Monday, June 18, 2018

Longbox Junk - Azrael (Vol. 2) Part 1: Issues 1 - 9

I said it once and I'll say it again. . .it ain't easy being an Azrael fan.

After an unimpressive introduction in the "Death's Dark Knight" mini, I pondered the question of just how good an ongoing series starring the uninteresting character of Michael Lane could be. . .

It ran for 18 issues, so there was SOME push behind it, but from what I can see on the internet (O Internet! Fountain of Comic Knowledge!) nobody really cared. A continued lack of care is reflected in the REBIRTH Bat-books where Azrael has been re-introduced, but as a strange version of Jean Paul Valley wearing a Suit of Sorrows with some sort of ancient A.I. computer built into it. 

 Rebirth Azrael is a steaming pile of WTF, but Michael Lane seems to have been completely forgotten by. . .well. . .everyone.  There is very little information on this series beyond the first issue to be found.

So here's a look at the ongoing series starring the Azrael nobody asked for, nobody cared about, and nobody remembers today.  I kind of feel sorry for it, because to tell the truth. . .it ain't bad.


AZRAEL (Vol. 2) 
DC (2009 - 2011)

ISSUE 1
ANGEL IN THE DARK

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon 
COVER: Jock

First issue. Here we go

First off. . .great cover by Jock!

This first issue of Azrael featuring the Michael Lane version of the character was surprisingly good after the lackluster introductory mini that preceded it (Death's Dark Knight). The story is split into 3 sections. . .

The first is Azrael's hunt for a serial killer that is preying on a specific list of Catholic Church members. The ending was surprising in that Azrael figures out who the killer is (a contract assasin working for victims of a child molesting priest and working his way through those who turned the other way or protected the priest, saving him for last) and confronts him, but ultimately lets him go to finish his job. . .showing that Azrael is more concerned with justice than being a traditional hero.

The second story thread involves Michael getting settled into his new role as Avenger for The Order of Purity, and is mostly exposition for those who didn't read the mini.

The third storyline. . .and most interesting. . .is a flash-forward 8 months ahead with Harvey Bullock and the GCPD investigating the death of Azrael. I like that they were already considering the end of the story at the very beginning of it.

Let's talk about the art a bit. 

In other reviews I've seen of this first issue, 90% of them bagged on the art. I have to disagree. I REALLY liked the gritty, realistic, somewhat chunky and darkly-inked art. I think that the penciller, inker, and color artist really work great together and that the art is actually the best part of this book for looking nothing like one would expect in a mainstream comic series. I especially like that they don't draw Lane himself as a super-heroic figure, but as a compact, muscular bulldog of a man. . .not really physically imposing at all when out of costume.

Overall, I found this issue to be a surprisingly good read. I liked that the story touched on an extremely uncomfortable topic for a mainstream DC superhero book (child molesting priests), had great, gritty art, was pretty much a self-contained one issue story, and hooked me in by giving me a flash forward mystery. There's really nothing bad I can say about this issue. Well done!


ISSUE 2
GHOST IN THE LIGHT

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

As Azrael tries to learn more about the Order of Purity, his mission, and the curse on the Suit of Sorrows he wears, he is lured into a confrontation with Ra's Al Ghul's servant, The White Ghost, and is forced to choose between saving only one of two innocent people.

Another surprisingly good issue. Once again, it's pretty much done in one issue, while still exploring some threads for the overall story. I'm really liking the "one and done, with a little extra" narrative structure of this title so far. 

I also liked that (like last issue), Azrael doesn't take the obvious path to solving the problem at hand. In this case, he talks his enemy into a corner, forcing him to help him with the "impossible" test Ra's Al Ghul has set up for him (deciding which one of two innocent people to save from certain death).

The gritty, realistic art continues to impress. This issue has a brief appearance by Birds of Prey-era Huntress that is particularly nicely done.

Overall, there's really nothing bad to say about this issue.


ISSUE 3
A SINGLE GRAIN OF SAND

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

While racial tension heats up in Gotham City, Azrael discovers that a killer is one of the men he went on a secret mission to Iran with during his time as a Marine. . .

Another good "One and Done, with a little extra" issue. I'm really liking the narrative style of this title. Also, as in the last two issues, Azrael doesn't solve the problem in a traditional "heroic" way as he's forced to confront some of the evil things he did during wartime and decide if he has the right to judge someone who was there with him.

The art. . .especially in the flashback scenes. . .remains very nicely done. I really like the chunky, more realistic look of this title. It's almost like a Vertigo book.

Overall, this title still remains strong three issues in, with a "Cast the first stone, he who is without sin" self contained story and a great, gritty look.


ISSUE 4
BLOOD SIMPLE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

After taking down a Satanic cult, Batman and Robin discover the person responsible for the murders of Azrael's brother and sister. 

And so we come to the first "clunker" issue on this run. . .and fairly early too.

It's not BAD, it's just not as good as the previous issues, with a story that still follows the "one and done, with a little extra" framework established from the beginning of this title, but with Azrael finding out that his own Sister In Law murdered his brother and sister. . .and that "The Devil Made Her Do It" Literally.  It's a bit weak, and frankly the way they just sort of leave it hanging is unexplainable.

The art remains strong in this issue, but for some reason, the art team does a poor job with Batman and Robin, with the exception of a few panels.

Overall, this is the weakest issue so far. . .and being only 4 issues into an 18 issue run, I hope it's not the start of an early downward slide.


ISSUE 5
SEAMS UNDONE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

As racial tension between Jews and Palestinians in Gotham reaches a boiling point, Azrael encounters Ragman and learns that fighting on the "Right" side all depends on the point of view. . .

