Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hercules #10

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Hercules #10

Taking on Hydra way before that Nick Fury chap

"The Ninth Head that Couldn’t Die”
Writer – Joe Gill
Penciller – Sam Glanzman
Inker – Sam Glanzman
Colorist - unknown
Letterer – unknown
Editor– unknown
1978 originally presented in 1968

Hercules is too good a character not to have in your comics' universe.

The Marvel Universe has been lousy with Hercules appearances over the decades. From his time as an Avenger to his time founding the LA group the Champions to his recent solo series the Incredible Hercules, the character has popped up hundreds of times in Marvel books for something like 1600 appearances (according to Comics Vine).

DC had a Hercules too. He appeared in an early Wonder Woman book, where Queen Hippolyta schooled Wonder Woman in how to attract a man by telling the tale of how she got floozied it up to get the attention of a certain demi-god. This was all way back in 1962, but by 1985 George Perez saw the Hercules (now Heracles) thing a bit differently. He went about painting him as kind of a thief and possible rapist. Which totally destroys all the goodwill that the DC Hercules earned in his 12 issue Hercules Unbound book from Gerry Conway and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez somewhere between those two appearances.

The we get him showing up in Savage Dragon, TV tie-ins to the Kevin Sorbo Hercules: The Legendary Journeys show, pop-ins to Grimm Fairy Tales, Child of the Sun, Holy F*cked, Kingdom Hearts, Michael Chiklis Pantheon (that’s a real book?), Capes, The Godyssey, Wrath of the Titans, The Mighty Hercules (from the cartoon), and this little slice of heaven from Modern/Charlton Comics.

Released originally in April 1969 under the Charlton label for a price of fifteen cents, the book was re-released under the Modern Comics imprint with a price of thirty-five. The Modern label marks it as something that would have been released in the 1980’s and sold in three-for packs at department stores, but the copyright marks on the title page state the book was made in 1978. I’ll let Charlton Hero come in here and lay history out on books like these at some point. I know enough to state the stories in the earlier book and this one are identical, right down to the cover art. Using tactics such as this, Charlton was able to eke out a few more years until their presses deteriorated and they were bought by DC.

For now let’s put aside how this little number came to be and focus on what did make it into our hot little hands. We begin with Hercules standing amid two demons while wreathed in flames, the pelt of the Numidian Lion Rob Liefielding his feet. He is waiting some word from his father Zeus because he’s been doing this “12 Labors” thing for 9 or so Labors and he’s a bit tired. 

Now before you all start in on me, yeah this goes against the classic 12 Labor storytelling a bit. In the Greek Myth, these were accomplished over 12 years. Originally it was recorded as an epic poem, now lost, written by Peisander around 600 BC. In myth it started after Hercules sought forgiveness for killing his wife and children from the oracle at Delphi. He was told to serve the king of Mycenae, whose name was Eurystheus, for 12 years. Here the book speeds up things and has Herc forced to do the labors one right after the other.

The ordering is a bit screwy too. Typically the Lernaean Hydra comes around labor number two. Here we have it placed as labor number ten.

But on to what the book says, as Hercules begs for some time off, but Zeus isn’t on the other end of the cosmic phone line. Nuh-uh. Tis Hera, Zeus’s wife, who HATES Hercules. That whole killing his wife and kids bit? Hera’s doing. She drove Hercules mad and in his crazed state he murdered them. I have no clue if the comic showed that stuff or how they could even depict it for a 1960’s audience, but that’s the actual myth.

Here we have her hanging out with Mars, god of war, and hating on Hercules. You have to understand that the cause of her bitterness is totally on Zeus being the most philandering of all the gods, sleeping with mortals left and right. Many times they got pregnant and this kinda made her a bit crazy-jealous. Not excusing her actions or nothing. Just saying her being upset at Hercules’ mere existing has an understandable cause.

Well, our hero doesn’t know that it isn’t Zeus who answers him by pelting the crap out of him with large rocks, so back to King Eurysteus for his next task he goes without so much as a 15 minute smoke break.

Glanzman takes an opportunity to give us some “groovy” 60’s background around Hercules’ visit to the King of Mycenae. That’s a lot of effort for something that would usually just be white space between panels. Storywise, Herc gets told to get rid of a swamp monster in Argos near the well of Amymone. He thinks because he can use his weapons, the job should be a cinch. However, something in Eurysteus’ last words causes him to think something about this job isn’t quite right…

So instead of rushing right off into the jaws of certain doom, he decides to enter some other jaws first. Those being the Oracle of Pleceum’s entrance gate. This is way off script from the legend, but we will give writer Gill some latitude here.

