Throwback Thursday: early 1990’s “Aliens” and “Predator” comics.

I was chatting here with a friend last week about the “Aliens,” “Predator” and “Aliens vs. Predator” comics produced by Dark Horse Comics in the 1990’s.  While Marvel, DC and Image Comics all specialized in their superhero universes, Dark Horse tended to corner the market on hot properties in science fiction and horror.  (The company actually did try to compete by launching its own superhero line, but its unsuccessful “Comics’ Greatest World” universe lasted a mere three years.)

Dark Horse acquired the rights to the biggest science fiction movie characters of the first half of the decade, including “Aliens,” “Predator,” “Terminator,” “Robocop,” and “The Thing.”  It also produced great books in other genres too, like Frank Miller’s legendary “Sin City” series, Matt Wagner’s brilliant “Grendel,” and “Indiana Jones” comics.   (I never actually saw “Indiana Jones” on the shelves; the two retailers in my smallish Virginia college town never carried it.)

Perhaps strangely, I don’t remember any regular ongoing series for “Aliens,” “Predator” or “Aliens vs. Predator.”  Instead, the company published limited series on an ongoing basis.

Dark Horse had been a young company back then — it had started only four years earlier, in 1986.  But I’ll be damned if the people running the company didn’t know their stuff.  Not only did they snatch up big-name properties, they did a great job in producing consistently high-quality “Alien” and “Predator” books.  (Maybe “Aliens: Genocide” wasn’t as good as the other series, but it was really more average than flat-out bad.)  I honestly don’t know how they managed to publish such uniformly excellent comics that drew from a variety of creative teams.  The “Big Two,” Marvel and DC, produced their share of mediocre comics — even for tentpole characters or major storylines.  (See the “Batman” chapters of DC’s “Knightfall,” for example, or Marvel’s “Maximum Carnage” storyline for Spider-Man.)

Was Dark Horse’s track record better because their target audience was adults?  Did they just have really good editorial oversight?  Or did they maybe share such oversight with 20th Century Fox, which had a vested interest in its characters being capably handled?  I’m only guessing here.

I’ve already blathered on at this blog about how I loved “Aliens: Hive,” so I won’t bend your ear yet again.  An example of another terrific limited series was “Predator: Race War,” which saw the title baddie hunting the inmates of a maximum security prison.  And yet another that I tried to collect was “Aliens vs. Predator: the Deadliest of the Species.”  The series had a slightly annoying title because of it was a lengthy tongue twister, but, God, was it fantastic.  I think I only managed to lay hands on four or five issues, but the art and writing were just incredibly good.

Take a gander at the covers below — all except the first are from “The Deadliest of the Species.”  I think they are some of the most gorgeous comic covers I’ve ever seen, due in no small part to their composition and their contrasting images.  And I’ve seen a lot of comic covers.  I think the very last cover you see here, for Issue 3, is my favorite.

I would have loved to collect all 12 issues … I still don’t know how the story ended.  (It was partly a mystery, too.)  But at age 19, I absolutely did not have the organizational skills to seek out any given limited series over the course of a full year.

In fact, this title may well have taken longer than that to be released … Dark Horse did have an Achilles’ heel as a company, and that was its unreliable production schedule.  Books were frequently delayed.  To make matters worse, these were a little harder to find in the back issues bins.  (I don’t know if retailers purchased them in fewer numbers or if fans were just buying them out more quickly.)

I suppose I could easily hunt down all 12 issues of “The Deadliest of the Species” with this newfangled Internet thingy.  But part of being an adult is not spending a lot of money on comic books.  Maybe I’ll give myself a congratulatory present if I ever manage to get a book of poetry published.  Yeah … I can totally rationalize it like that.

 

 

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“Life’s” a bitch.

Or at least it is to the astronauts who make an abortive attempt to escort it back to Earth.  (They realize that bringing a Martian organism home is a bad idea in this year’s surprisingly satisfying science fiction-thriller.)

I actually had more fun with this than I expected; the movie is much faster paced and scarier than the trailer made it look.  There are some real surprises and moments of genuine horror here, following a requisite plot setup that is relatively brief.  It’s a really nice monster movie that should please fans of the genre.

