Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Rocket Ranger #3

Rocket Ranger #3

A punishing Amiga title is turned into a passable comic

"Captured!”, “Escape!”, and “Sandwiched!”
Script – Roland Mann
Art – Khato
Letters – Gail Beckett
Editor – Kim Scholter
Editor-in-Chief – Dan Danko
April 1992

Cinemaware began publishing videogames in the mid-80’s with graphics that were considered extraordinary at the time. By current standards, they wouldn’t hold most teenager’s attention, but for those of us who grew up used to the static shots used in text-based adventure games, they seemed like an evolution. The company started with the swashbuckling Defender of the Crown, then it dipped into TV Sports titles before spiraling back around to making movie-themed titles such as The King of Chicago, The Three Stooges, Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon, and It Came from the Desert.

The game Rocket Ranger appeared in 1988, three years after the release of the big budget movie The Rocketeer came out. The Rocketeer was based off of Dave Stevens’ comic of the same name. Both franchises were clearly homages to the Commando Cody/Rocket Man serials of the early 1950’s (King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.). While similar in plot and action, The Rocketeer couldn’t claim the game was infringing on its copyright due to this earlier shared title.

The game consisted of two interconnected challenges. The first was a strategy element where you deploy five agents to different countries on a map of the world. The goal of this is to determine where the Nazis (your enemy in the game) are hiding items you need OR to create resistance in those countries which will slow the advance of the Nazis army. This piece was critical to the game, as the forces would destroy the USA in a matter of turns if left unchecked.

The second challenge was to fly to an area identified by your spies that had an item you needed, defeating enemies along the way. This part consisted of many steps. First came a form of copy protection masquerading as your character precisely filling his tank with the correct amount of fuel by using a secret decoder wheel. Next came a complicated series of timed button mashing as you attempted to make a perfect take off using the jet pack. Fail to get in the air correctly and you failed your mission. This failure would affect the strategy game timetable, allowing the enemy to advance unchecked. Too many failed takeoffs, and the Nazis would reach America’s shores.

The last bit was the part that most people were craving, Nazi crushing. Whether it was shooting down zeppelins, shooting through murder holes in Nazi jungle strongholds, or just good old punching the funk out of Nazi foot soldiers, this game delivered. IF you could get the past the first two challenges. 

Which is exactly this: You play a US Army scientist who receives a note from the future packed in with a rocket jet pack and a radium gun. The note says that Nazis have won World War II and have enslaved the entire world. Your mission is to stop their advance and prevent their mining of the mineral lunarium. Lunarium is both a floor wax and a desert topping, in that it both powers rocket travel to anywhere on Earth (or the Moon, more on that later) and it also saps the will of those exposed to it so they are unable to resist the Nazis. 

The finale of the game takes place in a Nazi stronghold on the moon where you fight dominatrix bearing whips and a floating alien spaghetti-monster who has been secretly funding the Nazi’s ambitions for its own nefarious purposes while simultaneously freeing the captured women who are forced to strip-mine the moon’s lunarium cache. 

To say the game goes off the rails story-wise a bit toward the end is not an exaggeration.

How is this comic book tie-in, however? Seems a bit late to the party, as the book was released four years after the game. And even though it was cross-platformed between Amiga, MS-DOS, Comodore 64, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, and the original NES, that was probably way past the game’s prime. The series did last five issues, however. I’m unsure if the title’s longevity was due to the popularity of the game, fans of the genre of jet-pack adventure picking up the title on sight, or what. What I do know is the comic series did not end on the same note as the game, but left that part open to a sixth issue featuring a climatic battle that never got released.

No, this book is all Nazi-punching--all the time, which was pretty much a license to print money back in the late 80’s-early 90’s. Let’s give it a look-see, shall we?

We begin the first of three “chapters” in this book with Tom Cory, the Rocket Ranger, in Berlin. He’s snuck into the Nazi stronghold to rescue American Professor Otto Barnstorff and his beautiful daughter/love interest Jane. However, as the title of this section is called “Captured!”, things might not go as planned.

