Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Throwback Thursday - Adventures of The Jaguar #1

Welcome back to another special Throwback Thursday "Retro Review" edition of Longbox Junk, where I take a break from my usual bargain bin fare and take a closer look at some of the older or more "valuable" comics in my collection.

This time out we're stepping back in time to 1961 to take a look at an odd bird hiding in my Longboxes, the first issue of "Adventures of The Jaguar".  I call it an odd bird because I have very few Archie comics in my collection that don't feature, well. . .Archie.

I bought this comic quite a few years ago as part of an auction lot because the cover caught my eye.  If you've been reading Longbox Junk for a while, you may notice that there's a bit of a running theme when it comes to the older comics in my collection. . .I usually just buy them for the cover.

I have a great love for the covers of older comics, but rarely ever take the time to read what's inside.  This comic is no exception to the rule.  I've had it up on my office wall as part of my ever-rotating comic cover display, but until now I've never actually read it, except for a quick flip through.

But that changes today.  Let's do this!

ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR #1

Archie Comics (1961)
SCRIPT: Robert Bernstein
PENCILS: John Rosenberger
COVER: John Rosenberger

As usual with these retro reviews, if I'm going to take the time to read and review these older comics, I'm ALSO going to try and educate myself a bit and share what I learn with others who might be interested, so bear with me for a paragraph or three.

Although I can find very little information on this character. . .what's out there on the internet is basically word for word copied from site to site. . .he's had a pretty long history, with his most recent appearance being in 2011 when DC gained the license for Archie's "Red Circle" characters and tried a reboot of the superhero team "Mighty Crusaders".  

A 50 year history of regular appearances (over 47 issues of various series) is pretty good for a character I've never heard of, especially considering that a bit of research shows me that Jaguar started basically as a kind of copy of another Archie superhero, The Fly, who was created 2 years earlier. 

Jaguar has a magic belt, The Fly has a magic ring.  Jaguar has powers over the animal kingdom, The Fly has powers over the insect world.  So on and so forth.  Pretty much the same character with a different paint job.  They changed up both Jaguar and The Fly over the years, but essentially Jaguar started out as a "If it ain't broke, we ain't fixin' it." sort of character.

That's not much background, but like I said, for a character with 50 years worth of appearances behind him, there's remarkably little information to be found.

So that's that.  Let's get into this comic!

Under that fantastic eye-catcher of a cover, we've got 3 short stories, let's take them each in turn.

MENACE OF THE INCA SERPENT!

Our story begins as "Famed Zoologist" Ralph Hardy accompanies an archaeological expedition in the Peruvian Jungle.  He rescues a trapped Jaguar and his companions comment on his obvious love and connection with animals.  Later that day, a white jaguar is spotted outside of camp, but as they try to pursue it, a gigantic dinosaur-like creature bursts from the ground and chases the expedition members into a strange, perfectly-preserved Incan temple.

Inside the temple, the group becomes separated as Hardy spots the pawprints of the white jaguar and decides to follow them without telling anyone else.  Deep inside the temple, Hardy discovers an altar with a strange belt hanging above it.  Carvings on the wall helpfully explain that by wearing the belt and saying "THE JAGUAR", the wearer will transform into a powerful being that will have supreme powers over animals everywhere in the universe!  

The helpful carvings on the wall elaborate that these powers include telepathic communication and control of animals over great distances, and that the wearer will be able to use any power associated with animals, but multiplied by thousands of times!  The carving ALSO inform Hardy that the belt in his hand will allow him to fly through the scientific wonder of NUCLEON ENERGY!

Why the ancients needed a Nucleon Energy-powered belt to fly if they could summon up the thousands of times magnified power of the mighty soaring condor is a question NOT answered by the ancient Incan exposition carvings. . .BUT I DIGRESS!

MEANWHILE. . .in another part of the temple.  The giant creature is thrashing through the ancient passages in hot pursuit of the other members of the expedition.  Hardy hears their terrified cries and decides to put the belt on and say the magic words. . .which instantly transforms him into THE JAGUAR!  He quickly flies to rescue his companions with his amazing, new-found powers.


Hardy, now The Jaguar, makes his skin a thousand times tougher than a Rhinoceros and handily defeats the beast, then telepathically controls thousands of armadillos to dig a deep pit, into which he uses the strength of a million elephants to toss the monster in, burying it forever!  

After the battle, he transforms back into Ralph Hardy and tries not to smirk TOO much as he hears the tale of the fantastic flying man who saved the expedition.  A man that looked exactly like Hardy, but without a mustache.  

The End.

This short origin story leaves me with so many questions.  But chalking the answers up to "It's a Silver Age comic written for young boys" lets me move along for now.  Taken on its own merits, it's a surprisingly well-illustrated and fast-paced origin story with a LOT of holes in it that (along with the other two stories) seems to be a fairly comprehensive checklist of things boys liked in the early 60's.  This story provides, jungle action, dinosaurs, brightly-costumed superheroes, mysterious ruins, nuclear power and jet packs/belts.  The other stories continue with the 60's kid checklist. . .

THE INVADERS FROM KORDU!

