Friday, May 20, 2016

Future Quest #1

As with any form of popular entertainment, the Golden Age of television cartoons is about 7. When I was a kid, watching Saturday morning cartoons was a weekly ritual that was never skipped. And I loved them all. (If you were under the age of 10 in the 70s and didn’t love Saturday morning cartoons, then I don’t want to hear about it, Poindexter.) I loved all the Hanna-Barbera variations on Scooby-Doo; I particularly remember Clue Club and Jabberjaws. I loved the Filmation Tarzan cartoons. And I loved the reruns of shows like Space Ghost and the Herculoids. So DC Comics’ new series Future Quest is right up my alley.

(Spoilers ahead; proceed at your own risk)

This new series, written by Jeff Paker, drawn by Evan “Doc” Shaner and—in the first issue, at least—Steve Rude, promises to bring together all those great Hanna-Barbera adventure and science-fiction characters into one big epic series. Kind of like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for nerds like me. One issue in, we’ve seen characters from Jonny Quest, Birdman, Space Ghost, and at least nods to a bunch of other series, including the Herculoids. But it doesn’t just bring the characters together to elicit a giant nerdgasm from 40-plus year old readers like myself; there’s a genuinely interesting adventure story going on as well, one that truly understands its roots in classic adventure animation of the 60s and 70s without slavishly adhering to it.

The story starts off with a prologue in space, which may be something of an origin for Space Ghost. (I liked DC’s previous Space Ghost origin comic by Joe Kelly and Ariel Olivetti just fine, but I’m okay with Parker and Shaner giving the character a new origin.) We then move into what appears to be a classic Jonny Quest adventure with Jonny and Hadji gleefully flying around in jet packs while bodyguard Race Bannon and cute dog sidekick Bandit fly along in a plane. They’re looking for space-time anomalies, which have been apparently opening with increasing frequency, leaving behind matter than might possibly be developed into weapons by the evil Dr. Zin and the organization F.E.A.R.

Back at Quest Island, Dr. Quest is visited by secret agent Ray Randall (the secret identity of Birdman) and a woman named Deva Sumadi, who appears to be original to this series. Their arrival at the island gives Parker a great opportunity to introduce the background of the Quest family to the reader, neatly recapping who everyone is without extensive flashbacks. One of the hallmarks of those great cartoons is that they never actually had origin stories; the viewer—and now reader—can grasp the salient points of the series’ setups instantly. 

While this issue does focus primarily on Jonny Quest and his “family,” we do get some Birdman action—including his trademark shouting his name as he flies off into action—and some hints at connections to other characters. We see that the space/time vortexes apparently connect to the other H-B heroes. We see a six-legged rhino/triceratops thing that looks a lot like Tundro from the Herculoids. We see space soldier guys wearing uniforms and using devices reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen in Space Ghost.

While this first issue is packed with a lot of action, the creators wisely start with a small focus. Rather than burden the reader by throwing in every H-B action hero all at once, this mostly feels like an episode of Jonny Quest, with some guest stars. This is reasonable, and shows that DC is treating this as a regular, new comic for new readers, rather than just throwing all the H-B characters into the story right from the start, because that’s what 50 year old fans want to see.

We also get a couple of new characters in the form of Deva Sumadi and Ty, a young black kid who Jonnny and Hadji encounter in the swamp. This is good, because for the most part, the H-B characters are a bunch of white guys and their animal sidekicks. And, for what it’s worth, Ty is introduced alongside a cat, so it looks like he will be following in the fine tradition of humans accompanied by animals. That made me feel genuinely happy.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff Parker since he drew issues of Solitaire for Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse and wrote and drew stories for Caliber’s Negative Burn anthology. He really made an impression with his self-published graphic novel, Interman, and from there went on to become one of Marvel’s best writers. He’s got a nice pulp adventure sensibility that really shows here. Evan “Doc” Shaner came on my radar through his work with Parker on Dynamite’s Flash Gordon series a couple of years ago. He also has a nice style more reminiscent of classic adventure strip art than modern superhero stuff.

I give the art credit for not looking like screenshots from an animated series. The characters are all on-model, but not to the point that Jonny’s hair doesn’t get ruffled by the wind, for example. I’m fine with that, just as I’m fine with the redesigned versions of Scooby Doo and the gang for the upcoming Scooby Apocalypse comic. The characters don’t need to be drawn with the economy of detail that animation requires, not if they’re on the comics page. The character designs should definitely evoke the original characters, but don’t have to slavishly reproduce the animation designs, in the same way that when comics get translated into other media, they aren’t exact copies.

While it is a bit worrisome that DC apparently couldn’t schedule this first issue so that Shaner had enough time to draw the whole thing, I felt a bit nostalgic looking at the pages drawn by 80s superstar artist Steve Rude. While I had watched reruns of the old Space Ghost and Herculoids shows as a kid, my first real exposure to Jonny Quest was the comic from Comico, written (mostly) by Bill Messner-Loebs and drawn for the first year by a variety of artists. The first issue had a lead story written and drawn by show creator Doug Wildey, who I actually knew mainly for his Western comic, Rio. The second half of the comic was written by Messner-Loebs and drawn by Steve Rude. So his contributing to this first issue felt like a homecoming.

Speaking of that earlier series, I read an article about it in Back Issue Magazine, where Messner-Loebs admitted to not having watched the series before he got the assignment. He said people had told him what a great series it had been, about the deep relationships between the characters, etc. When he actually watched the episodes, none of that was actually there. So he—wisely—decided to write the version of the show people remembered, rather than as it actually was. When it comes to a nostalgia property like this, I think that’s probably the way to go, and it feels like that’s what Parker, Shaner, Rude, et al are doing here.

I really enjoyed this first issue, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’m also looking forward to DC’s upcoming Scooby Apocalypse and Flintstones series. (Less excited about the Wacky Races post-apocalyptic update, but I’m willing to take a look; the original made such an impact that i named my first cat after Penelope Pitstop.) 

I was a little annoyed at DC execs Jim Lee and Dan Didio when I read them claiming in an interview that they were creating an origin for Scooby and his friends, because that had never been told before. Not to be a pedantic nerd, but it was told quite well in the Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated TV series a few years ago, and probably in one of the many Scooby movies or TV movies as well. I felt the same when I read Grant Morrison claiming that his comic Klaus was the first time anyone had told Santa Claus’s backstory. That’s only true if you ignore—off the top of my head—The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, adapted into a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (also by Rankin-Bass), William Joyce’s Nicholas St. North book in his Guardians of Childhood series, Kringle by Tony Abbott, and probably the Santa Claus movie from the 1980s. I’ve got nothing against someone writing their own backgrounds for fictional characters, but don’t claim you’re the first one to do that if the facts don’t back you up.

I don’t know how committed DC is to this new line of Hanna-Barbera comics. They seem to be pushing them, but I have memories of their mishandling of the First Wave line, featuring classic pulp and vintage adventure characters together for the first time in a new comics universe. That lasted maybe a year. And there was DC’s attempt to revive Archie’s Red Circle characters in 2009, which I think lasted for one miniseries. However, while I don’t know if these Hanna-Barbera series will receive enough support to last for a while, I know they won’t if I don’t help support them.

I thought that Future Quest wasn’t just a great start to what looks like a great revival of the classic Hanna-Barbera adventure characters. It was a great first issue of an adventure comic. Here’s hoping it runs for years.

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