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Battle Chasers: A Gathering of Heroes by Joe Madureira and Munier Sharrieff

Review by Larry Homer

Some Spoilers - but it's only the first few chapters of a longer storyline

Battle Chasers: A Gathering of Heroes collects the first five issues of the Battle Chasers comic book in a single volume. According to a Foreword written by Joe Madureira, the penciller of the comic and original creator of the characters, he wanted to do something different from all those superheroes you see in comics these days. (Before starting this project, he had spent a few years as penciller on the popular monthly title Uncanny X-Men for Marvel Comics.) Apparently he was a diehard Dungeons & Dragons player in the 1980s, and kept wishing more comics would reflect the sword & sorcery genre. (I agree with his basic sentiment that there is no special reason why superheroes should have all the fun, virtually monopolizing the comics industry as they have done for decades in the United States.)

Hence we have Battle Chasers. But in preparing this review, I did a little research. The first issue of this comic came out in 1998. The ninth issue came out sometime in 2001. (This is exceptionally slow work by comic book standards - monthly publication is considered the norm, and even bimonthly has been known to happen, but two or three issues per year is just ridiculous because it gives your fans so much time to forget all about you and what loose ends needed to be resolved from one issue to the next.) Here we are in September of 2002, and #10 has yet to be published. Around January of this year, Joe Madureira announced he was putting the whole project on hold, indefinitely, in favor of helping to start a video game company. There's no telling when (or if) he'll get back to publishing his pride and joy. Since the series is very much one longer story of which this book only reprints the first few installments, that's got to be incredibly frustrating to his diehard fans who started collecting this title in 1998 and have been faithfully awaiting each new comic ever since.

(I don't fall into that category. I recently picked up this collection at a sale. Prior to that time, I had never paid this comic the slightest attention.)

So if you buy this, you will get some exciting fight scenes and character introductions, but you won't get a "complete" story the way you might expect in a conventional novel. This may be advertised as a "graphic novel," but it's more like the first five chapters of a much longer fantasy novel, which is not the same thing and feels unsatisfying.

(Incidentally, Munier Sharrieff is co-credited with "story" which I take to mean that he contributes all or most of the dialogue, after he and Joe have discussed plot outlines, but I could be wrong. Tom McWeeney inks over Joe's pencils. I just mention this in case you cared, or in case someone using search engines to hunt for those names might care.)

Having gotten the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at what's actually happening here, and to whom.

We start the story with a scenario certain to tug at the heartstrings. A cute little girl (blond hair, big blue eyes) is in terrible danger. Her name is Gully. She is the only child of that great military hero, Aramus, who hasn't been heard from for months. A group of men claiming to be bounty hunters hired by the king to track down poor Aramus wherever he's ended up and bring him safely home show up at the front door of the home (Gully and her Nanny are the only permanent residents). They are confronted by members of the Royal Guard who have spotted them as phonies. The "bounty hunters" turn out to be monsters I would call werewolves, and start killing people. Nanny shoves a magically sealed box into Gully's arms and tells her to run. Implicitly, Nanny and all other "good" people are dying as Gully runs out into the forest.

Naturally it's the middle of the night and there don't seem to be any towns or other sources of aid within miles; at least, not that she knows of. The best idea she has is to run toward the deserted ruins of the city of Granok and hope she can find a good hiding place. Doesn't work well. However, with the blind luck which is so important to this type of story (and I'm not objecting as long as they don't do it every ten minutes from now on) she finally bumps into a big cloaked figure with glowing red eyes (and when I say big, I mean that at a conservative estimate, his sheer volume might be about thirty or forty times that of the little girl. Although the ratio of his height and width to hers seems to fluctuate wildly from one scene to the next).

Gully initially assumes he's one of these big bad monsters that are chasing her, but after he a) turns out to be made of solid steel (or some gray metal), and b) kills a few of these werewolves with built-in firepower and crushing blows as they catch up with her, she becomes more inclined to give him the full benefit of the doubt. And rightly so - this hulking stranger turns out to be far and away the most easygoing and even-tempered major character of the series, as long as you don't provoke him by trying to eat cute little girls or indulging in other antisocial pastimes. He just also happens to be the biggest and strongest and most durable, which is no surprise since he was built that way.

His name is Calibretto. He is a "war golem." (Think of a really big bad battle robot, resembling a military tank with arms and legs instead of treads, and you'll have the general idea). Though he is the last survivor of a set of nigh invulnerable units constructed for a horrendous war way back when, he doesn't actually seek out opportunities to slaughter people, monsters, or anything else. We learn something about his preferred lifestyle in this exchange after they've got time to sit down and chat. It's a real bonding experience, at least for Gully. (Do war golems, or robots, bond?)

GULLY: Thank you for saving me back there. I'm sorry you got hurt. What were you doing out there anyway?
Hmmzzt. Planting.
(next panel)
CALIBRETTO (holding up a plant bulb between thumb and forefinger):
Hmmzzt. These hypanthenus can only be planted at night. The mineral rich soil near Granok is vital to their growth.
(next panel)
Hmmzzt. I hope to revive this nearly extinct flower. Hmmzzt.Why are you looking at me that way? Did I say something strange?
(next panel)
Gully hugs him, or at least hugs one arm. Even the arm is bigger than she is.

(Actually, I couldn't help thinking he'd make the perfect babysitter for paranoid parents. He has plenty of patience with small children, but if some nasty intruder (burglar, kidnapper, etc.) broke into the house, Calibretto would probably turn him into hamburger with one blow and that would be the end of that. If he didn't make you feel your child would be safe in your absence, I can't imagine what would.)

As I said before, all this really tugs at the heartstrings. Little girls in dire peril are guaranteed to do that. But I am less enthused by what happens to her later. Calibretto shares a house with a cranky old white-bearded wizard (you just knew there had to be one in this story, didn't you?) who manages to unseal the box those monsters were so eager to acquire. Inside are a pair of big gauntlets which belonged to her father and are high-powered magic weapons. Unfortunately, the following day a second group of monsters attacks the house and Gully ends up wearing the gauntlets while resisting the attackers. Wearing them makes her super-strong, it seems, and she kills one of the monsters with her blows while Calibretto is occupied with others. When she realizes what she did, she starts crying.

Great. So instead of being an innocent bystander, she now gets to engage in the unlikely role of "action hero" in all subsequent battles to the death. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After all, prepubescent kids who get to kill adults (adult humans, or adult monsters, or whatever) in the heat of battle have a long tradition in adventure fiction in various formats. Consider Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. There were some kids in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia who had to become deadly warriors in battle when they were in Narnia, then reverted back to a more normal lifestyle upon returning home to England. Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Jack Sawyer slaughtering werewolves after another in The Talisman (Stephen King and Peter Straub). Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Jaenelle Angelline (the Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop). Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling). Ender Wiggin, trained through his childhood to become commanding admiral of an intersteller fleet (before hitting puberty) in the award-winning SF novel, Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card). Peter Pan and his Lost Boys killed off most of Hook's pirate crew in the novel by James Barrie, though this was carefully sanitized to be (nonlethal) good clean wholesome fun in the Disney film.

Yessirree, many writers clearly find there is something darn inspiring about a story in which one (or more) of the central heroic characters is too young to to be interested in sexual issues, but is already old enough to slice and dice his fellow human beings (or members of other sentient species) as the circumstances may dictate! I guess you can never start them too young!

With all that in mind, I really should be used to it by now.

But I'm not!

(Actually, I think I first read Peter Pan when I was in first grade, and quite liked it, but looking back on it now I find the bloodshed cheerfully perpetrated by preadolescents to be more perturbing than I did at that tender age.)

My problem here is not that Gully used these super-duper gauntlets in simple self-defense in the heat of the moment, once. My problem is the nagging suspicion that she's going to keep using them and using them to create one fatality after another throughout the remainder of the Battle Chasers series. (The big long fight scene at the close of this volume lends strength to my theory.) That's no way for a little girl to spend the best years of her life, even if those gauntlets did belong to her father before her. There's no clear reason some battle-scarred veteran, adult and fully trained for combat, couldn't wear the gauntlets instead.

But if the main plot thread involving Gully and the friends she gradually acquires was the only thing going on here, I might give this thing four amulets out of five. But there are a couple of scenes involving another female, one Gully never meets in this book, which warn us of what sort of market this book is targeted at.

She is simply hailed as Monika in dialogue, but a little research on the Internet told me her official name is Red Monika. Presumably to sort her out from all the other women named Monica, in one spelling or another. In her first scene, she tries to hire master swordsman Garrison (now a tragic drunk, since the death of his charming wife) to help her rescue a notorious terrorist from a maximum-security prison. What a morally uplifting idea! But he turns her down.

In her second scene, later in the book, she and a band of fellow thugs go ahead and pull the rescue of the aforementioned terrorist. The scene ends as they make their getaway. Am I supposed to admire her for this? If someone arrested Osama bin Laden, and then some crazy bimbo in red leather broke him out of jail, I know how I'd feel about it, and I wouldn't be warm and friendly toward the bimbo.

Yes, I said bimbo. You have to see her to understand why I just can't take her seriously as a super-capable mercenary and strong-minded career woman even if she tries to sound like one, at least part of the time. In her first appearance, Red Monika is given a full page for a single illustration to flaunt her cleavage as she says, "GARRISON! I need you." She is wearing a skimpy red leather thing that probably covers about one-third of each breast, though I have to admit that it's probably doing the best it can since each breast is approximately the same height and width as her head, by my estimate. We are informed that she is a moneygrubbing mercenary, and I am forced to conclude that most of her ill-gotten gains have gone straight to the silicone industry (or the fantasy-world equivalent).

I finally decided that mere words cannot describe the situation. It occurred to me that some fanboy with nothing better to do had probably scanned this titillating image and posted it on the net by now. I ran a search for Monika "Battle Chasers" Scan, and sure enough, I found it in a couple of places.

