Wednesday, May 31, 2017

This & That: Alpha Flight #15 and 16!

Martinex1: Welcome everybody!   Today Redartz and I are going to jump into some late Bronze Age greatness with a review of Alpha Flight #15 and 16 from the Summer of 1984!

Redartz:  I've been looking forward to reading this story; any opportunity to enjoy John Byrne at his creative best is one to be relished! Alpha Flight was one of the last titles I started collecting before dropping out of comics; I only bought the first dozen and sold them after a single reading. So rediscovering the book was anticipated. And I wasn't disappointed. This tale was jam-packed - packed with story and packed with great visuals.

Martinex1:  I agree it was fun to jump back into Alpha Flight.  I definitely had forgotten more than I remembered, so the rediscovery was much like reading it for the first time.  We will get into the details, but it is definitely a Bronze Age gem that sometimes is overlooked. 

Redartz: To start, here is the (approximately) 200 word synopsis (100 words for each issue, natch!). Which, I might add, is a bit challenging, as there is so much going on in these issues. Anyway, the gist of it all:

Issue 15:  Puck and Marrina have arrived at Lake Ontario to investigate a series of gruesome killings. Putting her aquatic talents to use, Marrina enters the lake. Puck, worriedly waiting above,  is shocked when Marrina eventually returns, but in a beastly rage. They battle, but said fight is interrupted by the Sub-Mariner (seeking Marrina, for whom he is carrying a torch). Namor initially attacks Puck, believing him a threat to Marrina.  However, she attacks Namor, blinding him, and he falls at the touch of another new arrival: the Master. Additionally, there are subplots ongoing involving Snowbird, Aurora, Shaman and his daughter. 

Issue 16:  Namor and Puck awaken, trapped within the Master's 'fish sub'. The Master explains how he captured Marrina to join her with (surprise) another member of her race, which happens to be a genetic monstrosity bred to destroy and conquer. Puck feigns his own death, allowing him to escape the tube and free Namor. They then free Marrina (who had been busily occupied doing questionable things with the monster). Unfortunately the monster wrecks the sub, which sinks. Puck can't breathe water, so Namor expels Marrina and rushes Puck to the surface as the sub explodes.  No sign remains of the Master, and Namor leaves without her (she is hiding undercover). Plus, subplots with Bochs, Heather Hudson, and Logan.

Martinex1:  The story that culminated in these issues actually started in the previous issue with many citizens gone missing and Heather and Puck themselves jumping in when a baby is snatched from a stroller by a slimy-tentacled but mostly unseen sea creature.  Issue 14 had a lot of set-up and drama, and I found it fascinating how many pages were spent with characters discussing deeper aspects of their lives, the team, and the politics.   It culminated with Heather Hudson being injured by the creature and leading to Puck taking an offensive stance at the beginning of #15.

Redartz: Thanks, Marti! That explains a few things. And now, a few initial impressions: Loved the covers, especially the one for issue 15. Something about orange backgrounds that appeals to me. Don't ask why...

Martinex1:  I agree.  Byrne had complete control over the design with Alpha Flight and I thought he did a nice job capturing the main event in each comic.  Here is a sample of a cover for #16 that he did not use. 

Redartz: Wonder why they didn't go with that cover? Looks mighty impactful (is that a word?) to me. And the story: wow!  That's a lot of dialogue, text, and story content. Quite a 'meaty' read, and Byrne really gives you your 60 cents worth. Another thing that struck me: for a superhero comic, a great deal of the drama takes place with no characters in costume; these subplots primarily fill the gaps in the action. Which is fine; it helps develop the characters as individuals apart from their public identities. You saw some of that in X-Men stories, but I'd say Byrne took it further here with the Alphas.
Martinex1:  That seemed to be a very conscious approach to Alpha Flight.  In the early issues, it did not seem like a typical team book at all with just one or two characters spotlighted in each issue. There were numerous winding subplots with just hints of what was to come many issues down the road.   The stories mingled and weaved into a much larger plot that would eventually include the whole team, but much of the interest was in what developed outside of the costumes and battles.

