The Incredible Hulk: What Savage Beast

By Peter David, illustrated by George Pérez (Boulevard/Putnam Books)
ISBN: 0-399-14104-9

After a few abortive attempts in the 1960s and a more strategic attempt at the end of the 1970’s Marvel once more tried to move onto the prose bookshelves in the 1990s with a select series of hardback novels. To my mind the most successful of these was this hefty tome from Peter David, who had the advantage of being a prolific genre novelist (most notably of Star Trek adventures) and the current scripter for the Incredible Hulk comicbook.

The plot actually spun out of and referenced contemporary Hulk continuity and featured a Green Goliath that possessed Bruce Banner’s intellect, married to his long-term sweetheart Betty, and on the run from the US military. Whilst in hiding an aged psychologist “cures” the monster-afflicted scientist and Betty falls pregnant with twins, but when they are delivered their benefactor is revealed as the Maestro, a sick and twisted version of Banner from an apocalyptic future (first seen in the 1992 miniseries Hulk: Future Imperfect) who kidnaps one of the infants and returns to his Ghastly world of Tomorrow.

Desperate and traumatised, Banner turns to his friend Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, who provides a way to follow, but due to unforeseen circumstances he arrives two decades late: his son is now a heartless brute in the manner of the Maestro, and worse yet the abortive rescue mission has given the sadistic monster a method of plundering the time stream and alternate dimensions. Not only is Banner too late but now he must face an army of Hulks from divergent timelines to stop his future self from ravaging all of time and space…

Sharp and well-crafted, this tale is constructed in such a way that continuity-addicts can easily slot it into their preferred universal construct, whilst casual readers can simply enjoy an above-average time-travel yarn featuring a character they may or may not know from TV. Moreover this page turner is liberally illustrated by George Pérez, who drew the aforementioned Hulk miniseries. This is a solid example of how comics books can transfer to prose and perhaps a reason why they should…
© 1995 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Hero Alliance: End of the Golden Age

By Kevin Juaire, David Campiti, Ronald Lim & Mike Witherby (Pied Piper Press)

Less a recommendation, and more a cautionary tale for would-be publishing moguls, Hero Alliance materialised in the wake of “superhero realism” as defined by Watchmen and Marvelman/Miracleman, as an increasing number of creators attempted to rationalize fights ‘n’ tights sturm und drang with our plebian world of hemorrhoids, bad breath and fallen arches. As with so many of these enthusiastic and well-meaning homage/pastiches, a surfeit of lawyers and paucity of luck and determination derailed and ended a series with a great deal of potential before it really got started – although with over 25 assorted issues from three publishers, it got a lot further than most.

The story itself concerns an immortal Superman analogue dubbed Victor who has suffered debilitating guilt pangs since his arrogance and negligence allowed an arch enemy to murder his superhero team The Guardsmen. Now years later his own mentor Golden Guardsman has been murdered and splendid isolationism doesn’t seem that great an idea…

Approached by the Golden Guardsman’s daughter Kris he discovers that her brother murdered the aged hero stealing his helmet of power and going on a brutal rampage. Victor can no longer remain aloof and decides to establish a new band of heroes, giving them the mentoring and guidance they’ll need to survive in a hostile modern world…

Very much a generic take on a generic genre, there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this slim tome (other than the costumes and hairdos – but I’ve lived through flared trousers and poodle perms twice so anything can be endured if you just try), with some intriguing ideas and a few clever twists of all the old set pieces – as you’d expect with an editor like Marvel veteran Roger McKenzie at he helm.

The art is more than competent and Lim and Witherby are assisted by Bart Sears, Rick J. Bryant, Craig Brasfield and Mark Pacella, which gives the tale a powerful aura of tension and drama. Cursed with troubled production, the series that spun off from this book had a lot going for it too, but was swamped in an avalanche of similar product that came out of that period’s self-publishing boom. Perhaps it’s time for a comprehensive collection – if everybody concerned has finally decided who owns what…
™ & © 1986 Kevin Juaire and David Campiti. All rights reserved.

Solar, Man of the Atom: Second Death

By Jim Shooter, Don Perlin, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton & Tom Ryder (Valiant)

During the market-led, gimmick-crazed frenzy of the 1990s amongst the interminable spin-offs, fads, shiny multiple-cover events a new comics company revived some old characters and proved once more that good story-telling never goes out of fashion. As Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter had made Marvel the most profitable and high-profile they had ever been, and after his departure he used that writing skill and business acumen to transform some almost forgotten Silver-Age characters into contemporary gold.

