Monday, September 28, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part IX: DragonStrike #1

From a dumb-downed version of the AD&D game comes a dumb-down version of an actual comic book story

By 1994, TSR had watched their thunder get stolen right out from under them. In 1989 Milton Bradley and rival British fantasy RPG producer Games Workshop developed a scaled down version of RPG rules playable on a game board. The package, called Hero Quest, was like D&D-lite. It pitted a “game master” who was responsible for monsters and traps against a group of four adventurers each of a different character type.

Hero Quest proved remarkably popular, and in two short years had spawned four expansion packs, three novels, and, most troubling to TSR, both an Adventure Design Kit to help players design their own quests and an Advanced HeroQuest version that looked a bit too much like competition for TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. If Milton Bradley succeeded in indoctrinating new players into their RPG system, future sales of AD&D products were possibly in jeopardy. Something needed to be done, and quick.

In 1993 they finally had something playtested and ready for market. Say hello to DragonStrike, a game meant to steal those players back from Hero Quest. The differences in the two games show how much TSR wanted to one up MB/GW. Hero Quest had two maps, DragonStrike had four. Hero Quest had four playable heroes, DragonStrike had five. Hero Quest used six-sided die for simplicity, DragonStrike stuck to the AD&D convention of different dice for different rolls. But best of all: only DragonStrike came with a training video/movie.

 Okay, maybe not "best of all" isn't quite the right word...

The video intro is HERE. Not for those squeamish about bad acting and inconsistent Scottish accents.

Get the hidden political meaning of “As usual, you overestimate your congressman.” Discover the King’s magic Throne of Hiding. Gaze upon the Elf as he cleans his bow… with his tongue. Wonder what the female Thief really means when she says “Are we gonna stand here talking all night or are we going to nail Teraptus?” Consider the Warrior’s people-management skills. Listen as the nature-boy Elf screws up a wolf’s howl and turns it into something that doesn’t exist in nature. Hear the unnecessary and insane schizophrenic ramblings of the Owlbear foot solider. See the Thief’s very literal skill of “flattery”. Watch the party’s talent at needless tightrope walking across a room with a huge floor. Hear the DM tell a character “At your own risk!” like he’s being a real dick. Become confused at why the Wizard says “Gesundheit” while walking through a secret door. Ponder if Orcs ever watched Three Stooges shorts. Learn where Stephen Sommers got the idea for the sequel to 1999’s The Mummy. Become concerned with the moral implications of shooting arrows near your friend, even if you “don’t know them very well”. Discuss the size of the Dwarf’s “hammer”. Be amazed by the graceful ballet of the Solid Gold Dancers…sorry, I meant Fire Elemental. Defeat the dragon, save the day and then watch as the game box itself spontaneously combusts. It’s worth the price of admission – Right here!

Not that Dragon Strike the game couldn’t sell itself, but TSR had a pretty good success with putting some of its other properties in comic book form, so they took a chance on this one too. They brought in the extremely talented Jeff Grubb as writer. Grubb helped design two of TSR’s most popular worlds (Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance), had three Forgotten Realms novels under his belt and had helmed the DC Forgotten Realms comic for over two years. For a product like the board game which could have such an important impact on the company’s future, I’m sure they thought this was a shoe-in for a great story. It’s here that we find out it’s not the talent of the guy sometimes, but what he’s given to work with that makes or breaks a product.

We begin sorta where the video begins, with our Warrior and Elf. Only this time they are in battle with zombies and there is no annoying floating head talking to us. In truth, I miss that floating head. He was pretty much the best thing about that video. I know that isn’t saying much.

Page one also highlights one of the main problems with the DragonStrike comic: lack of first/last names. Every character in the book is addressed as their race or occupation. Thank heaven there’s not two Elves (or Warriors or Thieves or…you get the picture) in the same vicinity or there would be a total communication breakdown. “Elf, your pants are on fire!” “No they’re not.” “Not you Elf, you Elf!” I understand they are trying to remain faithful to the board game’s spirit, but there is such a thing as being too faithful. Take this brief exchange where the Elf talks about how smart the Warrior is:

It’s suppose to be funny because Intelligence and Strength are attributes of the characters in the game. The Warrior has a low Intelligence, but one of the highest Strength scores of all the characters. Then the Elf says the Warrior has low Intelligence, which he does. Then the Warrior says, but I have high Strength, which is also true. See how funny that in-joke is? No? Let me explain it again…

Moving on, we make a joke about how the Elf can sense something wrong because, as the person playing the Elf character knows, he’s in tune with nature but the Warrior can’t sense any difference. Hilarious!

