Monday, May 28, 2018

Toy Story #1

Toy Story #1

Either I’m in a bad mood or this comic is extremely lazy

Adaptation – Bob Foster
Letters – John Costanza
Book Designer – Sheryl O’Connell
Editor – Hildy Mesnic
Editor Director – Katy Dobbs
December 1996
This is the ultimate in cash-in books.

By that I mean that aside from Bob Foster having to cut the movie content down to where it will fit into two issues and poor John Costanza having to letter this 23 page mess, there is little actual work that went into this comic.

Let me spin this back just a bit. When I was a kid, I loved Sci-Fi movies. And I was a Collector. So when Alien came out, I was in HOG-FRICKEN HEAVEN with the number of books that were out about Alien. I got the movie program, Walt Simonson’s Alien: The Illustrated Story, Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelization…

…and the Alien Photonovel, edited by Richard J. Anobile (Avon 1979)

The book was MASSIVE, containing stills from the movie and clocking in at 192 pages. I loved that book, as it took apart each scene bit-by-bit in photos that occasionally captured images too fast for your eye to focus on. It was illuminating in its completeness.

It helped a bunch that I consider Alien one of the few perfect “10” movies out there. Everything about it, from the performances, the special effects, the script, the directing, the editing, and the score…it all WORKS in a way that few movies do. I can still remember many an afternoon spent with my LP of the Alien Soundtrack playing while I was laying on the floor with my headphones on reading the photonovel.

When I saw the Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Photostory book, I snatched that one up as well. 

However, I found it to be a diminishing return. The movie was essentially a TV episode writ large, and even though the effects shots as the Enterprise travels through V’GER’s guts were rendered with careful detail, the book was as sterile as the movie when it came to conveying emotions and this suffered greatly. I would still peruse it for the visual appeal some of the effects shots conveyed.

So picking up the two-part Toy Story books seemed like a sure thing. Here again was a movie I felt was a perfect “10” in photostory form. This should have been a book that had me laying on my belly while singing “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and relishing in the nostalgia factor.

But it doesn’t.

Something about the book is off-putting, and I’m trying very hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. Perhaps it is that a majority of the Toy Story performances rely on the strength of the voice actors and not on the Pixar visual effects. Or more importantly, the nuances of those performances isn’t captured in any particular still from the film, but only when the digital animation is in motion.

Take this first page shot, for example:

Now, ignoring the HUGE disclaimer at the bottom that I included so you could see Marvel protecting the trademarks of every toy in the movie, look at the expressions of the two characters. I know this is the end of the first movie and what is happening in that scene. But if I didn’t…this looks like Woody just made an unwanted sexual advance on Buzz.

The longer I look at it, the more the various elements of the characters faces look like separate layers, unattached in any way. Buzz’s and Woody’s eyes appear to float over their faces instead of being a part of them. The odd contours around the noses and mouth of each form a weird gash like quality that is disquieting. If the story of these two toys is supposed to humanize them, the images this book conjures up does exactly the opposite.

And yeah, maybe part of that is this was Pixar's first real outing and it lacked much of the upgrades computer animation would receive in the years that followed. But still it shouldn't be this bad.

It doesn’t help that the movie opening of Andy playing with Woody and friends is rendered here in VERY condensed form (another weak point for me) but that they also appear frozen in place and unmoving. There is no emotion in this entire page, because it was all generated by the moving animation created by Andy’s play. It feels static and weirdly voyeuristic. 

To their credit Foster and especially John Costanza on letters, do what they can to liven things up, but even different font faces and Wordart effects can’t make-up for the empty, soulless graphics we are forced to endure.

Even as the toys get up after Andy leaves the room, we don’t see them in as alive in a natural way. They just morph into several awkward poses. It proves how much the animation MATTERED to the flow of the story.

The book works best when it allows only eight or less shots per page and even then, given the speed at which the action is shot it is prone to motion blur in the screen captures.

We get the iconic “Woody looking through Buzz’s legs” scene in one of these shots and it hits me how small it all seems. How the import of the book is muted completely by the two-issue format and the act of cramming everything it can in. None of the still moments are given time to breath. That slow pan up Buzz’s legs doesn’t happen, we are whisked off to Buzz’s next line.

