Sunday, December 27, 2009

Breakneck R.I.P.

If you’ve already checked out page 21 of Worlds Apart, then you know the bad news.

Breakneck is dead, his self-triggered nuclear holocaust absorbed by Hellfield and vented into the Flame Universe from whence our resident Fire Elemental hails. (For more on Hellfield’s powers, please see my previous blog entry). What starts as a BANG instantly becomes little more than a whimpering pile of ashes at Hellfield’s feet. The shocked looks on the faces of Breakneck’s Götterdämmerung comrades says it all.

Maniac’s hybrid minions have come to Fantasy Land fully expecting to die. In true terrorist fashion, the prospect of plunging headlong into eternity never scares them. It inspires them. Like all fanatics, they thrill to thoughts of departing this world in a harrowing blaze of homicidal glory.

Yet somehow the anticipated apocalypse hasn’t only been delayed; it’s been denied... with extreme prejudice. Suddenly Breakneck, their field general and Maniac’s BIG GUN, has been dispatched by one of the “second-stringer” Irregulars as little more than an afterthought. The tide of terror has changed.

It is now Götterdämmerung’s turn to be afraid... very afraid. While never terrified of facing death on their own terms, Breakneck’s untimely demise signals not only the end, but the failure of Götterdämmerung’s mission. Reality sets in. They aren’t facing the Protectors anymore. Not only have the rules of engagement changed, but even the very nature of the game itself.

But enough foreshadowing. The next few pages will bear out the fates of Maniac’s minions. For now, let us turn our attention to the first casualty among their ranks, Breakneck.

When we first meet him, Breakneck has taken teenage starlet Trishy Tanaka hostage, vowing to rape her on international TV before detonating a nuclear bomb that will not only level Los Angeles but perhaps destroy our solar system as well. As the Protectors and the Irregulars soon learn, Breakneck is not open to negotiation. It isn’t a matter of IF he will initiate a catastrophe, but rather WHEN. Before his short-lived reign of terror is snuffed out by Hellfield, Breakneck even drops trou in a depraved attempt to coerce oral sex from a sickened and stupefied Achilles.

Obviously, this guy has issues. So just who the heck is he, anyway?

For the answer to this, I will once more turn to the Titanic Trademark Universe Handbook.

Breakneck (Dante Taylor) The field commander of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung, Breakneck possesses savage super-strength that increases exponentially as he gets angrier and angrier. At its peak, Breakneck’s strength puts him in Achilles’ class or maybe even a tad stronger. Such exertion does take its toll on him, however, and the more energy Breakneck expends, the longer it takes him to recharge.

Dante Taylor began his criminal career as a small-time hood, stick-up man, and carjacker with a penchant for sadistically beating and savagely raping the victims of his extortions and robberies -- be they female or male. One such episode, the carjack-kidnapping of a married couple and their three small children, landed Dante in prison with a life sentence and no chance of parole.

In prison, Dante resumed his sadistic sexual attacks on his fellow inmates. When a fifteen-year-old Todd Harper found himself sentenced to Taylor’s cell block, Dante devoted all his attention to breaking in the “new meat.” Harper was able to defend himself, however, and the two developed an enmity that extended beyond the prison walls. (See my previous blog entry on Buckshot)

As one of the prison system’s most violent and unrepentant inmates, Dante made the perfect subject for Darius Kilhausen’s experimental “rehabilitation program.” When Kilhausen’s subjects developed hybrid super-powers, Dante organized the massive breakout that eventually led to the creation of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung. Taking the name “Breakneck,” Dante Taylor assumed a leadership role in Maniac’s shock troops, ranking as Kilhausen’s favorite right behind Maniac’s prodigy, Buckshot.

