Rating: 4/5 – Old Timey Characters Team-up Today to Battle a Global Threat.
Here we have another Dynamite licensed property. For those of you not in the know, Dynamite gets a little good natured ribbing for a rapid over-expansion of the properties that they acquire and use of multiple variant covers, as lampooned here: http://www.the-gutters.com/comic/242-mike-decarlo/. I don’t have much of an opinion about variant covers. I’ve rarely purchased a few either at cover price or for around five bucks a pop (I can think of maybe five such instances), however if you love them, go nuts. The over-expansion also does not bother me as the only Dynamite title of which I have a run is the Dark Shadows comic previously reviewed here, https://comicspectrum.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/dark-shadows-14-dynamite-entertainment/, and I have not bothered with their other Dark Shadows comics. In this instance, it was the creative team of Jeff Parker (writer) and Marc Laming (artist) that peaked my interest. I have the above cover with art by Laming & Chris Sotomayor but there are several variants (listed on the inside back cover). The colorist credit for the comic is Jordan Boyd.
Kings Watch is a team-up of several long-standing properties, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon. These are characters that originated in the newspaper strips of yesteryear with the title no doubt a play on words with the fact that all three were distributed by King Features Syndicate. These characters were teamed up in an animated cartoon (1986-1987) called Defenders of the Earth, with a related four issue spin-off book from Star Comics, a Marvel comics imprint. I have not thought of those comics since they came out. Star was the children’s imprint for Marvel. Digressions aside, I think these long standing characters present particular difficulties to the creative team. Because of their long existence in multiple formats, newspaper strips, comics, movies, TV shows, cartoons, what really are the essential elements of these characters and how will they make them relevant to a modern audience. From the vary basics of character design to the sensibilities of their portrayal, and how is this going to meet the audience expectations. For myself, I am mostly a blank slate and imagined that this version would not be saddled too much from the Flash Gordon nor Phantom movies (from the 80s). Nor was I expecting much to be taken from the ’80s cartoon because it really was fairly basic fare. While I have a fondness for that era of animated TV, I can recognize its shortcomings as they general talked down to the mostly child audience with severe budget constraints to the animation itself. All this is to say that while I am not bringing much expectations to these characters, but you may.
What expectations I do have come from the fact that Jeff Parker’s books tend to have a little bit of humor served up with the action. Marc Laming first came to my attention on the criminally under-rated limited series The Rinse from Boom. If you like crime books, hunt that one down as it is good fun. Laming’s most recent work familiar to me was the Exile on the Planet of Apes book also from Boom. Dynamite books also tend to have a similar feel to them despite the variety of artists and titles. As I don’t read much Dynamite I have not tried to crack that nut but it occurred to me that at least in this book, the colorist takes a pretty strong hand to the book. Most of the sequences have a predominate hue to them which does help to distinguish the transitions, which is also done by the captions, sans boxes. It also allows a visual reinforcement of the character’s dialogue when referring to a previous sequence. Particularly when a co-worker of Dale Arden (from the Flash Gordon franchise) recounts a nightmare that she, and others, had previous in the book. There is a strong reddish tint along with the outline of the characters in the dream in the background as she recounts the dream. Further in the largest action set piece, the color hue makes an elephant appear more brown than the gray one traditionally associates with elephants. On the first page, the character’s eyes are just colored light blue with no pupils at all. Personally I feel while the coloring is well done, it is just a little heavy handed in some of these touches but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
It does not take a magician to guess that the number 1 issue will be getting the band together. Lots of bad juju is happening throughout the world. We start with scary skylines and scary baddies riding creatures that look like demonic horses destroying all and then our character wakes up and we see it is a nightmare. She opens the curtain and there is crazy lightning/skyline identifying us in Manhattan, NY. Page turn, cut to Bangalla Africa, crazy skyline and Phantom observing, next page cut to Northern Coast of California with Mandrake consulting a an imprisoned demon while looking at that crazy skyline. The pacing and rapid cuts around the world establish the global scale of the problem. There is some ambiguity about the next scene as to when or where it occurred but adds to the menace that some magic gate in Africa will open and it will be bad news. We spend a couple of pages with the Flash Gordon team introducing us to Flash as a derring-do man who takes Dr. Zarkov on a risky impromptu flight on the new space plane. We only get one page of Mandrake in the book, described above but mostly in shadow. He is squared jawed with a think mustache but just the jacket/sweater combo. We do not get the full costume except on the cover. While I like the character designs, I do think that Flash’s dad and Mandrake appear a little too similar especially given the cut from one scene to the next. Laming does well with expressions and the most common one you are going to get in this book is smirk which conveys the exact sort of cocky, action hero attitude we can likely expect. We also see Dale Arden, reporter, puzzling out what is going on with her co-worker. Finally we get Lothar, leading a photo safari in West Tanzania, but they see a bull elephant who is attacked by a two-legged giant dinosaur/lizard man. Lothar’s weapon cannot penetrate its hide but the elephant gives it pretty good. Luckily the phantom is right there to jump into the big set-piece action number. Flash takes Zarkov into space and they see some giant light burst that they too which might be that gate ending on “the path that will bring the Demons of Mongo.” The pacing and the action are building to a head which works for the book. They do fold in the action piece to make it more than a talking head adventure. I feel there was adequate story here but the band is not officially together yet. Some time transpires as the Phantom moves from Bangalla to West Tanzania but being an ignorant American, I have no idea how far apart those countries are. The action piece is well done considering the number of elements involved, elephant, lizard man, Lothar, Phantom on horseback, gunplay. The Phantom is in the purple bodysuit, domino mask with white pupils, five o’clock shadow, striped boxers and giant skull belt. Laming chooses to keep the mask fairly consistent, minus some small squinting and mainly uses the mouth for expressions where a slight smile conveys much about the Phantom’s attitude. I am on record as enjoying when cartoonists manipulate the mask for expression, see often most issues of Spider-man or Darth Vader from Star Wars. It is fun but I can also appreciate the skill here where Laming is trying to make it more faithful to the laws of physics. So far Flash only gets a flight jacket and a black tee shirt.
I really enjoyed the book and plan to dive back in, but I’m thinking of moving to trade as I am generally disavowing floppies as a relic of a past time like the iceman, steam engines and grammar. The minor nitpicks were not things that I really noticed upon my initial reading but only grew apparent to me in the course of me having to write this review. When reviewing a book, it forces me to be more critical in my take on the book but I assure you this was a fun read on what looks to be a good action book. I would love to hear from fans of these particular characters and please let me know what are the essential elements those characters need to have to be true to what you like.
Reviewed by: Andrew Sanford – firstname.lastname@example.org
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