Sunday, February 14, 2010

Phil McDougall, a.k.a. the Sensational Sand Dollar

On page 7 of Worlds Apart, we meet a rather intriguing minor character. Just as the Trishy Tanaka Hostage Crisis starts heating up, Chet, the talking head from Lyon News, introduces a guest analyst to provide expertise and perspective on the unfolding horror: Phil McDougall, better known to the world as the sensational Sand Dollar.

Okay, you may be asking. Just who the heck is the Sand Dollar? And what would he possibly know about the superheroes and super-villains of the Trademark Universe?

The answer to this question lies in the history and career of two major Trademark heroes. The first, Airfoil, we’ve already met. The second, Beachcomber (later known as Aquarius), won’t be appearing in Worlds Apart per se. However, his influence in the Trademark Universe should be addressed.

The titanic Trademark Handbook provides this entry on the Beachcomber:

Beachcomber/Aquarius (Bobby Sands) An aimless drifter most of his life, Bobby Sands could claim one talent that set him above the rest -- hydrofoils. An ace-mechanic and pilot, Sands invented a revolutionary new hydrofoil system and started his own company, Aquarian Technologies, to profit from his ideas. Quickly proving a failure in the business world, Sands gladly accepted the buy-out offer from a large aeronautics firm interested in commercially marketing his innovations.

Suddenly finding himself a millionaire with no direction in life, Sands opted for early retirement in the quiet coastal California community of Lasher Beach. Envisioning an endless summer of bitchin’ waves, bikini-clad babes, and tinkering in his workshop, Sands slowly came to realize that Lasher Beach wasn’t truly the sleepy seaside town it first appeared to be. Run by a local crimeboss called Yellow Beard, Lasher Beach was actually a safe haven for drug smugglers, pirates, arms dealers, and other lowlifes.

Trying his best to steer clear of the local criminal element, Sands found himself slowly drawn into the brewing conflict between Lasher Beach’s law-abiding citizens and the unsavory thugs now in control of the town. One such thug was a brutish bully dubbed Phil the Enforcer, a brawny, red-headed brawler who walked around Lasher Beach like he owned it. On more than one occasion, Sands and Phil traded words and punches, with Sands typically coming out worse for it.

Then one night Bobby Sands’ life at Lasher Beach took a drastic turn. As Sands was testing out his newest invention, a hydrofoil bodysuit, he inadvertently stumbled across a major drug bust gone horribly and violently awry. As Sands quickly learned, his nemesis Phil the Enforcer wasn’t a thug at all, but rather an undercover DEA agent named Phil McDougall, who had been infiltrating Yellow Beard’s gang in an effort to bring it down. With Yellow Beard’s thugs getting away in high-speed motor boats, the good guys had only one chance to catch the fleeing murderers.

Bobby Sands chased the motor boats using his hydrofoil suit, and then battled the bad guys long enough for Phil McDougall to call in reinforcements and arrest the miscreants en masse. Angry that corrupt sources within the DEA had ratted him out to Yellow Beard, McDougall resigned his position and fell in with fellow retiree Bobby Sands.

With Yellow Beard’s boys still controlling much of Lasher Beach, Sands and McDougall took up the fight for law and order vigilante-style. Combining Sands’ mechanical genius and McDougall’s knowledge of explosives and weapons, the two would-be adventurers re-invented themselves as superheroes: the Beachcomber and the Sand Dollar. In addition to the ability to travel at high speeds over water, Beachcomber’s hydro-suit also converted its water jets and air jets into non-lethal weapons. For his part, Phil McDougall armed himself with a variety of sand-dollar-sized disks outfitted with various gimmicks: explosives, knock-out gas, Taser-like electro-shocks, etc.

After an inauspicious start, the “Beach Bums,” as they were known in the super community, fought a host of pretty unspectacular villains like Yellow Beard, Crowbar, and the Longshoremen. The duo didn’t vie with any truly powerful superbaddies until they tangled with Tempest, a madman possessing a trident power-staff that enabled him to control water. Completely out of their league, ‘Comber and Dollar were quickly beaten and taken prisoner. It was at this point that a friend of theirs, world Frisbee champion Larry Kramer, modified Sand Dollar’s disk arsenal into larger Frisbee-like weapons. Thus was born the hero Airfoil.

Together, the three Beach Bums ultimately defeated Tempest, and Beachcomber “inherited” the villain’s power-staff. Over the course of several years, as Sands’ proficiency with the staff grew, he became more and more powerful. Signing on for a stint with the Protectors, Beachcomber used the group’s training exercises to increase his control of the staff to godlike levels. Here he came under the watchful eye of the super-villain Pythoness, who gradually seduced Beachcomber with a hodge-podge of New Age mumbo-jumbo and mind control.