Even while they both served Maniac, Buckshot and Breakneck hated each other. In many ways, Buckshot’s loathing for Breakneck is what first separated him from Götterdämmerung and inspired his quest for redemption. So keep this in mind as you chuckle at the pile of ash that marks the final culmination of Breakneck’s criminal career.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas & Comic Book Heroes

I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately. Actually, that’s not entirely honest. Put bluntly, it’s more like writer’s constipation. I’ve thoroughly digested my subject matter, and I feel it quivering at the ends of my hands awaiting sweet release. However, for one reason or another, I just can’t seem to push out the words. Hence my rather scatological analogy (and yet another bad pun … uggh).

So I’m going to temporarily skip my treatise on the character developments of Hangman and Achilles and write something a little more in keeping with the holiday season. Hopefully, this is the diversionary diuretic I need.

Many who get to know me are surprised -- no, make that SHOCKED to learn that I love Christmas. Being a card-carrying cynic and skeptic (yes, I do actually carry a card), I’m not a particularly sentimental person. My fascination with religion and religious symbolism is rooted in scholarship not spirituality. Yet despite my deep and abiding agnosticism, I am very proud to admit that I love Christmas. I love the story, the symbolism, the songs, and the sense of brotherly love and charity that envelopes our society in a sweet, albeit short-lived season of sanity.

If the world celebrated the Christmas spirit three hundred and sixty-five days a year, ten years a decade, ten decades a century, and ten centuries a millennium, I truly believe my worldview would be fashioned from simple faith rather than chaotic doubt. Doubt is the bedrock of my being. Doubt is why I am neither a believer nor an atheist. In a world governed by uncertainty, I approach any kind of fundamentalism with a jaundiced eye. As far as the celebration of Christmas, however, I side squarely with town square manger scenes, bell-ringing soldiers in the Salvation Army, schoolchildren singing “Silent Night,” garish lawn displays, and Linus Van Pelt’s annual recitation of Luke 2:8-14.

Since I was old enough to listen and understand, I’ve always approached the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of a great narrative. Given my early love of mythic, legendary, and comic book heroes, this should come as no surprise. The Nativity is one of the world’s great Origin Stories. Right up there with King Arthur, Superman, and Momotaro. Would-be world beater Herod is hunting down all infants and toddlers in order to exterminate the newly-born King of the Jews. Meanwhile, the baby Jesus is born with no protection in absolute abject poverty. Throw in the shepherds, wise men, and a heavenly host, and you’ve got a tale that kept young Mark Kozak on the edge of his seat.

My childhood memories of Christmas were built around this narrative. The music of Christmas, which I love to this day, reverberates with this gripping story. The symbolism of Christmas -- manger scenes, trumpet-blowing angels, ornamental stars, presents for loved ones -- also resonates with the key elements of this grand adventure. As a child, I played with the lifelike figurines from my Grandmother Kozak’s manger display the way I played with my Mego action figures of Spider-Man, Captain America, and Green Arrow. Feeling that Matthew and Luke left out a lot of the details, I made up my own stories and my own characters revolving around the Nativity.

When I see Christmas attacked today, I react viscerally. Mind you, I am NOT uninformed. I know WHY non-Christians resent the public display of the holiday. Many are well-intentioned souls who truly do believe that the public celebration of Christmas is a kind of cultural torture of non-Christians by an insensitive, bullying majority. Then there are die-hard atheists who just hate anything that smacks of “bible-thumping, patriarchal, theocratic superstition.”

Like I said, I get it. Okay. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in this country (myself included) don’t believe in the literalism of the Bible in general or the historical details of the Nativity in particular. We all know this. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Wiccanism, and Atheism aren’t big secrets any more. However, if the celebration of Christmas is oppressing you, that’s YOUR problem.

I mean, I hate Dancing with the Stars and rap music, two cultural phenomena that occupy A LOT more space in our cultural landscape than Christmas, but you don’t see me petitioning local and national governments to outlaw them. No, I’m not trying to belittle a non-believer’s right to dissent. I’m not saying non-Christians should keep quiet about their non-belief during Christmas or any other season.

Quite the contrary.

Talk and educate all you want about your particular faith or lack of it. Christmas is the perfect opportunity to do so. Just STOP attacking manger scenes and school Christmas pageants like Carrie Nation on a rampage at the local saloon. Attempting to outlaw the public celebration of Christmas makes you look ridiculous to the majority of Christmas-loving Americans (like me) while simultaneously ginning up the very “bible-thumping” base you seek to silence.

