Reading XENA: The Topps Series (Post V 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 studied 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 concluding our five-post look at the Topps Comics series. 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.)

Now we’re looking at the last of the Topps stories, from June to October 1998…

 

24) Xena: Warrior Princess – “Xena And The Original Olympics (I)” (June 1998)

Xena and Gabrielle investigate conditions in a factory making Olympics-themed merchandise.

Chakrams: 3.5/10      T/L: Between “A Day In The Life” and “A Comedy Of Eros”

Well, after Topps’ prior two series — discussed here in November — seemed to find a nice balance between the comic medium’s necessary episodic nature and the serialization that crept into the show during its concurrently running third season, every book covered in this month’s post is regressive. In addition to depictions that seem more befitting the Xena characters prior to their evolutions during the television show’s third year, we’ll also find that the stories themselves are generally incompatible with the series and the kind of material it was offering during this era of dramatic maturation. My guess is they were all developed earlier in Topps’ slate and were pushed to the summer in deference to the stronger stories. (Need some evidence? The fact that in Part I of this Olympic Games series, Gabrielle is wearing her brown Amazonian outfit from the end of Season One, meaning this was likely started in ’96.)

This, the last of the trilogies, is the most interesting of the final lot, for it’s an honest example of what Topps tried to do: combine the series’ own mythology with the figures and legends of Ancient Greece. Here, the show uses Joxer, Salmoneus, and the Amazons, and throws in classic characters like Samson & Delilah and Arthur Pendragon (which is definitely the wrong era — but, hey, both Xena and Hercules did give nods to the Arthurian legend), along with the concept of the original Olympic Games, something actually introduced during Hercules‘ second season (and Xena‘s first). The fact that the Olympics are now a known commodity in the ancient world gives us our first marker on the hypothetical timeline: after the middle of Xena‘s first year…

 

25) Xena: Warrior Princess – “Xena And The Original Olympics (II) – Ladies First” (July 1998)

Xena and Gabrielle organize an Olympics for women after they’re refused entry by the men.

Chakrams: 3.5/10      T/L: Between “A Day In The Life” and “A Comedy Of Eros”

What I like most about this three-part story is that there’s a feminist message that jibes with the series and the kind of power it inspired in so many viewers. Is it a little heavy-handed and clichéd? Absolutely — but the show could be also, especially in the beginning. So, these ideas, along with the allegorical “working conditions in the sweatshop” subplot, may feel a little ham-fisted, but they’re actually not incongruous with the characters and the aesthetic world we knew them to officially inhabit on the weekly TV series. The problem, in this case, is the details. Gabrielle may have inexplicably been upgraded to her BGSB (her “bilious green sports bra”), but there are still elements that wouldn’t fit on the show in this or any era. For starters, the guys that run and manage the factory for the primary villain are green men with snakes on their heads (à la the Gorgons). This may work on Hercules, but it doesn’t on Xena, where the baddies are mortal, unless there’s a specific reason (usually some conniving god).

In addition to the incongruous monsters, the writing’s noble use of feminism to make the story seem appropriate doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s presented within a more masculine lens than the series ever had. (Even though its chief architects — Tapert, Stewart, and Sears — were all men, the women characters on Xena seldom felt unintentionally patronized or undermined.) That is, there’s a condescending quality to the “girl power” message here, and while I appreciate that it exists and think it wouldn’t be out-of-place on the show itself (where it would be handled better), it nevertheless feels a little more suited to Hercules — or at least, the early days of Xena, when it was more like Hercules. And so for these reasons, and with characters like Samson and Arthur dominating the plot, I can’t ever shake the feeling that this really isn’t a Xena narrative… no matter how much the book tries to have Xena and Gabrielle voice a pro-women message. That’s why I’ve made its Chakram score so relatively low.

 

26) Xena: Warrior Princess – “Xena And The Original Olympics (III) – Just One Of The Girls” (August 1998)

Samson is unmasked at the Olympics as Xena returns to set things right at the factory.

Chakrams: 3/10      T/L: Between “A Day In The Life” and “A Comedy Of Eros”

The aforementioned forced feminism is best exhibited by the fact that Samson, who dresses as a woman to compete in the women’s Olympics — something about which the writers wisely have Xena completely aware (so she doesn’t look like a fool — instead, she wants him to compete so she can beat him fair and square) — is never actually beaten in the Olympics by Xena, which is the appropriate pro-woman follow-through and precisely what the show would have done had it been foolish enough to actually utilize a version of this premise in the first place. It’s a cop-out that he’s outed before he’s bested, just to get in the whole Delilah legend. And the pay-off, which returns to that stupid sweatshop, doesn’t actually pay-off the primary narrative threads in which we’re most interested. For this reason, Part III is the weakest of this entire so-so trilogy.

Now, given the quality of this storytelling and the hodge podge of elements that never come together, I don’t think Xena would have used this plot, especially because Hercules had already done an Olympics episode — the first Olympics. As mentioned, this would have to be after that one, and with Joxer included, it also has to come after he was introduced on Xena. Now, while it’s also a stretch to believe the Olympics could become so high profile just one year later (after Xena‘s first year), the characterizations here wouldn’t work at all in Xena‘s third, making it best suited for sometime in Season Two. And although the beat of Samson dressing like a woman feels too much like that year’s “Here She Comes… Miss Amphipolis” — further evidence of why this is not usable — Season Two is the only place it fits… but after Gabrielle is Queen and can rally the Amazons. So, at the end of the year.

 

27) “The Marriage Of Hercules And Xena” (July 1998)

Xena and Hercules marry to break a deadly curse.

Chakrams: 1/10  T/L: Nowhere…  Well, maybe Hercules‘ third season — but how? Why??

This is nothing but a gimmick — the wedding of the two headlining characters in Universal’s Action Pack. Unfortunately, it’s a witless, one-note story that would have never been employed by either series… although of the two, it’s much more flattering and suited for Hercules than Xena, as the Warrior Princess is nothing but a vessel for story here when she’s cursed by a High Priestess working with Ares, and then tries to fight the urge to kill her new hubby, Hercules, on their “honeymoon.” It’s a terrible use of these shows’ most interesting player, and with both the sidekicks used poorly as well, this is another Topps endeavor that has far too little regard for the characters… Additionally, the narrative requires us to at first believe the legitimacy of the Hercules and Xena wedding, and that is too much of a leap; the show couldn’t have properly established this fact without motivating it by giving away the purpose, right from the start… which means that the gimmick loses its potency and isn’t needed. Frankly, it’s Topps’ laziest and least usable story, and that’s saying something…

Now, while I think all the above is enough to keep Tapert from ever considering such an idea, let’s also point out that these crossovers, in addition to being a terrible gimmick, were difficult to do, especially when Xena became more popular. But it would have had to happen on Hercules — both because that’s what this story feels more like, and also because the studio wouldn’t pay for Sorbo and Hurst to come to Xena when the latter was higher-rated and didn’t need the boost. So, if I had to pick a time when this story would fit, it’s got to be after Xena is more popular (Season Two), but before it became too unfeasible for Xena and Hercules to have some feelings for one another (Xena lets them go in “Judgment Day”). It’s also got to be after Joxer meets Hercules (in “When A Man Loves A Woman”), which means it has to be… in the middle of the Golden Hind Trilogy? That’s not possible, and come to think of it, with Hercules marrying Serena and his show doing a variation of the “murdered spouse on the wedding night” plot, this story seems like a retread, even though it doesn’t even mention her. So, honestly, I don’t know where it would fit. It feels like Herc‘s third season (and Xena‘s second), but narratively, it doesn’t make sense anywhere. Again: it’s Topps’ worst.

 

28) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Wrath Of Hera (I)” (September 1998)

Hera torments Gabrielle after mistaking her for Zeus’ latest affair.

Chakrams: 3/10      T/L: Between “A Necessary Evil” and “Blind Faith”

Although this story isn’t as egregiously ridiculous as the above, it’s still saddled with a lot of details and inconsistencies that make it unsuitable for the show… Also, this two-parter is the only comic story published during the show’s fourth year on the air. (Dark Horse started its run at the top of Season Five in September 1999.) Obviously, none of these were written with the fourth year in mind… and as we’ve seen, few were actually developed with the events of the third year in mind, and the ones that tried, like the “Callisto” trilogy, tended to fail… But while most of what we’ve looked at with Topps — especially this month — have already been behind the times, the fact that Season Four(!) was being broadcast at the time of this release only serves to heighten just how aesthetically outmoded Topps has become. That is, it did a good job in the beginning of matching the show’s style… but that style evolved, and the comics, which needed a longer development time, couldn’t keep up and eventually stopped trying.

