Sunday, January 26, 2014

Series Minded: The Saga of Crystar, The Crystal Warrior

nb. Title changes to just "Crystar, The Crystal Warrior" with issue8


Publisher: Marvel
Years: 1983 - 1985
# of Issues: 11
Writer(s): Jo Duffy (credited as Mary Jo Duffy in issue 1)
Artist(s): Brett Blevins (1-2), Ron Frenz and Danny Bulandi (3), Ricardo Villamonte (4-11) with Dave Simons (4-6, 8-9)

Background:

In 1982 the action figure market was still just ramping up.  Star Wars had revolutionized toys for boys with its copious amount of figures, accessories, vehicles and playsets, with G.I. Joe's relaunched poised to put even Star Wars' output to shame.  He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was also on the radar, merging fantasy with science fiction, capitalizing upon the success of Conan The Barbarian, and in comics it was evident there was a hunger for more than just superheroes, which dominated the shelves so resoundingly in the '70's.  It's perhaps too grandiose a statement to say that these factors all culminated in Crystar, The Crystal Warrior, afterall the character/series/toy line was hardly a smash success.

For me, Crystar lives in my memory primarily as an advertisement (as mentioned in 365 Comics #226) from 1983.  I knew there were comics but I had always assumed that it was Marvel's attempt to hop on board as licensee of another successful franchise (they, afterall, made successful runs out of ROM and Star Wars, and would later have great success with Transformers and Star Wars), and that when the toys failed so too did the book.

Imagine my surprise to learn within the front cover is the epic-sized first issue (deluxe paper stock, no less) of The Saga of Crystar, The Crystal Warrior, that the concepts, characters and designs originated at Marvel headquarters, out of then VP of publishing Mike Hobson's desire to cash in on the growing sword-and-sorcery trend, to create a product that could be licensed as toys.  Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, along with editors Ralph Macchio and Mark Gruenwald brainstormed the characters and the world of Crystar, and a young John Romita Jr was tasked with designing the toys (it's his art you see on those old ads).

Remco, the RC Cola of toy manufacturers, snagged the license for Crystar and forged ahead with producing the toy line while Marvel proceeded with laying out the saga in a bi-monthly comic starting February of 1983.  The translucent "crystal" warriors were certainly memorable, but the toy line did not last past the first wave of figures and asides.  I don't really know what caused the line to falter, but I would speculate that it failed without the weight of a television series behind it.  Equally awareness and distribution may also have been a factor, as often it's visibility that drives demand and if Crystar wasn't on many shelves (it appears K-Mart was the prominent retailer stocking the toy) or in many ads (as far as I can tell the line was only promoted for a month, maybe two in comics, though a trade ad indicated there would be television promotion as well, but I don't recall any commercials nor have I found any evidence on the internet of one).  Beyond that, while the figures were sturdy, and generally very nice looking, the vehicles (dragons, mainly) and Crystal Castle playset were fragile, which may have frustrated many kids (and parents).


The comic book lasted just under 2 years, and while reader reaction was very positive (as witnessed in the letters pages), and despite a stable creative team and attractive covers (primarily from Michael Golden) it just didn't last.  It's publication may have been tied to the success of the toys (though Marvel ran with ROM long after that toy's demise) or it just may have not been selling well generally.  Given the reader demand for it to go monthly, I suspect we would have seen a bit longer of a run out of the series than 11 issues, though I still doubt it would have seen the sunny side of 1986.

The Story:

Crystar and his brother Moltar are the twin princes of Crystalium, having taken leadership after their father's death during the recent war between Order and Chaos.  When the chaos wizard Zardeth threatens the newfound tranquility, the brothers are at odds with how to deal with it.  Their fighting leads to injuring their uncle and advisor Feldspar, and becomes so heated that Moltar stabs Crystar, apparently murdering him.  The Order wizard Ogeode saves Crystar by performing a ritual that transforms him into a man of crystal (a transformation his closest aides Koth, Stalax, Kalibar and Warbow also endure) while Moldar heeds the counsel of Zardeth and he and his followers are transformed into lava men.  The nation is divided and war looms once again.

