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.

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