Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Longbox Junk - Off-Brand One Shots Part 3

Welcome back to Longbox Junk, where I write reviews of comics that nobody ever asked for!

Recently, the whole "nobody ever asked for" part has been more true than ever as I've been exploring a stack of one shot comics included in a purchase of 2 longboxes full of nothing but random NON-DC/Marvel comics.  I've gotta say. . .digging into those longboxes has definitely been a new experience in obscurity for me.  There's a LOT of stuff I never knew existed just in those two boxes of comics!

ANYWAY. . .

I've been letting my comic lovin' daughter pick the comics I review for these "Off-Brand One Shots" editions of Longbox Junk.  So far, she's done a pretty good job of mixing things up and giving me a nice variety of genres from horror to comedy and everything in between.  Let's see what she gave me this time, shall we?


THE ROCK
CHAOS! COMICS (2001)

THE PEOPLE'S COMIC BOOK!
SCRIPT: Steven Grant
PENCILS: Fabiano Neves
COVER: Photo

THE COVER:
It's a photo cover.  What can I say?  If you're a fan of Dwayne Johnson in his pro-wrestling "The Rock" persona, then this is probably an awesome picture worthy of being part of some sort of shrine.  To me. . .it's just a picture of a younger Dwayne Johnson giving me "The People's Eyebrow".

Moving along. . .

THE STORY:
The Rock is a simple man.  A man of the people.  A man who just wants a little peace between the times he lays the smack down in the wrestling ring.  When The Rock accidentally finds himself caught between two competing illegal underground fight promoters. . .one of which has a fighter pretending to be The Rock, it's time to teach some candy asses their roles!

The Rock invades the underground fight club and shows every Jabronie that dares to step up to him what it means to look upon the glory of the most electrifying presence in sports entertainment.  After defeating all comers. . .as was ordained the moment The Rock entered the building. . .he makes the crooked promoters smell what The Rock is cooking by forcing them to end their pathetic excuse for a tournament unless they want a piece of the people's elbow.

The End.


THE REVIEW:
I have to admit that I'm not a pro wrestling fan.  That said, I had a roommate in the late 90's that was rabid about it, so I'm familiar with it through a bit of osmosis from his constantly watching it.  There's also been a few wrestlers who have broken away from the ring and into the general public consciousness, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is probably the most successful of those, so I know him more than most wrestlers. . .and even then I'm not a big fan.  I'll watch his movies, but I don't go out of my way to see one just because he's in it.

What I'm trying to say is that I came into this comic not as a fan of The Rock, but as a comic fan who got handed a Rock comic by his daughter to review on its own merits.  I could care less about The Rock in general.

THAT SAID. . .

I liked this comic a LOT! Quite a bit more than I thought I would when I got it handed to me and I was like, "Really?"  It's the dialogue that makes this book great.  It's hilarious and over the top all the way through, from page one to page last.  Rock talking about himself in the third person and just blowing past everybody like a force of nature laser-focused on doing whatever the hell he wants to do is just FUN.  This comic is just entertaining fun from start to finish!  A very pleasant surprise.


On the art side of things, this is a pretty well drawn comic.  Not the greatest art I've ever seen, but it's good and at least it captures the likeness of the main character, which is a lot more than can be said for most licensed property comics featuring actual people (I'm looking at YOU Deep Space Nine a couple of reviews below).  There's also a great sense of motion during the action scenes.  The art here is pretty much perfectly matched with the story.

Overall, I was really surprised by how much I liked this comic.  It's fast, it's funny, it's over the top and just plain entertaining.  It's not thoughtful or deep in any way, but sometimes you just want a good simple FUN story.  This comic delivers just that.

THE VERDICT:
I give The Rock 4 out of 5 candy asses taught their roles.

A good start this time out. . .NEXT!

LADY ACTION SPECIAL
MOONSTONE (2009)

SCRIPT: Tony Lee
PENCILS: Jake Minor
COVER: Paul Gulacy

THE COVER:
I like a cover that tells a story and this cover tells me that there's a Lady and there's gonna be some Action!  I have no idea who Lady Action is, but without even opening this comic I can tell that her kind of action involves guns, fast cars, and possibly some sort of kinky uniform-oriented shenanigans when it's all said and done.  I like this cover a lot.  It's not the greatest comic cover I've ever seen (her face and gun hand both look a little strange), but it's nicely done and lets you know what you're in for with one image.

THE STORY:
Nicola Sinclair (AKA Lady Action), an agent of the British A.C.T.I.O.N. Directorate, infiltrates the mansion of crime lord "El Caso" during an exclusive party.  With the assistance of an American A.C.T.I.O.N. agent named Adam, she successfully hacks into El Caso's private computer files and discovers that he has information that only A.C.T.I.O.N. should have.

Nicola's fears of a traitor are proven correct when El Caso and a group of his armed bodyguards arrive to take the British agent prisoner and Adam shows up with them and admits that he's working with El Caso.  As the criminals discuss how to execute her, Nicola causes an explosion and flees the mansion with El Caso's men in hot pursuit.

Lady Action grabs a motorcycle and leads El Caso's men on a running gun battle chase through the surrounding woods.  Nicola encounters Adam and tries to regain the flash drive with El Caso's files on it, but the American Double Agent shoots and kills Nicola as El Caso hovers overhead in a helicopter.

EPILOGUE: Two weeks later Nicola and Adam meet in a Texas diner.  The information theft was a distraction and her death was faked so that Adam could infiltrate deeper into El Caso's organization.  

Adam gives Nicola the information the British Branch was REALLY looking for, gained by El Caso's trust in Adam.  Shortly after Nicola leaves with the files, Adam is shot in the head by one of El Caso's assassins and El Caso is informed that Lady Action is alive and has the stolen information.

To be continued. . .

THE REVIEW:
Not bad.  Not bad at all!  This is a fast-paced, well-written "infiltrate and escape" spy story with a (somewhat predictable, to be honest) double twist.  It makes me want to know what happens next.  That said, even though it's a good story, it's not perfect.

This is firmly connected to the continuity of the Moonstone Captain Action series, so there are quite a few references to characters and events that have taken place "off stage".  There is an assumption that if you're reading Lady Action, then you already know vital Captain Action-related information. . .like what the hell A.C.T.I.O.N. is in the first place! (I had to wiki up and discover that it's sort of like the Mission Impossible Force, but their main enemy are aliens who have infiltrated the world's governments) In other words, there is NO background information here.  This story hits the ground running and stays that way to the end.

