Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dakota North (Marvel 1986) [COMICS]

Dakota North was an interesting attempt by Marvel Comics, in its 25th anniversary year (1986), to move beyond spandex-heavy superhero stories.  The bimonthly title only lasted 5 issues, which is evidence itself of how well that approach worked.  Anyway, the character who lent the title her name is a tough but fashionable head of a private security company with offices all over the world.  Supporting characters who occasionally assist her, but more often get in her way, include her little brother Ricky (a too cool to care type), a cop named Amos (who has a big crush on Dakota but won't tell her), an assistant named Mad Dog, and her father (a former secret agent who still has connections).  Dakota's main antagonist throughout the series is Cleo Vanderslip, a big-wig at a corporation named Rycom.

In Issue # 1, Dakota is hired to provide personal security for Luke Jacobson, a fashion designer whose showroom was recently vandalised.  Dakota arrives at Jacobson's showroom and is mistaken for a model, put in a (hideous!) dress, and given a make-up case to take to Jacobson--only, the make-up case is actually a bomb!  The crisis gets averted, but soon after Jacobson gets kidnapped.  Dakota gives chase to the kidnappers on her motorcycle, which leads to both pursued and pursuer crashing into a department store for a shootout.  After another encounter at the docks, it turns out that the kidnapper is one Otto Shanks, an old enemy of Dakota's father who was hired by Cleo Vanderslip.  Otto is killed and Jacobson rescued.  The plot's a bit murky, but overall it's a charming debut with some wit and interesting characters.  The interior art is not particularly good, but it does provide a style different than most of Marvel's superhero comics at the time.

In Issue # 2, Dakota's little brother has up and decided to move in with his big sister.  He tags along with Dakota on a meeting arranged by Dakota's dad with his old spy friend, George Cooper.  Cooper, realizing that gunmen are closing in, arranges to lose his "gold pen" to Ricky gambling.  The pen is actually filled with an experimental nerve gas, but only Cooper's aware of the fact.  Lots of assassination attempts on Cooper's life are foiled by Dakota, but, unbeknownst to her, Cleo Vanderslip wants the pen and arranges for a model (Daisy) to try to seduce Ricky.  The episode ends on a cliffhanger, as Ricky and the model arrive in Paris.  The plot of the nerve-gas pen and Ricky's peril actually continues through the rest of the series, even if it seems rather slight in essence.

Issue # 3 features Dakota realizing that Ricky is gone and, after yelling a lot, heading off to Paris to find him (leaving Amos behind to secretly pine for her).  Cleo Vanderslip sends a goon to intercept Dakota, and he attacks her in an airplane bathroom!  But she stabs the poor bastard with a plastic boot knife she managed to smuggle through security, proof that you don't need adamantium claws to be bad-ass.  Dakota eventually tracks Ricky and Daisy down at an art museum, but before she can explain another assassin attacks.  She deals with the problem, but by the time she's finished, Ricky and Daisy have set off on the Orient Express . . .
Things get a bit weird in Issue # 4.  Daisy takes Ricky to a private car at the very end of the Orient Express, and it turns out that this train car is also an automobile: once decoupled near Venice, the pair (and Daisy's "butler") drive off the track and head towards Switzerland!  Dakota flies ahead to Venice and waits for the train to arrive, and Amos meets her there as well; but of course, no Ricky.  Then, an evil Sheik Ibn Bheik (Cleo Vanderslip's boyfriend), who has a very mean bird and a chateau in Switzerland, lures Dakota and Amos there, and everyone, including Ricky, is captured and tied up--but after a thorough search, the golden pen with nerve gas is nowhere to be found.  This issue reminded me most of Jonny Quest in spirit.  The letters' page, the first one published in  the series, contains several quite enthusiastic missives about the debut issue.

There's a fun sequence in Issue # 5 where Dakota escapes the bird of prey while tied to a chair.  As she, Ricky, and Amos flee the chateau, Ricky reveals that he slipped the pen into one of the thugs just before he was searched.  The trio make it to the motor pool, but Sheik Ibn Bheik's goons arrive and a fight ensues.  In the melee, the pen gets broken and the escaping nerve gas kills all of the bad guys (and none of the good guys)--convenient!  The trio return to New York.  The series ends on a bit of an unresolved note, with Dakota's father confronting Cleo.  I never really figured out what Cleo's motivation behind everything was, or what was so special about the experimental nerve gas.  At the bottom of the final page, there's a funny note: "This is where we usually put the blurb for the next issue, if there was a next issue, but there isn't." Ironically, the editor's comments in the letters page are clearly unaware of the cancellation, as they talk about future issues.

I think it's fair to say that Dakota North was published at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Fast forward several years, hand the title to an independent publisher, clarify the tone, and I could imagine the title being a minor success.  As it was, though, it's hard to imagine the title ever having much hope of success for a publisher like Marvel during the 1980s.  Still, don't feel about about Dakota.  Although her debut series failed, she ended up making dozens of appearances in mainstream Marvel titles such as Black Panther and Daredevil.

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