Paperwork Ninja noticed that Sparkler (despite being a Hispanic dude) looks like he may have been modeled after Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton.
Given that the Force of July a) debuted around the same time that MLR was at her Olympic peak and b) was created as a strawman to beat up on Reagan-patriotism, it’s actually plausible!
All members of the Force of July were killed off in the godawful hodgepodge Checkmate/Suicide Squad crossover event, The Janus Directive. Here’s Sparkler getting killed by Dr. Light.
Mayflower was my favorite member of the Force. Her deal was that she had control over plants and talked with a cheesy Dickensian urchin accent, all “‘ello, guv’nor!” like.
She got garroted by some shmuck
Now for something to be happy about.
Halo is so chipper that Raven has a hard time being a wet blanket around her.
This panel is hella ironic, tho, given Halo’s origin story and what a train-wreck Violet Harper was before an alien consciousness inhabited her dead body.
I’m nearing the end of Batman and the Outsiders, and though overall I’ve loved it, I have enough future issues to be somewhat wary of the direction that it may go in Outsiders Vol.1.*
The tail-end of Batman and the Outsiders introduces the new character, Looker, and several of the Outsiders solo covers on early issues promise some really hammy villains (the Duke of Oil, the Nuclear Family, and the godawful Force of July**).
Even though Looker’s 4 issue origin arc was one of the best runs since Katana’s yakuza arc, there are dark clouds appearing on the horizon.
First of all, the redesign of Halo. It first showed up in Outsiders #1 the previous month, but it shows up for the first time in continuity here. Frankly, she looks awful with a pompadour.
Beyond looking awful, this feels somewhat questionable because it’s coinciding with the introduction of Looker. I guess they couldn’t have two pretty women with long hair on the Outsiders, so they gave Halo this awful do to help differentiate between them?
Emily Briggs’ introduction and the foreshadowing of the character hint at her being a much more interesting character than I’m almost certain she’ll end up being. I don’t want to prejudge too much, but it looks like they’re going to play her up as being a sex-pot despite giving her some potential for real nuance. She’s a plain-jane bank-teller who wishes her husband would notice her more, and the comic sets her up for a friendship with Tatsu, but I spoiled it for myself and find out that once she gets her powers and joins the Outsiders, she ends up being something like the “bad-mom” to Katana’s “good-mom” where Halo’s concerned.
And it’s weird that I can tell I’m going to hate this character despite the fact that she had a perfect origin story. Really, it’s because she has such a perfect origin that I feel so certain I’m going to hate her, because I know that she won’t live up to its potential.
So, Looker’s deal is that she’s a descendant of a god-blooded race of kings from the inner earth; the Abyssian royal family had been growing more and more powerful and warlike until one of them decided to throw on the brakes and preach peace–he’s exiled and stewards rule in the family’s place while searching for a descendant to put upon the throne as a puppet. Briggs turns out to be the granddaughter of the exiled king, and the warring brother and sister pretenders are fighting over her. They unlock her god-blood powers (and beauty), and each magically brainwashes her. Before Halley’s comet can destroy the earth (wait, isn’t that the sort of thing Superman is for?), Looker shakes off the conflicting magical controls and ends the bloody civil war once and for all, naming a couple mooks rulers and ushering in an egalitarian society. While Batman’s more cynical as to how Looker overcame the conflicting brainwashing, Tatsu is certain it was Briggs’ love for her husband that broke the spell (she snapped out of it and wrecked the pretender king after he broke her wedding band and demanded she be his queen). Briggs’ husband realizes he’s been taking her for granted and how much he appreciates and loves her–he spent most of the arc devastated and praying that Batman can rescue his wife (and as a mirror to Sapphire Stagg, whom Metamorpho had just married and is in the same straits); at the end of the adventure, Briggs surprises her husband as Looker happy that she can treat her husband as ‘a woman as beautiful as she thinks he deserves’.
Based on how she’s set up, Looker seems like she could go down a number of interesting paths. She could keep up her friendship with Tatsu and help her dealing with her grief over her husband and child. She could play around a lot with the ‘true beauty is on the inside’ trope, with Looker being Briggs’ “inner self brought out”, as just a really good and loving person trying her hardest. Lots of stuff. But no, she ends up being self-centered and narcissistic and even has an affair with Geo-Force (which is really not a direction I like to see him going as the team’s “Righteous Dude”).
Eventually she becomes a vampire thot or something.
Anyway, of the issues I’m missing out B&tO, it would have to be the two immediately preceding the consecutive run of nearly 20 other issues I own, so it may be a minute before I find out just how wrong or how right I turn out to be.
*:The first several issues of Outsiders vol.1 ran concurrently with Batman and the Outsiders and the post-Batman “Adventures of the Outsiders”, the solo series takes place a year after the events of the original and still ongoing (though wrapping up) title. So, yay for confusing continuity.
**:For what it’s worth, I think that in the right hands, Force of July could be a great property. If they were given their own book in which they were presented unironically as good and earnest patriots who loved and fought for America instead of just being used a cheap punching-bag to attack Reagan Republicans, they would have a ton of potential for great stories as a kind of D or C list Justice League. I love their designs, particularly Mayflower’s.
