Archive for December, 2015

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Oh, hell yessssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

It’s generally well known that we (and by that I mean “I”) are (and by that I mean “am”) big fans of (which should read, I suppose, “am a big fan of”) Australian director Mark Harley here at TFG, and when it was first announced that his third and final documentary chronicling the history of exploitation cinema (after Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which tackled the amazing backstories behind Ozploitatation and Filipino exploitation, respectively) would be focused on the exploits of Israeli- expats-turned-short-lived-Hollywood-moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the twin pillars who did their level best to prop up Cannon Films throughout the 1980s, I was stoked. And I remained stoked — for a long time.

This project was first announced around 2008, if memory serves me correctly, and while some of the delays that plagued its production were understandable enough — such as when Hartley took a break from it to try his had at “re-imagining” a classic Ozploitation horror franchise himself with the superb Patrick : Evil Awakens — I have a feeling that there are some suitably crazy stories that could be told about the journey from concept to screen of Electric Boogaloo : The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films. Maybe we’ll hear about them one of these days, maybe we won’t, but the good news is that we’re finally getting to hear the Cannon story, warts and all, and I’m pleased to report that it was well worth the wait.

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Okay, fair enough, that “wait” I just mentioned actually ended towards the tail of 2014, when Hartley’s labor of love finally started playing the festival circuit, and it’s been available on Blu-ray and DVD for some little time now, but it recently made its way into the Netflix instant streaming queue, as well, so really, there’s absolutely no excuse to put off seeing this thing any longer, is there?

I didn’t think so, and given that most readers of this site are probably at least somewhat familiar with various parts of the Golan-Globus odyssey, only the briefest of historical run-downs is probably in order here — in fact, if I say that Menahem Golan and his cousin, Yoram Globus, made a tidy sum churning out second-rate sex comedies in Tel Aviv and parlayed their small fortune into purchasing a controlling stake in the already-extant Cannon Films, only to crank out a literal ton or more of celluloid in under a decade before their whole dream went belly-up, that would probably about cover it as far as stage-setting goes. But there’s so much more to it than that, and in a very real sense, Cannon epitomized the boom-and-bust of 1980s capitalism, Reaganomics-style.

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In fairness, though, some of their hucksterism owes more to the 1950s and 60s marketing ethos of William Castle and his legion of imitators than it does to anything else — consider, for instance, that Golan and Globus once went to Cannes with poster mock-ups for literally dozens of phony “movies” and only went ahead and made actual films for the handful that attracted the most attention and/or investment. That’s old-school movie biz con artistry right there. But the involvement of seminal 80s swindlers like slimy “junk bond” king Michael Milken — who dumped over $50 million cash into Cannon’s coffers — shows that the cousins were very well in tune with the times, indeed.

And hey, give ’em credit for dreaming big — they graduated from ninja movies and T&A romps to Charles Bronson vigilante flicks and from there to Sylvester Stallone action “epics,” along the way temporarily bringing the likes of John Cassavetes, John Frankenheimer, and Franco Zeferelli into the fold, Heck, they even had a deal with Godard going for a minute there, and somehow even managed to gobble up a number of European theater chains to ensure that their product always had houses to play. It was a pretty sweet set-up — for a time.

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Yeah, alright, most of the flicks that went out under the Cannon logo weren’t good (although who can deny that Runaway Train and 52 Pick-Up, among others, weren’t examples of actual quality cinema?), but damn if the vast majority of them — from Invasion U.S.A. to Death Wish 3 to The Delta Force to Breakin’ (and its sequel, from which Hartley borrows the title for his documentary) weren’t all kinds of low-grade, cheesy fun?

This film makes a pretty strong and compelling case for the idea that if Golan and Globus hadn’t let their reach exceed their grasp, they might still be in the “picture business” to this day, but when they sunk too much of their ever-tenuous fortunes into would-be-big-money productions like Superman IV : The Quest For Peace and Masters Of The Universe, they ended up truncating the shooting schedules, slicing the effects budgets, and ending up with products that looked and felt like any of their other “B”-movie fare, but cost a lot more.Combine these ambitious mistakes with a collapsing “high-risk/high-yield” investment market and the writing was on the wall.

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Cannon didn’t go quietly, though, and its agonized (and agonizing) death throes are every bit as fun to hear about (in a “car wreck” sort of way, mind you) as earlier tales relayed in the film about the high-maintenance behavior of Sharon Stone or the sheer acting incompetence of Chuck Norris. It’s all such a gleeful post-mortem that honestly, friends,  words can hardly contain my enthusiasm.

The eventual falling-out that occurred between Menahem and Yoram — and their short-lived Lambada-based rivalry (yes, really) — make for an almost-difficult-to-endure final act, but there’s still a strong sense of poetic justice that permeates even that difficult period, so all in all, even though things didn’t end well (to put it mildly)l for Cannon (nor for their many investors, I would assume), I have no problem labeling this a bizarre sort of “feel-good” film.

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So hey — let’s close out 2015 on an unambiguously enthusiastic note around these parts : do yourself a favor and check out Electric Boogaloo : The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films as soon as you possibly can! We’ll see you in 2016!

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The late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for the “Big Two” comics publishers — with Jack Kirby having taken his creative genius back over to DC, then-Marvel head honcho Stan Lee quickly decided that putting his name on other peoples’ work was too much hassle for him to bother with, and so turned the reigns of the future billion-dollar business over to the youthful Roy Thomas, who had first come to the Smilin’ One’s attention for running the ahead-of-its-time Alter Ego fanzine. Thomas was eager to do any number of things at the self-described “House Of Ideas,” but rocking the boat wasn’t one of them. Having grown up on the Kirby/Ditko/Everett/Wood/Burgos/Heck/Trimpe/Lee brand of super-heroics, his primary concern, creatively speaking, was to keep on serving up more of the same to an eager public, and to that end, his first wave of hires came largely from the same fandom ranks that he had once lorded over himself — names like Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and others that would come to dominate Marvel credit boxes in the ’70s were all examples of “fan creators” whose literary and artistic tastes — and ambitions — were shaped by the groundbreaking innovators who had preceded them.

