Friday, September 28, 2012

X-MEN Episode Eight - March 6, 1993



The Unstoppable Juggernaut
Written by Julianne Klemm

Summary: In the ruins of the mansion, the X-Men discover a gigantic footprint. Wolverine tracks the prints into the city, where he encounters a large mutant named Colossus. After initially mistaking Colossus for the culprit, the team soon realizes that the real villain is a behemoth called the Juggernaut. During their battle, Rogue tries to absorb Juggernaut's powers, only to discover that he has too much power to steal. However, she does learn that Juggernaut is Xavier's bitter stepbrother. After Wolverine removes Juggernaut's helmet, Jean Grey uses Cerebro to wipe his mind clean.

"Actiiing!": The debut of Colossus brings us the show's first horrific use of a foreign accent. I'm sure the lady who played Moira MacTaggert wasn't a true Scotsman, either, but that accent was subtle and understated compared to Colossus’ “Russian” accent.

Review: I'm trying to think of a decent Juggernaut episode during this series' run, and I'm coming up blank. I guess Juggernaut was used fairly well during the extended "Phoenix Saga" storyline, but I don't think he was the sole focus of an entire episode. The only good thing I can think to say about "The Unstoppable Juggernaut" is that it's better than the later episode that has an introverted nerd straight out of a 1980s teen comedy gain the Juggernaut's powers. And that's debatable. (Okay, in fairness, working in a Beast cameo during Colossus’ short jail stint wasn’t a bad move. The rest of the episode, however, is indefensible.)

This is the generic superhero version of the X-Men that the comic fans were paranoid FOX would produce. Right down to the clich├ęd lesson about the importance of putting aside differences and using teamwork to save the day, this is simplistic pabulum for little kids. Aside from being dull, what really annoyed me about this episode when it aired was the casual dismissal of Colossus at the show's end. The series had a terrible habit of introducing established X-Men from the comics, pairing them with the team for an adventure, and then having the character decline membership at the end of the episode. This got old very quickly, and I think the stagnant team roster is a major reason why the series seemed so tired towards the end of its run.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

X-MEN Episode Ten - February 27, 1993


Come the Apocalypse
Written by Michael Edens

Summary: Angel is transformed by Apocalypse into Archangel, the first of his Horsemen. Soon, more mutants seeking a cure are changed into Famine, Pestilence, and War. They're sent to Paris to attack an international peace treaty. The X-Men arrive to stop them, and in the battle, Rogue's touch removes Apocalypse's influence from Archangel. He turns against the Horsemen, which gives the X-Men the edge against Apocalypse. Apocalypse retreats and the remaining Horsemen escape in the confusion.

Continuity Notes:
· Rogue sees Mystique in her true form for the first time in the show's continuity. She doesn't recognize Mystique as her mother until later in the season.
· Archangel's blades are inexplicably drawn as arrowheads. I mean fully detailed, real-life Native American arrowheads. I can only assume some error in translation is responsible for this, and the producers didn't have the budget available to fix the mistake.

“Um, Actually…”: Angel became Death, or Death Angel, after losing his mutant wings during the "Mutant Massacre" crossover. Apocalypse restored his wings and created his new form in X-Factor #23-25. He didn't take the name Archangel until the end of the "Inferno" storyline, years later.

Approved By Broadcast Standards: The Horsemen attack a helicopter in France, smashing it into the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly, no survivors are shown parachuting out in the nick of time.

Review: The conclusion to the initial Apocalypse storyline doesn't have the impact of the previous episode, largely because the intricate plotting has been replaced with extensive action scenes. This is a kid-friendly action cartoon, so that makes sense, although I think the action sequences are rarely a highlight of the series. Bruce Timm for years dismissed the idea of doing a Justice League cartoon, citing the difficulty of choreographing elaborate action sequences as the main reason (and listing X-Men as an example of how he wouldn't do them). Unfortunately, the fight scenes in this episode do grow tiresome, even though I think the initial battle in Paris is pretty effective. Looking past the action, the TV audience is introduced to Archangel (Whose name is nonsensical at this point; how can he be an Archangel and the Horseman of Death simultaneously?), and even if he doesn't go on to join the X-Men, maybe Toy Biz was able to sell some of his old action figures. Archangel's story is reproduced rather faithfully, detailing most of the drama and angst of the comic's version, making this a fairly intense story for the standards of the time. And, even if he does run away in the end, this arc does serve as a great introduction to Apocalypse. It's hard not to love a deep baritone delivering lines like "I know more of this world than you can even dream. That is why I must destroy it! " or "I am the rocks of the eternal shore. Crash against me and be broken!"

Monday, September 24, 2012

X-MEN Episode Nine - February 20, 1993



The Cure
Written by Mark Edward Edens

Summary: Cable ambushes Angel, who’s funded the work of Dr. Adler, a scientist who can allegedly neutralize mutant powers. Cable travels to Muir Island to confront Dr. Adler, just as Rogue arrives to research his treatment. She rescues Adler from Pyro and Avalanche, who have concocted a kidnapping scheme out of boredom. Unbeknownst to everyone, Mystique replaced the deceased Dr. Adler months earlier. When Cyclops and Jean Grey arrive to check on Rogue, they meet Dr. Adler just as Cable locates him. They stop Cable from harming him, and after Rogue uses her powers to rescue Jean, she decides to abandon the treatment. However, Angel agrees to the treatment, which pleases Mystique’s master, Apocalypse.