Western Publishing had been a major player since comics’ earliest days, blending a huge tranche of licensed titles such as TV and Disney titles, Tarzan, or the Lone Ranger with homegrown hits like Turok, Son of Stone and Space Family Robinson. In the 1960s during the camp/superhero boom these original adventure titles expanded to include, Brain Boy, M.A.R.S. Patrol Total War (created by Wally Wood), Magnus, Robot Fighter (by the incredible Russ Manning) and in deference to the atomic age of heroes, Nukla and the brilliant Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom. Despite supremely high quality and passionate fan-bases, they never captured the media spotlight of DC or Marvel’s costumed cut-ups. Western shut up their comics division in 1984.

With an agreement to revive some, any or all of these four-colour veterans, Shooter and co-conspirator Bob Layton came to a bold decision and made those earlier adventures part-and-parcel of their refit: acutely aware that old fans don’t like having their childhood favourites bastardized, and that revivals need all the support they can get. Thus the old days were canonical: they “happened.”

Although the company launched with a classy reinterpretation of Magnus, the key title to the new universe they were building was the only broadly super-heroic character in the bunch, and they had big plans for him. Solar, Man of the Atom was launched with an eye to all the gimmicks of the era, but was cleverly realised and realistically drawn.

Second Death collects the first four issues of the revived Solar and follows brilliant nuclear physicist Phil Seleski, designer of the new Muskogee fusion reactor in the fraught days before it finally goes online. Faced with indifferent colleagues and inept superiors, pining for a woman who doesn’t seem to know he exists, Seleski is under a lot of pressure. So when he meets a god-like version of himself he simply puts it down to stress…

Solar, the atomic god who was Seleski, is freshly arrived on Earth, and with his new sensibilities goes about meeting the kind of people and doing the kind of things his mortal self would never have dreamed of. As if godhood had made him finally appreciate humanity Solar befriends bums, saves kids and fixes disasters like the heroes in the comic-books he collected as a boy.

His energized matter and troubled soul even further divide into a hero and “villain”, but things take a truly bizarre turn when he falls foul of a genuine super-foe; discovering that the “normal” world is anything but, and that he is far from unique. The superhuman individuals of Toyo Harada’s Harbinger Foundation prove that the world has always been a fantastical place, and Solar’s belief that he has traveled back in time to prevent his own creation gives way to the realisation that something even stranger has occurred…

This is a cool and knowing revision of the so clichéd “atomic blast turns schmuck into hero” plot, brimful of sharp observation, plausible characters and frighteningly convincing pseudo-science. The understated art from the hugely under-appreciated Don Perlin is a terrifying delight and adds even more shades of veracity to the mix, as do the colours of Kathryn Bolinger and Jorge Gonzãlez.

Moreover the original comics had a special inserted component in the first ten issues (by Shooter, Barry Windsor-Smith and Layton) which revealed the epic events that made Seleski into a god – collected as Solar, Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega – designed to be read only after the initial story arc had introduced the readers to Seleski’s new world. Together these tales combine to form one of the most impressive and cohesive superhero origin sagas ever concocted and one desperately in need of reprinting.

Until then you can still hunt these down via your usual internet and comic retailers, and trust me, you should…
© 1994 Voyager Communications Inc. and Western Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Solar, Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega (Slipcase Edition)

By Jim Shooter, Barry Windsor-Smith & Bob Layton with Kathryn Bolinger (Valiant)

The 1990s were a slow period for comics creativity: the industry had become market-led, with spin-offs, fad-chasing, shiny gimmicks and multiple-covers events replacing innovation and good story-telling in far too many places. One notable exception was a little outfit with some big names that clearly prized the merits of well-told stories illustrated by artists immune to the latest mis-proportioned, scratchy poseur style, and one with enough business sense to play the industry at its own game…

As Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter had made Marvel the most profitable, high-profile comics company around, and after his departure he used that savvy to pick up the rights to a series of characters with Silver-Age appeal and turn them into contemporary gold.

Western Publishing had been an industry player since the earliest days, mixing a plethora of licensed titles such as Disney titles, Tarzan, or the Lone Ranger with the occasional homegrown hit like Turok, Son of Stone. In the 1960s during the camp/superhero boom these latter expanded to included Space Family Robinson, Brain Boy, Magnus, Robot Fighter (by the incredible Russ Manning) and in deference to the age of the nuclear hero, Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom. All of supremely high quality, they won huge fan-bases, but never captured the media spotlight of DC or Marvel’s costumed cut-ups.

With an agreement to revive some, any or all of these four-colour veterans, Shooter and co-conspirator Bob Layton came to a bold decision and decided to incorporate those earlier adventures into their refits: acutely aware that old fans don’t like having their childhood favourites bastardized, and that revivals need all the support they can get. Thus the old days were canonical: they did “happen.”