Meanwhile, over at DC, Kirby may have been busy churning out an impressive, even mind-boggling, array of iconic characters and worlds (many of which would be “borrowed” by one George Lucas as the building blocks of the franchise we’re here to talk about today), but the rest of the company’s let’s-not-call-it-a-bullpen was populated with the likes of Len Wein, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman,  even a 13-year-old named Jim Shooter who would later succeed Thomas as top dog at DC’s cross-town rival — and like Marvel’s “young turks,” these fresh-at-the-time faces were all “graduates” of comic book fandom, brought in when the seasoned pulp pros who made up the company’s earlier freelancer ranks, men like Gardner Fox and John Broome, were summarily fired by management for having the audacity to try to form a union and push for radical things like health insurance and retirement benefits.

It’s a situation that persists, as you’ve no doubt guessed, to this day, with skilled, “overpaid” veteran hands being replaced on books whenever they ask for a raise by 19-year-olds fresh out of mom and dad’s house who only a few weeks earlier passed their art portfolios or spec scripts across convention tables from their clammy, sweaty, trembling hands into the ever-eager paws of DC and Marvel editors always on the lookout for cheap, easily-exploited talent. The end result? A half-century of hopelessly derivative storytelling punctuated only occasionally by the arrival, and usually-quick departure, of visionary talents who really do want to expand the medium’s boundaries, only to find their work drowned under and endless sea of “updated” Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom battles.

Comics, though, are only the most glaring and obvious example of what happens to entertainment media when former fans are put in charge : it’s happening in movies and TV, too, and there is perhaps no better witness for this particular prosecution than J.J. Abrams, who, having cut his teeth on prime-time fare such as Alias and Lost, was soon handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most dependable cash cows, Star Trek, and, having proven his bank-ability there, found himself approached by Marvel’s semi-new corporate parent, Disney, to revive George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut when Lucas sold out for a reported $4 billion and headed off into the sunset.

A perhaps-intimidated Abrams said no at first, but when no other names leaped to the forefront, The Mouse came calling again — apparently with even more money in its bag — and the rest, of course, is history. Which brings us, finally, to episode VII of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.

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Certainly there’s nothing on offer here that would offend long-time fans in the way that Lucas’ reviled prequel trilogy did, and while I found myself smiling more often than not as I watched the film, it only took all of about five minutes’ reflection afterwards for me to wonder if Abrams’ note-for-note fealty might not be its own kind of insidious trap — and one that bears a strong correlation to the situation at Marvel and DC I discussed just moments ago. There’s no doubt that studio edicts determined a lot of the content for Star Wars : The Force Awakens (I don’t think, for example, that it’s any coincidence that the first image we saw in the first trailer for the film was a highly-marketable robot that looks like a fucking soccer ball), but I don’t sense any real director-vs.-his bosses tension here, either. I’m sure that the film Abrams wanted to make is the one that got made (having veteran hand Lawrence Kasdan on board to co-write the script virtually guarantees smooth continuity anyway), it’s just that his vision for Star Wars is no different than what the bean counters want : a two-hour toy commercial peppered with just the right character arcs and plot beats to satisfy life-long fans and to silence (most, anyway) critics. By and large it works — but even under the full-throttle onslaught of  fan-wank, some glaring weaknesses are obvious, so I might as well delve into those right now, with a commensurate “mild spoilers ahead” warning attached.

For one thing, the intergalactic politics of The Force Awakens make no sens whatsoever. The one-time Rebels appear to have won the day, with the former Empire in retreat, but even so, a rump that apparently can’t get fighting out of its system known as the Resistance endures — presumably to “resist” both the very same government they’ve created, as well as the remnants of the fascist/Dark Side apparatus that have re-grouped as the First Order. Except then we find out that the new Republic in in league with the Resistance, and so appears to be supporting, if not even funding, its own opposition under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since neither group is particularly fond of the First Order. There’s reason for both to fear the FO, of course, given that they’ve perfected some new super-weapon that’s much larger and more powerful than the dreaded Death Star — but the movie is almost 3/4 over when we find that out, given that Abrams and company have taken some mighty side-steps from their supposedly “main” narrative that introduces new characters like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in order to re-introduce familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Pricess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, eventually, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Don’t get me wrong — I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy and want to know what happened to all these folks as much as anyone, but to sacrifice valuable screen-time that could be utilized to establish a new mythology just to put some purportedly- finishing touches on the old strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity.

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Speaking of which — giving the great Max von Sydow a grand total of five minutes (more than enough time for an actor of his stature to create a memorable character) to make one appearance before getting killed definitely qualifies as just that, as does relegating the immensely talented Lupita Nyong’o to voice-over work for a CGI stand-in. We expect that sort of treatment for Andy Serkis (and he gets it as the First Order’s new Emperor Palpatine stand-in), but one of the most promising new talents of her generation surely deserves better.

As does Oscar Isaac, frankly, who admittedly struggles mightily as “the new Han Solo,” but should have been given a chance to actually develop his character a bit more before disappearing altogether until the film’s final act. And while Ridley and Boyega — especially Ridley — come up big in their roles and show themselves as being more than capable of carrying a film, Abrams’ hard lean on the nostalgia button insures that they’re given no opportunity to do so.

On the bad guy front, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a character hemmed in by his director’s overly-reverent take on the original trilogy, as well. Appearing at first to be a somewhat lackluster Darth Vader redux, his backstory is fleshed out all too quickly (and all too awkwardly, as the “infodump” conversation between his parents veers into “painfully stilted” territory), and his big confrontation with his father? Well, it plays out more or less exactly as you’d guess it would. It also doesn’t help that Driver himself lacks the acting chops to convincingly sell you on his character’s supposed “emotional conflict.”

