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Badger #1

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Badger #1
Devil’s Due/1First Comics

I was toying around with the idea of a very heavy action strip about an avenger – a vigilante – and I wanted to have a logical foundation for his actions.  I thought, “What kind of character puts on a costume and goes out to fight crime on the streets?”  And the only thing I could possibly come up with is that you’d have to be stark raving out–of-your-mind to do such a thing.   – Mike Baron, Comics Interview #8, Feb. 1984

Batman was the first comic book hero that formed my childhood.  But when I went off to college, four titles influenced me the most:  Nexus, American Flagg!, The Question, and The Badger. 

Both Nexus and The Badger were written by Mike Baron.  Where Nexus was the serious science fiction, deeper philosophic title, Badger was a fun romp with psychotic characters.

Norbert Sykes, a Vietnam Veteran, POW, and martial artist, was abused by his step-father resulting in him suffering from multiple personality disorder.  One of those personalities is the animal-communing vigilante protecting the streets of Madison, Wisconsin.  While admitted to a mental hospital, he is visited telepathically by his neighbor, a John Doe who was found wandering Madison naked and uncommunicative.  This John Doe is Ham, a 5th Century Druid who, after being entombed and sent out to sea in 412 AD, wakes up in the 20th Century.  Through his telepathic communication with Norbert, Ham learns about the 20th Century from probably not the most reliable source.  Still, Ham forms a partnership with the Badger, along with Daisy Fields, their case worker at the hospital who becomes Ham’s personal secretary.  She sees Norbert as an interesting case study and person in need of healing (though Ham has use of the the Badger and hopes she does not succeed).  Together, they create chaos in dealing with capitalists and demons (at times, kind of hard to tell them apart).  His other personalities – inner-city African American Gastinau Grover DePaul, the high-brow Max Swell, nine-year-old Emily, Leroy the dog, and the homicidal Pierre – emerge at the most convenient, and sometimes inconvenient, moments.

The Badger ran from 1983 to 1991, its first four issues with Capital Comics, along with Nexus, and both making the move to First Comics when Capital went under.  The character has made a few one-shots and mini-series appearances since, the most recent in 2007 when IDW Publishing collected the first twenty-three issues in four trade paperback collections as well as a graphic novel Badger Saves the World.

Badger #1 (Devil’s Due/1First Comics, 2016) is a re-introduction of the character.  Mike Baron brings his creation into the 21st Century with Norbert serving in the fight against Al Qaeda.  The personalities are slightly altered – Max Swell now being a gay architect and Emily is a five year old girl.

The tone to this version of Badger is noticeably different.  The original series started off with Ham’s story and Badger’s introduction to Ham in the mental hospital, slowly learning more about Norbert as the issues progressed.  Here, it’s Norbert’s story with glimpses of his multiple personalities.  Though Baron brought Badger and Ham into the 1980’s with a tongue-in-cheek flair, today’s Badger has a serious tone.  Baron is sticking with the traditional Badger story line, but the snappy banter is chilled.  The prospects of its return appear in the final three pages.  Jim Fern’s art serves this mood well, and his single rendering of Ham in the final panel is diabolical.

New readers to the Badger need no knowledge of the past to get into this world.  As a long time fan, this issue felt awkward.  I found the way the original series slowly revealed Norbert’s backstory as the main story was in action engaging.  This issue felt too much like set-up for what’s to come.  Getting Norbert from enlistment to mental hospital felt a tad rushed.  But it won’t stop me from looking forward to seeing where Baron takes the Badger here in the 21st Century.

Comic Book Review: Grendel vs The Shadow

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Comic books have always hyped the Hero versus Hero story.  The Hulk vs The Thing.  Thor vs Iron Man.  Wolverine vs The Hulk.  These match-ups feed on the competitive musings of adolescent boys.  “Who would win in a battle between Thanos and Darkseid?  Man-Thing and Swamp Thing?  Green Arrow and Hawkeye?”  The formula tends to go like this:  the two combatants are lured into battle by one or two common foes, the heroes fight, then they realize that they can achieve their goals not by fighting each other but by working together to capture the villian(s).