That’s what this final two-parter feels like — Topps has stopped trying. Here, this story, remaining in Topps’ jokier second season style, is supposedly centered around Gabrielle… but once again, it seems more interested in using a non-regular: Hera, who drives the action as she jealously makes life difficult for Gabrielle while under the assumption that the latter has been fooling around with the amorous Zeus. If made, this would be called a “Lucy-lite” episode, with little Xena, and while there are a few gems among that bunch (see: “Forget Me Not”), most of the Xena episodes without Xena naturally have a hard time satisfying. This comic doubles down on this difficultly by underusing Gabrielle, too… even subjecting her to a whole sequence where — shades of “Porkules” — she’s turned into a duck. Basically, this is the kind of story Xena would do only when it couldn’t use either leading lady properly… and that situation never arose, because the show was based around those two. If one needed to be written light, the other would pick up the slack. If both needed to be written light, there would be no episode.

 

29) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Wrath Of Hera (II)” (October 1998)

Gabrielle has been turned into a duck by a jealous Hera.

Chakrams: 3/10      T/L: Between “A Necessary Evil” and “Blind Faith”

Okay, so we’ve established that the occasion to use an episode with little Xena, and a Gabrielle who wasn’t even driving the action, never really presented itself. But if we go along with the idea that the show could have used a similar story for a time when Lawless was out, then we can either place this idea as being right for the middle of Season Two, when Lawless had her accident, or during the middle of Three, when she had other engagements in America. The case for Season Two is the style of writing, which, again, never really graduated into Three’s more sophisticated voice. The case for Season Three may be the fact that Gabrielle is a better fighter than she was depicted on the show in the sophomore year; some of her fighting skills appear more advanced. Nevertheless, I’m more comfortable placing the story in Season Two, because that’s not only when this kind of trivial premise seems more suited, but also because that removes it a year from the aforementioned and too-similar “Porkules,” which was produced in Herc’s fourth year (alongside Xena‘s third) as a result of Sorbo’s injury.

However, there’s good reason to believe this story doesn’t fit at all, because it physicalizes Hera, a character who didn’t make her debut in human form until the end of Hercules‘ fourth season, in a dramatically grand episode that we wouldn’t want to undercut in this goofy wannabe-comedy. Also, Hera was a Hercules villain, not so much a Xena one, and seeing her here before we see her there would be… wrong. (Never mind that she’s depicted as looking like Aphrodite — not like the striking Meg Foster.) Additionally, we see other gods, like Poseidon, in human form… a way that he never existed on the show… when Hera takes Gabrielle to Mount Olympus, which the Battling Bard wouldn’t visit until the end of Season Five. So, even though Topps isn’t to blame necessarily for bungling details like this, they all make it difficult to enjoy the stories in the same way that we enjoy the series. And because, narratively, this two-parter is futile, we’ll let style be the determining factor; this should be mid-Season Two, from when Lawless would have needed more weeks off… but after Gabby matured in “The Quest.”

 

Ultimately, Topps did a fine job of emulating the series’ tone in the beginning, but as the show enjoyed a terrific and character-evolving third season, the comics struggled to keep up with stories that addressed how the regulars were changing while also not getting caught up in plot points that would soon be outdated or rendered completely irrelevant. Accordingly, the books became more focused on external characters and monsters — elements that Topps itself could control, and just like Dark Horse, which never captured the show’s spirit but had a handful of ideas that directly engaged with the series and its timeline in a way that seemed appropriate for its era, the Xena characters, as depicted on the show, are too nuanced to be given the kind of treatment they too often saw here. For diehard fans, these efforts are kitschy and fun. But nothing more. Collect them, but don’t try to take them as seriously as I have on this blog.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena article, on the first series in Dynamite’s run, in March! Also, stay tuned Tuesday for more Just Shoot Me!

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