The 80s Strike Back in New Comics

What do we have in the FBOTU pull-list this week? Let’s see…He-Man…Jem…Darth Vader?! It’s like I went to sleep in 2015 and woke up in 1985! My pop culture references will be relevant again! This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at these three born-again titles. Do they survive the leap into 2015, or are they best left in the past. Let’s find out!

HeMan: Eternity War #4
Written by Dan Abnett
Art by Pop Mhan

Has there ever been a bigger, yet more fantastic mess than Masters of the Universe? It is a testament to the strength of the core scifi/fantasy/superhero mashup concept that it can endure so many permutations. From the very beginning, the mythos was all over the place, varying from writer to writer, medium to medium. The structure we all know best, the Filmation animated series, made some sense of all the pieces at the time, then added a heaping helping of Lou Scheimer-inspired heart to the proceedings. With each reboot, creators have found fertile ground to work, and many have tried, with varying levels of success, to mold all the disparate elements of the mythos into one cohesive story, though often neglecting the aforementioned heart, which, in my opinion, is as essential to MOTU as Castle Grayskull. Having said that, I’ve never been overly concerned with reconciling Jungle Boy and Goddess with Prince Adam and the Sorceress, but if that’s your raison d’etre, then knock yourself out. I will most likely enjoy your efforts.

I tend to have three guidelines when approaching new MOTU material: 1) It has to take itself and its characters seriously. 2) It can’t be self-referential. 3) It has to have heart. Writer Keith Giffen’s early run on the new DC comics series didn’t quite live up to the first two requirements, but did offer enough heart and nostalgia to keep me coming back for more. When Dan Abnett took over the series, though, he made a couple of course corrections that immediately elevated the book. Suddenly, all three of my requirements were being met, and I was in a world of MOTU that felt both familiar and brand new, nostalgic and exciting. Abnett’s Eternity War series has been so much fun to read and genuinely feels like all the various loose threads since the 2012 launch of the series are finally coming together. Even when Teela stops the action to offer exposition, it’s the kind of stuff that makes you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that? It makes perfect sense!” For instance, tying the various appearances of the Sorceress/Goddess to the different iconic factions on Eternia is a stroke of genius. In the latest issue, He-Man: Eternity War #4, Teela explains: “We all see the Goddess in our own image…In the beginning, the Snakemen, the first life born on Eternia, saw the Goddess as Serpos. She was primordial. Blood, passion and desire…Today’s Eternians see the Goddess as Zoar. To us, she is the great preserver. Her light, we imagined, would shine through the universe for eternity. The Horde sees the Goddess as Horokoth. To them, she is the coming destroyer. The darkness at the end of days.” Does this mean we’ll get to see a brand new incarnation of the Goddess? A bat/vampire-themed creation to complete the triumvirate of serpent/falcon/bat? It’s such a great way to honor the saga’s legacy, while continuing to add to it.

I also love that things happen in this series. Events move forward and characters move with them. Adam becomes king. Teela becomes the Sorceress. And Adora? Well, Adora has issues, and her characterization is both complex and heartbreaking, the careful realization of a character who survives her upbringing and throws off the chains of mind control to fulfill her destiny. And did I mention she’s angry? And she’s not interested in any of the Sorceress’s riddles, demanding that Teela earn her trust and speak plainly and honestly. It’s a bold move and only slightly dips into self-referential territory, since we are all aware of how vexing this archetypical role can be, whether you’re the Sorceress, Light Hope, Gandalf or Obi-Wan, none of them has ever really embraced the concept of “full disclosure.” Here, Teela promises to reveal all, which actually elevates the character from a sidelined oracle to a more active and equal member of the team.

The most important element here, thankfully, is heart. And plenty of it. He-Man inspires loyalty not because of his strength, but because of his courage and humanity. Way back in issue #19, the Sorceress tells Zodac that Adam’s humanity is his greatest strength, “his profound love for his friends and for his father.” This is echoed throughout the series, as well as Teela’s declaration: “We are a family. And family is a strength that demons fear.” These characters may have their personal conflicts, but they love each other. It feels organic and earned, and it raises the stakes for both the characters and the reader.

This issue also sees the return of Hordak to flesh and blood form, as well as the return of Skeletor to his usual (though still fun and surprising) bag of tricks and betrayal. The only misstep here, as far as I’m concerned, is the whole issue with He-Man’s blood being used to resurrect Hordak. I understand that it had to be an heir of King Grayskull, but didn’t Hordak have a Grayskull heir by his side for 20 years? Why not just get a donation from Adora to make his escape? I’m not sure if this is Hordak’s sexism, or if the fine print of the prophesy says it has to be Adam’s blood? It’s confusing, but I’ll overlook it, since so many other aspects of this vast and ever-expanding world have been brought so skillfully into focus.

Pop Mhan’s artwork continues to be sensational. The climactic battle between She-Ra and Hordak is a highlight, all jagged, sharp edges, inked in deeply saturated crimsons and golds. In contrast, Teela is all curves and rounded shapes in her green and brown earth tones. The background work during her tale of Serpos/Zoar/Horokoth is exceptional. Look closely, and you’ll see a couple of homages to Filmation, too. He also frequently throws in a shirtless Man-At-Arms, just for fun, and I love him for it.

In terms of reboots, this one has been well executed and continues to get better and better. If you haven’t been reading and want to jump on board, He-Man: The Eternity War is a good place to start, then you can slowly catch up with previous issues and collections.