Characters:

Crystar (Order) - the "hero" of the book actually turns out to be heroic more in reputation than actual deeds.  He's looked upon as a natural leader but he seems utterly self-conscious and ill-prepared for rule.  Of all the characters in the series, he's one of the least developed, and I was constantly waiting for him to step up and show what it means to be a hero.  He never comes across as particularly smart or self-motivated.  In the pages of the first issue, he's manipulated by his power-hungry fiancee Lavour, as well as both wizards Ogeode and Zardeth.  Throughout the run he's constantly kowtowing to his uncle, Feldspar, and looking to others to guide him.  I guess the "Saga" of the title was supposed to be his journey from exiled prince to king, but it rarely, if ever feels like his story.

Moltar (Chaos) - Crystar's brother, who sits frustrated in the shadows of his more skilled, more beloved twin.  He takes the counsel of Zardeth out of fear, rather than looking to what's right, though continuously his mind leads him to think of his people.  He's constantly questioning whether what he's doing is right, but with Lavour and Zardeth buzzing in his ear, he's continually pushed to making the wrong choice.  Disappointingly, Jo Duffy never commits to redeeming Moltar completely, nor making him a true hero, but the reader response in the lettercolumn ("Crystal Visions") continually points to Moltar being the unappreciated protagonist of the story, and that Crystar's a brat.

Feldspar ("neutral") - Lord Feldspar is the dwarf uncle of the brothers and their adviser, but when the brothers quarrel, and ultimately pick sides that may spark a war, he exiles them both and takes the throne until they can reconcile and rule together as their father intended.  To give the appearance of neutrality somehow Feldspar called upon both Zardeth and Ogeode to transform him into half-crystal on top, lava on the bottom.  As the series runs, he keeps insisting on his neutrality but is perennially on Crystar's ass, the undertones being that he's after keeping the throne for himself.

Ogeode (Order) - a powerful wizard of Order who helped turn the tide of the last Chaos War.  The fierce struggle had taken a great deal out of Ogeode and he's a bit of a scatterbrain.  He still understands the gravity of the events playing out but is too tired to help the brothers in the same capacity to which he aided their father.

Zardeth (Chaos) - an upstart wizard of Chaos, increasing in strength.  He senses the competitiveness in the brothers and craftily creates a rift, quickly slipping in and taking the weaker of the two under his wing.  He's a manipulator and opportunist and is genuinely threatening, except that he rarely engages in battle, more comfortable sending pawns out.

Lavour (Chaos) - she starts off as Crystar's fiancee, but it's readily apparent that she's more interested in power.  After Crystar is apparently murdered by Moltar, she quickly trades up, with no emotion shown at the demise of her prince, and well aware of Moltar's crush on her.  Though Zardeth barely pays her any mind beyond transforming her, she sees Zardeth's power and steers Moltar to him, acting like his accomplice.  She takes up the cause of Chaos and invests herself in seeing it succeed, if only so she can sit next to Moltar when he takes power.


Ambara (Order) - is perhaps the most useless character of the series, starting out as the handmaiden of Lavour and love interest of Warbow (but not reciprocating his affection).  When Lavour flees with Moltar, Ambara swoops in to the dying Crystar's side as a Florence Nightingale figure whom he falls in love with.  Beyond her constant doting, getting in Crystar's way when he needs to fight, and in need of rescue once or twice, she serves no function.

Warbow (Order) - the tall, strong, able warrior whose only weakness is his longing for Ambara.  He's loyal to a fault and an honest hero, always ready to sacrifice.  When he first encounters Zardeth, he shoots his eye out, and Zardeth takes his in kind.  When Ambara takes up with Crystar, he never lets his jealousy trump his loyalty.

Koth (Order) - rarely seen without his flute or baby dragon.  He is a fierce warrior but doesn't take much seriously ever since he lost the love of his life during the last war.  He's willing to follow Crystar anywhere and perform his duty but he seems to also be looking for an opportunity to die in battle.

Stalax (Order) - the young soldier who follows Crystar unwaveringly.  He gets injured in his crystalline form during the Crystal Warriors' first battle with the Lava Men, and it's an education for all involved in how to heal them.