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And yet, for all that — not to mention the crass, overblown commercialization attendant with any Star Wars film that’s blown entirely out of all sense of proportion thanks to the franchise’s new corporate overlords — I still can’t bring myself to actively dislike The Force Awakens. The movie wrapped me with a warm, nostalgic glow for about two hours and, pathetic as it sounds (and no doubt is), I felt like a kid again for a little while — and living as we do in a time when there’s very real talk of us walling off  our borders, deporting Mexicans en masse, forcing Muslims to carry special passes and forbidding them to enter the country, and invading one Middle Eastern nation after another for with the explicit aim of stealing their oil, anything that harkens back to a simpler, kinder, saner time is worth something.

But I could have gotten the exact same feeling watching any of the three original Star Wars films, and therein lies The Force Awakens‘ greatest failing : by being so deferential to the Lucas/Kirshner/Marquand trilogy, J.J. Abrams hasn’t given us much by way of a compelling reason to care about his new one.

 

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By 1979, Italian director Alfonso Brescia (or “Al Bradly,” as the credits would have it) was an old hat at doing cheap, quick Star Wars knock-offs — but it wasn’t until this, his fourth foray (in two years!) into the sub-genre one could argue he actually created (along with his financiers at Nais Film), that he decided to blatantly clone as many of George Lucas’ characters as he possibly could. His previous attempts at replicating the Star Wars “magic” on roughly 1/100,000th the budget had essentially been confused and nonsensical space operas that bore little to no resemblance to film that “inspired” them, but with Star Odyssey (or Sette Uomini D’Oro Nello Spazio as it was known on its home soil — English-speaking territories also saw it released under the alternate titles of Captive PlanetSpace Odyssey  and, believe it or not, Metallica) he was going for as direct an act of thievery as he could manage, with the end result being — yet another confused, nonsensical space opera.

Sometimes shit just happens, I guess, no matter how hard you’re trying.

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The basic plot here is as follows : an evil “Lord of the Universe” named Lord Kess, who hails from the planet Kobo (the dude pictured above, whose face looks like a weird cross between an alligator handbag and a clove-sprinkled ham — don’t ask me who played him because the credits don’t make it clear) has purchased Earth (or “Sol Three,”  as they call it) at an intergalactic auction and now intends to, reasonably enough, show up with his army of gold-skinned androids and lay claim to his property. Right away the parallels are obvious — Lord Kess is a stand-in for Darth Vader, the guys in gold suits are his Stormtroopers, and the auction is the dime-store equivalent of the Star Wars bar scene. But we’re just getting started.

The first guy to get wise to Kess’ shenanigans is  hot-shot pilot Lt. Oliver Carrera (nicknamed “Hollywood” and played by Nino Castelnuovo), and this would-be Luke Skywalker goes right to hi Ob-Wan Kenobi,  a wealthy telepathic scientist named Professor Mauri (Ennio Balbo), who enlists his niece, Princess Lei — err, Irene (Yanti Somer) to help gather a team of stalwarts to fight off the invaders, who have already conquered a “sub-tropical continent) and enslaved roughly a thousand “dark-skinned units” (no, I’m not making this shit up). Her conscripts, referred to by the Professor as his “old gang,” include : the Star Odyssey equivalent of Han Solo, a rogue/gambler (who also has telepathic abilities) named Dirk Laramie (Gianni Garko); a prizefighter/ acrobat who has no real Star Wars equivalent called Bill Norman (Roberto Dell’Acqua) ; his two robot companions, Tilk and Tilly (you can tell them apart because “she” has long eyelashes and wears a metal skirt); and a pair of potentially fraudulent chemists , Shawn (Chris Avram) and Bridget (Malisa Longo) — because, ya know, chemists come in handy when alien invaders are at your doorstep, and phony chemists are doubly valuable.

This less-than-stellar line-up of would-be protectors of humanity then retreats to a wooded villa to plan their next move, and while all kinds of low-rent drama ensues, it’s Tilk and Tilly’s story that Star Odyssey is best remembered for (to the extent that it’s remembered at all). I know Brescia and his co-screenwriters Massimo Lo Jacono and Giacomo Mazzocchi were going for a C-3PO/R2D2 thing here, but a plotline about two robots who are lovesick to the point of being suicidal (they had chosen to voluntarily shut themselves down rather enduring the pain of going on without being able to “go all the way” with each other — yes, really — before Norman pulled them out of a scrap heap) is hardly going  to resonate with most of the pre-teen set these characters are supposedly designed to “connect” with. At least, I sure as hell hope not.

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Anyway, Lord Kess’ ship is made of some sort of “space element” called Indirium, which is supposedly impenetrable to known Earth weapons, so the primary task of our team is to find a way to bust the super-metal  up before any white people end up property of our new “overlords,” as well.  Hence, the need for the would-be chemists. They do all this in fairly short order and manage to send the bad guys scurrying without too much trouble, which is just as well — because nearly 75% of the runtime here is simply spent assembling our “heroes” in the first place and the interest of the average viewer will be seriously waning by this point. I know that breaking people out of “space jail” and putting emotionally forlorn robots back together takes some effort, but the sheer amount of time spent on set-up here borders on the ludicrous.

Anyway, after successfully faking their own deaths the first time the golden androids set upon them (the less said about that the better), our rag-tag collection of defenders are able to get the drop on Kess and his way-too-blond army and a fierce don’t-call-it-Jedi “mind battle” between he and Professor Mauri, as well as a determined (and lamely-staged) space fight between his slaver fleet and the humans finally convinces alligator-face to go back to the intergalactic auction house and sell off “Sol Three,” and all its attendant headaches, to some other unlucky sap. Not all of the good guys survive this would-be invasion, and Earth doesn’t so much “win” as the villains just give up, but no matter — the movie’s over, the Professor says he can make Tilk and Tilly “some parts” in order to finally consummate their love, and it looks like our Luke and Leia (who, in Brescia’s defense, no one — probably even Lucas himself — know were brother and sister at the time) appear poised to live happily ever after. Or at least until  Earth’s next “buyers” show up.