Under the influence of Pythoness, Beachcomber discarded his old identity to become the apocalyptic world-beater Aquarius. Convinced he could single-handedly reform the world in his image and usher in the Age of Aquarius, the former Beachcomber subsequently ran afoul of the combined might of the Protectors, Challengers, Irregulars, Fury Force, and United Front. Eventually, after repeated struggles, Sands saw the error of his ways and vanished into seclusion beneath the sea.

Being closer to Bobby Sands than anyone, Phil McDougall has seen firsthand how dangerous and corrupting super-powers can be. As a hero who has fought alongside the Protectors, Challengers, and hosts of others, Phil McDougall makes up in savvy what he lacks in power. Opinionated, bull-headed, and bit rough around the edges, the sensational Sand Dollar dispenses the kind of compelling, sound-bite-driven analysis that Lyon News loves.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Go Ask Marisol -- Slice!

Slice, a.k.a. the Living Razor, stands as a rather late Trademark creation, at least the Marisol Garcia version that appears in Worlds Apart. I first wrote a character called Slice back in the early ‘80s. (Let’s call her “Slice 1.0”) Basically a generic homicidal maniac à la Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (see my previous blog entry), she fought alongside Spree in the ranks of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung.

Sketching a rudimentary background for Slice 1.0, I conceived her as a teenage runaway turned psychotic sadist. Never a central member of Maniac’s minions, Slice 1.0’s biography only came to light in snatches of raving, misandrist dialogue. With her outspoken hatred for the male gender encapsulated in virtually every voice balloon, I imagined her primarily as a child of the streets who had lived her teenage years suffering under the domination of abusive men while doing anything possible to survive. (You can use your imagination here.)

My inspiration for such an urchin-turned-predatrix lies in myriad pop cultural icons that informed my youth and adolescence. The melding of two distinct archetypes -- the damsel in distress and the femme fatale -- became a staple of teenage exploitation entertainment like Go Ask Alice (1973), Born Innocent (1974), Switchblade Sisters (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976), Hardcore (1979) and, of course, the 1984 cult classic Angel. Earlier blogs regarding Spree and Mosquito have already revealed that I formed a bizarre kind of psycho-sexual fascination for “bad girls” during my teenage years. Even before I was exposed to Russ Meyer and neo-Nazi sirens, though, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the prurient personas of troubled, desperate waifs living on the edge.

I can pretty much trace my first exposure to ingénues in crisis with Go Ask Alice in 1973. How and why 8-year-old Mark Kozak was allowed to watch this trashy, over-the-top TV movie, I’ll never know. My sister was twelve at the time, and I’m sure my mom wasn’t really paying close attention as I absorbed the horrific plot complications besetting the main character. Besides, the cast boasted Andy Griffith, and I’m sure my mom never thought Sheriff Taylor would attach himself to anything less than wholesome.

A short time after digging Alice, I grooved on Born Innocent with Linda Blair. Once again, I’m amazed my mom let me watch such programming. This made-for-TV trash-fest boasts a graphic scene with a toilet plunger some twenty-odd years before NYC cops similarly assaulted Abner Louima with a broomstick. Then, in 1976, network executives struck exploitative gold again with Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, featuring the very fetching Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) forced into one compromising position after another.

With the advent of cable-TV in my household, I caught up with some major Hollywood entries in the teen exploitation sweepstakes: Taxi Driver, Switchblade Sisters, and of course Hardcore. By the time I got around to creating Slice 1.0, then, I was pretty much warped beyond redemption. For the next few years, Slice 1.0 remained a stock, two-dimensional psycho-babe; good for a few slashing, dashing fight sequences, but little else.

As explained in previous blogs, the Trademark Universe underwent some drastic overhauling when I began attending Ohio University in 1984. New influences, scholarly and social, re-informed and re-invented the characters conceived in my youth. With Buckshot’s college career essentially mirroring my own, most of my new stories centered on the hybrid hood turned hero. Needing a kind of counterpoint to Buckshot’s penitent journey, I returned to the ranks of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung and decided to re-envision one of my stock super-baddies.

Immediately, Slice leaped out at me. Unlike Spree and Mosquito, characters consistently developed to be in their mid-twenties, Slice occupied relatively the same age bracket as Buckshot (and myself for that matter). Bitten by the bug of multiculturalism and diversity, I discarded my previous portrayal of Slice as typically caucasian. Sporting a major crush on Miami Vice’s Saundra Santiago at the time, I lustily re-imagined Slice as Marisol Garcia, a teenage prostitute turned psychopath with an unspecified Hispanic/Latina heritage. Thus, Slice 2.0 was born circa 1984. In subsequent stories, I took the new character through a journey of her own, from sadistic psycho-bitch to soul-searching super-heroine.

