Sunday, December 10, 2017

Centurions #4

Christmas Toy Tie-ins:
Kid’s Stuff
Centurions #4

I can’t tell if clever satire on sexism or completely sexist

"Double Cross”
Writer – Bob Rozakis
Artists – Don Heck and  Al Vey
Special consultant – Chuckie Rozakis
Letters – Carrie Spiegle
Colorist – Julianna Ferriter
Editor – Jonathan Peterson
September 1987

Another in the long list of Kenner also-rans, Centurions were a line of toy action figure good-guys fighting evil villain bad guys. The all-male lineup were molded plastic with holes in chest, back, arms and legs that allowed kids to poke on missiles, guns, wings, rotors, jet engines, etc. We’ve seen this concept before in the Micronauts line, but never to this extreme.

Or make that “PowerXtreme,” the catchphrase used by the good guy characters when adding their transformative bits and pieces to their “Exo-Frame”(ie, the holes molded into the figures) before taking off to battle the evil cyborg Dr. Terror. The not-so-good Doctor’s goal is to make everyone in the world one of his cyborg slaves, but none of that is gone into in this particular issue.

Centurionsgot an amazing 65 episode first season of 30 minute animated cartoons to helpsell the figures to boys. I say boys because while diversity came later on with the addition of two other figures, at no time were any of the females in the show / comic given their own toy.

And the animated show had a pretty good pedigree, with contributions in story and design coming from none other than Jack Kirby, Gerry Conway, and Gil Kane. It began as a five-part mini-series followed by an ongoing show. Sadly, the executives were not too interested in showing them in order, so some episodes featured characters not introduced until a later show.

The comic came out after the cartoon had moved into rerun territory, which is odd. Typically toy and ad execs time these things to maximize impact. Only thing I can figure is this was either a rush job on the show or a botched attempt at revitalizing the franchise. A kind of “last gasp.”

I show the last "first-run" show happening in December and the comic didn’t come out until June of 1987, six months later. The book lasted a paltry four issues in the US, but received seven issues in London Editions Magazine across the Atlantic. Mainly this was due to added science fiction tales that were outside the Centurions universe, some of them reprints or stock stories.

While I haven’t watched the show, there are several episodes that appear to have a more mature bent to them, featuring ambiguous endings, complex character motivations, and villains acting in ways that make them sympathic.

So here we go, jumping on as the ride comes to a halt, not really knowing the characters, the struggle, the stakes or why I even care. What we open with is exactly what the cover promises, which is a surprise.

We begin our story with our three floating heads (mustachioed Max Ray, kill-happy Jake Rockwell, and womanizer Ace McCloud) trying to stop Doc Terror’s latest threat to New York City’s World Council Headquarters from his flying Strafers attack craft.

I honestly didn’t like the characters from page one. For one thing, Jake is super happy to be shooting and killing things. And while Ace isn’t exactly sharing in that particular feeling of love of destruction…

…he’s so impulsive that he almost sends a giant missile straight into the heart of the city without though of how that will affect the people living and working there.

The Centurions are blessed to have Crystal Kane as their operator, who works as the defacto leader of the Centurions. Sure she makes a bad call here by giving Ace the wrong battle suit thingie, but her mistake is understandable given her reasoning.

And don’t think I didn’t catch Jake’s overt sexual harassment by calling her “Crystal, honey” and “sweetheart.” It is plainly stated that he’s a ladies man, which, when applied to most men of this era, means that they were macho proto-bros who though of women as objects or possessions, if they ever thought of them at all.

I have an intense dislike for Ace and Jake. Will Max prove to be any better?

He’s all business, so of course I do.

Meanwhile Jake is all blow things up! Blow things up! Which I suppose is fine since we don’t think these planes have people in them.

As this boom-boom in the sky is going on, Ace changes into his Skybolt suit (with another “Honey” to Crystal). Then they both are “Skablamm”-ing their way across the sky.

Max takes care of the launch platform, leaving only, two…no, one Strafers in the sky.

Which both of the boys fight over shooting down. Literally fight. Like children. They fight over it like small children. Max breaks up this squabble and they all comment over how much dust each of the drones gave off when they blew up. 

