Reading XENA: The Topps Series (Post I of V)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the latest installment in our bi-monthly series on the best syndicated action show of the ’90s, Xena: Warrior Princess! We’ve examined Xena at length years ago (along with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), and while I’m not one to ever regard anything that wasn’t officially produced by the show to be worthy of consideration, I thought it would nevertheless be interesting to examine ancillary Xena stories — not fan fiction, but comic books, novels, and even unproduced scripts. Again, I don’t ever consider this material when I think of the show or these characters. However, as someone who’s always been drawn to Xena for its storytelling, I want to examine these additional tales and see, despite different authors and a weakened understanding of the leads, if they could play on the actual show.

This month, we’re launching the first in our five-post look at the Topps Comics series, many editions of which were scripted by Roy Thomas, who is co-credited with crafting the story for the twelfth episode of Xena‘s first season, “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” (You can read an account of his involvement with the series here.) Running from the summer of 1997 to the fall of 1998, these comics coincided with Xena‘s third season, and because they not only came during the series’ Golden Age, but also had a genuine connection via Thomas, you’ll notice that a lot of the dialogue is more in the spirit of the show (as opposed to Dark Horse’s scripts, which were more narratively mature, but perhaps written too much in-keeping with their brand). Of course, the storytelling — some of it familiar, most of it juvenile — might not be as faithful… As usual, we’ll be looking at these books with an emphasis on examining how or even if the premise could have been utilized by Tapert and his crew for television. (See the Timeline — T/L — for when I think a story, no matter how usable, could have fit.)

We’re starting with the limited five-episode Hercules run that Topps did in the summer/fall of 1996 (in between his second and third seasons, and Xena‘s first and second). Xena and Gabrielle debuted in the third installment, and a year later, the Warrior Princess returned to launch her own run in Topps — with an August ’97 “origin” story also discussed below.

 

01) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – The Trial Of Hercules [I]  (June 1996)

A woman seeks Salmoneus’ help in finding Hercules, whom she wants to rescue her husband.

Chakrams: 4/10      T/L: Between “Let The Games Begin” & “The Wedding Of Alcmene”

With a general grasp of character voices, particularly Hercules’ and Salmoneus’, Hercules‘ brief comic run in Topps begins with a rather ordinary two-parter that attempts to reconcile the historical mythology of this classic figure (predating The Legendary Journeys) with a telegraphed awareness of the series and its own mythology (the stuff with the Centaurs is a great example). The story, in which a woman seeks Salmoneus’ help in tracking down Hercules so that he can rescue her husband, who turns out to be Prometheus, is probably something the series would never do, simply because the famous titan had so far been featured twice: in one of the telefilms (Hercules And The Circle Of Fire) and in the first season Xena crossover episode, “Prometheus” — the latter of which was probably already unnecessary.

As for where this story would be placed, it directly mentions the fact that Hercules saved Prometheus twice before, which puts it after the aforementioned crossover (with which it shares many same story details, despite a different depiction of the titular titan). Also, I think it would come before “Centaur Mentor Journey,” in which Hercules makes more Centaur friends than the few mentioned here. I’ve been a bit more specific in my “T/L” adjudication — for reasons discussed below and in relation to the later entries that Topps would produce. Suffice it to say, this would come somewhere in the latter half of Hercules‘ second year…

 

02) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – The Trial Of Hercules [II] (July 1996)

To appease Hera, Zeus puts Hercules on trial for saving Prometheus.

Chakrams: 4/10      T/L: Between “Let The Games Begin” & “The Wedding Of Alcmene”

In a continuation of the above story, Topps tries to further its “we know the series well” posturing by doubling down on the narrative’s use of the Gods — Hera (seen only as eyes, typical of this period), Ares (seen as a demon — per his Season One Hercules form, before he took physical shape via Kevin Smith in Xena‘s early “The Reckoning”), and Zeus, who actually appears as a man — for the first time since the telefilms. (Incidentally, he wouldn’t be seen again until the third season of the TV series.) This makes placing the story on the series’ official timeline even more difficult. But because it utilizes the relationships that Hercules shares with his adversarial Olympian family, it’s a more character-based effort than it seems. Also, note the monstrous appearance of The Furies — about a year before they made their debut on Xena!

Meanwhile, the appearance of Atalanta, introduced in Hercules‘ first season (and seen for the last time in his fourth), and her established familiarity with Salmoneus, whom she met in Season Two’s “Let The Games Begin,” locks the story into a more specific time frame, for now it must come after that installment. Again, I don’t think the series would have ever used this two-part story because of what it had already done, but it’s solid by way of the characterizations.

 

03) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – The Warrior Princess [I] (August 1996)

Xena seeks vengeance when Amphipolis is attacked under Hercules’ command.

