Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Fairer Sex, Part XVIII: Menace #1

A comic that could greatly benefit from Mr. Wilson

I have a lot of respect for Jada Pinkett-Smith. I noticed her late in her career, when she was playing the girl Friday bit part in Damon Wayon’s A Low Down Dirty Shame. The movie was unfocused and poorly plotted, but she made the Peaches character worth watching. After that I paid attention whenever she was mentioned as part of a movie’s cast, usually raising my estimation of what those efforts would produce. So I missed several years of her TV credits including her run in A Different World. I also had skipped on Jada’s dramatic turn in Menace II Society. However, since Shame I’ve watched her camp it up in Tales from the Crypt, hold her own onscreen against Eddie Murphy in the awful fart-comedy The Nutty Professor, negotiate the Matrix in two movies as the cool-as-ice Niobe, handle business in a pre-Batman Gotham, marry the equally talented Will Smith, pop out two kids and act as frontwoman for the heavy metal band Wicked Wisdom.
It is with heavy heart that I have to bring this string of praise to a halt and tell you about the comic book Menace.

Menace was a work published by Rob Liefeld’s Awesome imprint. Jada is listed as creator and writer on the book. Art chores are handled by Dan Fraga, who’s been all over, most recently in Wolverine. Fraga looks bit like Choi mixed with Turner, which isn’t bad given today’s standards. Color was handled by the husband and wife team Richard and Tanya Horie. While the issue tops out at 21 pages of Menace material, the whole book feels lite on actual story. Not only that, the story that is there is a direct rip-off of two other characters. But let’s start with the controversy before we start nailing down why this book earns such a low place in the Crapbox.

The actual history of how this book came about is a matter of contention. Artist Dan Fraga in an interview with Sequential Tart pretty much dismissed the whole title as a Liefeld ploy to get a movie contract with Will Smith. His direct quote:

“Do you want to talk about failed attempts? For his own publishing company, Rob had a book tailored for Will Smith’s wife, just long enough to get a movie deal with her husband. Once papers were signed, the book deal was over.”

Note that Dan’s saying this is pretty damning, since Fraga wasn’t just an artist at Awesome, but also one of Liefeld’s closest friends.
The movie deal that Dan mentions here was for a property called “The Mark” which, according to Dan, was an almost blatant rip-off of Starbrand. Awesome’s Comicon preview for that year had both Menace and The Mark in its one-shot sketch flip book, although the pages for The Mark were done up like movie storyboards instead of comic book panels. Oh, and The Mark’s cover showed a very Will Smith-ish guy in tights.

Rob responded to these accusations of course with his usual style and grace:

“The one absolute error in Dan's post is the idea that I signed a comic book deal with Jada Pinkett-Smith in order to create a movie deal with Will Smith on The Mark. Everyone who worked at Awesome who can read time and follow a calendar will see that the dates don't match up. The Mark was sold to Will Smith in July of 1997, the deal was finalized with contracts in December of 1997. Menace, the book created by Jada Pinkett for Awesome began in January of 1998 and was temporarily shut down in March of 1998 when the primary investor had financial problems. I resumed production on the series in the fall of '98 and the book came out at Thanksgiving of '98. The series didn't continue because Jada decided not to go forward with it after the first issue which I know she enjoyed.”

That’s all well and good, except for this excerpt in the back of Menace (published in November 1998):

The Road to Menace

It’s not often you receive a call informing you that one of Hollywood’s hottest young talents is interested in exploring a comic book project. Well, such was the case nearly two years ago…”

Nearly two years ago from November 1998, puts the start of the Menace project sometime in late 1996 to early 1997. Clearly the Menace book was well underway before Will Smith signed any contracts on The Mark. The fact that his wife’s book wasn’t published until end-of-year 1998 not withstanding.

So what is the real story behind how Menace came to be? Was Liefeld using Jada’s desire to produce a comic (which, by the way makes her sound like one of the most awesome chicks ever, even if the work she produced wasn’t so stellar.) to ensnare her top rung movie star husband to a property he could license? Was all this just coincidental timing? We will probably never know.

But not knowing doesn’t stop me from putting forth my theory. *Remember kids, theories are someone’s best guess about something using the information at hand and that person’s skills at logical deduction and reasoning. SoC isn’t that bright and there is a large chance his theory is DEAD WRONG.

So here goes: I believe Fraga is correct in that the Menace book was part of scheme to get Will Smith involved in one of Liefeld’s properties. Let’s face it, Rob doesn’t seem like the most trustworthy guy, what with his reputation for mishandling funds at Image and similar stories. So Rob pitches and hooks Will at the same time as he makes a deal to produce a comic series for his wife. I haven’t said anything here that Dan didn’t, but I’m about to step off this limb and see if I can fly another idea: I believe that ongoing production of a Menace comic book would somehow obligate Will Smith to do a "The Mark" movie. I’m wondering if somewhere in the contract for Menace isn’t a clause that states words to those effect. 

