Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part VIDEO GAMES! Second Quarter: Atari Force #5

The logo is the only connection, and maybe that’s for the best

I didn’t own one, but I knew someone who did. If you grew up in the late 70’s-early 80’s, there was at least one kid on every block who had one. At the time it was the holy grail of home entertainment systems. I’m talking, of course, about the Atari 2600 system.

Introduced to the world in October 1977, the Atari VCS (video computer system, later redubbed the 2600) was built on the market that the glut of “Pong” video games had created. Pong was a table-tennis game rendered completely onscreen. The Pong phenomenon had taken the US by storm after its release created the home video game market in 1975. The following year saw a slew of inexpensive “cloned” Pong consoles, some even including a second “target shooting” game by the clever addition of a light gun and some simple game programming. If you must know the truth, I didn’t have an Atari VCS because my parents bought me a Pong clone.

The VCS had one extremely huge major selling point over all the Pong video games: Cartridges. The Atari system had a port on top where you plugged in a game cartridge. Tired of table tennis? Go out and buy a different cartridge and change games. This flexibility caused the Atari 2600 to wipe out the Pong market almost overnight. It also made me curse myself for asking my parents to buy that Pong clone, since the answer I now got when I asked for an Atari VCS was “You never play with the video game we already bought.” Never mind that Pong required two players and any kid I asked to play Pong would rather go play their 2600.


Included with the VCS was the cartridge called “Combat” (which was so way cooler than Pong), and it made a bunch of kids happy on Christmas Day, 1977. In short order the VCS got versions of baseball, football and other sports cartridges that would be sure hot sellers. Less likely to set the world on fire were crazy things like Flag Capture, Hangman and Human Cannonball. Years later, Atari would be licensing games from movies and popular coin operated video titles and among these would be two titles that are ascribed to its downfall. More on them later.

A brief year after the VCS’s introduction saw Atari produce the precursor to all modern day computerized RPGs with the cartridge called simply Adventure. In Adventure you played a knight questing for a grail-like cup. You battled dragons and avoided pesky bats while moving around castle grounds, mazes and hallways. Adventure was way ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that graphics for the game were exceedingly simplified. Your character was a square. The sword could only be rendered in one position, no swish-swishing action. But the worst aspect of all this had to be the Dragons, which looked more like ducks than anything else, tended to jiggle up and down when they chased you and their attacks sounded like the tanks blowing up in Combat. The game was one of the first to feature backdoors and Easter eggs. For a run-through this old-school goodness in flash form, go HERE.

And if you'd rather watch than play, check out the Retromancers reviewing the first Star Wars games in all their 8-bit glory.

By 1979 another player for Atari system game cartridges entered the ring. The company was called Activision and it sported some very familiar faces, having drawn some the top talent from Atari themselves. Sued by Atari for producing games for their system, Activision won the legal right to stay in business and produced some of the 2600’s best games. The cream of their crop was Pitfall! released in 1982. Pitfall! was an Indiana Jones type adventure done up as a side scrolling platform game. It went on to become the best selling title on the 2600 and proved the muscle of well known developers and game designers in the rapidly expanding video game industry.

Wiki also has a very complete list of VCS games located HERE. And if you want to keep up with all things Atari, try the link HERE. Info about the Atari Force comic books has been meticulously detailed HERE.

So what does all of this have to do with Atari Force? 

Well, nothing really. 

This is actually volume 2 of Atari Force. There was a complete five issue mini-series prior to this ongoing series. In the mini-series, five Earthlings lead by Marvin Champion found a new planet for humanity to live on when the Earth became too…heck I don’t know. Stuffy? Wiki says ecological devastation was dooming mankind yet again. 

Anyway, the original team flew in a ship shaped like an Atari logo, had the logo on their shirts, would use references to 2600 games and occasionally have to perform actions that mimicked gameplay from cartridges like Breakout, Defender and Berzerk, among others. As thin as that link between the two products might be, the second series is even thinner, keeping the logo-shaped ship and the logos on the team uniform while abandoning everything else.

