Friday, 11 August 2017

A Look At... Ex-Mutants: The Saga Begins

It’s been over a year since I had A Look At anything without a Sonic character in the book, that’s quite unacceptable.

So the story behind Ex-Mutants then:
The concept came from a conversation between Eternity editor William Davidson and Eternity publisher Kevin Myers with the basic setup coming from the latter. Created as a jab at the black and white independent books that had sprung up in the wake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s success (as a comic book) the gag was going to be that the whole set-up was a complete inversion of TMNT and its pretenders, the characters would be the only humans in a world filled with mutants and the title would be Young Ex-Mutant Samurai Humans. Ugh, thank god they got David Lawrence on board to write it, well actually ‘they’ didn’t, Eternity went to Campiti & Associates, a provider of comic book ‘packages’ – this used to be a big thing in the 1940s, basically a company that hires comic book artists and writers and produces comics that are then sold on to publishers, Will Eisner used to have one and Jack Kirby used to work for one, just as examples. Anyway Campiti & Associates bright in Lawrence (and Campiti is credited as co-creator of the characters in issue 1) and also Ron Lim, yes THAT Ron Lim, the bloke who drew Silver Surfer and Iron Man and all that, this was back when he had a style.

Top to Bottom: Angela, Erin, Lorelei, Vikki, Belushi
Then it gets complicated, Ex-Mutants was given a shorter, better title to match the more serious book that Lawrence & Lim had turned the concept into and released, it was a big hit and sold over 75,000 copies for Eternity Comics. However at roughly the same time it was being a hit there was problems behind-the-scenes between Eternity bigwig Brian Marshall, David Campiti (of Campiti & Associates), some creators and a bloke named Scott Mitchell Rosenberg who also owned Malibu Comics, a distribution company and was financing Eternity. To settle the row Rosenberg came up with the novel idea of just giving each of the rowing parties their own comic companies, Campiti was put in charge of Amazing Comics and Wonder Color Comics so Ex-Mutants moved over. Amazing Comics printed Ex-Mutants 2-5 and was supposed to print the Ex-Mutants spin-off The New Humans; they also reprinted a revamped and expanded version of Ex-Mutants #1 as Ex-Mutants: The Special Edition. Then people stopped getting paid, then office equipment stopped getting paid for, then The Comics Journal revealed Rosenberg’s involvement with Eternity, Amazing and Wonder Color, then rumours began to circulate that Rosenberg was going to dump everything but Malibu, then Rosenberg dumped everything but Malibu (Eternity was kept as an imprint). The Campini people jumped ship before the dumping, taking Ex-Mutants with them and self-publishing through Pied Piper Comics, they published Ex-Mutants issues 6-8, The New Humans and the first issue of the Ex-Mutants Micro Series (Ex-Mutants Micro Series: Erin #1), plus some issues of Wild Knights (another spin-off, they appear in this story we’re Looking At). However there was a legal battle over ownership of Ex-Mutants, in the end Lawrence and Lim couldn’t afford to keep fighting so threw in the towel and the rights to everything reverted to Eternity. Eternity reprinted issues 6 & 7 as special 40 page editions (but not issue 8) and Ex-Mutants Micro-Series: Erin #1 and the unpublished Ex-Mutants Micro Series: Vikki #1 as the first two issues of Solo Ex-Mutants. Ex-Mutants would then be relaunched under Malibu with a different set of characters – that’s what the Mega Drive game is based off by the way.


