Disney Kingdoms comics

I just happened to be in the Magic Kingdom when I noticed a comic book on the shelf at the Haunted Mansion gift shop, Seekers of the Weird. I didn’t pay much attention. I flipped through the book and decided that if it caught my attention again when the trade came out I’d give it a try.

Five issues came and went. The collected edition hit the shelves. It didn’t catch my attention.

Quite without my knowledge my wife had been buying issues of Figment for my daughter, a huge fan of the imaginary purple dragon. All five issues went into Destiny’s comic box without crossing my line of vision, accompanied a year later by the follow up Figment 2. When my wife discovered they had missed the five issue run of Big Thunder Mountain, she painstakingly tracked down and special ordered every one of them. It wasn’t until Haunted Mansion came out that they saw fit to approach me. “Destiny doesn’t want to read Haunted Mansion,” she said. “I need you to add it to your pull file so I don’t miss any of them.” Ah, me. Les bandes dessinées sont la langue de l’amour.

As part of their initiative to broaden their appeal to young boys and male teens, Disney had commissioned a line of comic books inspired by attractions in the parks. I’m not sure how well that part of the plan worked out for them, but the books certainly caught the attention of Disney fans like my wife. I went back and picked up Seekers of the Weird and made sure to snag Enchanted Tiki Room when it hit the shelves once Haunted Mansion concluded. Each five-issue limited series stood on its own merits, disconnected from the other titles, except for the two Figment books. All of them met with the approval of my wife and daughter, but I felt the need to see for myself just what they were doing with the tie-in media.

While the other books were nominally inspired by attractions in the parks, Seekers of the Weird came from an idea by Imagineer Marty McClure that never came to be. The original attraction was the Museum of the Weird and it was to be a walking tour through an old house with any number of strange and impossible items on display. The comic book told the story of brother and sister Max and Melody Keep, who find themselves suddenly embroiled in a war between an ancient magic user and the secret society that opposes her. Facing down a host of magical monsters and otherworldly entities, Max and Melody must team up with an uncle they barely know and don’t trust in order to save their parents, who have studiously kept the “secret” in “secret society”.

Seekers of the Weird (2014) #1

Figment told the story of Blarion Mercurial before he became known as Dreamfinder. An inventor frustrated by limits placed on his imagination by the laws of physics, Mercurial invents the Integrated Mesmonic Converter to draw energy from the stuff of imagination. Instead, he creates a tiny purple dragon named Figment. Mercurial and Figment then adventure into other worlds until they finally return home just in time to save the Earth from an alien invasion using the power of imagination.

Figment (2014) #1

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad introduces the reader to Abigail Bullion, a rebellious teenage girl whose father owns the Big Thunder Mining Company. Abigail travels west to live with her father in the mining town, but falls in with bandits and learns of the trouble brewing in the mine. Unable to stand still when she perceives injustice, Abigail begins taking measures to put things right. But things are not as they seem and none of the players have factored in the most important thing in this part of the Old West, Big Thunder Mountain herself.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (2015) #2

Figment 2 returns us to the present day as Mercurial, now known as Dreamfinder, and Figment bring their adventures to a crashing halt at a little city on the coast of Florida. Dreamfinder runs headlong into the legacy of invention that began with his adventures nearly 100 years ago. Imagination, it seems, is limited by neither time nor space. Thrust into the modern world and surrounded by young geniuses with tools that far outstrip his wildest conceptions, Dreamfinder begins to doubt his own abilities and the real power of imagination. It’s up to Mercurial’s great- great- grand-niece Capri to save Dreamfinder from his own doubt with a little Spark of her own.

Figment 2 (2015) #3

In The Haunted Mansion, teenaged Danny is contacted by Madame Leota and informed that the ghost of a pirate captain is holding hostage the ghost of Danny’s beloved grandfather, recently killed during an adventure in the mountains. Danny must overcome his fears and confront the pirate captain, Constance the bride, and the 999 other ghosts within the mansion in order to save his grandfather and keep from becoming the 1000th occupant himself.

The Haunted Mansion (2016) #4

Enchanted Tiki Room hails back to the best of 70s and 80s television, with the four feathered hosts taking the place of Mr. Roark in Disney’s version of Fantasy Island. Guests arrive on the island to witness the magic of the Tiki Room and have their wishes granted by the Tiki gods. In the process, they learn a life lesson and hopefully emerge from the experience as better people.

Enchanted Tiki Room (2016) #3

With the exception of Enchanted Tiki Room, these are all straight-up adventure stories very similar to the movies produced by Disney Studios. The action is engaging, the pacing keeps the reader involved in the story, and the characters are likeable and relateable archetypes that grow through personal failings as the stories progress. They don’t obsess over the character flaws of the cast or devolve into tedious manufactured personal drama. They don’t belabor a social agenda or abuse the reader with heavily stylized art or “edgy” language. These books are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and they succeed very well. The stories are approachable and easy to read, with crisp lines and a natural flow to the art. Anyone who picks up these books looking for an adventure story is going to find something they like.

Unfortunately, it also means they’ll probably find very little that stands out. Unless you are a massive Figment fan or devoted to the lore of the rides, these books don’t add much to the experience already provided at the parks. Lovers of weird fantasy will enjoy these romps but find they follow a familiar formula and lack grounding in an external setting. These are not bad books and the collected versions make an attractive package at an excellent value. Like many Disney adventure films, each of these adventure stories is a beginning without a continuation, an introduction to a world the reader will likely never visit again nor further contemplate. And that, I think, is a great failing.

G.K. Chesterton wrote about the purpose of myth and fantasy in The Everlasting Man, saying, “We know the meaning of all the myths. We know the last secret revealed to the perfect initiate. And it is not the voice of a priest or a prophet saying ‘These things are.’ It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, ‘Why cannot these things be?’” The failing of the Disney Kingdom adventure books is that they do not leave the reader asking if these things can be, desiring to protect the world from the supernatural with the Seekers of the Weird, or fearing the crushing weight of a perpetually unfulfilled afterlife in The Haunted Mansion.

Dreamfinder encourages others to seek the spark of imagination within themselves. Young Danny receives a lecture from his ghostly tour guide that depictions of death should properly be a celebration of life. They are both exhortations that ring hollow, for if humanity could find fulfillment within themselves, we would have little need of a savior. As it is, God has placed eternity in the heart of man so that we would look outside of ourselves to examine His waiting revelation.

Finally, I must address Enchanted Tiki Room. The situations are ludicrous without being funny. The characters are quirky without being engaging. The dialog is informative without being witty. The story structure is formulaic without being satisfying. The art, however, is clear and crisp with an eye for motion and the ability to make the attempts at physical comedy seem funnier than they actually are. Horacio Domingues handled pencils, inks, and colors for the title and deserves massive props for his efforts. I shall speak of this title no more.

Each of the Disney Kingdoms titles must be found under its own name, and I encourage fans of weird fantasy and sci-fi adventure to not dismiss them out of hand. They really do make nice companion pieces to the attractions and most every audience will find something in them appealing. I give Seekers of the Weird, The Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Figment, and Figment 2 Quality scores of “Satisfying Reads” and Relevance scores of “Missed Opportunities”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Sonic the Hedgehog

I never would have guessed that Sonic the Hedgehog and Archie Comics would be the ones to revitalize my interest in superhero comics. For reasons I won’t go into immediately, I walked away from both Marvel and DC in 2009/2010. They simply stopped telling the kinds of superhero stories I wanted. When Humble Bundle featured a selection of Sonic the Hedgehog comics as their digital book bundle, I thought it was a good opportunity to stoke my son’s interest in reading in general and comics in particular. I read the first book just to see what Sonic looked like these days. It hooked me instantly.