Another fairly weak issue, making it two in a row. It involves tension between Jews and Palestinians with a confrontation between Ragman and Azrael as champions of two different religions as sort of a proxy battle of words and faiths. The IDEA is interesting, the execution is not so much. There are a few thought-provoking moments, but to be honest, the whole thing feels more than a little forced.

The art returns to an outstanding level in this issue. A particular standout is a double page spread of Azrael being forced to mentally confront the truth of all the blood that has been shed by those wearing the cursed Suit of Sorrows. I guess the art team just has some sort of problem with Batman and Robin, because it's all good in this issue.

Overall, a weak story with a good concept, an interesting guest character, and poor execution.


ISSUE 6
UNSPOKEN

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael studies ancient texts to learn more about the Suit of Sorrows and those who wore it previously. He discovers a secret code that claims to tell him who his real enemy is. . .The Order of Purity that he serves.

This was probably the best issue of the run so far. Good news after 2 pretty weak issues. 

Told mostly in flashback as Michael Lane secludes himself and studies the history of the Order of Purity and journals of previous Azraels, he discovers a code that tells him that The Order is his REAL enemy.

The story is tight and very well written, and the art is especially impressive this time out. In particular, a past confrontation between an Azrael of St. Dumas and an Azrael of the Order of Purity is VERY nicely done.  All that AND the cover of this issue is one of the best so far.

Overall, this issue is a winner in every way!


ISSUE 7
SLOW DEATH

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael's sanity starts to fray around the edges as he tracks down "Hide and Seek", a team of two criminals who have kidnapped a child.

After the fantastic previous issue, this one feels like a bit of a disappointment. Not to say that it's bad, just not as good as it COULD be. The story is pretty simple and straightforward. . .another "one and done" that also snips the loose end of Lane's sister-in-law being acquitted for the murder of Lane's brother and sister because. . .the DEVIL made her do it! Whatever. It's just a one page WTF in an otherwise decent issue.


ISSUE 8
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 1

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael follows a trail of clues and dead bodies to France, leading him to a secret temple beneath a church and a cult that worships sin who try to force him to become the avatar of the 8th Deadly Sin. . .Faith.

You know how they say when a T.V. show goes on the road for a "Special Episode" where they go on vacation to Hawaii, or visit Disneyland (for example), it's on the way down? Yeah. . .I get that feeling with this issue.

There's a lot of heavy questions here about unquestioning faith being a sin itself, but basically, this is the first "Continued" issue, and is mostly a fight with supervillains from “The Eighth Deadly Sin” storyline found in BATMAN ANNUAL #27 and DETECTIVE COMICS ANNUAL #11.

The art remains gritty and grounded, but I definitely see signs of story fatigue as the writer moves Azrael toward continuity-based supervillain battles.

Overall, it's not awful. . .but it ain't that good either.


ISSUE 9
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 2

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael is forced (somehow that isn't really explained) into becoming the avatar for the 8th Deadly Sin, Faith. He gets a brutal new helmet and joins the La Saligia team for an attack on The Vatican. 

The White Ghost manages to talk him back down and the two team up to take out half of the Deadly Sins. After their killing spree is over, Azrael declines to join Team Ra's Al Ghul. White Ghost tells him it's only a matter of time before he changes his mind. . .

This second half of the "Let Him Who Is Without Sin" story is basically a long fight sequence, with Azrael changing sides twice and lots of religious questions being asked between punches and sword blows.

I found it interesting that Ra's Al Ghul (via The White Ghost) is becoming a bigger part of the overall story, but other than that, this was a fairly weak issue with some inexplicable moments. . .Michael Lane has to be one of the MOST easily-manipulated characters ever. You can talk him into doing almost ANYTHING.

The art is the saving grace on this story. The fight scenes are very nicely done, and the art team makes even ridiculous supervillains look decent.

Overall, I'm glad this story is done with, and I hope it's not a sign of the direction this title is headed. . .
CONCLUSION

Despite a few weak issues, I'd have to say that I enjoyed the first half of Azrael a lot more than I thought I would.  Here's the thing. . .the Michael Lane version of Azrael is an EXTREMELY forgettable character, but the stories built AROUND the character are good.  All credit due to Fabian Nicieza for turning lemons into lemonade.

 Also credit due to the art team of Bachs, Smith, and Stanisci for giving the book a dark, gritty, grounded look that really sets it apart.  As I mentioned above, I really liked that this Azrael is NOT a hulking, impressive figure, but is a short (he's drawn about 6 or 7 inches shorter than Batman), muscular bulldog of a character.

Overall, I found the first half of this series to be a gritty, thought-provoking take on a religious-themed hero.  There were a few WTF moments to be had. For example. . .one has to wonder why Batman allows someone to go around Gotham killing people because God and The Order of Purity say they deserve it.  In any regular Bat book Azrael would be the villain. . .but Batman and company just sort of let Azrael do his thang for some reason that's never really explained.

But good taken with bad, this series (so far) isn't nearly as bad as it SHOULD be. It's actually pretty good and deserves a read as a nice little piece of Longbox Junk. . .this first half anyway.  We'll see about the rest.

Up next. . .

The back half of the Azrael series nobody remembers!  Issues 10 - 18.

Can this thing stay on the rails?

Be there or be square!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Longbox Junk - Azrael: Death's Dark Knight

Let me tell you something.  It ain't easy being a defender of Azrael.
That said. . .I'm a pretty big Azrael fan, and guess what? I thought he was a decent Batman too.

Yeah, I know.  DC has pretty much admitted that they specifically created Azrael in a sort of "You want this? You got this." response to constant reader demands to make Batman more grim, gritty, and generally 90's - tastic.   But I liked Azrael, and I liked Azrael as Batman, and I liked Azrael AFTER comic fans were like "Whoa, now! Give us back the old Batman, please."