Eternity also re-printed the first three issues of Ex-Mutants as a small graphic novel called Ex-Mutants Volume 1: The Saga Begins which I found at an indoor market while on holiday in Devon (that market was immense, a mix of flea market, bootsale and farmer’s market but held in giant old metal cattle barns). I was very new to American comics at the time and just assumed it was an X-Men book from the 1980s I didn’t know about. I was wrong obviously (although I’m sure others made the same mistake, at least they better’ve had or I’ll feel REALLY stupid and I don’t want that) but I remained fascinated, it was filled with mutants and tits and I was about 12 so it’s not too surprising I got into it and you know they’re still two of the things I like about the book today *sigh* I’m pathetic. Anyway I’ve been meaning to do something on the Ex-Mutants since I started blogging, this is what you’re getting so are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:



A Breed Apart (Ex-Mutants: The Special Edition issue 1, reprinted from Ex-Mutants issue 1)
David Lawrence, Ron Lim with Mike Witherby & Timothy Dzon
I’m using the expanded Special Edition version of this issue; this is the version that was used in subsequent reprintings so I’m considering it to be considered the ‘cannon’ version. Quick Summary: We begin with Dr Cugat’s parents and as much cheesecake as Ron Lim can squeeze into a prequel, Alex Cugat is working on the underground complex his son will later inhabit. Jump to present time and a mutant teenager named Lorelei is imaging what she’ll be when she’s human then Dr Cugat comes and comforts her. We learn that Mutually Assured Destruction happened and humanity is gone, only mutants remain. While scavenging Cugat finds a solar battery, the last component he needs for his machine to bring out the recessive genes in mutants, specifically five teenage mutants he’s got in pods: Erin (sensible brunette leader), Beluchi or Blu (the boy), Vikki (dumb blonde), Angela (Asian mechanic) and the aforementioned Lorelei (moody Black woman). A montage covers their training and bonding, becoming like children to Cugat, then it’s the day Cugat’s been waiting for. His plan is to send the Ex-Mutants out in the world to inspire hope, unsurprisingly when he calls the Mutants of New York City to see them they attack them, the teens – now proficient with swords – fight them off and leave town on their mission, the Mutants scamper to the Empire State Building to tell A-Number One Duke of New York: Great Fred but some Mutants are secretly taken with the group. As the kids leave, Cugat return home talking to Norma Jean, a beautiful woman in a pod who he seems to be in love with, or married to, or something, Great Fred is also informed. Outside New York, the Ex-Mutants camp out and Blu makes it clear how happy is that they’re going to repopulate the human race, he is rightly mocked for this – except when it comes to Nikki, who goes and shares a tent with him. As the kids speed along, they’re observed by…mutant versions of Harpo and Chico, yes, the Marx Brothers, then Blu crashes their car (oh yeah they have a Caddy, the doc gave it them) and are found by a group of somethings that are certainly not ex Mutants.  


God it’s so obviously an inversion of things like TMNT and X-Men! I’m ashamed I never saw it as a kid because I lived and breathed the bloody X-Men and Ninja Turtles didn’t I? Everything the scene with Lorelei and the mirror (which was the original opening of the original version of issue one) I find really quiet powerful – this horrid mutant looking into a mirror and imaging being this beautiful woman like her mother was, it’s very sad and very tragic and if I was so inclined (read: cleverer) I’m sure I could use it to make a point about conventional beauty because that’s pretty much Lorelei’s whole shtick for the first three issues, she’s twisted up because she isn’t a conventionally beautiful white person (she’s wanted to be a white redhead, she’s instead black and the least feminine looking of the girls) – of course she’s still incredibly hot because Ron Lim only drew ‘em one way back then. Yeah, Ron Lim’s art – that’s a shocker, I didn’t know it WAS Ron Lim until today, the difference is immeasurable. You can still see the Ron Lim of Silver Surfer in the art but it’s buried by an actual style and a style that’s very pleasing – at least to me. I’m not a Ron Lim fan if you hadn’t guessed, I find his art boring – there’s no pizazz to it its just perfunctory superhero artwork at it most bland. Not here – and editorial in the back of the original version of Ex-Mutants 1 calls it ‘Oriental Influenced’ – I think that’s pushing it, the manga influence doesn’t get past Blu’s face on the cover – but it is so much more dynamic and his women are actually sexy and they have different faces, in fact my main complaint with Angela’s design is that her face is very bland, lacking the personality, design and easy to recognise features the other Ex-Mutants have, so basically it’s the face Ron Lim will draw for over a decade (seriously, even her Asian features aren’t very pronounced - sometimes I think Ron Lim forgets she has them). Speaking of women, at this point in his career Ron Lim was a factory, and that factory only produced cheesecake:


I haven’t edited that, there is just a random panel of Dr Cugat’s wet mum bending over in heels with no dialogue or reason; is that anyone’s reaction to getting out of a hot tub? “Ooh I’m wet and cold, I better bend over so the wind can whistle right up me arse, that’ll warm me up” – the sexualisation gets a bit extreme.



Writing wise Lawrence is slightly green, there’s an amateurish feel here and there but generally speaking he’s good: he seems to like the doctor or at least ‘get him’ fastest and so even though we do get a grasp of all of our heroes – except Angela, poor Angela, ‘the other one’ from the very start – this issue is very much Cugat’s issue. Looking at it as an adult I can totally see why I liked the book so much and read it over and over – it’s filled with the sort of stuff that appealed to me on the cusp of teenagerdom; a safe place shut off from everyone, a tight nit little gang including some very attractive women, a group of outsiders trying to be good in a world that fears and hates them, all stuff you could find in things like The X-Men and TMNT – how did I not get this? And the execution of all this is, again, effective. I’m not trying to tell you it’s a masterpiece because it’s not but it does what it needs to do and does it well with the odd exception: this is the issue that was written when the book was still supposed to be a bit of a parody and even though Lawrence essentially went ‘fuck that’ and turned in an effective post-apocalyptic origin story there’s still a few little stray elements of ‘black and white parody comic humour’, the worst being the ditzy blonde who’s worried about her nails (a gag they use twice), Lawrence was clearly better at writing serious comics. Cugat gets the most focus so I’ll voice my opinions on him before this gets really long: I like him, he’s a dad, he feels like a dad and he acts like a dad but with a little bit of creepiness on the side. I don’t think that woman in the tube ever got followed up on, what was her name…Peggy Sue? Elly May? *Checks Quick Summary* Norma Jean…hold on, Norma Jean was fucking Marilyn Monroe’s real name! Subtle Lawrence, and I thought Belushi was bad enough (I’m only calling him Blu in this; it’s his cannon nickname so I’m good). Oh that weird interlude with Mutant Marx Brothers is relevant to issue 8, the only issue Eternity never reprinted.


Strange Days, Wild Knights (Ex Mutants issue 2)
David Lawrence, Ron Lim & Tim Dzon
Quick Summary: Dr Cugat finds THE BABY on his doorstep while responding to a strange noise at one of the entrances to his underground complex, and takes it in, throughout the issue he nurses it, feeds it, burps, all good dad stuff, and the baby is adorable. What he doesn’t know is that Great Fred has sent THE BABY, but how could a baby help Great Fred? Meanwhile the Ex-Mutants are partying, turns out they got found by a commune of Mutants, a former bike gang who settled and then became a farming community after the bombs fell, they’re known as the Wild Knights (and would get a 10-issue spin off) and their leader’s an affable chap named Zack who introduces Blu to whiskey. The next day a hunting party sent out by Great Fred finds the teens, led by an angry mutant named Mitchell and his comedy sidekick Douglas, who’ll become a recurring character (why?). The Ex-Mutants hold their own for a while but unlike the mob they faced last issue these are serious bastards, Vikki, Angela and Lorelei are all down and Erin and Blu are back to back, until the Wild Knights make the inevitable save. Back with Dr Cugat something…strange has happened to THE BABY, its arm is huge and…slimey?