Meanwhile, as the battles wage in the Christmas war, I’m going to sit back, drink my eggnog, decorate my tree, sing along with my Harry Connick Christmas CD, wrap my carefully-chosen presents, and wish everyone I know a Merry Christmas -- whether they want me to or not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

One Righteously Bad Mutha -- Wolf

I’m finally going to devote a full blog entry to the creation and character of Wolf. As leader of the Irregulars, Wolf is the driving force behind the action of Worlds Apart. Among the heroes and villains that populate the Trademark Universe, Wolf may be my favorite super-citizen. The story of his origin is a marriage of myriad pop-culture influences working in tandem with my need to explore ideas of justice, morality, race, and redemption.

Influence #1 - Blaxploitation

My dad took us to a lot of drive-in movies when we were young. Normally, my mom insisted we see some wholesome Disney fare. Occasionally, my dad was able to talk my mom into letting us see more adult-themed movies. I saw Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes at the drive-in. I also saw the entire early James Bond series. My most vivid drive-in memory, however, was a movie called Slaughter.

Being a native Clevelander, my dad was a huge Browns fan. This meant he was also a huge Jim Brown fan. When Jim retired from football and began making movies, my dad made sure he saw Brown’s first effort, a blaxploitation classic entitled Slaughter. I’m not sure what year we saw Slaughter at the drive in, or what summers we also saw Shaft and Hammer. What I do know is that by 1976 I knew enough about the plots and conventions of ‘70s blaxploitation films to be enthralled with the “street life” world of pimps, prostitutes, numbers runners, street gangs, and the eternal struggle with “the Man.”

Influence #2 – The Black Panthers & Black Muslims

As a boy, I was acutely aware of the very real presence of racial discontent in our country. Given my family background (which I’ve covered in previous blogs), I watched the evening news with the eye of someone twice my age. Civil rights protests marred by violence, scowling black militants, pro athletes like Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor converting to the Nation of Islam -- the nightly news images both thrilled and scared me.

By the time I was 9 years old, I knew all about the inhumanity of slavery and the scourge of Jim Crow. I understood why Black leaders were angry and demanding redress. I wanted Black Americans to succeed in their struggle, to be happy and treated with justice and respect. Decades before Rodney King’s famous quote, I myself asked: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Influence #3 – The Falcon and the Black Panther

After my first comic book convention in 1973, (covered in my previous blog entry) I attended similar events with my dad on a regular basis. Sometime before 1975, I picked up some Fantastic Four and Avengers comics featuring T’Challa, the Black Panther. I immediately loved the character, a brilliant scientist who was also one of the Marvel Universe’s most fearsome fighting machines.

During the same timespan, I ended up discovering the now legendary Captain America #117 in a stack of my brother’s discarded comics. This issue featured the first ever appearance of Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, a man who would soon join Cap as the co-star of the retitled Captain America and the Falcon. Once again, I was taken with the unique personality of a Black Superhero.


I’d created the Trademark Universe months earlier. My first Black superhero, Brigade (later known as the Retaliator), debuted a few months after my first wave of heroes: Skater, Hangman, Beachcomber, Son of Liberty, and the Optimist. With Brigade/Retaliator’s face obscured by his helmet, I felt the need to create a more visible and upfront Black superhero.

My initial attempt occurred in a Skater story. While investigating the nefarious puppet-masters behind an inner-city riot, Skater came across a street-based mystery man who called himself Black Wolf. An obvious rip-off of Black Panther and Falcon, Black Wolf’s imagined costume combined T’Challa’s early costume (circa Avengers #53) and Falcon’s original, wingless, groovy, green-and-yellow get-up. Needless to say, Black Wolf possessed the standard super-soldier powers -- heightened speed, strength, and reflexes -- in addition to ferocious fighting ability.