I remember when Sonic the Hedgehog premiered in Archie Comics back in 1993. I considered it a kid’s book, with goofy artwork and the kind of four page gags for which Archie Comics was known. The new Sonic book I read was from 2013. It began with Sonic and Tails fighting for their lives against a tentacular mechanized horror controlled by a sinister and murderous stuffed doll. The book slowly introduced me to the principle cast, only a few of whom I knew from the cartoons and video games. It hinted at a history of loss and sacrifice, implying that Sonic and the Freedom Fighters were all that stood between the Eggman Army and total subjugation of the world.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1993) #279

I never really considered Eggman a villain to be taken seriously, knowing him only from the video game character model and the goofy dialog of the cartoons. The comic introduced me to a man consumed by selfishness and his own ego, commanding minions that were obviously terrified of him. It wasn’t until Eggman defeated a G.U.N. carrier fleet all by himself that I began to consider him a threatening antagonist. He clearly had his eye on the big picture, with the resources and ability to follow through on his threats. I still didn’t like the character model, but it had improved significantly since the 1990s.

As I read, Sonic laid out the bones of what had come before and introduced me to the current status quo. Turns out I was coming in on the heels of a continuity restructuring; it was convenient for me, as I knew nothing of the previous stories. Prior to the reboot, Sonic’s Freedom Fighters had suffered devastating losses. Antoine D’Coolette was in a coma. Antoine’s wife Bunnie had lost her cybernetic powers and run away. Sonic’s love interest Princess Sally Acorn had been transformed into a murderous, roboticized slave of the Eggman Empire. Currently, the Fighters were scattered across the face of the planet, conveniently allowing Sonic and Tails to reintroduce them one at a time.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1993) #255

Piece by piece, the gang came back together, events from the previous continuity washed away by the reboot and remembered only by the core cast and only as a fading dream. Now healthy, Antoine looks back on his injury with a shudder of relief at a tragedy narrowly averted. Bunnie’s cybernetics are back and she mourns the loss of a normal life with her husband while renewing her determination to fight Eggman. When Sonic finally discovers that Sally is no longer roboticized and is preparing to return safely from a secret mission, I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. And then Eggman finds out …

See, Eggman remembers the previous world as well, a world in which he was considered something of a joke, while in this one he is feared by allies and enemies alike. In the previous world he worked on gimmicky schemes with dwindling resources. In the new one he commands a global empire and significant military might. None of this means anything to him because in the world that was Sonic suffered the loss of friends and family. When he discovers that Sally is no longer a robot slave, the until-now coldly calculating Eggman throws a tantrum and acts with pure, petty vindictiveness. “Send Metal Sonic,” he orders, “Sonic never sees her again … alive.”

Sonic the Hedgehog (1993) #255

I swear this used to be a kid’s book.

I had two titles and three years worth of issues in each one to catch up on. I read through them all in a week. Rather than the silliness I associated with the Sonic cartoons, I discovered a complex world where a small band of extraordinary individuals stood against extraordinary threats. The villains acted with viciousness and desperation. The heroes stood ready to sacrifice everything. The fallout of their battles left ragged lives in its wake, even when things worked out mostly for the best. Hero and villain alike struggled with the moral, emotional, and philosophical consequences of their actions. The action was relentless; the violence was usually subtle and occasionally shocking but my youngest nephew could read this without my very protective sister batting an eye.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1993) #278

From this point on, every superhero book I ever read will be held to a standard set by the adventures of an anthropomorphic hedgehog and his egg-shaped nemesis.

Archie’s stable of artists draw the book with clarity and emotion, staying consistently on model. The color palettes tend to show their video game origins, with bright, vibrant hues that pop off the page for most of the action but turn subdued when things trend towards the serious. The lettering is a bit larger than I’m used to but it makes the books considerably easier to read in digital or digest formats.

I’d never heard of writer Ian Flynn before reading Sonic the Hedgehog. He took over the Sonic titles in 2006 and also worked on several other books for Archie, including the New Crusaders. He also wrote every issue of Archie’s Mega Man series, which I’m now determined to hunt down and not only for the two epic crossovers with Sonic. I used to think this was just a kid’s book, but it has rapidly become my superhero title of choice, surpassing even Grant Morrison’s luminary work on JLA in the 2000s. I regret not having discovered it sooner.

Sonic Universe (2009) #62

Archie Comics has made every issue of both Sonic and Mega Man available digitally through their own app and through Comixology. They also publish the older works in digest collections and the new works in trade paperback. The Sonic titles are currently on hiatus while Archie Comics and Sega talk through some licensing issues, but you can bet I’ll be there to pick up the next issue when things finally resolve. In the meantime, Archie has most of the trades on sale through their website and special deals going through their digital outlets. It’s a great opportunity to catch up on the stories, starting with the TPB “Countdown to Chaos” or issue #252. If you are a fan of superhero comics, action-adventure stories, or simply have the ability to read, you need to be reading Sonic the Hedgehog. I give the two Sonic books, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe, Quality scores of “Superior” and Relevance scores of “High”.

Sonic Universe (2009) #75

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

He-Man / ThunderCats

As with many of my generation, two cartoons virtually defined the high-adventure genre of techno-fantasy during my formative years. Both ThunderCats and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe featured pseudo-technological heroes engaged in a never-ending battle against the quasi-mystical forces of evil. Both cartoons made my parents very nervous with their parade of occultish imagery and the regular invocation of otherworldly forces. They were very concerned that these shows would cause me to join a cult; I was very concerned that they wouldn’t allow me to watch them anymore. Somehow we all made it through the 80s alive and cult-free.

I originally hesitated when I saw the first issue of He-Man/ThunderCats on the comic shop shelves. DC Comics had already burned me on Scooby Apocalypse and the language in Wacky Raceland was starting to grate on my nerves. I wasn’t ready to accept another “re-imagining” of fondly remembered characters that simply cast them as dysfunctional narcissists whose cursing abused my ears. I flipped through the first couple of pages with trepidation and quickly added the title to my pull-and-hold file.

Within the pages of that first issue, the character models I remembered from years past burst from the page in Freddie Williams dirty, gritty pencils and Jeremy Colwell’s layered colors. I knew these characters. The lines of dialog could have been drawn directly from the cartoons. The action of the first issue ramped up to a showdown between He-Man and Mumm-Ra that followed the same formula as the cartoons; bad guys attack, everybody fights, the bad guys enact a crazy scheme, the good guys counter with another crazy scheme, everybody fights until the good guys win. Then you reset and do it all again in the next episode. Only this time, midway through issue #1 Mumm-Ra took He-Man’s Sword of Power and gutted him like a fish.