Moving beyond his origin in the Peruvian jungle, our story moves to the African jungle at a later time and begins when "Famed Zoologist" Ralph Hardy is caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in a cave.  Unfortunately, the cave is full of jaguars, and as they attack, Hardy uses his magic belt to transform into THE JAGUAR!  After amusing himself by knocking the jaguars around a bit, he uses his telepathic powers to become their leader, and then leaves them alone and leaderless when the storm ends and he flies off.  So much for being a friend of the animals. . .

As The Jaguar flies back home, he spots a huge radio tower he'd never noticed before.  I'm assuming he wasn't using the thousand-fold eyesight power of the Falcon when he flew out previously, because the tower and the building next to it sit right in a clearing and are pretty obvious. . .BUT I DIGRESS!

As Jaguar investigates, he discovers that the tower is surrounded by a minefield, but by making his skin a thousand times stronger than the Rhino, his speed a thousand times faster than the antelope, and bashing into the building beside the tower with a thousand times the strength of the buffalo, he easily avoids harm.

Inside the building, The Jaguar discovers a man who introduces himself as Professor Hugo Van Lesk, who is in Africa studying how animals communicate with each other.  Based on his having to run through a minefield moments before, Jaguar is skeptical. . .and his suspicions are proven when he sees a viewscreen with a fleet of spaceships headed to Earth and a message directed to Van Lesk to ready the landing area for an invasion!

Realizing that his cover is blown, Van Lesk tries to take down The Jaguar with a machine gun, which doesn't work well on a man with skin a thousand times stronger than a Rhino.  Jaguar punches the scientist out, but one of the ships from the approaching alien invasion fleet breaks off and announces that it is coming to scout the situation since they didn't get a reply from Van Lesk.

As Jaguar ponders what to do (besides taking on the power of a thousand screaming eagles and destroying the scout ship in flight), he comes up with the plan of trying to convince the alien scouts that he is a typical earth man and it would be extremely difficult for them to conquer a planet filled with people like him.


Unfortunately, the aliens aren't interested in talking and immediately attack.  Their initial attempts fail miserably against Jaguar's super-tough Rhino skin, but they have a bit more success when they zap him with a million volts of electricity from a ray gun.  Jaguar calls in a bunch of gorillas for reinforcements, and he uses telepathic commands to have them fight the aliens and throw rocks at the ray gun (instead of, say. . .him flying up and using the punching power of a thousand enraged orangutans to do it himself).  

But the aliens have a few more tricks up their sleeve and use a freeze ray on Jaguar and his gorilla allies.  Being frozen in a block of ice doesn't really bother Jaguar that much, since he can resist cold like a thousand polar bears, but he's concerned for the gorillas, so while he melts his way free from the ice using the heat of his Nucleonic-Powered belt (instead of breaking the ice with the strength of a thousand slightly-annoyed wild boars), he summons a herd of elephants to chip the ice away from the gorillas with their tusks.

After he is free and his animal slaves. . .er. . .allies. . .are out of danger, The Jaguar threatens to destroy the scout ship and any other alien ship that lands on Earth.  Van Lesk finally wakes up and comes running out, ripping off his patented Silver Age "Perfect Rubber Mask™" to reveal that he is also an alien.  He tries to stop the alien scouts from retreating, but they think Van Lesk has betrayed them, and so he meets his fate at the end of a ray gun before the aliens all pack up and leave.  The Jaguar smiles and nods with satisfaction at a job well done.

The End.

Well. . .

Once again, so MANY unanswered questions that if I took the time to ask them all, this review would run WAY beyond my usual long-winded nature.  So I will again chalk most of the answers up to "Welcome to the Silver Age!" and try not to think about them too much.  Once the questions are out of sight and out of mind, what we have here is another well-illustrated tale that moves along at a brisk pace and continues to check off entries on the "What boys in 1961 liked" checklist. This story builds on the first one by providing invading aliens, spaceships, ray guns, and monkeys (gorillas)!

Let's finish this up. . .

THE MONSTER MOUSE!
Our story begins in the Pacific ocean, where a gigantic 50 mile deep chasm opens in the sea floor after a powerful earthquake.  A week later The Jaguar shows up in Honolulu to take control as the Chief of the emergency research task force that has been formed.  Obviously, this story takes place sometime after The Jaguar has become a well-known superhero, because all of the government officials present seem to be very aware of his powers.

The research team sets up a floating laboratory, from which they plan on sending a diving bell full of scientific instruments 250,000 feet down into the chasm.  Along with the instruments, a white mouse will be in the bell in order to test the effects of such great depth on a living being.

This begs the question of why The Jaguar couldn't just summon up the undersea abilities and pressure resistance of a thousand blue whales to investigate the chasm himself instead of running the operation in his super-suit on the surface. . .BUT I DIGRESS!

The next day, the diving bell and mouse are lowered into the ocean.  The Jaguar DOES use the swimming ability of a thousand otters to accompany the bell most of the way down, but eventually he heads back to the surface.  Deep inside the chasm, "mysterious radiations" penetrate the capsule and the white mouse begins to grow to tremendous size!


The gigantic mouse swims to the surface and attacks the floating laboratory.  The Jaguar attempts to defend the scientists, but quickly discovers that the "mysterious radiations" are affecting his power to punch the giant mouse with the fury of a thousand hungry wolverines.  Worse, the "radiations" are affecting his "Nucleonic-Powered" belt for some reason, making it so he can't fly!  