The opening of the book has Marvin Champion, looking way beyond middle-age, his teenage son Chris and the enigmatic female warrior Dart looking to steal the Atari shaped spaceship “Scanner One” from the museum where it’s being kept. Scanner One was the ship Marvin and his prior teammates used to find New Earth and defeat the constant menace of the Dark Destroyer. Marvin and Dart believe the Dark Destroyer is still alive (surprise, he is!) and is looking for New Earth to scout out new "real estate investment opportunities." By blowing up it up, of course. What? With a name like “Dark Destroyer” what are you expecting?

Chris’s method of distracting the guard is by phasing through the wall like some kind of ghost and scaring the crap out of the guy. I guess Marvin’s sperm must have had some “complications” as a result of his time spent traveling on Scanner One. My idea guys would be to look for ship that doesn’t irradiated your sperm in such a way as to make your progeny “Casper the Friendly Ghost”.

Notice a couple of things about this panel. First, Chris has chosen the name “Tempest” as his superhero handle. Is there anything about his powers that are wind related? No. Next this guard’s facial expression doesn’t really convey fear as much as it does a kind of expected confusion. Like he’s been smoking some bad space reefer and knew he’d be tripping later. If we could read his speech balloon, I’m sure he’s saying “That’s the last time I buy skunk weed from Jabba the Hutt.” Lastly, the caption right above the title suggests that the five members of Atari force don’t actually meet until this very issue. This is issue 5 of the series. Talk about today’s decompressed storylines and I’ll point you to the first 5 issues of Atari Force. Sheesh!

Also note the pedigree of the talent involved with this issue. Gerry Conway, Ross Andru and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. All of these guys are top tier writers & artists. Why would they sign on to a project like Atari Force? My thought is the chance to break away from standard superhero stories and the ability to do inventive things like have a team book where the team doesn’t get together until issue 5. The fun of depicting a space opera and drawing alien races and alien landscapes. The thrill of exploring strange new world and seeking out new life. Either that or they were forced into by Joe Orlando.


They succeed in stealing the ship. Just as they are about to board her, however, Martin’s doctor butts in. The doctor’s a green, big-headed Canopian alien named Morphea, which is odd because I thought Morphea was something they gave you at the doctors to put you under. The way Morphea talks in annoying “aliens need a cute dialect”, refer-to-myself-in-third-person-speak, she’s going to put me under. Martin doesn’t allow Dart to knock out Doctor “this one” Morphea, for reasons that he just “can’t explain” except for saying “She’s my Doctor.” So Morphea joins up as crew person number four.

Meanwhile, an alien shaped like a big furry rat, whose name just happens to be Pakrat and is a thief by trade, is being chased by his law officer brother Rident. He manages to sneak aboard Scanner One before the hatch fully closes. His brother Rident seems a bit ticked off. I’m thinking it’s because he’s going to have to tell Maus, their Mother and Vermean, their Father. Seriously now, how many alien race names can sound like Earthling English words for giant furry rodent?


However he came about his name, with Pakrat on board we have our five Atari Force members. Even if Pakrat doesn’t know he’s doing anything more than hitching a ride, that is. Martin tries to dump Morphea at the refueling station, only to get a counter proposition: She’d sign on as ship’s doctor if they help rescue a patient of hers from the station they are docked at. This patient ends up being a giant, immensely strong alien-elephant lifeform named “Babe” with the mind of a four year-old.

So now we have our sixth team member, which is odd because I distinctly remembering that commentary box on page 2 saying there were only going to be five Atari Force members. Someone needs to go back and recount. (It’s not me, by the way)


A criminal inquirie is started back on New Earth with one of Martin’s colleagues from the first series in attendance. Rident states that Martin must be some kind of criminal (well, he is. He did just steal a whole spaceship) and draws the incorrect conclusion that he’s in league with his brother. Martin’s shipmate Dr. Orion (No relation to Darkseid and THAT Orion) tries to set the record straight about Martin, his crew and their altruistic intentions.


