Monday, September 5, 2016

Collectibles Become Comic Books With Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1!

The Good: Good characters, Good story, Some knock-out artwork
The Bad: Incredibly erratic artwork, Fractured story at points
The Basics: Against all my first instincts, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 becomes a joy to read and a set-up graphic novel worth championing as the DC Comics Universe as re-imagined in a gynocentric way!

A few years ago, when my wife and I were still living in Upstate New York, we made a day trip to Albany. I thought it would be fun to visit the state capital and we ended up doing a lot of generally geeky things, like visiting comic book shops, trying local restaurants (okay, that's not geeky) and going to the movies. While at one of the comic book shops, I came across a Wonder Woman figure that I had never before seen. The figure was the Ame-Comi Wonder Woman, the first one which featured a barely-dressed Wonder Woman holding the head of Medusa. At the time, $39.95 seemed a bit steep of a price for me, so I passed on picking it up (which was aided by my wife staring me down and asking me point-blank, "Where the hell would you display that?!"). I did not think much about the Ame-Comi toy line, despite occasionally seeing them in my sidebar advertisements and seeing the prices for some of the figures (like that Wonder Woman I passed on all those years ago!) going quite high. But, given how intensive September is turning out to be for Marvel Comics-based reviews, I figured that I would branch out a little bit with my DC Comics reviews and that was when I discovered that there were actually comic books based upon the Ame-Comi toy line.

The concept of building a supporting work around a collectible or toy is not a new one. As much as I loved Masters Of The Universe growing up, I know that the television series was based on the toy line, not the other way around. So, DC Comics is now creating supporting materials for the popular collectibles from DC Collectibles, like Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 and a comic book based upon the DC Bombshells line of statues. Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is the anthology of the five volumes (three issues each) of the main characters - Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Power Girl, Duella Dent, and Supergirl - reformatted for the printing and without the "To Be Continued" line at the end of the chapters that would have delineated the original issues.

Opening with Steve Trevor briefing the U.S. President on the rumors of Themyscira hours in advance of Kasnia launching an attack on the island, Princess Diana of Themyscira trains in hand to hand combat with the minotaurs on the island. When the Kasnian army invades, the Amazons easily repel them, but when Queen Hippolyta realizes that the battle was turned by Diana, she is angered. Hippolyta wants to send an envoy to the strongest, most democratic nation on Earth and have the envoy trade protecting Themyscira for the Tears Of Panacea, the elixir that grants Amazons vitality. After dressing Diana in a surprisingly skimpy outfit and charging her with becoming the Themysciran ambassador to the world, Hippolyta sends Diana off to the United States to learn wisdom and humility. While Diana speaks to the United Nations, she is attacked by Cheetah. In the process of thwarting Cheetah, Diana saves the Kasnian Ambassador and Diana learns that even Cheetah does not know who hired her.

Right off the bat, Wonder Woman is characterized as strong and sassy in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1. While training, she is a formidable opponent to three minotaurs, even if they claim she is vain and narcissistic. Despite the claims of her sparring partners, she is eager to defend her homeland and that selfless quality is one of the hallmarks of Wonder Woman. In that way, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 quickly asserts that while the art style might be new, the characters at the heart of the narrative are going to bear familiar traits. This makes sense as the volume generally tells a familiar origin story for Diana with new artwork in a moderately-altered setting.

Batgirl's origin story is second in the book and it features Barbara Gordon and her cousin Carrie heading out for a night on the town. After being seen off by the wheelchair-bound Jim Gordon, Barbara and Gordon go out as Batgirl and Robin to thwart some crime in Gotham. They do not have to go far, as Poison Ivy is in the park tormenting a young couple on their first date. While the pair is easily able to stop Poison Ivy, she is soon joined by Catwoman and Harley Quinn, who are being monitored by Duela Dent. Despite their best efforts, Batgirl is captured by the trio and taken back to Duela Dent's lair where they are joined by Cheetah. Robin has to rescue Batgirl, while Barbara does her best to learn about Duela Dent's new lair and who might be behind designing the futuristic prison she has built. While Barbara realizes that Duela has her aboard a spacecraft that she could not have possibly invented, Carrie goes to Steel (Natasha Irons) for assistance in mounting the rescue of Batgirl.