For more on Slice, let us once more consult the Titanic Trademark Handbook:

Slice (Marisol Garcia) Formerly a member of Maniac’s Götterdämmerung, Slice’s entire body is encased in a permanent force-field, transforming her into a living razor. By concentrating, Slice can adjust the sharpness of her razor field, enabling her to easily cut through stone, brick, and even dense metals like a hot knife through butter. At its most acute level, Slice’s razor field has even severed molecular bonds. However, the energy spent on such an endeavor quickly exhausts her.

Gradually wooed over to the side of law-and-order by a persistent Buckshot, Slice originally attempted to go straight by abandoning Götterdämmerung and joining the Protectors. Immediately finding herself at loggerheads with Silver Streak and Hangman, however, Slice quickly left the group and struck out on her own.

Continually fighting the savage impulses hardwired into her hybrid brain, Slice’s journey to redemption has been much more difficult than Buckshot’s. Left to her own devices after deserting the Protectors, Slice regressed more than once to her old ways. Never comfortable as a super-villainess, though, Slice eventually fell in with Wolf and his loose confederation of unconventional heroes, the Irregulars. Since then, she’s been more or less a hero (unless you talk to Silver Streak, that is).

Weapons -- Her entire body.

Personal Items -- Marisol is a beautiful young woman who can never touch a normal man for fear of slicing him to ribbons. She has, however, managed a few relationships with men. During her Götterdämmerung days, she hooked up with Rival, as he was able to transform his skin into a substance invulnerable to her razor field.

Later, during her short stint as a Protector, Slice found some solace in the arms of the invulnerable Achilles. In typical Achilles fashion, however, the demigod soon tired of Marisol, and since then she’s been relegated back to untouchable status.

Inspired by Buckshot’s example, Slice makes a conscious effort to channel her aggressive emotionalism into more constructive pursuits, namely sculpting. For a brief period, Marisol even attended Ohio University with Buckshot, majoring in Art. Unfortunately, the structure and demands of university life didn’t agree with her, and Slice dropped out before attaining her degree.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Big Guy -- Achilles

I’ve never tried to hide my debt to the comic books of my youth. The Trademark Universe itself is one boy’s (now man’s) passionate homage to the creative writers and artists at Marvel and DC who inspired my youthful imagination. I can wholly understand if someone sees Worlds Apart for the first time and immediately starts matching up Trademark heroes and villains with their Marvel and DC analogs.

Obviously, Achilles owes much if not all of his character to Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian stalwarts, Thor and Hercules. If you want to call Achilles a Thor/Herc knock-off, well, knock yourself out. First, however, let me explain a little bit more about his genesis and addition to the Trademark Universe. You may find yourself second-guessing your first impression.

Before I knew the Lee/Kirby versions of Thor and Hercules, I knew Achilles. Myths and legends comprised 100% of my reading in the first and second grades. Well, maybe “reading” is a tad exaggerated. The Coe School library had some pretty cool children’s collections of Greek, Norse, and Arthurian tales. Paramount for a young Mark Kozak stood a pair of vividly illustrated compendiums: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths.

Reading contemporary reviews of the d’Aulaires’ two books, which are still available on I might add, the verdict is unanimous. These books, and especially the illustrations, make an impression on young readers that remain locked in their memories for the remainder of their lives. I thrilled to the d’Aulaires’ renderings of Hercules and Thor long before I saw my first issue of Journey Into Mystery or The Mighty Avengers.

When I first began creating my own comic book stories, then, the myths and legends I knew played as much a role in my characters as the DC Comics I venerated. My first quasi-mytho-legendary hero wasn’t Achilles, however. Instead, I roughed out some very raw stories featuring a time-transplanted hero of Arthurian persuasion, a certain flower of chivalry known as Sir Launcelot. I will address these early pre-Trademark efforts in subsequent posts.

The main point here is that I felt an instinctual need to combine myth, legend, and superheroics several years prior to discovering Lee & Kirby’s Thor. If I was “ripping off” anyone with my take on Sir Launcelot, Prince Valiant would be the victim. My childhood barber, Hank Janik of Hank’s Barber Shop fame, had a table filled with old comic books for his younger clientele: Prince Valiant, The Phantom, etc. To this day, I still remember those old, tattered funny books, which could have fetched hundreds of dollars at comic book conventions if they were in mint condition. Of course, I couldn’t follow the dense narrative in the Prince Valiant issues, but the artwork certainly captured my pre-literate fancy.

When I began reading Marvel comics a few years later, the Asgardian and Olympian gods immediately became some of my favorite characters. Given my love of mythology, I already knew quite a bit about the archetypes Lee & Kirby were reinventing. When I saw Tyre or Heimdall or Ares for the first time, I already knew who they were and what they represented. With every issue of The Mighty Thor, I marveled (no pun intended) at the cool, epic storylines spun from the fabric of the Norse and Greek myths I’d already internalized.