Jem and the Holograms #1
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Sophie Campbell, Amy Mebberson

Jem has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity lately (or at least increased visibility), with both a new line of dolls and an upcoming movie. Honestly, she should have had a comic series long before now, but thankfully IDW’s reboot of the classic 80s property has been worth the wait. A reboot could have gone in any number of directions. They could have picked up where the animated series ended; they could have started over with the same storyline and modernized it; they could have changed everything completely and made all the characters cyborgs from the future. Instead, writer Kelly Thompson sticks relatively close to the original narrative, at least in this first issue. Sisters Kimber and Jerrica Benton have lost their father; they play music with their friends Aja and Shana; dad left them a holographic miracle called Synergy to help them out. With those basic elements, though, Thompson adds a few shades of gray (or shades of pink, as the case may be).

Jerrica is the lead singer of her friends’ group, but she suffers from crippling stage fright and seems to be haunted by a lot of anxiety and pressure. Not quite the firebrand leader that Jerrica was in the 80s toon. Instead, Kimber appears to be the tougher of the siblings, providing the drive to take the band from hobby to full-time occupation and vehicle to superstardom. But can Jerrica overcome her own self doubt and anxiety to be the lead singer the band needs? In her despair, Jerrica accidentally discovers Synergy, her father’s technological legacy. Once Jerrica sees what Synergy can do, it doesn’t take her long to realize the implications. With Synergy’s help, she can be whoever she wants. She can hide in plain site, which, in this case, happens to be center stage. It’s a nice twist on the original Jerrica/Jem dichotomy. Jerrica always had to be the responsible one, the one in charge, the businesswoman. Conversely, Jem got to be the fun one, the star. This, of course, provided the sort of conflict to which everyone from Bruce Wayne to Prince Adam to Hanna Montana can relate—as long as you don’t veer off into full-blown dissociative identity disorder, of course. Will anxious Jerrica disappear entirely into superstar Jem? Or will being Jem help her become more confident in herself and free Jerrica from her stage fright? Time will tell.

I can’t neglect to mention one other character overhaul here. Kimber…is a lesbian! Her character bio says she “loves girls” and the creators themselves confirmed it in a recent Advocate interview. That innovation alone will create a lot of buzz and discussion around this book. Fans, especially LGBTQ+ fans, have always loved the sweet relationship between Kimber and Stormer in the original series. Making them an actual couple, or at least giving them the potential to be a couple, could have a lot of positive impact on readers and the update of other 80s properties.

The art in this issue is also a welcome innovation. Sophie Campbell and Amy Mebberson create a whole new, yet cohesive look for the characters that pays homage to the originals, while updating them for a modern audience. They’ve also given each character her own specific body type, because, you know, they’re different people. The pastel color palette works well for the band’s style and the moody backgrounds depicting Jerrica’s mental state, and the character designs, while cute, aren’t “cutesy.” I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, and how Jem and the Holograms adapt to life in 2015.

Darth Vader #3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca

Look…I get it. Star Wars is a cultural and generational phenomenon and has inspired countless creators and will continue to do so for generations to come. Oddly enough, though, I think it’s a tough property to get right. The pace, the tone, the characterization and the essence of the original (and even the prequels) have such specific cadences to them, grand and mythological in scope, but subtle and nuanced in execution. While the Original Trilogy is steeped in mythology and Hollywood swashbuckling adventure stories, the prequels are more Biblical and Shakespearean in scope and tone. Yet both exist in the same universe. I think it’s extremely difficult to authentically inhabit and recreate that world.

The events of Marvel’s new Star Wars, Darth Vader and Princess Leia series take place following the events of A New Hope. As all the previous extended universe material has been jettisoned, it’s like the wild, wild west again in terms of filling up all the empty space. So far in the Darth Vader series, we’ve seen Vader get scolded by Palpatine in a scene reminiscent of a Robot Chicken sketch and get demoted to Grand General Tagge’s flunky. Frankly, if you found the discussion of the Trade Federation’s blockade in The Phantom Menace to be riveting, you’re going to love Palpatine explaining the organizational structure of middle management in the Empire. So, while Vader is clearly in something of a downward spiral since those crazy teenagers blew up the Death Star, why not give him a girlfriend, too? I’m sorry…did you say girlfriend? In Darth Vader #3, we are introduced to Doctor Aphra, a skilled, enterprising and seemingly ruthless young lady who likes to steal quarantined personality matrices and rebuild assassin droids. It’s practically love at first sight when Vader tracks her down to help him build a covert army of loyal, but menacing droids to help him reclaim his glory/dignity. It’s like the big guy with the deep voice is what she’s been looking for all her life. She actually says that, by the way. “You’re what I’ve been looking for all my life.” If Vader’s breathing quickened or his helmet lenses steamed up a little, we don’t know. I’m going to assume they did. I’m not entirely sold on this title yet. I do find the murderous anti-R2-D2 and C-3PO droids to be amusing. Hopefully, they will get their own series after this. If I sound like a typical disgruntled fanboy, I guess I kind of am. I imagine it must be very difficult working within the confines of the Star Wars universe. You can’t do anything too crazy, because you’re boxed in by the events of the films. At the same time, it’s hard to be original when you can only safely tread the same paths over and over. Because it’s Star Wars, though, I will give it a little more time. I used to blindly support everything, because I found great comfort in handing George my every dime. Now that Star Wars is a Disney property, my blind loyalty may come with some conditions.

Having said all that, I will give this title credit for one triumph: Salvador Larroca can really draw Darth Vader! He looks absolutely stunning in every single frame. The Force is obviously strong with Master Larroca.

%d bloggers like this: