Saturday, January 11, 2014

Countdown To Godzilla: Dinosaurs Attack Comic Review

Uh, guys?  The scary eyes are BEHIND you.

     This probably comes at absolutely no surprise to any of you, but…I like giant movie monsters, and Gareth Edwards’ upcoming Godzilla film is no doubt the, forgive the wording, King of my “Upcoming Must See Films” list.  My excitement for this film has been building for quite some time, mostly due to the hype built around the 2012 San Diego Comic Con teaser trailer that never found its way online until October 2013…briefly.  I was able to see the trailer a few times before it was taken down and it sent my anticipation into almost foaming-at-the-mouth levels.  That being said, I’m going to do a "Countdown To Godzilla," where I look at media involving giant monsters while I boil in my own anticipation of May 2014’s release.  What part of, “Shut up and take my money” does Warner Brothers & Legendary Studios not understand?!

What an awesome shot.

     In our first episode of Countdown To Godzilla, we’re going to head back to 1988 (well, sorta) to look at Dinosaurs Attack!.  In case you need some background history on this subject, I aim to please.
     In 1962, Topps released a series of trading cards called The Civil War News, the brain child of Len Brown and Woody Gelman who created the cards using a similar series from the 1930s, The Horrors Of War, as a template, depicting violent imagery on the front and journal-like exposition on the back.  These cards were very graphic, very violent and very successful.  In the same year, Topps (under the alias of “Bubbles Inc”) launched the infamous Mars Attacks! series, which combined the violent nature of The Civil War with the popular 50s-60s trend of invaders from outer space attacking Earth.  Oddly enough, these were the ones to feel the wrath of parents that felt the cards were too violent and were actually pulled from the shelves for a time.  In 1965, Topps tried again with a series called Battle, which depicted World War II battle scenes but the series flopped and this was the last of the Topps/Brown/Gelman combinations.
     In 1987, Topps said, “Fuck it, let’s try again…with DINOSAURS!  Writer Gary Gerani and artists Herb Trempe & Earl Norem teamed up for Dinosaurs Attack!, a 55-card & 11-sticker series that brought back the “freewheeling ‘bad taste’ graphics and humor,” as Gerani described it.

Pictured above:  DA in a nutshell.

The story of DA is as follows (uh, guess I better go out on a limb just to cover my own ass and say, “SPOILERS!”): Dr. Elias Thorne and his wife Helen have created a Time Scanner on the space station Prometheus.  The Time Scanner creates a window to the past, which Dr. Thorne plans on using to answer the age old question of how the dinosaurs went extinct.  However, when the Time Scanner is fired up, something goes awry and the screen is filled with a pair of large reptilian eyes.  When this happens, dinosaurs begin materializing out of thin air and attacking the human race.  Even creatures documented as docile herbivores become blood-thirsty monsters that devour anyone in their path.  The planet falls into absolute chaos as the human population faces mass casualties and the world’s military forces are unable to hold them back.  While Dr. Thorne tries to come up with a solution, he has a dream where he is visited by a creature called “The Saurian,” who informs him that the dinosaurs are under the control of something called “The Supreme Monstrosity,” who wishes for the planet to be put back under the rule of the dinosaur.  Once Dr. Thorne comes up with a solution to send the dinosaurs back to their own time, a giant fiery hand comes through the screen, grabs him and pulls him into another dimension.  The hand belongs to the Supreme Monstrosity, or “Dino Satan,” as some fans call him, and Dr. Thorne tells his wife to throw the switch.  She does, which hurtles the dinosaurs back to the Mesozoic, some of them not entirely intact, but in doing so initiates the Prometheus’ self destruct and traps Elias in with Dino Satan.  Elias dies but Helen manages to escape from the Prometheus and upon returning to Earth, she comes to the conclusion that what wiped out the dinosaurs was the human race.
While the cards may not have broken serious ground in the market, hardcore collectors absolutely LOVED them and the series was popular enough that Eclipse Comics was going to launch a comic series that told the story of the cards.  However, that story was cancelled after just one issue and Dinosaurs Attack! seemed to fade away.

The original issue of DA, which actually shouldn't set you back too much on eBay.

            Fast forward to 2013.  Having crashed and burned with their Jurassic Park comics, IDW Publishing, who, at the time of this blog’s production, had the rights to Mars Attacks! and was crossing it over with every other IDW property possible, decided to take a break from Martians and focused their attention of finishing what Eclipse started all those years ago by not only completing the Dinosaurs Attack! story, but by also expanding the story from the initial 3-issue run to a new 5-issue run.  Now, when I first heard about this, I was like, “Okay, whatever.”  My neighbors had shown me a few of the cards when I was a kid and I even had a couple of the stickers on my headboard, but I didn’t go absolutely crazy over them because I honestly wasn’t too keen on the over-the-top violence seeing as how I liked dinosaurs as I saw them in the science books.  In high school, I somehow rediscovered Dinosaurs Attack! and the knowledge of the series’ existence has stuck with me since I was able to appreciate it more.  As an adult, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to look into IDW’s Dinosaurs Attack!
            Upon reading the five issue series, one of the first things that really stood out to me was just how little of the cards were used to draw source material from.  Only 29 of the 55 cards are referenced to/included in the series, giving writer Gary Gerani enough breathing room to flesh out the characters on the Prometheus and in the Ohio News Station so that you aren’t just rooting for the dinosaurs smashing stuff and eating people but for the people who are actually trying to do something about the dinosaurmageddon.  Some minor changes are made to the Thornes as well.  In the cards, they were married but in the comics, they are recently divorced and Helen is trying to shut down the TimeScan project not because she’s a bitter ex-wife but because she is genuinely concerned of the ethics of a project like this.  This also allows for some mystery whodunit moments during the dinosaur invasion as the crew of the Prometheus tries to figure out if all of this is caused by Elias’ ESP or if something more sinister is at work.
            The comics also do a very good job of keeping the spirit of the card series going, seeing as how both have the same writer and artists.  Earl Norem returns to paint any scenes with the dinosaurs reeking havoc while Herb Trimpe handles the human-based art.  Ordinarily I find it frustrating when a comic bounces back forth from artist to artist (the final issue of Marvel Zombies vs The Army Of Darkness was REALLY bad for this) but with the world of DA, this works, and it truly disappointed me in issue 5 when Dino-Satan appeared and was handdrawn instead of painted.  Of ALL the things that should’ve been painted, Dino-Satan was the big one.

