Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: DC Primal Age

Walmart is no longer the only big box retail giant with exclusive DC Comics; Target gets its own 100-Page Giant in the form of DC Primal Age, a $9.99 one-shot featuring all-new material from a surprising line-up of comics talent, ranging from Marv Wolfman, Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway to Scott Koblish, Phil Winslade and Brent Anderson.

The comic is based on Funko's DC Primal Age toy line. The line appears to be one big, elaborate Masters of the Universe homage, with DC Comics characters applied to the original MOTU template, from the proportions of the figures to the beast mounts to the Castle Grayskull-like Batcave playset. For the purposes of the comic then, the idea seems to be an Elseworlds Justice League story in a sword-and-sorcery setting (A cover blurb reads "DC's Heroes As You've Never Seen Them Before!", but 1996's League of Justice and 2001's JLA: Riddle of The Beast both did something similar).

For increased veracity, I suppose the ideal format for a DC Primal Age comic book story would be character-specific 15-page mini-comics packed with the toys, but instead DC seems to have gone with an extra-length comic book of their usual dimensions.

The bulk of the special consists of a 32-page story written by Wolfman and drawn by Scott Koblish, with Tony Avina coloring the art. In it, a mysterious hooded figure is stealing glowing orbs of mystical power, and Batman--wielding a logo-shaped bat-tle axe and riding upon a horse-sized Ace the Bathound, seeks to stop her. This thief turns out to be Wonder Woman, and she is trying to steal the orbs before The Joker, who here looks like a chalk-white He-Man figure with a Joker head atop its shoulders and "HAHAHAHA" scrawled across this chest*, can use then as part of his nefarious plans. Joker wants to use the maguffins as part of he and King Shark's plan to sink Themyscira below the sea and rule the world and suchlike.

Together, Wonder Woman and Batman visit Aquaman in Atlantis, and then travel to Themyscira, where allies Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan flavor) meet them. There's a big battle between good and evil, during which The Scarecrow uses his powers to turn some of the Leaguers evil for a bit, but ultimately the good guys win, Themyscira isn't sunk and there's talk of formalizing this alliance of heroes into some sort of Justice League, although the suspicious Batman doesn't quite trust Superman, because he is an alien.
On a mechanical level, Wolfman's story works just fine, but there's not much in the way of style or flair to the writing. Indeed, it's strange how little the story has to do with the unique--or at least, unusual--setting of the so-called "Primal Age." The characters' dialogue all sounds just as it would were this story set in our modern, mundane, magic-less world and, indeed, it wouldn't be difficult to rewrite the story to set it in a version of the regular DCU; it would mostly be a matter of having Koblish draw Batman on a motorcycle instead of a giant dog, for example, or calling "Apollo's Solar Orbs" something like "Solar Super-Batteries" instead.

It's frankly quite disappointing, as there is obviously a lot of potential to do something fun, funny or at least just different and interesting with these characters in a Robert E. Howard by way of He-Man setting, but Wolfman doesn't seem to take the opportunity. I suppose, given the nature of the project, it's quite possible that doing anything beyond providing a script that gets all of the characters in it at some point just wasn't in his remit, however.

That leaves a lot up to Koblish, though, as a bland, unimaginative super-comic script means it's all on the artist to make the story worthwhile. Koblish too is hamstrung, though, as the designs for all of the characters were established by the toys themselves before the comic was being drawn, so unless he was involved in the design process for the action figures as well, Koblish doesn't really get to go crazy with the "Justice League, but as barbarians" aesthetic.

As for those designs, there's not a lot to them either. The characters all basically resemble their "normal" selves, which I suppose is something of a must since they need to recognizable as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on, and so the alterations are relatively minor. You can see stitching in some of the costumes, so they look as if they were made long before the invention of spandex. Everyone's got harnesses, arm-bands, furry underpants (in primary colors) and fur-trimmed boots. Superman has a spiked metal ball over his hand like Machiste from Warlord**, for some reason. That's...really about it. Because most of the book takes place in either Atlantis or Themyscira, settings that are always more-or-less depicted as islands of sword-and-sorcery oases within the modern DC Universe, they don't even really need to be reimagined.

Taken altogether, the main story is thus pretty dull and disappointing, and did little to grab my interest or fire my imagination. Granted, I am likely aged far beyond the target/Target audience, but, on the other hand, I've been reading/re-reading the original He-Man mini-comics as I gradually work my way through Dark Horse's 2015 He-Man and The Masters of The Universe Mini-Comic Collection***, and many of those still have pleasures to offer me.

It is fortunate then that this book contains an additional 68 pages. These are five shorter stories--about ten pages apiece, with title pages pushing the book up to meet the "100-Page Comic Giant!" size boasted on the cover--by different creative teams, each focusing on a particular character within the DC Primal Age--and these are all actually pretty engaging, each offering at least something for a reader to grab on to.

These five shorts were all strong enough that, in retrospect, I wish the entire book was an anthology, and rather than a full-length Wolfman/Koblish story, the book opened with a short comics prologue or framing sequence that made room for more shorts featuring different characters and different art styles by different creators (As a Scarecrow fan, for example, I would have liked to spend ten-pages with that character, rather than the handful of panels he gets in the opening story).

Jerry Ordway both writes and draws the first of these short stories, "Born On A Monday," and you can probably guess which villain appears in it. Ordway's art, here colored by Wendy Broome, is as highly detailed as ever before--perhaps even more so--and is an immediate and dramatic departure from Koblish's art in the previous pages.

It opens with Wonder Woman atop a horse, charging to rescue a young boy from a mountain lion. Wonder Woman looks like "herself," with a slimmer build and more natural-looking hair than in Koblish's take, and given that her current costume is just ancient armor, the costume she wears here looks not unlike what she could be wearing in the DCU comics. It's different, of course, with golden rather than silver bracelets, a nose guard built into her tiara, and something rather weird going on with her boobs, which seem to be separated by a chest plate with special holes cut out for them, but there's not much about it that says "barbarian" rather than just "alternate Wonder Woman costume."

After she saves the child from the cat, she tries to take him home, and he leads her to a swamp full of orphaned children, each of whom has a crutch or rag over their eyes to denote some physical imperfection. Wonder Woman is then attacked by Solomon Grundy, dressed in a ripped-up black robe and sandals rather than his usual ripped-up black suit and boots, but as they fight Wondy learns that Grundy has adopted the children, each of whom was tossed into this swamp by the rich assholes at the nearby castle, so she goes off to have words with them.

Again, this is a story that doesn't necessarily need to be told in this setting, and would work just as well in the regular DCU setting, but if there's not much to the story, Ordway nevertheless tells it masterfully, and his art here is just as good--if not better--than I've ever seen it.

The next story, "Ice & Fire," carries the highly-detailed, high fantasy aesthetic of Ordway's story forward, thanks to some quite gorgeous artwork by Phil Winslade (colored by Carrie Strachan). This script is written by Louise Simonson, and it stars Mr. Freeze, who does not appear in the lead story. Here Freeze is a blue-skinned mage with magical ice powers. Engaged to a woman named Nora who felt faint in the heat of his desolate, desert kingdom, he built a magnificent ice palace for her, but he became overwhelmed by his powers and, touching her, froze her solid, and now strives to find a way to free her from the curse.

That tragic story is told in flashback, while the majority of the action involves a really rather cool-looking fire-breathing dragon attacking Freeze's palace. He arms himself with a helmet, gauntlets and a sword of ice and does battle with it, ultimately freezing it solid. On the last page, King Shark approaches to recruit him, and Winslade's King Shark is as cool as his Freeze or Dragon; rather than the silly, Street Sharks-style version on Jon Bogdanove's cover, Winslade's King Shark is tall and thin and dark, looking more like an eel in shape than a shark, and bearing black pin-point eyes and an upside down smile full of triangle teeth.

Simonson scripts the next short too, "Darkest Knight," a Primal Age Batman origin story drawn by Brent Anderson and colored by Broome. Batman is an ordinary man in a blue fur cape fighting crime with sword and shield when, one night, he saves a mage named Lucius Fox from a pack of demons conjured by a generic evil wizard. Fox uses his own magical abilities to heal a wound Batman sustained in the battle, and then follows him back home to the Batcave playset.

This Batman's origin is told in a few lines of conversation--Prince Bruce's parents were killed by a wizard, and he was tossed into a deep dark, crevasse filled with bats. There he adopted his new identity and set up his base, intent on fighting the mages who "run roughshod over the non-magical folk." Fox helps him by giving him a crime-detecting crystal ball, a new and stronger costume and then transforming his throwing daggers into Batarangs.

Ordway scripts the next story, but doesn't draw it. Instead, two-thirds of it are drawn pencil artist Chuck Patton and inker Karl Kesel, while Tom Derenick handles three pages (Kelly Fitzpatrick colors the whole shebang). It's called "The Joker's Wild"--there's not a title among these stories that hasn't been used at least 300 times before--and it naturally stars The Joker. He rides atop a giant purple lizard, who looks at bit like a sharp-toothed dewback from Star Wars, and he and his hyena horde--a small army of men dressed in hyena skins--are pillaging a town, searching for a vague treasure that I think is meant to be one of the Apollo orbs from the opening story.

There's a neat bit about a peasant boy who shows kindness to the giant lizard--feeding it a pumpkin and beer--and The Joker deciding to spare the boy. The act of seeming mercy isn't actually mercy, but a sort of reward for making his lizard monster funny, which was an interesting bit of character work in an otherwise generic-ish story.

Pollard and Marzan Jr
The final story is "Not A Bird," and its written by Wolfman, drawn by Keith Pollard and Jose Marzan Jr and colored by Strachan. This too is one more story that is your average DC superhero story--Superman appears to go rogue and start committing evil acts, a suspicious Batman fights him, but it turns out that Superman was innocent and it was Bizarro who was doing all the bad stuff--made medieval. At least in this particular case Wolfman puts some extra effort into finding pre-industrial age analogues to elements of their stories, so that Superman hails from Metropolis Shire and Batman from Gotham Village, for example, or that Batman is summoned by a signal fire shining through a bat-shaped hole in a tent, or that the authorities try to fight the rogue Superman with kryptonite-tipped arrows.

Pollard and Marzan's art is pretty incredible, and filled with images of dynamic human figures in action, with most of the images of the super-people drawn to resemble the "real" Superman and Batman, only with a touch or two of the Primal Age designs to remind a reader this isn't supposed to be set in the 20th or 21st century, despite how far Pollard has strayed from the toy designs.

And then, presented almost at random, is the best page of the book, a pin-up of the Ace-mounted Batman charging The Joker and his lizard monster, by Michael Wm. Kaluta:
I certainly wouldn't mind reading 100 pages that looked like that.

The strengths of the back half of the book makes up for the weakness of the front half, but I'm not entirely convinced the whole package is really worth $10. Regardless, I won't be at all surprised if we get more DC Primal Age specials in the future, as Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Scarecrow and King Shark don't really get much of a spotlight compared to the other heroes, and, obviously, there are so many more characters that can be Primal Aged. This issue's cover, for example, features Luthor and Krypto, neither of whom appear within the book.

If more comics do appear, I hope that DC will continue to assign the stories to artists of this caliber, and that the writers lean harder into the setting.

*Unfortunately, he never says "Just call me Ha-Man" at any point in the story.

**I was actually thinking about Warlord a lot while reading this comic, for the rather obvious reasons.

***The new-ish Netflix series She-Ra and The Princesses of Power re-ignited my interest in the goings on of Eternia and Etheria, and after watching that I wanted to refamiliarize myself with the source material which is, obviously, quite different. That show, by the way, is really great.

1 comment:

Bram said...

That's really quite the lineup of talent.

Mostly, though, round of applause for the Machiste reference. There's a deep cut.