I’m not certain why the book needs to take time out to restate the obvious. I picked up this exact same information by reading the preceding ten pages. I’m not sure why the writers, or Dr. Orion decided to sum things up for me AGAIN. Guess they thought that the Atari gamers that were this book’s primary audience were all ADD or something. Rident isn’t the least bit swayed by any of this and goes on to flaunt the fact that he’s out of his jurisdiction. But it sounds like he is holding a personal grudge.

The council, possibly mad about having to be in this scene with all the pointless exposition and no action shots, decide to give Rident a ship “on loan”. In their words, “What he does with it is his affair.” My thought is this the council’s way of saying “In your face Dr. Orion! See what happens when you bore us for hours on end with your plot and character summaries. We could have had cool poses. We could have been heroes. Maybe gotten a spin-off mini-series. At least a one shot special. Instead we got four pages of us sitting in chairs. Curse you Dr. Orion.”

As Rident flies away, we get a hint that he’s not playing with a full deck of marbles.


Tempest uses his power to leave the crew for a vacation on a tropical island. That’s a pretty handy power to have. I’d love to go to Club Med every night instead of coming home. Pakrat is found by the crew in the meantime and cornered, which is not to his liking.

To paraphrase Patrick Swayze: “Nobody puts Pakrat in the corner!” Before anyone can bust out with (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, Hungry Eyes, or even She’s Like the Wind, Pakrat is stunned and comes to in sickbay. He’s made a part of the crew and everyone heads for the command deck for Martin’s big reveal about what their mission is going to be.

As Pakrat Jar-Jar's it up a bit, you have to wonder why is that probe so important?


You mean the mystery enemy everyone else believes died in the first mini-series?

Well at least you’re accepting all the risk for everyone’s lives, Martin.

No pressure there Chris. Dad’s going to give you plenty of time to think about it…

…or not. Wait! Couldn’t you just encrypt the information so Dark Destroyer couldn’t read it?

NO IT WASN’T. Oh well, Good luck Atari Force! If you find the Jupiter 2 space ship, tell Dr. Smith I said “Hi”.

No sooner does the ship slow down from hyperspace or warp drive or multiversal hoof’n it than it comes upon the bad guy’s space ship. Here he is folks. Proof that Martin isn’t crazy.

Although the Vader-ish helmet doesn’t do much for me, I do dig his crazy far-out bent gun. That thing looks like it was designed to shoot around corners and stuff. With Double D’s appearance the story comes to an end. Just like most nights at a strip club.

Atari gaming platform held the playing field for several years, but committed suicide long before the advent of Nintendo’s NES system. Around 1983, public sentiment turned against console gaming. The market was flooded with video game consoles from various manufacturers with their own small library of games, carving up the software that actually made the 2600 so desired. Also a flood of poorly received titles (ET and the port of Pac-Man) were over-produced, leading to lots of red ink at Atari. Add to that the rule of “fifth year decline” that every console since has emulated, and Atari couldn’t develop an alternative to the 2600 that would sustain the company.

As for Atari Force, its days seemed numbered before it even began. The ongoing series got a “game over” with issue number 20 in 1985. Even a one shot special in 1986 failed to revive interest in the series or the characters. Consider it a wasted “continue” quarter. By now, the ins and outs of who owns what part of the property (Just like with ROM) probably make it impossible to produce new AF stories or reprint the old stuff. If outer space sci-fi soap operas turn you on, save up a quarter or two and head to the discount bin.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas 2015: X-Factor #27

And a Beastly retarded Christmas to you, too.

I have a love-hate relationship to the X-Factor book. X-Factor was born out of Marvel’s need to rape the X-Men franchise for everything it could. 

Not content to be busting the charts with the Uncanny X-Men book, Marvel decided back in 1986 to launch a new series using the original five X-Men. The five created by Stan Lee way, way back in 1963. Most of these characters had drifted off from the title after Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and crew joined in 1975. Maybe it was more like they were pushed so far out of the spotlight it was hard to get one panel per issue. 