He-Man / Thundercats (2016) #1

I had to read it twice to be sure. In the span of a few panels, a book I had expected to be a nostalgia-filled romp from 30 years ago took a turn that would never have happened on Saturday morning television. Unlike the travesty of Scooby Apocalypse or the vulgarity of Wacky Raceland I found this bit of unexpected violence strangely satisfying. Even kids know that swords are for killing people, or slaying monsters if you prefer. None of the characters in these shows ever got hurt for real, not in any way that wasn’t completely recovered by the start of the next episode. The show titles proclaimed that the fate of the universe was on the line every weekday at 3:30, but even as a kid it felt much more like a game than a battle of good versus evil.

He-Man / ThunderCats (2016) #2

And isn’t that what we really want from an adventure that pits the defenders of justice against the villainy of unrepentant evil? We want to see the bad guys do things that are selfish and despicable with consequences that play out in the lives of people affected by their actions. We want to see heroes pay a real and visceral cost in the cause of standing in the gap between the oppressor and the helpless. There is a place for heroes that triumph through cleverness and overcome adversity through skill, but it’s the element of sacrifice that sets apart those heroes who bear the whips and scorns of the oppressor’s wrong and by enduring end them, suffering the injury of evil intent and scorning the dread of that death whose undiscovered country will timely bear us all away. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he must oppose the ills of outrageous fortune in order to make his Quietus; the triumph of Christ is that He endured the full consequence of evil in the place of others and it was insufficient to remove His own righteousness. To intercept evil and prevent its impact only satisfies our sense of balance and fair play; to recompense the consequence of the last full measure of evil’s capability satisfies justice.

He-Man / ThunderCats (2016) #3

So if the cartoons of yesteryear failed to take themselves seriously enough, it certainly appeared as if the comic book crossover of today was taking itself seriously indeed. From now on, the bad guys play for keeps. Over the next six issues, everything I ever wanted to see them do in the old cartoon played itself out in front of me. Authors Rob David and Lloyd Goldfine stripped away every trope forced on the cartoons by the grassroots organization Action for Children’s Television. David and Goldfine eschewed the use of vulgarity, narcissism, and depravity in favor of methodical story construction and characters who understood the consequences of their actions and behaved with maturity. Williams’ art depicted ugly, brutal violence with visceral impact that needed no gratuitous gore. Throughout the book the old 80s character models and outlandish schemes reminded me that this particular battle of good versus evil filtered mature, epic fantasy through a lens of childhood nostalgia.

I’m not typically much for nostalgia. The popular show Stranger Things did very little for me that way. I do like seeing those old artifacts and elements, but in their original context. I generally prefer modern renditions that reflect the original inspiration and intent, but that are reflective of modern sensibilities. It’s no surprise then that I prefer the character models from What’s New, Scooby-Doo? over the 60s designs, the 2002 Masters of the Universe, and the 2011 ThunderCats. Right from the start, this crossover seemed to me like a step backwards. Getting me to buy every issue was going to take more than rose-colored memories of broadcast television.

He-Man / ThunderCats (2016) #4

The art was already doing much to set this telling apart from the source material. The character models still matched the original Mattel toys but Williams’ pencils exaggerated the field of depth and range of motion with heavy emphasis on the line work and regular explosions of krackle dots sized to resemble blowing grit or blood spatter. Colwell’s colors rendered the pastel candy palette of the cartoon in digital watercolor, layering shades to add additional depth and motion to the line art and muting the vibrancy of the characters. The resulting panels provided the book with the kind of visual complexity the cartoon lacked without dumping the old models. The pencils and inks may have been dirty, but the action was clean and dynamic with a clear progressive flow and good communication.

It would have been easy for David and Goldfine to simply serve up page after page of fan service, scheming nastiness from Skeletor and Mumm-Ra, goofy banter with Snarf and Orko, or Lion-O vs He-Man to the death. They gave me every bit of that. I didn’t feel like any of the main characters were mistreated and with only six issues I was perfectly satisfied that only Adam and Lion-O received proper character arcs. The story itself is little more than a vehicle for the fan service crossover situations, and even the primary character arcs are extremely simplistic. It really is very much the same as the old television shows. David and Goldfine could have left it at that without doing any harm to the franchise, instead they added a narrator to the action, a voice describing the action as it progressed and reflecting on the events.

He-Man / ThunderCats (2016) #5

Every issue received its own narrator with the owner of the voice revealed only at the end. Issue #1 pondered the pompous foolishness of those who toyed with power. The voice reviled Mumm-Ra for trading with the Ancient Spirits of Evil and called the Masters of Eternia fools for allowing evil to act when it could be prevented. The voice reflected on the absolute necessity for proactive heroes, lest evil beings remake the world in their own image as he, Skeletor, planned. Further issues saw characters despair over the struggle against evil, resolve to stand in the gap, and determine that evil was the only constant in the universe. It added weight and meaning to the spectacle of the crossover, reminding us that it is not life but the play that is a shadow that struts and frets its hour upon the stage, a tale full of sound and fury that signifies something.

David and Goldfine never really discuss what that something is that gives life its significance but they do assure us of two things: that evil can never be destroyed, and that heroes will always engage in the battle never-ending. He-Man/ThunderCats is a book worth reading if you’ve got fond memories of the characters or just want a taste of the best of 80s gonzo techno-fantasy. It’s worth considering the implications of the setting and the musings of the narrators. I enjoyed it quite a bit and even though there’s a bit of needless cussin’ from some of the characters I’m very glad to have added this story to my library. I give He-Man/ThunderCats a Quality score “Extremely Gratifying” and a Relevance score of “Suitable for Discussion”.

He-Man / ThunderCats (2016) #6

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Scooby Apocalypse

I love Scooby-Doo, so when DC added a Scooby book to the Hannah-Barbera revival line it immediately caught my attention. In Scooby Apocalypse, we get a glimpse of what it would be like if the Scooby gang met for the first time just as the world ended. It’s a kind of sci-fi version of The Walking Dead, where the Mystery Inc gang is cast as the survivors of a nanotech plague that transformed the whole world into monsters. The main characters are indeed named Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby. They do indeed ride around in a green van they call the Mystery Machine. Their visual models even show inspiration from the classic characters … and there ends any resemblance to anything remotely Scooby-Doo.

The original cartoon endures due to the formula of the mysteries and the chemistry of the characters. They’re obviously tight knit friends who work well together and look out for each other. The Scooby-Doo cartoon mysteries are some of the most well-crafted stories in the business, building on a series of action and character beats to reach a logical climax. The Scooby Apocalypse comic is instead a series of set pieces tied together through the use of common characters. It’s actually the exact opposite of the cartoons in terms of story and character construction.

Scooby Apocalypse (2016) #1

In fact, “exact opposite of Scooby-Doo” is a pretty good way to describe this comic. The characters are caricatures of teen drama stereotypes that bear no resemblance at all to the classic characters. Fred is a cowardly, helpless, doe-eyed simp, unable to think for himself. Daphne is filled with a reservoir of bitterness and anger married to a domineering and antagonistic mistrust. Velma is self-obsessed and socially non-functional. Shaggy is a prevaricating pacifist that waffles between apathy and anxiety with bipolar intensity. Scooby is used as both comic … relief is really not the right word, “attempt” perhaps? … and as a deus ex machina plot device. And they constantly fight amongst themselves. I’ve always found the Mystery Inc gang endearing and likeable, something impossible for the cast of this comic. Except for one brief moment in the first issue’s backup story, Shaggy and Scooby are simply not interesting enough to evoke emotion from the reader, and I actively hate the other three with a side order of resentment for the time spent reading about them.

