Thursday, March 29, 2018

Throwback Thursday - The Ghost Rider (1967) #1

Welcome to another "Throwback Thursday" special edition of Longbox Junk, where I take a look at some of the more "collectible" comics I own instead of my usual dollar box fare.  They're still comic book reviews NOBODY ever asked for. . .the comics are just worth a few more dollars, is all.

This time out, we take a trip back to 1967 and release Marvel's original version of Ghost Rider from its plastic prison.  I bought this book several years ago (like many older comics I own) for the cover alone.  In my office at work, I have a wall with a rotating collection of a dozen comic covers framed up on it.  Not only are they great conversation starters, but who the hell wants some sappy inspirational quote poster when there's Ghost Rider, Batman, Captain America and The Fantastic Four? Am I right?  Yes I am.

But like I said, I buy many of these older comics for the covers and never really get around to reading them.  This is one of those comics.  So let's do this!

THE GHOST RIDER #1
ORIGIN OF THE GHOST RIDER


Marvel (1967)
SCRIPTS: Gary Friedrich & Roy Thomas
PENCILS: Dick Ayers
COVER: Dick Ayers

One of the things I like about these retro-reviews is that I get the chance to learn a little bit more about the background and history of comic books in general with each one I do.  So, as usual, bear with me for a paragraph or three so I can share what I learned this time out. . .so maybe someone else might learn a little bit they don't know too.

First off, I discovered that this is NOT the original version of Ghost Rider.  The original version of this western character was actually published in the 1950's by a company called Magazine Enterprises.  The original Rex Fury version of Ghost Rider was created by Raymond Krank, Gardner Fox, and Dick Ayers for "Tim Holt Magazine".  Magazine Enterprises was one of the companies that folded under Comic Code Authority restrictions and the character fell into the public domain.  Marvel Comics basically swiped the character design and brought in one of the original creators, Dick Ayers, to revamp Ghost Rider as their own character.

The second thing I learned is that the inker on this book. . .Vince Colletta. . .is a bit of a controversial figure in comics history.  On a reading of this comic, I can sort of see why.  Normally, I like Dick Ayer's artwork.  It's really good for the time.  I mean, just LOOK at that cover above! What's not to like?  But as I looked through the interiors, the art isn't that great at all (more on that later).  On further research into the creators, I learned that Colletta was known as an incredibly fast inker who also took lots of liberties with the pencils, erasing figures and lines to make the job go by faster. . .and BOY does it show here!

ANYWAY. . .

Enough of that.  Let's get into this comic book and see what it's all about.

Starting with that AWESOME cover. . .the thing I bought this comic for in the first place!  The black and white figure, that excellent character design, the bright reds and yellows to make things pop and really catch the eye, the bombastic teaser text. It all comes together and screams that this is a comic book you MUST buy!  If I saw this thing on a spinner rack next to a bunch of superheroes, it would be comin' home with me.  That cover is a real eye catcher.

Underneath the cover, there's two stories.  The main feature "The Origin of The Ghost Rider" and a 6 pager called "The Menace of The Mask Maker", which is reprinted from Kid Colt Outlaw #105 (1962).

The Story goes like this:

Carter Slade is a school teacher on his way out west looking for a bit of that frontier action everyone was getting into during the post (civil) war years.  He sees a ranch being attacked by a group of Indians.  When he jumps in to try to help the ranchers, he realizes that the Indians are actually white men in disguise.  Slade is shot and left for dead by the fake Indians. Shortly afterward, the mortally wounded schoolteacher is found by a young boy named Jamie Jacobs . . .the only survivor of the ranch attack.  The boy manages to get Slade on his horse and they ride for help.

Eventually, they stumble across a band of Sioux, who take the dying Slade to their Medicine Man, Flaming Star.  Slade's wounds are mysteriously and suddenly healed, and an amazed Flaming Star tells Slade of the prophecy delivered to him by his Gods.  Many years before, Flaming Star witnessed a falling meteor and was told by spirits to gather up the luminous dust left behind and to wait for the coming of a great champion, known as "He Who Rides the Night Winds", who Flaming Star is to give the luminous dust to and then lead the champion to a horse worthy of him, known as "The Ghost Horse." Flaming Star is convinced that the champion in question is, of course, Carter Slade.

Flaming Star leads Slade and Jacobs to a wild white horse that seemingly can't be tamed by any brave of the tribe.  Slade easily tames the stallion using. . .er. . .his awesome polo skills. . .and names his new horse Banshee.  Slade and Jamie leave the Sioux, and after making camp that night, Slade offers to raise the boy himself rather than send him off to an orphanage.  He then uses the glowing dust given to him by Flaming Star to fashion an awesome costume and creates for himself the identity of "The Ghost Rider".

The next day, the fake Indians have gathered at the ranch of their employer, Jason Bartholomew, who wants to chase off all of the settlers who have decided to make their homes on his land. . .which is actually pretty justifiable when you think of it, even if the methods are a bit shady. . .BUT I DIGRESS! 

He orders his men, led by his foreman Blackie Clay, to burn down the schoolhouse in the nearby settlement of Bison's Bend. . .but his men are all idiots and the townspeople see through their crappy Indian disguises.  To make their escape, Clay kidnaps a woman named Natalie as hostage.  Shortly afterward, Slade and Jamie ride into town and are told the news. . .prompting Carter to try out his new hero identity  by riding out to rescue Natalie.

