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Steve Reeves and his engorged biceps await within – Hercules Unchained (Four Color #1121)

May 16, 2013

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There are times when our beloved comic books can cross-pollinate with other things, and in glorious synergy become more than the sum of their coupled parts. This Hercules comic is one of those times. Not so much because of anything to do with the Hercules character, who has had good and not so good comic iterations, or, indeed, anything intrinsic within the book itself. What makes it so special is that the Steve Reeves Hercules movie that it adapts was once featured on that classic trove of celluloid mocker, Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, for fans of that show who enjoy the world of sequential art, that makes it a minor treasure trove of delight.  

This blog has once before featured a property shown on the Satellite of Love — the Ditko-infused adventures Godzilla ripoff Gorgo — but in that instance the ongoing comic series was based upon the movie’s monster. This is the first time that we’ve looked a book whose source material got the full riff treatment. Unchained was the “experiment” in the eighth episode of season four, the second to last season with Joel Hodgson as host. It was one of the more fertile movies that Joel, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo had worked with (though nothing can quite compare to Manos), thanks to its status as an Italian sword and sandal beefcake flick dubbed into English. (Dubbed movies — especially the ones from Japan — were always fun subjects, since the awkward, stilted line-reads offered a never-ending supply of inadvertent laughs.) The two Hercules films starring Steve Reeves, a famed bodybuilder-turned-actor, were actually some of the better of the Italian Maciste brand of films, which provided ample opportunity for audiences to ogle their stars’ greased chests and engorged shoulders.

But to say that they were some of the best of the bunch doesn’t necessarily mean that they were good. The Hercules movies were patchwork messes, with bits and pieces of Greek myths colliding with one another like hunks of rock in an asteroid field. In Unchained alone, Hercules has Ulysses (yes, that Ulysses) as his sidekick as he’s caught between the warring ambitions of the sons of Oedipus (yes, that Oedipus), not to mention elements of other, lesser myths. It’s a boondoggle.

The comic, scripted by Paul S. Newman, with art by Reed Crandall and George Evans, faithfully adapts the story, such as it is. Here’s Hercules in the film’s first show of strength, as he uses a bit of guile (thanks to a tip from Ulysses) to defeat Antaeus, who, you’ll recall, derives his resilience from touching the Earth:

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Here’s Herc getting acquainted with the sibling rivalry that will send him on a quest:

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Long story short, Hercules drinks “waters of forgetfulness,” falls in with the evil Queen Omphale, who wants to turn him into one of her mummified trophies, he gets his memories back, escapes, reunites with Argonauts, finds himself in the middle of a war for control of Thebes, and along the way has plenty of opportunities to lift, shove, wrestle and punch various heavy things. For instance: here he is scrapping with tigers, as promised on the comic’s cover:

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The art is occasionally splendid (the tigers look great), but the comic suffers from the same fate of many films that have had the MST3K treatment: they just aren’t as interesting when viewed without the three silhouettes hurling their unique brand of commentary at the characters onscreen. But this isn’t to say that the comic is dull. For a fan of the show, every panel brings a smile, a remembered quip that helped make sitting through this mush of a movie not just bearable, but enjoyable.

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