Continuity Notes:
· Moira MacTaggert makes her first appearance in the series. She’s providing lab space to the mysterious Dr. Adler on the Muir Island Research Centre.
· When exactly Dr. Adler died isn’t clear, but the implication is that Mystique killed him. (How she ended up a captive in Genosha during the period she was impersonating Dr. Adler isn’t explained.)
· Cable believes Dr. Adler is the creator of the power-inhibiting collars used by the Genoshan government, which coincides with a line in “Slave Island” referencing the collars as a creation of a scientist in Scotland.
· In the cartoon’s continuity, Angel has never met the X-Men before. This is later contradicted when various episodes flash back to the early days of the team and Angel is included in the group shots.
· Rogue’s history with Pyro and Avalanche has also been ignored, even though a second season episode will show them working together during her days with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. At this point, only Pyro recognizes Mystique in her true form.
· Wolverine alludes to Gambit’s past as a thief when they get into an argument while rebuilding the mansion. He’s also the first to notice Rogue’s attraction to Gambit.

“Um, Actually…”: Obviously, Angel is a founding member of the X-Men, and Mystique’s true form is known to all of the former members of the Brotherhood. Mystique was never an obedient slave to Apocalypse in the comics, either.

Saban Quality: Xavier has a hilarious case of googly eyes when he speaks to the X-Men via satellite from Muir Island. I understand that time and budget concerns can prevent even egregious mistakes like this from being fixed, but what I don’t understand is why this embarrassing footage showed up yet again in the next episode’s “Previously…” opening. I would think this was the last bit of footage the producers would want to reuse.

Approved By Broadcast Standards: Angel gets shot twice in the opening sequence, once by Cable and once by his confused girlfriend. Both guns are laser blasters set on stun, of course.

Review: Hey, I said I was reviewing the series in broadcast order, not production order. And if you were a fan of the show in 1993, I hope you remember what it was like to hear Rogue blame “that ol’ boy Juggernaut” for destroying the mansion during the X-Men’s first appearance in the episode. “What?! JUGGERNAUT?!?!” was the only appropriate response from any fan of the comics who was paranoid he or she missed an episode. You couldn’t run to the internet, check IMDB, and then curse FOX for running the episodes out of order or Akom for not finishing the episode in time. You just had to sit there and contemplate how badly your VHS copy of the series would now be out of order.

"The Cure" is another solid script from Mark Edward Edens, even if it does bring us the first instance of the series flagrantly ignoring the established characterization of someone in order to hammer them into an existing plot. Mystique isn’t going to serve anyone as a slave, and even though the show does straighten out her characterization later on, it’s hard to ignore how badly her character’s been twisted in these opening episodes. What the episode does get right is the bizarre connection “Dr. Adler” manages to make with a varied cross-section of mutantkind. Everyone from Cable to Angel to Apocalypse appears in the story, yet it never feels cluttered and all of the characters have clearly defined motives. It’s also impressive that the episode’s able to resolve the dangling threads of “Slave Island” while also setting up the “Days of the Future Past” arc, and exist as a credible story independent of the ongoing continuity.

Cable is the highlight of the episode, as he brazenly travels the globe, just shooting anyone who he believes has a connection to the Genoshan slave collars. He’s willing to set his giant Liefeld gun on stun for Angel, but he clearly intends to kill Dr. Adler in the episode’s climax. Lawrence Bayne’s portrayal of Cable hits all of the deadpan notes, making it hard not to root for the guy. Edens’s script also creates a sympathetic portrayal of Rogue, touching on all of the beats the comic fans are already familiar with, but not in a hackneyed way. It’s also worth noting that the internal debate over mutants choosing to erase their powers is handled with the same level of thought that the third X-Men movie managed to produce, in one-fifth of the time and one-one thousandths of the budget.

So, what’s more galling than Mystique, the obedient slave? How about pastel Apocalypse?



Unfortunately, the color scheme of this show can still be unfathomable.


Credit to http://marvel.toonzone.net/xmen/ for the screencaps.

Friday, September 21, 2012

X-MEN Episode Seven - February 13, 1993



Slave Island
Written by Mark Edward Edens

Summary: Gambit, Storm, Jubilee are kept prisoner with other mutants in Genosha. Using special collars to restrain their powers, the Genoshan authorities force the mutants to construct a dam, which will be used to power a Sentinel factory. Gambit convinces the authorities that he’s working undercover as a mole, but takes advantage of his small freedom to escape. He encounters Cable, a former Genoshan mercenary who turned on the Leader after discovering Genosha’s treatment of mutants. With Cable’s help, the mutants are freed and Storm is able to destroy the dam. The rest of the X-Men arrive and rescue their teammates.