On the art side, I like this style a lot.  It has heavy lines, chunky forms, and is just slightly exaggerated with nice bold colors and a great sense of movement.  It's a perfect fit for a fast-moving story like this.  Like a lot of these "Off Brand One Shots" there's a lot more effort and detail put into the female figure than anything else.  This isn't QUITE as boob-tastic as some of them, but you can definitely tell what the artist's favorite thing to draw was.

Overall, I liked this comic a lot.  It has a fun, fast-paced spy story backed up with some good art.  There's no background material, so there's references that don't register well with a new reader like myself, and it has a "to be continued" ending, but that didn't stop me from enjoying this little story.

THE VERDICT:
I give Lady Action 4 out of 5 menacing gunmen.

Two good ones in a row! Let's see if we can keep this going.  NEXT!

STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE -
LIGHTSTORM
MALIBU (1994)

LIGHTSTORM
SCRIPT: Mark Altman
PENCILS: Rob Davis
COVER: Rob Davis

THE COVER:

*Sigh* This again?  Why do you keep doing this to me, Star Trek?

I'm a HUGE Star Trek fan, but Star Trek comics (especially those from the 80's and 90's) have pretty much consistently disappointed me with their art.  It seems like the built-in audience and sales for Star Trek comics leads to a "Minimum Effort" standard.  This cover is no exception.  It's okay. . .but it doesn't look like the artist put any more work into it than he absolutely had to.  And when I see the interiors were done by the same guy, it doesn't give me much confidence.  Here's hoping that at least the story is good.

THE STORY:
After the newly-established Federation colony Gakora in the Gamma Quadrant comes under attack by an unknown enemy, the Klingon cruiser A'v Wi, under the command of Captain Krol, answers the distress call, but finds the colony destroyed and only one human survivor.  Krol decides to take the comatose survivor to the closest Federation base, Deep Space Nine.

Captain Krol is determined to find and destroy the attackers, while Katha, the Imperial Adjunct aboard the A'v Wi, insists on a more diplomatic first contact with the mysterious aliens.  Deep Space Nine Commander Sisko agrees and asks to join the Klingons, along with his science officer, Dax.

Shortly after entering the Gakora system, the Klingon cruiser is attacked, but the attacking ships are technologically inferior and pose little threat.  After opening communication, the alien commander seems to recognize the Klingons as allies and thinks that the humans he sees are prisoners.  He offers to guide the confused Klingon Captain to their base.

After arriving at the alien homeworld and meeting their ruler, Malek, Sisko and Dax are imprisoned and scheduled for execution.  Adjunct Katha and Captain Kol demand an explanation and are told that humans are the enemy of the Myvock people because they violated the ancient holy ground of the planet Gakora.  Katha and Kol become more confused as Malek tells them that he was informed by other Klingons that the alliance between the Federation and Klingon Empire had collapsed.

IN THE MEANTIME. . .

On Deep Space Nine, the human survivor of the Gakora colony regains consciousness and informs Dr. Bashir that after the attack, when the aliens were slaughtering the survivors, they were accompanied by two female Klingons who Bashir realizes match the description of Lursa and B'etor. . .dangerous Klingon sisters who have constantly attempted to erode the Federation/ Klingon alliance.  Doctor Bashir and Chief O'Brien volunteer to travel to Gakora and try to warn Sisko and Dax.

On the Myvock homeworld, Captain Kol and Katha are introduced to Hernai. . .the Myvock military commander who led the attack on Gakora.  Hernai is determined that the execution of Sisko and Dax be carried out as quickly as possible.  Kol and Katha arrange a secret meeting with the humans to tell them that they will not allow them to be executed.  Katha reveals that she's actually a Klingon intelligence agent trying to track down the Klingon sisters Lursa and B'etor and prevent them from selling explosives to Bajoran terrorists.

On Gakora, Bashir and O'Brien are almost immediately captured by Lursa and B'etor while back on the Myvock homeworld, Sisko, Dax, Kol, and Katha confront Malek and inform him that he's being used by Klingon terrorists.  Commander Hernai interrupts and they are all taken prisoner and scheduled for immediate execution, along with Bashir and Dax. . .which reveals that Hernai is working with Lursa and B'etor.  

The Klingon cruiser transports the prisoners out of danger, and they quickly head for Gakora.  Following a battle in mines beneath Gakora, Lursa and B'etor make their escape.  Hernai reveals to Malek that he allowed the sisters to mine beneath their holy ground in exchange for technology to improve their weapons. Malek removes him from military command.  Katha goes in pursuit of Lursa and B'etor while Sisko and Malek make peace between the Myvock and Humans.

The End.

THE REVIEW:

Well now. . .that's a lot of story!  And it's pretty well condensed too.  I left out a couple of sub-plots (Doctor Bashir and the Klingon First Officer Koleth's friendship, for one example.  The simmering conflict between Captain Kol and Katha for command of the Klingon ship is another) and there's STILL eight paragraphs.  So yeah. . .this double-sized comic is definitely on the dialogue-heavy side.

The good news is that the story is very well done.  The writer (who is a pretty prolific author and screenwriter. . .including a two-volume 50 year history of Star Trek) very accurately captures the voices and personalities of the Deep Space Nine characters in such a way that this comic reads like it could EASILY be the script for a Deep Space Nine episode set in the first season of the show.  You can almost feel where the commercial breaks are supposed to go!  This is great read for Deep Space Nine fans like myself.

Unfortunately. . .there's the art.


Once again, a Star Trek comic fumbles the ball with the art.  It's clunky and uninspired from cover to last page.  The artist mostly fails to capture the likeness of the T.V. characters and backgrounds are minimal to non-existent.  There's just a feeling that not much effort was put into this. . .which is a damn shame, considering the really good writing.  With a little more effort on the art, this COULD have been a great comic. 

Overall, this comic is the definition of conflicted.  On one hand, you have a good story that absolutely captures the essence and voices of established Deep Space Nine characters and reads like a "Lost Episode" of the first season of the series.  On the other hand, you have clunky, uninspired art that demonstrates a "minimum effort" standard that is just one notch away from being outright bad. 

THE VERDICT:
I'll give this one a half and half score of 3 out of 5 bowls of Gagh (served live, of course)

AND FINALLY. . .