That night,  Bartholomew is rightly chewing out his men for being utter idiots by not only letting the settlers see through their disguises, but by also taking a woman hostage and bringing her right there to his ranch.  In the middle of Bartholomew's motivational rant, the lights go out and The Ghost Rider appears, glowing in the darkness and seemingly impervious to their gunshots.  

Slade makes quick work of the men that decide to stay and fight instead of running like scared little girls, then scares the holy living crap out of Bartholomew to the point that he runs off on foot to turn himself in to the Marshall.  While this is all going on, Natalie frees herself and escapes back to town, unaware of the supernatural shenanigans that helped her get away by distracting her guards.

The next day, Slade plays the tenderfoot schoolteacher while the town is a-buzz about the strange goings-on the night before.  Oddly enough, even though he was RIGHT THERE when Slade was creating his awesome glowing Ghost Rider costume, Jamie Jacobs is like, "Gosh, WHO could've scared them that bad? Musta been a heck of a gunfighter!" To which Slade gives a hearty laugh and tells Jamie he's got no idea who it might have been either.  Then they decide that Buffalo Bend might be a decent place to settle down for a nice peaceful life of schoolteachin'.  

The End.

Okay. . .So. . .

First off, I realize that this is a Silver Age comic book, and comic books at that time were written for an entirely different audience than comics are written for now. Because of that, I also need to look at things through a lens of the time it was written, because I'm going to say that for someone like me reading this for the first time in the year 2018 it doesn't come off well at all.

Honestly speaking from a modern point of view, the characters are cardboard and the scripting is pretty awful.  The art isn't great and the coloring is slapdash and sloppy in places.  The look and feel of this comic overall is that of something that was rushed. 

Ayer's art SHOULD have been the saving grace on this comic, unfortunately (as I mentioned above) Vince Colletta's inks suck the life right out of the artwork.  Generally speaking, Ayers was an amazing artist for the time, and his design for The Ghost Rider is absolutely fantastic, but having Colletta finish his pencils damages Ayer's work to the point that it basically looks like crap. . .and that's a damn crying shame.

BUT. . .

For the time it was written, was this a good comic or not? I'd say that kids probably thought this was a pretty good comic back in 1967.  Westerns were still pretty big on T.V. and at the movies at the time and as far as I know, the concept of a supernatural-themed western superhero wasn't something you could see on the screen.  The story is juvenile and pretty racist to modern eyes, but to the audience this comic was written for, I don't really think that was an issue at all.   The art is borderline crap, but I don't think kids in 1967 gave a flying frig WHO the inker was as long as there was a comic book with a glowing ghost cowboy in it.

CONCLUSION

I REALLY wanted to like this comic, but there's really not much here to like for a modern reader beyond Ayer's fantastic design of The Ghost Rider character itself.  The story was laughable, the art was pretty bad, and overall this comic just seems rushed.  To the readers it was intended for in 1967, it was probably pretty good, but unless you're a diehard fan of western or Silver Age comics, I'd say the cover is the best part of this comic.  As part of comics history The Ghost Rider certainly has a place, but otherwise it's just not very good. 

Up Next. . .

Longbox Junk business as usual as we finish up with one of the strangest Punisher stories ever: FRANKEN-CASTLE!  

Be there or be square.




Monday, March 26, 2018

Longbox Junk - Punisher (2009) Part 1

The Punisher is one of my favorite characters.  He's seemingly pretty shallow, but has enjoyed a pretty long run in his various series. Now here's the problem with The Punisher:  He really doesn't play well with superheroes. . .he works best in his own separate, dark, bloody world.

Unfortunately, Marvel keeps trying to make him fit into their regular continuity. . .which leads to a somewhat schizophrenic character as they realize it doesn't work and put him back into a powered-down environment, then a few years later, they try him with superheroes again.  It's a really strange cycle for a character.

ANYWAY. . .

Here's the first 10 issues (plus a one shot tie in special) of Marvel's 2009 effort at putting The Punisher back in the superhero sandbox again.  Let's do this!


THE PUNISHER
(Vol. 8)
MARVEL (2009 - 2010)

ISSUE ONE
LIVING IN DARKNESS PART 1
SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Jerome Opena
COVER: Mike McKone

Although I don't really think Punisher fits well in regular Marvel continuity, this first issue did a good job at showing him as a man completely out of his depth fighting against superheroes.

Most of the book is taken up with Punisher on the run from Marvel's lamest (but most powerful) superhero, The Sentry. . .Marvel's imitation retcon Superman, who stops Punisher from sniping Norman Osborn and then proceeds to easily hand Punisher his ass in an extremely one sided fight. Punisher manages to barely escape with his life, but only because of the help of an unseen new ally.

Like I said above, I really liked starting things off by showing how Punisher set his sights way too high for once and pays the price of failure and defeat.

The art on this issue is really quite well done. . .it's realistic, dark and gritty. It's a testament to this artist that he manages to make The Sentry look awesome. . .not to mention Punisher's "Regular Marvel" costume with its ridiculous white gloves and boots look good.

Overall, this is a REALLY good first issue.

ISSUE TWO
LIVING IN DARKNESS PART 2


SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Jerome Opena
COVER: Mike McKone


The strong start of the first issue continues here as Punisher teams up with a hacktivist who wants to get the truth out that, despite Norman Osborn's claims to the contrary, crime remains rampant in New York and can even be traced back to him. So Henry (Punisher's new ally) finds the targets and Punisher takes them down, while also getting Henry the proof he needs to send to the press.

Of course, Osborn tires of the shenanigans and decides to bring out a big gun to take down Punisher. . .The Hood.