As I began conceiving the Trademark Universe, I knew my heroic pantheon would need to be peopled with gods and heroes of the same stature as Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian contingent. Not wanting characters merely identical to Marvel’s deities, I fashioned the Elementals, a subject I discuss in a previous blog. While the Elementals certainly provided me the super-powerful godlike entities I desired, I quickly realized they weren’t enough. Something was missing.

I discovered what I lacked when I began to conceive my first superhero team, the Protectors. Obviously patterned after the mighty Avengers, I faced the same problem Tony Stark encountered when he began creating his New Avengers several years back. As Stark explained to Ms. Marvel, the team needed a “Thor.” I, too, sensed the same dearth when I marshaled my prospective roster for the Protectors.

If my new team was truly to be The World’s Greatest Heroes, I needed a blockbusting representative from the myths and legends I loved. More importantly, the Protectors needed a Thor, a bedrock of raw fighting prowess about which the other team members could assemble. With super-tough-guys Thor and Hercules already taken by Marvel, I looked through my edition of Bernard Evslin’s Gods, Demigods, and Demons for MY Thor.

Theseus? Too obscure and not badass enough. Meleager? Talk about obscure! Atlas? Possibly. I flirted momentarily with Gilgamesh, but I couldn’t get past the unsavory elements of his character. Samson? No, that would bring the whole Bible into the mix, and I was trying to keep things simple. I toyed with the notion of Sir Launcelot again, but he was too woefully mortal.

I needed a guy who was going to kick ass and take names, the kind of hero a “normal Joe” super-baddy would flee immediately. My mind drifted to the Trojan War, to a certain invincible, hot-headed demigod prince who clashed with kings and gods head-on and never backed down from any fight. Achilles, Son of Peleus, would be my Thor. And, unlike Marvel’s somewhat watered-down characterizations of Hercules and Thor, my demigod would be torn from the pages of Homer himself, strutting and fretting upon the pages of The Protectors, dysfunctional warts and all.

Just recently I finished Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles. I find her take on Homer’s Achilles fairly spot-on: arrogant, immature, petulant, but still heroic in the final summation. Other epics and cycles of Greek mythology also deal with the figure of Achilles: the Aethiopis, the Achillead, the Cypria. In these works, however, Achilles is more superhero than human.

In the renderings of Achilles I read as a boy, authors like Bernard Evslin and Edith Hamilton drew their sketches from all these sources. When I created my own Trademark version of Achilles, I kept the superhuman aspects of the character, while also shading him with much of Homer’s three-dimensional elements. On the negative side, he would brood, feud, and often enter the blackest moods. On the positive side, he lived for the glory of battle, and a Protector could find no better comrade-in-arms if the chips were down.

For more on Achilles, let’s turn to the Titanic Trademark Handbook:

Achilles (No secret identity, but will often refer to himself in the third person as the Son of Peleus) The fabled Trojan War hero was resurrected by the Protectors in their battle against the mythic super-baddie Antaeus, son of Gaia. Achilles is a super-strong, relentless fighting machine whose body is invulnerable save for a small molecule-sized spot on his right “Achilles” heel. Needless to say, after spending a few millennia in a coma because of Paris’ lucky shot during the Trojan War, Achilles now wears a pretty sturdy pair of adamantium boots. But as we know in the super-biz... stuff happens.

Since his resurrection, Achilles has proven a staple in the Protectors line-up. Unlike Marvel’s Norse and Greek gods, however, Achilles did have to learn English. Luckily, fellow Protector Flurry, a virtual immortal herself, knew ancient Greek well enough to serve as the Son of Peleus’ translator and tutor.

Not the brightest of super-guys, Achilles still has problems with modern English at times, which causes him frustration. Anyone who’s read the Iliad knows this warrior-prince can be a real hot-head, too, and his three-thousand-year nap didn’t really cool him off much.

Weapons -- An invulnerable suit of adamantium armor forged by Hephaestus (not that he needs it much) and a battle sword that cuts through just about everything.

Personal Items -- Achilles is a bit of a womanizer who has cut a swath through the hearts of various super-heroines, most especially Flurry, Howitzer, Clarion, Driad, Maze, and Slice. He’s also walked on the dark side, bedding marquee villainesses like Morningstar and Paradise. Needless to say, none of these relationships fared very well, and the son of Peleus is still a confirmed bachelor.

Achilles’ best friend is the sometime superhero Cheetah, who has marketed his super-abilities into a lucrative Hollywood action-hero career. Both men are incurable womanizers who can dive off the libertine deep end if not properly supervised. Among the Protectors, Achilles is closest to Flurry and Airfoil. He respects Silver Streak, but still challenges his authority at times. One Protector Achilles does not challenge is Hangman, who basically gives the Son of Peleus the proverbial willies.