Saturday, September 26, 2009

Out of the Vault- Dragonring

When I think about the black-and-white boom of the 1980's, one company that leaps quickly to mind is Aircel. They published a fairly big slate of black-and-white books in the mid-80's--Samurai, Elflord, Warlock 5, Stark Future are the ones that leap immediately to mind--and their black-bordered covers made it easy to recognize an Aircel book on the racks. The reason I haven't covered any Aircel books so far, though, is that even though their books were memorable for the distinctive cover designs, they were forgettable in virtually every other way.

Take Dragonring by Guang Yap, for instance.

Dragonring was the story of Kohl Drake, an adventurer living in Hong Kong with boat captain Miles Corkin and his adopted son Yue'. In the first issue, Kohl is hired by a man named Raymond Wharfin (in a nod to Buckaroo Banzai) who was meant to be a caricature of Rodney Dangerfield, I think. Raymond has traveled to Hong Kong because he has inherited an island from a distant uncle (all the rest of his relatives have been killed, not that Raymond has noticed). The last boat he hired to take him to the island was attacked by strange zombie ninja creatures, so Raymond now wants to hire Kohl to take him to the island.

When they go to Miles's boat, they are attacked by the same creatures, but Kohl makes short work of them with his mad nunchuk skills, in a sequence which shows off Guang Yap's love of small panels depicting the action almost as a series of movie frame blow-ups.

However, nobody seems particularly freaked by the zombies. Yue' asks "Who were those guys," to which Raymond replies, "I thought my ex-wife sent them." Kohl never gives them a second thought, which is fine, because they're never mentioned again. Kohl says a brief goodbye to his girlfriend, Mai-Ling, then they steam off to the island, where Raymond is greeted by lawyer Carstairs and the island's Amazon inhabitants.

Who are they? Never comes up. They just appear in the background of a couple of panels, but we never find out anything about them. Oh, and you can tell it's the 80's, because some of the Amazons are wearing leg warmers with their armor.

That night, Kohl is walking around the island, unable to sleep. He saw an old man at a distance who looked familiar, but Kohl can't remember who he is. The old man appears with a back full of arrows and gives Kohl a mysterious ring before dying. Who is he? We never find out, and Kohl never gives him another thought in the issues that follow.

Next day, Yue' heads off to a swimming hole while Kohl and Wharfin head to a meeting with the lawyer. Kohl isn't in the least disturbed by the murder he witnessed last night, because he doesn't mention it to anybody, neither to ask questions of the Amazons nor to warn his friends that something is up. Of course, they knew it might be dangerous when they got attacked on the boat, but nobody seems to remember that either.

At the swimming hole, Yue' befriends a kid named Alex, while Kohl passes a few words with the leader of the Amazons in a hallway. Yue' and Alex are nearly killed by a tentacled monster under the water, but they don't bother to mention it to any of the other kids swimming there, so one of the others gets eaten. Bygones.

Later, Alex and Yue' ooh and aah while watching a cool thunderstorm outside, tentacle monster conveniently forgotten. And Kohl has another brief conversation with the Amazon leader, who has developed a name all of a sudden and calls Kohl "my love." Where did that come from? What about poor Mai-Ling, pining away for Kohl back in Hong Kong and never mentioned again? Who cares, because Yue' is screaming about a monster that just kidnapped Alex. Kohl grabs a sword off a suit of armor and runs into the next room. A monster attacks, and Kohl cuts off its paw. It flees into a secret passage and Kohl follows the trail.

Meanwhile, lawyer Carstairs appears and pulls a gun on Yue' and the Amazon. You see, this was all a plot between Carstairs and the high priest (who?) to kill off Wharfin, so ownership of the island would fall to Carstairs as executor of the estate. Peril!

Kohl enters a cave with a lake. He dives into the water, kills the tentacle monster and surfaces in another chamber. Alex is tied spread-eagled on a stone altar, and the hooded figure of the high priest is preparing to sacrifice him to some demon or other. Kohl appears, kills the monster and knocks the high priest down a pit. Happy ending!

But what about Carstairs holding Yue' and the Amazon Cassandra at gunpoint? Wharfin tells us the next day that Carstairs fled when he heard more guards coming and has completely disappeared. Kohl, Yue' and Miles (who stayed on the boat the whole time) prepare to leave the island, along with Alex, who has decided to see the outside world or something. He's an orphan, so nobody on the island apparently cares whether he stays or goes. He's their own little white Hadji! Kohl and Cassandra share a passionate kiss, and Kohl says he'll call. Yeah, right. Playa!

So you can see why the book was forgettable. The characters were complete ciphers. There were a few attempts at comic relief and "personality," but basic storytelling elements were abandoned by the roadside. Nothing that happened in one scene seemed to have any real bearing on what happened in the next scene. The characters all bumbled through the story cluelessly, and what seemed like major story threads were introduced and never heard from again.

And yet...

I bought the entire 6-issue run of the original series and three more issues after the book switched to color. Why?

Guang Yap's artwork, I think. His illustrations had a unique quality, combining Neal Adams-style linework and layouts with subtle ink washes reminiscent of Alfredo Alcala's work in the Warren and Marvel black-and-white mags. There was a unique tonality to the linework that almost made it look as if it were reproduced from the original pencils rather than being inked.

I kept hoping that Yap's stoytelling would evolve to become worthy of the artwork. But it never happened. As each issue passed, we would get hints that there was some overall arc being told, but scene-by-scene and issue-by-issue, the story made no sense. Maybe I kept buying the series because I couldn't remember how bad it had been each previous month. Maybe it was that forgettable.

Reading through the series today, the other thing that really leaps out at me (and maybe it's only because I remembered reading about some controversy on this point regarding Barry Blair, who is credited as co-penciler on several issues) is the fact that Alex and Yue' never wear pants. I mean, not once in the entire series.

They spend six issues in short shorts and loincloths, except for the scene when Alex is first introduced, when he's wearing nothing at all, because the native kids on the island are skinny-dipping.

And I understand that it was the 80's, so short-shorts were cool...

and I also understand that they are probably more prevalent in Asia than in America, but at some point, I just wanted to scream at Kohl, "Get those kids some pants!" Jeez.

Oh yeah, what was up with the ring, you ask? We found out in issue 1 of the color series (which would make it issue 7 in continuity) that the ring contained the spirit of some evil dragon or something. It played hardly any role at all in the first six issues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think we can chalk some of that up to Barry Blair, who spent a lot of time and effort ruining Elflord with his rampant and obvious pedophilia.