Warning Skater to “stay off my turf,” Black Wolf grudgingly accepted the established hero’s aid in bringing the hate-mongering culprits to justice. Subsequent Skater stories featured more and more of Black Wolf. Constantly butting heads, the two heroes-cum-adversaries relentlessly patrolled the city along different paths. At some point, Wolf inexplicably dropped the “Black” portion of his alter ego and started dressing more like Shaft than a superhero. As I continued developing his backstory and private life, I slowly realized that my one-time supporting player presented a far more compelling character than the more straightlaced Skater.

I should pause here to remind everyone that I was an eleven year old suburban white kid trying to create “real” black characters based solely on pop culture archetypes. In other words, my efforts were unintentionally offensive, being rife with stereotypes. The more I wrote Wolf, the more various elements from the blaxploitation genre colored his character.

An advocate of “street justice,” Wolf had no qualms about befriending or assisting neighborhood denizens of questionable character in pursuit of the greater good. His crash pad boasted a bevy of big afro-ed, bare-midriff-showing, black beauty queens with names like Delilah, Cleopatra, and Nefertiti. Whenever Wolf got called into action, he would invariably be roused from a large bed amid two, three, or even four of his “does.” These same women constantly provided Wolf with “walking around money,” although no mention was made of how they earned the “dough.” Never openly labeling these women as prostitutes, even I could read between my own lines.

Within the working world of the super-biz, Wolf garnered the reputation as a notorious “player.” (Yes, thanks to countless blaxploitation films, I knew the word DECADES before it entered popular parlance.) Clarion, Maze, Howitzer, Gypsy, Lioness, Diatom, Pythoness, Kali, Paradise -- Wolf loved and left almost every superheroine and super-villainess in the Trademark Universe. His torrid affair with the equally libidinous Clarion provided the Trademark Universe’s first interracial romance. In the made-up letters section I wrote for Silver Streak’s comic book, fan reaction split straight down the middle between admiration and outrage.

When Tony Lewis and I finally decided to go ahead with Worlds Apart, I had a decision to make. I could “whitewash” Wolf to be more in keeping with modern, politically-correct sensitivities. Or I could keep him the way I developed him, blaxploitated warts and all.

Needless to say, just a few panels of Worlds Apart make clear that I’m going with my instincts and presenting Wolf as originally conceived. My reasoning, whether good or bad, will become evident as the story progresses and the Irregulars plunge headlong into a world they never made.

Now, for those of you wondering just how Wolf came to find himself cavorting around with the likes of Silver Streak and Hellfield, let’s turn to Wolf’s entry in the Titanic Trademark Handbook (Please note, much like Buckshot, Wolf’s origin story was developed and embellished over almost a decade of stories. The entry below encapsulates the final, revised version of Wolf’s origin):

Wolf (Archibald Turrentine) Wolf’s origin actually begins two hundred years before his birth. American patriot and Revolutionary War vigilante Jonathan Masters, a.k.a. the Son of Liberty, gains extraordinary physical abilities by ingesting an herbal concoction formulated by his slave, Brown Tom, a former tribal medicine man. This recipe is passed down as a well-guarded secret among Brown Tom’s kin for three generations. The “miracle elixir,” as Masters called it, finally vanished after the death of Brown Tom’s great-great-grandson, Moses, a slave to the Turrentine family during the mid-1800s.

One hundred years later, geneticist Dr. Linus Turrentine spends his spare time obsessively researching the lost family formula after finding mention of it in recently uncovered journals. After a decade of trials and errors, Linus finally stumbles upon the right combination of herbs. Dubbing his rediscovery the Meta-Vitamin, or Metamin for short, Turrentine hypothesizes that the Metamin acts as a catalyst of sorts, spurring the human body to utilize 100% of the energy stored in foods. Turrentine’s first guinea pig is his own son, Archibald, a star high-school athlete, who begins taking the supplement with extraordinary results.