Although the company launched with a classy reinterpretation of Magnus, the key title to the new universe they were building was the only broadly super-heroic character in the bunch, and they had big plans for him. Solar, Man of the Atom was launched with an eye to all the gimmicks of the era, but was cleverly realised and realistically drawn. However, that not what this book is about.

The main text of the series followed comic fan and nuclear physicist Phil Seleski, designer of the new Muskogee fusion reactor as he dealt with its imminent activation. Inserted into the first ten issues was a short extra chapter by Shooter, Windsor-Smith and Layton that described that self-same Seleski as he came to accept the horrific nuclear meltdown he had caused and the incredible abilities it had given him. As the world went to hell Seleski – or Solar – believed he had found one chance to put it right…

That sounds pretty vague – and it should – because the compiled ten chapters that form Alpha and Omega are a prequel, an issue #0, designed to be read only after the initial story arc had introduced the readers to Seleski’s new world. That it reads so well in isolation is a testament to the skill of all the creators involved, and when I review the accompanying collection Solar, Man of the Atom: Second Death hopefully that will convince you to seek out both these outstanding epics of science-hero-super-fiction.

Conversely you could take my word for it and start hunting now: and just by way of a friendly tip – each insert culminated with a two-page spread that was a segment of “the worlds largest comic panel”, and the slipcase edition I’m reviewing includes a poster that combines those spreads into a terrifyingly detailed depiction of the end of the tale…
© 1994 Voyager Communications and Western Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Grifter/Shi: Final Rites

By Jim Lee, Billy Tucci and various (Image/WildStorm)
ISBN: 1-887-279-24-5

The 1990s were a time of startling changes in the American comicbook industry. Young upstarts broke away from the big companies to do all the job themselves, with admittedly mixed results, but as they lived or died on their own merits and ingenuity, it signalled a way that the other creative arenas (and of course I’m thinking the music biz here) could learn from even after all this time.

There had always been independent titles, but where the new guys differed from past do-it-yourself attempts was in the slick production values. These guys knew the product had to look and feel as sharp and cutting edge as the best of DC or Marvel – it’s just a shame so much of the new independents concentrated only on the style and so often ignored the actual creative content.

After a while however the very best of those independents, such as Jim Lee’s WildStorm titles from the Image Comics co-operative and Billy Tucci’s gradually unfolding martial arts epic Shi rose in sheer Darwinian majesty from the shiny, colour-saturated mire and carved a lasting place for themselves.

One of the biggest advantages of being an independent creator was how few people stood in the way if you wanted to do a team-up tale. The respective owners could just talk to each other…

This pretty and engaging tale is an unchallenging but generally satisfying conspiracy quest very much in the traditional manner starring the charismatic soldier-of-fortune Cole Cash (better known as Grifter) and the startlingly compelling and unconventional dancer/samurai masterminded by Jack-of-all-trades Billy Tucci.

Shi is Ana Ishikawa, whose father was a Japanese Warrior Monk and her mother an American Catholic missionary. Her father and brother were murdered by Yakuza boss Masahiro Arashi, setting her on a path of brutal, unrelenting vengeance using the Sohei Warrior skills taught by her grandfather, a master of the Yambushi Monks’ ancient secrets. She chose the mythical guise of Tora no Shi (Tiger of Death) to mask her when she began her crusade, but as she continued her battles her Catholic upbringing increasingly conflicted with her Sohei methodology…

Grifter is a veteran of many years of combat, covert and otherwise, who began his troubled life on the other side of the law. After years of black Ops he eventually went rogue, joining the WildC.A.T,’s super-team and was trained in alien combat techniques by the super-amazon Zealot. He has a unique no-nonsense approach to getting the job done, and has psionic powers he doesn’t like to use.

In this visually appetising collaboration Grifter returns to Japan hunting terrorists who killed one of his comrades, as the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima approaches. Meanwhile a highly placed Japanese government official has stolen a North Korean nuclear weapon, embroiling Ana Ishikawa and her sensei grandfather in a plot to steal a priceless artefact known as the “Final Rite of Kusunoki”, a 150 year old artwork that can exert an undeniable influence on the real ruler of Japan. This mastermind’s scheme includes long-delayed vengeance on the Americans, political power and even settling a centuries old feud with his clan’s greatest enemies, the Sohei

With a nuclear clock counting down Grifter must first work out who he can trust, especially the enigmatic Shi, before the convoluted machinations and seemingly endless string of opponents standing between him and his own particular brand of payback drags him down to dusty death.

Sometimes a little too complex for its own good, this is nevertheless a solid piece of entertainment from an incredible cast of creators (clearly doing it yourself includes a large amount of sub-contracting) including Brandon Choi, Peter, Gutierrez, Travis Charest, Ryan Benjamin, Jamal Igle, Troy Hubbs, Richard Bennett and John Nyberg. If you need a little more style than substance occasionally, then this is certainly the fashion to follow…
© 1996 Aegis Entertainment Inc., dba WildStorm Productions and William Elliott Tucci. All rights reserved.

