Thursday, July 3, 2014

Unearthed: The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior#9

We children of the 1980s grew up amongst a great wave of attempted multimedia franchises - products marketed to us not only as toys, television programs or activity books but also comic books. The comic book tie-in seemed ubiquitous for animated/toy products of the 1980s, be they as high-profile as Masters of the Universe or quickly-forgotten as Animax. Everyone wanted to seize the next Transformers or Star Wars and they left behind a vast sea of pop culture detritus which haunts my generation to this day, still reaching out with their clammy tendrils to suggest, "Are you really sure you outgrew the Thundercats?"

Marvel Comics certainly held a prime position amongst the adapted works in comics; they took a gamble on Conan the Barbarian back in the late 60s which not only proved an adapted title could be successful and profitable year-in, year-out, but that other licensees would come to their doorstep seeking the Conan treatment for their product; George Lucas sought out Marvel to tie-in with his Star Wars; Hasbro left much of the character naming and backgrounds to their G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises to Marvel's staff. Even if they did occasionally wind up with a fumble such as Man From Atlantis or Starriors, when Marvel made a hit, they hit big.

Perhaps that's why they decided to fashion their own multimedia franchise, developing a set of action figures who would also appear in colouring books (such as the one above), activity books, story books and - oh yes - comic books, their bread and butter. Like similar products of the time, this franchise would assume the trappings of fantasy-adventure, with a two-sided conflict between good and evil. I speak of the Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior.

Although I received the above colouring book as a child, I never owned the toys - I don't even recall seeing them in stores! The Crystar line proved to be a flash-in-the-pan, a very quickly forgotten franchise like so many of the 80s action figure lines. Why did it fail? I've certainly never asked; it's like Marvel's old shame. While working on the Official Handbooks back in the day, our staff had to convince Marvel's lawyers that, no, they really did own Crystar. This from the company who swiped the "Captain Marvel" name!

The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior was written by Jo Duffy (aka Mary Jo Duffy), best-remembered for her work on Power Man and Iron Fist and Marvel's Star Wars comics (in fact, she began writing Star Wars and Crystar at almost the same time). It lasted for a triumphant eleven issues before being shuttered up and completely forgotten (except by us Handbook folk), yet somehow during its brief existence, I wound up with issue #9 (September, 1984) - one of the first comic books I purchased with my own money. Let's go back and unearth this comic together, for if nostalgia is truly the pain of returning to the past, then I'm not going in there alone.

Above you can see the entire reason I bought this comic - the incredible painted cover by Michael Golden. Had I seen any of the previous or subsequent issues on the stands, I would have likely snapped them up as well - I mean, that's simply gorgeous! Golden painted almost all of the covers for this series and they're all terrific - although, strangely, he would always paint Crystar on-model, using the same character design found in the toys and other tie-in materials, yet the interior artists didn't seem to like putting Crystar in his familiar helmet or exposing the emblem on his chest. The other characters were drawn to match their toys, but not the titular figure! Strange, that.

The name of the story is "Another War" and Duffy is joined by artists Ricardo Villamonte & Dave Simons (Villamonte being a collaborator with Duffy on Power Man and Iron Fist). Helpfully, the story opens with the good wizard Ogeode confronting the Council of Order (a group he belonged to) with the entire team of heroes (dubbed "the Crystal Companions," which sounds quite cuddly) and Ogeode takes the time to introduce each of the Companions and explain the conflict which exists between he and the evil chaos wizard Zardeth and how Crystar's brother Moltar is leading an army of Magma Men on Zardeth's behalf (with names like Crystar & Moltar, I suppose it was only a matter of time before they were transformed into crystal and magma, respectively).

Also amidst this exposition is mention of a warrior called Malachon, of the Green Hill Men. Malachon is supposed to be green-skinned, yet the image Ogeode casts depicts him with pink skin; this confused me as a child - I thought this was a picture of Zardeth with a funny wig on. Anyway, Ogeode has returned to his people to enlist their help in this war with chaos, cautioning them that Malachon may have joined Zardeth's forces.

However, the Council of Order (a bunch of mooks in yellow robes) seem terribly passive and not too willing to join the war even though, as Crystar observes, as this is a struggle against chaos and order it's really their fight more than the Crystal Companions'. At this point, the Companions' ally Shen begins reading the council the riot act, ashamed of them for hesitating to become involved. And who is Shen? Well, she's been standing next to Ogeode this entire time, yet he neglected to introduce her along with the other characters. Outside of her being a champion to the Council of Order (yet she doesn't seem to like them), Shen isn't well-defined in this issue - she seems to be a recent addition to the heroes' ranks; because of some upcoming dialogue, I found her kind of baffling as a child.

The Council refuses to use their powers to wipe out chaos; Ogeode counters that he never wanted them to - he wants to maintain the balance between chaos & order, but Zardeth would rather eliminate order entirely. Even after this well-tempered arguement, Ogeode still finds the council reluctant to act and he testily storms off.

Amongst the Crystal Companions, the only female crystal warrior is Ika (she didn't have an action figure, but at least with Crystar's lover Ambara and the presence of Shen, she's not the token female), Ogeode's daughter. One of the councilmen, Bekk, confronts Ika and from their dialogue we can piece together that Bekk was in love with Ika but thinks her father and Crystar forced her to become a crystal warrior; Ika politely rejects Bekk upon hearing this, noting she's proud to be one of Crystar's allies and her father is "worth your whole rotten council put together. At least he knows how to get things done!'

