Anyway, this… KINGS WATCH #1 to #5 Art by Marc Laming Written by Jeff Parker Coloured by Jordan Boyd Lettered by Simon Bowland Dynamite Comics (2014) $1.99 each on Dark Horse Digital, $3.99 each on Paper Flash Gordon created by Alex Raymond The Phantom created by Lee Falk Mandrake The Magician created by Lee Falk
Kings Watch (or King’s Watch as it inside the comic) is a five issue attempt by Dynamite to blow the dust off several Kings (no apostrophe) Features characters for the largely bemused perusal of a 21st Century audience. I say largely bemused because while thanks to the joyously tatty energy of the 1980 movie everyone still remembers Flash Gordon his fellow Features have fared less well in the public imagination. Once again neglecting to check with everyone everywhere I feel fairly safe in saying that The Phantom movie of 1996 is not as fondly regarded as Flash’s outing despite the dolorous presence of Patrick McGoohan and the haunting sight of Billy Zane running around the jungle like a muscular grape. As for Mandrake the Magician and the movies I’m afraid even I haven’t a clue, darlings. Comics wise it appears The Phantom has been less dormant than I thought having recently appeared in series published by both Moonstone and Dynamite, and Flash has had a recent series with Alex Ross covers and a readership confined to one nice man in Ottawa. The only movement on the Mandrake front seems to be a newspaper strip collection due to appear before our very eyes shortly. It’s all a bit messy really isn’t it? So, I guess Kings Watch is intended to both streamline and refine these properties with an eye to maximising their potential across a range of multimedia platforms going forward. Or, you know, whatever people in ironic glasses say in rooms with white boards while sipping overpriced coffee bought in from a quaint little bodega down the street. The rest of us should just be concerned with whether these old characters are in are good comics.
And they are good comics and what helps is that (some of) the characters have had a bit of a remodel for The Now they are intended to inhabit. Flash Gordon and chums require very little refurb with Parker simply, but effectively, updating Flash as a thrill seeking but focus deprived athlete par excellence; Dale remains female and the strange choice is made not to make her a regretful super assassin (“She Could Kill Any Man Alive! But She Could Never Kill The Sadness Inside!”) but rather a level headed, resourceful and strikingly unflappable human being (FFS! Who can relate to that? At least give her guns in her eyes or something!), and Zarkov as the comedy nutter gets most of the laughs via the drunken arrogance which colours his genius so vividly. Having read none of his recent outings I don’t really know how much tinkering Parker had to do but here The Phantom is a mass of scar tissue and arthritic inflammation poured into a bright purple body suit topped off by a domino mask and a zebra patterned truss. He could be a tiresome violent old man type but Parker gives him a nice line in dead pan humour which lightens him up a bit. The character Parker seems to do least to is the one who would seem to require the most tinkering to avoid obsolescence; Mandrake The Magician. Parker doesn’t reinvent him as an “edgy” young street magician or a clapped out old Vegas showman with a tragic past but instead, and remarkably, seems to leave him pretty much untouched. Yes, in King’s Watch Mandrake the Magician remains a magician from back when magicians dressed like the Kaiser was coming to dinner and it wasn’t just serial killers who sawed ladies in half. All this tickling’n’tinkering was just dandy by me because the appealing goofiness of the characters remained; it just wasn’t front and centre like it used to be, that’s all.
The actual series these characters inhabit may be somewhat stately paced but each issue does contain, in varying but satisfying proportions, an action set piece or two, some engaging character work, a sure sense of progression and, just past the mid-way point, some rather unfortunate developments surprising in both their sweep and suddenness. Let’s just say London’s in it and if London’s in your American genre comic you know that things have probably gone shit side up. The good guys are on the back foot because, unusually for a bad guy, Ming actually has a pretty good plan. He’s quiet droll as well, Ming is, which I liked. Not as much as I liked the fact he wasn’t coloured bright yellow because these properties? Probably a bit of racist baggage, yeah. But Kings Watch deals well with this throughout and the ending subtly recasts things in the direction of greater inclusivity so anyone worrying about all those racist bits from the past of these strips can relax. Unless those were the bits you like, I mean UKIP supporters read comics too; besides The Daily Mail, I mean. Me, I was particularly taken with the bit near the end when everyone realises what they have to do to stop things getting worse and the attendant cost it will inflict on them. I liked this bit not because I love to wallow in other people’s misery (although I do) but because refreshingly there’s no weeping and wailing, there’s no pages of E*M*O*T*I*O*N*S like it’s the backmatter of an Image book, no, they just go and do it because, heroes. Remember those? Well this comic does. Damn straight. With the modern tendency for comics to actually avoid an ending it’s worth noting when one as good as the one here appears.
Those still awake will note I’ve treated the series as a big lump rather than individually teasing out the art, the writing, the colouring and the lettering. That’s just because I didn’t have time (like Graeme & Jeff I am involved in a Secret Project; mine is Not Getting Sacked, it’s an on-going thing) and also because the fact that the end product was so enjoyable should be testament to the work of all involved. Kings Watch is solid stuff with everyone pulling their weight but no one single contributor showboating and overshadowing the others. Thankfully then there’s no real reason for me to drone on for several hundred grammatically suspect words about Parker’s steady pacing, entertaining characters, or even to single out his unobtrusive humour which seems to occur naturally from the premise, strengthening rather than undermining the drama; nor need I flail desperately about trying to explain why although I still find Laming’s art a little on the stiff side he has come on great guns since I last saw his work on American Century, and that while his art may be more efficient than astounding efficiency is nothing to cock a snook at. Apparently though I do have time to say I thought there could have been a bit more of a stylistic differentiation between the discrete elements of Mongo and Earth to ensure their interaction carried a bit more visual fizz. Hey, I even noticed the colours because some of the FX and palettes really popped on a screen and I say screen because, yes, I continue to force my face into The Future. And because I read Kings Watch in Digital the choice to present most of this series in largely widescreen panels punctuated by the odd splash page for impact worked a treat. Guided View worked fine for most of it and then a bit of manual intervention on the splashes. (Make your own jokes up on that one, knock yourself out. My treat.) Remarkably, old as I am I managed to navigate the thing without soiling myself and crying. Of course I could really do with some advice about how to get images off my tablet and into Photobucket. (I was kind of getting a bit desperate for googled images by the end of this but I think I got away with it.)That would be almost as GOOD! as Kings Watch was.
Now dispatch War Rocket Ajax and bring me some – COMICS!!!