Robbed of his powers and abilities, The Jaguar somehow avoids the giant mouse long enough to swim to a nearby island.  Unfortunately, the mouse is in hot pursuit and quickly corners The Jaguar.  Thinking quickly, Jaguar uses his telepathic abilities to summon a small stray cat.  The mouse is terrified of the cat and retreats.  Moments later, as Jaguar regains his powers, the giant mouse begins to shrink back to regular size as the "radiations" wear off.  

That night, another earthquake closes up the mysterious chasm and, after The Jaguar dives down to investigate, he declares it all to be just another mystery of the sea that will probably never be solved.

The End.

Of the three stories in this comic, this final one is the weak link.  It definitely looks like the least effort was put into it.  It's still illustrated nicely, and it checks off a couple more boxes on the "What 60's boys like" list (deep sea adventure, giant radioactive monsters), but overall it just seems like this story was thrown in to pad out the page count.

CONCLUSION

When reviewing these older comics, I've learned that I sort of need to separate my reading experience into two categories. . .the first being a consideration of the audience that the comic was originally written for, the second being that of a modern comic reader.

With an honest reading, it's extremely obvious that this was for young boys in the post-atomic pop culture age.  It's a blatant checklist of things boys liked in 1961.  In 3 stories we have:  Jungle adventure, brightly-costumed superheroes, mysterious ruins, nuclear power, jet packs/belts, space ships, ray guns, monkeys, deep sea adventure AND that holy trinity of late 50's/early 60's sci-fi. . .Dinosaurs, Alien Invaders, and Giant Radioactive Monsters!

The "checklist" is so obvious that it's pretty easy to see what's missing:  Cowboys.  I'm not sure if they rectified this error in later issues, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if they did.  Something else I'm REALLY surprised they left out was a bit of good old fashioned Commie bashing.  But I'm fairly certain that no comic from the early 60's could possibly go long without a fist meeting a Commie face, so I'd take a blind bet that the filthy Reds eventually made an appearance at some point during the 15 issue run of this series.

SO. . .

To the ORIGINAL audience, this comic has just about everything a kid in 1961 could possibly want packed into a single issue for just one lousy dime!  If I was a kid back then, I'm pretty sure this comic book would be one of my favorites.  Heck. . .I like dinosaurs! I like spaceships!  Even now I like those things.  For the original audience, this comic has it all.

BUT. . .

To a MODERN reader, this comic is pretty bad.  Sure, it has some surprisingly good art and that cover is absolutely great, but the hero is ridiculously overpowered and because of poor plotting, doesn't make good use of his powers.  The stories are rushed, with weak situations and dialogue, and the whole thing is just so utterly forgettable that the fact this character somehow lasted 50 years is actually pretty amazing to me.  Beyond being a marketing checklist, there is VERY little effort to be seen in the writing of this comic.

Overall, this is a comic book with a LOT of questions in it for the modern reader.  But every single one of those questions can be answered with "You ask too many questions, kid.  Just read the damn comic book." because for the original audience it was written for, this comic is great!  But because it's a relic of the comic industry of the time marketing for a very specific audience and otherwise not putting much effort into it, there's not much here to like for a modern reader.  

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm glad this comic is preserved  in my collection from a historic or collector point of view, but I'm not going to be diligently searching for more issues in order to feed a growing hunger to learn more about The Jaguar.  

Up Next. . .

Back to Longbox Junk business as usual as we head to 1994 and take a look at one of Image's "We REALLY want to be Marvel!" superhero comics that were glutting the 90's comic market, but are pretty much forgotten now. . .the 3 issue "Black and White" mini.  

Be there or be square!




Monday, January 14, 2019

Longbox Junk - Predator: Kindred

I'm a pretty big fan of all things Predator.

I love the movies. . .and yes, that includes the Alien vs. Predator movies that just about everyone else hated.  Not my favorites, mind you, but not nearly as bad as some people seem to think.  The first movies is, of course, an action movie classic that has been one of my favorites ever since I saw it in the theater as a young man with a big stupid grin as Arnold told that alien bastard that he was "One UGLY motherf***er".

BUT. . .

That's the movies.  What about the comics?

Dark Horse has been in charge of the Predator comics pretty much since, well. . .always.  But like most other things Dark Horse has been in charge of, the quality of Predator comics swerves from downright fantastic to practically unreadable.  

What we have here is a 4 issue Predator Mini put out by Dark Horse right in the middle of their Alien/Predator/Star Wars heyday.  Let's take a look, shall we?


PREDATOR: KINDRED
Dark Horse (1996 - 1997)
ISSUE ONE


SCRIPTS: Jason Lamb & Scott Tolson
PENCILS: Brian O'Connell
COVER: Igor Kordey

Buddy WIlcox is a passive Vietnam vet holding a secret. . .his father was killed by an alien in front of him during a hunting trip more than 20 years before. Kelly Mathis is a small town girl turned Sheriff who craves action from her boring job. James McCutcheon is a serial killer being transferred to a state mental hospital after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. 

Their stories begin to come together in the small Oregon town of Fleener Creek during a brutal heat wave. . . 

This first issue is mostly setup, with the titular Predator only showing up on 3 panels. . .when Buddy Wilcox's father is killed during a hunting trip in 1958, during a flashback, and on the final page. . .officially making this the least Predator-y Predator comic I've read yet.

The rest of the comic is pretty much all talking heads, except for a tense standoff and gunfight as the serial killer escapes with two other killers during his transfer.

Lack of Predator in a Predator comic aside, the three stories at hand are pretty interesting. What this comic really reminds me of is if Vertigo did a Predator story. . .lots of talking with just a little taste of action.

The art also makes me think of Vertigo comics, with the artist doing an excellent job on faces and facial expressions with fine line work and heavily-inked shadows, but sparse backgrounds where they even exist. . .most of the time the backgrounds are just blank colored spaces. It really sort of reminds me of Peter Snejbjerg's work.

Overall, despite the lack of Predator in a Predator comic, a story that's mostly talking heads, and nonexistent (for the most part) background art, I found this opening issue to be low key, but interesting.


ISSUE TWO


SCRIPTS: Jason Lamb & Scott Tolson
PENCILS: Brian O'Connell
COVER: Igor Kordey

The alien Predator stalks the forest outside of the small Oregon town of Fleener Creek, killing two escaped criminals and leaving serial killer McCutcheon the only survivor. 

As the citizens arm themselves and begin to search the forest for the killer, the Predator enters town and kills an abusive husband in front of his wife. 

First thing, the cover on this issue is fantastic! The cover for the first issue was nicely painted and very detailed, but I've never really liked the Predators without their masks. The cover for this issue shows the alien hunter in full armored glory! I like it a lot.

As for the story. . .

Once again we get a sort of Vertigo version of a Predator story, where the secrets festering under the surface of a seemingly normal small town take center stage and the Predator is sort of a secondary character serving to add tension to existing drama. There's more Predator in this issue than in the first, but that's not to say there's a LOT more. Just enough to spark old memories of killings in 1958 in the townfolk and to remind the reader that there's actually a Predator in the story.

The art remains nicely done and adding to the Vertigo-like feel of things. . .especially with a dark fairytale opening dream sequence of Sheriff Mathis that could have been taken straight out of Sandman or Books of Magic.

Overall, I can't really decide if I like this strange take on Predator or not. It's interesting, but it just feels off somehow. . .almost like the creative team wanted to tell another story and were using the Predator franchise as a way of being able to do a story about small town secrets.



ISSUE THREE


SCRIPTS: Jason Lamb & Scott Tolson
PENCILS: Roger Petersen
COVER: Igor Kordey

After an abusive husband is brutally murdered, Buddy Wilcox is taken in for questioning, where he reveals his secret to Sheriff Mathews. . .that he witnessed an armored alien kill, behead, and skin his father in 1958. 

The townfolk form an armed vigilante mob, determined to kill Wilcox, but the Predator attacks the police station, killing several citizens and freeing serial killer McCutcheon from captivity. 

In the chaos, Buddy Wilcox escapes and his wife discovers him in a secret basement room surrounded by weapons, ready to take revenge on his father's killer. 

And here's where we start to go off the rails. . .

In this run-up to the finale of this strange little series, the focus switches to more action. Unfortunately, the writer's strong point is simmering drama and underlying secrets and things begin to fall apart.

The Predator attacking a police station full of people in broad daylight is out of character for a hunter that carefully stalks and kills. His freeing the captive serial killer seems to have no reason except to show that one Predator knows another one. . .a decent concept, but it makes no sense for the Predator to let the killer arm up and waltz away.


Then there's Buddy revealing his ultimate secret. . .that he's been hoarding weapons and waiting for the Predator to return. It's a really sharp swerve off the rails and the final full pager of him in boxer shorts with warpainted face and holding a spear is pretty laughable.

The art takes a bit of a downward turn with this issue as well. There's another artist on the job for the two last issues, and although their styles are complimentary, it's pretty clear to see that the switch to a more action-oriented final two issues was behind the change. Although their styles are somewhat close, the original artist is clearly the superior of the two on a close look. 

Overall, with this issue Predator: Kindred takes a sharp swerve from Vertigo-style low key storytelling focusing on emotion and underlying secrets to a more action oriented and brutally graphic scenario and the writer has obviously stepped outside his comfort zone.


And Finally. . .

ISSUE FOUR


SCRIPTS: Jason Lamb & Scott Tolson
PENCILS: Roger Petersen
COVER: Igor Kordey

Buddy Wilcox, Sheriff Mathis, Serial Killer James McCutcheon, and the alien Predator all come together in the forest outside of Fleener Creek for a final showdown. . . 

First off, another fantastic cover!

Unfortunately, what's beneath that cover ain't so great. The story abandons all former nuance and this issue is pretty much all fighting and chasing between the main four characters split between Buddy and the Predator battling it out and a cat and mouse chase with McCutcheon and Mathis trying to kill each other.


In the end, Buddy abandons his desire for revenge and saves Mathis, killing McCutcheon and allowing the Predator to escape.

The art on this issue was pretty bad. I'm led to believe on another look at issue 3 that there were pages that the original artist did layouts on and the second artist did the finishes, because this final issue looks like $hit compared to the previous 3.

Overall, this issue wraps up the story and has a great cover, but that's about all the good I can say about it.



CONCLUSION

This Predator mini was definitely a strange bird.  It started off really reminding me of the sort of writing and art you would find in Vertigo titles of the time such as Sandman or Books of Magic, focusing less on the Predator and more on the simmering tension and underlying secrets of a small Oregon town.  But halfway through, it took a sharp swerve into more typical action comic mode.  

The second half of the series might be more what I expected from a Predator story, but I find myself wondering how it would have gone if the creative team would have stuck with the more low-key storytelling of the first two issues.

Overall, this mini actually reads almost like two separate stories.  It's not bad. Believe me, Dark Horse put out Predator stuff that's a LOT worse than this, but it's just sort of. . .strange and kind of out of place.  Like I said in the review of issue #2, it seems almost like there was another story the creative team WANTED to tell, but they had to settle for telling it through the lens of a Predator story.

Up Next. . .

Take a short trip back with me to 1994 and take a look at a relic of Image's "We REALLY want to be Marvel!" Superhero overload glory days. . .the practically-forgotten "Black and White" 3 issue mini.

Be there or be square!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Longbox Junk - Mass Effect: Redemption

Let's get this out of the way. . .I'm a HUGE fan of the Mass Effect video games.

I'm even going to go ahead and put my nerd cred on the line and say that despite my initial misgivings, I liked the much-hated and presumed series-destroyer Mass Effect: Andromeda to the point that I played it until there was literally nothing left to do!  And I didn't like Andromeda nearly as much as I liked the original trilogy of games.

In other words, when it comes to the Mass Effect video games, I'm definitely a fan.

But what about the comic books?  After all. . .this ain't a video game blog.

What we have here is a 4 issue mini put out by Dark Horse prior to the release of Mass Effect 2, which is generally regarded as the best game in the series.  An opinion I heartily agree with.  It fills in a few plot holes from the beginning of the game and gives a bit of background for an expansion story that came later. 

So it has a purpose, but is it any good? Let's find out!


MASS EFFECT:
REDEMPTION

Dark Horse (2010)
SCRIPTS: John Jackson Miller & Mac Walters
PENCILS: Omar Francia
COVERS: Daryl Mandryk

ISSUE ONE


After a surprise attack on the Normandy, Commander Shepard is presumed dead. 

One of his companions, Doctor Liara T'Soni is determined to find out the truth of what happened and follows a lead to Omega Station, where she meets with a rogue information broker named Feron that claims to know where Shepard's body is. 

As Feron leads Liara to Shepard's remains, they are attacked by agents of The Shadow Broker and rescued by Miranda Lawson, an agent of Cerberus. Feron and Liara are taken to the leader of Cerberus, The Illusive Man, and Liara learns that an alien race known as The Collectors are working for The Shadow Broker to steal Shepard's body for an unknown purpose. 

Liara agrees to work with Cerberus to keep Shepard's remains out of The Collector's hands. 

This first issue is mainly setup for the rest of the series, which takes place shortly after the opening of Mass Effect 2 and tells the tale of how Cerberus got hold of Commander Shepard's body.

It's pretty well written and sets things up well. Nothing fancy with the writing. It's definitely along the lines of "This happened, and then this happened." Pretty straightforward and moves along at a brisk pace.

Unfortunately, this comic assumes that the reader is already familiar with Mass Effect and the ongoing video game storyline. It's definitely written with the built in video game audience in mind. The reader is basically dropped cold into the middle of events.

On the other hand. . .for being written for existing fans of Mass Effect, it's pretty fast and loose with the main character, Liara. In the games, she's an academic. . .shy and often unsure of herself and her abilities. Here, she's portrayed as brazen, forceful, and almost superheroic in the use of her biotic powers. It almost reads like fan fiction and is way out of established character for her.

The art is clean and crisp, with darkly-inked lines that really make everything pop. The painted cover is simply fantastic! Unfortunately, as with the writing, the artistic portrayal of Liara is way out of established character.


In the games, she is shy and a bit standoffish, often almost defensive in posture. Here, she is overly-sexualized, with a lot of focus on her boobs and butt. . .as a matter of fact, she is way more sexualized than Miranda. . .who (in the game) is portrayed as a person genetically modified to be the perfect woman, while here Miranda looks frumpy next to Liara. Once again, it's all a bit fan fiction-y. 

Overall, despite the uncharacteristic portrayal of Liara, as a huge Mass Effect fan I liked this first issue. If you are not already a fan of Mass Effect, it's going to seem like a somewhat confusing conspiracy-tinged chase story starring a sexy alien with space magic powers.


ISSUE TWO


After agreeing to work with Cerberus to recover Commander Shepard's body, Liara discovers that her contact, Feron, is an agent of The Shadow Broker. 

After convincing Liara that he's on her side, Feron arranges a meeting with Omega Station crime kingpin and de facto ruler, Aria T'Loak, who tells them that Shepard's body is being readied for transport on the lower levels of Omega. 

Liara and Feron rush to intercept Shepard's body before it leaves the station, but things fall apart and Shepard's remains are taken by Tazzik, The Shadow Broker's most brutal enforcer. 

The writing on this issue remains crisp and direct. . .but the same problem from the first issue crops up here as well, namely that Liara is portrayed out of character as a brash, confident, almost superheroic figure. For a fan of Mass Effect, it's really distracting and takes away from what should be a simple and exciting story that fills in a bit of a plot hole in Mass Effect 2.

The art in this issue (with the exception of the outstanding painted cover) takes a noticeable dip in quality. While it's not BAD. . .I still like the dark ink lines and bold style. . .the coloring here becomes a bit more gaudy and the artist can't keep the faces consistent during talking head scenes. On top of that, the overly-sexual portrayal of Liara is still a pretty distracting element. . .especially when the artist can't decide just HOW big Liara's boobs are and they change from panel to panel.

Overall, this issue was okay. . .but not much more than that. The uncharacteristic portrayal of Liara in both writing and art distracts from what should be a decent little story.


ISSUE THREE


After losing Shepard's remains on Omega, Liara and Feron track Tazzik to a Shadow Broker base on a desolate planet. 

Liara confronts The Shadow Broker, demanding answers and getting none before she destroys most of the base. 

Feron discovers that they've actually beaten Tazzik to the outpost and that Shepard's body hasn't been handed over to the Collectors yet. 

Liara and Feron rush to intercept the trade. 

This third issue buildup to the big finish is pretty disappointing. The uncharacteristic portrayal of Liara is magnified here as she goes into full on destructive mode, single-handedly taking down multiple enemies and destroying most of a base. . .but this time out, the writer ALSO decides to throw some very out of place humor into the mix, with Liara quipping while blasting enemies and making buddy movie jokes with Feron that fall flat because her relationship with Feron up to this issue has been unwary bordering on hostile. . .and now all of a sudden they're trading jokes? 

It's a pretty jarring departure from the status quo established in the first two issues, and in any case the "humor" is pretty bad.

There's a lot of fighting in this issue, which seems to be the artist's strong point, so the art swerves back to the good side of things due to the lack of talking head scenes. Unfortunately, there's quite a few panels of Liara mugging and posing in a way that makes you think of a DeviantArt Mass Effect fan page.

Overall, a disappointing issue with "Sexy Superhero Liara" ramped up past what's been seen in the first two issues to the point that this really looks less like a major studio tie-in and more like something to be found in the same corner of the internet as pics of Hermione Granger wearing a bikini and riding a Quidditch stick with a shirtless Harry Potter.


And finally. . .

ISSUE FOUR


As Liara and Feron rush to prevent the transfer of Shepard's remains to The Collectors, Feron reveals that he's actually a triple agent working for Liara, The Shadow Broker, and Cerebrus, but has decided that Liara is his chance for redemption. 

Feron attempts to interrupt the transaction, but The Collector agent sees through his bluff and a battle ensues. Liara manages to escape with Shepard's body and encrypted files on the Shadow Broker's operations, but is forced to leave Feron behind in the chaos. 

At a secret Cerberus base, Liara learns that Commander Shepard is beyond reviving. She leaves Cerberus and Shepard behind, determined to rescue Feron and put a stop to The Shadow Broker. 

And so we come to the big finish. . .

This issue isn't quite as bad as the previous one, and it wraps things up nicely, filling in a few small plot holes existing in the Mass Effect 2 game. . .such as how Cerebrus got hold of Shepard's body, why Liara wasn't aware he was alive or working for Cerebrus, and who Feron was and why Liara invaded the Shadow Broker's headquarters to rescue him (In the Lair of The Shadow Broker DLC). But to tell the truth, it seems like these little patches weren't worth 4 issues of comic book to fill in.

Feron's swerve from borderline enemy to self-sacrificing hero seems rushed. Miranda's send-off of Liara and her complete acceptance of it seems questionable. The quips and forced humor seen in the last issue return.

Because it's mostly fighting, the art on this one, especially the FANTASTIC cover, is good. . .especially the rendering of The Collector agent, which is truly creepy and probably better than what was shown in the game itself. Unfortunately, as is the case for this entire series, Liara is portrayed as a badass space superhero instead of a shy scientist with a lack of confidence in herself. . .she double-fists laser pistols, spin-kicks enemies, and generally wrecks anyone that stands in her way.

Overall, I liked that this issue filled in a few small holes in the Mass Effect 2 narrative. What I didn't like is that it did it by turning an interesting, thoughtful character into an action movie hero with jiggling boobs and bad jokes.


CONCLUSION
I'm gonna be honest here and say that to a huge Mass Effect fan such as myself, the best part about this mini is the fantastic painted covers.  I've never heard of Daryl Mandryk, but he's got these covers NAILED!

As for the rest of it. . .

If I had to describe Mass Effect: Redemption in one word, that word would be. . .Fanfiction.

The writing isn't bad. It's snappy and moves the story along at a nice fast pace.  The art isn't bad.  It's crisp and nicely inked. The stoy isn't bad.  It fills in some plot holes in Mass Effect 2 (granted, those holes are really only noticeable to huge fans such as myself).  The problems here are characterization and inaccessibility.

In the games, Liara T'Soni is a young, shy Asari scientist who lacks confidence in herself and her abilities until she found a place among friends as part of the Normandy's crew.  In this series of comics, she is written AND drawn as a super-sexy badass alien superhero.  Completely out of her established character. 

LIARA FROM THE GAME:
LIARA FROM THIS SERIES:


She's so oversexualized and made into such an unstoppable force of galactic ass-kickery that this series is less like an expansion story about an established character and more like a piece of semi-erotic fan fiction.

