Current Reviews


Red Circle: Inferno #1

Posted: Saturday, August 15, 2009
By: Thom Young

J. Michael Straczynski
Greg Scott
DC Comics
I was intrigued when it was announced over a year ago that DC was licensing the MLJ (Archie Comics) superhero characters. I was even more intrigued (bordering on slightly excited) when Dan Didio stated in an interview, "We've gone back to the original incarnations of the characters, which were introduced in the '40s and '60s and such, and distilling down to what we feel are the strongest characters of the bunch."

Of course, DC has licensed these characters from Archie before--back in 1991 when DC created the !mpact Comics imprint and set the MLJ characters off in their own universe. Obviously, that attempt didn't work. All of the !mpact titles were canceled by the end of 1992.

I read each of the initial few issues of those !mpact titles back in 1991, but I bailed on them fairly quickly. The major drawback with them is that DC wasn't really using the MLJ characters--they only used the names of the characters. The comics actually featured new characters that were typical of the 1990s and that happened to share some basic similarities with the original MLJ concepts.

I guess DC must have figured that the actual MLJ characters had never really succeeded despite numerous attempts by Archie (one of which was in the company's "Red Circle" imprint of the 1980s), so DC didn't want to repeat those failures. Thus, they tried to "update" the concepts to the 1990s.

On the whole, the 1990s was not a good decade for new superhero comics. There was a generic blandness that permeated that decade, and the !mpact line was no exception. Of course, there was more to the !mpact characters than that, but my overview here is sufficient to explain why that line failed 17 years ago.

Anyway, DC has decided to not repeat their failure of 18 years ago. This time Didio stated that they are going "back to the original incarnations of the characters . . . and distilling down to . . . the strongest characters of the bunch."

If that were actually true, it would be a move of which I would approve since I don't believe that the original concepts are "flawed." After all, MLJ's The Shield preceded Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America at Atlas by more than a year as the first patriotic superhero.

The problem isn't the concepts of the MLJ characters; it's the way those concepts have been executed. Bad writing, bad illustrations, and/or generic blandness will sink a series every time. Well, maybe not "every time"--but those negative qualities should sink a series in theory anyway.

Actually, the MLJ superheroes were moderately successful in the 1940s, but a certain red-headed teenager from Riverdale soon took over the title that The Shield had been starring in (Pep Comics), and he eventually took over the entire company--causing a name change from MLJ Comics to Archie Comics.

However, when superhero comics made a comeback in the Silver Age of the late 1950s to mid 1960s, Archie Comics fairly well bungled the execution of their superhero lines--not once, but twice--culminating with their mid 1960s attempt to publish third-rate Marvel imitations. There were a few bright spots--such as a Simon and Kirby version of The Fly and two fantastic versions of The Hood (one by Alex Toth and another by Gray Morrow and Neal Adams).

Anyway, I think DC would be on the right track if they stuck to the original MLJ concepts and tried to reintroduce the characters in well-executed (well-written and well-illustrated) stories. For instance, Alan Moore's predecessors to The Watchmen in the comic series that he did with Dave Gibbons--the Minutemen--are essentially Moore's version of the MLJ characters from the 1940s.

Obviously, DC didn't have the rights to those characters, and Moore and Gibbons made them basic enough (and changed the names enough) to avoid any claims of copyright or trademark infringement. However, with the character of Hooded Justice--essentially a cross between MLJ's The Hangman and The Hood--Moore hints at what could be done with MLJ's characters in a story that focuses on solid writing and characterization rather than "high concepts."

On the surface, the decision to allow J. Michael Straczynski to introduce these licensed MLJ characters seems a good one. I've always thought Straczynski was very gifted as a creator of high concepts and of intriguing plots. His major drawback as a writer is that he often displays a poor ear for dialog.

However, his dialog isn't usually so horrendous that his work is unpalatable. Thus, I was hopeful that these "Red Circle" one-shots by would be worth reading--and they are. Yet, they aren't as good as I had hoped they were going to be.

