Friday, November 16, 2018

Stan Lee’s Chakra the Invincible #1

Thanksgiving 2018
Forgotten Heroes
Stan Lee’s Chakra the Invincible #1

A farewell

Writers – Stan Lee, Shard Devarajan, Ashwin Pande, and Scott Peterson
Artist – Jeevan J. Kang
Colorists – Jeevan J. Kang and S. Sundarakannan
Letterer – Aditya Bidikar
Editor – Sharad Devarajan and Ashwin Pande

I’ve stated before how I believe the Crapbox is sentient.

I find no greater proof than this: last Tuesday, November 12 we lost comic book legend Stan Lee. On Thursday, when I could bring myself around to look at a comic again without feeling an overwhelming sense of grief, the Crapbox spat out the Forgotten Hero issue of Stan Lee’s Chakra The Invincible #1.

Serendipity or Sentience? I’m choosing the latter as this is the Crapbox’s way far more often than not. I have a semi-intelligent pile of old comics. There are worse things that could happen to me, I suppose.

Things like the death of Stan Lee.

I grew up on Stan Lee, both his words and his comics. I’ve mention before all of the Marvel paperback reprint books that littered my collection. Books that introduced me to Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four. These collaborative endeavors of Stan with top Marvel artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko became a personal heroic template for me. They were magnificent stories the overflowed with imaginative imagery and peppered with verbose, energized language. They are classics.

At the same time I was picking up Marvel books off the comic rack whenever Mom or Dad allowed me to. Mostly they consisted of 35¢ page-turners or Three-For-A-Dollar sealed packs with their mysterious issue you couldn’t quite see without opening the package. The books featured the X-Men or Fantastic Four or Iron Man or the Avengers. Marvel books resonated with me more than DC did. Their universe seemed more “real” due to Stan’s cultivation of a shared continuity. They became like comfortable friends I would visit when I needed a dose of adventure or thrills.

And after devouring those stories and still needing more, I’d turn to the letters pages and the coming soon blurbs…

…and Stan’s Soapbox.

Hard to describe what it was like to grow up in a world where you couldn’t send a Twitter DM to any of your icons or shout out across their Facebook feed what you think of their latest work. The books back then were all we had. And yet Stan used them to create a connection that went beyond just the story. Marvel had a huge creative team called the Marvel bullpen. Each artist or writer didn’t just have a name, they had an expressive over-the-top title. Stan took the veil that separated the creatives from the readers and didn’t simply tear it off, he pulled it back like a carnival show curtain. And then he stood to the side like a barker. “Step right up, ladies and gents! Meet the King of all comic illustrators, Jack Kirby! Enjoy the inks of the Scintillating Joe Sinnott! Feast your eyes on the pencil-work of Swinging Steve Ditko…”

Say whatever you want about his contributions and accreditation in the collaborative process that was comic book creation of the day. Chip away at his legacy by attacking how early Marvel developed stories with the illustrators and then adding Lee's signature flair for the English language to the word balloons after. But don’t ever take away from the fact that Stan worked as hard as anyone in the industry to bring the recognition of these people’s contributions to light. He may have snuck into the spotlight himself, but he was always willing to share it. He made these guys household names.

I grew up not knowing that Dick Dillon drew Justice League for 12 years. But I knew Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s entire portfolio by heart. Most of the credit for that goes to Stan Lee for pushing their names out there, center stage and then pontificating about them to no end.

Stan Lee was a businessman. He made Marvel artists into more than just household names…he made them into rock stars. He kept the lights on. He paid the bills. He did what he had to do to ensure his staff earned a paycheck each week. Without him there wouldn’t be a “Marvel Universe.” I am eternally grateful for him.

I took my son to meet Stan at a convention in 2011. Rob was probably about seven. We were first in line to get him to sign something, I brought along a copy of Son Of Origins, which had some sentimental value. Stan was gracious and shook Rob’s hand after signing the book. We watched his panel and I was astounded that Rob wasn’t bored. Stan captivated the audience like your favorite grandfather telling stories. When we saw him again in 2016, Rob was actually excited to watch him speak. I owe some of that to his cameos, which my son would always point out by nudging me in the theater.

“That was Stan Lee.”

Yes, it was.

On to the issue at hand, a production of Lee’s Pow Entertainment that partnered up with Graphic India to produce an Indian superhero. As with all things this late in Stan’s career, his actual input was possibly quite modest. He received a story and created by credit, but likely had little real involvement with plotting or writing the actual book. The book has three OTHER writers attached to it, and I’m certain its 31 pages didn’t need that much help.