Where had they wandered off too? Beast slummed with the Avengers for a bit. Angel and Iceman joined the Los Angeles superhero team the Champions before hooking back up with Beast as part of the short-lived team of Defenders. Cyclops had proven to have a bit more tenacity, hanging on as leader of the X-Men until losing the title to Storm. He then settled down with a hot redhead of questionable parentage.


Marvel’s enormous problem in “getting the band back together” was the fifth teammate. Jean Grey a/k/a Marvel Girl a/k/a Phoenix had been killed in one of the most dramatic storylines to come out at that time. 

Her “Dark Pheonix Saga” swan-song was one of my first trade paperback collections and a treasured memory among hard core fans. Dilemma of dilemmas! What should a sales-hungry corporate entity do?

Enter several comic writer heroes of mine to tarnish the memories of X-fans everywhere. Writer Kurt Busiek came up with a brilliant idea for bringing Jean (you guessed it) BACK TO LIFE. Sort of. His ploy was a simple one that hadn’t been used since the days of movie serials – that of misdirection. See Jean was never killed. Many issues before her death, she had been replaced by a powerful cosmic force, her body hidden in a egg-like cocoon at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This cosmic force impersonated Jean until she/it was blasted to smithereens on Earth’s moon. Busiek relayed his ideas to scribes Roger Stern and John Byrne who played out the saga of Jean’s awakening in the Avengers and Fantastic Four books. Ta-daa! Instant history eraser.

This signaled one of the worst trends present in comics today: character death followed shortly by resurrection. I can’t count the number of heroes who have bit the big one only to come back hale and hardy less than a year later. So far we’ve had a full Lazarus executed by Superman, Superboy, Green Lantern, Flash (make that two different Flashes), a Robin, Thor, an entire group of X-Men, Hawkeye, Jean Grey (again), the original Bucky and a host of nameless others. When I originally wrote this in 2009 waiting in the morgue were the recently deceased Batman and the autopsied body of Captain America. Must be a lot of money in killing people off, because comic book companies can’t get enough. So strike one against X-Factor is that it created a trend in murderous sensationalism without a care for how it affects the fans, the character or the stories being told. And to me story trumps exploitation every time.

In truth I enjoyed the launch of X-Factor more than I should have. They were not new characters to me, but they weren’t “my” X-Men. I came on board after Giant-Sized X-Men 1, so Cyclops and Jean were the only two characters I knew as part of any X-troop. Beast I knew from George Perez’s Avengers and I knew Iceman from the “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” show. So there was no waxing nostalgic about the regrouping of this first set of X-chaps. Yet Bob Layton’s words and Jackson Guice’s unique pencils won me over. I collected and loved every issue. Until issue number 6.

Issue 6 saw Layton leave the book as writer. In his place stepped long-time editor and comic book legend Louise Simonson. And while I admire Simonson’s skills at creating interesting new characters, her run on X-Factor provided one of the longest string of “nails on a chalkboard” scripting experiences I’ve ever encountered.

For those of you (I see you in the back there) who don’t know who Louise Simonson is, I’ll run the numbers by you. Louise is the lady who created the pre-teen hero squad “Power Pack” (much beloved by yours truly), the villain Apocalypse, co-created Cable with Ron (perspective impaired) Liefield, co-created Steel during the death of Superman arc and was an editor for comics back when I was still in diapers. Her writing credits are the aforementioned Power Pack, consecutive stints on New Mutants and X-Factor and a long run on Superman: The Man of Steel. She also managed to snare one of the most talented comic illustrators around as her husband, the magnificent Walt Simonson. Oh, and she’s very beautiful. Stunning, in fact.

But for all my love of her work on PowerPack, I find myself equally repulsed by her style on X-Factor. The plotting never quite hit a groove with me. With the exception of the introduction of the mega-villain Apocalypse and the few issues of the Fall of the Mutants crossover, there isn’t much to recommend her run. The characters were subject to drastic changes that neither made them more interesting in the current storyline nor created any kind of lasting dramatic tension. But the art routinely rose to the level of fantabulous, so I picked them up anyway.

