Thursday, July 18, 2013

It came from the Dollar Bin! Sectaurs #1!

Remember the 80s? I don't, I was born at the very end of that whole decade, but I'm very familiar with a very specific subset of the era's pop culture: the comics and cartoons. A lot of 80s cartoons saw syndication in the 90s, and Cartoon Network was airing Silverhawks and GI Joe as late as 2002, and, uh, I watched that stuff.

The point is, pretty much all the successful cartoons of the 80s had one thing in common: a toyline. In the earliest and most notable cases (He-Man, GI Joe, Transformers), the toys came first, with the show being created to promote them. But as the decade dragged on, there were a lot of attempts to duplicate the success of those shows, and a lot of toylines came pre-packaged with a TV miniseries and a Marvel comic, including Visionaries, Starriors, and Animax. Oh, and Sectaurs.


Sectaurs is interesting for two reasons: One, the good guy and the bad guys are all humanoid bug people. The bugs would be villains in just about any other context -- in Beast Wars, for instance, most Predacons are bugs. Of course, in most cases the Sectaurs' resemblence to insects begins and ends at their antennae and eyes. Two, the toys' gimmick was that the figures came with mounts or attack animals, seen above. Some of them were essentially hand puppets that you perched the figures atop.

The character designs for the good guys follow the "but not too inhuman" rule, with the heroic Price Dargon sporting a full head of hair, for instance. Oh, and the comic is written by Bill Mantlo, famed for Rom: Spaceknight and Micronauts, which perhaps not coincidentally were also toy tie-ins. I don't know much about those comics, but this is one of the most dense, overwritten single issues this side of Top Ten -- I've hardly ever seen this many characters, concepts, or subplots introduced all at once. And unlike Top Ten, none of it's especially new or interesting; if anything it's one cliche to the next in rapid succession.

The setting is the planet Symbion, which is essentially your average fantasy setting with bug people. The Dark Domain, with its capital Symbax, is a forthrightly evil nation built on the backs of legions of helpless slaves

The Shining Realm, in case subtlety isn't your thing, is naturally the good world power. But, as the slaves say, the dark empress Devora wishes to conquer it. She has her armies invade the border kingdoms between the Dark Domain and the Shining Realm, under false pretenses of discovering heretics there.

At the edge of the Shining Realm, the warrior Pinsor, riding his steed Battle Beetle, arrives at his brother Draymor's farm. Pinsor is the mustachioed, three-fingered guy on the cover, and by my wager the elder statesman, Man-at-Arms type among the heroes.

At dinner, Draymor asks his brother to use his friendship with Prince Dargon to ensure that the border farmlands are protected from invasion. Pinsor balks at the suggestion, saying this is a time of peace, when Devora's forces attack.

That was supposed to be funny, right? Or was this during the period where "AIIIEEEEE!" was used without irony? I can't even tell if the soldier's being sarcastic. Oh, and these guys are General Spidrax and Commander Waspax. Note the buzzing bug mount that matches Waspax's color scheme. They also provide exposition: on Symbion, heretics, also known as Keepers, are people who practice "arcane arts of the ancients" -- I guess there's magic in this setting. Anyway, Pinsor and Draymor join the fight and inspire the peasant farmers, but Draymor is knocked off his bug mount by the hideous brute Skulk, Empress Devora's stepson and the ugly guy on the far right of the cover.

Oh, and more exposition: everybody who rides these bugs, or insectaurs (hence the name, I guess), is "telebonded" with them, symbiotically linked. Thus, they share each other's pain. And... surely there are benefits to this, because "feeling your horse's pain", by itself, would be a really crappy superpower.

Pinsor's brother is wounded and cannot fight, and the battle is hopeless at this point anyway. Pinsor goes to tell Dargon's uncle Regent Galken of the Dark Domain's treachery.  The villagers are enslaved for "harboring heretics" as Spidrax gloats about a job well done. Meanwhile, our hero Prince Dargon and his best pal Zak are on a hunting expedition.

Yeah, "Bitaur", which I think is a triple pun. You get used to lame puns when you look at the 80s; He-Man was probably the biggest offender. Incidentally, Bitaur's one of the small insectaurs that can't be ridden. Dargon's speech is not unlike that of Marvel's old Shakespearean Asgardians, I should mention, and I bet that kind of dialogue is fun as hell to write.

Dargon defies death, grabbing the venipede as it goes under and returning to the surface with the venom he needed minutes later. He joins Zak and their pal Gnatseye as they go to the Crimson Claw, the hottest pub in the Shining Realm's capital of Prosperon (because, you know, subtlety). There, in the midst of their celebrating, Dargon's old mentor Mantys comes to browbeat him about his royal duties; Dargon's father has been missing for some time, and he is unwilling to ascend to the throne unless he knows him to be dead.

At the same time, Skulk tracks down a for real suspected Keeper, followed covertly by Spidrax and Waspax. The trail leads to a "Hyve", some place where the "Ancients" lived, which  mostly looks like part of a spaceship. Yeah, magic and super science are both heretical. Because at this point, why not? Fantasy? Let's get some sci-fi in there. Maybe add a gritty crime drama a little later. Oh, and Skulk touches something and ruins everything.

Outside, a red fog rolls out, killing the soldiers Spidrax left behind. It develops into a crazy loco storm, which both floods Prosperon and tears it to pieces, and sends wildlife running for hundreds of miles. Dargon also talks about the great cataclysm, and suspects that the storm may not be natural. Mantys, however, knows this to be the case -- he has knowledge of the Ancients' science, and would be labeled a heretic if anyone knew.

Regent Galken calls a conference to which the kings of the Shining Realm's city-states attend. It's revealed that Devora has spun Skulk's actions to her advantage, and used the death of Spidrax's troops as an excuse to start a full-fledged war against the Keepers. Moreover, the storm's devastation of Prosperon has the Shining Realm's rulers convinced that they should ally with the Dark Domain against the Keepers. Man, political intrigue, huh? Subplot #32A is introduced when Zak's fiancee Belana, who secretly likes Dargon a lot more than Zak, shows up. Oh, and Mantys tries to warn against allying with the Dark Domain.

This all strikes me as a little ambitious for a tie-in comic to a line of action figures, but then again, Mantlo is clearly the expert on that. So Mantys takes Dargon to his father's quarters and has a talk with him about the ancients and the Great Cataclysm, outing himself as a Keeper. He says that if the Shining Realm is to survive, Dargon needs to get find the remaining Hyves before the Dark Domain can -- and that if he does, he can use their technology for good. That's when Pinsor bursts in to tell of the attack on his brother's farm.

At the same time, Devora assigns Spidrax, Waspax, and Pinsor to the task of finding the other Hyves as well, except, you know, for evil. Also, it turns out her castle is called Grimhold, because, again, subtlety. Spidrax thinks to himself about the power any one Hyve contains, and how he can use it to usurp Devora's place as ruler, because it's not enough for the heroes to fight the bad guys, they have to fight each other.

WHEW. Is it me or was that long? For a 24 page comic, that is. Crap, I talk about how much happens in a given issue of the Metal Men, but at least that's a little longer than your typical monthly. And here's the thing: I have so little reason to care about any of these characters. The setting and concept are so muddled and complicated that it takes all issue to introduce them, and the characters have so little room to show their... characters. Man, I always talk about how easy it must be to look at bad comics at be funny, and while I wouldn't call this horrible, I take that back.

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