I do like it when the cliff-hanger is completely averted; in this case readers were left believing that this issue would open with our Ex-Mutants in mortal peril, about to eaten or something, but nah they’re just pissing it up with a commune of former Bikers. I know it’s not original – well a commune of mutated former bikers is pretty original – but it rarely fails as a story telling device and I enjoy it.The fight scene for this issue is really good, it feels like some real effort went into planning it and we’ve got a bunch of good ‘spots’ (wrestling terminology I know I’ve not got a better shorthand for big and/or flashy moves/moments in a fight scene); Angela’s katana throw and the splitting of the mutant being stand-outs. Maybe there is some ‘Oriental Influence’ to Ron Lim after all, as this had a very definite 80’s Frank Miller feel to it and Kung-Fu films and Manga were absolutely influences on him at this point, or Ron Lim just liked Daredevil and Ronin. Also so much sexualisation, so much:


That’s a random panel during a brief flashback of the first issue, why are they posing like glamour models Ron? Then there’s this:


There was no reason for Lim to frame the panel like this, he just did it to look down the girl’s tops, still in this case it works for me so I guess he knew his randy heterosexual male audience (or a stopped cheesecake-y comic artist is still right two times a day, whatever). Blu (who’s male gaze we’re following in that panel) seems to get the most focus in this issue so, Blu…he has a dumb name and a whatever attitude, he’s basically a hedonist and his outfit looks like a cheap 1980s ninja action figure, he does have a nice colour scheme though, still blue and red rarely looks bad together. He reminds me a bit of Wheeler from Captain Planet, only more likeable, and less ginger.  


Bite The Hand That Feeds You! Or-- This Baby-- This Thing! (Ex-Mutants issue 3)
David Lawrence, Ron Lim & Tim Dzon
Quick Summary; At the Wild Knights commune Angela pisses off Lorelei by making a joke about how she doesn’t have to worry about sunburn, after she storms off she finds Blu and Vikki getting high then overcomes, or tries to overcome, her issues with how she looks to be Zack’s ‘date’ to the celebration. As the Ex-Mutants enjoy their party, having antics, Angela and Lorelei bonding in a very Les Yay moment, Blue starting a food fight that includes Mutant Three Stooges and that Douglas from last time coming in… to eat, getting sick and finding out they’re dying from radiation poisoning due to a miscalculation of the doc’s, happy stuff. While all this hijinks is going on Dr Cugat is being chased by THE BABY that has become a giant monster baby and is smashing through the underground complex, forcing him outside and into the clutches of Great Fred and his loyal Mutants. Fred had sent it in knowing that it would either kill Cugat or force him outside, also it’s Great Fred’s baby, some Mutant babies come out looking human but are really monster babies, including his.


Let’s talk about THE BABY: there are three things from this arc that have stuck with since I first read it: Lorelei and the mirror for pathos, Vikki unzipping to get into bed with Blu because I was 12 when I first read it (plus it’s the first time in the series Vikki behaves like a believable human and not a walking blonde joke) and THE BABY because it’s disturbing in the best way. I find THE BABY more memorable than Great Fred and he’s the main antagonist and dressed like The Shredder if he was a Double Dragon boss! THE BABY left an impression on me, some bad dreams and mistrust of infants at Devon holiday camps may have been involved, generally I’m a sucker for the cute/scary juxtaposition (creepy fairgrounds, child ghosts, whatever) but this just seemed worse because this thing is seemingly unstoppable (issue 4 wasn’t in the TPB I had), it’s physically powerful and it’s a baby, you can’t reason with it, it’s just a slimy nightmare chasing you through small corridors underground - brrr.  It also really legitimized Great Fred as a villain, Great Fred:


Great Fred is just a Mad Max Shredder, I have no doubt he was concocted (and named) back when the book was if not a parody then a ‘take that’ at all the TMNTalikes, but with each subsequent issue he’s become more and more a straight up terrifying big bad and the story of what THE BABY is (does THE BABY ever get an actual name? I didn’t see one) and how Fred basically terrified his own offspring into being loyal to him confirmed him as more of an utter monster than the giant slimy Hulk child he controls. In this issue he’s fucking stone cold, his plan worked perfectly and he’s all like ‘yeah I’m gonna kill you’ to Dr Cugat and next time we see him he’s doing just that, as a public execution of course - anyone who dresses like that ^ knows presentation is key. On characters, this is the issue where Vikki finally becomes one, up until no she’s ben flip-flopping between ‘lol blondes are dumb’ and ‘actual human’ but now she’s a believable person, she’s still a dumb blonde but now she’s not a joke, she’s just unintelligent, girly and a little vein, and her getting one over on Blu about dancing shows she does has some sense when she’s doing something other than using a katana. Elsewhere I’m a little sad they wrapped up Lorelei’s angst so soon or at least took it out of focus, it was an interesting idea and the angst gave her something that set her apart from the other characters, Angela knows full well what happens if you don’t have something to set you apart, you become the ‘the other one’. Angela actually was in this issue a lot (more than Erin who’s just been being cool the whole time), she seems to be being put across as ‘the nice one’ and some it must be working because I think she’s a good person. 

   
Apparently the higher ups weren’t too happy with the scene of Vikki and Blu getting their smoke on, hopefully because it’s some of the worst art Ron Lim turns in for this arc, but apparently because it’s not what ‘heroic teenagers’ should do - personally I think it’s a pretty logical thing to happen. These are teenagers out on their own for the first time, experiencing most things for the first time, staying with a group of ex-Bikers in a commune that used to be a drugs farm (and it was made very clear last issue that the Wild Knights sampled their original crops). It’s the sort of thing that would come up and hedonistic Blu and dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks Vikki are certainly the two to have light up together, it leaves the reader to decide if it’s being shown as a bad thing or not just by virtue of the characters involved. I personally think that it’s not being shown as a good or bad thing but this is an indie book by indie creators, the chances they partook in the odd bit whacky baccy is fairly high. Oh and that Mutant Three Stooges thing? That’s not relevant to anything, the creative team just like their old comedy films. 


Everybody Dies! (Ex-Mutants issue 4)
David Lawrence, Ron Lim & Tim Dzon
Of the four issues this is the one I know the least well, The Saga Begins didn’t reprint it and so didn’t reprint the entire story-arc because fuck that shit why on earth would you do such a dumbass thing? Let’s just leave readers thinking that the characters they’ve bonded with over the course of the book are all fucked. Quick Summary: the Ex-Mutants return to the underground complex and find it smashed and Dr Cugat missing, they also meet an adorable cat – did you know that the writer’s cat died while he was writing this? Then it’s time for the ‘everybody is awesome fight’ - at the public execution of the doc the Ex-Mutants charge in riding a Cadillac and flanked by mutant bikers; Blu and Erin take on Great Fred in hand-to-samurai-sword combat, pushing themselves to exhaustion; Angela swings down, grabs the doc mid-fall and then softens the blow for him with her own body when they land on SOLID CONCRETE; meanwhile Vikki and Lorelei are busy cutting a path through angry Mutants. Sadly THE BABY and Great Fred’s raw power is too much. Cugat is saved by a group of Mutants who are taken with the Ex-Mutants aren’t loyal to Fred, in fact only a couple of dozen really are, the rest are just too scared or too apathetic to challenge him, the Doc has a revelation and it concerns THE BABY. Backed by his new Mutant chums Doc arrives just in time to see a captured Erin kick Great Fred in the balls when he offers her a chance to live and be his sex slave. Doc’s idea? It’s still a baby and he bonded with it, it treated it with love while Fred taught it to fear him. Its working too, THE BABY is listening to Cugat, Great Fred tries to intervene at a crucial moment but luckily that cat from earlier jumps on him (did you know that the writer’s cat died while he was writing this?), sending him into a rage, THE BABY makes chooses to protect the doc and is stabbed by its father as it breaks his neck. With no choice but to go back into their pods so Cugat can cure them of their radiation sickness we say goodbye to the Ex-Mutants for now by staring at their bare arses and Zack (oh yeah he’s been around this whole issue, THE BABY threw him at Vikki and Lorelei, it was quite humorous) share a glass of champagne that the doctor found in some old building.       