Kalibar (Order) - the veteran soldier offers up the biggest sacrifice in following Crystar, both in their transformation and in exile from the Crystal Palace, which sees him leaving his family behind in the kingdom. 

Ika (Order) - Ogeode's daughter, who seems to be a bit of a latchkey kid and a kewpie doll, not well socialized, and keen to see the world at large.  She's daddy's little girl, both bending to his will and equally needling him to get what she wants.  With Stalax's crystal body seriously injured, the only way to help him heal is for Ogeode to understand his new form, so Ogeode forces Ika to take the transformation, which she doesn't even protest.  She's been trained in magic as well, but she's rarely shown as being capable with it, and usually defers to her father when a spell is required.  She was engaged to marry Bekk, but it seemed more an arranged marriage than something she was truly into.  All the single boys seem to want her, but she seems uninterested in doing anything but flirting.

Malachon (Chaos) - the leader of the Malachite Hills people, they are a race who honor warfare and bloodletting.  They hate the people of the lowlands and seek to take advantage of the fractured armies exiled from the city.  When they're defeated at the hands of the Crystal Band they accept Zardeth's offer of increased strength and allow themselves to be transformed into malachite bodies.  Their army joins (but in reality usurps) Moltar and the Magma Men.

Bekk (Order) - the fiancee of Ika, when Ogeode takes Crystar and his men beyond the ocean to the Kingdom of Order, Ika is hesitant, primarily because she does not want to see Bekk.  Bekk is a giant, in stature, and a giant ass in personality.  He immediately gets on her case about her transformation and accuses her of an affair with Crystar.  He seethes jealousy over Crystar, and seems to think he should possess Ika.  He ultimately asks Ogeode to transform him into crystal, which he thinks grants him equal status with Crystar, and he constantly challenges the prince's decisions and his orders.  But Bekk, though well trained and very skilled, has not seen war before and is stunned upon witnessing death in battle.  Ultimately Crystar puts him in his place and he accepts that he's perhaps not all he thought he was.

Shen (Order) - though it takes its time revealing it, Shen is Ogeode's wife.  She's a dwarf, but also a vicious warrior, armed to the teeth and craving battle.  It's never clear if she's Ika's mother or not, but she constantly cuts anyone down who calls her man old, stating "He's not old, he's Ogeode".


Issue-by-Issue:



#1 - Certainly starting the book off strong, and with confidence, with an extra-sized ("Feature Length") 46-page story on higher quality paper stock and under a memorable painted cover by Bob Larkin.  The story features a lot of great elements, though a product of 1980's comics, it's not the most smoothly told.  The conflict between brothers is a valid one, but escalates too quickly. The interpersonal drama of the story is frequently hokey, oversimplified, but the point comes across.  This first story ends somewhat abruptly with a 9-panel page establishing the status quo for the series.  The big battle sequence seems more in service of showcasing the toys than the story so it looks really stiff, artist Brett Blevins obviously struggling a bit with the character designs form John Romita Jr, and using them in a natural way.





#2 - this issue features the first of many, many, many arguments between Crystar and his uncle, Lord Feldspar.  This time, Crystar expresses his outrage when the Lord Regent changes the furniture in the throne room.  Cast out, Ambara, Crystar and his men take a walk through the slums of Galax and are attacked by Magma Men.  Ambara, once again in danger, is save by Ika, the red-headed sorceress in a gem encrusted bikini that would make Red Sonja bashful.  Ogeode forces Ika into taking the transformation into crystal, and it sounds like his questionable parenting is longstanding, "He! Wait a minute, you looney old phoney!  The last time you told me I'd be "quite safe" I ended up..!"  I don't think we ever find out what he had done... but my guess was he prematurely aged her and that she's really an 8-year old. Here, Koth hits on her, which feels creepy even if she is of age.  Koth also smokes a pipe.  Crystal meth?  Does look like a crack pipe.  After going through the transformation Ika comes out fully nude, which I guess answers my question about whether their genitalia makes the transformation as well (it doesn't).  It should also be noted that the crystal warriors have already all gone off-model.  Future series inker Dave Simons provides the cover.