The Oracle proves to be kind of a dick, first appearing as a huge lizard shooting flames. That’s all illusion that Herc blusters his way though. Then she appears as a comely young woman with exceedingly long hair. She begs Hercules to come closer so she can whisper the secret of the Lenaean Hydra in his ear…

…which is just a ploy to get him tangled up in her hair, which captures men whom she then uses as slaves. Herc is still armed, however and starts sweeping his great sword around…

…which causes the illusion of the young Oracle to vanish and she next appears as an old hag. She calls trying to trap him in her hair a “prank” and then dispenses with the lowdown on the hydra. Note the groovyness of the art here and the fact that the beast is starting off with nine heads. Earlier versions said it had six, but the writing by Alcaeus fixed the number at nine. A century later, owing to something like a early history version of the sleepover game “telephone”, Simonides gave it fifty heads. That Simonides always was the Michael Bay of mythologic writings. 

Anyway, she tells him of the nine heads and hints at the regeneration thing but fails to mention the poisonous breath and blood whose scent will kill you. I guess those aren’t problems in this version of the story. One thing that is added is that one of the heads is impervious to being chopped off, which is a new one on me.

While Hercules is digging on all this new info, we swing on up to the happening pad of Zeus in old Olympus and find out what’s shaking with his fab supreme godliness. Here they are all decked out in their best robes just mellowing out when Zeus asks Hera to lay it on him what she’s got up for his son Herc. She tells Zeus of sending him against the Hydra and even eludes to the series containing the wife/kid killing as “wrongdoing” that drove Herc to needing expatriation for his sins.

Zeus tells her he knows she’s trying to get his son killed, but he kinda has enough faith in him to let her fail at it. Meanwhile Herc makes it to the swap (alone) and starts looking for his many-headed adversary.

When the hydra pops up in a wave of red boarders and attacks our sword wielding demi-god!

Herc goes right to doing the thing you don’t do to a Leneraean Hydra, which is making swishy-swish with your sword. All it takes is a few cut off heads growing back into TWICE as many NEW heads for Herc to figure out his problem with taking down the monster.

Not to mention the giant center head, which even Hercules’ great strength can’t seem to cut through…until later on when he CAN cut through it. Not sure about that middle panel with its Looney Toon sound effect and “Oh, Golly” dialogue box. And while the story never gets around to saying the beast has the poisonous breath, the art sure does make it seem like they know the beast should be belching steam.

But after ranging so far afield of the actual Hercules myth, its here that the book starts to rein in in a little. Here comes Iolaus to set fire to the surroundings so that when Herc cuts off a head the stump is seared and cauterized. 

Maybe this book will begin to be a more faithful adaptation…

…and that’s when the giant crab attacks, and we go back into just making stuff up. I kinda like it though, as this kitchen sink approach feels very much like the Ray Harryhausen movies from my childhood. They would never let an opportunity go by to throw a giant monster on screen and neither does this book.

Plus, this does mean that we get to see how Hercules deals with having a case of the crabs, which is to say let it grab him in a claw and pull his swift sword down toward its soft mouth parts. A swift stab and we are back to our cover attraction, the hydra.

And at this point Joe Gill realizes he’s written himself into a corner with this “can’t cut off the center head” thing that also wasn’t in the original myth, so he does the sensible thing. Make up some BS about the head can be cut off if Herc is standing on a boulder taller than the monster. 

I mean I guess that makes sense…

…but naw, not really.

This however doesn’t appear to finish the creature as Hercules notes that the head can’t be burned and it still won’t die, meaning the hydra’s head will just end up growing a new body. The only method of preventing that is for Herc to smoosh it with a huge boulder so that the head is not only crushed, but also trapped for all eternity.

And we end this tenth labor with Mars’ line echoing like a poorly timed joke that only underscores the odder moments in this book.

As a backup feature, the book also contains part 10 of a story called Thane of Bagarrh, which opens with this two page introduction that explain that he is a Geat who was injured by his own people and left for dead in the land of the Celts. The Leader of the band of roving Celts takes pity on him and give him a place in their tribe, even though they don’t know that he is Thane of Bagarrh, whatever the heck that is even. But okay, whatever. We have early Jim Aparo art with possibly Gill doing the writing. Seems understandable.