I actually didn’t prefer its ending, which is something for which other reviewers are praising it a lot.   I’m disinclined to say more, for fear of spoilers.  The movie’s marketing already spoiled enough.  (The ads infuriatingly show the fate of a main character.)

I will say what the movie is not, however.

One, it’s not a stealth prequel for Sony’s planned 2018 “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Venom” (though that’s such a clever idea, I wish I’d thought of it).

Two, it’s not a ripoff of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).  Yes, it’s got the same MacGuffin, and some story parallels that I noticed early on.  But I like to think of this as a more grounded contemporary thriller, where “Alien” was a futuristic fantasy creature feature.  Besides, if we criticize every “haunted-house-in-space” movie as an “Alien” imitator, we won’t get more of them.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Debut of “Spawn” Comics (1992)

I remember greedily snapping up the first two issues of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic in the spring of 1992.  Comics fans were excited about it — it was the de facto flagship title of the newly created Image Comics, which was bringing its own ambitious interconnected comic book universe to the shelves to compete with “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.

There already was a competitive third major comic publisher — Dark Horse Comics.  But it had no successful superhero titles or shared universe; it instead was known for science fiction and horror comics.  I also remember seeing comics back then from the short-lived Valiant here and there — or maybe it was mostly ads in the Comic Shop News.  I didn’t know a single soul who read them, though.

McFarlane was nothing short of famous in the comic book fan community, after his broadly popular work on “Spider-Man.”  (I still love his unique style.)  And “Spawn” had an absolutely subversive flavor to it.  Its title anti-hero was nothing less than an agent of hell, and the comic revolved around hell, sin, damnation and various demons.  There was also far more violence and gore.

“Spawn” felt subversive, too, because of the impetus behind its creation.  Image Comics was launched by a group of artists who were unhappy with Marvel’s failure to grant them creative control over their work (or, according to the artists, proper merchandising royalties).  They included McFarlane, and fan-favorite artists Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, among others.

I don’t pretend to know how justified their complaints were, as I was only a fan and not an industry insider.  But they sound right … I’ve always heard that major comic companies have historically screwed over their creative talent with restrictive “work-for-hire” payment arrangements.  (This is why Stan Lee, creator of so many of Marvel’s first heroes, is not absurdly wealthy.)  The start of Image seemed to fans like their favorite artists rebelling against the status quo, and that was kind of exciting.

Some of McFarlane’s acrimony with Marvel was pretty overtly expressed in the pages of “Spawn.”  There was a weird, slightly confusing plot digression early on in which McFarlane editorialized heavily about creator-owned characters … Spawn actually visited a kind of purgatory where various leading Marvel and DC heroes were imprisoned.  It seems in retrospect like a labored and self-indulgent metaphor, and it detracted from the title’s story.  But the college kids then reading “Spawn” had never seen anything like it.  It was interesting at the time.  (Bear in mind, please, that this was before the Internet.)

I started picking it up regularly.  I was going to the comic shop that was on … George Street, I think, in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia.  There were only two comic shops in the downtown area in the early 1990’s — this one, and a seedy shop across from the Hardee’s on northern Princess Anne Street, in a tiny corner of a ramshackle, abandoned hotel.  There was a categorically unpleasant, batshit-insane woman staffing the latter – she was nasty to everyone who entered, and accused them of touching the merchandise.  (That part of Princess Anne Street has since been improved – I think the huge hotel building has since been renovated.)

As the “Spawn” title progressed, its fandom became firmly entrenched.  The art truly was fantastic, and of course it remains an incredibly successful group of comic properties today.  Over time, McFarlane’s critics also grew in number … no matter how gifted he was as an artist, fans said he wasn’t a terrific writer.  (And I do get what they’re saying.)  I will say this — the “Spawn” comics I was reading were a thousand times better than that weird movie adaptation in 1997.  I’ve only seen bits and pieces of that, but they were terrible bits and pieces.

I still think I’d have a great time perusing my back issues.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Spider-Man and Wolverine teamup in “Perceptions” (1991)

These were the first comics featuring Wolverine that I ever owned — the 1991 Spider-Man “Perceptions” storyline in which he guest-starred.  This had gorgeous, unique art by Todd McFarlane.  (I think he scripted it too.)

This would have been when I was a sophomore in college, and it was even before McFarlane would go on to form Image Comics and launch his most famous character, Spawn.

 

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A review of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016)

At the start of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016) I was worried that I was finally beginning to experience a degree of “viewer fatigue” in connection with the beloved franchise.  This would be the ninth film since the X-Men first hit the big screen in 2000, if you count this year’s “Deadpool,” and its somewhat formulaic setup felt by-the-numbers.  Once again, a diverse, earnest, international group of young people unite under Charles Xavier’s leadership to combat an even greater threat than the one presented by the last film.  (This time it’s “Apocalypse,” a Big Bad with truly godlike powers.)  And they save the day despite their youth, their inexperience, their self-doubt or the suspicions of a prejudiced humanity.)  How exciting can the arrival of Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) be if these were already key reveals in past movies?  And … the cameo?

There are script problems.  The whole thing is cluttered with too many major characters.  Many are thinly drawn; a few make inexplicable, major decisions that affect the plot.  Fan favorites like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) get too little attention to make their ardent fanbases happy, I think.  The villain looks like a middle-aged and particularly grumpy member of Blue Man Group.

And, yet … I still frikkin’ loved this.  I’d grudgingly give it a 9 out of 10, simply because I enjoyed it so much.  It’s the X-Men.  It’s a big-budget, globally staged smackdown with great special effects, and it was obviously made by people who love the source material and tried to stay true to it, despite its inevitably campy nature and its implausibility.  Characters like Havoc (Lucas Till) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are fun to watch.  (Am I the only one who nostalgically remembers the latter character from the 90’s comic books?)  There is even a really nice stab at self-referential humor poking fun at the earlier films.

This movie had two things going for it that really made me want to see it a second time around.  The first is Quicksilver.  The X-Men movies will probably never equal the skillfully made blockbusters of that other Marvel universe, but I’ll be damned if the franchise doesn’t totally beat them out in rendering this character.  (Yes, this is indeed the same character in the comics who inspired Scarlet Witch’s brother in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015).)  Evan Peters brings great charisma to the role; the special effects connected with his action sequences are beautiful and goddam perfect.  He’s easily cooler and more likable than any other teen superhero I can remember — and that includes Tom Holland’s excellent new Spider-Man.

The second thing that make me want to watch it again is the action sequences.  The finale is damn fun.  I think it must be difficult to write, stage, direct and physically perform a melee among a group of combatants with various superhuman abilities and varying degrees of power.  But the climax here works.  It’s an entertaining battle that feels like it was lifted perfectly from the comics, and it ought to please fans of the genre.

Anyway, I obviously do recommend this.  Check it out.

 

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My review of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

“Captain America: Civil War” (2016) is nearly everything I hoped it would be; it’s easily on par, if not better, than the first two “Avengers” movies.  (And I can’t help but think of this as the third “Avengers.”  Yes, Cap’s name is in the title, but this is necessarily an ensemble story about the divided superteam.)  I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

I honestly just need to be very vague in this review … this is such an eagerly awaited film, and I want to be extra cautious about spoilers.  No, there are no twists in the movie, but there are surprising character and plot elements.

The movie surprised me in a couple of ways.  One, this film appears to follow the original 2006 comic book crossover only very loosely.  (I have not read it, but I know the story.)  There is no “Superhero Registration Act” that would directly affect countless people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s much narrower than that — a demand by the United Nations for direct oversight of The Avengers.

Two, this is definitely the darkest and most adult outing with The Avengers so far.  Don’t get me wrong — the levity and gee-whiz comic book fun that is the MCU’s trademark is still there, and it’s no Christopher Nolan movie.  But the movie’s central story device is set in motion by the question of who should be held accountable for civilian deaths.  And so many individual major characters are motivated by grief or rage.

