Monday, July 31, 2017

Ball and Chain #2

Are superpowers cheaper than divorce lawyers?

"Act Two, Scene One: Martial Law”
Writer – Scott Lobdell
Art – Ale Garza and Richard Bennett
Letters –Robbie Robins for Idea + Design Works, LLC
Colorist – Nick Bell
Editors – Rachelle Brissenden
December 1999

I’ve enjoyed many of Scott Lobdell’s Generation X books that have found their way into the Crapbox. Also, I possess lots of single issues from his intriguing X-Men arcs (X-Cutioner’s Song, Fatal Attractions, Phalanx Covenant, Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerance) that aren’t complete wastes of time. In general, my viewpoint of Lobdell leans toward the positive end of the spectrum.

I know he’s had some controversy from 2011 and 2013 that may have turned off readers indefinitely, and if you are one of them I completely understand why. I however, give his books a chance.

Like this one from 1999 that appears to have fallen off the face of the Earth. I don’t see it traded or listed in his bio or anything.

The Ball and Chain miniseries spanned a scant four issues before blinking out of sight. The story involves a couple on the verge of divorce who find themselves possessing superpowers triggered when they are together. Beset by supervillains and aliens, will Mallory and Edgar Bulson’s relationship survive? Will they find that adventure and excitement rekindles their desire to be together or will they try to smash each other to kindling with their new-found abilities?

I must admit the story had me mighty intrigued. I found myself rooting for them NOT working out their issues and going their separate ways. Neither of them is particularly unappealing, it just seems cliché to have them fall back in love when a majority of marriages end in divorce. I don’t wish them harm, just want that at issue four they decide to be good friends who fight aliens, but see other people and live separate lives.

Probably in the minority on that count.

Let’s meet our couple, shall we? Of course, the Crapbox never delivers an entire run of anything (except Spawn, but who counts that?), so we begin our meeting at the start of issue number two, with Mallory and Edgar going at each other while floating above the remains of their apartment. Their abode has been ruined by an attack helicopter sent by a bad guy we meet later who wanted their powers for himself. The exact nature of all this will become clear as we go, but first let’s meet the happy pair, eh?

Not quite marital bliss. The assault ‘copter pilot notices it too and gives his younger co-pilot some insight.

I agree with this: when husband and wife argue, there is no other sound like it in the universe. I recall it well from my days with my ex-wife. I would rather rub a bag of rusty nails across a chalkboard than go back to hearing the screeching sounds we would make in our disagreements.

I like that we have witty banter here. Lobdell gets buy in from me on that fact alone, so I settle in to see where this all leads.

First the attack helicopter co-pilot makes a serious error by interrupting the bickering instead of just firing…

…you’re gonna regret that…

Ah, yup! That’s exactly right. Never make a couple angry at you when they are angry at each other. Not if you want to live. And that’s non-superpowered couples I’m speaking of.

The copter lands on a garbage barge and we are back with our “happy couple.” Mallory realizes they are flying and suddenly starts flipping out.

As you could expect, this causes her powers to cut out and a short plummet down the side of a building ending…

…in her not being a street pizza, thanks to an assist by Edgar.

Watching these antics at street level is a very unhappy bruiser, our main human villain of the piece. Appears our pair intercepted these powers via some kind of alien meteor strike (or that’s what I gather from this and the following page) that our hulking business suit laid claim to but did not intercept in a timely fashion. He is also behind the helicopter attack.

As this is going on, the Department of Public Works is examining the crater left by the meteor and they miss discover something: a green holo-head suspended above a super-science floating drone. Meet our book’s answer to Zordon, as he is here to exposition dump the plot at some point, how the heroes’ powers work and what they are really supposed to use them against.

We will catch up with him a bit later in the book, but for now we turn back to Mallory and Edgar, on the edge both figuratively and literally.

You’d think this would turn out okay, but instead it goes South almost instantly. I feel that Mallory and Edgar turned a corner sometime before the book even began and there isn’t really a way back for either for either of them. They are over a hump that relationships don’t come back from. To prove my point…

…Mallory flies off in a huff to find somewhere else to spend the night.

Next morning, the floating head thing attempts to make contact with Edgar…

…but he doesn’t do mornings, so that clearly is not happening. So, the head shifts his attention to Mallory, who is busy making some changes.