Grendel vs The Shadow isn’t like that.  With these two characters, common ground will never be found.  Both are single-minded against each others’ purpose.

I’ve always been fascinated by The Shadow.  Not so much the comic book character but the haunting voice of the old-time radio show.  The Shadow of radio played on your imagination; the disembodied voice of the man who could cloud men’s minds.  And the laugh.  Chilling.  He didn’t need the visual accouterments of the hat, cape, bandanna mask, and guns.  The comic book world has positioned him as an uncompromising destroyer of crime, a more psychotic vigilante than the Batman could ever be.  My interest in the character keeps me checking out different four-color artistic versions of him.

I discovered Grendel back in the 1980’s, in the original Comico Comics appearances and as the back-up story in Mage.  Matt Wagner’s art and portrayal of the dapper and sophisticated sociopath, Hunter Rose, against the ugly and bestial, pure-hearted Argent, created an evil character so charismatic the reader is tempted to root for him.

This graphic novel (co-published by Dark Horse Comics and Dynamite Entertainment, 2015) was released originally as a three-issue mini-series that did not disappoint.  The hurdle Wagner had to overcome was that The Shadow and Grendel come from two different time periods.  These two characters grounded in realism, The Shadow does have a mystical history that lends itself to the possibility.  The discovery of a Mandarin scroll by Hunter Rose which is a spell that sends him back in time to The Shadow’s New York after he reads it, is not so far-fetched.

From there, it’s Grendel taking control of the prohibition-era mobs with The Shadow hot on his trail.  Grendel is intrigued by the challenge The Shadow brings.  Aside from having to deal with each other, they have their own issues.  Margo Lane is about to leave Lamont Cranston for good, which the cold dispenser of justice must sort out.  Hunter Rose is out of his time and becomes captivated by a crime lord’s daughter that temporarily seduces him from the grief he suffers from the woman he forever lost.

This arrogant crime-fighter versus this arrogant villain is entertaining.  Wagner’s beautiful sequential story-telling makes reading this hard cover edition a pleasure, not a redundancy if you’ve already read the comic book series.

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(Comic) Book Review: Material Volume One

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I’m looking at the graphic novels in my to-read stack.  The genre of most graphic novels can be found on the back cover, near the UPC code and/or publisher’s logo.  For example, from my stack Grendel vs The Shadow is labeled “Comics & Graphic Novels/Crime & Mystery.” Sex Criminals: Volume Two is labeled “Science Fiction.”  C.O.W.L. Volume Two is labeled “Crime Fiction/Superhero.”  Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus #9 is labeled “Graphic Novel/Manga/Action-Adventure.

Material Volume One is labeled “Literary Fiction.”

I had never seen that before, not that I had ever looked.  I went to the shelf and briefly looked through some of my other graphic novels.  Not even the few Adrian Tomine books I have read are labeled “literary.”

Literary fiction is what I read because that is what I prefer to write.  Novels that express ideas through its story and characters.  Material is such a comic book.

This first volume collects the first four issues of Ales Kot’s series which has four story lines running through it; Franklin, an African American boy, survives a police riot only to be interrogated and coerced into working for police against his family; Nylon, an actress whose career is on the cusp of ending, receives an offer for the role of her life; Adib, a Guantanmo Bay survivor, tries to adjust to freedom; and Julius, a philosophy professor, is prodded into deep reflection from an artificial intelligence that speaks to him through his computer.  Each thread reveals something material about our world and how we live today.  These stories play out in two-page increments throughout.

In this volume, The Guardian journalist Spencer Ackerman writes a foreward with the important title “Always read the footnotes.”  Throughout this work there are a number of footnotes that relate to the two-page sequence in the given character’s storyline.  For example, during most of Franklin’s story the names of African Americans killed by police officers appear along the bottom of the page.  Quotes and references to plays, novels, and nonfiction works provide further material to compliment the scenes above them.

Each issue of the comic book ended with a brief essay, which are also collected in this volume.  The four essays address the four story lines.  “Future Present” by Fiona Duncan is about the writer’s discovery of Franco “Bifo” Berardi, the Italian Marxist theorist who she sees similarities of in Julius’ character.  “How the DMV lost my change of address” by Jarett Kobek discusses his favorite three pages of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s  Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, where torture became policy because success was defined based on the results that Patient Zero – Abu Zabaydah – did not have any information to give up.  Torture was its own measure of success.  “Lindsay” by Sarah Nicole Prickett, is about Lindsay Lohan and the stigma of red-haired women.  “Convulsions Among the Lilies” by Bijan Stephen provides insight on being an African American male in the United States.

Will Tempest’s illustrations provide narrative power to the story.  The two-page scene with Adib and his wife’s dog in the second chapter is emotionally tense and liberating.

I had read the first three issues in comic book form until I cancelled my subscription of it at my local comic book store (Comix Corner at Masonic and Utica).  Not because I didn’t like the book, but because I saw that this was a series that would be bound in trade paperback form, the way I now prefer to read my comics.  I almost want to restart the subscription because this is such a good comic.  But more insight is obtained by reading the series as a complete whole.  I’m eager to see where else Kot and Tempest go with this work of  literary fiction.

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(Comic) Book Review: The Tithe Volume One

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How you spend your money tells who’s first in your life and whom you really worship.  Too often God is nowhere to be found.  I get asked why God doesn’t answer prayer.  Know this.  He answers those that are faithful and give to his church. – Pastor Dugar, Summit Church, Phoenix, AZ The Tithe.

As Matt Hawkins writes in the Sunday School section that concludes this first volume collecting issues #1-4 of Image Comics’ The Tithe, the story focuses on bad people preying on well-intentioned Christians.  Yes, Hawkins is an atheist, briefly covering his personal history of having grown up a Southern Baptist.  But the comic is not an attack on religion insomuch as it is exposing that not all churches, particularly the mega-churches, have your best interests at heart.

Reminds me a little of Ray Stevens’ Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?

The story opens with three people carrying guns and wearing Jesus masks as they break into and rob the Crossroads Church in Irvine, California.  Claiming responsibility is Samaritan, a hacker-group that has hit seven churches on a list of ten being investigated for fraud by FBI Agent Jimmy Miller, this being the eighth.  They obtain a couple million dollars after the Sunday collection plates have been passed, and expose Pastor Tibbett’s use of their donations for drugs, women, a private jet, and mansion by hacking into the church’s large screen monitor during the service.  Miller, an atheist and computer hacker himself, is both frustrated at Samaritan for the way they stay one-step ahead of him in the digital world, and impressed with the evidence Samaritan sends him, helping him bring charges against the mega-churches.  To provide further contrast, Miller is partnered with senior agent Dwayne Campbell, a married man with four daughters who, unlike Miller, is a Christian.

Samaritan, as it turns out, is Samantha Copeland, a twenty-something computer genius.  It’s unclear as to Samantha’s motivation, other than to make a difference in the world before living a mundane life.  Why does she chose to expose churches engaging in fraud as her personal mission?  Perhaps that will develop as the series continues.  Kyle Araman, Samantha’s long-time friend, his brother Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Rachel Marvin, are the foot soldiers in Samantha’s quest.

The four issues collected in this volume complete the first story arc in Samantha’s adventure.  Rahsan Ekedal’s artwork is clean and crisp.  I look forward to seeing where Hawkins and Ekedal takes Samantha and Jimmy as their lives change at the conclusion of this volume.

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(Comic) Book Review: Nexus

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I do not pretend to judge.  My visits have nothing to do with vengeance.  What I do, I do because I must!  I act in self defense. – Nexus

It was The Batman that drew me into the world of comic books as a kid.  It was a comic book like Nexus that kept me interested in comic books as an adult.

Capital Comics was one of the emerging independent comic book publishers that had started to gain shelf space in the indie comic book stores in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.  The first title the Madison, Wisconsin publisher released was Nexus in 1981.  It was an odd, magazine-sized mag, 36 pages printed in black & white, by an unknown writer and artist, from an unknown company.  By all standards of the day, it was certain to perish.  However, the intriguing story and the depth of the character, along with the stunning artwork developed a following and the attention of the critics.

