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The ’90s Revisited – Magic: The Gathering – The Shadow Mage #1

[I’d ‘revisited’ this series as a whole back in August/September 2012 for a group blog that doesn’t exist anymore. And due to a personal issue with Boom Studios‘ comics I refuse to buy the new MAGIC #1. So, instead of buying new comics, and to have the content fully on my own blog to not disappear, I’m going to re-revisit–as single issues–the ORIGINAL Magic: The Gathering comics published by Acclaim through their Armada imprint back in 1995!]

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_001The Aster Fall

Writer: Jeff Gomez
Pencils: Val Mayerik
Ink: James Pascoe
Painted Color: Mark Csaszar
Letters: Bethanne Niedz
Editor-In-Chief: Bob Layton
Cover Painting: Val Mayerik
Cover Date: July 1995
Cover Price: $2.50

To the best of my understanding, this is THE first Magic: The Gathering comic. Though its story may not chronologically be the first, it was the first-published, kicking off the Armada imprint from Acclaim, and introducing the (comics) world to MTG in the spring of 1995. The game itself had premiered in October 1993, some 18 months earlier…and with its setting as a “multiverse,” it was certainly a ripe thing to bring to comics!

The issue opens on an active battlefield. We meet Lord Carthalion, Ezer, and a Lieutenant as they witness a falling star–a bad omen. A magic-powered ship bursts onto the scene, carrying Battlemage Ravidel…the enemy of this Lord Carthalion. The two engage into a “duel” and exchange spells to weaken and harm the other…culminating in Carthalion sacrificing himself to buy time for Ezer to flee with baby Jared…last heir to the Carthalion name. In the aftermath of the battle, Ezer has been artificially aged to a wasted old man, though the baby is relatively unaffected. As Ezer laments their situation–drinking himself into a stupor–we see the baby apparently work some protective magic to save his own life against the intrusion of a (dire?) wolf. Later, city guards at Arathoxia do not believe that this frail old man is in any way who he claims to be, nor the child with him…functionally banishing them from what should have been a life of relative luxury (despite their losses) to that of lowly street-rats, scrounging for food and living off the scraps of the city.

7 years pass, and the young Jared Carthalion is an able thief, stealing food for himself and father-figure Ezer to survive (barely) on. He is bullied by others his age and in no way “included,” existing all but alone. Even after the years that have passed, Ezer tries to keep alive the flame of who Jared really is, where he’s come from, though the boy can’t even envision anything ever getting better…which enrages the old man, who strikes the boy. Meanwhile, using a scrying device, Ravidel spies on the boy and his guardian, and opts to arbitrarily send a summoned minion to kill the boy. When the berzerker bursts in on the pair, Ezer works some magic…as does Jared! The boy has “tapped!” This excites Ezer–the boy WILL be able to avenge his house! However, Ravidel revels in this as well, declaring that their FINAL duel begins.

The last time I read this series, I blew through all four issues pretty quickly, glossing over details and simply taking it in as a totally generic fantasy story with too-fast pacing, lack of characterization, and largely being Magic in little more than name-only. This time through, sticking to this single issue and looking back over stuff and taking it in as a singular thing, I enjoyed it a bit more.

Story-wise, this IS a fairly generic thing. There’s hardly room in ~21 pages to worldbuild when the entire issue encompasses a massive battle, travel, and spans more than seven years.

We’re introduced to Lord Carthalion–the patriarch/leader of the Carthalions. He seems to have some magical ability…but is a mere mortal, compared to the power of a PLANESWALKER in Ravidel. We never get a rason for this battle, for Ravidel’s assault. He’s a two-dimensional villain for the sake of being a villain, apparently. An opponent because their MUST BE “an opponent.” We also get no real sense of what a “planeswalker” is, or WHY a “planeswalker” is and so on. Meta-textually, the reader probbbbbbably knows what one is–the allure of a Magic: The Gathering comic is almost certainly to expand on the cards and game one already knows.

Now in 2021, I’m looking back on this comic from 25 years later, as a person 25 years older, and with 25 years and a number of additional comics as well as dozens of novels and quite a few short stories, and “newer resources” such as Wikipedia and a Magic: The Gathering -specific fan-wiki, and podcast resources/interviews with creators, and generally a heckuva larger understanding than 14/15-year-old Walt had. And I can “appreciate” this issue as the first bit of a much larger thing, rather than something to be taken in total isolation.

The art doesn’t overly impress me–though it’s not bad, really. It’s absolutely better than anything I could produce, but none of these characters are REALLY all that singularly-recognizable and are far from “iconic” visages. The overall visuals certainly evoke a certain mid-90s feel…perhaps due to thinking of the artist recently as I read this issue, I see hints of Barry Windsor-Smith, and overall early Valiant here…though it’s obviously other creators.

While the visuals try to evoke very specific cards and their in-game use; and a column in the back of the issue elaborates on very specific Magic: The Gathering cards represented in the action–I’m far enough removed from early MTG and these cards and any such knowledge I was steeped in as a kid reading this, so it reduces the cards’ representations to generic fantasy-ish magic effects and some random-ish action that meant little to me in the reading.

The cover gives us Lord Carthalion in full strength wielding a sword in one hand, casting a fireball (presumably) from the other; while we also get a representation of the baby facing a looming wolf in a wooded space. This is relevant to the issue–Carthalion’s duel, and Jared’s fate…so it’s not just some arbitrary, random, unfocused magic-user. This is a singular cover; to this day, I am only aware of–get this: ONE SINGLE COVER for this issue. My copy has “Direct Sales” in the barcode…hence this came from the “direct market” or “comic shops.” There may be “newsstand sales” for the issue–copies that sold through newsstands or non-comic shop locations (Bookstores like Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, or found at a grocery store or such). But the difference would be the barcode itself…NOT a different cover image!

The issue originally came polybagged with a 4th edition Fireball card–an actual, playable card from Magic: The Gathering . This was from right as Revised Edition was fading away and 4th Edition was ramping up…I don’t recall for certain but I believe this FIreball may have been the first 4th edition (or 4th edition-STYLE) card I owned for the game. Unlike many such comics at the time, despite the polybag, there’s a banner across the top of the cover itself proclaiming the inclusion of the “free” card. So minus the bag and card itself…the banner remains.

The card was not a unique card “exclusive” to the comic or anything; it wasn’t some limited edition or variant or whatnot. It was just…a card. For the game. Playable. A little piece of the game included with a comic based on the game. What a far cry from more recent Magic comics with alternate-art cards shrink-wrapped with an issue and prompting an extra-sized cover price for the inclusion of a sheet of cardboard, the card itself, and shrink-wrapping in addition to the other regular costs of producing a comic (referencing the IDW-published Magic comics from 2012 or so).

This first issue of The Shadow Mage kicks off a story set in the “world” of Magic…but it’s a case of the story referencing the cards, rather than the cards referencing a story. I’d put it as well that this is from when the entirety of Magic: The Gathering was a more vague “idea” than concrete story, and what would eventually develop was still BEING developed.

There’s not really much of anything to this issue to make it a destination-read or something to seek out…unless one specifically wants to go back to the beginning of Magic’s appearance in comics. Or snag the first appearance of Jared Carthalion, Battlemage Ravidel, the first Elder Dragon represented in a comic (Chromium Rhuell’s corpse being part of the planar barge), and so on.

That said…it’s actually not a bad read–and I certainly enjoyed it much more than I did Gerrard’s Quest #1 that I read last year!