Continuity Notes:
· This episode marks the return of the Sentinels, Henry Gyrich, Bolivar Trask, and Cameron Hodge (although Hodge’s former position as Beast’s lawyer isn’t mentioned). Master Mold is introduced as a giant Sentinel manufacturing plant.
· Numerous mutants make cameo appearances in this episode, including Mystique, Pyro, Blob, Northstar, Aurora, Caliban, Sunfire, and most of the cast of X-Force at this time.
· The Genoshan authorities don’t know for sure if Cable is a mutant. He certainly doesn’t use his powers in the episode (which, at this time, only consisted of mild telekinesis). It’s possible the episode was written before the producers even knew what Cable’s powers were supposed to be.
· Domino, who also had vaguely defined mutant powers during this period, is given powers very similar to Gambit’s by the show’s producers.
· This episode has two endings. Because episode eight wasn’t ready yet, the cliffhanger that lead into it had to be replaced when this episode originally aired. In the original airing, the X-Men return home in a happy ending. In the “official” ending, they return home to discover the mansion in ruins.

“Um, Actually…”: In the comics, Genoshan authorities restrict mutant powers with skintight bodysuits. (Rictor is accidently drawn wearing his in the episode.) The newly created Mutates also have their heads shaven. And Cable, of course, never worked for the Genoshan government. He didn’t have anything approaching an origin when the episode went into production, so it’s understandable that the producers felt the need to give him some sort of backstory.

Saban Quality: Cable’s design from the comics remains unchanged, which means he wears an “X” logo even though he’s not affiliated with any of the X-teams at this time.

Review: Even though this is a pretty sanitized version of the early Genosha stories, I still consider “Slave Island” one of the first season’s best episodes. If you were a kid whose first exposure to the X-Men was though this series, this episode must’ve been a revelation. The Morlock story hinted at the idea, but this episode drives the point home -- the world is just filled with mutants. All kinds of mutants, actually. Many of them even dress like the X-Men, oddly enough. Luckily, the animators have mostly stuck to character designs from the comics for the background characters, with only a few generic designs for new characters snuck in. (The guy in the green suit with the giant head is a new creation of the cartoon’s, right? I never understood what the animators were thinking with this one. He’s even in the opening credits for some unthinkable reason.)

If you’re already a fan of the comics, then the episode’s a thrill for anyone engrossed with the early ‘90s storylines. The readers already know that Gambit is the alleged traitor on the team, and what does this episode bring us? Gambit betraying the team! Of course, his true intentions are revealed almost as soon as the show’s back from the commercial break, but it’s still a great play on the audience’s expectations. For younger fans unfamiliar with the comics, I’m sure the brief tease of Gambit’s treachery had a heavy impact as well. (I certainly remember what it was like when Dusty “betrayed” the G. I. Joe team when I was a kid. This is heavy stuff for a five-year-old.) Even when the villains are defeated and Gambit’s cleared himself, the doubts still linger, as Gambit refuses to tell Jubilee whether or not he would’ve sold the team out for his own benefit. He’s clearly picking on her, but the question remains unanswered, which is a clever way to tease the cartoon’s own adaption of the X-traitor plot.

Comic fans also had to be excited to see Cable’s animation debut. I never fully bought into the Cable hype, but it’s impossible to deny the influence the character was having on mainstream comics at the time. While Marvel was milking every last penny it could out of the character’s mysterious past, every other company was cranking out as many one-armed, one-eyed clones as possible. Not only were X-Men fans getting a loyal translation of the comics on Saturday morning, the producers also made it clear that they knew what the core audience wanted. At the time, that was Cable. And, yes, it’s insane that Cable appeared before Nightcrawler, Banshee, Iceman, etc. In retrospect, at least. In early 1993, getting to Cable as soon as possible makes sense.

Using Cable as a disillusioned mercenary is a simple way to bring him into the plot, while also hinting at his militant pro-mutant stance. Unfortunately, the series isn’t too far away from following the comics’ example and recasting Cable as a future mutant messiah, but right now they’ve captured the early appeal of the character. Not only has Edens figured out how to incorporate Cable into the story, along with dozens of established mutants as background figures, but he’s also created a sanitary version of the Genoshan torture chambers that still works for kids’ TV. Locking claustrophobic Storm into a tiny box and baking her in the heat for hours is fairly brutal, and the actress’ portrayal of an increasingly unhinged Storm is one of the few highlights the character received during the show’s run. So, yes, there’s a lot to like here. The quality drop from this episode to "The Unstoppable Juggernaut" is actually shocking in retrospect.

Credit to http://marvel.toonzone.net/xmen/ for the screencap. The VHS cover, which was the first done by either Ty Templeton or Mike Parobeck, was scanned by the excellent uncannyxmen.net site.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

X-MEN Episode Six - February 6, 1993



Cold Vengeance
Written by Michael Edens

Summary: Wolverine seeks solitude in the Canadian wilderness, but his peace is disturbed by Sabretooth. After surviving one of Sabretooth's attacks, Wolverine escapes and is accepted by a group of Inuit. A young man envious of Wolverine inadvertently leads Sabretooth to the village. Sabretooth kidnaps the villagers and destroys their homes, but Wolverine is able to defeat Sabretooth in battle and rescue his friends. Meanwhile, Cyclops sends Storm, Gambit, and Jubilee to investigate the island-nation of Genosha, which claims to welcome mutants. Shortly after their arrival, the trio is attacked by Sentinels.