Overall, another extremely strong issue. The art remains gritty and dark. . .perfect for a Punisher book. And the scene of Punisher raiding a vault full of captured superhero weapons (we get a nice shot of him using Hawkeye's bow!) makes a lot of sense and is very nicely done.

Well done all around. So far so good!

ISSUE THREE
LIVING IN DARKNESS PART 3


SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Jerome Opena
COVER: Mike McKone


Although not as good as the first two issues, this is still a pretty strong effort. . .Punisher is lured into a trap by The Hood and a mysterious, unseen man who seems to know too much about Frank Castle (SPOILER: It's obviously Microchip, from the shadowy glimpses we get).

Most of the issue involves Punisher on the run for his life from a small army of mercenary special ops agents, but for such a simple story, it's fast paced, exciting, and well done. The gritty, realistic art helps a lot with turning something simple into something very nice.


Overall, even though there's not much story meat on the bone, this is another nicely done issue.

ISSUE FOUR
LIVING IN DARKNESS PART 4


SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Jerome Opena
COVER: Mike McKone


Something I've forgotten to mention in reviews for the previous 3 issues is that I'm really loving the homage covers on this series!ANYWAY. . .

Most of this issue is a continuation of Punisher's escape from Hood's trap in last issue. Punisher eventually gets away after decimating most of the Black Stream force pursuing him.

After that, Punisher decides that he's attracting the right kind of attention, so it's time to step things up and start hitting bigger targets. . .like Hood's extremely well fortified base of operations.

Of course, the MAIN point of this issue is the big reveal of Microchip, who has been raised from the dead by The Hood to assist him in taking down The Punisher.

Once again, the art serves to make a simple story seem better than it really is. A full pager of Punisher geared up and ready to attack Hood's base wearing all sorts of superhero gear emblazoned with his skull (ant-man's helmet, Hawkeye's bow, Captain America's Shield, etc. . .) is at once both the lamest and the most awesome thing so far in this series. Once again, it's a testament to the artist that he can make the silly look really good.


Overall, despite the "Big Reveal" being a bit weak and obvious, this was another good issue. 

ISSUE FIVE
LIVING IN DARKNESS PART 5




SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Jerome Opena
COVER: Mike McKone

Mostly fighting in this issue as it closes out the first arc in this run and it's all hands on deck when Punisher attacks Hood's base of operations.

At the heart of it is Microchip and Punisher's confrontation where Micro offers Punisher a peace offering. . .stop trying to expose Osborn and The Hood will bring Castle's family back from the dead. A nice offer, but Punisher declines. . .and a huge battle between Punisher and Hood's superhero gang ensues.

The odds are evened by Punisher's arsenal of superhero gear, but he barely survives and destroys Hood's base. . .prompting Hood to summon Dormammu and resurrect a bunch of dead villains for an upcoming final showdown.

Overall, a decent issue. Once again mostly fighting. It was interesting to see Punisher making good use of superhero gear (especially Ant-Man's Helmet) but this issue serves to illustrate just why Punisher doesn't fit in regular continuity. . .without ex machina assistance, he's basically a guy with guns. The writer and artist have made a stellar effort so far, but its still not really enough.

ISSUE SIX
DEAD END PART 1

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Tan Eng Huat
COVER: Mike McKone

With this issue and the beginning of the second arc, the art takes a severe dip in quality. Where the art in the first issue was gritty and realistic, this new artist brings twisted, exaggerated figures and deformed faces. Seriously, this guy has some real problems when it comes to faces. In particular, his rendering of Henry (Punisher's new partner) was so bad I thought it was a whole new character. No bueno!

The story is okay, but it looks like it's about ready to head off the rails along with the art. . .The Hood uses his powers to resurrect a bunch of c-list villains that were killed off in the 80's by "The Scourge". He tells them that The Scourge was actually the Punisher and that their reward for killing him will be to continue living.

Overall, I sort of liked the pack of crappy villains being given a second chance, but that art. . .so bad!

ISSUE SEVEN
DEAD END PART 2

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Tan Eng Huat
COVER: Mike McKone

The art remains bad to the point of distraction , but the story is decent enough. . .

Hood's motley crew of resurrected villains bicker among themselves about who is going to be leader. In the meantime, Punisher is being fed visions of his family alive and well and how life COULD be if only he'd give in by Hood. 

 Elsewhere, the only two villians who have their act together (Death adder and Basilisk) are sent to torture Punisher's old friend G.W. Bridge and set a trap for him.

Overall, I liked the infighting among the crappy villains. There were some pretty funny moments to be found. The rest of the story was okay, but mostly setup for things to come. And then there's that art. . .no bueno. It brings down the whole book a notch.

ISSUE EIGHT
DEAD END PART 3

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Tan Eng Huat
COVER: Mike McKone

Most of this issue is taken up with a running battle between Punisher and The Avengers. . .problem is that Punisher knows something is up because the Avengers he's fighting are 80's Avengers. . .beardy Thor, silver armor Iron Man, Doctor Druid, She Hulk, etc.

They're actually the Hood's C-list villains disguised by Mind Wave and Mirage to look like the Avengers, but since they were killed in the 80's they re-create the Avengers THEY knew. It's actually pretty funny.

Like I said, it's mostly a battle between Punisher and the faux Avengers, but it's pretty nice to see the old versions of those characters guest starring.

Unfortunately, what SHOULD be awesome is barely okay, thanks to the God-Awful art.

ISSUE NINE
DEAD END PART 4


SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Tan Eng Huat
COVER: Mike McKone

Another issue that is mostly a running battle between Punisher and Hood's motley crew of crappy villains.