Issue 27 was a Christmas issue. I can remember buying it off the rack as one of my weekly pulls back in 1988. The book was one of those must-haves for me because I was such a die-hard Walt Simonson pencils fan. It clearly wasn’t his best work, but anything he did ranked higher on my list than 80% of the artists out there. Plus the core group of characters included my favorite mutant (Cyclops) as well as a couple of my second tier contenders (Beast, Iceman). Yet still there was something that kept the book from ringing my bells. Yes, I found the group of young mutants “rescued” by X-Factor annoying and without any standout, neato cool powers. (pfft, pyrokinesis is so yesterday’s news.). But this was not enough to dim my outlook on the title as a whole. More troubling was the character plotting, which amounted to heaping on piles of personal trials and tribulations while reducing each of the principals to levels of angst worthy of acne-faced teenagers a week before the senior prom. That still wasn’t the major issue though. What bothered me most was Louise’s writing.

What was so bad? It’s like several small issues that happen to be personal pet peeves of mine. Let’s start with the first one: pointless exposition breaking the “show, not tell” rule. An example from page 2 is below. X-Factor (and their young mutant sidekicks/students) have arrived at the top of the damaged Empire State Building, site of their latest battle with Apocalypse. The plan is to use this as an opportunity for some much needed image damage control. They’ve invited the press to the unveiling of their gift to New York for causing so much trouble, a gift that after a bit of thought seems to be the most retardedly stupid stunt since WKRP threw live Turkeys from a helicopter. But more on that in just a bit.


It’s a scant two years and three months into the book’s run, yet only now have Jean and Scott started really becoming romantically involved again. Even after Scott’s abandoning of his wife and child for her. He subsequently  went back to find she had disappeared and all records of her existence gone as a way to prove he was still a hero and not just a deadbeat dad with superpowers. So he’s basically been moping around for 26 issues. Now with Scott’s wife and child pronounced dead and gone, he’s going to rekindle his romance with Jean. Good for him.


Simonson (the writer) has an excellent opportunity to show Jean and Scott’s budding feelings, but instead has the annoying mutant trainees tell us what the sweetheart duo’s status is instead. It is offensive and aggravating to be spoon feed information like this. Consider this dialogue strike one. Not only is it bad storytelling but it has the added effect of making us wish the youthful charges had less speaking parts, even the mute one.

So after the X-kids exposition, we get strike number two in the very next panel. It happens many, many times in the book. See…if you can…pick it…out:

What? Did every character graduate from the William Shatner school of public speaking? Why all the pregnant pauses? It would be funny if it didn’t occur once every four or five frames. Some character becomes confused and suddenly…every word…is too much…effort to…spit out. Bones,…I’ll…need a moment…to compose…myself. Not a good sign when we haven’t hit page three and I’ve already started to detect the suck meter rising.

And speaking of suck meters, the problem they saddled poor Beast with was a mind-numbingly stupid one. Literally. Beast was always the big-brain scientist of the X-men. Hell, of the Avengers too. Multiple PHD’s, scientific accolades, a real-life Poindexter. It was one of the very neatest aspects of the character that he would be, as Stan Lee put it, “the most articulate, eloquent, and well-read of the X-Men to contrast with his brutish exterior.” Yet Simonson (again, the writer) decided to infect poor Henry “Beast” McCoy with a virus in the prior issue that not only made him sub-normal in intellect, but would permanently rob him of mental capacity each time he used his prodigious strength.

I am going to admit that I have no insider knowledge and this may have been editorial's idea. But I’m going to go on record for stating that I think the true reason for “dumbing down” the Beast was due in large part to cover up a deficiency in Simonson’s ability to write in the voice of that character. In fact, I find a majority of Simonson’s characters in this book speaking in very simplistic terms and are essentially interchangeable with the exception of costume and power set. Which is so sad, because her Power Pack brood were written so well. 

Anyway, the idea to change him to “retardo” Beast is itself retarded, and, like his ailment, gets worse the more often it is used.

