Dark Horse Comics

Quarterbin Follies #25: May the Fourth / FCBD Special

Image4Allow me to tell you a story. Actually, let me tell you two. The first one is mine, the second one is not. On to the first. This weekend was a great one for the nerds, for the freaks and the geeks and the socially disjointed. It was the weekend of Free Comic Book Day, and for the first time ever, I braved the road and the crowds and stood in a line at two shops to get my hands on said free comics. It was a whole contingency of Rhyses that came from our little Scotts Bluff County hamlet to the big Cheyenne city, to get books from The Loft, and from Gryphon Games and Comics. There were staff and participants in costumes; there were nerds of all ages. There were cosplayers and comic up-and-comers. It made me wish we had our own products ready to go. Continue reading

Digital Comics: Revisiting the "Future"

first-internetI love digital comics. Anyone who knows me knows that's no secret. Truthfully, I am the perfect customer for digital comics. Unlike my partner-in-crime, I am not a comic book collector. I don't buy comics and bag them and store them in boxes, in dark closets, never to read again. I don't keep a spreadsheet of issues I own, cross-referenced by title, characters, and creators. I don't have a pull list, and I don't anxiously await Wednesdays. I read comics solely for the stories, and when I'm done with the stories, the comics often go into a stack in my closet, where I sometimes pull them out again months down the road and reread them, gaining new perspectives on the stories within. While I have great memories of brick and mortar stores, right now, in my life, at the moment, I am a horrible comic shop customer. But, digital comics. Digital comics are made for me. They always have been. Four years ago, I wrote an entire essay on a different site arguing in favor of what I perceived to be the future of comic books: digital comics. In that piece, I wrote about the access that digital comics could offer, and the potential for savings for the consumer. I painted digital comics as a perfect utopia, the wonderful and glorious future we are destined for. You can read the whole piece over here. I'm not super pleased with it. I was young and shortsighted and not very good. Continue reading

Quarterbin Follies #14: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Indy2Hey, do you remember LucasArts? You know, LucasArts, the video game wing of all things George Lucas. Well unless you are old or a giant nerd, you might not realize that long before The Mouse shut it down for being lame, LucasArts made some pretty cool games, and not just Star Wars, either. Well, the games that stuck out to me the most were the adventure games: Sam and Max, The Day of The Tentacle, the Monkey Island series. And, of course, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Man, that was a fun game, full of globetrotting investigation, action, puzzle-solving, and anti-Nazi propaganda (which is not to say the Nazis didn't have it coming – damn Nazis.)

Any road, it was a great game chock full of replay value, what with three different game modes and multiple endings. Problem was, when I moved from my childhood home to try my hand at college, and then the real world, I didn't get to take the game with me! And so, I never got the shot to try and finish it more than once. Well, that was a long time ago, and the damn thing won't even work on modern PC's. Well, not in anyway I know of. Dark Horse to the rescue. Sorta.

Indy1You see, unbeknownst to me Dark Horse published a comic book adaptation, a miniseries that ran three acts in four issues in 1991. The first time I knew about it was a few months ago when I spotted the TPB (from '92) at Game Time, our local comic shop turned game shop, which does a sideline selling off some old comics from its previous life. And so, after many years of not knowing what I was missing, I had the chance to dig into a little-sung adventure of everyone's favourite fake archaeologist.

The story gets off to a great start, taking us to meet a 1939 Indy: thrill as he teaches! Of course, it is not long before Adventure sings her sultry, dangerous tune. In this case, a man comes a-calling, asking about an odd and lonesome artifact from the Jastro Expedition, a dig in Iceland that Indy had been on as a youth. One ransacking later, Mr. Jones is off to the city that never sleeps. It seems a fellow former student and 'Jastro' alum, Sophia Hapgood, has given up archaeology to be a fortune teller, guided by the 'spirit' of Nur-Ab-Sal. It is hard for Indy to determine what he is more disappointed with: Sophia's 'charlatan' ways or her insistence that Atlantean artifacts even exist. This latter complaint takes a back seat as Indy and Sophia find themselves in a race, and sometimes chase, across the globe – and against the Nazis – to visit the other 'Jastro' fellows. And all along the way, they acquire such strange artifacts that Indy must concede that Atlantis is very real. Indy4All this is very much like the video game (story by Hal Barwood and Noah Falstsein). So much so, that the writers/adapters William Messner-Loebs (Issue #1), Dan Barry (Issues #2-3), and Mike Richardson (Issue #4), seem to have not felt the need to write the whole story. Now, as I said before, the TPB starts great, giving us a wonderful intro to the heroes and the villains, and leading us into the stories about Atlantis, both legends and impressions. Indy and Sophia, and even Marcus Brody, have a time to shine there, but once they leave Iceland, well, things get weird. All the stops and plot points from the game are in the comic, but there are huge chunks just missing.