It is notable that the book features a Stan Lee cameo. And bless his heart, I’d rather people remember, even in his later years that Stan was still spry, still active, and still fueled with the same fires he burned with way back in the 1960’s. Let’s pile into this one and just enjoy it.

The Chakra The Invincible comic book lasted a respectable ten issues before fading into the background. Its release followed an animated special and series of shorts that were released on the Toonami India channel of the Cartoon Network back in 2013. Odd that there is a couple of years gap there, not to mention that the comic and the specials were released a complete ocean-length away from each other. I watched a few of the shorts, which apparently aired on the Angry Birds TV show and they are innocent fluff pieces that would appeal to a very young audience. Young as in around six or seven years old.

Chakra’s animated adventures garnered a series of sequels in 2017, so apparently he’s only forgotten on this continent.

Here we go, starting with Chakra facing off against some bad guys with guns. I find myself slipping into hearing an Indian accent when Chakra speaks in that first panel, which is either great dialoguing or my imagination sticking him in a stereotype. Possibly the latter, as I hear him speaking as much older male voice. 

As for the battle, Chakra uses one of his powers (and his catchphrase) and blasts all of his attackers. 

But they still aren’t down for the count, so he does a little internal monologue thing where we learn he is the people’s champion of Mumbai, India, standing up for the poor and downtrodden.

He uses a different chakra power and tosses the attackers onto a passing garbage scow as I start to wonder where those powers come from. Knowing story structure as I do, I’m expecting a flashback soon that explains his origin and a bit about his powers.

And after an odd, very juvenile-aimed conclusion to the fight with the gunmen…

…I get my wish. Back we go to when Chakra the Invincible was just plain Raju Rai, a parentless young boy living on the streets in Mumbai, India. A young boy who, I might add, just tried to stop a gang over slightly older boys from robbing Stan Lee of his man-purse.

From the looks of things, it’s less likely that he’s stopped the robbery and more like he’s invited them to rob him as well.

Raju tries to resist and even tries a few blows, but the troop of kids arrayed against him is just too much. 

At least it is until his older brother figure (I’m not sure how the naming thing works. The story soon implies he is his actual brother, but he shares no surname so I can’t be for certain) shows up.

He’s known for his athletic abilities in pretty much every sport by the dialogue that follows this. Some of which is Sameer doing cricket commentary while kicking the butts off all these ruffians.

As the bullies run off, Sameer helps Raju back onto his bike. We learn that Raju is something of an inventor, too.

And then Stan steps back into panel like the messianic figure he is to the comic book reading community…

…and does a fair impression of “blessing” Raju into the brotherhood of superheroes. It’s an effective scene and in my heart I hope these words were Stan's actual contribution to the writing in this title. It would be apropos to know that these words, which resonate with much of his energy, were written by “The Man” himself. I can believe anything I want and I choose to believe it was so.

And here we move the plot forward by establishing the relationship between the two boys, with Sameer having acted as the parent to Raju after the loss of their parents. Also that Raju is in the employ of a Doctor Singh as a gopher/courier and that he’s late.

The book then goes to great lengths to establish the paternal-fraternal relationship between the two boys. It feels tacked on. The brief mention in the panels I showed, being enough for the audience to “get it.”

After that two page inclusion, we finally make it to Singh’s lab and what I hope will be the start of Chakra’s origin. Singh appears cast in the “Absent-Minded Professor” mould, so much so that he can’t remember Raju’s name. That gets old quickly.

Also the book draws out the introduction of the suit that gives Chakra his powers in a most unsatisfying way.

We wander through page after page of the Doctor talking about the Cybernetic Hyper-Acrobatic Kinetic Realignment Acceleration suit where he talks about how it is made up of trillions of tiny nanites that bond to the user when it is activated….

…and how it harnesses the energies of the seven chakras in the human body to focus a person’s prana or life energy…

…but all this really doesn’t explain what the suit actually DOES. 

And it misses some big opportunities. With seven chakras, there could be seven distinct powers the suit has and linking the powers to a specific chakra means you get to inform the audience about some Hindu philosophy/occult physiology. Much the same way that the Thor comics were a big lead in for many into Norse mythology, Chakra should be doing that for Hindu mysticism.