We get a "Big Reveal" that Punisher's new partner (Henry) is actually Jigsaw's son in flashbacks as he fights for his life.  I knew that in ANY Punisher title, it's only a matter of time before Jigsaw shows up in one way or another, so it wasn't much of a surprise.

Thinking Henry has been killed, Punisher leaves off fighting the crap squad and rushes to save G.W. Bridge from Death Adder and Basilisk, leading to a confrontation with the only two villains worth a damn in this whole mess. . .

Overall, I found the "Big Reveal" to be a bit of an eye roller. The rest of the story was decent, but not great. The art remains a real distraction, it's that bad.  Luckily, the story is still JUST good enough to keep this on the rails. . .barely.

ISSUE TEN
DEAD END PART 5



SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Tan Eng Huat
COVER: Mike McKone

And so the second arc comes to an end. All I can say is. . .Thank God it's over.

After being lured into a trap, Punisher is captured by Hood, who has dug up the bodies of his family and once again offers Frank the deal of giving up his crusade and he'll raise them from the dead.

Punisher tells him to sit and spin AGAIN, and Microchip kills G.W. Bridge as a sacrifice to bring back the dead Castles, Punisher goes off the hook and starts killing, forcing Firebrand to torch his family before putting a bullet in the back of his head.

The final confrontation between Hood and Punisher ends with a draw as the Hood wins the battle, but Punisher walks away after blackmailing Hood with HIS family.

At the end of it all, Punisher leaves alone after telling Henry to go screw because he didn't tell Punisher he was Jigsaw's son.

Overall, it wrapped things up nicely, but that's like saying a turd with a pretty bow isn't a turd. The story on this arc was borderline crap, the art was utter crap.

And finally. . .

DARK REIGN: THE LIST - PUNISHER
A GOOD LIE

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: John Romita Jr.
COVER: John Romita Jr.

Norman Osborn (AKA Iron Patriot at this point in time) finally gets tired of The Punisher getting in his business, plus he's still a bit angry over that time Punisher tried to snipe him. So he decided it's time for Frank Castle to die. . .and that's exactly what happens.

Osborn sends Dark Wolverine to to the dirty work and it all ends in a gruesome battle to the death where Punisher is literally chopped to bloody pieces.

This was a brutal, bloody story. . .and while I'm not normally a big fan of Romita Jr.'s art, on this story it was pretty damn good.

Overall, this was a very quick and simple story. . .The Punisher bites off more than he can chew in trying to face down an actual superhuman and pays the price with his life. I can't say I loved it, but for what it is, it's not bad.

CONCLUSION

The first half of this set of issues was actually pretty good.  Unfortunately, starting with issue #6, it went downhill fast.  I really liked how they started off by playing on the sad truth that The Punisher is pretty much utterly outmatched by the superhumans of the regular Marvel Universe. . .and in a meta way, it looks like the creative team was telling the reader, "You THINK you want The Punisher in regular continutity, but guess what?  It don't work, son."

And then they went and demonstrated WHY it doesn't work.  Even the weakest superhuman is a huge challenge for Punisher. . .who, at the end of the day, is basically just a highly-trained badass with a lot of guns and a relentless mindset for killing bad guys.  At the end of it all, they added insult to injury by literally butchering him at the hands of a wannabe Wolverine as if to say "See? THIS is what happens when you mix Punisher with superheroes.  You happy? ARE YOU FRIGGIN' HAPPY?"

BUT. . .

They weren't done with their demonstration just yet.  We're only halfway through this run, folks.

Up next. . .

When you see a list of top 10 strangest (modern) Marvel comic stories, there's a pretty good chance this next batch of issues has made the cut.  Get ready to ride this baby straight off the rails, folks!

FRANKEN-CASTLE.  Be there or be square!



Monday, March 19, 2018

Longbox Junk - Flashpoint

I MIGHT be in the minority of comic fans when I confess that I actually LIKED the New 52.


Okay, they really messed up Superman and they're STILL trying to fix him to this very day, but I was never much of a Superman fan to begin with.  And they really, REALLY wanted to sell Cyborg as a major player for some reason (and never really succeeded), but once again, not really a fan.  And then there was Huntress.  Okay, Huntress I can be pissed about. And Azrael.  And Tim Drake. And Oracle. . .


Okay.  I guess it wasn't ALL good.  But for the most part, I liked the New 52.  A lot of comic fans seem to think that New 52 is where DC finally jumped the rails and off the cliff.  Either way, Flashpoint is where it all started after Barry "The Flash" Allen changed the past one time too many.  T.V. OR comics, that guy never learns.  Let's do this!


FLASHPOINT
DC (2011)
SCRIPTS: Geoff Johns
PENCILS: Andy Kubert
COVERS: Andy Kubert
ISSUE 1

This first issue of DC's Flashpoint was a pretty good piece of groundwork.
It's a lot of setup but it has some good moments.


It's pretty much split between 2 stories:


In the first, Barry Allen wakes up in a world where his mother is still alive, Iris is in love with someone else, and the world is on the brink of a cataclysmic war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman.


In the second story, Cyborg is trying to form a group of superheroes to end the war, and attempts to recruit Batman. . .who tells him to sit and spin.


The two stories merge at the end when Barry Allen seeks out Batman to find out what's going on for the big final page shocker reveal that it's Thomas Wayne Batman in this world.


All in all, pretty good. Not GREAT, but not bad for a setup issue. The art by Andy Kubert is rock solid as usual for anything by him. I didn't really like the look of Flashpoint Batman, but since he turned out to be the big star of this thing, I think that might just be me. . .