Now, the game is a puzzle-based, investigative adventure game, and large bits of it are reserved for the rooting and digging about that those types of games offer. Understandably, these moments do not make for the best in your comic book reading. But, many of the puzzles are just missing from the TPB. There are huge bits of the story that are just left out – or alluded to – and by the time Indy and Sophia discover the Lost City, they have all this stuff, and they just know how to use it to get inside. The third act slows up again, and we are able to follow the events in the Lost City as they “happen.”

Indy3And that is what makes it such a strange TPB. The intro section is a great pace, and we get a lot more a chance to feel ourselves fit into the events. Then—WHAM!—the story races along, and the reader is just left behind. Until the end. And the end is handled as well, if not better than the end of the game. I imagine this is largely due to the intricate difficulties of adaptation and of the sort of “creation by committee” that the project seemed to have going for it. I would be tempted to suggest that you just play the game (available on STEAM), excepting two things: The first act is much more fulfilling, and the art, by the team of Dan Barry and Karl Kesel, with luscious colors by Lurene Haines, is really something. Dan Barry took over all the art chores for the final issue, and, sadly, you can tell. But the whole is still worth checking out. Especially if you can find it in the QuarterBin.


A Galaxy Far, Far Away (Part 2)

SW1When we last left the Star Wars comics universe, Dark Horse's 20-year publishing license was set to expire with the end of 2014, with Marvel taking over all comic book publishings set within the Star Wars universe. I would make a joke about how this is kind of like this movie I once saw where an emperor rules an entire galaxy with an iron fist. I think it was Flash Gordon, but my memory fails me at the moment. Anyway, the end of 2014 has come and gone, and sure enough, the Star Wars collection on Dark Horse's store has gone silent, nary a book in sight. Meanwhile, Marvel is preparing their first foray into publishing new Star Wars comics with the upcoming Star Wars #1. Like the delicious Dark Horse series I talked about last time, this title is again set immediately following the events of Episode IV. I'm not entirely sure what the appeal of this era of the Star Wars canon is, but apparently, people really, really want to know what happens next. This new series does have the writing chops of Jason Aaron, which is notable in itself. And, if you have a chance to see any of the artwork, it certainly looks great. Even if the series is retreading covered ground, I think it will still be a great read. But, it is not what I'm talking about today. No, I want to talk about the last time Marvel released a comic called Star Wars. Oddly enough, the Dark Horse series was not the first comic titled Star Wars to cover this time period. In fact, shortly after the A New Hope was released, Marvel Comics published the very first attempt to tell stories about the events immediately following the first movie. Unlike the next two series to use this name, the first six issues of the 1977 series were a direct adaptation of the film's script, and for the most part, it's pretty good. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, as can be expected in a comic from this period, but it's a pretty straightforward adaptation, and it does a decent job. What came after, though, is something unlike anything I've seen in the Star Wars universe and unlike anything we'll likely see in the future. I think the important thing to remember is that, at this point, there was no "after" A New Hope. Now-a-days, we have decades of expanded universe material to read through. We've seen the years up until A New Hope, we've seen alternate stories set during the movie, and we've seen novels and comics that cover the time period immediately after. But, back in 1977, there was only the movie. This was something I briefly touched on last time with the Star Wars Holiday Special, but I think it's even more glaring with this series. Once the adaptation of the movie is done, the series goes off the rails, leaving us with something more akin to the sci-fi pulp serials from the 1930s. The story immediately following the adaptation follows Han Solo and Chewbacca as they leave the rebellion, reward in hand. They are almost immediately ambushed by Crimson Jack, the most dreaded space pirate in the galaxy, who alleviates them of their burdensome fortune, leaving Han and Chewie high and dry, with the bounty on their head as high as ever. They escape to a world on the outer-rim, where they are asked by a poor village to protect the residents from a ruthless bandit, who steals their money and women. There's definitely a Seven Samurai vibe here, which makes a bit of sense. It's no secret that Lucas based one of the original drafts of Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. It's no surprise that Roy Thomas might base the first post-movie story on another Kurosawa film. Where the comic reaches its highest levels of absurdity, though, is in the characters that Han recruits to fight the bandits. For example, he recruits a six-foot rabbit named Jaxxon, who kicks people with his abnormally large feet. While Star Wars has always had some interesting alien design, I think Jaxxon is probably the first rabbit in the Star Wars universe, and I think it's unfortunate that he hasn't been used since (at least to my knowledge). The story plays out exactly like you would think, with some of the heroes falling, while Han leads the remainder to victory over the bandits. The town is saved, and Han gets enough reward money to get away from the backwater planet. Jaxxon While this is all going on, Luke is sent on a top-secret mission to find a new Rebel base, since the base on Yavin IV was compromised during A New Hope. I find it interesting that both Star Wars series that have come out have dealt with this story idea almost immediately, and I wonder if Brian Wood was at all inspired by this earlier series. Unfortunately, the similarities between the two stories stop there. While searching for a new base, Luke crash lands on a water planet, is besieged by sea monsters and captured by salvagers, whose base of operations is a pirate ship complete with sails. Luke's distress eventually brings Princess Leia and Han Solo, who had been captured by Crimson Jack, and we're left with a silly little story about pirates on the high seas in space. As silly as it all sounds -- and it is definitely silly -- there is a certain charm to these old stories. Later entries into the Star Wars expanded universe got super serious about everything, and while the stories have been good, they are also remarkably dark. These old stories, though, are just fun. Absurd, yes, but fun, classic science-fiction, without the condescension that later "fun" characters, like Jar-Jar Binks, attempted to inject into the mythos. It does feel like an old science-fiction serial from the 1930s, which makes sense. Considering that in addition to KurosawaLucas was also inspired by these classic stories, this may be the piece of the expanded universe that comes closest to Lucas's original vision. So, take that for what it's worth. I will say this: if you get an opportunity to pick up a few of these classic issues, do so. It may not be the Star Wars you're used to, but it's definitely fun. I don't know what Aaron's new Star Wars series is going to be like, but I'm excited to read it. I think it has some solid talent behind it, and who knows, maybe this will truly be the definitive continuation of A New Hope that everyone is apparently clamoring for. I'll tell you this, though. If there is not a six-foot-tall, green rabbit, I will be sorely disappointed.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away (Part 1)