Perhaps they were afraid of blowback from Christian religious conservatives. Or maybe they just didn’t want to dumb down concepts in a way that might offend practicing Hindus. Who can say? What I do know is this seems like a no-brainer of a opportunity to work in a differentiating factor to Raju’s power set that is totally missed by the book.

So…welcome generic flight and blasting powers. Oh, wait. We’re not to that part yet. First the Doc is going to have Raju hold the suit while he hits it with electricity in an attempt to get it to activate. I’m seeing “laboratory accident gave me my power” when suddenly the book left turns me. The Doc brings up his impatient, mysterious benefactor who is NOT a nice guy. Like magic, he shows up out the blue to check on the Doc’s progress. 

With his oversized bodyguards.

The Doc distracts them after directing Raju to take the suit out of there.

And of course, the only way to do that is to put it on under his street clothes.

However, a chance encounter after leaving the lab means that while the Doc is getting beat up by mobster-type investors, Raju is getting beat up by their school-yard equivalents.

But just as things are looking pretty grim…

…a bolt from the blue, ends the issue in an explosively shocking way.

And thus "cliffhangers" the end of issue one of Chakra The Invincible. The art and story are juvenile. It meanders too much and goes on too long for my tastes, feeling like a 15 page story that was stretched out 31 so it would feel “epic.” 

It is worth it for the Stan Lee cameo alone though. However, unless he shows up every issue to impart a bit of encouragement or wisdom, I wouldn’t be on board for more of these. It is just too generic.

I’ll miss seeing Stan Lee at conventions. I’ll miss seeing his cameos in the Marvel flicks. I remember him best as the faceless voice that introduced so many Marvel cartoons. He had a one of a kind energy, as if he himself could “channel his prana” or whatever into a positive, motivating force for good. He told stories. He brought people together. He was a hero.

And he will be missed.

Thank you, Stan.

One last time…Excelsior!  

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Omega Saga #1

Thanksgiving 2018
Forgotten Heroes
The Omega Saga #1


"Episode One – Chapter 1”
Writer/Artist – Michael A. Gerardo, Jr.
Colorist/Letterer – Christopher J. Navetta
Spring 1998

We kicked off pre-Thanksgiving with a book that deserved not to be forgotten, so I thought it only fair that I queue up something that should sit at the bottom of the dustbin unremembered.

It is interesting that since Southpaw Publishing put out The Omega Saga in 1998 and folded up after three issues (0, 1 and 2, respective), BOTH names have already been reused. I’ve found various internet references to another person using the company name Southpaw Publishing, so that’s recently recycled. About six years ago Axess Comics came out with their own The Omega Saga, which was a completely unrelated title. I guess it goes to prove you can’t keep a good name down. 

Or any name, for that matter.

But to go with that name you need a good concept for it to succeed. And while I know NOTHING about this book’s successor, I have read Michael A. Gerardo, Jr.’s The Omega Saga #1. From that reading I can state that most anything would be a step up.

I know that sounds intensely harsh, but this book has LOTS of problems.

While reading it I got the feeling that I was watching a taping of Jersey Shore. Only it was Jersey Shore with 30-40 uninteresting characters.

The book can be divided into two parts. The first part shows the introduction of characters, which the book has too many of. I assume Gerardo, Jr. felt an affinity for a lot of his neighbors and friends, because every page or so we arrive at a mob scene of four or five new characters who all get a one line speaking part. Gerardo, Jr. doesn’t seem to get that as the writer he is in charge of directing the story. That filtering out unnecessary banter is his job. Instead he uses the book for walk-ons of every mook in his New Jersey neighborhood.

It is distracting from the story he is trying to tell and clutters up his art panels. We have so much unimportant information to filter through, by the time something interesting happens we have tuned out completely.

And that something interesting is that second part of the book. You know, the superhero conflict part of the book. When it does finally occur, it also turns out to be uninteresting. Conflicts are resolved so quickly we barely notice them and all these onscreen characters means we aren’t really sure how anything relates to anything else.

Gerardo, Jr. certainly put a lot into the book, acting as writer and artist. And he must of wanted to pay back those people in his life that supported him in this endeavor. Neither of those make the book any more readable, but I am stretching to find something nice to say about The Omega Saga before savaging it any more.