Gilligan cut: Ogeode is asleep in his chair. wah-waaah Crystal warriors Koth and Kalibar, joined with Shen, drop in on Ogeode, but seeing he's asleep Kalibar vote they let "the old fellow" rest. Shen takes umbrage with Kalibar's words stating, "Kalibar, why do you say that he is old?" and "But he is not old. He is Ogeode." I found this line truly baffling as a child, as though it were an in-joke I wasn't privy to (in fact, it wouldn't be explained until a later issue). That line of dialogue from Shen really threw me off - like, she doesn't understand what the word "old" means? She thinks Kalibar meant to say "Ogeode?" Ah, well.

The other Crystal Companions Crystar, Stalax, warbow and non-crystal person Ambara go for a walk around the council's land; a pair of female council people take note of the crystal warriors and remark, "Handsome group, aren't they?" "It's the crystal. So pretty." They're a little like Duffy's Zeltrons in Star Wars, come to think of it. Meanwhile, a flock of dragons come to land on the council's property; amongst them is Feldspar, regent of Crystar's kingdom Galax. It seems that while Feldspar's nephews became men of crystal and magma, Feldspar chose the middle-road alternative, rendering his upper half crystal with his lower half molten. Feldspar lies somewhere in the middle, but because he won't take sides against either Crystar or Moltar, he recently wound up banishing the Crystal Companions from their own land (which is why they've come to the council for help). In effect, by attempting to render himself neutral, Feldspar has instead hindered the forces of order and aided the forces of chaos. In Feldspar's version of events, the entire conflict rests on Crystar's shoulders and the council hopes now that Crystar has come to them stating he wants peace, perhaps they can keep the war between he and Moltar from escalating; they invite Feldspar to a meeting with the entire council, but don't send an invite to Ogeode.

Stalax takes a moment to examine the dragons which bore Feldspar and his entourage to the council and suddenly realizes the creatures aren't nearly tired enough to have flown from Galax; he speeds off to inform Crystar. Elsewhere, Ika, Koth, Kalibar and Shen finally wake up Ogeode, who flies into a rage upon hearing Feldspar has come to see the council.

In fact, Stalax's suspicions about the dragons prove well-founded as, within the council's chambers, Feldspar changes his form into Zardeth! His entourage includes Malachon (now coloured green) and various Green Hill Men and Magma Men. The council are totally unprepared for a fight, although Bekk begins to try grappling against their foes, noting Zardeth intends to kill them all.

Fortunately, Stalax has roused Crystar and Warbow and retrieved their weapons (apparently the council wouldn't allow them to bear arms); they quickly meet up with Ogeode and the rest then enter the fray to save the council. In amongst the fighting, Ogeode and Zardeth engage in a duel of sorcery, with Ogeode quipping "If there's anything I can't stand, Zardeth, it's a name-caller and a sneak." I like that Ogeode isn't a cookie-cutter "wise old mentor" type (an Obi-Wannabe, that is) - that he's allowed to be short-tempered and quip at his foes.

During the fight, one of the Magma Men stabs Ika with a dagger, but it breaks against her skin. Geez! The Magma Men are hardly worthy adversaries for the Crystal Companions if their weapons can't harm them, are they?

As the battle turns against them, Zardeth orders a strategic retreat, meaning the war between and order and chaos will not be resolved this issue (lest the series end here). With the battle over, Ambara takes charge of tending to the wounded, proving that while she isn't a fighter, she's not useless.

Meanwhile, Bekk confronts Ogeode to make a request of him; we soon learn what that is - he has Ogeode transform him into a crystal warrior. The revelation of Bekk's transformation comes in the final panel as a seemingly shocking moment - as though this is a bad omen. And yet, we saw over the course of this issue how Bekk went from standing on the sidelines, to realizing the Crystal Companions were right about the danger of Zardeth, to willingly joining their ranks. This is a good thing... right?

Analyzing this story now, it's bothersome to note the antagonists are the same villains the Crystal Companions fight every issue - Zardeth and his minions. True, Moltar isn't present, but the Magma Men are. Although Malachon had been introduced to increase the villains' ranks, he's really only another flunky of Zardeth's. Like many 80s struggles between the good guys and the bad guys, it can be dull to see the same forces against each other all the time. It might have served the series' continued existence better to have Malachon as a separate threat - but with only two issues remaining after this, I doubt Duffy had much hope for the future (from comments on the letters page you can tell the creators already knew the axe would fall soon).

Duffy's script is lively enough even now, thanks to a few sharp comments from Ogeode and strong characterization for Ika (though most of the cast are an amorphous blob of crystal people). As a child, I thrilled to seeing the beautiful crystal people beat up on the ugly magma people and what more did I need? Although this series didn't last, Duffy continued on spearheading Star Wars through a few more years of my childhood with her deft touch of humour and fantastic adventure. Ah, nostalgia. That's the trap - when you get to thinking about how pleasant that one issue of Crystar was, so what would it take to collect a whole set? Almost nothing! Oh, and how about those activity books and story books, those wouldn't run for too much? And the toys would only cost a small fortune... oh, sweet Stalax! Away from me, nostalgia, flee!


Exodus - Guilty said...

Heh. "Man From Atlantis." I remember that being as memorable as "Manimal" the tv show with the guy who turned into animals.

Michael Hoskin said...

I don't know, Manimal has a lot of fans, but I've never met a self-proclaimed Man From Atlantis fan.