BUT. . .

That was Jean Paul Valley Azrael.  THIS is a whole DIFFERENT Azrael, introduced as part of the "Battle For The Cowl" event, where everyone thought Batman had died in Final Crisis (but he was really travelling through time and Grant Morrison's mind) as one of the handful of tie-in mini's that came along with that merry mess.

So. . .a new Azrael nobody asked for.  Is it any good? Let's find out!

AZRAEL: DEATH'S DARK KNIGHT

DC (2009)
SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Frazer Irving
COVERS: Guillem March

ISSUE 1
SIMPLE SACRIFICES

Michael Lane. . .former Marine, GCPD beat cop, and part of a secret program to replace Batman. A broken man who has lost everyone and everything he loves. His tragic past leads the Order of Purity to offer him a purpose and a chance at redemption by becoming their Avenging Angel. . .Azrael.

Like the last "Battle For The Cowl" tie-in mini that I reviewed (Oracle: The Cure), this is not so much a big part of THAT story as it is an epilogue to ANOTHER story. In Oracle's case it was Final Crisis, in this case, it's Batman: R.I.P.

The main character, Michael Lane, was one of the three replacement Batmen that the GCPD and the military were training in case Batman fell, and who came under the influence of Dr. Hurt as part of his plan to destroy Batman.

So. . .once again in a "Battle For The Cowl" mini, you might need to wiki up on past storylines. That said. . .it's not a bad start. Not that it's a particularly GOOD start either. It's really pretty average.

Lane's transformation from a broken wreck of a man into a guy shouting about how he's Azrael, Avenging Angel and jumping into battle with Talia Al Ghul's motley band of mercenaries she's sent to recover the stolen "Suit of Sorrows" (which leads one to have to wiki up the "Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul" story) takes place in the course of about 3 panels.

It's like one minute Lane is in the graveyard not wanting to talk to his sister in law because he's so sad, the next minute, he's like "GET SOME!"

But other than the extremely rushed transformation, the origin of Michael Lane Azrael isn't bad. The art is dark and moody, fitting the story well, but there really aren't any moments of brilliance.

Overall, this first issue of the new Azrael's origin was pretty average. Not bad, not great. The backstory requires knowledge of past storylines to fully understand, but even without that knowledge it's not too hard to figure out. Unfortunately, the bland story and art didn't really excite me for reading the next issue.

ISSUE 2
GIVE AND TAKE

Michael Lane learns the truth about the cursed armor he wears from Talia Al Ghul. . .that every Azrael who has worn it has gone insane.

Another pretty average issue with a few headscratching moments thrown in the mix.

After Talia Al Ghul goes to all the trouble of tracking down the stolen Suit of Sorrows and then having her merry band of mercenaries attack The Order of Purity. . .she sits down for drinks with Lane and tells him all about the curse on the suit, then just sort of. . .goes away. What?

And then at the end of the book, Lane just sort of casually strolls into the Batcave. One would think there would be some sort of security down there. I'd hate to think my friggin' CAR has more security than a crimefighter's secret high-tech hideaway filled with billions of dollars worth of stuff.

But WTF moments aside, this second issue was pretty much like the first. . .extremely average, with decent art that doesn't really have any great moments either.

ISSUE 3
WHY ASK WHY?

After a confrontation in the Batcave ending with Azrael defeated and part of his memory erased, Nightwing and Talia Al Ghul come to an agreement to continue letting Michael Lane operate as Azrael in Gotham, for. . .reasons?

So here we are at the big finish for the origin of the new Azrael. And it definitely lives up to the title of the story. . .Why Ask Why?

A lot of things happen in this issue for no real reason except to cram a new Azrael into DC continuity, tie up loose threads from previous stories, and set things up for the promised new ongoing Azrael series.

 There's quite a bit of WTF in this issue, but it's all presented in such a bland "this happened and then this happened" manner that it sort of. . .happens. There's nothing exciting or particularly interesting about the events.

Overall, I'd have to say that this was probably one of the most uninteresting new character introductions I've read. It was so utterly average in every way that I really had no interest in finding out what happens next. Not that it was BAD, it just wasn't that good. It's just sort of. . .there.

CONCLUSION

So what we have here is ANOTHER Battle For The Cowl mini that is actually less of a Battle For The Cowl tie-in and more of an epilogue for another story written by Grant Morrison during his days of tainting Batman with his peculiar brand of insanity. . .in this case, it's Batman R.I.P. that you might have to wiki up on to fully understand the references in this story.

That aside. . .

The story at hand has to be one of the most uninteresting character introductions I've ever read.  It's not bad, and the art fits the story nicely, but it's all presented in such a bland way that it seems like a minor miracle to me that after this mini DC decided to go ahead with an ongoing Azrael series with this new version of the character.

Was there REALLY that much reader interest? Or was DC just like, "Here's your new Azrael. . .whether you want him or not!"  I don't really understand.  I'm not seeing a clear answer, based on this introductory series.

Up next. . .

I decided to take a look at the confusing question of how such an uninteresting introduction led to an 18 issue ongoing series.  DC's 2009 Azrael. . .the Azrael nobody asked for, but we got anyway!

Be there or be square.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Longbox Junk - Aliens: Berserker

First, let me say that I'm a big fan of the Aliens and Predator universe that Dark Horse established outside of the movie continuity in the 1990's.

BUT. . .

The stories varied wildly in quality.  Some of them were brilliant, and are some of my favorite comics, period.  Others were steaming piles of crap.  The inconsistency of Dark Horse's Alien universe was its weak point. . .and I'm assuming the reason why it eventually faded away for quite a while (They've recently rebooted their Alien/Predator books and the quality is a lot more consistent).

