Mike Grell’s Warlord has always been one of my all-time favorite comics. It is one of the first series I ever collected, anxiously awaiting each new issue to appear on the spinner rack at my local grocery store, and Grell’s artwork was some of the first that I can remember noticing a distinctive style that made it stand apart from the other comics I was reading.
The story is deceptively simple: in 1969 a US spy plane is shot down over the North Pole, its trajectory taking it through an immense opening leading to the interior of the Earth, which is hollow and has a whole other world on its inner surface. It is a savage world of dinosaurs, magic and adventure, and Travis Morgan, the spy plane’s pilot, takes to it like a fish to water, abandoning any attempts to find a way home almost immediately.
DC first began publishing The Warlord in 1975, when Marvel’s successful Conan comics had spawned hordes of imitators. The Warlord offered readers more than just a Conan clone, however. It had a lush, visually striking setting, a well developed cast of supporting characters, and in Travis Morgan, a hero with a modern point of view who could comment on the fantastic situations using contemporary language that readers could easily understand and relate to.
From the start, Travis Morgan is portrayed as more than just a vanilla hero. While he quickly rises to the challenges of the primitive world he finds himself in, it is clear from the start that he does so more out of a thirst for adventure than any particularly noble need to protect the innocent or do the right thing. In the first storyline he leads a group of slaves to freedom, and even manages to marry the restored queen of the kingdom he frees from a tyrannical sorcerer, but when it comes down to anything resembling actual responsibility, he quickly sneaks off to have more adventures.
The series’ original run lasted for 133 issues over 14 years. The first fifty were written and drawn by series creator Mike Grell, which largely accounts for the consistency of the main character and the distinctive look of the series. Other writers and artists such as Cary Burkett, Dan Jurgens and Michael Fleisher who took on the series after Grell’s departure had a highly developed series and cast of characters to work with. Grell wrote a revival miniseries in 1992 which had a somewhat darker tone, putting the focus squarely on Morgan’s shirking of responsibility and downplaying the high adventure.
The character and setting have made occasional appearances in other DC comics, most memorably in Mike Grell’s 1990s run on Green Arrow. Grell used to get friendly criticism about the fact that the way he drew them, Travis Morgan and Oliver Queen looked very similar, so when the Warlord wanders into Green Arrow’s home town, he is mistaken for the emerald archer and constantly attacked by Green Arrow’s enemies.
After an extremely ill conceived and poorly received reboot attempt in 2006, Mike Grell returned to the series in 2009 to tell the story he had always wanted to finish the series on, that of Travis Morgan’s death and succession as Warlord by his son Joshua, who he believed he had been forced to kill years ago. Grell alternated art duties with Joe Prado and Chad Hardin, and while it was nice to see Mike Grell draw his characters again, there is a roughness to his artwork that may be a telling testament to Vince Colletta and the other inkers he had on the original series.
Issue 16, published this week, is the current series’ final issue, and while according to Grell and DC it is a planned ending rather than a cancellation, it still feels abrupt and rushed, as Morgan’s son races to prevent an alien invasion of the interior world while also warning the people on the surface of what’s coming.
The Warlord’s appearances in other media have been scarce. A line of toys based on some of the series’ characters was released in 1981, no doubt intended to compete with the very successful Masters of the Universe line. Morgan’s only on-screen appearance so far has been in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Chaos at the Earth’s Core” (which sadly did not also feature Green Arrow).
To my knowledge, no serious thought has ever been given to a Warlord film or TV series, not even during the 1980s fantasy film boom brought on by Conan the Barbarian, or the slew of 1990s syndicated TV series inspired by Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess. This is probably just as well given DC’s poor track record with translating their more obscure characters to the screen (see Constantine or Jonah Hex, or better yet, don’t). But if the upcoming Conan and Thor films are successful, Hollywood may give Warlord another look. Hopefully they’ll recognize what made the series different, rather than what made it the same.
— Jefferson Powers
I find J. Michael Straczynski to be a very frustrating writer. If his work was merely bad or uninteresting it would be easy to dismiss him, but unfortunately he is a good writer who frequently comes up with fascinating ideas for the comics he writes. The central premise of his Supreme Power series from 2004, that no one could wield the power of a Superman, Wonder Woman or even Batman without being hopelessly insane, had been touched on before, but never with quite the intensity or attention to realistic historical detail. The problem with Supreme Power, and with most of the series that Straczynski writes, was that he never really finished it, he just let it fizzle out.
Even more disappointing than Supreme Power was the Thor relaunch in 2007. It had a wonderful premise that followed on perfectly from the destruction of Asgard in the previous Thor series, with Thor seeking his fellow Asgardians who had been reincarnated in the forms of mortals and scattered across the world, and establishing a new Asgard in, of all places, Oklahoma. It was a great set up for a series, and the new Asgard’s small town Oklahoma neighbors provided some much needed comedy relief for the traditionally humorless series. But Straczynski seemed to get bored with the whole thing pretty quickly, and he rushed through the search for the Asgardians, then fell back on the same old tired “what’s devious old Loki up to now” plots that have plagued the book for years.
Don’t even get me started on The Twelve, a proposed 12 issue miniseries about Marvel’s forgotten 1950s characters, which never made it past issue 8.
So it was with great irritation that I read that Straczynski would be taking over writing on Superman, one of my favorite ongoing superhero books. I decided that I would have none of it, I wouldn’t set myself up for disappointment again. He was starting with issue 701, so I would end my collection with issue 700, a nice round number. Unfortunately for my plan, Straczynski’s story actually started at the end of issue 700, and in spite of myself I was intrigued enough to want to read on. I read issue 701 with every intention of hating it…
But I have to admit, it was one of the more enjoyable Superman comics I’ve read in quite some time.