It’s very clear from the short episodic format that the book is trying to recreate the feel of an old republic serial, right down to the cliffhanger endings. I’m certain the last issue showed this German solider creeping up on the pair as a way to build suspense.

Our hero and the two captives awaken shortly thereafter. Tom’s helm, jetpack, and radium gun have been taken, which allows Jane to finally see who was attempting to rescue her. It appears the pair have met in the past, but Jane requires a bit of memory jogging to recall they went to school together as kids.

Then our main Nazi baddy walks in on them. We learn later that his name is Coloner Jeermaster and I believe he is a minor villain that appears in one scene in the game, but for the book we require a “boss” we can boo and hiss at. That means the only Nazi with a name in the game becomes our nemesis. Also he speaks the kind of German that is sure to pronounce his nationality as “Chur-man”.

Rocket Ranger’s insolence earns him a slap across the face, a pigeon-English monologue, and a threat against his fellow captives. The art in the book centers mainly on the human figures using minimal backgrounds to accentuate their expressions and poses. The result is effective but tends to look like they are stuck in a empty world, an utter vacuum. It also adds a bit of fantasy element to the look of the comic that operates independent of the fantastical story. I’m enjoying the art, even as I’m noting the areas it differs from a standard comic of this era.

Under pressure from the German officer, Rocket lies that the weapons he has is a prototype manufactured in Mississippi, where the American forces have established an assembly line to produce enough for an army. This leads the officer to have to inform “der Fuhrer.”

With the baddy out of the room, Tom fills in his fellow captives on his ruse, while breaking his own bonds and then theirs.

Meanwhile, the book tries to mirror the “spy” aspect of the game with a cutscene of one of the operatives in a different country. Appears the Nazis are rounding up women (to send to their secret moonbase) and this operative wants O-U-T—OUT! before she gets rounded up too.

As we flip back to Tom, his escape appears to be on the verge of being spoiled…

…as an armed German guard blocks the doorway threatening to shoot them all.

And that ends the first episode, exactly like a serial would: on a cliffhanger with our heroes in mortal danger. Will they survive?

The answer is only one page turn away as we move on to “Escape!” which begins with a tagline and a recap box as if we are likely to forget what happened two pages ago. Tom uses the final captive to mess up the guard’s aim and take him down.

After a page long scuffle though, it appears the guard has regained both the upper hand and his machine gun…

…lucky for Tom that Jane is there to high-kick the Fritz in the face. It is interesting that we get a stocking shot with every appearance of Jane, a kind of subtle sexual cue that she’s a desirable love interest. I’m not opposed to it, but it is very overt and possibly a bit sexist.

So, with the guard taken out Tom rushes out to get his Rocket Ranger equipment so they can escape…in style!

Jane opts to go with him, even though it might be dangerous, which leads to this weird sneaky spooning on the stairs pose.

And eventually to Tom getting back his gear. However, it also attracts some unwanted attention.

I’m digging on the action scenes in this, which pack a unique kind of punch. There’s a real emotive quality in the poses that artist Khato throws our way and he has a good grasp of depth. Look at that bottom right panel and feel the vibe of Tom’s tension in the blocking of that shot. You can imagine him beginning to rush through that doorway after Jeermaster.

Which is exactly what Tom does, and falls right into his trap as both doors slam shut and lock…

…leaving our hero in a hallway that is turned into a deathtrap only seen in the movies.

And with one final full page shot, we get our second episode cliffhanger. So far I’m enjoying this in a mindless fashion. It’s not high art and it doesn’t engage on more than the visceral level, but it is fun to look at.

On to our final installment in this issue, aptly titled “Sandwiched!” And I don’t think they mean the kind with bread. Tom tries everything to stop the walls or blast down the door…

…but his radium gun is no match for German door technology obviously. 

Thankfully the lad comes up with a different idea that would only work for Rocket Ranger.