So what we have here is a mini from smack dab in the middle of Dark Horse's Alien/ Predator 1990's heyday.  Is it one of the good ones?  Let's find out!

ALIENS: BERSERKER

DARK HORSE (1995)
SCRIPTS: John Wagner
PENCILS: Paul Mendoza
COVERS: Kilian Plunkett

ISSUE 1

In this issue, we're introduced to the crew of the "Nemesis", a Weyland-Yutani Company Hunter/Killer team. A small group of expert mercenaries whose specialty is taking out Alien nests using specialized tactics and supported by a walking tank with a living brain. . .The Berserker.

I found this to be a pretty enjoyable issue. It's mostly introduction and setup. . .following the Berserker team on a mission into an alien nest and showing the military precision and destructive power of The Berserker (a giant, armored power suit with a living person locked inside under sedation until needed).

The art was a bit hit or miss on this one. This is another artist who can draw vehicles and gear with beautiful detail, but struggles with human proportions and faces. The coloring is also WAY too bright, with big primary splashes everywhere. The cover is VERY nice, though.

Overall, this was a great introduction to the specialized Hunter/Killer teams working for the Alien universe's "Evil Corporation". It's a fast reading and enjoyable little piece of hard military science fiction.

ISSUE 2

The crew of The Nemesis is diverted to Terminal 949. . .a space station with a crew of over a thousand, making it the largest Alien nest in history. Unfortunately for them, the Company refuses to call in the Colonial Marines for backup and orders are to take the station intact. . .a suicide mission.

This issue wasn't quite as good as the first one. . .but still wasn't bad. One would think that if it was SO important that the station not be damaged or destroyed, that "The Company" would send a few more teams of Hunter/Killers in, instead of relying on just one team. But then again. . .they ARE supposed to be the best.

Also, there's some clunky dialogue that's supposed to set up a romantic connection between one of the team and their commander that's extremely forced.

The art maintains the same problem as in the first issue. . .the double-whammy of the line artist not doing so well with humans and the color artist being WAY too heavy handed with the primary colors.

All in all, other than a bit of shaky romance subplot with half good/half bad art, this was still a decent and fast-moving read with lots of great sci-fi military action.

ISSUE 3

Things start to go badly for the crew of the Nemesis as team members start dying, communications go down, and their Berserker seems to be having trouble getting started up for battle. . .

Lots of good action in this issue as the Hunter/Killer team realizes just HOW many aliens are on the station and start losing people as they are overwhelmed while their Berserker is having problems.

Once again. . .briskly-written sci-fi military fiction with art that is great in some places and pure crap in others. The awful coloring really stands out in this issue even more so than the previous ones.

ISSUE 4

And now for the big finish!

In order to save the rest of the team, their medic has to take over the Berserker when the living "brain" inside dies. But having an inexperienced pacifist driving a heavily-armed war machine is just the beginning of their problems as they are betrayed by their commander on Company orders and they have to run for their lives to avoid being nuked along with the station. . .

Another fast-paced issue with lots of action as the team tries to escape the station after their commander is ordered to nuke it to protect the secret that The Company has been transporting Aliens.

The art is still problematic, but the scenes where the commander gets his karmic payback via facehugger alien are very nicely done. Unfortunately, the colors are still God-awful.

Overall, this was a good issue, but as an ending for the mini, it left me a little cold. It seems (from a blurb on the last page) that this was actually a prologue to "Alien vs. Predator: War", so there isn't really any resolution as the three surviving team members fly off in a shuttle away from the exploding station. . .just a sort of "To be continued".

CONCLUSION

All in all, this was not bad. I liked it quite a bit.  It's a quick-moving, decent piece of hard science fiction military action.  If you aren't a fan of that genre of writing, then this won't be for you at all. 

 The characters are barely-sketched military cliches, the story is basically an excuse for shooting things, and the ending is a bit disappointing. . .but all that said, it hits the marks for a pretty good hard sci-fi story.

The only real problem here is the art.  Vehicles, machinery, weapons, aliens, and gore are all done VERY nicely.  Human faces and proportions are pretty poorly rendered.  This wouldn't be so much of a problem in this kind of story, but it's compounded by lousy, heavy-handed coloring.  It's all too bright and splashed with primary colors in an extremely distracting way.

Overall, what we have here is a decent sci-fi military story hampered by barely tolerable art.

Up Next. . .

The new Azrael nobody asked for but we got anyway!
DC's 2009 Azrael: Death's Dark Knight 3 issue mini.

Be there or be square!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Longbox Junk - All New Captain America

Steve Rogers as Captain America is one of my favorite (super hero) characters of all time.

BUT. . .

I'm gonna say something here that MIGHT just be a little bit disagreeable to a lot of comic book readers out there.  I REALLY liked Sam Wilson as Captain America, and I had hoped he would STAY as Captain America.

Captain America: Sam Wilson was probably my favorite Marvel book out while it was running (super hero book, that is.  I like their Star Wars titles a lot too).  It has great art and touches on a lot of uncomfortable subjects.  It's more than just punching giant robots and monsters.

It ain't perfect, but I think Sam Wilson has a good enough legacy as Cap's partner and friend to be able to pull off being Captain America while still telling the story of how he KNOWS there's no way he can live up to the original in a very meta way reflecting the opinions of many Captain America fans.

Unfortunately, Marvel seems like they can never really stick to their guns when it comes to major changes to a "tentpole" character like Captain America (Not slamming Marvel in particular, DC is just as guilty) and we have Steve Rogers back now at the expense of some great storytelling for Sam Wilson.

BUT. . .