Continuity Notes: The metal housings for Wolverine’s claws are mistakenly drawn on his bare hands instead of his gloves throughout the episode. The cartoon will make this mistake regularly.

Saban Quality: Since the characters’ model sheets rarely change during the first season, Jubilee and Gambit are still wearing their trademark rain slicker and trenchcoat while on vacation in sunny Genosha.

Review: This is the first episode to give an X-Man a solo adventure, and it's not a surprise to see which one is selected as the star. Wolverine is not an easy character to translate to Saturday morning TV, but I think the producers were confident that he would become the breakout star after the series debuted. Ironically, the qualities that make Wolverine so appealing to his adolescent fan base are the same ones that turn the young Inuit against him in this episode. I don't know if this was an intentional commentary on Edens' part, but there's a certain logic to this. It's great to read stories about Wolverine the manly man, but if someone like this appeared in your real life and usurped your role as the tribe's best fisherman, storyteller, and ladies' man, you probably would hate the guy.

There's nothing much deeper in the episode, though. The young Inuit learns a lesson about envy, Wolverine forgives him for his stupidity, Sabretooth is scared away, and everyone lives happily ever after. My favorite sequence in this episode as a kid was the ending, which sets up the next episode's Genosha story. I loved the Jim Lee designs for Genoshan technology as a kid (I pored over his issues of "X-Tinction Agenda" for months, having no idea he was inspired by something called "manga"), so seeing them animated for the first time was a big deal. Looking at this now, I wonder what Madhouse could do with an "X-Tinction Agenda" adaptation. That’s not to say the Akom interpretation is horrible; it’s just typical of the Akom work of the era.

Monday, September 17, 2012

X-MEN Episode Five - January 30, 1993



Captive Hearts
Written by Robert N. Skir & Marty Isenberg

Summary: During a date in the city, Cyclops and Jean Grey are kidnapped by the Morlocks, underground mutants who hope Cyclops will marry their leader Callisto. Jean sends a telepathic distress call to Professor Xavier, who sends the X-Men to rescue them. The X-Men fight the Morlocks to a standstill, leading Storm to challenge Callisto for the leadership of the Morlocks. Storm wins the duel and orders the Morlocks to free the X-Men. She then orders Callisto to rule in her absence, as the Morlocks have no interest in interacting with the surface world. Later, a distraught Wolverine abruptly runs away in the night.

Continuity Notes: This story is based on the first Morlocks storyline in Uncanny X-Men #169-170. Cyclops is taking the place of Angel, who was Callisto's chosen husband in the original story.

“Um, Actually…”: Leech of the Morlocks is shown with telekinetic abilities in the opening of the episode. Later, we see Leech using his only powers in the comics, his ability to inhibit other mutants' powers.

Saban Quality: The designs of the Morlocks in the background are on the same level of a small child's notebook doodles.

Approved By Broadcast Standards: Storm and Callisto duel with glowing energy staffs, rather than the knives they used in the comics.

"Huh?" Moments: Wolverine's adamantium bones somehow make a cracking sound when he's practicing karate. Later, a Morlock with psychic powers exposes Wolverine's greatest fear as...scorpions?

Review: Boiled down to its basics, the original Morlock story isn't particularly great, but the animated series takes advantage of its serial plotting to get decent character work out of the various subplots. Cyclops is insecure in his leadership abilities following the team's poor performance battling Magneto, Storm's unsure if she's ready to become deputy leader, and Wolverine is still recovering from the wounds inflicted during his fight with Sabretooth. Jean knows he's pushing himself too far, but when he leans on her for help, she walks away. The dialogue between Jean and Wolverine in this scene is nicely done, making Wolverine's love for Jean and Jean's conflicted emotions obvious without going too far. It's understated, certainly by kids' TV standards, but it manages to sum up their relationship very clearly. Later in the episode, there's a pretty shocking scene that has Wolverine contemplating killing Cyclops when he discovers him unconscious in the Morlock Tunnels. He doesn't give it any serious thought, and the scene only lasts a few seconds, but it's still surprising to see how far the producers were willing to go with this. When the end of the X-Men's adventure reaffirms Jean's love for Cyclops, Wolverine's decision to leave the team that night is easy for the audience to understand. This, naturally, leads into the next episode. And that episode's conclusion organically leads to the next, etc., etc. The tight plotting of the first season is still impressive, making the show's later decision to virtually abandon ongoing continuity even more disappointing.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Watch Out, Muties!!

Here comes the man called...

SPIDER-MAN: THE VENOM FACTOR - Part Three

Written by Diane Duane

The Plot
: Spider-Man attracts the monster with a radioactive isotope he snatched from the ESU lab, but is unable to capture him. After talking to MJ, Spider-Man investigates the area near Penn Station, where several homeless have suffered radiation sickness. Later, Venom finds the monster in the city's subway tunnels but is also unable to defeat him. Spider-Man manages to locate Hobgoblin's underground lab, but once again, Venom's interference allows Hobgoblin to escape. Spider-Man decides to find the monster again and use its innate attraction to radiation to locate Hobgoblin's bomb. When he does find Hobgoblin, he discovers Venom's already tracked him and begun the battle. Spider-Man knocks out Hobgoblin, as the ravenous monster eats the plutonium out of the bomb. It explodes, leaving behind tiny black aliens. Venom escapes in the confusion, and Spider-Man returns to the surface to hand off Hobgoblin and the aliens to SHIELD.