Now that I’ve click-baited you with that misleading title, I’m going to spend some time introducing you to one of The Forgotten Kick-Ass Women of PulpTM – Dark Agnes, the heroine of REH’s Sword Woman. And kick-ass she most certainly is.
According to both howardworks.com and isfdb.com, Sword Woman was not published during Howard’s lifetime, so it’s hard to date. However, C. L. Moore corresponded with him about it at the start of 1935 – she loved it – which gives us a reasonable idea. It’s been published a few times since it was rediscovered, but the version I read was in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard, edited by Glenn Lord, published by Zebra Books in 1976.
Our heroine is called Dark Agnes because of her ferocity, not because of her colouring. In fact, she is one of those redheads that fantasy writers love so much. REH even works that into the first line of the story. “Agnes! You red-haired spawn of the devil, where are you?” It was my father calling me, after his usual fashion.”
So, we are quickly introduced to Agnes de Chastillon, a fiery young woman living in a village in post-mediaeval France. The story starts on the day that she is supposed to be married off to the ‘fat pig’ Francois by her brute of a father, who thinks nothing of knocking her out and dragging her home by the hair when she refuses. In a moving early scene, Agnes’s downtrodden sister gives her a knife with which to take her own life and save herself from a life of drudgery. Of course, this being an REH story, Agnes disdains both choices proffered to her by other people – death or domestic slavery – and uses the knife for something else – to cut her way to freedom. She stabs her betrothed, flees, makes a friend on the road called Etienne Villiers, but is betrayed by him and almost sold into prostitution, beats him up in return, makes another friend, the more honourable Guiscard de Clisson, a leader of mercenaries, then fights again, is shot and so on and so forth, as you’d expect of Howard.
However, this isn’t a manic story, just fast paced. The story is told through lots of action, but the action fits the psychology of Agnes. She is a female berserker, driven with rage to fight her way out of her vulnerable position in society. Indeed, I was convinced enough by her rage and her backstory, which are given in a few vivid strokes by Howard, to overcome my disbelief about her fighting abilities. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a fighting machine, but develops by stages, first standing up to her father, then stabbing her betrothed, and progressing from there. Even so, she is not invulnerable and needs some help in becoming the independent fighting woman she wants to be to escape from the drudgery of domestic life.* Hence, she gains her own martial mentor who is then shuffled off the page, Obi-Wan Kenobi style, when he’s served his purpose. Pulp writers never let a character grow old or outlive their usefulness.
Most of the men who mistreat Agnes, she either kills or beats up herself in one of her rages, or they suffer at the hands of others. In this, she is a catalyst for chaos, but the chaos is already part of her society and she simply brings it out. Her brutal father is ‘marked with scars gotten in the service of greedy kings and avaricious dukes’. The land outside their village is a desperate place filled with criminals, vagrants, wandering mercenaries, and retainers working for unscrupulous nobles. France and the Holy Roman Empire are on the brink of war. It is a turbulent age. No wonder she is so angry all the time.
Agnes is simply someone fighting against her position in a dangerous society, and the same applies to her friend-cum-adversary Etienne Villiers. He is initially her silver tongued rescuer but is later revealed to be a blackguard; however, he does, perhaps, have more fairness buried even deeper still. Both of them are interesting characters with their own sense of honour, their own moral codes, perhaps alien to those of us living in the twenty-first century. It’s their alien codes that gives these characters life, their sparkle.
Despite all the indignities heaped on Agnes, the story isn’t a hate filled screed against men, nor is it a political tract – not that you’d expect any of that from Howard. He just produced a story with a different type of protagonist for his market – a peasant girl. He did give her the expected motivation for many a fictional character – the desire to escape a miserable life – but made sure her motivation was different in other ways – the need to escape a forced marriage to a man she despises, and the need to hide her sex from the world as she flees. That gave Howard interesting material to combine into something new, and it worked. Given Agnes’ background, you would almost think that Howard was writing the prototype of a progressive or feminist story, but in his case the ‘progressive’ elements were there in the service of the story rather than driven by a political agenda.
In fact, Dark Agnes is much more interesting than the gender-neutral characters we see in a lot of stories these days – ‘there are no differences between the sexes’. Thankfully, 1 To use the jargon, she has a character arc. Howard harnessed these differences between men and women, their psychologies and their positions in their society, to produce a vivid and exciting story, much as C. L. Moore did with Black God’s Kiss. It’s no wonder the Queen of Weird Fiction liked this story so much.
My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed ‘Sword Woman.’ It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?
In fact, there were two sequels, Blades for France, which was left unpolished, and Mistress of Death, left unfinished. Howardworks.com and ISFDB list the completed 2 3 and published versions of these stories.
*To use the jargon, she has a character arc.
Paul Lucas is a writer with a story in an upcoming issue of Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine; he can be found here on WordPress.
Torchship Captain is live on Amazon, both the ebook and paper versions. The audiobook recording is in final edits and will be out soon. Please leave a review on Amazon, good or bad. Let people know what you think.
This is the conclusion of the Torchship Trilogy.
Michigan Long blackmailed her enemies into joining the war against the AIs. Now the secret she used is leaking out and the Fusion is shattering. Caught in the middle of a civil war, she will have to use any weapon that comes to hand—her wits, her ship, her mate.