Friday, August 10, 2018

Chastity #1

The Fairer Sex
Chastity #1

…and how TO tell a story of a superpowered female

Writers – Len Kaminski and Brian Pulido
Penciler – Adriano Batista
Inker – Cleber Salles
Letters – Comicraft’s Oscar Gongora
Colors – Hi-Fi
Editors – Mike Francis and Brian Pulido
June 2001

Wouldn’t you know it? After the problematic Angel Fire #1, the very next issue the Crapbox spits out is this little gem from Chaos publishing. I have tried to stay away from Chaos books because their covers look so exploitive. Nearly every title in their line is some half naked, big bosomed chick leaning around suggestively on the cover.

My natural inclination is to aim at books in the wild, where I have a chance that my shots might encounter something new and excitingly good. It isn’t to point my rifle at fish swimming in a barrel of mediocrity. I want to give myself a sporting chance of finding a great book.

Well, the joke is on me this time.

For all the flashy, trashy bimboing that Chaos has put up front of the Chastity title, what’s between the covers is a competently written, well drawn story that develops a likeable title character with interesting problems and powers existing in a world where stakes and consequences exist. I never would have expected it, but I came away loving the book and hoping more turn up in the Crapbox.

The key may be the involvement of both Brian Pulido, who takes both a writer and editor credit here, blended in with long-time Marvelite Len Kaminski. Kamiski’s run on most Marvel books haven’t really thrilled me, but the sheer volume of his work on so many titles means he’s had time to file off his rough storytelling edges. Paired with Pulido, they pull off a tale that works on every conceivable level.

The thrill for me comes from finding out that both are involved in the other Chaos works too, so my haste at dismissing the entire line-up due to the cover art looks to be unfounded.

I’m eager to show you the goods on Chastity, so we are going to jump right to it, beginning with this opening scene. Chastity is involved with a street fight against three leather jacket assailants, and I KNOW that already all of us are having Angel Fire flashbacks.

Yes, both books start off by throwing us into the action as a way to engage us. Note the differences here. Chastity gives us a REASON for the fight: one of the men sexually assaulted her. Immediately we know where our sympathies lie in this story.

Second, if you are like me, you don’t come to this book knowing anything about the character. There are been over nine Chastity series up to this point put out by Chaos, but the writers choose to treat this book's sequencing so that they allude to Chastity having powers that allow her to fight off these three guys, but they don’t state what those powers are specifically. There’s a lot of hints dropped and allusions to what might happen if Chastity does certain things, but it isn’t until late in the book that they actually address what Chastity is and why she can toss people around like rag dolls.

All of that is important. It gives the reader the impression that they are smart for guessing what is up before the reveal. It preserves the mystery of the character without just throwing it out there in character or narrator exposition. The storytelling in this lets us learn bits about Chastity naturally while setting up background, side characters and the driving plot of this story.

Speaking of those side characters, apparently Chastity doesn’t want them to know she has some kind of superpowers that allow her to take on three guys at once. She also can sense their approach. The natural thing to do is to end the fight swiftly so they don’t catch her in the act. She gets the job done just as her posse rounds the corner and is ready with a quip about the guys on the ground which doesn’t answer the question nor claim responsibility.

Note this is the third thing the book does right: it doesn’t revel in the conflict so much that it makes fight scenes overly long or complicated. This does a lot of things: first, the audience doesn’t get bored with punching. Second, the faster the guys are taken out, the more formidable our heroine appears to be. Third, this gives the book room to show the character doing something OTHER than fighting. In a book like this you should build anticipation in your audience for the next conflict while also creating characters that live and breathe. You need to give the characters something to do OTHER than waiting to swing the next blow. Make them relatable.

And here we get that. First with Chastity catching up with what’s going on in her friend’s lives…

…and next with her cutting lose moshing in the pit in front of the stage. Chastity seems like a cool person to hang with. She has interests outside of making it to the next panel to say her next line. She doesn’t exist just to hit things in a cool way. She has a personality with likes and interests beyond the plot of the story and that’s key here.

Nicely, we have side characters that act in a way that informs us of who Chas is too.

And since all of those things are going so well by page five of the book, ONLY NOW does the author bring in elements of the books actual plot. Starting with this trenchcoat and hat who messes up her love interest guy at the end of the bar.

Next morning, the book shows us Chastity being a late-late-late riser, gives us a location for her abode, which is an oddly dark third floor apartment on St Marks Avenue, and imply that Chastity’s skin is burned when in comes in contact with sunlight.

Wait…is Chastity…?