The Subplots
: MJ is offered the role of a social worker at her second audition. When the Hobgoblin appears on television bragging about his bomb, the show's producers ask her to fly out of New York with them immediately. Concerned for Peter, she refuses, which costs her the job.

I Love the ‘90s
: MJ watches an annoying purple dinosaur in the producers' waiting room television. For some reason, he's never referred to by name. Venom also runs into a group of teenage punks harassing homeless people in the subway tunnels. Two of them are heavily implied to be Beavis and Butt-Head.

Review:
After barely appearing for much of the book, Venom makes his presence felt in the novel's final chapters. Duane has a decent handle on Venom, especially when the narrative switches to his first person point of view and tries to justify his relationship with the symbiote. I don't think he needs this much attention, though, especially when he shows up yet again to disrupt a Spider-Man/Hobgoblin fight and unintentionally allow the villain to escape. That's a minor complaint, though. If I have any real issues with this story, it's with the not-Venom monster who somehow manages to go the entire novel without anything approaching an origin or any kind of justification for its uncanny resemblance to Venom. The story continues to go out of its way to point out how improbable the existence of this bipedal, super-strong black creature with tentacles is, but offers no explanation outside of "Alien! Maybe!" by the novel's end.

What Duane does get right are the characters, though, and that goes a long way in a Spider-Man story. Peter and MJ feel like a real married couple, as Duane is able to balance their everyday money and domestic problems with their honest affection for one another. The numerous homeless characters, police officers, ESU students, Daily Bugle employees, etc. are also fleshed out, even if they only appear for a page or two. Duane can occasionally go off on tangents, but almost always the diversions serve to make a character more human or to create a convincing environment for the story to take place in. This is a plausible, three-dimensional world for Spider-Man to inhabit, which is why the casual dismissal of the story's monster feels so awkward. Still, it’s not enough to turn me off from the book. The Venom Factor is very enjoyable, and absolutely worth tracking down.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SPIDER-MAN: THE VENOM FACTOR - Part Two

Written by Diane Duane

The Plot
: Spider-Man stakes out the Brooklyn Navy Yards, anticipating Hobgoblin will rob a nuclear submarine. When Hobgoblin does appear, Spider-Man is unable to stop him from taking an actuator, the device that triggers the atomic reaction in a fired missile. Later, as Peter Parker, he investigates with Ben Urich an alleged Venom sighting at the rail yards. That night, while searching the warehouse where the homeless man was killed, Spider-Man and Venom meet. Venom claims innocence. After Venom departs to start his own investigation, Spider-Man travels to the ESU campus, expecting that Hobgoblin will next strike its nuclear research facility. He captures Hobgoblin, but when Venom arrives to extract his own vengeance, Hobgoblin escapes in the confusion.

The Subplots
: Researching a possible role as a social worker, MJ volunteers with her friend at the Third Chance homeless shelter. While talking to the homeless, she learns of numerous cases of radiation sickness.

I Love the ‘90s
: Spider-Man recalls doing “duck and cover” nuclear bomb drills during school. I understand that Peter Parker was supposed to be a child of the ‘70s at this point, but was “duck and cover” still around then?

Review
: Over the course of a hundred pages or so, Venom finally appears, Spider-Man has two more fights with Hobgoblin, Ben Urich makes a cameo, and MJ is given something to do. Not bad for “Middle.” Overlooking Spider-Man conveniently locating Hobgoblin so easily on two occasions, and a few more pages spent on the obvious Venom red herring, the story’s holding together well. Duane gets some material out of Spider-Man’s loss of his spider-sense, like his anxiety that it might never return, only to have it rematerialize when he thinks he’s finally caught the Hobgoblin...which of course doesn’t work out because of Venom’s stupidity. It’s a nice use of “The Ol’ Parker Luck” that doesn’t feel contrived.

Duane’s research continues to add some depth to the novel, as we discover that not only has she thoroughly investigated how a nuclear submarine works and how a dirty bomb could be made, but she also knows how a modern homeless shelter functions. Since everyone already has some idea of what a shelter is like, Duane could be excused for skimping on the details, but she’s able to provide very specific information on everything from how the food is prepared to what the job training classes are like, and her characterization skills help to humanize the volunteers and the residents. (MJ’s guilt that she would’ve never even looked these people in the eye if she wasn't researching a role is well played.) Plus, the scene actually ties in to the novel’s main plot, so it doesn’t feel as if MJ’s off in her own novella in the middle of the actual story.