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Yeah, it’s all unspeakably lame and hopelessly derivative, but Star Odyssey is also the kind of bizarrely entertaining “hopelessly derivative” that you can only get when filmmakers with no money from one country try to copy expensive productions from another. Sure, plenty gets “lost in translation,” but it’s the completely haphazard way in which so much does get translated that makes this an hour and a half (roughly) of your time well spent. And hey. for those who have survived Brescia’s previous attempts at doing “Lucas on the Mediterranean,” it’s fun to spot the little things like re-used model footage from Cosmos : War Of The Planets and costumes from War Of The Robots. I’m not sure I’d lay out the couple of dollars required to own this flick on any number of public domain-heavy DVD packages on which it appears (whoops, too late, I’ve got it as part of Alpha Home Entertainment’s “Grindhouse Double Shock Show” series, where it’s paired with Prisoners Of The Lost Universe), but given that it’s freely available on YouTube, if this sounds like your kind of thing then there’s really no reason not to give it a whirl. Go in with appropriately low expectations, and who knows? You might even find yourself reasonably — and, yes, confusingly — entertained.

 

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In the distant (I’m assuming, at any rate) future, mankind stands on the verge of the greatest breakthrough of all — the completely artificial creation of life from thin fucking air. No cloning required here, folks, as the process developed by one Professor (that’s the closest thing to a first name he’s ever given) Carr (played by Jaques Herlin) just makes something — or, more specifically, someone — outta nothin’. Don’t ask me how this is supposed to actually work — and don’t ask Carr, either, because he can’t seem to explain it to either his ostensible “partner” in the project, Dr. Wilkes (Massimo Righi), or to the second-in-command scientist that he’s got the hots for, Lois (Malisa Longo). All we know is that it requires the use of a nuclear reactor — which is no big deal because Carr’s got one attached to his home/laboratory.

Unfortunately, news of this scientific miracle has apparently made it far and wide, because late one evening, a handful of ultra-blond alien invaders with matching He-Man (or, more specifically, Prince Adam) haircuts and gold jumpsuits kidnap the Prof and Lois and abscond with them for parts of the universe unknown.

You can all relax, though — the aliens were not only observed and recorded, they were tracked by Earth’s sophisticated network of spy satellites, so going after them will be no big deal. The man chosen for the job by the powers-that-be at Space Base Sirius is  (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a brash young hothead named John Boyd (Antonio Sabato, who’s probably more famous for who he sired than for any roles he actually played), who just so happens to have a very special interest in this rescue mission due to the fact that he’s carrying on an illicit fling with Lois behind Carr’s back. And so, he and the supposedly-intrepid crew of his rocket ship, named the Trissi, are off to save the girl, her boss — oh, and hopefully the entire world, because Carr was kidnapped in the middle of an “experiment” of some sort and his handy-dandy home nuclear reactor of his only has, by Wilkes’ estimation, about eight days until it completely blows given that he doesn’t know how to shut the damn thing off  himself despite, again, being a supposed “partner” on the whole freaking project.

Got all that? Good, because Italian director Alfonso Bresica’s third unabashed Star Wars rip-off, 1978’s War Of The Robots (released on its home turf as La Guerra Dei Robot and in other parts of the English-speaking world as either Robots or Reactor — the only two titles that actually make any sense) only gets more befuddled and confusing from here on out.

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Boyd and his charges manage to catch up with the space kidnappers without too much trouble, but a “fierce” confrontation with a couple of their prey’s escort fighters (think of the Millennium Falcon vs.  a couple of TIE fighters done for $1.99) leaves the Trissi so severely damaged (something to do with the intergalactic equivalent of a water pump — no, I’m not kidding) that our “hero” decides to land on the nearby “planetoid” of Azar to perform repairs — only the Trissi itself, doesn’t land at all, it just ejects its command module, containing Boyd and a smattering of his most trust crewmates (among them Brescia mainstay Yanti Somer, this time on hand as daring space pilot Julie, who just so happens to have the hots for Boyd despite his affections clearly laying elsewhere) towards the surface while the main bulk of the rocket (you know, the part that actually needs fixing) continues to orbit/hover above Azar.

Once they set foor on Azar, it’s info-dump time, as the Azarite leader, Kuba, informs Boyd that the quarry he’s after hail from the planet Anthor, and that they’ve been kidnapping he and his hapless fellows for years in order to serve either as slave labor, or as living organ “donors”kept on hand to supply — uhhmmmm — “raw materials” to the Anthorians, who can apparently live more or less forever, but for their pesky body parts wearing out. If this sounds an awful lot like the exact same motivation the invaders had in Battle Of The Stars, guess what? You’re absolutely right.

Anyway, Kuba and his people actually mistake Boyd and company for Anthorians at first themselves, but the timely arrival of a real raiding party from Anthor — quickly defeated by our plucky, rag-tag squadron from Earth — effectively dispels that notion, and so the next logical step is for Boyd, Kuba, and their makeshift “army” to head for Anthor and get this movie over with.

“Hold on just a minute, though,” I hear you say, “how could they possibly mistake Earthlings for Anthorians? We don’t all have matching haircuts and jumpsuits!” You’re correct, of course, but those weren’t actually Anthorians — those were their robot underlings. Honest-to-goodness residents of Anthor, it turns out, look just like we do. So let’s go there and check out what they’re up to, shall we?

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Welcome, then, to scenic Anthor — and meet their new Empress, Lois! Yes, Boyd’s lady-love was immediately crowned the planet’s new ruler, for reasons that are never explained, and at her side is Dr. Carr, who’s “sold out” and now intends to use his miraculous artificial-life-creation process to help out his one-time captors. Here on Earth we call it the “Stockholm Syndrome,” while in space it’s apparently called the “Anthor Syndrome,” but whatever name it’s going by, if Boyd had any smarts at this point he’d say “okay, fair enough, knock yourself out, since creating living beings to harvest organs from would immediately do away with Anthor’s need to kidnap, enslave, and kill people from neighboring planets (or planetoids). Just scribble down some instructions for me on how to shut off your nuclear reactor and we’re outta here.”

Boyd, however, doesn’t have any smarts, and neither do Brescia (once again working under his “Al Bradly” pseudonym) and his co-screenwriter, Aldo Crudo, and so a bunch of pointless “intrigue” ensues mainly for the purpose of showing what a conniving, backstabbing bitch Lois is while Julie, for her part, assumes the role of perfect angel. Yes, friends, just when it looked like we might be getting somewhere, War Of The Robots — which almost feels like a completely new and different movie with each successive scene, so little does any given one have anything to do with what came before it or what will come after — does yet another 180 on us and turns into a “love triangle in space” sort of thing.In fact, the main denouement for the entire film is a scene when Julie’s not-exactly-an-X-Wing fighter finds itself squarely in the sights of Lois’ ship and Lois, thinking that Boyd can still get over her massive act of treason, decides to shoot her erstwhile “competitor” down so that she can pursue the man of her dreams free from Ms. Goody Two-Shoes’ interference. Julie seems rather resigned to her fate at this point, whatever that fate might be, and reasons that if Boyd really loves her, he’ll come swooping in to the rescue in his own fighter to save her, and if not — well, that would mean he must really love Lois, after all, so she’s probably better off  just letting the evil empress kill her.

With Cosmos : War Of The Planets Brescia may have set science fiction back a few decades, but with War Of The Robots he apparently aims to one-up himself by doing the same for women’s lib. And, of course, the heroic leading man does save the damsel in distress, the kindly denizens of Anzar, and even the Earth itself from certain nuclear annihilation by dragging Carr’s ass back home.

Ah, but which lady is lucky enough to win his heart by the time the curtain falls? Well, that you’ll have to discover for yourself — should you choose — by actually watching the flick. War Of The Robots is available as part of any number of public domain-heavy DVD box sets, but be forewarned! The version I’ve got, which is included in Mill Creek’s 50-movie Sci-Fi Invasion bargain pack, actually plays the first reel of the film twice over back-to-back, and frankly, much as I enjoyed (against my better judgment as well as all reason and logic) this heaping helping of pure celluloid nonsense, once is probably enough. You may want to try this version posted on YouTube and see if it’s a bit more bearable :

 

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Filmed back-to-back with the much-more-widely seen Cosmos : War Of The Planets in 1977, director Alfonso Brescia’s “spaghetti space opera” Battle Of The Stars (or, as they called it back home, Battaglie Negli Spazi Stellari) is something of a curiosity. My best guess — and mind you, it’s only a guess — is that the flick itself never played any cinemas in the English-speaking world, and in fact it sat on the shelf for a nearly a year in Italy and was only released when our guy Alfonso’s first flick for the Nais Film production company had finally run its course in theaters.

I don’t know why, but I kind of like to imagine that the decision as to which one to put out first probably came down to a coin toss, and if it had gone the other way, I have no doubt that Battle Of The Stars would be the one “everyone” has seen, while Cosmos : War Of The Planets would be largely unknown.

So — just how “unknown” is this movie? A quick perusal of the IMDB reviews page for it reveals that of the 17 users who have opined on the flick there, all but one are actually talking about Cosmos : War Of The Planets, and a further Google search turns up precisely zero English-language reviews of the film. There’s one in German, one in French, and that’s it. Every other review of it online is actually a review of, you guessed it — Cosmos : War Of The Planets.

I’ll be honest — I’d never seen it myself until a few days ago, but I wanted to check it out for this little “Attack Of The Clones” review series, so I gave it the old college try — and discovered along the way where all the confusion between the two films stemmed from.

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As it happens, a good number of people who thought they’d just watched Battle Of The Stars really hadn’t. That’s because the only DVD release of this thing was on a ten-movie box set from the late BCI/Eclipse entitled Space Odyssey that features, depending on which version of the set you’ve got, Cosmos : War Of The PlanetsBattle Of The Stars, or Brescia’s 1979 Star Wars knock-off, Star Odyssey. To further complicate matters, when Battle Of The Stars was replaced, for reasons only the company itself probably knows, by Cosmos : War Of The Planets, they didn’t actually bother to print a different version of the box’s cover sleeve, so even if you buy the version that supposedly contains Battle Of The Stars, you might be getting Cosmos : War Of The Planets anyway, and when you pop it in and press “play”  and see the titles run, odds are that you’ll just think Cosmos : War Of The Planets is an alternate title for the movie listed on the case — which is, of course, Battle Of The Stars.

Rest assured, though, that they are two separate films — even if they do feature more or less the exact same cast, and utilize the same costumes, props, sets, and even theme song. Yes, friends, “We Are Not Alone Here In Space” makes a return appearance in Battle Of The Stars, and this time the horribly-dubbed English version of the film features the full song rather than a few lonely snippets. Oh, lucky us.

Anyway, back to my search for a moment — I found precisely one copy of Space Odyssey for sale on eBay a couple weeks back, and even though the title list in the seller’s description specified that it was, indeed, the version that contained Battle Of The Stars rather than Star Odyssey, purchasing it was still something of a crap-shoot because I wouldn’t know until it arrived whether or not it really had Battle Of The Stars or Cosmos : War Of The Planets. Still, for $1.99, it wasn’t too pricey of a gamble to take, so I hit “but it now!” and waited for the mail to arrive. If this didn’t pan out, I’d just have to go the VHS route, I guess (the box art for which is pictured above).

The seller promised “quick shipping,” and they turned out to be every bit as good as their word, with the discs arriving in just five days. Now for the moment of truth. I unwrapped the package, stuck the disc claiming to contain Battle Of The Stars into the player, held my breath, and — bingo! It was the real deal, folks. So I guess what you’re reading here is a slice of internet B-movie history — the first-ever English-language review of Battle Of The Stars to appear online. I’ll try to take the weight of my responsibility seriously, I promise.

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On second thought — fuck that. Let me get one final item of “housekeeping” out of the way and then we’ll dissect this pile of celluloid nonsense.