Yup. That seals it. Chastity is a vampire. Without having said a thing, the authors have clearly implied a thing. This is a tremendous bit of storytelling magic. Not only do we now know what Chastity is, but also that she actively hides that information from her closest friends. And all of it without using the “V” word.

And to seal the deal, we get a page of Chas in costume as a blonde cheerleader being chased by a killer for a slasher movie, all of which is filmed at night, which is followed by this scene.

So even MORE confirmation as to what Chastity is for those in the slow seats. She books it to a Blood Bank and breaks in to an upper story window. Once inside she locks herself in a closet so she isn’t disturbed. While hiding out the daylight she discovers the card left by Trenchcoat and Hat wasn’t his personal phone number, but a job offer by a security company.

With nightfall, Chas slinks out of the closet for what we expect will be a fight with staff over a drink or two of the red stuff…

…and our expectations are cleverly subverted. This is another of Chastity’s friends, a worker who knows of her affliction and provides for her needs. Aunt Ruby adds a dose of welcome humor too.
Cut to a little later and Chas follows the phone number on the card to a security company that provides bouncers for touring acts. She gets a chance to impress the interviewer in a most unconventional way when he asks his personal security guy to toss her out unless she can change his mind in ten seconds.

Her power, skill, and spunk earn her the position. One quick black hair dye later and…

…Chas is working concerts and tossing belligerent drunks off the stage. So far there isn’t a hit of this being part of a larger plot. We don’t have a big-bad lurking behind the scenes or making vague threats. In fact this is very much a character-driven piece with some action beats, all of which is fine with me because the authors have made Chas likeable and given her a personality.

That goes a long way.

But we have to start throwing in some hints that something bigger is coming, and that all starts with the young man she met briefly at the bar, when Trenchcoat and Hat gave her the security company’s calling card. The cute guy that disappeared. Here he delivers a bottle of water and the mysteriously vanishes right after.

Which means he will be appearing later, as potential (boy) friend or foe, as yet to be determined.

As Chas is checking out backstage, she hears a scream from the alleyway and steps out to find a man gushing blood. Her supernatural senses allow her to detect what gutted the poor fella.

Which leads to her facing off with Savagr, a female heavy-metal werewolf bitch.

We’ve dug this far down in the book and I haven’t mentioned the art at all, mainly because it has been so superior. It serves the story precisely, imbuing Chas with likeable spunk and sexiness. The background are appropriate and the coloring astonishingly good. The book is beautiful with graphics appropriate to its tone. Another triumph for Chaos over my initial concerns that this would turn out to be a bimbo-filled boobfest without proper care being taken with the other characters and settings. Bravo, guys.

So now we get some neat action pages with vampire vs werewolf…

…and the art and dialogue continue to deliver.

The vibrant background colors really make these scenes pop.

And while Chastity sings The Ramones, she wraps up this battle in short order, in the end leaving the werewolf for the police.

And while her boss gives her props for taking care of things, the last page teases a new threat that looks to take down Chas just because she’s a vampire. And that threat looks an awful lot like Kyle.

Okay, okay! So the issue doesn’t have a bunch of over arcing storyline. It doesn’t dwell on the one villain we do have’s motivations for gutting a guy in the alley, nor do we find out anything at all about Kyle and his motivations. But the book has style and it does a great job of showing off Chastity’s personality and making her likable. She has more going on than just looking to hook up with a hot guy. We find the real major plotline here is her obtaining gainful full-time employment doing something she is suited for, and THAT is a refreshing story plot.

In short, I liked it. It showed me something more than just a pretty face. I didn’t expect that. I’ll look for more of these when I discount dive and all those other Chaos books have now gotten a notch up in my estimations. Don’t let me down, guys.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Angel Fire #1

The Fairer Sex
Angel Fire #1

How NOT TO Do a superpowered girl book...

Writer – Dan Mishkin
Penciller – Roberto Flores
Inker - Rich Perrotta
Letters – Joe Biondi & Tony Serrata
Colors – Mada Design
Editor – Tony Bedard
Created by – William Tucci
June 1997

After several months of “good” comics, I figured it was time to dip back down into what the Crapbox really excels at: mediocre to horrible comics. And what better way to do that than to spend a month culling through the box of books that star female leads for titles you most likely haven’t heard of.

First out the gate is this little number, Angel Fire #1. Produced by William Tucci’s Crusade comics and with Tucci taking the creator credit, the book is a bland mess that fails to thrill or titillate. That cover shows the book marketing itself as full of hot babes and fast action, and it tries very hard to deliver that.