Scooby Apocalypse (2016) #7

I’d take a minute to describe the plot, but I’ve already summed it up. The gang fights and bickers with each other constantly, about everything, and with zero consistency of character. The book is little more than a series of set changes where the cast moves from scene to scene continually sniping and being nasty to each other. I got sick of it very quickly.

Scooby Apocalypse (2016) #3

The rest of the book is a parade of gore, violence, and grotesquerie without reflection or purpose. Elements of the world seem to be presented solely for their shock value, without even the barest attempt at literary device. Issue #6 set another distressing pattern for the book by spending the entire issue in a flashback that was meant to reveal Velma’s involvement in the events that set off end of the world. The resulting story belabored a clumsy and blatantly obvious plot point while obsessing over Velma’s inability to behave like a functional adult. Issue #10 wasted the whole book exploring Velma’s fetishistic power fantasies without even attempting to be relevant to the rest of the series. We’re less than a dozen issues into the series and they’ve seemingly abandoned all pretense of telling a cohesive story in favor of finding increasingly shocking and offensive ways of portraying their main characters.

Scooby Apocalypse (2016) #10

The worst part is that writers Keith Giffen and J.M. Dematteis have continually and consistently turned out some of the best stories in comics literature. Giffen’s work on Legion of Super-Heroes remains some of my very favorite stories ever. He handled a diverse cast of characters deftly and through at least three incarnations (that I’ve read), telling a variety of stories from lighthearted fun to deadly serious. Giffen also helmed Marvel’s Annihilation event, telling a series of often brutal and occasionally touching war stories and elevating characters such as Rocket Raccoon and Star-Lord from forgotten relics to fan favorites.

DeMatteis first came to my attention during his run that concluded the first Ghost Rider series. Johnny Blaze’s struggle against the demon literally inside of him resonated with me when I first read those books and continues to define for me the character of the Ghost Rider. His work on Captain America introduced to me Deathlok and the post-apocalyptic world of the Nth Command. His climactic battle between Cap and the Red Skull dug deep into the truly twisted depths of that villain. I was glued to the Spider-Man books when DeMatteis penned Kraven’s Last Hunt and later tortured Peter Parker with the loss of his friend Harry Osborn to the spectre of the Green Goblin.

Giffen and DeMatteis, of course, are unquestionably best known as a team for their creation of Justice League International, a book which postulated that superhero comics of the time were taking themselves far too seriously and catapulted obscure characters such as Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and Martian Manhunter into the mainstream. They proved that superheroes can be funny and likeable and still deal with serious problems on a very human level. In fact, the Giffen and DeMatteis duo is pretty much my dream team for a story that casts Scooby-Doo and the gang as serious investigators in a world full of dangerous monsters … which makes this kind of epic failure baffling and disheartening.

Scooby Apocalypse #2

So what can we pull out of this dung heap? Is there anything here worth further consideration or discussion fuel? Not really. Velma confesses to being a central figure responsible for the nanite plague that transformed the world into monsters. Her primary defense is that she was trying to save the world and that others corrupted her work. But the book never follows up on the ethical question to any kind of resolution, nor does it even pretend to prompt the reader to do so on his own. Beyond that … I’m just writing off the series as an utter waste of time and money.

I usually cut books like this some slack, assuming they’re meant for a completely different audience. In this case, I can’t even imagine who that audience might be as I can’t imagine anyone voluntarily continuing to read this garbage. I give Scooby Apocalypse a Quality score of “Terrible” and a Relevance score of “Just Barely”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Wacky Raceland

In the summer of 2016, Warner Bros decided to try and reimagine their popular Hannah-Barbera cartoon characters as more mature versions of themselves. This line included four titles: Future Quest, which united the Hannah-Barbera actions heroes on an adventure throughout space and time; The Flintstones, looking at the stone-age Honeymooners through a modern sitcom lens; Scooby Apocalypse, where the Scooby gang meets for the first time just as the world ends; and Wacky Raceland, twisting the goofy wacky racers into post-apocalyptic speed demons in a world where it’s drive or die.

The old cartoon Wacky Races pitted 11 alliteratively named drivers and their impossible machines on a no-holds-barred cross-country demolition course with predictably goofy results. The new comic book looks like Mad Max meets Speed Racer. The cars now have an attitude of their own, driven by an AI that reflects, distorts, and sometimes clashes with the personality of their driver. These turbo-charged death machines are powered by self-repairing nanomachines and armed to the teeth. While the vehicles are clearly the product of advanced technology, the rest of the world struggles to survive clouds of voracious nanite swarms, monstrous leviathans, once-human mutants, and a blasted, radioactive landscape. The disembodied Announcer continually goads the racers forward with an agenda all her own.

Wacky Raceland (2016) #1

The meat of the story is of course the conflict between the racers. Of the 11 wacky racers – and you can be forgiven if you can’t recall anyone other than Dick Dastardly and Muttley – only a few are given any kind of in-depth treatment. Each one of the racers has their own motivations for driving, not just to gain their promised ticket out of the blasted wasteland and into paradise.

Dick Dastardley and Muttley
Wacky Races (1968), left; Wacky Raceland (2016), right

None of these people can really be called noble or selfless – or even healthy, really. Each one of them brings their own brand of despicable to the story, leaving us with a cast of characters both fascinating and repulsive. Every one of these people is a different kind of broken, sometimes compelling, sometimes off-putting, and sometimes just annoying. The Red Baron believes the apocalypse has been sent by the gods to weed out the weak and the degenerate. The Announcer has promised both Penelope Pitstop and Dick Dastardly that she will rebuild the winner’s family from the DNA in their bones. Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear need no more motivation than the promise of a drink at the next finish line.

The first five issues of this limited series really shine. Each issue zooms in on one of the characters, sprinkling hints of their past and teasing flashbacks around the action of the current story. Tedious explanations of motivation and laborious explorations of emotional depth are blessedly absent, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about what drives the racers and the secret behind the Announcer’s seemingly godlike control of the world. The mystery behind the apocalypse, the role of the Announcer, and the lengths to which the racers will go to keep moving forward make for fascinating and truly compelling storytelling. At it’s heart that’s what this series is really all about, the ability of people to carry on with their lives in a world that provides little to no temporal joy, that’s actively trying to kill them, and whose hope of paradise at the end is more or less a blatant lie. It’s a starkly honest view of what happens when a wholly humanistic and materialistic worldview is taken to its logical conclusion.

Wacky Raceland (2016) #3

Writer Ken Pontac’s comic book credits are fairly slim, but he has an extensive career in film and television. He has been involved to varying degrees with some of my favorite shows over the years, including ReBoot, The Roswell Conspiracies, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, several incarnations of Sonic the Hedgehog, and Generator Rex. It is this last cartoon that seems to have left the biggest impression on Wacky Raceland, as they share a premise that Wacky Raceland cranks up to 11 and drops all pretense at being family-friendly.

Wacky Raceland (2016) #3

And Wacky Raceland is *not* family friendly. The violence is graphically portrayed in a world that is visually disgusting. The racers use casually vulgar language and obsess over very unsubtle sexual innuendo. Sergeant Blast is now a transsexual woman who forcefully and repeatedly advocates the correctness of his choices. These elements add nothing to the story and their interjection is adolescent at best and intentionally offensive at worst.