This book fails for me. It might be enjoyable to a kid or a Toy Story completist, but as someone who loves the story it is attempting to tell, the comic is running roughshod over the story elements to meet a page count deadline.

Take the iconic “He doesn’t fly bit.” It is introduced well…

…but as I turn the page hoping for a huge shot of Buzz with lighted wings extended…you know, something WORTHY of that type of intro…I am crestfallen to discover that the falling with style sequence is carved up into nine panels in a page containing ELEVEN. Every panel looks like a postage stamp. It robs the book of any impact.

I have to give credit to John Costanza for lettering his heart out on this one. And I’m certain that Foster’s adaptation would have worked so much better if the title had been given four or six issues instead of two. They gave the original Star Wars six issues.

I don’t feel like padding the rest of the review with my complaints. For those curious about what the first issue covers, there is the Pizza Planet trip that becomes the focus four panels after the falling sequence. Those panels introduce Sid and Scud (in a single frame) and then the book finally gives Woody a moment.

I can think of several scenes clipped or cut before this happens, including the VERY important one where Buzz shows everyone that Andy wrote his name on his foot. And as sadden as I am that Foster had to close this overstuffed suitcase by cutting off any clothing items that stuck out the side, I do like the above inclusion. If only the rest of the book had slowed down to this speed and let the characters breathe like those four shots with Woody and the Magic 8 Ball.

But the book can’t keep that pacing, so we are quickly back into shoving 5 minutes of action and dialogue into Eleven panels of tiny cutscenes.

It’s here where the photostory medium fails completely. Given enough page count and big, BIG frames, this type of storytelling works. I can’t tell you how many moments I would savor as I thumbed through that Alien book and get sucked in for another complete read through. It CAN work, but not like this. Investing on this scale just creates a a series of out-of-focus, tiny panels that fail to gel into a story.

There are few sequences that work here. Remember how funny Woody and Buzz fighting after they fall out of the car at the gas station turned out to be? Well, all that entertainment gets clipped. 

And even when the book does get a sequence right, like the claw game intro to the alien squeaky toys…

…it takes a page turn to show the goofy alien faces that make the joke special. 

The Sid section works too…

…including the bit with his sister.

But for every part that feels true to the movie, I can’t help but turn my mind back to wondering how GOOD it would have been to allow a Marvel artist to draw this story out instead of making it snaps from the movie. And I come up with the book would have been a million times better, more inventive and might have fit better into the two issue format.

We leave our two heroes being tortured by Sid, but believe me, the audience is the one truly being tortured.

And that wraps up May, sad as it is to say. So many tie-ins left...untied? Well, that will have to be a mission for a future Crapbox month. For us, we have to battle on and by that I mean we have to head into June, where theme month continues with superhero vs. superhero! (and SoC vs a horrible-terrible work schedule that barely allows him time to post anymore)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Rocket Ranger #3

Rocket Ranger #3

A punishing Amiga title is turned into a passable comic

"Captured!”, “Escape!”, and “Sandwiched!”
Script – Roland Mann
Art – Khato
Letters – Gail Beckett
Editor – Kim Scholter
Editor-in-Chief – Dan Danko
April 1992

Cinemaware began publishing videogames in the mid-80’s with graphics that were considered extraordinary at the time. By current standards, they wouldn’t hold most teenager’s attention, but for those of us who grew up used to the static shots used in text-based adventure games, they seemed like an evolution. The company started with the swashbuckling Defender of the Crown, then it dipped into TV Sports titles before spiraling back around to making movie-themed titles such as The King of Chicago, The Three Stooges, Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon, and It Came from the Desert.

The game Rocket Ranger appeared in 1988, three years after the release of the big budget movie The Rocketeer came out. The Rocketeer was based off of Dave Stevens’ comic of the same name. Both franchises were clearly homages to the Commando Cody/Rocket Man serials of the early 1950’s (King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.). While similar in plot and action, The Rocketeer couldn’t claim the game was infringing on its copyright due to this earlier shared title.