The last thing I noticed that I want to bring to your attention, as you’ll be able to see from the pictures above and below, is how virtually indistinguishable stills from this movie and stills from Cosmos : War Of The Planets are from each other. A Google image search turned up only a small handful of pictures even purporting to be from Battle Of The Stars, and, having now seen the film for myself, I can only say with absolute certainty that the two I’ve included with this review really are. The rest all turned out to be from — shit, do I even have to say it at this point?

So, yeah — the movie. It’s actually pretty straight-forward alien invasion stuff, with a lame horror twist : John Richardson is back in essentially the same role he played he played in Cosmos : War Of The Planets, only this time the brash young hot-head he portrays is a Captain named Mike Layton, who’s the designer of a “defense system” of some sort that is supposed to protect the future Earth he inhabits from marauding extraterrestrial threats. Naturally, when an evil race from several galaxies over called The Gonians decides to take a crack at conquering the planet, we’re going to need a super-protector — and he’s the man for the job, I guess.

The Gonians aren’t showing up empty-handed for the fight, either : they’re guided by a super-computer that makes all their decisions for them (yes, the same one that ran the planet with no name in Cosmos), and they have a (very small, by the look of things) army of — get this — mummies at their disposal. Plus, they’re shape-changers and can disguise themselves as anyone. They’ve got a big problem, though— see, greedy slobs that they are, they went and used up all the natural resources on their own planet and, as a result, they’re all physically decaying. Even though they can, once again, change their shape and assume any form they want. Their “plan,” such as it is, then, appears to be to take over our bodies with their consciousnesses or something. But before they can land their entire invasion fleet, they need to sabotage Captain Mike’s ingenious — and never really fully explained — “defense system.”

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Not to worry (too much), though : with the help of his perky scientist girlfriend, Diane (Yanti Somer) and trusted sidekick,  Frank Bimble (Aldo Conti), we’re in good hands — and we’ve got allies in the form of a friendly alien race known as the Ganymedeans. Well, two Ganymedeans, at any rate : the rest were apparently offed when the Gonians invaded and then conquered their planet. So, ya know, these guys ought to be a living, breathing treasure-trove of good ideas on how to stop them, right?

In case you haven’t pieced it together yet, Battle Of The Stars is pretty lousy movie. The outcome’s never in doubt — of course Mike’s going to foil this whole dastardly invasion scheme before the end credits roll — but then the outcome in this sort of flick is never in doubt. The question is whether there’s going to be enough jaw-droppingly bizarre nonsense between “Point A” and “Point B” to make your roughly-hour-and-a-half (in this case precisely 87 minutes) watching it time well-spent. Sadly, the answer here is that there just isn’t. It’s not for lack of trying — Brescia and screenwriters Massimo Lo Jacomo and Giacomo Mazzocchi throw out every cheap quasi-psychedelic trick in the book to try to maintain your interest — but nothing on offer here rises to the vaunted level of “so bad it’s good,” and the film’s plodding pace and utter inability to have fun with its own inherent ridiculousness really drag things down. Preachy as Cosmos : War Of The Planets no doubt was, there was still a sense that the director knew his project wasn’t worth taking all that seriously — but, ironically, the far-less-topical Battle Of The Stars sees him in full-on grim-faced mode. Or, at least, as grim-faced as you can get in a movie about body-thieving shape-changers and mummies from outer space.

 

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So, I hear that there’s a big new science fiction movie coming out on Friday that people are all excited about. Something about a bunch of 70-year-olds running around in outer space that’s written and directed by a guy who was so excited about getting the gig that his first reaction was to turn it down. Okay — you all have fun with that.

Jut kidding, friends! Sort of. Truth be told, I’m semi-excited for Star Wars : The Force Awakens myself. I’m by no means the world’s biggest Star Wars fan, but the original trilogy was pretty much the pop-culture touchstone of my youth, and while I certainly won’t be lining up on opening night to see what J. J. Abrams has done with the franchise, odds are that once the mad crowds have been boiled down to a more manageable size within a week or two, I’ll be going and checking it out — and frankly I expect to have a pretty good time doing so. All of which is my way of saying that you can put that rope away and quit measuring me for a casket. I really was joking.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the return of Star Wars will be a global box office phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades, but no matter how big it is — and it’ll be big with a capital B — I feel safe in predicting  that in no way will it launch a veritable army of cheaply-produced foreign imitations the way George Lucas’ original did. In today’s global economy there’s simply no need for localized versions of the “main event” because said “main event” is going to make its way to every corner of the planet nearly simultaneously. Back in 1977, though, there was often a pretty sizable gap, at least in foreign territories, between the time that people heard about Star Wars and the time that they actually got to see it (assuming it ever made it to their neck of the woods at all), and canny production outfits abroad, eager to cash in on a suddenly-sci-fi-hungry public, often rushed actors and sets in front of the camera in order to get something “in the can”and out to their fellow countrymen before the real deal made it to town.

And so we got Brazilian Star Wars. Turkish Star Wars. And more Italian Star Wars knock-offs than you could shake a stick at, because you know how it went with the Italians in those days — doing something successfully (and by “successfully” I mean getting the thing made, getting it into theaters, and turning a modest profit — they never actually needed their movies to be good, or even to make sense) once pretty much always meant that they would try it again. And again. And again.

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Perhaps no one was more eager to muscle in on the Star Wars craze in Italy than an outfit known as Nais Film, which hired veteran director Alfonso Brescia to clone the Lucas juggernaut (on the cheap, mind you) five times over in the years 1977-1980, with the first two, Cosmos : War Of The Planets  — known in its county of origin as Ano Zero – Guerra Nello Spazio  and in various other territories as either Cosmo 2000 : Planet Without A Name or, more simply, War Of The Planets — and Battle Of The Stars (or, as the locals would have it, Battaglie Negli Spazi Stellari) being shot back-to-back and utilizing more or less the same cast, crew, sets, and even costumes, And if twice in a row wasn’t enough, fear not : most everyone and everything would return for War Of The Robots (La Guerra Dei Robot) in 1978 and Star Odyssey  (Sette Uomini D’Oro Nello Spazio) in 1979. Brescia’s fifth and final foray into Star Wars rip-off territory, The Beast In Space (La Bestia Nello Spazio) was actually a full- hardcore interstellar sex flick that was trimmed down for release to “respectable” theaters as a softcore space opera, and features entirely different actors, sets, costumes, and the like — so taking all that into consideration, and given the fact that it borrows as heavily from Alien as it does from Star Wars, we’ll forego including it in our little “Attack Of The Clones” round-up if that’s okay with you.

With all of that preamble out of the way, then, let’s dive right into Cosmos : War Of The Planets, shall we?

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As you can see from the photo above, this thing looks nothing like Star Wars, and rest assured that if George Lucas moved science fiction forward by a couple of decades with his film, Alfonso Brescia (working here, as he would in all these flicks, under the pseudonym of “Al Bradly”) drags it back a good half-century with his. The visual effects, models, props, sound effects, and the like on display here would feel cheap even in a Toho movie, and frankly most of the acting isn’t up to even Toho standards, nor is the dubbing. So, yeah, this isn’t exactly the sort of thing that would impress post-Star Wars audiences, to say the least.

Nor does it have the vivid, off-the-rails imagination of Italy’s most justly-famous Lucas imitator, Star Crash.  Truth be told, Cosmos : War Of The Planets really isn’t what you’d call coherent in the least. I watched it again for the first time in many years the other night, and it felt about the same to me as I remembered it being — yeah, sure, there’s a story in there somewhere, but it seems to progress despite, or perhaps more appropriately in spite of, it’s slapdash editing and entirely non-linear script. In the film’s very first scene, for instance, unruly space captain Alex Hamilton (John Richardson) is piloting his ship, which we later learn is called the MK-31, out in the distant reaches of the solar system when he and his crew encounter a sort of “space mirage,” or, as the ship’s computer calls it, “the refraction (sic) of an explosion that occurred ten billion years ago.” Hamiltion wants to dodge the debris, but the computer won’t comply with his request because it’s, ya know, not really there. With the non-existent threat averted, Hamilton and his crew all hug each other — for the first of many times. In fact, every single near-catastrophe they manage to avoid seems to be an excuse for a giant “group hug.”

Next up we find ourselves at Orion Headquarters, which is sort of like an “intergalactic space command” or something. There’s a chief commander there named Armstrong, but his job seems more ceremonial than anything else given that all major — and even minor — decisions are made by a super-computer called, I shit you not, “The Wiz.” Hamilton gets in an argument with a senior officer who he thinks is bit too Wiz-reliant and decks the guy out, and Armstrong deals with his insubordination by — giving him command of his own ship, the MK-31. Which he already was assigned to. Got that?

So, it’s back off out into the stars again, this time to go and repair a “sensor platform” that “monitors cosmic rays.” It’s here that we finally learn that Hamilton has a squeeze, a communications office named Mila (Yanti Somer), and that a couple of older crew-members are also hot to trot for each other, but their — uhhmmm — “passions” tend to be of a more mechanical nature. Not that they really matter much to the story from here on out.

Anyway, while stationed on the platform, the MK-31 picks up a deep-space transmission of classical music and said transmission ends up making it all the way to Earth and wreaking havoc on every piece of electronic equipment around. Rumors swirl about an impending alien invasion because, I guess, that’s what usually follows in the wake of Bach concertos. Hamilton and his boss then square off again because our “gung-ho” captain suddenly goes chickenshit when he’s assigned to find the source of the transmission — to the point when even a director order from The Wiz won’t get him to budge. It finally takes the wiles of an alluring female psychiatrist to bring him into line. He won’t risk his ass on the say-so of any computer, or even on the say-so of his C.O., but hey — he’ll do it to impress a girl.

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So — the MK-31 locates the unnamed planet that the transmission originates from, gets in a firefight with a pair of flying saucers before it gets there, and when its “power plant” is hit it tumbles aimlessly through space until it ends up trapped in the orbit of — the planet it was supposed to be heading to all along anyway? Meanwhile, one of the UFOs that zapped it heads for Earth, lands at the North Pole (I think), and doesn’t do anything else for the rest of the movie.

It’s time to visit the planet with no name! Hamilton assembles a landing party and they go down in a capsule/module/whatever to locate the classical music radio station that needs to power down its signal, but when they split up into small groups they either a) get done in by a  killer robot that looks more like a guy in semi-medieval garb; or b)meet up with the locals, who are green-skinned, bald, and led by Italian actor Aldo Conti — who, of course, tells them the whole story —

Those killer robots? They all work for a killer super-computer. It rules their world. Theirs was once a peaceful, technologically advanced civilization, but the people became complacent and put all their trust in their machines, to the point that when a planetary calamity of some sort hit, and most of those machines and computers and shit were destroyed, the mere flesh-and-blood types lacked the knowledge to rebuild and so fell under the control of the now-megalomaniacal and power-hungry “HAL on steroids” I just mentioned. Hamilton first agrees to dispense with the killer robot, and does so, but when he learns that he’s gotta take out the robot’s boss, too, that proves to be a little trickier. But don’t worry, he does that, too. Group hugs all around!

Okay, so the parallels between the alien super-computer and “The Wiz” are pretty obvious, and Brescia (who was also one of the screenplay’s four writers) is obviously making some sort of admittedly confused point somewhere in all of this about the dangers of humanity’s increasing reliance on technology. But that point is actually made fairly early on when Hamilton impresses Mila with his “old-fashioned,” “hands-on” love-making approach, which is juxtaposed against that other couple we talked about who use a “pleasure machine” of some sort (that somehow mimics the feel of sexual intercourse) to aid with/take over their coitus. So everything else on offer here really is just hammering the point home.  I’m not complaining — much — about that, since Cosmos : War Of The Planets is so dizzyingly haphazard and disjointed that it can be be quite a bit of fun, albeit in a purely masochistic sense, to watch. But it’s also quite clumsily preachy, and if “message movies” — particularly incompetent “message movies” — aren’t your thing, be warned that this one could get on your nerves pretty fast.