The female-dominated narrative of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 comes out very strongly in the second chapter. The reversals to the originally-established DC Comics universe are fun, like Jim Gordon being stuck in the wheelchair instead of Barbara. The idea of Barbara looking after Carrie, much like Bruce Wayne looks after the young men who become Robin is a similarly cool twist. But the Barbara Gordon chapter is either where the concept of the book starts to play as awkward or I am just out of touch. Carrie uses phrases like "the soundest crew in Gotham" and "Mom is tranquil" and dialogue like that either embodies youthspeak I have no experience with or it is intended to mimic bad translations in American comic books/Manga. Whichever, the second chapter features some truly off lines.

In addition, the Batgirl chapter has decidedly inferior artwork compared to the first chapter as the characters are rendered far more simplistically. The sense of movement, like the dialogue, is a bit off, which makes for a poor flow and a less enjoyable reading experience. How Batgirl survives being submerged in the death tank Duela Dent made long enough for the spikes to deploy makes less sense than Batgirl being able to dodge the spikes!

Duela Dent's chapter in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 offers the reader explicit backstory on the female steampunk Joker character. She is presented as the daughter of the Joker, who grew up in the twisted landmark House Dent. One night, while playing hide and seek with her father, she ended up in the attic, where she was attacked by bats and, in the aftermath, was forced to cut her hair and get rabies shots. Shortly thereafter, her father was killed (paralyzing Jim Gordon in the process) and Duela Dent began her reign of terror on Gotham City. Acting as an agent of pure chaos, Duela brought Gotham to its knees until Batgirl showed up. Duela Dent's backstory is well-conceived and illustrated enough to be captivating. It is also the first chapter clearly intended for more mature readers (as if Wonder Woman's outfit didn't make that clear in the first chapter of the book!). Duela Dent is a cunning, cruel adversary, who is surprisingly well-conceived.

Duela's chapter then flashes forward to where Batgirl's chapter ended, with Duela and her lackeys cornering Batgirl on the ship. After incapacitating Batgirl in a futuristic trap, Duela demands fealty from her crew. Catwoman resists and the two fight, leading Catwoman to be jaded when Duela reveals her ally. Duela Dent is working with Brainiac, who intends to reduce humanity (outside Gotham City and Atlantis) to savages before abandoning the planet for a few million years. While Duela revels in her plan to rule the world (or the ashes of it), Catwoman frees Batgirl and tries to get her off the ship.

The third chapter greatly expands the scope of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 by introducing Brainiac and The Flash (Jesse Quick). The artwork is erratic, but still better than the second chapter. While the character arc for Catwoman is fairly predictable, it works because many, many DC Comics volumes have been written on how super-villain societies have a tendency to fall apart because villains do not work well together. Catwoman is characterized as smart enough to understand the human desire for respect, whereas, Duela Dent is a somewhat monolithic agent of chaos who demands fealty. While the plot of Duela's chapter is somewhat predictable and a little fractured, it progresses the overall story of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1.

The fourth chapter introduces Power Girl to the narrative as the Kryptonian Kara Jor-El rescues James Olsen from pirates he wants to interview off the coast of Kenya. After rescuing Olsen, Power Girl returns to Metropolis, the city of the future that she has built based upon Kryptonian technology and environmental practices. While giving a tour of her facility, she is attacked by the Silver Banshees who out her as an alien and attempt to kill her. The Silver Banshees are armored women working for (presumably) Lex Luthor, who has built a giant mech to lay waste to Metropolis, kill Power Girl and (in his mind) prevent a Kryptonian invasion. No sooner has Kara saved Metropolis than a ship carrying her cousin, Kara Zor-El, crashes down in Smallville . . . with Manhunters right behind!