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Horatio Hellpop (Nexus) resides on the moon Ylum (pronounce eye-lum), in which he welcomes refugees from around the universe.  To them, he is known as The Liberator, and to others he is deemed an enigma to be feared because he seeks out mass murderers and kills them.

Other people call him a vigilante, and I suppose in the eyes of many of the people observing he could be called a vigilante, but he is really, literally, acting in self-defense…he really doesn’t want to go out and kill these guys.  He has no choice.  If he doesn’t do it, the dreams get worse and worse, they become physical, he starts to get pain from the victims of the murderers he dreams about.  The pain becomes more intense and eventually they’ll kill him. – Mike Baron, (Amazing Heroes #18, December, 1982).

Nexus’ origin begins in the second issue.  Horatio’s father, General Theodore Hellpop, was the hero of the liberation of the planet Vradic.  The Supreme Soviet promoted him the position of the planet’s Viceroy.  He meets and marries Marlis, who then becomes pregnant.  The Hellpops approach Brother Lathe, an Elvonic priest and Marlis’ brother, to bless the child before he is born.  Lathe, not a fan of his brother-in-law, proclaims that the child is cursed and his life will be a nightmare.  This led Hellpop to issue a warrant for Brother Lathe’s arrest.  Lathe goes underground, generates a rebellion against the Sov Viceroy, which overpowers the Vradic People’s Militia.  The Hellpops are forced to evacuate.  Hellpop’s orders were to defeat the rebels at all costs, which he does by destroying the planet.  “In order to save Vradic, I had to destroy it.”  They flee the galaxy, heading out as far away as possible, landing on the moon of Ylum.

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The third and final issue of the magazine format concludes the origin story.  The Hellpops give birth to Horatio.  The family  lives on Ylum alone, and the young Horatio discovers his playmates, Alph and Beta, two Ylumites who suggest to Horatio that he never mention them to his parents.  His parents didn’t believe him anyway, writing them off as imaginary friends of the child.  When Horatio was five, Marlis wandered into one of the corridors.  Alph and Beta disappeared, too.  Horatio and his father searched for weeks but could not find her.  Months later, her body was found, having starved to death.

Alph and Beta re-appeared and engaged with him as he grew up.  He then experienced the beginning of his curse.  One night, he had a dream about Vradic and suffered physically from it.  He crawled out of bed and found his way into “the tank” – an hourglass-shaped tank that kept him healthy when he was born prematurely – where he recovered.  Alph and Beta get under his skin, and, out of anger, he discovers his fusion-casting power, blasting Alph and Beta.  The dreams of Vradic continued, intensifying Horatio’s pain and agony.  Alph and Beta appear, giving him the answer of how to make the dreams stop:  “You must eliminate the cause.”  And Horatio does so.

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The third issue also included a flexi-disc that you could play on your stereo and have the book read to you.  Here’s the opening…

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Nexus’ supporting cast are equally complex and diverse.  Sundra, his love interest, was an agent for the Web, sent to Ylum to report back to the agency.  His vigilante/counterpart Juddah Maccabee – The Hammer – is a more robust, active warrior from Thune.  Dave, Nexus’ closest friend, is an intelligent Thune, the father of Juddah, and a person he can bounce philosophical thoughts off.  The futuristic setting is also ripe with the political struggles of a planet (or moon) inundated with refugees seeking to establish a functioning government; energy politics of the more powerful planets, and genocide throughout the galaxy.  Even the fusion-casting hero’s effect on black holes becomes an issue.

The third issue was the final issue as a magazine.  Capital shifted the format into a regular, 32-page, color comic book.  They published six issues before going under, but First Comics picked up the title, and continued for a total of 80 issues.  Dark Horse Comics published a number of mini-series, adding 22 more issues to the Nexus legend.

The twelve volumes of Nexus Archives by Dark Horse Comics collects the three black and white issues, the eighty Capital/First Comics issues, and the four issue mini-series, Next Nexus.

Mike Baron was one of my favorite comic book writers as a result of Nexus.  Capital Comics published his second title, The Badger, a martial artist with multiple-personality disorder.

Steve Rude’s art is just beautiful.  The first piece of original art I ever owned was a Steve Rude pencil sketch of Nexus, which he did for me at the 1985 Chicago Comicon, still framed and hanging in my office.  When I considered a cover for my novel I strongly considered Mr. Rude and sent him an email to inquire about the possibility.  Unfortunately his schedule was booked.

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Thirty-five years after the appearance of Nexus, Baron and Rude are reuniting and bringing out a Nexus comic strip.  Definitely something for the Nexus fan to return to, and for new fans to come on board.

Click this link to view the Kickstarter video:https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/steverude/rude-dude-nexus-and-the-moth-comic-strip-newspaper/widget/video.html

Click HERE to go to the Kickstarter page.

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(Comic) Book Review: The Question

DSC07682 In 1987, DC Comics revamped the old Charlton Comics character, The Question.  Veteran writer Dennis O’Neil undertook the project and created one of the most interesting comic book characters I ever read.

The Question was not bestowed with super powers.  He was Victor Sage – news anchor and journalist on Hub City’s KBEL Television station who pulled no punches.  Hub City was a cesspool of crime and vice, on the streets and in the professions that are supposed to be upstanding.  In order to get the lead on stories and contribute to rounding up Hub City’s vermin, Sage donned a flesh-toned plastic mask that affixed to his face by way of a gas concocted by his friend and philosophical sparring friend, Aristotle Rodor, Ph.D., or “Tot” for short.  The mask created the image of a faceless man.

DSC07684The Question was not driven by revenge, like Batman, or by some accidental or in-born ability motivating him out of a sense of responsibility to use his power for the benefit of mankind.  The Question was driven by his desire to discover and learn about life.

At the conclusion of the first issue, The Question was severely beaten by Lady Shiva, a martial artist beyond compare, along with some of the Mayor’s thugs.  Sage’s body was dumped in the river, the group assuming his demise.  Lady Shiva, however, retrieved him from the river and returned him to Tot’s home.  Sage’s body broken, she left behind a series of maps, which led Sage to Lady Shiva’s teacher, Richard Dragon.  The paraplegic Dragon trained Sage in the way of the warrior.  Upon the completion of his training, Sage is sent home with Dragon’s final observation.

“I think Shiva is wrong.  She says you have a passion for combat…that’s why she asked me to help you.  I disagree.  I think your passion is curiosity.”

DSC07685Sage continued on in Hub City, questioning and combating crime.  Often he would “go within” in meditation to calm or center himself on what he was about to embark on.

DSC07686At the conclusion of the Letters Page (appropriately titled The Answer), O’Neil would include “recommended reading.”  As noted in the first issue’s letter page, it wasn’t like school where the reading was required.  Rather, the reading was recommended because it was source material upon which The Question was inspired.  Below is a list of some of the reading recommended in the first twenty issues of the comic.

DSC07687Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
Movements of Magic: The Spirit of Tai Chi Chuan by Bob Klein
Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy
Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman
Any of the Eighty-Seventh Precinct novels by Ed McBain
The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky
The Wandering Taoist and Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel by Den Ming Dao
Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate by Lawrence Galante
The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
Zen and the Art of Martial Arts by Joe Hyams
Through a Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life by Rick Fields
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Zen Without Zen Masters by Camden Barnes
The Art of War by Sun Tzu

DSC07688One of my favorite stories was a three-part tale titled Fables.  The story began in Detective Comics Annual #1, continued in Green Arrow Annual #1, and concluded in The Question Annual #1.  It involved a sensei who was over 150 years old and ready to move onto the next world, but sought the aid of Batman, Green Arrow, and The Question (along with Lady Shiva) to take him to his resting place.  He uses fables to win the assistance of Batman and Green Arrow, but had no fable for The Question.  Sage had to learn his in the end.

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The series was cancelled after thirty-six issues.  The Question made a few cameo appearances and had  a brief run as a quarterly comic.  I was disappointed to learn that DC killed Victor Sage and replaced him with Renee Montoya of the Gotham City Police Department.  Nothing involving the character since can compare to the brilliant storytelling of Dennis O’Neil and the gritty artwork of Denys Cowan.

The six-volume trade paperback series includes the entire run (minus the Fables story), which I return to often.

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