ENTER THE ZOMBIE
ANTARCTIC PRESS (2010)

ZOMBIES OF SHAOLIN
SCRIPT: Fred Perry & Robby Bevard
PENCILS: Ben Dunn
COVER: Brian Denham

THE COVER: 
I wish I'd had this comic when I was pulling covers for my Halloween comic display on my office "Wall O' Covers".  It's chaotic and crazy in a good way.  I like the colors a lot, especially the plain green background that really sets everything against it quite nicely.  The gigantic nasty smile on the featured Kung Fu zombie is creepy and hilarious at the same time!  It's not the greatest comic cover I've ever seen, but I like it!

THE STORY:
A talented but impatient young American Shaolin trainee is denied the chance to take the initiation test.  His master explains that decades of training lie in front of the young man before he can take the test. After learning the location of a hidden forbidden chamber on the Temple grounds, the student becomes convinced it holds the secrets of martial arts mastery he needs to take the initiation test.

Disobeying the command of his Master to not disturb the chamber, the student opens the sealed door and accidentally unleashes 36 evil, undead spirits that quickly begin to possess the rest of the students in the Temple. . .turning them into Kung Fu Zombies!

A friendly guardian spirit also released from the chamber informs the student that only HE can return the evil spirits to the chamber, because he was the one who released them.  The student gathers his courage and sets off to prove that he's worthy!

After fighting his way through the possessed students to come to his teacher's aid, the student is surprised to find that his Master had used him to open the chamber's seal and betray the Shaolin Temple to the evil spirits.  The battle between them is short and the student is easily defeated, but the Guardian Spirit infuses the student with the power of the SENTAI SHAOLIN TIGER!  

Transforming into a heroic, armored figure, the empowered student defeats his former Master and the rest of the evil spirits before changing back into a powerless young man.  The Guardian Spirit tells him that he is now the Guardian of the Secret Chamber.

Years later, the student has become the teacher.  A young, impatient student of his discovers the location of the Secret Chamber. . .

The End?

THE REVIEW:
Not bad.  Not bad at all!  This is an extremely fast-reading and stripped-down story that moves quickly from Point A to Point B to Point C without anything to slow it down.  This is a lean story that is over before you know it.  I literally finished this comic in five minutes.

But even though this is an extremely simple and action-heavy story, I liked it.  It's quick and entertaining.  It's not a great story.  It might not even be good, when you think about it.  It's like comic book junk food.  You know it's not really great, but before you know it, you're done with the whole thing and you sort of want some more.


Ben Dunn is actually an artist I like a lot.  I'm always happy to see his name on a comic.  I appreciate his (and Antarctic) bringing the Manga style to an American audience.  It's not my favorite style, but I like it in small doses now and then.  This is a pretty straightforward, no-frills example of that American Manga style.  It helps the fast-paced story move quickly across the page, and it's very nicely done.  

Overall, this is pretty much what I call a "junk food comic".  Sure, there's better comics out there, but sometimes you just want a little bit of fun entertainment that might not be what other people would call great, but screw those people.  Not everything has to be great.  This is just a fast-paced, fun little story.  Nothing more, nothing less.

THE VERDICT:
I'll give this one 4 out of 5 poorly-dubbed episodes of One Piece.

CONCLUSION

Well now. . .THAT was an unexpected surprise.  This handful of "Off-Brand One Shots" my daughter gave me was actually pretty darn good!  Except for the extremely weak art on Deep Space Nine (But that's par for the course on almost ANY 80's or 90's Star Trek comic, to be fair) there's not much bad to say about any of these.  That doesn't happen very often.  

Up Next. . .

Plenty more Off-Brand One Shots in the pile. 
Let's see what my daughter hands me next!

Be there or be square.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Longbox Junk - Off-Brand One Shots Part 2

Welcome back to Longbox Junk, the place to find all the comic reviews that nobody ever asked for!

This time out, I'm going to take a look at another handful of one shot issues that were included with my recent purchase of a massive pile (about 600 issues) of non-DC/Marvel comics.  I've let my daughter pick the ones to review, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed with what she gave me last time.

I'm crossing my fingers for better luck with this batch. . .so enough introduction, let's get right into it!

NITROGEN
Arcade Comics (2005)

SCRIPT: Rob Liefeld & Brandon Thomas
PENCILS: Jon Malin
COVER: Jon Malin

THE COVER:
Hmmm. . .okay.  Not bad.  Not great, but it's pretty good in that signature "in your face" 90's-Tastic way.  Rob Liefeld is the writer on this one and not the artist, but I can definitely see his influence here in all the straps, spikes, giant guns and all around shiny metal look of things. . .as well as in the general composition and posing of the characters.  This cover simply screams "THE 90'S!!" at me. 

Wait.  What?  This comic isn't from the 90's, it's from 2005? Ohhhhhh. . .okay then.  My mistake. Ha-Ha! You got me!  Heh. . .heh.  *sigh*  Let's take a look inside.

THE STORY:

The Nitros, a team of young superpowered heroes, have rebelled against the morals of the past generation of heroes that taught them to use their powers for the good of humanity.  Instead they have embraced the path of power and follow the commands of hero-turned villain Zang.

Under Zang's ruthless leadership, the younger generation uses their intimate knowledge of the older heroes to easily defeat them. . .but in their overconfidence, they don't understand that there were things that the older generation never taught them or told them about because they were too dangerous.

One of the few remaining heroes of the past uses this knowledge and desperately opens a hole in the time-space continuum through which a horde of strange beings come through to confront the young rebels.

The End. . .to be continued?

THE REVIEW:

As I read this comic, I was struck by the similarities between it and "Jupiter's Legacy", by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. . .which came out 8 years after this in 2013.  The resemblance is mostly in the subject of a younger generation of heroes turning against their mentors, and Jupiter's Legacy is a superior look at the subject, but I still found it pretty interesting to see a Rob Liefeld-written version of Jupiter's Legacy that came out a decade earlier.

THAT SAID. . .

Rob Liefeld isn't exactly known for his great writing, and he's certainly no Mark Millar.  The writing on this isn't great. It's not awful, but it's not great. It's just sort of "pretty good".  Reading this will take you right back to the 90's like it's a paper time machine.  People shout about their powers to each other in the middle of fights, for example.