THAT'S "Captain America: Sam Wilson".  THIS is the initial offering of Sam Wilson as Captain America, "All New Captain America". . .an extremely short (just 6 issues) run just before Marvel's universe reboot with Secret Wars.

Is it as good as what came later? Is it any good at all? Let's find out!

ALL NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA
MARVEL (2015)

ISSUE 1

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

The New Captain America teams up with Nomad to take down a hidden Hydra Base holding a devastating secret weapon.

This first issue starts off VERY nicely with an outstanding cover. Say what you will about Sam Wilson as Captain America, but that IS one sweet cover!

Inside, Immonen's art continues to impress, and is really the best part of the issue. The double page opening spread of Cap flying down into the Hydra base that is the main plot focus of the issue is particularly outstanding. And anyone that can make BATROC look like a badass is doing a fine job in my book.

Unfortunately, the story isn't quite as impressive as the art. It's not BAD, but it really suffers from exposition overload. . .it comes on the heels of the God-Awful "Captain America in Dimension Z" storyline. . .and it tries to team FalconCap up with Ian Rogers/Leopold Zola/ Nomad. To be kind, let's just say it feels extremely forced, and thank God they abandoned the effort in the next series.

Overall, this was a decent issue with fantastic art, but bogged down with exposition and a forced teamup.

ISSUE 2

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

Cap and Nomad are separated while battling a "Who's Who" of Captain America villains after being teleported to a nation run by criminals. Cap is betrayed by the boy they were trying to save, Misty Knight (working undercover for S.H.I.E.L.D.) comes to his rescue and lets him know about a vast Hydra conspiracy (what other kind IS there?) and Nomad is seemingly killed by Baron Zemo.

So. . .

There's a lot going on in this issue, and to tell the truth, two issues in and the plot is starting to turn into a mess. This short-lived series is headed for the cliff almost right out of the gate.

That's not to say it's bad. . .it's decent, mindless, punch-tastic superhero nonsense. Definitely heavy on the action, and with stunning artwork by Immonen carrying the load with ease.

ISSUE 3

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

Cap is taken prisoner by Sin (Red Skull's daughter) and is mentally tortured by revealing that Sam Wilson is a fake persona put on mob thug and drug runner "Snap" Wilson by the Red Skull in order to use him as a spy against the original Captain America. Sam shows Sin his disagreement via punches and angsty shouting.

Oh, SNAP (Wilson)!

This issue makes absolutely NO sense as part of the ongoing story. He gets on a teleporting elevator with Misty Knight and gets off alone in WWII where Red Skull's skanky daughter mentally torments him. There's absolutely no explanation of what's going on or how she manages to travel back in time.

Of course as a retcon of Sam Wilson's retconned "Snap Wilson" origin, it makes SOME sense. Marvel needed to do this at some point and they just shrugged and said "No time like the present. Just throw it in there."

Overall, except for the outstanding artwork, this issue sticks out like a sore thumb in a REALLY bad way. The retcon of the retcon is clumsy and poorly done, and will probably have to be retconned again someday.

No bueno.

ISSUE 4

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

It's a race against time to foil Hydra's plan to sterilize the world's population. Captain America and Misty Knight split up to take down Hydra cells in India and Madripoor, then split again to take down the last cells in Moscow and Florida.

Unfortunately, Cap finds himself outmatched by Baron Zemo and is unable to stop millions of fleas with infected blood from being released on America. . .

Yeah. Millions of infected fleas.

Last issue's retcon of Sam Wilson's "Snap" Wilson gangsta background via the daughter of the Red Skull's unexplained powers to travel back in time was confusing and out of place. This issue's "Flea Apocalypse" is just plain stupid.

At this point, Immonen's outstanding art and some nice flashback moments at the beginning of each issue are this run's only saving grace.  A damn shame, considering what the next series had to offer.

ISSUE 5

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

Captain America is rejoined by Nomad, taking down Baron Zemo and saving America by summoning a huge flock of birds to eat all the infected fleas. . .but they discover Hydra's failsafe plan: The vampire Baron Blood filled with infected blood and ready to blow himself up in Paris. . .

*facepalm*

After getting his throat cut by Zemo, Nomad comes back into the fight with what HAS to be the lamest "Not really dead" Deus Ex Machina I've seen in a while. . .some sort of wonder healing gel from Dimension Z built into his armor.

I thought the brutal death of Nomad was one of the best things about this series. I pegged it as a good move that added a bit of emotional impact. It turned out to be just another Marvel fakeout.

And finally. . .

ISSUE 6

SCRIPTS: Rick Remender
PENCILS: Stuart Immonen
COVER: Stuart Immonen

Captain America defeats Baron Blood in a battle on the edge of outer space while Nomad is seemingly killed AGAIN during a battle with Baron Zemo. At the end of the day, Misty Knight comes to the rescue and Hydra's plans are foiled. . .for now.

In an epilogue aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier during Captain America's debriefing by Nick Fury jr., it's revealed that, SURPRISE! Misty Knight wasn't working for S.H.I.E.L.D. after all. . .

Thank God it's over.

From Captain America being able to fly up to low earth orbit sans spacesuit to battle with a vampire to Nomad's second "death" in the space of 6 issues, to Redwing (Sam's best bird bud, who was "killed" last issue. . .Marvel can't even let a friggin' BIRD die for good!) being turned into a bird-vampire. . .this final issue was a hot mess of WTF.

CONCLUSION

Reading this short run, I can fully understand why a lot of people were sour on the idea of Sam Wilson as Captain America.  It is little more than a 6 issue punch-fest with a hot mess of a plot made worse by the idea of having Steve Roger's Dimension Z adoptee son as a sidekick character.

The post-Secret Wars Captain America: Sam Wilson is superior in many ways. . .but after reading this initial mess Marvel offered up, how many people didn't even give it a chance?  A damn shame.