If you just have to see for yourself, go to http://www.imagescentral.com/browse/dc/wildstorm/cliffhanger/battlechasers/heroes/index.html (link provided below) and look at the third item down. It will have a tab on the left saying "003", and over on the right it will say "Info: Red Monika's Grand First Appearance!" Click on the box directly between the tab and the Info line, and you will get a picture of Red Monika, the mercenary refugee from a centerfold, in all her glory. I just wouldn't feel right about reviewing this book without providing a way for you to know exactly what you'll be getting into if you actually spend money on the silly thing. Please accept my assurances that compared to comic books of days past, and even a large number of the ones that are coming out today, Red Monika's oversized chest is exceptional in its efforts to get teenage boys excited in a comic while technically maintaining the equivalent of a PG-13 rating by avoiding outright nudity. Some creators of comic books have actually been known to concentrate on old-fashioned storytelling skills rather than deciding that the most meaningful character development is the sort of development that's best measured with such statistics as 48-24-38 (or whatever her measurements are - I'm no expert on assessing these things).

As I said, she never meets Gully and thus seems largely unncessary in the other events of this book, including stuff I haven't told you about. It seemed fairly clear, however, that she was going to be a running character. (Have to keep those drooling fans satisfied, don't they?) Her habit of flaunting her mammaries says enough about what type of book this was going to be to make me glad I never bought any copies to contribute to Madureira's sales figures at the time this story was coming out in smaller installments.

One other female character is introduced toward the end of this collection. A dark-skinned, white-haired (or should I say platinum blonde?) young woman. As you might guess, she has very conspicious breasts and has barely enough cloth wrapped around herself to be the rough equivalent of a bikini top and slit skirt. Her name is not mentioned (she was too busy struggling with a sort of demonic possession problem to identify herself), but I got the nasty feeling that she too is going to stick around for the long haul. If Monika and this other woman are typical of what full-grown women always look like in Madureira's world, then I guess that gives Gully something to look forward to, for when she's five or ten years older. (Assuming that innocent little Gully actually wants to look like an exaggerated version of a centerfold model, I mean.)

The level of technology is hard to gauge. People carry swords, but Red Monika also carries what looks like a revolver handgun. The maximum-security prison is called Skyhold and floats in midair, obviously only accessible by aircraft or large flying creatures. The soldiers who try to arrest the bounty hunters in the first scene are carrying medieval weaponry (swords, battleaxe, mace, etc.) which is probably why they get slaughtered, but other soldiers (of the same nation!) encountered in a later scene carry rifles. If repeating firearms exist, why are swords still so important? (I am aware that in the days of the single-shot muzzle-loading firearm, swordplay was still considered very important because you had to have a way to defend yourself after you had fired your musket at the beginning of the fight. Hence the superb fencing skills of the Three Musketeers and their friend D'Artagnan.) Calibretto has some hefty firepower built into his metal body, and at one point some bad guys knock him for a loop with what he later describes as a "magnetic impulse cannon." Garrison is a master swordsman and is never depicted carrying a gun. I get the distinct feeling that Madureira simply equips each character with whatever weapons he feels it would be really cool to see them carry, without any regard for how useful a sword is if the other guy might have a rifle and can start shooting at you from a hundred yards away.

(Of course, similar arguments could apply to why Jedi Knights in the Star Wars movies only carry lightsabers instead of blasters or other weapons that would let them pick off their enemies a hundred yards away. The answer, of course, is that lightsaber duels look incredibly cool, hence that's what George Lucas has them do. I admit that those duels do look incredibly cool!)

So what do we have here? Well, if this were the first five chapters of a longer fantasy novel (which is allegedly the general idea), I'd say we were off to a good rousing start. We've had several battles, one jailbreak in a supposedly high-security facility, good magic and evil magic, a drunken recluse and former swordsman hero finally taking an active role in life again . . .

But publishing this as a book was a bit premature. Many comic book collections include 10 or 12 consecutive issues of continuity instead of a measly five, and that's a lot better value for your money. Unless you are just dying to read a fantasy-action-adventure comic book that stops in the middle of the plot development, I advise you to simply sit back and wait a few years and see if the creator ever finishes his series, and then perhaps he'll reprint the individual issues in, say, two volumes of ten or twelve installments each. Meanwhile, if you see this on the shelves in a local bookstore or comics shop, don't assume it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is, as the title suggests, just introducing these characters and "gathering" them (with several fight scenes along the way) for future use in whatever it is they will end up doing together.

P.S. An online listing says this book has 160 pages. That may be true, but I just checked and my copy has at least 21 pages at the back that are just extra artwork, most of it reprinting alternate covers to the individual comic book issues. No dialogue, no connection to the plot, just one or more characters looking impressively posed, in battle or otherwise. Red Monika flaunts her cleavage in three of those pages, and her butt in another one, as she looks back over her shoulder at us.

Three amulets out of five.

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