Star Wars Holiday SpecialWith the passing of midnight, we say goodbye to yet another Christmas, another opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ and commercialism. Goodbye, dear Christmas. See you in twenty-fifteen. Now, this column isn’t about Christmas. My cohort already did a great job of covering that earlier this week. No, this column is about something entirely different. This column is about another famous holiday. No, not Boxing Day. Though, technically, it is Boxing Day. Happy Boxing Day, everyone. No, this column is about my other favorite holiday. The truly most wonderful time of the year. I am talking, of course, about Life Day. For those who have seen it, the Star Wars Holiday Special is certainly a treat, a venture into life after A New Hope. Originally broadcast on November 17th, 1978, the Holiday Special centered on Chewbacca’s family preparing for Life Day, a Wookiee holiday similar to Christmas, and Han and Chewie’s attempts to get the loveable furball home to Kashyyyk in time for the celebration. In addition to including the classic characters from the trilogy, Han, Luke, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, and Darth Vader, the special also introduces Malla, Chewie’s wife; Itchy, Chewie’s father; Lumpy, Chewie’s son; Saun Dann (Art Carney), a human trader on Kashyyyk; Ackmena (Bea Arthur), a cantina owner on Tatooine; and Jefferson Starship (Jefferson Starship). The special itself is a silly little program, mixing an odd story about Life Day with an even odder mish-mash of musical and comedy acts, creating what is potentially the only variety special in history based on a science-fiction franchise. It’s no secret to anyone who has seen this thing that it’s sort of the black sheep of the Star Wars universe. George Lucas, himself, once famously said that he wanted to track down every copy and smash them with a sledgehammer, and that guy wrote and directed Attack of the Clones. On the whole, it’s not great, but there are some very important things to note.
  • Firstly, can we all just celebrate the fact that because of this special, comedic greats Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman are all part of the Star Wars canon? Now, I know that since Disney bought Lucasfilms, the Star Wars canon is kind of messed up, but what they say doesn’t really matter. In the heads of the fans, the extended universe is still roughly canon somewhere, and in that canon, Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman.
  • On the flipside, though, if we acknowledge that, we have to acknowledge that Jefferson Starship also exists within Star Wars continuity. I have nothing personal against Jefferson Starship, I guess, but I don’t really dig the tunes they lay down. The song they perform on the special, “Light the Sky on Fire” is about as boring as it gets in late 1970s rock music.
  • There's also a really, really odd musical sequence starring veteran actress, Diahann Carroll, in which she plays a holographic "fantasy" enjoyed by Itchy, in what can only be described as, uh, well, disturbing. It isn't that I don't want to see an old wookiee get aroused, it's just that I, well, yeah, no, it's totally that I don't want to see that.
  • The film features an animated sequence, which serves to introduce the character of Boba Fett. It’s an amazing piece of animation, and truly the best part of this special. It’s also the only piece of the special to ever receive a home video release as a special feature on the 2011 Blu-Ray release of the original trilogy.
  • The empire actually feels menacing in this special. I mean, in Episode IV, they are certainly menacing. They blow up an entire planet, for Lumpy’s sake, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s because so much of what they do is off-screen. We never see them kill Owen and Beru, or torture Leia, or anything else. It’s all alluded to through the aftermath. We do see them blow up Alderaan, but even that is on a viewport, far-removed from any sort of engaging connection. In this special, however, they directly interact on-screen with members of the rebellion, and there’s definitely a troubling dynamic there. When a stormtrooper threatens to beat a Wookiee child, it’s disconcerting to say the least.
  • Thankfully, this special finally gave some lyrics to some of those classic Star Wars tunes we all know and love. Ackmena sings a lovely tribute to alcoholism called “Goodnight, but Not Goodbye” set to the music of the Mos Eisley cantina band. At the end of the special, Leia closes us out with a musical tribute to Life Day, set to the Star Wars theme. I don’t know about you, but I’ll definitely be singing these lyrics the next time I watch the movie.