There was one, single, uno issue of Menace produced. It had three covers, but still only an issue number one. Sounds sinister but is entirely plausible that Rob would surely give up the revenue of producing even a low selling title for the hope a movie property with an A-lister like Smith. Plus it would feed his enormous ego to no end to say he had a movie coming out, even if it was a stinker based on ideas taken from other sources.

My theory ends with Jada axing the series after issue one so Will doesn’t have a blemish on his acting career. It sounds too bittersweet, so it’s probably horribly way off base. *sigh*

Well, enough melodrama about “how” possibly the book got here. 

We need to concentrate on if it’s any good. And it’s really not. Dan Fraga’s art is the best part of the whole affair. He does sexy ladies very well.

Unfortunately this book needs more than eye candy. What it needs is to stop borrowing so heavily from Spawn and The Crow.  The story is decompressed to the point of us barely getting an origin story out in this issue, with Menace making her appearance on the last two pages. Her powers are completely unknown and since no follow up seems likely, will remain a mystery forever. 

I keep thinking I should make up some powers to give to her just so she doesn’t feel left out.
Our story begins with three hot chicks doing lines of coke in a Hummer. These lethal ladies are enforcers for a drug kingpin named Black who happens to be African American. I point that out because if he was an American Indian I have no doubt that his name would be Red. Such is the level of non-stereotypicalness in this story. Anyway, here is “Menace” (no one names their daughter Menace. Who’s her Father? Hank Ketcham?) and her girls preparing to make a drop.

I’m not sure which offends me more: the slutty way these girls are dressed, the fact that all of them are coke-heads or that they go by stripper names like Crystal and Taffy. I also started a mental count of words per page just to see what the top tally would be. This whole page has a sum total of 12. Moving on to pages 2-3 leads to an increase in word count to 17 across those two! You have to divide by two because pages two and three are one big pin-up of girls looking hot.

Yes, Dan Fraga can draw! The only bad part is that Dan Fraga is apparently drawing for a lingerie and fetish clothing catalogue. Our girls are headed for a club owned by the local drug dealer, Dill. I think that name is symbolic because it will rapidly become apparent that he’s in a bit of a pickle. 

When they get to the club (page 4, 36 words), they bypass the line waiting to get in which pisses off a couple of the chicks in line. They mouth off to our trio who put them in their place (page 5, 12 words- 4 “mouth sound effects”).

Not only can Fraga draw, but he has a great sense of panel layout as well. Looks like it really lends itself to telling a story. To bad this book doesn’t really have much of a story to tell. The girls enter the club and head for Dill’s office.

I’m waving my hands like I don’t care what happens next in this book, does that count? I expect that every hip-hop club you ever go to has a DJ that uses those exact same words. It’s not cliché or anything. Dan has two of the guys on the floor dancing like they are throwing punches. That’s not a dance floor I’d like to get out on. I do like the very brief back-and-forth between the couple on the dance floor. I only wish the story would rise to their level of wittiness.

Menace gets to the club’s backroom after submitting to two pages of frisking by Dill’s men. The henchmen trade lines like “Spread ‘em sweet cheeks. Ooh, You’re soft…and I bet you are juicy too.” which is entirely embarrassing for anyone above the age of 14 who might be reading. Menace and the girls come up clean and several younger members of our audience’s pants come up stained. 
We move from the soft-core porn back to our story. Menace delivers a staggering amount of blow which Dill checks out and approves. He counters with a suitcase full of cash which prompts Menace to unveil the real reason she’s been sent to handle this transaction.

Wow, Black has sent Dill a coke and a smile! Then just as Dill lets his guard down, Crystal passes Menace one of those two giant hair pins holding up her tresses. Menace makes Dill’s head the main course on a shiskabob and the girls proceed to mess up his henchdudes. Heels to the face, throat crushing and groin penetration are just a few of the hazards faced by Dill’s fellows this evening. When the dust settles, only Menace and her ladies are left standing. They beat a hasty retreat with both suitcases out the back window. 

While making their getaway, Black pages Menace and directs her to a specific street corner. She balks at stopping in the middle of making a getaway from Dill’s men, but follows his orders. This ends up being a large mistake on her part as Black has decided to rub her out too.

Spongebob Squarepants has less holes in him than she does. Menace is rushed to an emergency room where an angelic being appears. Is he here to ease her suffering as she passes on to the next life?

No! He’s here to punish the crap out of her. Now HE would make a great comic book main character. Floating around zapping everyone for all the stuff they pulled in their prior lives as they breath their lasts. Sort of like a very patient Spectre. I could dig that. Unfortunately this isn’t about him so much as what he does to Menace.