The game consisted of two interconnected challenges. The first was a strategy element where you deploy five agents to different countries on a map of the world. The goal of this is to determine where the Nazis (your enemy in the game) are hiding items you need OR to create resistance in those countries which will slow the advance of the Nazis army. This piece was critical to the game, as the forces would destroy the USA in a matter of turns if left unchecked.

The second challenge was to fly to an area identified by your spies that had an item you needed, defeating enemies along the way. This part consisted of many steps. First came a form of copy protection masquerading as your character precisely filling his tank with the correct amount of fuel by using a secret decoder wheel. Next came a complicated series of timed button mashing as you attempted to make a perfect take off using the jet pack. Fail to get in the air correctly and you failed your mission. This failure would affect the strategy game timetable, allowing the enemy to advance unchecked. Too many failed takeoffs, and the Nazis would reach America’s shores.

The last bit was the part that most people were craving, Nazi crushing. Whether it was shooting down zeppelins, shooting through murder holes in Nazi jungle strongholds, or just good old punching the funk out of Nazi foot soldiers, this game delivered. IF you could get the past the first two challenges. 

Which is exactly this: You play a US Army scientist who receives a note from the future packed in with a rocket jet pack and a radium gun. The note says that Nazis have won World War II and have enslaved the entire world. Your mission is to stop their advance and prevent their mining of the mineral lunarium. Lunarium is both a floor wax and a desert topping, in that it both powers rocket travel to anywhere on Earth (or the Moon, more on that later) and it also saps the will of those exposed to it so they are unable to resist the Nazis. 

The finale of the game takes place in a Nazi stronghold on the moon where you fight dominatrix bearing whips and a floating alien spaghetti-monster who has been secretly funding the Nazi’s ambitions for its own nefarious purposes while simultaneously freeing the captured women who are forced to strip-mine the moon’s lunarium cache. 

To say the game goes off the rails story-wise a bit toward the end is not an exaggeration.

How is this comic book tie-in, however? Seems a bit late to the party, as the book was released four years after the game. And even though it was cross-platformed between Amiga, MS-DOS, Comodore 64, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, and the original NES, that was probably way past the game’s prime. The series did last five issues, however. I’m unsure if the title’s longevity was due to the popularity of the game, fans of the genre of jet-pack adventure picking up the title on sight, or what. What I do know is the comic series did not end on the same note as the game, but left that part open to a sixth issue featuring a climatic battle that never got released.

No, this book is all Nazi-punching--all the time, which was pretty much a license to print money back in the late 80’s-early 90’s. Let’s give it a look-see, shall we?

We begin the first of three “chapters” in this book with Tom Cory, the Rocket Ranger, in Berlin. He’s snuck into the Nazi stronghold to rescue American Professor Otto Barnstorff and his beautiful daughter/love interest Jane. However, as the title of this section is called “Captured!”, things might not go as planned.

It’s very clear from the short episodic format that the book is trying to recreate the feel of an old republic serial, right down to the cliffhanger endings. I’m certain the last issue showed this German solider creeping up on the pair as a way to build suspense.

Our hero and the two captives awaken shortly thereafter. Tom’s helm, jetpack, and radium gun have been taken, which allows Jane to finally see who was attempting to rescue her. It appears the pair have met in the past, but Jane requires a bit of memory jogging to recall they went to school together as kids.

Then our main Nazi baddy walks in on them. We learn later that his name is Coloner Jeermaster and I believe he is a minor villain that appears in one scene in the game, but for the book we require a “boss” we can boo and hiss at. That means the only Nazi with a name in the game becomes our nemesis. Also he speaks the kind of German that is sure to pronounce his nationality as “Chur-man”.

Rocket Ranger’s insolence earns him a slap across the face, a pigeon-English monologue, and a threat against his fellow captives. The art in the book centers mainly on the human figures using minimal backgrounds to accentuate their expressions and poses. The result is effective but tends to look like they are stuck in a empty world, an utter vacuum. It also adds a bit of fantasy element to the look of the comic that operates independent of the fantastical story. I’m enjoying the art, even as I’m noting the areas it differs from a standard comic of this era.

