The original “Big Trouble in Little China” became a cult hit based on a variety of things, but most importantly was its’ ability to combine a variety of genres, characters, tropes, and details together into a unique whole. Even for its’ time in the 1980’s it was a combination of not simply action and comedy, but weird mystical martial arts epics from Asia merged with a spoof of ultra macho American style action hero clichés of the era. It is a tradition that John Carpenter and Eric Powell brought into their run on this series and which new writer Fred Van Lente has embraced whole hog. Matched with artist Joe Eisman and colorist Gonzalo Duarte, both the craziness and the comedy of this series have seemed to be dialed up to eleven without any sign of slowing down.
As usual, Jack Burton has found himself in the middle of an absolutely bat crap insane situation which mixes influences of both Eastern and Western culture. Having been revived (and still in what passes for his prime) in the modern day, he’s quickly become embroiled in a war between a wealthy recluse with an obsession for Japanese culture and nostalgic pop culture and a squad of mercenaries with gimmicks who are walking parodies of “the A-Team” (among other things). He’s also teamed up with the daughter of his best friend, Winona Chi, whose tolerance for him is slowly increasing. It all culminates into a finale which has a ton of action, a lot of gags, and just about everything from katanna swords, Rubix cubes, lame jokes from a decade ago, and even magic mushrooms being mixed together into a consistently hilarious whole.
Trying to critique every moment of comedy is an almost impossible feat; it has to be read to be appreciated. That said, the robot who seems to exist to parody one particularly annoying one-liner getting its’ just desserts is one of the highlights. Another throughout the entire issue behind all of the jokes is the sense of a passing of the torch between Wang and his daughter Winona in terms of adventure. Despite seeming to be polar opposites in nearly everything, Wang and Jack were friends who relied on each other more than once against impossible odds to prevail. Initially seeing Jack as an outdated loser who she thinks her dad was well rid of, circumstances are forcing them to cooperate increasingly in order to survive and potentially develop a similar working relationship despite the generational gap. In addition, Jack Burton’s always been a character who has to balance carefully on being comedic versus being irrelevant. As he was intended as a spoof of overly competent macho men of 80’s cinema, Jack would become what he lampoons if he is too efficient in a situation. Yet if he’s totally useless, he can become “the load” of the adventure. Despite his bravado, he always relies on luck and circumstance more than any inflated skill he may or may not have. Fred Van Lente seems to perfectly nail this, especially with the overall plot details becoming more and more bizarre around him. Eisma’s art and Duarte’s colors are also in near perfect sync. All of the characters look exactly like they are supposed to (or supposed to be lampooning) without bogging things down in too much “photo realism” as some illustrators do. “Big Trouble in Little China” was almost a live action cartoon, yet avoided being so completely, and that is the line which the art manages to convey.
If there is one thing Fred Van Lente seems to have a knack for writing, it’s the dynamic between an immortal (or at least impossibly long lived) man with a mix of wisecracks and experience teamed reluctantly with an overly competent (yet naive) teenager. It was a dynamic he used co-writing “Incredible Hercules” for Marvel Comics for years as well as with “Archer & Armstrong” and even to some degree “Ivar, Timewalker” for Valiant Entertainment. The shift from being a period piece to modern day was one that Van Lente inherited from the previous writers, but it is one which has clearly allowed him to cater to his strengths on the book. While it may seem like a routine, every dynamic between each duo of characters is different as are their circumstances; Jack Burton and Winona Chi are no exception. It merely is one of Fred Van Lente’s signature narrative quirks which seems to fit this particular franchise practically perfectly.
The opening run by John Carpenter, Eric Powell and Brian Churilla is a run which won’t be easily replicated or surpassed. Yet in just a few short issues, Fred Van Lente and Joe Eisma have displayed an eagerness to accept and surpass that challenge, and are currently rocking each and every issue. It’s impossible to know what’s coming next, which is exactly why this is a run to embrace.
Below is an honorable mention. It isn’t as funny or weird as Jack Burton’s aforementioned misadventure, but it is still pretty darn weird in itself.
X-Men ’92 #3: This is without any doubt one of the strangest X-Men mini series that Marvel Comics has published in some time. On the surface it is intended to be a digital first series which works with nostalgia for a beloved TV version of one of their properties – in this case, the FoxKids “X-Men” cartoon which ran from 1992 to 1997. DC Comics have produced such digital first comics such as “Batman ’66” and “Wonder Woman ’77” (to say nothing of years worth of “Batman Beyond” comics). Yet, in the “mighty Marvel manner” it cannot simply be allowed to exist as that alone, as it also has to fit in with a crossover which has produced the temporary status quo of Doctor Doom being the god of a world built up of other worlds called “Battleworld” in which every territory has its’ own caped “baron” running it. As if this wasn’t enough, writers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers have stretched the premise even further to poke some well earned fun at that entire era of X-Men comics which the cartoon seemed to be based on (specifically, the late 1980’s into the early 1990’s). As the cover demonstrates, a version of X-Force which are very loosely based on characters who appeared in the X-Men cartoon team up as a cavalry squad. As such, Cable is in his original “New Mutants” costume from 1990 and is teamed with Bishop while they both carry guns which are literally as big as they are! All the while a new version of Cassandra Nova continues her work trying to either mentally corrupt or destroy the captured X-Men as she acts as a horrific version of a TV network censor. Storm, Cyclops and Jean Grey prove more difficult to ensnare than the rest of the team were, while Jubilee continues to form a plan alongside some of the other “rejected” figures at Nova’s base.
Scott Koblish’s style is perfect for a work such as this, which seeks to emulate the “house style” of the early 90’s without going totally overboard with it. There is a lot of humor within these pages, even if it can be more subtle than many satires are. To a degree it finds itself closer to official spoof material such as “Not Brand Ecch” from the late 1960’s to “What The–!?” from 1988-1993 than to many other traditional X-Men comics of recent memory (which have seemed to too closely emulate this era without any of the irony). This isn’t to say that “X-Men ’92” is a work of genius entirely; the clash between its’ varying premises and crossover obligations can cause some confusion for those not knowing what to expect in terms of story continuity. For better or worse it’s impossible to predict what will happen next, but at the very least it has proven to be a more memorable ride than the covers suggested.