On close inspection, one can pretty much see that this whole series was basically filler with the express purpose to do SOMETHING with Nomad and to retcon the new Captain America's "Snap" Wilson gangsta background out of existence.

All things considered, I wouldn't suggest this. . .series? Can 6 issues even be CALLED a series?  I wouldn't suggest this series to anyone but the most die-hard Sam Wilson Captain America or Falcon fans.

Up Next. . .

Let's take a trip back to 1995 and see what Dark Horse was up to with the Aliens franchise, shall we?

Aliens: Berserker 4 issue mini.

Be there or be square!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Throwback Thursday - Cloak And Dagger

Welcome to another Throwback Thursday "Retro Review" edition of Longbox Junk!  

Once again, I step outside of my usual bargain bin finds to take a closer look at a comic from my collection that might be considered more "valuable" than most of what I own and give the internet a classic comic review that NOBODY ever asked me for.

This time out, I think I've outdone myself on the "Review that nobody ever asked me for" front, in that I believe that this will be the only review of this comic that has EVER been done. . .and I'll take a safe bet that there probably won't be another one. 

I'm not exactly sure how rare this comic is. . .there's a few low grade copies for sale on the internet. . .but I had a bit of a hard time even finding out ANY information on the creative team, let alone any reviews of it.  And even what information I could find was incomplete.  I found out who painted the cover fairly easily, and one of what appears to be 3 contributing artists, but I can't even find a hint of who wrote this comic.

So sit back and enjoy a trip back to the Commie-Bashing days of 1952 as I take you through the one and only issue of Cloak and Dagger.  Ready? Let's do this!

CLOAK AND DAGGER #1


ZIFF - DAVIS (1952)
SCRIPTS: Unknown
PENCILS: John Prentice & Unknown
COVER: Norman Saunders

So I basically bought this comic for its cover in a lot of "collector comics" at an estate sale auction a couple of months ago.  Got some nice Roy Rogers, Weird Science, and Four Color comics in the same lot.  18 pre-code comics in very nice shape for $350.  But it was THIS particular cover that made me bid on the lot in the first place. . .so let's talk about it for a moment.

I love EVERYTHING about this cover.  The fierce expression on the woman, the colors, the logo. . .the whole thing just screams "PULP" right in your face.  Okay. . .I know. . .the hero is holding his pistol sorta funny.  But other than that, this is the kind of cover that was made to catch the eye on a newsstand and it succeeds in a big way.  Of course, it really has nothing to do with what's actually inside the comic, but that's how comics rolled in those days.  Come to think of it. . .that's sorta how they still roll.

Moving along. . .let's get into the first story!



The Krosno Butcher is one of the two stories in this comic that can be attributed to artist John Prentice on pencils and inks.  I was unable to find out who the writer is.  The story goes like this:

Special Secret Service Agent Al Kennedy and his partner Casimir "Cass" Stryzinski (formerly of the Polish Underground) travel to Lima, Peru to investigate the brutal murder of an American businessman.

After speaking to the dead man's wife, the duo are pointed in the direction of a local wine merchant, but when they arrive at the merchant's shop, they discover that he has also been murdered.  After Kennedy and Cass split up to try and find more information, Kennedy is attacked and brutally beaten by thugs telling him to forget the case and go home.

Despite his injuries, Kennedy stays on the trail but is ambushed a second time by the same thugs after a shifty taxi driver delivers him to their headquarters, where they beat him unconscious.  Later he wakes up with his head in the lap of a beautiful woman named Tatyana, who introduces Kennedy to a one-armed man wearing a Nazi uniform named Major Martin Klempner.

Upon seeing Klempner, Kennedy flashes back to post-war Poland where he was in charge of the inquest of "The Krosno Butcher", who brutally murdered the entire population of a Polish village and escaped Kennedy's courtroom before judgement could be passed. . .none other than the same Major Klempner standing before him.

Klempner informs Kennedy that he is speaking to the New Fuehrer before ordering his thugs to take Kennedy down to the basement to die along with the wife of the murdered businessman who put Kennedy on his trail. . .but first, Klempner decides to tell Kennedy the full details of the scheme he's stumbled upon.

Barrels of guns are bought on the black market and stored in the basement of the murdered wine merchant's shop, waiting to be used by Klempner's troops on the day they take over Peru.

Fortunately for Kennedy (and the murdered businessman's wife), Klempner's villainous monologue is interrupted by the arrival of Casimir and the Police.  After a short fight, Klempner makes a run for it, pursued by Kennedy, who shoots the filthy Nazi three times in the back with his own Luger. . .just like filthy Nazis deserve.  All's well that ends well.

Okay. . .not a bad little story at all.  

A little hardboiled detective action combined with a little Cold War spy action that establishes Al Kennedy as the type of no-nonsense guy who will shoot a filthy Nazi in the back if that's what he's got to do.   I'm starting to like Al Kennedy more than I thought I would.

The art on this story was also pretty damn good.  Nice clean lines with heavy inks.  Even the faces of the bit players were well done and individual. If this comic stopped right here, I'd be satisfied with this small dose of well-drawn detective/spy/Nazi shootin' action. . .but there's more.

NEXT STORY!



As you can see, Kismet obviously has a different artist than the first story.  Unfortunately, I have no idea who that artist or the writer of this story might be.  Looks like the same colorist, though.  Here's how the story goes:

Special Secret Agent Al Kennedy and his trusted assistant Casimir "Cass" Stryzinski (formerly of the Polish Underground), are tasked with travelling to the Middle-Eastern nation of Caesarea in order to prevent an assassination of the King and uncover the conspiracy behind the attempts.