While we have hitched a ride on the old retard train, this next story development is a doosy. First we barely evade coma territory while the X-juniors prattle on about what each of their powers are to the assembled media. (Yeah, we get it. You have lame, forgettable powers and will be killed off by Marvel management within 5-10 years. Shutup and sit down.) Then the reporters get a treat as Iceman uses his raging, out-of-control mutation to create this:

That’s the top of the Empire State Building, of which the antenna was knocked off in the fight with ‘pock-a-lips. And Iceman has just crafted a giant ice sculpture of a Christmas tree to take its place. An enormous solid block of ice, easily weighing more than the (mostly hollow) antenna that was there. Is there anyone but me that sees anything wrong with this? Because if X-Factor wants to gain positive publicity, I’m not sure that running around undermining the structural safety of populated office buildings is the way to do it. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. Post 9-11 we tend to call individuals who do that “terrorists.”

Yet there it stands: a monument to bad ideas.

Page five also holds the third dialogue strike too, and that is the “random crowd noise.” Again this is mostly an issue of the show-not-tell rule being violated, but it seems amplified by the facelessness of the speakers. When you are in a crowd of random people and something happens, does everyone feel the need to vocalize every detail that they see? No! Real people don’t talk like that. It’s reserved for people in badly written dinner theater shows. Oh, and apparently in Simonson’s X-Factor comics as well.

This third dialogue strike should have done it for me. I mean if I can’t make it to page six of a 30 page book, I really need to give that title up. Sadly, I plugged on through Simonson’s run and into Whilce Portacio’s. I have no shame when it comes to Walt Simonson’s work. How I got by ham-fisted dramatic scenes like this one, where Scott finds out his wife is alive then dead again from a local TV broadcast, I’ll never know. Must have had lower standards back then or something.

Good heavens! It gets WORSE! Now Jean is even thinking in fits and starts. It’s enough to make ME tear up.

That awful scripting. This angst stuff played much better in the 80’s than it does now, but even for that era, this work was over the top. In story terms all of Cyclops issues with his un-dead…er, NON-dead wife who now just became dead again makes Jean realize that in the past two years worth of issues she never once called her own parents to say “Hey, I’m not dead anymore.” O-boy! What kind of numbskull comes back from being deceased and FORGETS TO TELL THEIR CLOSEST NEXT-OF-KIN that they are alive?

Anyway, the annoying X-prepubes eat up several pages, first talking about how sad that a children’s hospital got damaged in the fight, then discussing how cool Apocalypse’s high-tech sentient Ship is now that it’s to be their new home, and finally discussing what to do with all the gifts that are arriving from grateful city dwellers. Everyone can see for a mile away where this is going. In the spirit of Chirstmas the kids will give their presents to the needy boys and girls. The only hold out on giving them away is the feisty, bitchy and selfish teenage girl “Boom-Boom.” She is also the only one of the five that’s allowed any personality. While you might think that would make her interesting in some way, the truth is it just makes you wish she’d be killed by one of Iceman’s badly planned decorations.

Anyway, back to Jean…

She shows up on her parents door after being declared dead and she’s worried because she didn’t pick them up any Christmas presents? Really? Is everybody in this book mentally challenged? Seriously, this is trying even my patience. This is just not how normal people act. Or mutants for that matter. Hell, it’s not how emotionless Vulcans act. 

They are happy to see her of course and welcome Jean back with open arms.


When Jean returns to the kids, she finds them delivering the presents. There’s a brief scuffle with two guys that want to rob them because they are pulling a sleigh full of presents around but this is a one page fight tacked on because there isn’t a single bit of conflict going on in the book. Sometimes that can be interesting. Say in something like “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man.” But here it’s just boring.


Walt’s art works as much magic as it can to redeem the story, but by now we are numb and senseless. Nice Santa-Beast though.

And we end with The Four Horsemen and Apocalypse ominously toasting the fact that X-Factor has his ship.  Note how un-Ivan Oozey he looks.

For more Apocalypse fun (and perhaps a more balanced look at Mrs Simonsons' contributions) check out my review of X-Factor #68 and a twisted history lesson about the A-man himself.

With that, I hope that everyone has a very merry (if Crapbox-free) Christmas. Now let me go dig under the tree and see if I can find any more Kid's Stuff toys.