Still, don’t take my word for it —Brescia’s utterly confounding space-opera-on-a-budget is available on any number of public domain-centric DVD box sets (I’ve got it as part of Mill Creek’s 50-movie Sci-Fi Invasion, for instance), but it’s also all over YouTube, as well, so here you go (please note this version only contains a highly-condensed version of the movie’s bizarre “love theme,” entitled “We  Are Not Alone Here In Space,” but trust me, you’re really not missing much):

 

 

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Tom King makes me a little nervous.

It’s nothing to do with the guy’s personality, mind you — he could be the life of the party for all I know, or a humble and gracious gentleman, or a devoted family man, or all three. I’ve never met him, so I couldn’t tell you. But the idea of Tom King, well — that’s what makes me a trifle apprehensive, I guess.

There’s no doubt the man can write — his work on DC’s Omega Men has been stellar, and his newly-launched take on The Vision for Marvel is off to an intriguing start. I’ve never read Grayson — probably because the idea of the former Robin going undercover as a spy after his secret identity has been blown to the general public just strikes me as being absurd on its face — but folks tell me that’s a pretty good read, as well, so despite being in comics for a relatively short period of time, Mr. King is definitely making his mark. Kudos to him for doing quality work on all the titles he’s involved with.

But — and it’s a big “but” — he’s also a “former” CIA agent, one assigned to work in Iraq no less, and I don’t believe you can “resign” from the CIA any more than you can from, say, the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the only way out is usually in a bodybag.

Still, you rightly ask, what possible interest could the CIA have in the funnybooks? Well, we know they’ve infiltrated the mass media before — does a little operation named “Mockingbird” ring a bell? — and that comics have been the most fertile “AAA league” for movies and TV for the last couple of decades. By getting one of “their guys” ensconced at the ground level like this, “The Company” could be in on the first- floor entryway of the next multimillion-dollar “hot” entertainment property. Or, hey, maybe there are some pesky leftists among the ranks of comic book freelancers than they just want somebody to keep an eye on. I dunno — but I don’t like the smell of it.

Another thing I don’t like is the apparent “pro-torture” message I picked up on in the first couple issues of Omega Men. This seems to have faded into the background a bit in recent months, and it’s gotta be said that the series as a whole is almost embarrassingly good for a “Big Two” super-hero comic, but still — it’s pretty apparent to anyone reading that the editorial viewpoint expressed by the book is one that “enhanced interrogation” is, at worst, something of a “necessary evil.” When you combine this with the none-too-subtle stance taken in favor of vigilante murder in The Vision, it’s more than enough to suggest, at least to me, that Tom King is someone to follow not only for his talent, but also for the right-wing political messages underpinning his work.

Or, ya know, maybe I’m just paranoid.

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One thing’s for sure — King’s  supposedly “former” career informs every panel of every page of his latest work, the eight-part Vertigo miniseries The Sheriff Of Babylon, and even if this turns out to be a pure propaganda exercise, it’s at least going to be an authentic one with a sharp and realistic voice and a “no-bullshit” sensibility.  That’s more than enough for me to label the hot-off-the-presses first issue as my comic “pick of the week,” even taking my concerns about its author into consideration.

At its core, this appears to be a murder mystery set in a highly unique location — the American-controlled “Green Zone” inside Baghdad. Commentary on the necessity, or even the sanity, of our invasion of Iraq is noticeably absent, and instead things are presented in a very matter-of-fact, “like it or not, this is the reality on the ground’ sort of way. For that reason,  among many others, I can already see Kathryn Bigelow salivating at the prospect of directing the movie version, and certainly the art by the always-improving Mitch Gerads  — who’s handling the book’s impeccably-chosen colors, as well, and whose style has taken another dramatic leap forward here as it did between his Image series The Activity and his run on Marvel’s The Punisher — really gets the dust inside your pores and the smell of burning oil up your nostrils. Fuck, I even felt hot reading this comic, and it was about 30 degrees here in Minneapolis when I opened it up. So, yeah — this is definitely the real deal, folks. On every conceivable level.

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As far as murder mysteries go, it’s definitely altogether unconventional one any way you slice it — and I don’t say that merely because of its setting, but also because of its structure. Apparent right from this debut installment — in fact, serving as said installment’s cliffhanger — is the fact that the murder in question is one that folds back in on the investigation surrounding it, given that one of our three principal players involved (those being an American police trainer named Christopher Henry, and Iraqi cop with an understandable axe to grind with his country’s conquerors named Nassir, and a Western-educated Baghdad native returned home to consolidate control of her hometown’s rapidly-expanding criminal underworld named Sofia) gave the “green light” for it to be committed in the first place and now is in a position to pull the strings in terms of how, or even if, the killer is brought to justice.

Assuming, of course, that anything like “justice” exists in occupied Iraq — a question that’s reflected in the series’ title, taken from a line of dialogue in the book when Henry wonders aloud if there even is such a thing as a “sheriff” in these parts.

Speaking of Henry, he and Nassir are both introduced to readers in separate scenes of well-nigh-unbearable tension that are, again, incredibly cinematic is terms of both execution and feel, and since saying very much about either would “spoil” a lot of what happens in this issue, it’s probably just safer if I say that both of their debuts are quite memorable and leave it at that.

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And “memorable” seems to be the operative (no pun aimed in the direction of the writer’s “one-time” employment status intended) word in terms of the reading experience King and Gerads are aiming to create here. Vertigo’s in the midst of releasing a raft of new #1s these days,and this and Slash & Burn are, to this point, definitely the standouts of an impressive-across-the-board bunch. I remain curious to see whether or not King avails himself of the opportunity to comment on the wholesale corruption, not to mention slaughter, that the US invasion  and subsequent occupation of the former Babylon brought with it, but even if he politely declines — or, worse yet, whitewashes it out altogether — all the elements are in place here for a “whodunnit?” quite unlike any other we’ve ever seen.

I may have reservations about Tom King and what he’s even doing in comics in the first place. but so far I have no reservations about giving The Sheriff Of Babylon a very enthusiastic recommendation.