Three Ways To Save Iron Fist

finn-jones-iron-fist-netflixLike a lot of Marvel Netflix junkies I was looking forward to Iron Fist, perhaps more than any of the other Defenders even, not because I’m the world’s biggest Iron Fist fan (full disclosure: I haven’t read the Matt Fraction series and I’m mainly aware of the character from guest appearances in old Spider-Man comics and a few issues I’ve picked up here and there), but I AM a tremendous fan of martial arts entertainment, particularly classic 70’s era kung fu movies.

After the brilliant, brutal choreography of the Daredevil show and the depth of love shown to Afrocentrism and particularly to 70’s Black culture in Luke Cage, I assumed  we had a recipe for a killer Iron Fist show. Sadly, it didn’t go the route I expected.

I’m not gonna bash Iron Fist. Everybody has their favorite criticism. You can read that anywhere. Suffice it to say, I watched the whole thing, and in the end, I didn’t hate it, but I recognize it was not up to the other Marvel Netflix shows.

I’m not gonna list all the ways I think Iron Fist went wrong – that’d be annoying. But I’ll list here three sure fire ways to make Iron Fist right.

EMBRACE THE ORIGINS, CELEBRATE THE CULTURE

Iron Fist was created during the 70’s martial arts explosion that stemmed from the distribution of Shaw Bros kung fu movies abroad, Bruce Lee, and the Kung Fu television series with David Carradine.

kung-fu_tv-master_po-young_grasshopperYes, the one everybody hates but few have seen. I reconcile my love of both Bruce Lee’s films and Kung Fu because of the high quality of both.  Bruce Lee is amazing, unquestioned. The Kung Fu TV show (the original, not the modern day one) is amazing – seriously, watch it. With its dissemination of Eastern philosophy and message of peace and love, I truly think the world would be a better place if everybody did an episode a day.

This was probably also the reason, I think, that the early reviews citing the cultural appropriation inherent in the concept of Danny Rand didn’t affect me overly. Yes, an Asian actor in the role would have been preferable, and we can argue the importance of this all day, but in the end, they went with the original iteration of Danny Rand as the Immortal Weapon.  I’m not entirely sure altering the character’s race would have lessened the amount of pre-judgment, just swung it in the other direction. I would have watched it either way.

Anyway, Kung Fu was about Kwai Chang Cain, a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian orphan being taken into a Shaolin monastery and learning the discipline of the martial arts (sound familiar?) and employing those lessons as a somewhat naive outsider facing the prejudice and injustice of the American West (how about now?).  As Cain faced adversities in the course of an episode, he would invariably flash back to the past and his training as a young monk, remembering some applicable lesson that informed his decisions in the now. It’s practically a template for an Iron Fist show.

maxresdefaultNow these dream-like flashbacks were achieved pretty simply, with minimalist sets, mostly black, a lot of candles and the trappings of Chinese décor. The exterior scenes were actually a redressed castle set from the movie Camelot. There’s absolutely no reason our first glimpses of Danny’s past at K’un Lun couldn’t be depicted in a similar manner. It’d be a great homage, and cheap to film. Not seeing this in this starting season of Iron Fist was a tremendous misstep, like showing that gun in the first act and never having it go off.

return_36th_chamberIn the way Cage was a celebration of African American culture, Iron Fist should absolutely be a love letter to the martial arts genre, full of subtle references to everything from Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob, Jackie Chan, and Gordon Liu to wire-fu, 5ven04Donnie Yen, Jet Lee, and The Raid.  The producers should look to classics like Five Elements Ninjas, House of Traps, Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Kid With The Golden Arm and Flag of Iron for how to handle the bizarre martial assassins Iron Fist should be facing. The training sequences in K’un Lun should directly refer to movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. In fact, the direct inspiration for the character of Iron Fist was a line from the first kung fu movie creator Roy Thomas ever saw (maybe 1971’s Duel of The Iron Fist? Thomas doesn’t remember.) in an Upper East Side NYC theater in the 70’s. What better oeuvre to refer to then the wealth of movies that were shown in those kinds of theaters? This is what spawned this character!

I believe there was an intent to do just that that just got neglected somewhere along the way. Just as the episode titles for Luke Cage homaged black culture, Iron Fist’s episode titles recalled the colorful names for techniques in classic wuxia moves (Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm). And I didn’t miss the drunken master either. The will was there, but it needs to be double downed.

Iron Fist should be chock full of references and cameos from the length and breadth of martial arts entertainment. Show the love! Embrace the source! We should see Sonny Chiba as a Hand leader or something. Or have Benny Urqidez show up, or Angela Mao! Bolo Yeung ! Dan Inosanto! Have Ray Park or Scott Adkins play villains. Jeez, could you imagine Ron ‘The Black Dragon’ Van Clief introducing Danny to Luke Cage?

MAKE MINE MARVEL

Which brings me to the second point.

Iron Fist is a Marvel character. We need to connect him to the Marvel universe in the same way Daredevil did. Daredevil was loaded with sly Marvel references (Stilt-Man, for Crissakes!).  The grainy 1940’s footage of the previous Iron Fist in costume duking it out with Chinese soldiers was great. More! Look to Iron Fist’s stable of villains and bring the kind of mystic martial arts action the character is designed for.  Let’s see Black Mariah, Chaka and the Golden Tigers, Chi’Lin, Senor Muerte, or Triple Iron.

OK, I suspect the long awaited meeting between Danny and future partner Luke Cage will probably happen in Defenders, but man I was really missing it in this first season. I fully expected Cage to notice his own bullet riddled shirt (given him by Claire) and ask Danny where he got it. Heck, when the DEA got involved and Danny was on the run, I thought he’d wind up in prison with Cage as a cell mate (this could have led to a killer Story of Ricky reference, with Danny punching his way out of jail and putting him and Luke on a Defiant Ones-style odyssey as fugitives).

Oh and the first time Luke sees Danny use his powers, take note: there had BETTER  be a Last Dragon joke!

last-dragon-8

But I understand that might be best left for another time, another show.

Now what about Shang Chi?

SC-deadly

The early (false) rumors that Starlin and Engleheart’s Master of Kung Fu had been cast had me excited, and, I think, the inclusion of a powerful and savvy Chinese foil for Danny, commenting on the absurdity of his concept as a white savior and kung fu master, would have gone a long way towards deflecting the cultural appropriation criticism. It certainly worked for the last Tarzan movie, with Samuel L. Jackson fulfilling that very role.

Shang_ChiIf Danny Rand is David Carradine, Shang Chi is Bruce Lee, and that symbolic reconciliation needs to happen. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a Shang Chi spin off? I’m aware there were rights issues with the character due to his father being Sax Rohmer’s famous Fu Man Chu, but if The Ancient One can be a Celtic woman and the Mandarin can be a drug addled cockney actor, I don’t see why a single aspect of this character couldn’t be tweaked to make his father an unscrupulous crimelord (maybe even the ‘real’ Mandarin).

He was a big omission in season one, and he’d be a fantastic addition to season two.

And that brings me to my final pont….

BRING BACK RZA

rzaAll respect to HBO’s stable of talented writers and directors, but the standout episode of season one was Immortal Emerges From Cave, where the show touched on the brilliance it could have been. Danny facing off against weird Hand challengers in an honor duel to the death. Writer Dwain Worrell nailed it, but the fact that RZA directed it can’t be ignored.

The grandmaster of Wu-Tang knows his kung fu movies. I’ve seen him speak before a presentation of 36th Chamber at LACMA here in Los Angeles, and his Man With The Iron Fists displayed a love and passion for the genre unmatched. Bring him back for round two.

Buddha willing, there is one.

Namaste!

128752

Advertisements

DT Back Issues: Unknown Soldier (1997)

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE. Here’s a list of everything I’ve covered so far. 

Unknown_Soldier_v.3_1Today I wanna draw attention to Garth Ennis and Killian Plunkett’s four-issue miniseries UNKNOWN SOLDIER from DC/Vertigo in 1991.

I have never read the original incarnation of the Unknown Soldier comic. The only time I remember ever seeing the character was in ads on the back of THE SHADOW in the 80’s and interspersed in the pages of an issue of GI COMBAT or maybe MEN OF WAR or WEIRD WAR TALES. I actually thought he was a part of Sgt. Rock’s squad or something. The only thing I ever knew about him was that he was in GI fatigues and his face was swaddled in mummy-like bandages. He was supposed to be some kind of battle-scarred master of disguise.

ssws168 unknownHaving never read the original series I have no idea if there’s a level to Ennis’ miniseries I’m missing. Are the various elderly characters mentioned and depicted (like the General, or the Soldier’s handler, Boothe) recurring characters from the first run? The series is pretty self-contained and each of the characters backstories are succinctly told, so I don’t know. It doesn’t suffer in the reading from a lack of acquaintance with the Unknown Soldier’s previous adventures.

Unknown_Soldier_1997_4_cover_3321I think what induced me to pick up the series were Tim Bradstreet’s full color covers. I became aware of Bradstreet during my Vampire The Masquerade days, when he did a series of stark and devilishly good illustrations for White Wolf. I met Bradstreet once when I was in high school at my local comic shop and still have the quick little profile sketch he did in the cover of one of my RPG books.

Vtm3-Brujah Ennis, I was familiar with from Preacher, of course, a series for another time on this blog.

The story opens with the debriefing of a CIA black operative, Agent Clyde, being reprimanded by his superiors for refusing to liquidate two ten year old Latin American witnesses to a company-led Green Beret assassination. Clyde explains not killing the kids, deflecting every interrogative with cold reasoning. The American team was heavily disguised, and never spoke a word. But he finishes up with an ill-advised (considering his profession) moral jab that if part of his mission parameters included the murder of innocent children, his superiors should have made that clearer in the mission briefing. Exiting his reprimand, his shadowy handlers curse him and make the decision on the spot that he’s not cut out for black ops work.