#3 -  I found it odd that Marvel wanted to create a sword-and-sorcery epic, and then, in the third issue, scuttled the characters off to Earth and in the midst of Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum.  It didn't show much faith in their ability to attract readers based on the fantasy concept alone.  Crystar and Ika (who suddenly found clothes...or lingerie at least... since the end of last issue) are transported to Earth accidentally as an aftereffect of Ika's transformation, but somehow Ogeode and Zardeth are both able to penetrate the dimensional barrier with ease and fight within the time and relative dimension in space that is Strange's Sanctorum.  Despite feeling like it's way too early to cross over into the Marvel U proper the story is actually quite fun.  Duffy takes advantage of the different setting to relate how "our" world differs from Crystalium.  They don't have wood, apparently.  I like Strange and Ogeode talking shop, and Wong's reaction to the intruders was great.  Cover by Michael Golden, who covers the rest of the series






 #4 - It's very possible I had this comic as a kid.  None of the story is familiar, but I love this cover. This is iconic Crystar, if Crystar were an actual icon.  The next two issues have similarly-styled covers, and it's a shame that they didn't continue in this style for the rest of the run.  they're very striking with the full-color character front-and-center and "etched" characters and imagery in the background.  Ricardo Villamonte takes over penciling/artistic chores for the rest of the series and provides a consistency the story needs, as well a firm fantasy design sense.  I like his work overall, but my main beef with him is he doesn't draw the Crystal Men like they're made of crystal.  Compare them to Golden's cover, the sharp edges, the not quite true to life musculature.  In the books Villamonte's characters are drawn like regular people (well, "regular" beefy), just with a sparkling sheen.  His Magma Men are fantastic though.

This one's a weird one, as it features Kalibar telling his kids the story of Crystar and Moltar (a recap issue already?) though Duffy manages to tell a new tale in the midst of recapping, one in which Crystar and Moltar's people fight, but then have a conversation moderated by Feldspar.

#5 - Uh oh.  So to recap, issue 1 told us the origin of Crystar and Moltar, and issue 2 meant to establish the status quo.  Issue 3 sidetracked the struggle of Crystar for a crossover into the Marvel Universe and issue 4 already backtracked into retelling the origin, and now, in issue 5, it's "Assistant Editor's Month" where they tell "The story they said couldn't be done".  The first five pages of this issue are a fourth wall-breaking headscratcher in which Jo Duffy, Ricardo Villamonte, Bob Harras, and Crystar hang out for a discussion on what the story of this issue should be.  And then Crystar plays soccer.    In place of this issue's letter column is "The story behind 'the story they said couldn't be done'" in which Harras tells of how Duffy wanted to write a story that would make sense of some concept art showing the Crystal Palace and Magma Cavern are literally touching drawbridges.  This is that tale, originally kaiboshed by editor Ralph Macchio but perfect for the "out there" assistant editor's month.  It's a quaint little book, but I can only imagine, at this stage, how frustrating it would be for the readers of the series to keep having the story be interrupted for some side trip or flight of whimsy.  Were it a monthly book, and the issues between each of these were carrying the story along, it would probably be more palatable.

#6 - And here we go again. Once more we don't get an earnest Crystar story, but instead it's about injecting another Marvel superhero as guest start into the book.  Marvel really liked to incorporate their licensed properties (ROM, Micronauts, Godzilla etc) into the Marvel Universe, and doing so with a fantasy series would mean crossing dimensional barriers.  Logically, Nightcrawler does make sense, since he BAMFs from through an alternate dimension when going from one place to the other.  This may actually be the most enjoyable issue of the series, and it's terribly unfortunate that it takes all the focus away from the characters of the series.  Duffy does seem to enjoy writing Kurt Wagner, and it comes across.  Golden's cover perfectly exemplifies the fish-out-of-water scenario.  When he BAMFs into Crystalium, he's immediately suspected of being a chaos demon, chased and hunted by the Crystal Band and recruited by the Magma Men.  When Ika goes searching for him and is captured Kurt sees who the good guys and bad guys are and helps the heroes save Ika.  Ika helps Kurt return to earth, and upon reuiniting with his ex-enchantress girlfriend, Amanda, he comes bearing a gift.
"Crystalium!" Amanda exclaims.
"You've heard of it?" Kurt replies, taken aback.
"You bet I have.  I'd know those gems anywhere. That hussy, Ika wears these!"
What the eff?  How the heck does Daytripper know about Ika and Crystalium?  It gets weirder.

