Friday, September 30, 2016

Horror-ible, Part VI: Doc Stearn…Mr. Monster #8

  Halloween POST-A-DAY, October 2, 2016

Horror, comedy and superheroing don't mix, or do they?

If you are as old as me, you probably passed by Mr. Monster comics several times at your local comic book shop and never once picked up an issue. If you had you would have found the genre bending stories of Michael T. Gilbert and a rotating handful of artists making something that feels like at 1940's pulp newspaper tale between those covers.

You'd be part right in that assumption, since the concept for the character was derived from a very little known and little used (appearing 2 times) 1940's superhero who had lapsed into the public domain. Gilbert saw an opportunity there and took what he needed to craft the Doc Stearn / Mr. Monster character, infusing it with a horror/humor hybrid. The concept has bounced from company to company over the years, teaming up with various standard-bearing characters and spinning out tales providing both chills and chuckles.

The books are anthologies containing two or more tales with Michael T. Gilbert on scripting and occasionally layouts. A rotating stable of artist handle pencils but of the two issues I found both had decidedly pulpy, Spirit-like designs. I found the story concepts to be unique in a way that would provide an occasional chuckle or creep-out. I'm sure you'll want to take a gander so let's jump in on the first of two tales issue 8 tackles.

The morning in Doctor Stearn's hometown of Potterville finds these two street sweepers, Edgar and Chauncey, arriving at a gruesome discovery. A pile of bloody ATM cards beneath the Potterville Bank of Americana's instant teller machine. This is enough to get Mr. Monster, Doc Stearn's alter-ego to investigate. Here he is staking out the machine to see what's afoot.

An overnight withdrawal becomes a bloody deposit of an unexpectedly horrid kind. Notice how much effort goes into making the female victim appear unsympathetic? These are standard storytelling tropes to help us enjoy the mayhem without our conscience getting in the way.

Investigating that bank is what's next for Mr. Monster, so he breaks in using his "skeleton key" (that's made from real bones) and finds a gruesome scene.

Appears the Bank Executive in charge has sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a "free" workforce. Except for they aren't entirely free. Instead of money they take their payment in the flesh of his customers. Mr. Monster knows how to take care of him and his crew.

Or so he thinks. Apparently the bullets bounce right off the demons and one drops a gold bar on M.M.'s head. The Bank Executive doesn't have time to clean up two bodies and feels his indestructible demon army can protect him, so he just drops Dr. Stearn outside.

Except Mr. Monster is way more resourceful than that. The next evening he comes back armed with a very special weapon. First he waylays the Bank Executive with a wooden baseball bat and then he inserts a card into the ATM machine. Suddenly all of the demons turn first on their master…

…And then on each other. 

The commentary is from this police inspector who appears a bit miffed at Dr. Stearn. Then the ending of the tale is summed up in a long bit of exposition that I would sin anywhere else, if this wasn't so well timed. It did have me waiting with baited breath and besides the length of it, was pretty neat as a capper for the tale.

As for tale number two, it suffers greatly by comparison. First off the art isn't nearly as dated as the first one, losing that old-old school appeal. Bill Wray provides pencils, but they don't feel up to snuff here. See what I mean?

The story is pretty disposable too. Still Gilbert at the helm, Mr. Monster is asked to clear a green reptilian pest out of a building. He chases around for a bit and then learns it is part of a family of monsters living in the basement. He leaves them alone because the man who hires him is a jerk who won't pay him and this happens.

It's a much weaker effort that doesn't enthuse me.

Still that first piece is enough to guarantee a purchase out of me. As a whole, when the book shines it feels like an EC comic met The Spirit in a blender. When it doesn't, it is not offensive, just dull. Those high points make these a worthwhile find though.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TV Tie-Ins, Part XV : Cage #3

Someone needs to check the batteries on this 1991 Power Man series

I miss Luke Cage's flattop fade. I miss his "Sweet Christmas" catchphrase. I miss him wearing a giant steel tiara. I miss that open front disco shirt. And I even miss him holding up his pants with a length of chain.

I'm saying I miss this guy:

I know, I know. That's Luke right after his origin, born of white guy's imagining what a black superhero would be like. It was Blaxploitation, and I'm probably somehow a product of the culture of that time.

I still think he looks cool though.

I remember picking up those issues of Power Man and Iron Fist and thinking of how both characters worked outside of the realm of all the other hero books I was reading. Iron Fist was a white guy who embraced the wisdom and teaching of the Far East. Luke Cage was an ex-convict who now fought to keep the streets of his neighborhood safe while also working odd PI jobs to make ends meet.