Under pressure from the German officer, Rocket lies that the weapons he has is a prototype manufactured in Mississippi, where the American forces have established an assembly line to produce enough for an army. This leads the officer to have to inform “der Fuhrer.”

With the baddy out of the room, Tom fills in his fellow captives on his ruse, while breaking his own bonds and then theirs.

Meanwhile, the book tries to mirror the “spy” aspect of the game with a cutscene of one of the operatives in a different country. Appears the Nazis are rounding up women (to send to their secret moonbase) and this operative wants O-U-T—OUT! before she gets rounded up too.

As we flip back to Tom, his escape appears to be on the verge of being spoiled…

…as an armed German guard blocks the doorway threatening to shoot them all.

And that ends the first episode, exactly like a serial would: on a cliffhanger with our heroes in mortal danger. Will they survive?

The answer is only one page turn away as we move on to “Escape!” which begins with a tagline and a recap box as if we are likely to forget what happened two pages ago. Tom uses the final captive to mess up the guard’s aim and take him down.

After a page long scuffle though, it appears the guard has regained both the upper hand and his machine gun…

…lucky for Tom that Jane is there to high-kick the Fritz in the face. It is interesting that we get a stocking shot with every appearance of Jane, a kind of subtle sexual cue that she’s a desirable love interest. I’m not opposed to it, but it is very overt and possibly a bit sexist.

So, with the guard taken out Tom rushes out to get his Rocket Ranger equipment so they can escape…in style!

Jane opts to go with him, even though it might be dangerous, which leads to this weird sneaky spooning on the stairs pose.

And eventually to Tom getting back his gear. However, it also attracts some unwanted attention.

I’m digging on the action scenes in this, which pack a unique kind of punch. There’s a real emotive quality in the poses that artist Khato throws our way and he has a good grasp of depth. Look at that bottom right panel and feel the vibe of Tom’s tension in the blocking of that shot. You can imagine him beginning to rush through that doorway after Jeermaster.

Which is exactly what Tom does, and falls right into his trap as both doors slam shut and lock…

…leaving our hero in a hallway that is turned into a deathtrap only seen in the movies.

And with one final full page shot, we get our second episode cliffhanger. So far I’m enjoying this in a mindless fashion. It’s not high art and it doesn’t engage on more than the visceral level, but it is fun to look at.

On to our final installment in this issue, aptly titled “Sandwiched!” And I don’t think they mean the kind with bread. Tom tries everything to stop the walls or blast down the door…

…but his radium gun is no match for German door technology obviously. 

Thankfully the lad comes up with a different idea that would only work for Rocket Ranger.

Blasting off through the roof, Tom gets a bead on his fellow escapees who are about to be gunned down by a Nazi guard.

He dispatches the fellow with a blast of his radium gun that the guard did Nazi coming. I stole that joke from Red Letter Media's Half in the Bag. Please send all hate mail to Rich Evans and possibly ask for a pizza roll. The further in we go, the more I check my brain and just enjoy the art. 

After leaving the wounded ex-prisoner off with some insurgents, Tom flies back and picks up both the Professor and his beautiful daughter.

And unlike most actioneers, the effects of carrying two people actually cause Tom to kvetch a bit before dropping them off. But with the Professor and Jane now safe, Tom has to jet off (heh, LITERALLY!) to China (yeah, the game did this too. No sense of actual geography as the jetpack wearer could cross the entire globe in a short hop to check out some intel on a radar installation. He also mentioned that after that he’s headed to Peru, which is pretty much the other side of the world from China. Takes just a short hop in the jet pack of course. 

But first China and the great wall, where Tom is in for a surprise…

…as it appears he’s flown right into the enemy’s gun sights.

With that cliffhanger, the issue ends.

I’m torn on this one. The fantastical elements and the ham-fisted drama don’t really turn me on. However, the art and action are fun in the same way a good video game could be fun. Would I prefer reading the Rocketeer to this? Probably. Would I turn down another issue found in the discount bin? No, I wouldn’t and that more than anything else sums up Rocket Ranger.