After an apparently-failed launch of “modern” Magic comics a couple years ago by IDW, Boom Studios got the license and has just launched a new series, titled simply Magic (dropping the “: The Gathering” part) and I haven’t a clue where they’re gonna take the story. After a brief 2-book return to the world of printed novels, Wizards of the Coast went right back to digital-only to tell the story of card sets, so this new Boom series is a different return to print…and some “hype” I’ve seen suggests they’re hoping for a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers level resurgence of the property in comics. However…it’s that comparison that seems to have sparked hype on THIS original series with some crazy activity on The Shadow Mage #1 in graded condition and such with speculators apparently flocking to it in hopes that something from that issue pops up and becomes The Next Big Thing in modern Magic comics.

Me?

I’m gonna sit back and enjoy re-reading original 1990s’ Magic: The Gathering comics, and appreciate the lack of overhype, lack of variants, and (relative) lack of pure, greedy speculation.

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_001_blogtrailer

The ’90s Revisited: X-O Manowar/Iron Man in Heavy Metal #1

90srevisitedxomanowar_ironman_heavymetal001Heavy Metal part 1

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Andy Smith
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Color Art: Twilight Graphics
Assistant Editor: Omar Banmally
Consulting Assistant Editor: Nancy Poletti
Consulting Editor: Mark Gruenwald
Editor: Lynaire Thompson
Editor in Chief: Bob Layton
Published by: Acclaim Comics/Valiant
Cover Date: September 1996
Cover Price: $2.50

I vaguely remember when this series was originally out. I don’t remember details, but I’m supposing (in retrospect) that the Iron Man connection is what caught my eye…though there was probably Wizard coverage, and I wasn’t unaware of X-O Manowar from the #0 issue at least. Of course, there was the video game, which this is based on or inspired by or what-have-you. Given Acclaim was doing the video game, and had bought Valiant, it makes a lot of sense that there’d be a tie-in comic.

While I’ve found many of the "later" Valiant comics, this issue has eluded me until recently when I noticed both issues of the "crossover" on eBay. Being edged out on the bidding at the last second I looked for other instances, and including shipping scored a copy of both this X-O Manowar/Iron Man issue and the companion Iron Man/X-O Manowar for the price of a single contemporary Marvel comic. While this oughtta be quarter-bin fodder, not finding it that way made it worthwhile to me to pay a bit of a premium just to HAVE the issues.

The cover looks rather odd to me–far from an ideal thing, and rather generic. There’s something a bit "off" to me about both armors…probably the "early digital" art, which may even be a still from the video game (I don’t care enough to investigate further). Either way for a cross-company crossover this does not look like anything special from the cover alone.

Upon opening the issue I immediately saw an art style that did not appeal to me. I don’t know if I’ve seen or liked anything else from Andy Smith, but in this issue, I am not a fan. It’s not horrible art, and it’s certainly far, FAR superior to anything I could possibly do myself. It gets things across and isn’t too wonky or anything…basically it does its intended job but does not stand out as anything special.

Seeing Nicieza‘s name as the writer was an immediate appeal for me…but getting into the issue I felt rather left down. This thing’s all over the place and does not feel developed at all. We jump from villains we aren’t given much about to other villains; and world to world. I found myself confused to realize partway through that we’re actually dealing with MULTIPLE sets of Iron Man/X-O Manowar and not just the two characters being matched up for a single double-universe adventure.

I believe this was a time when Iron Man had been "de-aged" or replaced by a younger parallel-dimension version of himself or some such, so that’s not ENTIRELY off-putting to "learn" here but that’s not really explained. And given this is an issue from Acclaim, it’s certainly well-past the X-O Manowar stuff I was familiar with, am familiar with…and having just read a 2015-published issue of the contemporary X-O Manowar series found the character dull and not at all 3-dimensional here.

I’ve often enjoyed Nicieza‘s work, particularly his X-Men stuff, and find myself seeing this as being completely hobbled by BEING a video game tie-in, presumably with a bunch of "checklist" points to be hit during the issue. And with Acclaim and Marvel both getting to publish an issue, there’s probably a certain bit of symmetry that had to be achieved as well. All of which ultimately leads to an issue that I didn’t enjoy.