And then I turn the page…

…to find time-traveling bald businessman floating his way through the time stream. At this very moment the story has begun to lose me. There is a jarring feeling that I don’t know what’s going on, however I continue to read hoping this ties into the stuff from the prior page.

Thus, I am unsurprised when out Future Man arrives in a medieval English landscape. This would fit in with the prior pages setting. I assume he will bump into Thane on the next page.

But NO! We end up following two OTHER characters, warrior Eadstan and this young blonde woman who looks to be dressed in modern-ish clothes. Could she also be from the future?

The warrior figures his fighters fled once they though him slain in battle and he mentions returning the young lass to her homeland. Again, I wonder if she’s from the future. Not a clue from her though, she’s as mute as a post.

And on the last page I figured we were going to see our red-headed Thane of Bagarrh, but instead we get this brunette who appears to be evil and appears to have taken the title of Thane of Bagarrh sad because the guy one page back appears to be slain in battle, but THEN deciding maybe he can use that fact to increase his own power before giving one of those I’m evil and I smell farts faces in the final panel listing the name of the NEXT installment. 

I’ve read this three times and I don’t know what to make of it. Doubtless the prior nine parts might have helped, but I’m not certain they would have completely made it clear. As it is, that whole of it is a muddle. It is fun to pronounce Bagarrh, however.

So, the back seven pages notwithstanding, Hercules was a fun ride while it lasted. True, the graphics are dated and it isn’t trying half as hard as it could at staying close to the actual mythic tales, BUT it has that “Jason and the Argonauts feel to it. The sense that if it ever got boring the director would throw in a stop-motion beast to distract you for a few moments. Good fun!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Edge of Chaos #1

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Edge of Chaos #1

The master Gray Morrow serves up high-tech “magic”,
Olympian god-like aliens
And nipples.
Lots and lots of nipples.

"Edge of Chaos, part 1”
Writer – Gray Morrow
Penciller – Gray Morrow
Inker – Gray Morrow
Colorist – Gray Morrow
Letterer – Gray Morrow
Editor– David Scroggy
July 1983

How would you feel if you were a young, hot-shot comic artist who just arrive in New York City, met greats Al Williamson, Angelo Torres and Wally Wood, and then sold your first comic book story only to have the publishing company go out of business before it saw print? What if that exact same thing happened to the next two stories as well? Would you give up? Three strikes typically means you’re out in any ball game I know about.

Lucky for us that doesn’t hold true for the comic book game, and that the young man in my hypothetical didn’t give up. His name was Gray Morrow and he went on to draw for Marvel, before and after it took the name Marvel, EC Comics, DC and all the greats. He holds a spot in history as the man who co-created Marvel’s muck-monster Man-Thing and the old west DC hero El Diablo. Morrow did all that and much, much more. He has a bibliography longer than most people’s arms. Morrow contributed to possibly every major and minor publishing house you’ve ever seen and quite possibly many you haven’t.

Most shocking to me was that he had illustrated a paperback of Roger Zelazny stories that the author adapted just for the graphic novel format. The Illustrated Roger Zelazny, it was called and I’m awaiting my copy from Amazon. He drew for both Archie Comics and for Heavy Metal and for National Lampoon as well as Warren Publishing. And with such a prolific list of titles, you know something of his was bound to fall into the Crapbox (actually, many pieces have but this is the first one that we’ve decided to cover the breadth of Morrow’s work).

He is a great artist and as this book shows, a decent writer. A bit too wordy, but he spins a good tale and I’m pleased with the starting of this three-issue fantasy tale Edge of Chaos. There is one glaring error that we have to talk about though.Let’s dive on in and see what’s shaking…

Morrow begins his tale in an intriguing way, with these prehistory tridactyl riders dropping a dead body in the middle of a high-tech floating city. Ruling members of the city come out and place blame for this incident on someone named Moloch who had defeated their champion “again.”

It’s a good cold open, giving the reader the name of the villain, Moloch; the basic understanding of the plot, that the residents of this city will be picking a champion to face this against him in some kind of contest or quest; and piquing our interest at what the stakes of this endeavor, which has cost multiple lives already, might be. This has all the makings of a great story.

Then we turn the page and it starts. This is Morrow’s tale and he does a good job of creating characters, maintain an intriguing plot, and developing an interesting setting. The one issue he has is dialogue. And it isn’t so much the actual contents of the word balloons, but their number and frequency. 