To make matters worse, this series was definitely written with Mass Effect fans in mind. . .and ONLY Mass Effect fans.  There isn't even a minimal effort made to make the story accessible to those who aren't already completely familiar with Mass Effect.  To put it plainly, if you don't know Mass Effect, this series will seem like a vaguely confusing conspiracy-tinged sci-fi chase story starring a sexy alien superhero with space magic powers.

Unless you're a big Mass Effect fan that MUST partake of every crumb of Mass Effect-related merchandise, I suggest you steer clear of this one.  It's a waste of decent comic talent and a damn shame.

Up next. . .

How about a Predator story with hardly any Predator in it?
Dark Horse's 4 issue Predator: Kindred.

Be there or be square!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Longbox Junk - Star Wars: Screaming Citadel

Happy New Year!  Welcome to the first 2019 post for Longbox Junk. . .the blog of comic book reviews NOBODY ever asked for!  And believe me when I say that 2019 will be a fine year just FULL of Longbox Junk!  Let's get this new year started with some Star Wars, shall we? 

We shall!

So what we have here is a five issue standalone story that crosses over between the regular Marvel Star Wars and Doctor Aphra ongoing series, with an introductory one-shot.  It can be read on its own, but a bit of background knowledge on both Star Wars and Doctor Aphra is helpful to fully get into it. But REALLY all you need to know are the following basic bits:

Luke Skywalker is searching for a way to learn more about the Jedi, now that he's had a taste of what can be accomplished with The Force.  Doctor Aphra is a rogue archaeologist who used to work for Darth Vader and has managed to get her hands on the archived (Read: Imprisoned) personality of an ancient Jedi that she can't access.  Luke and Aphra have crossed paths before on their various adventures and are sort of frenemies.  

So there's the background essentials.  Let's do this!

STAR WARS:
SCREAMING CITADEL
MARVEL (2017)

PART ONE


SCRIPT: Kieron Gillen
PENCILS: Marco Checchetto
COVER: Marco Checchetto

Doctor Aphra presents Luke Skywalker with an interesting proposition. . .she holds the archived personality of an ancient Jedi Master but can't access it. In exchange for his assistance in convincing an immortal queen to open it's secrets, Luke can gain the Jedi training he has been searching for.

This first issue of "Screaming Citadel" is probably some of the best Star Wars I've read in quite a while! 

The story is mostly introduction and setup (as is to be expected in a first issue), but the snappy dialogue and quick pace make it much more enjoyable than one would expect from an opening issue info dump. 

Everything is put into place quickly and efficiently. . .Aphra and Luke meet and leave on their mission while Han, Leia, and Sana (Han's ex wife) wonder where they went and if Luke went willingly, nicely splitting things up into two ongoing story threads.

The art on this book is remarkable in every way. Reading this makes me wish Checcetto was the regular Star Wars artist. He has an extremely detailed, yet sort of murky style that is perfect for the worn down Star Wars universe. A particular standout is the Vampiric Queen of The Screaming Citadel and her minions, clad in red and black and looking utterly amazing.

Overall, Screaming Citadel is off to an extremely strong start. The writing is on point in every way, and the art makes every page something to be lingered over. Very well done!


PART TWO
STAR WARS #31


SCRIPT: Jason Aaron
PENCILS: Salvador Larroca
COVER: Marco Checchetto

Luke Skywalker and Doctor Aphra are betrayed by the Queen of The Screaming Citadel and find themselves running for their lives while pursued by the Queen's forces. In the meantime, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Sana Solo arrive with the intent of rescuing Luke from Aphra.

After the fantastic opening issue of Screaming Citadel, I was a little let down by the second. 

Now that setup is done with, the story moves quickly into "It's all gone to hell" territory. The writing is still good, with the deadpan sarcasm of assassin droid Triple Zero standing out.

To me, the art on this issue really knocks things down a couple of notches. Salvador Larroca's art isn't BAD. . .it's quite good when it comes to the dark, gothic backgrounds and the gritty, worn machines of Star Wars, but his faces are so obviously photo-referenced that they are in that creepy uncanny valley. The faces that aren't photo-referenced are pretty bad. . .especially Aphra, who is inconsistent from panel to panel, with some panels being just plain bad.

Overall, a dip in quality from the first issue as the story goes into action mode and the art swerves from really good to really bad from panel to panel through the whole thing.


PART THREE
DOCTOR APHRA #7


SCRIPT: Kieron Gillen
PENCILS: Andrea Broccardo
COVER: Marco Checchetto

Han Solo, Sana Solo and Princess Leia are united with Luke Skywalker and Doctor Aphra, but are trapped in the Screaming Citadel with their ship badly damaged.

As they try to come up with an escape plan, Aphra betrays the rebels and delivers Luke to the Queen of The Citadel. When his friends try to rescue him, The Queen possesses the mind of Han Solo.

As a last resort, the rebels implant a deadly parasite in the brain of Wookie mercenary Black Krrsantan in order to fight their way through the Queen's forces.

There's quite a bit more going on in this issue than what I expected from a "Everyone gets together and tries to escape" storyline. The twist of Aphra betraying and handing over Luke to the Queen was an unexpected surprise, and the dialogue from Assasin droid Triple Zero was a standout. He's really one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Star Wars comic universe reboot.