As they are talking, Crystal teleports them up to Sky Vault, their JLA like satellite, for a little sexual harassment from Ace.

Which is oddly reciprocated…surprising Jake and me as well. These two didn’t seem to be that cozy.

Crystal has another assignment ready for the Centurions immediately, sending Ace off in the orbital interceptor to take care of a pesky meteor swarm. Ace is too busy hitting on the now “into him” Crystal to really pay attention to what he is doing out there, but Max asks a very obvious question…

…but Crystal quickly puts Max in his place: which is underwater and not asking questions. I love that the book mixes casual sexual pressure on the only woman in the book yet at the same time she starts treating these guys like dumb bo-hunks who wouldn’t know how to tie their shoes without her.

Next she sends Max and Jake to Yellowstone to fix Old Faithful because it is building up too much pressure and threatens to blow up the park.

That “get in the hole, Max” line seems a little…sexual.

Through their timing and teamwork, the two men create a second geyser vent right next to the original, earning them a “good job” from Crystal.

Which is really sad, because this isn’t the real Crystal.

This is Amber, daughter and co-conspirator of evil cyborg Doc Terror, the sworn enemy of the Centurions. We learn that the “dust” from those Strafers was actually a chemical agent designed to allow Doc Terror to intercept and transport the Centurions to Doc Terror’s fake Sky Vault. It doesn’t explain how Doc Terror has copies of their different suits, but whatever.

When the Centurions return this time to the REAL Sky Vault, they are met with armed guards who try to arrest the trio.

Crystal quickly explains that the Centurions “missions” have actually messed up a bunch of important stuff. Things quickly get heated and the guys start to turn on each other…

Jake does his lunk-headed best to say it was Crystal calling the shots, but she’s having none of it. They package the boys up and transport them down…

…only for the trio to be needed for an emergency mission. Which, if you were just duped into doing stupid things under the guise of someone pretending to be your boss, you’d think they would be more careful about undertaking…

…but no. Not even when they are transported back UP to an awaiting Sky Vault that appears to be vacant except for Crystal. The armed guards that were JUST THERE have vanished. But that’s okay, Crystal has a “mission” for them: squash some giant insects that Doc Terror has released on Long Island’s Jones Beach.

Max creates a whirlpool to splash the Hornets, ignoring all the ever-present and seemingly manned watercraft, while the others…

…blow the hell out of the beach trying to hit the crazy things.

And of course this is all a plot by our bad guy…

…to discredit and shame the Centurions project into being cancelled. 

Except he forgot one little detail. And that detail happens to be the brains behind the brawn.

Crystal suits up herself (never give me an action figure? I’ll show you Kenner marketing department!) and teleports down to the boys…

…who immediately want to shoot her out of the sky. Because they are imbeciles who think with their penis more than with their brains.

Even though she is clearly making no offensive maneuvers against them or the beach-goers, Ace fires on her moments AFTER she takes off her helmet, so he can id her.

She begins falling to her doom, so Ace races after her to save her, which leads to this.

Which Ace plays off as him attempting to discern the real Crystal from the fake one, but we all know it’s because he doesn’t want to sit through the HR department’s “Sexual Harassment is NOT Okay!” video for the twelfth time this month

They regroup with the rest of the trio then strip out of their Exo-Frames before Doc Terror can recall them to his satellite. As the suits arrive at Doc Terrors, we learn again that Max is the only Centurion who uses his brains for anything other that witty quips.

And in the end, the boys decide to hang out on the beach and let Crystal clear up all the hard feelings the top brass will have with them. They aren’t even in a rush to clean up the messes they’ve made. This only goes to prove that you should never send a Man to do a Man’s job…or something to that effect, honey.

The mild sexism, the over-the-top action and the odd mixed message of the ending has me scratching my head. Is the book trying to make its heroes seem like lunkheaded fools (except for Crystal) or is it trying to turn sexual conventions on their ear? I don’t have a clue.

What I do know is that the animated show sounds like it was a better vehicle for these characters than this ending to their limited series. Also, I know that this was the last time we’d hear of the Centurions for several decades. And perhaps that is a blessing.

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