Page two isn’t so bad as far as this book goes. We get the feeling these characters are a couple of letters removed from Greek or Roman Gods. Here we have a Zeus or Jupiter-type leader talking with a Hermes or Mercury-like messenger.  The name Mercurio seems a derivation of Mercury, so I guess we go Roman? The setting and what they are discussing sounds like Star Trek: The Next Generation technobabble, what with their chromosphere pulling someone through time, but their dress and speech belies a more mythic type setting. As for the object their device seeks to yank back to them…

…meet Eric Cleese, a business man who has taken a sabbatical and now spends his days on the open seas challenging himself in various mental and physical ways. Unfortunately, he’s about to play in a contest against the sea itself in stormy contest that he will lose…badly.

So, it is fortunate for Eric that at that precise moment he is targeted by our hosts from ancient times to be yanked from the present back to the dawn of recorded history…

The method of his transport is not without some discomfort.

But it ends up near this half-naked goddess and her chariot with flying horses offering a ride to Zaeus (I guess you need to change that to Greek gods with the appearance of a “Zeus”). She offers him a ride in what she calls “something in appearance more familiar to you as a mode of travel” to which Eric replies sarcastically. When she realizes he is making fun of the chariot…

…she swiftly changes its appearance to reflect the true nature of the vehicle they are in, a flying car without wings, props, or jet engines. Eric again asks where they are headed, to which our hostess answers Aviana or otherwise known as Olympus. When she confirms her name is Deona, which Eric pronounces as Diana, I throw up my hands because by using a Roman name Morrow is refusing to get buttoned down to using one or the other naming conventions for these high-tech gods.

Then Eric meets with the rest of these god-like beings and does so with a tone that is irreverent and jokey, setting his character up as taking nothing seriously. Here he’s been plucked out of the sea where he was doomed to drown, awoken on a beach by a beautiful half-naked woman, taken in a flying car that magically changes appearance to a flying Mount Olympus to meet sky-gods, and not to mention that he appears to have changed from a regular-sized guy to someone more in line with the Rock. I get that he’s thinking he has died and gone to heaven or is dreaming all this, so that mocking tone is understandable but telling of Eric’s personality.

We then move on to Zaeus explaining how we got here in dramatic detail and I come upon my one complaint of this story. It isn’t a substantive one, but more of an aesthetic gripe. The book has a great deal of setting building going on in these panels, so the overuse of word balloons is almost forgivable here. However there are many pages where this is the same ratio of talking to pictures and I find it unbalanced.

The sad part is that Morrow writes a good story. All this high-tech alien gods mixing and experimenting with primitive humans to make up deviant races and aberrations we know of only from mythology is a fun, inventive backstory. I love everything in those word balloons, including the words themselves. Morrow writes great prose and does so with style. The issue is how much of the art is sacrificed for these speech bubbles.

But unfortunately, you are looking at what the balance of art-to-dialogue will be for the rest of the book.

I mean who couldn’t love a story about aliens that have to make amends for twisting humanity while introducing more warlike elements in man. For their society asking them to use a human vessel to set things right and make atonement for taking humanity down the wrong path. And I have not problem with the actual dialogue itself even. The word choices are evocative and fun to read. There are very few edits I’d make to the text itself, but it tends to over-shadow the art it accompanies. And Morrow’s art isn’t something I want to see covered up by a huge word bubbles. 

That joke about Diana leaning over with one boob hanging out is GREAT stuff! and exactly what I’m talking about. The dialogue and narration work. The issue is with the balance of these elements in this book. Someone (the editor) should have sat down with Morrow and asked him to drag this thing out to 5-6 issues. To take more time, draw larger panels with fewer on the page. To give an equal footing to his art and his storytelling skills. This is GOOD, don’t get me wrong. But I think we missed something EXCEPTIONAL here. Something blow your socks off and love till the day your die GRAND story. 

And for that I’m extremely saddened. Because Morrow is a great storyteller and this is a fun, exciting, and wonderful story.

We learn that baddy Moloch’s one wish is to restore life to his dead lover and that Eric’s choices could change the shape of reality and the destiny of all mankind. 

And while the god-like aliens can only help him so much, they have endowed our hero with a strength capable of…

… yanking two full grown centaurs into the room without breaking a sweat. 

Eric wakes the next morning a bit shocked to find himself still in the past and in the muscle-bound body. He is taken by Diana to the Seaport of Thole to recruit helpers. The way Diana dresses, they should have plenty of men looking to apply.

And while she explains how limited the god’s help will be from this point forward, I find it funny that Eric is wearing more coverings than she is. It is just such an odd design choice for this story. The pair turn into a wine shop when Eric gets upset as a way of alleviating his stress at the situation.

