Old Friends, New Attitudes and Other Puzzles

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It can be difficult when old friends change, even when the friends are fictional. Or maybe I should say particularly when they’re fictional.

Over the past several months, we’ve been introduced to two very different versions of the lead female characters in two well-known sf comics. I think I understand the reasoning behind one of the changes. The other? Well, the jury is still out.

Last year, Hermes Press relaunched the venerable Buck Rogers series, with a limited series written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin. Among his other credits, Chaykin is the creator of American Flagg, a great sf comic from the 1980s. His version of the 25th century adheres fairly closely to the original story, with an occasional change to give it a modern context. For example, Chaykin finds a way to put Chinese troops in America, without turning them into the Yellow Peril. In this scenario, America has been destroyed in a second Civil War, and the Chinese troops are part of a peace-keeping force.

At first, the one thing that doesn’t seem particularly modern is Chaykin’s take on Wilma Deering,  She’s still a fierce and respected warrior but a lot of that ferocity appears to be powered by hatred of the Chinese. The word “chink” comes up a lot, which is disturbing, particularly when your major contact with Wilma comes from Erin Grey’s portrayal on the old Buck Rogers TV show.

However, Wilma’s attitude is a little more complicated than it first appears. She’s not intellectually lazy or a follower of some racist demagogue. Her feelings come from what she’s seen the occupying forces do. And Buck is there to challenge her approach, with advice like “Diminishing your enemy doesn’t defeat him.” So Chaykin is presenting a plausible situation, but isn’t presenting it as being right.

At the moment, it’s harder to understand the new Leeja Clane. Leeja is the female lead of Magnus Robot Fighter, a classic sf comic from the 1960s which was recently rebooted by Dynamite Entertainment. Fred van Lente is the writer and Cory Smith is the artist.

My relationship with Magnus and Leeja goes all the way back to those original comics, published by Gold Key. As much as I loved them—and still love them, for that matter—I have to admit that the original Leeja was a traditional heroine for the time. She tended to scream and needed to be rescued a lot.

The newest Leeja is nothing like that, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She appears to be an enforcer for the robotic rulers of this futuristic society, and, like Wilma, her language can be disconcerting. When she interrogates Magnus in issue two, she calls him a retard and Magnus’ reply is a lame-sounding “You really shouldn’t use ‘retard’ as a pejorative. The intellectually disabled have enough problems without being verbally abused.” To which Leeja responds, “Shut up. Shut up. Every word out of your mouth makes me want to shoot you twice.”

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this. It seems like van Lente is going for shock value, or a chance to take a shot at political correctness. (Personally, I think Magnus’ comment is valid enough, but him making it at that point makes him sound ineffectual and incompetent .)

Still, I’m not giving up on the new Magnus comic. Van Lente’s future is significantly different from the one presented in the Gold Key comic or in the Valiant series scripted by Jim Shooter, but it feels like he’s put a lot of thought in it, and I’m willing to believe that there’s a bigger point behind Leeja’s characterization than anything we’ve seen so far. If nothing else, van Lente and Smith may be parodying a certain type of action hero.

Magnus Robot Fighter is an ongoing monthly comic, available at your Local Comics Shop; two issues have come out so far, and Murphy’s Law being what it is, I’m guessing that issue three will be out this week or next. Chaykin’s Buck Rogers is scheduled to be gathered into a paperback, called Buck Rogers: Grievous Angels, to be published in July.

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