Blasting off through the roof, Tom gets a bead on his fellow escapees who are about to be gunned down by a Nazi guard.

He dispatches the fellow with a blast of his radium gun that the guard did Nazi coming. I stole that joke from Red Letter Media's Half in the Bag. Please send all hate mail to Rich Evans and possibly ask for a pizza roll. The further in we go, the more I check my brain and just enjoy the art. 

After leaving the wounded ex-prisoner off with some insurgents, Tom flies back and picks up both the Professor and his beautiful daughter.

And unlike most actioneers, the effects of carrying two people actually cause Tom to kvetch a bit before dropping them off. But with the Professor and Jane now safe, Tom has to jet off (heh, LITERALLY!) to China (yeah, the game did this too. No sense of actual geography as the jetpack wearer could cross the entire globe in a short hop to check out some intel on a radar installation. He also mentioned that after that he’s headed to Peru, which is pretty much the other side of the world from China. Takes just a short hop in the jet pack of course. 

But first China and the great wall, where Tom is in for a surprise…

…as it appears he’s flown right into the enemy’s gun sights.

With that cliffhanger, the issue ends.

I’m torn on this one. The fantastical elements and the ham-fisted drama don’t really turn me on. However, the art and action are fun in the same way a good video game could be fun. Would I prefer reading the Rocketeer to this? Probably. Would I turn down another issue found in the discount bin? No, I wouldn’t and that more than anything else sums up Rocket Ranger.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Giants Tale Two of Four

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Giants Tale Two of Four

Can this comic series possibly live up to the show?

"The Tailor’s Daughter”
Story and Art – Brandon Dayton
Color Assist – Spencer Holt
Design – Jillian Crab
Assistant Editor – Cameron Chittok
Editor – Sierra Hahn
October 2017
Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is one of those pristine family series that entertains everyone equally. Released stateside in 1987, the British series originally featured John Hurt as the titular Storyteller and utilized Henson’s trademark puppetry for the various fantastical elements of the European folk stories Hurt would weave to entertain his faithful blonde Pudelpointer (a type of dog that Jim’s puppetry and Brian Henson’s voice bring to an all too real kind of life) Cloggs.

The show was fantastic, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program for Hans My Hedgehog that first year and being nominated twice the next year for A Story Short and The Luck Child. The show later would garner BAFTA awards for Best Children’s Programme and Best Costume Design and a nod for Best Make Up.

The sad part for me is that the series was so compact. The first season was only nine episodes and they leave you desperate for more. It’s like someone cracked open a fairytale book to rival all of Grimm’s or Andersen’s combined and then only read a scattering before closing it shut forever. And like eager children begging for a new bedtime story, those nine make you wish the show had a hundred episodes.

Exceedingly well produced, meticulously adherent to a charming tone that respected the source material yet robbed it of none of its power to enchant, the stories produced were also painstakingly researched. Series developer Anthony Minghella deserves the credit there, as it took him two years to investigate and write the screenplays for those nine episodes. All that effort paid off in a series that valued quality over quantity.

The show received a second season, although this time Michael Gambon took the role of a different Storyteller (although featuring the same dog voiced by Brian Henson). Gambon’s Storyteller was a ancient Greek forced to wander the Minotaur’s labyrinth looking for a way out while entertaining his companion dog with four tales of the classic Greek Myths.

I caught the entire production on HBO and thought that it was made specifically for that cable channel. The run featured both series together and I fell in love instantly. A few years ago a DVD version of the definitive collection came out and I snatched it up. 

When picking up the discount bin find The Storyteller: Giants book presented here, I was a bit skeptical. Archaia has produced four series so far in The Storyteller comic book franchies, each focusing on a different fantastical creature (Witches, Giants, Dragons, and Faires). But even with the type of success those expansions implies, could anything be as good as Minghella and Henson’s TV show?

