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“The Strange Talent of Luther Strode” #1 and “’68 Encore Edition” – Skip the Superhero, Take the Soldiers vs. Zombies

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I think I would have enjoyed The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #1 if it didn’t keep reminding me of other comics that were better or more daring. As it stands, it’s a vaguely intriguing start to a story, but also one that recycles a lot of tried-and-true elements from superhero comics without really adding anything new to them except a colossal amount of extremely bloody violence. I’m not positive that the addition makes it all worthwhile.

The title character is a nerdy high schooler who orders a Charles Atlas-esque muscle manual teaching “The Hercules Method” as a defense against the bullies in his school. The Hercules Method ends up working better than he could have possibly imagined, as shown in small ways at home and in more dramatic ones at school. Unfortunately, Luther’s success with the Hercules Method and has raised the attention of some Very Bad People, who note his “great promise” and seem to be heading straight for him.

Ads for bodybuilding programs like the Hercules Method used to be commonplace in comic books, and Grant Morrison already used them the foundation for Flex Mentallo, a character created during his run on DC/Vertigo’s Doom Patrol. However, since I doubt that Luther Strode is going to be changing the state of the universe by flexing his muscles creatively, I’m willing to believe that series creators Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore either didn’t know about Morrison’s character or are aiming in sufficiently different directions from the same starting point. Unfortunately, the story behind The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is pretty thin and filled with overly familiar elements. Luther Strode is just another nerdy high schooler we’ve seen dozens of times before, and his bully nemesis is such an overused stock character that he might as well have been named “Jerkboy Jock.” The scenes where Luther’s powers start coming in while he’s at school just reminded me of the similar scenes in the first Spider-Man movie. The ambiguously defined Very Bad People also feel overly familiar, pulling in conspiracy theory elements that I lost patience with years ago.

What separates The Strange Talent of Luther Strode from every other teenage superhero comic book is the amount of violence on display. The comic wastes no time in this regard, dropping you into three pages of incredibly graphic, blood-soaked action as Luther disembowels a room full of people in a “flash forward” sequence before the high school story begins. The scenes are so graphic that I wonder if it’s meant to be comedic, but the fact that everything else in the book is played straight leads me to think that they’re not aiming for irony. Luther also seems to take a bit too much pleasure in using his new powers to inflict grievous bodily harm on people in the high school sequences, and the expression of happiness on his face in the last panel after a possibly lethal use of force actually makes me dislike him intensely.

On the plus side, I appreciate how the comic subtly hints at the abusive relationship that Luther and his mother seem to have escaped from, even if I’m fairly positive that this means something really horrible is going to happen to her as a catalyst to spur Luther into action. There’s also an interesting lettering trick I liked to indicate someone has advanced to a certain point in the Hercules Method. Other than these two elements, though, I’m finding little of substance to recommend The Strange Talent of Luther Strode and can only muster the vaguest interest in subsequent issues.

By all rights, many of these same complaints should also apply to the ’68 Encore Edition (written by Mark Kidwell with art by Nat Jones and Jay Fotos). This reprint of a comic originally published in 2006 mashes up war movies and zombie movies for a survival horror story set in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968. Both genres are prone to repetitiveness and formula, but the surprise is how much these two hoary genres reinforce each other. The end result is a spooky, unsettling pleasure that can satisfy fans of both war movies and horror movies, while yielding more than double the pleasure for fans of both.

In some ways, a plot synopsis of ’68 doesn’t do anybody any favors because it hews pretty closely to both war movie and horror movie conventions. As a result, any details about the plot will pretty much telegraph exactly where it’s going. ’68 begins with a patrol by a team of soldiers tasked with learning why a listening outpost in the jungle stopped transmitting suddenly. Even knowing as little about ’68 as “war/horror film mashup” means that you can guess exactly what happened to that listening post. For that matter, both war and horror movies have conditioned us by now to expect awful things to happen to the bulk of the cast before the story is done, and in this regard ’68 does not disappoint, either.

However, if ’68 isn’t much of a “where are we going?” kind of story, it’s exceptionally good at being a “how are we getting there?” kind of story. Even if we can guess where the story is going in very broad strokes, there is a kind of pleasure watching the execution of that story as the soldiers slog through the bush, making horrifying discoveries before learning exactly how far into the unknown they’ve stumbled. Since the monster fodder in this book is a group of veteran soldiers (and one slightly trigger-happy FNG) rather than the usual pack of sex-starved teenagers, their reactions to the horrors they encounter are both entirely credible and highly atypical for the horror genre. That’s just one of several examples of how the ’68 Encore Edition manages to freshen both genres while sticking pretty closely to each one’s conventions. Best of all is the vicious twist ending which also flows into the larger ’68 franchise, which has apparently racked up a four-issue mini-series and two one-shots in addition to this comic.

The ’68 Encore Edition applies a new coloring job to the original comic and also comes with an extra 3 pages detailing the history of the comic and how it fits with the rest of the ’68 comics. One page also follows the process from script to pencils to the original 2006 comic book page to this newly remastered page. My only complaint about the book is that the art seems a bit too dark at times to clearly make out what’s going on. In some cases, this looks like it’s a deliberate choice, but there are some pages where it doesn’t look as much like a choice as it does a coloring or printing error. This might just be an artifact of my review copy, however.

The best thing I can say about the ’68 Encore Edition is that it makes me want to seek out the other ’68 comics because I have to know What Happens Next. I only wish I could say that The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #1 were as successful.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay