Armagideon Time

The force that binds

September 16th, 2020

One of the perks of taking an extended hiatus is having actually new developments to talk about upon returning —

— things such as the above object of beauty.

The collection is not a hoax or imaginary story. Nor, I regret to inform you, is it the product of DC’s trade collections department coming to their senses. It is a one-of-a-kind custom jobber I undertook on my own (with the help of a bookbinding firm, of course).

The matter of beloved “never-have-or-will-ever-be-collected” runs and series has been at the back of my mind since I started consolidating the perennial (and sentimental) favorites from two dozen longboxes into a smaller and more manageable set of trade paperback and hardcover editions. The vast majority of these “essentials” were available in some collected form or another, though there were a handful of top-tier cherished runs which — for licensing or legal or economic reasons — never made the trade grade.

Most of these strays were DC offerings from the immediate pre-and-post-Crisis periods, a motley assortment of faded flashes in the pan or decently entertaining efforts which never gained traction with fans. At the top of the list was Atari Force, “a great series doomed by a troubled license” (as the owner of my local comic shop put it back in the day).

The twenty issue series (followed by a one-off “special” of inventoried back-up material) followed up on the events of the digest-sized comics packed in with certain Atari 2600 games in a bit of intra-divisional marketing synergy. (Both DC and Atari were owned by the Warner Brothers media empire at the time.) Connections between the comics and the games were tenuous at best outside of a few referential names and nods to Star Raiders lore.

The pack-in digests weren’t bad, but hewed closely to the generic pre-Star Wars 70s sci-fi template. A multi-ethnic bunch of experts were tapped by the Atari Institute to traverse the multiverse in the dimension-hopping Scanner One spaceship in hopes of finding a “New Earth” for humanity before the old Earth became uninhabitable. Oh, and they argued and fell in love with each other while kicking evil alien monstrosity ass.

The monthly series used that as springboard for jumping a ahead a couple of decades, where New Earth is thriving and the super-powered kids of the original crew, along with various hangers-on and associates, get recruited by the middle-aged embittered leader of the previous mission to determine if the evil alien monstrosity somehow managed to survive its ass-kicking.

That’s the short version — because I don’t feel like writing up a long version — but the vibe of the regular series fell somewhere in-between Star Wars and Legion of Super-Heroes. It code switches between space opera and super-team in way that played to the strengths of the medium, instead of crashing up against it as most Big Two sci-fi comics series did in ’70s and ’80s. Think of it as DC’s answer to Marvel’s Micronauts, but with a clearer through line.

It helped that the first half of the run was (mostly) illustrated by José Luis García-López, who got s chance to cut loose with all manner of groovy character designs and futuristic tech, but everyone involved brought their best to the project. Ricardo Villagrán’s finishes meshed beautifully with García-López’s pencilwork, Gerry Conway turned out some of the sharpest writing he’d do that decade, Tom Zukio did some fantastic coloring-for-effect work, and Bob Lappan pulled out the stops when it came to lettering alien speech that slyly conveyed the general gist of the dialogue.

Even after García-López and Conway tapped out halfway through the series, the new team of Eduardo Barreto and Mike Baron still kept things chugging along nicely through the home stretch.

Atari Force was one on my favorite series during my tweener years. It wasn’t due to the videogame connection, but because it was a really solid team book with an interesting cast of characters overseen by an excellent creative team (or teams, technically). It was an especially impressive feat considering that I had yet to outgrow my “if it ain’t in Big Two continuity, I’m not interested” biases at the time I picked up my first issue of the series.

I was sad to see it end, though it took a few years before I realized that the “we always planned it as a 20-issue run” excuse given at the time for calling it a day was bullshit masking Warners’ desire to shed themselves of the cash-sink Atari had turned into after the domestic videogame market crashed. Never a hot property in speculative circles, the back issues became quarter-bin staples for the following couple of decades (which is how I ended up completing my run and replacing my beat-to-shit original issues).

It’s a series I enjoy revisiting every couple of years, a rare case where nostalgia is a value added thing and not some sweet coating on a bitter-in-hindsight pill. Most of the trades on my bookshelf don’t attain that state of grace, which is why I really wanted an Atari Force collection — even if I had to see to it myself.

I knew professional and DIY binding was a thing from some old Newsarama and Comics Alliance posts, but wasn’t clear on the specifics or price or other details. The notion of binding up Atari Force and other uncollected runs went into the same mental space as the rest my vague aspirational projects — the “I will look into it later” file.

It likely would have stayed there until the heat death of the universe if long time pal and comics retailer extraordinaire Mike Sterling hadn’t lobbed this into his Twitter feed a few months ago.

A complete Atari Force run in clean condition from a retailer I trust and for a decent price? I’m not one for omens, but this was too on-the-nose to pass up. Plus, it was a chance to toss a little dough at a small business at a moment when the pandemic had screwed with their bottom line. Direct messages were sent, money was exchanged, and soon I had a pile of ready to bind comics on my “to-do” shelf.

…where they sat for another month before I finally knuckled down and did the research about getting the job done. Between the bindery’s detailed FAQ page and a blog post from a person who put up screenshots of an order form they’d submitted with further clarifications, I managed to get the stack prepped and shipped out for processing. About seven weeks later, I got an invoice from the bindery, promptly paid it, and had the finished product in my hands a week later.

I’m not going to lie. I held the tome to my chest several times in the first couple of days after it arrived and whispered “I love you” to it (when Maura and the Kid were out of earshot, of course). I even cleared it a place of honor on the Very Important Books part of my shelf, alongside Retro Hell, the OHOTMU Omnibus and the 1980 and 1981 Sears Wish Books.