Redartz: Great observation, Marti. I've noticed those threads twining through several other issues I've read as well. And regarding this tale, the main storyline is a good solid superhero battle. You cannot go wrong with the Sub-Mariner, and Byrne handles him well. Namor's characterization was spot on; impetuously attacking Puck (punch first, ask questions later). Yet his nobility was also in evidence, as he quickly came to respect the man. 

Martinex1: As you know, Namor is one of my favorite characters mainly because he is not perfect.  He is pompous and headstrong but also caring and determined.   Much of his mood in my opinion is based on tragedy and loss, and here with Marrina he is yet again undergoing a traumatic event with somebody he loves.   I think Byrne understands that motivation.

Redartz: I found the Master to be a fairly effective villain; his exploitation of Marrina was positively creepy. It did seem, though, that he was easily fooled by Puck's charade in escaping the tube. Perhaps he failed to read chapter three in the Villain's Manual, "Playing Possum". 

Martinex1:  Ha! Yes that is a good point.  The Master was essentially created for Alpha Flight and I think he could have been interesting.   I am not sure if Byrne wanted the Master to be their Dr. Doom, but he did a lot to develop the villain's long history and origin of pain and torture.  Essentially he was evolved from a caveman through cruel centuries-long experimentation and physical manipulation by aliens.   I thought his hideous appearance behind the mask may have been a bit cliché, but I still was interested in his weird evolutionary origin.

Redartz: It was heartbreaking to see all that Marrina went through in these issues. and the ending didn't make me feel any better. Byrne does create some sympathetic heroes in this title; I really liked Puck, and Marrina, and the others from what little they appeared here. Indeed, the subplots reinforced the need to read the whole series. There's a fairly large cast here.

Martinex1: Yes there is.   We barely touch on Shaman and his daughter Talisman, Snowbird, Heather Hudson, and Bochs this issue and there is much to dive into.  This was around the point in time that I really started liking Puck's character.  He displayed significant leadership skills here, strategizing while also remaining significantly sympathetic toward Marrina.   He filled many roles from confidante to rescuer, and he was interesting throughout.   And I agree that the subplots drew me further into the mythos.  I ended up very curious as to what was going on with Snowbird, Shaman, and the rest.

Redartz: Turning to the art:  Wonderful. Byrne is Byrne, at his best. And Bob Wiacek does a fine job with the inks. I love the splash page in issue 15, "Blind Date". Byrne does cityscapes exceptionally well. And the scene (shown above) where Marrina dives into the lake and descends over the course of four pages is beautifully done. The monochrome aspect really got the claustrophobic, watery impression across (kudos also to Andy Yanchus' fine coloring). The scenes later inside the Master's sub were also nicely depicted. Plenty (but not too much) of detail, and solid composition. Incidentally, I did think the sub looked a little goofy. A fish sub, really? Oh, and one other comment on the visuals: Marinna's costume was very cool, but one wonders if those sleeves would get tangled easily...

Martinex1: Wiacek did a nice job. I think Byrne is always better when he does not ink his own pencils, and I think Wiacek was solid on these pages adding some nice texture.   I was so torn on the fish submarine; at first I thought it was ridiculous, but I really do appreciate the nostalgic feel and that something so crazy can only happen in comics.   I was going to have it in both my "good" and "ugly."
Redartz: The Good: John Byrne's artwork. These issues are loaded with eye candy. It reminds me why JB is my favorite Bronze Age artist. In particular, the 'Marrina diving sequence'. I just keep going back to that. Superb.

Martinex1:  I agree on the artwork;  Byrne has sometimes been criticized for a lack of detail or backgrounds, but look at the panels we have shared.   This book is crammed with great detailed art.  I would also add to the "good" the spaghetti trail of subplots.   The books had so much depth (pun intended).   Plus the Sub-Mariner and a fish sub.  Ha.

Redartz: The Bad:  I'm at a loss here. Only one very minor complaint, that it would have been nice to see more of the others. Yet considering the story, that's not even an issue. 

Martinex1:  I have to go with the Master.  Above I said he had potential, but at the very end he was reduced to predictability and despite the fact that he built a fish sub and devised this intricate alien-mating-evolutionary plot, he was defeated rather easily.

Redartz: The Ugly:  The monster in the sub. That image where the creature has absorbed a baby and 'grown' a baby's face is chillingly awful. 

Martinex1:  That was horrific and knowing it was that missing baby from the previous issue made it truly disturbing.   I actually did not like that aspect at all.   Also, in retrospect I did not really enjoy what was done to Marrina as a character.   The combination of victimization and villainizing the heroine seemed a little off.  I would have liked to see her defeat the Master.   Perhaps I am quibbling and perhaps it is good that the book made me consider that, but it left a strange residual feeling.

Redartz: In short, this was a fine late Bronze age tale, well told and well drawn. The book is even better than I remembered it. Now I simply must complete Byrne's run, at any rate...

Martinex1:  It may seem from my final comments - the "ugly" -  that I did not like this book, but it is quite the opposite.  I found it quite compelling reading and I think John Byrne was writing well at the time.  The approach was not like anything else Marvel was churning out at the time, and despite Alpha Flight not having a lasting impact on the Marvel Universe, this was a very good run.  Cheers all!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Follow The Leader: Episode 23: Bored to Tears with These Characters!

Martinex1: With 22 episodes already in the bag, and previous topics ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to misheard song lyrics to Hammer Films to the worst Beatles' tunes, I think you know what to do every Tuesday.  So challenge us with a new topic for Follow the Leader!   Cheers!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Chew the Fat: Heroes in Uniform: Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury, and Combat Comics

Redartz:  Greetings everyone, and salutations on this Memorial Day (US). On this weekend we honor those who have served so gallantly in the armed forces. In this spirit, today we will look at some of Marvel and DC's 'war comics'. This is a genre of comics I'm admittedly less familiar with. I've read a few Sgt. Fury stories. From DC, I've read some Sgt. Rock stories, "Haunted Tank", "The Losers" and "Enemy Ace". Therefore my comments will be brief, and I trust all of you to further educate me on these comics.

From my very limited exposure to these comics, I have noticed a general difference in tone between the companies (and this may not be accurate, so all of you who have read these stories are free to correct me here). Marvel's war books seem to be fairly straightforward battle/combat issues, heavy on action. DC's books, to my eye, have a somewhat darker, more thoughtful feel. That may be a reflection of the team of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert, who produced most of the DC war stories I've seen.

Plus, in the case of Marvel's Sgt. (and later Col.) Nick Fury, the character has been deeply involved with many other elements of the Marvel Universe. He was an early crossover  in  "Fantastic Four", he met Captain America, and of course later was involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. Over at DC, although their battle veterans have made numerous appearances (Sgt. Rock teaming with Batman in Brave and the Bold, Enemy Ace appeared in Justice League), they don't seem to have the same prominent level of involvement. They seem almost to occupy their own 'pocket universe' all their own.  

At any rate, the writing and art in many of these books is striking.  Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, and Gary Freidrich were among Marvel's battle writers, and Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, and John Severin drew many of those stories. For DC, Kanigher and Kubert were a great combo. with more fine art from the likes of Mort Drucker, Russ Heath and Severin. All well worth a look. And this reader shall: as the years pile up on this Bronze ager, my comics tastes have widened greatly. As much as I love those costumed heroes, it's been rewarding to explore other genres too. Many of these stories (particulary the Kanigher/Kubert) give the reader some fodder for serious thought. That has to be good...

And now, let's look at some covers: 

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