ISSUE 2

This issue does a little world building by showing glimpses of the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman in Europe. The opening sequence of Deathstroke as a pirate and scene of the Eiffel Tower mostly submerged was a standout, with fantastic artwork.


Elsewhere, Batman pummels Barry Allen until he manages to be convinced that Allen is telling the truth and that he can actually change the crappy world if he can only get his powers back.


At the end, Allen concocts an insane scheme to recreate the accident that turned him into The Flash by letting himself get hit by lightning while doused with chemicals. It doesn't end well.


Although I really liked the opening sequence of this issue a lot, it seems like the weight of trying to fit a whole new world on the brink of a cataclysmic war in 5 issues is starting to make things feel a bit rushed and cramped.


ISSUE 3

In this issue, we get a little more world building with a short sequence involving Lois Lane in Amazon-occupied England meeting up with "The Resistance" led by Wildstorm's Grifter. . .but most of the book is taken up with Flash and Batman as Flash heads back up to the roof of Wayne Manor to get another lightning jolt. This time it works and he gets his powers back. SCIENCE!


After the Flash is good to go with the speed powers again, he tells Batman that there SHOULD be a Superman somewhere around, so they team up with Cyborg and go on a stealth run into a secret government lab where they break out Flashpoint's Superman. . .who is a spindly, pale wretch who's never seen the sun and takes off as soon as he can, leaving Batman, Flash, and Cyborg in the middle of a gunfight.


I felt this issue sagged a bit. The Lois Lane sequence seemed too short, out of place, and really, sort of pointless. I DID like the way Flashpoint's Superman looked like a pathetic nerdling, though.


Overall, this was the weak link in this series so far. It served the purpose of introducing Superlame and getting Flash back his speed, but other than that. Not that great. Not BAD. . .just okay.


ISSUE 4

In this issue, Cyborg, Batman, and Flash finish building their Flashpoint version of the Justice League by recruiting "Captain Thunder" (SHAZAM!) who, in this world is a gang of kids instead of just one, and "Element Woman", who is basically a combination of Metamorpho and Harley Quinn. . .and probably the weakest and most annoying character in this whole merry mess.


They gear up and head to Europe to try to stop the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman, which is now in full-on "It's the end of the world, and we know it!" mode.


Things don't go well as the team is easily handed their collective asses during the ensuing battle. To make things worse, Reverse Flash shows up out of nowhere to add insult to The Flash's injuries.


Overall, this issue was a bit of a mess. Even the artwork looked sort of rushed. It wasn't the weakest issue, but it's a close second.


ISSUE 5

Annnnd. . .it's the big finish!


The battle heats up and heroes are falling everywhere as Reverse Flash taunts Flash with a heaping dose of "Guess what, son. . .this is all on YOU!" and makes Flash remember how he went back in time to save his mom and created this new world.


Flash is like "OH $#!T" and proceeds to run back in time to stop himself and set things right. . .and he does. . .sort of, because things didn't go back EXACTLY right and we got the New 52 out of it in a pretty damn impressive double page spread of a bunch of DC characters changing into their New 52 incarnations.


At the end of it all, The Flash finds Batman (this time Bruce Wayne) and gives him a letter his father wrote that survived the destruction of the other world somehow (REASONS!) for a tender Bat-moment that was really a bit forced and overly-sentimental, but ended the story on a nice quiet note of hope.


All in all, this was a decent issue and a pretty good ending for the series. The double pager showing the creation of The New 52 Universe was almost worth the price of admission alone.


CONCLUSION

Overall, I found this to be a pretty good story with rock solid art.  It felt a bit rushed and some scenes seemed a little pointless, but there were a lot of small crossovers that came out along with this that I have the feeling would really benefit this story and the world that was created for it by reading them alongside the core series or in trade.


To tell the truth, even though I found these 5 issues to be no more than average to pretty good, I wanted to know more about the world of Flashpoint.  It seems a bit of a shame to have created an entire alternate DC world only to abandon it after a few months.


Up next. . .


HEY! Anybody remember when America put a xenophobic, unstable narcissist with crazy red hair in the highest office?


What? No, son. . .COMIC BOOKS!  I'm talking Norman Osborne and "Dark Reign".
In particular, I'm talking about when he went crazy after The Punisher tried to snipe him.


Marvel's 21 issue run of The Punisher, along with the Dark Reign: The List - Punisher one shot, 5 issues of Franken-Castle, and Dark Wolverine issues 88-89. The whole damn "Let's put The Punisher back in regular continuity." mess from 2009!


That's right. I said friggin' FRANKEN-CASTLE! Be there or be square!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Throwback Thursday - The Shadow #1

Welcome to another Throwback Thursday "Retro Review" edition of Longbox Junk, where I take a closer look at some of the more "valuable" single issues in my collection instead of my usual discount box fare.

This time out, I take a trip back to 1973 and take a look at what many comic fans consider to be the best version of one of my favorite characters. . .the dark avenger known as The Shadow!



THE SHADOW #1
"THE DOOM PUZZLE"
DC (1973)
SCRIPT: Dennis (Denny) O'Neal
PENCILS:  Michael Kaluta
COVER:  Michael Kaluta

As usual with these retro reviews, part of my fun in doing them is finding out about the background of the comic at hand, so indulge me a paragraph or three as I outline some of what I learned.

So what we have here is the first issue of a short-lived (12 issue) DC run on the popular pulp character, The Shadow.  He'd been around since the 1930's, but had fallen a bit out of the public eye by the 1970's, thanks in part to a disastrous Archie Comics run with the character in the mid 1960's where they tried to turn The Shadow into a superhero complete with green and purple tights and cape.  I don't have any issues of this run, but from what I understand, it's pretty much regarded as the very definition of Longbox Junk.

Thankfully, DC decided they wanted to stay true to the pulp roots of the character that inspired one of their most popular superheroes of all time, Batman.  DC originally hired Jim Steranko as artist, but Steranko wanted to write the book as well.  DC had already decided that they wanted Denny O'Neil writing The Shadow, so they passed on Steranko and passed the art to Bernie Wrightson, who was quickly becoming a superstar artist with his work on Swamp Thing.  Unfortunately, Wrightson quickly realized that he couldn't handle two ongoing series at the same time, so DC passed the art to Mike Kaluta.

And so that's how we ended up with the perfect combination of writer and artist to provide the world with what I consider possibly one of the greatest first issues of ANY series I've ever read.  

Okay. . .I guess I'm getting a little ahead of myself.  Let's start at the beginning.

I have to admit that I'm a little prejudiced in favor of this particular comic.  My wife (who isn't a comic fan) bought this issue for me about 10 years ago for Father's Day.  She found a BEAUTIFUL copy (I'd grade it 8.5) in an antique store and bought it for ten lousy bucks just because she knew I liked old comics and she liked the cover.  I normally tell her not to try to buy comics for me, but this ONE time she hit a home run!  For 10 years, that awesome cover has greeted me every time I walk into my man-cave.  It was the first comic cover I put up on the "Wall O' Fame" and the only one that hasn't moved. 


Anyway. . .there it is.  Front and center.  What more can I say about that fantastic Kaluta cover other than I consider it to be one of the greatest comic book covers of all, and I never get tired of seeing it.

But enough of that.  I'm not here to review a cover.  Let's get inside this thing!

So the story goes like this:

While breaking up a gang of thugs in Brooklyn, The Shadow comes into possession of a coded note that sends him following a trail of clues. . .first to an exclusive nightclub, where as his alter ego Lamont Cranston, he overhears rumors of a gathering small army of criminals.  

From there he has one of his agents, Harry Vincent, stake out an area of town where Vincent witnesses a gang of criminals attack a police transport and free the prisoners.  During the gunfight, Vincent is taken prisoner, but The Shadow manages to track down his location.  

After defeating the gangsters holding Vincent, The Shadow interrogates one and discovers further clues to an expanding criminal plot which lead him to visit a Wall Street financier in the guise of Lamont Cranston the next day and discovering that a large shipment of worn currency to be destroyed is leaving New York for Washington D.C. that night. . .the final piece of the puzzle.  

Later that night, as the shipment of currency leaves in armored cars and guarded by U.S. army troops, a group of thugs wait to blow up the George Washington Bridge and send the convoy into the water.  The Shadow arrives by gyrocopter to stop the plot to blow the bridge up, and then destroys a submarine that was waiting below to salvage the sunken armored cars and escape with the money undetected.

But those were just the hirelings there to carry out the plan.  The mastermind was still at large, and The Shadow doesn't do things halfway.  The Shadow captures the fleeing Wall Street financier who was one of the only ones who knew the route the currency convoy was taking, and during a struggle, forces him to shoot himself.  The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! The End.

All in all it's a pretty simple story, but one that moves at a nice steady pace and is very well written by Denny O'Neil. . .with spot on dialogue and great pulp/ noir lines like, "In the distance a foghorn moans -- Or is it the cry of something lost, something damned?"  I see a lot of comics from the 70's that are definitely products of their time with slang and cultural attitudes that clearly mark when the comic was written just as surely as the date on the inside cover.  O'Neil's dark and atmospheric writing on The Shadow evokes the pre-WWII era without a hint of the 1970's and makes even a simple story like "The Doom Puzzle" a true pleasure to read.

And then there's the art.  

Just as with the writing, It's usually not hard for me to tell when a comic came out just by looking at the art.  It always sort of stretches my suspension of comic book disbelief when I'm reading a WWII comic and the characters have shaggy haircuts straight from 1975.  There isn't a hint of the 70's in this comic.  Kaluta's art is dark, moody, and perfectly evokes the era that the characters inhabit.  Every page of this comic oozes character and atmosphere in such a way that perfectly compliments O'Neil's pulp/noir writing and really makes me just want to re-read the comic again, even though I just put it down 15 minutes ago to write this review.  The art on this comic EASILY stands the test of time and I'd definitely call it superior to many modern artists on the racks right now.

BUT. . .

No comic is perfect.  This one comes close, but not quite all the way.  The main problem with this otherwise fantastic piece of comic art is that it is NOT new reader friendly.  Who The Shadow is or what his powers or motivations are is not explained except in the most vague and oblique ways.  Who his agents are, why they serve him, and how they came to be his agents isn't even touched on, beyond their names and the fact that they take his orders without question.  As a huge fan of The Shadow, I know all these things. . .but if one knows nothing about the character this is a pretty lousy introduction. 

It seems to be fully expected that whoever is reading this comic is already a fan of The Shadow.  Newcomers need not apply.  I don't have any other issues of this run, so I don't know if The Shadow and his Agents are expanded on in later issues, but I wonder if this cold opening and unfriendliness to new readers might have something to do with the run being quite short.  If so, then that's a damn shame.

CONCLUSION

Overall, despite not being very friendly to new readers at all, I can easily say that for fans of The Shadow, this is a comic that MUST be in your collection.  It has a fairly simple story, but the obvious love of the character in both O'Neil's writing and Kaluta's art elevates this single issue into something great.  From the fantastic cover to the final panel, The Shadow #1 is a true example of comics as art.  