To me it is so frustrating to watch beginning writers NOT have someone act as editor of their product. There is no Editor credit anywhere on this thing and it is pretty apparent that Gerardo, Jr. acted in that role himself. The book shows all the hallmarks of having no one explaining to Gerardo, Jr. why the concepts he was putting in didn’t work from a story perspective and asking him to trim pages, character and focus his plot more.

Let’s get right into it, I suppose.

We start with a little bit of promise. It’s a muddle of “new names” salad, but it at least sounds like a buildup that will have a payoff later. It begins with the blue-faced dude arriving at a domed ice fortress in the Emperor’s Shuttle from Star Wars. And if you are gonna riff on Star Wars, we know already THIS is our MAIN BAD GUY and his henchman.

Which, I’m going to spoil for you, is horribly sad. Sad because these two never show up in any way in the rest of the story after these two pages. They also are the start of the roster of names you will encounter that are somehow linked to people in the book and that roster is far, far too long. Alpha Triumph and Lord Ice start talking about people we haven’t seen and know nothing about. We should get out a clean sheet of paper and start a list. 

We’ve got General Becket and Lady Valentine and The Omega, who is the son of Becket, and Gina, who is The Omega’s cousin and some non-disclosed relation to General Becket…Oh, and this kid:

…Marty Ganes, which is Amanda Jones’ son by Mason Ganes who happens to be Alpha Triumph’s nephew because Mason Ganes is Alpha Triumph’s brother. And we should wait until Mason finds out.

In the span of one page the book went from “oh, okay…Star Wars bad guy riff…the writer artist could know what he’s doing...” to “this guy has no idea how to setup a story.” I mean seriously do not throw out over a half dozen character names of people that you don’t plan on showing until much later in the book. I lost complete interest in the story here, feeling like the author had asked me to keep a scorecard for him.

And to be honest, I had completely forgotten about this intro until re-reading it for the review. It literally does nothing to better setup an upcoming conflict in the book than the scenes of the actual conflict when they occur. And it is so chock full of names that you just blow past it hoping the next page will clear things up.

It doesn’t. It instead begins with three time-travelers appearing at the Brooklyn bridge (or a facsimile thereof). And all they do is further muddy the water.

I’ll take this trio’s appearance as time to comment on the muddy, ugly texture Gerardo, Jr. adds to his art by making every ink stroke a solid thick line. His choice of color pallet is also lacking. We seem to get the same repeated endlessly. It makes every page a look like a messy, unsatisfying goulash.

But all this would be workable if the story was decent. 

Next we have a whole page dedicated to showing that this universe has a Howard Stern-type called Howard Storm. Gerardo, Jr. is using it to highlight people he knows in real life, I’m pretty certain. I can think of no better reason for this line-‘em-up and shoot’em type panel of these women. And that’s a major problem with the rest of the book. Too much of this isn’t in service of the story. It is just tacked on, wasted space.

Finally on page five we meet our main protagonist: Mason T. Ganes. Ganes is “The Omega,” a new superhero whose main power appears to be getting so drunk he’s hung over the next morning and sleeping around on his girlfriend with her sister. Yeah, he’s a creep of another caliber, with his weird Van Halen tattoo and disgusting mug. I hate him already.

Not that this book seems to notice. It ratchets up Marty’s jerk quotient by having him not jump immediately out of bed, stunned at how his infidelity might hurt the woman he supposedly loves feelings. No, it instead has him possibly hitting it again. Like we, the audience think this will be somehow endearing. It’s like John Travolta explaining his summer in Grease, a bragging pool of toxic masculinity. 

Then Mason goes to this gym for boxers because we are really going for the full Italian thing here. It is just another excuse to draw people he knows in real life in as characters who have no real connection to a story or plot. i.e. more wasted time.

So it is both an ugly book and an ugly story.

And this continues on, as Mason meets with his business partner Brickman in the back office. Brickman’s older daughter is there and of course she’s wearing some weird, skin-tight outfit with a boob triangle shaped like a star. Brickman invites Mason for dinner, he says he has to meet Paulie (a/k/a Kid Omega) at his “other job” first, which prompts daughter Reann to ask what that “other job” is.

Which segues us over to a picture of the actual jersey shore and then into a strip-tease club where Paulie is hanging out. We get a full page of Gerardo trying to draw a sexy stripper called GG (shouldn’t that be Gigi?...yah know what, never mind.), most of which looks awkward with his choice of color pallet and felt-tip inking skills. Then “Roach” goes up to tip her in this cringe-worthy bit.

Actually, that was awful.