But even though there are a lot of story threads moving around in this issue, there are some strange choices as far as characterization goes. Leia is portrayed as a hardcore military commander who expects nothing less than total obedience to her orders, and Aphra is portrayed as less of a scoundrel with a heart and more as a ruthless mercenary. Aphra's behavior I can sort of see as part of a possible redemption arc, but Princess Leia suddenly turning into General MacArthur is just strange.

The art in this issue leaves behind the creepy photo-referenced faces in favor of a more stylized and cartoony look, but that also comes at the expense of the highly detailed backgrounds and machinery seen in the Star Wars issues of this crossover.

Overall, aside from some strange characterization choices and bland artwork, this was a pretty good issue. . .not great. . .just pretty good.


PART FOUR
STAR WARS #32


SCRIPT: Jason Aaron
PENCILS: Salvador Larroca
COVER: Marco Checchetto

As the rebels fight their way through the Screaming Citadel, Luke Skywalker is held captive by the Queen so that she can feed on his life force. A mind controlled Han Solo leads the Queen's forces in trying to capture the rebels.

As Doctor Aphra leaves the planet with her prize. . .the activated personality archive of the ancient Jedi, Rur. . .she has a change of heart and returns to rescue Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately, the only way she sees she can succeed is by infecting him with the same deadly parasite the Queen uses to control her subjects.

So now the story starts to hurtle forward and off the rails a bit as it gains momentum for the final part. This issue is pretty much all fighting, and except for some great dialogue from Assassin droid Triple Zero, there's not much story to be found.


Aphra's turnaround was just as predictable as I noted in my review of the last issue, and Han Solo's over the top heel turn as new commander of the Queen's forces is villain cliche to the point that all he's missing is a mustache to twirl as he menaces Princess Leia with a mind controlling parasite.

Then there's the art. Once again we get extremely creepy photo-reference faces on the movie actors and inconsistent faces on everyone else. There's a panel of Han Solo geared up in Citadel armor leading some troops where it looks like his head is badly photoshopped on. Not good.

Overall, there is a pretty big dip in quality on this issue in both writing and art. The whole thing just seems sort of rushed and slapped together. It's not all bad. . .but there's not enough here to make me call it good, either.


And finally. . .

PART FIVE
DOCTOR APHRA #8


SCRIPT: Kieron Gillen
PENCILS: Andrea Broccardo
COVER: Marco Checchetto

A symbiote-infected Luke Skywalker and the Queen of The Screaming Citadel engage in mental battle as Luke's rebel friends fight for their life against a mind controlled Han Solo and the Citadel's forces.

Aphra attempts to tip the battle in Luke's favor with the mental powers of the Ancient Jedi Rur assisting him, but Luke refuses to give in to the mental domination of Rur and defeats the Queen on his own.

With Han Solo now in mental command of the Citadel's forces and in control of himself with the Queen's death, he releases all of her mind controlled slaves and the power of The Citadel and its Queen is over and done with.

So here we are at the big finish. . .

Thankfully, the story tightened up a bit from the mess that was in last issue. The mental battle between Luke and The Queen was pretty well done, and the ending with Luke turning down Aphra's offer of letting him learn from Rur because Rur was obviously insane from all the years spent captive in a crystal and that he was just going to have to learn to be a Jedi some other way was also pretty good. The epilogue with the Queen Symbiote finding another host and deciding to leave the planet left things pretty much wide open for her to return and was a satisfying ending to this crossover.

But despite the good, there was also plenty of bad. Han Solo's dialogue while possessed by the Symbiote was just plain bad. Leia suddenly swerving back from being the tough General MacArthur type and going back to the Sensitive Princess was pretty strange, and nobody else seemed to notice.

The art is improved over the previous Doctor Aphra issue of the crossover, but swerves too far toward the cartoony side and looks a bit rushed in places. In one panel, Doctor Aphra is drawn without a nose.

Overall, despite some questionable writing and art here and there, I found this final issue of The Screaming Citadel to be a good ending to the story. It ties up everything neatly and leaves it open for the villain to return later.


CONCLUSION

When I think about "Star Wars Vampire Story", I raise an eyebrow and think "I like the sound of that." Unfortunately, while this crossover series wasn't BAD, it really wasn't that good either.  It sort of rides right down the center and is ultimately a bit forgettable.  Screaming Citadel WANTS to be something unique, and it tries. . .I have to give Marvel credit for trying something new with Star Wars. . .but it just doesn't try hard enough.

A big part of the problem for me was the schizophrenic nature of the art.  First you have Marco Checchetto delivering a damn near perfect opening issue and some great covers, then you have Salvador Larroca and Andrea Broccardo switching back and forth between creepy photo-referencing and cartoony, making Screaming Citadel a kind of "Three Bears" situation: Too Hard. . .Too Soft. . .Just Right.  I can only imagine that the transitions must be even worse when reading it in trade.

But despite the art, I can't say this crossover was bad.  It was interesting to see a different kind of Star Wars story.  But the differences in setting and the darker tone didn't keep it from turning into a typical running fight you've seen over and over again in Star Wars comics for the past 40 years.

Overall, I can say I liked this story, but not enough to say it's up there with some of the best Star Wars comics.  Ultimately it doesn't really deliver on the promise of its ideas.

Up Next. . .

The Mass Effect series are some pretty great video games!

BUT. . .

Are they great comics?  Let's find out!

Dark Horse's Mass Effect: Redemption 4-issue mini.

Be there or be square!