In all seriousness, one of the most interesting things about this special is the period of time in which it came out. In 1978, Star Wars fans were still two years from Empire Strikes Back. At this point, there was only one vision of life after Episode IV, and that was the Marvel comic book series, which we’ll talk about a bit next week. For the average fan, this was the first picture of what happened after the movie. And I think that’s important to note, because if nothing else, it foreshadowed not only how big a behemoth Star Wars would become, but also how much the public wanted to see what would happen next. SW1And it’s certainly not the last glimpse we’ve been given into this time period of the universe. In 2013, Dark Horse comics released Star Wars, a series set in the immediate months after the destruction of the Death Star, following the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. The series, written by Brian Wood, deals with a struggling rebellion attempting to recover from the loss of its base on Yavin IV, and an empire struggling to rebuild after the destruction of its massive battle station. A few weeks ago, the first six issues (the first storyline, In the Shadow of Yavin) were collectively sold for $2.99 on Dark Horse Digital, and I jumped at the opportunity. I had heard good things about the series, and I thought it would be a fun opportunity to check it out. While it’s certainly no Holiday Special, it is a terrific story, and one I’m sad to see go (more on that in a second). This first storyline follows the rebellion’s attempts to find a new base of operations. After the destruction of Alderaan, even worlds traditionally sympathetic to the rebellion stand in fear of the sheer power of the Empire. As the alliance explores worlds on the outer-rim, they are constantly ambushed by Imperial forces, and it doesn’t take long to realize that these encounters are not coincidences. There’s a mole in the Alliance, and Rebel Leader, Mon Mothma, is dedicated to rooting him or her out. She tasks Leia with hand selecting a secret squad of pilots to work independently to both find a new home and ferret out the leak. While all of this is going on, Han Solo and Chewbacca have been sent to Coruscant, the Imperial capital, where they will purchase new weapons and supplies for the Alliance from an Imperial contact. But nothing is as it seems, and Han and Chewie are forced into the Coruscant underground, with Boba Fett hot on their heels. Wood captures a lot of subtle nuances within the stories and characters that add quite a bit to the mythos. We see Princess Leia mourning her homeworld in the late night hours, when she’s not overworking herself on keeping a struggling rebellion alive. We see Darth Vader struggle with failure at Yavin IV and the emperor’s disapproval, while also realizing the importance of the name Skywalker, and what that all means. We see Han Solo sticking with a rebellion he doesn’t believe in, because at the moment, it provides protection from other more menacing forces that want to kill him. We see Luke Skywalker, the hero of Yavin, brash and cocky, and ready to take on the empire full-steam. And all of this works so well, helped along by the art of Carlos D’Anda, who captures the characters and settings in such a dynamic fashion. The comics are fun romps through this portion of the Star Wars timeline, and they’re great examples of what Dark Horse could do, when they used the license correctly. Since they started publishing Star Wars comics in 1993, Dark Horse has had its fair share of ups and downs, with some stories excelling, while others falling far short. Woods’s Star Wars, is definitely an up, and one I recommend whole-heartedly. It’s actually the first Star Wars comic I’ve read in a few years, which makes its cancellation much sadder. The series ran through issue #20, getting canceled in August of this year. And while I’m not entirely sure of sales figures, and if they had anything to do with it, I think a lot of that decision may rest in the fact that next week, after over 20 years, Dark Horse will stop publishing Star Wars comics. Since Disney owns both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilms now, it makes sense that they would move comic book duties into the mouse’s Empire, but it’s still a little sad. What’s even worse is that all titles will be pulled from the digital catalog, meaning if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, you might not get that chance after December 31st. You can always track down the floppies or trades, and some of the stories will be reprinted by Marvel, but it’s a damn shame that some great comics are going to disappear from the digital channels as of January 1st. I guess, if there’s a lesson here, it’s that you should buy up any digital copies of these comics now, before you lose your chance. The comics will still be available to read on your cloud; you just won’t be able to purchase them. Of course, anyone who knows the history of Star Wars comics knows that this won’t be the first time that the House of M has taken on the Star Wars universe. But, that’s a column for another time. Specifically, next week. Be sure to come back next Friday, when I take a look at both the history and the future of Marvel’s Star Wars comics!