These guys weren't Avengers material. The world they inhabited wasn't worried about Doctor Doom or Kang or Loki. It worried about street slashers and drug pushers and all manner of common REAL evils (usually with supervillains popping up here and there). And I enjoyed their tales all the more for it.

Not to mention the camaraderie shown between the two men. They really were two polar opposites who seemed best of friends.

After an altercation in 1986, Iron Fist supposedly died. Evidence was trumped up that made it look like Cage had killed his buddy, Luke was forced to relocate to Chicago. He was later cleared of all wrongdoing (and Iron Fist turned up not dead by reason of plant doppelganger) yet Luke decided to remain in Chi-town. Cage was the series that covered this portion of his life and filled in a backstory on Cage as a young gang member with past enemies who now wanted him dead.

I have to admit that this intermediate step between the original Power Man and the Luke Cage we see in New Avengers and Netflix didn't really enthuse me. The storyline from Marc McLaurin is so filled with unexpected flashbacks to build a new origin for Luke that they tend to clutter the narrative. Having C-lister cameos from Dakota North in each issue working to ALSO fill in Luke's past and to be a MacGuffin the bad guys need to acquire so THEY can find out Luke's past doesn't really turn me on either. In this two issue spurt, there's a Punisher cameo that has the flimsiest of explanations and a very unexpected ending. Like out of nowhere kind of unexpected.

To me it is poorly plotted.

And as it goes into issue 4, also badly dialogued. We'll get to that later.

The second nail in Cage's coffin is the art provided by Dwayne Turner and Christopher Ivy. Some panels work and some don't. I dig some of the character's facial features but there are moments where the art looks oddly distorted. And it doesn't help matters much that Mike Thomas uses such a heavy hand with his color selections. Take this first flashback scene.

All flashback scenes in the book are characterized by the backgrounds being warm reds, oranges and yellows. To say that makes them a "hot" mess is completely on the mark. They are also hard to look at.

I'll spare your eyes and tell you what we are setting up here. This is Carl Lucas, the youth who would become "Luke Cage." Lucas was a street tough running in a gang called the Rivals. With him is fellow gangmember and best friend Willis Stryker. The Rivals have a "West Side Story" thing going on with another gang called the Diablos.

Stryker in the past is the more level-headed of the two and pulls Lucas from the fray before he gets hurt or caught by the cops. Once home Lucas has to deal with the ire of his Father, a disabled ex-cop who wants more for his son than a life as a gangbanger.

These backstory pieces are integral to the over-arcing tale McLaurin is trying to create, but they don't appear to be well thought out or paced. This opening isn't bad, per say, but in this two-part Punisher tie-in we see them interrupt action sequences and good character moments in such a way that they take you out of the story instead of enhancing it. These just don't work for me due to placement.

Placement and that garishly bright color scheme.

The long game to this is Luke also has a straight-arrow brother. The brother thinks Luke's Dad would be better off not having to deal with Luke, so while Luke is incarcerated brother James lets Luke believe that his Father has passed away. He tells their Dad that  Lucas died in prison. Since Lucas has been going around in his Luke Cage alias, his Father is never the wiser. Private Investigator and "I almost had my own series" character Dakota North has uncovered some of this and a group called The Untouchables (oh, yes! We'll get to them) want the information she has on Luke as leverage.

For what, it isn't really clear at first, but the mystery identity of this man funding the Untouchables is what ties this all up.

Meanwhile, Luke is pulling a young lady by the name of Ana from an elevator that's been damaged by a blast from one of the Untouchables, Nitro. Yes, the same unstable explosive guy that set off Civil War. I hate him just for that very reason.

Ana works for the paper that advertises Luke's services under a deal that gives them rights to publish stories about his exploits. Dakota North works for them as well, it appears. It was North they were trying to snag before the elevator blast. No clue why they left without her.

And it is here that I start losing it on the art. I'm not sure who to blame for these panels. The pencils on the woman Luke is rescuing is amateurish in the extreme. Her head looks two-dimensional.

But what's more distracting is the colorist insisting on making the muscles in Cages legs look so weirdly shaded. And tone things down a bit too. So many dark solid colors doesn't allow for any of the subtle aspects of Turners pencils to even show. It's like a coloring book you've gotten back from a four year old.

And what am I to make of this? Part of me says that's a great shot of the Hulk. And then the other part says, yeah, but that's supposed to be Luke Cage. It is that mouth. Look at the size of it. He could swallow his own head.

I'm done picking at the art, but you see my problems here. Little distracting things getting in the way of enjoying the story. When the story decides to move forward, that is.

Luke rescues said lady from scary elevator and loose electrical wires. He has words with Dakota North and Ana basically saying they need to pay him for rescuing them and also that he isn't interested in taking any cases that involve finding the Untouchables. At the moment he's trying to help his young friend Troop find his parents.