An unspecified amount of time later, Agent Clyde is driving a desk in an office environment full of noncombatants, among which he is something of a pariah for his boy scout demeanor and nose to the grind stone super patriot work ethic.  It seems Clyde, in the midst of a mundane investigation into something called California First, returns from a meeting and boots up his computer to find a name has been added to his list of POI’s (which is mostly populated by thinly disguised Simpsons characters – Lionel J. Hotz, Ken Bruckman, Seymour Skinner, Robert Terwilliger), Joshua Markewicz.  Interdepartmental inquiries as to why Joshua’s name has appeared on his list hit a brick wall, so Clyde heads out to interview the new guy, finding, to his bewilderment, a very old guy, languishing in a retirement home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

lookwhatourenemyhasdoneClyde soon figures out that Joshua has never had any knowledge of the tax dodging group he’s been tied to, but admits that this is the second CIA agent to question him in the past year, not about California First, but about The Soldier.  He then proceeds to relate the same story to Clyde, about how as a young grunt during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, he witnessed the arrival of a soldier with a bandaged face riding with three high ranking officers. This Soldier becomes enraged at the sight of a mass grave of dessicated Jewish corpses and raves that ‘If this is what our enemies do – if this is what America must fight – then we are ALWAYS right! And anything we do IS RIGHT!” as he grabs Joshua’s machinegun and proceeds to gun down the captured German camp guards. One of the generals orders a radio man to call command and tell them that Codename Unknown Soldier has ‘totally fucking lost it’ and then proceeds to rifle butt the maddened mystery man into unconsciousness.

Clyde returns to the office perplexed. A database search for Unknown Soldier draws a blank but earns him an immediate phone call from his superior, asking him what he’s doing on the computer and ordering him back to work.

In a seedy apartment whose furnishings consist mainly of guns, ammo, and a fax machine, an unbalanced young woman named Screwball aims out her window with a high powered sniper rifle at various passersby apparently out of sheer boredom until a call comes through telling her to silence Joshua Markewicz and ‘put the frighteners’ on Agent Clyde.

In Clyde’s apartment, he receives an unexpected visit from one of his coworkers, a female agent named Wallace with whom he’s up to now shared a mild flirtations. No dark ulterior motives here. Wallace shows up just to invite Clyde to a coworker’s party. Clyde offers her a cup of coffee by way of assent. While brewing up the joe he hears via news report that the retirement home he just visited that afternoon has partially burned, claiming Joshua Markewicz. Wallace comes into the kitchen at the same moment that a bullet comes through the kitchen window and shatters Clyde’s coffee cup, killing Wallace.

ennis_usoldier02_08 Screwball is taken to task by her handler for accidentally killing Wallace, and put on Clyde’s trail, which begins in earnest when he finds three more names mysteriously added to his investigation list. The bulk of the story is then Clyde finding and interviewing the people on his list, hearing their reminisces of brief encounters with the Unknown Soldier (he instigates civil war in Iran, disguises himself as General Westmoreland in order to force a Green Beret unit to massacre a group of Cambodian civilians, and, after destroying a Sandinista hospital, almost singlehandedly fights off fifty guerrilla fighters deep in the jungles of Nicaragua). Typically, soon after the interviews, the witnesses wind up dead at the hands of Screwball.

As Clyde’s journey progresses, Ennis takes a page from Preacher and has him imagining conversations with an idealized spectre of the murdered Wallace, which becomes a device for bringing Clyde’s internalized thinking to the fore, yet also reinforces his naivety/humanity. For an espionage agent, Clyde is more Captain America than Unknown Soldier, decrying the dark deeds of his peers and finally the Soldier himself. When Screwball fails to kill Clyde, a backup wetworks team bursts in to finish the job, and Clyde finds himself on the run with Screwball, tracing the Soldier all the way to his personal handler in the CIA, Boothe, the same guy who put Screwball onto Clyde.

As humanistic and questioning as Clyde is, Screwball is sociopathic and unquestioning of her orders, until they personally contradict her own well-being. She has no compunctions about murdering Boothe’s butler and later his entire family in their sleep. Boothe provides a tantalizingly brief but satisfactory origin story for her. She cut her own parents’ throats at the age of eight and was recruited by the agency, who thought she’d be perfect for wetworks. “They were right,” he observes.

In a way, I guess Screwball and Clyde are two facets of the ‘perfect’ American operative. Clyde is the clean-cut, hardworking, idealistic American boy, blonde haired and blue-eyed – the guy the public likes to think of as the defender of democracy. Screwball is the unquestioning, violent ‘dark side’ of the espionage game, and a counterpoint to Clyde. She’s dark haired (and short cut, the antithesis of the typical moralistic female archetype) and a woman, crude spoken and punk rock-y.

Of course neither of them have anything on the Unknown Soldier himself, when they finally meet.

Desperate to learn more, Clyde (in, I admit, a bit of a leap in logic for plot’s sake) decides to disinter his predecessor in the quest for the Solider, Agent Anderson, hoping against hope that Anderson left something on his body that could help. While Clyde is digging in the rain and having a debate with Wallace in his imagination, The Soldier dispatches the uber-competent Screwball without a fight, proving himself every bit the apex predator he has been made out to be.

img061The Soldier then confronts Clyde in the rainy grave of Anderson, revealing it was him that added all the names on Clyde’s list, without Boothe’s knowledge, because he wanted Clyde to learn about him, and understand him, and finally, to replace him.

Because after fifty years of doing his duty like Screwball, without question, the Soldier can’t do it anymore.

And his reason is Project Winterthor.

The General, the same one present at Dachau during the Soldier’s epiphany, called the Soldier to his deathbed to make what amounts to a final confession. He describes a secret meeting in 1945 between himself, a CIA agent, and a cadre of top Nazi officials. Hearkening to Operation Paperclip, the Nazis regale the Americans with evidence of their technological breakthroughs, which are lacking only America’s nearly unlimited resources to proceed into the practical application stage. They promise to put a man on the moon by 1949. Their only request is safe and secret extradition to South America where they will continue their work under American supervision, along with Adolph Hitler himself.

The Americans agree to terms.

So the United States agrees to fund the survival of the Third Reich in exchange for technological advances, not even cutting England in on the deal, which leads to the unexpected death of the German would-be conspirators when an uninformed, routine RAF patrol shoots them down over the Swiss-German border.

But this becomes the Unknown Soldier’s second epiphany. He smothers his former commanding officer to death in his hospital bed, enraged by what he takes as personal betrayal of his ongoing mission. It all began with hatred for the Nazis as the ultimate evil in the world, and Hitler as its beastly architect, and the government’s willingness to deal with that ultimate evil, for the Soldier, invalidates his justifications for every evil he has committed in America’s name since.

THE SOLDIER: A lifetime spent groping in the guts of horror, in it up to my elbows, committing atrocity to order. And five years ago, discovering Winterthor, knowing at last that the regime that gave me those orders was….tainted.

Winterthor is the reason the Soldier kills his first choice, Agent Anderson, believing the knowledge of the failed conspiracy will dishearten Anderson as it did him. Yet he can no longer afford to keep the history ‘clean’ with Clyde.

THE SOLDIER: The need remains for the one man who can make a difference. The war that I spoke of continues even now. The enemeny has not left us. America’s obligation to do what is right does not end because her masters flirt with devils. There must be someone to accept that obligation. To hold it as a clean, untarnished truth. There must be a soldier….

img058In a way, Clyde and Screwball are the two extreme halves of the Soldier himself. The Soldier is motivated by duty and a real human outrage at the extreme inhumanity of the Nazis, whom he lumps in with all the enemies of America itself.  In the Soldier’s simplistic worldview, if he is outraged, and he is American, than the ideals of America are good, and if the enemies of America are capable of such horror, than all who oppose America must be evil. All actions against evil then, must be justified. But in this, he becomes Screwball. Violent and sociopathic, incapable of making his own moral decisions if they contrast with the will of his superiors.

He totally misunderstands Clyde because while Clyde is a patriotic America soldier and proven assassin, he tellingly defies his superiors’ immoral order in the opening scene. He can still choose between good and evil without relying solely on the paradigm of nationhood to define his morality.

The Soldier is baffled when he lays what to him, is a logical destiny for Clyde at the agent’s feet, and Clyde chooses to utterly reject it, speaking fondly of Wallace and the promise of a woman’s smile, the notion that there are good things in the world.

CLYDE: You justify regimes every bit as bad as the ones you fight against. You want me to do your work even though you no longer believe in it yourself. You would have concealed your loss of faith in what you fight for, and you expect me to carry on as if I’d never learned the truth. Well sir, you are NOT an American soldier. I deny your legacy. I will not let you wash the blood off your hands onto mine.

And with that, Clyde takes out his pistol and shoots himself.

In this, Clyde teaches the Soldier a lesson which in the final panels, leaning on the flag atop the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington, he acknowledges.

Clyde is the true American, unsullied by the dark machinations of politicians and the fog of fanaticism.

img059What’s brilliant to me about this miniseries is that it hardly features the title character until the last issue, and by that time his reputation has been built up so much that you’re sort of champing at the bit to finally meet him. Ennis effectively ratchets up suspense and stakes without ever showing you the object of everybody’s obsession, using only original characters. It’s sort of like a story I once heard Ricardo Montalban tell, about how he was dubious about appearing in Wrath of Khan until he read the script and realized that despite his comparatively meager amount of screen time, every time Khan wasn’t center stage, every other character was talking about him.

It’s in effect, a cold war style mystery thriller, with one unfairly marked man pursuing a line of inquiry for the sake of truth to his own detriment and against the will of unsavory, conspiratorial forces all around him.

The series’ titular character reminds me a bit of a dark Captain America. Consider this, in my favorite bit of dialogue, when Boothe describes the Unknown Soldier –

CLYDE: What is he? Some kind of superhuman assassin?

BOOTHE: No. He’s seventy-five years old, Agent Clyde. He’s in ULTIMATE human condition. He’s been up to his neck in the bloodiest, darkest, most shameful corners of US foreign policy since 1942….but he’s just a man.

It sounds like a description of Cap, doesn’t it? And in a way, this whole conspiracy thriller reminds me of the recent Winter Soldier movie (or rather, Winter Soldier reminded me a bit of this).

img060Killian Plunkett’s art is gritty and wonderfully textured, with the almost lost art of inking showcased perfectly. Every wrinkle of clothing, every strand of hair, every slash of rain is vividly realized. I’d love to see the original black and whites, but I also have to praise colorist James Sinclair’s choices, especially in the ultimate episode, which takes place within a limited palette due to the rainy setting.

