22 December 2017

Review: IronWolf by Howard Chaykin, Denny O'Neil, et al.

When I read Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda's The Omega Men (2015-16, review forthcoming), you might have thought that I had reached the present of the DC Comics space heroes, and thus the end of my quest to read them all. But, this is not to be: I've circled back around to pick up some of the Bronze Age pre-Crisis space comics I hadn't already read, as my journey originally began with the original Omega Men in 1983. There's always stuff it turns out that you've missed! So now I'm filling in the blanks, beginning with IronWolf (1973-74), which appeared in three issues of Weird Worlds.

IronWolf is different than many of the DC space stories I've read so far: it takes place in the far future (the sixty-first century, I think), and it might not even fit into the "main" DC timeline (The Multiversity Guidebook, for example, places it on Earth-37). It's kind of a proto-Star Wars, about a band of space rebels fighting to take down a tyrannical galactic empire, though it lacks Star Wars's clear-cut wish-fulfillment adventuring spirit. Our hero is Lord IronWolf,* an officer and a nobleman in the military of the Empire Galaktika. IronWolf's planet of Ilium supplies the "anti-gravity wood" from which Earth's spaceships are made-- and indeed, IronWolf's spaceship the Limerick Rake is made of wood with brass detailing. The empress, Erika Klein-Hernandez, orders IronWolf to share the anti-gravity wood with "barbarian" aliens, so that they might be the empire's allies in a coming war, but IronWolf believes that this will just make the empire helpless in the face of a potential barbarian attack.

That's about all the astropolitical background we get. Who the Empire Galaktika might be facing in the coming war is unsaid, and in fact, the coming war is never mentioned again after the first issue. The "barbarians" are never named, either, and they disappear after the first issue.

The first issue gave me the impression of having been written to run in installments of seven pages or so, as it positively rockets through events. By page 2, IronWolf has slapped the empress for flirting with him to induce him to give up the anti-gravity wood; by page 4, a female performer in a visiting mime troupe (!) has saved IronWolf's life and gone on the run with him; by page 7, IronWolf's crew has joined him in rebellion, shooting down imperial fighters; by page 8, the Limerick Rake is playing pirate, systematically undermining the imperial war fleet and its supply ships; by page 13, IronWolf's brother has turned traitor and handed the anti-gravity wood trees over to the vampires (they're on the empress's side, another indication of her degeneracy); by page 14, IronWolf has burned down the forests; by page 19, IronWolf has saved the life of a female democratic revolutionary (the improbably named Shebaba O'Neal) in the Sargasso Sea of Space; by page 20, he's decided he'd rather be a revolutionary than an outlaw and thrown in with her. Phew. In another writer's hands, that could have been three different issues at least. (The later issues of IronWolf don't move that fast, either.)

It kind of works, it kind of doesn't. Howard Chaykin would later come into fame, and his early work is still quality stuff. He both plots and draws, with Denny O'Neil writing the actual script. The men are manly, the women are leggy, and the story pulses with energy, with great dynamic action-- which, I guess, is really what one wants from this sort of thing. Chaykin and O'Neil hint at a big, lived-in, somewhat grotty future without actually giving a lot of exposition or backstory, the kind of thing Star Wars would do better just three years after this came out. Sometimes O'Neil's narration is a bit pompous: "Yes, they [IronWolf's men] are everywhere-- and always they are led by a man with stern visage, limitless courage, and incredible strength- the Lord IronWolf!"

Sometimes the speed is fun, but often you wish you knew just a tad more: what kind of man decides to betray his noble oath in a page? And the female performer who aids IronWolf's escape from the empress's palace doesn't even get a name until the second issue! Sometimes the cramming in of story comes at the expense of clarity of action and/or setting. (When IronWolf is attacked by an assassin in an inn on a frontier planet, you'd only know where he is because of O'Neil's caption: in a five-panel sequence, only one even has a background.) But when Chaykin has the space to give something, it's gorgeous, like the Limerick Rake hovering over the Grand Canyon, and he knows how to guide your eye over a crowded comics page.

The second and third chapters decompress, each with a fourteen-page story where less happens than in seven pages of the first issue. In the case of the second, this works: IronWolf and Missy (the no longer anonymous performer) return to Earth to infiltrate the empress's court as players putting on a performance of Hamlet. Of course, the plan can't work or else the series would be over, and Missy dies while Lord IronWolf barely escapes with his life. Thankfully, Shebaba O'Neal is a badass and brings the Limerick Rake to the rescue. It's a fun story, a sort of Star Wars-y subterfuge caper that I always enjoy, though Missy's death feels needlessly cruel, and I kind of wish anyone on the Limerick Rake had a name or personality other than Shebaba.