However, the art isn’t quite up to snuff and the story fails to gel. Let’s talk about the art first. Roberto Flores has appeared in a few other titles, mostly feature stories in Batman ’66 books and a few Marvel one-off stories. He’s not horrible at drawing, but in this book he appears to be melding the weirdly over stylized figures produced by someone like Humberto Ramos with the Danger Girl physiques of J. Scott Campbell. And he needs to work on his proportions. A lot. In short, his own personal bent at penciling the human form looks derivative of two other, better artist and in a more larval stage than a new book should show.

We end up with an underwhelming story and questionable art. Let’s jump in so you can judge for yourself. And by jumping in, I mean make it past that obnoxious cover photo of the girl with the motorcycle. You really have to wonder what the plan was with all that white background. Certainly the logic had to be to drop it out and put something in behind her, I hope. And as for her supposed “alluring, come-hither-to look,” if that was her best take they should have gotten a better model. She looks a bit like how my ex-wife used to look when she was mad I didn’t take out the trash on garbage day.

Moving on though, we start the story…and by start, I mean we are given an overlong exposition piece on the inside cover that explains the origin of our main character to a brief extent. As a storyteller, I’m instantly annoyed by this. I don’t want to be spoon-fed the history of Anastasia Pizer, bad-ass, ex-government agent who gained superpowers from black-ops experiments and then left Project ANGEL for the “real world.” I want to find out this information through the natural flow of the story being told in the graphical medium.

There’s this period where you “date” a book, and by that I mean you get caught up in your own ideas of what it is about and allow the story to open up naturally in front of you. You discover things you like about the book and hopefully grow a desire to see more of its unfolding fiction. Maybe you’ll love the book, but that happens after investing time. This is our First Date with Angel Fire and as we say "hello," the book uses that opportunity to tell us her life history.

This shows a lack of confidence by the author in their own storytelling ability. Otherwise, you’d let us discover all this background through, you know, reading the comic.

Enough of that, back to our first panel, which shows our heroine Anastasia, who apparently owns a bar, ducking as a muscle-bound Hell’s Angel-type tosses a yuppie over her head in a room already embroiled in a full-blown riot. She’s got the internal monologue running, counting off all of the bad decisions she’s made in her past and generally the writer is doing a good job of setting things up. Had that prior page not existed, this might have been a good hook to pull you into the story.

As I’ve stated, you can see the overly lumpy musculature that Campbell would put into his men alongside the oddball stances Ramos would pose his characters. The influences these two must have had to Flores’ work become clearer as we move through the book, however there is an unfinished element to certain panels that I’ll point out.

This being Anastasia’s bar, she goes over to show the biker bruiser who’s boss, and does so by lifting him completely off the ground with one arm. This looks so unrealistic. Look at her feet positioning, like she is still in mid stride while doing this. 

And I have to mention that odd Yosemite Sam face in the inset panel. The art choices in this range from normal 90’s “hot babe” pose panels to these bizarre cartoon caricatures and, while that typically doesn’t phase me, there are some that cross the line of “why?”. This is one of those.

While Anastasia holds the brutish biker up by his crotch-piece, in steps this dashing guy named Warren, who acts like he and Anastasia are old friends. He makes sure she’s got a good hold on Bobby Dupree and then he whacks the guy with a wooden barstool. 

This wrecks several other parts of the bar putting him at odds with Anastasia who has to pay for all this wanton destruction. As the two go at it verbally, Bobby gets up and starts over the bar at Warren, ready for round two. 

That shadowy figure from the side tackles Bobby and…disappears. No, really. We move to Anastasia getting helped out by this unknown dew-ragged strange who tries to come off as over macho-ing all the macho-ness going on. And no, he’s not the guy that tackled Bobby, as Bobby is clearly looking off panel at who pushed him aside at the bottom left of this page.

The book is just a rambling fight at this point and I really don’t care about anything that is going on. None of these characters are interesting and the stakes in this brawl, where a person can be held aloft by the front of his jeans and then sent careening across the room like a line drive from a swung barstool, are so ludicrous that it comes off as an empty action filling pages.

Even this build up to Anastasia’s super power, with all her glowy eyes and light-emitting fists…

…that ultimately is used, not on a person, but on a wall of the bar…

…and makes a smallish hole that we are supposed to be impressed with even though our only glimpse of it is that prior page. Either that or we are supposed to glean how impressive it is given the reaction of everyone splitting out of the bar. Okay, I get the implied impressiveness of this display of power, but I would get it more if Anastasia’s arms in that top panel didn’t look deformed, ending in hands that were the size of canned hams. Do they even make canned hams anymore? Well, something sufficiently twice the size of normal fists is what I’m getting at, if my visual metaphors are somewhat aged.