Monday, September 10, 2012

SPIDER-MAN: THE VENOM FACTOR - Part One


Written by Diane Duane

The Plot: A mysterious black figure escapes from its imprisonment on a nuclear submarine. Meanwhile, Peter Parker purchases a strobe slave, and in the hopes of improving the quality of his photographs, attaches a motion sensor to it. While patrolling the city as Spider-Man, he comes across a warehouse robbery led by the Hobgoblin. After neutralizing Spider-Man’s spider-sense with a gas, Hobgoblin escapes. Later, a large black figure steals radioactive waste from a warehouse and kills a homeless man. His friend reports to the media that Venom is the killer. The next day, Peter investigates the two cases at the Daily Bugle morgue and discovers that the Consolidated Chemical Research Corporation owned both warehouses.

The Subplots: MJ is still looking for work after being fired from the soap opera Secret Hospital. Peter, meanwhile, is worried about getting a debt consolidation loan approved.

Web of Continuity: This novel was published in 1994, taking place shortly before the events of the Clone Saga.

I Love the ‘90s: Peter is still using a darkroom to develop photographs, a process the novel elucidates in great detail. He’s also concerned about buying new, expensive color film because the Daily Bugle’s front page has recently gone color. The Daily Bugle has also recently switched to a computer paste-up program that none of its employees can figure out. When Peter goes to the morgue, he discovers that the archives are now on CD-Rom, and he utilizes a crude search engine to investigate Venom's previous activities.

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority: Kate Cushing refers to the Hobgoblin as an "ugly sonofabitch."

Review: Star Trek novelist Diane Duane wrote a loosely connected trilogy of Spider-Man/Venom novels in the ‘90s; my memory is that I enjoyed the first one, didn’t particularly care for the second, and never saw the third one on sale anywhere. On the rare occasions that I’ve encountered people discussing these novels online, Duane’s novels seem to be casually dismissed, which surprises me. Even if the second one didn’t impress me, I don’t recall it being offensively bad, just a little dull. Maybe the quality took a deeper drop with the third book, or perhaps online fans just can’t bring themselves to admit to enjoying Venom stories. Regardless, The Venom Factor starts off slow, but it has a nice hook and the story is thankfully going out of its way to establish Peter and MJ as a believable, likeable couple.

Duane demonstrates early on that she understands how to write the Parkers’ domestic life, as the first chapter opens with Peter nervously waiting at the bank, talking to an indifferent teenage employee who doesn’t know if his loan has been approved yet, and doesn’t know when the man who does know will be coming back. Peter is slightly relieved not to have any news, since he’s convinced the answer is going to be “denied.” He heads to a nearby photography store to buy supplies. His credit card is rejected, and purchasing the equipment he needs wipes out the cash in his wallet. He then spends the next few hours setting up a device that will enable his automatic camera to take better photos of himself as Spider-Man. I think he also steps in dog crap at some point during this adventure. It’s all classic Spider-Man, and Duane shows that she can handle the marriage just as well when MJ returns home, looking unusually worn after a fruitless day of auditions. Duane hits the right notes in these scenes; they’re not boring even though we have seen the Parkers deal with these problems before, and despite the seriousness of the domestic issues, the tone is never bleak or depressing. Peter and MJ’s relationship just feels real; a feeling the comic writers somehow couldn’t replicate as the ‘90s wore on.

Another impressive element of Duane’s writing is the research she’s clearly put into the book. I don’t know if she has an honest interest in photography or just read some books before writing the novel, but it’s clear she knows her stuff. Considering the plethora of Spider-Man stories that have been published over the years, it’s surprising that Peter’s interest in photography has so rarely been explored. I would be curious to know if any Spider-Man story outside of this one applied real knowledge of specific camera equipment or film supplies into the narrative. I believe that the issue Duane is trying to address, that an automatic camera would probably produce terrible photos of Spider-Man during a battle, was already addressed with a shortcut “hidden microchip” kind of solution in the comics, but it’s admirable to see her working out a plausible explanation.

She’s also done her homework on the characters, to the point that a lengthy recap of Venom’s history includes events from a series of back-up stories from early ‘90s Spider-Man annuals. Even in Marvel’s desperate bid to reprint everything Venom, I’m not sure if anyone bothered dredging up the time Venom learned about heroism in a rural truck stop. It’s a part of his history, though, and Duane puts it to use.

Now, is anyone going to believe that Venom is truly the culprit behind the murders? Of course not. Even if you’ve never read the comics, the extensive recap of the character’s history goes out of its way to emphasize his current status as an anti-hero, and to reinforce that he’s always had a twisted desire to “protect innocence.” It’s clear that some other dark monster with a prehensile tongue is stealing radioactive waste and killing people. If Duane overplays this red herring, that will get old fast. However, the Hobgoblin’s role in the story still works as a mystery, and it’s a lot of fun to see the two greatest Spider-Man villains of the 1980s in the same story. So far, everything’s working. Considering the state of the actual Spider-Man comics in 1994, this was probably a welcome relief.

Friday, September 7, 2012

GUNFIRE #13 - June 1995




This is the Way the World Ends!
Credits: Len Wein (writer), Ed Benes (penciler), Brian Garvey, Charles Barnett, Denis Gulbey, and Ande Parks (inkers), Clem Robins (letterer), Lee Loughridge (colorist)

Summary: After Ragnarok teleports away, Gunfire summons Justice League America to help him stop the chain reaction that’s destroying the Earth’s core. With the JLA’s help, the excess magma is released from the inner core. During their mission, Ragnarok teleports in to taunt Gunfire, who eventually blasts him into a pit of magma. When the Earth is saved, the JLA leave as Gunfire ponders his possible future without Van Horn Industries.