Moving on, we find pages that Gerardo, Jr. should have left on the cutting room floor as Mason’s actual girlfriend Lea meets up with the Brickman Family. A family that includes this weird balloon-headed kid Reggie.

While they go off to dinner, there are some supervillains aligned with the bad guy from page one hovering over the city. They mention that Lea is somehow their sleeper agent, which I don’t really care about at this point because how could I? There are already so many people introduced in the book that you’d need Salesforce to keep track of them all. 

And I note the inclusion of teleportation machinery called “Brundle pods” in clear reference to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I’m not giving any points for it, the book has made me that upset with how it is handling everything else.

We finally get to a superhero in uniform on page 17. It’s Mason/ The Omega flying in late to meet Kid Omega while fighting being hung over and his feelings of guilt over sleeping with his girlfriend’s sister several times the night before. Also a walk on by Saturday Night Fever era John Travolta as a newscaster. 

And while Paulie realizes he is also late to meet Omega because he’s spent the entire day drinking and tipping strippers, we get another page of “the artist goes to a strip bar a lot and told the dancers he would include them by name in his book as if this would impress them.” You know these are real life strippers, because if you told random ladies you knew that you would be including them in your comic as strippers, they would likely sue you for libel.

So many heads, so little appreciation for proportion. This is the entire theme of my problems with the book: as both writer and artist Gerardo, Jr. is trying to cram so much crap into his book that he loses focus. He has little drawing talent, that’s for certain, but he might improve if he stopped trying to shove in six to seven characters per panel just to name-drop. And as a writer he might improve if he cut about 75% of his plot lines and concentrated on telling one or two stories really well. Instead we get a blender mix of bad art and bad plotting. We get characters we don’t care about showing up for two panels only to disappear in a forest of other characters who will also show up for two panels.

This book badly needed an editor that could rein in Gerardo, Jr.’s worst impulses.

What follows is Kid Omega biking past the time travelers (remember them?) who are under a transparent field rendering them invisible. If only we the audience didn’t have to see them either. Then we get this shot of Omega whooshing to meet Kid Omega who has somehow biked to the top of this bridge.

I love how our “hero” has so much respect for law enforcement that disses the job they do. A job they at turn up for every day on time and not hungover or drunk to do. Putz.

Also, Mason is already late for his meeting with Lea, his girlfriend, yet agrees to go to the strip club with Paulie after they take care of the bus hijacking. Not minutes before he was thinking about how shitty a boyfriend he is. Seems like The Omega is one of the stupidest crimefighters ever.

Meanwhile, “GG” is leaving the strip club when she runs afoul of this guy getting a BJ in the alley. This is the “General Beckett” mentioned on the second page of the book, arriving here 23 pages in..

He is going after GG with some kind of modified gun that shoots up her expensive car no stripper should be able to afford.

Meanwhile, Kid Omega a/k/a Paulie a/k/a Roach shows up by crashing through the front window of the bus that is hijacked.

…while The Omega flies in to prove that Gaz is no longer in charge.

And to prove that keeping one storyline going is not in the interest of being consistent with the rest of this horrible, horrible book, we now switch BACK to GG getting her car blown up by a well-placed round from General Becket. Not that it has the desired result. 

That word balloon is from GG who used to go by Omega Girl, but now is Heroine. A word she uses to play on “addiction” which implies the author doesn’t know the difference between “heroine” and “heroin”. Also, it’s stupid. A junkie name for a junk hero.

Then it’s back to the bus situation with Omega letting loose with some kind of green omega shaped blasts that hit Gaz in the shoulder.

…knocking both criminal and the hostage out of the teetering bus….

…and then before you can say whiplash, it’s back to Heroine…

And then back to Omega…

…and then back to Heroine. Jeebus book! Thankfully this is the last page, which introduces three new villains to Heroine. As if we needed more characters. After this I’m out and so was everyone else. Issue two came and went with possibly little readership and then into the dustbin went The Omega Saga.

At least until a better book took the title. And how do I know it was a better book? ANY book would be better than this trash.

To sum up: The Omega Saga was a book that shouldn’t be. It needed someone to edit it for length and content, someone other than the two people involved in the writing, art, and coloring. It feels like some nineteen year-old’s wish fulfillment where superheroes spend the day looking at half naked women, screwing anything that moves, and getting drunk. There is no moral code to anyone in the book, nor is it worth reading.

Truly a book best forgotten.