Some of you may state that I’m picking on penciler Flores and that given the artwork of the time in which this was published, his line art was pretty much par for what was selling. I will agree. The 90’s stylebook typified excesses in awkward poses and poor proportion from nearly every major player who entered the industry at the time.

I feel the cause of this was the extravagances of the 80’s leading directly to a feeling in the next decade that the only way to top what had come before wasn’t by telling similar great stories, but was by taking the existing stories and one-upping them in some way. Angel Fire fits into that template.

Sadly all that bombast goes to waste on Anastasia. She’s generic. Her powers produce no thrills or unexpected twists. The brand of action the book shells out is bland, forgetful and uninspired. The artwork looks like any other quarter-bin books from the same era. There really isn’t anything to make the book memorable.

Like this part where Bobby and Warren bury the hatchet in the wake of Anastasia’s power punch. Because it is all played for laughs, the bit comes off as cliched. Bobby says he was in mortal danger, but we know by the toss off nature of this jokey bit that it isn’t taken seriously. I think the book is looking for that “Danger Girl” vibe and just missing the mark horribly, because while those Campbell books are forgettable at least they are fun while you are reading them.

Let’s rush through the rest of the story and get this issue over with: Warren reveals he knows Anastasia’s clouded past, which would have been a better way to find out her background than the exposition in the frontispiece. It’s still exposition, mind you, but at least here it is in character voice and pertinent to the story while telling us something about Warren at the same time. I suppose the paragraphs up front got added because if you read this book without it, you might think Warren was the main character of the tale.

Warren waves Bobby off and lays this info on us…

He then tells Anastasia why he’s come, which is some James Bondian BS about a stolen superweapon called …”Angel Fire”…

Meanwhile this Kingpin-like crime boss, who I’m reading with a Russian accent because his operative is named Valentina, discusses her recent failure to obtain the Angel Fire. Perhaps that’s because she chooses to wander around in see-through black lace tops while having the goofiest looking feet this side of Rob Liefeld that she failed. Lucky for us this is just two pages with her boss sending her back out to obtain the superweapon, this time okaying force instead of trying to purchase it.

And while that is going on, Anastasia meets with “Sharkey,” who used to supervise her secret spy missions. She goes to get the dirt on Warren Peace, who ends up being NOT the guy he said he was. Sharkey has no idea who he is, and when a call from Warren comes in Anastasia calls his bluff. Warren tells her that he’s found the Angel Fire and only by showing up can she learn more about him and it. With that…

…she’s off in a flash of oddly rendered motorcycling to meet with the mysterious Warren.

The Russians that have the Angel Fire start a demonstration of the device’s abilities to some prospective buyers, who are unimpressed at first. 

Okay, that part came off with the right amount of humor. And the book finally starts to have a conflict that has some weight to it. The bad guy is using Anastasia as his “demonstration.” Now we get to wonder if Warren set her up.

Our girl is waiting at the docks as Warren asked when suddenly the docks explode.

Yeah, just showing up to something you think will be a setup with no planning or strategy is pretty stupid. I wish the author had thought to make you act as kick-ass as his introduction of you had us believing you would be. And LOOK at those feet. What the heck? Sadly, you come off as not very professional for someone who was “the best in the business.”

Angel Fire makes its appearance next, some kind of helicopter drone that shoots green blaster bolts…meh. Not impressed. I am impressed that she can even walk in those weird ass shoes Flores had put on her feet. Haven’t seen such inappropriate footwear since Jurassic World.

Warren turns up, oddly not the heelish turncoat we expected him to be. He pulls Anastasia from the river (bad shoes and all) and then finds a warehouse for them to hold up in.

Then the Angel Fire drone blows the roof off the building (which is filled with aircraft fuel. Good call, Warren.) Leaving them both exposed…

…only for the drone to drop a rope ladder for Warren, who is now revealed to be Anatoly-Russian spy and bad guy, and the drone isn’t remote piloted, but has Valentina in the cockpit (which doesn’t explain the part where she was trying obtain it but failed earlier) and the pair of them look to now be gunning for the fish in the barrel that is Anastasia Pizer.

Given my enthusiasm for the book, I hope they succeed.

For me, Angel Fire was a misfire.

The art aped books that I’m not super into and the story didn’t go far enough to establish why we should like and root for our main character. About the only thing the book got right was knowing it needed a twist villain to generate some audience interest. Even that was spoiled by too much foreshadowing and revealing his turn in the first issue. They could have strung us along for a few books, with us getting to know and like Warren, then sprung his true allegiance at a point of maximum impact.

This book needed more…something. More plotting, more art practice, better pacing…something. It’s easy to see why this fire sputtered out after issue number three.