The series is collected in trade paperback and listed as (New Edition). No idea what that means, or there’s anything added to it, but I recommend checking it out. In this current climate where nationalism and patriotism are used as tools to not only exploit and distract the poor and oppressed, but to justify all levels of horrendous acts and behavior, I believe this one still has something relevant to say.

unknownsoldieropening

My Coolest Story From Comic Con 2014

Sergio Out Take 3I’m a bit late in posting this, but I wanted to share the coolest thing I saw at San Diego Comic Con two weeks ago. I took no pictures (wish I had) so I guess you’re gonna have to take my word for it. But Sergio Aragones is a genuinely nice man, and I think he’ll bear this story out if you just ask him.

Whenever I go I invariably see celebrities, and my daughter and her friend always grill me about who I saw. This year crossing the street I could’ve reached out and slapped Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans on the shoulder (and got my arm broken by his entourage for it), I shared a train with Anthony Head, and spied Robert Carlyle on the corner with his little girl hanging on his arm.

But I haven’t braved the colossal lines of Hall H since they announced the title for Revenge Of The Sith, and I don’t really go to star watch anyway. It’s Comic Con. I go to buy comics and just generally gawk and mingle.

So I’m a big Sergio Aragones fan, a big Groo The Wanderer fan. I don’t think you can be a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan without liking Groo – or you shouldn’t. It’s wonderful social satire centering around a bumbling barbarian parody of Conan. One of the first comics I ever collected, and filled marging to margin with astounding art. For those that don’t know, Sergio Aragones is one of the best artists working today – a living legend. He’s an Eisner Award winning cartoonist who began his career doodling in the margins of Mad Magazine and he’s probably the fastest cartoonist alive. He’s….aw heck, just look at these samples.

aragones3 aragones4 aragones5 aragoneswoodstock1_3

Mad #500-028-29The way Sergio fills a page is nothing short of extraordinary. A running joke in the pages of Groo was the exasperation of colorist Tom Luth who had to inject color into these staggeringly detailed crowd scenes….a task involved enough to drive anybody insane, but which Luth performed admirably on a monthly basis for a number of years. Sergio packs his splash pages with dynamic individuals and a myriad of hidden side jokes.  The only artist that comes close to what Sergio does, in my opinion, is Geoff Darrow.geoffReally, if I had the money to commission them both, and if they were willing, my dream is to have two pieces of art hanging side by side on my wall, one featuring Groo slicing his way through one of Geoff’s backgrounds, and the other of Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy fighting through an army of Sergio’s cartoon denizens.

geoff-darrow-conanembiggened

Anyway, all gushing aside, I always make it a point to stop by Sergio’s table when I’m at San Diego. It’s always a treat to see what he’s up to, and just listen to him, and once his wife baked a plate of awesome brownies for everybody.  This year I was in line to pick up a copy of his new Groo Vs. Conan comic (something I’ve anticipated for decades), and he was telling a story to the guy in front of me out of the pages of Sergio Aragones Funnies, his anthology series of illustrated autobiographical anecdotes (he has led a fascinating life). I had read somewhere his father had once been a line producer on movies in Mexico, but he was talking about his dad’s work on the movie Animas Trujano, which featured his (and my own) idol Toshiro Mifune as a Mexican revolutionary.

animas-trujanoMifune is one of the all-time great Japanese film actors, who solidified his place in history in movies like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. He was the John Wayne to Akira Kurosawa’s John Ford, like DeNiro to Martin Scorcese, and if he’s been in a bad movie I’ve frankly never seen it. Apparently Animas Trujano, as absurd as his casting may sound, was no exception – Sergio said it was nominated for the Mexican Academy Award, and a little internet digging confirms this.  Sergio told us Mifune didn’t know a word of Spanish, but learned his lines phonetically, like Shih Kien in Enter The Dragon. As we were geeking out about this cool little inside story, Sergio pulled the topper, the thing that put this neat little moment over the edge for me. He reached into his thick, worn wallet, dug a bit, and produced one of those old Kodak photographs where the colors are mostly orange and a bit blown out and there’s a white border around the image – those kind you don’t see anymore and is basically only preserved in Instagram filters and crackling old photo albums.  In the picture are two sun reddened men with their arms over each other’s shoulders buddy style, smiling at the camera through their brushy black whiskers. From the peon costume of one of the men it looked almost like a behind the scenes still from a Sergio Leone movie, as if Gian Maria Volonte had taken a break in his Indio costume and taken a shot with a friend on the crew.

“Here’s a picture of my father on set with Mifune,” he said. “He really looked Mexican.”

Totally blown away. Knowing my tastes as readers of this blog may, it was like all the stars of my fandom aligned perfectly at once in some kind of Great Conjunction. I was standing at San Diego Comic Con, talking with one of my all-time favorite artists, looking at a candid, unpublished photo of one of my all-time favorite actors.

I felt weird asking to take a picture of him holding a personal photo of his dad, so I didn’t. But next time you’re at Sergio’s table, if you’re a Mifune fan, ask to see it.

animastrujano2

 

 

Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

My Panel At San Diego Comic Con

The Thursday schedule for San Diego Comic Con 2014 is now up at their site, and if you scroll down to the 7pm slot you’ll see a familiar name…..

Word Building –

Robert Roach (Menthu, The Roach), Gini Koch (Alien Collective), Ed Erdelac (Terovolas),Nathan Long (Blackhhearts Omnibus), and Nancy Holder (Wicked Saga) discuss structure and storytelling, the use of pacing, and how certain creators use a timeline to build flow. Moderated by Jeffrey Twohig.
Thursday July 24, 2014 7:00pm – 8:00pm
Room 32AB
So if you’re in the neighborhood of Room 32AB that evening, come by and give a listen.

DT Back Issues Index

comics_11983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s take on THE SHADOW, THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

So this is the index of all the comics I’ve taken a look at in the DT: Back Issues feature of my blog, much the same as the one I did for DT MOVIEHOUSE. It’ll give you something to read about besides Merkabah Riderthe Van Helsing PapersBuff Tea, and anything else writerly I’ve got coming down the pipe.
Unknown Soldier (1997)

Button Man

The Last American

The ‘Nam

The Shadow

Published in: on August 9, 2013 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

DT Back Issues: Button Man

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s THE SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

buttonmancoverToday I look at John Wagner and Arthur Ranson’s crime thriller series BUTTON MAN.

BUTTON MAN ran in the UK’s 2000 AD, a magazine mostly known as the cradle of the popular character JUDGE DREDD (a title I still haven’t managed to read yet).  It was the Kitchen Sink Press collection of the first series that caught my eye on the shelf in my local comic shop, and particularly Arthur Ranson’s realistic art that arrested my attention. The guy in the upper right corner reminded me of the actor Sean Bean, whom I’d dug as 006 in GOLDENEYE, and the guy with the eyepatch on the bottom looked a bit like Pacino. Plus, the title BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME stuck in my head, and reminded me of something I’d heard rumored as the title for a forthcoming John Woo movie. I was heavy into Woo and Hong Kong bullet ballets or heroic bloodshed movies at the time, having just stumbled across THE KILLER on Cinemax.

With its stark, art, striking inks and colors, and oversized format that harkened back to the Giant Sized Annuals I’d loved so much as a kid, to say nothing of the extremely bloody violence that a cursory flip through convinced me was within, I didn’t resist picking up BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME for very long.

BUTTON MAN man opens brilliantly, in classic noir fashion, with a bleeding man stumbling into a psychiatrist’s office as it’s about to close, and demanding to see the doctor. Despite Dr. Spalding’s assurances that he’s not the right kind of doctor, the wounded man produces a pistol and disagrees. Spalding takes the man into his office and lets him lay down on the patient couch.

“I’ve got this problem, doc,” says the wounded man, who introduces himself as Harry Exton. “I can’t stop killing people. They won’t let me.”

“Who won’t let you?” asks Spalding.

“The voices.”

And then Harry begins his tale.

Harry Exton (or Harry ‘Ex) is a British ex-mercenary, down on his luck, when he bumps into an old military buddy, Carl, who invites him to take part in ‘The Game,’ to make a little ‘dosh.’

buttonmanaxeThe premise of The Game is that wealthy backers, called ‘Voices’ because they never make direct contact except by telephone, sponsor hired killers, or ‘button men’ (a reference to the button-like appearance of the back end of a bullet) and then pit them against each other in life and death situations, wagering immense sums of money on the outcome. It’s modern day gladiatorial combat, fought in the English countryside, and on the very streets of London. The only rule is that a button man may choose to spare another by taking his marker (cutting off a finger) instead of his life. The third time’s the charm, and a kill is expected after that. Otherwise, it’s don’t get caught, dispose of the bodies discreetly (Harry and Carl dump their bodies with a farmer who turns the corpses into chicken feed), and above all, don’t quit.

This is a million dollar concept superbly executed, and I’m really surprised that somebody in Hollywood hasn’t made it yet (it turns out one of my favorite directors, Nicholas Wending Refn, is attached as of this writing to adapt it).

I don’t think there’s a more badass, ruthless anti-hero in all of graphic fiction than Harry ‘Ex. Harry is a very competent killer, a believable professional, entirely practical and without remorse, like the James Bond of the early Fleming novels, but with a calculating, vicious, increasingly (as the series progresses) psychopathic streak even Bond can’t match.

buttonmannowarningThe psychopathy doesn’t necessarily come out in THE KILLING GAME, but at the last Comic Con my dream of finally acquiring the two sequels alluded to in the Kitchen Sink introduction by Arthur Ranson, finally came true. I picked up THE CONFESSION OF HARRY EXTON and KILLER KILLER. It’s fascinating to watch the progression of Harry’s character from THE KILLING GAME on.

In KILLING GAME, Harry is a bored predator who enjoys the novelty of the game, and the chance to exercise his old killing muscles, but after he kills a two time loser on a railroad track and the man warns him that the Voices will never let him quit (just before his head is severed by an oncoming express), he begins to rankle. On a whim, he mentions to his ‘Voice’ that he’s thinking about quitting, and the very next Game out he’s set up for the kill, forced to fight alone against a superior number of heavily armed button men, including his friend Carl, with only an eight shot pistol.