I have to admit that the plot itself was pretty interesting if you can look past all the shouting, but even though it ends on a "To Be Continued" note, this is it.  It seems to be the first issue of an unfinished project.  Sort of a shame because there's actually some potential to be good here.



As far as the art goes. . .it's even more of a trip back to the 90's "We want to be like Marvel!" Image team books than the writing.  Rob Liefeld isn't given any art credit here, but he probably should have been for inspiration alone!

Like the cover, Liefeld's influence is all over the place in the exaggerated proportions, overly-elaborate costumes, spiky hair, and constantly-exposed teeth of the characters. The pages are so cluttered with action that it's sometimes hard to keep track of what's going on.  The art is actually well done for what it is.  Simply put it's 90's-Tastic in every good AND bad way that it can be. 

Overall, I actually enjoyed this one.  It's not the best-written comic ever, but it does have a decent premise, some nice 90's-style art, and the potential to be a good story.  Unfortunately, this is all there is of it, so there's really no way to see where it went.

THE VERDICT:

I'll give this one 3 out of 5 costumes with useless straps and gigantic shoulder pads.

NEXT!

MASTER DARQUE
Valiant (1998)

SCRIPT: Christina Z.
PENCILS: Leonardo Manco
COVER: Leonardo Manco

THE COVER:
I'm a big fan of Leonardo Manco's art, and seeing his name on the cover of this makes me very happy. . .BUT. . .this cover isn't his best work.  It's dark and muddled and the main character's face just looks strange.  There's a lot of wasted space in the frame and logo area. This isn't the kind of cover that makes me want to buy a comic book. I hope whatever's inside is better. Let's check it out!

THE STORY:
When a desperate young man seeks aid from the mysterious Alexandre Darque to save his dying mother, he is taken on a nightmarish and dangerous journey to the darkest edges of the Valiant Universe to retrieve three artifacts.

Unfortunately, even though his mother is saved, he learns that he was just a pawn in Darque's twisted games.  The artifacts he risked his sanity for weren't to save his mother at all, but to give Darque a glimpse into the future end of the world and what part Alexandre Darque will play in it.

The End. . .to be continued.

THE REVIEW:
Like Nitrogen above, I was actually reminded of another story while reading this hefty double-sized issue.  This time it was DC's 1990 Books of Magic mini-series, where fledgling magician Timothy Hunter is led through the occult side of the DC Universe by characters like John Constantine and Phantom Stranger, with cameos of various other DC mystic characters along the way.

The mysterious, mystical, self-serving title character resembles John Constantine in a very obvious way (even in appearance).  The resemblance is barely copyright-dodging enough that this could have EASILY been a Hellblazer comic as Darque leads an unsuspecting young man through mystical realms and meets characters like Shadowman, The Eternal Warrior, and Turok.

Setting aside the very obvious. . .I'll kindly call them "influences". . . this isn't a bad story at all.  Like Books of Magic, it serves as a good introduction to the dark corners of Valiant's recently (at the time) rebooted universe through the eyes of a relatable non-powered character.  The ending makes it clear that there is a lot more to the tale (there was a follow-up 4 issue series called Darque Passages), but despite that, this is a complete and pretty enjoyable story in itself.


When talking about the cover above, I mentioned that I'm a fan of Leonardo Manco's art, but that the cover was disappointing.  The good news is that the interior art here is simply amazing!  Manco's signature darkly-inked and supremely-detailed style is definitely the star of THIS show, and (in my extremely humble opinion) is reason enough alone to pick this comic up!  Just look at the awesome full-pager above and know that Manco was the PERFECT artist for a story like this.

Overall, even though the story is highly derivative of Books of Magic and the main character is a discount version of John Constantine, I liked this issue for the guided tour through the dark side of the Valiant Universe.  Throw in some fantastic artwork that fits the mystical and sometimes horrific story perfectly and this one's a winner!

THE VERDICT:

I'll give this one 4 out of 5 copyright-dodging differences.

NEXT!

SHOTGUN MARY:
SON OF THE BEAST
Antarctic Press (1997)

SCRIPT: Miki (Miljenko) Horvatic
PENCILS: Esad Ribic
COVER: Esad Ribic

THE COVER:
Yep. . .there it is, front and center, folks. The Boo-Tay! 

I actually like this cover quite a bit for the way the main character is contrasted against a plain background.  I've always liked covers that use this method.  Shotgun Mary is nicely-painted and detailed as well. I also like the unusual pose of her looking over her shoulder.  I'd let this one take a turn on my rotating "Wall O' Covers" on my office wall at work, but I don't feel like having to go to an awkward HR appointment to talk about it.

BONUS: Good News! I seem to have come into an extremely-limited "Gold Seal" Variant of this comic, of which I am now the proud owner of 1 of only 100 copies out there!  The bad news is that nobody cares and it's still not worth a damn (less than 10 bucks). *sigh*  Moving along. . .

THE STORY:

Renegade former Warrior Nun "Shotgun" Mary Delacroix follows a trail of victims with their hearts torn out into the desolate desert after learning that the sacrificial murders are meant to attract her attention.  After purposely walking into a demon's trap, Mary is offered a chance to join the forces of hell.  She declines with a combination of faith and firepower, defeating the demon and moving on to the next target in her lonely mission. . .

The End.

THE REVIEW:
I'm familiar with Shotgun Mary from Antarctic's "Warrior Nun" comics, and I generally like the character.  She's a bit derivative of Marvel's Punisher, but with a Catholic religious angle that sets her against demons instead of criminals.  

This one shot puts Mary in full violent "Religious Punisher" mode in a fast-reading, action-heavy story that moves from point A to B to C very quickly and without any background material at all. . .so this one is NOT for new readers, but for existing fans.  If you don't already know what Shotgun Mary is about, this ain't the place to start.  

That said, despite the extremely thin story, I liked this quite a bit.  It's fast. . .it's simple. . .it's not deep or complicated.  It's Shotgun Mary purposely walking into a trap in order to kill a demon.  That's it.  Sometimes you just want a simple story and this one shot serves up just that.


On the art side of things, I was pleasantly surprised to find this to be a fully-painted comic.  I'm a bit more used to Manga-Style artwork in Antarctic comics. . .especially their earlier offerings from the 90's.  The art here is nicely-detailed and richly-colored.  It's not the BEST painted art I've ever seen, but it looks great and definitely takes the issue up a notch in quality.

Overall, this is a fast-paced and simple page-turner with some unusual (for Antarctic) painted art.  As an existing fan of the main character, I liked it quite a bit.  If you're not familiar with Shotgun Mary, this isn't a great introduction.

THE VERDICT:

I'll give this one 4 out of 5 scorched Rosary Beads.

AND FINALLY. . .

LITA FORD
Rock-It Comix (1993)

THE QUEEN OF HEAVY METAL
SCRIPT: Lita Ford, Laurel Fishman & Roland Mann
PENCILS: Jim Balent
COVER: Jim Balent

THE COVER:
Allrighty, then! It's a nicely painted depiction of 80's rocker Lita Ford proudly showing off the OTHER two reasons she's famous beyond her ONE hit song! Okay, two songs. . .if you count her sappy duet with Ozzy Osbourne where he's singing like he's reluctantly paying up on a lost bet.

I have to admit that this IS a pretty damn metal cover.  Too bad Lita Ford ain't metal. Still, I'm liking  all the skulls and the general throwback album cover look of it. Wait. . .is that a goddamn WIENER DOG bottom left? What the hell?

BONUS: 
Good news! My copy of this comic is signed by writer Roland Mann. 
Bad News! A signed copy of this comic STILL isn't worth crap!

THE STORY:
Shortly before a concert at Madison Square Garden, rocker Lita Ford breaks her guitar but is given a new one by a mysterious stranger who claims the guitar has unusual powers.  In the meantime, Libby Snore. . .head of the P.M.R.C. and wife of Congressman Al Snore. . .is plotting to destroy the sinful Lita Ford at the very same concert.

As Lita and her band take the stage, Libby Snore uses black magic to open a gate to hell, releasing demons that possess her Young Republican followers. . .who attack the band and their fans.  As the demons attack, Lita's guitar transforms her into a heavy metal super-hero!

Using her new powers, Lita is able to defeat the Young Republican Demons and confront Libby Snore, forcing her to close the gate to hell.  Lita transforms back to her regular self and Libby Snore promptly has her arrested for starting a riot.  Lita's manager bails her out of jail and we are assured that the story hasn't ended yet.

The End. . .to be continued?

THE REVIEW:
Oh Lawd.  What the hell did I just read? 

I don't even know where to begin with just how bad this is, but here goes. 

At the heart of it, this is less of a story and more of a protest rant against the PMRC, which (for anyone under the age of 45 reading this) was an organization started in 1985 by Elizabeth (Libby) Gore that is responsible for those "Parental Advisory" labels that still adorn album covers today and the main censorship supervillain for heavy metal and rap music at the time.  

The PMRC is practically forgotten today, except in some songs from the era protesting it and relics like this comic.  But at the time, it was a pretty big deal complete with congressional hearings and all the associated hoopla censorship generally garners when it rears its ugly head in the US of A.

In other words, this is a comic that is stuck so firmly in a specific political moment in time that it's practically unreadable today.  It doesn't help that even if it wasn't a heavy-handed censorship protest thinly disguised as a comic book, it's very poorly written.  The "plot" is forced to fit the message instead of writing the story around the message in a more natural way.

Things happen for no reason except to address specific points of PMRC censorship, so the whole thing just feels forced and preachy. . .which is just strange for something that's supposedly AGAINST an organization that's forced and preachy!  

To make matters worse, unless you're someone who even REMEMBERS the PMRC, what little narrative drive this comic does have will be completely meaningless because all that's left of the PMRC are those little parental advisory stickers.


As far as the art goes. . .it's okay.  It tells the story, but beyond a hard focus on Lita Ford's mostly-naked body, there's nothing remarkable about it.  It's not the worst art I've ever seen, but it certainly doesn't try too hard either.  

Overall, this comic book is a sort of embarrassing relic of the time.  It features a one hit wonder fighting against a censorship organization that nobody cares about today and leans pretty heavily on being full of pictures of a scantily-clad woman drawn in an extremely average way.  Just read Red Sonja instead. . .at least you usually get a decent story that doesn't preach at you along with your sexy pictures. 

Beyond the story, there's a pretty extensive interview with Lita Ford that's actually pretty interesting, as well as a discography. . .who knew she had enough songs to fill not one, but TWO "greatest hits" albums?  So if you're a Lita Ford fan, you might get some extra mileage out of this.  But if you just grab this from the bargain bin because of the boob-tastic cover and expect a good story or great art, you're gonna be pretty disappointed.

THE VERDICT:

I give this one 1 out of 5 spiky leather bras.

CONCLUSION

Hoo-Boy.  My daughter gave me a mixed bag with this batch!  

I'd say the theme this time was reading one thing and being reminded of another.  From Nitrogen being a 90's-Tastic Liefeld version of Jupiter's Legacy, to Master Darque being THIS close to being a Valiant version of Books of Magic starring a bargain bin John Constantine, to Shotgun Mary basically being a Religious Female version of The Punisher that kills demons instead of criminals.  

Of the four, I'd say my favorite was Master Darque.  Yeah. . .it's really close to being a straight up copy of Books of Magic, but that Leonardo Manco art though!  The worst was Lita Ford.  It's amazing just HOW bad that comic is.  But that one bad apple aside, the other three were actually decent reads.

Up Next. . .

God only knows what my daughter will give me next.  
MORE off-brand one shots!

Be there or be square.







Monday, November 25, 2019

Longbox Junk - Off Brand One Shots Part 1

Welcome back to Longbox Junk, the place to find all the comic reviews you never asked for!

I believe I've mentioned in a couple of posts that I've recently come into two longboxes STUFFED with non-DC/ Marvel comics. . .mostly from the 90's.

I bought the boxes from a closing comic shop (another one bites the dust, R.I.P.) for a measly FORTY BUCKS because the shop owner knew that nobody else but me was going to touch them.  Indeed. . .his closing sale had been going on for a week and he hadn't sold but a few comics from those boxes.

SO. . .

Here I sit with about SIX HUNDRED random comics from mostly-defunct comic publishers like Valiant, Malibu, Innovation, Eclipse, NOW, Impact, Continuity, Topps, CrossGen Chaos, and others I've never even heard of.  Along with a healthy sprinkle of older comics from companies that are still chugging along like Dark Horse, Image, and Antarctic.

What to do with all of that fine Longbox Junk? Unfortunately, there isn't much that's complete, as far as runs or mini's. . .so despite the bounty of bargain box books at hand, they don't really fit my concept for Longbox Junk, where I generally try to get into full runs and complete stories.

BUT. . .

Among all the incomplete runs and story fragments, there is a big, beautiful stack of ONE SHOTS!

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know the love I have for the one shot!  It's probably my favorite form of comic art.  The creative team has ONE and ONLY ONE issue to tell a complete story.  There's no room for error. . .no "well, maybe next issue will be better", like there is in a series.  I absolutely love seeing if a creative team can step up to the challenge of the one shot.

So let's get into some of these non-DC/Marvel one shots, shall we?  We shall!

RED SONJA
A DEATH IN SCARLET
Cross Plains Comics (1999)

A DEATH IN SCARLET
SCRIPT: Roy Thomas & Steve Lightle
PENCILS: Steve Lightle
COVER: Steve Lightle

THE COVER: 
Very nicely done! Lots of detail, great colors.  I like the way the main subject sits against the stark black background.  Sonja's face is a little strange, and there's no way I can hang this one on my office wall without an awkward appointment with HR (but that's Red Sonja covers in general, not just this one), but I like this one a lot!

THE STORY: 
A young Sonja learns the trade of thievery from a woman named T'Shika in the city of Khorsun.  When a theft goes wrong and the two find themselves pursued by the private army of a rich trader, Sonja stumbles into knowledge that the trader had something to do with the death of her family.

Sonja turns from hunted into hunter as she and T'Shika infiltrate his palace and find an ally in the form of an enslaved shape-shifting priestess called Sabra.  Unfortunately, in the battle to get close to the trader and gain information, Sonja accidentally kills him and is forced to leave without getting any closer to those who killed her family.

The End?

THE REVIEW:
  Although listed as a one-shot on comic reference sites, this comic looks a lot more like what was supposed to be the first issue of an ongoing series.  It stands alone as a pretty good story, but there are a lot of obviously-dangling plot threads, including an ending that's more of a "to be continued".  That said, the legendary Roy Thomas does a great job returning to one of his signature characters.

BONUS: There's a nice little essay in the back by Thomas on how he created Red Sonja for Marvel.



The art is very nicely detailed, but the colors are often a little garish.  Not often enough to bring things down too much, though.  There's also a LOT of cheesecake going on.  Like the cover (same as the interior artist), there's a pretty hard focus on Sonja in sexy poses throughout the whole comic.  So even though the story is pretty good, this isn't really a comic you're going to want to read at work.

THE VERDICT: 
I give this comic 4 out of 5 barely-covered boobs.

NEXT!

BOMBAST
TOPPS (1993)

BOMBAST LIVES!
SCRIPT: Roy Thomas & Gary Friedrich
PENCILS: Dick Ayers & John Severin
COVER: Jack Kirby

THE COVER: 
A great, colorful, old school character cover by the legendary Jack Kirby. . .complete with the signature Kirby Krackle! To be honest, the character himself looks a bit generic.  That said, this is the kind of cover that makes you want to see what's inside.  I REALLY like the bombastic text advertising the all-star classic creative lineup and the hilarious (to me, anyway) "1 of 1 COLLECT 'EM ALL!" tag.

THE STORY: 
A strange earthquake rocks the city of Chicago, opening a deep chasm that a young street punk named Darren falls into.  He finds himself in a mysterious cave with glowing rocks and a strangely-dressed man in a crystal pod.  As he investigates, he accidentally opens the pod and frees the man, who speaks in a strange language. . .but we readers know that he's a "ninth man" named Bombast with a mission to save the world of the "tenth men" and he's been in the pod for 15,000 years!

The confused Bombast leaves the chasm with Darren and begins to explore the unfamiliar world of technology he's found himself in.  When Darren is attacked by drug dealers he owes money to, Bombast saves him by using superhuman powers that allow him to turn almost anything into a deadly thrown weapon.  The battle brings Bombast to the attention of Chicago's resident super-cop, The Savage Dragon!

Bombast realizes he can't defeat Savage Dragon and is forced to escape.  Soon after, he encounters a strange metal-clad being named Death Flash who speaks his language.  Death Flash reveals that he is also a ninth man, but he is there to destroy humanity.  After a short battle, Bombast returns to the chasm, hoping to find some information to guide him.  He encounters yet another ninth man called Glida.  As they battle, their fight is interrupted by ANOTHER ninth man named Captain Glory, who somehow knows both of their names.

The End. . .to be continued.

THE REVIEW:  
There's a LOT of old school talent on this book!  That said. . .the finished product sadly doesn't  match the promise held in those names.   It's a shame to see such a waste.  The story is actually pretty poorly-written. . .especially in the dialogue, and in particular the dialogue of the reader's entryway into the story, the young, black "junkie" who discovers Bombast.  To be perfectly honest, most of his dialogue is extremely cringeworthy and borderline racist.  It almost breaks the story, it's so bad.

Setting that aside, the character of Bombast himself is just as generic as I was afraid of based on his cover appearance.  His powers are vaguely defined (he can. . .throw stuff?), he looks pretty ridiculous, and his dialogue is slightly annoying.  To make matters worse, his foe "Death Flash" rolls around Chicago on roller skates.

I realize that the creative team were going for a sort of late Silver/ early Bronze Age throwback style, and to their credit, they succeeded. For a comic written in 1993, this looks and feels exactly like something from the early 70's!

Unfortunately they didn't succeed in a GOOD way.  Instead, this is the sort of cringeworthy stuff that people making fun of the Silver/Bronze Age point and laugh at.  Maybe it was done on purpose? I sort of hope so, because then it's kind of brilliant, in a way.  If not, then it's just a pretty poor effort.  Sadly, I have the feeling this wasn't SUPPOSED to be bad.



The art serves the purpose of telling the story, but doesn't try to reach any higher than that.  Like the writing, I was expecting a little more from names like Ayers and Severin.  This whole comic just sort of feels like the minimum effort was put into it.

BONUS DISAPPOINTMENT: My copy didn't even have the Super Deluxe KirbyChrome trading card.  A single tear slowly trickles down my cheek. . .

THE VERDICT: 
I give this comic 2 out of 5 old white guys trying to figure out how young black people talk.

NEXT!

GRIMM FAIRY TALES
2017 ARMED FORCES EDITION
ZENESCOPE (2017)

BLOODLINE
SCRIPT: Joe Brusha & Dave Franchini
PENCILS: Ario Murti
COVER: Alfredo Reyes

THE COVER: 
As a former Marine, a red-blooded male, and a general "America, Hell Yeah!" kind of guy, this cover immediately grabs me.  It's bold and very nicely done.  If I could hang this on my office wall without multiple HR complaints, I would.

BUT. . .

As an adult comic reader, it's a little embarrassing.  I would never have bought this if it hadn't come to me in a giant box of random comics.  My daughter was laughing when we were pulling one shots to the side in a separate pile (there's about 30 more) and she spotted this one.  She asked who buys these kinds of comics.  I didn't have a good answer.  That's why it's in this review.

THE STORY:
In the dead of night at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., a mysterious hooded woman tracks her prey through the dark halls of the museum, pausing to briefly reflect on her family's long and dedicated military service to the United States through history as she passes by various displays.

Finally, she confronts a giant bull-headed creature with glowing red eyes and leaps into action, revealing herself as Belle, Hunter of Beasts! And. . .nope. That's it.

To be continued.

THE REVIEW:
What little "story" there is in this comic takes up a total of three and a half pages, and is actually just a preview for a (then) upcoming series.  For what it is, it's well-written and nicely-illustrated, but it's hardly worth even calling a story.

So this is a pretty thick comic.  What's in the rest of the pages?

It's all single page pinups of scantily-clad women with barely-there "military" wear and guns.  So, yeah. . .except for the preview at the front, the rest of this comic is boob-tastic military soft porn.


Now, don't get me wrong.  The art is great on all of them, and I've got nothing against some fine-lookin' comic ladies. . .but it's just sort of embarrassing that comics like this exist.  It reminds me of the old "Swimsuit Specials" Marvel used to put out before they realized everyone was making fun of them for it.  And indeed, my daughter was laughing when she challenged me to review this.

Challenge accepted, punk! BOOM! Here's your review!

BUT I DIGRESS. . .

Talking about the cover above, I mentioned that my daughter and I were pondering who exactly buys these comics.  Who are they created for?  The only answer I really can think of is that there's a LOT of fantastic artistic talent being wasted appealing to the most basic interests of young men, and that (based on the other handful of comics from this publisher I now own) Zenescope as a company in general exists to profit from those basic interests.  Those basic interests being boobs.

Seriously. . .there's some great talent in this "comic" going to waste on stuff like this.  Judged on the art alone, there's a lot to like.  Unfortunately, the direction that art is pointed is disappointing.

THE VERDICT:
I give this comic 4 out of 5 anonymous HR reports for the art.
1 out of 5 skipped ads for the "story".

I feel dirty now.  MOVING ALONG!

MARRIED. . .WITH CHILDREN
BUCK'S TALE
NOW COMICS (1994)

BUCK'S TALE
SCRIPT: Geoffrey White
PENCILS: Eddie Pittman
COVER: Tom Richmond

THE COVER:
Not good.  It looks like something a teenager would draw for high school art class.  The (accidental, I promise) running theme with this batch of one shots (except Bombast) seems to be focused on nicely-illustrated boobs with the woman's face as an afterthought.  This cover is no exception. Everything but Kelly Bundy's boobs is pretty poorly done.

 I'm familiar with the Married. . .With Children T.V. show, but until now have never read one of the comics.  This cover does NOT give me confidence that it's going to be any good. Let's do it!

THE STORY:
We follow the tragic tale of the Bundy's dog, Buck, beginning with his early days as the unwanted pup of a stray and a purebreed poodle living on the streets and searching for his father among the mongrels of the stray dog underground.

After finally finding his father and being rejected, Buck is saved by Bud and Kelly Bundy, who use him to gain sympathy as they scavenge for food.  After proving himself useful, Buck becomes a member of the dysfunctional Bundy family.

The End.

THE REVIEW:
I came into this without much confidence based on the minimum effort given to the cover.  I wasn't wrong.  This whole thing feels sort of pointless and random.  None of the jokes really hit until Buck is in the Bundy home and we get some of that classic "Peg vs. Al" back and forth that made the T.V. show a hit, but it's too little and too late.  The rest of it is just sort of "This happened and then this happened" with surprisingly little humor for what is supposed to be a comedy-based comic.

I digress a bit, but I see this often in licensed comics.  Some things just don't translate well from screen to page.  Comedy is definitely one of them.  It's a rare thing for a comic book to be able to capture the same spark of comedy as its source material.  This comic not only doesn't capture that spark (with the exception of a few gags toward the end), but doesn't even try that hard to do so.

The art is bright, cartoony, and very exaggerated.  For what it is, it's pretty good.  The art tells the story, but doesn't try to go any higher than that.  The artist doesn't really capture the essence of any of the T.V. characters very well beyond the world-weary Al Bundy, who is the only real bright spot in either writing or art in this comic. . .and his few scenes are at the very end of the story

Overall, this is just a very forgettable comic with surprisingly little comedy for being based on a classic T.V. sitcom.  Where Married. . .With Children the T.V. show subverted normal sitcom tropes to become something unusual, Married. . .With Children the comic book is pretty much by the numbers.

THE VERDICT:
I give this one 2 out of 5 hands down the pants.

CONCLUSION

This first handful of off-brand one shots was pretty disappointing.  For me, Red Sonja was the best of the bunch, with the rest showing either a lack of effort or too much effort in the wrong direction.  Let's hope for a bit of improvement in the next batch my daughter has picked for me to review.

Up Next. . .

Single issue offerings from Rock-It Comix, Arcade Comics, Antarctic Press, and Acclaim Comics coming in the next Off-Brand One Shots Edition of Longbox Junk. 

Be there or be square!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Longbox Junk - Aliens (2009)

Welcome back to Longbox Junk, home of all the comic reviews you never asked for!

It's surprisingly busy at work this week for this time of year. . .the hotel I manage is hosting a big national scrapbooking convention. Who even knew there WERE scapbooking conventions? Not me. But here it is. . .and trust me, these folks are SERIOUS about scrapbooking! Well, serious enough to take over an entire hotel/convention center for a solid week, anyway.

ANYWAY. . .

With all the scrapbooking-related madness, I haven't been able to get much time for readin' and reviewin' comic books. So this week I'm blowing the dust off of another Longbox Junk Rescue Review!