And it’s at this juncture that Menace finishes stealing from Spawn and moves on to The Crow. Our main character dies, is buried and is reborn wearing black leather with a face like a Mari Gras masque.

From the looks of things you can assume that the next few issues will be tales of revenge and redemption with Menace killing off the ones who did her wrong culminating with her settling the score with Black. 

And assume all you want to. This is the only issue of Menace that will ever see print. I mean, it came out in 1998 and even Liefeld’s latest book wasn’t 30 or so years past its solicited date. Jada, I’m sorry if this work doesn’t reflect your true writing talent. Mostly cause it sucks and stuff.

Let's all just put Menace behind us. Far, far behind us.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Movie/TV Tie-ins, Part XV: Star Trek #11

Peter David's stab at an ongoing gets Trek right through the heart

Here we are on cusp of being subjected to another Star Trek movie. Will it be a fun, mindless action picture like JJ Abrams first 2009 Trek film? Or will it turn out to be the head-scratchy, insulting mess that was JJ Abram's Into Darkness(2013)?
I don't have a clue. I stay away from spoilers or production notes of movies I plan on seeing. In the case of Star Trek, I even stay away from them on the movies I actively DON'T plan on seeing. And this is one. I would love to not have to watch it, but Cthulhu-Boy (my son) may force my hand. I am not looking forward to the experience.

Sorry folks, Into Darkness killed this version for me. I don't give my money to series that screw up this badly. Ask the Alien franchise after Prometheus.

What didn't screw up even the least bit was Peter David's 1989 comic book extension of the Star Trek universe. Set after Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, David took the iconic original cast near the tail end of their movie career, mixed in his blend of new characters, a smattering of old references and spun the mess of elements into a clever, homage-heavy but still enjoyable monthly.

And David really knows his Trek stuff.

The book that popped out of the Crapbox this time was the middle act of a three issue story where the Klingon Empire has finally gotten James T. Kirk to stand trial for the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The charges? Murder (of Commander Kruge, played by Christopher Lloyd) and a violation of the Prime Directive (more on that in a moment).

Kirk has hired a hot-shot defense lawyer to represent him.
David gets a minor detail wrong here. The defense attorney in the story is named Samuel T. Cogsley, and it is implied that he is the same defense attorney who defended Kirk in Court Martial, Episode 15 of the Original Series…BUT according to the official Star Trek resource, that gentleman was named Samuel T. COGLEY. Before the vast expansion of the internet age, details like this were probably pretty hard to pin down, so let's not give David a hard time on this one.
What including the detail of adding Cogley or Cogsley into the story does point out is the level of fandom that David approached the series with. My friend Brian Hughes, of 3rd Degree Byrne fame and a huge Star Trek fan, claimed that after a while David including all theses call backs tended to bug him.

"Peter David has a tendency, as most comic book writers do, to tie everything into everything.  See his Next-Gen novel 'Q-Squared' as exhibit #1.  So you can expect any of David's Trek related comics will be chock full of ties to TV Trek, even if  it means using a character you only saw once back in the 60's."

For me however, I welcome David's nods back to TOS and enjoy the heck out of his callbacks and remembrances.

It is good that I do because this book is, as Brian so rightly puts it, "chock full" of them. Anyway, the charges levied against Kirk also include violation of the Prime Directive. Let's start with the opening augment from Cogsley/Cogley.

Nicely stated. We then hear from a new character from a prior issue of this comic book, The Salla of the Nasgul. David did a good job in creating the villain, a religious extremist/cult leader-type, even if he appears to have borrowed part of the name from Tolkien's Ringwraiths. The Salla appeared in issue number 1 of this run, which included an altercation with Kirk that I'll allow The Salla to explain. 

Before continuing I want to praise James W. Fry's pencils and Arne Starr's inks. While the books interiors are a bit sparse for my likings, the faces and anatomy really shine. It is neat to see photo lifts of the cast in their later years rendered so faithfully and I have to admit to a little bit of love for the book to have rendered them thus. We don't need a dashing 30 year-old stand-in for Kirk. We need a realistic older crew that fits in with the tone of David's storyline, which is exactly the direction Fry and Starr take things.

And back to that storyline, The Salla clearly has an axe to grind because Kirk didn't roll over and allow him to flat out murder his follower. This translates into a charge of violating the Prime Directive, which any Trek fan worth his salt knows is the principle of non-intervention in other cultures' affairs. And to be honest, a rule that Kirk has flirted with ignoring during his time in the center seat.

Looks like The Salla has reviewed Kirk's history. And that is where the book takes off into some great fan-love. This issue could show the screenwriters of JJ Abrams last outing how you do callbacks and nostalgia correctly, by incorporating them into the story in a way that is natural not just "Hey look, a Tribble! And Kahn! See! It's STAR TREK!"

