Saturday, May 8, 2010

Comics Review: STAR COMICS ALL-STAR COLLECTION, Volume 3 (Marvel Comics, 2010)

The "black holes" in the "Star Universe" are starting to show -- and NOT simply because Dave Manak, who'd later give us those memorably misguided team-ups between Richie Rich, Wendy the Witch, and New Kids on the Block during the Montgomery Harvey era, makes his debut in this collection (he writes the feature stories in TOP DOG #8 and #9). No, this third volume sees the final fruits of the first "original" Star title to depart the premises (ROYAL ROY, which ended with issue #6 in the face of threatened legal action by Harvey over Roy's extreme similarity to Richie Rich) and the dreaded insertion of (Gulp!) t-t-team-ups into the world of Star's flagship (IMHO) character, Top Dog. PLANET TERRY continues to be of consistently good quality, and Ben Brown's fine work on WALLY THE WIZARD is nothing short of a revelation to me, but these happenings do not bode well for what we now know would be these characters' rather limited futures.

The feature story in ROYAL ROY #5, "The Royal Olympics" -- a not-even-bothering-to-use-a-fig-leaf rip-off of an early-1970s RICHIE story, "The Rich Kids' Olympics" -- is the four-color equivalent of a finger in Harvey's eye as Star prepared to shutter up shop on its "prince of a boy," but Roy's career wasn't quite over yet. In TOP DOG #7, TD reprises his earlier role as operator of the government's "Brainstrain" computer and general trouble-shooter to dope out a solution to a "Crisis in Cashelot." To make this work, writer Sid Jacobson would have us believe that tiny Cashelot and its equally minuscule neighbor, Lessavia, are such key allies of the U.S. that TD -- who (in disguise, bien sur) had once used his amazing cooking (!) skills to short-circuit a dispute between an American diplomat and a representative of what is VERY strongly hinted to be the Soviet Union -- must be called into the "secret table service" once again. This is stretching credulity to the snapping point, but, as TD flippantly explains to (supposed) master Joey Jordan, it's "close enough for government work!" The predictable but enjoyable story at least allows Royal Roy to conclude his career on a relatively dignified note. Two issues later, however, TD gets a glimpse of his future when Manak's "The Great Museum Mystery" teams him up with Heathcliff. After TD's title had "wuthered" (sorry) away, he would serve as the back-up feature in Star's HEATHCLIFF title. Warren Kremer simulates George Gately's style with remarkable verisimilitude, but the character designs of Joey and TD obviously clash with those of Heathcliff (who's in his non-TV "silent" mode here) and his master Iggy. As if these two "special guest appearances" aren't enough, the in-panel blurb for TOP DOG #10 promises "the event of the year" -- a team-up between Top Dog and Spider-Man. What's next, TD donning a battle suit and zooming through the sky as he calls out to Joey, "You complete me!"?

Though Jon D'Agostino's inking may have helped, Ben Brown unquestionably deserves most of the credit for making his issues of WALLY THE WIZARD (here, #5 and #6) so enjoyable, largely due to his scripts. #6's "The Return of Merlin" offers up a clever, iconoclastic spin on the legend of the Arthurian wizard, who happens to be Wally's master Marlin's brother. Brown's Merlin turns out to be a conniving hustler who promises to save the kingdom from a threatening volcano while secretly planning to slip away with his payment. Marlin, for his part, being a "scientific" magician, stoutly avows that the best thing that the locals can do in the face of the danger is to make tracks out of the volcano's path. Marlin gets his comeuppance in the end, thanks to some quick thinking by Wally, but even the young apprentice's plan is delightfully unexpected. #5's "Kidnapped!", in which the haughty Princess Penelope is spirited away by the evil Vastar, isn't quite as distinctive, and Brown seems confused as to whether Vastar's magical ally Erasmo's "force field" is an incorporeal vapor or a literal "dome" (complete with a hole to allow smoke to get through!), but the artwork is still first-class, though a bit stiff in places. Brown maintains WALLY creator Bob Bolling's "non-Harvey-like" layout style and does it well. Indeed, his work here is so good that I'm all the more peeved that his earlier work on RICHIE RICH was so mediocre.

PLANET TERRY #5-#6 includes Terry's most straightforwardly heroic exploit to date, in which he helps a planet's inhabitants break free of the globe-girdling web of the deadly Tarantulugs and is rewarded with a substance that helps his big green friend Omnus recover from a near-death experience. #6 ends with the introduction of a comical detective character, Elvin's uncle Sam Space. Between #5 and #6, however, there is a single blank page colored green -- an editorial gaffe that's worthy of Montgomery Harvey at its most ham-handed. The misstep stands out in particular relief because Marvel, to its credit, has taken pains to present this material in a high-quality package. The Star line may ultimately have failed, but Marvel is giving today's readers an aesthetically pleasing glimpse of it.

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