This is notable throughout the film, for example, in the characterization of Tony Stark, and his portrayal by Robert Downey, Jr.  He’s no longer a wisecracking billionaire playboy who all the guys want to be.  Instead, he’s a troubled, pensive leader who often seems out of his depth.  We watch as his team and the events surrounding him spin out of control, and we no longer want to trade places with him.  He’s more sympathetic.  But he simultaneously fails to engender the viewer loyalty that he so quickly and easily won in every other Marvel movie he’s appeared in.

And yet … he isn’t, as I had suspected, a cardboard adversary for Captain America’s underdog to stand up to.  There are some sad things going on in his life, both during the events of this movie and in “Iron Man 3” (2013), and his failings and poor decisions are perfectly understandable.  (I won’t say more, besides that viewers will definitely get a different spin on “Iron Man 3” after this movie.)  And Downey displays a great range in playing this far sadder Tony.

One character in the movie even makes a quip about “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and it feels like a meta reference, as that film is regarded as the darkest in the “Star Wars” original trilogy.  (And their are story structure similarities as well.)

But don’t get me wrong — “Captain America: Civil War” still brings loads of fun.  It’s an effects-laden, geeky, hero-against-hero, superteam gangfight that is straight out of every Marvel fan’s dreams.  (And, needless to say, it’s far better than its analog this year from DC.)  Tom Holland might be the best Spider-Man yet.  The action is damn pleasing, and the one-liners made me laugh out loud.  (“Made ya look.”)

The bromances (including the broken ones) seemed real to me.  I found myself liking and caring about … Winter Soldier, of all people, and I kept hoping things worked out with his friendship with Cap.  (Sebastian Stan impressed me in the role for the first time.)

What didn’t I like?  Well, I had some small criticisms.  I submit that Black Panther was a complete misfire.  The character concept is boring (he’s an African Bruce Wayne), he seems like an ethnic caricature, and he absolutely is shoehorned into the plot.  When his tough female subordinate physically threatens Black Widow, he smugly opines that a fight between them “would be amusing.”  It felt creepy and sexualized, and maybe like something out of a 1970’s blaxploitation film.  He’s also pretty blandly played by Chadwick Boseman.

Spiderman, too, seems shoehorned in as fan service.  I loved seeing him in the movie, but i wish he’d been written in differently.  (Would Stark really recruit a highschooler to combat seasoned soldiers, one of whom is a superpowered psychotic assassin?)

Next is a criticism that is just a matter of personal taste.  I myself would have preferred a movie that was even darker.  Just think for a minute about the basic story.  We have civilian casualties driving the world’s governments to seek control over its superheroes — then the heroes themselves fighting each other with what must at least be considered possibly deadly force.

That’s a story pretty much brimming over with pathos, if you ask me.  But the movie underplays those plot elements considerably.  We hardly see the civilian casualties that are supposed to drive the plot — and when we do, they’re glimpsed briefly in news footage.  And all but three of the heroes (Tony, Black Panther and Winter Soldier) display any of the anger or sense of betrayal that you would expect from a violent “civil war” among former friends.  And it is violent … members of either faction fire missiles at, or try to crush, their opponents.  Does the MCU’s characteristic banter belong anywhere here?

Finally, this could have been an idea-driven movie like the latter two “Dark Knight” films.  But only Cap and Iron Man seem to genuinely fight about ideology.  Others fight according to personal or professional loyalty, personal revenge, or just because they are a “fan” of either Cap or Tony.  And neither does the script articulate their positions especially well.  Wouldn’t it be perfectly in character for Cap to quote Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin?  “Those who would exchange their liberty for a little temporary safety” and all that?

Oh, well.  I’m probably asking too much from a superhero movie.

This was a hell of a lot of fun.  Go see it.

 

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“The … Stalking Dead?” (A review of “Daredevil” S2E1)

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ONE SPOILER.]  So the fantastic John Bernthal is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Punisher,” debuting (however briefly) in the first episode of Netflix’ “Daredevil” Season 2.  I just know that there is a great “Walking Dead” joke hiding around here somewhere; but I can’t seem to put my finger on it …  (Something about … Blind Grimes?  Disabled Rick?  Daredevil can’t see “stuff?”  Or “thangs?”)  You people work that out for me.

