elfquest
Elfquest # 5, Warp Graphics
Elfquest # 5, Warp Graphics

Elfquest is an epic comic book series created in 1978 by Wendy and Richard Pini which I am very much attached to—I still have the collected  editions from the eighties, when I first discovered them. The art is colourful and distinctive, the characters are sexy, smart, and interesting, and the story a classic hero’s journey. Beginning with the adventures of the Elf tribe the Wolfriders, over the years the world of Elfquest became a sprawling, centuries spanning universe that incorporated a little bit of everything into the story.

The elves of Elfquest are actually an alien race who came to the World of Two Moons (eventually known as Abode) to escape the end of their own planet. These extraterrestrial elves are essentially immortal and have a wide range of innate psychic abilities including telepathy, telekinesis, levitation, shape-shifting, and healing.

Their ship appears as a shining palace to the Neolithic humans of the new world, and the Elves as, well, elves. The first meeting does not go well. Despite this, the Firstcomers (whose immediate descendants are known as High Ones) are eventually revealed to have profoundly influenced human folklore and culture although they are not credited with it. Instead they are hated and hunted, a situation which sets the stage for the Pini’s long saga.

***

Elfquest # 1, Marvel
Elfquest # 1, Marvel

Cutter and his Wolfriders are at the heart of Elfquest. Like all elves, Wolfriders are descended from the otherworldly, undying High Ones. But to survive on the alien World of Two Moons, their tribe’s foremother transformed herself into, lived as, and bred as a wolf. As a consequence the Wolfriders now have wolf-blood in their veins and a very long but still mortal lifespan.

The narrative of Elfquest begins when the Wolfriders’ forest home is destroyed and they must set out to find a new place to settle. Along the way they discover and intermarry with other elf tribes they never knew existed—the desert-dwelling Sun-folk, the sorcerous Gliders, the warlike Go-backs, and the aquatic WaveDancers. They encounter Trolls and Preservers, other species that came to Abode with the High Ones, and the humans who are native to the world. And they find the lost Palace of their ancestors with all its history intact.

***

The Pinis initially published Elfquest themselves through their company, Warp Graphics. The title was next put out by Marvel, then DC, and it is now published by Dark Horse Comics. The original series ran for twenty issues and was followed by two shorter series—the eight issue Siege at Blue Mountain and the nine issue Kings of the Broken Wheel.

Although the original quest officially concluded after these, during the 1990s the Pinis filled in many of the historical details, side adventures, and far-future events on Abode in a number of additional titles including Hidden Years, Blood of Ten Chiefs, Kahvi, and Jink. Dark Hose Comics is currently publishing Elfquest: The Final Quest series, begun in January 2014 and slated to run for 24 issues, that picks up the story of the Wolfriders shortly after the end of the original quest.

***

Elfquest 19, and some elf magic
Elfquest 19, and some elf magic

Like many cult favorites, Elfquest inspired a decent amount of spin-off merchandise with varying degrees of success. There were three novels (Journey To Sorrow’s End, The Quest Begins, and Captives of Blue Mountain) and five Blood of Ten Chiefs anthologies. An album of folk songs called A Wolfrider’s Reflections happened, although I won’t vouch for it.  Of course there was an RPG produced by Chaosium between 1984 and 1987. Board games were released in 1986 and again in 2015. A handful of action figures were produced. In the 1990s a failed attempt was made at an animated series, and a possible 2008 film announced by Warner Brothers never got off the ground.

But no matter about the misses. Elfquest is a well-loved property. Even before the relationship with Marvel, Kitty Pride wore an Elfquest tee-shirt and a sprite named “Pini” appeared in X-Men #153, and a scene from Elfquest showed up in the background of Fantastic Four # 242. Its strength has always been on the page, and the fact that it’s still going strong at Dark Horse speaks volumes.

If you’re not already familiar with Elfquest and the Pinis’ other work—and especially if you are– all issues published before 2014 are available for free online. Let the journey begin, again.

 

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Strange Days's cybernoir mood
Strange Days’s cybernoir mood

Strange Days is an often-overlooked bit of 1995 cyberpunk written and produced by James Cameron (of Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar fame) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break and Zero Dark Thirty). As with many things Cameron it is overlong and somewhat bloated, but there is still a beautifully filmed, compelling story beneath the weight.