The third issue, though, goes off-premise, with the Limerick Rake putting in at Shebaba's uncle's planet for repair and resupply, only to discover that the uncle sells drugs, and one of his sons had become a hulked-out monster because of the drugs he sells. Meh. It feels like Chaykin and O'Neil are already floundering for ideas, and the series isn't living up to the potential of the first issue's energy and thrills-- perhaps because Chaykin and O'Neil already burned through so much of the story at record speed. I don't know what they had planned next for the series, but IronWolf tells Shebaba that he's learned "both sides are corrupt! The empire and the outworlds! ... They're two sides of the same filthy coin!" Shebaba tells him that he has himself and his dream: "call it a dream of peace...of decency! You won't admit that you're a dreamer... you are, though! And I won't fault you! A dreamer who can fight-- not a bad kind of person to be!"

I don't know where this idea that IronWolf is a man of peace and decency came from; he comes across much more as a savage playing at nobleman; let us not forget he slapped the empress when she flirted with him, and had nothing better to do than turn pirate. It was Shebaba who gave him a dream, which he seemed to adopt mostly for the lack of anything better to do. And what happened to her ambitions beyond being his second-in-command? She was a feisty revolutionary in her own right two issues ago. The narration of the last panel describes him as "A man caught in the middle," so it seems like Chaykin and O'Neil would have pursued some kind of outsider path for him if the feature had continued. But, thanks to the cancellation of Weird Worlds, it came to an end.

I read IronWolf in a one-shot collecting all three parts of the story, published in 1986 with (I think) new coloring and improved printing, but I still picked up the original Weird Worlds #9 and 10 because they contained Tales of the House of IronWolf, a back-up strip plotted by Chaykin that hasn't been collected elsewhere. Set two millennia before the main series, during an era where technology and civilization have regressed so that interplanetary travel is forgotten, John Warner and Vicente Alcazar's story concerns two brothers, Patrick Obrian Keats and Burton Scott Keats (yes, really!), both British forest lords competing for the affections of Lady Vanessa Dubiel Shelly. The narration in issue #9 says that from them, "2000 years later, would descend two sworn enemies... IronWolf and the Empress Erika!"

One brother saves the the other and Lady Vanessa from a wolf attack, but loses his hand in the process; Lady Vanessa goes with the uninjured one, inspiring the injured one to replaced his lost hand with an iron hook, kill the wolf, wear it as a headdress, and live in the forest harassing his brother's supply shipments. (Apparently harassing supply shipments is how the family deals with rejection.) There's also a French fencing-master everyone makes fun of. That's basically it; how we get from this to an IronWolf dynasty on an alien planet with anti-gravity trees two thousand years later is left to the imagination of the reader. These are okay stories, focused more on atmosphere and creepiness than the action-driven main IronWolf feature. I mean, they're only six pages a pop, so not a lot can happen.

IronWolf has two codas of sort. One is that in the 1990s, Chaykin revisited the character in Fires of the Revolution, a graphic novel I will shortly read. I'm curious to see how the story can be polished with a known endpoint and a quarter-century of creative development on Chaykin's part. But the other is much more significant: when I said IronWolf was a pre-Star Wars, I wasn't the only one who thought so. Because he read IronWolf, George Lucas specifically requested that Chaykin illustrate the Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Wars in 1977. Chaykin drew not only that (issues #1-6 of Marvel's original Star Wars series) but he also illustrated issues #7-10 (and co-wrote #7, 8, and 10). These were the first non-adaptation Star Wars comics, and some of the first "Expanded Universe" stories full stop. Without IronWolf, the voluminous numbers of Star Wars comics that both Marvel and Dark Horse have produced could have been very different!

IronWolf originally appeared in issues #8-10 of Weird Worlds vol. 1 (Nov./Dec. 1973–Oct./Nov. 1974). The story was created, plotted, and drawn by Howard Chaykin; scripted and edited by Denny O'Neil; and lettered by Walt Simonson (#8). It was reprinted in IronWolf #1 (1986), which was colored by Liz Berube and edited by Mike Gold.

Tales of the House of IronWolf originally appeared in issues #9-10 of Weird Worlds vol. 1 (Jan./Feb.-Oct./Nov. 1974). The story was plotted by Howard Chaykin and John Warner, scripted by John Warner, illustrated by Vicente Alcazar, and edited by Denny O'Neil.

* The cover to issue #8 of Weird Worlds actually says "Iron-Wolf" and in the lettercol in issue #9, editor Denny O'Neil uses "Ironwolf." But in the text pieces from the 1986 reprint special, both Howard Chaykin and Mike Gold use "IronWolf," and I'm going with that as their latest word on the subject. The all-caps lettering of comic book of course makes it impossible to tell from the stories themselves, as it's always just "IRONWOLF."

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