That’s the second problem with the book, using game terms as punchlines in dialogue makes for jokes that fall flat. Even for those of us who understand what you are trying to do. As an added benefit, it just confuses people who aren’t in the know. Congratulations! You are making the book suck for both market segments. I really believe that someone high up in TSR was making decisions on how Grubb should write this for it to end up so poorly. Scenes like this:

…are just too “cute” once you realize they are referencing the game and are embarrassing to read. My guess is they are playing this in the mold of Gammarauders with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Sadly, that doesn’t work well here either. I could pull out examples of this all day, but I’m going to stop now and concentrate on better parts of the story. Like this well-handled couple of panels with a merchant who’s been rescued from brigands by the combined effort of the Warrior and the newly arrived Thief.

Also this part where the Wizard, who is double-crossing the main bad guy Teraptus, has a unique use of a Wand of Magic Missiles. Looks like it makes the perfect Dragon dental instrument. In the real AD&D game a Wand of Magic Missiles would just make a dragon cranky, so he’d probably chew you more thoroughly.

So as the Wizard limps off with a tooth stuck in his back, Teraptus turns back into his human form. He’s injured and mad so he sends Death Knights after the Wizard to be sure the he doesn’t survive having the chomping he’s already had. Sorry but this last panel looks so goofy.

It’s like a eleven year old got a hold of the book and a black marker. I’m really shocked that he doesn’t have an eye patch and mustache. Hmm? That might look better…

So sue me for being young at heart and bad with Paint Shop Pro. The exact same thing happens next in the book that happened in the video. Namely, King what’s-his-face’s banquet is interrupted first by the half dead Wizard and next by the company of Death Knights sent after him. The last of them is skewered by the Elf who gets prize points for over-acting in a comic book.

This is where the book cuts out, right before the party heads off to deal with the bad guy. And there are no follow up issues, just an admonishment to go play the game. I don’t think I’d be inclined to try DragonStrike after having played the real AD&D. Looks too scaled down and, sadly, kind of dumb. For me this is a definite strike two against TSR, one more miss and they should get out of the comics biz. I would like a few of those miniatures and that tape though. In fact, I could sit through that again…

*Goes to get popcorn.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, Part II: Batman #507

Happy Batman Day, Everyone!


Nyck'thing to see here, folks


It was one of the four biggest events in recent Bat-History, the other three being The Dark Knight; in which Batman dies fighting Superman (don't worry, he gets better), Death in the Family; in which Jason Todd / Robin dies fighting the Joker (don't worry, he gets better), and The Killing Joke; in which the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon / Batgirl rendering her a paraplegic (don't worry, she gets better).

Knightfall introduced us to the character Bane, a diabolical madman with a plot to destroy Gotham's protector once and for all. He releases all the inmates at Arkham Asylum, driving Batman to run a gauntlet of his old foes before facing Bane in a climactic battle of physical strength. It is a fight Bruce Wayne, in his weakened state, is ill-prepared for, leading to Bane lifting the Dark Knight over his head before administering a devastating drop onto his knee, snapping Batman's back.

Don't worry, he got better.

But in the meantime, Gotham needed a protector, so the injured Bruce Wayne tapped the recently introduced Jean-Paul Valley to take his place behind the Bat-mask. Or as we say, screw you Mr. Grayson. Previously Jean-Paul fought crime as Azreal, a costumed adventurer who had been brainwashed to become an assassin-enforcer by The Sacred Order of Saint Dumas, which I guess venerates that guy who wrote The Three Musketeers.

But I digress. Azreal turns out not to be the protector Gotham needs but just the one they get right now. He decides that the Bat-costume doesn't adequately shield his tender parts enough and there just isn't enough shooty-stabby-slashiness going on with it. So his brainwashing allows him to remake the suit to his own liking and what we end up with is, well, frankly quite silly.

That's supposed to be Batman.

In armor.

And a full helmet.

And Liefeld pouches.

And needle-sharp, razor-edged finger-claws.

And with wrist-mounted guns that shoot bat-symbol-throwing stars.

That's like Edward Sissorhands levels of sharp there. I have no idea how he could catch someone without injuring them, drive the Batmobile or relieve himself without injury.