When our green floating head calls, he doesn’t mess around this time. Transporting himself to Mallory’s hotel room to explain the danger she and Edgar face.

Mallory tries to contact Edgar at work after listening to head-on-a-hockey-puck, but Edgar won’t pick up or return her calls. Which leads to this bit of inspired dialogue that I found intensely amusing.

Since the phone clearly isn’t working, Mallory rushes out to Edgar’s work after finding out some very important info from out head buddy. She just misses him by a hair’s breadth, however, which might end up being fatal.

That’s because Edgar is being followed by some suspicious ninja fellows…

And as Mallory races to catch up with him, the conversation becomes why this is so important.

It seems for their superpowers to work…

Not at all unexpected. In fact, completely telegraphed. However, that isn’t to say that it doesn’t raise an interesting question or two for the next two issues. Will they stay together just to fight crime or will they get back together permanently?

Whichever it is, I’d like to find more of these as the writing was sharp, the art clean and the entertainment value high. Just hope they end split up. Mallory and Edgar clearly weren’t made for each other.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shark-Man #1

Don’t be fooled – It’s really good!

Writer – Ronald Shuset and Steve Pugh
Art – Steve Pugh
Letters –Steve Pugh
Colorist – Steve Pugh
Additional Layouts and Art Assist – Garry Leach
Editors – David Elliott and Gary Leach
Editor-in-Chief – David Elliott
October 2006

File this one under “Dumb name, good book” in your collection.

Seriously, this one came as a total surprise. I discovered this little fella floating around in the .50 rack on the bottom shelf at Half-Price Books and after a quick read through (had too – I mean look at that cover with all that rich color, those outfits, and the shark belt buckle that looks so inconvenient. The book screamed “move me to the top of your reading stack!”), I was more than mildly surprised.

Now that I have read it, I have to dig through the Crapbox to see if any more made it in unnoticed.

The why of that is simple: this book hooked me. The art looks marvelous, the story is derivative of the Batman mythos, and the book ends on a cliffhanger setup that made me want to know where it would go next. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Let’s get started, shall we?

Shark-Man reads a lot like a Batman book, but it is a Batman book set in an alternate and violent universe. 

We begin on the deck of this luxury ocean liner called the Pacific Dream. The captain of the ship is regaling two passengers with tales of the sharks in the waters below them, currently in a feeding frenzy. He explains that islanders believe the eating habits are actually a tribute to a huge fearsome shark-god, large enough to bite their ship in two. I think he’s full of whoey and just looking to get into the young girl’s bikini briefs.

Something unnatural breaks the surface…

These bullet shaped objects are submarines equipped with jet engines. They quickly hole the ship, sending all the passengers and crew into those very same shark-infested waters.
The movement is actually a ruse to draw Shark-Man, who was heading to disrupt the very same group of pirates from hacking the city’s bank account and making off with all of his (and everyone else’s) money. This is clearly a distraction, but one he can’t ignore.

Note the interplay here. We have Shark-Man, who is billionaire Alan Gaskill, totally riffing the Batman hero vibe. Edgar, his faithful man-servant, pulling an Alfred Pennyworth completes the setup. We’ve seen this trope used so often that it fits like a comfy pair of loafers. Immediately we know the archetypes being used. That means we can shortcut a bunch of setup and immerse ourselves in the story without hesitation. And it is a really good story.

Alan arrives too late to be of any use to the passengers. They are already fish food. I wondered if Alan had any shark empathy powers that would come into play here, but apparently not. And while all he can do is watch, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t try save someone.

Visually the book is freaking fantastic. I thought the cover looked great, but usually the interior of books like this look muddy or overly dark. Steve Pugh’s sense of balance and use of bright neons in his color pallet prevent that. The book feels vibrant and powerful. I love scenes like Shark-Man standing on the top of his hammer-headed Sharkmobile backlit by the sun.

I have to warn that the book is a bit dark, however. If this IS a Batman book, it’s the Killing Joke or possibly one just as violent and bloody.

Look at those stunning panels, however.

Shark-Man goes to confront the pirates who have killed all these people and are also stealing all of his money.

He grabs the nearest bullet-sub with his shark-tooth finger-claws…

…applies a small explosive device and…blammo! This makes the other sub driver quite upset.