With heightened reflexes, speed, stamina, and strength, Archie becomes the most highly-recruited high school athlete in the country. With so many offers pending, Archie fails to register for any of the colleges and universities before getting drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. As a soldier, Archie is beloved by his fellow grunts and hated by anyone in authority. Archie fights the war “Archie’s Way,” and his bravery on the battlefield is only equaled by his contempt for the bureaucrats and pencil-pushers making the command decisions. As a fitting conclusion to his military career, Archie bears the singular distinction of being awarded the Medal of Honor while simultaneously being dishonorably discharged.

Resurfacing at UCLA in the late 1960s, Archie’s consciousness is seized with radical new ideas of civil rights, social justice, and struggle against the elitist ruling class. Against his father’s wishes, Archie abandons his college athletic career for a life of radical and revolutionary activities. During one such protest, Archie stumbles upon one of his revolutionary idols secretly colluding with FBI agents in an effort to destroy a fellow black activist and political rival.

Disillusioned once again, Archie retreats to Harlem, retiring from active life to own and manage a health food store based upon the herbal remedies of his forebears. Joining Archie from home, his brother Robbie provides the brains behind the operation. A brilliant chemist who inherited Linus’ scientific gifts, Robbie keeps Archie supplied with the Metamin while cooking up a variety of other herbals and medicinals that soon find him running afoul of the local drug pushers in the neighborhood.

As his Harlem neighborhood consumes itself with violence and criminal activity, Archie turns a blind eye to the social blight, preferring instead to keep to himself, his pet dog Wolf, his books, his yoga, martial arts, and countless female companions. When Robbie runs afoul of a notorious drug kingpin, Archie provides him no support, preferring to stay uninvolved despite pressure from his brother and threats from local thugs.

Failing to read the writing on the wall, Archie is utterly devastated when gang members ransack his store, kill his brother and his main squeeze, Cleopatra, and kidnap his dog, Wolf. Setting out to find his dog and wreak vengeance, Archie stumbles across the gang’s hideout, kicks ass, and ends up incinerating their entire operation. Archie is unable to save his dog, however. He finds its corpse being eaten by one of the gang’s killer guard dogs.

Overwhelmed by grief and shame for his apathy, Archie takes to the streets as a vigilante, taking the name Wolf in honor of his fallen pet. It is during one of his initial forays that he encounters the man who will be both his greatest influence and his most bitter rival, Silver Streak. Fighting the Klan, the FBI, the Army, and anyone else who represents “the Man,” Wolf’s constant nonconformity to superhero norms eventually drives him deep underground. Here he remains for a good fifteen years until finally emerging to face the outstanding charges against him.

In a highly publicized trial that sees almost every superhero (and some super-villains) in the Trademark Universe testifying for either the prosecution or the defense, Wolf is eventually found not guilty on all counts, save one manslaughter charge: the accidental killing of a vicious National Guard commander. To this charge, Wolf voluntarily pleads guilty, resigning himself to whatever fate awaits him.

In an enlightened sentence, the judge places Wolf on probation, requiring him to carry out his community service by becoming a mentor to super-powered felons who have expressed the desire to reform and go straight. Forming a kind of superhero halfway house, Wolf’s loosely-knit squad eventually forms the basis of the world’s most iconoclastic super team, the Irregulars.

Comprised of members who have grown frustrated with the legal limitations shackling mainstream super-teams, the Irregulars present a constant chaotic presence in the super-biz. As their single-minded general, Wolf’s no-holds-barred approach to social justice makes him one of the most dominant and controversial forces in the super-biz.

Weapons -- Wolf possesses night-vision goggles which allow him to see in relative darkness.

Personal Items -- A deeply committed radical and champion of social justice, Wolf is probably, along with Silver Streak, the most ethical (and at times self-righteous) hero in the game. He does have one major skeleton in his closet, however. His long-estranged son, Jacob, who has been taking the Metamin since birth, is the super-villain Caracal.

As leader of the Irregulars, Wolf must constantly put on a stern all-business demeanor to keep his less-than-disciplined troops in line. Although he knows that any of his teammates could kill him without batting an eye, he still manages to intimidate them, commanding their obedience and respect.