Irrelevant Continuity: The JLA of this era consists of Diana (who’s in her post-Wonder Woman bicycle pants stage), Hawkman, Aquaman (the harpoon-hand version), Crimson Fox, Blue Devil, Fire, Ice (apparently called “Icemadien” in this era), Obsidian, and someone named Nuklon, whose haircut is fantastic. According to a footnote, this story crosses over with Aquaman #9.

We Get Letters: A reader wants to know why Gunfire isn’t Comics Code Authority approved. The editorial response is that the title is CCA approved; the seal disappeared a few issues ago due to “gremlins.” The editor then acknowledges that “we’re all adults here” anyway, which is a pretty shocking admission in 1995 that the Code was essentially pointless. (Or at least that DC perceived it to be; it’s possible that kids were reading this book since comics were still sold on newsstands in 1995).

Review: In the face of overwhelming apathy, DC finally relents and cancels Gunfire with this issue. Someone somewhere still seemed to have faith in the character, though, because the issue’s final page and letter column pretty much confirm that Gunfire will soon be joining the JLA. I don’t think this happened, even if Gunfire would’ve been a perfect fit for this largely forgettable (and somewhat laughable) cast. Unfortunately, the reading public never got to experience Gunfire’s rivalry with Nuklon, his close connection to Blue Devil, his unrequited love for Fire, and that drunken night in Bangkok with Hawkman.

Aside from setting Gunfire up as a future member and providing a “big” finale for the series, it’s hard to understand what the JLA are doing here. Gunfire’s the one who’s stupidly responsible for this problem, and of course he’s the one who provides the final push needed to save the Earth, so it’s hard to see what the point of dragging the JLA into this was. You could argue that the series needed the sales boost, but 1) it was already cancelled and 2) it’s hard to imagine this version of the JLA attracting readers to anything.

So, what isn’t resolved by the final issue? Well, we never learned the secret of Monika, Gunfire’s horny chauffeur with no doubt sinister motives. And, the secret of Yvette’s money troubles was never revealed, nor was the subplot that had her moving in with Gunfire’s aunt Lacey resolved. There are also the mysterious earthquakes that kept striking Hong Kong a few issues ago. And we never learn why Ragnarok has changed his motivation from learning the secret of eternal life to simply destroying the Earth (although I guess his name is a clue.) I’m sure I missed a few other dangling plotlines, but it’s hard to get too worked up about any of this. Gunfire settled into a lull early on and only seemed to invigorate when Chris Wozniak turned in some unexpectedly good fill-ins. The early concept of a young political activist granted lethal powers and an arms company he didn’t want was quickly abandoned in favor of subpar Amazing Spider-Man plots from the early ‘70s. The book never developed much of a personality and its only appeal seemed to be its willingness to be extremely traditional in a period that wouldn’t even allow Superman to have short hair. The old school storytelling didn’t mesh with the basic concept, or the art of Ed Benes, leaving this a title without much of an audience at all.

And even judged as a straightforward superhero comic, Gunfire became too dumb to be taken seriously. Take this issue for instance, which presents a lead character that’s responsible for potentially destroying the planet and killing his father in the course of a handful of pages. At no point in the story does Gunfire have anything that resembles a legitimate emotional reaction to the events. Instead, he’s too busy swooning over the Justice League to even contemplate the ramifications of any of his actions (and, mind you, this is a really crappy incarnation of the Justice League). The guy’s too cardboard to be taken seriously, and I have to say it’s kind of surprising he even got a thirteen issue run.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

THE BOOK OF FATE #4 - May 1997



What If They Threw A War And Everybody Came?
Credits: Keith Giffen (writer), Ron Wagner (penciler), Bill Reinhold (inker), Gaspar (letterer), Mike Danza (colorist)

Summary: Jared is able to escape the war between Chaos and Order because neither side can touch him. His dagger vibrates, pointing like a compass towards Gotham City. Jared arrives to discover a Chaos-possessed Arkham Asylum. He’s thrown inside and forced alone with Two-Face, who claims he was left to fend for himself in Arkham after he rejected Order and Chaos. He handcuffs himself to Jared, who punches Two-Face and drags him outside. They emerge inside an “Order Patch.” The handcuffs revert back into Two-Face’s coin, which he flips to its scarred side.

Irrelevant Continuity: Jared is called “Fate” for the first time by the possessed Arkham Asylum building.

Review: I think I can grasp the basic idea behind this issue: Order and Chaos can’t directly harm Jared, so Chaos has manipulated him into entering Arkham Asylum, where Two-Face is sure to do the job. I don’t totally grasp the significance of the “Order Patch” and the handcuffs changing into Two-Face’s coin, but I’m going to assume that this is Order playing his part in the assassination.