Harry still prevails, and when Carl makes it plain he has no intention of killing Harry, somebody kills him instead. With his dying breath, Carl tells Harry something no button man is supposed to know – the name of his Voice.

It only takes one visit to Carl’s Voice with a pair of pliers to learn the name of Harry’s sponsor, Dr. Spalding, to whom he has been relating his story.

bouttodiebuttonmanheadSpalding attempts to poison Harry with some kind of psychotrope, but Harry manages to bring the doctor down with a butcher knife, and leaves his head floating in his office fish tank.

The comic ends with him in the back of a wailing ambulance tearing through the rain-washed London streets at night.

I’ve recommend THE KILLING GAME to everybody I know who’s never read a comic book or is looking for something other than superheroes. It’s a perfectly realistic and clever thriller in the mode of a good 1970’s British crime movie like THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY or GET CARTER, a kick ass, adult crime movie rendered in two dimensions.

So it took about eighteen years for me to finally get a hold of the sequels, and about an hour and a half to tear through both of them.

THE CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON picks up with Harry being wheeled into the hospital, poisoned and suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He’s put under guard, a known killer, but the police officers assigned to guard him are promptly knocked out by a nurse and a doctor, who sedate Harry and spirit him from the hospital.

Harry awakens in a nice house in upstate New York, with a beautiful redheaded wife, Cora, and a proposition from a blustery downhome United States senator, Jackson. Stay in America with Cora and a new identity, and play the American league of the Game for the senator, where the stakes and rewards are even higher.

Harry agrees, but he’s a changed man from THE KILLING GAME. Maybe it was the death of Carl, but somewhere along the way, Harry’s burned out. He’s lost his heart, his humanity. He’s not out for markers anymore, and though he swiftly rises in the American rankings, he kills just about every button man he goes up against, sometimes even after his opponent is down and out.

buttonman2_3_7In one memorable sequence, Harry is given a red carnation and an assortment of silent weapons and told to play the game during open hours of the New York Museum Of Natural History. His opponent (also wearing a red carnation, to mark him as such), turns out to be the mousy looking on duty security guard. When the conflict escalates past the clandestine stage, and carries out into a full tilt running shootout in Central Park, Harry executes the man at the Alice In Wonderland statue, and heads off for the Cayman Islands with Cora, as cold and unconcerned as if he’d just stepped on a cockroach.

Harry’s ruthlessness and willingness to kill good button men starts to upset the Voices, and he is urged by the senator through Cora to ease up. But telling Harry to do anything is the beginning of the end for anybody.

Cora attempts to reign Harry in, but he’s already figured out she’s doing a job, and finds the last sap Cora leashed frozen beneath the surface of the pond out back of his house.  Cora’s a tool, but she’s careful and has insurance, hidden camera footage of the Game implicating the Senator.

Harry takes the evidence straight to the senator’s Louisiana compound and cuts his way through a small army of guards and button men, all to prove his point – he wants out.  And he gets it.

Or so he thinks.

KILLER KILLER kicks the Button Man concept into high gear.

Harry’s now living off his winnings in a lone cabin deep in rural Montana under an assumed name. He goes hunting in the mountains with a Vietnam vet, pursues an adulterous relationship with the local dentist’s wife, and basically takes care of his dog and does a lot of home improvement (albeit always with a pistol or a rifle in reach). When he hears a radio report about the accidental death of Senator Jacklin, his old Voice, he erases Cora’s VHS tapes and thinks he’s at last done with the Game. His biggest worry is his girlfriend Grace, who swears her husband Dennis knows about them.

After a trip to see said Dennis, Harry’s life starts to get deadly interesting again. He spies a couple out of towners at the local diner with missing ‘markers’ and the next night is attacked at his house by gunmen and chased into the woods. But the pursuers leave off running him down, and drive off.

He receives a telephone call from a Voice, who explains to him that now that the Senator is dead, he is once again, fair game.  The Voice appreciates his skill and offers to take him on as a button man. When Harry refuses, the Voice urges him to run. There are thirteen killers on his trail and they will begin coming for him at 0500.

biggameThe Voice is a wealthy movie producer, Frankie, making a fictional film about the Game entitled Killer Killer, about which a lot of buzz is being generated, both in Hollywood and with his fellow Voices, who are not keen on the idea.  Frankie has gathered the other Voices together for a unique event, a nationwide hunt for Harry, winner take all. They monitor Harry’s flight via GPS on a big board in a room that hearkens to the war room from Dr. Strangelove and was one of Frankie’s old sets.

Harry runs from city to town, altering his identity and appearance, ditching vehicles, only to have a button man show up wherever he goes.

This outing is the most expertly plotted since the original BUTTON MAN, and my second favorite of the three titles. Again, I’m amazed this isn’t already a movie. Harry figures out Frankie’s identity after hearing and seeing him give an interview on some Access Hollywood type show, setting the stage for their ultimate confrontation.

buttonmanhowBut first Harry has to figure out how the hell he’s being tracked cross country, a plot point that seemed kinda obvious to me, though well played out.

buttonmanrewardThis is Harry at his least likable, most cold blooded. He is far from the man he was in KILLING GAME, executing more than a few crippled button men, and a mother turned button (wo)man (“Please Harry,” she pleads, holding up a photo of her children, “remember my kids.” “How could I forget them? I’m the one who was going to put them through college,” Harry responds, before blowing her away), inadvertently causing the death of his friend,  blasting an unarmed guy at a stop light, and murdering a guy he cuts a deal with in front of his young niece in the name of tying up loose ends.

Not to say Harry isn’t justified in his killings, though perhaps not in the one on the last page, but Harry is pure, cold blooded killer by the end of KILLER KILLER.

Button Man02_thumbI recommend this series without reservation. It’s one of the coolest comics I’ve read in a long time and is consistently great from trade to trade. There is a fourth book, HITMAN’S DAUGHTER, which I couldn’t bring myself to pick up at the time as it didn’t have Arthur Ranson’s pencils, but I now feel compelled to go and scoop it up as well. Maybe I’ll add to this review when I do, or give it its own page.

There’s also a book called GET HARRY EX. I can’t figure out where that one fits in continuity, or if it’s a renamed collection or something, but THE KILLING GAME, CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON, and KILLER KILLER are all available now from 2000 AD in nice new trades on Amazon.

Get ’em!

Hasta pronto.

Comic-Con 101: The Difference Between Protesters And Proselytizers

So I just got back from an excellent Comic Con, probably the best one yet.

But something’s bugging me.

Every year I go, I see the young Christian people standing on the corner with their personal PA systems and picket signs with biblical quotes and slogans like GOD IS LOVE. Every once in a while there’s an older guy with a bullhorn saying something stupid. This year there was a guy scolding the passersby for glorifying the serial killer character Dexter, whom he described as “a killer of little girls.”

use-your-force-harry_largeObviously he hasn’t ever seen an episode of DEXTER. My buddy Ryan made this observation as we were passing him on the way into the convention center, and yeah, that’s kind of a dumb thing to say. If nerds are anything, they’re sticklers for facts. If you want to stop up a geek’s ears quick, display a lack of knowledge about one of their beloved properties in the midst of criticizing it.

But that’s not really what I wanna touch upon today. That guy was the exception to most of the proselytizers I saw.

Most of them, as I said, were younger people with innocuous Bible quotes on their signs about love and redemption and the like, and whenever the trolley started to cross and they had a captive audience, they’d launch into a calm, measured, pre-memorized speech about God’s love and Jesus’ acceptance, etc.

Nobody really confronts them or engages them aside, and they don’t really address anyone in particular either. As a matter of fact, it’s like they’re not there.

Yet without fail, every single time I crossed the street, as soon as we were out of reach, I would hear some costumed crusader or video game character nearby begin railing against them, loudly cracking wise on their beliefs, or “cleverly” tying Jesus or God into some comic book or pop culture reference (“Didn’t anybody tell you? Zombies are out, dude!” one cut up shouted at a kid with a JESUS IS LIFE sign in passing).

There is a general misconception among con-goers that A) these Christians are representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church and that B) they are protesting the Con.

There are protesters there, yes (like the Dexter-hater I mentioned – though really, although uninformed, he probably is right about the dubious merit of idolizing/idealizing a serial killer), but they are very, very few in number. I only heard one this year.

god-hates-jedi-20100723-125344

Cool

The Westboro Baptist Church are never at Comic Con. The people there post 2010 have no affiliation with that organization/sect. I was at the con in 2010 during that big, much reported protest and while I do remember the huge and hilarious (GOD HATES JEDI declared a Starfleet officer’s sign) anti-protest, I don’t remember even seeing a WBC representative there. Maybe they were. Don’t know.

zod640

Uncool

I do know I started noticing the Christians with signs in subsequent years. But none of their signs read GOD HATES FAGS or the like. Uniformly they are inoffensive bible passages touting love and salvation, or simple affirmations of faith. It’s possible these people were at the Con before 2010 and I just don’t remember seeing them.

I’ve also noticed the clever counter-protesters out every year since 2010 as well, the signs changing to fit into the latest pop culture fad. KNEEL BEFORE ZOD was a new one this go round.

But the point of all this is, the Con goers are no longer counter protesting. They’re the protesters, and they are in force, and far outnumber the picketers. I’ve kind’ve been appalled at the vitriolic, decidedly un-Jedi stuff I’ve heard people say to and about these Christians.

Guys, they are not protesters condemning you for your spandex or love of She Hulk. They are proselytizers, or street preachers, just trying to spread the message of their faith. You don’t have to listen to them, just like you don’t have to take the ENDER’S GAME handbills the hot chicks in skimpy outfits push at you.  If you have a message you want to spread, why would you not place yourself at the busiest intersection on the busiest attendance day of the year, when thousands of strangers are passing by? The club owners are doing it. The webseries filmmakers are doing it.

Probably the best picket sign I've ever seen

Probably the best picket sign I’ve ever seen

What’s the problem? Why are so many swaggering geeks who can laughingly quote the most un-PC lines of Tarantino aloud word for word in ear shot of little children in Robin and Princess Bubblegum costumes so bent out of shape by the word Jesus?