The story starts with Superman deciding that he spends too much time up in the sky, that he’s lost touch with the regular people that he’s dedicated his life to protecting. For the most part I agree. The “New Krypton” storyline that has consumed the Superman books for the past two years has been epic and ambitious, but it’s also been a bit too much about fighting and conflict between various super beings, which is all too prevalent in most modern superhero comics. I like Superman best when the stories are about him helping people, whether it’s saving them from burning buildings or getting their cats out of trees, and that seems to be the thing Straczynski’s storyline is going to focus on, as Superman decides to forego flying and walk from one end of the country to the other.
The pacing is nice and leisurely, spending time on little incidents of Superman connecting with ordinary life and ordinary people. No other costumed characters appear in the story at all, and other than a very brief appearance by Lois Lane, none of Superman’s regular cast of supporting characters appear either. It’s just scene after scene of Superman using his powers to help people, and it’s very well written. The dialogue is some of the most natural I’ve seen in a Superman book in years, and this is where Straczynski’s vast experience as a film and television writer are on display. The writing is humorous without being resorting to comic relief, and emotional without being sentimental.
Superman says he’s going to walk the length of the country. Given Straczynski’s recent track record, I’m betting he’ll either give up by the time he gets to St. Louis or we’ll jump ahead to his arrival in Alaska. But if he doesn’t, if Straczynski takes his time to explore this idea before jumping to one of the many other great ideas I’m sure he already has for the character, it could be a journey worth sticking around for. I guess we’ll see.
— Jefferson Powers
Tom Strong really has it all. A generically heroic main character with a dramatic origin, a love interest that is integral to the story, several appropriately cartoonish villains, and not one but two comic relief sidekicks – a talking gorilla and a stuttering robot. He even has a sensible, yet instantly recognizable costume. Tom Strong seems like an easy mark for a movie, so why hasn’t Hollywood fed it into the meat grinder yet?
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tom Strong was part of the America’s Best Comics line created by Alan Moore for Wildstorm back in the late 1990s, a line which also included Top Ten, Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tom Strong was Moore’s attempt to bring the concept of the superhero back to its pulp roots, and has as much in common with Doc Savage or the Shadow as it does with Superman.
Referred to as a “science-hero,” Tom Strong is raised in a high-gravity chamber and educated by his scientist parents on the fictional island of Attabar Teru until an accident kills his parents and releases him from the chamber as a teenager. He grows up among the natives of the island, and his exposure to a local root combined with his time spent in the gravity chamber results in him being nearly perfect physically and mentally, and extremely long lived – although born in 1900, by 2000 he looks to be in his early 40s.
He has adventures throughout the 20th century, fighting Nazis, killer robots and sentient Aztec temples, and frequently travelling in time and visiting alternate realities. He is ably assisted by his wife Dhalua and their daughter Tesla, both natives of Attabar Teru with similarly long lifespans, as well as by Pneuman, a steam powered robot butler, and Solomon, a gorilla who talks like an Oxford science teacher. His recurring villains include Paul Saveen, a classic 1920s sinister stage magician, and Ingrid Weiss, a buxom Nazi obsessed with bearing Tom’s children to jump-start the master race.
The current Tom Strong series, written by frequent Moore collaborator Peter Hogan with artwork by original series co-creator Chris Sprouse, concerns Ingrid Weiss and the son she tricked Tom into fathering, and their plot to change history, creating a world where the Nazis win the war with the help of a race of robots from Atlantis. It’s been done before, but Hogan and Sprouse have so far managed to pull off the story with enough charm that it feels fresh.
The most important thing about the Tom Strong comics is that they are bright, cheery and fun, telling exciting and engaging stories without lapsing into the dark angst that seems to pass for sophistication in many mainstream comics today. The series seems tailor made for a Hollywood summer blockbuster, with its world threatening plots and larger than life characters.
And besides, Alan Moore hasn’t had a reason to complain about Hollywood since last spring’s Watchmen movie…
— Jefferson Powers
After several years of closely connected storylines, DC’s various Superman titles are now going in different directions, and perhaps the most dramatic change is that Action Comics, the title that Superman debuted in back in 1938, will now be headlined by none other than Lex Luthor.
When I first heard about it I was intrigued by the idea. Under the right writer Luthor is a fascinating character, and Paul Cornell, a veteran of British television (including the critically acclaimed Doctor Who episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood) should bring a fresh perspective, and Cornell’s characterization of Luthor is definitely a highlight of the book. While he occasionally lapses into the tired ruthless corporate CEO cliché that has plagued the character since the 1980s, this Luthor has a cocky sparkle to him, and Cornell’s sharp writing makes me believe two important things: that Luthor is A: a genius and B: completely insane.
The story itself is serviceable, picking up where Luthor’s involvement in the Blackest Night storyline left off. His exposure to the orange power ring has left him even more greedy for power than he was before, and so he embarks on a quest to find a way to create his own power ring. He is assisted by the usual corporate toadies, but also with what may end up being one of the more interesting characters in the series: a robot duplicate of Lois Lane, programmed to challenge Luthor, to give him, in his own words, “a viewpoint that’s not entirely about need.”
Of course Luthor follows this explanation of the robot Lois’ purpose with the following statement, which really sums up the tone of the writing: “That will be especially useful when I’m becoming a god in space.” The plot really isn’t all that important, it’s just a vehicle for Luthor’s character.
Paul Cornell seems to have a firm handle on that character, and so far he has avoided the pitfalls that usually befall villain-led books, largely by avoiding having Superman or any other heroes appear in the story at all. This is Lex Luthor’s book, and the story is told squarely from his point of view. In his mind at least, he is the hero.
— Jefferson Powers