Upon arrival, they meet the King, his scantily-clad daughter (Princess Jasmin), and the scowling Minister of Justice (Cadi Hamid).  Before they even have a chance to unpack their bags, the agents room is broken into and Cass's notebook detailing their investigation is stolen from their luggage. . .pretty much immediately blowing their cover.

Soon afterward, while exploring the city, Kennedy and Cass are fired on from a speeding car and they accidentally find themselves taking cover in the King's harem, which is forbidden.  They are taken before the Minister of Justice and sentenced to death, but Princess Jasmin orders their lives be spared.  Kennedy and Jasmin start making lusty eyes at each other while third wheel Cass is just glad to be alive.

Later, in the early hours of the morning, an assassin sneaks into Kennedy and Cass' room and falls for the old "stabbing the pillows under the blankets" trick and is captured and interrogated by the agents, who get him to spill the beans by threatening to stuff him into a pigskin suitcase and killing him wrapped in swine so he won't go to heaven.  Better than waterboarding.  Just sayin'.  BUT I DIGRESS!

The assassin tells the agents that a holy place the King will be visiting that day is loaded with dynamite and rigged to explode, but before they can get the name of who's behind the plot, a second assassin shoots the first through the window and escapes.  Cass tries to warn the King of the assassination plot, but discover that the King and Princess Jasmin have already left for the holy place.

Kennedy and Cass hustle to the Minister of Justice (who's in charge while the King is gone) and inform him of the plot.  Hamid grabs a vehicle and the trio head out across the desert to try and catch the King before he arrives.  Unfortunately, Hamid turns out to be the bad guy and surprise attacks Kennedy and Cass, leaving them to die in the middle of the desert.

Luckily for them, after wandering through the desert for a while, Princess Jasmin JUST HAPPENS to stumble across the stranded agents just as the vultures begin to circle.  She'd conveniently  headed back to find a bracelet she had lost.  As Princess Jasmin and her guards rush to the holy place to protect her father, Cass runs in to disarm the bombs.  Kennedy takes on Cadi Hamid in hand to hand combat as the Minister attacks the Princess.

After a short battle, the King and Princess are saved, the bomb is defused, and the plot is foiled.  Unfortunately, Hamid escapes during the fight.  Kennedy gets a kiss from the Princess and a bag of diamonds as a reward, and with a smooth "I wish I could stay baby -- But my work is over now." Kennedy is summoned back to Washington.

As they fly back home, Cass and Kennedy spot the body of Hamid in the desert getting eaten by vultures and solemnly agree that Moslem bastard got what he deserved.

Okay. . .not bad.  Not quite as good as the first story, but still not bad at all.

This one didn't have any of the hardboiled detective elements of the first story, but was all Spy action.  I like that these stories are switching up the locations a lot.  The first in Latin America, this one in the Middle East, so they are spreading around the mildly unconscious racism one expects from comics made in the 1950's equally.  

To tell the truth, this story was pretty thin and the bits of unintentionally funny racism (with a bit of good old 50's misogyny thrown in) are the most entertaining parts of it.  That and establishing Al Kennedy as not only the guy who'll shoot a filthy Nazi in the back when he has to, but also as a guy who'll threaten to stuff a "Moslem" into a pigskin suitcase.  Screw James Bond.  THIS guy needs a movie!

As I noted at the start of this one.  There's obviously a different artist.  Unfortunately, even though it's not BAD, the art definitely takes a downward turn.  In particular, this second artist doesn't have much of a sense of scale when it comes to vehicles.  In a scene toward the end when Kennedy is ready to head home, the plane they are leaving in looks like a toy.  The other vehicles as they cross the desert to rescue the King are also much too small for the human characters.  The coloring is also REALLY slapdash on this story as well.  

MOVING ALONG. . .



We come to a one page story.  It looks like it MIGHT be John Prentice's work (based on the art in the first story and the one following this one), but I can't really be sure. 

The story goes like this:  

Well. . .it's not really a story.  It's all right up there if you want to take a look.  It's more of a Red Scare pamphlet using historic events as examples of how you shouldn't let the Commies scare you with their filthy mind warfare tactics.  I found it to be interesting and I will continue to work at the factory, safe in the knowledge that those goddamn Reds can't keep ME from contributing to America's vital industries with their lies!

NEXT STORY!

We have a two page text piece entitled "ARCH - SPY OF THE REVOLUTION".  

There is no information I can find on who the writer is.  It's a non-fiction tale of the American Revolution and Washington at Valley Forge trying unsuccessfully to get supplies from France through Benjamin Franklin. . .the problem being that the shipments kept getting intercepted and either captured or destroyed.  The villain at hand being Franklin's own personal secretary, Edward Bancroft, who was a secret British agent that went undiscovered for almost 100 years.  The lesson of the story being that Secret Agents aren't always flashy adventurers, but can also be the unassuming clerk working in your factory office right under your nose every day.  

The story was well written and interesting, and has renewed my efforts to be vigilant in reporting all suspected un-American activities to the proper authorities, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

MOVING ALONG!



This is the second story that can be attributed pretty solidly to John Prentice on pencils and inks.  Once again, I have no clue as to who wrote or colored it.  The story goes like this:

Special Secret Service Agent Al Kennedy and his trusty assistant Casimir "Cass" Stryzinski are sent undercover as a Soviet Commissar (Cass) and a renegade Frenchman (Kennedy) into Indo-China to prevent Viet Minh General Dow from attacking French forts and joining up with Chinese Communists. . .thus preventing a similar conflict to the one raging in Korea from happening.

After parachuting in, the agents quickly find General Dow's headquarters and convince him that they have been sent by Moscow as advisors and that Moscow will not take no for an answer.  Reluctantly, General Dow agrees to bring the pair along on a raid.

At the targeted village, Dow demands all their food and the Village Head protests.  He is beaten for his trouble and his son, Yap Rok, attacks and kills one of Dow's Lieutenants, escaping into the jungle afterwards.  In retaliation, Dow orders the village burned and all the men shot.  In order to preserve their cover, Cass and Kennedy are forced to stand by while the men are machine-gunned.

After the raid, General Dow invites Kennedy and Cass to his birthday party.  Remembering that Yap Rok's father mentioned Yap was a baker, Kennedy decides to try to find him in the jungle as part of a plan he's concocted to assassinate General Dow.

Unfortunately, because the agents are wearing Soviet uniforms, Yap Rok ambushes them and it's only through the unlucky attack of a tiger on the villager that Kennedy and Cass have the chance to save him and let him know they are on the same side.  Yap agrees to bake a cake that Kennedy will fill with explosives.

But on their return to camp, Kennedy and Cass are taken prisoner because a REAL Soviet advisor happened to show up and blew their cover.  Fortunately, Yap Rok saw them being taken prisoner and brings them some explosives in order to escape.

Kennedy and Cass break into General Dow's headquarters and replace his birthday cake with the explosive-filled cake Yap Rok made, then sit back and watch the fireworks after that filthy Commie declares "We shall share the world as we share this cake!" and sets off the explosives.

Yap Rok's small band of anti-communist freedom fighters join up with some French Legionnaires to finish off the rest of General Dow's troops.  Afterward, everyone eats the real cake, proving that when it comes to fighting the Commies you CAN have your cake and eat it too.

Okay. . .not the best of the bunch.  I'd say it's the bottom of the three main stories, but still not bad at all.  I found it to be a bit chilling to be reading the light-hearted adventures of America trying to prevent a war in Indo-China. . .Vietnam for those who don't watch the History Channel. . .in 1952, right in the middle of the Korean war.  The story itself wasn't great, but it was extremely interesting for me to see the tensions of the Cold War that eventually exploded into the Vietnam War being represented fairly realistically in a comic book.

PLUS we discover that Al Kennedy will not only shoot a Nazi in the back and threaten to stuff a "Moslem" into a pigskin suitcase, but he's ALSO the kind of guy who'll kill a Commie on his goddamn BIRTHDAY.  Thank God America has sturdy men like Al Kennedy to watch over her!

AND FINALLY. . .


Another one pager.  It looks like it was done by yet another artist, but it MIGHT be Prentice's work with someone else inking because it looks a bit different.  No way to really be sure, though.

As you can see, it's a short tale taking place during WWI involving a Frenchman risking his life to gain information on a German ammo dump and getting that information to the French army.   I'm not sure if it's based on an actual event. . .an internet search didn't turn up any information on French wine merchant spies during WWI. . .but it's somewhat interesting and pretty well drawn.  I suspect this one was filler because there's not really an anti-Commie message except for the implied one of every citizen having a patriotic duty to work against their nation's enemies.

BUT WAIT. . .BONUS!


This isn't a story, but in the back of the book is what has to be one of the most "WTF?" ads I've ever seen printed in a comic.  According to the text, this is a book that not only tells the story of Leonardo Da Vinci but ALSO includes instructions on how to build an actual glider AND parachute.  

"People laughed and said it couldn't be done but Leonardo went right ahead and built the wings and then carted them to a nearby high hill and took off. . ."
That's an actual quote as to what you're supposed to do with those instructions.  And there's more!

"Yes you too can make a parachute out of cloth and string by just following Leonardo's drawing - no special tools or knack needed" 
This ad is actually probably the BEST part of this whole comic.  I read it and the only thing I can think is: As long as you weren't a Commie, the 1950's did NOT give a single F*ck!

CONCLUSION

Well. . .THAT has to be the longest review I've ever written.  But I sort of feel that this comic deserves it because it's likely to be the only review that ever WILL be written of it.  It seems to be a forgotten relic of its time that practically no information exists on.  Hopefully, this review will come up on searches and by describing the stories inside I will have added something to what's available when someone else comes across one of these comics and is interested in finding out a bit more.

It might be a small contribution, but as far as I can tell, nobody else has even bothered.

As for the comic itself. . .

I liked it.  I've definitely read worse comics from the 50's.  This one is pretty well-written and generally well illustrated.  The coloring was pretty sloppy, but I'm finding that was a fairly common problem in comics from this time.

Truthfully, Cloak and Dagger is a relic of its time, and most of the interest I had in it came from that.  It is like a sort of time capsule of the 1950's with its casual racism, xenophobia, paranoia and misogyny that went hand in hand with the Cold War.  The normal of then seen through the lens of what is normal now is an extremely interesting thing to me.

I'd have to say that my favorite parts of this comic were probably the last main story because of the weird feeling it gave me as I read in an obscure comic book a story predicting the roots of the Vietnam war.  It was just a strange thing to see history playing out in an unexpected way and place.

And then there's that ad in the back.  What the hell, 1950's?
Now I want to build a goddamn glider.  

Overall, this was a pretty good comic.  Is it the best comic I've ever read?  No, but it's nowhere close to being the worst.  Once again, I'm glad that I decided to start doing these "Retro Reviews" because they give me an opportunity to learn a little more about the comics that I collect and also to pass along a little of what I learn to others.

In the case of Cloak and Dagger, I have the feeling that it was a fairly unique opportunity to present some information that has never really been seen before, and just for that, I'd have to say that this has been one of my favorite reviews to do.

Up Next. . .

Back to Longbox Junk business as usual as I take a look at Marvel's short-lived (6 issues) All New Captain America.  Sam "Falcon" Wilson's first outing as Captain America. . .can it possibly be good?

Be there or be square!