Strange Days was nominated for five Saturn Awards, winning two—Angela Bassett’s as Best Actress and Kathryn Bigelow’s as Best Director. Because of this film, Bigelow was the first woman to win the Saturn’s directing award. But no one wanted to see this movie when it was released—it made only $8 million, at a cost of $42 million. However, it’s the kind of film that is hard to shake off once you’ve seen it, which is why I’m here to tell you about it now.

***

Cyber and noir inhabit the same, discarded spaces, but with different technology, and Strange Days has a classic set-up. There are crooked cops and decent criminals, hookers with hearts of gold and fine, upstanding two-timers, corruption, double and triple crosses, and a hard-boiled love story all wrapped up in millennial paranoia. The scenes are dark and artfully grim, full of steam and neon and rain and a population that keeps to the edges of society.

Lenny
Lenny

The coming Millennium looms over the action, all of which happens on New Year’s Eve, 1999. But this isn’t about the shadow of technological collapse—this is driven by the specter of racial tensions stretched from the flash point to the breaking point.

The main characters are a tightly connected group. Our antihero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is a former cop who has fallen into the world of squids—illegal electronic neural nets that can record experiences straight from the wearer’s brain. (Oddly enough, they look like facehuggers.) Squids are the ultimate virtual reality because they can give the user “a piece of somebody’s life…you’re doing it, you’re feeling it,” and because of that power they have created a different kind of junkie. Lenny is both a dealer and a user, endlessly replaying self-made clips of his ex-girlfriend, Faith.

Faith and Philo
Faith and Philo

Faith (Juliette Lewis) is an ex-prostitute trying to become a star, who has moved on to someone who can further her ambitions. Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) is that someone–Faith’s current lover, powerful musical manager/promoter, squid-head, and generally nasty person with a particular problem with Lenny. Philo has all his artists followed, watched, and recorded to satisfy his increasing paranoia. Max (Tom Sizemore) is Lenny’s ex-cop buddy who Gant hires to watch Faith, and Iris (Brigitte Bako) is a hooker—an old friend of Faith, Max, and Lenny–who Gant hires to record a highly political rapper he represents.

And trying to remain clean in this tangled mess is Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a chauffer/bodyguard with a deep history as Lenny’s friend and protector. She is Lenny’s moral anchor in a very slippery world.

The story is as twisted as any forties’ crime drama. It starts in earnest with the execution-style murder of a prominent rapper and activist, and the threat of retaliation and race riots to usher in the year 2000. Then Iris is killed, but not before she comes to Lenny for help and to warn Faith of a shared danger. The murderer uses Lenny’s squid addiction like a scalpel, hurting Lenny with a trail of minidisc recordings of worse and worse crimes, all of it designed to set Lenny up as the fall guy and quite literally stab him in the back.

***

Mace with a squid
Mace with a squid

The virtual reality voyeurism in Strange Days comes from a technology “developed for the feds, now it’s gone black market”. The slang it inspires is vivid and believable: jack-in, wire-trip, wire-heads, squid-heads, ‘trodes and decks and clips. And blackjacks—snuff clips, where a truly sick wire-head can experience the actual death of the person making the recording through the victim’s eyes. Blackjacks are a special kind of hell, and they are used liberally to provoke the essentially-decent Lenny into headlong action.

The symbolism and iconography of watching is often obvious and in-your-face, with multiple instances of mirrors and mirrored surfaces used to reinforce the idea. Faith dresses all in reflective silver. Mylar balloons are abundant. Even the character’s name, Iris, reflects the theme—especially since what Iris witnesses and records is critical to the plot.

That bluntness is one of Strange Days’s primary shortcomings. While the characters are mainly well-drawn, the traits of the good guys and bad guys are often…typical. The dialogue leans toward stilted, becoming preachy at points with Dramatic and Important Declarations. At nearly two and a half hours the film goes on a little too long, with too much running back and forth and repetition of interactions. And, surprisingly, the ending is happier than anyone has any reason to expect.