Once inside this establishment, we see that this Earth is habituated by all sorts of different creatures from both mythology and pre-history as well as evolutionary offshoots we’ve never seen and this bartender…

…who gets on Diana’s nerves very quickly. She dispatches him with a spell that makes his nose do a Pinocchio. Which she then says isn’t really a “spell” so much as a psychic mental whammy, which would explain how she changed the look of the flying car earlier in this issue.

At about this time, we hear two strangers about to get into trouble for not paying their bar tab. 

They end up being a caveman and some kind of evolved baboon. The pair square off against the giant-sized and inhuman-looking bouncer after their payment of bones and teeth is rejected as not real money. Guess I shouldn’t ask if this place takes bitcoin?

At Diana’s prodding, Eric jumps into the fight too and his enhanced skills get him tossed across the room by a blow from the big bruiser. In Eric’s enhanced condition, all that does is make him very, very angry.

When someone confronts him about payment for the drinks his impromptu flight knocked over, Eric tosses the guy over his shoulder and wades into the swiftly developing bruhaha. These two pages are some of the better weighted art-to-speech pages and I wish the entire book were designed in accordance with these. Love the shots of Eric in action.

When all is said and done, Diana pays for the damages and arranges for the two new acquaintances, Slag the Neanderthal and Flan the baboon-man, to join Eric on his quest.

As they go to arrange mounts for the trip Eric will have to take, he seizes the opportunity to tell Diana that he has feeling for her and she admits a somewhat overpowering attraction to him as well. However, a brief nipple rubbing together is all she will allow as Eric has to set things right for all humanity with their alien governing council. More fraternizing would only create additional troubles for the alien-god people.

And the book ends on this bit, a punchline that I did NOT see coming but should have been obvious since page one. The proto men try to say Eric’s name, but mispronounce it in a very specific way…

…yes: Eric Cleese turns into Hera-cleese or Heracles from the Greek or Hercules from the Roman in the mouths of his two companions. That was a surprise to me.

And the book’s jokey tone continues as Flan discusses “Hera-Clees’s” great god of excrement that he is prone to invoke at odd moments. I got tickled by that. In fact I got tickled with much of the contents of this story. Morrow had dynamite in a bottle here. Sad that PC didn’t market it better and it didn’t become a huge success. As it is, it slipped out of sight and barely even receives a mention on Wikipedia.

I will say this, the book really packed in the page count for a single dollar. Even though that was a bit on the high side, we only have two pages of ads and we get 31 pages of story. The first 23 are “Edge of Chaos” and the back eight are this tale by Don Lomax called The Redeeming Strain. Set up like a Twilight Zone episode, the stand-alone story follows this research scientist in this remote lab who is desperately trying to finish one last experiment before he dies…

Lomax isn’t known for science fiction tales, spending most of his effort on war comics, specifically true or historical fiction tales centering around the Vietnam era. Don Lomax was a veteran of that conflict and it is kind of a treat to see him doing something different than his long-running Vietnam Journal, writing the last 14 or so issues of Marvel’s The ‘Nam book, or one of his other war related comics. He has a distinctive artistic style that makes this simple one-off a bit special.

The scientist has two different civilizations cultured and surviving on two different microscope slides. He places them beside each other and allows the peaceful, agrarian Blues to meet that warlike, strong Reds.

The Reds draw first blood killing and wounding several Blues from the distance created by the gap in the two cultures. The Reds do this to appease their solitary queen who rules with an iron fist.

All but two of the Blues believe the Reds just misunderstood their actions. They seek to contact them in peace. The two Blues who don’t see things that way, prepare for a much different kind of meeting. 

The Reds hastily build a rope bridge and cross into the Blue’s territory, slaughtering all the Blues they find. 

When the two Blue see their friends all killed they respond by murdering a handful of the Reds.

The Reds react with cowardice except for their leader who meets the male Blue in one-on-one combat. But the scientist intervenes at this point, using a hammer to break them out of their isolated environment.

As the Red and Blue appraise each other from the gap once again separating them, the camera pulls back to review that perhaps this is a research facility in the Rocky Mountains of an Earth blasted by nuclear war.

Interesting tale and Lomax’s pencils are a treat to behold.

My rating on this is super, super high. Even with Morrow’s tendency to cover up his own art with word balloons, there is a great story here with lots of humor and action and beautiful pencilwork. As well, if Pacific Comics keeps filling up the pages to 31 pieces of art and story, these books are a bargain at double cover price. Find these!