We should take a look and see…

Our opening, to anyone who has seen the show, arrives as expected. The Storyteller sits sewing by the fire with Cloggs napping on the hearth. He exclaims as he pricks his finger and that awakens his pet and companion.

Which leads to our narrator beginning his story opening, as Cloggs gets comfortable and we shift to the house of a tailor who knew he was close to death…

The daughter’s hand in marriage now belongs to the great, rich lord who lives in the castle upon the highest hill in the land. Being a dutiful daughter, she does as she is asked to do, but she has one request. Her father does not send her off empty-handed.

Along the way to the castle she encounters three animals, each in a trap. They have been caught by the “Great Lord” that is her bridegroom and she sets each free. For her good deed, each gives her a magical item of great value. The goose gives her a collar that can’t be cut, the rabbit gives her boots that can’t be burnt,…

…and the mare gives her a hair comb that saved him from the lion’s paw(somehow?)

Note that the number of items and animals is NOT a random thing. I’m nabbing this from the trivia page of IMDB: In folklore, three parts often represent the past, the present, and the future (which are mentioned in The Storyteller series introduction narration). However, it also used to be interpreted as a cycle of life: life, death, and rebirth. In every show of the first season the number three featured prominently in terms of encounters or attempts on a characters life or number of items…all in keeping with the "rule of three" in the original tales.

It’s actually quite wonderful to apply the idea of this “sacred story rule of threes” to something like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter ending with the story of the three brothers and the three magical items they received from death (Elder Wand, Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak) also known as the Deathly Hallows.

I don’t have space here to boil this down even more, although the rule of three is a constant in folklore and even modern storytelling. What I will do is point you to other sources that explain the rule of three and how it relates to literature. HERE is a great piece on on just that.

Back to our story, however, as Brandon Dayton draws us in even more as, after the Storyteller and Cloggs having a brief discussion on whether the dutiful tailor’s daughter should have run away at that point, we find her knocking on the door of the castle.

Her betrothed is a horrible giant! However, this opening reeks so much of Beauty and the Beast that you might feel this is going to travel down that path with the giant transforming into a handsome prince at the end. I’ll spoil this a little by telling you that you are only half wrong in that assumption.

After such a tour, the giant has the daughter for supper...NO! No! NO! Not HAS her for supper, but you know? Dines with her. Not ON her. 

However, he has terrible table manners.

Still, that’s not all that bad. Eating habits can be changed with a few beatings and some electro-shock. I should know, I’m the parent of a teenage boy.

After a fretful night of barely sleeping, the daughter finds herself alone in the castle after the giant leaves to check his many, many traps. I’ll let the Storyteller take over from here…

…and she opens the door to find…

…a room full of the giant’s brides. Those who remained faithful were turned into scullery slaves and those who did not follow his rules…

And with that, the daughter’s will is tested as she can find no way to escape the castle and the garden maze outside. At last she calls upon the one animal who pledged to come to her aid and beseeches him for any information on how to escape the giant’s clutches.

The goose’s story makes it clear that the key to her escape lies in the palm of the giant’s hand…

She sends the goose off and prepares to meet the giant in a test of cunning, for you see…

…and with that, he snatches her up and prepares to devour her, but the daughter cleverly outwits him, time…

…after time…

…after time. 

Until the giant is so furious that fire spat from his mouth. But the daughter’s cunning had one final trick up its sleeve…

…and with a poof, the giant is transformed into a tiny little gnome that the daughter dispatches to a horrible, yet rightly deserved, fate.

In the end, the prior brides reverted to being princesses once again, the hare became a handsome footman, the goose a giant swan, and the mare a noble knight. The daughter and the goose flew them all back to her father’s tailorshop where…

…our happy ending unfolds…

…and the Storyteller has it over Cloggs one final time. 

SUCH a good story! I love this book and feel that it matches the beats of the TV show very well. In addition, it stands up on its own as a decent fairy tale story. If you enjoyed Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series, these books appear to be worth checking out. They definitely have that same kind of magic!