It looks like the worst mashup of Lady Deathstrike and Night Thrasher imaginable. This replacement for Batman's iconic cape-and-cowl was almost as startling as Jean-Paul's use of it on Gotham's criminals, proving himself without compunction when it came to killing them.

Thus the opening of this story has Batman teaming up with someone Bruce never would, acting in a manner very un-Batman-like and looking like something that slithered in from the 90's Image comic's lineup. Written by Doug Moench with his tongue firmly planted in-cheek, the issue acts like it knows this pretender to Batman's throne doesn't deserve any respect by giving us these three "knuckleheads" as the antagonists.

Doug Moench can write a good story. I have several of his Master of Kung Fu books that are as deep and well written as any comics the House of Ideas had out at the time. But in this Batman issue, Doug phones it in. Those three up there are our villains of this piece, a trio of punks who ape the Three Stooges down to the last eye poke.

Add to this mess the product of DC's failed "Bloodlines" crossover event from the Batman annual and you end up with a story that is intensely unsatisfying. What was Bloodlines you ask? I have several of the annuals in question in Crapbox, but they looked so uninteresting that I haven't read them yet. Wiki tells me that it was crossover where by every 1993 DC Annual introduced a new and unusually lame superhero. The catalyst to all these pop-up, D-list newbies was each of them began as a normal person until they were attacked by an alien who sucked their spinal fluid. In most people this resulted in death, but for these lucky individuals, they got superpowers. It's as hackneyed as it sounds.

So our lame helper for this is Ballistic, a Korean-American former member of the Gotham City police whose special powers are armored skin, super strength, night vision and super-hearing. He uses guns as his primary offensive weapons though, relying on his training with the police tactical unit. This would not go over so well with Bruce Wayne's Batman. Jean-Paul doesn't seem to care.

So that's our setup: While wearing a suit of high-tech armor with gloves made from Wolverine claws, Batman works back-to-back with a demon-faced Punisher rip-off while fighting punk-rock versions of Moe, Larry and Curly.

That's the 90's comic buying experience for you in nutshell.

The issue is like one long unfunny joke on the audience. From Ballistic's single-minded pursuit of bounty money…


…that is hammered in over and over, diminishing any sympathy the audience might have for the character…

 …to Batman shooting criminals with deadly sharp projectiles…


…to really lame Three Stooges references.






DC was going through a very dark period at the time. They had just killed Superman, driven Green Lantern insane, cut off Aquaman's hand and replaced Diana with a different Wonder Woman altogether. None of it was as grueling as watching Bruce battered and broken, then tossed to the side. Perhaps I can give this issue a pass as the writer and artist needing to "blow off some steam" after being in the grim and gritty realm too long. And it is noteworthy that this more ruthless approach was rescinded a year later.

And as we said, Bruce Wayne got better, came back and kicked Jean-Paul out of the limelight. Thankfully.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

El Gato Negro #1

When this “black cat” crosses your path all it brings you is good luck

Azteca Productions came out with El Gato Negro in 1993. A labor of love from fellow Dallasite Richard Dominguez, the book followed the adventures of one of the first Hispanic comic book superheroes. The book met with critical success, but was forced to halt publication after four issues. After a seven year hiatus, El Gato Negro reappeared. All the resources I have show only one issue in existence of what was suppose to be a four part miniseries in 2005. After that I show him popping up in several guest appearances in the "War of the Independents." Guess this cat only had three lives? 

Or maybe not? Mr Dominguez had mentioned a possible movie in the works starring the character, even commenting that he finished a treatment of the screenplay recently.

Note that in the above paragraph I stated that the book was produced in Dallas. That means that there is a good chance of me bumping into Richard Dominguez at some point in the near future. Richard was the creator, writer, artist, inker and letter on the first run of EGN, giving up only editorial duties to his wife Olga. I’ve seen pictures of Richard and even though he’s older than me, he looks like a pretty big guy. Even so I’m going to be completely honest in reviewing EGN #1. Mainly because you wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t. Secondly because, outside of a slight grammatical error or two, El Gato Negro is one of the best books in the crapbox.

El Gato Negro is a superhero tale that takes place in Hidalgo county, near the tip of Texas along the Rio Grande Valley. With a population that approaches almost 90% Hispanic, it only makes sense that any dude wearing tights in the area would be Hispanic as well. We begin our tale with two very bad “eses” who’ve just made a prison break. They are hoofing it across I-281 while being chained together at the ankles. They’ve got plans of meeting a big gang boss named “El Graduado” who will help them hide out from the cops. Which is good, since they shot one while making their escape. Suddenly a voice out of the night stops them in their tracks.