I’m showing full pages here, which I am loath to do usually. This is a review site, not a substitute for Pirate Bay, so printing only the panels I want to focus on is usually my intent. However I am showcasing what Pugh can do with a page. I love the touches like the ocean floor shown in the bottom left leg of the tranquil middle panel. Couple that with the inset picture of the bullet sub outlined in glowing orange-white and red, the juxtaposition of which shows even more the different temperaments between these two opponents. It is so great when the art tells the same story as the narrative.

Likewise, the opposite page where Shark-Man plays chicken with a bullet sub shows a cinematic build-up and payoff. It is around here that the book netted me as a reader. I liked the way the story was being told and felt invested in the character, in part because we know this archetype so well.

From the shattered remains of the bullet sub comes a tiny sub that attaches to Shark-Man’s ship, tracking his movements. Edgar informs him that he is broke, as well as the city he shepherds. That’s not good news.

On the brighter side of things, we turn to Alan’s son Tom and his date Jenny. Tom seems the okay sort, if a bit conceited. Jenny works for his Dad and she is called in to deal with what is rapidly unfolding into a huge crisis for all of these characters. Tom, of course, ducks all responsibility and interest in these proceedings, apparently due to a rift with his father.

As crisis after crisis begin to pile up, Alan arrives just in time for the Governor of the floating city Alan has built to begin his crusade to put him behind bars and seize complete control. I love how Shark-Man’s concern isn’t about the political implications of what is happening, only the chance that some survivors might have been rescued.

Alan leaves Edgar at the “Sharkcave” and heads up to face the music Governor Kane is playing. Edgar is wearing some kind of new fangled techno helmet that lets him tap into all kinds of data and information, for all the good it has done them so far. He’s literally Alan’s “man in the chair.”

While we are on this page, just look at the vibrant glow of that image. It feels alive and pulsing with neon energy. I love the vibe and power Pugh put in his paintings. And I’m going to say this right now, Ronald Shusett has cooked up an ending with Pugh that will leave you begging for more.

I feel the competition between the graphics and the storytelling trying to top each other. Pugh pulls out all the stops in creating Alan’s city on the waves. New Venice looks spectacular, however Governor Kane’s power grab floating over all the beauty mars much of that wonder. His words even reach Tom, who decides to stand with his Father in his time of need.

Alan arrives at his office on the heels of the Governor’s broadcast. He mentions that he will have to call in favors to refinance New Venice IF he can avoid being thrown in jail. A priority message from Edgar has him send Jenny away. The call is something sinisterly unexpected: the enemy pirates have found the cave.

Sooo…Edgar and Shark-Man’s hideout with his very cool monitoring equipment and the Sharkmobile bite the big one in a fiery ball of underwater “poof.” That was unexpected. Who could be behind all of this?

The Shadow-King, a new nemesis, who appears in Alan’s office via hologram. Alan isn’t afraid though, his icy exterior not cracked by this trickery. He throws shade and Shadow-King, if that’s even possible, and asserts he’s in control. Man could give Bruce Wayne tips on being unflappable.

Unfortunately, the Shadow-King isn’t just an illusion, which he proves by shoving a large blade right though Shark-Man’s heart. This book is not going where I thought it was going, but I have to say…after losing our Alfred, Batmobile, Batcave, Wayne millions and now our Batman, I’m decidedly interested in what twists lie ahead.

To which Shusett replies: Tom arrives ahead of the police, meets Jenny in the hall and asks her to delay them while he talks with his Dad…

…which she does a crummy job of because he yells out upon finding his Father face down with a huge knife in is back.

Which isn’t good, as he will now be blamed for his Father’s death.

That’s where issue one ends and I NEED MORE!

This is a hugely good start. The archetypes are washed away (pardon the water pun) and we are ready to start anew with the next generation. However, we’ve throw down IMMENSE blocks to that happening, a great evil to overcome and a city’s populous at stake. Good job guys. I’m intrigued. I want to know more.

But likely I won't.

Shark-Man got two issues under the Thrill House Comics imprint although they show to be six months apart in cover date. Perhaps Shusett and Pugh wrote themselves into a corner? I’ll have to see if that issue is anywhere near a Crapbox to find out.

Image picked up the title the next year in 2008 and it ran for three issues with additional help on art and story, however they rebooted the entire thing. By then, an entire year after the first issue came out, people lost complete interest. Sad, because this had the makings of a really interesting tale. 

Too bad its ship has sailed.