Strange Days welcomes Y2K
Strange Days welcomes Y2K

Which leads us to the other issue. Both Cameron and Bigelow are known for flashier films than Strange Days, and they frequently fail to capture the necessary grittiness of cyberpunk. The overall mood and ambience is one of an idealized criminal underside. There are docks and alleys and crummy apartments. But there is also an industrial/techno club background of raves, stage-diving and Mohawks that visually references past, present, and future styles of rebellion. Outside the clubs and parties there is fire wherever the camera turns—cars, garbage cans, Molotov cocktails thrown in the streets. It evokes a studied end of times chaos that blends smoothly into the New Year celebrations going on around the main storyline. Everyone is clean.

But even with too much polish, Strange Days gets into your head. The visuals are hypnotic, the actors glossy and beautiful. The story touches on all the major tropes of noir in comfortable and satisfying ways. And the feeling of longing and loss and recaptured happiness that the squid technology can produce is compelling, to say the least. Maybe the happy ending is warranted, after all.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

 

 

Choosing up sides in Captain America: Civil War
Choosing up sides in Captain America: Civil War

Now that the initial frenzy to see Captain America: Civil War has cooled somewhat, I will venture my opinion. As I told my friends as we walked out of the theater in the wee hours of opening night/ morning, I liked it, it was really good, and I’m glad we saw it, but it won’t leave a mark.

Captain America: Civil War was exactly the glorious spectacle we all expected it to be. The production and effects were flawless. The story was coherent and moved blazingly fast, with just enough dialogue to keep the action anchored to the plot. It was a technical masterpiece, with convincing CGI and the anticipated wild stunts and tricks.

But I can’t help but be disappointed by the shiny, much-lauded blockbuster that is Captain America: Civil War. It was a crazy amount of fun but it left me feeling a little empty when it was over, like eating candy instead of a sandwich for lunch.

As an action movie, it was exceptional. What I missed was the characters. There was only superficial interaction between the main characters for large parts of the movie, with no depth, no real development, no reason to connect and hold on to Civil War instead of just waiting for the next Marvel showstopper to come out in a year or so. It seemed to me that most of the characters (even the major ones) were just doing a walk through, and that they had been written purely to advance the plot and not to grow as actual people.

Accidents happen in Captain America: Civil War
Accidents happen.

Perhaps because they are more seasoned actors (and Tony Stark is pretty well defined by his shortcomings), that effect was less apparent in Robert Downey Jr’s and Don Cheadle’s performances. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky at least had some range to him because of the uncertainties caused by his programming, but he was still put away at the end. And Ant-Man’s sudden inclusion, while energetic and funny, seemed random. Why was he there? What did he care that the Avengers were beefing?

Even the amazingly strong introduction of Black Panther lost some of its power for me when he chose to give his assistance to Captain America. It didn’t seem like the decision a reigning king (and anointed superhero) of a sovereign nation would make—to support the agenda of a man who ignored legitimate governments and national boundaries.

And that’s the missing link to depth in the movie. The split in the Avengers’ ranks played out like a schoolyard quarrel rather than a principled philosophical divide. Iron Man came closest to explaining his stance and even he barely touched on why he felt the way he did about governmental oversight. Captain America opted to be intractably stubborn before even trying to persuade. And the rest chose sides because…there is no because. The rest chose sides to provide a balance of outfit colors, apparently.

For all my complaints, I think Captain America: Civil War was worth every second of screen time as pure action entertainment. There were some astoundingly bright points, like Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spiderman in every scene he was in. It was also good to see familiar faces like Marissa Tomei and Martin Freeman in the mix. But they couldn’t do what the story didn’t need them to do.

What are we fighting for?
What are we fighting for?

For me, it’s hard to remain invested in a franchise that skimps on creating an emotional connection with its audience, especially when the seeds of it already existed in the source material. I think the movie would have been much more epic if we had stepped back from the action long enough for an impassioned argument between the Avengers that allowed them to explain themselves, their convictions, their reservations. They are supposed to be friends and colleagues. Friends and colleagues discuss major issues, either before or during the battles.