Up Next. . .

Longbox Junk business as usual as I ponder the straw that FINALLY broke many a comic collector's back.  The beginning of DC's New 52. . .Flashpoint.  Be there or be square!




Monday, March 12, 2018

Longbox Junk - The Lone Ranger & Tonto

This "Mini-Series" is actually 4 unconnected one-shots with a wildly erratic shipping schedule and with a rotating creative team.  They show a much darker side of the Old West than one would normally expect in a Lone Ranger comic.  The first issue in particular feels like The Ranger and Tonto somehow wandered into "Weird Western Tales".

THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO
DYNAMITE (2008 - 2010)

ISSUE 1
BLOOD RELATIONS

SCRIPT: Jon Abrams & Brett Matthews
PENCILS: Mario Guevara
COVER: John Cassiday

The Lone Ranger and Tonto enter a truly dark corner of the Old West when they investigate a brutal murder and discover a serial killer. . .but not one they would normally expect. It's like the Lone Ranger wandered into Weird Western Tales! 

This is probably the darkest Lone Ranger story I've seen. It's almost as if The Ranger and Tonto accidentally wandered into an issue of Weird Western Tales.  It involves a serial killer who turns out to be a mentally disturbed child.  Not your usual Lone Ranger villain. . .

That said, I liked it. I liked the darker take on the West that The Ranger inhabits, while still maintaining the heroic nature of the character.

So the story was good. The art. . .No bueno. It looks scratchy and unfinished. Not QUITE as bad as the art on the regular series, but not much better, either. This artist has a real problem with faces.

Overall, despite some crap-tastic art, I liked this look at the darker side of The Lone Ranger's world.

ISSUE 2
RESTON

SCRIPT: Brett Matthews & Neil Turitz
PENCILS: Vatch Mavlian
COVER: John Cassiday

In another dark tale of the Lone Ranger's Wild West, The Ranger and Tonto discover the morbid truth connecting disappearing travelers and tall tales of a haunted town. 

This story wasn't as good as the first issue by a pretty long way. It was pretty much a by-the-numbers effort with The Ranger and Tonto finding out the truth behind legends about a deserted ghost town rumored to be haunted where those seeking a hidden treasure tend to disappear without a trace.
Turns out that it's just some bandits working for a rich guy to rob those lured to the town by old rumors of hidden gold.

At least the art here is better than the first issue. . .and better than that on the regular series. It has a nice, vague, hallucinogenic look that matches the story well.

Overall, despite the decent art, I find nothing in this issue to justify a $4.99 price tag.

ISSUE 3
BORN AND MADE

SCRIPT: Jon Abrams & Brett Matthews
PENCILS: Vatch Mavlian
COVER: John Cassiday


The Lone Ranger and Tonto investigate a brutal murder at a travelling circus and discover the dark side of carnival justice. . .

This one was pretty bad. It had a predictable story with a ridiculous bear fight sequence, although it WAS interesting to see The Ranger in rarely-shown detective mode.  And the art. . .God awful. It was so scratchy and unfinished looking that it was actually distracting from the story.

What's strange is that it was the SAME artist that did some pretty good work on the previous issue. I'm thinking there are a couple of uncredited inkers making the difference between these two issues. Otherwise, I really don't see how there can be such a dive in quality from one to the other.

Overall, this issue was extremely weak. It sure as hell isn't worth the $4.99 price tag.

ISSUE 4
THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK

SCRIPT: Brett Matthews & Neil Turitz
PENCILS: Sergio Cariello & Esteve Polls
COVER: John Cassiday

A reporter discovers that there are many answers to the question of "Who was that masked man?" and that ALL of them are seemingly true. It's Wild West Rashomon!

This issue was the best of the four. . .starting with a FANTASTIC Cassaday cover that is definitely poster-worthy.

The story concerns a reporter trying to do a story on the legendary Lone Ranger and is broken up into him interviewing 4 different people and finding out 4 different, seemingly contradictory, but ALSO seemingly true stories about The Ranger. It's obviously a "Rashomon" tribute set in the Old West, but done very nicely.

The art is extremely hit and miss, with the framing sequences by Polls being very well done and the flashback sequences by regular series artist Cariello being typically God-Awful.

Overall, this was a really good issue. The schizophrenic back and forth between quality art and crap art wasn't enough to ruin it for me, but just enough to make me question once again why the hell they kept Cariello drawing Lone Ranger on the regular series.

CONCLUSION

Overall (except for the 4th issue), I could find nothing to set these stories apart and justify charging $4.99 for each issue.  Each of these one-shots would have done just as well being single issues in the (then) ongoing regular Lone Ranger series.  

That said. . .

I liked the IDEA of these stories showing the darker side of the Lone Ranger's world.  They weren't BAD at all, it was just that the execution of them. . .especially with some of the awful, distracting art. . .wasn't great.  I think the regular series would have benefited from a bit of this darker direction from time to time.  The ongoing series AND this set of one shots would have definitely benefited from some better artists.  A damn shame.

Up next. . .

Since DC is forcing the events of Flashpoint back onto the comics map, why not refresh our memories a bit?  DC's 5 issue Flashpoint mini.  Be there or be square!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Longbox Junk - Invaders Now!

Let's take a look at the 5 issue mini that answers a question I never asked:  What if Marvel superheroes were combined with Cthulu?  But it's okay, because nobody ever asked for this review either.  Let's do this!