They really should have rammed Great Fred with the car, they looked like they were setting up for it, a classic ‘oh no’ panel that always precedes something big and silly awesome like a giant mutant getting hit with a Cadillac - but no it was just another katana being thrown, anti-climactic. Otherwise this issue is mainly really fucking good, the main fight is satisfying as all hell and it follows a progression that I personally really like, it’s very common in movies: big satisfying confrontation > overpowered > clever and foreshadowed way of defeating the villain. That’s a way I like my finales to go, satisfaction, tension, satisfaction - or you can just a use a fucking cat.  I did say mainly really fucking good right? Good, because: Catnip. Catnip, David Lawrence’s cat, had passed away after 19 years on this earth so Lawrence decided to give it a role in the epic showdown of his first story-arc on his nice new successful title - this is the sort of thing you can do when you’re writing indie comics and something you should probably avoid. And if you are going to do something this contrived don’t tell us all you’ve done in the letter column of the same issue! It’s nice that little Catnip got be immortal, it’s a cute kitty and a beloved pet and friend but the opening ‘false boo’ would have done, it’s a horror cliché but this book has a couple of clichés every issue so it wouldn’t have felt out of place, bringing the kitty back for the finale is just indulgent, obvious and frankly amateurish – it’s fan fiction level writing and this is a professional gig, you should act like it. What’s that? I’m being a heartless bastard? Ah you’re probably right; the cat was foreshadowed; we did see him walking up to the final battle and it does make Catnip a badass, so alright, alright it’s a cute cat I’ll leave it alone now, moving on.



I haven’t talked about how much I like Erin, Erin’s awesome and few things confirms ‘awesome character’ quicker than having them kick the terrifying villain in the nuts (it also shows how effectively written and presented Great Fred is that his character isn’t hurt by that, I still think he’s a threat afterwards, mind you if you can be a convincing threat while still being called Great Fred you can probably remain one no matter what). Erin’s been consistently likable since the start thought, she’s consistently impressive in fight scenes, has some of the sharpest dialogue and for me, has the best design, though I can’t really elaborate on that, I just think it works (yes she’s got bare legs and covered arms and that doesn’t make a lot of sense but this is after the apocalypse, fashion sense ain’t what it once was and this was done in the 1980s so it wasn’t what it once was before the bombs got dropped). Vikki comes in second in terms of ‘best designed’ by the way, only held back by her headband, her colour scheme works delightfully well, pale blue, white and red accents, you wouldn’t think it would go…
.

So yes, I like this story-arc, guest-starring cats and all. There’s a little nostalgia but having re-read it expecting it not to hold up, it pretty much does. It does have clichés, it does feel a little amateurish but mostly it’s a nice little post-apocalyptic story with a lot of good: some good villains, some good fights, some likable characters, some sexiness, some cool looking mutants and a memorable element (THE BABY). It’s basically one of those successful but low budget indie sci-fi/horror film from the 1980s really innit? It doesn’t make you think too hard but it does make you feel something, it’s never gonna win an Oscar (or in this case an Eisner) but it’s enjoyable and a little disturbing, and it’s full of gratuitously sexualized women to appeal to the lonely male target audience (and the bonus lesbian periphery demographic) or ‘Jim Balent’ as its also known. Also it’s about the only time I’ve liked Ron Lim’s art - it should get 5 stars and a deluxe hardback collection just for that. As far as I know Marvel Comics owns this now, it got it when it bought Malibu for their colour separation process (yep, really), Marvel you need to colourize and reprint this shit, of course if you’re not gonna reprint the likes of Prime, Ultraforce or Mantra you’re probably not gonna do that - bollocks.


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