I can certainly understand why Order and Chaos would be interested in Two-Face, and using him is a clever move on Giffen’s part, but I’m not sure why he would be a better assassin than a million other characters in the DC Universe. He looks cool, he fits the basic theme of the title, but he’s not particularly suited for the role he’s been given. Regardless, Two-Face looks amazing under Wagner’s pencils, and it’s certainly possible that Giffen has more in mind for the character. This is the most enjoyable issue of the series yet, although that’s mainly because it features a character I actually recognize and can understand.





Wednesday, September 5, 2012

GUNFIRE #12 - May 1995


Shafted
Credits: Len Wein (writer), Ed Benes (penciler), Brian Garvey (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Lee Loughridge (colorist)

Summary: Gunfire races to V.H.I.’s headquarters to witness a test of the laser drill that will harness geothermal energy. Not long after the test begins, Ragnarok enters with his genetically mutated monsters. Gunfire and his friends fight the monsters, but when Gunfire charges the air around him for a final strike at Ragnarok, he’s tricked into firing the energy down the shaft. Ragnarok boasts that the blast will trigger a chain reaction that will destroy the earth.

Review: The letters page announces Gunfire’s cancellation, aborting such promising storylines as “Yvette makes a deal with the devil” and “Gunfire moves to the moon to protect the planet from his powers.” Surely, this is a terrible loss. A fan letter blames the glut of DC releases from this era for the book’s premature end, but it’s hard to imagine Gunfire standing out even without the competition. The hero has no compelling motivation, his personal life isn’t that interesting, and most of his villains have been a joke. It’s hard to find a reason to care, and it’s even harder to discern why Gunfire wants to be a hero in the first place.

The issue opens with Gunfire racing to the demonstration, chiding himself for being late, when he sees a mugging in an alley. He makes a joke about the futility of pretending he can ignore the crime and proceeds to stop it, which would be fine if his name was “Spider-Man,” but at no point in this series has the audience witnessed a convincing character arc that brings Gunfire to this point. He’s gone from reluctant hero to generic superhero pretty quickly, without developing much of a rogues gallery or supporting cast along the way. (Ed Benes’ inhuman artwork hasn’t helped either. Even when the females in this issue run for their lives, they’re still striking Penthouse poses.) He’s a boilerplate hero dressed in ‘90s fashions, and the combination of “bland” and “silly” doomed this book early on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THE BOOK OF FATE #3 - April 1997



No title or credit is listed for this issue. Based on the previous issues, the creative team likely consists of...
Credits:
Keith Giffen (writer), Ron Wagner (penciler), Bill Reinhold (inker), Gaspar (letterer), Mike Danza (colorist)

Summary: Jared defeats Sentinel after he foolishly unwraps the cloak on Jared’s arm and unleashes a monster. When Jared returns home, his view of the world is warped into chaos. He follows a neighbor, Cindy, to Arnold’s apartment, hoping to find answers there. Jared’s perceptions return to normal outside, where he’s surrounded by a sea of blackness. The agents of Chaos and Order appear, hoping to recruit him to their respective sides. Jared refuses to take a side, and with both fearful of his powers, Chaos and Order initiate their war.

Review: Ironically, the story about chaos infecting reality is the easiest to follow so far. I still don’t pretend to understand the specifics of the continuity, but there’s enough here for me to get the broad strokes. Both Order and Chaos want Jared on their side, probably because they’re both terrified of the Artifacts of Fate, and some kind of war is brewing between them. I still find Chaos’ speech pattern annoying, and everything Order says is needlessly cryptic, but at least I can pick out some semblance of a plot. And I didn’t even mind the weirdness for weirdness’ sake this issue. Ron Wagner draws the trippy landscapes beautifully, and there appears to be some logic behind most of this insanity, like when Jared perceives Cindy as a roach because she’s carrying a Kafka book.

Monday, September 3, 2012

GUNFIRE #11 - April 1995



Blood is Thicker…
Credits: Len Wein (writer), Ed Benes (penciler), Brian Garvey (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Martin Thomas (colorist)

Summary: Gunfire invades Komodo’s mansion, as the Gemini twins locate Billy in New York. Komodo reveals to Benjamin that Billy is a former employee who accidentally got Komodo’s daughter killed during one of his assignments. Gunfire duels Komodo for Benjamin’s life, but can’t win without cheating. The Gemini twins enter with Billy, just as a mysterious earthquake strikes the mansion. Gunfire saves Komodo, and in exchange for his debt of honor, demands Komodo free Billy. Billy thanks Benjamin for speaking up for him, but Benjamin tells him to stay out of his life forever.

I Love the ‘90s: Komodo: “Y-you cheated!” Gunfire: “Welcome to the ‘90s, ace!”

Review: This is the second issue in a row that has the editor begging readers for letters. That’s rarely a good sign. I can’t imagine this story arc inspired much of a reader response, either, unless a portion of the audience is intimately familiar with Hong Kong and wants to nitpick anything the creators got wrong. (Someone might also be inclined to point out that sword duels aren’t particularly common in modern Asia.) This issue does bring us some of the more creative uses of Gunfire’s powers we’ve seen, like what happens when he uses them on two metal dog chains, and there is a decent amount of plot worked into one issue, but it’s really more of the same. The characters are still pretty drab, the ongoing subplots aren’t engaging, and the art is a mess. Thankfully, we’re two issues away from the mercy killing.