Finally, the story really suffers for being forced into a limited series format. The final issue just kind of lumps a conclusion on top of the story structure without effectively paying off the characters or worldbuilding. Another six issues would have given things time to develop and set up a proper payoff. Another twelve would have allowed the plot time to breathe and the characters room to grow. The final issue is crammed with lazy and nonsensical plot devices that run counter to the tone set by the previous five issues. It was a disappointing conclusion to a very promising premise – not ruinous, but profoundly disappointing.

If you like the idea of Mad Max meets Speed Racer in a world full of tantalizing and mysterious secrets, if you can get past the obscene language and at times too-frenetic artwork, if you want to meet a cast of degenerates whom you won’t be able to help but love to hate – or perhaps find yourself hating to love – then Wacky Raceland is for you. But is it a book for me? Not so much. The artwork doesn’t do a good job of communicating the action to me, the language is obsessively vulgar and needlessly offensive, and the intensely serious tone of the book climaxes with a ludicrous plot twist.

Wacky Raceland (2016) #3

It’s a shame, really. The question of life’s purpose leads to the cross, inviting us to leave the sin of this world behind for the joy of the next one. In the world of Wacky Raceland, even the stubbornly Catholic Peter Perfect is unable to hold out for the hope that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. In a world without God, Lazy Luke’s ambition to crawl into a bottle and never come out seems like the only rational response. All six issues have been collected into a trade paperback and digital editions. I give Wacky Raceland a Quality score of “High, but Flawed” and a Relevance score of “High”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Doctor Who at Titan Comics

I’m afraid my association with Doctor Who is not as extensive or storied as it could be. I watched Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen on PBS with the rest of my generation but I was always more interested in Star Wars and Star Trek, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. Still, Tom Baker is who I think of as the Doctor and the Fourth Doctor is my Doctor. I have friends who are massive Doctor Who fans and I distinctly remember when Paul McGann’s Doctor movie first premiered that we all threw a party for the advent of the Eighth Doctor.

One day, my daughter excitedly grabbed my arm and said, “Dad, you’ve got to see this show!” She turned on BBC America and there was David Tennant and Billie Piper saving the world. She explained patiently, “This is a rerun. He’s the Doctor but he regenerates into new actors. Peter Capaldi will be the Doctor soon!” I smiled, secure in the knowledge that I had done at least one thing right in her upbringing. Fueled by my daughter’s excitement, the current generation of Doctor Who stories became scheduled family time and required viewing.

When I decided it was once again time to venture into the world of comics, it was my wife who thrust the first issue of Supremacy of the Cybermen into my hands, saying, “I want to read this one.” Be still, my fluttering heart.

Titan Comics held the current license to the Doctor Who properties and they were taking full advantage of it. They premiered ongoing titles for Doctors Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve. They put out special multi-Doctor crossover events. They delivered limited series with the classic Doctors. It was all a bit overwhelming. I picked a few titles to follow and stuck with the Tenth Doctor, the classic Doctors, and the crossover events. They’ve all been pretty good.

Doctor Who stories are sci-fi adventure and mystery stories. They have a certain pacing and sense of discovery to them that provides the “Doctor Who” feel. For the Doctor, it’s not about big, dramatic set pieces or explosive action sequences, it’s always been about choices and the morality of making choices. The Doctor himself is far from perfect and though he’s admittedly making things up as he goes along, he does look good doing it. Most other modern sci-fi stories focus on pushing the bounds of the possible against the inconceivable; the Doctor strives to take the inconceivable and place it solidly within our current frame or reference. Thus, dramatic tension derives from what the protagonist ought to do rather than what he is able to do.

Doctor Who: the Tenth Doctor (2014) #10

So the real question regarding the comics is: does it feel like Doctor Who? Like the television show, a variety of creators contribute to the final story. In this case, every Doctor’s book has a different creative team. It falls to editor Andrew James to ensure the different titles maintain consistency with each other as well as the source material. I think he did a pretty good job.

The Tenth Doctor routinely wanders into the middle of a mystery, trying to decipher the reasons behind a dangerous situation before it spirals out of control. He’s a bit of a loner who still manages to find someone with whom he can connect. He dives headfirst into danger fully conscious that he’s the only one who can adequately deal with the situation. His solutions are direct, his responses compassionate. Adventure and discovery are still out there; this Doctor struggles to look at the world with new eyes. Set between the departure of Donna Noble and the Tenth Doctor’s final conflict with the Master, he takes on new companions for his adventures, capable individuals who want to discover the universe. This Doctor is a fighter and a protector who knows better than to retreat into isolation.

The Eleventh Doctor is more of a mentor than ever before. He also has new companions, people who are lost and need guidance. The Doctor is whimsical and subtle, coming at things from the side and turning every adventure into a teachable moment. The Twelfth Doctor travels alone. He is irascible and grumpy, taking on adventures because they are thrust upon him. This Doctor seems to be at the end of his patience with meddlers of all kinds, whether their intentions are good or ill. Both the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors have ongoing titles, but I’ve only read their multi-doctor and anthology adventures.

Doctor Who: the Fourth Doctor (2016) #1

The Third and Fourth Doctors received limited series, each one featuring a prominent companion. The Third Doctor remains a man of action who charges into situations alongside his companions. The Fourth Doctor is still all flashing teeth and flying scarf, secure in the knowledge that everything is going to work out as it should. Their stories carry the unmistakable aura of the late 60s and early 70s, complete with period-accurate dialog and the pseudo-surrealism that dominated the art and visual effects of the time. I found both stories to be eerily reminiscent of the show, as if they could have been adapted from the aired episodes.

I thought they captured the spirit and flavor of Doctor Who very well. The stories are grounded in optimism and the confidence that we can be better people and make the world a better place if we only so choose to do and be. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to the Doctor as a compelling hero. Of course, the Doctor is also predominantly – even defiantly – humanistic and materialistic. So many of the stories deal with creatures on other planes of reality or with other modes of existence that it’s easy to forget the underlying ethos that all of these things are part of the natural order of the world, that those things we describe as spiritual are simply things we do not yet understand. It’s a rational and compelling sola natura argument, made extremely attractive by the character of the Doctor and the show’s emphasis on compassion and the preservation of life.

Curiously, the Doctor himself provides the best rebuttal of his own argument. He firmly believes in the existence of morality and is able to frame his moral code in absolute terms; some things are always good and some are always evil. While codes of acceptable behavior vary from culture to culture, the definitions of good and evil do not change. The Doctor expects everyone with whom he deals to understand these values innately, not within their cultural frame of reference but as a function of being a thinking, living individual. By contrast, the villains of Doctor Who are largely mechanical or pseudo-living, the tools of another power. Their capacity for individualism either never existed or has been forcibly taken from them. Villainy in the series is always destructive to others and is always by choice.

Doctor Who: the Tenth Doctor (2014) #8
Doctor Who: the Eleventh Doctor (2014) #11

So how is it that the Doctor expects every living being across the galaxy, in every time and dimension, to share a common definition of good and evil? Where does this come from? Doctor Who’s sola natura premise defines as fallacious any logical construction that includes absolute morality. The question never arises within the series, leaving the viewer or reader to seek out the answers for themselves. This is a good thing if you are inclined to explore the concepts of the show. If you are willing to simply take things at face value, the underlying philosophy of the series provides all necessary truth pro forma, leaving no need to explore scripture and offering no validity to any religion’s claims to absolute truth.

I’ve enjoyed Titan Comics Doctor Who stories a great deal, but I don’t have any of them in my pull-and-hold file anymore, and the fault lies with Titan’s publishing philosophy. Many of the books are printed with multiple covers, each following a different theme and making it very difficult to collect a story where all the covers match. Their printing schedule has been subject to unexpected delays, sometimes resulting in books more than two months apart in the same story arc. I don’t mind waiting to read complete stories, and Titan consistently collects their titles into high quality hardcovers and trade paperbacks. Instead of buying twelves books in a title every year, I only need to buy two and I can find them at the Barnes & Noble around the corner.

If you like Doctor Who, the Titan books are a great place to find your favorite Doctor. If you like good sci-fi adventure, the comic book versions of the Doctor will scratch that itch for you. If you’re curious about the Doctor but intimidated by the sheer quantity of the character’s history, the comics provide a convenient starting place that’s expressly intended to make new readers comfortable. I give Titan’s Doctor Who books a Quality score of “Excellent” and a Relevance score of “Subtle, but High”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Dungeons & Dragons by Jim Zub

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto Humble Bundle; it probably came up in one of the forums or newsgroups I read. However it happened, I arrived just in time to purchase their Dungeons & Dragons digital comic book bundle. The bundle included the complete runs of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms books that DC Comics published in the 80s and 90s. It hadn’t really been on my radar at the time; I was mostly into superhero books. At the moment, though, I was craving good fantasy adventure and wanted something to go along with our current D&D campaign. Good value, good cause, great buy.

Better than I knew; the bundle also included the more recent books published by IDW. When I flipped open the first pages of Legends of Baldur’s Gate I discovered hidden treasure. It was there that I met a desperate elven sorcerer named Delina, on the run from the minions of the Cult of the Dragon and unable to wield her wild magic effectively. Her flight leads her to Baldur’s Gate and the statue of Minsc, the Beloved Ranger who generations before was one of the original heroes of Baldur’s Gate. Delina’s wild magic brings him to life and the fight is on!

Minsc’s first words struck a chord deep within me, ringing a note I hadn’t realized I’d been desperately missing. “Stand down, dirty minions of evil, or face my hamster’s wrath!” Here stood a hero.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #1

I’d pretty much given up on comic books entirely five or six years before. The current generation of creators simply wasn’t telling stories I wanted to read. My present comics consumption consisted of a scant handful of web comics that I read whenever I remembered to catch up. Suddenly I remembered how much I loved this art form and how much I missed it. I have more than two decade’s worth of back issues in a wide variety of titles, but there is joy in the discovery of new material entirely separate from the nostalgia of rereading favorite stories. I now had a new hero.

The more I read, the more familiar he seemed until a soft light finally dawned. It was as if Ben Edlund had come to his senses and fled the insanity of Hollywood to return to his roots. If The Tick wore chain mail and fought evil with a broadsword, this is what it would look like. The rest of the book remained rooted in the serious pseudo-realism of dramatic fantasy, without the trappings of the absurd that made The Tick’s entire world surreal. Minsc, however, perfectly echoed that hero’s oblivious optimism and charisma. He was that one guy at the gaming table, the one who just shows up to have fun and smite evil while the rest of the party deals with their intrigues and personal drama. I flipped to the credits page, fully expecting to see Edlund’s name as the headline.

Jim Zub? Never heard of him. Let’s see … Skullkickers – heard of that but never read it. Pathfinder comics – saw them in the store but never bothered. Samurai Jack – how on Earth did I miss a Samurai Jack comic? Figment – my daughter loves that book. This could be pretty good, I figured, but I’ll save my verdict for the end of the book.

I loved it. I loved reading comics again. The bitterness and frustration of the past few years washed away with the discovery of new heroes, irredeemable evil, and a sense of adventure with momentum like a freight train. I was very excited when IDW announced a new Dungeons & Dragons series that would follow up with the characters of the Baldur’s Gate story. This new book would also be penned by Zub and feature vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich as the principle antagonist. Excellent.

With some temerity, I began to investigate other comics. I quickly shied away from the Marvel and DC superheroes when a glance at the shelves revealed the continuing presence of the same elements that had previously driven me away. I landed at Titan and picked up a new line of Doctor Who books. I drifted past DC and noticed they were going to try and reinvigorate the Hannah-Barbera properties. Archie Comics called to me with the presence of Mark Waid’s name on the cover of a re-imagining of the Riverdale gang and a trade paperback showcasing Mega Man squaring off against Sonic the Hedgehog. Once again, I could read and enjoy comic books.

But I had to finish reading my stock of Dungeons & Dragons books first. They were all pretty good. Alex Irvine and Peter Bergting took me to the world of Dark Sun and the quest of a slave for survival and freedom. Paul Crilley reminded me that comics told mystery stories as well, on the world of Eberron. John Rogers and Andrea DiVito introduced me to Fell’s Five in the Forgotten Realms, a party of adventurers drawn directly from my gaming table but who didn’t shy away from the consequences of their actions or the implications of their powers. And of course no one does the Forgotten Realms quite like R.A. Salvatore and Drizzt Do’Urden.

Dungeons & Dragons (2010) #5

And then only Jim Zub and Legends of Baldur’s Gate remained. While Minsc and Boo tackled the forces of evil with tireless good cheer and inevitable purpose, the rest of the party rebelled against their parents, quested to save their family, or hung around simply because they had nowhere else to go. The stakes of the story rose to a firey crescendo that swelled and crashed in a wave of action and tide of ebbing emotion. The pacing kept me turning pages, torn between astonishment at each panel and a desperate need to see what happened next. The characters involved me in their personal motivations and desires without dragging me into a morass of juvenile emotional obsession or pedantic explanations of the obvious.

The party’s adventures continued in the next volume with Shadows of the Vampire. The corruption of the realm of Ravenloft touched the heroes, laying bare their weakness and beating them down against the power of Strahd and his ability to destroy hope. Through it all, Zub continually threw the actions of hero and villain into sharp contrast, filling the world with people who are selfish, desperate, and compassionate. The stories haven’t delved deep into the philosophical discussions of the fantasy realm. They haven’t explored the implications of a world populated by deific monsters and mortals who can challenge the gods. But they haven’t needed to; Zub’s stories possess humanity. These are the people we hope we would be if we found ourselves in their world.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #3
Jim Zub (left), author (right)

I met Zub at the 2016 GenCon quite by chance. He was working a booth (for his publisher, I presume) and I saw the display of Skullkickers and D&D trades. I commented to my wife that it would be very cool if I could get a signed copy of Legend of Baldur’s Gate. From the other side of the display, I heard a voice pipe up, “I can do that.” We spoke for a bit; he was very gracious and patient with me (no small feat). He’s clearly a fellow comics and fantasy fan blessed enough to be living his dream job. He convinced me to give Skullkickers a try, and signed that book for me as well.

Zub continues to write for the industry, picking up more work for Marvel as the writer on Thunderbolts and Avengers, for UDON Entertainment’s Street Fighter license, and for Image in the pages of Wayward and Glitterbomb. The adventures of Minsc and Delina continue in the pages of Dungeons & Dragons: Frost Giant’s Fury from IDW. I’ve picked up his entire run of Pathfinder comics; Skullkickers is next on my short list. I give Jim Zub’s Dungeons & Dragons books a Quality score of “Excellent” and a Relevance score of “High”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Upon the Riverworld

In my previous examination of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, I spoke much about Farmer and very little about his setting. I’m afraid I find Farmer’s work tedious, but the Riverworld setting incredibly fascinating. In particular, I’m fascinated by Farmer’s depiction of Riverworld as an archetypal paradise and mankind’s inability to accept this paradise as the Heaven it is meant to be. Heaven ought to be a place where all of your needs are met and you can be at perfect peace with yourself. On Farmer’s Riverworld, no one is ever at peace.

Fiction relies on the ability of the reader to accept as reality the foundational postulates of the setting. In the case of exploratory literature, this has a tendency to blur the lines between axiomatic philosophy and the literary arguments which necessitate the presence of a straw man fallacy. The author presents his conclusions as incontrovertible because he controls both sides of the argument. It is therefore vital to remember that exploratory literature such as the Riverworld saga does not present an objective view of philosophy but only the author’s opinions on the subject.

The Construct

Riverworld was created by an alien race for the betterment of humanity; the aliens call themselves “Ethicals”. The inhabitants of the Riverworld awake naked upon the shores of the river, tethered to a grail that provides them with food and luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. Everyone is young and strong, their bodies entirely without physical defect. The weather is perfectly temperate, so that the absence of clothing offers no physical hardship. The foundation is laid for a society in which everyone has been made equal in every way save for sheer physicality, and materialistic advantage is difficult to attain. All those who die awake in a newly created body in a completely different section of the river.

Religion and spirituality still have a place in the new world. Traditional Western religion is immediately abandoned for failing to fulfill its promise of paradise. The adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism either quickly turn apostate and decry their faith or transform into fanatical zealots without any capacity to reason or desire to adjust to the new life. Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism spread quickly and are widely embraced by the populace. Pagan religions are barely mentioned and not treated in detail. The single most powerful religion is the Church of the Second Chance, an organization created by the Ethicals that proclaims life on the Riverworld to be a chance for the soul to become enlightened and move on to the next plane of existence.

Souls are very real. The Ethicals call them wathan, and they are the repository of an individual’s memory and personality, quantum bonded to the particular arrangement of atoms that forms a person’s body. When one body dies, the wathan remains disembodied until a clone may be manufactured. It then spontaneously bonds with the clone body, creating continuity of personhood. The Ethicals do not understand how this happens.

The Progression

The first day, Awakening Day, ends in an orgy of rape and murder that claims the lives of nearly a third of the population. Over time the population of the river builds a society in which the physically strong and socially charismatic oppress the weak and those who are less assertive by taking control of the grails which are the world’s only source of food. Violent men enlist other violent men to their cause and build large communities around the concept of grail-slavery.

Communities develop primarily along racial lines, but even settlements that are completely homogeneous lack peaceful internal relations and become extremely mistrustful of outsiders. Even communities that seem to be the result of mutual decisions to peacefully cohabitate are eventually revealed to be dependent upon strongly charismatic leadership. Those communities that lack external opposition to unify the populace eventually dissolve into anarchy and then tyranny.

In conflict with Sam Clemens, the leader of one community states that their two cities could never be at peace, that he envisioned a world full of “black faces as far as the eye could see, and we would all be soul brothers at last”. This vision is finally realized by another character, who builds an entire community populated by “soul brothers”. He is promptly deposed as leader and the community dissolves into anarchy and tyranny, as does every other community on the Riverworld.

With all religions successfully debunked, human sexuality becomes entirely a function of personal preference and community norms instead of an oppressive religious tool. Those religions that remain take the form of either zealous fanaticism attached to unsupported dogma or Unitarianism. Jesus and Buddha have already reached a superior stage of enlightenment, and so never awakened on the Riverworld. Most other prominent religious figures become either zealots or adherents to The Church of the Second Chance.

The wathan are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The first wathan were created by accident in an Ethical laboratory, attaching themselves to the scientists and immediately granting them true sapience. Prior to this, life had no continuity of being and although lifeforms could be intelligent they were not truly possessed of self-awareness and free will. Since then, the Ethicals have seeded promising worlds with wathan generators so that other lifeforms might have continuity of being and the freedom to make choices apart from the dictates of universal determinism.

The Deconstruction

Farmer has some very pointed things to say about human nature and human society. Farmer clearly states that the reason mankind cannot create a peaceful society is that an individual human can never be at peace with himself. Religion, racism, sexism, and every other form of social attitude control are merely expressions of this state of discontent.

The Ethicals predict this behavior, stating that it comes from some flaw in the wathan. They also state that some wathan evolve beyond this flaw, and that these individuals behave ethically enough during their life that their wathan moves to a higher state of being. This is Farmer’s own version of original sin and salvation through good works, although he would never have called it that. Farmer seems to want humanity to be its own god, responsible for its own creation and the architects of its own salvation.

It is this quest for internal salvation that forms the foundation of Riverworld. All of the people therein are profoundly discontent with themselves and their lives. Jesus and Buddha are said to have become enlightened by shedding their desire for purpose, yet it is the very lack of purpose that drives the main characters to seek out the Ethicals. Like Solomon, Farmer explores every avenue to happiness over the course of the Riverworld stories. Also like Solomon, Farmer ends up proclaiming that everything is ultimately futile and that true contentment can never be attained apart from the intervention of some outside force.

Farmer personalizes the Riverworld quest for identity and purpose in the character of Peter Jairus Frigate, who appears in two incarnations in the story. Standing in for Farmer himself, the two versions of Frigate embody both sides of the conflict between the residents and the Ethicals. Like every other character in the series, the two Frigates are utterly unable to resolve their differences. In the end, the pursuit of ethical behavior serves no goal other than to provide characters with the hope of a better existence for the wathan after physical death.

This hope that the wathan eventually passes on to another place has no basis in reason, only in speculation. This stands in marked contrast to every other postulate in Farmer’s work. Farmer builds every other societal construct on a solid foundation of logical motivation, cause, and effect. His logical justifications for slavery, segregation, and sexual promiscuity are impeccably built on a humanistic foundation. It is only when Farmer attempts to justify non-violence and codes of honor that he turns to pseudo-spirituality. Farmer seems to find no basis in human nature or societal evolution for personal virtue.

The Riverworld series closes on the bleakest of notes, with the surviving characters trapped in an eternal existence that is unable to provide them with a reason to live. Farmer wrestled with religion heavily in his writing, and built his Riverworld as a setting entirely without its influence. I think it is no coincidence that a world entirely without religion is also entirely devoid of purpose. It is particularly telling that not a single one of Farmer’s characters is able to behave ethically enough for their wathan to transcend. Riverworld is a story that raises innumerable questions about human purpose and ultimately ends in the conclusion that all human endeavor is mere vanity.