Ultimately I blame it on Disneyfication. Disney has owned Marvel Studios since 2015, but even though production on Captain America: Civil War started well before the takeover I can’t believe a steamroller of a company like Disney would let it go forward without some corporate input.  The oversimplification of issues and the hyper-calculated emotional tugging that they use to make you think you care are familiar ground. Frankly, if this had been written with a better eye to the characters’ inner workings, the manipulation would be neither obvious nor needed. Alas.

Maybe I’m asking too much of a movie rooted so firmly in comic books. But I don’t think so. The comic books gave the Civil War some thought. With the A-list acting talent, the technical virtuosity, and the monster financial weight behind the franchise, I don’t think it’s too much to expect more from the big screen version—like a lasting impact.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

 

Starfire Issue # 2, doing what she does best
Starfire Issue # 2, doing what she does best

DC Comics’s 1976 version of Starfire may now be a blast from the past, but she is not one of your regrettable superheroes. In fact, she has had a richer and more varied career than would be expected from a run that only lasted eight issues and three costume changes.

For the record, DC is really fond of that name. The Starfire of which I speak is the second of three heroes to bear the name—the first being a male character who morphed into Red Star, and the third being the freewheeling Teen Titan otherwise known as Koriand’r.

Written originally by David Michelinie (who wrote prolifically for both DC and Marvel) and drawn by Mike Vosburg, this Starfire was introduced with her own title in August, 1976.

While essentially human and not possessed of specific superpowers, Starfire was still quite exotic. According to her bio, her mother had been “white”, and her father “yellow”, and Starfire herself is a blue-eyed, black-haired, pale-gold skinned beauty.  (Now, I’m going to speculate a little about her very specific parentage—she was introduced just after the US got out of Vietnam, and right about the time the impact of all the left-behind Amerasian children began to be felt and dealt with. Just my thoughts on the inspiration for her appearance.) Her fantastic looks were in fact the source of much male leering and pawing during her run–no matter what species the male.

Starfire # 6, fighting the good fight
Starfire # 6, fighting the good fight

The set-up for Starfire’s story, in brief, is this: according to the DC Wiki, Starfire belongs to the New Earth universe (sort of). She was born on an unnamed planet ruled by factions that control both technology and magic and where humans have been enslaved by the alien Yorg and Mygorg races. Starfire was bred from slaves and raised from infancy as a pet by the Mygorg chief Sookaroth. Because of her incredible beauty, she was intended to become his “bride” upon reaching eighteen. Unfortunately for Sookaroth, just before that happened Starfire made her escape with a rogue human war-priest, Dagan. Dagan taught her to fight. Then, of course, they fell in love. Sookaroth naturally hunted them down, tortured and killed Dagan, and inspired Starfire—now a warrior with serious sword, archery, and hand-to-hand combat skills–to put together a rebel army to overthrow their slave-masters.

By the time her story unceremoniously ended, Starfire had advanced to using laser pistols, hovercraft, teleportation, and supercomputers as well as the usual medieval weapons and trappings in her fight for human freedom. Readers were left hanging at the end of issue # 8 with the promise of a new installment that never came.

So there was that disappointment. But even with an undefined place in the DC Universe and without a title to call her own, DC kept their second Starfire around.

Starfire # 8, the last of her
Starfire # 8, the last of her

After her title’s demise, Starfire still showed up to lend an occasional hand to other superheroes. In 1978 she made an appearance in the also-short-lived Star Hunters (which, surprise, was also written by David Michelinie). In this adventure her planet is finally named as Pytharia, and Starfire is revealed to be one of the Champions of the Sornaii—a heroic aspect which Michelinie intended to connect her to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. Again, an interesting storyline was left unresolved when the title folded.

After a two decade hiatus, Starfire had a couple of fleeting mentions in Swamp Thing #163 in 1996 and Starman # 55 in 1999. Then she turned up again in 2010, ready for action, in several issues of Time Masters: Vanishing Point (created by Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund). There Starfire met and fought beside Booster Gold, Green Lantern, and Superman, among others, during an epic quest to find Batman—even though she technically should not have survived the Crisis on Infinite Earths, especially since she didn’t make it through the DC Implosion.