#7 - Most of the 80's boy's fantasy stories, the ones geared towards a younger audience at least, featured two sides, the good guys and the bad guys.  He-Man fought Skeletor, G.I. Joe fought Cobra, the Transformers fought the Decepticons, the Smurfs fought Gargamel, and so on, with only the very occasional third-party getting involved.  With Crystar, the set-up was Order vs. Chaos, Crystar vs. Moltar, but Jo Duffy never truly engaged with that simplified adversarial relationship.  Crystar and Moltar rarely met face to face or came to blows, and Feldspar's "neutrality" was a third-party antagonist on his own, if not a proactive one.  Enter Malachon and the people from the Malachite hills, who quickly usurp the brooding and pensive Moltar in Zardeth's favour, and rapidly become his go-to guys for causing havoc.

After Ogeode transforms a dragon into a boat to get them across the sea, (which is really cool...and apparently any sort of seaworthy vessel is a foreign concept on Crystalium) , we're introduced to the "The Land of the Great Council of Order" (let's call it "LOGCO" for short), Ogeode and Ika's homeland where we meet Shen and Bekk. The architecture, someone comments, "all looks man-made... there are no natural crystalline formations in sight"... "So orderly," another comments, an utterance that has never before been made, or ever again.  I like that in the world of Crystar, most exemplified with Shen and Bekk, there are giants and dwarfs but not "a people" of either, but just part of the culture.  I have to wonder if this was a design of the world from the start, a concept of Duffy's or all just Villamonte's design?  Or is that just a fantasy staple that I'm ill informed of?

This issue also features a pronunciation guide, but the only name I think required defining was Crystar himself.  Despite knowing how to say "crystal" with a "chris", I always called him "Cry-Star" (like a sad stellar body).  Like how Magneto is called "Mag-neat-oh" and not "Magnet-oh"... but anyway, I got it wrong.

#8 - So our heroes have made a long journey to LOGCO and now that they're there to appeal to the council to aide them in their battle with Moltar and Zardeth, but Crystar just can't meet with them today because he's mopey.  It's the anniversary of the death of a friend so, you know, heroic angst.  The flashback story which eats up the issue is a decent one, good even (it shows pre-crystal and lava Crystar and Moltar in battle), but it's frustrating knowing the short lifespan of this series and seeing the meandering pace of its main arc constantly interfere.  I'm sure the bi-monthly readership were also experiencing some frustration with this, seemingly only getting a continuation of the main story every other issue four months later.
This cover features an image later appropriated by musician Glen Danzig as his emblem.  Also, it's odd how much Ambara looks like DC's gem-themed fantasy character Amethyst on this cover...a style she never adopts in the series.

9 - Ogeode appeals to his people to help in the looming chaos war, and I guess Crystar got over his mopes because he's there too.  But it's Ogeode doing all the heavy lifting, not Crystar... again the hero undermined.
The counsel seem dismissive of the heroes' pleas, and it's Shen who comes to their defence, warring words with one of the councilmen, "For twenty years I have lived in this land, and been your champion in times of trouble, and been proud to teach and help you.  Now I am ashamed.  Now I see that you wear those gowns to conceal the fact that you are not true men at all.  The women of my tribe are more men than you..."  That's some great writing.
The ladies of LOGCO love the Crystal Band. "Handsome group aren't they?" one leers.  "It's the crystal.  So pretty," another ogles, and Bekk seethes with jealousy.
I have to say that Villamonte's art is wildly uneven in this book.  He seemed to have a particularly difficult time with Ika or he just hated drawing her.  She gets more and more simplified as the series goes on, her bust bigger, her hair more outrageous, her posture very prissy... she a crystal sorceress sexpot running around barefoot in a bikini...this series is not kind to her, or women in general.  Lavour is a a classic she-devil manipulator, Ambara is utterly useless, and Ika becomes a weepy mess.  Only Shen stays strong as a female character.  Disappointing for a book written by a woman that the female characters aren't all so strong.

10 - Speaking of terrible portrayals of Ika, seriously, just what the fuck is she doing on this cover... seriously! WHAT?  She looks like and albino blow-up sex doll as the star of Showgirls.
Anyway, this issue, Bekk gets transformed to a crystal warrior too, and the ladies of LOGCO love it.  "You know, Bekk looks even handsomer this way than he did before," on woman gossips with another.  "You're right.  I'll bet Ika is kicking herself for fighting with him..."
As I was saying about the women in this series... ugh.  As if someone's appearance makes up for them being an ass.  And boy howdy is Bekk an ass.  This issue culminates in a third battle with the Malachite people, and for the third time in a row, the small band of crystal men hold off the horde, and for the third time the assailants flee.  For a culture built on aggression and death, they run away an awful lot.
But seriously, what is Ika doing on that cover?



11 - The Special Double-Sized Last Issue, which starts with Crystar standing heroically in front of the Crystal Palace (which Villamonte has gone way off-model with, unless he got confused between the Magma Cavern and the Palace, as the latter dakes the dome shape of the former) and gives his big speech, all of three sentences long.  It's really the first time the titular hero of this book has looked particularly heroic, as he finally decides to take back his throne, uncle be damned, and end the threat of Zardeth and his brother.
I'm guessing that this storyline was planned without being the end of the series, because I don't know how else to explain the guest appearance of Alpha Flight.  It's a cute scene introducing them, as Ogeode digs into his pocket for his all-purpose prisma crystal (it's bigger on the inside) and his hand pops out of Shaman's bag. Sensing a rift in dimensions, Ogeode pulls the strangers through to Crystalium and the disoriented trio offer up their services when the final battle gets underway.  (It should be noted the trio includes Northstar and not Snowbird as on the cover). Strangely, Puck knows instantly he's in Crystalium, a head scratcher even bigger than Daytripper's familiarity with Ika back in issue 6...were the Council of Order used outside this series perhaps?

The Alpha Flight team is kind of/totally unnecessary to this story, and really undercut the big battle between the crystal warriors alongside the Galax military, against the Magma Men and Malachite people.  Moltar eventually revolts against Zardeth, Crystar kills Malachon and the Malachite people bow to his leadership.  Koth finds love with a magma woman wearing Princess Leia buns, Bekk gets killed and Warbow's there to pick up the pieces, Lavour has a sudden about-face and stands by Moltar instead of angling for power, and Crystar runs Zardeth through, though not before the wizard can strike out and return Moltar back to human form, thus ensuring the two lovers cannot be together:
"Lavour... I'm afraid it means I can't touch you anymore... not without risking my life..."
"But... I love you..."
"And I love you, too... but keep your distance, okay?"
"*Sigh*...Okay, darling.  Talk about curses!"
I know, right?
Then Puck calls Feldspar "short stuff", Kalibar reunites with his family, for some reason people think Ambara deserves to be queen, Shen tells Ogeode she's taking him to the bone zone, and then everyone cheers for King Crystar.  It's quite the half-assed attempt at wrapping up the series, to be honest.

Before and After:

Crystar's was actually the cover story for the very first issue of the long-running Marvel Age magazine.  I guess Marvel was pretty confident that they had a major new thing on their hands...  but since the series ended Crystar has only made one appearance in Marvel comics (outside of any comics that are just about comics of the 80's), and that was on the cover of Marvel Zombies 4, as Devon excitedly conveyed back in mid-2009.

I can't say as to why Crystar has never made a comeback or even a cameo in an industry that never lets anything die.  The comic book was uneven but fairly entertaining and generally enjoyable.  It really did deserve a longer, monthly run to develop its own identity, as Jo Duffy seemed to be building towards it.  Regardless, there's a clamor still for ROM's revival (though ROM did last 75 issues, the rights are mired in confusion) but things are generally silent on Crystar.  He can't have been completely forgotten...


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