Thursday, April 30, 2009

I'll Buy That For A Dollar?: Jonny Quest #10

Jonny Quest #10 (Comico)
March 1987
Willaim Messner-Loebs (W)/Marc Hempel & Mark Wheatley (A)

My high school Shakespeare class totally ruined this issue of Jonny Quest for me.

It's like this. I've seen a lot of Shakespeare performed, and I've "acted" in a little bit of Shakespeare and most importantly I've read a ton of Shakespeare's plays in an academic setting, but I've never really dug Shakespeare like some folks do. But I took this class in high school in Shakespeare. I don't know why but it had something to do with having a semester spot open after Debate or wanting to get out of Psychology or something. Really it was a good excuse to act like this.

But I did read a lot of the plays in that class and remembered a few things about some. Mostly I remember that in a world of Shakespeare plays I found to be a real drag, the histories were the draggiest. And one of those draggy histories was "Richard III," of which I also remember the fact that the play begins with the titular character – a fugly hunchback of an evil king – explaining how because he is in fact fugly and a hunchback, he's decided to be super evil. And I remember that clearly because we also talked about how even with plays history(ies) gets written by the winners. And Richard lost big time. So Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard isn't accurate at all. He wrote what the powers wanted him to. Sure, there's a lot more to it, and some of you probably know way more about the War of the Roses than me (one half a semester of English 301 at college ain't much), but the end lesson I picked up is the same: Shakespeare Wrote For Money.

So Jonny Quest #10, right? I buy it for a buck because I'd herd the Comico version was a hoot and because Dave Stevens did some covers (not this one...bummer). And right there on page one, boy adventurer Jonny Quest is seeing "Richard III" performed in England. And oooooooooo...Jonny hates that mean old king! What a rotten fink he must have been, etc etc, And then the whole Quest gang goes backstage to talk to the actor portraying Richard, who also just happens to be a hard on his luck scientist who moonlights as a Shakespearean actor and who also really needs Dr. Quest's advice on his new "time viewing machine" which must be a moneymaking hit or he'll lose his massive English estate which he knows he really owns but whose deed bequeathing it to his family went missing hundreds of years ago. Following me still? So back at the estate, the science actor shows Jonny and Hadji how his machine's TV screen can look back in time...even to the era of Richard III. The ZAP! The machine blows up in their faces! Everyone is OK, but the next morning Jonny and Hadji mysteriously wake up in 1485.

I'm sure you see where this is going. While in the past, Jonny befriends Richard and sees he's not a bad dude. Plus, he helps the Kind hide the deed to the manor that our boy the stage scientist lives in. Plus, Hadji hypnotizes a horse. Then they all flash back to the modern day where Jonny both uncovers the deed in the Tower of London and teaches everyone a valuable lesson about that dick of a liar Bill Shakespeare. I know it all sounds a little uselessly complicated, but in the hands of Messner-Loebs the script moves along and gives all the information with some kicking and punching and intrigue too, and Hempel and Wheatley do a really solid job on the art. Their storytelling chops were very strong even this early in their careers, plus their linework held some sharp, distinctive character where most licensed cartoon titles look stiff and on model. From a basic craft standpoint, there are some guys who really know how to put a solid comic book together, and it shows.

In that, judging the comics qualities really comes down to how the story works in a broader sense. Is it fun? Is it exciting? Does it pull together its weird, disparate comic book adventurey elements into something resembling a worthwhile 15 minutes of reading? On all of these, I've got to say, "No" for two reasons. First of all, regardless of my 17-year-old's remembrance of "Richard III's" historical inaccuracies, those opening pages with Jonny's intense dislike of Richard's character just scream "there's a lesson coming" in a heavy-handed and anti-climactic way. I honestly don't know if Comico produced this direct market-only series with kids in mind or if they just kept the book kid friendly to appeal to the growing nostalgists who comprised it's real audience, but the didactic elements of the plot cry "written for little kids" in the way that people say it as an insult. I'd like to think that even as an eleven-year-old I'd have seen the "Richard's really all right" twist coming, but even if that's giving little me too much credit, I know I wouldn't have been shocked or excited by the outcome.

And the second reason the issue fails for me is because it's an ill fit for Jonny Quest. Watching the original episodes of the Hanna Barbera series on reruns as a kid, the killer hook to "Jonny Quest" was its gonzo pulp adventure tone. From the big brass theme song and spider robot footage that drove its addictive opening to the story lines involving escape from mad scientists' laboratories and shotgun shootouts. It was a kid's version of "Dr. No" and a precursor to "Indiana Jones." The time travel and English kings don't seem to match the milieu the character was created for. This is Peabody and Sherman territory, and it feels more like a fantasy bent despite its being written off by pseudo-science. Jonny Quest #10 would never have made it as an episode of the show, and here that is a very, very bad thing.

So Jonny Quest #10? Worth a dollar? Nah, not really. Maybe if I saw an issue with a sweet Stevens cover, I'd pick up another, but otherwise I'm continuing to flip.

Also, the important lesson of this post: if you're reading something to do with Richard the Third, don't read "Richard III" or Jonny Quest #10. Read The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. That book made me cry, you guys.


Ben Morse said...

You realize we have now written enough blog entries about Richard III to justify having a Richard III tag if we wanted?

KP said...

Make it so!

Mike Wilson said...

You write for a living, Ki-El; so, perhaps you might consider cutting Anne Hathaway's husband a little slack for doing the same, and writing, yes, the Tudor propaganda what he was paid to write? Also, in his defense, Queen Elizabeth I was just about the bloodthirstiest and most tyrannical of the bloodthirsty tyrants who have ruled England, and if Billy boy hadn't played ball, he might have disappeared like so many of those who earned Sir Francis Walsingham's disfavor.

KP said...

Oh, don't mistake me. I didn't want to give the impression that I'm casting aspersions on Shakespeare for getting paid for a job. Far from it. What I'm saying is that what made that particular discussion memorable was it was one of the times when I was younger and thinking of myself as a creative person that I realized that even the high-brow, capital-a Art that society holds up as the pinnacle of creative achievement was still written as a job. It adds a layer of reality to your "I'm an artist, and I'll do my best work on my own so damn the man!" idealism you carry around as a teenager.

Coincidentally, if you haven't read that Hornby book I link to, pick it up. You of all people I know would really dig it. Plus, it's quick and gives you tons of ideas on new areas to take your own reading.

Mike Wilson said...

I'm interested in everything Nick Hornby has to say. I don't always agree, but I'm always interested.