So while the Starfire comics are few and not worth very much in the collectors market, there is something about the character that has inspired multiple comic creators to keep bringing her back, if only for a name-check or a couple of panels. And we may yet see Starfire again. It’s hard to keep a good time-hopping, Crisis-surviving, possible Eternal Champion-being swordswoman down.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

JourneyQuest--our heroes
JourneyQuest–our heroes

JourneyQuest is a light, silly, dead-on-target web series about a group of differently-competent adventurers who may be on an epic quest. Or not. Anything’s possible, really. There have been quite a few surprising turns already in the available seasons, and there will be more coming soon.

JourneyQuest is the brainchild of  Dead Gentlemen Productions  of Seattle, Tacoma, and Los Angeles, and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. The first season came out in 2010, and the second in 2012. Collectively, both seasons only take about two hours to watch (including the bloopers and outtakes after each episode), and in JourneyQuest time everything happens over the course of a couple of days. It hardly even counts as binge-watching.

As far as the initial plot goes, the party is in search of the legendary Sword of Fighting hidden in the fearsome Temple of Some Dooms, and there is some disagreement over who is actually supposed to be the Chosen One.

Oh, Perf.
Oh, Perf.

Played with believable goofiness, the characters are a typical adventuring party, reasonably balanced if not entirely in their right minds. Christian Doyle is, oddly enough, the romantic lead as the awkward and semi-inept wizard Perf–his memorized spells are Mending, Vague, and Conjure Milk, which he uses defensively. His love interest is the elf ranger, Nara, played with disdain and occasional drugged wonder by Anne Kennedy Brady. Brian Lewis plays Carrow, a sincere and unfortunately undead cleric, while the not-too-bright but painfully enthusiastic fighter Glorion is played by Kevin Pitman.

There is even a framing story. As the documentarian human bard, Wren, Emilie Rommel Shimkus is almost unbearably perky—yet she becomes the love interest of Rilk, the most level-headed and handsome of the orcs, played by Jesse Lee Keeter.

Other personalities romping about include the Assassin, the legendary bard Silver Tom, the multilingual orc scholar Strong Like Bull, the socialist barbarian king Karn and his queen, Starling, Death personified, and an assortment of orcs, zombies, nobles, peasants, and functionaries who round out the story.

JourneyQuest, when things happen.
JourneyQuest, when things happen.

There is plenty of action going on besides the main adventure. There are self-help meetings for evil-holics, Orcs mocking humans: “Don’t kill me! I live in an indefensible village and have no martial training!”, and other pop-culture tropes played as in-world tropes. At one point, Perf gets into a classic internet grammar argument with a group of attacking orcs, because he apparently speaks orcish better than they do. And the orcish, while not a truly created language, sounds good because it is spoken with convincing intonation and feeling (and subtitles. Always subtitles.).

On that note, the dialogue is hilarious. With lines like “Vast waves of murderness”, “Why does he smell like crying?”, and “Being undead? It kind of itches”, there are plenty of catchphrases to choose from. One liners abound.

go around. But there are no sly asides here. I am glad they don’t break the fourth wall. That would actually take away some of the fun, because these characters are all fully a part of their world.

Because besides being funny, the writing is also good. Real feelings develop in and between these characters, and we can honestly care about them and be invested in their outcomes. JourneyQuest plays out the way a really good D & D campaign should—with well-loved characters and enough chaos and danger to keep it interesting.  The last few episodes in the second season have a more serious tone to them–lives are threatened, and feelings get hurt–because by this point the story has become complicated and some darkish things have happened.

On the technical side, I think the special effects are restrained and therefore well-done–nothing looks half-baked or amateurish, and no effects are bigger than the actual story. Sets and locations are evocative and far above the cheesiness of many other shoestring productions (and having cut my teeth on Star Trek TOS, I have a high tolerance for Styrofoam props). The costumes are simple, color coded, and stereotypical–what they wear is what they do. The Dead Gentlemen seem to have borrowed a few gags from other sources—Men In Black, Shaun of the Dead, Blackadder, Dune—but they work well in the general disarray of the party’s evolving adventure.

In addition to JourneyQuest, Dead Gentlemen Productions is also responsible for the Demon Hunters and The Gamers movie series, as well as assorted other shorts and web series. They do keep busy. Right now, principal photography for a third season of JourneyQuest has finished and they are working on post-production polishing. I am more than ready for it.

Onward!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!