Bernthal’s arrival is dream casting, every bit as perfect as bagging the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr. as the MCU’s Iron Man.  Even though the actor speaks only a single word, it’s goddam beautiful.

That’s one of the better things about Season 2’s first outing, which, for me, fell into the category of “good, but not great.”  (I’d still give it an 8 out of 10, and I feel certain the season will get better.)  What we see in S2E1 is mostly setup.  The episode clearly tried to introduce tension by grooming the Punisher as a frightening antagonist, with limited success.  Even casual Marvel fans know that Frank Castle is a good guy, and nothing close to a Big Bad.  Yes, he’s an anti-hero who fatally shoots villains, and will be a foil for Matt Murdock’s Boy Scout restraint (as he was in the comics, back in the day).

But I doubt that the Punisher can be made scary or truly tension-inducing.  (Are we afraid of Wolverine?)  We know that his shoot-em-up tactics won’t leave Daredevil dead.  (This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or TWD.)  And I’d guess that most viewers, like me, aren’t too emotionally invested in this show’s minor characters.  (The only exception would be the quite interesting and three-dimensional Karen Page, still wonderfully portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll.)  Hell, I think the show would be better if the painfully annoying Foggy Nelson were made an early casualty.  Finally, if the show stays true to the original comics, then the Punisher has that most sympathetic of “origin stories” — a murdered nuclear family.

Both the Punisher and Bernthal have such devoted fanbases that a lot of viewers will probably root for him against Matt.  (Our very own Blog Correspondent Len Ornstein, for example, was known for firmly being on “Team Shane” for TWD.)  Looking back at my fervent comic-collecting days in the 1990’s, I seem to recall the Punisher having a far bigger fan following.  He was a mercenary and Vietnam veteran who simply shot up whatever corner of the Marvel Comics universe to which his quarry had tried in vain to escape.  Fans compared him to DC Comics’ iconic cash cow, Batman.  Matt Murdock, on the other hand, had niche appeal.  He was a liberal superhero if there ever was one — a Columbia-educated defense attorney who employed nonfatal force, and who fought for the “everyday man on the street.”  He was like a grownup, thoughtful, socially conscious Spider-Man.  If ever there was a comic book hero who would join the American Civil Liberties Union, it was Daredevil.

Moving forward, I think that Netflix will need an altogether different adversary than Castle to raise the stakes emotionally, and bring suspense to its second season.  Maybe the show will accomplish that with Elektra, who we know will also appear.  (And fans of the comics know that this integral character has far greater implications for our hero.)

The new season’s inaugural episode might have been slightly better if it had been tweaked elsewhere, as well.  Much ominous language is devoted to characterizing the Punisher as a killer with military proficiency.  We kinda don’t see that.  The largest action set piece shows no precision or professionalism, just a room full of gangsters being hosed down by gunfire from an offscreen shooter.  And while the sequence itself was dramatic, it seemed like something that could have been perpetrated by a (very well armed) street gang in a drive-by shooting.

We also see some of the dialogue problems that were so evident in the first season — as superb as the screenwriters are, they don’t do casual conversation among friends very well.  There’s the same forced banter and an embarrassing lack of chemistry among the three lead protagonists, this time on display during an awkwardly staged after-work barroom pool game.  (It’s particularly puzzling because Woll and Charlie Cox are both very good actors.)  This show scripts its villains, petty crooks and adversaries with such flair — why does it seem to fail so often with friendly conversation?  And why bother with these strange attempts at Scooby-Gang camaraderie in the first place?  I think it’s a weird creative choice.  These are serious characters leading serious lives.  It seems implausible to me that they should be so frequently upbeat anyway.

Hey — if I’m nitpicking a lot here, it’s only because I love the show, and consequently hold it to a very high standard.  It really is the best superhero adaptation on television.  My review of last season was absolutely glowing, and I honestly think that Season 2 will be just as good.  If you haven’t checked out “Daredevil” yet, you ought to.

 

 

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