Meanwhile, the Punisher is polishing his gun collection in this van outside the mansion where The Untouchables are training. Tombstone (from the Spider-Man books) is the only member not playing nice right at the moment, but these yahoos spend both books banging against each other almost as much as they do fighting Cage and the Punisher. Nitro and Tombstone being usually being the ones messing things up for everyone.

Our third baddie and leader of the troop is Hardcore, a supervillain known for his past in the porn industry. Okay, you got me. I have no clue what he is known for but it looks like leaping and jumping.

And speaking of things you do with your legs, teammate four is Kickback, a human with scientifically enhanced legs which give him the power of (wah-huh-ate for it!) Super Kicking (yah, you guessed that) and limited time travel (wait, what?). That's right: he can kick himself up to three minutes into the past. No, I'm not going to try and explain how big leg muscles equals time travel.

While the bad guys squabble and the Punisher eavesdrops, Cage is busy with Troop, his young client/protégé. They wander into a bank at the start of a robbery and this is probably the most enjoyable the book gets.


I like the quips and the attitude and the heroism. But all too quickly we are back to the mediocre "golden" days of Cage, done all up in orange of course. In the past he and Stryker get caught by the cops. When we return, this bit occurs that ends with Dakota North threatening to shoot Cage in the unmentionables.


The breaking down the door seems overlydramatic, by the way.

I have to admit that the more I look at the art, the more I make excuses for it. It isn't good, but it is a product of the "proto-90's" when extreme began to creep into every book made. And Turner appears to be trying to walk the fence between old-school Marvel style and the more extreme 90's style. It isn't working for me. It feels very off and I catch hints of proportion distortions that made that Brave and the Bold look so terrible.

However, I'm trying to like it. Really.

In the story, Dakota's associate calls up dropping a code word that he's been captured and forced to place the call. It is the Untouchables, of course, still looking for info on Cage. Info they could easily get in the next series of cut-scenes if they could stand what all these orange and reds will do to their eyes.

Since they can't, they are going to endure a beatdown at the hands of Cage and Dakota North.

But while Cage takes on Nitro and Tombstone, Kickback appears to have orders to nab Dakota. Which he does while all this brawl takes place leading to convoluted crap that only takes place in comic books.

First Tombstone tries to go toe-to-toe with Cage, which doesn't work out so well. See steel is harder than rock. Nitro is upset that he hasn't got a clear shot.

So Cage obliges him by getting Tombstone out of the way of a shot and into the way of Nitro's face. Now most people would blame Cage. Nitro isn't "most people," as we shall soon see. Nitro is special. Like short-bus special.

And speaking of not bright things, Tombstone and Cage have brawled their way through the building and out into the street where the Punisher is waiting.

Nitro wakes up and is becomes upset at Tombstone for Cage's action. I mean, Tombstone wasn't asking Cage to swing him around by his feet, so chill yourself, Nitro. But explosive isn't just his power, it is his whole personality, so he's off to mess up everyone. Also Kickback takes a shine to Dakota, apparently.

And the art takes a big step down. Those teeth are giving me more Brave and Bold flashbacks.

More silly plot contrivances occur to create fake tension and messed up action. Like Tombstone id'ing the Punisher and claiming he's the one behind the Untouchable's actions. (oh, and that "out of costume" remark by the Punisher? That refers to the time he was turned into a black guy. Reviews of those will be coming out soon.)

He hopes to turn Cage against him, but all he really does is get Cage to bash Tombstone into Frank's battlevan. Which Frank helps with for some reason.

Same way Nitro decides to explode North and Kickback because…I'm gonna let him explain.

Really, no help there. Lucky for us Kickback can move through time. Cage arrives just after the full page explosion thinking Nitro killed Dakota. Cage flips out, saying "No one dies!" over and over again, due to this past event where Stryker stabbed another kid. All of this pathos is followed by the Punisher drawing down on Cage because he somehow now believes this nonsensical train of illogic.


We exit with a one page Epilogue of a new Power Man catching a bad guy in the desert only to actually take the guy hostage as a setup for a future issue. A storyline which sounds better than everything in this issue.

I'm not a fan of these. The later shaved head Luke Cage stories, while more realistic and grittier, were infinitely better even if father from steel tiaras and chain belts. These are far too convoluted. And it appears I wasn't the only one who thought so as the Cage series only lasted a scant 20 issues.

Luke Cage would bounce back from this, of course, harder and stronger and now on Netflix as well. It wouldn't hurt for him to wear an open-front disco shirt once in a while though.