Monday, October 17, 2016

Video Jack (Epic [Marvel] 1987) [COMICS]

Video Jack was an interesting, short-lived series written created by Cary Bates and Keith Giffen for Marvel's Epic Comics imprint in 1987.  The general concept of the series is that the titular hero has to escape from a variety of alternate universes based on different TV show genres in order to get back to his own reality.  Keith Giffen's artwork follows a strict 12-panel grid layout gives the series an interesting aesthetic but that, to my untrained eye, is frankly ugly.  The series has never been collected in trade paperback format, so you'll have to collect it the hard way if you're interested.  Here's an issue-by-issue recap:

In Issue # 1, we're introduced to the series' two main characters: a slacker named Jack and his best friend, who has a dark side, named Damon.  Essentially what happens is that Damon has an Uncle Zach who plans to cast a spell to transform reality into something out of It's a Wonderful Life; but the uncle gets murdered and Jack is watching TV in the conjuring room when the spell takes effect, meaning that every time someone switches the channel on a certain remote control, reality shifts!  The story is a bit hard to follow in this first issue, but it is nice to read a real story that's not an excuse for fistfights.

In Issue # 2, Jack steps out of the uncle's house to realize that his clothes have instantly changed into a costume, his hometown is surrounded by a wall of static, his dog (Kojak) can talk, and he's trapped in a weird punk rock music video!  A girl Jack has a crush on, Doreen, is the leader of a resistance group against an oppressive dictatorship, and she wants Jack to help her group overthrow the dictator; but the dictator is Damon!  The way Giffen draws Damon, with his face always in total shadow except for his bright white teeth, is a fantastic way to convey malevolence.

Issue # 3 starts with a funny, and very snarky, editorial by Archie Goodwin about Bates & Giffen's lateness.  One can see from the cover dates that a book that was supposed to be bimonthly had a five month gap between Issues # 2 and # 3.  Not healthy for sales for a weird book just trying to get off the ground!  There's a really funny (and cogent) recap of Issues # 1 and 2 featuring Archie Goodwin as Mr. Rogers and Jack and Damon as muppets.  The storyline progresses with Jack at first disbelieving that Damon could be an evil dictator, but then changing his mind when he sees his "friend" murder two of Doreen's fellow rebels.  Fortunately, Kojak sneaks into Damon's HQ and presses the "off" button on the magical remote control, returning everyone to reality.  The murdered rebels are still dead, however; they've just died of different causes, thus making the point that what happens in the alternate video reality has very real implications.  Damon has had enough of the whole business, but Jack is intensely curious about how the remote works and starts pushing buttons; first he gets a cartoon land, then a 1950s B&W TV show where's he thrown in jail!

We find out in Issue # 4 that Jack has unwittingly fallen into a version of the town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, but one in which everyone's dark sides are at the forefront: Otis the Drunk, for example, is an evil serial killer!  Otis kills Barney and Andy, but Jack and Damon manage to escape.  Poor Floyd the Barber gets chainsawed (hilarious, admit it!).  Fortunately, Jack, Damon, and Kojak escape Evil Mayberry and into another TV-genre reality: Alien!  There's a fun fight against the alien queen, before another shift to a sit-com.  Kojak theorizes (he's a smart dog!) that Damon's evil is bleeding into and infecting every world they enter.  The issue ends with a surprise twist: Damon's evil Uncle Zach is somehow still around and has the remote control back!

Jack awakens to find himself a captive aboard a pirate ship in an old swashbuckling movie in Issue # 5; and Damon is the pirate captain!  But Doreen is the pirate queen of her own ship, and leads a boarding party to rescue Jack!  Jack and Damon spar with cutlasses, until Uncle Zach (whom I think is a zombie or something) arrives on his own ship and changes the channel on the remote, sending everyone to a Dallas-style evening soap opera.  In this reality, Damon has done a hostile takeover of Jack's company, and kidnapped him to boot.  But then there's another weird shift into something involving artificial intelligence and clone henchmen.  Frankly confusing, but you've just got to go along for the ride.  Damon wrestles the remote control back from (un)dead Uncle Zach; Damon has a doomsday device, but then he's interrupted by a new player in the game:  "Pop" Culture!(?).  Are you lost yet?

The series comes to a satisfying conclusion in Issue # 6. "Pop" Culture is something akin to an evil game show host, and he forces Jack to compete with Damon in order to save Doreen's life.  What follows is a series of two-page long encounters, each drawn by a different artist and taking place in a different TV show genre: there's everything from Star Trek to I Love Lucy, and guest artists include Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin, and Bill Wray.  Suffice it to say, Jack wins the contest and uses the remote to restore reality back to normal (mostly).

All in all, I can appreciate what Bates & Giffen were trying to do with Video Jack; they had a fun concept that allowed them to tell stories that varied dramatically depending on what genre the remote control sent the characters to.  At the same time, six issues was probably a good duration for the series, and much longer would have gotten repetitive.  The characters and setting didn't have enough depth to force the reader to demand more.  I imagine sales on this weren't particularly high, given its somewhat opaque nature and delays in coming out, but it was an interesting experiment that at least told a complete story.

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