Chakrams: 4/10      T/L: Between “Let The Games Begin” & “The Wedding Of Alcmene”

Xena and Gabrielle make their Topps debuts (as does Iolaus) in this, the first of a three-parter titled “The Warrior Princess.” It’s scripted by Roy Thomas, who’d actually met and worked with the first season staff on “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts,” and certainly seems to have a better grasp of the characters’ voices (particularly Xena’s) than most of the later Dark Horse scripts. But this one still doesn’t crack the 5/10 chakrams adjudication because there’s a major plot point — Xena immediately believing Hercules would burn down her hometown and order the murder of her friend — that simply stretches credulity, especially when she sets out for revenge without any objection from Gabrielle. I don’t care that the Cyrene/Amphipolis connection is used, the story simply isn’t motivated, and the whole thing suffers as a result.

Hercules’ arrival home with Salmoneus and Atalanta, along with their dialogue, indicates that this is meant to occur just after the first two-parter. And because Hercules’ mother Alcmene also appears, without her eventual husband Jason (who’d logically be by her side during this whole ordeal), we have another more specific placement modification: sometime before she got married in “The Wedding Of Alcmene.” That’s where this trilogy resides.

 

04) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – The Warrior Princess [II] – “The Shaper” (September 1996)

The Shaper kidnaps Alcmene and sets out to dominate the world by taking Hercules’ place.

Chakrams: 4.5/10    T/L: Between “Let The Games Begin” & “The Wedding Of Alcmene”

Part II of this “Warrior Princess” trilogy is subtitled “The Shaper” after its villain, who is able to take the shape of anyone he chooses (even if he can’t fully take on their exact attributes — like Hercules’ strength, for instance). It continues the narrative established above and again exhibits a solid understanding of all the characters — Hercules and Xena, Iolaus and Gabrielle (whose relationship is well-rendered here), Salmoneus, Alcmene, Atalanta, etc. — even in spite of some tenuous story points. In fact, as you’ll notice, I’ve given this particular edition a slightly higher “Chakram” score than the others because, setting aside the huge and unbelievable story point in its predecessor, the fine character work is put on display. (Although, I should note that Gabrielle actually appears more in this chapter than Xena does!)

Would this story be used? No, probably not during this time frame, because once again, Hercules actually did play with a similar idea in “Protean Challenge,” which aired during this period and also dealt with a shape-shifter who could take on on Hercules’ form. However, if one set aside this narrative redundancy (and Part I’s aforementioned story leap), the idea itself would work, and probably could have made just as enjoyable a crossover as “Prometheus.”

 

05) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – The Warrior Princess [III] – “Smile For The Chimaera” (October 1996)

Hercules and Xena (along with Iolaus and Gabrielle) face off against The Shaper.

Chakrams: 3.5/10      T/L: Between “Let The Games Begin” & “The Wedding Of Alcmene”

The trilogy concludes in this action-packed entry that, if viewed in episodic form, would probably constitute only the fourth (and final) act of the script. It sets aside all additional characters to focus on Hercules and Iolaus (along with special guest stars Xena and Gabrielle) and the mission to rescue Alcmene and defeat the Shaper, who has become even more powerful thanks to his bumbling alchemist brother. The character work that was evidenced in this edition’s lead-in isn’t as ably illustrated here because the story points — the predictable story points — take precedence. As a result, this is the weakest of “The Warrior Princess” trio.

Also, by the time this was released — October 1996 — both Xena and Hercules had returned to the airwaves for their second and third seasons, respectively. And both shows exhibited a narrative maturity that simply shades an idea of this ilk as less suitable than it once seemed, when only the prior years were our frames of reference. Thus, more broadly, this offering is a disappointment — even if it’s actually not much worse than the earlier comics.

 

 06) Xena: Warrior Princess – Year One – “Plowshares Into Swords” (August 1997)

Xena recounts her early history and how Cortese’s raid put her on an evil trajectory.

Chakrams: 3.5/10      T/L: During “Death Mask”

Nearly a year after the five-book Hercules run, Topps launched its own Xena series with this mini-edition that came out the same month as the first “official” entry. Called “Year One” and subtitled “The Adventure Begins…,” this book merely features Xena recounting the mythology the show had previously set up at the time of publication — although, curiously, it eschews the information gleaned from what had, thus far, been the only true flashback (“Destiny”) and instead focuses entirely on the Cortese story, established in Season One’s “Death Mask.” However, while ignoring Two’s decision to supplant Cortese with Caesar (in the context of a catalyst for Xena’s evil past), the book also gives elevated prominence to Ares. (The book also doesn’t utilize the established name of Xena’s father from “Ties That Bind” and instead goes by an early version of her backstory cut during development of “Sins Of The Past.”)

How does the story itself stack up though? Well, because it features certain things later proven false — in Season Three’s “The Furies” — and fails to emphasize important points like Caesar (and Solan, who had also been introduced well before this book was published), it isn’t a utilizable origin story — despite the noble intentions. Therefore, it can’t really be taken seriously… That said, I think a flashback to Cortese’s invasion may have been a valuable addition to the dramatically flaccid “Death Mask,” so this idea belongs somewhere there.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena post in July! Tune in on Tuesday for more of the best episodes from Mad About You!

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