Before I comment on the issue I'm supposed to be reviewing--Inferno, I want to review last week's Red Circle issue: The Hangman. I was thrilled to see the impressive name of "Bill Sienkiewicz" listed in its credits. Sienkiewicz is one of my all-time favorite artists--not just one of my favorite comic book illustrators, but one of my all-time favorite artists. I would hang original paintings and sketches by Sienkiewicz on the walls of my home . . . if I could afford them.

Unfortunately, Sienkiewicz wasn't the illustrator of Red Circle: The Hangman; he was the inker. The penciler was (and still is, actually, since the comic book hasn't changed in the week and a half since it was released) Tom Derenick.

Overall, I liked Derenick's work (though I also kept wondering how much of my enjoyment was due to Sienkiewicz's inks). However, there were a few pages that were less than impressive. Still, a solid illustration job on the whole.

The real problem with Red Circle: The Hangman was the decision to go with "high concept" rather than focus on a solid story and characterization. Additionally, the "high concept" (which is new to the character rather than being in MLJ's original version) is something that we have seen before--three times by DC, in fact.

Despite Didio's claim more than a year ago of going "back to the original incarnations of the characters," that's not what Straczynski did in The Hangman. Instead, he re-cast the character as a variation of DC's The Spectre and Deadman--a man who "dies" and is then returned to life (or granted immortality) by a supernatural entity so that the spectral character may seek retribution against criminals.

Straczynski introduced a few new wrinkles, but he essentially just took a Civil War-era doctor in the Union Army and turned him into Jerry Siegel's original Golden Age Spectre--but armed with a wicked noose. Actually, he essentially just made The Hangman into a variation of Kurt Busiek's The Hanged Man from Astro City--and Busiek was essentially just doing a mash-up of MLJ's The Hangman with DC's The Spectre.

See? It's not an original high concept at all.

Anyway, Straczynski's 19th-century character transitions into the 21st century as a 150-year-old spirit of vengeance who is still a physician by day (I guess he has kept up on medical innovations and has returned to medical school periodically to maintain a contemporary license). He has the same name as the MLJ character--Robert Dickering, aka The Hangman--but little else is the same as the original Golden Age concept.

One main difference is that The Hangman's brother, John Dickering, is nowhere to be seen in Straczynski's new version. Originally, John Dickering--the MLJ hero known as The Comet--was killed in action, and Robert became the Hangman to seek vengeance against his brother's killers.

Ah well, so much for sticking with the original concepts of the MLJ characters.

Red Circle: The Hangman was a good comic book in an average sort of way.

The writing wasn't bad and the illustrations weren't bad, but the story and concept was essentially a generic mash-up of a Civil War character and The Spectre (or Deadman). In fact, now that I think about it some more . . . Straczynski's Hangman is a variation of DC's Western character El Diablo--but extended from the 19th century into the 21st century.

In other words, with The Hangman, DC and Straczynski neither stuck to the original MLJ concept nor came up with an original "high concept" of their own--and the problem is much the same with Red Circle: Inferno.

The original MLJ character known as "Inferno" in the 1940s was a circus performer whose act involved eating and breathing fire--sort of like Kiss's Gene Simmons but in a 1940s circus. He ended up in prison as a criminal, but after escaping during a massive prison break, he went straight and used his powers to fight crime--at some point, he apparently developed true "fire breathing" properties, like a dragon, rather than just using circus performance illusions. However, I have never read any Golden Age Inferno stories, so I'm just going on what little I uncovered on the Internet.

Anyway, based on what I have found online, the Golden Age Inferno doesn't at all strike me as one of "the strongest characters of the bunch" (to quote Dan Didio about which MLJ characters DC was going to use). However, it doesn't matter whether the original MLJ characters were strong since Straczynski isn't adhering to the original concepts of the characters anyway.