These are reviews that I wrote a few years ago when I was working for a well-known comic site (that shall remain unnamed) that has sort of turned into a well-known comic RELATED site focused a lot more on T.V., movies, and anime instead of the comic books that made them well known in the first place. . .BUT I DIGRESS!

I call them "Rescue Reviews" because I've taken them (with permission) from the hard to find and difficult to navigate archives of said well-known unnamed comic-related site, added some pictures, and polished them up just a bit in order to put them in a place where comic books are still appreciated. . .namely right here at Longbox Junk. Other than that bit of spit-shine, they remain pretty much in the same form as originally published.

Enough introduction. Let's do this!

ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION:

I'm a big fan of the Alien franchise. . .movies, comics, novels, video games. I love it all!  I even love those movies everyone hates (Like Alien 3, which is actually one of my favorites in the franchise).

Did I love this 2009 Dark Horse "Reboot" of the comics end of the franchise?

 Read on!

ALIENS
Dark Horse (2009)


SCRIPT: John Arcudi
PENCILS: Zach Howard
INKS: Mark Irwin & Zach Howard



ISSUE ONE 

COVER: Zach Howard

What a fantastic opening to this 4 issue mini-series! The excellence starts with the awesome cover and continues inside with the gritty, detailed artwork. . .which is definitely the best part of this entire series.

The story is well-written and for such a short space, has several twists. Starting with a prologue throwing us right into Alien action, then twisting to show that takes place sometime in the future of the story. THEN we follow one character through most of the issue, assuming she's the main character. Nope. . .twist again as she's gunned down later on. THEN we're introduced to the actual main character at the very end in another twist as he claws his way up from a mass grave. Very well done!

If I have one complaint about this issue, it's the design of the Aliens. They aren't the sleek black Xenomorphs I was expecting (and featured on the outstanding cover). They are reddish in color and have odd bumps and tusks. The artist draws them well, but it's just strange.



Other than that VERY small complaint, I couldn't ask more from an opening issue. Mystery, action, plot twists. . .let's hope the quality keeps high on this one. NEXT!

ISSUE 2


COVER: Zach Howard

Another fantastic issue! The art continues to really impress me and once again, the story takes several twists that just make me want to keep turning the page. . .

First we find out the identity of the true main character, then we find out he's the Alien franchise's favorite ex machina (literally), an android. Then we find out that there's something MORE than "just" Aliens on this world. . .something that plays with the minds of humans and controls them. THEN we find out that the people that need rescuing are the ones that killed everybody (almost) in the first issue, but they don't remember any of it except as a dream. 

Once again, lots of plot twists in a little space. I really liked it.

I only really have two complaints. . .first, there's still the strange-looking aliens. They're drawn fine, but I just don't like the more insect-like look. But maybe that's just me.


The second, I mentioned above. . .the Alien franchise over-reliance on android ex-machinas to carry a story showing up yet AGAIN. Too convenient. Too often. That doesn't make it a bad story, it's actually a really good story so far. I just rolled my eyes a bit when it was revealed that once again, an android saves the day. Stop it, Dark Horse. Just. . .stop.

ISSUE 3


COVER: Raymond Swanland


Although still good, I didn't like this issue as much as the previous two. The art is still the high point, starting with a great painted cover. Inside,the artwork is simply stunning as the action (and gore) kicks up a notch when David (the android) and the miners he has teamed up with are attacked by Aliens.


The problem I have with this issue is the same one I had with the last, but magnified even more in this issue. . .the ex machina of the android in almost every situation:

His "systems" can lead them to their lost member, Andrea. His "systems" can call down and remotely pilot the orbiting ship. His "systems" allow him to target and kill Aliens with relative ease (even though he introduces himself as a science model). And a main plot element is how his "systems" have been damaged to the point that he no longer is compelled to protect humans and at the end he hallucinates because of his damaged "systems". It just seems like a bit too much.

But like I said, that doesn't make the story BAD, It's just completely propped up on a very overused plot device. I did like the flashback scenes where the discovery of the mysterious alien (not Alien with a capital A, but something else that hasn't been revealed yet) is told about, but there are still plenty of questions I hope are wrapped up in the final issue. . .

ISSUE 4

COVER: Raymond Swanland

I have to say that this final issue was a pretty disappointing ending to this series.

After an extremely strong opening 2 issues, the story went a bit downhill. Not a complete slide off the rails by any means. It was still decent, and the art remained of fantastic quality through the whole thing. . .it's just that the ending in this last issue didn't really resolve anything. It's less of a "The End" and more of a "To Be Continued".

This issue was pretty much all out action as the android, David, and the small group of miners under his protection fight their way out of the alien (small a) city and are relentlessly attacked by Aliens (big A) on the way back to his ship. Yeah, they escape after losing a few members along the way, but that's not where the disappointment comes from.

One of the miners breaks away from the group because he (sort of rightly) doesn't trust a damaged android to lead them to safety. He returns to the heart of the alien city and we see him pretty much worshipping some sort of giant glowing alien (small a) being that has no resemblance to the Aliens (big A). It sort of comes right out of nowhere without any explanation, and then. . .nothing. The stoy just ends. It's like this whole mini was a prologue to another story.


It left a lot of questions unanswered. How could the android, David, dream and hallucinate? Who or what built the alien city? What was the giant glowing being that Red was worshipping? Why are the Aliens different in form and color? So on and so forth.

I'm not sure if there was a follow-up to this story, but as a stand-alone tale, the ending is not good at all, and probably the most disappointing part of this entire series. A mini-series implies a complete story. This is NOT a complete story.

CONCLUSION

Despite an over-reliance on the tried and true super android ex machina and an unexplained ending that leaves this an incomplete story, I really enjoyed this mini for its individual parts, even though as a whole it ended on a disappointing note. 

The art was outstanding in every way, on every page, and in every panel. The story kept me turning the page, even though the plot twists of the first couple issues took a back seat to action on the back half. I just wish this would have gone a couple more issues and given a more satisfying ending.

All in all I would definitely suggest this mini for anyone who likes the Aliens franchise, with a fair warning that it isn't a complete story. If you don't like the whole Aliens thing, this mini won't change your mind a bit. 

Next up. . .

Something from my newly-acquired giant pile of non DC/Marvel comics! There's a LOT of good junk in there. Maybe TOO much! I think I might be having a bit of off-brand Longbox Junk overload! SO MUCH GOOD JUNK! I'm having a hard time picking.

Be there or be square.