I cannot argue with Farmer’s conclusions but neither can I accept them. Solomon comes to the same conclusion in Ecclesiastes, but Solomon acknowledges that the flaw in his reasoning comes from the absence of a Creator who perfectly knows His creation and is actively involved in their daily lives. I think Farmer’s work here highlights in the strongest possible way the Biblical truth that humanity was created by God for a singular purpose to which God Himself must elevate us. In the words of the Lesser Scottish Catechism, “The chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Welcome to Paradise; Welcome to Hell

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series postulates the mass awakening of the entire deceased population of the Earth on a paradise planet where a single, massive river separates two shores bounded by impassable mountains. All of those who have died, from all throughout history, inexplicably find themselves once more “in the flesh” and placed within a garden where they do not require shelter and do not need to work for food or drink. Luxuries are provided for them. They are in perfect health and without any kind of physical or mental deformity. Mankind has entered paradise.

Nothing could be more like Hell.

The story centers around the historical figures of Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Clemens. Both men seek to solve the mystery of the Riverworld by reaching the headwaters of the river and confronting the unseen architects that reason, and a Mysterious Stranger, tells them must exist. Their search for purpose provides the framework around which the entire thematic structure of the series revolves.

Farmer wrote primarily in the 60s and 70s. His 1953 Hugo Award winning novella “The Lovers” is credited with breaking the unspoken taboo about depicting sex in science-fiction stories. Much of Farmer’s later work continues to explore sexual themes, though he shows an equal interest in theology. Both themes are heavily explored in the Riverworld series, but they are ancillary to Farmer’s primary drive to define the identity of the individual and discover his reason for being.

Burton can’t accept a world that presents no struggle to survive and forgives the sins of the previous life. He continually comes into contact with Hermann Goering, the Nazi war criminal. The harder Burton struggles against the unseen architects of paradise, the more Goering comes to accept their new life. Burton’s life only has meaning in the face of opposition, either real or imagined.

Clemens is opposed by King John, famous despotic monarch of England. Clemens struggles continually to find an existential meaning on Riverworld that eluded him on Earth. For Clemens, life has no purpose at all. He concludes that hedonism is the only valid pursuit but is unable to find fulfillment in any of the pleasures afforded him.

Farmer made no pretense that his works were anything other than an exploration of his own interests and his own frank opinion about them. Farmer went out of his way to challenge ideas for the sake of challenging them, particularly ideas of religion, social justice, and sexual behavior. Riverworld certainly makes bold and plain statements about society, including:

  • All religion is a human invention and should only be used for peaceful societal governance, for which it is actually the only suitable tool. There is no facet of life beyond the material.
  • Restrictions on human sexuality are a societal construct for the sole purpose of controlling the size of the population, and the only humane method of doing so.
  • Total racial, cultural, and sociological segregation allows like-minded people to live together peaceably, and this is the only way peace can be accomplished.
  • Life has no intrinsic meaning. Mankind cannot be at peace with himself, but can only achieve an acceptable state of discontent.

Significantly, Farmer’s ideas and observations continually challenge my own perceptions and opinions. In this Farmer accomplishes his stated goal for all of his writing, that of exploring transgressive ideas that stay with the reader. His logical constructions proceed virtually perfectly from his central humanistic and materialistic premise and his view of humanity in paradise aligns oddly with Reformed Protestant religion, though Farmer himself was an avowed atheist.

Steve Jackson Games licensed the setting for a 3rd edition GURPS sourcebook. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the story as a television mini-series twice, neither of which attempts garnered enough attention to justify a series. None of the adaptations explored the issues that Farmer raised in the novels. There is also a PC game inspired by the series, but I’ve never played it.

Farmer’s work earned him a great deal of critical attention during his lifetime. Both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov praised Farmer’s literary construction and speculative treatments, citing him as an important personal influence. Personally, I find Farmer’s prose to be merely adequate and his story construction borderline unreadable. I read all of the Riverworld material and watched both television productions, but I didn’t really enjoy any of it. The GURPS book on the other hand portrays a fascinating setting in meticulous detail; it will forever be a treasured part of my library.

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Citizens Grok TANSTAAFL

RAHeinlein_autographing_Midamericon_ddb-371-14Robert A. Heinlein consistently tackled social themes through the framework of his speculative fiction in such a way as to force to reader to confront his own opinions on the subject at hand. Though Heinlein’s work is generally considered to be “hard” sci-fi instead of space opera, the author seldom delved into the fundamentals of the science or problem solving behind the technology of his stories. Instead, Heinlein tended to focus on the evolution of society, the individual’s role within society, and the responsibility of individuals towards their society. His protagonists are nearly always adventurers, philosophers, or engineers of some sort instead of natural or mathematical scientists of the kind favored by Asimov.

Three of Heinlein’s most famous works received Hugo awards (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) while the man himself was named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1974.

DSCN2040Stranger in a Strange Land explores the life of Valentine Michael Smith who was raised on Mars, being the sole survivor of a human expedition to that planet. With Michael as his mouthpiece, Heinlein discusses human behavior, particularly in the realms of religion and sexuality. Organized religion has largely taken the place of nationalism within society; the Fosterite cult dominates all other religions and wields a great deal of economic and political power. When Michael establishes his own religion which teaches Martian psychokinetic abilities and philosophy. The novel affirms that an individual’s highest calling is to discover and rely on himself, a concept embodied in the Martian word “grok”, whose closest English translation is, “Thou art God.”

TanstaaflIf Stranger explores the conflict between spirituality and organized religion, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sets out to explore the conflict between individual freedom and societal obligation. The story describes a Lunar colony that attempts to gain political autonomy from the Earth, and the way that political pressures shape society. Lunar society is founded on mutual self-reliance; individuals who do not contribute to society are ostracized and may even be killed if the society deems it necessary. The revolutionaries in the story adopt the acronym “TANSTAAFL” (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) as their slogan. When the moon dust settles over the colony the revolutionaries are left to govern themselves, only to find the freedom they crave impossible to marry to societal rule of law.

Before his recognition for novels critical of social and religious movements, Heinlein came under fire from the sci-fi community for a little novel titled Starship Troopers. It was seen as supportive of military adventurism and glorifying racist attitudes. Hard on the heels of the Korean War and in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein received many letters criticism him for writing the book and was surprised when it won the Hugo Award in 1960. The book deals primarily with issues of personal responsibility and societal responsibility, including long passages of classroom-style discourse that landed the book on the required reading list of the US military for many years. Although not the first story to include the idea, the work is primarily famous for its detailed treatment of soldiers wearing personal powered armor.

DSCN2045Unlike many of his peers, Heinlein predominantly held spiritual or pseudo-spiritual views rather than purely secular or humanistic ones. A firm believer in personal responsibility, Heinlein grounded his views in the utility of the person to society as a whole while also denouncing organized society as repressive of individual freedom, as in modern libertarianism. From a Christian perspective, Heinlein’s work is a provocative and well-reasoned examination of life in a society where God is either absent or irrelevant. At the same time, Heinlein seems to argue that spirituality is a necessary and vital element of human existence. Heinlein’s search for spirituality within oneself comes through most clearly in Stranger in a Strange Land, and even in that novel he seems to acknowledge that although the quest for spiritual enlightenment is predominantly internal, effective instruction in enlightenment must originate externally. As with his views on personal freedom and societal responsibility, it is a position that Heinlein explored throughout his body of work without ever coming to a satisfactory resolution.

CGC LogoHeinlein’s work needs to be read by individuals ready to think critically about their belief systems and look beyond the text to implications therein. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Heinlein’s work in general and these novels in particular a Quality score of 10/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.