The Westboro Baptist Church sucks, and the counter protest was awesome. But it’s over, folks. Lighten up. Don’t be douchebags to people with the passion to stand out on a corner in high temp and full sun for hours on end to spread the word of the motivating factor of their lives. It’s the same kind of passion that causes you to band together with your fellow fans to sweat under the nearly unbearable heat of a wookiee costume or full battle armor for hours on end.

So…a little common courtesy, fellow fanboys. A little respect. A little less passion and a little more compassion. Don’t be a bully.

Carry on, and may the Force be with you.

DT Back Issues: The Last American

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

coverThis week I take a look at THE LAST AMERICAN, a four issue miniseries from Marvel’s Epic imprint dating from 1990 and written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, drawn by Mike McMahon.

In 1999, a disgraced, imprisoned Army captain, Ulysses Pilgrim, is approached in his cell by the President of the United States, who informs him that global thermonuclear war is imminent. The United States possesses a prototype single person cryogenic freezer constructed beneath a fallout bunker for the use of the President. Except he doesn’t want to use it. Instead, he offers Pilgrim one last chance to see his wife and son before going into deep freeze and waiting out the holocaust.

“You will lie in wait until the major effects of the disaster are over. If chaos reigns, you will restore order. If an enemy is in control, you will exact retribution. Your rank will be APOCALYPSE COMMANDER – – your powers, ABSOLUTE. You will be the last alive vested with the authority of the United States Government.”

img015 (Medium)Sounds pretty John Wayne, huh? I actually mentally read that block of dialogue in Ed Gilbert’s voice (the voice of General Hawk in the 80’s GI Joe cartoon).

Except that of course, the duck and cover movies are all a lie.

Pilgrim is awakened on schedule twenty years after the nukes fly, and sets out in a Damnation Alley Landmaster style ATV, intermittently broadcasting to anyone left alive to listen. His only companions are a pair of bulky combat/heavy load robots named Abel and Baker, and a smaller ‘bot, Charlie, whose programming seems to include first aid, psychiatry, television, and generally acting as comic relief to keep Pilgrim sane with Hill Street Blues references, a jack of whiskey, and innocuous general encouragement.

img016 (Medium)Pilgrim and the bots traverse a blasted, allegorical landscape in an episodic manner, encountering little more than ants and at one point, a mutated bald eagle.  There is plenty of evidence that humans at least survived the initial strike, but none of it very encouraging.  Pilgrim finds a maximum security prison where the warden ordered all the inmates executed. He finds highways choked with cars, each one jammed with old skeletons, and at one point, a pile of skulls with a grisly handwritten placard from a confessed cannibal professing his innocence of murder.

img018 (Medium)By the time the crew reaches the irradiated remains of New York, which has taken a direct hit, Pilgrim begins hallucinating. The weak point of the series for me comes with issue two’s prolonged delusional sequence in which skeletons dance and sing a macabre Broadway musical with lyrics like

“When you’re flying through the air, think what you’ll  save on taxi fare!”

It crosses over dark satire a bit into maudlin silliness at times.

img017 (Medium)By the end, Pilgrim has given up hope and is suicidal, having already imagined the deaths of his wife and child over and over. But before he pulls the trigger on himself, the radio crackles with a cryptic, thrill inducing message addressed to Pilgrim’s US Deep Reserve Unit. Pilgrim heads out with renewed vigor in search of the source of the signal, somewhere among the eternally burning fires of the Virginia coal seams.  In restless sleep, he dreams of an American heaven populated with a boy’s club of former US Presidents nudging each other about the inevitability of Armageddon.

img020 (Medium)When a crumbling roadway gives way, flipping the ATV, Pilgrim flees out into a pouring toxic thunderstorm, desperate to continue his search, to validate his existence and find proof he’s not alone. At that point Charlie admits the message was a fake he was programmed to deliver should Pilgrim become suicidal.

This would be a crushing Twilight Zone style ending, but in the final issue Pilgrim and company plod on, and come across an automated defense system protecting an underground laboratory, the blast doors cluttered with skeletons of those who died trying to get in. Blasting their way in, they find a nursery, and Charlie deduces the test subjects, pregnant women, fled into the lower levels. Despite the robots’ assurance that no life forms or signals are detected, Pilgrim insists on following their trail, and discovers a handwritten, badly misspelled journal of one of the autistic test subjects, who were undergoing an unspecified procedure when the war happened.

The woman, Melinda, tells a depressing story of herself and her unborn daughter Hope (because she hopes she will be smarter than she is). When one of the scientists opens the blast doors to check on the world post attack, he is dissolved in the chemically blazing air. This induces Melinda’s labor and she has her child. But she doesn’t name her Hope because –

“The doctors said something bad had happened and all hope was gone. They said it was the twilight of the world. So I called her Twilight.”

img019 (Medium)After eating all the food stores, the doctors resort to cannibalizing a baby and presumably each other. Twilight dies and Melinda leads the rest of the women down into the caverns beneath the facility with her prize zippo lighter. Pilgrim finds a half dozen skeletons out of the twenty test subjects, and finds a subterranean spring with evidence of past human habitation, along with Melinda’s zippo and the word AMERICA scrawled in the dirt, with an arrow pointing to a cave mouth. He posits that some of the women may have survived, that their children may have grown up somewhere out there, but wonders if he’s the one to go on looking for them.

He orders Charlie and the bots to douse their external lights and flicks Melinda’s old zippo lighter, thinking Hope, or Twilight?

When  a flame jumps out, it illuminates Pilgrim’s thin, hopeful smile.

And that’s the end.

img021 (Medium)Artist Mike McMahon’s distorted, almost geometric human figures and the bold stars and stripes iconography on Pilgrim’s uniform remind me of  Kevin O’Neal’s work on MARSHAL LAW, and the predominately gray and blue tones are effective if not very eyecatching at a glance.  The inking however is superb and really pops on close inspection. Please click on the scans and get a good look at the wonderful detail. It really is a visually beautiful comic.

The John Wagner (who, with Arthur Ransom, did another of my favorite comics, BUTTON MAN) and Alan Grant script is pretty compelling, carrying what’s basically a one man stage show for four admittedly depressing issues and then managing to inject the dour subject matter with an undeniable and literal spark of humanistic hope in the end.  This was 1990 and the Cold War that had inspired 99 Red Balloons, WAR GAMES, and MAD MAX 2 and a culture of perennial dread was ending. THE LAST AMERICAN perhaps came a little too late to seize the attention of the nuke fearing public, but only just. Comic books were just starting to become accepted in the greater whole of pop culture and were still for the main part sporting spandex so it’s possible the audience just wasn’t there for a serious comic about the futility of nuclear war. However, it’s a harrowing depiction of the true post-apocalypse, in the tradition of THE DAY AFTER and ON THE BEACH, and definitely deserves a second look if even as a sobering time capsule of the insanity of late eighties Soviet-American nuclear paranoia and Rocky IV flag waving.

img022 (Medium)Apparently the collaborative team of Wagner and Grant suffered a breakup during the writing of THE LAST AMERICAN, and Wagner wrote issues 1 and 2, while Grant wrote 3 and 4. Comic.X put out a trade paperback edition collecting the whole series. I have the original issues so I can’t speak for the quality, but it seems like a good way to track this down if you’re having trouble. It’s worth a look.

Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

DT Back Issues: The Shadow (Chaykin/Helfer)

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

untitledThis week I’m taking a look at one of my all time favorite comic runs, the 80’s DC revamp of THE SHADOW that began with Howard Chaykin’s four-issue BLOOD & JUDGEMENT miniseries and was picked up in a glorious but achingly short lived monthly run by writer Andy Helfer that saw art by Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers, and the auspicious debut of Kyle Baker.

The Shadow had a long history as first the disembodied, sinister voice (Frank Readick Jr.’s) of a radio announcer for Street and Smith’s Detective Story Hour, a popular pulp fiction crimefighter penned by the insanely productive Walter B. Gibson, and then back to the radio as a crime/adventure series with The Shadow voiced by Orson Welles, Bill Johnstone, Brett Morrison (where I first encountered the character on an Old Time Radio tape my dad played in his Bronco), John Archer, and Steve Cortleigh, in succession.

The premise of The Shadow is of a master manipulator, a dark and faceless avenger who plots against criminals in (you guessed it) the shadows, commanding a network of agents with various talents and connections both political and criminal. The Shadow directs his agents via codes or a central dispatcher (usually the equally mysterious “Burbank”), and influences his quarry into intricate set ups, finally dispatching them personally with a pair of matched .45’s, all the while laughing ominously. The Shadow had no real superpower other than being an expert at obfuscation, disguise, hypnosis, misdirection and stealth (understandable considering Walter Gibson was an accomplished stage magician), but the radio drama added to his arsenal, for the sake of brevity of explanation, the mystic power (learned in Tibet) to cloud men’s minds and disappear from sight.

The Shadow’s alter ego is Kent Allard, a former World War I ace and spy who faked his death and took on the persona of both The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, a wealthy playboy whom he apparently resembled.

There were a few prior comic book iterations of the character, the most successful being the Michael Kaluta illustrated series at DC, but as I said, outside of The Shadow’s Revenge, a radio episode my Dad picked up on tape at a rest stop one family vacation, my introduction to the character came with the eye grabbing cover to The Shadow #8, featuring the debut of artist Kyle Baker.

Shadow_(DC_Comics)_Vol_3_8 (Medium)I was thirteen and browsing Friendly Frank’s Comics in Lansing, Illinois (yep, the very same Friendly Frank’s that brought about the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) with my buddy Dave when the cover to #8 snatched my attention.  Take a look at it and you can see why. This was one evocative piece of work, the kind that, as the best covers do, formulated a multitude of possible stories in my mind at a glance, the kind that just made me wanna pick this up and see what it was about. The muted blue Michael Mann-ish , coloring, instantly evoking a dark and urban feel, the mad look on the character’s face, leering back at you like a bloody-mawed lion surprised in the midst of killing a zebra (his choice of weapon, a barbeque fork, compounding the maneater impression), that gout of blood spraying out of the gasping victim’s throat, the odd, bulky proportions of the figure, and of course the looming, iconic shadow falling across it all.

This was the first For Mature Readers comic I ever picked up. I was expecting full on porn and eviscerations in my heady rush back home, blood pounding in my ears, the comic sandwiched surreptitiously between my Groos and Wolverines. What I got was the first part of THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS storyline, an alternately kick ass and at time hilarious story about the Shadow and his agents going up against the criminal enterprises of a family of brothers, the Finns, who dabble in arms dealing (via a Home Shopping Network style cable access show), drugs (smuggling narcotics in astronomically expensive and hideous children’s toys sold brazenly off the shelf to buyers in the know), prostitution, terrorism, and outright murder (one Finn brother owned a hot dog plant which he allowed his brothers to dump bodies in….memorably, a diamond stud earring in one victim makes its way into a customer’s wiener, and to salvage the situation the brother comes up with the smokescreen that the entire happening was part of a new promotional sweepstakes, in which a diamond is hid in random hot dogs. The slogan: “Every Frank A Wiener.”)

img006 (Medium)The Shadow swiftly became my favorite comic, and remains one of my favorites of all time. What attracted me about it was its focus on the well defined, brilliantly characterized agents and their perception of ‘The Master.’  There was Twitchkowitz the narcotics expert, once a pro wrestling cornerman who slipped his charges timely adrenaline injections to swing matches in their favor, DeWitt, the lowlife con man and son of a criminal informant (And I’d swear the pair of DeWitt and Twitch was copied directly by Todd McFarlane for his two cops Sam and Twitch in Spawn – right down to the character designs), Mavis, the daughter of original agent Harry Vincent, and a former federal agent, and The Shadow’s two sons, Hsu Tei and Chang, who piloted his sleek flying car (a souvenir from Shamballha, the technologically advanced Tibetan utopia where the Shadow got his training). Several of The Shadow’s old time agents had parts in the comic as well –the aforementioned Harry pursued a relationship with the Shadow’s old squeeze Margo Lane, and Burbank returned, catering to Lorelei, a paralyzed woman bound to an iron lung who was The Shadow’s new dispatcher, doubling as a phone sex operator.

My enjoyment of THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS led me to pick up the comic miniseries that had brought The Shadow into the modern era, and reinvigorated his character and origin, Howard Chaykin’s BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT. The Shadow had not learned his skills in Tibet, according to Chaykin, but in the technologically superadvanced city of Shamballha, where he had battled the real Lamont Cranston, a criminal bon vivant trying to smuggle opium out of central China in the bodies of dead missionaries. Crashlanding in Shamballha, Allard was reconstructed and trained as a paladin, a shadow warrior who could fight blind and manipulate minds. Allard took his newfound abilities, assumed the Cranston identity, and battled the underworld until the mid forties as The Shadow, when he returned to Shamballha and fathered two sons.

img009 (Medium)Meanwhile, the real Lamont Cranston had survived their previous encounter, and regained his fortune under the name Preston Mayrock. Eager to lure the Shadow out of hiding, Mayrock ordered the assassination of all of the Shadow’s former agents, and succeeded in horrifically murdering Clive Burke, Shrevvy, and a few others, before The Shadow returned to face him (not aged, but young as ever thanks to the advanced medicine of Shamballha).

Chaykin’s re-imagination of the character was daring considering nobody had ever taken The Shadow out of the 30’s before. Introducing him not as an outdated fuddy duddy lost in the modern world, but a smirking, unapologetic force equal to and most often greater than any savagery the hyperkinetic punks of the 80’s could dish out, was inspired. I’m reminded of the movie Time After Time in which HG Wells pursues Jack The Ripper back to 1980’s San Francisco, and The Ripper, after sitting up all night and watching violent American culture on a television set remarks “I’m home.”  The reason for The Shadow’s retirement is never given, but maybe he just got bored. Allard was an adventurer and thrillseeker who took up crimefighting not out of some moral imperative or familial tragedy, but because he just wanted to. Maybe the forties grew too tame for the master.

shadow11It was the success of BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT which led to the commissioning of an ongoing monthly series at DC, and the first artist to join Helfer was Bill Sienkiewicz . Now when I was a kid, jumping back from Kyle Baker’s cartoonish style to Chaykin’s realistic pulpy four color guys and dames-style figures and then Sienkiewicz, I admit I wasn’t impressed by his (what I then termed) scribbly  art style. There were times I couldn’t even tell if the characters he was depicting were supposed to be human. But in revisiting Sienkiewicz’s run, I fully appreciate the artistry of what he was doing in these early issues. shadow6The human figures are often grotesque and bizarre looking, but always interesting. There’s a pimply computer hacker named Alfred, and Sienkiewicz depicts him in one panel pointing and wolfing down a cheeseburger as he stands ankle deep in a pile of McDonald’s cartons that turned me off of McDonald’s for a few months. I love the kinetic lines of action and reaction he inserts into their eye lines and auras, like the cartoony twitching of Popeye’s elbows. Sienkiewicz is the only guy I know that can draw a blink. He maximizes reactions. TheShadow2The violence in The Shadow is shocking under his hand, with a mind controlled cyclist driving his bike head on into a Mack truck in one panel seeming to explode across the grill, and characters falling from great heights to smack the pavement drawn so you can almost feel the impact yourself. And the way he draws the Shadow himself is unparalleled. When the Shadow appears to criminals with a pair of twin mini-UZI’s (or MAC-10’s, I think Sienkiewicz drew him with), he’s a terror; a nightmare figure of inky darkness and impossible angles, illuminated by rapid muzzle flashes and ensconced by swirling, mad laughter and that crazily whipping Tom Baker-length crimson scarf.

coleccion-de-20-numeros-de-the-shadow-bill-sienkiewicz_MLM-O-30786886_7801The Helfer/Sienkiewicz run gave us the return of The Golden Master, Shiwan Khan, a yellow peril villain who appeared in two of the pulp novels. Here, Khan was an aged cross between Ming The Merciless and David Lo Pan, brilliant high tech industrialist beloved by consumers for his philanthropy and good humor. But of course, Khan had ulterior motives, and had developed a method for mass mind control stolen midway through the storyline by The Light, a fanatical televangelist with mind powers rivaling the Shadow’s own.  The Light’s backstory was depicted concurrently in the first Shadow annual, a lurid 40’s tale of atomic bomb worship and the failed return of the Third Reich.

shadow_golden_masterFollowing the Shadows & Light storyline, in issue #7 Helfer took his first stab at the black humor that would characterize the title’s final issues with the chilling and portentious  one-off story HAROLD GOES TO WASHINGTON, with guest artist Marshall Rogers.  In this issue, a couple of the Shadow’s agents decide to help out fellow agent Elton Butterfield, a substitute elementary school teacher, whose class has been chosen to visit Washington DC and sit in on a taping of President Reagan’s speech.  As the agents go about their shenanigans of dealing with a bunch of shrill carsick youths, all the while praying the master doesn’t find out about their misuse of his manpower (inevitably he does), unbeknownst to everyone, misanthropic young Harold, whose father died in the war, has decided, in a bout of neglected and misunderstood child sociopathy, that he must be a war hero like his father. Since he has been told the President keeps the world at peace, there can never be a war. Thus, to be a war hero, he must kill the President with the German luger he steals from the trunk full of Nazi paraphernalia in the attic.

26312-3809-29219-1-shadow-theMuch of the story is told from Harold’s fractured point of view, and we are privy to his everyday madness. He burns a roach motel full of trapped insects on the kitchen stove (in a scene that reminds me of the opening of THE WILD BUNCH), tests the Luger on the family cat, and, when threatened with exposure by a schoolmate, memorably traps the boy’s jacket in the window of a departing bus, killing him. I can’t stress enough the prescience of this single story, or its relevance to our modern society of school shootings and youth violence. Harold is a boy left to his own devices to figure out the world, and mainly ignored by his mother and teachers or dismissed as creepy by his peers, of course he gets it horribly wrong. Helfer penned a terrifying masterpiece in this transitional tale.

img004 (Medium)Harold goes on the field trip dressed as a cowboy (brilliantly wearing the Luger in full view of his oblivious teachers and the secret service), but misses his shot at the President, and institutes a running gun battle through some kind of huge diorama of Washington DC. I can’t begin to analyze what’s going on here, with a giant child in a cowboy outfit shooting his way through a miniature DC like some kind of crazed redneck Godzilla. Maybe Harold is an analogy for Reagan America itself. But when he’s surprised by a G-man and blows the guy’s brains point blank all over the place, he is confronted at last with the harsh reality of his fantasy, and dies not by The Shadow’s hand, but by fate’s. The Shadow shows up in time to give the deonouement, as the boy literally hangs from the obelisk of the Washington monument by his cowboy hat string, a victim of his own deluded sense of masculinity perhaps.  Again, this is a comic book masterpiece. One of the most chilling and memorable issues of my youth.

img005 (Medium)img008 (Medium)At any rate, back to THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS, which, after a positively riveting multi-part storyline, incredibly, ends with the Shadow’s apparent death by poison gas. Yep, the very next issue, kicking off the BODY AND SOUL storyline, depicted the Shadow lying in his coffin on the cover. And he was really dead. But it’s a testament to Helfer’s writing that even with the titular character out of the picture, the supporting cast, none of them superpowered or costumed (well at first), still managed to hold my attention at age thirteen.

In the wake of the Shadow’s death, crime rises to an unprecedented height, culminating in the audacious high rise killings, in which a pair of chummy burglars break into well to do apartments and toss the occupant over the balcony, betting the entire haul of loot on wether or not the hapless victim lands on his head or his tails. The Shadow’s agents, depressed at the loss of their master and feeling purposeless, decide to carry out his work themselves and more, to seek out a replacement to guide their actions. At first, they try to convince another pulp hero, master of disguise Richard Benson AKA The Avenger to be their new master, but when he refuses, they decide to try and track down a new hero making a name for himself, the green skinned, green clad Inoculator, who injects his victims (child pornographers and crooked cops) with lethal doses of prescription drugs, delivered from a rifle like injector mechanism.

The only problem with this plan is the Inoculator is actually Twitchkowitz.

img011 (Medium)The second Shadow Annual appeared as a sideline to the ongoing series, taking time out to celebrate the character’s history with a well executed homage to the original voice of the master, Orson Welles. In this issue, Rupert, a nominal associate of the Shadow’s agents who has been trying to break into broadcast news reporting, interrupts a screening of a television retrospective documentary of the Shadow’s career. Having been present at the Shadow’s death, and having heard him mutter the word ‘Lenore,’ Rupert sets out at the behest of the ambivalent producers to learn the meaning of the Shadow’s last spoken word. He interviews Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, and Dr. Roy Tam in succession, learning how each of them came into the Shadow’s service. Harry’s story is a faithful variation of his introduction in the pulps (Harry was saved from suicide by the Shadow as depicted in Gibson’s first novel, THE LIVING SHADOW), but Roy Tam and Margo are each given cool little introductory stories of their first meetings with the Shadow – Tam, patching him up after he caught a bullet during a Chinatown shootout, and Margo, after helping to foil a plot by a Nazi agent to deliver coded messages over the airwaves during a radio drama broadcast (with Orson Welles in the sound booth). The new agents Elton, DeWitt, and Twitch, are given a humorous backstory (The Shadow, upon deciding to make Twitch his agent, delivers an impressive about how he doesn’t take just anyone into his service, and DeWitt bursts in with Elton in tow, yelling HEY MASTER I GOTTA ANUDDER ONE FOR YA!) . Each offer their own impressions of Kent Allard/The Shadow unique to their particular relationships, with Burbank’s dogged tale of loyalty over the years a particular standout. As a ham radio enthusiast, following The Shadow’s disappearance in 1940, Burbank is the only one to keep in contact with him, reading his master newspapers and keeping him up to date on the developments of the western world over the decades. The whole thing wraps up with a nice denouement worthy of its inspiration, CITIZEN KANE, as ‘Lenore’ is revealed to be something indicative of Kent Allard’s youth, which he held in very high esteem.

Meanwhile back in the regular series, the bid to return the Shadow to life (this is comics, after all) has already been set in motion by the Shadow’s two bumbling sons, Hsu Tei and Chang, who, having lost their father’s funerary instructions, decide to take his body back to Shamballha. This plot line swiftly spirals into a chaotic comedy of errors as the Chinese military shoots down their flying car, leaving Hsu Tei and Chang to drag their father’s corpse to a barbaric town of criminal anarchists and paramilitary survivalists known as Malice, where they befriend a gang of juvenile delinquents (the children of Malice) and are chased out of town for various infractions of the bizarre Malice penal code by both the townspeople and the murderous Arbitrator, a magnum toting judge in black robes and a powdered Parliamentary wig whose final ruling is always execution. The Shadow’s fire opal ring (and finger) are stolen by the followers of a female rockstar who apparently collects dead celebrities, the Shadow is decapitated by the blades of a plummeting helicopter, and Hsu Tei and Chang finally arrive in Shamballha with the children of Malice only to find they have led the crazed citizenry to the hidden utopia.

img012 (Medium)The Shadow’s head is revived and he berates his fool sons as the scientists of Shamballha grow a new body for him. The children of Malice are doled out to wanting families by the elders of Shamballha, and all seems right with the world until the tanks of Malice roll into town and begin laying waste to the pacifist populace. The Shadow opts to have his head placed on a prototype metallic body with armaments that put Robocop to shame, and he singlehandedly defends Shamballha, resolving to give the robot body a couple test drives in New York City before returning for his proper fleshy form.

img010 (Medium)On the last page of the last issue, we learn that Shiwan Khan, crippled way back in issue #6, has had his own head put on a similar robot body by renegade Shamballhan doctors, and the splash page card promises the next issue will kick off the NUTS AND BOLTS storyline.

But it never happened.

There are various stories as to why The Shadow was cancelled. Likely it was a lack of sales, but it may be due to the intervention of Conde Nast, the rights holders of The Shadow property, who apparently realized too late the quirky turn the comic had taken and took exception. Whatever happened, The Shadow ceased to be, making it the second great unfinished comic tale of my youth (the first was LONE WOLF AND CUB, which I had the original American First Comics printings of, but ten years after that company went under, Dark Horse thankfully reprinted the whole thing from beginning to end).

Scrambling to hold onto the rights, DC replaced the modern day Shadow with a series set in the classic 1930’s era, called THE SHADOW STRIKES. I picked up the first issue, but it was pretty standard derring do fare, nothing more than an illustrated pulp, really, and anyway, it couldn’t alleviate my disappointment in the series I loved being cancelled mid-story. I think this was the first such disappointment in my life. I remembered thinking how fantastic the plot was and being thunderstruck that something so good could just get the rug pulled out from under it. The character felt very real to me, and it seemed impossible that I would never learn what happened to Twitch, Mavis, DeWitt, or any of them.

But I never would.

27712-3809-30747-1-shadow-theWhat the heck was Helfer doing in these last few issues? He displayed such a brilliant knack for characterization that I can’t imagine this robotization of the Shadow was just a stunt to bring in more readers. Was he undertaking some crazy absurdist experiment under the noses of his editors? Is that even possible? Had he learned Conde Nast was cracking down on him for his darkly humorous portrayal and decided to give them a big middle finger as he went out?

Shadow_(DC_Comics)_Vol_3_15Look at the cover for the final, silly and brutish issue of the Shadow, #19. It’s typical comic book fare. The Shadow, still wearing his slouch hat, has this clobberin’ time look on his face as he smashes through a wall. The titles, in Indiana Jones style , as with rivets reads THE SENSES SHATTERING SHADOW! and the print on the cover is haphazard and funnybook-y, as it hadn’t been through the entire run ever. It looks ridiculous in context, but put the Hulk in that picture or the Thing or any other four color juvenile hero and you’ll realize it’s pretty standard issue. Were Baker and Helfer saying, OK here you go – here’s what you wanted? The Shadow for kids?

Look at the abstract artistry Baker did for the cover of #15 only four issues prior, depicting the corpse of the Shadow falling down a snowy mountainside with his two idiot sons.

26733-3809-29671-1-shadow-theLook at the reverence with which he recreated the cover of the original pulp novel THE LONE TIGER featuring The Shadow’s agents for #11, putting in the aged Burbank and Harry and substituting the new agents for those that had been lost. TheLoneTiger These guys were taking their job seriously, and displayed (to say nothing of the brilliant multi-layered references of the Shadow Annual #2), I think, a respect for the character and his origins as well as a commitment to taking him interesting places he’d never been before.

The robo-Shadow thing….yeah, it reads silly. But you know what? In the heat of the story, I was along for the ride. I would’ve gone almost anywhere Helfer and Baker took me. That’s good comics. Good writing, no matter the medium.

With the advent of the internet I read into the fate of Helfer’s Shadow, and came to be baffled by the slew of negative feelings from professed Shadow fans for this incarnation. Apparently the series is practically anathema to the majority of hardcore Shadow aficionados, who seem to prefer the character remain strictly in the original pulp era, and yet bemoan the lack of exposure for their favorite character in TV and movies.

But how can a hero character capture the public imagination if he’s not allowed to evolve with the times? The gun toting, Catwoman spanking Batman of the 1940’s bears little resemblance to the Batman of today, just as the absurdist Batman movie of the 1960’s is not the Dark Knight that broke box office records (or even the surreal circus-like Batman of the 80’s which did the same).

And the Shadow is the inspiration for Batman.

Recently, Chaykin’s BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT was re-released by Dynamite, and he was interviewed about the project by Comic Book Resources.  Of choosing to bring the character into modern day, he said;

“[I felt] that the reason the character had been identified with that period through that point was because it had been cancelled in 1949. To support that idea based on its failure seemed kind of counter intuitive. My feeling is that if Batman had been cancelled in 1945, he too would be perceived as a period character. So I thought it was important to figure out a way to do the character in a contemporary setting and a contemporary format.”

Further, he addressed the backlash of the character’s fan base;

“Comic book fandom is evenly divided between people who like comics in a general way and are fans of comics in general, and then there’s an entire spade of juvenilists who attach themselves to the old joke about the Golden Age of comics. ‘What’s the Golden Age of comics? 12!’ There’s this tremendous idea that their tastes were formed and refined at 12, and frankly, I’m not interested in supporting that sensibility. By the same token, if I’m going to be doing a mature readers product, I don’t feel the need to stand by the standards of a 12-year-old sensibility.”

I’m inclined to agree. I liken the phenomenon of the Shadow and his more rigid fans to an indie band and its devoted followers who have been there with them since they cut their first album. Struggling for years in relative obscurity, the band finally hits it big. Suddenly, everybody’s humming their tunes, and they’re playing Lollapalooza or whatever. And to the old school fans, all of a sudden they suck, and everything they do sounds like crap. They’re not being true to their roots and playing the same old comfortable tune.

But playing it safe and repeating their tunes isn’t what made them hit it big.

I just don’t get that mentality.

The Shadow is a great, iconic character, yes, and these comics were the gateway to the original pulps for me, and the radio shows.  I now appreciate the character in all three incarnations. But I really don’t believe he needs to be bound to the pulp era.  The Lone Ranger is one of the few characters I can call to mind that can’t exist outside of his original time period, and that’s because he’s a Texas Ranger on a white horse with Colt revolvers and an Indian companion.

There’s no reason for the Shadow to remain in the past.

Chaykin and Helfer did an amazing job of bringing the Shadow character into the present, and it’s the kind of injustice worthy of the barking of the master’s forty fives that this title’s gotten such flack.

Why this book continues to remain in obscurity, why it was never allowed to run its course….

Only the Shadow knows.

shadow-2

 

DT Back Issues: The ‘Nam

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s take on THE SHADOW, THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

Are ya with me?

OK, so I’m instituting a new feature here on Delirium Tremens, DT BACK ISSUES. Like DT MOVIEHOUSE, it’ll probably be infrequent, but it’ll give you something to read about besides Merkabah Rider, the Van Helsing Papers, Buff Tea, and anything else writerly I’ve got coming down the pipe.

thenam1And right now, having just finished re-reading the entire seven year run (or most of it – turned out I was short about four issues towards the end), Marvel Comics’ THE ‘NAM.

Assistant Editor Tim Tuohy, in his introduction to the final letter’s page of the series, said THE ‘NAM was referred to as “The Great Experiment” around the Marvel offices.

What an inventive and daring experiment it was! Larry Hama of GI JOE and Doug Murray came up with the idea of doing a realistic comic book about the Vietnam War, not a Sgt. Fury or Sgt. Rock actioner, but a real deal straightforward, grunt’s eye view of the war. Further, it would be told in real time, meaning when a month passed between issues, a month passed for the characters in the book. Given that a tour of duty in Vietnam lasted one year in the 60’s, that meant after twelve issues, the characters introduced in the first issue would rotate back to the United States, and a whole new cast would take over the story.

America was a little Vietnam crazy in the 80’s, and me being 12 years old in 1987 when I picked up my first issue (#11 – just LOOK at that cover! How could I pass up such a great looking book?), I was no different.

favoritecoverRambo was the most famous Vietnam vet, and it seemed like every cool, moody character in comics and film had a background in the war. The Punisher, even Stalker, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Scarlet from GI JOE had been to Indian Country (no surprise, given Hama was a vet).

And some time around that year, my buddy Ricardo leant me a VHS copy of Platoon, and the movie just blew me away.

I was gung ho for Vietnam. I wanted to learn everything about the VC and POW’s, M-60’s, Hueys, and humpin’ the boonies. So I picked up The ‘Nam #10 and #11 at my local comic shop.

It was the issue right after a major character and the best friend and mentor of the at the time main character Ed Marks had been killed. It opened with Ed drinking his sorrows away at the post bar while his friends worried over him, and then depicted an action in Saigon with US grunts acting as liaisons with South Vietnamese police.

To my eleven/twelve year old mind, it was totally baffling, and yet engrossing. Like Ed, I had no idea what the heck was going on. I was thrust into this strange world where absolutely nothing was explained. A civilian opened fire on a Vietnamese politician and the police responded by lighting up a crowd with machinegun fire. What had happened? Ed demanded to know, but he got no answers, so neither did I. In another scene, Ramnarain, one of the other soldiers, is shown selling something to a guy on the street. When Ed asks what he thinks he’s doing, Ramnarain’s response is “Just trying to make a little P.” What? Was he making fun of Ed? I had no idea. The lingo was as dense as the storyline. Most comics would have the little asterisks at the bottom of the panel explaining everything or the writing would put the word in such a context that you could figure out the meaning. Not so in The ‘Nam.

At the end of the book I discovered a handy lexicon with definitions of all the slang and military terms (P is money, of course), and letters from actual Vietnam vets and kids like me both expressing their admiration for the first ten issues and lamenting the death of somebody called Mike.

thenamambushAdding to the uniqueness of THE ‘NAM was its art, which I now recognize as being just glorious, a perfect, but to me (at the time) unheard of melding of cartoon/caricature human figures and astoundingly accurate and detailed equipment and backgrounds. Just look at the exaggerated figures. It’s the same kind of reality-disconnect you experience seeing Roger Rabbit interacting with Bob Hoskins, but here, it jars you, puts you a bit on edge. The characters look too pleasant to do each other violence. Then an orphan kid in line at a dinner sponsored by the Army pulls a grenade out from under his shirt and blows a GI into chuck.

This was the art of Michael Golden, a guy whose other work I’m not familiar with, but keep meaning to hunt up. His tenure ended not long after my own readership began (actually in the eleventh issue, I think).

The book was taken over by Wayne Vansant. A lot of people complained that his work presaged a drop in quality, but I disagree. He may not have been as stunning as Golden, but his art still fit the book like a combat boot, and he did the lion’s share of the work on it, mostly unsung, for a number of years, barring a few guest stints. Around the same time the book went from newsprint to a higher quality paper. This made for more vibrant colors that showcased Vansant’s work, but I think, tamed the book just a tad. The murk of newsprint had stood in for the haze of combat, the mystery of a place where anyone could decide to turn on you at any moment, and only the guys in OD Green beside you could be counted on  (and sometimes not even them).

untitledTrue to its promise, the characters rotated out, and new characters were brought in. Unfortunately this fascinating method of storytelling was abandoned, sometime around the infamous issue #41 or thereafter, and we never found out what happened to a lot of the guys like Andy and Daniels, Light, and the old timer Martini that had grandfathered in from the Korean War.

superheroes#41 was said to be an attempt to boost sales. It featured The Avengers on the cover, bursting through a map of Vietnam and proclaiming “GUESS WHO’S BEEN DRAFTED?” (look at the little HUH? bubble sprouting out of the GI in the upper left hand corner – was that Doug Murray himself?)

It turned a lot of people off, obviously. I don’t think Doug Murray would’ve done this story unless somebody higher up in Marvel were leaning on him, but on the other hand, I also think that anybody who dismissed THE ‘NAM because of this issue probably saw this in a catalog or on the shelf and scoffed without reading it.

The Avengers don’t REALLY invade Vietnam. How this  all came about was, in a previous issue, a misfit private named Aeder had joined the unit (which I should mention, was the 23rd Infantry). Aeder was not a good soldier and didn’t fit in well with the others. Plus, he was constantly reading comic books. A few issues prior to #41 he developed a relationship at the local ville with a Vietnamese girl, and was often being caught by Ice Phillips (the squad’s sergeant) AWOL. One one such excursion, VC guerillas burst into Aeder’s girl’s home while they were lying in bed, and gunned them both down.

In #41, Phillips is about to catch his chopper home, it being the end of his tour. Martini walks in and finds him sitting on Aeder’s cot, going through his old comics. They imagine what the war would be like if superheroes existed and could intervene. That’s it. It’s all Phillips and Martini just smoking and flipping through funnybooks, imagining. No big deal.

Subsequent letters columns EXPLODED with negative feedback on the issue, but re-reading it, it really made me wonder if anybody had read the thing. I was not offended  by it in the least. In the end, Murray lasted as the writer only another ten issues before the second attempt by Marvel to bolster sales of the book with a universe crossover happened.

punishernamThis was #52, Part I of “The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam.”

This one was well received, and generally, it made more sense. As I mentioned, Frank Castle was already established in his own book as a Vietnam vet. What we saw in this two parter was kind of a prequel to the Punisher, with Marine Corps sniper Frank Castiglione taking on a VC super sniper. A bit into the Sgt Rock mode, but not a bad story.

When it was over though, Murray had been replaced by Chuck Dixon, who abandoned the pre-established real time model and left the 23rd altogether to hop all over Vietnam and tell the stories he wanted to write. He opened with one of the best story arcs of the series, a five parter called The Death Of Joe Hallen, about a Marine’s return home, his disillusionment with the world, his return to Vietnam, and his eventual metaphoric ‘death,’ really a death of spirit. At the end of the arc, Hallen isn’t killed, but after his attempted murder of a fellow soldier (a junkie private named Roeder who mistakenly shot and killed Hallen’s friend as they were coming out of the jungle) is stopped by a couple of MP’s, he is dishonorably discharged and sent off to prison.

After a very slight lag in quality in Murray’s final issues (mostly the look of the book by a couple of fill in artists), the book experienced a renaissance, with Dixon really pulling out the stops. He even revisited the classic squad lineup of the first twelve issues, showing what they were doing (Ed Marks was a war correspondent, Sgt. Polkow a cop, etc). Of these, the biggest and best surprise was Ramnarain, the wheeling and dealing disgruntled private who was last seen when he was captured by the VC some forty issues previously. In a two part story in 59 and 60, a downed pilot is put into a POW camp and steadfastly refuses all attempts at interrogation by the camp commandant. By night he confides with another prisoner, talking through the wall about home, his experiences, etc. The next day the Vietnamese commandant gleefully throws all the info he shared with the GI in the pilot’s face, and as he is dragged out by the guards, the pilot curses the GI for passing information. The guards open the GI’s cell, revealing Ramnarain. Then they pick him up and carry him out. Both legs and an arm have been amputated.

tunnelratDid I mention this book was telling its stories under the seal of the Comics Code?

Yeah. Yet it still managed to deal with issues of racism, drugs, prostitution, CIA torture, civilian massacre, the murder of incompetent superior officers by troops (fragging), the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, the protest movement back home, and the general climate of chaos of the war. Twice, it even told its tales from the point of view of the Vietnamese, ARVN (South Vietnamese Army), NVA (North Vietnamese) and VC guerillas.

There are really too many memorable issues to talk about in depth. Most everybody remembers the Tunnel Rat issue, in which a GI explores a VC tunnel complex and winds up getting trampled by a horde of rats. There was another Punisher storyline (a third was planned and released after the book was cancelled at #84), issues about the American withdrawal and abandonment of its southern Vietnamese allies, and a couple backup stories set at home where a group of the old characters banded together to find their old crooked Top Sergeant who had gone bad in the real world and murdered one of their little brothers in a drug deal (though Dixon slightly effed the continuity up a bit, ignoring the fact that Top had returned to Vietnam after his initial arrest on bribery charges….also at one point Ice Phillips was inexplicably called Ice Eisenman).

littlebrotherTHE ‘NAM opened up the war to me in ways no history book or class ever has, to the point where I learned even more on my second read through.  Originally billed as an eight year limited series, it missed its goal by only twelve issues, succumbing at last to flagging sales and the gatefold foil covers of its competitors.

The INCOMING letters column was as educational as the book itself, and hosted spirited debates between combat veterans and war protestors, provided service information for vets and served as a bulletin board for comrades looking to reunite with old buddies, or sons and daughters looking to hear from anybody who had known the loved ones they’d lost. At times the letters printed were more emotional and moving than any fiction Murray or Dixon or any of the other writers ever came up with.

It really was an important comic book, a total anomaly in any collection. 84 issues offering a holistic, illustrated view of a war most schools won’t teach you anything about.

In the last INCOMING, Lizabeth Collier, who I believe was a frequent writer to the back pages, closed out the series saying;

“Don’t allow yourselves and your work to walk off the scene, forgotten. For now, my thanks for your work.”

I couldn’t say it any better.