Mighty Love

By Howard Chaykin, with Don Cameron, Kurt Hathaway & Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-930-2

Don’t let the outfits fool you: it’s not just another kinky love story…

Oddly released under the DC rather than Vertigo imprint, this is a story about crime in the big city and of the compromises individuals must make to achieve their purposes.

Delaney Pope is a rough, tough cop on a corrupt force who is fed up with seeing the scum she arrests get away with murder – or worse. Lincoln Reinhardt is a slick, liberal defense lawyer constantly thwarting the frames and set-ups of those cops. He often clashes with Pope in the course of his job. They both loathe each other with a passion.

Unbeknownst to either they both assuage their work-day frustrations by putting on masks and costumes to beat the crap out of criminals (with or without badges) in the commission of their crimes – where there are no doubts about guilt, innocence or mitigations.

The thrill of these nocturnal forays inevitably lead to a meeting of “Skylark” and “Iron Angel”, and a tenuous, teasing team-up when separate cases bring them together against the city’s first criminal mastermind. Not knowing each other’s real identity, but afraid to unmask and lose that so-tantalising tension, the pair have to decide what’s most important, the actual or the promised…

This delightfully fizzy adult romp prods all the fetishistic trappings of superhero storytelling as the brassy and whimsical writer/artist (with computer effects by Cameron, lettering from Hathaway and colours by Stewart) blends riffs from The Shop Around the Corner, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike and even Adam’s Rib with a plethora of crime caper movies to produce a costume drama in the unmistakable Chaykin manner.

Clearly the pilot for an unrealized longer series, Mighty Love is a fast and stylish little oddity that reads well and looks great – so if all you want is a good time; Baby, look no further…
© 2003 Howard Chaykin, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Shield


The Shield

By Irving Norvick, Harry Shorten & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN 1-879794-08-X

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t, remembered only as trivia by sad blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: Not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

The Shield was an FBI scientist named Joe Higgins who wore a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability, which he used to battle America’s enemies in the days before the USA entered World War II. Latterly he also devised a Shield Formula that increased his powers. Beginning with the first issue of Pep Comics (January 1940) he battled spies, saboteurs, subversive organisations and every threat to American security and well-being, and was a minor sensation. He is credited with being the industry’s very first Patriotic Hero, predating Marvel’s iconic Captain America in the “wearing the Flag” field.

Collected here in this Golden-Age fan-boy’s dream are the lead stories from Pep Comics #1-5 and the three adventures from the spin-off Shield-Wizard Comics #1 (Summer 1940). Raw, primitive and a little juvenile perhaps, but these are still unadorned, glorious romps from the industry’s exuberant, uncomplicated dawning days: Plain-and-simple fun-packed thrills from the gravely under-appreciated Irving Novick, Harry Shorten and others whose names are now lost to history.

Despite not being to everyone’s taste these guilty pleasures are worth a look for any dyed-in-the-woollen-tights super-hero freak and a rapturous tribute to a less complicated time.

© 1940, 2002 Archie Publications In. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Strong, Book Six

Tom Strong, Book Six 

By various

(America’s Best Comics) ISBN 1-84576-385-8

Alan Moore once again surrenders his writer’s role to a selection of top creators for an intriguing medley of tales from his own private universe in this the final collection of Tom Strong adventures.

First is The Black Blade of the Barbary Coast by Michael Moorcock and Jerry Ordway, wherein The Man of Science goes both trans-temporal and trans-dimensional in a quest to save the multiverse, with pirates, dinosaurs and the odd guest star from Moorcock’s own formidable pantheon of fantasy characters.

The Journey Within from Joe Casey and Ben Oliver features Strong’s steam-powered associate Pneuman, whose increasingly erratic behaviour proves to be less decrepitude and malfunction, and more infection and civilisation. Steve Moore and Paul Gulacy provide a dark oriental fantasy that examines the nature of fiction and reality in The Spires of Samakhara, and we see the final fate of a Science-Villain in Cold Calling from Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.

The volume — and indeed the series — ends with the appropriately apocalyptic-sounding Tom Strong at the End of the World, written by Alan Moore, who ties in the event with the ending of the Promethea series. In an introspective and contemplative turnabout the characters all transmigrate to a typically different Valhalla beautifully rendered by Sprouse, Story and colourist Jose Villarrubia.

All in all this collection (reprinting issues #31-36) is a fine end to a genuinely different take on the conventions of super-heroics, and a sad loss to the breadth and variety of the comic medium. I suspect we shan’t see its like for many a year.

© 2005, 2006 America’s Best Comics, LLC. All Rights Reserved