Let's start with Salla's first witness, a gentleman by the name of Anan 7.

Sulu and his daughter throw out a nice little one liner on a different TOS character before we move on to who Anan 7 really is. I'll have to admit, I didn't remember him either until David has him explain his connection to Kirk.

Oh, yeah! The episode was called Taste of Armageddon. I remember it now. Two planets using computers to determine who lived or died in a virtual war that tried to make the tragedy of endless conflict "civilized." The populace would voluntarily walk into disintegration chambers if they were considered casualties of an attack. The upside would be that no architecture or art would be destroyed.

Sad that they met such a tragic end here, but they knew the cost of all-out war when they started. The idea should never be to minimize its impact in such a way that it is considered routine. Perhaps they aren't quite civilized enough to make peace.

So yah, Kirk did stick his nose in there a bit. Any way to turn this around on The Salla?

Great job, Cogsley!

Note how David understands the principles of the TOS universe. It isn't smash-em up, sci fi action, like the Abrams reboot. It is thought-provoking with very little action, but tons of dramatic punch.

THIS is Star Trek to me and always will be. The drama of a series of intergalactic morality tales interwoven with pointed moments of action that serve to move the story forward but are not, in and of themselves, the resolution to the current conflict. It isn't enough for two bad guys to duke it out in Star Trek as an ending. Trek is cerebral. It is about concepts of right and wrong. It should never be defined as "the physically strongest character is the winner so his side is right." It has always been about something deeper than that.

And that's what Abrams, who never saw the series before being tapped for the reboot, completely missed about Star Trek. We will see if Beyond gets any closer to that understanding.

Back in our story, the next witness is called while we get a nice scene of Bones and Spock quibbling. I think David doesn't want us to forget we are in a Star Trek book or something. 

And another thing the movies have missed so far about TOS Star Trek: yes, it is an ensemble cast, but Bones, Spock and Jim are not just characters. Those three are metaphorical stand-ins for emotion, logic and an almost id-like instinctual understanding and drive. When any two of them are in conversation, the audience gets a front row view of their own intellectual processes brought to bear on an issue.

I can think of no better example of this than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. The scene where all three of them discuss the ramifications of the Genesis device. Bones comes at the problem with moralizing and emotion, Spock with logical deduction and analysis and Jim with a desire for action and conflict resolution. It really is masterful how these three interact.

Yet this same dynamic has not materialized in either of the new movies. Not only that, the character traits are not present in these new versions. Bones is largely absent or sidelined to supporting roles, Spock is shown as a sullen, emotionally stunted child and Jim is more of a James Dean rebel with no sense of authority. What a waste of an opportunity.

But enough about that, on display here is a clear indicator of what that should look like. Great job, David, seriously.
Our next witness should be no surprise to any Trek fan. And David gives them a grand entrance with a breeze by of his character R.J. Blaise.

Oh, yes! It's the return of this fella. Make that "goodfella."

Bela Oxmyx, the wise-guy leader of Sigma Iotia II from the episode entitled "A Piece of the Action." Any trekkie worth his salt can see where this is going. First a bit of embarrassment all around though.

Amid the general humiliation, Bela does do something which hurts Kirk's case in a manner in which even Cogsley can't gloss over.

First Kirk tries to find out why Bela is there…

Then he takes a stab at explaining himself…

And if the judge won't buy that, he certainly won't buy what happens next. Just when it looks like Kirk could be off the hook…

…Bela skewers him. Ladies and Gentlemen, Kirk's piece of the action…

…and that's not all!

Well it's nice to know that little tidbit from the end of the episode isn't still a potential problem. If you don't remember why, go back and see it.

Next up is someone I didn't recognize.

Meet Leonard James Akaar, The Teer of the Ten Tribes and ruler of planet Capella IV from the episode "Friday's Child." Perhaps I didn't recognize him because his only TOS appearance was as a newborn, a child whose birth as the son of the slain Teer leader only occurred because Kirk bent the rules while directly confronting the Klingon interference in the planet's political struggle for their own gain. Or perhaps I don't recall it because Julie Newmar also factored heavily into that episode. She is a bit distracting.

Anyway, Akaar is VERY glad Kirk intervened to save him. He pins the Klingon ambassador's cape to the wall with a handful of pencils and then has a nice face down when The Salla considers questioning him.

I could go on and on about this book, but I think I'll leave it where David does: teasing an appearance in the next issue by the Klingon Emperor. 

DC's Star Trek, vol. 2 ended in February of 1996, getting a good seven year run. David lasted the first fifteen issues and then did a few one shots. The majority of the run was Howard Weistein and were decent to good. Still more than a year's worth of Peter David issues is a great thing and fans of TOS should definitely seek them out.