercenaries and sci-fi/action/horror vibe, though the main draw was the junkie fever dream art of Gary Erskine. He's still likely the only artist to ever sneak a silhouetted scrotum into a Marvel comic, but he left the book very early on. Then there were the tedious X-Men/Marvel US tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. You might notice a pattern emerging, and I did too. Despite some very pleasing early art by Gary Frank, I only gave Motormouth and the obligatory Marvel US guest stars a one issue trial, and skipped Digitek and the Knights of Pendragon revamp entirely. It didn't help that they were pumping out ever increasing amounts of obvious low rent garbage to fill the stands with polybagged #1s, including about half a dozen variations on Death's Head II. My last dance with the line was MyS-TECH Wars #1, which despite the talents of Dan Abnett and Bryan Hitch couldn't overcome the toxicity of the line or the unnecessary inclusions of Marvel US characters.

Elements of the Marvel UK books have popped up again in recent years, mostly under nostalgic British creators. Andy Lanning, recently "divorced" from his decades long writing partnership with Abnett, pitched a revival mini-event to editor Stephen Wacker for 2013. Joined by new co-writer Alan Cowsill, Lanning scripted four of seven one-shots that made up "Revolutionary War," a play on Dez Skinn's "Marvel Revolution" of the UK branch in the 1970s. I'm not sure how they would work for the uninitiated, but as a reader who has brushed up against these concepts off and on for a quarter century with a reserve of nostalgia built up, I was entertained by the lot.

Revolutionary War: Alpha started things off with the return of Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom of the late MI13 series, as they learn of a retcon used to write the old UK heroes off the stage, and the need to reactive several of them. There's a nod to the classic '80s run of Captain Britain, but this is mostly set-up with pedestrian art by Rich Elson. Dark Angel comes up next, under a title change necessitated by a legal settlement with the Hell's Angels biker club back in the '90s. Kieron Grant reestablished the anti-heroine here for a string of appearances in Iron Man, including circumstances surrounding the her that use a demonic contract to reflect the financial crisis of 2008. It's occasionally too cheeky for its own good, but mostly works well, especially with the appealing art of Dietrich Smith.

Rob Williams takes the piss out of Knights of Pendragon, a very British thing to do, but it did nothing to endear me any further to that property. The art by Will Sliney was fine enough, but wasn't conductive to the humor of the script, such as it was. Fell flat all around. Death's Head II was the closest to its origins in tone, given that it had a co-creator on board, a recognizable supporting cast, and prominently featured the first Death's Head in character. The only fault here is the art of Nick Roche, rubbery in the manner of later '90s output. I completely passed on the first run of Super Soldiers, and once again Rob Williams gives me no cause to regret that. The art by Brent Anderson is so bad that I wonder if its the same guy I know by that name, or if he maybe developed some sort of issue with his drawing hand. Tom Palmer's inks may also be to blame, as he's well past the point of being viable on a full length comic. However, there's a poignancy here as a sense of permanent doom starts to seep into the proceedings.

Glenn Dakin wrote an issue of Motormouth back in the day, and emphasizes the lighter tone of that run in contrast to the depressing domestic squalor of current circumstances with the aid of a semi-chibi opening sequence. Ronan Cliquet's art is a bit loose at times in the story proper, oddly showing influences as diverse as Peter Snejbjerg and Mike Deodato, but it serves the material well. Warheads is heavy on exposition, revisiting the dooming scenario of the book's team while spelling out most of the plot meant to unite these one-shots. Erskine returns to give the period details punk authenticity, but he's also smoothed out and lightened up over the years, so the art doesn't reach the old highs. It's a solid yarn with consequences that wouldn't typically be a legitimate issue for mainstream characters, precisely because there isn't another creative team coming in next month to effect a reversal. It's the high point of the book, meaning Revolutionary War: Omega whimpers out by comparison. The same creative team is on the bookends, though Rich Elson's art is much improved by drawing the legions of Hell over spooks in suits. There's an oh-so-appropriate single page shoehorning in Marvel US heroes, but with the stakes established by Warheads, the resolution seems too pat and underwhelming. Regardless, as a whole I had fun on this ride.


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