I would be incensed at having paid full price for this–particularly had it been published in 2015 and passed off as anything supposedly special. However, it’s still something that I’ve been curious about for years, and a definite "artifact" of its time…so despite not enjoying the issue, I do expect I’ll read the Marvel-published one as well just to "get the story," and all that. Unfortunately this does somewhat taint my expectations toward the bulk of the Acclaim-published Valiant stuff and makes me hesitate just a bit on diving into reading any of those anytime soon.

The ’90s Revisited: Ninjak Yearbook #1

ninjakyearbook001Writer: Mike Baron
Penciller: Bryan Hitch
Colorist: Steve Whitaker
Letterer: Adam Niedzwiecki
Editor: Maurice Fontenot
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Layton
Cover: Stu Suchit
Published by: Valiant
Cover Price: $3.95

After having recently read the Trapped by Webnet arc in the current Unity series,when I was flipping through a quarter-bin the other day, I bought this issue and actually read it same-day, even though I already had it. It was the immediacy, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, except a Ninjak story and the cover had a headshot of someone that I couldn’t imagine being anyone other than Dr. Silk.

For as many of the original Valiant books as I’ve amassed the last couple years, I’ve read surprisingly few so far (telling myself I’m waiting til I can read the entire Valiant universe start to finish with no gaps). So I didn’t quite know what to expect here. The issue is labeled as a Yearbook…I’ve come to realize that would be original Valiant‘s way of saying “Annual.” So this is the 1994 Annual for the Ninjak ongoing, and while I half expected a big To Be Continued, I was pleasantly “surprised” to find that this issue is self-contained.

I didn’t think about the art all that much as I read the issue, but I really didn’t have any problem with it. Nothing jumped out in any negative way, and I didn’t feel “distracted” by it, either. It just got the visuals across and told that side of the whole of the story. In typing this post I see Bryan Hitch was the penciler, so in retrospect I kind of “see” it, though it definitely (obviously) predates his work on The Ultimates by a number of years. Combined with the coloring, I’d have to say I prefer Ultimates to this, but there’s also the fact of reading this 20-year-old single issue, and that Hitch and comics/printing in general had a good 8-some years of development between when this issue was published and when The Ultimates came along.

The story is relatively simple: Ninjak’s out and about in his civilian guise, and gets recruited for a mission. Dr. Silk’s making trouble, and of course needs to be stopped. Ninjak encounters a rather personal foe en route to stopping Dr. Silk, and by issue’s end we’ve reached the adventure’s end.

Perhaps over-simplifying, I’d say this issue is basically a single-issue Ninja-Spy story: part ninja-guy in Ninjak, but he’s also a spy. And it sure as heck beats being just some kick-off to a longer story, or a concluding chapter of a longer story, or being a middle chapter of a story…etc.

I quite enjoyed reading the issue, and it was CERTAINLY worth the 25 cents, if solely for the amount of time it took to read. I’ve maybe read one or two other Ninjak issues through the years, though I’m honestly not even sure if I’ve read the first issue…I think I know more of the contemporary version of the character from the last couple years in current Valiant‘s X-O Manowar, Unity, and Armor Hunters titles. 

That being said…I never felt lost or taken out of the story by my lack of knowledge; though I’m consciously aware of “continuity” and such, this worked just fine for me as a single-issue “episode” of stuff. Perhaps it’s a bit formulaic…but for me, that worked in the issue’s favor.

While this is a sort of Annual as opposed to an arbitrarily-chosen issue of the ongoing series, it’s very satisfying to be able to just pick up one issue and have an enjoyable story, good art, and no burning desire to go grab another issue immediately to continue or finish the story.

Now recognizing the Yearbook issues as basically being annuals, I may actually target them for reading prior to getting down to any solid “reading projects” for classic Valiant.

If you come across this in a bargain bin, it’s certainly worth 25 cents to $1. While it’s good, it’s not any issue of particular or singular significance, and as a “generic ’90s book” I wouldn’t suggest paying more than $1 for a copy, and personally consider it truly 25-cent-bin fare.

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