To answer some questions I was asked elsewhere about the process:

The bindery I used was Herring and Robinson. The only extras I selected were headbands (the cloth bits at the top and bottom of the spine) and the small “DC Bullet” diestamp above the title. The total including shipping came out to $40.

Yes, there’s a sliver of loss close to the spine edge of the page. It’s not a lot (though your metrics for that may differ from mine) and some of it depends on how the original pages were centered in the component comics and the overall thickness of the bound edition. I really haven’t tried to see how wide I could open the book because it is my precious darling and I won’t do anything that might hurt it.

I got exactly what I had been hoping for — a handsome and handy collection of a comics series that can be shelved in my living room and not relegated to some difficult to access attic longbox. I’m happy enough with the work that I’ve already sent off another pair of runs — the complete Young Heroes in Love and the first eighteen issues (and first annual) of the 80s Captain Atom series — for similar treatment.

I probably won’t hug those, though.

So…

September 14th, 2020

A few years back this site was hit by a vandalism hack which injected spam links into every published post up until that point. While I managed to clean out the malicious scripts, my inelegant brute force solution did not undo the damage to the site’s archives. That left a decade’s worth of posts — covering a span when I still published daily — to be dealt with.

I did try to make a fair go at it, scrubbing twenty or so entries a day for a few months, but it was mind-numbing work made even more thankless by the growing realization that 90% of what I was fixing didn’t deserve to be saved. Posting every day (or even every other day) is going to result in a lot of shitposts which existed solely so I could feel like I met some internal quota. Stretch that out over three thousand posts across ten years, and what you’re looking at is a small handful of gems engulfed in a continent-spanning morass of dead links, forgotten in-jokes, and outdated topical commentary.

Maybe some grad student of the future might find value by drilling down into that shit for a thesis project, but otherwise it’s just a lot of pointless clutter. The world has changed since a lot of that crap went up. I have changed in a number of subtle and no so subtle ways.

AT 1.0 lasted two and a half years before I jumped to AT 2.0. AT 2.0 has been chugging along for over a decade now. There was no reason why I shouldn’t make another fresh start of things, apart from laziness and an obligation to somehow preserve the parts of the site which were worth saving.

So that’s what I’m doing. It won’t be AT 3.0 as much as AT 2.5. The template is staying because I like it, despite it being a relic of pre-mobile browsing. The archives have been, well, archived while I clean and proof them for republishing. The Ultimate Powers Jam stuff is a lock for restoration, as is the K-Tel series and Role Playing With the Changes. Nobody’s Favorites and the console-specific videogame features might follow, though I can’t shake the feeling I could do a better job rebooting those from scratch.

And then there will be the new content, which I’ve been putting off because I knew this soft relaunch was coming. A big reason I didn’t want to get too fancy with it was because I wanted shit up and running in time for the Halloween Countdown.

For the first time in a long time, I actually feel excited about this place again.

One of the more baffling aspects of fan behavior is the tendency to suspend qualitative judgement when it comes to fan’s objects of affection. Past experience, empirical evidence, and ominous portents get shoved to the margins when certain Pavlovian buttons are pushed. There will be plenty of post-situ moaning and whining about getting burned, but there is little hesitation about leaping into the fire in the first place.

So it was with Teen Andrew and TransBot. As I mentioned a few days ago, I used to be a pretty fervent fan of anime, especially the giant/real robo stuff. The popularity of the Transformers and Robotech franchises meant the toy and hobby stores of the mid-1980’s were well-stocked with all manner of shady (and shoddy) bootleg mecha-merchandise intended to siphon off a sweet slice of the market share.

The phenomenon wasn’t limited to just toys and models. Videogames also cashed in on the trend, though this was wasn’t so much cynical marketing as the simple realities of the gaming industry at the time. American game developers were either still struggling from the industry-wide crash of a few years prior or had moved into the realm of computer gaming. Arcade and console fare was dominated by Japanese imports reflecting Japanese popcult trends. That robo-jockey stuff was big in America at the time didn’t hurt, either.

That’s not to say that cynical manipulation didn’t factor into the equation, as the name “TransBot” suggests a deliberate attempt to piggy-back on the name recognition of a couple of hot properties:

In practice, the formula comes closer to this:

While the official screenshots and gameplay footage suggested epic battles against faux-Zentraedi battle pods…

I'll get you yet, Rick Hunter!

…the game is actually a very dumbed-down rip-off of Konami’s Gradius. The player must blast through waves of uninspired enemies — spiked balls, tumbling cube ships, and hamburgesian flying saucers — across a horizontally-scrolling generically “sci-fi” landscape. Shooting the transport trucks that occasionally roll across the bottom of the screen gives the player access to power ups, which improve weapon strength or transform the player’s ship into an unmissable target a rather goofy-looking robot.

I am a robot and ashamed.

In order to compensate for the utter shallowness of the gameplay, the developers decided to spice things up a little by tossing in the much loved gimmick of arbitrary and artificial difficulty. Unlike Gradius (or even Action Fighter), where sequenced power ups add a strategic element to play, TransBot uses a roulette-based system of determining upgrades. Nabbing a power up sphere causes an icon to rapidly cycle through an alphabetical sequence of potential rewards, leaving it up to the player’s reflexes and blind chance to determine the end result.

If this wasn’t irritating in itself, the fact that the power ups have only a limited number of uses and the boss level can only be reached by use of a specific upgrade in a specific location makes the game a nigh-unbearable exercise in frustration.

That didn’t stop me from wasting a few score hours of my life playing and attempting to beat the game.

Why? Because it had giant robots in it!

Duh.

Like many 70s idols, Gaiking briefly flirted with National Socialism.

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