Wow! Richard has an edgy Ron Lim-look about his art without all the shiny surfaces. His figures are clean and he does a marvelous job on facial expressions. I’m in love and we’re only on page three. In addition the storytelling is textbook superheroing 101. It’s like watching the Burton Batman movie beginning with a slightly different twist. Makes for a good intro to the character. Let’s see where this action sequence leads.

Nicely done. A bit of splashy action sequence then the old monologueing to no one in particular. Can I see a show of hands of how many of you are “in” at this point? No? I need to show you a bit more? Well, ok.
Next we briefly show Officer Miguel Bustamonte of the Texas Rangers. He’s like an unsympathetic Jim Gordon who wants to bust El Gato almost as much as he wants to bust criminals. He settles for the two chain gang escapees this evening while El Gato gets away. All this has the local gang boss very pissed off at his son who is El Graduado and is currently running things. Tell me it’s not wrong to love these panels?

Meanwhile Officer Bustamonte is having breakfast with the local social worker, Francisco “Pancho” Guerrero. Francisco seems to have an unnatural interest in El Gato Negro, something is matched by Bustamonte’s in intensity if not intent.

There’s a simple plot built up so far with easy and accessible characters who are shown as realistic people instead of stereotypes. There is tons of dialogue used to flesh out the characters. The art is ultra-clean, clear and stylish without being inaccessible to the casual reader. I counted about three or four minor grammatical errors (usually a missing “a”, “an” or “the”). So WHY ISN’T THIS BOOK STILL AN ONGOING!?!?

How is it that we can suffer through so many bad books from the majors and something like EGN comes along and all of us miss it. Sure Dominguez is well thought of by industry peers, but what I’m asking is why didn’t the reading public embrace his art, story and characters? Why isn't EGN celebrating its 250th issue right now instead of ending at less than a handful? What is wrong with us? I’m only half-way into this book and it just keeps getting better. Like the montage of Francisco showing how selfless he is during his average workday.

Character building stuff there. And as any comic fan worth his weight in back issues could tell you, this is all building up to the big reveal that Francisco is El Gato Negro. But could that same fanboy have anticipated that the discovery would show that his grandfather is also Francisco’s mentor and was El Gato Negro before him. And that this would be exposed in a series of panels that defy comic book conventions the same way McFarland’s early art did? No? That’s because this book has continued surprises around every corner.

Francisco’s committed to fighting crime. In a dream sequence we see his cop brother Mario get killed by vicious gang thugs. He spurns the advances of a hot mamacita to continue his nightly excursions. He even goes out in spite of newscasts showing renewed pressure from his friend Officer Bustamonte. And his next catwalk nets him a group of “coyotes” who are smuggling in drugs under the cover of bringing in illegals.

Look at that! It’s like poetry how nicely those panel transitions are handled. Don’t you love that middle sound effect superimposed behind the character battle? And look at the final panel, how easily those silhouettes reflect motion, character and action. I cannot gush enough about Dominguez’s art skills. Skills that go beyond just being pretty pictures but do an exceptional job at telling the story. Anyway, El Gato has a run in with one of the illegals who isn’t quite what he seems just before Officer Bustamonte shows up.

Even the use of speed lines doesn’t detract from the art. Mainly because Dominguez uses the technique sparingly and to good effect in the panels he does add them to. The phony “illegal” gets ventilated by the coyotes who were meeting this group on our side of the boarder and El Gato discovers this faux immigrant was carrying loads of drugs strapped to his chest. Bustamonte shows up before El Gato can do much else except take what could be a potential clue to where this vato came from.

So some keen detective work leads El Gato to Val Tex’s warehouse where he runs into a bit of trouble.

Which is where our issue ends. There’s no ads in this book, which means it had no source of capital other than Azteca Productions and while the cover price was a bit high for 1993, the book’s contents were worth that sticker. If only more of us had picked it up. I mean how could a book that contains things like this gadget page not be worth a few more coins?

The second series in 2005 did not have Dominguez as penciller or writer, only doing the inking chores. I don’t know if it was B&W like the original or if it was in color. I do know that it didn’t make it either, and for whatever reason that’s a shame. I’m looking forward to seeing Mr. Dominguez at the next convention or whenever. I’d really like to express my gratitude for the series he created, even if it was short and sweet.