 *Sigh* It's just not the same...

     However, to make up for it a couple of issues end with a cliffhanger style similar to the end of the old Adam West Batman series, featuring corny lines such as, “New Thrills, New Surprises…As The Fantastic Dinosaur Invasion Continues Unabated!’ Or “With Selected Scenes In Super-Realistic DINOSCOPE” over images not only recycled from the card series but original artwork that makes me wonder if it was done just for the comics or if they were intended to be in the cards but never saw the light of day until now.
            One last good thing that I want to touch base on here is that much like the cards, the comics of DA throws in nods and references to other “Prehistoric Animals vs. Modern Man” media.  For example, those two things trashing Italy in issue 2?  Those are the creatures from The Giant Behemoth and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, respectively (couldn't find the comic art online, but here's the card for reference).  Issue #4 has a slew of references on a single page.  Look at these two panels: There’s Godzilla, Gorgo, the Rhedosaur (Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), every four legged lizard looks like they came from the 1960s version of The Lost World, that dragon-thing looks like Reptilicus, there’s Rodan and Gertie The Dinosaur, of all things!  Was NOT expecting her to show up here.
            All this being said, there were a couple of things that I DIDN’T like about DA.  I had already mentioned that I was really disappointed that Dino-Satan was not painted, but there was something else that bothered me.  When Elias is visited by The Saurian in his dreams, in the cards he looked more like the humanoid Troodon model that theorized what dinosaurs would look like had they not gone extinct.  Here, he looks more like a skinnier version of The Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man.

Dr. Connors?  Is that you?

     I also found that he comes off as much condescending as he is helpful and I had really hoped IDW ran with this and had it turn out that The Saurian was actually Dino-Satan.  It also didn’t help that Dino-Satan doesn’t speak so this lack of banter once he grabs Elias, in combination with the handdrawn art style and green instead of red skin, actually makes him less menacing and more…derpy.
            DA also seems to have troubles with pacing, if you are reading it from the individual issues.  The first issue is mostly exposition and character setup, making the first issue seem like a bit of a bore if you’re expecting them to deliver on the title of Dinosaurs Attack right from the get-go.  Issues 2 through 4 seem to do a pretty good job of balancing character interaction with the death and chaos and that’s where this series really shines.  Issue 5 seems really rushed as if the writer and artists were having fun with the ideas they had but the powers that be said, “Okay guys, you seriously gotta wrap this up” so the climax with Dino-Satan feel like it was just jammed together to meet a deadline.  I’m hoping that if you were to read DA in a trade format that it’ll blend together a bit more seamlessly, but we’ll have to wait until March and see (which I intend to get, by the way).           
     Basically, if you were to ask if I would recommend this comic to anyone, I would probably suggest that they acquaint themselves with the card series beforehand, just so they know what they’re getting into.  Because if you go into DA expecting something with little things like scientific accuracy, you’ll HATE it.  Now, would I want to see a sequel?  Actually, yes.  Gary Gerani had come up with a sequel idea, but since the original DA didn’t quite take off it never saw the light of day, save for a bonus card that came with the original Eclipse comic issue so it’d be nice if, much like the first arc, IDW was able to finish that.
            Of course, the idea has been kicked around for some time of a DA movie.  When Tim Burton had acquired the rights to Mars Attacks, he also had the rights to DA with the intent of making that film first.  However, the release of Jurassic Park crushed those ideas, which included both a live action and animated series, so Mars Attacks got to see the light of day…for all the good that did for the film.  Really, I think DA’s time to be a film has come and gone.  The series is too much of a throwback to the man vs. prehistoric monsters movies of old to work nowadays as a film, in my opinion.  DA doesn’t take itself seriously and has many nods to the old stop motion, guys-in-suits and trick photography days that in a world rampant with CGI-fests and dark, gritty Christopher Nolan reboots, it just wouldn’t feel the same and in the end, probably not worth the efforts of both the studios and the filmmakers financially.  If this was 1989 and the old special effects technologies were still being used, then yeah, I’d be all for it…but it’s not.  I know nothing is sacred in entertainment anymore, but DA works well as a tongue-in-cheek card and comic series.  Just leave it at that.
            And that concludes my review of Dinosaurs Attack!  Check back in a little bit for the next episode of Countdown To Godzilla, where we’ll be looking at the David Carrodine film, Q: The Winged Serpent.

-The Cynic

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