The Invaders confused me a bit.  I thought that they were an actual Golden Age team, but I was a bit surprised to find out that they were actually created in the 60's and retconned into the WWII era.  I wonder if this might be one of the earliest examples of this being done.


I'm also not sure why this mini was noted as a crossover between Dynamite and Marvel, maybe some licensing issues with some of the Golden Age characters?  From the little information I can find, it looks like Alex Ross had a lot to do with it as some sort of pet project to bring The Invaders back into the public eye.


I don't think he really succeeded because there was just this, another Avengers/Invader crossover mini and a (original WWII) Human Torch mini before The Invaders sort of vanished again.


ANYWAY. . .




INVADERS NOW!

Marvel/Dynamite (2010 - 2011)
SCRIPTS: Christos Gage & Alex Ross
PENCILS: Caio Reiss
COVERS: Alex Ross


ISSUE 1

This first issue was mostly a "Let's get the band back together" affair, with the Golden Age Vision bringing together the original members of the Invaders (plus the modern Union Jack) after becoming aware of a magical disturbance related to one of the team's more disastrous missions during WWII.


All in all, a nice introduction. The art is clean and sharp, but a bit dodgy in places, especially in faces (which all sort of look alike) and body proportions here and there.


ISSUE 2

This issue is mostly a flashback to WWII and a battle between the Invaders and Hitler's Uberkommando Super-Axis (Nazi Invaders) trying to stop Arnim Zola (who is "killed" during the battle on his last day as a human) from releasing a deadly plague on Europe.


Afterwards, the Invaders have to make the decision to stop the plague by completely wiping out a town of infected innocents. In the present, the reformed Invaders travel back to the destroyed town and are greeted by the ALSO reformed Super-Axis.


The story here was pretty good, even though this is the second straight issue of setup. The art remains hit and miss. . .generally good with some moments of being great, but also borderline bad in spots. I wish Alex Ross would have been on interiors instead of just providing script assistance and covers.  That alone probably would have elevated this series in a big way.


ISSUE 3

So now we're (mostly) out of exposition mode and the action heats up. Most of the issue is a battle between the Invaders and Super-Axis, but Union Jack and Spitfire break off and confront the heart of the matter as the destroyed village rebuilds itself.


In the church is a man who survived the destruction of the village in WWII who has summoned a  Cthulu-like space God (Shuma-Gorath) that has enabled him to draw the Invaders back so he can have his revenge.


Once the battle with Super-Axis is done with, Super Soldier (Steve Rogers during one of his "I'm not Captain America now" phases) makes a deal with the old man: Give the Invaders a chance to cure the plague and undo what was done long ago and they will sacrifice themselves willingly if they fail.


So. . .a pretty busy issue. The writer manages to keep things interesting, but the art drops the ball a bit, taking an obvious downward dip, especially in faces. What SHOULD be a couple of epic moments aren't nearly as good as they should be because of weird facial expressions.


ISSUE 4


Things get a little confusing in the lead-up to the final issue.


The old man summoning Cthulu . . .er. . .Shuma-Gorath gives the Invaders 24 hours to cure the plague Zola created back in WWII. They succeed by combining science and magical artifacts (along with some nice Marvel cameos) Yay! Day saved!


But THEN the old man has a vision of his family telling him he's doing the wrong thing and he decides to reverse the spell, only for Zola to step in with Super-Axis (now nice and refreshed after getting their asses handed to them by the Invaders shortly before) to kill the old man. DOUBLE PAGE SPLASH! Shuma-Gorath arrives on Earth!


This issue was 50/50 like/not like for me. There seemed to be quite a bit of ex machina going on, but the search for the cure was pretty interesting. The art was better than last issue, but the final double page scene of Shuma-Gorath bursting into our dimension looked sketchy and unfinished when it should have been awesome.  Where's Alex Ross when you need him?


ISSUE 5

First off. . .fantastic Alex Ross cover!
They were all good, but this one is the best of the bunch. Definitely poster-worthy.


And so we come to the big finish. . .The Invaders vs. Arnim Zola, the Super Axis Uberkommando, and MOTHER FU**ING CHTULHU! Er. . .Shuma-Gorath, that is.


As you might guess, the story is pretty much done with and this issue is a straight up fight from page 1 almost to the end. There's a quiet scene to finish things off, where the heroes agree that if anyone needs them, they'll always come back together no matter what else they have going on. But other than THAT. . .it's all punching, all the time.


The heroes eventually prevail against the extremely uneven odds, thanks to the timely ex machina assistance of an entire village of ghosts. Because. . .comic books, okay?


It was basically "Solve The Problem By Punching it", but it was still fun and brought the story to a close in a satisfying way.


CONCLUSION

This mini was enjoyable in a "Read it and forget it" sort of way.


I liked that it was set in a sort of strange time for Captain America, where Steve Rogers was Super Soldier and Bucky Barnes was Captain America.  I think (from the few bits of info that I've found) that this was one of Steve Rogers' first post-return from "death" appearances in the Captain America uniform.


But that aside, this was a very quick read with a decent story (even if it mostly served as an excuse to get the Invaders back together).  The art swerved back and forth unpredictably between very good, almost great, to pretty bad. . .but generally was pretty good.


Overall, I found this mini to be good. . .not great, and not particularly memorable, but good. The writing was decent and the art was here and there, but also decent. It was all just good Silver Age-Style throwback comic book fun. What more could you ask for?


Up next. . .


It's another one of those mini's that's actually a collection of one shots.
Dynamite's 4 issue Lone Ranger and Tonto.  Be there or be square!