He's not focusing on strong stories and characterizations in these first two Red Circle issues; he's intent on revising the MLJ characters into "high concepts" that are nonetheless imitations of other comic book concepts. Straczynski's Inferno is essentially a mash-up of Marvel's Human Torch and the amnesiac homeless man whom Johnny Storm discovered in the Bowery in Fantastic Four #4.

In this case, Inferno is the amnesiac sole survivor of a sabotaged ship who is brought to the ER of a hospital where he is treated by Dr. Robert Dickering (aka The Hangman). Even though the survivor suffers from amnesia, he is able to "flame on" (and drastically change his facial features) when he is under stress (which I guess brings a bit of the Hulk into the mix as well).

When a gunman carrying not one, but two Uzi submachine guns comes after the amnesiac protagonist at the hospital, he becomes the Human Torch . . . er, I mean Inferno. Yeah, he becomes Inferno--but he suddenly goes bald and grows a Fu Manchu mustache. He's a bad-ass biker who bursts into flames when he's under duress.

It's an interesting story--though, like The Hangman, it's not very original. In fact, DC already has at least two characters (perhaps more) who have flame powers--the second and fourth versions of "Firebrand" (a name the company acquired when DC bought the rights to the characters originally published by Quality Comics).

I'm getting the feeling that there was really no reason for DC to license these MLJ characters from Archie. As with the !impact characters from 18 years ago, DC is essentially just using the names and basic ideas which they are then slapping on new "high concept characters" that don't differ too much from characters they already own in the first place.

The Hangman is The Spectre / Deadman / El Diablo as a Union Army doctor who becomes a supernatural spirit of vengeance, and now Inferno is an amnesiac who suddenly looks like a Harley Davidson biker when he gets angry so that he becomes a bad-ass version of the Human Torch or DC's own Firebrand.

These re-treaded concepts wouldn't be so bad if they were taking place in their own separate "universe"--perhaps even on one of the parallel Earth's in DC's recently resurrected Multiverse. However, we've been told in press releases (though it's not yet evident in the stories) that these Red Circle characters are set in the main DC universe--which really makes them all the more redundant if the execution of the characters isn't going to be innovative in any way or focus on solid stories and characterization.

So far, the only truly innovative idea that I've detected in the first two Red Circle issues is that the four one-shots will all link up in a circular pattern (and I guess that circle is "red" because there will be a lot of blood spilled over the course of the four issues).

The last page of The Hangman wasn't illustrated by Derenick and Sienkiewicz. Instead, it was by Greg Scott--the illustrator of Inferno--and that last page introduces the amnesiac survivor of the sabotaged ship who is secretly able to flame on and become Inferno.

Similarly, the last page of Inferno isn't illustrated by Scott; it's by Roger Robinson and Hilary Barta--the respective penciler and inker of Red Circle: The Web. Additionally, the page depicts the amnesiac ship survivor meeting a character named John Raymond, whom longtime fans of the MLJ characters should know is secretly the masked crime fighter known as The Web.

However, MLJ's John Raymond was a criminologist (a scholar who studies crime) while the John Raymond on the final page of Inferno appears to be a billionaire playboy who seeks adventures around the world and who likes to dress up as a masked crime fighter at night (a concept that already sounds vaguely familiar in the DC universe).

Of course, the final page of next week's Red Circle: The Web will introduce us to The Shield (illustrated by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens). I suspect that the final page of Red Circle: The Shield will be illustrated by Derenick and Sienkiewicz, the art team on The Hangman, and that it will introduce us the supernatural entity that granted Dr. Robert Pickering his new life and immortality in the first Red Circle issue.

The entire story will come full circle and end in a closed loop. Through it all, the terrorist and/or criminal group that was responsible for blowing up the ship that the amnesiac Inferno was on will be there to provide the framework on which the plot is constructed.

It's an interesting story structure that plays on the "Red Circle" name, and I'll stick with it through all four chapters that Straczynski is writing. However, there really isn't anything all that interesting in these revised high concept versions of the MLJ characters nor is there the quality of story and characterizations that Alan Moore was able to present in his Minutemen incarnations of these generic superhero types.

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