The artwork of the fourth chapter is more stylized than the earlier chapters, with the pirates having bodies with proportions that are noticeably off. Similarly, after Power Girl melts their firearms with her heat vision, the guys keep holding the red-hot weapons, which looks utterly ridiculous. Ironically, Power Girl herself looks the most similar to her non-Ame-Comi rendition, which might be a statement in and of itself. In fact, Ame-Comi Power Girl might have more of a costume - whatwith her somewhat pointless leg armor - than her mundane comic counterpart. What does an indestructible woman need with armor? That is not made clear in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1. Power Girl's chapter is such a disconnect from the other chapters that it makes Barbara Gordon's shock at aliens influencing Earth seem nonsensical as Kara is out and about as an alien in love with humanity. Fortunately, just around the time the reader is thinking "How are the Manhunters so bad at their job that they arrive in force to stop Kara Zor-El, but not Brainiac?!" Brainiac's ship arrives and reduces that qualm as the Manhunters recognize the Coulan ship instantly. The female Manhunters are well-rendered for the gynocentric reinterpretation of the DC Universe - their fire hair is pretty cool.

The final chapter of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is Kara Zor-El, Supergirl's, chapter. Opening with a brief flashback to Jor-El and Zor-El appealing to prevent the destruction of Krypton (it's not clear why those characters weren't female scientists instead of Power Girl and Supergirl's fathers!), before they are condemned to the Phantom Zone, the story flashes back to exactly where the prior chapter ended. The Manhunters agree to pardon Power Girl and Supergirl in exchange for their aid in arresting or destroying Brainiac, which they set about to doing right away, much to the chagrin of Duela Dent and her team aboard Brainiac's ship. As Brainiac sends a legion of androids to slaughter Supergirl, Power Girl and the Manhunters, Earth's metahumans take a stand against them!

The final chapter of is a cliffhanger, which promises a change in format from the character-centered chapters that defined Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1. In many ways, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is a set-up that brings together, essentially, a female-powered Justice League. It also raises the stakes in the final chapter by apparently killing one character (it would be hard to believe a mere human could survive the beating from an extraterrestrial!) and creating a new villain for the next book. And, while there is something troubling about the word "bitch" being used in such a pro-woman book (it comes up twice in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1, the final time out of Wonder Woman's mouth, which is just disturbing!), for the most part, the book has a strong respect for girl power themes.

Somewhat understandably, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is a series of origin stories. Duela Dent's is the most concrete and explicit and, given how she is more or less unique to the narrative, inherently interesting. The explanations for Power Girl and Supergirl together is handled well-enough to accept. Supergirl and Wonder Woman's origin stories are familiar and bookend the volume well. Indeed, Supergirl's story being infused with the story of Brainiac makes for a compelling introduction of Kara Zor-El.

The artwork in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1, like the statues and toys upon which they are based, is fun, at the very least. I noticed, however, that the artwork became less detailed as each chapter went on. There are panels, for example, of Wonder Woman's fight with Cheetah that lack the richness of detail that were present in her fight with the Kasnian forces on Themyscira. By contrast, Duela Dent's chapter starts with amazing artwork to explore the architecture of her childhood house to further her characterization in a compelling way. By the time Power Girl's chapter ends, though, it is hard not to acknowledge that Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is very much a graphic novel for people who like breasts. That's not a dig, but the artists are pretty obsessed with rendering large-breasted women and somewhere there is a young teen geek who has a copy of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 stuffed between their matress and boxspring!

I was not entirely prepared to like Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 when I sat down to read it. The statues upon which the book was made seemed exploitative and over-sexualized (which is fine, but that being a gimmick to rework characters from seemed like it would lead most naturally to a porn parody as opposed to a serious, compelling, work) and the artwork in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 mirrors that, especially in the final chapter. But Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 isn't just softcore with a story; it is surprisingly character-driven and against all odds, it works. In the Ame-Comi incarnation of the DC Universe, Earth and Krypton are mere creations of Brainiac's and she is coming to Earth to feast and that raises the level of threat in the book far beyond Duela Dent or Cheetah.

It also makes for a strong adventure where young women are working together for common purpose to save each other and the world. Regardless of the artwork, it is hard not to champion that. Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 is a decent set-up that makes for a fun read and makes the reader eager to continue with the story . . . for more than just the appreciation of the costumes and boobs.

For other books that contain the characters that the Ame-Comi versions are based upon, please visit my reviews of:
Wonder Woman: Blood By Brian Azzarello
Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection By Gail Simone
Supergirl: Death & The Family By Sterling Gates


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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